Tag Archives: Books

A Good Excuse to Read

For the last two weeks I’ve had the flu!  What fun.

Actually, it was kinda. Last year when we got the flu after our Christmas trip, I read a Vince Flynn book that I’d had on my shelf for ages: Transfer of Power. I enjoyed it a great deal.

Tranfer of Power

I’d read his first novel, Term Limits, years ago and thought it was really lame and juvenile, so I never tried another. But he went on to become a very popular, best-selling author, so I decided, in the hopes that he had improved his skills over time, I would try his second book, mentioned above. Surprise!  I liked it.

Of course I did have the flu, and it was a welcome diversion from the wretchedness of being ill, but really, I thought it was pretty good. Transfer of Power is the first one where his series hero, Mitch Rapp is the main character, and it is about terrorists taking control of the White House, killing dozens and taking hundreds hostage. Rapp, the CIA’s “top counterterrorism operative” is sent in to take care of the problem.

With this most recent bout of the flu, I turned to Flynn again, seeing as I had found at the used bookstore the next two of his novels in the series: The Third Option and Separation of Power.

Third Option

I read both, back to back, all the while going through boxes of Kleenex almost as if I were some sort of Kleenex soiling machine. (I couldn’t believe how fast I went through them, nor how much “stuff” I had to soil them with!)

The verdict? I enjoyed both books, though I struggled at bit with The Third Option at the beginning because I kept getting lost. Finally about a quarter of the way through, when I realized I had no idea what was going on, I wondered if I was no longer capable of reading books as complex as these with my aging brain… Or was the problem really Flynn simply not being clear? After all, the characters in The Third Option had been presented as if I should know who they were, but I couldn’t remember any of them and there were no reminders for those who might be in my position.

Finally I went back and dug up my old reviews of Term Limits, his first book, and made my first discovery — the characters I was puzzling over In Transfer of Power were indeed the main characters in Term Limits. A book I’d read 11 years ago!  No wonder I couldn’t remember them nor the operations they’d taken part in!

I also went back to the beginning of The Third Option and started going through the writing itself, just to see if it really wasn’t very clear.  (This is the kind of thing a writer does. Normal people probably don’t. If you are an aspiring writer, however, I recommend you do this… It can be very enlightening and help you avoid similar mistakes)

And what was the result of my investigation of technique? The writing was, indeed, unclear.

For one thing, Flynn writes from the omniscient point of view, which means he jumps into any characters’ viewpoint whenever he wishes all within the same scene. The problem with this type of point of view (pov) is that if you’re not careful you can lose your reader along the way, and that’s exactly what happened. You have to be very clear you’re making a pov jump and to whose point of view you are jumping, which Flynn didn’t always do.

For example, the first chapter starts in Rapp’s point of view where he’s walking alone through the woods in Germany, reconnoitering the estate he is about to “invade,” then returns to a cabin where his two teammates have set up.  He enters. There’s some description of the man and woman already there,  the interior, and some equipment. Then it says

“Rapp had never met the man and woman before. He knew them only as Tom and Jane Hoffman. They were in their mid-forties, and as far as Rapp could tell, they were married. The Hoffmans had stopped in two countries before arriving in Frankfurt. Their tickets had been purchased under assumed names with matching credit cards and passports provided by their contact. They were also given their standard fee of ten thousand dollars for a week’s work, paid up-front in cash. They were told someone would be joining them and, as always not to ask any questions.”

All of that is consistent with Rapp’s point of view, which we were clearly in. In the next paragraph, there’s no reason to think it’s not Rapp’s as well, recalling things the Hoffman’s have told him about their journey to this point (or perhaps that he knew from other sources since he’s running this operation):

“All of their equipment was waiting for them at the cottage when they arrived. They started right in on surveillance of the estate and its owner. Several days later they were paid a visit by a man known only to them as the professor. They were given an additional twenty-five thousand dollars and were told they would receive another twenty-five thousand dollars when they completed the mission. He had given them a quick briefing on the man who would be joining them…”

The problem is that this second paragraph is all from the Hoffman’s pov and includes information Rapp does not have. But there’s nothing in the text to give you even a hint of that. In fact, in paragraph one they’re told by their contact that someone will be joining them and in paragraph two that this “professor” has joined them… so… it seemed logical to put those two together, all of it stuff that Rapp knows about.

