Thursday, September 28, 2006

Violet Dawn

Normally I wouldn't read a mystery. It's just not my style. But there were several reasons why I read this one. For starters, I got it for free. Yes, I know, that's a lousy reason to read a book, but it was a definite factor. I got it when I registered at the ACFW conference along with a few other books in genres I normally don't venture into. As odd as it sounds, once I get a book, I tend to make sure to read it, even if I normally wouldn't, even if the experience isn't that good.

Not to worry, though, Violet Dawn by Brandilyn Collins was a joy to read. It had me hooked from the beginning, when poor Paige Williams finds a dead body in her hot tub, to the last page where ... well, you really don't expect me to give it all away, do you? I mean, if finding a dead body in your hot tub isn't enough to get you reading, then I don't know what will.

Honest to goodness, this book was in my hand just about every chance I had. When I was playing yet another game on Civilization IV, I had only one eye on the screen. As I was watching TV, I wasn't really paying attention, I was hip deep in Kanner Lake, trying to figure out what was going to happen to poor Paige. It really helped that Brandilyn kept the chapters short. Short chapters always sucker me into reading a book; I always wind up muttering, "Just one more, just one more."

What really got my attention, though, is that this book is a little different from other Christian fiction I've read. Most Christian fiction includes, for lack of a better term, a "come to Jesus" moment, where one of the non-Christian characters ... well, comes to Jesus. You know what I mean. Or, if that doesn't happen, the spiritual aspects of the story are basically right there in the foreground. I'm not saying that either of these things are bad. Given the way I write Christian fiction, I'd be a hypocrite to say that it was.

That's why Brandilyn's subtlety with Christianity was kind of a refreshing change. A few of the characters in the book are Christians. There is an over-all Christian theme to the book. But we're not beaten over the head with it. It made for a fun, breezy read.

So will I venture back to Kanner Lake? More than likely, I will. I mean, it was a great town to visit. I think it'd be fun to go back again.

Oh, and of course, I can't forget one of the main reasons why I read this book first (since I came back from ACFW with seven books). The reason is S-Man. A minor character in the book, but a really cool and awesome guy in real life. Stuart, thanks for letting a newbie tag along with you for so much of ACFW.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Plague of Terror

I really wanted to like this book. I really, really did.

I mean, this book was written by an LCMS pastor. I thought that was really cool because it's my dream to become a published LCMS pastor as well. But the more I read Plague of Terror, the more disappointed I became.

The premise of the story was interesting: terrorists release a fast-acting virus upon an unsuspecting world, pitching everyone and everything into chaos. The book itself follows three siblings, a doctor, a radio DJ, and a pastor, as they try to deal with this horrific plague and manage falling in love. There's the added mystery of a strange man that pops in and out of their lives.

In many ways, this book reminds me of Ted Dekker's Circle Trilogy and Frank Peretti's two angel books. To put it bluntly, Dekker and Peretti do it better. This was not an enjoyable read. If nothing else, Anderson's book taught me a few things about writing Christian fiction:

1) Show, don't tell. You hear this a lot in writing books. At least, I have. Now I understand why it's so important. In many cases, Anderson tells us about things. He doesn't show us through what his characters do or say. It made it boring to read.

2) Watch your Point-Of-View. Anderson had us jumping inside one person's head and then into another person's head and then into a sort of omniscient narrarator P.O.V. It made the book less enjoyable. Rather than see the world through the eyes of one character at a time, you never knew whose eyes we'd be looking through.

What really got frustrating was the times that Anderson "pulled back the curtain", so to speak, to allow us to see what was happening on the spiritual plane between angels and demons. He could have learned a lesson from Frank Peretti on this. Peretti did it right: when he shifted into the spiritual realm, he broke from the scene he had been writing. This allowed the readers to make the shift with him and it wasn't jarring when angels or demons popped into the story.

Anderson doesn't do that. We'll be going along, following people in the moral plane, when suddenly BAM! There's a paragraph out of nowhere about what the angels are up to. But then we're back with the humans again immediately afterward.

