The Great Plotter vs. Pantser Debate

Behold these awful stereotypes of a plotter and a pantser!

Of course there’s no one right way to do it.

If you hang around writerly sorts, you will hear them talking about plotting and pantsing. Plotting means you plan out your entire novel before starting to write it. You make an outline. You decide what’s going to happen chapter by chapter. Obviously, you do any necessary research before starting to write. The term pantsing comes from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” With pantsing, you might have done some research and you might have a general idea where the story is going to go. But you don’t outline. You just dive in, let the story and characters take over, and record what you see happening. You are just along for the ride, like the lovely lady above on the right side of the picture.

Both methods have their advocates. Both methods even have a book which will tell you how to do the method. I have read neither of these books, but have heard them recommended by other authors. For pantsing, there is Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith; and for plotting, there is Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. (How can you not love that title?)

There’s No Right Way, but This Is the Right Way

Perhaps anyone can learn to plot … or to pants. Nevertheless, I think that a strong preference for one or the other is a consequence of the way a person’s brain is wired. This explains why people’s reaction when they hear about the other method (whichever the other method is), tends to be something like, “You mean there are people who live this way?”

Pantsers, for example, tend to sound as if they think pantsing is inherently spiritual. It’s about sensitivity to your characters; it’s about trusting your subconscious and the story itself. It’s about listening to reality, for crying out loud! Writers are people who listen! They don’t impose!

I am thinking here of two of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I love Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and King’s On Writing. Bird by Bird does contain some passages that make it sound (unintentionally, I am sure) as if writers are more mystical or wise or something than the general population. King, meanwhile, believes strongly that you have to let your characters lead. He never plots; he thinks of an intriguing or difficult situation, puts his character in it, and then sits back and lets it play out. Because he doesn’t plan a rescue for his characters, horror usually follows.

I haven’t read as much writing advice by plotters, so I’m not as familiar with their besetting misconceptions. It seems to me, based on little comments that I have seen here and there based on a “how to write a novel” book, written by an editor, that I read many years ago, that plotters have the impression that if you don’t outline, you won’t have a good plot. Nothing will happen in your story. As one person put it, no amount of revision can make a book good if it was a weak story to begin with.

In short, and to make a huge generalization that I will no doubt regret later, diehard pantsers tend to feel that plotting is immoral, whereas diehard plotters tend to feel that pantsing is incompetent.

But Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Plotting or “Pure” Pantsing?

Probably not. 


I can only speak from the pantsing side (in case you haven’t guessed). I am an incurable pantser. But this doesn’t mean I never do any research or plan anything out. When at the writing desk, I tend to look more like the gal on the left. I don’t outline, but to keep things consistent I am forced to make timelines, name and age charts, and so on. I keep research notes and maps handy. It’s just that these things are following the story, not preceding it.

In the same way, I imagine that even those who thoroughly plot spend time listening to their characters so that the emotions ring true. Who knows, perhaps they even change their outline from time to time in response to a character’s wishes or the changing currents of the story.

So the supposed down side of each of these methods is mitigated by the fact that writing is an iterative process and that writers mix in elements from each.

Why Am I A Pantser?

I just am. I am constitutionally unable to make a book outline first and then have that outline actually be the way the story goes.

I might have a general idea of what I think is going to happen (and sometimes it does). But half the time, by the time we get there, things don’t go down that way. The characters have been changed by their experiences and they don’t react the way I expected. Or, they react much more strongly than I expected and do some fool thing that the story then has to accommodate.

This doesn’t make me more spiritual or, God forbid, smarter than the plotters. If anything, it might be the reverse. When my story surprises me, it’s because my subconscious is working out plot points that my better organized fellows are able to do intentionally, with their conscious brains. It may be true that plotting results in twistier, more intricate plots. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t.

In fact, I’m not even able to write a non-fiction piece from an outline. If an outline is required, I do some discovery drafts, let the structure emerge, and then outline it afterward. That’s how pantsy I am.

Luckily, Stephen King is there to remind me that it is possible to be a competent and prolific writer by pantsing.

Now, how about you? Even if you don’t write novels, I’ll bet you plot or pants your way through life. And I’ll bet that whichever you do, the other way seems just wrong.

Also, when you are reading a book can you tell which kind of writer the author is?

