December 26, 2010

WRITING ADVICE: Mike Duran #2 – Ten Ways Writing Short Stories Can Benefit Aspiring Novelists

I have never seen Mike Duran. We “met” online a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots of gentle and wise words. I’m looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in these WRITING ADVICE posts. (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at Check him out, he really is THAT good!

I agree with Mike and all those who commented on this one. In fact, despite the statement that there seems to be a controversy/discussion about whether or not “A novelist should write NOVELS!”, there wasn’t any controversy here. David Brin might argue the point – his first publication was the novel SUNDIVER and though he has written stories since and now writes short essays for a living, he started his career with full-blown novels.

On the other hand, I have seen specfic writers who have never left short stories even though they tried. Their novels, when they produced them, were either collections of a series of short stories that filled a story arc (David R. Palmer’s EMERGENCE comes to mind) or their novel wasn’t as strong as their short fiction (Jeffrey D. Kooistra’s DYKSTRA’S WAR) while others never wrote a novel and seem to have spent their career in short stories (Michael Burstein is the author I think of here).

To add to this chorus of agreement, I add my own two cents:

First Cent) Jesus never spoke in novels. He spoke in parables (short stories with a moral point). He spoke in parables on purpose, because most people of his time didn’t read; if they did read, they read Scripture or proclamations. Besides, they just didn’t have time for anything longer! (Does this sound like a people you’re familiar with?)

Second Cent) God wrote in short stories as well. The Bible is a series of 66 “books”, though by today’s definition, The Book of Jonah could be considered FLASH fiction at 1276 words (New American Standard Bible © 1960-1995 The Lockman Foundation). Later monks went further still, breaking down the narrative into little, teeny verses (for easier reference, I’m sure, but it STILL makes it easier in my head to stop after reading Jonah 1…)

I COULD say, “If short stories are good enough for God and Jesus, they’re good enough for me!”

But I won’t say that. I’ll simply agree with Mike Duran (and the other commentators) and add my two cents above. BTW – no matter how good short stories are, I am STILL trying to market all of my novels because novels, more correctly the royalties paid on novels, are how writers can financially survive.

Though once a novel is written and published, it makes it far more difficult for an author to break out of the mold and write something “new”. I know of at least one author who has changed their name to get away from a “fantasy branding” issue in order to get back to their first love, science fiction. I know at least one who wrote novels – both critically acclaimed, award-winning and genre bending as well as the “wrong” novelization. That author has been unable and/or unwilling to get out from under that cloud of expectation to a) please write ANOTHER ONE like… b) oh no, you’ll just write ANOTHER ONE like…

Link to the original article here:


December 19, 2010

Slice of PIE: Maybe We Are NOT What We Believe…

(This is NOT a Slice...sorry...)

“‘But surely,’ said Virtue, ‘these things were not the less his own because he learned them from others.’

“‘He did not learn them. He learned only catchwords from them. He could talk like Epicurus of spare diet, but he was a glutton. He had from Montaigne the language of friendship, but no friend. He never read one ode of Horace seriously in his life. And for his Rabelais, he can quote, “Do what you will”. But he has no notion that Rabelais gave that liberty to his Thelamites on the condition that they be bound by Honor, and for this reason alone free from laws positive.’” from CS Lewis, THE PILGRIM’S REGRESS, Book Ten, Chapter 2

I bought this book twenty-four years ago and started reading it this past October. It’s been hard going – Lewis’ book is the story of his own journey from childhood faith to adult faith. It’s written in the style of 17th Century author, John Bunyan, who wrote PILGRIM’S PROGRESS.

