July 29, 2011

To italicize or not to italicize...

That is the ever-bothersome question, is it not?
Everybody has an opinion on whether italics should be used, and how they should be used, and how often they should be used, and why they should be used. And chances are, writers, if you listen to five different professionals' thoughts on the subject, you'll come away with five different answers. I've heard quite a few myself. Some people say "It's a tool that's there to be used, so use it if you need it." Others say "Let the readers decide for themselves how the words should be emphasized, without you the writer telling them how they should hear everything." Everyone and their dog, it seems, has a different idea of what the proper use of italics consists of.
It's fairly common for young or beginning writers to way overuse italics in their writing. Like, every word that they think should be even slightly emphasized gets put into italics. After all, how are the readers supposed to know how it's supposed to sound if the writer doesn't tell them, right? Don't worry, I'm as guilty of this as anybody else. If you've ever read Emily of New Moon and chuckled (or cringed) at Emily's excessive use of italics, you have some idea of what my early writing was like. I was a proud member of the "It's-a-tool-that-exists-to-be-used" campaign.
However, as I continued learning and growing in my writing, I began to see the truth in the idea that overuse of italics can be a sign of weak prose. Think about it: if you feel like you need italics to make your writing look active, or to strengthen your sentences... well, you're probably putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches. In other words, work on getting your writing strong enough to stand on its own without the aid of purely visual effects like italics.
Of course, there are cases where italics should be used. The titles of books, for example, should always be italicized. And once in a while, if something really important hinges on the way a particular word is interpreted ("You're the traitor!" versus "You're the traitor!"), then italics are okay. (Jeff Gerke has a great article on this Here on his website.) Also, as an editor, I have to say this: if you decide that a word truly does need to be emphasized, for goodness' sake, just use italics! Don't use bold, or underline, or all-caps, or any combination thereof. Just use italics. Period.
Part of what broke me of my tendency to overuse italics in my writing was hearing the statement "Overuse of italics constitutes micro-management on the part of the author". I don't remember who said it, but it hit close to home for me. Having done time... er, I mean, worked... in the corporate world, where your entire life is micro-managed by your bosses and your bosses' bosses and their bosses who have never even met you but are nonetheless experts on what will make you work most efficiently (I'm not bitter or anything), I'm really turned off by the term 'micro-management'. So if my overusing italics means I'm micro-managing my readers' reading experience, I'm gonna start cutting out some italics, believe you me.
One problem I still struggle with, though, is the area of characters' thoughts. Some, like Jeff Gerke, argue that characters' internal monologues don't need to be italicized, that the readers can tell what is supposed to be narrative and what is supposed to be thought. At the same time, though, in a fast-paced scene where there's lots of action, dialogue, and narrative mixed together, italicizing a character's thought might just make it easier for the reader to sort everything out, I think.
Another issue that writers of speculative fiction have to deal with is mind-speaking, or telepathic conversation, or whatever you prefer to call characters communicating with only their thoughts. I've seen it done in standard font using only quotation marks like a normal spoken conversation, I've seen it done in all-italics, and I've seen it done using both italics and quotation marks. Jeff Gerke condemns the use of italics and quotation marks together, but Donita K. Paul uses it frequently in the Dragonkeeper Chronicles when her characters mind-speak with each other. In her writing, the viewpoint character's thoughts are in italics with no quotation marks, and the other person's thoughts are italicized and enclosed in quotation marks. Personally, I thought her method made thought conversations clear and easy to follow, but there are people I know who disagree with me. Unfortunately, it's one of those issues where there really is no solid right or wrong answer... and we writers are probably doomed to argue among ourselves about it until the Second Coming.
What are your thoughts on the proper way to use italics, especially in non-verbal, 'mind-speaking'-type conversations?

July 27, 2011

The Pen is Mightier...

"There are only two powers in the world, the sword and the pen; and in the end the former is always conquered by the latter." ~Napoleon

"The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as those of the sword need swiftness." ~Julie Ward Howe

"Oh, nature's noblest gift--my gray goose quill!" ~Byron

"If you want to change the world, pick up your pen." ~Martin Luther

July 25, 2011

Wine and Fiction - Have we turned art into science?