This is the Book Dan Brown Wishes He Wrote

Why is it that every book about ancient mysteries has to do one of two things …

  • Follow a present-day character hot on the trail of The Truth, who is all the while being chased by some Shadowy Organization, such that every chapter ends in a cliffhanger?
  • Overturn Everything We Think We Know about … God, Christianity, and/or our identity as human beings?

And usually it does both of these at once.

The classic example is, of course, The DaVinci Code. But I have read a few others in the same genre. (What’s that you say? Why do I keep picking them up, if I dislike them so much? Well, durnit, I just love a good ancient mystery. Sometimes I can’t resist the promise that All Will Be Revealed. And it will be More Horrible Than We Can Imagine. … Garr! I fell for it again!)

So, I just finished another book in the same genre. But it is, I must say, much better done than The DaVinci Code. (Hence the title of this post.) The mystery was creepier and more ancient. The action was tense but not juvenile. The psychology was sound. The travel-writing aspect of it was terrific. Vivid physical and cultural descriptions made me feel I was really there, whether the setting was Sanliurfa, Turkey, or the Isle of Man. Also, although it does end with a supposed debunking of Genesis, I did not get the idea that this was the author’s goal. Instead, I got the idea that the author was interested in the actual … mystery.

The Genesis Secret (2009), by Tom Knox, follows the adventures of Rob Luttrell (coincidentally, a London-based journalist just like Knox), who is sent to investigate the archaeological dig at Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Gobekli Tepe dates to 10,000 BC, which according to received archaeological theory makes it the oldest known human structure (apart from inhabited caves). Naturally, things get spooky. Secret societies happen. Bloodshed follows.

The Shadowy Organization, in this book, is headed by a sociopath who is very, very interested in all the creative methods of human sacrifice practiced around the world by the ancients. I skipped one scene in the book, and there were others that I probably should have skipped. Even more hair-raising, because they actually happened, are the historical descriptions of what used to be done in service to various gods. (Go out and learn about Moloch, the Blood Eagle, or the Flayed Lord. Or, better yet, don’t.)

But the reason this book is appearing on this blog is that Knox explores some of the same questions we are interested in … How did the hunter-gatherers at Gobekli Tepe create this amazing stone temple complex, when they “didn’t have agriculture” and “didn’t have pottery”? He gets fairly deeply into the tale of gods intermarrying with people and producing giants, which is sketched out lightly in Genesis and is greatly expanded upon in the Book of Enoch. He also raises questions like, Where did humankind get this idea of sacrifice? Why do the strongest and most inspirational leaders also turn out to be the cruelest and most violent?

His answers are decidedly humanistic. For example, the idea of gruesome human sacrifice is linked to … belief in God. (That’s right. Not false gods.) He even credits “the ancient Israelites” for child sacrifices to Moloch … all but ignoring the fact that this was a CANAANITE custom which Israel’s God told them REPEATEDLY not to do and which He NEVER commanded.

Nevertheless, The Genesis Secret contains lots of great research that is capably handled with chilling hints, spooky moments, and a mostly satisfying, mostly slow reveal. I recommend this book if you have a strong stomach and are interested in the ancient mysteries genre. Meanwhile, the world will have to wait a little longer for novels about ancient mysteries that actually take place in the ancient, mysterious times, and that lead us closer to God instead of making Him disappear.

This Is Why Your Favorite Character Had to Die

No, authors don’t kill off your favorite character just for kicks. It’s usually because the story demands it. But why? Why should any story demand such a thing? Unfortunately, it has to do with the spiritual structure of reality.

Jessica McAdams explains why in this recent article at Tor.com. “The defining feature of fantasy is the reality of the supernatural within the narrative …” If, like me, you think that’s a super compelling first line, then follow the link and read the rest.

Occam’s Razor and ‘Chariots of the Gods’

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My First Brush with Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is the logical principle that states that, when there are two competing explanations for a given phenomenon, we should choose the explanation that is simpler – i.e., is less elaborate, introduces fewer hypotheticals, conditions, or “assumptions.”

We all use this principle without realizing it (more on this later), but the first time I remember consciously applying it was in high school.

I was given an assignment to write a research paper on anything I wanted.  What I wanted was to write about this thing I had vaguely heard of, which I called “weird science.”  By this I meant wild, speculative theories, research into cryptids, and things like that.  In practice, my “weird science” paper turned out to be, basically, a book report on Chariots of the Gods

The Ancient Aliens Theory

Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and written by Erich von Däniken.  It advanced the theory that superintelligent extraterrestrials colonized earth long ago and were responsible for various mysterious or hard-to-explain structures built by ancient people, such as the pyramids at Giza, the pyramid/observatories throughout MesoAmerica, the Nazca Lines, etc. 

