Monday, November 16, 2015

Wattpad Block Party - Winter Edition II

I'll be doing the Wattpad Block Party -- Winter edition. And yes, I'll be doing a giveaway of one of my ebooks. If you want to be included in the giveaway, please subscribe to this blog (by feed or by email) and write something in the comment section below.

Post Title: What Writers can learn from a Writing Contest Judge by Carole McDonnell
Username: CaroleMcDonnell
I recently became a judge for a flash fiction short story competition. It was an interesting experience. Note, I do not say "fun experience" because there were moments which were decidedly not "fun." Especially when I had to (gently) critique a story or reject it entirely. So, I thought it'd be a good idea to share some of the writing advice I gave to some of the contestants.
The genres I judged were scifi, fantasy, ghost stories, and fairy tales.  

Follow the Rules
The very first advice that comes to mind is this: Follow the rules, submit your story to the appropriate genre, try to understand all the elements of a particular genre.  
One story, especially, had me quite torn. It was the best story I'd read in the entire competition, probably one of the best stories I'd read in years. But I had to disqualify it. The author had put it in the wrong category, the scifi category.  I suppose the author thought the story was scifi, but having a sprinkling of scifi catchphrases does not a science fiction story make. 
Other authors were rejected either because their stories did not have all the elements of a genre or the authors decided to go meta wink-wink nudge-nudge and parody a traditional scifi, fairy tale, or fantasy story.  It's best to create your own original fairy tale than to play with a well-known one. I cannot tell you how many "not your mother's fairytale" stories I saw. Worse, these "new" twists on traditional fairytales were not so new at all. Competition judges have read a lot; few "twists" are new to us.    
Know when to begin a story
Knowing when to begin a story is difficult. It is not necessary to start the story with guns blazing. A story that begins too close to the action might confuse the reader if it is badly-executed. So, should we start a story a second, an hour, a day, a month, a year, three hundred years before the event in the opening scene? Infodumping background and backstory at the beginning of a story is problematical. Most readers will not remember names, places, and dates, presented to them at the beginning of a story. Those captains, kings, nations you dumped on them in the opening prologue will have to be interwoven into the story again. Remember that people generally don't care about facts unless emotion is involved, and they don't care about a character's history until they've lived a few hours with the main character in the present.  Some writers use flashback scenes and others sprinkle backstory into a story, interweaving past events into the present. One warning about flashbacks: it's best not to use flashbacks too early in a story. In a novel, wait a few chapters or you will halt the forward thrust of the story. It's best not to use flashbacks in a short story unless one can get away with it. (And never assume you are so skilled that you can get away with breaking the rules.)
Know how many characters are needed
A failed story sometimes has too many characters; this just leads to confusion and a list of names the reader cannot connect to. Sometimes a story has one main character in the beginning then changes to another main character toward the end. Sometimes there is a missing character. Just as there can be a missing line in a story that pulls certain thoughts together, or a missing scene or a missing chapter, the missing character is the hardest character to "see." The writer has to step back and see if everyone present in the story is necessary, and if any essential person is absent. 
Talking heads
Narrative beats are not always necessary but long sections of dialog only punctuated by "he said" or "she said" is a lost opportunity to show aspects of the story, characterization, even subtextual metaphors.
Filtering words
Words such as "I looked," "I saw," "I glanced," "I heard," "I felt," or "I smelled" are filter words. They put a distance between the reader and the story's narrator. If one isn't careful, these words can overwhelm a manuscript, at every sentence. Instead of writing, "She saw him that morning wearing a blue-colored shirt," tweak the story to make it more active. "The blue shirt he wore" or "That morning, he wore a blue shirt." Instead of "She listened to the sounds of a bird singing in the woods," write "The caw of a raven echoed through the pine barrens." Avoid words such as "seemed," "appeared," "felt," "had the feeling," and "realized." They are often a sign that the writer is telling. Don't write "She seemed happy" or "I realized he was holding his breath" or "he looked scared." Try instead, "A smile flickered on her face" or "His shoulders relaxed and a silent sigh escaped his mouth" or "His hands shook."
Vagueness never helps
Use the perfect word. Why use "car" or "sound" when you can use Lexus or hooptie? Or splashing or gurgling? 
Lack of Voice
One of the worst problems I encountered was the lack of voice in the stories. Voice is not difficult, and yet it is one of the hardest things for new writers to master. I wil only say that "voice" reveals the narrator's heart. Sometimes it reveals more, such as the author's culture, obsessions, or preoccupations. But at its basic level, voice reveals the narrator's personality and heart.In the same way that a visual artist chooses a particular palette, medium, or subject, a writer chooses --or allows-- voice. Voice is often found in description. The way a character washes laundry can be conveyed in different way depending on the narrator's backstory, present situation, emotional state, age, rank, wealth, hopes. The description of an abandoned house depends on who is describing it. If the description of the abandoned house in your story could fit into any genre or could be done by any author, that description lacks voice. The writer doesn't have to be over-the-top, but merely himself.   
A story is not a summary
Know what a story is, how to tell it, and how to end it. A story is not a synopsis or a memo. Stories have elements of fiction, which include characterization, description, action, a story arc, a geographical or chronological setting. Many of the stories I read seemed to have characters hanging in space. The season, time of day, locations, were absent or had no effect on the character. Some stories were more like descriptions of situations; there was no beginning, no middle, no end. And some stories felt as if the author thought the twist ending would make up for the lack of plot.  
Watch the coarse language
Coarseness doesn't imply honesty, truth, passion, edginess, or anger, especially if a writer uses the coarse word repeatedly. Also, you never know if the judge is religious or easily offended. If you're going to use a coarse word, make sure it's absolutely needed.  
Be careful when attempting versimilitude
Fiction reflects life but in order to work, it can't reflect life too much. The dialog must feel real, have verisimilitude, but it must also be crafted. If two characters are arguing, don't write every word of the argument in order to show how stressed both characters are. Real-life arguments go on forever...but dialog is perfected conversation.  Have you ever seen a movie where characters are having a boring conversation? The boring conversation lasts just long enough for the viewer to understand that it is a boring conversation. Then the scene ends. The writer doesn't give us the full extent of the conversation but manages to cut away after the plot point is achieved. Consider also good dialogs, which are fictionally styled and carefully-crafted but somehow feel real, natural, and free-flowing.  
Pronoun Referrents
When using pronouns such as "it," "its," "she," "her," "this," "of them," "these," "those," "that," "there," or "which," always remember that the reader is not inside your head. Always ask yourself if the reader will understand what "it" is referring to. 
Watch for overly-long sentences 
Some of the sentences I saw in some stories were doing much too much work.  There is just so much information a sentence can hold. And some sentences work so hard they should be paid overtime. Watch, also, if you overdo it with commas, prepositions, clauses, phrases, etc. 
I hope this helps you. And happy creativity, all!

