Be Awful at Stuff

Roughly half of the reviews for my new book The Marian have included what I would say is one of the biggest compliments you can pay an author – they’re asking about the status of the next book.

I say “roughly half” because “two of four” doesn’t sound nearly as impressive.

Anyway, to answer the clamoring horde of two people who asked and stroked my ego, I am indeed working on the sequel to The Marian, and I’m having the time of my life. The story is going to go some really cool places in this one, but what’s even more fun is that I’m in the rough draft phase.

In my opinion, this is the best part of working on a book.

Doing the original outlining and plotting always feels really precarious to me, like I’m setting up a house of cards and if I breathe just wrong, it’s all going to fall apart. Editing forces me to come back to all the hilarious jokes and epic action scenes I wrote and realize that they weren’t quite as brilliant as I thought they were. Plus, there’s that little voice in my head that’s constantly saying, “Is it ready now? How about now? When is it going to be done? People NEED to read this!”

But the rough draft is different. It’s my playground. I get to do whatever the heck I want, because if I come back and figure out something I tried was awful, I can hit delete and nobody’s the wiser.

The point isn’t to write something great.

The point is to write something.

It doesn’t matter if what you end up with is boring, or if it veers away from the main thrust of the story, or even if it makes absolutely no sense. Your goal is to write a story, no matter what the quality, so you can have something to edit. That’s incredibly freeing. It’s also incredibly fun, because it means you have complete creative freedom.

It took me a little while to get back into “rough draft mode” for this one. I was putting the final touches on The Marian when I started writing its sequel, and that last phase of editing is a completely different mindset from what you need when you’re sitting down in front of a blank page. When you’re editing, you need to take every doubt seriously. If something doesn’t feel right, you need to figure out why and fix it.

That attitude works great for editing, but if you take it to a blank page, chances are you’re not going to get much written. However, if you can break through all that self-doubt and give yourself permission to write something truly awful, the rough draft becomes a lot of fun. The pressure’s off. Just have fun, riff a little, and you can start worrying about making sense of everything after the story ends.

Honestly, that advice doesn’t work too bad for life, either.

I think too many people avoid trying new things because they’re afraid they won’t be good at them. It’s a ridiculous reason not to do something because of course you’re not going to be good at doing something you’ve never done before. Nobody picks up a new hobby and instantly becomes an expert.

Give yourself permission to be awful. You just might have some fun and eventually become not-awful. Lofty aspirations, I know.

Anyway, that’s as far as I’m going to stretch that metaphor. The point is, I’m writing new stuff, I’m having a blast, and you should go be awful at something.

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On Violence in Young Adult Fiction

There’s a scene in the movie Small Soldiers where a bunch of marketing execs and big-time decision makers have gathered to discuss a new line of toys. As the conversation progresses, they agree that if they want to get little boys interested in these toys, they need to play up how violent they are, though violence isn’t quite the right word. One of the suits offers this bit of sage advice:

“Don’t call it violence. Call it action. Kids love action. It sells.”

It’s a telling line. Action does sell. It’s thrilling. It makes great theater. But action as an entertainment genre often comes with glamorized violence.

Please don’t stop reading now. I know exactly how I sound, and I want to assure you that I’m not about to start ranting on how we should stop watching action movies and reading action novels and playing action video games.

In fact, I love the action genre. I love the human confrontation, the completely improbable stunts, and the potential to show selflessness and courage in a crazy, over-the-top caricature. One of my all-time favorite movie moments is still the scene in RED when John Malkovich uses a grenade launcher like a baseball bat to send a grenade back to the guy who threw it at him.

I also happen to write novels with a fair amount of action in them.

So no, I don’t think entertainment needs to be violence-free. I think it’s an effective tool for raising the stakes, adding tension, and showcasing some very primal elements of a character’s personality.

But lately, I’ve really been wondering about the use of violence in young adult fiction.

A lot of young adult novels tell stories that could easily be about adults, but then there’s some sort of plot device that puts teenagers at the center of the story. Again, that’s not inherently a bad thing. It’s just a trope of the genre, the same way it’s a trope of the action genre that there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved with a car chase and lots of explosions.

