Monday, August 8, 2016

Christian Writing 101 Step 2c: Design - World Building

World Building - it's where many writers, especially Fantasy and Science Fiction writers, get bogged down or hyper-focused in the creation process. It's one of the places whereyou can either spend far too little, or far too much, time.

Spending too little time on world building gives the reader a flavorless, colorless backdrop to your movie. When I watch something like 'Carousel' or 'Oklahoma', while the music may be nice, the background is not REAL, and it's obvious. Little, if any, of those musicals were filmed out of doors, and it's hard for a viewer to put their head INTO the story.

Spending too much time on your world building causes the writer to 'geek out' on their own world, but the story rarely gets written. Or there's so much backstory and dimension the plot gets lost in the mix.

The end result in world building should be a three-dimensional environment that your readers can immerse themselves in, with details hinted at rather than explained. The details come out in conversation, in action, in backstory that isn't explored, but which the writer must know in order to flesh out his story. And the backstory and backdrop shouldn't obscure the real plot.

So, what are the elements of World-building?

Just like any world, there should be people, creatures, entities or intelligence in the world you build. Unless you are world-building a barren landscape like the moon or the middle of the Sahara, or a polar icecap. Or a story taking place on Mercury.

Most stories are acted out by people interacting with the people around them. Few stories are not people-centric. That is because humans are social beings, and this is one thing your readers probably are, because, by and large, your readers will be humans.

Are there strange or unknown races, sentient species, base, evil, blessed, holy? Are there races that are unredeemable or perfect and without sin? Do they wield swords, boomerangs, new and unknown weapons, laser rifles, long range missiles plasma cannons, grenades, fight without weapons, wield magic, paranormal psionic or psychic abilities? Are they completely peaceful and refuse to fight? Do these decisions, fight, flight, turn the other cheek, put their existence or well-being at risk? Are they slaves? Free? Bigoted or Permissive?

The various countries all have their own history, their own languages, their own beliefs. Natural resources, lifestyles, culture, technology. Dress, mannerisms, vices, slogans or proverbs. Weaknesses and strengths, enemies and allies. These countries can have their own flags, banners, uniforms, salutes, country mascot (like the US Eagle, the Russian Bear). National tree, flower, song. Have fun, but you can absolutely get lost in these details.

All worlds have geography. It can be an unexplored world to your characters, but the author should have a Map of their world, and the characters should build one as they explore. It doesn't have to reveal too much, you can even improve on or extend the map as they explore in successive books in the series.

Does your world have valleys, mountains, towns, cities, rivers, lakes, oceans? Fortresses, ruins, catacombs, mines, secret bases, outposts, craters? Natural borders and barriers (or unnatural borders and barriers) such as a rift across the world, a grand canyon, a river that splits the country, or a force field, a dome wall, the perimeter of the biosphere? Are portions of your world without air, without life, without light, without telepathic communication, an area of nuclear radiation or instant death? An area that separates one from God? An area without noise, or without silence, without reality?

What are the conditions on your world? Polluted beyond measure, barely breathable air? Are there regions of fertile soil, jungle, ice and snow, desert, wasteland? Is it a planet made of concrete, rusting ships, gas nebula, a mass of vegetation, a sentient single-celled organism?

What do the five senses tell you in these areas? What do you see, hear, smell, touch, taste?

Most worlds have a history, unless they are brand new. Wars, times of peace, aid to foreign soil or despicable acts of cowardice, despotic or benevolent rule? Kingdoms with tragic ends or aeon-long survival? How did the country rise, fall, survive, thrive? Was it based on some founding principle, some lasting driving document, a speech that changed a country forever? How is the history passed down? Through fireside story? Telepathic image-passing? Dusty books or electronic video recordings? Internet-jacking or communion with God?

As you can see, there are so many things to consider when building your worlds. Hopefully, the questions above get your thoughts flowing, and give you ideas about the world you want to build, the story you want to write.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Christian Writing 101 Step 2b (or not 2b) - Design - Plot development

For the non-fiction writer, scroll to the bottom of this post for information on how plotting even applies to your work. Believe it or not, it does.

Image result for plotting a course on a nautical chart
By this time you should already have an idea of the main story line in your head, time to write that down on paper.

