Called to be a Writer: How to Know For Sure

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“I’m going to be a writer one day.”

“I’m going to write a book and get rich.”

“Writing’s easy. I think I’ll become an author.”

Oh, how many times have I heard people tell me such things! Throughout my long writing career, that’s for sure. Well, that’s great. But once I start explaining all the work that goes into it most, but not all of them, back away. At other times when people tell me they want to become a writer, I just nod and smile unless they ask for advice. Why? Because I’m waiting to see how serious they are, to see if God has truly called them.

Let’s face it. Writing professionally isn’t for the fainthearted, nor is it for the lonely. Like any ministry, if a person isn’t called to write, I don’t recommend doing it. I wouldn’t recommend myself to be a choir director, either, because frogs sing better than I do.

Do you feel called to be a writer? Here are three things to consider to help you know for sure:

.Psalm 37: 4  “Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” (KJV)

This verse doesn’t mean we can desire anything and the Lord will give it. Rather, it means that if we delight in Him and put Him first in our lives, He’ll put His desires in our heart. So, if we follow this pattern, delighting in God first, and if He’s called us to be a writer, He’ll plant that literary dream within us. It will grow into a passion, and the passion will become so strong we’ll refuse to quit no matter what or who may try to hinder us.

John 10:10   “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I   am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more   abundantly.” (KJV)

Eric Liddell

Our Lord and Savior has called us to an abundant life, one that overflows with joy and fulfillment. If we’re called, we’ll experience that joy while we write. Like Eric Liddell said in the movie Chariots of Fire: he felt God’s pleasure when he ran. If we’re called to write, we’ll also feel God’s pleasure.

1 Samuel 17:35 “Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this  uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the  armies of the living God.” (KJV)

Before David accepted Goliath’s challenge, God had prepared him by teaching him how to fight lions and bears. Likewise, God prepares us for whatever He’s called us to do. Just as He enabled David to kill Goliath, so He’ll enable called writers to succeed. Not fame and fortune, necessarily. Few writers have this. But they will reach the skill level where they can sell their work. It may not happen overnight, and usually doesn’t, but through hard work and study (preparation), and a little bit of talent, God will bring on and bless the bylines.

Has God called you to be a writer? If so, never quit pursuing your dream.

Pantser/No Pantser Writing

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Are you a panster or a no pantser? Or, are you somewhere in- between like me?

Pantsers, writers who don’t use outlines, write “by the seat of their pants.” Other writers, the no pantsers, use outlines. Each way of writing has its own advantages and disadvantages.

ADVANTAGES OF A PANTSER

  1. Writing is livelier.
  2. Characters “take over” the story and move it in unexpected directions, which can          surprise the writer and delight readers.
  3. New character POVs can appear, along with new, and surprising plots.

DISADVANTAGES OF A PANTSER

  1. The plot is liable to have holes in it, requiring lots of revision as the writer works out plot problems.
  2. Writing will often be too wordy. This means lots of cutting back on unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases.
  3. Some scenes may appear in the initial draft that may have to be deleted later. Also, some plot angles and unbelievable storylines may have to be cut–more work, more revision.

ADVANTAGES OF A NO PANTSER

  1. The writer knows every detail of where his/her story is going.
  2. Plot problems have been worked out before the story is written. This saves time for the writer and helps him/her write faster.

DISADVANTAGES OF A NO PANSTER

  1. Writers are locked into their outline, limiting other plot options.
  2. If the writer isn’t careful, outlined writing can sound stiff.

THE IN-BETWEEN

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As I mentioned earlier, some writers are like me: in-between the two methods. What do I mean by this? How I wrote my Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters series will explain.

As I sat at my laptop to begin my first book in the series, I knew how the series would begin and how it would end. However, I had no idea what would happen in the middle.

Then, after I wrote my first few chapters, the story “got legs” and took off. New characters popped up along the way, new subplots and plot complications arose. It was great fun, releasing my characters to do whatever they wanted.

