Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Boo-Boo...That Keeps On Giving

I had a "hot button" pushed this week, one that's nagged at me for a long time and one that seems to be without convincing reason or answer. That "button" is the phenomenon in Christian fiction that requires a conversion not only of character, but of life's calling. Of work. Of job.

In other words...

I really, really, really (as in REALLY!)  wish that just once, I could find a Christian novel in which characters don't automatically abandon the occupation they had before they got saved, just because it may be a career that they--or conventional wisdom--might see as somehow less than "Christian." Why is it such a foregone conclusion that "of course" they'll turn their backs on what's been their livelihood up to that point? What would be so wrong with staying put?

I'm thinking of two particular books at this point. The first one is Boo by Rene Gutteridge. A sweet book. A quirky book, one that has a uniqueness to it that prompted me to read it and the second book in this series centered in Skary, Indiana.

The second book, I will not name here for the simple reason that I have not read the whole thing, only a sample--and it's probably not fair to cite chapter and verse on a book that lost me at Chapter One.  But, it also must be said, this particular hot button is the reason it's done so.

In the case of Boo, the hero is a horror writer before he is led to Christ. (Think Stephen King. I did, probably a deliberate intention by the author.) Only unlike King, our hero Wolfe Boone--nicknamed "Boo" for short, hence the title--gets converted and decides, well, that means he's no longer going to be a horror writer. It seems to him to be somehow incompatible with his newfound faith. Trouble is, I never quite understand or believe the reasons why. 

Oh, it's not that it's not explained, in a sort of surface manner. After all, the first knee-jerk reaction of most people to horror is that it's a pretty godless medium that godly people feel a wholesome repugnance toward in the first place, and certainly have no business writing. It tends to be affiliated with such ungodly things as vampires and werewolves and zombies and serial slashers and psychopaths and...

But notice the word.  "Affiliated." Containing these elements, much of the time. But are those elements its substance, a substance from which one needs to be walled off the moment one knows Christ?

I would submit that that assumption is not only wrong but a cop-out.

It has long been maintained by horror writers and critics that horror stories are not heartless, godless pieces set up just to show unspeakable things, scare the bejabbers out of you, and make you sleep with the lights on. Those things often happen, don't get me wrong. :-) But that's not the purpose nor the underlying story of most horror literature.  I don't remember where I read this thumbnail analysis, or I'd give its author credit--but if I remember correctly, that author maintained that horror goes deeper than surface gore or creeps. In many cases, horror literature can almost be considered as modern morality play. I.E., if "I know what you did last summer," and it was a WRONG, and I'm coming back to make you pay for'd be hard put to call it much else than "morality play." The fact that the characters who did the wrong have to fight off someone who's more purely evil than they are (!) in order to survive long enough to own up to what they did is where the struggle, the conflict, and the scary parts come in.

Or, in the case of much horror literature, the setup is that an unspeakable evil comes into the world of a person who's basically just living his or her life, perfectly innocent of any previous offense that needs "punishing." When the unspeakable evil enters, it immediately threatens not only that person, but everything he/she holds dear and sacred. The only way out of the evil is through it--and this person discovers strength he or she never knew s/he possessed in the process of fighting that evil and vanquishing it.

True horror fans will also go one step farther and tell us--much as true suspense/thriller fans attest--that the scariest things happening aren't what's on the page or the screen...but what's between the reader's or viewer's ears. That the power of this fiction isn't in the gore or the body count, but in the emotional identification we have with this poor person and his/her struggles against evil. We want them to win. We want them to reassure us that, in fact, there is order in the universe. That fighting evil can be successful.

As we watch, we see characters have to own up to the shadows in themselves. They have to confront things they'd rather have kept hidden, but saving lives depends on those things being brought out and dealt with. We feel their pain, their shock and revulsion, and we let them battle that shock and revulsion that resonates inside our own heads as we watch or read. When finally the happy ending comes, peace and normalcy return to their worlds--peace of mind, soul, and body. In other words, a defeat of a certain, defined  evil...and a redemption.

So do tell me...what's GODLESS about that? 
Go ahead. Think about it. I'll wait.

