Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween (Share Your Costume Story)

by Sariah S. Wilson

Just got back from the two hour candy spree with our little ones. The youngest two made it about an hour (it's very cold here, and they were very bundled up. The baby came back and enjoyed having a bottle while picking up pieces of candy because of the sound they made, and our daughter helped her dad pass out candy at the door, where she was very terrified of anyone in a mask). The next oldest made it about a half hour longer, and my oldest son and I were out until the bitter end.

My oldest son wanted to wear a costume similar to one I had worn as a child. Growing up, we were not a pick out your costume early and get something cute and nice. We were more of a what do we have around the house that we can make into a costume sort of family (and sometimes a what could mom sew for us family).

So one year when I was about ten, there wasn't a costume I could wear. There hadn't been time for my mother to make anything for me, and here it was the night of the ward party and I had no costume. Growing up, we had the awesomest ward Halloween parties that I've ever been to. Real booths with fun prizes, a huge set up, all these cookie and cupcake decorating stations, a haunted house in the primary room that the youth went all out to make - I still have very vivid memories of going to those parties.

The costume contest was always fun too, but of course, we never won.

Feeling panicked over not having a costume, my mom came up with a brilliant idea. She had me dress all in black, took an old vampire costume cape and tied it over the top of my head. She handed me a plastic pumpkin and said I was the Headless Horseman.

That year - to everyone in my family's shock - I won the costume contest (only time I've ever done so in my life).

My oldest son thought that was a great story and wanted to be the Headless Horseman.

And that lasted about two minutes tonight before he decided that wouldn't work (and was probably much better suited to a party environment than a trick or treating one). With a little face powder and red lipstick he became a vampire instead.

The other kids - one was a professional baseball player (where he wore his baseball uniform from last spring with a piece of paper attached to it that he had written the word "professional" on) our little girl was "Briar Rose Princess" (Sleeping Beauty), and the baby, who has the distinction of being the third son, wore the triceratops dinosaur costume his two brothers had worn before him (as long as they don't care, they're getting hand-me-downs. When he gets old enough to care, I'll let him pick out his own costumes).

Did you dress up this year? Have you posted any pictures of your kids' costumes? (If you have, put a link in the comments if you'd like to share with the group.) Or post and tell us your memory of your favorite costume growing up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Through The Looking Glass

by Julie Coulter Bellon

It’s been a busy week. My sewing machine and I have been going like crazy. I made my daughter a beautiful Alice in Wonderland costume that I’m pretty proud of and I’m just putting the finishing touches on it today. Sewing is something I didn’t think I was particularly good at, but I can’t tell you the satisfaction I’ve received seeing this little creation coming out of my efforts. To start with a basic knowledge of sewing and a few yards of fabric, that ends with a beautiful satin dress and apron fit to be worn in public is like a minor miracle for me.

It’s sort of like writing a book. I start with an idea from a snatch of a news story that gets my imagination working overtime and I start jotting down plot ideas and thinking about characters. The blank page becomes cluttered with words as I try to express what my imagination has come up with, and before I know it, the manuscript is done. I tweak here and there, just as I did to custom fit the dress I made for my daughter, and hopefully meet all my deadlines. Of course, for Halloween, the deadline is only two days away and I finished with time to spare.

Generally with my writing, I don’t finish with time to spare. I get addicted to revising and I keep on tweaking right up until the deadline. That’s usually how I stop revising. When the deadline is here, I have to stop. With the costume, however, I’m grateful I finished with time to spare so I’m not stressing about it. Well, I stressed a little last night since I bent the needle and was having bobbin issues, but with the help of my husband, I was able to figure it out, fix the problem and finished the apron without any more mishaps. Which is sort of like writing. I like having someone to help me fix the problems, like my writing friends I talk with and fix plot/character issues with, because they understand the workings of a writer’s mind. And it makes the process a lot more fun.

Of course, the process ends when you show your book off in public and hope it turns out like you imagined it would. I think it almost always does, but I worry still about people liking what I've done, etc., just like I’ll worry a bit about the costume. I mean, I think it looks like Alice in Wonderland’s dress (but I'm a bit prejudiced) and my baby will be an adorable white rabbit to go with Alice, what could be more perfect? I’m actually sort of thinking about being the Queen of Hearts. (I thought about making two of my sons be the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, but when I floated the idea to them, they gave me the look that said I had been sewing a little too long and so I gave up on that.)

But if I was the Queen of Hearts, then I could go around saying, “Off with their heads!” Which, (since I’m relating this to writing) is something that I’ve thought about saying after a particularly bad review. Haha. Just kidding. Sort of. I’ve learned a lot from reviews, that’s for sure, and I try to improve. Just like with sewing. I’ve learned a lot from this project and if I ever do it again, I will be better. I hope. But if not, I can look at this dress fondly and know that I did it. I jumped in, I learned, and I tried my best. And that’s all anyone can ask for when they take a peek into the looking glass

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's In! And More Milestones

by Stephanie Black

I did it! I finished my manuscript and submitted it! Hooray! (Apparently I’m channeling Dora the Explorer. “We did it! We did it! We did it! Hooray!” What I need now is a snail mariachi band to play a fanfare). So the book is in, and now comes the part where I wait to see what they think of it.


Since submitting a manuscript seems like a milestone-ish sort of event, I think it’s time for another Writing Milestone post. When I left off last time (okay, it was in June—I’m not exactly consistent with these posts) I had spent nearly a year rewriting The Believer to try to make it more LDS and less sci fi so it would appeal to Covenant’s market. I resubmitted it. And crossed my fingers and waited.

If I could pick a period of my life I would love to relive, that period in winter 2004 would NOT be it. I was worrying about the book—would it be a go this time? (That’s one of the distinctly un-fun thing about being a writer—you can work and dream and hope for years, and then you wait, knowing that your hopes could collapse in the time it takes to read the first few lines of an e-mail). In addition to book worries, I had just been called as Primary President, which was a new and daunting thing for me. And I was pregnant, and it was looking iffy. I’d had a second-trimester miscarriage a few months earlier, and now wasn’t sure if this new baby was going to happen. Not fun. (But it did go well, for which I’m very grateful—that baby is now in kindergarten).

Angela, the editor working with me, had told me if I hadn’t heard back by March 1st, to feel free to contact her. March 1st came and went. Being an insecure and ignorant newbie, I kept waiting (you can bet your last piece of Halloween candy—I mean your last good piece, not that piece of banana Laffy Taffy in the bottom of the bowl—that I wouldn’t wait now. I’d be e-mailing at 12:01 AM on March 1st). But I was shy and clueless and told myself, well, I have heard from her—she’d sent me an e-mail a month earlier asking for a bio form--and maybe that counted as hearing from them, so maybe I shouldn’t e-mail and pester them yet . . . yes, this is how my scared little newbie paranoid brain worked. Finally, ten days later, I couldn’t stand it any longer, and e-mailed Angela. We were living in Ireland, so we were seven hours ahead of Utah time. I sent the email in the afternoon (my time), then waited until after what I guessed would be the start of business hours in Utah, and checked my e-mail.

There was an e-mail from Angela.

Oh wow.

I opened it.

Her first line was a question—had the managing editor called me? My book had been accepted! I shrieked the news to my daughter. I called my husband and my mother, and celebrated by getting a sinus infection. Who knew sinus infections were so painful? Actually, we probably went out to dinner at some point to honor the occasion, but with my not-so-stellar memory, I can't remember details.

Learning that my book had been accepted for publication was a dream come true. For years, I’d worked and yearned, and now it was happening. They were going to publish my book. If I had to pick one Most Significant Writing Moment, that moment would probably be it. There have been many other awesome writing moments, but that milestone of climbing over the wall between unpublished and published was pretty momentous.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Changing the World's Mind

by Sariah S. Wilson

I have a new physical ailment that's had me flat on my back most of the weekend - a tooth that is pulsating with pain and makes me feel like I'm going to pass out. My dentist ordered me some antibiotics and my old pal Vicodin, and that's made me feel woozy and very sleepy. Thus, I must be forgiven in advance for anything that sounds stupid.

I know that I read somewhere (and it quite possibly could have been on this very blog, but I have that whole mind haze going on) that your favorite Dan Brown book is typically the first one you've read.

So far, this has turned out to be true for me. I was totally and completely engrossed in "The Da Vinci Code" (and have mentioned before on this blog that I tried to emulate some of the things he did in my first book). "Angels and Demons?" Not so much. I just never got into it. Didn't really like it. And it shocked me to meet people who liked "Angels and Demons" more than "The Da Vinci Code."

I will read "The Lost Symbol." I'm wondering if it will fall short of "The Da Vinci Code" as well, or whether I'll like it more or less than "Angels and Demons."