Since the publication of Chariots, this idea has made it into fiction numerous times.  There was the movie Stargate (1994), which focused on ancient Egypt, and which I love because its hero is a linguist.  (On first contact with a group of strangers, a military officer shoves him forward and says, “You’re a linguist, aren’t you?  Go talk to them.”) More recently there was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  (Spoiler: it’s an alien skull).  These ideas have now been made into a TV series (Ancient Aliens), and in fact there is a whole ancient aliens interest crowd out there now.

I Knew Better, But Couldn’t Explain Why

But reading through Chariots of the Gods was my first time to stare these ideas straight in the face, as it were.  And of course, I thought they were cool, even if some of the evidence was a little weak.  Von Däniken made much of a particular Mayan sarcophagos engraving that he said “clearly” showed an astronaut reclining inside a small spaceship, complete with controls, microphone, et al.  If you’ve seen the panel, it’s really kind of hard to tell what the heck it is, beyond a human seated in an awkward position.  See this article, by a fellow WordPress blogger. There you will see a picture of the original panel, a copy of Von Däniken’s diagram and “explanation” of it, plus a convincing argument that the whole thing is far better explained by Mayan cosmology.

Things like the Nazca lines were a little harder to explain (or at least to guess the purpose of), given that it is literally impossible to tell what they portray without viewing them from an airplane.

Anyway, weak evidence or not, I thought von Däniken made a compelling case.  Compelling, but not plausible.  In other words, there was actually no way to falsify the claims.  The theory was logically consistent.  But it was also, how do you say it, a little bit … elaborate.  (Or, as Bertie Wooster describes it, “A word that begins with an e and means being a damn sight too clever.”)   It was fun to think about as a theory, but didn’t seem terribly likely from the point of view of wanting to find out what actually happened.

The Razor to the Rescue!

This was where Occam’s Razor came in.  I was relieved to learn that I didn’t have to accept Chariots’ premise just because I couldn’t find a logical inconsistency.  Occam’s Razor to the rescue!  One theory to explain ancient structures required an entire extraterrestrial civilization capable of space travel; another, equally logical, only required me to believe that ancient human beings were smarter than we give them credit for.  Problem solved.  I wrote the book report and went on my merry way.

The Razor Left some Loose Ends

Except that the problem was only sort of solved.  The overly elaborate explanation didn’t ring true, but my simpler one left an awful lot of questions unanswered.

It didn’t tell us anything about how the ancient people managed to make the pyramids at Giza; the jigsaw-puzzle fitted megaliths at Machu Picchu and Saksaywaman; the 1,000-ton megaliths at Baalbek, Lebanon; the heads at Easter Island, etc.  Whatever techniques they used, we couldn’t get the same results today. And why would anyone choose to use huge megaliths in any building project, assuming that handling megaliths was as difficult back then as it is today?   Saying “they were smarter than we are” might be true, but it just passes the mystery of how it was done from E.T. back to ancient people again, sort of like a hot potato, without really clearing anything up.

Why were ancient people so interested in astronomy?  Why did they build giant drawings that are best viewed from above?  For the “gods” to see, perhaps.  But where did they get this idea of “gods” who might actually visit?  (No, I am not going back to the aliens.  Hang on.)  Were they smart enough to lay out perfect geometrical structures that covered miles, yet dumb enough to believe in “gods” on zero evidence (assuming their evidence was the same as we have today)?

These questions are not going to go away, because the structures themselves are there.  This is not like an unconfirmed UFO sighting.  Anyone can go and look at these structures, marvel at the mathematical and engineering ability that went into them, and confirm that, in some of the cases, to this day we don’t know how the heck it was done.

Whatever theory we come up with to answer these questions is likely to sound just as implausible as a race of aliens.

When the Razor Cuts Off Too Much

And here we come up against a limitation of Occam’s Razor.  The Razor, useful as it is and cool as its name undoubtedly sounds, does not help us distinguish between plausible and implausible assumptions.  Our sense of which theory is “simpler” depends to a large extent on our sense of which theory sounds more likely.  In other words, there’s a short, slippery slope sometimes from Occam’s Razor to Confirmation Bias.

