Bell Introduces Writing as a Business

Bell_Review_20201024

James Scott Bell. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Even if you write for an audience of one, writing does not become ministry until someone reads your book. And they cannot read your book until they buy one. Thus, even Christian authors need to attend to the business side of writing.

Introduction

James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers begins with this purpose statement:

“What I want to do with this collection is offer you some helpful observations based on more than twenty years in the fiction writing game. This is not a comprehensive ‘how to’ on fiction. I’ve written two other books in that form. Rather, I seek to fill in some ‘cracks’ in what is normally taught in writing books and classes.” (1)

Probably the largest crack is that most authors, like most technology entrepreneurs, fall in love with the craft (or insert your favorite technology) and forget that they are in business.

In the early years of Microsoft, Bill Gates easily qualified as the most hated man in the tech world because his vision was to turn the personal-computer hobby into a business and bought out most of his competitors for cheap. Developers used to whine that Gates made his fortune with MS DOS operating system, which he bought for peanuts, and he didn’t even program it himself. Taking a page from Gate’s book, Bell reminds authors: “You are a business, and your books are the product.” (186)

Part of any successful business is having a quality product—the craft matters (5)—but it is not all that matters. Gates may not have programmed MS DOS himself, but Gates was perfectly capable of standing up and answering technical questions from an auditorium filled with system administrators, programmers, and computer technicians—this was an amazing feat to witness, as I did in the early 1990s.

Bell especially does the same thing—focusing on the details of the writing craft—in the first two-thirds of his book.[1] This is his way of earning “street cred” to enlarge the conversation to include the business side of writing and to differentiate himself from the hordes of writing instructors who are themselves wannabees, not published authors.

Background

On his website, we read:

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.[2] 

In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.

Student of Sun Tzu

Bell writes in a style that might aptly be described as explained proverbs or aphorisms, many of which are based on the writings of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (400-329 BC). The Art of War is must reading for military strategists, but many of his proverbs have general applicably. Bell’s application to writing accordingly stands within a long tradition of such analogies. Bell writes with 77 proverbs organized into three parts: reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy.

The first proverb under reconnaissance is: “The writer who observes the battlefield before entering the fray will be better equipped to plan strategy and tactics.” (8) In my own career as an economist, I have been a writer from my days as an intern, fully understanding the publish or perish mentality of the field.

The first proverb under tactics is: “The writer of potential greatness settles not for ‘mere’ fiction.” (68)  In my first career, my title was economist, not author, and the salary went with the title even if I spent most of my time researching to write. I was not “merely” a writer any more than Hemingway was “merely” a journalist.

The first proverb under strategy was cited in my introduction. The second one is: “A goal is just a dream unless it has legs.” (192) Although I seldom bring it up, my business card states my goal of “writing nonfiction Christian books in English and Spanish.” This fall I have widened this goal to include a novella (fiction) and to translate my first book into German, but my goals have been pretty firm since September 2013 when drafted that first book in English.

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises is helpful reminder of the many moving parts to a writer’s career. Because author clubs typically have two or three wannabees for every published author, many could benefit from a better understanding the business of writing that Bell provides. If anything, this is advice is more valuable today that it was when this book was published in 2009. I find such advice most helpful during transitional periods in the publication process when writing, editing, or publicity screams the loudest for my attention.

[1]Actually, a bit more than two-thirds of the book: 183 out of 259 pages or 71 percent.

[2] https://www.jamesscottbell.com.

Bell Introduces Writing as a Business

Also See:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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Bell Revises with Care

Bell_review_20201008

James Scott Bell. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is often asserted that writing is a right-brain (creative) activity and editing is a left-brain (analytical) activity. While I doubt that any writers have been observed under CAT scanning device, the observation has an intuitive appeal and is repeated ad nauseum in books on writing. In my case, I generally find myself plumbing the depths of books on writing mostly as I contemplate another round of editing, both to garner new insights and to gather motivation to jump into editing one more time. James Scott Bell writing books (see references) provide reliable fodder for both needs.

Introduction

In his book, Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel, James Scott Bell describes how to use his book in two parts

“In Part 1: Self-Editing, we will be covering a broad range of fiction technique, with exercises—a sort of writing boot camp … [Part 2] offers a systematic approach to revising a novel.” (5)

Dedicated James Scott Bell fans will recognize Part 1 as an overview of different writing books that he has written previously and he covers much the same topics. The rubber hits the road with a splash in chapter 16, the Ultimate Revision Checklist, where he revisits each topic in Part 1 with specific advice on editing and revising manuscripts focusing on specific problems in those topic areas. If we read in Part 1 that “fiction is the record of how a character faces a threat or challenge” (18), then in Part 2 he advises us to “track the inner change in your character through the three acts” with a “character arc template” (219) that demonstrates how the character grows in response to the threat or challenge. There is method to the madness here.

Background and Organization

On his website, we read:

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writers conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.[1] 

In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.