Another thing that Anderson could have learned from Peretti would have been to give the angels and demons names and personalities. As it was, I didn't really care. As a matter of fact, I think he could have just as easily cut all the scenes from the supernatural P.O.V. and the story would have been better.

Which brings us to the next point...

3) If it doesn't move the plot forward, cut it. I mentioned that there were three siblings in this book, right? Only two of them related to the main plot of the story, namely the doctor and the pastor. Both had major parts to play. The radio DJ and her love interest contributed very little the main storyline about the virus. Once I finished reading the book, I seriously questioned why she was even included in the story at all.

Actually, there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary padding in this book. There were scenes that were tossed in there for seemingly no reason. In one case, I thought that something truly horrible had happened to one of the heroes, only to have him pop up a couple chapters later and be just fine. In another case, there were some scenes set in Iran that didn't really seem necessary.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It wasn't a bad concept; it was just executed poorly. Hopefully Anderson's future efforts will be better.

There's more of us than I realized!

One of the nice things about going to the ACFW Conference is that I realized there were a lot more of us sci-fi/fantasy writers than I realized. Here's a picture we took at our Thursday night get-together:

The really cool thing is that sci-fi and fantasy writers kept popping out of the woodwork as the conference progressed. It's good to know there's more of us out there!

The ACFW Conference

So late last night, I got back to Blue Earth from the American Christian Fiction Writers' annual conference in Dallas. All in all, it was a good experience. I went to several classes that were very helpful, but there were some things I learned about writing and about myself:

1) Make sure your information is up-to-date. One of the things you can do at the ACFW conference is go to appointments with editors from various Christian publishing houses. I signed up for one, hoping to pitch my Christian sci-fi trilogy. I figured it would be a good fit with the house in question because they had a track record of publishing Christian sci-fi and fantasy.

Boy-howdy, was I wrong.

Turns out my information was several years out of date. The editor who championed the sci-fi books I enjoyed reading had left long ago to become an agent. Therefore the house wasn't looking for sci-fi and was closed to it. So I basically wasted that appointment. Thankfully the editor was very polite about it and offered a few suggestions about what to do, but it still kind of stung, especially since it was my own fault. Oh well. Live and learn.

2) Don't burn your bridges. I actually learned this from observing someone else.

I made another mistake at the conference. I approached the wrong guy with my pitch (not the editor I mentioned in number one) and he politely told me he wasn't interested. A few nights later, a bunch of us were sitting around chatting in the hotel lobby and this individual joined our group. He then mentioned that several people had approached him with their pitches and then made fun of us for doing so. Needless to say, I was a little torked that he did that.

So I learned a lesson: you never know who is going to overhear the negative things you say or who might stumble into a blog. That's why I'm not saying who this individual is. Let's just say that even if he eventually wanted to work with me, I would not want to work with him.

3) I'm definitely a traditionalist when it comes to worship. Meaning that I have to have a liturgy and traditional hymns if I'm going to consider it worship. Enough said about that.

4) I hope I can go back to ACFW again next year. I had a blast at the conference. I made some new friends, got to connect with people I only knew from their blogs or the ACFW forums, and even garnered a few compliments for my writing (which really helped buoy me up, especially after learning lessons #1 and #2).

In short, while it's good to be home, I'm really glad that I went.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Secret Life of Becky Miller

I never thought in a million years that I would read a "chick-lit" book. I would have never guessed that I would enjoy it either.

I figured that I would take a look at The Secret Life of Becky Miller after I heard about its LCMS connection. Yes, denominational loyalty goes a long way with me. I wasn't sure what I would find exactly. I had never read chick-lit or "Mom-lit" before.

The story was instantly engaging. Becky Miller is a stay-at-home mom who is trying desperately to stay ahead of the game. She's trying to balance three young children (one of whom has health issues), her husband's work woes, her somewhat eccentric friends, and especially her desire to do Big Things for God. Unfortunately, Becky's plans never seem to work out quite like she planned. For every step she seems to take toward her goal, she's forced to take several backwards. For every door that God closes, it seems like He slams shut two windows. It seems like whenever Becky hits rock bottom, she's tossed a shovel and told to keep digging....

