A Writing Lesson from Clark Griswold

I am Griswold.

Clark Griswold and I both love Christmas, but we can sometimes go too far. This year I actually had our writer’s Christmas party at the beginning of November, and the festivities haven’t stopped.

Christmas Writing Group

So when my writer’s group read the book The Emotional Craft of Fiction by literary agent Donald Maass, and I was struck by the lesson on catalyst and catharsis, I looked to Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation to be my example.

Here’s Donald’s definition of the idea: Catharsis is a storm followed by a release of something inside.  It is preceded by a catalyst, an event that causes the storm to break.

Here’s Clark in the midst of the storm: Hey! If any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas for me, I have one. I’d like Frank Shirley, my boss, right here tonight. I want him brought from his happy holiday slumber over there on Melody Lane with all the other rich people and I want him brought right here, with a big ribbon on his head, and I want to look him straight in the eye and I want to tell him what a cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, inbred, overstuffed, ignorant, blood-sucking, dog-kissing, brainless…

You get the idea.

Now when I was explaining this term to a writer’s group recently, one woman raised her hand and said, “I don’t buy it.” She doesn’t think we should encourage readers to lose their tempers.

Donald, Clark, and I are not encouraging such an explosion. Clark didn’t want to lose his temper. He tried to keep it all in. But his catalysts did not relent. The one thing that held him together was the belief that all of the hardships of the season would be made up for with the pool he’d planned to buy using his Christmas bonus. When he found out there would be no Christmas bonus, he lost it.

I’ve been there too. It’s not fun. But it’s real.

And that’s what Donald is encouraging. Writing real. In real life, our pent up emotions have to release sometime. I know mine do. In fact, I once bought China dishes from a thrift store just so I could throw them. It was going to be messy, so I went to a recycling station and smashed them into the glass bin. Then my best friend and I laughed like maniacs because it felt soo good to let out the anger.

That’s where we want to take our characters. To a feel good ending. But so often we are afraid of how messy their catharsis will be.

Eureka CoverAfter reading Donald’s book, I went back to my manuscript for Finding Love in Eureka–to the part where life was pressing in on my character from both sides. I’d originally had her sidestep the pressure. But life is never that easy, is it? So I rewrote the scene.

Genevieve stayed. She lost her sanity a little bit. She made a poor choice. But when the smoke cleared, she was able to see things from an objective perspective. Which created a feel-good ending that was more relatable. More genuine. More powerful.

One other tip from Donald: Make the explosion public.

Not only did Clark to blow up, but his cousin kidnapped his boss as a Christmas gift then the S.W.A.T. team swung through the windows of his house. Could Christmas get any messier?

But here’s the thing. Clark’s explosion also changed his boss’s perspective. Because Clark was honest about his feelings, and life was as messy as it could get, this made it safe for others to be honest too. There was nothing left for them to lose at this point.

If you haven’t ever experienced a holiday like this, that’s great. Either way, I’m going to encourage you to look for other examples of catalyst and catharsis in your life as well as your favorite movies. Use them to take your own stories deeper.

In the words of Cousin Eddie: That’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Santa Strong

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good rewrite!

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What I Learned from Writing a Book in Nine Days

Ghostwriter I tackled something for the first time this year — a ghostwriting project. I must admit, it feels odd to have penned an entire body of work that very few people will ever know I am associated with. The crazier part? I wrote the entire first draft in nine days. Nine. Days!

This is not something I recommend, nor do I wish to attempt another nine-day writing project again. However, I learned some interesting things by writing a book in less than ten days.

