.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


I Totally Scooped Copyblogger

Of course, "scooped" is a ridiculous overstatement. But I figure I deserve a little celebration. Consider this short post my victory dance. Hoo-ah! Last week I said,
Hyper short short stories (whether 6 words or slightly longer) seem like the perfect way to add some zest to bullets.
This week, Brian Clark writes,
Hemingway wrote with simple genius.

Perhaps his finest demonstration of short sentence prowess was when he was challenged to tell an entire story in only 6 words.
Granted I was just posting a challenge to my creative writing friends. Copyblogger is the one who makes it readily applicable. Brian, you know I love your stuff. I'm just glad to see that I'm even close to your wavelength.


Campfire Stories for Halloween

As a Christian, I always feel guilty that I love Halloween so much. I just do. I love zombie movies, too. And ghost stories. And horror stories that remind me just how dangerous the world can be--but from a safe and fantastic and beautiful distance.

The genre of horror has moral value. Scott Derrickson taught me this: If someone says God is dead, it may be time to show them the devil.

My daughter and I have been reading scary stories leading up to Halloween. Last night we read Madeleine L'Engle's "Poor Little Saturday." Fantastic ghost story--perfect blend of creepy cute for a young kid. (Sadly, it's not online anywhere.)

So here is my little offering to the wonders of horror:

Campfire Stories

After dinner at Shotgun's
we drive back to the grounds
wondering will the camp code prove true.
It does. Our tent is unmolested
though lonely amidst various perky groups.
Across the road in site eleven
nearest to the bathroom, middle school boys
whisper about Bloody Mary.
"She'll come out of the mirror
You'll see her behind you,” they say
”With hands dripping red—”
In the bathroom a father is making
a game out of cleaning his sons' ears
"Hold this while I clean your brother's
And we'll see whose are dirtier."
"Go deeper," says the brother,
his face against the bathroom mirror
while dad mines wax with a Q tip.
At our campfire we laugh
when I read King's Boogeyman aloud,
wondering if the site 11 boys can hear
my voice sneaking up behind them,
my words dripping red—

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


A Good Scream Meets A Good Editor

Apparently, the "Wilhelm Scream" is a hollywood archive classic. Like a good slogan or catch phrase or character, it keeps going and going and going.

This just demonstrates the power of presenting old material in a new context.


Monday, October 23, 2006


A short short short challenge

Wired magazine published 33 short stories in the latest issue. Each one is 6 words long. They got the idea from Hemingway.

Here's his original "hyper short short":
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
I don't know the copyright rules on six word short stories, but I'm going to reprint my favorites from that issue as a challenge to others. Write a six-word story in comments.
Gown removed carelessly. Head less so. (Joss Whedon)
machine. Unexpectedly, I'd invented a time (Alan Moore)
It cost too much, staying human. (Bruce Sterling)
I'm dead. I've missed you. Kiss . . . ? (Neil Gaiman)
The baby's blood typ? Human, mostly. (Orson Scott Card)
To save humankind he died again. (Ben Bova)
Here's one I don't quite get by the way. Can anyone explain it?
Tick tock tick tock tick tick. (Neal Stephenson)
(I know they are all men. I swear it's not an evil conspiracy. Margaret Atwood had a good one, but I'm not going to post it here.)

So let me repeat the challenge. Write a story in six words. Leave it in the comments. I'll put one there too.

Update: Brian Clark has some interesting tips on using bullets as a way to focus the message and even invoke action on the part of the reader. Hyper short short stories (whether 6 words or slightly longer) seem like the perfect way to add some zest to bullets.

Another Update: Brian posted an article about Hemingway's six word story as a guide for copywriting. And Wired posted a full list of the stories on their site.


Haunted House Made out of Balloons

Happy Monday morning. Happy Halloween.

This was too good not to share. For the past several years, Larry Moss has been creating a haunted house made entirely from balloons. "Balloon Manor" is one of the most wonderful and happy creative things I have seen in awhile.

A lot of people belittle their abilities. "Yeah, I just make balloon animals." Not Larry. He started calling it "balloon art." You know the old phrase, "As a man thinketh." Larry thought of balloons as an artform, and they became one. Then he combined his passion for Halloween with his passion for balloons.

The result it pretty astounding. And it is a good reminder that passion and focus lead to excellence.

Check out the dragon head entrance! If you have time, be sure to take the guided tour.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


The Best Viral Marketing Story Ever

It happened at Columbia University in the early 1990s. You can hear the story on This American Life "Recordings for Someone." It comes just after Ira Glass's introduction.

I'll retell it here so we can cut to the moral.

