The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.


However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

Writing Lessons from Angry Birds: Boomerang Bird

Like many of my peers,  I’m semi-addicted to Angry Birds. I used think of flinging birds and obliterating bad piggies as a mindless waste of time (we all need a little of that once in a while), but I can honestly say that playing Angry Birds has improved my writing—enough that I could write off the cost as a business expense if the Android versions weren’t free. Those cute little birds are very effective writing teachers. Seriously.

Angry Green BirdOne of my first Angry Birds Writing Reminders featured that Toucan-inspired guy to the left known as Boomerang Bird because of his interesting ability to double-back and hit things from behind.The first time I encountered Boomerang Bird, the spiffy introductory graphic told me what he could do, but without  revealing his deeper capabilities and nuances.

Boomerang’s behavior after tapping the screen is dependent on his exact speed and trajectory when you tap, and there are so many nuances that in the beginning he rarely did what I expected. With time and experience, I’ve gained some instinctive knowledge of exactly how to launch Boomerang bird and exactly when to tap to get the desired results. I also learned a few things the introductory graphics didn’t mention.

Which brings me to the writing lesson.

Know Your Characters

When I began writing fiction, my characters were so flat you could read right through them. I recall one critiquer who asked point-blank if I’d taken time to get to know my characters, asking a lot of obscure questions I couldn’t answer.  I thought she was nuts. After reflecting on the conversation and recalling the character development process I learned in the theater, I got the point. Since then, I’ve talked with many successful novelists about their character development process. Some journal, some do detailed character profiles, and others (myself included) use method acting principles to get inside characters’ heads and see what makes them tick. I’ve talked with successful novelists who spend months getting to know their characters before writing a single word of their manuscripts. Others just free-write and watch what happens, with the understanding that their first draft will be mostly dreck (which they normally are, anyway).

Whatever method works for you, do it with all the gusto you’ve got. The resulting character depth is like the difference between a plain, flat greeting card and a pop-up card with music and motion.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

I was stuck on one level of Angry Birds for weeks, so stuck I considered deleting the game and trying to forget the thrill of obliterating those bad little piggies. I simply couldn’t get that Boomerang at the top of the birdie lineup to turn around the way I wanted and hit that sweet spot.

Out of pure frustration, I launched Boomer straight into the leading side of the pile and watched in amazement while it all crashed, pummeling the pig population and producing three stars. In a flash of realization, I understood why I was having problems with one of my characters.

I’m writing a series with a couple of characters that have unique and unusual abilities. The easy way out as a writer is to let my characters use those special abilities, but after my Boomer Bird revelation, I rewrote a few pages and forced one to not use them. The entire dynamic of the inter-character relationships changed dramatically, and as I dug into the character I found that she was afraid to use her special ability in that situation. It made her vulnerable. Her best friend (my protagonist) picked up on that fear, but interpreted it as anger and rejection, adding even more tension to the friendship, along with layer upon layer of character depth.

Like real life, we don’t know what a character might be capable of until we corner them and force their hand. Take away a man’s job, a mother’s children, or a Pastor’s church and you’ll discover a whole range of hidden strengths, weaknesses, motivators and flaws. It’s those hidden things that make characters interesting. Next time you’re face-to-face with a bland, boring character, boot them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.

Just don’t be a piggie about it.


Getting Out of the Fish

In recent weeks God, as He is wont to do, has drop-kicked me out of my comfort zone.

I’ve learned an important lesson in this experience.

If ever you utter the phrase, “Lord, I’ll do anything but <insert scary ministry thing here>,” God is quite likely to call you to do <insert scary ministry thing here>. In fact, you can almost count on it. It’s not that He’s mean and wants to put us into places where we’d be miserable; it’s that our “scary ministry things” are often linked to places where we’re ruled by fear and need healing. In my case, God’s called me to the thing that for years I’ve avoided: Children’s Ministry.

Over the years, I’ve staunchly held that my gifts don’t fit Children’s Ministry. I even suggested that if I were to attempt to work with children, I would duct tape them and lock them in a closet—which claim usually had the desired effect, causing those who disagreed with my assessment to back off.

What a load of crap.

The real reason I’ve resisted working with children is that I didn’t want to go back and dredge up unpleasant memories from my childhood. Simply stated, I am to Children’s Ministry what Jonah was to Nineveh. God has pursued me with incredible patience, just as He pursued Jonah. I can even look back and see a similar pattern in my resistance and rebellion, even a parallel to the “big fish” thing.

Let me tell ya, it stinks inside that fish. Not recommended.

Back in May, I made a life-changing decision to get out of the fish. When the Lord tapped my shoulder and said, “Let’s talk about writing fiction for tweens,” rather than my usual diversionary tactics, I answered with a simple “Okay.” Not that I’ll never again write adult fiction, but for now my focus is completely on middle-grade fiction. Oh, and for the benefit of those not familiar with the term, middle grade does not mean mediocre, as some folks I know actually thought when I first used the term. It’s writing targeted to the middle grades, generally 9-12 year olds. It is exactly what God called me to write. It proves He has a sense of humor. Those were some of the worst years of my life, and He’s called me to go back there and write from that misery.