Carole McDonnell 

Jpeg of My Life as an Onion attached to this email.

 Remember my Giveway (Please go to this link or send me a messenger on wattpad if you wish to enter)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Weird Western Wednesdays

Today I am guest blogging at
I am participating in Nicole Givens Kurtz’s Weird Western Wednesdays!
My guest blog post appears on her blog, Pulp Reports, which can be found on her website, Other Worlds Pulp (



            I remember the first story that devastated me: it was a fairy tale and it was Hans Christian Andersons The Little Mermaid. A sad work quite unlike the happy Disney film version, it taught me the world was unfair, that a kind-hearted person could work hard for a particular and peculiar heart-loved treasure and yet not receive it. It was not merely the simple act of not receiving the treasure that bothered my tween heart but the fact that the treasure had been stolen, willfully, cunningly, and by someone with a rationalizing conscience. The Little Mermaid had saved the prince from drowning. The Little Mermaid had given up much in order to win the human prince. Therefore the Little Mermaid should if life were fairwin the prince of her heart. But she had not.

            The second story to bother but not truly devastate-- me was the film High Noon with Gary Cooper. The hero was loved by two women. One pale and blonde. The other dark and foreignand somehow used or damaged goods.

I have always loved and hated Westerns. To me there is no difference between a cowboy with a rifle and a warrior with a sword, lance, or quiver. They are often both on quests, they have a right to wrong, they follow the rules and laws of their times, they exist in a solitary often desolatelandscape. Trouble was, westerns were often upsetting me because of the way they treated minority characters.