  • I am capable of writing from anywhere. But after being sequestered in another state, without the security of my own tools in my own space, I now have a greater appreciation for my happy writing place.
  • Without realizing it happened, I had taken the ability to write for granted. But after working with a person who had a great concept without the skills to communicate it clearly, I was reminded how much other people struggle with words. Even stringing simple sentences together is overwhelming for many.
  • What felt like a nearly impossible deadline improved my writing by stretching me beyond my comfort zone. I had to free-write, lack of time left me no choice.
  • You know that writing exercise? Where you imagine someone holding a gun to your head in order to force you to write, motivating you to action? The right paycheck can inspire breakthrough writing as well.
  • I like to think that what I do is not solely an ego-driven practice. But someone else taking credit for the effort, energy, and creative inflections I put into a project? Eek! However, I discovered I am capable of putting myself aside for the greater good of an excellent message.
  • A lot of daily interruptions are truly unnecessary, and when I temporarily focused only on what was essential, it taught me what I could and should cut out of my life permanently.
  • There isn’t enough coffee on this planet to fully overcome the effect of five hours or less of sleep a night. Actually, hot lemon water is much more energizing and mind clearing.
  • Bathing, hair washing, and fresh clothes are niceties but not necessities when you are in the throes of an intense time-sensitive project.
  • Food delivery is my friend. Disposable eating utensils are a life saver.
  • I can now add ghostwriter to my resume.
  • I’ve come a long way in my writing journey, baby. Practice hasn’t made me perfect, (nor will it), but it has made me faster and better.
  • I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.

Have you ever written an entire book in ten days or less? If so, how did you accomplish it? Would you do it again?

A High King, 3000 Dead Men, and the First Case of Copyright Law

On a recent trip to Ireland, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit the monastic site at Durrow, in the county of Offaly which was founded by Saint Columba (also know as Colum Cille or “church dove” in Ireland). He served in Durrow from 553 to 563 A.D.

The stories surrounding Colum Cille are woven with a mix of truth, history, and legend. This particular tale involves a high king, 3000 dead men, and the first possible case involving copyright law.

Not exactly a soothing bedtime story.

According to the blog Daily Scribbler, Colum Cille did not always live up to his name’s meaning of peaceful dove.  He is said to have slain monsters, and definitely had the death of men on his conscience, before he went to Scotland to “save as many souls as he had doomed.’

In regard to monsters, tradition says the Columba was asked by a chieftain to help him slay a dreadful beast named Suileach (the Many Eyed). When the animal charged out of a cave, the chieftain fled, leaving Columba to fight the beast alone, cutting the animal in half.  The story then slips into legend involving a tail that came back to life, and a head that crawled towards the saint, before he utterly destroyed the creature.

In regard to the death of men on his conscience, it all began with a book.

Yes, a book.

According to the blog for Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Colum Cille borrowed a book of psalms from St Finnian, a volume that Colum Cille’s former teacher had obtained on a trip to Rome.  Books in those days were rare and valuable, and without permission, Colum Cille made a copy. (This did not involve a scanner, a copier or a camera. This meant meticulously writing the text letter by letter–not a five-minute job.) When Finnian heard of it, he was incensed and demanded that the unauthorized copy be surrendered. Colum Cille refused.

The case was brought to Diarmait mac Cerball, High King of Tara.

The book, Did You Know: 100 Quirky Facts about County Offaly, states that after hearing both sides of the case, the High King talked about what would happen if someone borrowed a pregnant cow who then had a calf:

To every cow its little cow, that is its calf, and to every book its little book [copy]; and because of that Colum Cille, the book you copied is Finnian’s.

Colum Cille was not happy with the ruling, but had bigger issues with the High King. About that same time, EWTN states that Prince Curnan of Connaught fatally injured a rival in a hurling match (a traditional Irish sport). The prince sought sanctuary with Colum Cille, but that protection was ignored when Diarmaid’s men dragged the prince away from the saint and killed him.

Whether it was this incident, or the copyright decision, Colum Cille stirred his men to war. In the year 561, men loyal to the High King and men loyal to the saint met in battle and 3000 men died.

History records that for his role in sending “3000 unprepared souls into eternity,” Colum Cille was brought before the church for a vote of censure and excommunication. Although this ended up not happening due to St Brendan speaking on his behalf, Colum Cille chose a self-exile to Scotland. He spent the remainder of his days trying to win as many souls for Christ as those that had perished in battle. 

The moral of the story:

Cite your sources, author friends. Copyright law is serious business.

 

Lynne Hartke can usually be found writing about the desert where she lives in Chandler, Arizona. Her first book, Under a Desert Sky, was released by Revell/Baker Publishing Group in May 2017.

