Novella ho!

Today the silly story I am writing for the kids passed 30,000 words, which seems to be a commonly accepted minimum for dubbing your fiction a “novella”.  For reference, Google indicates that Charlotte’s Web is a bit over 32,000 words, while The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe weighs in at 36,000 or so.  According to this site, I’m on a course to hit the optimal length for the age range I have in mind.

Without putting a full day or even a half day into it, I can hit 1,000 words per day reliably. Daily Rituals When I throw a full day at it that number goes up to about 3,000 words max.  When I need to get a new chapter out and just can’t think of what to do, I take a page from Woody Allen’s playbook as reported in Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals.  In Allen’s own words,

If I go up and take a shower it’s a big help.  So I sometimes take extra showers.  I’ll be down here and at an impasse and what will help me is to go upstairs and take a shower.  It breaks up everything and relaxes me.

He’s right:  the shower always busts up my writer’s block.  But this is my favorite quotable quote from Curry’s collection, this time from novelist Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22:

I gave up once and started watching television with my wife.  Television drove me back to Catch-22.  I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.


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When things go south

Last week I led a book discussion for the Wyoming Humanities Council.  These groups attract random people from around town, so I find it a good way to meet people and stay in touch with how normal people think.  Our book this time was The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela, a series of depressing fictional vignettes based on that depressiThe Underdogsng reality, the Mexican Revolution.

To prepare, I also read Stuart Easterling’s The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910-1920.  Despite the topic, Easterling’s account was fascinating, and full of amazing stories.  Pancho Villa was bigger than life,The Mexican Revolution and the villains as villainous as any novelist could dream up.

A few days ago, I met one of the discussion participants at the library, and she commented on how politically controversial the conversation had been, and how we had nearly gotten ourselves bogged down in a religious argument.  One fellow present had declared that the reason we can’t have serious national conversation anymore is because so many people have followed religion instead of attending to science, which is real knowledge.

Of course, he had it exactly backwards:  the things that science can tell us are not the things we debate as a nation, so the conviction that only science gives true knowledge would actually kill our ability to debate anything as a nation.  Science can tell us that an embryo is human, for example, but it can’t tell us whether killing the embryo is good or bad.  But I digress.

I admitted to my friend at the library that I found the Mexican history helpful for understanding Pope Francis.  Politics and economics south of the border have been very different over the past hundred years than what we have experienced up here in the United States.  Some things the pope says are clearly colored by this difference.

My friend agreed, and then commented that Pope Francis is a very interesting Pope.  (We’ve all been saying that, I think.)  She went on to confess that, even though she is not a Catholic, she actually burst into tears when she heard who had been chosen as pope and what named he taken for himself!  Now, I have worked with this woman on a number of occasions over the past year, and I would not identify her as the emotional, teary type.

I’ll be keeping my eyes on the “Francis effect” as our book discussions go on.  Given the readings, there will be some great opportunities for the group to express any anti-Catholicism it may feel.

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Sts. Timothy and Titus

January 26

The memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, bishops, disciples of Saint Paul the Apostle and helpers in his apostolate, one of whom governed the church at Ephesus and the other the church at Crete; to them were written epistles, which offer wise admonitions for pastors and the instruction of the faithful.


May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord

R. Is the death of his holy ones.

V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in pace.

R. Amen

[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]

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Conversion of St. Paul and Commemoration of St. Ananias

January 25

The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Apostle, to whom–as he was journeying to Damascus, still breathing threats and murder against the Lord’s disciples–Jesus himself revealed himself on the way and chose him so that, filled with the Holy Spirit, he might announce the Gospel of salvation to the gentiles, suffering many things for the name of Christ.

The commemoration of Saint Ananias who, being the Lord’s disciple, baptized the converted Paul at Damascus.


May Holy Mary and all the saints intercede to the Lord for us, that we may merit to be helped and saved by him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

V. Precious in the sight of the Lord

R. Is the death of his holy ones.

V. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.  And may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in pace.

R. Amen

[To learn about praying this and other Martyrology entries, see this page.]

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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

While I was poking around on the USCCB’s super-handy calendar last night, I happened to notice that we in the middle of the worldwide, Vatican-approved, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  The Vatican provides materials for an ecumenical prayer service, prepared by the Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI), but emphasizes that they will have to be adapted to local situations by bishop’s conferences or dioceses.