One character, though, proved stubborn—a Creole fellow named Philippe. I tried hard to enlist him in the Confederate Navy. I even wrote his navy scenes. With every writing, though, Philippe kept screaming at me: “Army! Put me in the Army!” When I finally listened to him, his story took off like a cannon shot across a ship’s bow.

The outlining came in when I wrote the novel’s chronology. I needed to be sure that my characters “did their thing” within the right historical time frame. Their stories revolved around the historical events they experienced. I didn’t tell them what to do, they told me what they wanted to do and how they wanted to respond to these events.

So, are you a pantser, a no pantser, or somewhere in-between? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Feel free to share them in the comments.

Three Steps to Writing Effective Devotionals

One great way to break into Christian writing is through devotions. They’re still in demand in numerous Christian markets, and in devotional magazines such as The Upper Room, The Secret Place, and The Quiet Hour.

Typically, devotions are no longer than 300 words. Sometimes, though, they’re shorter. Because they’re short, many folks think they’re easy to write. Oh, the basic format is easy, but it takes mental “elbow grease” to write them. All the rules of good writing apply.

Basic Devotional Format

  1. The Anecdote. An anecdote is a brief story or illustration that’s tied to a specific Bible truth or spiritual principle. It should illustrate one truth, and only one truth.  A devotional is not a Bible study.
  2. The Transition. The transition smoothly moves the illustration toward the Bible verse or truth the writer is discussing. It can be a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph.
  3. The Application. The application brings out the devotional’s truth then applies it to a reader’s life. The application should be positive in nature, challenging the reader to act upon the devotion’s lesson in a practical way. Writers should always include themselves in the application by using inclusive pronouns such as we and  us. Devotions are not sermons, so we don’t need to preach.

Let’s study a devotional I sold to Evangel, a publication of the Free Methodist Church, back in 1998. I’m using this one because I own the copyright to it.

Contented as a Dog

One day this past summer, I watched my dog lay beneath my fig tree. She rested her gold-colored head between her forepaws and shut her eyes. I laughed to myself, thinking how easy she had it. I fed her every day, gave her water, took her on walks, played with her—essentially, I provided for her every need, and she was content.

We who know God have it made too, if we would just learn to be content.

But it’s hard to be content with the world hawking its luxuries. Every time we visit a shopping mall or turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with temptations to buy things we don’t need. Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing’s wrong with owning a few luxuries, so long as we’re not discontented with God’s provision. It’s the grasping hand God frowns upon, the compulsion to want more. “And if I have food and covering, with these things we shall be content,” Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:8 (NAS). If this is true of animals like my dog, how much more should it be of us.

Analysis: “Contented as a Dog”

1.Anecdote:

One day this past summer, I watched my dog lay beneath my fig tree….(Good anecdotes must include some action and also, if the anecdote warrants it, dialogue.)

Last sentence: I fed her every day, gave her water, took her on walks, played with her—essentially, I provided for her every need, and she was content. (Here I shared the truth: be content like my dog.)

2.Transition:

We who know God have it made too, if we would just learn to be content. (My dog had it made, and we who know God had it made. This leads to my application. Notice that I repeated the word content from the preceding  paragraph. Such repetition is one way to establish a smooth transition.)

3.Application and Challenge:

But it’s hard to be content with the world hawking its luxuries. Every time we visit a shopping mall or turn on the TV, we’re bombarded with temptations to  buy things we don’t need. Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing’s wrong with         owning a few luxuries, so long as we’re not discontented with God’s provision. It’s the grasping hand God frowns upon, the compulsion to want more. “And if I  have food and covering, with these things we shall be content,” Paul said in 1       Timothy 6:8 (NAS). If this is true of animals like my dog, how much more should  it be of us. (Notice three things here: inclusive pronouns, repetition of the central truth of being content, and expansion of this truth with a challenge in the last sentence that ties back to the anecdote.)

Why not give devotional writing a try? I think you’ll enjoy writing them as much as I do.

Characterization: Too Many Characters?

James Michener, Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain Photo

Occasionally, I’ve read book reviews where the critic says the author had too many characters. In my opinion, this criticism is not always valid. Though, of course, often it is. It depends on the genre. If a book is a saga, a long book with a complicated plot, then expect lots of characters. I like sagas but then, I also enjoy extra-long movies and television miniseries provided they’re done well.