Several months ago I was home sick on a Sunday and was flipping through television channels (since putting in a DVD would have required getting off of the couch). I came across a documentary about wine making and, since it was the only thing on that struck me as remotely interesting, I watched a few minutes of it.
Up to that point, I had considered wine-making to be a relatively simple process:
- Pick the grapes.
- Smash the grapes.
- Let the grape juice ferment.
- Put fermented grape juice in barrels and let it age for a few years.
- Voila. Wine.
Okay, so there has always been a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. As I watched the documentary on it, though, I was blown away by how complex and delicate the wine-making process has become over time.
The vineyards are monitored constantly as harvest time approaches, waiting for the exact moment when their internal sugar content is just right. When the sugar content level hits that perfect magic number the supervisors are looking for, they start picking and pick around the clock until the harvest is complete. The grapes are rushed straight into the processing facility where they are pressed and the juice is poured into vats. The sugar content of the juice in the vats is also monitored with pinpoint accuracy. If the sugar level falls below the desired number by even a single percentage point, the supervisors may call off the harvesting process until the grapes ripen further.
The entire process is that way--monitored with painstaking precision, start to finish. I understand that wine-making is an art that's been around for millennia, but I can't help wondering if the craft and skill in the art has been carried too far. Has an art been forced into becoming a science?
Now, maybe the precision of the modern process makes modern wine taste far better than vintage. I've never tasted wine, so I wouldn't know.
What I do know is that I see hints of a similar trend in the art and craft of fiction writing.
In the days of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and L.M.Montgomery (all of whom are considered masters of their craft), good characters, a good plot, and a good feel for storytelling were enough to make a novel an international hit. In spite of literary 'sins' such as the use of omniscient point of view and long passages of author narrative, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables were successes in their hay day and are still popular today.
Writing was simpler then. Today, story narrative has to be embedded so deeply into the main character's psyche that the readers think they are that character. Every little action, every feeling, every thought, has to grab the readers in a choke hold or else risk being 'distant'. Every scene and every plot point has to be highly calculated for effect and possible repercussions, as though the writer is about to launch a missile rather than just tell a story.
I believe there are a lot of contributing factors behind this trend--too many to discuss in this post. And while I agree whole-heartedly that fiction writing is an art that requires skill and hard work to master, I worry that the art itself is slowly being lost to the science we've made of the skills.
Underneath the science, the formulas, the step-by-step processes, and the calculations, storytelling is an art. A gift. An ability and style as unique as the storyteller.
It was an art before we made it into a science. Let's not lose sight of that.

Do you storytelling is in danger of becoming a science rather than an art? Or do you see today's formulas and calculations as simply refining the art?

July 23, 2011


"In what he leaves unsaid I discover a master of style." ~Schiller

"He can never speak well, who knows not how to hold his peace." ~Plutarch

Do you know any examples of writers who know how to skillfully keep silent?

July 22, 2011

Growing Pains

Do you ever look back and miss 'the old days'? I know I do. (Yes, I know I probably sound like an old lady when I say that.)
I miss getting up, doing my schoolwork, and then going outside to play without anything else in the world demanding my time and attention. I miss looking up at the top of the Christmas tree towering over me and being awestruck (there's just something depressing about unpacking that same Christmas tree one year to find the top of it at your eye level). I miss the days when every book, every poem was new and unread by me. I miss the days when every book I was given to read had been pre-read and screened by my mom, and I didn't have to worry about a good story being ruined by something inappropriate.
I miss the days when my writing was a hobby. Really, I do. I miss having the freedom to work on whatever story or poem I wanted, when and if I wanted to work on it. I miss the days of having an idea and starting on a new story, guilt-free in spite of the half-dozen other projects I had going at the time. I miss thinking my mom had no idea I had tucked a sheet of notebook paper into the back of my history book so I could work on that poem or short story when she wasn't looking. I miss my far-off, shimmering, childish dreams of fame and fortune--dreams I could dream from a safe distance without letting them effect my writing directly. I miss the notion that I would send my book to a publisher, they would publish it, and that would be that... never giving a thought to things like 'platform' or 'marketing'.
Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't change the way things are now. Discovering that the writing I loved so much was God's calling for my life was amazing. Finding writing buddies who could encourage me, help me improve my skills, and keep me accountable has been a joy. Getting that first acceptance letter from a magazine was a moment I'll never forget. Sticking with the same project for the last four years has been tough, but having my first novel at the point where I can start looking for publishers is a milestone I wouldn't want to miss.
Still... sometimes... I just can't help but miss the old days. Sometimes I even have the urge to hide a piece of notebook paper in the back of the book I'm reading. : )

Is there an earlier stage in your writing journey that you sometimes miss?