Come to think of it, that’s not humor—it’s downright brilliant, making me go back and heal some wounds I never even wanted to admit to having. It’s stirred up some interesting memories and insights, some of which I’ll blog about here in the near future.

I took a giant step five weeks ago. I volunteered to help with our church’s Children’s Ministry on a more-or-less trial basis. For the past five weeks, we’ve done a re-run of our VBS program on Sunday mornings. Today, our Minister to Children asked how I felt about my experience and if I wanted to stay.

I said yes.

In fact, you couldn’t drag me out of that children’s wing with two cranes and a bulldozer.

Okay, Lord, you can go ahead and move the fish. I won’t need him anymore.

I’m “all in.”

Another Ridgecrest Farewell

I’m concluding my week at Ridgecrest in the same spot where I began—Rocking Chair Ridge. As nice as the new Johnson Spring complex is, this is still my favorite place at Ridgecrest. Every time I sit in one of these chairs, I can’t help but think about the lives that have been changed over the years in this very spot—including my own.

Every time I come here for a conference, God shows up. This week has been no disappointment. I’ve done a horrible job of tweeting, Facebooking, and whatever the latest cool social networking thing is that popped up while I wasn’t watching. I didn’t even tweet-feet, though I did post a picture of Vonda Skelton’s feet on the BRMCWC Facebook Fan Page, just for fun. Though I may have been social-network challenged, I’m certain my time went for all the right things.

What I did do this week is study the craft of writing suspense and thrillers at the feet of award-winning novelist Steven James. I also made a few hundred new friends, hugged a lot of old friend’s necks, and refilled my writer’s soul by hanging with all those fellow word-wrangling addicts.

And as always, there were surprises.

After a gentle but firm nudge from the Holy Spirit, I spent three days in Nancy Rue’s class on writing for tweens and teens. I knew it would be wonderful the moment I walked through the door and saw TOYS! I tried to avoid it, but the inescapable fact is that ther Lord is nudging me to dedicate a portion of my writing life to novels for tween boys (9-12 years old). I feel thoroughly inadequate for that task, which puts me in a good place. If I’m to have any success, God’s gonna have to show up and I’m gonna have to get out of His way.

I had one final surprise today, the sort of moment I’d attribute to coincidence if I believed in coincidence. At lunch today I sat at a random  table with a young woman who I later learned was Andrea Gutierrez, associate editor or Thriving Family magazine. I learned that we have some common friends, and also that Thriving Family is a potential target for some articles I’ve written in the past but haven’t done much with lately. I’ve been so fiction-focused that I hadn’t even considered article writing lately, but the queries will be flying before long. Coincidence? Not hardly.

One last item from Ridgecrest: a word about those wonderful Ridgecrest volunteers. I love red shirts anyway, but after this week I love ’em even more. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with retired folks who come to Ridgecrest and volunteer their time to help the ministry. The volunteers are easy to spot. Just look for the red shirts, and you’ll more than likely find a volunteer. These folks come here from all over the country at their own expense to serve without pay, and their faithful service added so much to the week for all of us. The photo shows my absolute favorite volunteer of all time, an eighty-something lady named Marvella. She’s volunteered to serve at every writer’s conference and retreat I’ve attended here at Ridgecrest, and without her I’d have never found my way that first year. We all love you, Marvella. I look forward to seeing you here next year!

Can You Be Shaken Off?

We have covered patio behind our office building known as the Smoking Deck, so named because it is frequently inhabited by the tobacco addicts who work in our non-smoking building. It’s a simple structure; metal lap roofing on a framework of steel “C” channels, supported by posts at one end and the building on the other. Not fancy, but functional—and even non-smokers appreciate it as a staging area perfect for gathering one’s nerve before bolting across the parking lot to your car on rainy days.

About five years ago, we  acquired some new tenants on the Smoking Deck. A tribe of Barn Swallows moved in and set up housekeeping, having found the inside of those steel “C” channels to be a perfectly wonderful place to nest. We didn’t mind at first. Most of our folks, both smoking and non-smoking, found the little family a charming addition—until the day someone mentioned the possible health ramifications of all those bird droppings collecting on the concrete deck. After enough people complained to outweigh the bird-lover vote, we decided to encourage our little friends to nest elsewhere the following spring by removing their little mud nests after they had been vacated.

bird2The following spring, the nests reappeared one day, in exactly the same locations, occupied by egg-sitting mama birds and guarded by a team of highly protective attack swallows. Over the protests of the anti-bird-poop coalition, I allowed the nests to remain until their purpose had been fulfilled and they were once again vacant. On that round of bird-bomb prevention, we installed heavy-gauge 1/4″ wire mesh over the open channels to prevent the birds from entering their nesting zone. Problem solved—or so I thought.