Have We Met? Creating Characters Your Readers Will Feel They Know

Last semester at school, my daughter made friends with quite a few international students, including several from Mexico. So when one of them invited her to visit Mexico this past summer, my daughter was ecstatic. She had the time of her life, deepened her relationships with the friends she’d made here, and returned home already talking about her next trip.

A few days ago, an earthquake struck Mexico City, where her friends live. They texted her that day as they stood outside their school watching the walls crack and nearby buildings collapse.

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She and I watched the news together, glued to scenes of rescue efforts. My daughter studied faces, searching through the throngs of people stumbling over debris as they searched for the missing. Had she passed by some of those collapsed buildings when she’d been in that city just a few weeks earlier? Quite possibly. Did she know any of the people walking by, streaked with dirt, hands scratched from digging through rubble, or shouting with joy when they were reunited with a loved one? She might. People she knew well, friends she loved, were impacted by this disaster. They were afraid, traumatized, comforting friends and strangers, tired, homeless, helping others. So she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen. And because I knew their names, had heard their stories, had witnessed the love and friendship they shared with my daughter, neither could I.

I watch the news every night. I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I sometimes see, through the lens of the Bible, end time prophesies unfolding before my eyes. And it helps me to know how to pray.

But I have never watched with the intense interest, concern, and compassion with which I have watched the last few days, with my daughter. What has made the difference? People I have met, people who matter to my family, are involved. And so I am involved. I care deeply about what happens to them, so I am mesmerized. I am emotionally connected to her friends; I know their names and their faces; my chest literally aches for them. And their faith and trust in God in the midst of tragedy humbles and inspires me.

And it strikes me – this is how we, as Christian authors, need to write our characters. When we create the people in our stories, we do so in imitation of the creation of the first man and woman, and our words breathe life into them. We have been charged with the task of taking the dust and mud of an empty page and forming it with our fingers into characters with such depth that they become real to our readers, as though they know them personally.

pottery.jpg

When that happens, everything changes. Readers become emotionally connected to the people in our stories—relatable because of their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their capacity for greatness, their ordinariness and their uniqueness—and intensely interested in what is happening in their lives. They will ache with them when they experience hardship and tragedy, and rejoice with them when they triumph over their circumstances.

And when some of those characters live out their faith on our pages, whether they are stumbling around, scratched and streaked with dirt, or shouting and dancing with joy, our readers too may be humbled and inspired to live out their faith in their own lives.

So this week I pray for Mexico and I pray for all the suffering and the lost in the world, that they may experience God’s mercy, comfort, and love. And I pray that God will, in some small way, use the words, the actions, the faith of the characters we create, to impart that mercy, comfort, and love to those who read their stories and come to know and care deeply about them.

How about you – have you ever connected so deeply with a character you felt as though you knew him or her personally? What was it that drew you in so deeply?

My Favorite Encouragement Quotes for Writers

Never Too OldIf you write for any length of time, you’re going to need encouragement somewhere along the journey, no matter how long you’ve been at it. If you’re like me, you may need a lot of motivating words, and you can’t wait around expecting someone else to provide them. Often, to keep the creative juices flowing, you need to get intentional about inspiring yourself — which is why I keep my favorite encouragement quotes for writers close by.

See if any of these strike a chord with you. Maybe you could use one of these morale boosters for your writing.

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days. Do not cave in to endless requests to have essential and long overdue meetings on those days.” — J.K. Rowling

Writing Quote George Orwell“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage. Courage to risk rejection, ridicule, and failure.” — Robert McKee

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” — Anais Nin

“If you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” — Dan Poynter

Writing Quote Tobias Wolff“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” — Agatha Christie

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” — Thomas Mann

“I can fight off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” — Anne Frank

“This business of being a writer is ultimately about asking yourself, how alive am I willing to be?” — Anne Lamott

“You can do it!” — Your Morning Coffee

Do you have some favorite encouragement quotes for writers you’d like to share? Which of these is your favorite?