I personally think the Boo books would have been better had Boo decided, "Nope, God gave me this talent, and I'm gonna keep using it." After all...if all we have comes from God, the talent to write modern-day morality plays surely shouldn't be one exception to the rule. (Plus, it would have taken the smug Ainsley down a peg if she was actually forced to reconcile the dichotomy between finding herself loving the man and loving the Christian versus wishing he did anything else for a living. Now, there's romantic conflict. And boy, would that have been fun to watch!)

Instead, predictably, our hero dumps his "distasteful" career...and then wonders what's going to come next for him. Enter a whole lot of other manufactured conflicts driven by external factors--which made for an interesting book, and one that wasn't bad. But the whole time I read it, I kept wishing the author had been willing to step out on the riskier ledge. 

Instead, the book, and so many more like it, perpetuate an occupational Phariseeism that begins to split hairs with a certain insane predictability.

You may be a musician...but by golly, you can't play rock and roll anymore.
You may be an actor or actress...but you're now only going to act in religious drama.
You may be a painter...but from now on, your first priority is church murals.
And heaven help you if you're in any of those occupations and you dare to still have some bad habits, or drink or smoke or gamble or play cards or...

Uh-yup. This is the same song we've sung before, and its notes are just as sour.

Isn't it about time we wrote real people, allowed them to have real jobs in which they stood as real Christian witnesses--living in the world as it is--and stopped removing and isolating  them before they even have a chance to be salt and light? Unless your character was something like an abortionist, a sex, slave, or drug trafficker, or a hit man for the Mafia...there's nothing whatsoever laudatory about snatching him from his old job and forcing him to do a new one the the moment he knows Christ.

And let's face it: most people can't do that in real life. So isn't doing that with a character a disservice to your reader? Which is easier to identify with--a character who finds Christ and seemingly loses all other direction (while waiting around passively for "God to show him the next step"), or a person who sticks around in the effort to do the best he can, in the place he's been planted, sin-laden world and all?

I know which person I'd rather read about.
I know which person I meet more often in real life.
And I know which person's testimony has much more power in the end.

It's the guy or girl who faces the evil, who has to force him or herself to walk through it, who has to draw on strength and courage he or she doesn't know exists...

Yanno, just like the hero or heroine in that horror novel.


So don't strip the world of its salt and light by snatching your characters out of it.
Don't keep them safe.
Put them out there, like you have to be every day.

Don't worry. They've got Christ. They can handle it.
And so--images of fainting church ladies aside--can your reader.

Trust a little more, and tear down a few more of the walls.
You'll be amazed what happens. To your stories...and maybe even to your life.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

V is for Vocabulary

...but the question is, do you have a decent one?
Are you sure?

Most writers I've known have had pretty darn impressive vocabularies. In fact, many of us who write genre fiction have--more than once in the past--been asked to "dumb down" our verbiage. We've been told that the average genre book should be written to a sixth-grade reading level--which is still an interesting dilemma, considering that most of us weren't using any words that we didn't already know when we were in sixth grade. Nevertheless, we were told that "long" words would "put off" our readers; they wouldn't want to read with our novel in one hand and a dictionary in the other.

Unfortunately, we're reaping the results of that dumbing down now--in an unexpected place.
Our book editors.

Yes, we're told over and over again now that book editors don't "edit" much anymore. They're too busy doing non-editorial but book production-related tasks, having meetings with Marketing, etc., to go over books with a fine-toothed comb. So the books have to come in as darn near perfect as we can make them.

Which is a problem if we're also products of reading books that never made us reach beyond an arbitrarily-decided "sixth-grade reading level." Some of us were never forced to actually learn a vocabulary that goes into a high-school reading level, much less a college-educated one. That becomes a problem when we decide to write something ourselves.

But that becomes a class-A felony when we sit down to edit someone else's work. Because how can we edit a book properly, bring it up to snuff, correct its errors...if we don't know errors when we SEE them?

Books will always have errors, here and there. A few inevitably sneak through because of sheer time constraints. Even with several pairs of eyes looking at a proof, the mind will do a certain amount of compensation for what's not on the page--we've got all kinds of nifty little viral stuff circulating around online demonstrating just that.  So in a time crunch, editors will read something over as quickly as they can. That's almost always a mistake, and it almost always lets mistakes get through.  It happens.