The problem comes when we take these adult stories and put kids in them without considering that maybe, possibly, teenagers are going to respond to the things they go through differently from the way adults would. We have kids joining armies, becoming assassins, and facing the apocalypse.

And it’s so stinkin’ glamorous.

Not all young adult fiction falls into this trap. In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card puts children and teenagers in the military to pose some really interesting questions and moral dilemmas. The Hunger Games trilogy shows teenagers slaughtering each other on national television to underscore its commentary on the way our culture glamorizes violence. The Harry Potter series uses the death of several key figures around Harry to help change his character from an arrogant brat into a selfless hero.

But these are the best examples.

I don’t want to specifically name bad examples – mostly because I don’t want to debate the merits of individual books –  but too often, we authors give absolutely no weight to what these kids go through. They fight, they fall in love, they come to some sort of resolution, and that’s that. They may react briefly to the tragedies that happen around them and the things they have to do to survive or to save the world, but not in a way that lends much seriousness to the circumstances.

Again, I’m not saying violence and action need to be purged from young adult entertainment. I’m just saying that maybe we, as young adult authors, need to start thinking more deeply about how our characters will respond to what we put them through. Maybe we, as young adult readers, need to start thinking more deeply about what we’re applauding our favorite characters for enduring.

Teenagers aren’t small adults (sorry to break it to you, teenagers). They’re going to process things differently. The things some young adult protagonists go through would be enough to leave a mark on a well-adjusted adult. I know it’s impractical to dig into the psychological ramifications of every punch thrown and every shot fired, but maybe – just maybe – it’s time these young adult tropes were used for something a little more than audience positioning.

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The Marian – Cover Reveal

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00039]

Fifteen-year-old Ethan Denby doesn’t know how he got on the Marian. He just woke up one day inside the body of its captain.

The Marian is unlike any ship Ethan has ever seen. It crawls on long, metal legs over dunes of salt in search of water, despite laws granting exclusive harvesting rights to a corrupt organization known as HydroSystems Worldwide.

HydroSystems is closing in, tensions are mounting aboard the Marian, and on top of all that, Ethan is beginning to think the dreams he’s been having aren’t completely harmless. If he doesn’t get home soon, Ethan could die inside someone else’s body in this wasteland of a world. The only way back seems to be through a place known simply as the Cloud, but how can he convince the crew to take him there when it means confronting a dangerous cult and venturing into a place where the very fabric of reality has worn thin?


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I am so unbelievably excited to finally share this story with you. The very beginnings of the idea first started bouncing around in my head while I was working on the rough draft of Alpha, so I’ve had a lot of time to pick at the edges of the story and the world it’s set in. This is going to be a wild ride, and I’m thrilled at the prospect of taking people along with me. The plan right now is for this to be a trilogy, though it could end up being only two books…or more. All I can tell you for sure is that the loose ends will be far from tied up at the end of The Marian.

Also! I need to brag on my cover designer – Denise Wy of Cover Atelier. I found her almost by accident, and I’m so glad I did. If you’re an indie author looking for good cover design, you need her cover on your book. She is head and shoulders above all the other cover designers who charge even remotely close to what she charges.

When I got in touch with Denise to start working on this cover, I had a pretty specific idea in mind. Unfortunately, the more we fleshed it out, the more I realized I’d had an idea that would never look cool when it was actually executed. So we went back to square one. I basically said “Forget everything I said. Here’s what the book’s about. Here’s the general tone. Here are a few important visual elements in the story. Do what you think would work best.”

Then she sent me two potential cover designs. They were both fantastic. I chose one and suggested some simple tweaks. She made the tweaks, and voila, I had the cover you see at the top of this post.

What’s crazy is all this happened in the span of two days.

I sent the first email on July 2. On the morning of July 3, we scrapped my original idea, and that evening, she sent me the two potential designs. On July 4, we had the final cover. I went back and checked our email history to make sure that’s true, because it still blows my mind how quickly Denise went from “let’s try something different” to two covers that would look right at home with the new releases at Barnes & Noble.

Cover Atelier, indie authors. Look her up.

