Tag Archives: The Art of Writing

A Few More Writing Tips

Image result for images of bored reader

Spring is coming, and I want to be ready to start writing another book as soon as God gives me something to start with. To that end, I’ve just read The Throne and am now reading The Silver Trumpet, which I wrote last year–the tenth book of my Bell Mountain series. Whatever comes next, I left some matters in Trumpet which will need to be addressed.

By now I’ve had thirteen novels published, including my four horror novels from long ago, and I’ve picked up some tricks of the trade, learning them the old-fashioned way, by experience. I know some of you out there want to try your hands at writing novels, so here are a couple of tips.

*If whatever you happen to be writing seems tiresome to you, it will be tiresome to the reader, too. Trust me on that. If your fictional characters are getting all caught up in details, the reader will abandon them. Don’t devote a lot of space to things that aren’t interesting.

*Remember the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The great playwright said that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall, sooner or later in the play, one of the characters will have to use it. Otherwise there’s no reason for it being there. (I learned about that, believe it or not, from studying chess: don’t line up your Rooks and Queen unless you mean to use them.)

*Don’t tell the reader a lot of things he doesn’t need to know. If a character walks into the story to say “Here are the gum boots that you ordered, madam,” then leaves and is seen and heard no more, you needn’t tell the reader anything about his kindergarten days. He’s done his job and you’re finished with him.

*I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating–don’t insult the reader by editorializing about the characters. If a character is a villain, you needn’t call him a villain. If he says and does villainous things, the reader won’t need you to tell him that this character’s a villain. I call this “the Lovable Sheepdog Rule,” after a wretched novel in which a certain sheepdog never appeared without the adjective “lovable.” This did not make the sheepdog lovable to me, the reader. It made me want to call the dog-catcher.

If you observe these rules in your own writing, you’ll run much less risk of creating something boring. Readers who are not part of a captive audience–say, a class of high school kids–have a very low boredom threshold. And a writer does well to remember that.

Work Wanted: Wizard/Sage/Ninny

Image result for images of funny wizard

I have a couple of fictional characters on hand who weren’t able to find jobs in any of my books. So I am advertising them here, for employment by any aspiring fantasy writers who may wish to give them work.

Gombo the Magnificent is a wizard whose magic mostly produces unintended, and unappreciated, consequences. His love potion grows hair on your furniture. His hex makes his enemies stronger. And don’t even think about asking him to cast a spell to make you lose weight. The last customer who tried that wound up with two left feet and a bottomless ashtray.

Dr. Fretorius, an unemployed sage, is the world’s foremost expert on the philosophical writings of Wing Chow Foon, who was executed by his emperor for turning his students into useless idiots. Dr. Fretorius became unemployed when this began happening to his students at the university. Obviously a fantasy character: in real life, he would have been promoted to department head.

Beetrice Blotter rebelled against her parents’ plan for her to follow in their footsteps as professional beekeepers and turned instead to keeping wasps. It’s actually rather dangerous to approach her property. Her pride and joy is a wasps’ nest the size of a medicine ball, inhabited by a multitude of the most aggressive wasps anyone has ever seen. Her inability to get her wasps to produce marketable honey has left her with an obsession to achieve this goal no matter what.

All three have expressed the desire to appear in a fantasy novel and a willingness to do it without being paid. So if you mean to write such a novel, and have an opening suitable for any of these three characters, please feel free to give them a chance to show what they can do.

A Peculiar Dream

(It’s driving me nuts, not being able to illustrate a post except with video!)

Much of my fiction writing is brewed up in dreams. I have a gift for vivid dreaming. But I had one last night that I’ll be hard put to find a practical use for.

I dreamt that Father Brown came to visit, and Patty and I decided to entertain him by taking him to our favorite place for observing turtles, frogs, and salamanders.  In real life this is a railroad cut converted to a kind of park, but in the dream it was much grander, with towering walls, winding streams, high stands of reeds, etc.

I went on ahead in our handy little rowboat while the others stayed to admire something. By and by I spied a turtle trap under the water, so I pulled it up on land to let the turtles out–a red-eared turtle, a painted turtle, and a really fine snapping turtle. “I’ve got to bring him back to Patty and Father Brown and show him off,” I thought: “he’s a real beauty!” And then I’d release him.

Well, the world-famous priest-detective was much impressed by the snapping turtle. Just as the turtle began to calm down, along came Father Brown’s bishop–in full bishop’s regalia, of course: dreams do things their own way–and started berating him for performing Mass for “just a bunch of turtles.” Father Brown had done no such thing, but none of us could get a word in edgewise–the bishop was hopping mad, and going on like gangbusters.