At a writing conference I attended a couple of years ago, I sat next to a woman where we asked the typical writing conference questions - what do you read, what do you write. I was still hyped up over "The Da Vinci Code" and mentioned how much I had liked it.

Her whole body changed. Her face hardened, she folded her arms, crossed her legs and turned away from me slightly.

"Have you read it?" I asked.

This turned into a diatribe about the Great Blasphemer (AKA Dan Brown) and how he had spread falsehoods and lies and this was why this woman was going to become a writer - because she planned on writing a book that would refute everything Dan Brown had said in order to guide people back to the truth. (If you still haven't read "The Da Vinci Code," I'm about to reveal some important plot points - you've been warned.)

I asked her what specifically she had been so bothered by. She was incensed by the idea that Jesus Christ had been married.

Of course, having always assumed this to be true, it didn't bother me at all when I read the book.

She was further outraged by the idea that he could have fathered a child (again, something I personally am not outraged by. I do wonder how the whole gene/DNA thing would work given Christ's parentage, but I wouldn't be shocked/disappointed/upset if he'd had a baby(ies). If anything, I would probably think that was kind of cool).

With the release of Brown's newest book, it did get me thinking of the impact he'd had with "The Da Vinci Code." I'm not saying that his conjecturing/research is fact. I don't know one way or the other if Jesus Christ was married and had a baby (although there are scholars who believe he wouldn't have been allowed to preach in synagogues had he not been married, and that it would have been customary for him to marry by a certain age, which I can get behind), but I found myself surprised by the impact that Brown had with that book. He was able to change people's ideas and perceptions, to open them up to possibilities that they previously hadn't considered. For example - a dear friend of mine, who had been raised with the belief that Christ was celibate, had no problem shifting this view and saying she could imagine that he might have been married.

I look at how Jared and Jerusha Hess for a time changed the way that teenagers talked to one another via "Napoleon Dynamite." Or how Stephenie Meyer indirectly advocated waiting until marriage. I don't know how much of an impact they had or how long-term those effects might be, but I would argue that there definitely was an impact.

So with that in mind, as LDS readers/writers, if you could write a book that would turn out to be a bestseller, what one idea would you like to put in people's heads? Obviously, that the Church is true would be a nice one to get everyone to believe, but I'm thinking smaller steps.

Like for me, I think I'd like to write a book that got people to consider the possibility that Quetzlcoatl (Maya/Aztec god) was Jesus Christ.

What about you?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Haunts Haven

by Kerry Blair

In all the wild, weird, woeful, and wonderful world of writing, there is no better feeling than holding in your hand the first copy of your newly-published book. Well, almost no better feeling. At this time yesterday I would have said nothing could top that thrill, but then last night something did. I opened an envelope and there was a newly-minted copy of Haunts Haven by Joan Sowards. I couldn’t put it down. Literally.

Joan is among my dearest of friends, a sister of the heart. I’ve held four of her children when they were even newer-born than her first novel. Holding the paperback and feeling tears run down my cheeks was probably a teensy bit better. After all, babies only take nine months to deliver; books almost always take much, much longer.

Holding Haunts Haven, rifling through the pristine pages, admiring the beautiful chapter headings, and inhaling the delightful smell of ink and paper, I thought again that electronics will never replace books. A book is a thing of beauty and a joy you can treasure, share, and eventually pass on. And when you love and admire the author like I do Joan, a book is even more. You know that between those covers is years of dreaming, writing, revising, editing, revising, dreaming, writing, editing, revising . . . and dreaming. Callie—the main character—is as real to me as either of Joan’s daughters. By the end of the book the ghost is even more real. (He could haunt my house any day! Or night. His choice.)

I should probably admit why receiving Joan’s book was even better than getting one of my own. It goes back to the newborn-baby thing. It is beyond incredible to share in all the joy and excitement, knowing you’ll have none of the worry and responsibilities. While I bask in the reflected glow of her success, Joan must now embark on the path of promotion, critical review, and book signings. (Oh, my! Those three things can be much worse than lions and tigers and bears. Well, not book signings, maybe. I love book signings! You sometimes make forever friends like Chilly and Dave and Deb and Pat, and sometimes friends you already have—like Jon—bring you chocolate. If there’s a way to beat that as a way of life, I have yet to stumble upon it.)

I could go on about Joan forever—and maybe I will on my own blog. Right now I want to hurry up and be one of the first to introduce Haunts Haven to the world. The backliner reads: When Callie Wilford inherits a century-old inn (hacienda) in southern Arizona, locals tell her of a ghost who guards the inn. But Callie doesn’t believe in ghosts, and she plans to turn the inn into a bed and breakfast. Then things start to happen—strange, spooky things—and she begins to wonder if there is some truth to the ghost stories. If that weren’t bad enough, Callie discovers a mysterious grave in the cellar. As she confronts the inn’s tragic secrets, she also faces her lonely past and learns to embrace her heritage. But it takes a handsome cowboy and a charming rancher to prove that Callie’s long-guarded heart can love again.

Don't you just love it already? If Haunts Haven isn’t exactly what the market needs –an LDS ghost story!—I don’t know what is. It is the perfect book to read before Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Or Christmas. Or New Year. Or . . . you get the idea. I can’t say it better than the person who wrote the blurb for the back cover (me): Haunts Haven grabs your attention from the first chapter and holds it into the wee hours . . . a love story you will never forget in a tale of suspense you will want to read again and again!

You can read the first chapter for yourself on Joan’s blog. If you live in Utah, it’s available in most LDS bookstores and will hopefully spread to the rest of the world very, very soon. In the meantime, you can order it here.

I slept with Haunts Haven on the nightstand next to my bed last night, but that’s only because I’ve read it three or eight times. I’ll practically guarantee that if you take it to bed, it won’t hit the nightstand until you’ve read the last word!

Congratulations, Joan! There are no words to express how grateful I am for your friendship and how thrilled I am to at last have Haunts Haven in my grubby little hands.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review of ALMA by H.B. Moore

by Julie Coulter Bellon

H.B. Moore’s writing fascinates me. I know the outcome of her stories of the Book of Mormon, Abinadi, and Alma, yet I still keep turning pages, anxious to see the journey she takes her readers on. She is a skilled writer and knows her subject matter well. One of the things I like best about her books is the careful research she has done using some of the work of leading Book of Mormon scholars. Her chapter notes are almost as interesting as the story and the fine details she provides make the characters come to life. It’s easy to imagine the time period and the people within the pages of her books because she has included what we do know and made educated guesses to flesh out what we don’t. Of course, her books are works of fiction, but I think the added details and research have made my own scripture study more rich and helped me want to do more of my own research.

Her books also provide a fresh perspective on scripture stories that we are familiar with. For example, in Abinadi, Moore puts forward the idea that Abinadi was not an old man as depicted in some artwork, but that perhaps he was a young man, with a family and everything to lose if he stands by his testimony. There is no evidence to tell us how old Abinadi really was at the time of his martyrdom, and I think the idea that perhaps he was young made my thoughts about his testimony more poignant and stirring somehow.

That’s something else I enjoy about Moore’s work---it’s not just a fluffy read. She draws you into the story, makes you really think about what you are reading, but gives you such compelling ideas, plotlines, and characters that make it impossible to not enjoy the journey she’s taking you on. It’s a fine balance that Moore handles very well.

Her new book, ALMA, does not disappoint in this area either. There were several places that made me stop and think about this man who was so pivotal in the Book of Mormon, especially his transformation from a priest of King Noah’s to a man of God. Moore provides such an intricate journey for him as a man who feels such deep regret and sorrow for his actions, but his true test of manhood comes as he tries to turn his life to Christ and follow what his heart knows to be right. It is such a wonderful gift to be able to weave a story around someone that is doing what we are all doing---trying to reconcile his life to God---and Moore brings that story home in spades. She makes it personal, she allows her readers to experience it without beating us over the head with it, and that’s what makes her writing truly great.

Moore’s books have plenty of material in them that could be used for discussions on gospel principles and how they can apply to real-life situations, but she is not preachy, which I appreciate. Her characters feel like people we can relate to, and their decisions, good or bad, provide avenues to explore on what we would do if we were in their shoes and facing the tests of faith that they do. Since each person will have their own perspective and life experience, Moore’s books connect us to the characters, but give us the opportunity to explore our feelings on the matter, without telling us how to feel. I’m sort of gushing here, but she really does have a great talent for writing on a topic that is filled with a lot of feeling for most people.

ALMA is available now in bookstores and I highly recommend it. I’ve admired Moore’s writing for some time now and she never lets me down. ALMA is a book that you will be thinking about long after you’ve turned the final page. I’ve included the backliner below.

King Noah is thundering with rage. On Amulon’s watch, the former high priest Alma disappeared from the city of Nephi, and every night more believers manage to escape. The king threatens certain punishment unless Amulon recaptures Alma—a seemingly impossible task.

