A Shot of Courage

A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!

So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.

Jesus, in Matthew 10:24 – 27

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?

Words to Live By

“I’m telling you this mostly so you won’t try to hang any murders on Kingsley that don’t belong on him. If there is one that does, let it hang.”

“Is that why you’re telling me?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“I thought maybe it was because you hated my guts,” he said.

“I’m all done with hating you,” I said. “It’s all washed out of me. I hate people hard, but I don’t hate them very long.”

from The Lady in the Lake, 1943, by Raymond Chandler

And Now, a Warning from Eighty Years Ago

We should not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less inhuman than those we are confronting, we will prevail. Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have immense prestige. The contrary virtues, so as to have an equivalent prestige, must be exercised in a constant and effective manner. Whoever is only incapable of being as brutal, violent, and inhuman as the adversary, yet without exercising the opposite virtues, is inferior to this adversary in both inner strength and prestige; and he will not hold his own against him.

Simone Weil, on the eve of WWII

Hey Young Writers, Don’t Expect your Significant Other to Read your Stuff Necessarily

Hi young writers. This post is going to be loosely written (and it’s late going up) because this week was … whew. Well, it was a week.

This is just a little tip for how to be happy (happier, at least) in your life as an artist or novelist.

You may or may not end up having one of those amazing literary marriages where the person you married is also a writer, or at least an avid reader, and where they “get” books and specifically your genre, and where you get to bounce ideas off them, they read your drafts, and they are your harshest, most loving critic and your biggest fan.

Such marriages do exist, I am told. Stephen King has said that his wife does this for him. I think it would be tremendous to be in such a relationship, and when I hear about such marriages, I admit I am a little jealous.

But this is not a must-have for your writing life.

Some people are readers and some just … aren’t. If the person you are with does not happen to be a person who reads fiction for fun, then trying to force them to read your stuff is a ticket to misery.

Unless they are conversant in fiction (and preferably in your genre), they won’t get out of your novel what you were hoping. And you won’t know whether this is because your novel has failed to communicate as you had hoped, or whether it’s because your s.o. is not among your intended audience. So you could end up in despair over a novel that’s good (or has the potential to be good) because your s.o. didn’t enjoy it, or you could end up discounting legitimate criticisms on the basis that “he/she just doesn’t get me.”

Which leads to the second point. Showing your work to close family members puts an awful lot of pressure on the relationship. We all know how much of ourselves we pour into our works of art, how emotionally charged they become. We all know how hard it can be to accept criticism from people we see only occasionally, let alone people we have to live with. Even if your s.o. is capable of giving informed feedback, do you want to make the relationship about his or her opinion of your work? Are you that emotionally strong, that capable of detachment?

Some people are, apparently. But, “know thyself.” Perhaps you aren’t. This is especially true if you are younger rather than older, and it is especially true in the early days right after you have finished a manuscript (or while you are working on it). I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to show my work to others too soon, at which point it is still a little rough and also I am still a little too excited about it to think clearly.

Another potential problem: if your s.o. is concerned about what other people think, then your work may be emotionally loaded for him or her as well. They may be thinking, “What if this is published before the world? Will it be misunderstood? Will it make my spouse look bad? Will it make me look bad?” This might always be an issue, but it’s going to be exacerbated if you are showing them early drafts, when all they can see is the roughness, not the glory that is in your head.

But, you ask, why in the world would you date or marry someone who doesn’t “get you”? Well, first of all, while your work is very important to you, it is not all there is to you. Secondly, it’s possible that the same s.o. who does not “get” your work when he or she sees it in draft or idea form, will manage to enjoy it when it has been vetted and edited by people who know what they are doing, published in all its glory, or made into a Hollywood blockbuster (ha!).

Thirdly, consider that if you are an author or an artist, there might be benefits to marrying someone who has a different calling … perhaps one at which it is actually possible to make a living, for instance.

