Posts made in February, 2013

Writers as World Builders

Posted by on Feb 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

Writers are world-builders. We must be. Whether the world is a microcosm of our modern society, an extension of it composed of hidden creatures, or a wholly different planet and civilization than our own–the writer must create the world of their story. Consider works like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and the depth of the worlds created in those tales; inasmuch as they are not our own, they are. They have that same quality of vivid detail, complexity, and inherent contradiction and drama.

I love world building. In some ways, I love world building as much as I love telling the stories within my created worlds. The process of world building is exciting and full of surprises–whether they relate to social structures, creatures, character histories, or new concepts about the mundane tasks of that culture, the act of world-building is incredibly rewarding. I like to think of the joy I take in world building as an echo of the joy God must have taken when creating our universe.

World building involves not only creating the canvas on which a story can unfold but also allowing some level of darkness or evil or drama to exist in that world for a time, that heroes can rise and the greater good can be served. The greater the evil that is allowed into the built world, the greater the joy in its being overcome (this too, I believe, reflects and echoes a deeper spiritual reality).

But where does one begin this process? How do writers discover the world in which their story takes place. Well, I am wrapping up the first draft of my third novel, and I’d like to propose three methods by which I have developed the worlds of the three stories I’ve completed. These are not the only means by which one can do this, but they are proven methods as far as I’m concerned.

1) Create a character you love then develop everything around their plight. This is something of a concentric circle system wherein you start with a single character and then define their family, their community, their wider society, their world and the various structures within all those groups. This is a wonderful means of contextualizing your character into a fictional framework while also providing them some possible backstory and conflict with the world around him. This was the way I wrote The Traveler’s Tales for National Novel Write Month. I wrote two prologues about two characters with whom I identified and about whom I cared, and then I built the world in which they existed around them, by first defining the local society, then the national culture, then the world, then the time and place in history.

2) Work in reverse of (1). Begin with a concept: The prom. Now, put that prom into the context into a school, then a class, then a specific person within that class–maybe it’s not even a senior but a younger student invited to it or a college student attending with their as-yet-in-high-school sweetheart. Build from the outside world inward in order to find the best character through which to tell your readers what you have to share. This was the method I employed for writing my romance about a church high school youth retreat. I simply began with that concept and focused the story to a girl attending said event, and then I told her story, hitting the notes I thought necessary to explore the general youth retreat experience. In the process I fell in love with the kids in her youth group and the experience of the youth retreat all over again.

3) Simply run down the rabbit hole. Begin with a premise: An overweight man changes his life as well as that of many others when he is moved to help starving children surviving in poverty in another area of his hometown. Then just brainstorm scene ideas that take place over that journey. Hit events and moments that are deeply resonant to the character’s journey, goals, and discovery. See what sticks, what carries with it truth, goodness, and beauty–then use those as a guide to create your outline, arc, etc. In this method, you are wholly focused on the events of the story, and the world designs itself based on fulfilling the needs of the protagonist. As the requirements of the story become clear, the world in which they could occur becomes more vivid and narrow. This was in-part the method used for the creation of Stronghold and is being employed for the sequel.

Like I said, these are only three possible options. What methods do you use? Please share, as I am always looking for new models to implement and integrate into my own process.

Thanks for Reading,

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Matthew 7:21-23

Posted by on Feb 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

I had a hard time naming this post, so I just went with the Scripture reference. Thank you for checking this out despite the vague title.

Please read these words of Christ, as he is teaching his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew 7:21-23.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord , Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

Read it again. Does that scare you? Does it give you pause in the slightest? I will be honest with you, that passage terrifies me. If I hear or read this passage and engage it on any contemplative level, I just–I cannot help but pause and reflect. And fear strikes me. If I am reading this passage correctly, Christ is telling his disciples that not everyone who calls on him will be saved; furthermore, not everyone who believes they are doing great, spiritual works in his name will be saved. Only those who actually work toward the furthering of God’s kingdom through their actions, motivated by a love of God and others are known by Christ. Who then can be assured of their salvation? Can any of us?