Bell writes in sixteen chapters, divided into two parts:

Part One: Self Editing

  1. A Philosophy of Self-Editing
  2. Characters
  3. Plot & Structure
  4. Point of View
  5. Scenes
  6. Dialogue
  7. Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
  8. Show versus Tell
  9. Voice & Style
  10. Setting & Description
  11. Exposition
  12. Theme

Part Two: Revision

  1. A Philosophy of Revision
  2. Before You Revise
  3. The First Read-Through
  4. The Ultimate Revision Checklist (vi-vii)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, appendix, and Index. This book is part of the Write Great Fiction series published by Writer’s Digest Books.

 Self-Editing

Bell asserts that 99.9 percent of self-published authors need to learn how to self-edit better. He defines self-editing as: “the ability to know what makes fiction work, so when you actually write (as in a first-draft) you’re crafting salable fiction.” (8) Because more than a million books are published annually and readership appears to be declining, writing is a highly competitive activity. Self-publishing has contributed to this outcome, which makes it unlikely that most authors will not be offered an editor to work with and bookshelf space on which to sell their books. Thus, good self-editing skills are a must for most writers.

Outside of the environment in which we labor, editing becomes necessary once a first draft is produced. If writing is a right-brain activity, then most first drafts will resemble a brainstorming with some structure. This implies that editing is required to develop characters, fill in descriptive details, and generally make things hold together. In my own novella project in September, on first read I found conflicting details about a minor character in my first draft, a product of my own poor memory—an obvious incentive to edit even my edits.

Revision

Bell observes: “Submitting a novel without rewriting is like playing ice hockey naked.” (192) In a nutshell, you can play hockey naked, but you probably don’t want to!

Bell sees professional authors as the one taking the long view: “Ultimate success involves a long curve of learning, working, failure, trying again, patience, and perseverance.” (194) Personally, I have found professional are the ones who are constantly learning new techniques and looking for mentors to ease the process. It is the difference between those seeking a job and those desiring a career—only the latter effectively learn the craft.

 Assessment

James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel stands out as a good summary of his collective wisdom as a writer and a must-read for fiction authors. I especially enjoyed his advice to write a “pet the dog” beat to deeper the identity of you lead character. For Bell, writers are the ones who ceaselessly learn more about writing. What dog can’t you not pet?

Footnotes

[1] https://www.jamesscottbell.com.

References

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review.

Bell Revises with Care

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Friedman: Families Matter

Friedman_review_20200713

Edwin H. Friedman.  1985.  Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue.  New York:  Gilford Press [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter more than normal (individualistic) intuition suggests.  A death in the family may leave one person with chronic migraine headaches; another may develop back pain or experience a heart attack; a third may exhibit psychiatric dysfunction.  A medical doctor or counselor treating only an individual’s symptoms may not have a high degree of success because the cause of the symptoms lies in the family system, not the individual.  While pastors and chaplains may not be surprised by this observation, standard medical and counseling training and practices focuses almost exclusively on the individual.

Introduction

A relatively new field of counseling, family systems counseling, looks at the family as an emotional system.  What matters in family systems is not so much individual behavior, but how individuals in the family interact with one another.  Because any emotionally connected group—an office, business, or church—behaves in much the same way, family systems analysis has wide applicability.  Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is probably the best known book in this field.

Five Concepts

Friedman outlines 5 basic concepts in family systems theory, including:

  1. The identified patient;
  2. The concept of balance (homeostasis);
  3. Differentiation of self;
  4. The extended family field; and
  5. Emotional triangles (19).

Each of these concepts deserves discussion.

The Identified Patient

Symptoms arise in a family system first in the weakest members of the system.  This unconscious scapegoating effect arises, in part, because they are least able to cope with problems elsewhere in the system like plumbing subject to excessive water pressure (21).  For example, a child may act out (nail biting, bed-wetting, fighting in school, teenage troubles, etc) because the parents have marital difficulties.  Focusing on the child may simply make the problem worse, while counseling the parents may not only resolve the marital difficulties, but the child’s issue as well.

Balance

The family emotional system strives to maintain equilibrium (resist change) having an effect not unlike a thermostat.  When problems surface, questions according arise like:  what is out of equilibrium?  Why now? (24)  Ironically, familiar dysfunction may be preferred to therapeutic change (25).  Dynamic stability may accordingly be attained, in part, by how loosely or tightly individuals respond to changes.  Friedman classifies families as acting more like a serial (tightly integrated) or parallel (loosely integrated) electrical system (25-26).  Families that are loosely integrated exhibit a greater capacity to absorb stress simply because they are less reactive to the stress.

Differentiation of Self

According to Friedman:  Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected.  Differentiation increases the shock-absorbing capacity of the system by loosening the integration.  The ideal here is to remain engaged in the system but in an non-reactive manner—a nonanxious presence (27).  Great self-differentiation offers the opportunity for the entire system to change by reducing the automatic resistance to change posed by homeostasis (29).  Family leaders (including pastors in church families) who develop greater self-differentiation can accordingly bring healing in the face of challenges (30-31).  This is a principle that can aid leaders in many a dysfunctional organization [2].