Writers usually fall into two camps when it comes to plot - the Pantser, and the Plotter.
The Pantser prefers to write their stories by the seat of their pants, with little more than a character, a problem, and a path forward. The qualities of their protagonist and antagonist drag them inexorably forward toward some final showdown, with perhaps a plot twist to spice things up.

The Plotter lays out the path of the story, poring over each plot point and forcing the story into a developed path for a controlled resolution.

For either camp, I would recommend using Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. This allows you to plot just as deeply as you wish, from three main plot points to a chapter-by-chapter outline or even deeper. I normally develop the plot and record it in Microsoft Excel, see Step 2a for a copy of the spreadsheet I use.

There are also several plot lines your novel can take. A simplistic one is the 'Witch's Hat' model:

The critical plot points in this story arc are a point where the Protagonist is propelled into action by some event. Thus ensues rising action as the hero overcomes obstacles until they reach a climax point, the 'final showdown' against the Antagonist. At this point, the Protagonist completes his task, wins the girl, whatever the outcome is. The Falling Action is wrap-up of additional story threads - the serial killer is hauled off to jail, the friends go out to dinner to celebrate, etc.
The resolution is the final state of the hero. I've left it on the same level as the beginning, but the hero should end up changed. This would be the end result of the Character Arc. What has changed in the Protagonist that makes him a better (or worse?) person.

Another model for plotting a Story is the Mountain Range Diagram.
This introduces the idea of the death of a vision. In this model, the hero's critical flaw, like overconfidence, pride, naivete, etc, is exposed and exploited by the Antagonist, or simply becomes the hero's downfall. The hero ends up with a death of his original vision, and must come out of the ashes redefined, with a new goal or new definition, to overcome his flaw and defeat the Antagonist.
After the final conflict, the hero should emerge with the fatal flaw resolved.

Another Plot model is the Multiple Thread.

Some stories, like Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson, use a multiple thread model. This model assumes multiple Protagonists, all with their own story lines, all with their own character arcs, fatal flaws, and strengths, separately carried through action until their threads intertwine. Alone, they cannot complete their goals or defeat their foes. However, when joined, they complement each other and can overcome the final obstacles. The Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini also uses this plot method, as does The Wheel Of Time series by Robert Jordan.

The final plot diagram I want to discuss is the Hero's Circle.

The Hero begins the story living out his daily life when a problem is introduced that will force him to leave the comforts of home in order to accomplish some goal. He must eventually, based on some death or loss, make the decision to depart on the road to adventure, and so he heads out.

Along the way he encounters something dramatic that will redefine his view of the world, and suffer the death of something precious to him. Assisted by an unexpected mentor, he will be redefined based on a revelation provided by the mentor or contemplation, and with determination and his redefinition, he will complete his new task (or the old one) and return home victorious and changed.
The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, Star Wars, are all examples of this model.


One who writes non-fiction might wonder why a plot would be important to their work. Big surprise, it's actually not. But outlining the work is vitally important to completing it and keeping it structured for consumption.

In college English classes (And in high school too) they teach you when writing a term paper that you need to:
Write a Proposal Statement (what your main point is in the paper)
Create an Outline (Main Points)
Flesh out the Outline
Head to the Library with Index Cards  to Research, identify sources, references, etc.
Write a Rough Draft - Intro, main points, Conclusion, Bibliography

Actually, sounds suspiciously like that Snowflake Model. And it is.

For example, let's say you are writing a devotional on Marriage and Family.
You want to cover topics like:
Dating and setting Boundaries
Selecting a Life Partner
Planning for Married Life
Raising Godly Children

Your topics become your sections (Like Acts in a Play)
Subtopics become Chapters: (Like scenes in the Act)

I. Dating and Setting Boundaries
---A. Why Date at All?
---B. What Constitutes a Date?
---C. What Boundaries Should we Set?
---D. Accountability in Dating?


Whether writing a 30-Day Devotional or a Textbook on Underwater Basketweaving, these steps will keep your work structured.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Christian Writing 101 Step 2a: Design - Character Building

Image result for sculptor
Character building is one of the most critical parts in creating a novel. The characters, especially when believable, carry the reader along, as if the reader were experiencing the difficulties, growth and discoveries the character made it through. It is expected that the reader will identify with the main character, or sometimes even one of the supporting characters or the antagonist.

If the character is one-dimensional, or unrealistic, the reader will quickly lose interest or their willing suspension of disbelief.