So what’s next? I have a blog tour coming up, starting September 4, and it’ll run all the way up to release day on September 19. I have dates for that posted here. If you’re not familiar with blog tours, I’ll essentially be hopping around various book blogs around the web, doing interviews with the bloggers, writing guest posts, and answering questions from anyone who wants to interact in the blog comment sections. It’s going to be a blast, and I’d love to chat with you about the book on the tour.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you for now. Stay tuned for more info!

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Christian Music 2014 Mid-Year Checkup

It’s already been an incredible year for Christian music. I could limit this post just to albums released in January and February, and I’d still feel like I had a good collection of albums in the mix. It was hard narrowing down my picks for the first half of the year to only five, but these ones really rose to the top. If you want to hear more recommendations, check out the Spotify playlist on the side of this page, below the blatant shameless promotion for my novel. I’m constantly adding stuff to it. I only do one song per artist, so there are going to be some on there from entire albums that I love, and others that I think are gems on otherwise forgettable albums. Feel free to dig in and let me know what you think.

Anyway, here are my picks for this year so far:

John Mark McMillan – Borderland

John Mark McMillan has always been an artist that I appreciated, but didn’t necessarily enjoy. I loved the way he wrote and the way he never tried to sound like every other worship artist out there, but his stuff was always just a little too raw for me. Yes, over-produced music is a problem in the industry, but a little cleanup here and there never hurt anyone. With Borderland, McMillan seems to have found that balance. His voice is deep and edgy, and the instruments are heavy and dark. The music incorporates some electronic elements here and there, especially in the drum sounds, and his lyrics are just as thoughtful as ever. The best I can do to describe the album is to say Interpol and The National got together to make worship music, but even that isn’t quite right. Love At The End is a good indicator of the overall sound of the album, and it just might be my favorite song this year.

Recommended Listening

  • Love At The End
  • Borderland
  • Holy Ghost

Wolves At The Gate – VxV

Wolves At The Gate’s 2012 release Captors is one of the few metal albums I really love, and VxV takes everything that was great in their last album and improves on it. The guitars are just as heavy and melodic as ever, the choruses are big and soaring, and the lyrics are some of the boldest statements of Christian theology I’ve heard, while still managing not to cross into cheesy preachiness. VxV also features clips of sermons from John Piper sprinkled throughout. It’s an odd match, but it works well. Since they use the clips in several songs, it helps to tie the whole project together.

Recommended Listening:

  • The Father’s Bargain
  • Relief
  • East To West

Kye Kye – Fantasize

This is just a beautiful album from start to finish. The brooding synths and atmospheric vocals are great, but to me the thing that really makes the whole album is the production on the drums. In places they are absolutely drenched in reverb, but not in a way that they lose their punch. A lot of synth pop has really wimpy drum sounds, and that ends up ruining it for me, but Kye Kye turned the percussion into a strength on their sophomore album. If you haven’t listened to these guys yet, do yourself a favor and check them out.

Recommended Listening

  • Honest Affection
  • Dreams (2am)
  • People

Mike Mains & The Branches – Calm Down, Everything Is Fine

I thought this album was decent after the first listen, but the more I’ve played it, the more it’s grown on me. It’s got a great indie rock vibe with some folk and Americana influences. Also, I absolutely love Mike Mains’s vocals. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite singers in Christian music. He doesn’t have an incredible voice, but it’s unique without being weird, and it fits the band’s style perfectly.

Recommended Listening:

  • Calm Down, Everything Is Fine
  • Where Love Dies
  • Noises

Being As An Ocean – How We Both Wondrously Perish

Disclaimer: Being As An Ocean has said they’re not a Christian band, rather a group of Christians who write music about things that matter to them, and their faith matters to them a lot. So take that however you want. I do love the overall sound of the album. The vocals shift from aggressive screams to melodic singing to spoken word poetry, and the transition is never jarring. Also, they have ridiculously long and poetic-sounding song titles like “Death’s Great Black Wing Scrapes The Air,” so that’s fun.

Recommended Listening:

  • The Poets Cry For More
  • L’exquisite douleur
  • Natures

Most anticipated albums still to come:

  • Colony House – When I Was Younger (July 22)
  • Bellarive – Before There Was (July 22)
  • House of Heroes – The Smoke EP (August)
  • Fever Fever – Aftermath (August 5)
  • Remedy Drive – Commodity (September)

Okay, that’s it for me today. What 2014 albums have been your favorites? Which ones are you most looking forward to?

