Friday, September 24, 2004

Adverbs Are Not Your Friends

Suppose you are writing and you are tempted to put this down: "He quickly ran..." I counsel against doing so. It dilutes the impact of your words. If you write "He dashed..." or "He sprinted..." or something else, you use a more dramatic, evocative verb. And that's a good thing.

Maybe in an early draft, you can use weak verbs with adverbs to just get that part of the story onto the paper. But remember to go through your text again with find function of your word processor looking for "ly" and every time you run into an adverb, ask yourself? Can I get rid of this?

What this will do is force you to rack your brain for better verbs.

It will also force you to think about what you're doing in the scene. Maybe the adverbs are there because you're telling, and not showing. Same for all modifiers: adjectives and prepositional phrases. These are little tokens that you've interpreted the scene and that's a task best left to the reader as I've mentioned elsewhere.

Monday, September 20, 2004

An Iraqi Hypothetical

Suppose that after the first Gulf War Mr. Hussein realized that he could not defeat the US via nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. So, he created the false impression that he was pushing in this direction while he spent his petrodollars funding terrorist organizations. It is well known that he paid a bounty to the family of Palestinian suicide bombers. Why should we believe he stopped there?

Moreover, after the first Gulf War Mr. Hussein had to sell Iraq's oil through the UN Oil For Food program. This was a corrupt scheme that used petrodollars to buy pretty much everything except food. Given the fact that a lot of cash has ended up in the hands of Islamist insurgents working in post-war Iraq, I think it quite likely that this money went to terrorists. It may be that there was a lot more Iraqi than Saudi money bankrolling Mr. Bin Laden. If so, it may be that shutting off the flow of Iraqi petrodollars afforded the US the most leverage in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The Iraq war has alienated the US from the French and the Germans as well as the UN. However, it may be that their opposition was motivated by corrupt dealings in the UN Oil For Food program.

All of this is hypothetical. The dollar trail connecting Mr. Hussein to Mr. Bin Ladin has not been documented. If I were a member of the Bush Administration, this would make a better October Surprise than Mr. Bin Ladin's head on a pike. Conspiracy theorists take note.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Evangelical Hymnody

I'm not a fan of "happy-clappy" church songs. Here are the ways I judge a church song:
  • Number of "I/me"s per line. The more the worse.
In my writers' group I noticed that the poems that were most powerful spoke to the human condition, to everyman. Those that had a lot of I/Me references just sounded like they were bragging, or whining (depending upon whether the poem was recounting something positive or negative). Conversely, we've all felt betrayal. A poem should tie into that universal feeling and does so without personalizing it in the speaker.

Similarly, a church song can tie into the positive aspects of Christianity more powerfully if it avoids the use of I/Me.
  • God as cosmic boyfriend.
The times I most want to puke in church is when they put up a song on powerpoint AND that song is the Evangelical equivalent of "Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy." (let's see, can we change "love" to "God" or change tummy to something else that rhymes with tummy...)

God is not your cosmic boyfriend. If you think he is, you've made an idol in your mind. See commandment #2. If you sing songs this frivilous about deity, I think you are also violating commandment #3.
  • The song works as well for Allah or Buddha
This criterion would be better posed in the positive. The best hymns refer specifically to Christ and what he did. When I get really annoyed, I goto the hymnal index and find the songs we're not singing by Toplady, Watts, Newton.

Trouble with this approach is that the Psalms are often translated into songs that speak accurately of God, but don't mention Christ.
  • It's a 7/11 song: 7 words repeated 11 times
I get bored with these. Maybe they are good aerobic exercize.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Show, Don't Tell

When I started working on improving my writing, one of the first things I learned was a mantra: Show it, don't tell.

I translated this mantra into the Evangelical language and came up with: Witness, don't preach. If you go to church, the stories that people tell about what happened to them are generally more interesting than exhortations to do thus and so. If a guy comes up to you and tells you that you must receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, you might not believe him. Or even understand what he's trying to say. But if someone tells you what his experience was, it's harder to refute and easier to understand.

What's a witness? In a court of law, he's a guy who recounts what he saw. In writing, I think I should recount the sensa of the point-of-view (POV) character. What is preaching? In church, it is the business of interpreting or digesting the meaning of the Scriptures being studied.

This business of separating observation and interpretation is important. In writing it is important to leave most of the interpretation for the reader to do for himself.

When writing, ask yourself what you're telling the reader (Bel was a beautiful woman.) then ask yourself what phenomena or what sensa led the POV character to that conclusion (She had hair the color of red maple leaves, high cheekbones, and green eyes like he’d once seen on a National Geographic cover.) and perhaps the reaction of the POV character to that sensa (The woman’s smile, that had been delightful, faded at the mention of his name.).

