On Twitter, fellow writer Lauren Scribe Harris, asked that we share the first 500 words of our WIP as Friday500. I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but I thought, why not? So here you go.
A battered and rust-spotted jalopy of a wagon rose high into the evening sky, crucified on a pair of weathered stilts. It seemed to defy gravity, threatening to fall from its roost at any moment. The name Verner’s Salvage Yard had been painted across its broad sides in a meticulous calligraphic script, and the whole monstrosity served as a road sign for the establishment of the same name—a name I should have recognized.
Over the previous six months, I had ridden my motorcycle past the make-shift landmark no less than ten times. That being the case, it was somewhat embarrassing to learn that an old friend of mine, a man named Havelock Verner, whom I had known for the better part of five-hundred years, had been living there, running the business, for quite some time.
My shame was worsened by the fact that the only reason I now knew was because he had called on me at my blacksmithing shop, told me of his whereabouts and then, without a word, stormed off.
Because one does not often run into an old friend of five-hundred years, I closed up shop early
As we walked up to the front door, I sniffed at the air. There was a thick, lingering smell of oxidation, interrupted by occasional gusts that carried the mingled scents of native grass and dog hair.
“Cage, How big is this place?” Constance asked.
“I’m not sure.” I pointed to a engine-covered ridge. “There are more machines beyond that hill. I’d say it’s a half-mile wide and a half-mile deep.”
“You could crash an airship in this place and no one would notice.”
Even though I was a bit unsettled by the fact we were venturing into another wolf’s territory, I found myself chuckling at her comment. “I’m sure Havelock would notice. If not right away, he’d surely realize it when someone asked to purchase a spare wheel that was buried under a couple hundred pounds of charred airframe.”
It seemed that Havelock’s tiny house doubled as the salvage yard’s business office. There were no other structures nearby. We climbed the rickety steps, stopped at his door, and stood there.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen Havelock in fifty years.”
“Let’s not wait another fifty.” She pushed me to the side and knocked three times on the door.
A long minute passed, and the door didn’t open to us.
“I don’t think he wants to be disturbed,” I said.
“Nonsense,” my friend responded. She pointed past the building to a wrought iron fence. He’s probably out back somewhere. You said it yourself, that scrap yard is probably half a mile wide. We should take a walk back there and see if we can find him.”
I think a lot about religion. A lot. And I’m hardly diversified. I grew up within Christianity, attended Christian school, and spent a considerable chunk of each summer at a Christian camp. It’s probably not surprising, therefore, that I look favorably on religion. But I think it surprises many of the Christians I meet. There is, within contemporary Christianity, this trend to try and rise above one’s religion, or to disavow it in favor of being “spiritual” or “in a relationship” with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse, and making religion a priority before God, but tackling the issue has worked its way backward into other aspects of my life.
I’ve often said that religion is a tool, a set of spiritual habits that a Christian (or person of any religion) commits to, in order to draw nearer to God, personally. Religion is also a tool that Christianity commits to, as a whole, to draw the world nearer to God. On a personal level, Christians have found spiritual aid in consistent times in prayer, in the Bible, in fasting, vows of chastity, celibacy, or temperance. I don’t advocate all of these, but you cannot ignore that some of the most peaceable, productive, and effective people on the planet (Jesus, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, etc.) have worked from within a frame of self-sacrifice.
The idea of giving something up isn’t limited to spiritual things, though many who sacrifice for some other reward often describe their experience in terms that suggest a spiritual high. Eric Liddell said, in Chariots of Fire, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” There is a sense of accomplishment we have when we sacrifice for something we know that we are good at, are called to, or enjoy.
One of the reasons I despise the phrase “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” is because it sets up a false dichotomy, or else, a false definition of religion. Imagine a husband who says of his marriage, “It’s not about romance or fidelity, it’s about the relationship.” Imagine a soccer player who ignores the rules and referees because he’s only interested in “the game.” Or a student who eschews the rules of their school, the deadlines of their assignments, or their schedule because only their education matters.