Given that the SCMI service begins with beating Indian ritual drums and moves on to everyone joining hands, I’m guessing Wyoming would need it adapted somewhat.  The USCCB has its own service for the WPFCU, this one prepared by the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (CONIC) but, typical of the USCCB, you can’t just download it:  you have to pay to get materials.

However goofy it may get in this way or that, this Week of Prayer is a neat idea.  It was begun by Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, an English group that entered the Catholic Church through the Oxford Movement.  The week stretches from the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter  (January 18) to the Conversion of  St. Paul (January 25).  I wish there had been something on our diocesan website, or somebody had mentioned it in a homily, but I’ve only found out about it with a couple of days to go.

I won’t be beating any Indian drums, but I’d invite anyone reading the blog to join me in praying over the coming days for the reunion of Christians.  The divisions between Christian denominations is one of those mind-boggling bad things that seems hopeless, that needs a miracle–kind of like the issue of abortion that we in the United States prayed about yesterday.

It seems to me foreshadowed by the division of northern and southern Israel in the Old Testament.  The prophets keep coming back to the reunion of Israel as one of the signs of the eschaton, and even the histories worry at this strange happening with endless open-ended comparisons of Joseph and Judah, the tribe of Ephraim and the tribe of Judah, and so on.  That the people of God could be split by sin was mind-boggling to them, too, and they looked forward to a miracle.

UPDATE:  There some very nice traditional prayers for each day of this octave here.  Thanks to Peter Kwasniewski for pointing them out.

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Walking through the door

While I work on my rather silly novel about a monster robot who takes over Middleton, my daughter has been writing a somewhat more serious fantasy novel about cultural conflict between peoples.  She began back in November as part of the NaNoWriMo project.  Over the course of the month she wrote words enough and half again to meet NaNoWriMo requirements, but her story was not finished.

In fact, she’s at 95,000 words now and still not finished.  For a while she was reluctant to let anyone see her work in its draft state, but a few days ago she made some edits and decided to let me read what she has.  So I started yesterday.

Let me share with you a passage I read just before bed last night:

The mountains that Kathleen could see in the distance had become more pronounced.  They towered where before they had just loomed in the distance.  They were losing the blue tint the distance gave them, and now she could clearly see the white on the tops, green patches, brown patches, and she thought she could even make out the largest of the canyons.  Then suddenly one day, as though they had crept up on them in the night, the mountains were there.  They soared overhead, tall and multilayered.

Could you guess from this paragraph that the author is fourteen years old?  I know I did not have so powerful a voice at that age–heck, I would be happy to have written such vivid scenic description at thirty-eight years old.  It gives me goosebumps.

A while ago, I casually mentioned the NaNoWriMo project to Bernadette and then dropped the subject.  It’s hard to encourage your children to pursue their gifts without being pushy:  you have to open doors, stand back, and let them decide whether to walk through.  But Bernadette chose to walk through that door, and I hope her creative writing will be a joy to her for years to come.

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Tilling the Soil for Spring

While I work on writing a novel, I am also gearing up for a project more people would recognize as coming out of my academic background. Over the years I have had various thoughts about the nature of Scripture, about its multiple senses, and about its role in Christian life, and now and then someone tells me, “Hey, that’s really helpful!” When these people are theologians and biblical scholars themselves, it tells me that my ideas are either old enough or new enough to be worth writing out. So my project is simply to lay out the various dots that have occurred to me and see if I can connect them.

Right now I am reading Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation, by Telford Work, a Pentecostal theologian who is himself living and active at Westmont College.  (Work also authored the Brazos Theological Commentary on Deuteronomy.)  Years ago, my then-colleague Gregory Vall told me that Work had “really nailed it,” so I bought the book and planned to read it. But because the print is slightly small, and because my ability to read even slightly small print has vanished with time, it never happened. But as I revved up for this work I discovered that the book is available for Kindle! So I’m a bit more than half way through. Continue reading “Tilling the Soil for Spring”

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It’s all a plot

When I was in graduate school at Marquette University, I had the opportunity to see their amazing Tolkien collection.  Among the displays of Tolkien’s handwritten LOR drafts, I saw an interesting chart Tolkien had made for himself.  At a point where Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, Aragorn and company are fighting somewhere else, and Merry and Pippin are with the Ents, Tolkien had drawn parallel vertical columns on a page with one column dedicated to summarizing each line of action.  Items that lined up with each other across the columns were happening at the same time–he had written dates in the margins to get the chronology exact.  This arrangement let him see, for example, what Pippin was doing in the forest when Aragorn was fighting a battle at the city.