July 20, 2011

Aliens in Christian Fiction

A commonly-seen element in science fiction is the existence of aliens. They show up in a variety of ways and forms, from Star Trek-style aliens (different enough to be noticeably alien, but still human enough to be attractive to one of the main characters), to deceptively human-looking spies sent to scout planet Earth, to utterly inhuman monsters bent on devouring everything. It's a broad idea, and writers have basically unlimited room to work.
But how do aliens fit into Christian fiction?
First, let's make sure we're clear on what an alien actually is. I'm sure most people probably visualize a rather scrawny, huge-brained, big-eyed creature something like the little guy on the right (couldn't help myself--I thought he was kinda cute). Really, the word "alien" just means "foreign, not native, etc.". "Extra-Terrestrial" means "from outside of Earth". That's all there is to it. Neither of those terms suggest anything more by their definitions. Pretty cut and dried, right?
Yes... and no. With accounts of UFO sightings, alien abductions, events like the Roswell incident calling into question the Genesis account of creation, and even (more recently) the notion that a highly intelligent extra-terrestrial race was actually responsible for 'seeding' the beginnings of life onto our planet and kick-starting the evolutionary process, the whole alien issue can become difficult.
Difficult, yes, but thankfully not complicated. For writers and readers alike, the important thing is to know where you stand--and make sure it's on a biblical worldview.
If you don't know where you stand, or you're not sure what a biblical worldview of aliens would actually be, I advise you to read Gary Bates' book Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection. Click Here to watch the author's YouTube discussion of the book, or Here to order it from Amazon. You'll come away from reading Alien Intrusion with a much better understanding of the reality behind accounts of UFO sightings and abductions, and what the Bible actually says about 'aliens'.

Really, the issue is more complicated for those who are just reading science fiction than for those who are writing it. A Christian reader trying to discern godly use of aliens and related concepts in fiction from ungodly is probably in for quite a time of it.
For writers, though, it's much more simple (especially if you just stick with the dictionary definition of 'alien'): establish a biblical worldview, keep your writing solidly within those bounds... and go for it! Whether you're creating an entirely fictional universe with creatures and characters from multiple planets, writing a civilization of intelligent beings into a far-flung corner of our own Milky Way, or bringing in visitors from a parallel dimension, you have an entire universe's worth of space to play in. There are countless ways to execute this. One of the most unique I've seen is in Tom Pittman's online novel, Lazir, in which aliens have come to Earth from an alternate dimension--a world that never suffered the Fall, as ours did--as missionaries. You can Click Here to read Lazir on Tom Pittman's website. (Be forewarned: the book needs a sequel desperately. I've been lobbying for one since I read the book, but so far no luck.)

While the alien/ET/UFO thing has grown into somewhat of a monster in our culture, it's not something we need to be afraid of as writers and readers. Sure, it can get touchy and weird in the hands of the right (or wrong) people, but if we have a godly and biblical worldview to stand on, it's a pretty simple matter with a lot of potential. Let's not treat it like a case of leprosy. Let's take it captive and use its potential for God's glory.

What are your thoughts on aliens in Christian fiction? Do you have a favorite example?

July 18, 2011

Book Review: Dragonspell

By Donita K. Paul

I’ve read lots of good novels. Lots of good fantasy novels, even. And it’s hard to say what makes one certain novel a classic while other novels, perhaps equally good, somehow lack the ability to endure. But I feel confident in saying that Donita K. Paul’s novel Dragonspell possesses that staying power, that mysterious spark that makes a book a classic.

The cover touts it as “A fantastic journey of discovery for all ages” and it’s no exaggeration. I have known twelve-year-olds and twenty-somethings who enjoyed the book equally.

Dragonspell is the story of Kale, a village slave who finds a dragon egg and is consequentially thrust into a world of adventure she never dreamed of. Encountering grawligs, kimens, wizards (good and evil), a tumanhoeffer librarian, mordakleeps, and of course, dragons.

The action of the story is intense and exciting, but there is no gore or excessive violence, making it appropriate for younger readers. The characters are colorful, loveable, and their interactions with each other are heartwarming and hilarious. Donita K. Paul has created a fantasy world full of strange creatures, geography that begs exploration, and stories waiting to happen.

Dragonspell would make an excellent choice for family reading, book reports, or just personal reading for fun, no matter what age you are. If you want an exciting adventure, a delightful cast of characters, based on a Christian foundation, read Dragonspell.


I received this book free of charge from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review. A favorable review is not required; Waterbrook is committed to gathering honest opinions about the books they publish.

What do you think makes a book a classic?