Lewis’ book contains such convoluted phrases as: “He knew now that he was praying…In a sense he said, Spirit is not I, I am it, but I am not the whole of it. When I turn back from the part of it which is not I – that far greater part which my soul does not exhaust – surely that part is to me the Other.” (Book 8, Chapter 4) and impenetrable paragraphs as: “I cannot agree with notions about the other side of the canyon but just because he relegates his delusions to the other side, he is free to agree with me about this side and to be an implacable exposer (like myself) of all attempts to foist upon us any transcendental, romantical, optimistic trash…he canalizes all the mystical nonsense – the sehnsucht and Wanderlust and Nympholepsy…” (Book 6, Chapter 2)

I have a plan to write a book for today that does what these men did for the 17th and the early 20th Centuries called PILGRIM’S EXCESS and it will serve the same purpose as Bunyan’s and Lewis’ works did but take place in the City rather than a “land” and address issues we face today – and show how my own journey looks as allegory…

But that’s not my issue today – I take exception with the Church. I launch my arrows at the deflector shield protecting the Lutheran Church in particular as I have been a baptized member since shortly after my fifth birthday (…it’s a long story, don’t ask) and was confirmed, worked in and promoted the theology of Luther ever since.

The problem is that the vast majority of Lutherans know NOTHING of Luther’s theology. In fact, I have a notion that if we were to attach a drive shaft to Luther’s feet in his grave for ten minutes, the speed at which he is spinning would generate enough electrical power to light all of North America at Christmas for a year.

The vast majority of Lutherans don’t understand the Small Catechism nor the Large Catechism. In fact, my experience with several hundred standard Lutheran pastors is that most of them have no idea what Luther did, wrote or intended. They stand on an interpretation of Lutheranism that requires little thought and is easily adjusted to fit into the standard, American, plastic, pluralistic cultural relativism that masquerades as cultural sensitivity and relevance.

Let me point out an example from the Small Catechism, the best known of Luther’s works and the one that a few Lutheran Churches still have their confirmands read and memorize: “The Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed – [I believe] in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. Luther asks ‘What does this mean?’ It means that I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death; that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness; just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

In 1970 (Sept. 11 issue), Christianity Today published a survey that revealed that the virgin birth is denied by 60 percent of Methodists, 49 percent of Presbyterians, 44 percent of Episcopalians, 34 percent of American Baptists, and 19 percent of American Lutherans. A more recent, 1998 poll shows that these numbers not only reflect the congregation but the pastoral leadership as well.

If one in five Lutherans and their pastors don’t believe in the Virgin Birth of the Christ – and a Barna Research Group poll indicates that the Virgin Birth is the MOST believed story in the Bible – then what ELSE do they imply they believe in by being Lutherans…but don’t really think it’s necessary to believe in?

Convoluted? Hmmm, yes. To put it more succinctly: If a person doesn’t accept what Luther WROTE in the Small Catechism (intended for children) or the Large Catechism (intended for pastors and leaders), then leave and join a church that DOES proclaim what you believe!

I find it offensive when members of the Lutheran Church try to change, water down or ignore parts of Luther’s writing by saying, “Oh, that was then, what he would have written NOW is…” or “We need to bring the Lutheran Church into the 21st Century! We need to be more relevant!”

I think Luther had something to say about that, too: “How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.”

A larger question still that bothers me though is how many Christians conform to the Nicene Creed? How many Christians – especially Evangelicals – even know WHAT the Nicene Creed is? If you don’t know, why not? It IS a document that unified the Church’s theology starting in 325 AD. Yet the Wikipedia article states that it means nothing to the Evangelical Church; only the liturgical church! Does this mean that Evangelicals can believe whatever they want to believe? Most of them say, “We believe God’s Word!” Cool – but don’t they mean “We believe our interpretation of God’s Word!”? Otherwise we wouldn’t have the Baptist Church, the Evangelical Free Church, the Christian Missionary Alliance and a plethora of “independents”…Questions for a later blog, I guess.

Your thoughts?



A different blog I always read and occasionally write for has a short essay by me about why I write. If you're interested:

December 16, 2010

A SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH 20: July 10, 1946-July 11, 1946

This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So I added some imaginary elements and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

That night, Charlie introduced Tommy Hastings and Freddie Merrill to his dad – Charlie’s mom had died two years earlier from pneumonia, it was just the two of them ran the former dairy farm. Fairlaine’s Creamery, aka, Charlie and his dad, thought that having two extra sets of hands around the place would be the best thing since sliced bread.

Tommy hastily added, “We gotta head up to Duluth though. My aunt and uncle are expecting us.”

Mr. Fairlaine nodded slowly, eyeing the boys. He said, “You boys ain’t in any trouble, are you? Anything I should worry about? Tangled up with mobsters or witches or socialists or anything like that?”