That’s how I try to be with my writing, and most successful writers will describe their process in something that sounds very much like Judaic or Mosaic Law: Write every day. Write 1,000 words a day. Write 10,000 words a week. Keep deadlines. Cleanse your manuscript of all adverbs. Some rules are so deeply ingrained that we forget that they’re there. Like spelling.
The point of making those rules and habits is to develop a routine. The writers of Leverage talk about the self-imposed rules of the show, one of which is that there isn’t any deus ex machina, and that any secondary complications have to arise from the characters’ failures, or the fact that they succeeded too well. There was a particularly revelatory moment in the commentary of one episode where a writer said that while self-imposed rules sound limiting, they actually help them to know where to go next.
When I started writing Salvage Yard, I decided that no matter what happened within the novel, it needed to end where it began. This isn’t so much a gimmick as a promise to my reader. It says, don’t worry, we’ll be back. It also helps me to know where to start the story, which is a hard thing to choose.
In order to be successful at writing, or anything, really, one must make a religion of it. If one believes that God honors our efforts to be diligent in anything, whether we’re talking about studying or earning a paycheck, we actually make a religion of the thing we do. To be clear, we don’t make a religion of it in order to worship that thing, but in order to become better at it.
The Bible is almost entirely silent on the actual workings of religion and this is something that has caused centuries of arguments within the church. Should we baptize by sprinkling or immersion? Is one day holier than another? Are all days equally holy? Do we fast, or do we eat in remembrance? Do we gather together or do we pray in the solitude of a prayer closet? Do we marry or stay single? The fact that the Bible says yes and no to each of these is telling. The fact that the Bible never outlines a specific form of church government should be something of a hint.
I think that the authors of the Bible, and the early church fathers, and probably any successful religion recognize that people are different, and yet, we’re all the same. We all face troubles, pain, grief, periods of emotional drought, periods of achievement, joy, and success, but we deal with those things in vastly different ways. But we must deal with them.
It is hard for me to understand how people write without an outline. It’s hard for other people to understand how I can outline a novel to such a degree that I know, within a thousand words, when a particular thing will happen in my novel. It’s hard for me to understand how some people can sit down and write 3,000 words a day and not turn out drivel, and they don’t understand why I do so little revising. It’s because my religion of writing is different from theirs. The ultimate goal—to create a readable, enjoyable, reading experience is the same, and we both have the same burning passion to fulfill that goal, but the roads by which we reach it are vastly different.
Last night I was mapping out my writing goals for 2012. Last year came together nicely, but I was still too tight on every single deadline I gave myself. Just to give you an idea of what to expect to see from me in the coming year here is my itinerary:
- At the end of February, I want to start re-editing Cold for publication on the Kindle. This is more or less a side-project with no deadline. It’s just something I’d like to do.
- Salvage Yard should be finished by the end of April, edited and prepped for querying by the end of May.
- Immediately following the last page of SALVAGE YARD, I want to begin writing my next Christmas novel/novella, SNOWBALL’S CHANCE. I’ve got a pretty large promotion planned for this one.
- I’m going to rewrite both STREET URCHIN and IRON ORPHAN as sequels to SALVAGE YARD.
It’s this last point that I want to talk about most. The main character for four of the aforementioned novels is a man named Cage Donnagan, who works as a blacksmith, but continually ends up in the role of a crime-fighter and vigilante. The book IRON ORPHAN dealt with this in great detail, and through that, lets me explore a theme that I want to dig into even more as I rewrite the story.
The theme is ‘Karma VS. Grace’ and deals with the repercussions of justice and mercy. Despite the terminology, both of these are ancient, primitive, and biblical themes. The Christian apostle St. Paul tackled a concept very similar to karma in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Corinth.
St. Paul talks about sowing and reaping, and what he means is that if you plant corn, you get corn. You don’t get potatoes, or oranges, or Dalmatians. And the second verse speaks to the quantity. If you put a lot of seed in the ground, you’re more likely to get more back than if you only planted one seed. Paul uses this to drive home a very general spiritual point: if you plant greed, or jealously, or gossip, or whatever, into someone’s life, you’re going to get greed, or jealousy, or gossip back. And the same tends to be true of positive things: If you’re kind, people are kind back. If you listen, people are more likely to listen back.