During the year of "the best phone message ever," Columbia had a phone system that allowed students to forward their messages to each other after they attached a short introduction. Students regularly forwarded stupid messages they received from parents, friends, siblings, angry significant others, you get the idea.

One night a student received a message from his angry mother. He sent her on a goose chase and didn't honor his end of the commitment. When she called him back late in the evening, she was ticked. Imagine Oedipus' mother was a crackhead from New Jersey.

(Quick Lit Tip: Oedipus' mom was named Jocasta. Instead of leaving an angry message for her son, she hanged herself.)

Instead of gouging his eyes out with his mother's toga pins, the Columbia student forwarded the message to several of his friends. Who forwarded the message to their friends. Who forwarded the message and forwarded the message.

This one doesn't have any meat--unless you're a college student feeling guilty about the numerous ways you are betraying your heritage by carving out your own independence. But it's hook is raw emotion.

And, of course, an angry mom who tells the Little Mermaid what she can do with herself.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the first few minutes of this week's This American Life. (It's a little off color, but they bleep the bad words.)

I wonder. Could a blogging writer create this kind of viral phenomenon intentially?


Surely someone has already done something this powerful with blogging.



Sometimes You Just Have to Polka

Goodyear Family in Fest Garb

Confession time. Every fall my family hits the Texas German festival circuit. Oktoberfest. Wurstfest. Weihnachten in Fredricksburg. Sometimes even Beethoven Hall in San Antonio. We hit as many as we can.

See, I picked up three bad habits when I lived in Germany.

1) Coffee
2) Beer
3) Polka!

Oh and yelling SCHEISSKOPF! at the top of my lungs when I stub my toe.

(Not really.)


Good Bait Hurts

Brian Clark is writing about link bait again over at Copyblogger.

Link bait is any blog or article or flash page or virtual publicity stunt designed to make people link to it. From white papers to ebooks to advice lists.

Which reminds me of the classic writing tip: Good writing hooks the reader.

Annie Dillard tells a story in The Writing Life that has become a kind of mantra for me. Here is my version:

During a particularly hard winter, an Eskimo village died of starvation. The last two survivors—a woman and her baby—fled the village looking for food. Near a lake they found an emergency stock of fishing supplies. A hook, a line, a knife. But no bait. Her baby was crying.

What else could she do? She took the knife and cut a piece of meat from her own thigh. She used a piece of herself for bait to catch the first fish. After that first fish, she had guts leftover for more bait.

But the woman will always have a scar on her thigh.

Whether I'm writing ad copy or business copy or editing someone's introduction for an inspirational essay about spirituality and work, I know that good hooks have good bait. And good bait comes from the writer's own flesh and blood and guts.

Good writing leaves scars.

Good bait hurts.

(Why do so many people keep writing?)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The High Calling of Blogging

Tall Skinny Kiwi is back from his September blog fast. If you haven't read his blog before--whoa.
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.

Sunday's post "Blogging for the Long Tail" especially caught my attention. It demonstrates Andrew's unique blend of practical advice (re blogging, SEO, and the Long Tail) and theology (what a beautiful way to re-envision Asaph's Psalm 78!)

Andrew provides a good reminder that what we write--even for the tiniest of audiences, l.l.--can bring Glory to God. And who knows what audiences will find our old stories and poems and essays?

Here's the verse my wife framed for me. It hangs just to the right of my computer screen at work. The line's not from Asaph, just an unnamed "afflicted man": Write these things for the future so that people who are not yet born will praise the Lord.

In God Works in Your Daily Grind, Todd Lake puts it this way: "God is not looking for . . . any of us to dream up something dramatic to do for our Lord. We have been called by God to simple, faithful integrity in our daily work."

Here are some questions (for myself and others):
Can we spend our entire lives writing and writing and creating and creating and be content with no reader except God himself?
Can we be content with "simple, faithful integrity"?
Does my work have value if the best attribution identifies it as simply the work of "an afflicted man"? Does yours?

(Note: this is also my first attempt at a trackback to another blog. Blogger doesn't do these easily, so we'll see if it works.)

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Jesus in Red Swim Cap

Jesus in Red Swim Cap
So the other day my daughter was drawing a picture of Jesus. She draws Jesus a lot. More than most kids I know--but then I don't spend much time examining the artwork of other people's kids. Maybe they draw Jesus too.

Here was our conversation.

ME: Wow, CJ, what a great picture!

CJ: Yeah. It's a picture of Jesus.

ME: He's wearing a shirt with a red stripe.

CJ: That's his red sash.

ME: Oh.

CJ: It matches his red swim cap.