What is more plausible: that aliens visited earth thousands of years ago, or that ancient humans were at least twice as smart as we are today?  Whichever sounds more likely will look like the “simpler” explanation.  (Of course, given those options, we might start casting desperately about for a third one.)

If it is an article of faith with … someone … (I name no names) that human beings started out as, essentially, animals, and that throughout all of history, humans have been getting steadily smarter and more technologically advanced, then, in a minute … that person … might find themselves invoking aliens.  Because when confronted with the amazing engineering feats of the distant past, aliens are going to seem like a more likely culprit than those people that we think of as cave people.

There is another view of history that goes at least some of the way toward explaining these ancient mysteries without invoking aliens at all.  I’ll write about it in a later post.


Don’t Tell Me Your Story is About Misfits. Because That Tells Me Nothing

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I say this without any snark. This line – “I like to write about misfits” – has been used by some writers I really respect. They are not stupid. They are good writers. But I don’t think it’s a helpful way to describe your work, because it tells me so little.

Common “Misfit” Tropes in Fiction:

  • the girl who is plain or fat
  • the boy who is small, weak, or nerdy
  • the orphan or stepchild
  • the sensitive, misunderstood artist
  • the misunderstood villain (or werewolf or vampire)
  • the unremarkable teenager who discovers s/he has secret powers
  • the person who stands out because of their race
  • the gifted cop/soldier/agent who is forced to go rogue
  • the courageous person who goes against received wisdom (whether that is political, scientific, religious, artistic, or whatever)
  • the drag queen

That’s just off the top of my head.

When you tell me that your writing is unusual because you write about about misfits, my mind immediately goes to these tropes. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes (I like them), but stories featuring a “misfit” are not unique.

Using the word could even mask the uniqueness of your writing. For example, my eyes glazed over when a fellow writer described his novels as having misfit main characters. I was not expecting what he said next … that one of his books has a dragon as a main character, and another has a teddy bear. (These are books for adults.) The word “misfit” actually alienated me, for reasons I will describe below. The phrase “teddy bear main character” got my attention.

We Are All Misfits

Listen up, fellow writers: Everyone feels like a misfit!

It is rare to meet someone who has always felt comfortable in their own skin. That goes double for writer types.

In fact, that’s the reason that misfit characters are so appealing. Because the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they belong, misfit characters make them feel understood. But this isn’t just about people’s inner feelings: misfits feature in many stories because belonging and exclusion are major, enduring problems in this fallen world.

So, telling me that you are a misfit – as if this is unique to you – can be unintentionally, subtly insulting. The implication seems to be that you are pretty that sure I, your interlocutor, have never struggled with this. It’s similar to when people say they have a special concern for “justice,” as if this is something that most people don’t care about.

To be fair, I don’t think anyone who says this means to be insulting. They may honestly feel as if they are uniquely excluded. That’s the nature of feeling like you don’t belong. But trust me, if I am a fellow writer, then no matter how I may appear on the outside, I do know what it’s like not to fit in.

Characters Who Are Comfortable in Their Own Skin

In thinking about this, it occurred to me to wonder whether there are any novels that feature a main character who is comfortable in his or her own skin. And if there are, does this destroy the dramatic tension?

The first one I thought of was Where the Red Fern Grows. Then I started to realize that there are, in fact, many more. While there are many, many books for for both adults and children that explore themes of exclusion and belonging, there are also many that don’t. Often, a simple adventure story doesn’t need this dynamic.

Talking of characters who are comfortable in their own skin, I was reminded one of my own main characters, Nimri. Outwardly, he is certainly in a “misfit” situation: he paraplegic, and is being cared for by a group of people with whom he can’t at first communicate. Nevertheless, though he might bemoan his situation, Nimri is still happy to be Nimri. He is comfortable in his own skin. He is just not the personality type to experience much angst.

Outward vs. Inward Misfittedness

This brings up the distinction between being in an outcast or disadvantaged position, and feeling like we don’t belong. Which of these makes a character a “misfit”?

Of course, most people and characters have feelings that match their position. But not always. This can be a function of personality. Bilbo Baggins, for example, is a character who is small, weak, and has trouble getting the dwarves to take him seriously. Yet he is spunky and comfortable in his own skin. On the other hand, we can think of characters (often teenagers in coming-of-age-stories) who “never felt like they belonged,” even though outwardly there might not be much visible reason for this. This second option mirrors the experience of many authors.