Now, I am guessing that many of you reading this will be very quick to say, “C.J., you don’t need to be scared. I totally see the Spirit at work in your life, and I have seen you doing the work of the Father, so you have nothing to be scared of.”

First, let me say that I really, really appreciate this sentiment. I do. I am always humbled when people look at me and see Christ–that means that wherever else I am in life, I am getting the most important thing right at least some of the time. Second, let me say that I am the type of person who actually needs that type of encouragement. The world inside my head is intensely self-critical, and I often fall into the trap of despair, depression, and regret. But third, inasmuch as I value this response (and, again, I truly do), I always curb it in my mind with the very somber truth of Matthew 7–that in the end, at the very point when it matters, the opinions of men are not the deciding factor, but Christ alone will determine who is known and who is not known. The final decision rests with him, and a major part of that decision will be the record of works that resulted from a person’s true knowledge of God and faith in Christ. In these three verses, Christ reconciles the works-heavy teaching of the apostle James and the believe-and-be-saved admonitions of Paul. In the end, Christ will know who was truly his disciple and who was not, and those who were will have completed “kingdom work” as a manifestation of their knowledge of God.

I call this is a somber thought, but I also believe–very deeply–that it is perhaps one of the most encouraging truths of salvation ever revealed in the text of the Bible for one simple reason: Christ knows who is real, and he cannot be deceived, and therefore, the determination of those who are in his kingdom and those who are not will be perfect. Perhaps a better way to say that may be this: the final judgment will be flawless, regardless of who goes where.

I find this encouraging because I believe that Christ will be a far more merciful judge than we expect but also be much more fair judge than we can understand. We humans see things with such limited minds, such narrow perspectives, and such a selfish haze that our attempts at justice, valiant as they may be, are always tainted and incomplete.

According to Matthew 7:21-23, however, we can be sure that ultimate cosmic justice will be determined by a perfect judge who sees existence in a far more complex, versatile, and “true” fashion, and that judge will render his verdict with complete and total clarity of fairness and virtue, without anything clouding his vision or affecting his discernment. Those who were serving Christ for their own ends or in name only will be shown to be the charlatans that they truly were. Those who truly desired to further the kingdom of God will be known and welcomed into inheritance. I love that, and when I accept that and believe that truth, the terror I feel is overshadowed by peace.

But to be honest, the terror is not gone. I do not feel it for myself nearly as much as I feel it for others. Our human tendency is to say that we deserve heaven. We say, “Hey I’m a good person; I should get it”, “Who is God to exclude me?”, or my favorite from my early twenties, “I’m awesome. Who wouldn’t want me in heaven?”. These are the normal attitudes of millions of men and women, and they just show how much those individuals do not know God and how they are not known by him either. For these persons, I am terrified. I hurt for them when I engage this passage. Because when they are before Christ, what will they say? How devastated will they be to learn the truth of their own self-glorification? What will they do when Christ says “Depart from me”? For them, this passage is terrifying.

Personally, I am very secure in my salvation, that when I come before Christ I will find my name among his followers, and I will be called into my inheritance. Strangely, it was this whole idea of Christ’s judgment in Matthew 7 that made me so secure. For I have come to a place in my heart wherein I truly believe that if I was sent to hell, God will have done me no wrong and justice will have been served, and I don’t think you can come to that point of faith without believing Christ is who he claims to be–so good and high above oneself that should he pronounce ultimate judgment against one, he is still just and perfect. If Chist judges one’s friends, family, admired peers, he will do no wrong. This is a hard truth, and I believe accepting it requires a certain acceptance of who God is that can only come for the Holy Spirits work in one’s heart.

When I come before Christ, if I can say anything, I am likely going to say something like this, “Please, you alone are my hope. If my debt is not covered through your righteousness, I have nothing–my works alone are as filthy rags, less those motivated for love of you, your kingdom, and others. I know where I deserve to go without you, so do justly, as you will, for you are good.” In that moment, the call will be made–the perfect and just verdict will be rendered. And as I said before, I take great peace in that somber truth. I hope and trust my faith will be rewarded, but if I have been among the self-deceivers and I am sent where I deserve to go, ultimate justice will still be complete. God will have done no wrong. In that, I take great solace.