Those mistakes, we can live with. But those aren't the kinds of mistakes I'm talking about--one or two in a full-length book.
I'm talking about finding seven or eight missteps in the first ten pages of something.

These are errors that can only be made by ignorant people--not in the punitive sense, but in the literal sense. Ignorant of grammar, ignorant of proper punctuation, ignorant of cultural references...but most embarrassingly, ignorant of words themselves. They just plain "don't know what they don't know"--and the results are just plain awful.

In other words, some of the worse errors I'm seeing of late are overwhelmingly in the "word usage" category of error. As in, the editor doesn't have enough of a vocabulary to know that the author just slipped up and put the wrong word in. Or worse yet...the author's proof started out right, and the editor's changed it to something wrong.

This kind of thing comes from editors who don't even have enough vocabulary and/or language training to know "lightning" from "lightening."
Or that it's "death throes," not "death throws."
Or that there's a difference between "subtly" and "subtlety."

There are more, of course.  Cultural references that go bad--things like spelling the name "Hannibal Lector" or the always-popular misuse of the term "Immaculate Conception."
Or grammar things that are wrong--like, for instance, that you don't put a comma after words like "maybe" or "but" except in very specific circumstances.

The list goes on. And on. And on. Every single one of these things is cringeworthy.
The good news is, every single one of them would be fixable...
But the bad news is, apparently the editors don't know that they need fixing. So they don't get fixed.
And our books look really, embarrassingly illiterate.

But even worse, for the sake of readers and writers alike--is that in the end, the ultimate damage done by these missteps isn't an offense to "grammar gurus" but a disruption in the story itself. Miscommunication--saying "dependant" when you mean "dependent," "tenant" when you mean "tenet," or "death throws" when you mean "death throes"--stops the reader from getting what the writer truly intended in the text. 
It stops the reader from truly getting the story in its best form.

In order to reverse this trend, there are some other trends we'll have to reverse. Like the dominant trend of insisting that our writing stay dumb and dumber.

We need to start teaching vocabulary again. And the grammar it comes in on. Because when we do want to fly with a word, we ought to at least be able to use the right one.

That's not a matter of snobbism or pedantics  (or even semantics!), or perfectionism.
Our stories demand it.
Our writers deserve it.
And our editors simply must have it.
Otherwise, we've got a whole raft of people out there trying to jerry-rig the sculpting of raw manuscript into finished book...using the heel of a shoe and a sharp knife, when they really need a hammer and chisel.

Any workman knows you can't do the job right without the right tools.
Many, many, MANY of our editors apparently don't have those tools.
If they don't, the writers they support will never have them, either.
And the stories are the losers in that process.

Let's change it.


Monday, June 11, 2012

I Dunno About You, But I'm Really, REALLY Tired Of...

...the whole practice of labeling people "haters" in today's culture.

Mind you, nine times out of ten, the concept doesn't actually apply to anyone who DOES hate or is actually EXPRESSING hatred. Our culture is fond of referring to people with real LIVE hatred as having anything BUT that in their souls. They have "anger issues," or "inaccurate perceptions," or all kind of other nonsense instead of us just calling the spade a spade and being done with it.

But then, in turn, calling that spade a spade makes you a...hater.

I posted the following on Facebook, just now. 

A thought: 
Merely pointing out a public figure's weaknesses, hypocrisies, failings, or outright lies doesn't constitute HATING, and it doesn't make anyone a "hater." In many cases, it's an honest attempt to assess a person's character and achievements without either rose-colored glasses or tinfoil. :-) And it especially doesn't apply merely because MY assessment of that public figure is different from YOURS. Or is that much nuance beyond the scope of people nowadays to understand?

...Maybe it's a hopeless cause. But maybe not. Maybe if enough of us start saying it, like Chinese water'll start wearing some grooves of sense back into someone's gray matter. 
It's worth a shot.

At least maybe it'll force them to find another vocabulary word. :-)


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Follow This Guy. You'll Thank Me Later. :-)

Because he's simply one of the best and most down-to-earth Catholic apologists out there...with all the Scriptural sensibilities you could possibly want.  And he's a square dance caller and low-carb foodie as well. What's not to love?