I am not taking sides here, by the way. I like both kinds of story. I am fine with adventure stories where the hero or heroine never seems to experience any doubt (as long as the rest of the story is good), and I can identify with characters who don’t feel as if they fit. In my opinion, the really brilliant novels combine the two, and the main character’s inner turmoil becomes important to the outward plot. A really great novel of this kind is ‘Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

So what about you? Is being comfortable in your own skin something you once struggled with, or is it an ongoing issue? On a scale of 1 to 10, how much patience do you have with fictional characters who experience identity crises, exclusion, and angst? (10 = I won’t read a book unless the main character struggles with belonging; 1 = I have no time for that touchy-feely stuff in my adventure stories)

Bonus Midweek Post: Two Cool Things You Should Check Out

We will have our regularly scheduled post on Friday as usual, but I wanted to let you know about some cool resources I’ve discovered before I move on to my next book or theology crush and forget about these.

Brian Godawa on Preterism

Brian Godawa talks about preterism for five hours

Brian Godawa writes novels that are sort of similar to mine, but sort of … really different. They are based on some of the same research and like mine are speculative, but they are much more cinematic, featuring lots of action scenes and witty banter.

In the link above, you can find a five hour (!) Youtube interview in which Godawa explains preterism. Preterism is an approach to Biblical prophecy that holds that most if not all of the predictions found in Matthew 28 and in the book of Revelation were predictions about Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and were actually fulfilled then. This is an exegesis that many people haven’t heard of, because usually the people who talk the most about prophecy are coming from a Dispensationalist perspective.

You don’t have to listen to the whole five hours, but it is not boring. I have been listening my way through it while I do various chores. Godawa explains how preterism can be true even though Revelation uses terms like “the great tribulation,” “the end of all things,” “coming in the clouds,” etc. The video is especially fun because Godawa has come late to preterism. As he explains, he himself has held just about every other view of biblical prophecy that is out there. The host, Josh Peck, is a futurist not a preterist but he is extremely humble and enthusiastic, which makes the interview fun to listen to.

John Granger’s Literary Analysis of Harry Potter

Yes, I’m not kidding. His name actually is Granger.

J.K. Rowling spent a long time planning out the entire Harry Potter series before she wrote it. She used a lot of symbolism and was influenced by some of the Great Books. John Granger’s (no, not that Granger’s!) delightful book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf walks us through the layers of meaning in the Harry Potter series. Would you believe that Harry Potter bears similarities to The Divine Comedy, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? In addition to many others? If this interests you, go out and get a copy of this book.

Dinosaurs in History

Readers of The Long Guest have noticed that it features some “dragons.”

These are not the kind that breathe fire, collect treasure, talk in riddles, and sail through the sky on golden wings. Lord knows, I’ve got nothing against that kind. But The Long Guest is not that sort of story. It’s a speculative novel about what life might have been like in the very ancient world. Its “dragons” are basically animals, part of the milieu through which the characters move as they leave Babel.

They are, of course, dinosaurs. Below is some of the research that prompted me to include them.

Wait, ‘Dragons’ Are Dinosaurs?

The evidence from paleontology is complex, incomplete, hotly debated and far, far beyond the scope of this article. But there is plenty of historical evidence that human beings occasionally saw, and even might have interacted with, various kinds of dinosaur. Often they called them “dragons.”

Dragon ‘legends’ exist all over the world. For example, when my husband and I lived in Borneo, there were stories of a long, skinny water dragon (‘naga’) that lived in the rivers. This dragon was part of the local mythology, but it was also believed to be an actual animal. After all, the other prominent animal in the local mythology was the hornbill (a bird similar to a toucan), which still lives in the interior of Borneo in great numbers.

Dinosaurs in Premodern Art

Let’s start with depictions of dinosaurs in premodern art. All the examples I am going to give below appear in the context of art that features many other animals found in the natural world.

On Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, there is an image that appears to be a stegosaurus alongside depictions of a monkey, deer, and parrots. On Kachina Bridge in Utah, the Anasazi petroglyphs include an animal that looks like an Apatosaurus. Among the petroglyphs at Havai Supai Canyon, near the Grand Canyon, is an image that appears to be a dinosaur with a long neck, standing upright and balancing on its tail.

