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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Guest Blogger ~ Ron Benrey, Part II


Ron Benrey is a widely published writer who has coauthored nine Christian romantic suspense novels with his wife Janet. Ron wrote two novellas independently and has written ten non-fiction books. His latest book, Know Your Rights, is an easy to understand guide to everyday law, will be published in December. Ron taught writing courses at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently teaches at major writers’ conferences on topics ranging from plotting and publishability, to Fiction After 50®, the fine art of becoming a novelist later in life. Ron holds a degrees in electrical engineering, management, and law. He’s a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Ron and Janet live in North Carolina.

NJ: Ron delivered this keynote to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May, 2010. This is Part II.

Let Novel-Writing Teach You Christianity ... and Vice Versa, Part II

Once I felt certain that my model was a true two-way street, the inevitable happened. I’d apply the fiction-writing analogy every time I listened to a sermon. I’d often leave church with fresh guidance about writing novels. And cheerful feelings about a dull sermon.

The first tidbits I gleaned were fairly minor. A sermon about the lack of information about Jesus’ early years convinced me to eliminate all details, no matter how interesting, that don’t directly advance the story. And, a message about Judeans finding signs and wonders in the miracles done by Jesus drove home the point that showing is better than telling.

Then came my first high-powered epiphany. It happened when our pastor preached on Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” His message stressed that each of us was created for a purpose.

The obvious fiction-writing parallel is that every character I create must have a definite purpose. Every character, even the extras, must advance the story. Or heighten the drama. Or reveal a truth that reinforces the novel’s theme.

I’d only just wrapped my brain around this concept, when the analogy delivered another startling insight: As the creator of a fictional world analogous to God’s Creation, I should love my characters. This broad notion morphed into a sharply focused commandment. Don’t invent any characters you won’t (or can’t) love.

A while ago, I thought about writing women’s fiction because Christian publishers buy so much of the stuff. Well, I struggled mightily and wrote several angst-filled chapters. But I knew, really truly knew, that I’d never love those characters.

Delete! I felt wonderful afterwards.

My musing about lovable characters led me to deeper ponderings about story: We all know stories must move forward, and story movement can happen in plot events or in the hearts of characters who change during the progression of events. I began to wonder: Is Christ’s story plot-driven or character-driven? I finally decided the Gospels demonstrate an interesting hybrid. The Hero followed a complex plot line, but emerged with his inner natures unscathed. However, the men and women who interacted with Jesus experienced industrial-strength character arcs.

Will this work in a novel? I hope so. It’s the plotting scheme I’ve used in two new novels I’m planning.

At this point I have to issue a safety warning. Mostly to keep me safe. My next observation, which flows directly from the fiction-writing analogy, will annoy-off many Novel Journey readers.

Awhile back, our pastor sermonized on Ephesians Chapter One, Verse 5. That’s the teaching that God chose us for redemption before the foundation of the world. In my opinion, the unmistakable insight for novelists is we should know the destiny of every character before we write our first chapters. In other words, be an outliner rather than a seat of the pants novelist (what some call “instinctive writers”).

Think about it! Planning ahead is the way God manages his Creation. Perhaps it’s also the right way to create fictional worlds.

Enough controversy! Let’s retreat to the shelter of an obscure theological mystery, an aspect of the Biblical creation story that I call the enigma of Adam and Eve. I’ve always wondered why God didn’t zap the pair and start over with two humans smart enough to obey instructions? After all, His “investment” to that point was only a few hundred pounds of clay and dust, and two whiffs of His breath.

The fiction-writing analogy suggests an answer. Anyone who’s been to a meeting of a fiction critique group knows that novelists fight fiercely to not modify their creations. We wince at minor changes and we disdain major rewrites, even when key players go off the rails. We also strive to rehabilitate errant characters, because we do love them. We’re delighted when our prodigal creations begin to behave.

Coincidentally, I worked this out a few days before a guest pastor talked about freewill and humankind’s proclivity to disobey God. Naturally, I applied the analogy, because I (like most novelists) have run into heroes, helpmates, and villains who won’t cooperate, who seem determined to do their own things.

The reason, I think, is that we must give our lead characters a kind of freewill: Somehow, I have to keep Me the author out of the characters I invent, or else they will parrot my likes, my dislikes, my personality, my world view, my age, and my gender. I want female characters to act like women, kids to act like kids, and none of the men to echo me.

Because I simultaneously juggle dozens of plot and personality issues I have to assign each character to an individual part of my mind and let these “people partitions” (as I call them) run on “autopilot.” Like it or not, some characters will go astray. I think that’s how fictional freewill works. However, I’m open for other suggestions.

Recently, I used the fiction-writing analogy to examine a problem that is plaguing the novel-writing biz. The traditional route to publication has become so challenging, that some frustrated novelists are thinking about switching to something with greater odds of success. Say, responding to a Nigerian email scam.

Does the fiction-writing analogy have anything to say on the subject? Another big Yes, indeed. A recent sermon on covenant theology convinced me that those of us who create fictional worlds also make covenants with our characters. After all, they rely on us to uphold and sustain them.

Christianity affirms that the Creator of the Universe keeps his promises. However, Christianity also teaches that a creator can make a new covenant when it becomes necessary. And so, with apologies to Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Novelist, when I will make a new covenant with the characters I create, not like the covenant that I made to put them in local bookstores. For no longer do readers buy novels that way, but chiefly at Wal-Mart, Amazon, supermarkets, and airports.

And this is the new covenant that I will make after these days. I will write my characters’ lives on Kindles and iPads. I will embrace ebook publishing and Print on Demand. My characters will dwell securely at Winepress and Lightning Source. I will not bemoan the loss of the traditional publishing model, but espouse the new paradigm.

For no longer shall each reader find book reviews in newspapers, or browse bookshelves, and read blurbs on the back covers. But savvy readers shall say: “We know this Novelist for his website, for his blogs, for his Twitter Tweets, and for his other social networking.” I shall establish this new covenant so my characters will thrive and prosper. They will know that I am their Novelist, and they shall entrance my readers forever.

Hey! It could happen.

4 comments:

Johnnie said...

Ron, I appreciate your insights, especially your point about letting our characters have a semblance of free will. I love it when my characters say and do things I don't expect. You've given me much to ponder. Thanks!

Shirl said...

I love the way you've used all your analogies. Thank you. Also interested in your "new covenant". I've read these sort of comments (put in more drab language) a number of times recently.
Thanks for a fascinating two blogs.
Shirley(S.Africa)

Ron Benrey said...

Thanks Johnnie and Shirl ...

I appreciate your kind words. I really do plan new novels that way.

Ron

Diane Marie Shaw said...

Ron, I chuckled and nodded my head in agreement as I read your blogs. You gave me pause to think of my writing style. I am a beginner writer and have mostly been a seat of the pants novelist but my heart is to follow God's plan for my writing and your statement: "Planning ahead is the way God manages his Creation" may cause me to rethink how I write. We will see.
Thanks so much for what you do for the writing community.