ME: I see.

CJ: He's on the cross.

On the back side of this page, she drew Jesus on a wall. "Like Humpty Dumpty," CJ said. The kids are coming to visit him and talk to him. And Jesus is wearing his red sash again, but no swim cap this time. CJ never explained to me why Jesus wore his red swim cap on the cross, but not on the wall.

My wife and I are still trying to meditate on the theological implications of our daughter's drawings.

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Two Secrets for Powerful Writing, plus links to secrets from other bloggers

This morning, Copyblogger Brian Clark said, “Bloggers can do anything they want. . . . Many bloggers are not writing news oriented blogs, at least in the journalistic tradition.”

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Brian, but this comment demands a qualification and response.

Perhaps bloggers can do anything they want. But if bloggers want to write well, they are going to make use of many many techniques from journalism. Good writing follows rules. Period.

Of course, there is some variation in the rules of each genre. Business writing and news stories and poetry and fiction and religious writing and narrative nonfiction are not exactly the same. But they are certainly the same species of communication–with only minor genetic differences.

Good writing is concise. It is clear. And good writing puts its meat upfront–even when the meat is on a big hook.

All activities have a creative element and a pedestrian element. All written works have the moment of creativity and the pedestrian transference of information.

All writing is pedestrian—at some point. When the writer puts his butt in the chair and starts typing words, relying on pedestrian rules of grammar and pedestrian rules of syntax and pedestrian structures of genre.

To put this another way, I used to tell my writing students, "I am not here only to entertain you. We'll have fun, sure. Writing is fun because work is fun." But every writing course is about learning the rules and conventions that others expect you to use when you communicate—whether it's poetry or creative writing or literary analysis or technical writing.

People don't like to talk about rules much in our country. We like individual freedom. We secretly admire the Republic of Texas whackos who hole up with rifles and shotguns and refuse to pay their taxes.

Fine, invent your own rules for poetry or writing or blogging—and see who bothers to read your work.

Here's the truest advice I know. Like most Truth is comes in the form of a paradox:
1. Know your audience. Give them what they expect. Give them what they want.
2. Know yourself. Be creative. And sylistic flair. Throw your audience a few surprises that bring life and joy to their drab view of the world.
For the record, here are three sites that have some good, creative, bits of occasionally pedestrian advice. (And none of those things are mutually exclusive.)
Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)
9 + 1 Things Every Reader Wants from a Writer
Good Blog Writing Style

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Vintage21 Jesus Video #1

This comes from a church in Raleigh called Vintage21. Apparently, they made a series of video spoofs like this in the Spring of 2003.

Brilliant use of drama! (Also my first attempt at posting a video into my blog. Here's hoping it works.)
See more Jesus spoof videos here.


Editors are Gleaners

A little prose poetry for today.

The Gleaners

“Where did you glean today? Where did you work?
Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”
Ruth 2:19

The sky turns darker than we expect in the hill country. Each evening in fall, clouds trickle over the hills and promise to hide the stars again. Tonight, my daughter swings after dinner and the wind and her movement blows her hair forward and back, forward and back, sometimes taking her words away from me. So I have to ask, “What did you say, honey?”

And she leans nearly upside down in the swing, smiling, her eyes like stars.

“I’m glad we moved to the pretty place.”

The money wasn’t as much as we’d hoped for, but the world doesn’t seem to value words like it once did. Or maybe it never did. Mark Twain died broke, I hear. As did Poe and Melville and Dickinson. Socrates wrote dialogues and took hemlock. Jeremiah wrote Lamentations and wept. Moses finished the Law, but never finished his journey to the Promised Land.

“You like it here, then?” I ask my daughter in the swing.

“You really really really wanted this job, daddy.”

“I did,” I say.

“And now you can teach people about God.”

She is four but still prefers me to push her; my hands on her back send her higher to the sky.

“No wishes tonight,” I say looking at the clouds.

“Silly daddy, we don’t really have to see the stars to wish.”

(Read more about Jean-Francois Millet's painting here.)

HillCountryWriter Category: Poetry Publishing
Technorati Tags:

Thursday, October 05, 2006


The Myth of Bookstores

When I started working as an editor just over a year ago, I began to learn about the strange world of publication. In this series, I'll be your inside man on books. I'll get you the hook-up, the scoop, the hush-hush, the low-down. This is part five of a series where you'll learn the real deal.

Ages ago, in my last post of this series, I wrote that a writer needs “good sales into the stores, and good sales out of the stores to readers.” (And a special thanks to Andre for motivating me to write the next part of this series.)