First, there is the Protagonist, or Main Character. (MC). Your novel could have a few of these, as several characters work together to achieve some common goal, sometimes separated by distance or some tragedy but united in goal. The Point Of View (POV) of the story is usually in the 'head' of the MC or MCs.
Image result for jedi fight
Then, there is the Antagonist. This is the person (or thing, or creature) that has a countering goal, who gets in the way of the protagonist, who makes life difficult. The Antagonist and the Protagonist usually have cross purposes. The criminal mastermind wants to make one last heist and get away clean, and retire on an island, while the detective is determined to stop him and bring him to justice.

The antagonist does not always have to be a person. In The Old Man and the Sea, the sea itself is the enemy. In Alive, the story of the Andes Survivors, the snow and the mountain were the enemies. Sometimes, time itself is an enemy. 

Supporting Cast
As in a movie, the protagonist and the antagonist both have supporting cast. The wise mentor that helps the detective gain focus. The dirty cop who helps the criminal mastermind get away, for a share of the 'take'.

Every person on earth has a body, a mind, and a spirit. Likewise, your characters, even your supporting cast, should reflect this. It is a good idea to fill out a questionnaire like the one below, for each character in your novel: the protagonist, the antagonist, and all supporting characters.
Character Sketch

Each character in a novel, or at least your protagonist and antagonist, should have a goal that is clearly defined by the middle of the book. The reader should eventually understand what is at stake for each by that time, also. (Stakes). The characters should have redeeming qualities, that make them likable, but at least one flaw that they either overcome by grit, or, more likely, that causes a failure in the middle of the book and must be overcome with external help, usually through supporting cast, or intervention even by God. (Deus Ex Machina).

I normally use Excel to flesh out my story. I'm linking a blank copy of that spreadsheet below. If you do not have/can't afford Microsoft Office, You can open them and edit a copy for yourself using Open Office. It's free and does a lot that Office does.
Blank Story Workbook

I won't spend a lot of time discussing the fleshing out of your characters beyond that; the questionnaire and workbook do a better job. But if you have any questions beyond that you can drop me an email at chris [dot] solaas [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Christian Writing 101 - Step 2: Designing: Preliminaries

World-Building. It's where many aspiring novelists run to with joy, only to come back frustrated with the ton of details that go into crafting a world correctly.

But, that's not really what this step in the process of creating a book is all about.

Before we get lost in the weeds, let's take the Design process in small chunks. The first step in design is to determine what you want to say. Note that I'm careful here not to say, 'what God wants to say...' This is mainly because it comes across as trite. It's certain that God gives us things to write, but we must be careful not to elevate what we write to the level of Scripture. Editors, and even readers, get turned off by the statement, 'God gave me this book to write.' It may very well be true, but it's still your words, and saying it's God's work may give you something to answer for later, especially if it's, well, not very well done.

Before you begin the design of your book, of course, you need to pray, and ask God if this is what He wants, and what it is He wants from you in this journey. And every experience is different, but I believe the artist is implanted (by God) with the desire to create, and guided by the Spirit as to what he or she should create.

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 2 See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: 3 And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, 4 To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, 5 And in cutting of stones, to set [them], and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship. 6 And I, behold, I have given with him Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan: and in the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee; [Exo 31:1-6 KJV]

Just as God placed in Bezaleel and Aholiab the desire and knowledge to create according to His good will, and given their hands the skill needed for the job, so He empowers us to do the same in the endeavors He's called us to do too.

Sorry for the preamble, but it's important.

On to the Preliminaries of Design.

Bullet points for how to accomplish the preliminary design of a book:
  • Identify what you wish to convey
  • Identify why you wish to convey it
  • Identify who you want to say it to
  • Identify how you wish to convey it
Exactly. The old, who, what, when, where, how, and why, except in a different order and with some of them dropped out and... something almost, but not entirely, unlike tea. Sigh.

The order above is important. You need to ask yourself specifically what you are called to write, why you feel called to write it, then who needs to hear it, which will actually determine how you deliver it.

In essence, you don't find a lot of middle graders and young adults reading nonfiction for fun, but that is a solid platform for adults, and young adults on assignment.

For the most part, I'll cover the process here for Fiction. I'll have sections for non-fiction too, and I'll try to clearly mark them.