Seriously, his audio/video links are especially worth the time and listening. You'll be educated and edified at the same time. Such a deal!


Friday, June 08, 2012

Corn Time!

OK...for those who asked for this...(and you know who you are):
Simple way to do corn on the cob in the microwave.

Remove as much silk as you can from the ears, but keep the husks as intact as possible.
Place in microwave and heat on HIGH until corn is tender.
Simple, no?

Rule of thumb: for one ear, about 2.5 minutes seems to work.
Last night I did three, and it took 7 minutes.
Experiment around until you find the right combination that makes the corn done, but not mushy. Then bring out the butter, salt, whatever else you like to put on corn, and knock yourself out. 

And, yeah, I suppose I need to put a caution in here--that when you take the corn out of the microwave, IT'S GONNA BE HOT. As in really, REALLY hot. So handle carefully.

There. The legal department should be happy now. :-)
Have a great cornfest this weekend, no matter what the weather is outside!

More in a bit,

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

World's Best Pot Roast: Ai Mayd It

Had an AWESOME pot roast this evening...put together easily. 

1 Angus beef pot roast, about 3 pounds
4 large carrots
3 large stalks celery
2 large potatoes, scrubbed
3 small white onions or 1 large yellow onion
2 large cloves garlic 
1 c chicken stock
2 generous dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/4 c canned diced tomatoes with juice
1/2 c dry red wine
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper, Mrs. Dash original (yellow cap)
1 Tbsp fresh dill
1 Tbsp fresh parsley

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 c flour

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large oven-safe Dutch oven or the like,  brown the meat over high heat, seasoning generously with salt, pepper, & Mrs. Dash. While meat browns, chop vegetables in 1/2-inch chunks and coarsely chop garlic. Lift browned meat and place vegetables underneath it, saute all for 2 minutes. Off the heat, add Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes, chicken stock, wine, dill, and parsley. Cover and cook in oven for 2 hours, or until meat is fork-tender. Remove from oven, take meat from pot and trim off any excess fat. Cut butter into flour with fork or whisk. When butter and flour are thoroughly combined, add to pot with vegetables and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes, stirring, until sauce thickens. Remove pot from heat,  slice meat, and get the heck out of the way.

Serves 3-4 with leftovers for lunch!  

(Measurements of salt, pepper, and Mrs. Dash are to taste; herb measurements and thickening roux measurements are approximate.)

Janny the Foodie

Monday, June 04, 2012

I Just Need to Kill More People. Honestly.

I recently submitted VOI for the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval. It's a prerequisite for entering it in their Catholic Arts and Letters Award competition...which I did want to do.
Unfortunately, despite having Catholic characters who are unashamedly didn't get approved.


It has a divorced character marrying in the Church at the end of the book,  without my having mentioned that he got an annulment first.

So because I didn't tell the reader that Lachlan had an annulment from his previous marriage...I was not clearly showing/upholding the Catholic teaching on marriage. And in this culture, yatta, yatta, yatta...

Now, on the surface, doesn't that look legit? After all, the last thing the Catholic Writers Guild wants is to assure an audience that a book doesn't contradict Catholic teaching, only to have some irate soul write them letters--or worse yet, write her bishop or the like--and complain.

But that whole reasoning bothered me.
Frankly, I expected that if it'd be disapproved, it would have been for other things entirely.
For the visions the heroine sees and the voices she hears.
Even maybe because one of Lachlan's key phrases is "God in heaven."
For almost anything but the fact that the "a" word never makes an appearance before the happy ending.

Part of what bothers me about this is the seeming assumption that Catholic readers are dumb as rocks, and if you don't spell out in very clear Canon Law terms what the characters did or didn't do, they'll think "everything's OK and anything goes."

But it wasn't until I really thought about what was on the page, versus what was not, that I realized this disapproval, and the reasons for it, raise a whole swackload of interesting questions on their own.
Follow me on this, if you would.

In order to make the assumption that I was not upholding Church teaching by having my divorced hero remarrying at the end...a lot of other things are are also not spelled out here are, apparently, assumed by the committee.
Such as...