I have never seen this technique described in a book about writing, but it sure makes sense to me.  So when I reached a point in my own story where I couldn’t keep the interweaving plot lines straight in my mind, I had a white-board session with a vertical column for each major character:

I know the good guys have to win, but I don't know how....
I know the good guys have to win, but I don’t know how….

I don’t know how the story ends yet, but I’m really hoping it ends faster than the Lord of the Rings.

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Good eisegesis

Yesterday, I described a “magic” that happens with writing.  Along the way, I mentioned the particular magic that seems to happen when you practice eisegesis, that is, “reading into” the text instead of just “receiving from” the text, or exegesis.

It’s a phenomenon related to what I have called the Reality Enhancement Factor.  We are built to see a dim and sketchy scene and flesh it out mentally until everything seems clear and bright.  Even though this can lead us astray if we lack self-awareness, it can also draw our attention to important facts:  what was first a guess, a creative filling of the gap, makes us pay closer attention to evidence that is actually there and verifies the guess.

The act of making up a story kicks the REF into high gear.  Consequently, the story writer who starts from a biblical text is not turning on a faculty of creation ex nihilo, but what turns out to be a faculty built for seeing things.  Eisegesis can yield exegesis.

Done in the right spirit, eisegesis can yield striking insights because it is an exercise of creativity within limits.  It begins with the text as a given set of dots and tries to connect them to make a picture; it begins with the text as a series of pictures and tries to supply the story line.  In one way or another, creativity goes places it would never have gone without the specific limits imposed by this particular text, and the eisegete actually learns from his reading.  Anyone who has done creative work knows what I mean.

As a result, the text itself ends up expressing itself through the eisegete’s work.  Good reading into the text does not dominate in the end but serves it.

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The Year of Writing

For me, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is a wonderful way to start the year 2015, because this is to be the year of writing.  Most of my hopes for the coming twelve months seem less matter for resolutions than matter for prayer:  health, sanity, equilibrium, organization—that last one in particular just needs a miracle.  But this much is resolved for 2015:  I will write and write and write.

I will write theological stuff, of course.  A particular book has been gestating for too long, and I need to birth the thing before it gets so big it breaks something.  I do not have so much a thesis in mind as a vision:  lots of dots connect in my mind, and I need to get the whole web down on paper.  Have you ever wondered how the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ connects to the idea of the Great Books?  Have you ever sat up trying to see how the fact of the Trinity relates to the experience of reading Scripture?  Well, stay tuned.

But maybe even more that than, I need to write fiction.  My colleagues are puzzled by the urge, but I’ll repeat the key word:  need.

Something magical happens when you write a story:  connections appear that you could never have seen any other way.  Are you puzzled by a story in the Bible?  Try your hand at writing a novella about it and you’ll see it open before your wondering eyes.  Stuck on planning a party?  Write a short story about what happened at the party and you’ll suddenly see how to lay everything out.  Or at least, that’s what happens for me and for lots of other people.

This is the drive, I suspect, behind the Jewish tradition of Midrash.  As long as you sit in front of the text and “respect” it, that is, leave it alone and try to hear its voice without in any way affecting it, the text holds its dearest secrets close.  But when you see the text as a bunch of dots on a paper just waiting for you to draw all the lines, suddenly the thing rushes out to embrace you and explain itself to you.

I find that the magic lingers long after I have stopped writing.  If I have written fiction recently, everything in life is more creative and energetic.  I see more connections everywhere, my theology comes alive, my kids enjoy me more—and heck, sometimes I’m even more organized!

By now, I suppose you are wondering what all this has to do with the Solemnity of Mary of the Mother of God.  Well, Mary should be the writer’s patroness:  she published just one Word and has been getting continual press ever since.  Mary the mother of God, pray for us.

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