The Book Selling Two-Step

I’m not talking about the cotton-eyed joe. I’m talking about the two steps of most traditional book sales.
1) Convince bookstores to buy your book.
2) Convince readers to buy your book.
I’ve heard authors complain about poor sales, blaming their agent, blaming their publisher’s puny marketing budget. Often, these books have decent sales into stores, but poor sales out of stores. J. A. Konrath talks about this a bit in Worry by Numbers. (His blog is amazing by the way, and I link to him throughout this post.)

I can tell you a typical "author's tale of woe" I've heard several times. The book gets better than average marketing: decent coop in some stores (front of store placement), shelf talkers (a little bit like the instant coupons that hang next to items in the grocery store), and even large display boxes in a few stores.

But the book still does’t sell. Because it isn’t very good.

I sympathize with authors who want to blame others when their book doesn’t sell. Heck, I’m one of those authors. (My books haven’t even sold to publishers!) Every book is like a baby. Many authors pour their lives into their books—and the books still end up being hideous progeny, to quote Mary Shelley.

By the way, she wrote Frankenstein when she was seventeen. How old are you? (Before you beat yourself up too much. Remember this: life doesn’t card you at the door.)

Back to the bookstores. As much trouble as authors have, bookstores have troubles of their own. Especially the independents. Just read the intro to Rebel Books. But they also have a few tricks up their sleeves to help them turn a profit. To really get this, we’ll need to look at the life of a book's printrun. (Completely oversimplified, of course.)

The Book Is Born

And there is great rejoicing. Lots of love and kisses from the publisher, the agent, the editor, the author’s friends and family. Everyone is happy. Someone buys the author balloons.

The Book Sells into Stores

If you’ve worked hard and had a bit of luck, Ingram and other distributors list your book. They don’t do this for free, of course. But a lot of the big box bookstores can’t even order your book if it isn’t listed by a distributor like Ingram (they have a cool site) or Baker and Taylor.

EITHER the Book Sells out of the Stores . . .

If you work a little bit harder and have a bit more luck, people buy your book in the stores. Perhaps your marketing is strong and effective. Perhaps you do a 6 month book signing tour. Whatever the reason, people buy your book. And someone else buys the author balloons again.

. . .OR the Book Gets Returned

Someone play taps.

Here’s the really weird thing about bookstores—I’m told they can return books to the publisher free of charge up to 90 days. What some bookstores do, then, is keep books for 89 days. They rotate significant chunks of their inventory at no cost to themselves except the effort and the postage.

Where Do Those Returns Go?

The best scenario is that they are stored in a warehouse somewhere. Then reshipped to some new bookstore where they will have a chance to meet more potential readers.

Often though these books are never stored. They ship to the publisher on large pallets all mixed up. Many mid-sized publishers find it too expensive to 1) sort the books or 2) store the books. So they sell the whole mixed pallet as remainders.

I can't be sad about remainders, though. Remainders fuel the wonderful discount book industry, like Half-Price Books here in Texas.

If no one buys the remainders, they become pulp. (Gulp.)

What Do You Do If Your Book Stalls at Some Point?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve stalled at birth. Although I prefer to think of myself as an author who is still pregnant. My gestation period is just unusually long.

Other books don’t sell into stores. John Poch, a poet friend of mine published his first book with a small press, Orchises, then couldn’t get it listed with Ingram. As a result, I couldn’t order copies for my students. I had to call the small press on the phone and talk to the publisher himself! He was a cool guy, though, and he was thrilled that I bought 30 copies of one book.

Self-published authors like John Erickson often have this problem too. If you don’t know who John Erickson is, be sure to follow the link. He completely sidetracked the big distributors.

My poet friend did too, ultimately. His first book has all but sold out! He peddled Poems himself for several years—selling a few copies at every convention or speaking engagement he attended. Now, he has a new book that is just hard to believe. (A bit like that cotton-eyed joe flying lawn mower video.) I wish him the best of luck with it.

Of course, neither Erickson nor the poet would have succeeded if they didn’t have excellent books. If a book isn't excellent, all the marketing in the world won't make it sell much. If your book doesn’t sell, it becomes mush. Ashes to ashes. Pulp to pulp.

Three questions:
Is your book an excellent read?
Is your book an excellent product?
If you didn’t answer yes to both of those questions, what are you going to do?

HillCountryWriter Category: Publishing
Technorati Tags:

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Organization and Writing

My wife and I are the volunteer drama ministers at our church, First Baptist Church of Kerrville. This is part two of a series, Page to Stage, that will walk you through our process for bringing drama to life in our church.

So how do you work backwards from moral to story? With preparation, thought, and unflinching honesty.


