Uncategorized, Writing

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know . . .

Guest Blog by Joseph Mott, Pastor of Foundations Bible Church in Freeburg, Pennsylvania.

I love the story of “Jesus Loves Me”. It is one of my favorites. Anna and Susan Warner lived in a Revolutionary Era home in disrepair due to the economic struggles of the day. It was right across the Hudson river from West Point. To help with the financial struggles of the family, they both started writing poems and stories for publication. Between them, they wrote 106 published works.

One of their most successful stories was one that was co-authored. It was called “Say and Seal”. A story about a little boy that was dying and his Sunday School teacher, John Linden, comforts him by taking him in his arms, rocking him, and making up a little song: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

It was a best seller.

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When hymnwriter Willaim Bardbury read the words, he composed a simple tune to go along with them, and “Jesus Loves Me” was born. The best known children’s hymn on the face of the earth.

Oh… and by the way… Anna and Susan conducted bible studies for the cadets at West Point for over forty years and were both buried with full military honors. They are the only civilians buried at the military cemetery at West Point. The home is a museum to their honor.

“The eyes of all wait upon thee; and you give them their meat in due season. You open your hand, and satisfies the desire of every living thing.”
(Psalm 145:15,16)

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books, reading, Uncategorized, Writing

My 10 Favorite Reads (Fiction)

Yes. It was hard to pick only ten books. How did I choose? Well, I almost never read a book more than once because life is too short. There are so many awesome authors/books out there that it’s silly to waste time reading anything more than once. However, the stories listed below are unique in that the characters didn’t vanish from my mind the moment I put the book down (like so many others do). These characters and their stories stuck with me, their author’s inspire my own writing, and I hope to one day write something that makes people feel the way these books made me feel.

Here are the books I love enough to read again . . and again . . . and again.

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1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: In 2045, the world is a bleak place. Wade Watts, the book’s teenage protagonist, spends the majority of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality simulation. Wade uses his extensive knowledge of 80’s pop culture to search for an Easter egg hidden somewhere within the OASIS by the game’s designer shortly before his death. The first player to find the egg wins full control of the OASIS. Yon’t have to be a gamer to love this book. Superb writing, a protagonist you can root for, and a unique story that hasn’t been done before. As an added bonus, if you grew up in the 80’s, you’ll love all the pop culture, video game, and movie references!

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2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King: With the possible exception of The Stand, this is King’s best, most ambitious work. It’s certainly his best novel in recent memory. Jake, a high school English teacher in Maine, accesses a portal in the storeroom of a greasy spoon that instantly transports him back to a sunny day in 1958. Once he discovers the portal, he resolves to stop the Kennedy assassination. There’s so much history in this book, and King obviously spent a great deal of time researching Lee Harvey Oswald and making him a central character and the antagonist of the story. Jake’s love for a fellow teacher, Sadie, adds a whole other element to the story. This is a book I reread every few years. If you don’t like King because of his propensity toward horror, give this book a chance. You won’t regret it.

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3. Passage by Connie Willis: Joanna, a psychologist, partners with a neurologist to explain near-death experiences by using a psychoactive drug to replicate them. She goes under herself, and as she explores a little farther each time and sees more, her sense of dread increases. The author grows the tension in slow but effective ways, including beginning each chapter with the haunting final words of people like Joan of Arc and the captain of the Hindenburg.

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4. Summer of Night by Dan Simmons: “Something ancient and evil is stirring within the century-old walls of Old Central School and friends Mike, Dwayne, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin have to stop it before it destroys not only their last summer of childhood…but their lives.” Dan Simmons is an incredible writer. Whenever I read one of his books, I find my own writing improves. Yes, this book is Simmons’ version of Stephen King’s It and I *personally* think it’s a much better book. This book’s sequel, A Winter Haunting, is also amazing.

 

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5. The Martian by Andy Weir: Stranded on Mars, with no way of communicating with his crew or with Earth, Astronaut Mark Watney must figure out how to survive for a year (or more) on the desolate, inhospitable planet. This includes learning how to grow food in Martian soil (potatoes, potatoes, potatoes), make water without blowing himself up, and establish communications with Earth. Watney is a lovable science-nerd hero with a deep hatred for Disco music, which is, of course, the only music available to him on Mars. You feel as if you’re stranded right there with him, trying to figure things out, and holding your breath when something goes wrong. There’s tons of tension and suspense, some parts are laugh out loud funny, and you feel smarter when you’re finished reading it.