But Amulon has a plan. An equally valuable prisoner is at his fingertips: Noah’s wife, Maia, whose newfound faith means bitter humiliation for the king and an opportunity for Amulon to seize power.

Amulon’s disavowed daughter Raquel is making plans of her own. Alma and his followers are building a colony by the waters of Mormon, and she’s determined to begin a new life there despite the deep grief she suffers daily as Abinadi’s widow.

Abinadi’s watchful brother Helam deems the journey to Mormon too risky, but when Lamanites plunder and burn the settlement, Raquel has no choice but to flee with her young son.

Drama and danger escalate as Alma the Elder organizes the Lord’s church and baptizes its members, bringing an outpouring of divine grace and power. But even as they rejoice, the believers have profound and perilous trials to face, from the outward threat of Amulon’s treachery to the inward threat of pride and disobedience.

With poignant emotion, gripping suspense, and rich inspiration, this new epic story from H.B. Moore vividly brings the Book of Mormon to life.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

West, Our Alma Mater

by Robison Wells

Thomas Wolfe once wrote: "He saw now that you can't go home again--not ever. There was no road back." This was in Wolfe's book You Can't Go Home Again. It was dedicated to a son who had moved out, got his MBA, couldn't find a job and wanted to move back in. (His son's name was Rob.)

No, actually the quote refers to how things change and you can never go back to the way they once were. Heraclitus similarly said that "It is impossible to step into the same river twice." And thus ends my Wikipedia research into the topic.

What I actually want to talk about is how my wife and I went to our old high school's football game last week, and it was fairly disappointing.

Let me set the scene: we were going on a date, and we suffer from crippling, Dickensian poverty. So, why not go to a high school football game!? Also: I was suffering from crippling, Dickensian swine flu (aka "hamthrax"). So, why not go sit in the cold for several hours and cough on teenagers!? (Have no fear, however, because no teenagers were in attendance. More on that later.)

Here are the details. I went to West High School, which is the holiest of all high schools, as evidenced by the fact that President Monson also attended it. (Sidenote: President Monson also got an MBA from BYU.) (Coincidence??? I think not.) (What I'm saying is that he and I are somewhat academically similar in a few minor details.)

Anyway, back in the day (when I was a freshman), West High took state in football, and we were really awesome, and all other high schools bowed to us and left flowers on the front steps. Ever since then, we've kind of sucked. (Translated: we really really suck.)

In the local newspaper's football preview, they quoted a West High player as saying "We have the noodles, we have the cheese, we have the milk, we have the butter," Scott said. "We just need to get the temperature right and stir it. That's all we need to do." I think he makes an excellent point: West High is better at home ec than at football.

Anyway, last week's game was at Olympus High, which is a rich kid high school. They're a decent team, I guess, if you like winning. (The newspaper preview quoted the coach as saying "'That's definitely our goal here and that's the expectations of our community -- that we compete for a region and state championship,' Smith said.")

(Awesome sidenote: the top two notable Olympus alumni listed on Wikipedia are: Karl Rove and Mark Hoffman (murderer). Compare that to West's President Thomas S. Monson. I think we've learned an important lesson.)

So, we at least expected an exciting game, even though Olympus Titans were going to destroy the West High Macaroni and Cheeses. But what was the actual score? 7-6. But that's because it was a fierce defensive battle, right? No. It's because they both sucked.

Man, I haven't gone to a high school football game since I graduated oh-so-many years ago. Do they all stink like this? I swear that some of the players had never seen a football before, let alone contemplated what they were supposed to do with it.

This was exacerbated by refs who had apparently never watched a game. Now, I know that everyone complains about refs, but my complaining is 100% legitimate. Here's a question (because high school football rules might be different from college rules): can two personal fouls be called on the same team on the same play? And can the refs then give a 30-frickin'-yard penalty to that team? If so, that's crap. I mean, I don't doubt that the West High players were throwing punches; that's what we do over there. But 30 yards? That's ridiculous. (It was probably because our punches could have damaged the expensive dental work of the Olympus High Pretty Boys, and, as was readily apparent, the refs' sole responsibility was ensuring that Olympus suffer no harm whatsoever, physical, mental or psychological.) (West got a ten yard penalty for "Hurting the Feelings of the Passer".)

Anyway. The game wasn't the most appalling part of the evening. That honor is bestowed on the students in the crowd. (I'm defining "crowd" here as "three kids, not sitting next to each other".) I lay the blame for the lack of students solely on the shoulders of the Olympus student body. After all, it was an away game for West, and they suck, so you can't expect too many Macaroni and Cheesers to travel all the way across town. (I don't doubt many of them did, but then they decide to burglarize the rich people's homes instead of attend the game.)

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. By the end of the first quarter, there was a good little student section in the Olympus bleachers. They just weren't watching the game. When things would happen, good or bad, there was generally no reaction from the jabbering students. When Olympus scored a touchdown--and I'm not making this up--there was about a twenty second delay before the students cheered, because they weren't watching. (Here's my hypothesis: they were all looking at their phones, and one of their parents texted them that Olympus had scored. Then that student posted it as his Facebook status. That's how the others found out.)

(As a sidenote: here's one area where West was superior: cheerleaders. This isn't to say that West's cheerleaders were phenomenal, but I swear, I have never seen a more apathetic, uninterested bunch of cheerleaders than Olympus's. I promise this is true: at one point a little girl who couldn't have been more than four years old went out and stood with the cheerleaders--and she was more on-beat than sixty percent of them.)

(Another sidenote, which will probably cause embarrassment if any students google "Olympus High School Cheerleaders" and find this blog: my wife had to use the bathroom before the game and found herself in the restroom with the cheerleaders while they were doing their hair and painting their faces. One girl is reported to have said "I want to put Spencer's number on my cheek. But then everyone will think that I like him." Someone replied "You totally like him!" She said "I do not!" So, if Spencer is reading this: you've heard the absolute truth: just because she painted your number on her face, she doesn't really like you. Duh.)

Anyway. It was still loads of fun. And there was a parent behind us who kept shouting extremely violent advice to the West High players. That's what we do over there. It makes you wonder how President Monson turned out so good.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"He's Not Good Enough For You"

Yes, I have been MIA recently. I have lots of long and depressing explanations, but suffice it to say that life has been so completely overwhelming that I've had several days where I didn't know how I'd make it through to the end of the day. Life has delivered a King Kong-sized punch to the head and I'm still trying to recover.

And on top of all that, it turns out I may have a faulty thyroid. I couldn't get the kind that makes you skinny. Nope. I have to have the one that makes you fat and unable to lose weight. But they have to test my levels again on Tuesday morning, so we'll see whether something actually is wrong or whether the first test was flawed, which would make all the personal crazy in my life psychosomatic.

But anyways, I have to unload about something that really bugs me.

Someone I know (who may or may not be related to me) recently ended a relationship where marriage had been on the table, but apparently it was not meant to be - in part due to the fact that one set of LDS parents decided and repeatedly said that the child's significant other was "not good enough" for their precious darling.

This is not the first time I have heard something like this, and the reason it bothers me may or may not be because it happened to me, but I'm wondering what would give someone the idea that this was 1) okay to think and 2) okay to say. 1) I can sort of get because of the whole natural man thing, but honestly, 2) eludes me.

It's an attitude that I think I understand better outside of the church. Like, as an example, if Paris Hilton came home and told her parents that she was going to marry the assistant manager of the local Wendy's. I can see her parents saying he's not good enough for you - because they would prize class stratification, and in their eyes, their daughter was far above this man in education, life experience, background and breeding.

But in Christ's church, where is there room for this kind of thinking?

Particularly when we have a set of scriptures that warns so heavily against prizing wealth and creating distinct social classes based on worldly things?

I can see telling your child that you don't think the other person would be a good match. Or that you are concerned that they don't have much in common. There could be all sorts of warning signs or other issues that you might feel necessary to point out.

But I don't understand how someone who would basically hit all the right spots on an LDS litmus test - who is active in church, a returned missionary, temple worthy, has a testimony, is getting an education at a major university and is generally a very nice, trustworthy, kind, loyal, thoughtful, good (etc., etc.) type of person is "not good enough."

Is there a list of qualifications somewhere that I somehow missed about what makes a follower of Christ good enough or not good enough for marriage?

I can also understand how a parent might feel that no other person on earth is good enough for their baby (which is a little over the top, but I love my kids to distraction, so I can sort of get it). But at some point they're going to have to cut that particular tie and let go.

Or if the signficant other did not have the same standards and beliefs of the family, I can certainly see where that impulse might exist (although, again, I think it would probably be better phrased as he doesn't share your beliefs and that's very difficult on a marriage or he can't take you to the temple , etc.), but I still don't think it's okay to say someone isn't good enough.