And then I woke up. Drat!

It was such a vivid dream, cobbled together out of familiar elements–a place I know now, a place I knew as a boy, characters from a TV show–cobbled together into something new and rich and strange. It’s similar to what I have to do when I write a fantasy novel. The elements are not new, but the combination is.

And, as we are made in God’s image, I can’t help wondering sometimes–what does God dream?

Memory Lane: A Writer’s Roots

Image result for all about dinosaurs by roy chapman andrews

To be a writer, you have to be a reader first. And don’t stop reading, either.

The books that capture your imagination early in life will always be with you. What you want to read about will shape what you choose to write about.

All About Strange Beasts of the Past flicked my imagination switch. I was only seven years old when it came out, and nine or ten years old when I read it. Roy Chapman Andrews, the explorer who first found dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, wrote several of these Allabout Books. His All About Dinosaurs I read over and over again until it fell apart. Strange Beasts I kept checking out of the library.

Andrews had a gift for making prehistoric worlds come alive. In practical terms, he used this gift whenever he had to schmooze J.P. Morgan into funding another expedition. When he wrote for children–well, as far as I was concerned, it was just like being there.

Everybody knows about dinosaurs, but I got really into prehistoric mammals, especially the gigantic hairy ones. Strange Beasts introduced me to creatures that have inhabited my dreams ever since; some of them now inhabit my own Bell Mountain books. Andrews’ “Beast of Baluchistan” appears in The Thunder King just in time to rescue the city of Obann from being sacked by the Heathen host. The saber-toothed cat, seen on the cover of Strange Beasts, features in the climax of The Last Banquet. The saber-tooth’s prey, the giant ground sloth, makes cameo appearances in several of my books. I haven’t yet found a place for the spectacular “Shovel-tusked Mastodon” of Strange Beasts, but I expect I will.

Books were a big deal in our house. My mother was a reader, and filled several large bookshelves with her favorites. I took after her in that department: I just could never get my fill of stories! History and science, in my view, also counted as stories.

But nothing could ever top the creatures I met in Roy Chapman Andrews’ books.

P.S.: Andrews was widely believed to have been the real-life model for Indiana Jones. To that I must say “Pshaw!” Andrews’ adventures were real.

P.P.S.: For some reason which I can’t remember, as a very young child, I formed the expectation that my Aunt Betty, a nun, would somehow provide me, someday, with my own woolly mammoth. Please don’t ask me to explain this. She did try–gave me a vaguely mammoth-shaped little furry something which, I am sorry to say, did not quite live up to my expectations. But she did try, and for that she gets full marks.

A Brilliant Stroke of the Pen–by Accident

Laurel and Hardy only pretended to be chuckleheads; but they did it so convincingly, they got rich.

Even so, the finest specimens of chuckleheadedness are only unearthed  by accident. And some of them are gems.

Just this morning I read an amazon.com Customer Review of my Bell Mountain–five stars, so I’m certainly not complaining–which featured a rare and valuable typo that has since been corrected. And please don’t think I’m making fun of the writer, because I know well that anyone can take a prat fall, big-time. You should see some of the whoppers my editors have saved me from committing to publication.

So this reviewer wrote of Bell Mountain as “the battle of goof vs. evil.”

Think about that!

Can goof actually defeat evil? You know something–I’m pretty sure it can. I’m pretty sure it has, all throughout history. How many fiendishly evil plans have been scuttled by pure incompetence?

This has the makings of a story. Maybe even a whole novel. Certainly a chapter, here and there. Most certainly, a chapter.

Inspiration comes when you least expect it, and from the least-expected direction, too. Don’t waste it when you’ve got it.

A Bold Literary Stroke

Image result for the worm ouroboros

(Note: I try to steer clear of “news” on Sunday, as a way of observing the Sabbath. And also as a way of hanging on to my sanity.)

In his epic fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison wrote in a unique and probably inimitable literary style and wrapped up the story in a brilliant, unexpected stroke that takes one’s breath away.

The story opens with the lords of Demonland, on the planet Mercury, holding a sumptuous wingding at one of their highly decorative palaces. In the midst of the festivities, a servant announces a visitor: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

The ambassador’s message is so flagrantly insulting that it starts a major war. After many heroic exertions, and coming within an inch of losing the war, the Demons finally win, conquering the Witches root and branch–total victory.

Gathered to celebrate their triumph, they play host to a princess who is a special favorite of the gods, and whom they rescued from the Witches during the war. She tells them she has the power to appeal to the gods on their behalf, that they shall now be rewarded by having their greatest wish granted.