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6: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” Featuring one of the most haunting first lines ever written, The Lovely Bones is unlike any other book you’ll ever read. I discovered it for the first time in college, and I remember carrying it with me to class and devoting every spare minute to finishing it. Written from the perspective of a child watching from heaven as her family falls apart and her murderer remains free (and plans to murder again), Susie Salmon’s story manages to be terrible and tragic and beautiful, all at the same time.

 

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7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” Such a beautifully-written book. Morgenstern’s gift for poetic description shines through as she paints a vivid picture of the mysterious Le Cirque des Reves, and its assortment of unforgettable characters. And the fierce competition and love story between the two young magicians, Celia and Marco, is oh-so-swoonworthy.

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8. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes: Louisa Clark takes a job working as a helper for Will Trainer, a man left paralyzed from the neck down following an accident. At first, Will is a total jerk to Lou, but she refuses to abandon him to his own self-pity as so many others have, and they soon develop a bond. From her aversion to exercise to her bumblebee tights, Lou is as quirky and loveable a protagonist as they come. And despite his surly demeanor, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Will Traynor. To be fair, while I loved the book, I hated the ending. Absolutely hated it. I almost didn’t include this book in this list–even thought I knew it had earned a spot–solely because of the ending. But this book is proof that you don’t have to love the ending to appreciate a really good love story.

 

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9. The Princess Bride by William Goldman: The movie is a favorite of mine so it’s no surprise that it’s also one of my favorite books. In some ways, the book is even funnier than the movie, thanks mainly to the dozens of author’s notes and asides scattered throughout the chapters. (Ex. “There have only been 11 perfect complexions in all of India since accurate accounting began.”) The characters you love are all there–swashbuckling Westley, revenge-seeking Inigo, gentle giant Fezzik, and the princess bride herself, Buttercup–but these lovable characters are developed in a way a movie could never achieve. My final thoughts on the book? Wuv. True Wuv.

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10. Caraval by Stephanie Garber: “Remember, it’s only a game.” Sisters Scarlett and Tella receive a coveted invitation to participate in Caraval, a once-a-year magical performance put on by a mysterious man named Legend. However, as soon as they arrive at Caraval, Tella is kidnapped and Scarlett discovers that, to win the game, she must find her sister. This book has everything: magic, mystery, and romance. With its vivid descriptions and unforgettable characters, it reminds me a lot of The Night Circus. My favorite part? Scarlett’s magic dress. Because every girl needs a dress that automatically changes colors based on her moods.

 

Uncategorized

My Thoughts Upon (FINALLY) Finishing the Bible . . .

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Last week, I finished reading the Bible for the first time. The whole thing. Every chapter. Despite being a Christian for most of my life, I never read it all the way through. In fact, there was a time when I would flip through the pages of the Old Testament, scan the passages, and think, “Uh-uh. No way. The New Testament, maybe, but there’s no way I’m ever going to understand this stuff so why bother?”

After all, that’s why God made ministers, right? To read the Bible so we don’t have to.

Not quite.

Too many Christians are comfortable sitting in a church pew and allowing their minister to read and interpret snippets of the Bible for them. There are several problems with this  approach. First, you’re getting a (flawed) human’s perspective on God’s Word. Sure, there are wonderful ministers who do an amazing job interpreting the Bible. I am blessed to be in a church with a minister who is a fantastic expositional teacher. Right now, we are going through the Book of James, chapter by chapter, line by line. We usually get through 10-15 verses each Sunday. Maybe that sounds boring but it’s not. It’s so interesting diving into God’s Word and learning to understand it within the context of Jewish tradition and history.

But there are many false teachers who bend and construe God’s Word to fit their own agendas. How are we, as Christians, to recognize these false teachers (and their false teachings) if we have no idea what God’s Word says?

The other big problem with allowing a minister to interpret the Bible for you, instead of reading it for yourself, is that you miss that daily communion with God. As I worked my way through the Bible–which took me well over two years–I realized that, each time I read a new passage, God revealed something else to me. Reading the Bible became a series of “A-ha!” moments. If I read the same passage the next day, something else would jump out at me.