Extended Family Field

Understanding one’s extended family and family history can identify unresolved issues and repeating patterns.  The principle is that one cannot solve a family system’s problem by withdrawing temporally or geographically—in such events we simply take our issues with us.  Such problems have a nasty habit of reappearing kind of like genetic diseases transmitted by DNA.  Friedman (32) observes that:  family trees are always trees of knowledge and often they are also trees of life.  This re-emergence of family systems problems across time and distance extends the principle of homeostasis.

Emotional Triangles

Friedman (35) writes:  An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus on a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. This has the effect of putting stress on that third person to balance the system.  An unsuspecting pastor could, of course, end up participating in many such triangles and simply burn out.  This leads Friedman to observe that: stress is less the result of quantitative notion such as “overwork” and more the effect of our position in the triangle of our families (1).

The importance of the pastor’s stance in a church family is immediately obvious in this framework.  The pastor functions as a parent in the church family system.  Problems in the pastor’s family of origin have the potential to transmit immediately into the church family because of the pastor’s key role in the system.  Likewise, the pastor can also be easily triangled into families within the church family if the pastor is not a nonanxious presence within the system.  Homeostasis can leave a new pastor vulnerable to dysfunction in a church years after the apparent source of the problem, perhaps a prior pastor, has left.

What is fascinating about this line of thought is that, unlike in theories of culture, much of this activity is subconscious—a kind of emotional twin to the thought processes involved in discussions of culture.

Family Therapy

Friedman wrote having worked as family therapist and ordained Jewish Rabbi for more than 30 years in the Washington DC metro area.  He writes in 12 chapters divided into 4 sections preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliographic and index.  The chapter titles are:

  1. The Idea of a Family;
  2. Understanding Family Process;
  3. The Marital Bond;
  4. Child-focused Families;
  5. Body and Soul in the Family Process;
  6. When the Parent Becomes a Child;
  7. A Family Approach to Life-Cycle Ceremonies;
  8. Family Process and Organizational Life;
  9. Leadership and Self in a Congregational Family;
  10. Leaving and Entering a Congregational Family;
  11. The Immediate Family:  Conflict and Traps; and
  12. The Extended Family:  Its Potential for Salvation (ix-x).

Although Generation to Generation is a textbook, it is a fascinating read—Friedman is famous for his story-telling and he wrote another book, Friedman’s Fables (New York:  Gilford Press, 2014), which focuses more explicitly on the stories.

Assessment

Applying Friedman’s principles in my own family life has brought enormous healing.  My seminary training, for example, worked to increase my level of self-differentiation within my family which is very close (fused in Friedman’s terminology).  This book is well worth the time and effort to read and study.  The life you save may be your own.

[1] www.Guilford.com.

[2] An entire book has been focused on this same principle:  Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. 2002.  Leadership on the Ling:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Friedman: Families Matter

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Benner Points to God

Benner_review_20200805b

David G. Benner. 2003.  Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction.  Downers Grove:  IVP Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The term, soul mate, is often bantered about in the popular media without a clear definition.  Usually, a soul mate is simply a photogenic member of the opposite sex who understands you. In seminary a friend spoke intriguingly about spiritual friends who: nurture the development of each other’s soul (16). This definition sounded remarkably like the relationship I shared with my best friend in high school who went on to become a pastor. When I learned that my friend took his comments from David Benner’s book,Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

Some books are good for information; others offer solace in life’s journey. Benner’s work clearly falls in both camps. He writes: The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation…Spiritual friends accompany each other on that journey (26). Reading along I discovered things about myself that had never previously been expressed in words.

Spiritual Direction

One such point was Benner’s comment about spiritual direction.  The objective in offering direction is not to provide counsel or even react to things said, but rather to point friends to God’s work in their personal lives.  Benner writes: spiritual direction is not primarily about theology. It is about personal, experiential encounter with God (155).  Soul care consists, not of advice or disciplining, but of compass reading.  Disciplining focuses on first steps while spiritual direction focuses on later stages in the journey (28).

Jesus modeled this focus saying: I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3 NIV). Only someone well along in the journey of life needs to reflect back on childhood experiences.  Paul likewise appeared to position himself primarily as a spiritual traveler rather than teacher.  For example, Paul writes: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8 ESV).  As a fellow traveler, Paul’s work as an evangelist placed him in the position of a guide pointing the way to Christ.  A guide travels; a teacher waits for students to appear.

This “compass reading” objective of spiritual direction and spiritual friendship is critical in offsetting the idolatry of individualism.  Normally, a preoccupation with holiness is critiqued by our society as “navel gazing” or becoming all churchy.  While is certainly possible to become obsessed with the programs and trappings of the church, becoming sensitive to God’s work in our lives normally has the opposite effect.  God is unseen and speaks through people and things seen.  When we become sensitive to God’s work, we become more fully aware of everyone and everything else in our lives.  This sensitivity accordingly strips away the pretense of individualism.  Compass reading has the effect of providing us a better set of priorities because God moves closer to the center of lives.  Jesus focused on children, in part, because they are more sensitive, not less sensitive, to what is happening around them than most adults.