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Embarrassing Christians

Some Christians really embarrass me.

I mean, really embarrass me.

They call Hollywood “HELL-ywood” and refuse to believe there’s anything redemptive about art that doesn’t somehow include an altar call. They insist that voting any way other than far-right Republican is as good as renouncing the Holy Spirit. They practically compete with each other to see who can be the most over-spiritual about the most mundane things, and then they scold anyone who doesn’t over-spiritualize the same things they do.

Sometimes the embarrassment I feel boils over to frustration. In these moments, I hate that I have to share the name “Christian” with folks like this. All I want to do is disown them and point people to what “true believers” are really like, but just when that frustration is about to reach its peak, a simple question settles me back down:

What if these guys are as embarrassed by me as I am by them?

I mean, I do have a big, gaudy tattoo. I worship Jesus best to guitar solos and noisy drums, and I don’t think the entire Christian faith would come crashing down if someone could definitively prove that people evolved from apes.

What if, while I see some Christians as old-fashioned and narrow-minded, those same Christians look at me as weak-willed and too eager to incorporate elements of worldly culture into my faith?

I have no doubt that some Christians see me that way – or that they would if they got to know me – but the thing about Christianity is that neither one of us gets to disown the other. As much as I want to say, “That’s not what real Christians are like!” – and as much as other Christians may want to say that about me – neither of us gets to say it.

Why?

Because real Christians aren’t defined by their blind spots. Real Christians aren’t defined by the sections of Scripture they overemphasize.

Real Christians are defined by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

I don’t care if you think it’s wrong for women to wear pants or if you picket funerals because you think that’ll shock people into believing the way you do. If you’re putting all your money on the risen Christ to set you right with God, you’re my brother.

Yes, truth and sin still matter. Yes, we need to hold each other accountable. But I don’t get to disown you for experiencing this faith differently than I do. I’m stuck with you.

It sucks, but it’s also kind of beautiful.

Because it means you’re stuck with me, too.

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Picasso, Perfectionism, and Knowing When to Quit

I don’t know if this story is true or not, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

Towards the end of his life, Pablo Picasso started getting on the bad side of all the local art museums. What happened was he’d see his work on display and realize with dismay that one of the paintings wasn’t quite perfect. So he’d wait until the museum closed for the night, gather up his painting gear, and break in. He’d put some finishing touches on the painting until he felt like it was as good as it needed to be, and then he’d go home.

He didn’t just do this once, either. He kept on sneaking in and painting over his own work.

Needless to say, it put the museums in an awkward place. I mean, how do you tell someone to stop messing with the exhibits when the guy is vandalizing his own work?

Whether the story is true or not, it’s always resonated me. Here’s one of the greatest artists of all time looking at some of his best work of all time, and all he can think is, “Man, I wish I’d done that differently.”

I’m no Picasso, especially when it comes to painting (I once did so poorly on a painting assignment that my art teacher thought I’d spilled paint on the canvas) but I see some of the same concepts in my writing. Whether it’s a blog that I slapped together in an hour or a novel that I spent two years polishing, I can’t go back and reread anything I’ve done after I put it out for others to read. If I do, I’ll start second-guessing my word order, or wondering if a sentence was totally necessary, or thinking that maybe I should have added another subplot, or…

There’s always something else I can tweak.

Even after I’ve taken care of every grammatical error, every missing word, and every typo, there’s going to be something that I think might be just a little stronger if I made a simple change. The more I realize this, the more paralyzing the whole process of editing becomes. For blogs, it’s not such a big deal, since the philosophy is more to get something out there than to achieve any sort of literary excellence. But as I move into the editing phase for my next book, I find myself asking a simple question.

How do I know when this is done?

As a self-published author, the pressure is even bigger. I don’t have a publisher to tell me to make a couple more changes or to give me the green light. I’m the one who has to pull the trigger.