Except that he doesn’t, as I said, the viewpoint having shifted out of Rapp’s specific awareness at the end of paragraph one and into a general omniscient.  And since that’s not remotely clear, the result is confusion on the reader’s part. At least on this reader’s part.

You could say this was the fault of the reader not reading carefully enough, but I disagree. As an author, you want the reader to rip through your story, especially if it’s a thriller. They aren’t going to be reading carefully, they’re reading to find out what happens and “How is he going to get out of this?!”

 No, it’s up to the author to make it all clear and smooth so the reader always knows through whose eyes he’s experiencing the story.  C.S. Lewis once said something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing) “Readers are like sheep going down a path. If there’s any way for them to go besides the way you want them to, that’s where they’ll go. Hence, you have to make sure that every gate is closed to them except the ones you want them to go through.”

I don’t think Flynn did such a great job of that in The Third Option, at least not in the beginning. Once I had figured it all out, though, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. And it was especially  good to know I wasn’t all washed up as a reader of complicated political/military thrillers, which I love! 🙂






A Big Little Life

Big little lifeA Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog by Dean Koontz.

My son got me this book awhile back and recently I finally had opportunity to pick it up. Yes, my “To Be Read” stack is a mile high, but Dean Koontz and his Golden Retriever, Trixie have a special place in my heart. This is not only because I’ve read many, many of Koontz’s books, always admired his writing and even used it as a “model” to study for my own, but because he is also a fellow dog lover. I’ve been subscribing to his Useless News newsletter for years, wherein Trixie always made an appearance, usually funny (she was even a ‘writer’ in her own right, with a few articles in the News and several published books to her name), and through that I came to “know” her.

In fact it was in an issue of Useless News that I learned she had died, about a year after we’d had to put Bear down, so when I got the book, I didn’t know if I wanted to read the story — knowing how it ended — until I had a bit more distance from our own event. In fact, as a kid I used to check the ending of all books that featured a dog to make sure the dog didn’t die. If it did, I wouldn’t read the book. (Which is  why I’ve never finished Swiss Family Robinson and why I’ve never read Where the Red Fern Grows or watched the movie based on it (that one made doubly onerous not only in that the dog dies, but that the dog is a Redbone Coonhound!).

Anyway, I finally had an open spot in my reading list, felt as if I was ready to tackle going through that and picked it up, thinking I’d only read a chapter.


In fact, I did manage to read it with a bit of control through the first chapter or so (at the Y, while riding the stationary bike, as I recall). But it wasn’t long before I was hooked and put in one of my all day reading jags. I think I finished it maybe two or three days after I started it, though I read the bulk that last day.

Oh my. What a wonderful book! I LOVED it in so many ways. Yes, the end with Trixie’s death was horrendous — way worse than Bear’s. I bawled outright — for quite some time. I even had to go demand a hug from Quigley, which he gave reluctantly. (He doesn’t come over to comfort you when you’re upset like Bear used to. In fact, he even pulled away a little, but relented at last. Admittedly I was acting very weird, as far as he was concerned.)

Anyway, Trixie was indeed a wonderful dog. And I think Koontz is right in his assessment that God used her in his life to pull him back from the dark, increasingly negative path he was following when she arrived. She was a purebred, but an adoptee, having gone through the entire training sessions for being a service dog, only to wash out before she ever went to work when a  congenital problem with her elbow surfaced. Since assistance dogs might sometimes have to pull the wheelchair of the person they are assisting — or even bear the weight of the person themselves, they can’t have finicky elbows that might go out at the worst possible moment. Thus she was put up for adoption and Mr. Koontz and his wife got her.

Of course the memoir centers on her, and Koontz does a fantastic job of conveying the wit, the exuberance, the intelligence, the grace — the loving nature — of this wonderful animal. That would have been enough to make the book remarkable, but it also had much else of interest to me in particular as pertains to Koontz’s writing life, his habits, his having to deal with weird fans,  what his office is like, how he works. (His wife, Gerda, handles all the finances and he has a close-to-full-time assistant to do the correspondence, answer the phone, deal with publishers, movie people, agents, the above mentioned weird fans, etc.) And yes, he is a workaholic. So is his wife. I knew that he put in 14 hour days before I read this, but now I have a much better idea what that means.