How did they know the first marriage was a church marriage? (Maybe it wasn' which case, if both parties were Catholic, it's invalid by form anyway and won't need an annulment.) did they know either of the first-marriage partners was even Catholic at the time of that marriage? (Which would make the entire point moot. How did they know my lead wasn't a convert? They didn't. They assumed he was not.) 

How did they know he didn't get an annulment? (Simply because it doesn't say so? It doesn't say that he married his first wife in the Church, nor whether he or she was Catholic at the time. But they had no trouble assuming those things were background facts. Why is that?) 

I freely admit that an "annulment," in those terms, was not mentioned. 
However, both my protagonists are clearly practicing Catholics in this book, and regular Mass attendees--the pastor knows them both by first name. (Does your pastor know you on sight? By your first name?)
At least one time, my hero is mentioned as receiving the sacrament of Penance. 
When my heroine hears voices and sees visions, does she go to the paranormal expert on her campus? No...she goes to her parish priest for counsel. Even though she's a college teacher, and it'd be the most natural thing in the world for her to go to a psych expert, if not a paranormal one...academia being what it is. She does not. She goes for spiritual guidance.

Just between you and me and the local bishop, I'd be willing to assume that a woman who does that isn't going to marry a man who's not free to marry in the Church.   

Thus, in every other aspect except the "a" word being spelled out, my characters were upholding Catholic behavior in pretty much everything they did from the point of their meeting on, if not before that. 

Frankly, it could even be argued--and assumed--that Lachlan may have already been granted an annulment, considering his ex-wife entered into the marriage under false pretenses. But because the magic "a" word wasn't present...the book's "not Catholic enough." (My words, not theirs.)

This says to me, unfortunately, that the Seal of Approval committee was ready to make a whole lot of blanket assumptions except for one. That strikes me as odd, to say the least. 

Disapprovals are not subject to renegotiation or reapplication, and I certainly didn't plan to write a Catholic treatise on marriage rules. But seriously, folks--in order to assume that my characters were somehow messing up on the Church teaching on marriage, it seems to me the committee had to assume a whole lot more about that previous marriage that was also never spelled out. How they could assume one set of things, yet ignore the many other clear actions that would lead a reader to believe that, of course, the couple had done everything necessary to marry in the Church, frankly, strikes me as splitting hairs--and awfully presumptive on the "error" side of the fence. As if they were looking for a reason to say NO, rather than to say YES. 

Which is a shame. Because there are precious few good faithful Catholic characters in fiction nowadays. You'd think they'd have considered this a win, and gone with it.
Save for one pesky word.

However, I now realize where I made my mistake: sparing the ex-wife in the first place.

If Lachlan had been a widower, the thing probably would have gotten a seal so fast it'd make your head spin. (Unless then they really took the time to worry about the voices, and the visions, and the occasional swear word...but I digress.)

Silly me.

I clearly needed to kill more people in this book.That would have solved everything!
Next time...I'll do better.

Watch your back.:-)


Friday, June 01, 2012

Another Thought For Friday...

Never confuse the creature with the Creator. 
That confusion is rampant in so much of today's society, it's worth pointing out as the mistake it is.

This way lies much of what's wrong with things like The Secret, with "the gospel according to Oprah," with New Age "crystal" influences, pyramidology, et al.
Yes, there are "natural" laws in the universe. All kinds of them.
But let's not forget...those laws were created by Someone who started it all.
Let's not confuse the two.

We are not ruled by a nameless, faceless "universe" of "cosmic energy."
We're created, loved, and ruled ultimately by a God who can be known, who can be loved, and who can fill us with Himself.

Don't mix up these two things.
Don't for a moment delude yourself that natural laws, forces, or energy fields, in themselves, have any power whatsoever. They're simply created things.

Just as it's a mistake to worship the Earth as "mother," when in reality, it's a created thing...
...and a mistake to direct one's life via stars or planets, when they, too, are all only created things...'s a mistake to imbue "natural laws" with power in and of themselves to do anything.
They, too, are only created things. And the Creator could change how those "laws" work any time He pleases.
Just so we're clear.

It's a good idea to keep that distinction straight.
And a bad idea to muddle it.

More later,