Well, the Demons have a problem: having wiped out Witchland, there’s nothing left for them to do, and they’re bored–bored to the point of desperation. Voicing their discontent, they can’t quite bring themselves to say what it is they really wish for. But the princess knows.

And suddenly the servant barges into the throne room with an astonishing announcement: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

Well, who saw that coming?

It was a touch that made the book immortal, and very few writers would dare to do the same.

For those of you who wish to become fantasy writers, there is a lesson here: when you’re tempted to stop–don’t! Crash through the wall and let your imagination have its way.

And never, never end a chapter with a sentence like, “And then nothing much happened for the next four chapters.”

There’s not much point in writing a fantasy novel if you’re not going to be bold.

Loving a Fictional Character

King Theoden, from the Lord of the Rings movie (which I didn’t see, but never mind)

There are hundreds of characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but only one that stirs me to the point of tears: old Theoden, King of Rohan. I love this guy! And I do mean love–as if he were my grandfather. How in the world did Tolkien do that?

When we meet him, Theoden is a broken-down old crock who has been skillfully manipulated to sap his morale and make him feeble before his time. But he comes back from that. The hero inside him, once he has been healed by Gandalf, bursts out like a fireworks display. At the same time, he is gentle, kind, and even humble: and everything he does, everything, is motivated by just one thing–by love. Love for his family and friends, love for his allies in the war, love for his country and its traditions. And love for every little thing with which he has been blessed. Love that is willing and able to sacrifice himself for what is right, for what is true.

Tolkien doesn’t tell us so. That never works. He shows it in what Theoden says and does, in his every word and action. Easy to say, but hard to do. If great art was easy, everyone would do it. It really is an amazing feat of art to create a character that a reader can actually love. Lots of authors can create characters that amuse us, or annoy us; but to inspire love is something special.

Hard to do: but for any writer, well worth trying.

‘The Silver Trumpet’: Finished!

Superman at Finish Line

I don’t know what that sneaker is doing there. Please disregard it.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon I finished writing The Silver Trumpet, Book No. 10 in the Bell Mountain series. To God be the glory: from start to finish He showed me the way. It wasn’t until about a week ago that He showed me how the story ought to end. May this work be fruitful in His service.

Will there be a Book No. 11? Well, gee, I hope so–this is the work I most love doing. For as long as the Lord keeps giving me these stories, I’ll keep writing them.

Besides, there’s still some unfinished business with Lord Chutt and Ysbott the Snake.

Coming Soon: ‘The Throne’


We’re now doing the final edit for The Throne–the text that will actually appear in print. It’s Book No. 9 in the Bell Mountain series, and I hope the gorgeous cover by Kirk DouPonce makes you want to read it.

I had hopes of getting this book in print in time for Christmas, but I’m sorry to say it doesn’t look like that can be done. Oh, well. It’ll make a nice post-Christmas gift.

Meanwhile, it looks like one more chapter, just one, will do it for Book No. 10, The Silver Trumpet. And then I’ll feel like I’ve raised a child and sent him out to seek his fortune in the world: sort of an empty-nest feeling. But the good news is that the story demands another book after this one. When you’re writing history, even the history of an imaginary world, that has a tendency to happen–because history just never stops.

As long as the Lord keeps giving me these stories, I’ll keep writing them.

Down the Home Stretch with ‘The Silver Trumpet’

Image result for images of writers at work

Given some nice weather over the next week or two, I’ll soon be finished writing The Silver Trumpet (Book No. 10 of the Bell Mountain series). I’ve been at it since April, and I know that when it’s done, I’ll feel a sense of loss.

As of just a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea where the story was going, or how it was going to end. All I could do, every day I sat down to work, was ask God to give me the story that He wanted me to tell. And He did–just as He has done nine times before. He hit me with it all at once, for that matter.

The thing is, if I can and do rely on God to direct me in my work, why can’t I rely on Him to lead me in every area of life? Surely He can! Under His direction, my books have turned out very well: way better than I possibly could have done on my own. Like, maybe I’d be wise to seek His counsel in all things–yes?

It’s hard for a sinner to do that, but maybe I can learn from my own books. Maybe I can learn to be less of a fool.

Because, you lunk-head (he sez to himself), that’s what your cotton-pickin’ books have been about, all along! All ten of ’em! Seeking God’s guidance! Do you get it now? Huh?

Perhaps I’m getting there. Perhaps.

We’ve all got to get there, don’t we?


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