I always kind of assumed that I’d meet some poet type in the English department in college and marry him and we’d go on to live a Bohemian poet life together. I’m frankly really glad that didn’t happen because I am happy not to be in academia right now. The man I married does share my values and many of my interests, and he does enjoy a good story, but he is not a reader. He’s got social skills and practical skills that I don’t have. I am happy to have him. We like each other. We can build a life together, raise our kids, go on camping trips without bonding over my writing. (He also doesn’t get the point of visual art. He is never going to rave over one of my paintings. I don’t expect him to. I hope for that from other visual artists.) When I do publish my books, maybe my husband will read them or maybe he will wait for the audio book, but I don’t expect him to get super excited because he does not normally go around reading sci-fi or fantasy or any fiction, really. He takes in stories through audio and movies. He is not part of my intended audience.

I hope this is helpful to you.

And to any family members who have read my drafts and are now trembling in your boots: It’s OK. I’m over it. I’ve moved on.

Two Indie Authors to Check Out

What’s your stereotype of “indie” (independently published) books? Is it a tame memoir that would interest only the author’s family? A bitter rant where the author finally gets to have their say? An amateurish sci-fi filled with cringe-inducing grammatical errors?

I’ve read all of these types. (And, for the record, my opinion is not the same about all of them. The family memoirs, in particular, will be valuable historical records one day.) But in case you didn’t know it, there is so much more to the world of indie books. Here are two indie authors I’ve discovered, both worth reading and each weirder than the last.

Spectre

Specter by Katie Jane Gallagher

I discovered Katie right here on WordPress. She likes horror, which I didn’t think was really my speed, but I just had to buy her book to see the results of her self-publishing. The book is, in a word, professional. The cover, the formatting, the editing … it all looks and reads just like any high-quality YA paranormal book you’d pick up in a bookstore (or, in my case, a library). And no, it’s not a paranormal romance where the ghost is the girl’s love interest. (Thank God.)  It just features a normal, smart high schooler who starts seeing ghosts. And, refreshingly, her parents are all right, unlike in so many YA books where the parents are either dead, clueless or part of the problem.

And the horror? Well, there are some horrible revelations at the end … but they didn’t turn out to be anything I couldn’t handle. Perhaps I’ve been toughened up by watching Stranger Things.

The Collision series by Rich Colburn

Full disclosure: I knew Rich before he wrote these books. He’s weird. (I honestly don’t think he’ll be offended if he reads that.)  When, having not seen him for years, I heard that Rich had indie published a couple of books, I eagerly bought them. They are exactly the kind of books I would have expected from him, which makes them a little hard to describe.

From the Amazon blurb: “What if the spirit world was rampant with technology sophisticated beyond anything mankind has imagined? What if a sociopath got his hands on a powerful piece of this technology? What if you couldn’t die no matter how much damage your body sustained?
“Join a reluctant hero on his quest to discover what the heck he should do with his time now that he has unlimited power and the world as he knew it collides with the unseen world. Will demon-possessed biomechanical monsters kill everyone? Will there be enough coffee to last through to the end of the world? Will that play into our hero’s decision whether or not to bother saving it? These are questions we’ve all wondered about. Explore these and other important philosophical questions as you follow the adventure that was contrived to do just that.
“The Collision series offers a technological explanation for the supernatural. Human psychology, questions of life and death, and the nature of the supernatural play a critical role in the story of a man who becomes aware of the technology used by beings existing in higher modes of reality.”

The Collision books are slightly less professional than Specter. They could have used a second pass with an editor. But they are a joy to read because they are just so darned clever. To take a sampling of the chapter titles from Resolve:

Chapter 34: When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object, It’s Best If They Avoid Eye Contact

Chapter 35: Omnipotence: It’s There When You Least Expect It

Chapter 36: I Love the Java Jive but the Java Jive has Found Me Wanting

Chapter 37: Seriously? Another Plot-Thickening Thread?

Chapter 41: It Came From My Parents’ Basement

Believe it or not, these titles are not just one-liners. All of them make sense when you read the chapter. I really don’t think a traditionally published book could have gotten away with chapter titles like this.