Am I way off base in thinking that if we believe Christ's words, and think ourselves to all be equals in His eyes, how can any of us say that anyone is good enough or not good enough?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More Than Words

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Someone commented to me once, "Since you're a writer, you must have a lot of things you want to say floating around in your head." It's mostly true. I usually do have a lot of things floating around in my head, but I generally don't say them all. And I learned this week that there is a time and a place when words are not adequate no matter how badly you want them to be.

As our family gathered around our dog Monday morning, we knew she didn't have much longer to live. She had been sick and was getting sicker and it was very hard to watch. We made her as comfortable as possible, with my son holding her in his arms as we stroked her head and told her how much we loved her. Our sweet Annie had been a part of our family for eleven years and it was so hard to say goodbye.

My two younger sons were clinging to me and crying and I wanted so badly to comfort them. I thought of all the things I know and believe. I believe there is a heaven and I believe animals are part of that heaven. I know that our little Annie would be going to that heaven because of the kind of dog she was. I had a situation once that could have gone very badly, but Annie came to my defense and I was able to stay safe. Not only was she protective, she was kind and patient, even when my baby would pull her ears. She loved car rides and looking out the window, but the best was rolling down the window and letting her ears flap in the breeze. She absolutely loved that.

As she laid there in my son's arms, she looked at us all with her big brown eyes and seemed so happy that we were all there with her. For just a second she wagged her tail as if she wanted to say goodbye. And then she was gone. I hugged my kids closer as they cried and I desperately wanted to say something that would comfort them at the loss of our beloved pet. Words flew through my mind, but they died on my tongue. Instead I merely squeezed my kids and offered the comfort of being there with them. I knew the words would come later. Because no matter how much I wanted to have just the right words to say, being there was the best thing to do.

The thing about words and ideas floating around in your head is that sometimes it's a great idea to let them out and sometimes it's best to keep them in. It's knowing when to speak and when to be silent that is crucial because sometimes a touch can say everything you want to say without speaking at all.

That night we talked about our favorite memories of Annie. We laughed and cried together as the words didn't seem to stop and we talked late into the night. In that moment, the ideas floating in my head seemed like just the right things to say. So I did.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Very Short Bloglet Ahead

As I predicted last week, today is a tiny blog day--I've got waaaay too much revision left to do on my work-in-progress, and October is slipping away.

So, first, a Halloween joke I found here:

Q. What did one ghost say to the other ghost?
A. "Do you believe in people?"

Ha ha!

Next: my sister is teaching a class on marriage for a Relief Society event this weekend. She wants to know of any movies that celebrate married romance. Not a boy-meets-girl-and-they-get-married movie, but a romantic boy-and-girl-are-already-married movie. Anyone have any suggestions for her?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Distracted Living

Saturday night, I learned that, Heather Christensen, a woman who had previously been the band director at my children’s school passed away when a bus she was riding back from a band competition in, crashed and rolled over. If you live in Utah, you probably read the story or saw it on the news. When the driver passed out, Heather leaped forward and tried to take the wheel. It was while she was trying to save the children on the bus that she was thrown out the window and killed. Over the last few days hundreds of students, friends, and family have stepped forward to say how much she meant to them, and what a great, friend and teacher she was.

Sunday, a friend of mine was talking about an incident that took place when he was much younger. He was a college student driving down an empty highway on a beautiful day. He had put the car on cruise control and was trying to read a book while driving, since the road was empty and he thought he could do both at the same time. What he didn’t realize was that another driver was also out driving on a road that crossed the highway. Not having cruise control, the other driver had propped a knife against his gas pedal. As he reached the highway, the driver tried to pull out the knife, but it was stuck. My friend was looking at his book when he heard a terrible screech of brakes, and realized what a huge mistake he’d made. It was only sheer luck that the other car and he did not collide directly, killing them both. Instead, the car ripped off the left side of his bumper.

At first blush, these two stories don’t have a lot in common. They both involve car crashes. But in the first case, the driver of the bus appears to have had some kind of medical condition, and Heather was doing all she could to avoid an accident. In the second case, both of the drivers were at fault, doing stupid things that distracted them from safe driving. When I thought about the two of them together, however, it occurred to me how fragile and fleeting life can be. I thought about the dangers of distracted driving and then the phrase “distracted living” came to mind.

Distracted driving involves doing things that take our focus away from what’s important when we are in a car. Changing a radio station, talking on a cell phone, eating, reading, talking, shaving—these are small things, but they can easily take us off course and change what should be a simple trip into a life changing experience. What is distracted living, then? In my mind it is letting small things that are really not important in the long run, take our lives off course.

It occurred to me to ask myself, “If something happened to me today, what would people say about me?” This week, students and families are holding candlelight vigils in honor of Heather. People are saying things like how much Heather enjoyed what she did, how she was a friend to everyone, how much she cared, how much she taught, how much she loved. She focused on what she wanted to do in life and she did it well. From everything I can tell, Heather Christensen didn’t live a distracted life. She did what she loved as well as she could and shared that love with others.

One of the questions I get asked most as an author is how writers find time for writing—especially when they have families, full time jobs, and the rest of life to deal with. The answer isn’t giving up on jobs, families, housework, yard work, etc. (Although I admit, my yard is not Home and Gardens material.) It’s about getting rid of the distractions. There are a ton of reasons people have for not finishing their books,

“I didn’t have time”
“I didn’t know where to go with it”
“My writing was crummy”
“I started something else”
“The idea dried up”
“It didn’t work out”
“My characters weren’t interesting”
“I lost my excitement for it”
“It didn’t go where I wanted it to go”

But in the end, those are all distractions not reasons. If you really want to finish your book, it’s time to put your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and your foot on the gas. The only thing that can keep you from doing what you want to is yourself.

If your goal is writing, start today. Make yourself sit at your desk until you put 1,000 words on paper. If you’ve already written your book, send out ten queries. If you’ve already published your book, contact five stores. And if writing isn’t your thing, ask yourself what you want to be known for when your time finally comes to leave this Earth. Then ask, what kinds of little things are distracting you from doing what you want. There are enough hours in the day to have a family, a job, a yard, a (kind of clean) house, and what you’ve always dreamed of doing IF you just stop getting distracted by the things that don’t matter.

I don’t know how many books I’ll publish in my life, if I’ll hit the New York Times list, or win awards, or even continue to be a full time writer. But I hope that when my life ends, people will be able to say that I lived it fully and that I died doing what I loved. Heather, I know a lot of people will miss you. But I also know that you will continue to live through the lives of those you affected. You did not live a distracted life.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Voices in My Head -- Guest Blog by Jon Spell

Seven of my ten fingers are mostly inoperative, making it very difficult to type. Thank goodness. If I could write I would almost certainly comment on the worldwide news: President Barack Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize. As it is, we may be the only blog published in the United States today not talking about it. (You're welcome.)

At the first sign of digit failure, I sent out an SOS (Save Our readerShip) here and abroad. Jon Spell was the first to answer the call. (Isn't he always?) I've long suspected there are voices in Jon's head -- mostly because I've seen him mumbling back to them. Here, however, is his take on the subject. (Thanks, Jon!)

Voices in My Head

by Jon Spell

I finished reading a mystery recently (by Stephanie, one of our rising stars) and noticed that there is a lot of dialogue in mysteries. I went looking for a particular conversation and discovered that it spanned like 14 pages. Wow.

In my own writing experiences, I’ve never written a big scene of dialogue. I’ve been wondering if this is because in real life, I don’t really talk all that much. In fact, I really don’t enjoy talking on the phone either. My mom and I converse mostly through emails. I comment on various blogs, but it’s still not dialogue. What is it? Unilogue?

Of course, this seems to be the way things are going now – Twitter, Facebook, Blogs – they are all what I’d call asynchronous communication. One person puts a thought out there, other people can comment on it, but you rarely get a back-and-forth conversation. I actually prefer this style because I can think and ponder about my response. I can look up definitions of words or research topics on Wikipedia, then make a quasi-intelligent response.

None of this helps with writing dialogue for a book, though. (Oops, sidetrack: There have been books written as a series of letters. I wonder if it’s possible to write a book that would journal someone’s story a la Facebook or Twitter?) I find that I have conversations in my head, but these are highly idealistic, as the ones I have with my wife NEVER turn out the way I imagine them. I do read a fair amount, so at least I have a good idea what dialogue looks like.

I’m curious as to how you author people come up with the dialogue. Do you write what’s in your head, or actually try to have conversations out loud?