So, as I watched High Noon, I could not see what all was so bad about the Spanish spitfire. She was quite noble, trustworthy, and honest, and she loved the hero. Except that there was that taint of being the other and somehow not being worthy enough. Like the Little Mermaid, she lost her love as well. I suppose Ive always been more interested in stories when a love story and an underdog were involved. And, like all little minority kids who watched TV in the nineteen-seventies, I developed the art of mentally adapting the story being told on the big screen. It seemed perfectly clear to me that Romeo and Juliet were about two lovers from different religions, and that Hamlets love Ophelia was black. That is how we heal ourselves.

Later, when I found out that Hans Christian Anderson had written The Little Mermaid in order to tell the real-life story about a Jewish girls unrequited love for a Christian boy, I understood why stories about the rejected, the unseen, the wounded other meant so much to me and why I simultaneously loved and hated westerns.

Weird Westerns are not my favorite genre but they are in the top ten of my faves. Probably just after wounded warrior fantasies. Why? Because they combine my love of heroes with my love of the fantastic. And when the story is multicultural, all things come together to make the world right again. If not for the Little Mermaid, then at least for me.

I said earlier that The Little Mermaid devastated me. There are two genres of devastating stories: those that clearly open a childs eyes to the fact that the world is unfair, and those that utterly disregard some aspect of the child, such as race or disability. The Little Mermaid may have been a fairytale but it is inherently true. High Noon is about reality but it is not only true but cruel. Why? Because it is part of a canon that excludes. That is the worse kind of canon. I think stories help to set the world right. They either set the world right by not consciously or unconsciouslyignoring certain aspects of humanity such as race and disability. Or they set the world right by warning us about the evils in the world. In that way, stories point to the obstacles we may encounter in our path. I hope the stories in this anthology will help light and right the way.


Carole McDonnell
    1. Twitter- @scifiwritir


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Should Christian Stories Evangelize

The easy answer is: “yes, we should evangelize.” Evangelism is often about making the world see our light…without us being aware of it.  They see us warts and all, without us being preachy.
However, most Christians are
  1. legalistic and preach the law more than the riches of His grace;
  2. inside a box but don’t realize they are;
  3. don’t seem to understand that it is often the goodness of God that calls sinners to repentance;
  4. are not really good at speaking about other big issues in the world; and
  5. American Christians preach their class, race, agenda, and denomination.
Here is more of what I mean.
1. We don’t know enough about the riches of God’s grace to share that. So often preachers will preach about the many facets of being good and how we should not sin and how thankfully Jesus saved us. This is preaching legalism under the guise of preaching grace. We have to understand the many facets of His grace. We have to widen our understanding of grace. Then we can teach and evangelize instead of always majoring in being good.
2. Christians often think they know what the world is saying, thinking, doing. But really they don’t know. Case in point, most Christians have been so taught that the world really needs to understand John 3:16. But honestly, the world has heard that a lot. The world already knows the gospel. Another case in point, most Christians see every conversation through what their church or denomination teaches. So even when they talk to or debate a fellow Christian, they are often unable to hear what the other Christian is saying because they are so trained to think the other Christian thinks like they do. Can you imagine such folks having conversations with non-Christians? Already imagining where they think the other person is coming from.
Case in point — a recent conversation I had with two Christians in which I used this quote:
“Once our hearts get broken, they never fully heal. They always ache. But perhaps a broken heart is a more loving instrument. Perhaps only after our hearts have cracked wide open, have finally and totally unclenched, can we truly know love without boundaries.”
— Fred Epstein
Every Christian who spoke with me about it interpreted it as Epstein saying “God’s sovereignty created trouble.”  They were self-righteous and angry and could not see that God was not shown as the causative agent at of broken hearts at all. They could not see past their assumption about what the “other” was thinking or about where the “other” came from.
For 3, I will just point you to this article. Note that this writer WAS a Christian and she believed that we go to heaven because we are “good.”
For 4, I will also use the above link. Note also that she speaks of social justice. American Christian evangelism generally only speaks of sin. There are no Romeros, Martin Luther Kings, etc in the United States. Not in a big way. Most of the times Christians talk about anything in the world, they speak of it in order to get a “person” to stop sinning. They ponder only personal evangelism and saving each human or saving The United States (as a nostalgic hearkening back to a rural type of Eden where America is the unique country, the city set on a hill) rather than saving the world.
The problem is that while some folks are focused on their personal sins and will be open to dealing with their own salvation, there are other larger “secular” (so-called) issues that Christianity could touch. And I don’t mean “touch” as “show how sinful it all is.” American Christians are also very divided so they deal with issues in a very me-oriented way. Most white Christians don’t go on marches against guns, poverty, climate change, torture, war. They don’t give flaky lectures in the way New Age philosophies do. Christianity and art. No. Science, sex, and dehumanization …or whatever else. The spiritual joy of sex, artistic creation, linguistics, horse-racing, interior design, fabric design, whatever. Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin.   The upshot is that the world (and the world’s religions) speaks of stuff like this and there is no Christian counterpart. There are Christians who don’t seem to understand that all good gifts come from God therefore even atheists are blessed with talents, etc, and are speaking of God’s beauty and creation even though those atheists aren’t aware of it.
For 5, I will use as an example the following quote:
I ask, “How have you all this wealth?” For the care of the poor consumes wealth. When each one receives a little for one’s needs, and when all owners distribute their means simultaneously for the care of the needy, no one will possess more than one’s neighbor. Yet it is plain that you have very many lands. Whence all these? Undoubtedly you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you want in love.
— Basil the Great
Even if this might be deemed by some as a bit extreme, a Christian should not look at the quote and immediately start talking about welfare mothers. But this is just what most white Christians do — especially when the quote is mentioned by a black Christian. If the quote is mentioned by a white Christian, then most Biblical American Christians will start talking about commies and progressives.
So then, to your question. How can people who have so much of the world in us, how can people who are so blind to the speck in their own eyes, how can people who cannot see past their own cultural issues truly bring a great wonderful Christ to a sinner without the sinner — if said sinner is perceptive — rolling their eyes?