I trust you get the idea.

Hinck weaves several threads through the overall plot: Becky's desire to work full-time for her congregation's women's ministry, an impending article for Women of Vision magazine, just to name two. The chapters are short which is a definite plus, seeing as I was always tempted to "read just one more, read just one more" (hence why I finished this in a day and a half). Hinck's writing made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion and yes, I even teared up on two occasions (get to the twist toward the end and see how dry-eyed you remain, those who judge me!).

Will I read any chick-lit again? I'm guessing the answer is no. But I certainly am looking forward to Hinck's Restorer series!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Settling Accounts: Drive to the East

Just last night, I finished reading Settling Accounts: Drive to the East by Harry Turtledove. Turtledove is the master of counterfactual historical fiction. In other words, Turtledove takes history, changes something about it, and then susses out how that might have made things different.

Drive to the East is the latest in a long series of books that Turtledove wrote along this counterfactual line: what if the Confederate States of America won the Civil War and became their own country? He started this series with How Few Remain (a book that I haven't read). I started reading when the series took up World War I. Turtledove reckoned that the South would be allied with Britain and France while the North would ally itself with the Kaiser in Germany.

Since I started reading this book, the North has won World War I, subjecting the Confederates to a crushing set of conditions for peace. They've also wrested Canada away from British control and occupied it. But what's truly interesting is what happened in the South. Embittered by the South's defeat in the Great War, a man named Jake Featherston wrote a scathing book in which he blamed the big-wigs in Richmond for the loss as well as the African American people (not the word used in any of these books) who rebelled against the CSA as well. Jake eventually joins a new political party, the Freedom Party, which eventually takes over the country with Jake as its president.

Yes, that's right, in this alternate timeline, the Nazis rise in the southern United States and then start World War II with the North.

When Drive to the East picks up, the offensive of the CSA had smashed through US lines, driving up through Ohio to Lake Erie, dividing the US in half. Now they're threatening to march east, eventually destroying Pittsburg. The USA has to counter that threat and quickly or else they'll lose the war.

The plot is a lot more complicated than that, of course. One thing about this series is that Turtledove slathers on the characters. I wouldn't say it's a cast of thousands, but it's pretty darn close! In some ways, it's understandable why he does that: you need that many people to keep up with all the action that takes place in this alternate time-line. You need someone to describe the war in the Pacific and Atlantic; you need people to describe the inner-workings of both the USA and CSA's governments. You need the perspective of the African American people who are rounded up and taken to concentration camps for "population reduction". The problem is, Turtledove piles on so many people that it's a little tricky to keep up with them all.

There were two other things that bothered me as I read this book. First of all, Turtledove is extremely repetitive in his writing. He kept using the same phrases over and over and over, often using them, almost word for word every other page. Worse, if one character had a massive revelation about something, you could almost guarantee that at least three others would have the exact same revelation within a dozen pages and that Turtledove would almost repeat it word for word.

The other thing that bothered me is that Turtledove seems to assume that his readers have very short memories. Perhaps its because he loads up his story with so many characters. It seemed like he had to expound on his characters' backstories every other time we encountered them. At the beginning of the book, that's helpful. It had been a while since I'd read one of his books in this series and I needed the refresher. But when I'm three-quarters of the way through the book, I don't need to be reminded for the fourth time that Yossel Rosen is Flora Blackford's nephew or that Sergeant Michael Pound has been in the Army since the Great War. I know that already.

But while I was annoyed with those two things, it's not enough to keep me from reading the next book in the series. After all, I need to see who figures out how to make a uranium bomb first, the US or the Confederates. My money's on the US, but with Turtledove, you just never know.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Inspiration Strikes

So I went for a haircut today and came away with an idea for a short story.

I've been putting off getting a trim for a while now. I wanted to time things so that I could get one right before I went to the ACFW conference so I could look my best. Problem is, my hair grew a little faster than I expected and it was beginning to bug me.