Thursday, October 08, 2009


by Julie Coulter Bellon

Since Canadian Thanksgiving is on Monday and I’ve been getting my turkey and pumpkin pie ready, I was also thinking about things I’m grateful for. As a writer, I’m grateful for a lot of things. For instance:

I'm grateful for a computer and a delete key. I’m grateful I don’t have to write with quill and parchment. Or a typewriter with correction tape or white out for that matter. I mean, I took out an entire point of view in my work in progress and if I’d had to go back through every page with white out or whatever, I would be insane and I would need a gallon or more. Or I’d just have to start over. Computers probably saved a lot of trees and I probably wouldn’t have written more than a book or two every decade since my editing process without a computer and a delete key would be incredibly frustrating. I also love track changes so I can see immediately what my editor changed and I can change stuff myself and email it back without having to spend forever at the post office mailing everything. Email is awesome. Track changes are awesome. My computer is awesome (most of the time, except for today when Blogger hates me and this blog looks weird and I can't seem to fix it. Oh well.)

I’m grateful for the internet so I can do research from the comfort of my own home and I don’t have to spend hours in the library searching among the stacks. Although, I think Facebook is of the devil since I am tempted to spend way too much time there talking to old friends I’ve reconnected with and playing Bejeweled Blitz. I can’t help myself! Every day I say to myself that I’ll only check my mail and play a game or two and before I know it half an hour is gone. Especially when I’m playing that dumb, addicting game. It’s just a whirlpool of wasted time sucked away and I need to be more disciplined since my computer time is limited. But I am glad to be able to do research, walk away to feed the baby, and come back to it.

I’m grateful that I can email my poor friends/test readers across the continent who have gone through drafts of my manuscripts with nary a complaint. Could you imagine if I had to mail my stuff to people? I would have to put aside money every month for postage alone. And this way I can send my manuscripts to my friends at home in Canada, my editor friends back east, or anyone else who is game to read, with just a stroke of a key.

I’m grateful for the other contributors on this blog that write books to inspire me, make me laugh and give me the creeps. It makes me want to reach higher and be better in my own writing. I’m also grateful to our loyal readers who are so wonderful in their own right.

I'm grateful for Flylady who taught me the basics of balance and routine. I can keep my house tidy, get rid of clutter, and make sure dinner is planned and taken care of so I can feel like I am good wife and mom and still keep writing without any guilt that I should be doing something else.

I’m grateful for Barney the dinosaur. He gives me an uninterrupted half an hour of writing every day, since my youngest child discovered him. Although I admit to humming some of the songs while I write sometimes, which can be funny/annoying when I realize what I’m doing. (Now the Barney theme is running through my head. Great.)

Most of all I’m grateful to be a writer. I look at the books I’ve published so far and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Each book represents a slice of my life when I wrote it and it’s something real and tangible that I can hold. It’s also something I’ve worked hard at and want to improve on, and it gives me a goal and sense of purpose. We’ve been asked to develop our talents, but sometimes half the battle is finding them and feeling comfortable with them. Writing is all about the journey and while it can be horribly frustrating, it is also incredibly rewarding.

So when I’m sitting down to my turkey feast on Monday, I will again feel gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life and in my writing life.

What are you grateful for as a writer/reader?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

And the (Initial) Verdict Is . . .

by Stephanie Black

Considering that I told my editor I was planning to submit my manuscript in mid-October and, according to my calendar (which I hope is wrong), October is one week gone, and I’ve still got an entire draft to do, I think I’d better make this a short blog. I hereby predict that next week’s blog will be even shorter—possibly consisting of one run-on sentence, which may or may not include a Halloween joke, or maybe just an emoticon, if I can figure out how to create a writer screaming in panic out of parentheses, zeroes, and colons.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t belong to a critique group. I think critique groups are wonderful, but the need to bring a chapter or other portion of my work to show a group (or e-mail to a group) each week wouldn’t work well for my writing method. I want a complete manuscript before I let anyone else look at it—a complete, coherent manuscript, which rules out the chance of my letting anyone see my first draft. I desperately need feedback, but while I’m in the process of creating a story, I don’t want anyone else in my head. I don't want anyone watching me fumble and muddle around as I create the story. It would waste their time and it would embarrass me and make it hard for me to write. Julie Wright blogged about writing with the door closed versus the door open. Until I’ve got a coherent draft, I want that door shut, and I confess I felt vindicated when I read in Julie's blog that Stephen King recommends writing the first draft with the door closed. I'm not alone! He talked about opening the door on the second draft for feedback; with me, it seems that the third draft is the magic number where I feel the manuscript is ready for some eyeballs that aren't mine.

So last weekend, I threw the door open and sent the third draft of my manuscript out to some test readers. Because I don’t get critiques along the way, the first test read is a Giant Step Into The Unknown. The manuscript is, at this point, completely untried. No one has seen it but me. What will my test readers think???

And happily, the news so far is good. With five test reads down, none of the readers have pointed out anything as being catastrophically wrong with the book. There are some problems, naturally, but no one has said, “Ick. Start over." So far so good. It's a relief to know that overall, the story worked, and very helpful to see what problems I need to tweak to make the book better.

Then there was the feedback my daughter gave me after reading the manuscript: “You need some kind of therapy.” Good to know I can give my family the creeps.

So a huge thank you to my test readers, especially considering that I, um, might have possibly sent them a 101K manuscript and asked them to have their comments to me in four days. Brutal, I know, and bless them for being so willing to read it so quickly. Good test readers do so much to improve a manuscript, and it's helpful to have multiple readers because different readers notice different issues.

At what point do you seek feedback on your work? Are you a chapter-by-chapter person? A first-draft person? A later draft person? What works best for your writing style?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Nonserious Social Incongruity: Rob's Humor Presentation

by Robison Wells

Last week I said that I'd email out my UVU Book Academy presentation to anyone who missed it. However, as I prepared to do that, I realized that emailing my PowerPoint really wouldn't be terribly helpful, since it didn't include much commentary. So, instead I've decided to just blog it all out. Therefore, I give you my presentation on humor. Note: it's long, because it's condensed from an hour presentation.

First of all, a few caveats: this not to teach you how to be funny. It's to teach you how to be funnier than you are now. I don't pretend to have the secret to how to make an unfunny person funny (though, heaven knows, I wish I did. I would engrave the secret in stone and hand deliver it to the morons who make the Olive Garden commercials.)

The other caveat: this is a presentation about humor, not a humorous presentation. I know that no one likes to read my blogs when I try to be serious--people generally prefer me to be the dancing monkey--but I swear, this is interesting information.

Why Am I Taking a Mechanics Approach?

The first workshop I ever taught about humor was done at the LDStorymakers conference in 2005. In that workshop, I began by presenting a formula for how to tell a joke in a very boring way, and then I erased that and said something poignant and stupid about how focusing on the mechanics of humor destroys the vitality and vibrance of the blah blah blah. It was my Dead Poet's Society moment, where we ripped up what the academics had to say and instead sucked the very marrow out of life. Also: that workshop was absolutely worthless and boring and uninformative and wrong-headed.

The truth is that when I wrote my first book I took the approach of: I'm a funny guy, so if I write down my funniness, the book will be great and everyone will love it. Well, yes, the book was funny. But it's also poorly-written. Many of the jokes are out of place, and many others fall flat. Many are obviously crammed in there despite the fact that they have nothing to do with anything; they're just kind-of funny, so I added them.

While I never took any classes that changed my outlook, I have recently realized something: when I write something funny--I mean really write something funny--I put a lot of work into it. It's not (as I previously thought) a matter of transcribing my natural humor onto the page. Instead, I have gradually and naturally transitioned into looking at the mechanics of humor, and I actively think about them when I write. My ultimate message of this presentation is this: writing humor is as much about skill as it is about natural funniness.

Consequently, we're going to talk about mechanics.

Why Are Things Funny?

A quick (but important) look at the psychology of humor:

For starters, humor is entirely social. We'll talk about this more in a minute, but suffice it to say that humor relies heavily on social context. Things that are funny to me may not necessarily be funny to you.

Next, there are two things necessary for humor: (1) nonserious perception, and (2) incongruity. This is why psychologists define humor as "Nonserious Social Incongruity." (Hilarious, huh?)

Nonserious perception is basically a trigger that tells the reader/viewer/listener that what they are about to read/see/hear is humorous. In joke-telling, this can be done with overt verbal cues: "Did you hear the one about..." or "A guy walks into a bar..." When we hear those things, we immediately know (through social conditioning) that what we are about to hear is a joke.

This gets trickier when you're trying to incorporate humor into a story. Generally, characters in humorous fiction don't tell each other jokes. Instead, they weave their humor into their usual narration or conversations. So, instead of a verbal cue, you have to use something else: in fiction this is generally done via context and characterization. If a character is known for making humorous comments, then, even when the situtation appears serious, the reader will still recognize a wisecrack for what it is.

I don't want to get bogged down in Nonserious Perception too much, because it's a pretty straightforward concept. We'll talk about it more in the coming examples.