I'm telling you about writing, because I feel I've enough experience with it that I can speak as an authority. Authorities can preach only after they've earned credibility. I haven't done that yet. So, that gives you plenty of room to disagree. Had I posed the last two paragraphs as, "I've seen that my prose works better when ..." it would have more power, because you may deny my interpretation, but you can't deny my experience.

Of course, that last bit presumes that I've not perpetrated a fraud upon the reader. And if I'm a liar, I might lie to myself. And if I do so, how will I ever find out? Descartes started with doubt and reasoned to "cogito ergo sum." There's a need for doubt and self-doubt.

John Forbes Nash was told that he'd won a Nobel Prize whereupon he turned to a student and asked if the person who'd said that was real. That's the extreme of self-doubt, but Dr. Nash had a history of delusion. He found his own mind was a low-trust environment and had to find ways to double-check his own perceptions.

This recommendation to writers is my interpretation of what I've experienced while teaching myself to write. If you're a writer, check it against your own experience. Don't take my word for it. (Bring up google and you can generally verify my outrageous claims and observe that "John Nash Nobel" gets a "feeling lucky" link to his bio and find in the 2nd link that he's the Beautiful Mind guy.)

Show don't tell. Observe the phenomena around you and learn to put it into words as a warm-up before writing. When you write, put yourself into the POV character's head and write the sensa s/he perceives and what passions those sensa evoke within the character. You may have an idea where you're going in the scene, but don't forcefeed that to the reader. Interpreting the scene for the reader is like chewing his food for him. Ick. Trust the reader to figure out based upon her high cheek bones, large eyes, shimmering hair, and curvaceous profile that the girl is beautiful.

As a Bible Thumper® I'll close with Gen 40:8 "Do not interpretations belong to God?" When you're writing, treat your reader like God.

Friday, September 17, 2004

How To Tell An Evangelical

If you are not an Evangelical or weren'traised thereby you might not know how to tell when you encounter one. Here are some helpful hints:
  1. Use encourage to tell you to do something you don't want to do. E.g. I'd like to encourage you to give to the Missionary Fund.
  2. Use challenge to tell you to do something you really don't want to do. E.g. I'd like to challenge you to give to the Building Fund.
  3. Cringing upon hearing encourage or challenge.
  4. Use impact as a verb. E.g. This verse has impacted my life.
  5. Failure to cringe upon hearing impacted.
  6. Failure to run screaming from the room upon hearing impactful.
  7. Use sharing to refer to telling a significant chapter of his life story.
  8. Cringing when someone says he wants to share with you.
  9. Shares about dog getting run over, losing his job, and contracting cancer with a silly grin on his face.
  10. Has read the books of the Left Behind series more times than he's read the Bible.
  11. Can expound at length about liberals without ever thinking of politics.
  12. Buys a sports car and says it is to create witnessing opportunities.
  13. Thinks a legalist is anyone who's stricter than he is.
  14. Thinks a liberal is anyone who's looser than he is.

Mailbox Theology

Long ago I went to Cedarville College (where? In Cedarville, Ohio, of course). It's a Christian liberal arts college university. We had lots of chapel services and students would get up and give testimonies. There were a few students of humble means who would get up and praise the Lord that just when they needed some money, they'd get an anonymous envelope containing just the amount of money they needed. It always gave me a warm fuzzy. And I usually felt a little tug to slip a fiver into an envelope. We joked about it in the dorm calling it "Mailbox Theology." By my senior year I got to wondering if these folks might be priming the pump. I chuckle to think that they probably were.

Don't get any ideas that I'm priming the pump. I've got too much stuff now. There are lots of greater needs out there.

There's trouble with telling other folks to give. Over the Labor Day weekend, I went to family camp at Camp Barakel "up north" in Fairview, Michigan. The speaker exhorted us to "give till it hurts." He's a good guy and I think highly of him. But walking back to the campsite I shared a thought with my wife: "I'd feel better if the people in the business of telling people to give more weren't those who so often receive."

I'm probably dumb to think that it's more effective to show people needs than to tell them to give. If Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker had shown their poor sweaty pooch, maybe folks wouldn't be grumpy after their money paid for an air-conditioned doghouse. (Don't take my word for it, google Bakker and air conditioned for yourself.)

Seeing needs and giving is problematical. If needs are remote, we don't know whether our money is well spent. If needs are close, we may know for sure our money will be misspent. You can't live other people's lives for them. In the old days they talked of "deserving" poor. You don't want to give a drunk money he'll spend on alcohol.

There's a thread in this ramble, and that's the need to be discerning about giving. You don't want to give to those who don't need it (like me) and to those who'll misspend it.

First Post

I hope I didn't screw this up. This is an experiment. I feel I should say something like "one small step for man" or "Watson come here I need you." Instead, I'll stick with the Latin phrase that adorns my favorite baseball hat: Soli Deo Gloria.