Eyes wide, both boys shook their head, Freddie with both hands behind his back and Tommy with one hand back and one hand in a sling.

Mr. Fairlaine grunted then lifted his chin to Charlie, “Keep ‘em busy, but don’t let Tommy hurt his hand any more. My brother’ll kill me if I let his little project get hurt.” Then he’d gone into the main house, leaving the three boys in the barn with a small herd of cows and the huge milk tanks where the raw milk was stored.

Freddie blurted, “What project is your dad talking about?”

Charlie rolled his eyes and started across the barn, picking up a hose and turning on the water. It trickled out of the mouth. He said, “Uncle Chris is always patching up the poor and the lost and sending ‘em to us to take care of.”

Tommy exclaimed, “We ain’t lost! We’re on our way to Duluth!”

“Where in Duluth? Dad and I drive there every other day with the milk truck. We deliver mostly to the creamery there, but we sell to smaller places, too. I know Duluth like I know the back of my hand.” He turned and started spraying down one of the tanks.

Tommy looked at Freddie who looked at Charlie. Finally Tommy said, “I’m gonna find my mom and dad’s families.”

Charlie didn’t look at them, but said loudly, “Do your mom and dad’s family’s have last names?”

Freddie shook his head when Tommy looked at him. Charlie turned around, taking his finger off the end of the hose so the water just dribbled from the hose again rather than spurting all over the boys. Tommy pursed his lips then said, “My dad’s family are named Hastings; Mom’s uncle was Herbert Towne.”

Charlie’s eyes grew wide, then he covered the end of the hose again, turning just before he sprayed the boy’s feet and said, “Don’t let Dad hear you say that name on this farm – or you might end up with a shotgun barrel up your ass.”


December 12, 2010


I’ve shoveled the driveway six times in the past two days.

After digging out from the “Sixth Worst Blizzard In Minnesota History!”, we are facing several days of sub-zero temperatures (-10 F) and brutal wind chills (ranging from -15 to -40). It started me wondering why no one has ever attempted to write a hard science fiction novel set on a world with a biology, ecology and sociology that would match Frank Herbert’s and Brian Herbert & Kevin Anderson’s DUNE books.

Not that we aren’t happy sending our heroes TO snow worlds! Luke Skywalker nearly died on the drifts of Hoth and Captain Kirk was almost eaten on the ice fields of Delta Vega in one time line and sentenced to prison on the Klingon ice moon of Rura Penthe in another.

Ursual K. LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS takes place on Winter or Gethe and while the world is certainly cold and dreary, the planet serves as metaphor to support her exploration of human sexuality, rather than representing a “real” world.

CJ Mills (a former Minnesotan) also created Winter World – though it seemed her intent there was to form a chilly backdrop for steamy romance and hot-blooded intrigue. More recently, Catherine Asaro used the world of Skyfall for the same purpose – done well, but really not much more than backdrop.


I have two theories. The first is that a winter world is BOR-ing! Everyone has snow. Everyone’s been in a blizzard. Ice is something you put in drinks. Northern animals are mostly dull (though moose are kinda cool, reindeer gave rise to Rudolph and polar bears rock). Santa’s about the only exciting thing to come out of the Poles, and that’s only one night a year. Polar societies are also “primitive” (I’m reading GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL by Jared Diamond, so I’m saying that tongue-in-cheek) and there’s nothing war-mongering about Inuit in kayaks spearing narwhals. Besides, everyone knows what goes on under the blankets on cold winter nights…certainly nothing worth writing SERIOUS science fiction about.

Deserts on the other hand, have always fascinated us with their mystery. Say desert and you think of Bedoins, Lawrence of Arabia, Queen Nefertiti and King Tut and the Pyramids of Egypt!

Say arctic and you think of snowshoe hares, blubber chewing, mushing and eating sticks of butter for breakfast. Hardly the stuff of major fiction and certainly not interesting enough to get a film option.

The other theory though intrigues me and what started as a small bug has grown into the beginning of a collection of notes and a name: Sirmiq. It’s an Inuit word for “glacier”. Sirmiq will be the name of a world I have in mind to build. It will be an exceedingly difficult job.