So now you are probably thinking that the Collision series is like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it sort of is, if that book had been written by a Christian. But it’s not just metaphysics and humor. The book also becomes surprisingly poignant (in the context of all the weirdness), and also very horrifying and tense. Especially the scene in the parents’ basement. Also, be it noted that the monster made out of corpses in Stranger Things was familiar to me because an even more horrifying version had already roamed the pages of Formulacrum.

All that Should Be Remembered

They stepped outside, back into the churchyard. Salomon Lachaise said, “When I was a boy, my mother used to say that hell was the painless place where everything has been forgotten.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It couldn’t be worse.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s no love. That’s why there is no pain.”

They walked beneath a milky sky shot with patches of insistent blue. Anselm looked up and asked, “Then what’s heaven?”

“An inferno where you burn, remembering all that should be remembered.”

The 6th Lamentation, by William Brodrick, page 182

Still-Not-Dated Quote of Week

[Some textbook writers] see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda — they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental — and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 24, pub. 1947 (!)

The Big Five and the Odd Couple

A month ago, I wrote a post about the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Openness). In the comments, Katie Jane Gallagher suggested that an author could use the Big Five to plan out their characters’ personalities. I replied that this might work for some people, but I was doubtful my characters would co-operate with being assigned a personality beforehand.

I still think it would be difficult to assign, in a fixed way, all five of your character’s traits before you begin writing. But I have thought of a trope that relies heavily on the use of character traits: the odd couple.

The Source of the phrase “The Odd Couple”

The Odd Couple was a 1968 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Then there was a 1970 – 1975 TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

Also, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick played the same odd couple in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s original play.

In all of the versions, the premise is that two men are living together because each has been kicked out by their wives: one for being such a perfectionist, the other for being such a slob. High jinks follow.

How odd couple stories use Big Five traits

As you can immediately see, the odd couple trope relies on selecting one Big Five personality trait (in this case, Conscientiousness) and throwing together two people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to that trait.

This is much more manageable than trying to run down all five traits for each of your characters before beginning to plot.

Of course, when you start to develop the story, other traits will come along too. In this story, the conscientious character (Lemmon/Randall/Broderick) is also high on Neuroticism. Interestingly, it is he, with his extreme conscientiousness, who is portrayed as being the harder person to live with. The slobby person is portrayed as more normal. That is not what I expected when I set out to research the show, because in real life, slobby people can be just as hard to live with, especially if they are low in Agreeableness, for example.

In fact, some shows will dispense with the “couple” part of the odd couple and just have the gimmick revolve around one person’s extreme traits. Monk springs to mind, in which the detective’s OCD about cleanliness is so incapacitating that he must have a handler with him at all times … but his attention to detail also makes him an excellent detective.

Odd Couples Everywhere!

Once you start looking for odd couples in film and literature, it seems to be a trope that is used to enrich all kinds of stories. You find odd couple cop partners, odd couple road trips, and (ubiquitously) odd couples in rom-coms. Often odd-couple stories are funny, but they can appear in dramas as well, such as Thelma and Louise, or Charlie and Raymond in Rain Man. Whether comedy or drama (but especially in drama), one or both characters are supposed to be transformed in some way by their forced relationship with their polar opposite.

In my own first book, The Long Guest, there is a bit of an odd couple dynamic going on between Enmer and Nimri. Enmer reacts to the demise of civilization by becoming hyper-responsible as he tries to care for his extended family. Nimri, who at the beginning of the book is selfish and has no one to care for, honestly doesn’t care if he himself lives or dies. The two are forced into proximity by the dynamics of the survival situation (and by Enmer’s mother, Zillah), and while they never resolve their differences, the inherent conflict between them drives much of the action in the book.

So … what do you think? Do you like odd couple stories?
Are you a member of an odd couple? Perhaps more intensely, now during quarantine? Have odd couple stories lost their appeal? What are some of your favorite odd couples from film or literature?