How bout you?  What do those verses do to you when you read them? How will they affect how you live this week?

Thanks for reading, guys. Another verse to check out for today – Phillipians 2:12.

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Why Not Smile

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

I love to smile. To quote the wise and now-iconic film character Buddy the Elf, one could say “smiling’s my favorite”. The older I get, the more I like the act of a decent, real smile, particularly with a stranger. You know what I mean, a full smile that kind of squints your eyes, that conveys with it a great deal more than simple courtesy. Not a pose-for-a-picture-smile or a smile-cause-I’m-supposed-to smile–I’m not a huge fan of those. No, I’m talking about a genuine smile toward a person with whom one may have no other interaction.

I didn’t realize the value of the smile until recently, when I began to notice the affect of it on folk. As something of an introvert, I usually dodged eye-contact and the smile as a child. I am unsure of what I was afraid, but regardless I would often avoid people’s gaze and evade their visual communication as best I could. I looked away when someone smiled in my direction, and to be honest, I cannot fathom why. Needless to say, this stopped in my adolescence. In my formative years, the smile became more of a cursory act of social courtesy, and oftentimes, said action was done without any intent beyond the old motivation, “I’m supposed to do this, so I am doing it”. I would see people, make eye contact, not want to be creepy, so I’d smile. You know the drill; no big, right? This, of course, carried into adulthood (as so many strange adolescent behaviors do) and adapted into a sign of emotional stability and a sort of communication tool. The cursory smile toward strangers on a college campus or folks at the store seemed to suggest little more than “Yeah, I’m human; you’re human. Let’s not make a big deal of this”. It’s a strange dynamic, and I am sure that some scientists who are smarter than me have collected and crunched the details to better understand why and how we smile the way we do.

The reason I bring up these developmental stages is because something changed in me as an adult in regard to the smile. I do not know why it happened or when or how, but I have developed a real sense of “meaning it” when I smile these day, particularly when doing so toward strangers. What do I mean when I say “meaning it”? Well, I’m not sure exactly. It’s so hard to put into words, but I suppose I mean any number of things, depending on the situation. Maybe when I give hearty, full smile, I mean “I am glad you exist!”, or “I really value what you do” or “Welcome to the Lego toy aisle; I hope your time here is as fun as mine has been”–I mean these types of things, but that’s not really it either.

I don’t know; I am really having a hard time with the verbiage on this; and while I do not know the origin of how I came to this outlook, I have full clarity as to why I maintain it. People have value. And I don’t mean value in and of themselves because they are sentient beings. People have real value far beyond their molecular construction or brain waves or ability to make and assess their choices. I believe, very strongly, that human beings carry in them an inherent, deeply-rooted value, that comes from having a non-biological but wholly real soul, a component of them that makes them who they are regardless of biology. As a follower of Christ, I like to think of it as an “eternal value of one created”, meaning that the soul of this person carries with it an eternal weight and as such has some level of real significance. For me, this outlook has cultivated in me is a love that says, “I really want your best, not for my sake or humanity’s sake in general, but for your sake specifically, because God made you, uniquely and individually.”

And with that as my motivator, the full smiles I have beeng giving lately have yielded, more often than not, a similar response. What motivates the other individual, I am not sure; but the returned gesture is always beautiful, regardless of the age or gender from whom it comes. I have seen skeptical eyes alight with genuine gladness over reading the expression on my face, and I have seen a visage of apathy over existence itself transform into one of delight, as if the person felt they received a compliment. Actually, that’s not it, I think it may run deeper–as if we’ve shared a conversation containing nothing more than a certain awareness of each other’s significance and worth without having even exchanged names.

Dah!  I feel like I am not conveying this well. I guess my bottom line on this post–which may have been better tweeted as a single statement–is this, when I make eye contact with a stranger, when we connect briefly in that way, I want to convey to that person that I believe they have value, and I feel that a big, honest grin does that (though I believe the sincerity of the smile is more so conveyed through the eyes than the mouth), and I have been warmed and delighted at the response others have to such a gesture. In a way, the real smile is an expression of love telling someone that I am glad for our crossing paths, albeit briefly, because they have real value and eternal significance. Man, why is that so hard to explain? I don’t know. Perhaps I’m not even fully aware of why I find these connections so meaningful to me. Perhpas it’s because the smile carries with it a certain truth that cannot be described with words (least of all not by those of a novice writer). Or perhaps it’s because I am trying to be brief, but a sincere smile is like a great picture, and we all know how many words that is worth.