Then there are the tens of thousands of small handmade clay sculptures that have been dug out of the ground near the foot of El Toro mountain in Acambaro, Mexico. Besides sculptures of people, musical instruments, idols, and so on, there are – you guessed it – hundreds of recognizable dinosaurs.

Finally, we have the Ica burial stones of Peru. These have images incised on them, including lots of dinosaur images. Interestingly, they show sauropod-like creatures with spikes on their backs. When I was a kid, sauropods were shown as large, grey, slow, and reptilian, with smooth backs. But apparently, in 1992 we moderns figured out that sauropods had “dermal spines.”

Visual images, especially petroglyphs, can be hard to interpret. As you might expect, the sculptures and images above are beloved of creation scientists and have been the subject of debunking by those who hold that dinosaurs did not survive to overlap with people. Sometimes the debunking takes the form of “That’s not really a dinosaur”; other times, as in the case of the Acambaro sculptures, the refrain is, “It must be a recent hoax.”

In the links above, I have tried to include a mix of both sympathetic and skeptical sources. I wanted you to be able to see the images; when possible, I took you to a skeptical source so that you can verify that the image in fact exists. Using the links above, the curious can find out more about the controversies (and with prehistory, the controversies never end).

But now we turn from visual images to less ambiguous accounts in the form of writing.

Historical Evidence for Dinosaurs

Once we start taking dragon ‘legends’ seriously as possible historical accounts of dinosaurs, we start seeing that there are a lot of accounts to consider. Here are just four:

The ancient Chinese, of course, had a whole cosmology built around different kinds of dragons. So much could be said, but I just want to note two things here. First, Chinese dragons are strongly associated with the Emperor because, among other reasons, of a legend of an early emperor, Xia Yu, who was helped by a wise dragon. (Note in the link above that Xia Yu’s story has other features common to the early chapters of Genesis. He lives hundreds of years; he is a founder and a culture bringer; he helps tame the dangerous floods. He is also an ancestor and founder who is later worshiped as a deity, as seems to have been the case with Nimrod.)

Secondly, Chinese dragons differ from Western dragons because they tend to be bearded. Some depictions even have a mane similar to a lion’s. This could be a case of combining characteristics of different animals, which is explicitly done in Chinese dragon mythology, but — just a thought — it could also be a depiction of hair-like feathers. “Hairy” dragons made no sense as dinosaurs until a few years ago, when we started discovering that many dinosaurs had quills or even feathers. See the following links: First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber; Top 10 Dinosaurs that Aren’t What They Were; Fossils found in Siberia suggest all Dinosaurs had feathers.

Speaking of feathered dinosaurs: myths about, and worship of, a feathered serpent go way back in a variety of Mesoamerican cultures. This feathered serpent is called Kukulkan in Mayan, but is better known by his Nahuatl name of Quetzalcoatl. He even has a pterosaur named after him, though in reconstructions it looks more like a big bird than like a winged snake. (But compare this myth to the Hebrew “seraph serpents.”)

Continuing with the ancient Hebrew, here is a passage from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I [God] made along with you [Job] and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar (!); the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. … Under the lotus plants he lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh. … When the river rages, he is not alarmed …” (Job 40:15-23)

This description, particularly the tail swaying like a cedar, sounds like some kind of sauropod. For comparison, in the chapter before this God has given some poetic, but accurate, descriptions of the behavior of mountain goats; does; wild donkeys; wild oxen; ostriches; war horses, hawks, and eagles.

Job, by the way, apparently lived in the Ancient Near East not too long after Babel, if we go by his lifespan. According to the book of Job, he lived another 140 years after the events he is famous for. In Genesis 11, we see life spans of roughly 200 years becoming commonplace some time between Babel and Abraham. This is also the time period in which my book is set.

And now, we come to my favorite: dinosaurs in Beowulf. For this analysis, I owe Bill Cooper, author of After the Flood (1995).   His book has an entire chapter devoted to zoological terms in Beowulf. Among many other rich ethnological and linguistic details, Cooper points out that in the original Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is nowhere referred to as a “troll.” In fact, ‘Grendel’ appears to be not a personal name but a name for a species: there are place-names in England such as “Grendeles Mere” (Grendel’s Lake), Grindles Bec, and Grendeles Pyt. There is even Grindelwald (“Grendelwood”) in Switzerland. (!)