Still, it’s plain he loves what he does. In fact, the only time he’s ever suffered writer’s block was in the weeks following Trixie’s death.

(And now I can no longer take myself to task for not putting in 14 hour days as well, because I do not have an assistant, a finance officer, a cook, a housekeeper, or a gardener. He did not, however, have a dog walker — he and Gerda did that, one going in the morning, the other at night.)

Anyway, I found it all fascinating, funny, learned a lot about his past and present (which gives insight into why he writes what he does) and as I said, just thoroughly enjoyed this book. Koontz is a wonderful writer, personable, entertaining, his writing heartfelt. I think that comes through in all his works, and is part of why I enjoy his novels so much, even though I don’t care for horror novels (or however his novels are categorized — I think they are in a class of their own). In any case, if you like dogs, or are a writer, or want a glimpse of what a fairly humble, best-selling novelist’s life is like, I highly recommend you read A Big Little Life.


A Novel Situation

Some time back I was asked to read a new Christian fantasy novel for the purpose of possibly endorsing it.

I have a general policy of not doing this, because it always ends up taking a lot of time away from my WIP, mostly because of the angst and mental distraction these efforts stir up in me. I’m very picky about my reading, especially when it comes to Christian works, and unfortunately I often find myself at odds with the doctrines presented.

I tell myself that many people would just set that aside and if they liked the story in general would go ahead and endorse it. I tell myself I should do that as well. It’s not my job to run around setting people straight in regards to their supposed doctrinal deficiencies.  And many times there are things in the story that I like. Can’t I just overlook the parts I don’t?

Yes, if I were simply reading the piece for pleasure. But to put my name on it in an endorsement? Therein lies the rub.

My own purpose in writing in the fantasy genre is to illuminate spiritual truth, particularly as regards the Angelic Conflict, one of the least studied, least understood, and, I think, least believed of Christian doctrines. Of course, the conflict itself and the way it’s carried out – primarily by deception – guarantees its true nature will not be well-known, or even believed. Of all doctrines it has been most distorted and/or buried. And that comes as no surprise since the kingdom of darkness works hard to do just that.

One might argue that in a fantasy novel, where good and evil are often set against one another in a rough parallel to the angelic conflict, what matters most is the characters and their actions, the plot and the world, not the specifics of explanation for the battle or the parameters for the set-up of the fantasy novel’s world…

Except… that’s kind of the whole point of writing a fantasy, in my view.

The world we live in and its parameters are based upon the angelic conflict. Understanding this conflict changes one’s perception of God, of man, of the work of Christ on the Cross, who He is, what His purpose is, who we are as part of His Church, and what is going on around us every day.

We are constantly bombarded with the lies of the kingdom of darkness, because as even human advertisers and propagandizers  will tell you, that is the way to change people’s thinking; or to keep their thinking from changing, depending on your objective.

Worse, even as believers in Christ each of us still has a sin nature, that part of us that is drawn to those lies, always ready to latch onto them. Indeed, for most of us, God is hard at work stripping away the lies so He can replace them with truth.

The lies have power and I believe we who have learned to see them, are not to simply ignore them, skipping over them as if they don’t matter… I believe God holds us accountable for our actions in regards to them.

So, in regards to the novel in question, I hit a spot that was, in my understanding, completely wrong.  I reacted. I wrote at length in the notebook I keep when reading books. I paced about the house, asking God what I was to do.

Was I being arrogant? Making a big deal out of nothing? Should I just set this aside and move on? I’d like to help the author and the publisher and the field of Christian fantasy in general. Maybe the parts I read didn’t mean what I thought they meant. Maybe the author didn’t mean any more by them than just to provide an explanation for the storyline. Most people aren’t even going to think twice about it or even take note I’m sure. Surely I was just being too rigid and inflexible.

But this is an outright insult to my Lord and Savior! Even if it was done unknowingly. How can I put my name on it as recommending it, when it does that? How can I put my name on it before the angels who are watching?