Once you've answered the questions above, the how should have helped you identify genre and main story line, the who should have helped with reading level and expected overall length.

For example:
  • what - I wish to convey Proverbs 10:12 (main points: hatred promotes strife, love covers sins)
  • why - I believe God has put it on my heart due to hurts in the past
  • who - I want to reach teens with this message
  • how - through fiction: YA Mystery
 Story: (Elevator Pitch)
Someone is targeting the 'in crowd' at Gallantino High School, and kids are getting hurt. Suspicion is on the new kid at school. Who is he, and where did he come from? Drew Davenport must find the culprit before things turn deadly... for everyone!

The stakes in this story would have to be high, and the motive for the antagonist would have to be strong. According to James Scott Bell, the stakes are usually death. Death of a person, a dream, 

In this story, assuming I ever wrote it, Davenport would be the main character, and the new kid would be the son of a man who was set up and fired, and run out of town years ago. The dad committed suicide and the mom always blamed the people of the town for it. Eventually she remarries, and because of an inheritance, they move back to her hometown. The new dad is trying to fit in, but the mom is bitter. This new kid goes through a character arc where he is angry at everyone, especially the kids of the people who destroyed his dad. He finally moves to forgiveness, even in the face of accusations and plots against him too.

Eventually he has to work together with Drew to uncover the real saboteur and bring them to justice. The one who actually has been creating these accidents is another kid whose parent was harmed by this group's parents. As the truth comes out, both parents are exonerated and some of the perpetrators are met with disciplinary action.

As in fiction, you also have to answer the same questions.


  • what - I wish to write a Devotional based on the Gentiles who interacted with Jesus
  • why - As one, I think it encouraging to see Jesus' response to them and their faith
  • who - to reach other Gentile believers with encouragement and examples to follow
  • how - a one month daily devotional, format of subject, reading, commentary, prayer
I would not need to plot this out, obviously, simply read through the gospels to find 30 Gentiles that interacted with Jesus, like the Woman at the Well.

Next, we'll talk about the meat of Design - Characters.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Christian Writing 101 - Step 1: Pray

This probably goes without saying (GWS) but writing a book is not an easy journey, and as a Christian, you will want to be in prayer about whether this is the calling God has given you, or whether it is a fun hobby or pipe-dream you've wished you could do.

Repeat: This is not easy. I wrote my first novel in 2008, and spent years editing, revising, getting critiqued, crying, rewriting, editing, shopping, and finally self-publishing some seven years later. And there are others I have spoken with who spent decades trying to get their manuscript published. I was not aggressive in seeking traditional publication, so your mileage may vary.

From the age of six I was writing little 2-page 'novels' for my Mom to Oooh and Aaah over. Still, life happens, and I didn't think seriously about writing until I was in midlife.

But what I wanted back then, and still do from time to time, is the recognition from others that I am a person of value. And God has something to say about that. He says in Rom 3:23 that All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That means I stink, and if I sniff my armpit, I discover that this is true. On the other side of the coin, He values me infinitely, not because of what I am (I promise, I'm definitely NOT 'all that'), but because of who He is. Look at the price He paid. He loves me. Rom 5:8 tells me that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Not just 'gave me a cookie', not just 'gave me a house', but died. Even while I was stinky.

Where should my praise come from?
I'm already beloved by God, part of a chosen generation, a royal priesthood. I have my worth in Him. So I must determine through prayer whether this strong desire to write is a Calling, from Him, or whether it's because I need another attaboy. Because if I search for meaning and worth in what others say about me, in how many books I've written, it ends up being water poured into an empty cup with the bottom missing. It will never and can never satisfy. And Jesus gives His 'take' on doing things for the approval of others in His sermon on the Mount: Verily, I say unto you, they have their reward. Meaning, if you want the praise of men, if that's what you are longing for, then that's all you'll get. And I'm here to tell you, it's a hollow thing, and never satisfies.

So, is this a Calling?
This journey is hard. It has its rewards, but it's not worth doing if it's not done right, and it's not going to have meaning if it's not done for Him. Those that just want to do it for fun, probably wouldn't be reading this. And those doing it for recognition would likely quit when it gets hard. Or when nobody notices.

But if it is a calling, then you'll be driven to do this, and it will be for a higher purpose, and you'll be satisfied if only God ends up approving. Because in the final analysis, that's all that matters.