Looking at the characteristics of Grendel as described in Beowulf:

  • He is in “the shape of a man, though twisted” and “more huge than any human being.” In other words, large and bipedal.
  • He is a “mearcstapa” (a marsh-stepper), who stalks the marshes.
  • He is a nocturnal predator (a “sceadugenga” — shadow-goer).
  • He is a “muthbona,” one who slays with his mouth. He is able quickly to devour human beings (once, 15 in one night). This would be difficult if he had a humanoid type of head and jaw.
  • Hrothgar’s warriors have been unable to kill Grendel for 12 years, and he is said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
  • The way Beowulf kills him is to grip him by his “claws,” at which point Grendel, realizing he is in trouble, tries to get away. But Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder and Grendel runs off to bleed to death.
  • Later, when Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, it takes four men to carry the head home on a spear (this is my own observation, not Cooper’s).
  • And another of my own: Grendel and his mother are both referred to as having “locks,” but see the discussion above about feathers or spines.

After offering all this evidence, Cooper doesn’t even bother to name the dinosaur. “Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There are several such species.” (page 159)

Thus, four different streams of historical record that I think may be more than myth.

I am not suggesting that every story of a dragon is to be taken seriously as a sober historical record of a dinosaur encounter. Fables have been invented about dragons, just as fables have been invented about other animals that have captured the human imagination (i.e., nearly all of them). But this does not invalidate every historical account. No one thinks that foxes do not exist because of Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes. No one thinks that whales do not exist because of Moby Dick or Pinocchio.

But Do They Breathe Fire?

The “dragons” in my books do not breathe fire. However, I have nothing in principle against the idea of an animal that could. After all, this world of ours contains the electric eel, the bombardier beetle, bat radar, bio-luminescent beaches, and the platypus, which apparently is able with its bill to detect electric fields put off by living things and so home in on its prey. Since all these things are possible, surely an animal could have existed that could expel superheated liquid, gas, or even – who knows? – actual fire. The process that allowed it to do this would likely be chemically based and so perhaps not visible in a fossil.

Dragons in The Long Guest

Dragons in my first book appear as part of the milieu, not as characters. Since they do not play a major role, I can mention them without spoilers.

Early in the book, two of the men go on a hunting/scouting trip. They observe a duckbill-type dragon with a crest with pink coloring. On the way back, they have an encounter with another dragon of the raptor type, which is hunting a wild boar that they are also hunting.

Much later in the book, the tribe has crossed Mongolia and has almost reached what is now the Liao River (home of the “pig dragon” artifacts). There they have a friendly encounter with a group of strangers who are capturing a dragon to take home to their king. The “dragon” in this scene is a Triceratops-like creature that sports dermal spines, blue-and-gold feathers on its crest (because why not?), and smooth feathers over the rest of its body. (My day was made, once about ten years ago, when I read in a newspaper that a Triceratops had been found covered in feathers. I now can’t track down the source … but it’s too late. Feathered triceratops/Chinese pig dragon has already made it into the book.)

Loosely Related Update

A long time ago, Antarctica had a temperate or tropical climate, lots of animal life, and this cute little reptile.

Sources

Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons. Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True Story About Dinosaurs and Humans. Apologetics Press, Inc., 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, Alabama, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd ed. 2008.

Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The early post-flood history of Europe traced back to Noah. New Wine Press, PO Box 17, Chichester, West Sussex, England, 1995. The creatures in Beowulf are discussed in Chapter 11, p.146 ff.

Kleeman, Terry & Barrett, Tracey.  The Ancient Chinese World.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

So, What MBTI Type Are You?

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This post is for people who love the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator). 

I realize that some people hate it.  That’s cool.  It has apparently been woodenly applied by overzealous managers (as, what hasn’t?).  And some people just don’t like to be “typed.”

If you hate personality typologies, feel free to skip this post.

How the MBTI Works

For the initiated, the MBTI is a personality typology that classifies people according to their “preferences” among four pairs of traits:

  • I vs. E: Introversion vs. Extraversion … This is about how people renew their energy: alone or through social interaction.  Extraverts are drained by the library, Introverts are drained by parties.
  • N vs. S: Intuition vs. Sensing … This is about how people take in information: basically, top-down (intuition) or bottom-up (sensing).
  • T vs. F: Thinking vs. Feeling … This is about whether people make decisions more according to impersonal facts or according to how the decisions will affect people.
  • J vs. P: Judging vs. Perceiving … This is about whether people like to plan things in advance. Judgers like to have everything planned out. Perceivers like to go with the flow, keep their options open, and can even feel stressed out about nailing down a decision.