Earthly things lead to heavenly things

Jesus said, “If I tell you of earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell  you of heavenly things?”

I think Christian fiction could improve by being more cosmology based. And not the usual cosmology of angels but about some personal dear truth that touches the writer’s unique soul.
There is a kind of trust Christians should develop, a kind of fearless delving into the unknowing and letting the creative chips fall where they may. But often we are so afraid of veering into sin, of veering into what we don’t know, and we work from an invisible doctrinal outline. I really think we have to brave the creative process and discover our own emotional issues. The Holy Spirit works in our spirit and in our emotions. The book of Revelation says that he who overcomes will receive a white stone with a name on it which no man knows but the receiver.

I think our personal relationship with God is like that. We are individuals whom God loves — and He works within our individuality and personality. As artists, Christians are so aware of a Christian creative tradition (Lewis, the Arthurian Cycle, and Tolkien, for instance) and so aware that other Christians want something like Tolkien and company that they unconsciously write for other Christians instead of writing from their own unique souls.

I think the problem with many Christians is that they are very conscious of planting spiritual seeds that might grow and mature in the reader’s mind. And some Christian writers even go so far as wanting to write a book that plants seeds, waters them, and harvests them into an altar call at the book’s end. But I think that’s hard to do when there are often so many mental, emotional, and theological arguments that make the mental soil of the reader so hard to cultivate. If the field is the soul of the reader, then Christian evangelism should try to affect that soil/soul. Even if we only cultivate the soil/soul and someone else reaps the harvest, we will have done our part.

One of my favorite books written by a Christian is George MacDonald’s The Day Boy and The Night Girl. One cannot read it and say it “means” anything. Because whatever theology contained in it is pretty unclear. But it touches the soul. There is such a thing as soul. And so many Christian fiction books touch doctrine, or the mind, or the emotions but not the soul.

It’s not an evangelical book but it is a seed-sowing kind of book that breaks up fallow ground. We each know what has wounded us against God or religious people, what has troubled us about the world, what has terrified us about the cosmos, what has enchanted us about the universe. That is our little white stone with our name on it. And sometimes we don’t really realize that what is what our soul wants to write about. If we would simply trust the creative force of the Holy Spirit and believe that we can dive into a piece of writing without being theologically “sure” how it will all turn out, then our souls will peek through.