Background and Organization

At the time of this book’s publication, David Benner was a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at eh Psychological Studies institute in Atlanta, Georgia.  His book is written in 9 chapters:

  1. The Transformational Journey;
  2. Hospitality, Presence, and Dialogue;
  3. The Ideals of Spiritual Friendship;
  4. Demystifying Spiritual Directions;
  5. Soul Attunement;
  6. A Portrait of the Process;
  7. Becoming a Spiritual Director;
  8. Spiritual Accompaniment in Small Groups; and
  9. Spiritual Accompaniment in Marriage.

The first 3 chapters focus on spiritual friends; the next 4 focus on spiritual direction; and the last 2 focus on combining the two.  These chapters are introduced with a lengthy preface and followed by an epilogue.

Assessment

If our faith in Jesus Christ is more caught than taught, spiritual friends play a critical role in our walk with the Lord. Reading Benner’s book was a key point in my journey.

Benner Points to God

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Paul Writes with Pictures

Paul _review_20201031

Ann Whitford Paul. 2018. Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our relationship with picture books runs deep, certainly deeper that can easily be expressed in words. Think about the foods that had special meaning to you when you were young, like watermelon, chicken noodle soup, and chocolate chip cookies. These foods remind me of my grandmother and life on the farm. Later events, places, and people never reached into my soul and touched me so elementally.

 Introduction

Ann Whitford Paul writes, in Writing Picture Books, this statement of objectives:

“Picture books are usually read by an adult to a nonreader. To that end, picture books combine words with pictures that entice the nonreader to listen and help her construct meaning from the words. Picture books. Traditionally find an audience in young children. Today, some picture books and graphic novels are published for fluent readers, even adults, but this book will focus on those aimed at children ages two through eight.” (7-8)

The ideal manuscript has less than 500 words and fits in the typical 32-page format, focusing on action and dialogue. (8-9)

Paul offers twelve tips for writing for children and an additional three tips for the adults who will be reading:

  1. Everything is new.
  2. Children have had few experiences.
  3. Children live in the present.
  4. Children have strong emotions.
  5. Sometimes childhood is not happy.
  6. Children perceive more than we think they do.
  7. Children have short attention spans.
  8. Children are self-centered.
  9. Children long to be independent.
  10. Children are complicated.
  11. Children have rich imaginations.
  12. Almost any topics is okay for a picture book.
  13. Language does not have to be babyish.
  14. Make books easy to read aloud.
  15. Adults are frequently asked to read and reread picture books (10-16).

While some of this advice may sound obvious, Paul returns to many of these themes over and over in her guidance.

Background and Organization

Ann Whitford Paul tells us little about her formal training and work experience. Her website reports:

 “But I didn’t think about being a children’s book author in middle school or high school or when I studied sociology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, and earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia university. I worked as a social worker until my children were born. I was still reading books, only now to my children.”[1]

Paul’s website cites only one book for adults, this one, but lists twenty-one children’s books.[2] Because about a third of children under the age of twenty have Hispanic heritage, I find it interesting that she writes a number of books with a bilingual theme or title, such as Mañana Iguana. Being from Los Angeles, I suspect that she is aware of the demographics of childhood today.

Paul writes in twenty-five chapters divided into six parts plus voluminous front and back matter:

  1. Before You Write Your Story
  2. Early Story Decisions
  3. The Structure of Your Story
  4. The Language of your Story
  5. Tying together Loose Ends
  6. After Your Story Is Done (v-vi)

Paul’s writing is surprisingly precise and covers a number of topics, like a primer on poetry and how to choose a title, that are not typically included in writers’ how-to books.

Memorable Moments

 How do you create whimsy? Although Paul does not mention whimsy, one attribute of children’s literature is a distinctive whimsical tone. Where else do you run across dressed up animals that unremarkably talk? Paul does, however, give us some clues.

Paul describes the animals as kids with fur. Animals allow the author to talk about difficult topics, like race relations, without wandering into politically difficult territory or the raises issue, like death, that are scary enough for adults, let alone children.

One way that Paul delicately strikes a good tone is through experimenting with alternative voices, some that are not familiar to other genres.

Have you heard of apostrophe voice? Paul writes: ”In this voice, the writer speaks to something in the story that can’t speak back.” (40) She writes:

“Good morning, toes,

Good morning feet,

Tangled up between

My sheets.

Be the first to touch the floor,

Hop me to the closet door.” (41)

Or how about mask voice, where “the narrator becomes an inanimate object, like a tree, desk, or bed, and tells the story from that object’s point of view.” (42) Clearly, to write for children, you need to enter a child’s world.