Yes, some of the Books of the Bible are more difficult than others (hello, Leviticus). Or, take the last few chapters of Exodus, for example. Do I really need to know the exact dimensions of the tabernacle? Or the specific gemstones used on the priest’s breastpiece? How does that help me in my daily Christian walk? Can’t I just skip them?

The answer is no. God included those pages for a reason. Why? To show us that everything needed to be perfect with the tabernacle for it to be worthy of God’s inhabitation. The elaborate descriptions and instructions regarding the tabernacle and the altar and the courtyard and the priestly garments help us to see how woefully unworthy we are to be in God’s presence.

And–by the same token–those descriptions should also make us feel abundantly blessed. Did you know that, in Jesus’ day, a thick curtain separated God’s dwelling place in the temple (the Holy of Holies) from the rest of the temple complex? Only priests could gain access to that space, and only on certain days of the year, and only when following God’s strict instructions as laid out in the Old Testament. To enter the presence of God without adhering to these rules meant risking death (Exodus 16:2).

However, at the exact moment of Christ’s death on the cross, an earthquake shook the ground and the curtain in the temple was ripped in two. Did you hear that? Ripped. In. Two. I’ve been a Christian my whole life and I NEVER knew that. If you don’t believe me, grab your Bible and turn to Matthew 27:51. Read it for yourself. This passage shows us how abundantly blessed we are. God physically ripped down the curtain that once separated us from Him. Now, coming into God’s presence, which once would’ve been punishable by death if done incorrectly or inappropriately, is now a privilege for all believers. We are allowed access only through the perfect sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.

As a writer, I’m amazed that the Bible–a book composed by dozens of authors over the course of thousands of years–is so perfect. Even the most talented authors in the world have inconsistencies, plot holes, timeline errors,…etc, in their books. But everything in the Bible lines up beautifully to form a complete, harmonious story. There are no plot holes. No inconsistencies. Something like that could only be the result of divine inspiration. No human mind could accomplish it.

If you’re a Christian and you’ve never read the Bible, don’t feel bad. It took me almost thirty-eight years to do it. It’s never too late to start. I recommend getting a good Study Bible (I have the Holman Christian Standard Study Bible and love it). Then dive right in. Commit to one or two chapters a day. If you have a Study Bible and you’re confused about anything, read the study notes at the bottom. But don’t be pulled off track by the notes. Just concentrate on reading God’s Word and he will reveal to you more than the notes ever could.

It will feel like work at first. You’ll wait until the end of the day. You’ll look for every excuse not to do it. But keep going. God will open your eyes. He will help you to understand. And you will be blessed.

As the saying goes . . . if not today . . . when?

Writing

Bobby the Crayfish

A little background on this story:

A few years ago, Ben’s teacher requested that some of the kids in his class try to catch a crayfish at home and bring it to school. They wanted to feed and observe a few crayfish as a science project for that marking period. Since Ben takes all assignments very seriously, he insisted that his grandfather take him to the creek to find a crayfish.

After a few hours (or minutes that felt like hours) of searching, they located one under a rock. Ben named him Bobby. Two months later, while still in the throes of grief, he wrote and illustrated the story of Bobby’s life.

Below you will find that yet-unpublished story . . . along with my own editorial critiques.

After all, every book needs an editor.