When I wrote The Constant Tower, I wasn’t aware the story would be about God’s love and spiritual warfare. But since my spirit is joined to God’s spirit, God knew what the story would be about. When I wrote My Life as an Onion, I thought I was writing a romance, but Holy Spirit knew that I was writing about woundedness. When I wrote Wind Follower, I thought I was writing about cultural wars but Holy Spirit was writing about loss.

All these things — loss, woundedness, God’s love — are not obviously about the cross of Christ or His great work of salvation. But they can touch the fallow ground souls of people and will help to prepare the soil by creatively doing the Great Commission Work of healing, cleansing and raising their souls from the dead.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Poetry: The tainted glass

The poet's eye
should not be mirrors
but glass;
To speak of one's self
one must turn one's gaze outward.

instinctively understand this.
Among the greats,
selfies are rare.
And great conversationalists
do not speak of themselves.

Young poets struggle to believe this.
The challenge to put self aside
insults, hurts, them.

But, if they wish to be great,
this is the passage
they must walk through
In art, this dying to self
leads to a purer declaration of self.
This is what craft is about
the hiding which shows itself.

The poem,
being pure glass --
its taint, its color,
will reveal your true self.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Remember Lot's Wife

It's funny. Preachers always preach about Lot's Wife with a kind of sneery petty maliciousness. They always have to see her as looking back at sin and lust. They figure that can be the only reason why she looked back. And they don't seem to realize that when they think this kind of thing they are really not seeing the real issue behind the text. They are either rehashing what other ministers have taught them or they are too addicted to seeing sins in certain Bible characters and judging them.

Jesus has just finished talking about separation. Two will be in bed; one will be taken and one will be left.

It is unclear in the English Bible how many daughters Lot and his wife had. We know that Lot delayed. Why did he? We know that the angels were very specific: "your unmarried daughters who live with you in this house." We know there were daughters' husbands or daughters' fiances who would be left behind. Is it possible that Mrs Lot looked back because of her grief at losing people and not because of her love of sin? We don't know how many daughters Lot had. Two? Two unmarried? Two betrothed? Two unmarried AND to married?

I really want to write a book about Lot's wife that looks at this woman mercifully.

So then, why did Jesus say to Remember her?

Because, won't those who are raptured (I don't care if it's pre, post, or mid) will be grieved at such a terrible separation? Heck, when death comes to some of our relatives, won't we also be grieved at the eterna separation? Heck, when judgement day comes, won't we also grieve at the family separation?

But why don't we concentrate and focus on this aspect of the command. Separation..a terrible separation. Why do Christians insist on using those three words only as a way to be maliciously petty about a woman they really don't know? Because the minds of Christians are very hard to change. Sad, though. Because what stays with me when i see those three words is the terrible separation, not the "oh this is an evil woman who loved sin." Where is the love?  

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Lamech, emulation, and murderous rage

Recently when the reporter was murdered by the aggrieved angry former employee, a TV station was talking about his manifesto in which he talked about other rage murderers. I forgot who. Might have been Dylann Roof. Or Columbine. Whoever it was, there was some identification and emulation taking place. And this is apparently quite normal. Mass murderers, rage murderers, murderers with manifestos are always looking back and praising some mass murderer or rage murderer who murdered before they did. Columbine, for instance, has popped up in several manifestos. Usually something like, "I'm gonna kill folks like the guys at Columbine folks did." Or "XXX who killed all those students/theatergoers etc was right."

So this got me thinking about Lamech, Cain's descendant. Lamech was the first person in the Bible -- that we know of-- who emulated a murderer. He looked upon Cain as a kind of spiritual idol/excuse/validation. Cain got mad; I, Lamech, got mad. Cain was forgiven and I also will be forgiven. Cain was his spiritual pedigree. Ah, we humans! Always looking toward exemplars.

Of course, we are all to look upon others who attain great deeds. Paul said, be imitators of me. Jesus wants us to imitate Him. But wholesale generalized selfish emulation is forbidden. I used to think Paul spoke against emulation because we humans only imitated things that made us lose ourselves in some other person's stylings, antics, etc. But apparently I missed the serious point. Emulation can make us do nasty things to other people because other folks have done nasty things.