Assessment

Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books is an interesting book on the craft of writing children’s books. While I turned to this book as I approached my own children’s book writing project, this is a book worthy of being read by authors in other genres. Why? This is a book that will stretch you as a writer and you may be surprised to find that you enjoy it, just for the reading. I certainly did.

Footnotes

[1] https://AnnWhitfordPaul.com/about-me.

[2] If Animals Gave Thanks, If Animals Went to School, If Animals Celebrated Christmas, If Animals Said I Love You, Twas the Late Night of Christmas, Word Builder, Count on Culebra, If Animals Kissed Good Night, Snail’s Good Night, Fiesta Fiasco, Hop! Hop! Hop!, Mañana Iguana, Little Monkey says Good Night, Silly Sadie, Silly Samuel,  All by Herself, Everything to Spend the Night, Hello Toes! Hello Feet!,  The Seasons Sewn, Shadows Are About, Eight Hands Round, and Owl At Night.

Also see:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott.  2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review).

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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Hyatt Promotes Authors’ Platforms

Hyatt_review_20200623
Michael Hyatt. 2012.  Platform:  Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My introduction this fall to social media evokes memories of my experience with survival camping as a Boy Scout. Survival camping tested your skill with the equipment, with problematic colleagues, and with hiking through rugged terrain. Social media likewise tests your knowledge of technologies, ability to communicate, and dealing with numerous uncertainties. In preparing for survival camping, I studied the Scout Fieldbook [1]. In preparing in social media, Michael Hyatt’s Platform is a great help.

Introduction

Hyatt is the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, celebrity author and speaker, and professional blogger. His professional focus is on leadership, productivity, social media, and publishing—all issues of personal interest. Hyatt came to my attention online when I observed him promoting John Maxwell’s Sometimes You Win; Sometimes You Learn among bloggers (New York:  Center Street, 2013) [2]; at that point I knew that he was also a marketing professional. My curiosity about Hyatt led me to purchase Platform.

Hyatt’s basic thesis is that: “A good product does not stand on its own anymore. It is foundational, but it is not enough” (xvii). He defines a platform as: ”the thing you have to stand on to get heard” (xvi). A platform provides visibility, amplification, and connection (xviii). He writes: “This book is all about attracting [an] audience, turning on the brightest lights you can find, and building passionate loyalty so your audience stays with you through every line, every scene, every act” (xv).

Organization

Platform is divided into 5 parts: 1. start with wow, 2. prepare to launch, 3. build your home base, 4. Expand your reach, and 4. Engage your tribe. Before these parts is an introduction which declares that “All the world is a stage” (William Shakespeare; xv). After these parts are some helpful items: complying with FTC guidelines, post ideas for novelists, a list of online resources, notes, acknowledgments, a writer’s bio, an index, and contact information. Hyatt’s scope is comprehensive; his details are thoroughly researched.

In chapter 35 which focuses on generating more blog traffic, for example, Hyatt talks about how he was able to increase his traffic (measured by unique visitors) by 81.3 percent in a single month. After changing to a professional blog theme, he blogged more frequently; we wrote shorter sentences, paragraphs, and posts; he started optimizing his posts for search engines; and he became more engaged in comments (134). He then offers ten additional recommendations on increasing traffic, a focus most bloggers identify with.

Focus on Followers

What is interesting is that in chapter 36 he then argues that increasing traffic is the wrong focus. Focus instead, he says, on increasing the number of people who follow and promote your blog. Keep your best customers happy and they will keep you happy (137). Hyatt’s list of 7 strategies to grow your list of followers then makes it clear that he sweats the details. My favorite is suggestion 4: offer an incentive for subscribing. Hyatt’s incentive here is to offer a free copy of one of his e-books.

Assessment

Hyatt’s Platform is a helpful book and a good read.  Authors, speakers, and other professionals in the public eye will want to take a look because the rules for success in professional life are evolving so rapidly. While many professionals will not be stepping up to a national platform like Hyatt, his advice should scale well to the local platform where most of us live. In my case, I have already given my blog a makeover and have developed a long to do list based on his advice.  I suspect you will too.

Footnotes

[1] Boy Scouts of America. 1967.  Fieldbook for Boys and Men.  New Brunswick.

[2] In the interest of full disclosure, I received a free copy of Maxwell’s book in exchange for an online mention.   I read the book and found it worthy of a review (http://bit.ly/1ktRxPI).

Hyatt Promotes Authors’ Platforms

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Lowry Preaches the Gospel

Lowry_review_20200620bEugene L. Lowry. 2001. The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form

(Orig pub 1980). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In Greek, John’s Gospel begins: Εν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (John 1:1 BNT). The English translation reads: in the beginning was the word. By contrast, Spanish follows the Vulgate and translates λόγος, not as a noun, but as a verb: in the beginning was the verb. This translation is generally interesting because Hebrew is a verb-based language which makes it easier to tell a story.  It is specifically interesting because Jerome observes John’s choice of Εν ἀρχῇ mirrors Genesis 1:1 reminding his reader of the creation account.  Creative work requires creative words–action verbs, not passive nouns.