That’s why I don’t think anyone has really tried before. It’s too hard. For one thing, it’s impossible to have life evolve in such a cold place, right? You need black smokers or boiling lava or something else to provide the energy to drive evolution. Life can’t EVOLVE in a place like that! You need heat to drive the passion that makes story!


Lemme see, I’ll grant that you need insolation or radiation or geothermals and liquid water as well as basic elements and minerals to drive the formation of amino acids…but what if it happened even more slowly that it happened here? What if, at lower temperatures all that stuff still happened, just at a slower pace? What would happen to higher life forms that evolved from the slower-paced unicellular life? Is slower necessarily bad – AIDS is not a “fast” disease and doesn’t manifest itself in outward symptoms until it’s nearly too late to do anything about it. What if every life form was like that?

See, I think to do this – for me to create SIRMIQ – I’ll need to do a James Michener. In CENTENNIAL, he started the novel with the formation of Earth and the Rockies and ended with a man born of the people who had lived in that land for tens of thousands of years. Frank Herbert worked for five years researching and writing DUNE and published two shorter versions in ANALOG. Unable to interest the usual science fiction publishers like Ace, Ballantine, or Berkeley in the whole thing, he was finally accepted by the publishers of CHILTON’S car repair manuals!

I’ve only just begun research, but it’s promising. I’ve written a couple of experimental stories on Sirmiq, but neither one has sold, though one, “The Stars Like Nails” has evolved from one kind of story into something totally different and I have yet to write that "new" story. I have a clear image though: a man sitting on an ice block; across from him an old Inuit woman in a tent; between them, a body on a long block of ice; to one side, the wing of a shuttlecraft shelters them all from heavily falling snow. I think I know where it’s going…

What do you think is the reason we don’t have a cold world on par with DUNE – too boring or too difficult?

Me? I’m opting that no one’s had the guts to really try it!


December 5, 2010

WRITING ADVICE – Mike Duran 1: Good Writing Is Not Subjective

I have never seen Mike Duran. We met a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots and lots of gentle and wise words. I’m going to be looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in the next ten WRITING ADVICE posts. I strongly suggest you head on over to Mike’s Christian Speculative Fiction and Other Stuff blog called deCOMPOSE at (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at Check him out, he really is THAT good!

I know I can write.

As much as a whine and cry (at least in my head), I know I can write for publication. I have a string of forty-two short stories, articles, a play, six puppet shows, and a book of children’s sermons that has been out for twelve years. I have two short stories that were recently published and two science articles in major children’s magazines coming out in Jan/Feb and June 2011.

I know I can write.

My biggest challenge though, can be summed up in Mike’s words here: “There is a difference between good writing and good storytelling. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald one of his literary masters, adept at the art of myth-making. But in the preface to MacDonald’s LILITH, Lewis writes, ‘Few of his novels are good and none is very good.’ Huh? You see, Lewis made a distinction between the craft of writing and the creation of Story. Stylistically, MacDonald was average. His expertise, however, was in telling stories. Likewise, you must make a distinction between the technical elements of writing and the essential story being told. ‘Good writing’ may be either or both, but it can’t be neither.”

In my writing, I struggle with story telling. I can do it write – I have the pedigree to prove that I can. But I have been unable to do it consistently. I’ve had more stories rejected lately than accepted, and I’ve been entirely unable to find an agent for any of the three novels I’ve been shopping around. I’m not ready to give up yet. That won’t happen for a while, because I really like the books. But I am hounded by the possibility that I haven’t told the story well.

I know I can tell a good story verbally. I would never have made it as a teacher if I couldn’t, because a major tenet of teaching is telling good stories – though not necessarily fictional stories. I can tell a whopping tale of Sir Isaac Newton’s invention of his three laws. I can do a stirring tale of how architecture is affected by culture and how calculations of pressure and force allowed the building of the World Trade Center in New York and how physics brought it down as well. I can do that so consistently that I’ve been teaching science in a classroom for thirty years.

I just can’t do fiction consistently. That is the skill I am working on now – telling a CONSISTENTLY GOOD STORY.

The whole purpose of this blog is to solicit your opinions about the success or failure of my quest. Good writing is objectively judged by editors and readers. Good writing can be GRADED and I’ve been doing that for thirty years.