Four pairs of traits times two options each results in sixteen basic types.  If you meet an MBTI nerd like myself, we love to describe ourselves with letters: “I’m an INTJ,” etc.  This is delightfully easy to parody: for example, I am a G-E-E-K and sometimes an S-L-O-B.

Limits of the MBTI

Obviously, the MBTI doesn’t and can’t describe every aspect of a person’s personality.  It doesn’t cover energy levels, for example, or sensory processing problems.   (E.g. you could be an Extravert who is nonetheless also drained by social situations because you’re so sensitive to physical stimuli.)

It’s possible to have a social style that masks your MBTI type. 

You could have values that don’t match your type preferences. (For example, you could be a Feeler who greatly values logical thought.)

Also, some people don’t have a clear preference between one or more pairs of traits.  If you read descriptions of the types, sometimes a type description will jump out at you and you’ll say, “I know that person!”  But you will also meet people who aren’t easily described by any of the types.

In my opinion, the most easily misunderstood pair of traits is Thinking vs. Feeling.  I have never heard a good explanation of this axis that doesn’t misrepresent it.  Any attempts at description always end up making it sound as though “thinkers” don’t feel or care about people, and as if “feelers” just emote and are incapable of logic.  Neither of those is true.  Obviously, every person both thinks and feels.

I’ve concluded there is no point in trying to explain this one.  It is seen most clearly in action.  For example, an ENFP child will tend to comply with any orders you give him because he wants to please you.  An ENTP kid will likely not follow an order unless he can see a good reason for it.

MBTI Types in Literature

My own type is INFP.  This is a quiet, reserved type that is also sensitive and dreamy.  In one analysis I saw (“The Types in the Apocalypse”), the INFP was “the first guy to get killed.”   That sounds about right!  In the Lord of the Rings, the INFP is Frodo. 

Introverted types might be over-represented among the Lord of the Rings main characters (compared to their distribution in real life) because there is an understandable tendency for authors to create characters who resemble themselves.  In looking at my own work, I notice with relief that I do have some extraverted types in main-character roles.  Nimri, for example.  He starts the story as an SOB (oops, that’s one letter short!), but ends as, maybe, an ESTP.

What about you?  What is your type?  Favorite type to read about?  Are you ever annoyed by encountering too many dreamy, sensitive types in literature?

Sources

Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence  by David Keirsey, Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1998

The Sumerians

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I was taught in school that the Sumerians were the world’s first civilization.  What this actually meant was that they were the earliest civilization with writing that we knew of.  I’m not sure this is true any more.  It seems we keep finding earlier and earlier evidence of civilizations, and even of writing, from all over the world.  Look here for example.

The Sumerians flourished in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC.  (Obviously, they must have started earlier than this, since this is the approximate date of the earliest records that we have found.  They could have started much earlier.)   Their language is not clearly related to any known language families that are around today.   Indeed, we only know how to translate their language because the Akkadians later adapted the Sumerian writing system and continued to use Sumerian as a classical language long after it had died out as a living language. 

It is a pretty language (my completely objective opinion).  In The Long Guest, the names Nimri, Ninna, Ninshi, Shulgi, and Enmer are composed of syllables taken from the – usually much longer – Sumerian names.  Some examples of Sumerian names: Shu-Sin, Shulgi, Inanna, Enlil, Ningal, Ninurta.  

I drew on Sumerian because it is a very early language in approximately the same part of the world as the tower of Babel, with the same highly centralized urban/religious social structure that we see clearly in the story of Babel. 

One last note about the Sumerians.  There is a strong possibility that they were black.  It is hard to tell what ancient peoples looked like, because they did not leave us color pictures, but apparently the Sumerians refer to themselves in their documents as “the black-headed ones.” For more information, see this article by Arthur C. Custance.

Sources:

“Cucuteni-Trypillia culture,” from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cucuteni-Trypillia_culture . This is where I learned about the Vinca-Turdas script.

Ostler, Nicholas.  Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022, 2005.  615 pages.  (Sumerian, p. 49 – 58.)

Welcome

This blog will be updated once a week. We’ll cover such topics as the terrific books we’ve been reading lately, the research for my novels (honestly, a lot more interesting than it sounds!), and maybe some fun stuff like the MBTI or whatever you all want to talk about. Actually it’s a little difficult to keep all these topics separate.