I called the law of sowing and reaping a very general spiritual point for one reason. The bible also talks about this thing called grace. I have heard of grace described as getting the good things that you don’t deserve, and not getting the bad things that you do deserve. In other words, it’s when Christ takes upon himself the pain and penalty for the things that you’ve done wrong.
There are people in your life who probably deserve whatever they get. I’m talking about cheating spouses, deadbeat parents, and child molesters, just to name a few. They genuinely deserve to suffer whatever punishment life deals them. That is sowing and reaping. That’s justice. That’s karma. What I want to point out is that none of us get through this life without hurting other people. Those people that we hurt are God’s children, and God cares about them deeply. Just as you have been forgiven by God, and hopefully, if you’ve wronged someone, you’ve asked them to forgive you, you need to forgive others for that grace to be complete in your own life.
I say all of that to get to the theme of IRON ORPHAN, where Cage Donnagan faces down against a vigilante who is determined that no justice will be seen in the afterlife, so it falls to him to bring justice to people in this world. Cage has no problem with justice. He’s dealt plenty of it himself, but the Iron Orphan’s methods are so severe that Cage finds himself wanting to spare those criminals, to offer them at least a small amount of grace.
How about you? When your main character is thrown into the boiler, does the struggle between good and evil represent the meting out of justice, or is there a degree of grace being offered?
I swear I forget what a blog is for…
I’m sitting at the computer three hours from the end of the year. The year of the rabbit is about to be eaten by the year of the dragon, and I can’t help but hope it’s a friendly dragon. This year has been kind of bittersweet for me, with higher ups and deeper downs than years in the past. On one hand, I received five or six rejection letters for a novel I’m shopping around. On the other hand, two of those rejection letters came from extremely prominent agents with detailed critiques and a request to see my next manuscript.
Don’t tell me if they tell everyone that, okay?
I set aside one manuscript (Iron Orphan), finished a novella (City Sidewalks), and started a prequel (Salvage Yard) to the novel that didn’t get picked up (Street Urchin). The day-job fared quite well through the whole year, but dropped off drastically towards the end of November. The group of teens I work with, speak to, and pray with on a weekly basis more than doubled.
What am I looking for in 2012? The payoff. This year has been one of the most personally productive years I’ve ever had, both physically and emotionally. I feel strained and stretched, and ready to be filled with more. If I can get deeply vulnerable in front of a whole bunch of people (Don’t kid yourself, Jeremy. Four people read this.) I’ve learned a few things.
1. When I’m doing the best I can, God seems to increase my margin for error. I’ve managed to make a bunch of mistakes this year, and none of them went to the worst possible consequence. Some of them even came out better in the end because of the mistake. In fact, there have been a few times when felt like some of my most well-intended mistakes have been rewarded with some kind of consolation prize. The thing I have to keep in mind is that doesn’t mean I can get sloppy. I want to stay out of that margin as much as possible. It’s just nice to know there’s a hand to catch me.
2. Tenacity wins. In college, we used to talk about brute force attacks on computers and phone systems. I’m not much into that kind of thing now, but there’s something to be said about the effectiveness of hitting something over and over again. If 2011 wasn’t your year, and you feel like you’re giving everything you’ve got, just keep going. The world out there is big, but it can’t last forever.
3. Holiness will be the ladder by which I climb out of this hole. “Wait, what?” you say. Holiness? Where did that come from? Call me a mystic if you want, but don’t miss what I’m about to say because I borrowed a fundamentalist buzzword. There is an amazing liberty in living a holy life. At the end of the day, when you climb into bed, you can sleep knowing that you have wronged no one (even yourself), or if you have, that you plan to make it right shortly. There are a lot of crazy people out there, saying a lot of mean, crazy-person things. Living a holy life means knowing deep down that you’re not to blame, and then making sure that you never give them a reason to convince you that you are.