The man who normally cuts my hair is sick, so I decided I would try out a hairstyling place in downtown Blue Earth. As the lady got me ready and quizzed me about how I wanted things cut, I noticed her coffee mug:

Blessed are the hairstylists, for they bring out the beauty in others.

Uh huh. Don't remember that in the Beatitudes.

But as my hair was falling to the floor, the sentiment on the mug got me thinking. A hairstylist can certainly bring out the outer beauty in someone, but that usually won't lead to inner beauty. As a matter of fact, it would normally lead to....

Inspiration struck. I have at least the beginning of a short story. Now I just need to find an end for it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Crown of Fire

I just finished reading the last of the Firebird trilogy, namely Crown of Fire.

Firebird's story concludes in this volume as she is called back to her homeworld of Netaia. Due to her older sister's abdication of the Netaian throne, Firebird will be confirmed as an heir in the Angelo family. But Firebird and Brennen are really setting a trap for their deadly enemies, the Shuhr, in hopes of destroying the threat of Three Zed.

At the same time, though, the Shuhr are setting an ambush of their own. Will Firebird, Brennen, and the Sentinels succeed with the Speaker's help? Or will the Shuhr destroy the only thing standing between them and complete domination of the Whorl?

No, I didn't steal that summary from the back cover of the book. It kind of stinks; I can sum up someone else's book, but write a synopsis for something I wrote and it's like pulling teeth....

I digress, sorry.

Like the other two books in this trilogy, Crown of Fire is excellent and sets the standard for all Christian sci-fi. Tyers does a masterful job blending faith with sci-fi. If you're looking for a great Christian story, you can't go wrong with the Firebird trilogy, especially since you can get all three books in one volume now. I just saw it at my local library today.

* * * *

One of my friends commented recently on my blog that I seem to be doing a lot of reading lately. That's true. I have been. I'm not exactly sure why. I suspect that part of the reason is because I'm trying to charge up my writing batteries. I've noticed (and I'm sure any authors who may have stumbled onto my little niche of the blogosphere can attest to this as well) that when I haven't read that much, I have a hard time writing.

Well, lately, I haven't been doing that much writing, even though I've been doing a lot of reading. I'm not sure what the problem is.

Part of it, I think, is the fact that I'm getting ready for the ACFW conference. I'll be pitching my own sci-fi trilogy, or at least the first book of it. Getting everything ready (one-sheets, business cards, four copies of a full proposal just in case) has been attention consuming, especially on top of my duties as a pastor.

Part of it is distraction from another situation that I can't discuss here. At least, not yet. How's that for suspense building?

Whatever the case, I think I took some good strides tonight. Jill and I went to Mankato to pick up my business cards for the conference and to release some books into the wild. As we were wandering the River Hills Mall, some elements dropped into place for a story that I've been mulling over for a while. I've also been doing some brainstorming on another Christian sci-fi book and I may be ready to start working on it. I'm even thinking of using the Snowflake Method to see if that will help.

Anyway, hopefully my super-saturation of literature over the past couple of weeks has helped me get ready for some great writing. We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

We're Slowly Taking Over!

It's been an interesting 24 hours for me. If I were one to try to read into things, I'd think that perhaps Someone was trying to send me a sign.

As my profile says, I'm a proud member of The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. I've belonged to this denomination all my life and I can't imagine myself ever leaving. Well, that's not entirely true, but that's a discussion for another day.

As you also know if you've read my blog for a while, I'm also an unpublished author. Up until today, I thought that there weren't that many LCMS authors out there. 24 hours ago, I was aware of only one, Dr. Paul L. Maier, author of my favorite book. I always thought that if I were to be published, I would be a rarity: an LCMS author.

Turns out, we're not as rare as I thought.

Yesterday I sent out a mass e-mail update to my family and friends. I mentioned in the update that I would be attending the ACFW Conference in Dallas. Shortly thereafter, my Uncle Paul wrote back to me and said, "You know, the LCMS pastor in Fairmont (a town about twenty miles to the west of where I live) is a Christian author. He's had some stuff published."