In The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry likewise sees a sermon as a narrative event rather than as a content transmittal (12, 90-91). The narrative event discovers content and meaning rather than merely reporting it. Lowry explains: the sermon is a bridging event in time, moving from itch to scratch, from issue to answer, from conflict to resolution, from ambiguity to closure born of the gospel (118).  Motion, not information, drives the sermon.

For Lowry, the sermon does not so much tell a story as adopt a narrative structure. He outlines this structure in five moves: (1) upsetting the equilibrium, (2) analyzing the discrepancy, (3) disclosing the clue to resolution, (4) experiencing the gospel, and (5) anticipating the consequences (26). Lowry’s craft is displayed in how well he unpacks these five moves.

In the first move of the sermon, for example, the preacher upsets the equilibrium by introducing dramatic tension, conflict, or ambiguity. Lowry’s illustrates this move with the dilemma presented in the film High Noon (1952). In the film, tension arises as the marshal has promised his pacifist fiancée to retire only to discover that a band of desperados just released from prison have vowed to take revenge on his town.  Here is the dilemma:  if the marshal retires with his fiancée, he is a coward; if he stays, he breaks his promise (57).  The backstory on the film is that only a decade earlier a pacifist America had sat on the sidelines in the early stages of World War II.  Just like the film helped Americans relive their dilemma, Lowry’s sermon strives to help the congregation feel the tension.

Eugene Lowry is the William K. McEvaney Emeritus Professor of Preaching at Saint Paul School of Theology of Kansas City. This printing commemorates the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Homiletical Plot. The forward is written by Fred Craddock, another well-known homiletics professor and author. The book itself divides into three sections—the sermon as narrative, the stages of the homiletical plot, and other considerations. These sections are preceded by an introduction and followed by an afterword which reflects on how things might have changed over preceding 20 years.

Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot is a short book and a good read. Why is an average Christian interested in reading a preaching (homiletics) text?  Because the Word of God is meant to be read out loud, the gospel itself lies within the ambiguity and tension of the narrative event.  That makes homiletics a key to biblical interpretation. Consequently, Lowry’s book is more than just another preaching text and is worthy of careful reading.

Lowry Preaches the Gospel

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

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Bell: Plot a Good Novel

Bell_review_20200716

James Scott Bell.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Stories spice up sermons.  The pastor’s name, the sermon text, or the admonition may be a bit hazy Sunday afternoon, but you probably remember the stories told.  Stories help us make sense of life and they give it meaning. So what is a story?

Introduction

The heart of a story is its plot, according to writer James Scott Bell in his book, Plot and StructurePlot is the power grid that makes it [the story] happen (6) and connects the readers with the text by answering questions, such as:

  • What is this story about?
  • Is anything happening?
  • Why should I keep reading?
  • Why should I care? (7).

Bell focuses on writing a commercial novel where plot is especially important.  Literary, stream-of-consciousness, and experimental novels place less emphasis on plot, but plot sells the commercial novel (7).

Elements of Plot

Bell advises that plot consists of 4 basic elements:

  • Lead.  A story must be about someone.  The main character is the lead.
  • Objective.  The leading character needs an objective:  a desire or want.
  • Confrontation.  The leading character encounters opposition and outside forces that frustrate obtaining the lead’s goal.
  • Knockout.  All good stories need a knockout ending.

Bell’s book focuses on these 4 components of plot or the LOCK (lead, objective, confrontation, and knockout) system (10-13). Plot takes place in the context of characters, dialog, settings, and scenes (17-20).  Bell reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock’s axiom:  a good story is life with the dull parts taken out (20).

Organization

Bell writes his book in 14 chapters:

  1. What’s a Plot, Anyway?
  2. Structure:  What Holds Your Plot Together.
  3. How to Explode with Plot Ideas.
  4. Beginning Strong.
  5. Middles.
  6. Endings.
  7. Scenes.
  8. Complex Plots.
  9. The Characters Arc in Plot.
  10. Plotting Systems.
  11. Revising Your Plot.
  12. Plot Patterns.
  13. Common Plot Problems and Cures.
  14. Tips and Tools for Plot and Structures.

Before the chapters is an introduction entitled:  Putting the Big Lie to Sleep where he addresses the myth that writers are born, not made.  After the chapters are 2 appendices which give authors a to-do checklist and a format for writing your “Back Cover Copy”.

Outline or Not?

Interestingly, Bell divides the fiction writers’ world into “outline people (OP)” and “no outline people (NOP)”, a division that he admittedly straddles (152).  He honors this division, for example, in his chapter 10 on plotting systems where he offers advice to both camps on how to strengthen the weaknesses of both.  He states:  be true to yourself, but try a little of the other guy’s method (154).  For both camps, he advises:  use the LOCK system and write your back cover copy (155).  For NOPS, he advises:

  1. Set yourself a writing quota.
  2. Begin your writing day by rereading what you wrote the day before.
  3. One day per week, record your plot journey (156-158).