So – how’m I doing?

To read Mike’s entire post, “Good Writing is NOT Subjective”, go here:


December 2, 2010


I read the play version of Daniel Keyes’ FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON when I was in eighth grade. It has stayed with me for decades, a haunting symbol for both the overwhelming possibilities of the human intellect and the overwhelming impossibilities faced by a profoundly challenged human mind. I’ve started and stopped this novel a half a dozen times in eleven years. I want to bring the original idea into the present millennium. To read RECONSTRUCTION from beginning to here, click on the label to the right and scroll to the bottom.

The Junior High Mathematics League Tournament was exactly like the senior high version. “Only lamer,” muttered Job Doe, CJ Hastings’ best friend.

“Don’t let Coach Bates hear you say that,” said Sentury Millner, smartest girl in eighth grade and the only person on the team who REALLY didn’t like CJ. “Or he’ll kick Christopher off the team.” She gave him a vulpine smile – vulpine meant carnivorous, fox, like she wanted to eat him alive and then she sauntered away to talk to Mr. Bates.

Job glared after her and muttered, “She thinks she’s so smart.” She cut through the cafeteria. The first round of the Tournament – a test with fifteen questions that got harder and harder as they went on. The competitors were waiting for the first round posting. They were supposed to be eating lunch, but so far most of what they’d done was sit at tables and stand in lines leading to the food.

CJ looked at him and then at her and said softly, “Uh…she is.” Job glared at him, stood up and stalked away. CJ said, “But she is!”

He stood up and went to stand in line. Sighing, he knelt down to tie his shoe. A pair of pink Converse All-Stars suddenly appeared standing toes to his toe. He stood up and nearly fell over backward. Jude Hildebrandt was standing so close he had to step away. She was smiling her gigantic, metallic smile as she said, “Hi! Can I wait in the lunch line with you?”

“It’s not exactly lunch,” he said. Over Jude’s shoulder, a black man dressed in black, wearing a skinny tie and sunglasses was facing him.

Jude looked over her shoulder, then back at him. “Somebody said the governor’s kid is here at the Tournament. That’s why the secret agents are here.”

“Secret Service,” CJ said automatically. “It’s the Secret Service that protects the President and the Governor.”

She flicked the correction away and said, “So, how’d you think you did? Has Mr. Bates’ new reading method helped at all?”

CJ rolled his eyes. Coach had sat him down yesterday to listen to a series of CDs about reading better. He was so excited about the possibilities of helping CJ read better, CJ didn’t have the heart to tell him that his sister had done the job already.

But it DID give him an excuse to read better. The test had been a breeze. Last year he’d almost thrown up on the paper when he got it. Job had helped him by using a system of sign language to help. Even so, it had been almost impossible. He’d done fine in the middle round – but that was just for fun. He’d bombed the final exam.

He didn’t expect to blow it this year. In fact, if he wasn’t careful and pretend he couldn’t read as well as he could…

He opened his mouth to reply to her when one of the Secret Service agents cut into the line right in front of him. “Hey!” Jude exclaimed.

The agent glared down at her, lifting his glasses to direct his laser beam eyes at her. Jude closed her lips over her braces, turned and hurried away. He turned around, and fixed CJ with the same glare. He said suddenly, “How much did you hate your sister?”

“What?” CJ exclaimed.

“It would be easy for a strapping young stud like you to murder your little sister and stuff her into a garbage bin somewhere.”

“Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know – why don’t you tell me,” he said, lifting his glasses with a broad, thick callused index finger.

“I didn’t kill Mai!” His voice caught in his throat and he managed, “I love her…” He spun away from the agent and marched back to the table. His stomach rumbled, but it wasn’t just because he was hungry. He felt suddenly like he wanted to cry. Why? Nothing had changed – except that Mai was a super-hyper-genius-babe, she hated him and Mom, she wanted revenge – and he might never see her again.

From the far end of the cafeteria, someone walked out with a trumpet and blew on it – pretty badly, CJ thought. Another person announced, “The Tests have been scored! Prepare for the Major Event!”

The mob of junior high and middle school kids surged toward the trumpet, and CJ suddenly found himself alone.