Well, that was Saturday.

Sunday morning I awoke double-minded as ever. Surely it was enough to have seen the false concepts, but I needn’t be militant about it, right?

As I drove to church I asked the Lord for answers. What was I to do about endorsing this novel? “You know how weak and easily confused I get,” I told Him. “I don’t want to make a stand when no stand is required. Please make it clear to me.”

So then maybe an hour or so later, about halfway through the message, which was on discernment – how God goes about developing in us the ability to see with spiritual eyes instead of natural eyes – Pastor John said, “So I’m faced with a novel situation. Will I trust this (new) person’s standards or my own?”

A novel situation? Pastor John rarely uses this word, and Sunday it leapt out at me. Yes I knew he meant “new” situation, but the personal double entendre was clearly from the Holy Spirit.

Not long after that, Pastor said, “There’s more going on here than meets the eye. Angels are checking out how you treat the Word.” He’d not mentioned angels in some time. Yet I’d thought of them the night before.  “They’re with you here, in class,” he said, “and outside of class, rubbernecking to see how (what you learn here) is working in your life…”

Then he quoted I Th 5:20, (Wuest translation): “Stop counting as nothing the divine revelations from the pulpit.”

And elaborated: “This is talking about when you know the Holy Spirit is pointing out truth from the Word, but you ignore it. With discernment it’s great to see the truth in a situation, but then it calls upon us to make decision about how to apply it.”

Could the message have been any more pointed to my situation? Yes. It could:

“We are to cultivate the ability and practice of examining everything carefully…to determine what’s true and false.” Examing everything. Carefully.”

Then he had us go to 2 John, pointing out as we turned there, that the various letters of the New Testament are addressed  differently, some to the church in general, some to specific congregations, some to individuals like Titus and Timothy.

This one was addressed to “the chosen lady.”  The chosen lady???

And in it, the Apostle tells her, “Don’t let false teachers into your house.” (vs 10)

“These are people,” said Pastor John, “who go out and try to teach what they think is right but don’t check with the Word. ‘Do not receive him into your house and do not give him a joyful welcome. For the one who welcomes him, participates in his evil deeds.’”

“When you’ve discerned something to be bad in your life,” said Pastor, “you’re to actively hold back from it.”

So. I had my answer. Not the one I wanted, but clearly my answer, nonetheless.

He could have talked about loving the brethren, putting the needs of others before your own, treating everyone in grace, not being legalistic and self-righteous… But he did not. And I do not believe that was “coincidence.”

Utopia vs Freedom

More thoughts from The Secret Knowledge by David Mamet…

When I did my post on this book last week, I forgot that I’d written down some of my thoughts on it both during and after I’d finished reading it. The other night I found them, and today I’ve decided they might be of interest to at least some of my readers.

One of the things that has been impressing itself upon me with regard to Liberal (or should I say “Progressive”?) thought these days is the element in it of wanting to restore, through the efforts of flawed and sinful men, the Garden of Eden. Of course, they don’t call it that, they call it “Utopia,” a term coined by Sir Thomas More for his book of the same name regarding a fictional island where dwells the “ideal” or perfect society.

David Mamet maintains (from personal experience — remember he was a Liberal until he was 6o years old) that one of the primary differences between Conservative and Liberal thinking is that Liberals believe human beings have “good hearts” — and in particular, that they, themselves, have good hearts. Conservatives, not so much; in fact, not at all, if one considers the content of Liberals’ constant attacks on Conservative character: we only oppose their policies, they say, because they aren’t our policies, or because we just want them to fail so we can win, or because we want kids to go hungry, or old people to be neglected. I suppose the Liberal answer is that we do have good hearts, but are simply denying them for the sake of “partisan politics.” But then,  that wouldn’t be very good-hearted, and so, really — oh, never mind!

Where was I?  Oh, yes — that Liberals believe they have good hearts and thus “good-hearted” ideas and plans for the world.

One such “good-hearted” idea, says Mamet, is that If they “could just make sure everything is fair,” all would be well.  Fair, not before the law, but just, you know, “fair.” Everyone getting an equal amount of the pie, for example, whether they worked for it or not, because, you know, some people just can’t work, don’t know how to work, or can’t find the sorts of jobs that are appropriate for their expectations… It’s not their fault.