July 16, 2011

Thought for the Weekend

"No story is the same to us after the lapse of time: or rather we who read it are no longer the same interpreters." ~George Eliot

Do you have a favorite story or book that's changed with you over the years?

July 15, 2011

A new chapter of Falls the Shadow!

Today is the fifteenth, so a new chapter of Falls the Shadow is up and ready to read at The Lost Scribes. By now you know the characters, and you're learning their stories as they go about their separate lives. But now, for the first time... destiny begins to cross their paths.
Click Here to read Chapter Five; the intrigue is just beginning.

I also have a new short story up on Avenir Eclectia. Celeste is back, and she's just received a Rude Awakening. Click Here to read the story and find out why!

July 13, 2011

Announcing Spearhead Books

I am not an e-book fan. I don't have a problem with them as a thing in themselves, and I guess being able to store a kabillion books in a half-inch-thick device is good (until said device crashes... don't get me started). It's just that personally, I would much rather stretch out in a hammock or curl up in an armchair with a book--a real book, made out of things like paper and ink and leather--than with a paper-thin electronic device. That's just a little too Trekkie, even for me.
However, no one can deny the enormous growth in the e-book market. E-books have actually started out-selling hard copy in some places. And with anyone able to self-publish their book on Amazon and new books becoming available daily, the choices for readers are literally endless.
So how does a Christian reader who wants a well-written story and godly content standards ever choose which book to read? Well, that's why I'm pleased to announce the inception of Spearhead Books:

A professional writers' guild (led by the Miller brothers, Christopher Hoppers, and Wayne Thomas Batson), dedicated to providing fiction that meets high standards in all aspects, from the skill of the writing itself to the content.
A starting point for anyone seeking quality Christian fiction amid the endless sea of e-books floating around in cyberspace.
Click Here to check out their "About Us" page and learn more about this exciting new project. Personally, I'm thrilled. I think it's a fantastic idea, and I hope God blesses this effort richly as it gets its start.

What do you think about this idea?

July 11, 2011

Dialogue Puctuation 101

Hands down, the most common mistake I see in writing is in the way people use punctuation and capitalization in dialogue. As an editor, it bugs me. As a writer, I want to make sure my writing is as good as I can get it, and that includes proper punctuation. So in this post I'm going to outline the proper use of punctuation and capitalization in dialogue based on the mistakes I see most often. And to make it fun, I've used real-life quotes from things my family and friends have said.

Dialogue Tags
Incorrect: "I think Lady Luck is my arch enemy." Caleb said.
Correct: "I think Lady Luck is my arch enemy," Caleb said.

Incorrect: "I'll be right back," Mom said, "Don't let anything interesting happen while I'm gone!"
Correct: "I'll be right back," Mom said. "Don't let anything interesting happen while I'm gone!"
- or - "I'll be right back," Mom said, "don't let anything interesting happen while I'm gone!"

Incorrect: "What is that purple monstrosity on the ironing board," Caleb asked.
Incorrect: "What is that purple monstrosity on the ironing board," Caleb asked?
Correct: "What is that purple monstrosity on the ironing board?" Caleb asked.

Incorrect: LoriAnn peeked through the door, "It sounds like tribal chaos in there."
Correct: LoriAnn peeked through the door. "It sounds like tribal chaos in there."

Incorrect: "You can't plan these things, you have to be spontaneous," Dad raised an eyebrow, "I am a beacon of spontaneity."
Correct: "You can't plan these things, you have to be spontaneous." Dad raised an eyebrow. "I am a beacon of spontaneity."

Incorrect: "Never trust a man who wears a bow tie of his own free will," James shook a finger at me.
Correct: "Never trust a man who wears a bow tie of his own free will." James shook a finger at me.

More Beats, Breaks, and Pauses
Note: An em dash () signifies that someone has been interrupted, stopped speaking abruptly, or paused clearly mid-sentence. It can also be used to mark a break in the character's speaking to insert an action beat, as in the first example below. There should not be spaces between the em dash and the words before and after it. Ellipses (...) [only three dots, no more, no less] signify a less defined pause, or that someone has trailed off in their speaking.

Incorrect: "I know this is a very touching and teachable moment," Katrina shook her head "But it makes me laugh."
Correct: "I know this is a very touching and teachable moment" Katrina shook her head. "but it makes me laugh."

Incorrect: "My name has now been changed," Karri paused for effect... "to Kenneth Rogers."
Correct: "My name has now been changed..." Karri paused for effect. "...to Kenneth Rogers." (assuming a superhero persona at age 5)
Do you struggle with dialogue punctuation?