For OPS, he advises use of an index card system to record scenes and LOCK elements (158-69).

Anthropology

Bell’s anthropology is insightful. Bell characterizes identity as a target built around the core self. The rings around the core self are:  beliefs, values, dominant attitudes, and opinions. Changes affecting inner circles spill over requiring changes in outer circles. Outer circles are accordingly easier to change than inner circles (143).  Changes in Ebenezer Scrooge’s character, for example, require visits from three ghosts—the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future—who remind Scrooge of his true self and how the years have chipped away at it (142-148).  The redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge brings tears to our eyes because each of us have likewise taken that journey.

Assessment

Bell is an engaging writer who offers a lot of examples from movies and novels to make his points.  Movies like Casablanca, A Christmas Carol, and Gone with the Wind offer excellent examples because most readers are already familiar with the plots and major scenes.  These examples make Plot and Structure a surprising page-turner which I suspect most authors (and wannabe authors) will enjoy.

Bell: Plot a Good Novel

Also see:

Brooks Structures Story, Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Case and Deaton Examine Rising Mortality Rates, Part 2

Deaths of Despair

Anne Case and Angus Deaton. 2020. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The last serious debate on economic policy occurred in the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. The high inflation rates that dogged the U.S. economy in the 1970s prompted this debate that focused on U.S. competitiveness in world markets. The debate focused on excessive government regulation, high labor costs due to union influence, and restraints on growth of U.S. corporations that were considered too small to compete effectively with large, vertically-integrated Japanese and German firms. The Administration accordingly promoted deregulation, reducing union influence, and merger of firms into large conglomerates. Since then, large conglomerates have not only dominated U.S. markets, but also U.S. politics and cultural life.

 The Cost of U.S. Healthcare

Probably the most stunning observation that Anne Case and Deaton make in their book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, is that:

“In 2017, the Swiss lived 5.1 years longer than Americans but spent 30 percent less per person; other countries achieve a similar length of life for still fewer health dollars. Expenditures on healthcare in 2017 was 17.9 percent of GDP [gross domestic product] om the United States; the next highest in the world was Switzerland at 12.3 percent. If a fairy godmother were somehow to reduce the share of healthcare in American GDP not to the average of rich countries but, less ambitiously, only to the second highest, Switzerland, 5.6 percent of GDP would be available for other things, freeing up more than a trillion dollars. That is more than $3,000 a year for each man, woman, and child in the U.S., or about $8,300 for each household.” (194)

If this money were well-spent, we would expect that life expectancy would be higher in the U.S. than other developed countries, but the opposite is true. Among the 25 other members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy. The next lowest life expectancy is seen in Germany, where people live an average of two and half years longer than in the U.S. (195). Case and Deaton basically argue that our healthcare dollars are not only poorly spent, they are a drag on economic growth.

Trade Offs

If healthcare costs are so high and retard economic growth, how come most people are unaware of the costs and how come more people aren’t covered by health insurance? The short answer is that healthcare costs are billed indirectly, showing up as employer contributions and tax expenses. Hidden charges are more likely to encourage overcharging. Case and Deaton report:

“In 2018, the healthcare industry employed 2,829 lobbyists, more than 5 for each member of Congress…It is the largest-spending industry, larger even than the financial industry, and spends more than ten times as much as the total spent by organized labor…Obamacare was passed without consideration of a single-payer system [to reduce costs] or a public option…Hospitals, doctors, and pharma companies were effectively paid off in order to support the passage of the Affordable Care Act.” (210)

Case and Deaton observe:

“Medicaid rose from 20.5 percent of state spending in 2008 to an estimated 29.7 percent in 2018, while spending on primary and secondary education fell from 22 percent to 19.6 percent.” (207)

Medicaid benefits those unable to pay, often single mothers and the elderly, while education subsidizes presumably serve to increase the productivity of our young people, promoting economic growth.

Because healthcare costs are a larger percentage of the salaries of lower-paid workers, the incentive to hire lower paid workers from separate staffing firms that do not offer such benefits is enormous. The employment of temps lowers firm costs, but has the unintended effect of making it harder for less-educated employees to progress into better paying jobs that offer such benefits—the career ladder effectively that might have existed in years past simply no longer exists. Class distinctions have hardened as college graduates are employed by separate firms whose separation is motivated by the high cost of healthcare.

Although Case and Deaton fail to mention it, attaching the higher cost of healthcare to firms rather than to the government makes U.S. firms less competitive in world markets. Most other nations pay for their healthcare through taxes rather than employer contributions. This is factor in the off-shoring of U.S. manufacturing since the 1980s.

Assessment

 In part one of this review, I offered an overview and focused on changes affecting individuals. In part two I have discussed the broader economic environment that brought about these outcomes.