One of my favorite writers whose books contain a large cast is James Michener. Numerous well-known authors other than Michener can be cited here as well: Herman Wouk’s World War Two series: Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, and even Louis L’Amour’s last novel set during the Middle Ages, The Walking Drum, falls into this large cast category.

The downside of having too many characters is that it can make a story hard to follow and confuse readers. Oftentimes, it causes them to put down a book. Should we put lots of characters in our stories? And in the same scene? As a rule, I don’t recommend this, except in the case I mentioned above– if we’re writing a saga. Yet even if we’re writing a saga, I would not allow lots of characters to overload a scene.

Tips for Handling a Large Cast of Characters

  1. Don’t give characters similar sounding names.
  2. When they’re first introduced, spend time describing them in a memorable way by giving them unique features and dialogue.
  3. To reduce the number of characters in your story, ask yourself this: “Is he/she important to my story’s plot?” If not, either make the character a nameless walk-on or get rid of him/her. Another option— merge the character into another, more important character so that the two become one.
  4. Use a Cast of Characters List on the book’s opening pages, listing all of the main characters, to help readers keep track of them.

Characterization: Writing Quirky Characters

As stated in my previous post, character biographies are essential to creating three-dimensional characters.

Another technique for 3D characters: give ’em quirks. A quirk can be anything from being obsessive about punctuality or neatness to flopping on a couch first thing every morning to watch ESPN or always walking around the house barefoot. The late, great American novelist and historian, Shelby Foote, once said in an interview that he wrote in his pajamas. Now I’d call that a quirk.

The Author Who Lived in His Pajamas – The Author’s Cove: John “Jack” Cunningham on Writing & History (theauthorscove.com)

So, give each of your characters habits and traits that are peculiar to them.

For example, C.S. Forester’s naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, possesses a quirk about baths–he likes having his men hose him down on deck whenever he takes one.

Rex Stout’s fictional detective, Nero Wolfe, is a homebody. He’d rather tend his orchids than step outdoors onto the busy streets of New York. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, does all of the running around and investigating.

Observation of people helps us create similar believable, and quirky, characters. How do others talk? What mannerisms and gestures do they use? Any pet words or phrases? Any quirks? Keep a running list of these things. That way, they won’t be forgotten, and then we can turn to them when we write our character biographies. Let each character be his/her own unique personality.

So, give ’em some quirks. Make each character his/her own unique personality, then watch them jump off the page.

Source on Shelby Foote: Coleman, Carter and Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, Issue 151 Summer 1999, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/931/shelby-foote-the-art-of-fiction-no-158-shelby-foote.

Characterization: How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters in Fiction

All right, here comes my confession. During my early writing years, when I began writing fiction, I struggled with creating believable characters, particularly female characters.

Olivia d’Haviland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. The novel was written by Rafael Sabatini.

I erred in numerous ways, and it took me many years and much practice to hone my skill. Yet even as I write this, I’m still learning and honing. For me, of all the elements of fiction, good fiction, characterization is the hardest.

When characters are well-written, they’re three-dimensional. They seem to leap off the page. This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes lots of thought, lots of planning, and lots of mental “elbow grease.”

One key to creating these “living, breathing” characters is by getting to know them. Who are they? What motivates them to do what they do? Are their motives believable? What are their likes and dislikes? Where were they born? How old are they? What level of education do they have? Where were they educated? What events in their past influenced how they now behave? These are just a few questions we must ask when drawing our characters with words.

We don’t have to answer every question in our story, but knowing our characters’ backgrounds and what makes them tick is crucial if we want them to be three-dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts.

What’s the best way to get to know them? Write their biographies.

Must we write a biography of every character, major and minor? We can, but I’d concentrate on the major characters.

Is there a short way to do this? Yes, though it’ll still require some thought. First write a list of important questions about your characters, then go back and answer them. This will start you on the right road toward toward getting to know them.