A year later, the Barn Swallows returned in force. One of the several resulting nests is pictured on the left. In exactly the same spots where they were born, the returnees built new mud nests using the 1/4″ wire mesh for support the way a plasterer uses wire lath. Birds three, humans zero.

No matter what we do, we can’t get rid of these blasted birds. After years of trying, I’ve officially surrendered. Those threatened by bird by-products are using either denial or a different door during bird season, and after the Barn Swallows complete their task and move on, we break out the pressure washer and thoroughly sanitize the concrete deck. It needs a little tar-and-nicotine scrub once in a while, anyway.

Shake, Rattle and Write.

The Barn Swallows remind me of the story of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament book of Second Kings.  The Prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, and Elisha is determined to be his successor. Elijah tried to shake him off three times, but each time Elisha stubbornly refused to be shaken. Three different groups of prophets tried to tell Elisha to give up, but he paid them no attention.

Moments away from being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah asked Elisha if he had any last-minute requests. Elisha upped the stakes by asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, to which Elijah replied, “Kid, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? You’re going to need a mighty big vision to get that.” (My paraphrase.)

Elisha still wouldn’t be shaken off, in spite of his mentor’s repeated attempts, his peer’s discouragement, and a goal grown larger than his wildest dreams. When his vision test came, he passed—and because he wouldn’t be shaken off, he became what he new God intended him to be all along: Elijah’s successor.

How does this apply to us as novelists? If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s that there are plenty of opportunities to be shaken off. Rejections. Critics. Discouragement. The interminable wait for what could be the world’s slowest moving industry at times.  We think we’ve had a breakthrough, take a giant step forward, then stand there for months unable to move a single inch further.  I used to think that selling my first novel would end the shaking. I’ve spoken with enough published novelists—even best-selling authors—to know better now. For most authors, the shaking never ends.

If that’s the case, why do we keep on writing?

We’re Barn Swallows. We’re Elishas. We’re Novelists. We write because we have to, because we need to get these stories out of our heads and onto the page. Try all ytou want, we won’t be shaken off. This isn’t just what we choose to do, it’s what we must do.

Published or unpublished, old pro or neophyte, here is a simple test you can take once and for all to determine if you’re a true novelist: Try to stop. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a month off. Try to live one full month of your life without seeing a situation and thinking, “Hey, I can use that in a story.” See if you can live for one month without hearing a unique name and envisioning a character with that name. See if you can go for a month without waking up at night with a storyline in your head. See if you can watch a movie or TV program without brainstorming story ideas, or commenting on a character’s development, or seeing flaws in the plot that make it implausible. See if you can go a whole month without writing one single word of fiction, whether in your head on on a page.

If you can really quit—if you can be shaken off—then by all means quit. You’re not a Novelist. If you can do something else, then do it with all your might.

If, however, you can’t quit no matter how hard you try, then welcome to the family. You’re a Novelist, a victim of the writing disease called Novelism. There’s only one known treatment: Write, Rewrite, Repeat.

For the record: I tried to quit, and I didn’t last a full day. How about you?

Fictional Dan

I had an email from a friend the other day, chastising me for not updating my blog since October 23rd. There wasn’t much I could say in reply other than, “I haven’t been writing because I’ve been busy writing.” I know, it doesn’t seem very logical, but it’s the truth. With logic like that, I oughta run for President! 🙂

The truth that I havebeen too busy writing to blog. But, I have a confession to make, one that might be hard for some of you to accept.

I’ve crossed over to the ‘other side.’ I’ve actually been writing fiction. 

Yes, I know . . . it’s shocking. And not only am I writing fiction, but I’m admitting to it openly. I’ve even joined an organization called American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). And when I say I’m writing fiction, I’m not kidding–I’m currently self-editing the second rewrite of my first novel, which I’ll be entering into a couple of contests shortly, and will be pitching at writers’ conferences this spring.

I haven’t completely quit writing non-fiction, of course, so if you’re a magazine editor and were hoping that this would mean no more queries from Dan . . . sorry, I’m not going away, just broadening my writing perspective. I’ve found that there are a number of advantages to writing fiction:

  • No need to deal with that pesky “truth” thing.
  • It’s okay if you make up people and situations (non-fiction editors seem to have a problem with fabricating examples)
  • If you don’t like a character, you can always kill ’em (another thing frowned upon by non-fiction editors)
  • You get to manipulate reality.
  • One word: control.
  • People are nicer to you if they think they might end up in one of your books.
  • Based on the current field of candidates, being a fiction writer can qualify one to run for President–some of the current candidates seem to be accomplished fictional storytellers. 😯

So, watch this space, fiction lovers. One of these days you’ll have yet another reason to love me! :mrgreen: