James’s Blog: Creating Life.

James’s Blog:  Creating Life.

I really needed my character to make that phone call, but it just wasn’t working. The story demanded that he pick up the phone and dial those numbers, but it didn’t feel right. So what do I do now, when I have a story, but a character who doesn’t want to play ball? “All right,” I said to my character, “what do you want to do then?” You can imagine my shock and disappointment when he took that scrap of paper with the phone number on it, scrunched it up and threw it in the bin. “What are you doing?” I said, “I need you to phone that number!” But it was no good. He wasn’t going to make the call.

Once I’d recovered, I realised that it made sense. This character, the person that he was, wouldn’t make the call. Not yet. So he didn’t, and I was left at a loose end. Instead of following the plot, we went on a detour and did something else for a while. Then several pages later, he was pulling that piece of paper out of the bin so that he could make the call, all of his own accord. The story was back on track. We got there eventually, but he had to be ready.

A lot of writers advocate this – you don’t write the story, you write the characters and then let them decide on the story. When it works you have a tale that is internally consistent and compelling, but you have to know your characters. They have to be real people who can tell you what they would say and do and feel. You just listen, and put it on paper.

I know there are some writers who don’t even have a story when they start. They just have a bunch of fleshed-out characters and a starting situation (what Robert McKee would call an ‘Inciting Incident’), and see where it all goes. I’m not quite like that. I like to have an end goal in mind, but it definitely works better when I let the characters get me there, rather than railroad them towards their destiny. Of course, that means surrendering some control.

Letting the life that you have created exercise free will is hard work, and riskier than the alternative, but it creates a richer story and leads to a greater reward.

James’s Blog: Two Types of Fire.

James’s Blog:  Two Types of Fire.

God has given me two types of inner fire.

A few months after I became a Christian I was attending a men’s prayer breakfast at my church. During prayer, I experienced what I can only describe as a warm, tingling sensation in my chest. The best effort to put it into words can be found in the Bible, on the lips of one of my older brothers as he and a friend talked about their encounter with the risen Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he explained the Scriptures to us?” It’s happened to me frequently over the years, mostly during prayer. It’s comforting rather than anything else, and I’ve come to associate it with an awareness of the Holy Spirit. It’s just one of those practical, concrete hooks on which I can hang my faith.

The other fire, however, is different. It’s what I might call ‘the squirming inferno’. Again, the best way to describe it can be found in the Bible, this time as the prophet Jeremiah complains. Frustrated by how much trouble God had caused him, he handed in his notice. “Find yourself another prophet,” he says to the divine. But it’s not that simple, and Jeremiah discovers that the message of God will not be smothered. It was, he said, like a fire in his bones. Sometimes (more often than I would like) I find myself restless, and tortured by the feeling that there is some important truth I should be getting out there. The problem is that it’s a time-consuming, difficult and painful process to set it free. Often it’s like realising that its your job to slay a giant dragon, and not even knowing how to begin. Those are the worst times. The only way to keep it quiet is to actually try and do something with it, however feeble my efforts, but it’s never satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely pay off its debt – the squirming inferno is probably here to stay.

They’re both from God. One is His way of saying, “I love you, and I am always with you”; the other is His way of saying, “But I’m not going to let you get away with being lazy.” I am loved, but I am lazy. I am genuinely thankful for both of these flames, because I need the warmth and the refining.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

James’s Blog: Gam Zeh Ya’Avor.

James’s Blog:  Gam Zeh Ya’Avor.

Life has its own rhythms. There are creatively fruitful times, where the inspiration flows; there are times where I feel jaded and uninspired. There doesn’t always seem to be any reason for the transition. Sometimes, it’s just suddenly different. A couple of weeks ago, I had ideas. This week, I don’t have any, and the ones I had a couple of weeks ago sit there on my desk like paperweights. What to do when it feels like you’ll never have a good idea again? Read more

James’s Blog: For Sale.

James’s Blog:  For Sale.

I’ve written briefly about the concept of Christian horror in my blog on Charles Williams and I’ve also mentioned my dalliance with Microfiction.  The two intersect on a website that I occasionally contributed to – MicroHorror.

MicroHorror is now no longer live, and I hadn’t written anything for it in nearly four years, but buried on there is my one attempt to communicate something meaningful through horror.  It’s a mere 200 words, and it’s called ‘For Sale’.

Come… on… MOVE… you… son… of… a…

Muscles bulged but the jar lid remained unrepentant. This was getting embarrassing. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, such a simple idea. Offer to open the new jar for the girl in the kitchen. Impress the girl of his dreams. She didn’t look impressed right now. She looked bored.

I… can’t… believe… this… is… happening…

Still no movement. Not even a fraction of a fraction. The girl had stopped looking bored and was now beginning to look faintly amused. He didn’t know which was worse.

She’s… laughing… at… me… please… open… please… I’ll… do… anything…

Suddenly a hissing, slithering voice whispered in the silence, in the deepest backdrop of his mind.

“Anything?”

***
In the darkness of the under realm, the two demons put the finishing touches to the contract.

“…for the ability to open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes? Really?”

The first demon sounded shocked and a little disgusted. The second demon nodded dolefully.

“There’s no challenge these days. It’s just not fun anymore,” he moaned. The first demon finished the document with a flourish of his pen, and slowly shook his head.

“You know what I reckon? I reckon those humans have stopped taking their souls seriously.”

James’s Blog: Origin Story.

James’s Blog:  Origin Story.

It’s nearly a year ago that Lioness Publishing first agreed to take on The Listening Book, but it’s been in the pipeline for a lot longer, obviously. The oldest story in the collection (Death) was written over fifteen years ago, while even the most recent stories only exist because those past fifteen years gave me something worth writing about.

A couple of posts ago I shared a watershed moment, the one where I was challenged to actually do something with the gift that God had given me. This was way back in 2007, and I responded by resuming an Interactive Fiction project that I had shelved. A Fine Day for Reaping went on to win the XYZZY Award for Best Story in 2007. That sentence will make no sense to most of you.

Around the same time, however, I also began playing with parables. I was working for ‘The Mat Exchange’, which was a small business that Cornerstone ran. We rented door mats to shops, and my job was to drive around, exchange the dirty mats for clean ones and then go and wash them. There was a reasonable amount of time to think in this job and, one day, I was reflecting on the idea of faith, and how often I met people with an ‘inherited’ creed, beliefs that they’d just copied from others, without thinking through the consequences or really owning them themselves. I had previously read about the idea of how photocopying a photocopy decreased the quality of the image, and that had stuck with me over the years. As I drove along the mean streets of Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia, The Soul Painting was born, and by the time I had finished my shift that day I was able to sit down and write the story. Over the next few months I wrote a couple more, including Knock and the Door Shall be Opened, and By the Riverbank but I didn’t really do anything with them.

Fast forward to 2013. Now I was dean of the Cornerstone campus at Canowindra. No more mat washing for me!  Instead I got to do farm and vineyard work.  There can be some thinking time there too, at least when you’re not being shouted at.  One day, while picking watermelons, I thought that it would do me good to set myself a challenge. The challenge would be to start a blog, and post a short story every week. At first this worked fine, as I was finally able to use the stories that I had accumulated over the years. The real goal, however, was to force myself to come up with new material, and that’s what I did. Watermelon time was occasionally fruitful (pun intended). I remember concocting The Boy who Held God during one beautiful sunny day while picking watermelons (to be fair, it was almost always a beautiful sunny day during watermelon season). I soon found that one a week was an unrealistic pace, so I knocked it back to one every two weeks and just got on with it. When you write under pressure like that what you produce could charitably be called ‘a mixed bag’. Some of the stuff that I put up was fairly horrible, but all of the material that ended up in The Listening Book first appeared on my blog: ‘Storycatcher’ (“Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore” Marty DiBergi).

The feedback was encouraging, so in the months before we returned to the UK, I put together the first draft of The Listening Book and sent it off to a publisher, who promptly rejected it. Well, not promptly.  It took him ages.  And then that was that, until we returned home and a random conversation between Elsa the Publisher and my wife started the ball rolling.  I like to think of it as a large, heavy glittery ball – something nice to look at, but with some weight to it.  Perhaps a disco ball that’s been made out of concrete?

And the rest is, as they say, history.

James’s Blog: God Bless Restrictions.

James’s Blog:  God Bless Restrictions.

One piece of advice that artistic people often give is that restrictions and constraints are good for creativity. I’ve heard this from artists, writers, film makers and computer game programmers, so it must be true.

Actually, it is.

If you give an artist a blank piece of canvas then what is he supposed to do with it? If you tell him that you want a picture of a tree, well, it doesn’t require much in the way of creative thinking but at least it’s something. If you tell him that you want a picture of a tree, and that it can only be in black and white, and that if you turn it upside down it must then look like a picture of a little girl – well, now you’re talking. That’s when the creative muscles get a workout.

I’ve dabbled in Microfiction (aka Flash Fiction), which for those of you who don’t know, is a discipline where you subject yourself to an arbitrary word count (usually well under a thousand words) and set yourself the task of writing a complete, coherent story. I’ve found it a highly useful exercise, especially as my stumbling attempts to transfer my fleeting philosophical musings from the centre of my thought processes onto a sheet of blank paper have a disarming habit of running to the verbose. You know what I mean.

I’m currently working on editing a batch of stories for the sequel to The Listening Book, and a couple of those were born from constraints. When I was describing The Listening Book to a friend he asked me if one of the stories was called ‘The Parable of the Boy who Ran with Scissors’. Trust me, this is fairly typical of the type of question that he asks. I replied that there was not, but the very next day I sat down and set myself the task of writing a story with that exact title. I’m quite pleased with it.

Perhaps that’s the way I should go. I could get other people to suggest titles, and then I have to write a story to attach to them. So, if you have any imaginative titles lying around feel free to throw them in my direction, and if I’m looking for a challenge one day I could try writing a short story for it. Maybe I’ll post it here, maybe I won’t. It depends on whether or not it’ll make me look creative.