These character questions also help us keep our story consistent throughout it. For instance, if we’re writing about a character named Mary and we forget her eye color, we can refer back to the “Mary Bio Questions” to find it.

A Few Questions for Our Characters

  1. Birthplace:
  2. Age:
  3. Nationality/Race:
  4. Height:
  5. Weight:
  6. Physical Build:
  7. Eye color:
  8. Hair color/Hairstyle:
  9. Shape of face:
  10. Father’s name/Occupation:
  11. Mother’s name/Occupation:
  12. Education:
  13. Religion:
  14. Personality:
  15. Admirable traits:
  16. Negative traits:
  17. Likes/Dislikes:
  18. Bad habits/vices
  19. Best thing that ever happened to them:
  20. Worst thing that ever happened to them:

This list, of course, can be expanded, and it’s something I recommend. If you haven’t already done so, try it. It’s well worth the effort and, in the long run, saves time on revision.

Characterization: How to Write a Believable Antagonist

Antagonists aren’t always villains. An antagonist can also be a situation, an animal, a government or institution, or anything the hero must overcome before achieving his/her goal. In this post, the antagonist I’ll be discussing is the bad guy. Without an antagonist, we have no conflict, and without conflict, we have no story.

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo, Photo Credit: Npsaltos62

One of film’s most memorable villains is Tommy Udo, played by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death. Who can forget that famous scene when Udo, a psychopath, shoves a lady in a wheelchair down a steep flight of steps to her death? He even laughs while he does it.

Villains should present serious challenges to the hero. He may even be superior to him in some ways, thus forcing the hero to struggle harder. For instance, the villain may be smarter or physically stronger than the hero, or perhaps he can be a Houdini-type—an escape artist.

Make your villains as loathsome as Udo, but keep them believable.

Two Tips For Believable Villains

1.Let him justify his actions. Give him believable motivations..  Readers may not think his motives are justified, but he does. Get inside his head to  understand where he’s coming from. Is he greedy, vengeful, a bully? Why is he this way? Perhaps he was born into poverty or was picked on when he was a child.

2. Soften him up. Although he may be a bad guy, show a few positive traits.  Perhaps he’s a true gentleman around the ladies, or maybe he has a great sense of humor or works hard. If he’s too soft, however,  readers will sympathize with him, and this is something we do not want.

Villains are fun to write. Make them evil, yes, but also believable. I hope these two tips prove helpful.

Characterization: How to Create Believable Protagonists

While growing up in the 1960s I, like most boys, read lots of comic books. Batman was my favorite superhero. I never much cared for Superman, however, because he was just…well…not someone I could believe existed. At least Batman, behind his cape and cowl, was an actual person named Bruce Wayne.

Even so, our novel’s protagonist (hero) must be believable and someone with whom readers can identify and care about. In other words, they should be likeable. Also, introduce them in the story’s first scene.

Give the protagonist weaknesses and flaws. They can be major flaws, such as having them be workaholics, or minor flaws. For instance, in the series Columbo, Peter Falk’s character is usually unkempt and almost always wears a raincoat, even when it’s not raining. His sloppy exterior, though minor, is a flaw. Yet, we all love him and pull for him to find the murderer.

Another way to make our protagonists believable is to have them break a stereotype. This also adds more reader interest. One example would be an athletic hero, a former Olympic boxing champion who grew up in the slums and is now a detective. He enjoys reading highbrow novels and can quote Shakespeare. Have him do something likeable in his first scene. For example, let him deliver roses from his garden to one of his elderly neighbors before he deals with a homicide. Then, as the story progresses, bring in other positive traits. Does our champion love children? Does he take care of an autistic son? Such positive traits can create subplots and help deepen our story as well as our protagonist. And they make him likeable.

Once again, don’t make our hero perfect. Imperfect but likeable—that’s the key.

Leo Tolstoy Proves It

Leo Tolstoy, 1908

I’m no great intellectual, though I do enjoy reading highbrow literature on occasion. Especially, Russian literature—Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin are my favorites. By highbrow, I mean those literary classics of yesteryear with long paragraphs and sentences, multisyllabic words one seldom reads in modern works, and lots of narrative—a style we twenty-first century writers should shy away from.