One of my favorite creatives is a graphic novelist named Doug TenNapel. He once said something along the lines of “I’d rather publish a ton of really good stories than one perfect one,” and I tend to agree with him. Theoretically, I could spend the rest of my life perfecting this new book, editing it and improving it as I honed my craft as a writer. Hopefully, I’d end up with one heck of a novel by the time I die, but I want to tell more stories than that. The other extreme is to do absolutely zero polish on everything I do and throw stuff out there as I get it done. I’d have a huge volume of work, but no quality, which actually sounds worse than the “single incredible novel” concept. So there’s a balance in there.

Somewhere.

But how do I know when this is done?

Songwriter Michael Gungor mentioned in a blog that the best guide he’s found for knowing when something is done is waiting for the moment when you can’t think of anything else that will make you love the piece more. I think this is a great place to start. It still leaves things open and a little vague, but it provides some nice direction.

Creatives: How do you finally decide you’re done with a project?

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Fact-Free Truth and Rock Monsters

In case you’ve spent the past couple months deliberately hiding from movie news and Christian blogs, let me fill you on on something:

Last weekend, a movie based on the Biblical account of Noah hit theaters.

It was made by an atheist.

And there were several occasions where the movie differed from the story in Genesis.

The latest film from Darren Aronofsky has managed to inspire the collective ire and admiration of Christian bloggers, movie reviewers, speakers, and podcasters all over the internet. As I type the rough draft of this blog, Noah has been in theaters a grand total of two days, and I’m already sick of hearing about it.

That’s why I’m not going to be writing about Noah right now. That and the fact that I haven’t seen it yet (It’s funny how many people have managed to form an opinion about a movie they haven’t even seen). Instead of writing about the movie itself, I’ll be writing about the response to it. Specifically, the negative response.

I know. I’m responding to a response. It’s sickeningly meta.

Granted, I haven’t read every single negative review of Noah written by a Christian, but most of the ones that I have seen can’t seem to get past the fact that things happen differently from how they happen in the Bible! These complaints swing from the obvious – like Noah getting help with the ark’s construction from the Nephilim (or rock monsters if you feel like making Aronofsky look really out there) – to the slightly more subtle – like God speaking to Noah through visions instead of through audible words.

These reviews bothered me, but I wasn’t sure why at first. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pointing out discrepancies between the film and its source material, especially when the source material is the revealed word of God. I went on reading negative reviews and becoming increasingly angry and increasingly perplexed by my own anger…until I found a review that wasn’t completely opposed to the whole movie.

It was refreshing to find a review from someone who, unlike all these negative reviewers, didn’t sound like he went into the movie wanting to hate it. He still pointed out that there were some major deviations from the text, but he also acknowledged that, in spite of these deviations, the movie still communicated many of the same themes communicated in the account found in Genesis.

That was when the light went on for me.

So many of these negative reviews just couldn’t get past Noah‘s inability to stick to the facts of the story. You almost get the sense that these reviewers wouldn’t even consider looking into the deeper themes of the movie unless it was a word-for-word adaptation of the true story in Genesis. They got so stuck on these surface-level plot devices that they couldn’t move any deeper into the heart of the film.

They got so lost in the facts that they forget to look for truth.

And facts and truth are two different things. All facts may be true (though some may be misleading), but not all truth is found in facts.

One of the best literary examples of this concept is C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You know the story – a group of siblings find a magical world on the other side of a lamppost. It’s been winter there for a long time, but there are rumors that a lion – the lion – is on the move, preparing to set things right. This lion finally shows up, only to allow himself to be killed by a witch who had set herself up as queen. But death can’t hold this lion, and as he returns from the grave, new life comes to this magical world.

Is any of that factual? Of course not.

But how much of it is true?

Obviously, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is written as an allegory, so these truths are going to be a lot more obvious and didactic. Still, I don’t think it would be completely out of the question to be on the lookout for some of these “fact-free truths” in Noah.

There are plenty of good reasons not to see Noah – Aronofsky’s fondness for putting the darker parts of humanity on display in deeply unsettling ways comes to mind – but I’m not sure the story’s lack of Biblical accuracy is one of them. Because there’s this really cool thing that everything that isn’t the Bible has in common.

You get to pick and choose what to accept.

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