The bigger concept in humor is Incongruity. Incongruity is basically a surprise: it is when an idea or image or event is unusual, odd, strange, or in any way incongruous with what the reader was expecting. Put simply, humor is all about surprise.

A quote from Charlie Chaplin about incongruity:
“You take a woman walking down the sidewalk. Show the audience a banana peel in front of her. Everyone knows that she is going to step on the banana and do a pratfall. At the last instant she sees the banana peel, steps over it and falls into a manhole cover that neither she nor the audience knew was there.”

So, look at the elements here: the incongruity comes from the fact that we think we know what is going to happen, but at the last minute it changes. The nonserious perception comes in the form of the banana peel--no serious film would have a hero slip on a banana peel. (Imagine how this scene would be different if the music were intense, the faces serious, and the banana peel was replaced with a patch of ice. We wouldn't be expecting humor anymore.)

The Formula For Humor

It is simply this: Setup + Punchline = Funny. Here are a few examples:

Bill Cosby said: "I am proud to be an American. Because an American can eat anything on the face of this earth as long as he has two pieces of bread.”

The setup is: "I'm proud to be an American." We all know this line so well that it conjures up a thousand patriotic images in our minds. In other words, it sets up the norm. Then we get the punchline (or, in other words, now that we've seen the norm, we get something incongruous to the norm): "Because an American can eat anything on the face of this earth as long as he has two pieces of bread.”

Let's look at another:

Bob Newhart said: “I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down'.”

The setup is "“I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do." He's establishing a norm--he's talking about music preferences, but he's also making a caring statement about politeness and treatment of other people. And then, in the punch line ("And for the people who like country music, denigrate means 'put down') he flips the norm completely on its head. Not only is it incongruous with his previous statement, it's complete opposite of his previous statement.

Here's where socialness comes back in. Like I said, all jokes are social; the reason for that is because for something to be incongruous there has to be a shared idea of what constitutes "normal". In the Bill Cosby joke, if someone were unfamilar with the stereotypical gluttony of Americans, the joke wouldn't be funny. In Newhart's joke, if we didn't have a concept of the stereotypical uneducated redneck, it wouldn't be funny.

(As a sidenote: this is why humor is often difficult in political discourse. Some on the far right think that Jon Stewart isn't funny. Some people on the left think that Ann Coulter isn't funny. It's not that either of these people don't know how to setup a joke and deliver a punchline; it's that the viewers/readers have differing context of what is "normal" and therefore what is incongruous.)

If I can use my first book, On Second Thought, as an example: most LDS people who read it--particularly those in the Intermountain West--find it very funny. But were a Catholic from Florida to read it, or an atheist from England, or a Muslim from Spain, they would hardly laugh at all. The norm established in the book is that of a very Mormon guy in a very Mormon culture. If a reader doesn't understand the norm, then they obviously won't catch the incongruities, and therefore they won't "get" the jokes.

(Incidentally, this is also why "you had to be there" stories aren't as funny to the listener as to the speaker. Likewsie, this explains the adage that a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.)

The practical application of this sociality can be summed up simply as: know your audience. I recently finished my MBA, during which I was the Editor-in-Chief of the MBA weekly newspaper. The humor that I used in that paper was very different from the humor I use on this blog, or in my books. It was for a different audience, who had a different norm.

How and Why Humor is Used in Writing:

Kurt Vonnegut once said that every sentence in your book had to do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. Brandon Sanderson, misquoting Vonnegut, made a statement that I personally think is much better: "Every sentence must do two things." It should advance plot AND reveal character. Or it must present exposition AND reveal character. Or it should foreshadow AND build suspense. Etc. The point of giving sentences double-duty is that your story will be that much richer and more engaging. And humor is a perfect option for a sentence's second duty. Humor greases the wheels of exposition, gives depth to the narrator, makes the boring interesting.

Here are several examples of the different ways humor can be used in writing. (In the workshop, these were class discussions. But since we're not in class, I'll give a few comments after each one.)

Humor can be used to break tension:

From Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller:

"I went back into the house and saw that Rayner was where I’d left him, lying in a pool of vomit. He was dead, or he was grievously-bodily-harmed, either of which meant at least five years. Ten, with time added on for bad behavior. And this, from my point of view, was bad.
I’ve been to prison, you see. Only three weeks, and only on remand, but when you have to play chess twice a day with a monosyllabic West Ham supporter, who has ‘HATE’ tattooed on one hand, and ‘HATE’ on the other—using a set missing six pawns, all the rooks and two of the bishops—you find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison."

In this example, we have an obviously violent situation presented, which is the initial setup. (The non-serious perception came earlier in the story--the first paragraph of the book sets it up. In the context of this workshop, the non-serious perception comes from the fact that I'm quoting it as an example of humor.)

Here's a list of the incongruities/punchlines. I'm going to hit them all in depth, just to illustrate the principles:

  1. "greivously-bodily-harmed" This is incongruous because it's a surprising bit of wordplay. He takes the legal term of "grievous bodily harm", and then changes it into a verb.

  2. "Ten, with time added on for bad behavior." He sets this joke up with the previous phrase ("which meant at least five years"), which, without him stating it explicitly, brings to mind our existing knowledge of the legal system. The incongruity comes when his criminal sentence gets increased for bad behavior rather than decreased for good behavior. The fact that he so casually implies that bad behavior is a foregone conclusion is also funny (and it also reveals a bit about his character)

  3. "And this, from my point of view, was bad." This is classic humorous understatement. He's possibly killed someone, might be going to jail for ten years, and he sums it up as "bad". Not only that, but the line "from my point of view" is even more incongruous, because it implies that there are others who may not agree with this already understated analysis.

  4. "Monosyllabic West Ham supporter" Although I'm not terribly familiar with this, I understand that calling someone a "West Ham supporter" is similar to being a Raiders fan. This is a perfect example of the social neccesity in writing: the book was published in the UK, written by an Brit. Those who share his norm about West Ham supporters will likely get his joke. Those who don't (i.e. me) probably won't.

  5. "'HATE' tattooed on one hand and 'HATE' on the other" The incongruity there is in the fact that we've all seen these kinds of tattoo in the media, and once he says "HATE tattooed on one hand" we're expecting something else on the other--but, no, this guy is 100% hate.

  6. "You find yourself cherishing the little things in life. Like not being in prison." Again, he uses understatement, as before. Not being in prison is one of the little things in life that ought to be cherished, which is an obvious incongruity.

So, now you see how the game is played. I won't go into as much depth on the following examples, though I will mention a few things.

Humor Can Be Used To Make the Boring Interesting:

From Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss

"A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near to where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s and BOOK’s.
"If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once. By all means congratulate yourself that you are not a pedant or even a stickler; that you are happily equipped to live in a world of plummeting punctuation standards; but just don’t bother to go any further. For any true stickler, you see, the sight of the plural word “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker."

The incongruity here is in the gross overstatement of her position, and the exaggerated emotions she expresses. She's talking about punctuation and grammar, yet she uses words like "satanic", "gasp of horror", "quickening of the pulse", and "ghastly." She compares her reaction to a misplaced apostrophe with the stages of bereavement, and concludes with a "righteous urge". All of this makes what would be an otherwise boring paragraph into a hilarious one.

Humor Can Be Used to Reveal Character:

From I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells: [As introduction, they're working in a mortuary, in the process of embalming someone.]
“How’s school?” Margaret asked, peeling off a rubber glove to scratch her head.

“It’s only been a couple of days,” I said. “Not a lot happens in the first week.”

“It’s the first week of junior high, though,” said Margaret, “that’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?”

“You hated junior high,” I told her.

“Everyone hates junior high,” she said, “it’s part of the point. That’s why so many people say that high school was the best time of their lives—they’re comparing it to the three years of hell they just escaped from.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I feel better already.”

The anti-coagulant was almost gone, so Margaret poured in a bright blue conditioner to help get the blood vessels ready for the formaldehyde. “Meet any new friends?”

“Yeah, a whole new school moved into town over the summer, so miraculously I’m not stuck with the same people I’ve known since Kindergarten. And of course they all wanted to make friends with the weird kid. It was pretty sweet.”

“You shouldn’t make fun of yourself like that,” she said.

“Actually I was making fun of you.”

The humor used in this conversation is much more subtle than the previous two examples (where the authors had the primary goal of making the reader laugh). In this conversation, the humor is more realistic, how two people would actually talk. And, despite the fact that the conversation is on the extremely basic small-talk subject of "How was school?", we get a very good peek at both characters.

First, we get the incongruity about how casually they view embalming. Despite the setting, they talk as if nothing is at all unusual. Second, we see the main character's personality--dark, a little jaded, sarcastic. Third, we also see Margaret's personality as a little optimistic, maybe a little encouraging.