I first gained an interest in highbrow literature when I was a youth and read Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. To this day, it remains one of my favorite novels.

When I studied Russian in college and took a Russian literature class…well…I discovered that I enjoyed Russian authors too.

So, here I am, and I recently finished reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s last novel before his spiritual conversion. He was married in 1862, to Countess Sonya (Sofia) Behrs, but his conversion created problems which led to their divorce.

Basically, the storyline goes this way: Anna Karenina, a young woman of wealth married to Alexey Karenin, a government official in St. Petersburg who moves in high society, falls in love with a Russian army officer, Count Vronsky. Contrasted with her is a country gentleman, Konstantin Levin. Anna falls into sin and commits adultery with Vronsky whereas Levin, who harbors doubts regarding Christianity, eventually marries devout Princess Kitty Shtcherbatskaya and comes to faith in the Lord. Levin’s lifestyle is successful, Anna’s is destructive and by the end of the story she throws herself in front of an oncoming train—the consequences of her sin.

What stood out most to me about this book were its spiritual themes: hypocrisy and faith, marriage and family. This novel does not contain sex, nor does it use profanity, and Anna Karenina is considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

Tolstoy proves it, then. He wrote a clean novel that’s one of literature’s greatest works. This shows us that if we write well, we don’t need to include anything off-color. Tolstoy did it. So, perhaps we’ll write a clean, great American novel one day. We’ll never know if we don’t try.

Are you willing to try it?

In the novel, Anna is a brunette, just as we see Keira Knightly is, playing her here.

Alabama Steamboats, Part 2: Rolladores, Stevedores, and Other Antebellum Steamboat Jobs

The steamboat’s paddlewheels revolved and slapped water, propelling her down the Alabama River. Atop her roof, her captain kept alert while a pilot steered her toward a  high bluff on the right bank. Beneath this bluff was a landing, one of over three hundred landings on this river, and atop the bluff were warehouses holding bales of cotton and other freight.

His hands on the boat’s enormous wheel, the pilot carefully maneuvered her to the designated wharf. Although the roof captain commanded the vessel, the pilot was also considered a captain and sometimes, in certain conditions and according to law, the roof captain had to obey the pilot’s orders.

White deck hands, under the supervision of a mate, leapt off the boat and secured lines to the wharf. Rolladores—slaves ashore—hastened toward the warehouses. From here, they unloaded freight and rolled it down a long plank, or cotton chute, to the landing where stevedores, most of them Irish, proceeded to load it onto the vessel’s lowest (main) deck. Roustabouts, who were also slaves, assisted them.

Cotton chute on the Alabama River, 1861. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History

Passengers on the boat’s middle, boiler deck observed this activity from the boat’s gallery. Other passengers socialized in her saloon. While these passengers discussed all manner of things the boat’s crew, free blacks under a steward’s supervision, kept busy— the cook and his assistants prepared supper, the chambermaids cleaned cabins, the barber cut passengers’ hair, the laundress washed clothes, and the bartender served drinks to thirsty travelers. These workers oftentimes helped slaves escape to freedom.

While all this activity continued, other officers engaged in their duties. The engineer inspected the boat’s engine to be sure it remained in good working order. If it needed more wood for its boilers, he sent his firemen ashore to get it from the wood stacked on the landing.

And the clerk, with his ledgers, figured the trip’s expenses. Since he was the vessel’s business manager, he handled all of the vessel’s financial matters.

With her cargo finally loaded, the roof captain gave the order to shove off. The pilot steered the boat back into the middle of the river and continued down it to his next stop, one after the other, until she at last reached Mobile. ‘

Bibliography

Neumeier, Franz. “Roof Captain,” Steamboating the Rivers (Blog), https://www.steamboats.org/history-education/glossary/roof_captain.html

Nash, Francis W. “Georgetown Steamboats,” Steamer Biographies (Blog), http://georgetownsteamboats.com/gs/steamer-prologue/

Mellown, Robert O., “Steamboats in Alabama,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama Humanities Alliance, updated August 16, 2019, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1803