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7 things you won’t get from writing…

Posted by on Feb 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

I am something of a megalomaniac, and by “something of”, I mean “very likely certified but not clinically labeled as”. Some days my dreaming runs wild. I’ll admit that. I begin to think of what it would mean for one of my books to hit big. I consider how wonderful it would be to have literary respect and value as a novelist and speaker. I revel in the success I have not and may never attain.

Frankly, on those days, I need a reality check before hitting the keyboard. I really do. As a Christian, my desire should be for God’s glory and Christ’s exaltation, not my own. My pride, selfishness, and greed for the praise of men are all of great danger to my soul, and if I’m honest, money and power and praise could do me a great deal of hurt in the long run if I fail to consider them in context of my walk with the Lord. Accolades can take my eyes from my true purpose, and they also may keep me from telling the truth should it be unpopular. Success and the desire to gain or maintain fame could very quickly stall my willingness to give my energies to the Lord and thereby diminish the value and worth of the very skill he has provided me.

Thus, I must recalibrate my mind before I set down to the keys. I must be honest as to the reasons I am writing–for my readers and their benefit, whether that benefit be instructional, entertaining, or a bit of both. In order to do this, sometimes I must remind myself of some, if not all, of the following:

“Remember, if you’re going to write, you will not get…”

1) Validation – If you need other people to tell you how brilliant and talented you are, and you write so that they do…stop. Every negative comment you get will stick to you and overshadow ten compliments you receive. You may even get more negative feedback altogether. Therefore, write because something must be said, and you can say it. Get validation in Christ, where you should. 

2) Rock Star Wealth & Status – For every J.K. Rowling (billionaire author), there’s about 50,000 C.J. Stunkards (poor authors), just like for every Michael Jackson, there’s a million “guys who made a song one time”. If you are very fortunate, you might land somewhere in the middle. Therefore, be content wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of wealth and power so long as you are telling the truth through your words.

3) An Easy life with Lots of Free Time. HA HA HA HA HA. Sorry, I had to laugh at my 20-year-old self for having such foolish expectations. Writing is a job, and you will have “those Mondays” as a writer, just like everyone else. You will also need to be motivated to go to work when you don’t want to, just like everyone else. You may even have days where you hate your job, just like everyone else. Plus, chances are, you will need to be more adaptable to change in your schedule by virtue of the fact that most will not understand that your “writing time” should make you as off-limits as they are during their “time in the office”. Oh, and if you do plan to write, you will likely need to “make time” to do so, and if that time is stripped from you, you will need to use otherwise “free time” to make up for the “lost time”. Get it. Therefore, be prepared to work hard, adapt, and work some more–this is no early retirement if you want to make a real go at it. 

4) Respect – This is kinda coupled with Validation, but not. Let’s all just be honest, a slew of non-writers think that a slew of real writers are into writing for these reasons, so they won’t respect you outright…unless of course you get item 2, then they may respect you or pretend to, possibly to get something from you. Oh, unless you have runaway success, then they may very well envy and hate you altogether, because people tend to do that. Therefore, forget about obtaining the respect you desire. Write. Write well, and if you are fortunate, the respect will come (but do not bank on it).

5) Revenge – Remember all those people who said you couldn’t do it, and then you did it. Well, you proved them wrong, haven’t you…and now…well, now…well that’s it. That’s it. You have proven them wrong. But guess what? You’ve been wrong too, so you’re not really elevated in the whole experience. You are just having them join you on the pedestal of “being human”. Congratulations on getting your sweet revenge but not really, since it means nothing. Therefore, never write to prove someone else wrong. Write in order to make that which is right look more beautiful. 