Conversations on the Page

The longer I write, the more I realize my best work comes when I use my voice just as I would if I were sitting across from the reader in a relaxed setting. I’m actually imagining you and I chatting together right now, as I pretend we are enthralled in a deep, funny, poignant, or otherwise stimulating conversation.

As an author, seeing my readers in my mind helps me brush away the distractions that hinder me from offering my purest thoughts and most creative ideas — the ones with potential to help, encourage, and inspire people. These are my motives for writing after all.

By personality, I’m a think-out-loud kind of gal, so I’ve discovered a few different ways of exploring thoughts on a particular subject.

  • Schedule time with a friend or family member to discuss the topic in depth.
  • Interview an expert on the point.
  • Record my thoughts into a device, as if I’m talking with someone — then listen back.

What I’ve learned is that conversations across the table translate into great conversations on the page. No matter the method I use, it’s the epiphanies, the insights, and the knowledge born from conversations with real people that provide transformational information I can share with readers of my books.  Some of my best received work is when I write in such a way that the reader almost feels as if they are eavesdropping.

But a true conversation, especially a stimulating one, is a two person event. Listening is as important as speaking. Having a conversation on the page requires paying close attention to the real people in your life and who cross your path. How can we make sure we’re writing on the topics people want to hear? How can we ensure our fictional stories resonate with elements of truth?

By listening with intent.

  • Pay attention to the dialogue between other customers in restaurants.
  • When interviewing, do not dominate or speak over the person you are interviewing.
  • Practice strategic listening when watching TV shows or streaming your favorite program. Not so you can steal their lines, but so your muse can be inspired with new, creative ideas.

In reality, conversations take place all around us in our every day comings and goings. When we become intentionally present and aware, what we hear in our every day lives become relevant conversations on the page, making our messages important to a reading world. After all, it’s living we write about.

What brings out your voice? Does it happen in the presence of other people? When you are alone and listening? Does your best thinking happen out loud or in silence? 

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Why designing a website will make you a better writer

Would you like to have an editor on hand 24/7 for all your blog posts? Does the idea that you could make every post a writing gem (even those you compose at 2 am as you desperately try to meet a deadline) appeal to you?

No, I’m not launching myself as a post editor trying to drum up business, nor am I encouraging you to sign up for yet another writing workshop.

I have a different suggestion: teach yourself to build a website.

I don’t have time! I don’t know how! I’m a technology idiot!

I know that’s what you’re saying because that’s exactly what I said a month ago, before I finally knuckled down and did it: I taught myself how to build a website without learning any coding. Today, I’m no expert at it, but I do have a simple website that meets my needs. Most importantly, though, the experience of building it helped me do four things:

  1. finally understand and apply some of those elusive internet concepts (like SEO)
  2. fully utilize blog tools like tags and readability
  3. boost immediacy and responsiveness of my site through personal administration
  4. eliminate fees to another party to maintain/update my website
You are not alone

The best news about achieving these things is that I had free help. You don’t have to struggle through the learning part alone. Videos walking you through setting up a website abound on the internet. Since my old website was already WordPress, using WordPress was an easy choice for my new site. After sampling a few videos, I settled on this one, because it has a companion site with the whole set of instructions printed out! (No more panicking because I couldn’t keep up with the video! Yay!) Likewise, as I learned about plug-ins, I watched additional videos to guide me. Trust me, if you want to do something on your site, there’s a video for it.

24/7 blog editing

This is one of the coolest things I’ve learned to apply. Because I uploaded Yoast SEO plug-in, I get a readability analysis as I write blogs. This handy program tells me when my sentences are too long, when I need to break up paragraphs, and when my vocabulary is too difficult for most readers. It even reminds me to use active, instead of passive, voice, and encourages the use of transition words for smoother writing. By heeding the readability ratings, I improve my writing skills (no matter what time of the night/early morning it may be!). Who knew that cranking out blogs could actually make substantive changes in the way you write?

Granted, building your own website isn’t for everyone, and I won’t hold it against you if you prefer to pay someone to take on the headache of creating your internet storefront. If you’re willing to give it a try, though, I know you’ll find a new perspective on how you write and how your website works.

Anybody want to share your own website designing experience?