Mamet illustrated this with the notion that the street sweeper, who does a valuable job that serves the community, should be paid just as much as the surgeon, who also does a valuable job. Who’s to say which is more valuable? The idea that just about anyone could sweep a street, whereas not everyone could be a surgeon, to say nothing of the years of preparation that goes into becoming a surgeon, doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

Another notion of “fairness” is having an equal number of races and/or genders distributed across the populations of various institutions — colleges, businesses (particularly in the executive suites), grant and college recipients, scientific organizations, prisons… Anything else just wouldn’t be fair.

In order to bring all this fairness about — this wonderful, perfect society where “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is the order of the day — we’ll need someone to be in charge: a socialist dictator. But have no fear, since he (or she) will be one of “them” (i.e., Liberal) and thus, by definition, will be a “good” dictator.

Conservatives, on the other hand, see the human race as potentially noble and honorable, but flawed. Sinful. Stubborn. Blind. Arrogant. Lazy. Selfish. Greedy. Combative… The idea of flawed human beings trying to make a perfect world is ludicrous. Instead we hope only to devise a government that takes into account the flaws and tries to provide liberty and equality under the law. Iindividuals will be free to make their own decisions — the bad ones that lead to failure and want, or the good ones that lead to success and plenty. It will be the outcome that motivates, not some person in charge of “fairness.”

The law merely ensures the people under it don’t violate each others’ freedom to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — for example, it’s against the law to steal your neighbor’s stuff, or worse, kill him first and then take his stuff.

If you do, and are caught, you pay the penalty, period. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what your gender or race is, who your parents are, whether you like cats or dogs, how much money you have, what your societal position is…

Laws, of course, will not be perfect, having been devised by imperfect men. Neither will they be perfectly enforced, since imperfect men will be in charge of enforcement. There will never be perfect fairness in all situations. But still, few can deny that the American system of government our Founding Fathers devised has over the last two hundred years or so resulted in more freedom and more prosperity for more people than at any other time in history.

It’s not Utopia, but I think it’s about the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect society this side of Heaven. And a far sight better than the good-hearted view that if every one could just have the same amount of the same things we’d all be forever happy. That one is a system which historically, in every attempt to implement it so far, has failed miserably… You’d think its proponents would see that. That they don’t is another of the subjects Mamet addresses: “magical thinking.”

But that’s a topic for another day.


America Lite

I got a new book over the weekend. It’s by David Gelernter who is “a professor of computer science at Yale, contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, a regular contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and former board member of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

The book is called America Lite — How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats).

Professor Gelernter has been writing occasional guest posts for Power Line blog on the subjects he covers in this book, and having found them all interesting I finally decided to get the book for myself.

From the inside cover:

America-Lite (where we all live) is just like America, only turned into an amusement park or a video game or a supersized Pinkberry, where the past and the future are blank and there is only a big NOW. How come we know so little about the past, care so little about the future, and expect so little (except cynicism) from our culture, our leaders — and each other?

In this refreshingly judgmental book, David Gelernter connects the historical dots to reveal a stealth revolution carried out by post-religious globalist intellectuals who, by and large, “can’t run their own universities or scholarly fields, but are very sure they can run you.” These imperial academics have deployed their students into the top echelon of professions once monopolized by staid, steady, stately WASPs. In this simple way, they have installed themselves as the new designated drivers of American culture…”

Mere facts are disdained, “old-fashioned fact-based judgments like true are false” are no longer valid, and the teaching of actual history has been replaced by the teaching of “theories about history.”

By removing objective facts and absolute truths observable by all or arrived at by “common sense,” and inserting endless theories and tropes and feelings and gauzy visions of utopia, concepts that on the surface don’t make sense (“lead from behind,” “spend money in order to save money,”) and as such are only really understood by the most intellectual and enlightened among us, we clearly must abandon the attempt to think for ourselves and let these brilliant academicians do it for us.  And, says Gelernter, so we have.

“In fact, we have handed over the keys to the star pupil and teacher’s pet of the post-religious globalist intellectuals, whose election to the presidency of the United States constituted the ultimate global group hug.