Lord save us from wrong emulations.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

God, beauty, the pygmies and me

God is so unlike what we have imagined him to be..and sometimes when we get a gimpse of how God thinks, we are flummoxed for a while and confused. Because God's ways are not our ways.

This post will be about beauty. And about the broadening of my mind.

I like to think I'm clear-thinking and not encumbered by culture. But recently something made me think. It involved the pygmies.

It turns out that there are many evolutionary DNA mitochondrial genome alleles in the world. Certain pygymy populations have an abundance of alleles..more so than other genetic groups. The implication is that the riches of all this genetic material in one group of people may indicate that the pygmies were the first people from whom we all are descended. My crappy description of this evolutionary discipline aside, let's just take a moment to let that settle in.  The pygmies are probably the nearest to the image of Lucy/Eve. Again, let that settle in. But even if I'm not quite understanding what all this is about, and if we ignore the pygmy research....let's pause a moment.

What did Lucy (the evolutionary first mother of us all) look like? What did Eve look like?

Now, I didn't think of myself as racist or even affected by the thinking of European evolutionary types. But as i looked at the pics of pygmies, I actually found myself thinking that God's idea of beauty was seriously wrong. It became clear to me that I believed Adam looked like Will Smith or young Denzel or even Amir Khan.  (I was at least advanced enough to know that Adam would be dark-skinned. After all, his name means "Red" like the earth he was taken from. ) But apparently, I still had the European model. In my mind, Adam had to be 6 feet tall, with mega Abs, etc.  In short, I had this western idea of beauty and the historical Adam did not seem perfect to my narrow cultural mindset.

I found this hard to wrap my mind around. For a while, it seemed to me that God didn't know what he was doing. Why would a perfect God's ideal perfect first human being look like a pygymy and not "a body like Arnold's with a Denzel base"? Why wasn't God's idea of beauty like mine (which was obviousy the truest best idea)? Yes, I was judging God by my limited mind and by my cultural norms and brainwashing. But the entire concept seemed so weird to me it took a while to get over it. But I at last learned how mired I was in my own mired that God's ways just seemed wrong.

I got to thinking about this when someone on Facebook posted yet another meme about Michelle Obama's butt and Michelle being fat. I understand that the default of many white Americans is that their culture is the best, the superior, the perfect. I've seen racist white guys with big noses, guys covered with hair all over their arms, necks, chest, and back, who thought they were superior to black folks because black folks have big lips and dark skins. It's as if their minds are so stuck in their paradigm that someone big lips imply racial inferiority while big noses do not. Or dark skin imply stupidity while a body covered with hair does not.

I have had to remind some racist folks that the way we look is merely a genetic thing and that God does go around rating external beauty. He doesn't have the Hollywood or Aryan standard. It is often very difficult for white Christians to imagine Adam and Eve being dark-skinned with big butts. As part of the Euro-mindset, even if everyone says "man first came out of Africa" ..the average white Christian has an idea of what Adam and Eve's butt would look like...and any bigger or higher the butt would be deemed wrong or somehow made by an incompetent God who did not understand beauty. I'm just saying that the American idea of what is beautiful or fat is not something God even gets into. And his idea of beautiful has to deal with the heart. God made a variety of genetics and all are perfect. Man looks at appearances but God, the angels, the whole host of heaven only see the heart.

God hates racism. There are two times in which God lost his patience where racism was concerned. One was when Jesus turned over the money changers table. The Jewish moneylenders were cheating the proselytes. God's house was to be called a house of prayer for all people, but the money changers were taking advantage of non-Jewish beievers from all nations. The other time was when Miriam was prejudiced against Moses Ethiopian wife. And God symbolically spat in her face.

Sadly, there are many Christians -- good people who believe in their Bible-- who are prejudiced. They don't realize their prejudices are preventing their prayers from being answered. God has said we must love everyone, and he who hates his brother without a cause is a murderer. When I'm on facebook and some cultural issue comes up and good Christians show their hateful racial sides, I often wonder what we wil do with so many good but hateful Christians. It's hard for them to see past their cultural assumptions.

Lord, thank you for challenging my infantility. Save me from cultural prejudice. Save me from stupid assumptions.

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