Most of the time I’m working from curriculum I didn’t write. That means I start with a specific Bible lesson. At least it’s a good source of inspiration! The trick is not to preach with it.

Jesus didn’t even do a lot of preaching. He mostly told good stories. Many of them rooted in the Torah. Many of them without simple endings or morals. If you haven’t read his parables in awhile, take a look at the shrewd manager or the persistent widow.

The brief stories are more like descriptive character sketches. They certainly aren't simple allegories or analogies.

The last sketch I wrote was about Moses striking the rock to bring forth water in Exodus 17:1-7. Of course, I did more research and study! With a little bit of thought and a concordance, I rediscovered Psalm 95 and 1 Cor. 10:1-13 which also refer to this story. Jesus and the woman at the well seemed like another story to keep in mind as I wrote (John 4:1-24).

Now that I had my theological grounding, it was time for. . .


Then I realized what this story was about for me: The Israelites have every reason to trust God—he’s done so many miracles for them. He even follows them through the desert as a supernatural pillar of cloud and flame! But they want to trust in other things.

So I wondered. In American culture, where do we place our trust? First, I thought of all the superhero movies. Everybody loves a superhero. Second, I thought of science. I love science, but I know many people who trust in science more than they trust in God. Not good. Finally, I realized that sad truth: we'd rather trust anything other than God.

Out of this idea came a superhero who trusts in strength, a scientist who trusts in knowledge, and a dowser who trusts in his divining rod. (I like idea triplets like this. Maybe it's a trinity thing. Maybe it's a five paragraph essay thing. I don't know.)

With this rough idea for the story, I would need at least five actors: Bumblemonkey (our recurring character), the Narrator (who has a script and prompts us when we forget), Moses, Israelite(s), and the Superhero/scientist/dowser.

It’s important to know upfront how many people you’ll have. Rather than write a circus with the three tempters running amok on stage, I had to allow for the possibility that they would all be played by the same person. (Which they were—my wife. Who is not a faithful blogger, but she is darn cute.)

I wrote one set of “temptation lines,” changing only what each tempter said and how Moses responded. This would help Moses and the others by giving them less to memorize.

It may seem odd to write with the actors' memorization limitations in mind, but being successful in sketch writing (or any endeavor really) simply demands . . .


Part of being honest in this situation is recognizing the audience and the context. We are taking ten minutes of the bible class—so a moral play is in order. The characters must be honest and real, but they can be stock characters. And they can also speak/preach to the audience at the end.

As soon as I got to the moral, I realized the mistake I had made. I set up false dichotomies. God vs. human strength. God vs. scientific knowledge. Too many churches set up similar dichotomies when they read the Bible. Our stock character, Bumblemonkey (the bomolochus), exists just for this purpose. He never quite gets it. And so he lets me verbalize the false moral.

Then another character can correct him.

Explaining what the moral is not can be just as important as explaining what the moral is.

It’s not high art. But neither is it propaganda. It is what it is: an opportunity to let the kids see a fun show, to let the actors become the Word on stage, and to write a short sketch that will teach and delight.

HillCountryWriter Category: Drama
Technorati Tags:


Jesus Christ Avatar

I have to get other people's take on this. I love using technology to serve God, but this Jesus Avatar strikes me as a strange and incongruent.

Bob Darden of the Wittenburg Door offers this tip:

"Keep watching when Messiah stops talking. Then move your mouse across His picture and you'll see what real omniscience looks like. Seems mama wasn't kiddin' when she said Jesus was watching!"

Monday, October 02, 2006


When Hollywood Meets Jesusland

My last post on the VeggieTales vs. NBC saga drew more interest than I expected. (Not hard since I expected none.)

NBC says it removes God-talk to appeal to a wider audience. VeggieTales says the integrity of their show has been compromised at the last minute. LA and Hollywood value the ad sales. JesusLand values the sermon.

In a comment on the last post, Andre wonders "if as a Christian community, we're too sensitive and adversarial in our approach to the 'world'." Too sensitive? Heck, we've got a chip on our shoulder the size of a wooden plank. Thanks for reminding me to, um, open my eyes to it.

Which all brings me to say, the latest two interviews I worked on for TheHighCalling.org address this issue more philosophically.

Pastor Michael Catt and crew clearly value the sermon.

Ralph Winter and Scott Derrickson clearly understand the need for sales.

More often, the second approach produces a better product in the end. Just compare Facing the Giants (which I adored despite myself) and X-Men (which I own).

Both interviews are really interesting! Take a look.

HillCountryWriter Category: Church stuff Publishing
Technorati Tags:

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?