How do we finally face the truth and get back into the driver’s seat? America-Lite ends with a one-point plan.”

And of course the jacket doesn’t say what that plan is. I’ll have to read the book to find out. I’ve already read the introduction and it generated enought thought for me to write an entire post in addition to this one (which I’ll put up probably tomorrow).

Even the back cover is fascinating (Click to enlarge):


A Request for Ideas

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to do a guest post for the Christian SF/F blog Speculative Faith and given a range of openings throughout the summer from which to pick. Since Arena in its repackaged version is due to release the first of July, I thought a guest post on something relating to that might be a good idea and picked July 6 for my publish date.

I’ve been brainstorming and thinking about the Spec Faith post for a week or two, but so far haven’t come up with anything that keeps going past a paragraph or two. So I decided to see if you all, my readers, might have some suggestions of things you might be interested in seeing a post about. If so, please let me know, in the comments or by email.

So far I’ve thought of:

telling the story of how Arena/Light of Eidon were published;

talking about how things have changed in the publishing field since those times;

discussing the idea that sex, violence, and dark events are not appropriate subject matter for Christian reading and should not appear in books;

grappling with the still prevalent idea that fantasy is only for kids, and why that isn’t necessarily so;

examining some of the specific elements of the allegory in Arena;

pr relating some of the responses I’ve gotten to Arena, both good, bad and wacky…

If any of those ideas seem particularly appealing, or you’re curious about a particular aspect of them I didn’t mention, or one of them triggered an entirely different idea or…

Please! Feel free to fire away.

What Do You Think of the New Cover?










Just thought I’d do a bit of an informal poll today — what do you all think of the new cover?

Looking at them side by side, I can see that the original cover was aimed much more at women — with the pink and light blue and purple (on the back). And the woman walking  in the middle, of course!

On the other hand, it says “adventure” to me very clearly. I especially like the multiple arches, though when I first saw it, I  was somewhat alarmed. I hadn’t written the original description of the scene with multiple arches, seeing as  passing through it was to represent the one-time decision of believing in Christ.

But then my editor (who is now my agent) told me about his discussions with the art director and how the multiple arch design worked much better artistically than the single arch and did I think I could rewrite the scene to include it?

Well that threw me a bit, but I went to the Lord, asked for guidance and He provided it through a friend who pointed out that the verb tense for believing is the one where you make the decision once but the results go on forever.

Loved that. So I rewrote the scene, and the arches stayed.

The new cover is more mysterious and science fiction-y and definitely has a more masculine feel than the first. Which I think might have been the intention. Ten years ago, the primary buyers and readers of Christian fiction were women. And although typically it’s the men who go for science fiction, it made no sense in the marketers’ opinion to try to appeal to them even if Arena was science fiction. And so they did not. It’s one of the reasons why Christian science fiction and fantasy has had such a difficult time getting going in this field.

With their reprints, Bethany House is trying for a simpler, more … generic? … look than the first releases and I think this one’s quite intriguing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, whatever they might be.

The Darkest Evening of the Year

In keeping with my theme for the week of dog related posts, I thought I’d put up my thoughts of that Dean Koontz novel I mentioned having read last week.

Published in paperback in 2007 Koontz’s The Darkest Evening of the Year is first off a paean to the Golden Retriever in particular (They sound like fabulous dogs — except for the hair) and dogs in general.

He also touched a bit on his “dogs are the way to redeem a wounded/wretched/evil soul” theology which I first encountered it in One Door Away from Heaven. That was more in passing. This is much more developed.

Not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. (Quigley is SO not a Golden Retriever!)

Since Koontz is now on his second Golden, and works with the organizations that provide service dogs to people with disabilities, I am sure he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the temperament and behavior of the breed. I mentioned in my previous post about the Wonder Dog Chancer, that 70% of Goldens, Labradors and German Shepherds pass the service dog training course, whereas only 2% of other breeds do. I doubt any hounds would ever even be considered. I cannot imagine Quigley sitting patiently on the patio deck, unleashed, waiting for “permission” to join his friends frolicking in the water as the Goldens are said to do in this book.

The only time Quigley sits patiently is at dinner time when he sits between my hubby and me watching us eat, waiting for the moment we are done and the plates will go into the dishwasher whereupon he will attempt to get in a few licks…

But I digress. I read the book mostly in one day and finished it up the second night. I was never bored, I didn’t think it took too long to get into… in fact, I loved his wordcraft. Here’s the start:

Behind the wheel of the Ford Expedition,  Amy Redwing drove as if she were immortal and therefore safe at any speed.

In the fitful breeze, a funnel of golden sycamore leaves spun along the post-midnight street. She blasted through them, crisp autumn scratching across the windshield.

I especially like the way he turned “autumn” into a thing that scratches the windshield

I wept unrestrainedly during his depiction of the euthanasia of the above-mentioned Amy Redwing’s first retriever. The whole thing was so much like what I went through with Bear, it was like living it again… Very poignant. Very well done.

And despite Koontz’s weirdness regarding the spiritual efficacy of having a relationship with a dog, there was a place where, though at first his character ridiculed the idea of the Rapture, he nevertheless got the point of God’s perfect righteousness dead on:

…if God existed, a God of pure love, then for sure there had to be a purgatory, because you would need a place of purification before you dared go upstairs for the Ultimate Hug. Even a sweet woman like Mrs. Bonnaventura, rapturing directly from this life to God’s presence, would detonate as violently as anti-matter meeting matter, like in that old episode of Star Trek.”  (pg 173-4)

Cool! Exactly why Jesus had to become a man and go to the cross and why God had to create in us a new creature at the point of salvation,  give us His righteousness, and will make for each believer a new resurrection body for eternity. Because we ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God and there is none righteous, no not one. (Ro 3: 1o;23)  I’ve thought before that sin and God are sort of like matter and anti-matter… Except that only the anti-matter (ie sinful creature) would detonate when it came into contact with God because God is immutable.

Of course that wasn’t the direction that Koontz took the matter, but it’s exciting to come across a statement of truth like that when you’re not expecting it.

The story centers around the special Golden Retriever Amy Redwing rescues from an imminent beating at the very beginning, who was…

… …


… …

…I guess, possessed or indwelt by the spirits? souls? of her long-dead first dog and baby daughter. At the end this special Golden with subtle supernatural powers resuscitates the heroes who have both been killed in their attempts to stop the villains.

Readers on Amazon didn’t like this and many complained bitterly, calling it a hideous Deus ex Machina. Except technically, I don’t think it was.

As I understand it, the term comes from the Greek dramas where everything would be going wrong by the end of the play, and then the god would be lowered in on a platform to clean up the mess and restore order. But in this case, by the time of the resuscitation, the story was over, the problems solved, the villains dealt with. Yes the resuscitation definitely made for a happy ending, but I think it also played along one of the main threads he’d been weaving through the story. That is, that there are forces beyond our ken, that there is divine grace and a purpose to this life.  There are second chances.

The villains were all about living in the moment because, they thought, there was nothing else. No God, no mysteries, no meaning, only self and satisfying self.

In that it fit right in with messages I’d been receiving from my pastor shortly before and while I was reading the book. About the old man, the one that’s been crucified with Christ, and how it’s only and always about self. What’s in it for me? How do I feel? What am I going to do? What did I do wrong? How can I do better? What do I want? What did I not get? Etc.

To be sure, the villains in this piece were not that introspective, but even that was more in keeping with their in-the-moment approach. They were more like, “I want to [have sex/ eat a sandwich/ torment a child/ go to the desert/ burn down a house] right now.” So they got up and did it. Now. They also thought way more highly of themselves then they ought, but that’s typical of villains.

Anyway, I think this last quote encapsulates one of the book’s main themes and one of the things I liked most about it:

“Born in a tornado, Brian had considerable respect for the chaos that nature could spawn and for the sudden order — call it fate — that was often revealed when the apparent chaos clarified.”

Which has kind of been playing out in my life lately — especially in my writing life!

I Do Outline Eventually

The comments on Monday’s post (The First Draft is a Slog) got me thinking more about my process, especially as relates to outlines. Becky Miller’s link to  a post on Harvest House editor Nick Harrison’s blog about getting stalled because you’ve let go of the tension, also sparked some thoughts.

Letting go of the tension means you’ve resolved your main line of conflict long before you reached the story’s end… which is not a good thing. And the outline method I use does address this potential pitfall.

(I was amused by one of the author’s suggestions for figuring out what to do — i.e., consider that perhaps you don’t have enough plot for a novel.  I have never had the problem of too little plot material for a novel.  LOL!)

But back to the subject at hand, which is that eventually I do outline. In fact, before I ever start to write, I spend time gathering notes on 3×5 index cards I’ve cut in half. (being smaller, more cards can be laid out than if I used the 3×5 cards whole)  Notes about characters, the world, possible motivations, possible events, incidents… So it’s not like I’m diving blind into the book. If anything, it can feel like I have too much material. Some of it I’ll use; some of it I won’t. It’s hard to know, sometimes, which is which.

In her book Novel-in-the-Making, Mary O’Hara (also the author of My Friend Flicka) talks about various ideas for what might happen needing time to sort themselves out. At first you may not be able to tell which one you like, which one fits, but over time they will sort themselves out as some rise to the surface while others sink into oblivion.

All this work with the cards is a way of allowing some ideas to rise to the top and other to sink out of my awareness.

Once I’ve gotten started though, tested the waters a bit, as I said I do have a form of outlining that I use, which is based on information Jack Bickham provided in his Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Series book Scene and Structure.

The structure is based on cause and effect and the notion of alternating “scenes” and “sequels”, all oriented to an overall story goal.  Bickham uses an example of Fred needing to be first to climb a mountain .

“I must be the first to climb that mountain,” Fred said.

Thus the reader wonders, “Will Fred succeed in being the first to climb the mountain?”

So Fred begins his quest. First up, he must convince the bank to give him a loan of sufficient money to  finance and equip his expedition. Thus, in the next scene, taking place at the bank, his goal is to get a loan.

If he gets the loan, everyone’s happy, and his plan moves forward but the reader will be asleep, or worse, annoyed, wondering why he was made to read through such banal material.

No, we have to have conflict. Therefore, the banker is opposed to Fred’s absurd notion right at the start and they have a fight.

This little scenario illustrates the components of a scene

First, it is active, something that could be staged in a play. It has a viewpoint character (Fred) with a goal (get a loan), and an obstacle to his achieving that goal (the banker). He and the banker conflict over the goal, and the scene ends in disaster for Fred’s goal. (the banker says no, and never come back to this bank again; the banker says yes, but you’ll owe me for the rest of your life; or yes, but you must take my bratty, 14-year-old son with you.)

A sequel, on the other hand, is static, it’s reflective. After the above scene, Fred will have to go away and think things through. Review what happened, deal with his emotions, decide what he really wants, consider his options and come up with a plan of action, which should involve a new goal related to the overall story goal of climbing the mountain.  A sequel then, recounts the character’s feelings about what’s just happened, these move into thoughts about what to do next, and culminate in a decision.

I try to organize my stories based on this framework, and I’ve found it helps at least not to end up with everything wrapped up before you want it to be, seeing as the scenes always have to end in some sort of disaster, or they’re not a scene.

Obviously there is a LOT more to all of this, or Bickham wouldn’t have been able to write an entire book on the subject. And it’s not quite as simplistic or as formulaic as I’ve made it seem here. Sometimes the viewpoint character is not the one with the goal for example, but the one being acted upon. That is my situation right now with Chapter 1. My POV is reacting to events that have suddenly come into her life, which is part of what’s making this chapter so difficult. Plus elements of the hidden story are emerging, but of course, neither she nor the reader will realize that at the moment.

Anyway, I had written about two-thirds of Arena, got bogged down, got hold of Bickham’s book and spent three weeks reworking the book in accordance with the scene/sequel structure. I think it helped a great deal. I’ve used Bickham’s approach on all my subsequent books, though maybe not as religiously as I did in Arena. After awhile you start to get a sense for doing it automatically. But when you hit a wall, it’s these principles that have most often helped me get around/over/through it.

And just writing about all this has been helpful as well. Because I have rediscovered all those note cards I had, which I knew I had but didn’t feel ready to look at yet… Maybe tomorrow I will.