Monday, October 03, 2005

JSB: Go For Quality Every Time

Dennis Prager, in one of his recent weekly columns, wrote in part:
When my older son was about 8 years old, I was putting him to bed one night and asked him what he learned that day in school. Normally he would answer, as nearly all boys do, by saying, "Nothing." But that night he had an answer.

"I learned I have a yetzer hara," he told me. As a student at a religious Jewish school, he was using the Hebrew term for the desire to do what is wrong. It is basic Jewish theology that the human being has two innate drives -- one for good and one for bad -- and that life is a constant battle with the bad drive. While Christian theology uses different terms, such as "sinful nature," both traditions believe that the greatest battle for a better world is usually with oneself.

Judeo-Christian values have always understood that the world is made better by making people better. On occasion, of course, a great moral cause must be joined. For example, it was religious Christians who led the fight to abolish slavery in Europe and America. But in general, the way to a better society is through the laborious and completely non-glamorous project of making each person more honest, more courageous, more decent, more likely to commit to another person in marriage, more likely to devote more time to raising children, and so on.

JSB: This reminds us that the focus of the Christian artist must also be on making our work better by fighting the urge to do second rate work just because we believe in a cause.
Christian fiction in the 70’s and 80’s was a rare thing. Quality Christian fiction even less available. Many a book at that time was just a sermon wrapped up in cardboard characters, a jeremiad slapped between covers.

Sure, some of the great causes can, and must, be addressed in fiction. Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for instance. Even so, we owe it to our art to make it the best we can every time out.
Those who "write about writing" sometimes get that Moses feeling, like they are coming down from the mountain with tablets. Well, those tablets are probably Tylenol, popped because of another hard stint at the writing desk.

Still, some of us have learned some things over the years, and the urge to set them in stone, at least once, is compelling. Thus, in full humility (which I want everyone to know about) I offer my "10 Commandments for Fiction Writers." (Disclaimer: I did not get these from a burning bush, or even a warm dandelion. They come purely from a fellow traveler).

1. Thou Shalt write every day
This is the first, and greatest, commandment. If you write 500 to 1,000 words each day, you will look up in four or five months and discover you've written a full length novel.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts
Don't edit yourself on your first draft. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story. Your plot and characters will make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and record what happens.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy lead
The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the lead character. Keep turning up the heat.

4. Thou Shalt put a strong opposing force in the lead's way
The opposition must be as strong, or stronger, than the lead.

5. Thou Shalt get thy story running from the first sentence
Start with a person, in a situation of threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start.

6. Thou Shalt create surprises
Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story
Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts
Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin
Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life
Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain a passion for living. Keep writing!

James Scott Bell,


At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So there's a name for my urge to overeat, watch too much TV and surf the internet. The next time I get to the end of the day without having written, I'm blaming my yetzer hara.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"not even a warm dandelion." That's funny.

Great advice. Particularly the rhino skin. Ain't that the truth. Thanks for that.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Domino said...

Amen, brother! Preach on!

I love it.

The "Keep Writing" advice is so important. I CAN'T get better if I stop.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Wow. Those commandments are good. I bet if every beginning writer implemented them in their lives, their writing would blossom a hundred-fold. Thanks for sharing them.

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I'm putting them right on my wall, and your getting a post on my blog. this is great stuff!


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