6) Unbridled Creative Freedom – Okay, this is not wholly true. If you are the only one reading your work, and you don’t care, you can have unbridled creative freedom. On the other hand, if you are hoping another human being can access what you are putting on the page, you will have some boundaries within which to play. You can be creative within those boundaries, but you will feel stifled at times (and please don’t get me wrong, the stifling is good, because it usually demands you create something better, within the boundaries). Therefore, use the proven skills and tools of the craft to operate creatively while also making your work accesible to the audience for whom you are writing it. If you want unbridled creative freedom. get out your Lego.

7) Anything Beyond The Writing Itself – And that’s the rub. This is a hard reality, but I realize now that it’s the truth. At the end of the day, the only guarantee from all your labor at the keyboard is that you have done labor at the keyboard. You will not be handed anything. You will not be given any rewards. If you spend twelve hours completing that last master stroke before deadline, you have no assurance that the first person to read it will enjoy it. You have no assurance that even you will enjoy it. All you will have, for certain, at the end of this writing session is what you completed during said writing session. Therefore, make this session count. If it were your last, ensure that your last was a doozy, that you told the truth without expecting something you should never have thought it would get you in the first place.

So, there you have it. If you are going to write, don’t do it for what you will not get from it. Frankly, when I look at that list, I feel put in my place–and my place is often here at the keyboard, trying to tell the truth, however I can. Makes me feel like writing now…cause I have something to say, and I can say it for its own sake without needing any of the above as reward for my time and energy.

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Are you praying? Tell them.

Posted by on Feb 18, 2013 in Uncategorized

Christians pray. Alot. Prayer is part of the daily routine in a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ, like talking to any friend or your spouse or, even, one’s boss at work. Frankly, I don’t know how one lives as a Christian without daily prayer. The more I consider my relationship with Christ in its proper interpersonal context, the more I see the need for constant communication–as I would with any good companion. Furthermore, I find that I need prayer in order to simply recalibrate my focus from simply the horizontal to both the horizontal and the vertical, ensuring that while I am looking at the world around me, I am also considering if not focusing on heaven and eternity. In doing this, I look at this world through the filter of Christ, trying to see this life and those I encounter in it as he would. Truthfully, this can be heartbreaking, as this world is a wounded place, desperate in its need for redemption. Christ was a man of sorrows, and our joining him in lamentation over not only the world’s depravity but our own sin can be spiritually healthy.

And it is in that brokenness that we see an element of prayer that we often overlook. The need to share with others when it happens–when we pray for them in their brokenness. Frankly, this is a new revelation for me–one that came, not surprisingly, during prayer itself. I was driving and praying in regard to a college buddy and his ministry. I asked for  the Lord to encourage him through the Holy Spirit, to exhort him to stay his course and continue his work. The Spirit, of course, had its own plan and, though inaudibly, spoke to me to do the same–that is, encourage this man in his work.
Such an idea is not foreign to me.  As one who has struggled with a great many sins, one of which required direct accountability to Christian brothers, I know the importance of being told, specifically while in distress, that I am being lifted in prayer, that I am being loved through prayer, that I am being remembered in prayer. While these concepts may sound foolish to the unbeliever, they bring to the Christian a great deal of comfort. It is not unlike having a brother or sister saying, “I went to dad to talk to him about what you’re going through. He’s looking out for you.” or even a co-worker saying “I went to the boss; he knows you’re struggling. I asked him to help you out as he saw fit.” These are wonderful sentiments, and what’s more, we hold them to be true, and we hold to their truth with great hope, for prayer has repercussions far greater than we can even see. Countless stories from countless Christians attest to this fact, and I look forward to, hopefully, seeing this tapestry more clearly once in God’s direct presence (how fascinating would it be to sit in an arena, while Christ tells his followers how the prayers of one in South America affected the lives of those in Africa, who in turn prayed for others in Asia who later lifted up those Americans).
That being said, I am going to try a new experiment and just see how it goes. For the next two weeks, as I remember folk in prayer, I will try to let at least one person per day know that they are being prayed for and loved, not only by me but by a Holy God. I am guessing that for nine out of ten people, this will be a small, if negligible  boost in their day, but for that last person, it may just be the one thing they needed to hear. Who knows. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
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