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Be careful when claiming your book is “based on a real story” in an effort to raise the stakes for the reader. Sure, they will be more invested in the book, but if your reader finds out that you lied to them, they’re going to feel cheated and they’ll probably leave you a bad Amazon review. I can verify, however, that BOBBY is a true story. He lived. He existed. And this little crayfish deserves to have his story told. 
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Your protagonist should enter the story early, preferably in the first chapter. Since he is introduced on the first page–and since his name IS the title–we can safely assume that Bobby is the protagonist of this story. He’s the guy we’re supposed to identify with. He’s the hero. The one we’re rooting for. I also love how the book begins with an action sequence that grabs the reader right from the start. Go Bobby!
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I know what you’re thinking: Ben added that massive snake for dramatic effect, right? While it’s true that all good writers add unexpected elements to their stories in order to create more tension, the truth is that there ARE snakes living in that storage room and one almost certainly tried (unsuccessfully) to eat Bobby at some point during the night. Excellent tension-building!
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This scene could use a little more description from Bobby’s point-of-view. We know about the rocks and the cave but what about the other crayfish? Do they welcome Bobby with open chelipeds or is he treated as an outsider? What about the classroom? How many students does Bobby see? What does the room look like? What does it smell like to Bobby? Eh, never mind. It’s an elementary school classroom . . . use your imagination.
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Bobby could use a little more character development. We’re following his story, but why should we care about Bobby? He’s just a crayfish, after all. Tell us more about him. Sure, we know he likes to hide under rocks and eat moss and vegetables, but who is Bobby, really? What are his hopes? His dreams? What motivates him? What scares him? (Aside from those terrifying faces staring down at him).
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Wow! This story takes an unexpected turn for the worse with the sudden loss of our protagonist! In this scene, we also see Ben’s dad emerge as the antagonist. Although it’s not bad as written, I feel like this ending could use a final twist. What if the reader learns that it was actually Ben’s mom who made the fatal mistake of not realizing that Bobby’s container had no air holes and was only intended for transport to-and-from school as opposed to overnight housing? And what if, in a blatant display of cowardice, she allows Ben’s dad to take the blame instead of owning up to her mistake? What if she becomes the real antagonist of this story? 
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The story wraps up with a fitting final scene where Bobby’s body is returned to the precise spot in the creek from whence it came. This scene could’ve been fleshed out a little more. Was a funeral service held for Bobby? (Yes) Were prayers said? (Yes) Were tears shed? (Yes) However, the best part of this scene is the chilling final line: “Ben was sad, but he had to remember, ‘Bobby would have been eaten, if they hadn’t taken him.'” Although it sounds like something a guilt-ridden mother would tell her kid, it really leaves the reader pondering the fleeting nature of life and the certainty of death.
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Overall, not a bad first draft but it could use some work. This blog post is, of course, dedicated to the memory of Bobby the Crayfish. 

 

Uncategorized, Writing

The Personal Side of Writing

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I found an excerpt today from a manuscript I wrote fourteen years ago. It was my first attempt at a novel . . . and I failed miserably. Originally, I had envisioned this book being a Dean Koontz-esque small-town alien invasion story. Not at all cliche, right? Well, not suprisingly, I never finished the book. The story simply fell apart in my mind, as stories sometimes do. The good ones stick; the bad ones collapse under their own weight. Although that’s usually for the best, I will always feel guilty for leaving this book unfinished. Not because I’m compelled to write the story, but because–as strange as it sounds–I feel as if I’ve abandoned my characters in a terrifying world from which they cannot escape. Even now, I imagine them running through the nightmarish town, with the alien-possessed townspeople in eternal pursuit, frantically banging on doors and begging for help that will never come.

Writers are a strange lot, aren’t we?

The excerpt above isn’t exceptional by any means. Among other problems, there’s too much passive voice and it doesn’t flow as well as it could. I’m still learning the craft of writing. When I think I’ve finally mastered it, I go to a writing workshop and discover yet another mistake I’ve been making. Then I revisit my manuscripts and search for that error. It’s a process and it takes time.

But as I sifted through the pages of this manuscript, the page above jumped out at me. Not because it’s particularly well-written but because I wrote it about the death of my grandfather. Even after all these years, the scene inspired an emotional reaction in me. I still remember writing it at my kitchen table in Alabama, and how that night in 1993 came rushing back to me in a flood of emotions and sensations. Foremost among these memories was the way my grandmother’s strength finally failed and she collapsed into the arms of her three sons. As I typed, I could even smell that night: a citrusy, antiseptic odor that I will forever associate with my dying grandfather.

There are differences, of course. Unlike the character in my story, I wasn’t actually there the night my grandfather passed away, but the scene in the book was the last time I ever saw him. And the Stevie Wonder song I quoted actually came on the radio as we drove to his funeral. To this day, that song makes me sad.

I believe this passage is the first time I opened myself up emotionally in an attempt to create real, believable characters who do real, believable things. Authors sometimes get so caught up in their stories that they make their characters do things people don’t do in real life. Some authors can get away with that (ex. Stephen King–he gets away with everything!) but most cannot. Good writing pulls from genuine, honest experiences in an effort to illicit an emotional reaction in the reader. I think the excerpt above is the first time I really tried to write something good.

My characters are all extensions of me–the good and the bad–and we’re forever bonded by our shared experiences. In the end, I suppose that’s the real reason I feel guilty for abandoning my characters in that awful town.

Maybe someday I’ll write them out of there.