Humor Can Be Used to Present Setting:

From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

"Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe.

"The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

"The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England in the destruction of the planet Earth."

Personally, I think this is one of the more interesting examples because of the way Adams sets up his joke. (In the workshop, someone immediately commented that this was just funny because it was absurd and silly, but I disagree completely. It's funny because Adams knew the mechanics of how to tell a joke.)

The second paragraph is funny for several reasons. It's a bit of a commentary on poetry, but most of the incongruities come in the form of a constant, fast-paced barrage of absurdities. We laugh because it's all completely incongruous, completely foreign and weird.

But the third paragraph is the masterpiece. It's the big punchline, and it gets the biggest laughs. While the second paragraph was a huge punchline, it was also setup for the third paragraph. The reader is thinking "If the second-worst poetry in the universe was so extreme, what must the worst be like?" And then he presents the worst poetry as coming from some woman in England named Paula.

If you want a testimony as to the value of good setup, imagine the third paragraph if the second wasn't there. Would the third be funny at all?

Humor Can Be Used to Set the Tone:

From Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It is remarkable that a single sentence can do so much. What do we know about the rest of the book, based on these twenty two words?

First, we know that the book is going to be funny. There is the classic joke formula at work here: the setup ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune...") and the punchline ("...must be in want of a wife.")

Second, we know that the humor in the book is going to be pointed at society. When she uses "it is a truth universally acknowledged" as setup for a joke, then she must be mocking the society that universally acknowledges such things. When the punchline is presented, we are essentially laughing at everyone who believes such a statement, and Austen has assured us that everyone believes it. Therefore, we know that what we are about to read is a satire.

Humor Can Be Used For Humor's Sake:

From Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort Of History of the United States, by Dave Barry:

"But all of this changed twenty thousand years ago with the construction of the Land Bridge to Asia, which was completed on October 8. Suddenly, the ancestors of the Indians and the Eskimos, clans who called themselves “The Ancestors of the Indians and the Eskimos” had a way to get to North America.
"Still, it was not an easy trek: They had to traverse hundreds of miles of frigid snow-swept wasteland, which was cold and each was permitted to carry only two small pieces of luggage. Eventually they arrived in an area very near what we now know as Kansas, and they saw that it was a place of gently rolling hills and clear flowing streams and abundant fertile earth, and they looked upon this place and said, “Nah.” Because quite frankly they were looking for a little more action, which is how come they ended up on the East Coast. There they formed tribes and spent the next several thousand years thinking up comical and hard-to-spell names for major rivers."

So, obviously it's funny. But here's the question: where's the setup? The jokes start almost immediately (with the statement that the Land Bridge (capitalized) was "constructed").

The setup for this entire book comes from our knowledge of American History textbooks. while he still uses the setup/punchline structure to get our minds leading in a certain direction, he expects us to know the subject matter well enough that he doesn't have to say more than a few words of introduction.

What is the Practical Application of All This?

So, that was very long and I doubt many people got through it all. But I hope it was helpful to those who were interested.

I doubt very much that any humor writer starts writing by pulling out the humor formula and says "Okay, I need a really good setup, and then I need to think of a good punchline." That's not how any of this should be used.

However, I would guess that, whether or not they know the phrase "Nonserious Social Incongruity", they still use the same principles to refine their humor. I remember one humor columnist, Eric Snider, once said that he writes the column first, and then he goes back and makes it funny. I don't think he meant that he goes back to a completely serious article and sprinkles in the jokes. Instead, he means that he refines and revises, crafting each joke carefully.

That's the whole point of all this: when you write something funny, don't simply leave it there. I've noticed (and regular readers probably have, too) a big difference in my blogs between when I just write something quickly, transcribing my natural humor versus when I carefully and skillfully craft something funny. (I'd give you examples, but I'm sure they're fairly obvious.)

Most of all, remember that, just like a talented yet undisciplined writer will likely fail, a funny yet undisciplined humor writer will also fail--probably more so. Being a funny person doesn't translate into being a good humor writer, unless you have the skill to back it up.

So the key takeaways are these:
  • Read and understand the principles I talked about in the examples.

  • Read other humor and analyze it--figure out why it is funny.

  • Go, and do thou likewise.

Land Keep is In! & Reading Books as a Writer

This isn’t going to be a hugely long post, but I wanted to say first, that Land Keep copies just arrived at the warehouse! Whoo hoo! Can’t wait to see them. I am going to run up to Salt Lake and grab a box before going over to James Dashner’s launch of Maze Runner at The King’s English tonight. Pics to follow! This means the books should be hitting store in the next week or so. Let me know when you start seeing it.

I also wanted to make a point that came up while I was doing a class recently at the UVU conference. As writers we often read a book and notice the flaws. I can’t tell you how many writers have told me that they started writing because they read one or more books and thought, “I can do better than that.”

Okay. I can buy that. I always tell people that I motivate writers to get published because they say, “If that dweeb can do it, anyone can.” And almost all books do have areas where they could be improved. But let me make a suggestion. Instead of reading a book and saying, “How did that get published?” Ask yourself, “Why did that get published?” I know. It’s a small distinction on the page. But it’s a big one to your future writing success. Because the truth of the matter is, the book did get published. A publisher, and editor, and probably an agent all thought enough of the book to accept it. You’re probably not the only one to see the book’s flaws, but despite those flaws, it was sold.

Of course if you’re already selling all the books you write to the publisher you’ve always wanted, and making more sales than you know what to do with, it doesn’t really matter. But if you are still climbing the mountain like the rest of us, it might pay to realize that something about the book you just read appealed enough to make someone pay the author good money for it. It’s easy to point out what doesn’t work. (And it’s good to avoid those things in your own writing.) But what you really need to look for are the things that do work. Noticing those, and thinking about how you can use that information to make your own work more publishable is far more useful that counting how many “ly” adverbs JK Rowling uses in one sentence or how many times Edward caresses Bella’s jaw.

A few examples. Twilight gets hammered for a bunch of reasons. But something about the writing made millions of readers buy into the characters so much that they agonized over what these fictional people would do. We can only hope to capture a character that well. JK Rowling spent a third (okay maybe not that much, but it felt like it) of book seven sticking Harry and Hermione in a tent wondering what to do. And there wasn’t even any serious snogging to keep things moving. But her world was so fantastic, her characters so real, that we read every word. Stephen King writes tomes that could easily be pared down by at least 1/3rd. He has little old grandmothers use language that would make a sailor’s eyes water. He writes some really gross scenes. But his mastery of the English language is like watching a great artist brush the canvas. His understanding of human character is incredible, and he knows how to get that across.

I know it’s not easy. I can think of a couple of books that I have absolutely no idea how or why they were ever sold. But almost always you can look at even a book you hated and see some of the things that made it stand out to the editor who accepted it. And if you start looking at books that way, you’ll have an easier time of writing those kinds of books yourself.
One last thing. I’ve had a lot of bloggers contacting me about getting ARCs of Land Keep. Unfortunately the schedule was such that we did not have time to print ARCS. But if you run a book review blog and want to request a review copy, you can contact Patrick Muir at Shadow Mountain at this e-mail pmuir at deseretbook dot com. Note that Patrick does not take submissions. He is in the marketing department. So only contact him if you are requesting a review copy or other marketing materials. Thanks and have a great week!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

General Conference Scorecard

by Sariah S. Wilson

We have Dish Network as our satellite provider. The only reason we got satellite and that particular provider was because BYU-TV was offered. General Conference at home! Score! (I know that this makes no sense to those who have always been able to watch conference on TV, but as we had to go to the church building almost my entire life in order to watch conference, it is truly glorious to watch it from your comfy couch.)

My husband hurt his back and has had daily chiropractic visits (including today) that I've had to drive him to along with all of our children (and I can't even tell you how much the chiropractor seems to love having four kids sitting in his waiting room that is smaller than your typical closet) and thus we decided to DVR so we could watch conference later. (I remember the first year we got our DVR - I thought it'd be so awesome to fast forward all the hymns and just watch the talks - express conference! Then one of the speakers talked about how it was important to watch the entire conference, including all the music and how important the music was, and duly chastened I went forth and fast forwarded no more.)

Not remembering to clear out the 962 Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse episodes, we only got a partial of the first session before the DVR ran out of space.

So now I will have to jump online to read/watch the rest of today's sessions.

Before I do that, I thought I'd ask the readers which talks today particularly touched you, or that you would recommend I read first. I could just do it in order to try and get the full experience, but I've read on a couple of blogs some speakers that bloggers were touched by, like Elder Bednar and President Uchtdorf.