Anne Case and Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism provides a detailed look into the disturbing problem of declining life expectancy in America. While in the past poor economic performance has usually been attributed to the entry of poorly educated immigrants, racism, or a multicycle of poverty, the authors point to growing class distinctions correlated with college graduation, an oligopolistic corporate structure, and changing trends in the workforce. Deaths of despair uniquely affect non-Hispanic, white American men. Blue-collar European men face the same economic reality, but have a healthcare plan and have a longer life-expectancy.

This book is well written and documented. It should be required reading for those studying economics and cultural trends, especially presidential candidates

Case and Deaton Examine Rising Mortality Rates, Part 2

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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Case and Deaton Examine Rising Mortality Rates, Part 1

Deaths of Despair

Anne Case and Angus Deaton. 2020. Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Even before the corona virus pandemic, life has been difficult for many Americans. For those without a college degree, real incomes have been flat or declining since around 1980. In recent years, we have seen multiple years of declining life expectancy and record levels of suicide, drug overdoses, and opioid deaths. Adding insult to injury, mainstream politicians of both parties have mostly ignored these problems. When I heard about Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

When it is reported that life expectancy has been declining in the United States in recent years, the implication is that death (or mortality) rates are rising. Case and Deaton write:

“Deaths from alcoholic liver disease were rising rapidly too so that the fastest-rising death rates were from three causes: suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease…deaths of despair…The book is about these deaths and about the people who are dying.” (2)

These deaths of despair are preventable, not happening in other industrialized countries, and primarily among middle-aged white, non-Hispanic men (4)—the ones commonly described in popular culture as those benefitting from “white” privilege, which has vaporized in this generation (5). Case Deaton observe:

“The widening gap between those with and without a bachelor’s degree is not only in death, but also in quality of life; those without a degree are seeing increases in their levels of pain, ill heath, and serious mental distress, and declines in their ability to work and to socialize. The gap is also widening in earnings, in family stability, and in community. A four-year degree has become the key marker of social status.” (3)

In part one of this review, I will offer an overview and focus on changes affecting individuals. In part two I will discuss the economic environment that brought about these outcomes.

Background and Organization

Anne Case and Angus Deaton are economists emeriti of the faculty of Princeton University. Deaton won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2015.

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is written in sixteen chapters divided into four papers:

PART I. PAST AS PROLOGUE

  1. The Calm before the Storm
  2. Things Come Apart
  3. Deaths of Despair

PART II. THE ANATOMY OF THE BATTLEFIELD

  1. The Lives and Deaths of the More (or Less) Educated
  2. Black and White Deaths
  3. The Health of the Living
  4. The Misery and Mystery of Pain
  5. Suicide, Drugs, and Alcohol
  6. Opioids

PART III. WHAT”S THE ECONOMY GOT TO DO WITH IT?

  1. False Trails: Poverty, Income, and the Great Recession
  2. Growing Apart at Work
  3. Widening Gaps at Home

PART IV. WHY IS CAPITALISM FAILING SO MANY?

  1. How American Healthcare is Undermining Lives
  2. Capitalism, Immigrants, Robots, and China
  3. Firms, Consumers, and Workers
  4. What to Do? (vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction, and followed by Acknowledgments, Notes, and an index.

Dimming Prospects

A key motivator for writing about deaths of despair starts with a stark economic reality:

“After correction for inflation, the median wages of American men have been stagnant for half a century; for white men without a four- degree, median earnings lost 13 percent of their purchasing power between between 1979 and 2017…. Since the end of the Great Recession, between January 2010 and January 2019 nearly sixteen million new jobs were created, but fewer than three million were for those without a four-year degree. Only fifty-five thousand were for those with only a high school degree.” (7)

The easy summary of this problem is to observe that less educated white American men are substantially less able to participate in the American dream of having a good paying job, a family, a house, medical and pension benefits. Here are talking about 38 percent of the working-age population (4).  Case and Deaton observe:

“Our story of deaths of despair; of pain; of addiction, alcoholism, and suicide; of worse jobs with lower wages; of declining marriage; and of declining religion is mostly a story of non-Hispanic white Americans without a four-year degree.” (4)

Less money, less connection, less religion, less life-expectancy. Without a job, white men are simply shamed as losers. This shame and guilt is currently being turned inward, but the authors note that this is likely soon to turn outward into violence (14). The current political climate suggests that this later outcome is not far off.

Assessment

Anne Case and Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism provides a detailed look into the disturbing problem of declining life expectancy in America. While in the past poor economic performance has usually been attributed to the entry of poorly educated immigrants, racism, or a multicycle of poverty, the authors point to growing class distinctions correlated with college graduation, an oligopolistic corporate structure, and changing trends in the workforce. Deaths of despair uniquely affect non-Hispanic, white American men. Blue-collar European men face the same economic reality, but have a healthcare plan and have a longer life-expectancy.

This book is well written and documented. It should be required reading for those studying economics and cultural trends, especially presidential candidates.

Case and Deaton Examine Rising Mortality Rates, Part 1

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

Continue Reading
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