Also, does anyone have any ideas on how to get the older kids engaged in conference? I do remember when I was younger how boring and long it all seemed, and it probably wasn't until I got to high school that it was like this light going on and suddenly the things they were saying weren't boring, but were actually pretty fascinating. So I do know how my kids are feeling, but I'm wondering what I can do to make the whole thing a more enjoyable experience for them. Suggestions?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Quilt Camp & Writer's Cramp

I can't blog today. I am leaving for Quilt Camp. You'd think that with the temperatures dropping to near-freezing at night, the thing would be called Quilt Camp because that's what you bundle up in while telling ghost stories and making s'mores around the campfire. Nooo. No campfire. No s'mores. Probably no ghost stories. And, get this, we're going up to cabins in the woods to make our own quilts. I often wonder what our ancestors think of us seeking recreation in chores they did of necessity.

With an attitude like this, you're probably wondering why I'm going. Truth is, my most beloved aunt in the whole of forever is a camp counselor. She sent in my registration, bought me the pattern (patterns these days cost more than sewing machines did at the turn of the 20th century), put together a coordinating kit of materials . . . heck, she even gave me a state-of-the-art sewing machine that's worth more than my car. Now if she could just give me a little talent.

Turns out, quilting isn't all that different from writing.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was one of those egotistical dummies who read an LDS novel, thought I can do better than this, and set out to prove it. Turns out it's harder than it looks. I still haven't proven my point, but seven novels later I am not nearly as egotistical as I once was. (Some good came of it, in other words.) Quilting is also harder than they make it look at the county fair. This is probably because novels have remained about the same over the last few decades, but quilts have evolved from utilitarian bedcoverings to exquisite works of textile art. (Other people's projects, that is; mine are neither exquiste nor utilitarian.) While women once used flour sacks, tattered curtains, and leftover scraps from homemade garments to piece together a quilt, there are shops today that want to sell you a yard of designer fabric for 15.99. (And up.) My great-grandmother couldn't afford not to quilt. For me, quilting is scarcely affordable. I may, in fact, have to try to publish another book to finance my fabric addiction.

Hmm. I think I lost my thesis somewhere in that rant about the high cost of cotton thread. (et al) Quilting and writing seem similar to me at the beginning of every project. My first book started with only a character. I wrote a chapter about an all-star pitcher standing on a mound in spring training and getting pounded. I felt like I knew the character from the first sentence -- everything about him, in fact. Unfortunately, I had no plot, no theme, no purpose, and no other characters. I ended up following him around (for almost 900 pages!) to see what happened. (No, I can't explain my "creative process" any better than that.) Similarly, I often buy a yard of to-die-for-gorgeous fabric and carry it around for days, weeks, or months, waiting for it to tell me what it wants to be when it grows up.

Other books have begun with "what if?" A few years ago I was drafted to help with an Eagle Project to preserve and relocate cacti in the wilderness. I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool girly-girl, but I'm no Girl Scout either. In the first thirty minutes the project ruined two of my nails and caused me to blink rivulets of melting makeup from my eyes. I thought, I wouldn't last twenty-four hours out here by myself. It's doubtful I'm going to last twenty-four minutes, surrounded by Eagle Scouts. When I got home that night I started my first attempt at first person, writing about what might happen if a true girly-girl got lost in the Galiuros. (With an Eagle Scout, of course.) My quilting projects often start similarly. What if I make a full-sized memory quilt for my daughter's 21st birthday? I think. My daughter is now 22 and recently asked if I'd consider finishing her quilt for Christmas. I said yes. Since she didn't specify Christmas of which year, I think my word is good.

But they way in which quilting is most like writing -- if you're me -- is in the revisions. I have a quote up on my bulletin board from Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener. He said, I am not a great writer . . . I owe my success to being one of the world's great re-writers. In quilting -- as in writing -- I have a long way to go to become adequate, let alone an accomplished. But let me assure you of this: I am beyond doubt one of the best seam-and-scene rippers in the world today.

I can think of several more parallels, but if I go any further I will miss the bus up to camp. Besides, given enough time, I might even come up with something that vaguely resembles a blog, and we all know how hard I've been trying to cut back on blogging.

Finally, haven't forgotten the Javelina Short-Short-Short Story Contest. The winner, technically (and perhaps) is #2. I say and perhaps because I'm frankly a little suspicious of Anonymous and his troupe of Anonymous supporters. Nevertheless, I have no actual proof that anybody stuffed the ballot box, so he won, square if not fair. I am, however, going to award the second prize -- the one I offered for voting -- to #4 for having the most votes from people willing to identify themselves. I'm giving her this prize because she deserves it and because the first two names I drew for it were "anonymous" and the third was my husband's. (Don't tell Gary he won. He'll want to take that magnet down to the apartment for sure!)

Alright, I'm really, truly off to camp. Wish me luck. I'm resigned to missing out on s'mores, but maybe I can at least find somebody willing to listen to ghost stories. Maybe next week I'll put up pictures of my "campout." What better way to get out of blogging once again?"

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ramble, Ramble, Ramble . . .

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Well, since the posts seem to be leaning toward rambling this week, I am going to fall in line and talk about TV and maybe post a bit of my work in progress.

There’s not a lot on TV that interests me anymore. But while I was flipping one night, I came across a comedy/drama called Castle, about a successful mystery writer, Richard Castle, who apparently helps/shadows the police. The show starts out with the intro, “There are two kinds of folks that sit around thinking about how to kill people---psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better. Who am I? Castle.”

He started shadowing/helping them when he is asked to help on a case of a copycat killer who is acting out one of his novels. Of course after he meets detective Kate Beckett, he decides to base his next series on her. She is his inspiration so to speak. Using his contacts with the mayor, he gets permission to shadow her on all of her cases. There is some really witty dialogue, lots of tension, and it actually has mysteries that aren’t predictable. Last week, they were going to arrest someone and everyone got out of the car with the navy blue jackets that have POLICE emblazoned on them, and Castle gets out with WRITER emblazoned on his. I mean, it’s the little things, but they’re funny.

Like when one of the murder victims had “your out of time,” written on them at the murder scene and while the detectives are talking about what this means, Castle talks about how “your” is spelled wrong, that it should be “you’re.” The detectives are looking at him like he has two heads and then he says, “I’m just saying, whoever killed her also murdered the English language,” and he goes on talking about how your and you’re aren’t even one of the hard ones like who and whom. It was funny in a macabre way. Anyway, from what I’ve seen so far, this is a great new series and I want to see if Hulu or somewhere else has last season’s shows so I can catch up. (I just checked. Hulu has some but not all. Don’t you love Hulu though?) I’ll keep looking.

The other show I watch is Dancing With the Stars. I know, I know, but I can’t help myself. I like watching the range of people, especially people that you think would be coordinated and really aren’t. I’m loving Donny Osmond so far and the guy from Iron Chef, Mark DeCascos. I’ve never watched Iron Chef, but this guy has some moves!

I went to the UVU Book Academy conference last week and taught about jazzing up your book club, did a book signing, and also taught a self-editing and revision class. The rest of the weekend was busy with a birthday party for my son and my father’s visit, and I couldn’t write, so in my limited down time, I read H.B. Moore’s new book “Alma.” Honestly, I haven’t met another writer who can weave a story with that much suspense when we all know how it turns out anyway. I’m going to review it here soon, so I won’t give too much away, but it was a great way to motivate myself to write again.

I’ve been working on my new book and I have one character that is . . . well, maybe I’ll post a part of his introduction and let you tell me what you think he is all about.

Ethan Barak stood at the edge of the grave, the gaping hole in the earth waiting for its spoils. Ethan stared at the dirt, not lifting his head as the rain started to fall, as if even heaven itself wanted to hurry the process of burial. The rain coursed down his face, making the paths of tears where there were none. He felt nothing. No grief. No anger. Just an empty void, as empty as the grave in front of him.

He could hear stirrings from the church and knew the funeral was probably over and the procession bearing the coffin would soon be here. The grave would be satisfied, the gaping mouth covered over and closed once it was full. Ethan wouldn’t stay for that. He shoved the piece of paper deeper into his pocket and started to move away from the gravesite. His father had been murdered, there was no doubt of that. Someone was trying to send a message to him---whether his undercover work for MI-6 had been discovered or if it was retaliation for his part in stopping al-Qaeda’s attempts to attack Paris, he couldn’t be sure. But Ethan had received the message and was about to send one of his own. He was going to find the person who’d done it and make them feel the pain he couldn’t.

For some reason it makes me nervous to post this when it’s my work in progress. But even from that small snippet, do you get a sense of who he is? You can tell me.

I’m really enjoying this character and how he’s shaping up in the book. Like I said, it’s just the beginning of his introduction, but if you have an opinion to share, let me know. Remember, though, work-in-progress.

Well, I think my rambling is over. Can you believe it’s October already? I heard there’s only 84 more shopping days until Christmas. Gives us something to think about, doesn’t it?