I was stunned. I've met this man and never knew! So I did some digging and sure enough, there he was. I made a mental note that the next time I saw him, I'd have to pick his brains a little.

But the hits just keep on coming! Jill's Mom occasionally will send Jill articles from the Minneapolis paper or other sources. Today, Jill received a copy of the Concordia Academy - Bloomington Highlights, the newsletter of her high school alma mater. The front page story?

The Secret's Out: Author and Lancer alumna keeps focus on faith, faimly, in 'Secret Life of Bekcy Miller' novel

Turns out this lady wrote a speculative fiction piece about a daydreaming housewife. That piqued my interest. After all, speculative fiction is the broad umbrella term for stuff like sci-fi and fantasy, things I'm keenly interested in. I read about the "Mom-lit" book she wrote, but then I hit a paragraph that made me sit up and take notice:

Hinck plans to continue her writing and has additional books already in the works. Sharon's eyes light up when she speaks about the first book she wrote which will be published as part of the Restorer series by NavPress in June 2007. The series, with some analogies to the story of Deborah from the book of Judges, tells the story of a woman who is "pulled into a world waiting for a promised restorer."

I just about flipped. I had heard about this already! One of the wonderful folks in the ACFW forum, Mir, posted a story about how Jeff Gerke, then an editor at NavPress, acquired this book through Steve Laube, a literary agent. So I knew this speculative fiction book was in the works; I had no idea it was written by an LCMS author!

So I guess, if I'm fortunate enough to get published in the near or not-so-near future, that I won't be the only or even one of the few LCMS authors. But hey, that's all right. There's strength in numbers.

Fusion Fire

Late last night, I finished reading the second book of Kathy Tyers' Firebird trilogy, Fusion Fire. It actually kept me up later than I wanted or should have been up. I'm paying for finishing this great book today. A little sleepy.

This book continues the story of Lady Firebird from the first book. She has married the Sentinel who saved her at the battle of Veroh, Brennen Caldwell, and, as we join Firebird, we discover that she's pregnant with twin boys. But Tyers doesn't hesitate to thrust Firebird into danger. It turns out that Firebird and Brennen have been targeted by the Shuhr, the Sentinels' distant cousins who are not guided by the Sentinels' ethics. Think Sith to the Sentinel's Jedi, and you get the basic idea.

But the Shuhr aren't the only thing threatening Firebird's relationship. Firebird discovers she's carrying a horrendous secret, one that could steal all the happiness from her life, especially as Brennen travels to Three Zed, the home base of the Shuhr, to rescue Firebird's estranged sister, Phoena. Then there's the political machinations of occupied Netaia to deal with ... well, just writing about it makes me want to go home and start reading Crown of Fire, the last book of the trilogy. I won't, though, because I don't want another late night tonight.

This is a good continuation of the story and starts to build on the foundations forged in the first book. Since this is the second time I read it, I was surprised at how much I misremembered. I originally thought that the Shuhr were an invention of the second book. Having read Firebird, I realized that Tyers dropped some major hints about their involvement in the storyline. I also had to wrestle with sympathy for a character named Ellet Kinsman. Before I reread Fusion Fire, I thought she wound up badly abused in the story. Now I have little sympathy for her. Read the book; you'll probably see what I'm talking about.

What resonated most strongly for me was Firebird's struggle with the concept of evil. It's not just the big quesiton of "Why does God permit evil?", although Firebird certainly dives into that philosophical tangle. Firebird must also struggle with the more personal question of "Am I evil?" That resonated quite strongly for me. I mean, hey, I'm a pastor, I know what the Bible says about original sin and such, but even I have to admit that I'd rather think that I'm a good guy deep, deep down. Firebird struggles with that idea as well and it helps move the plot along.

Rereading this book also makes me curious. Like I said, the first two books of this trilogy were originally written as secular science fiction. Tyers was able to go back and weave Christian concepts more tightly into the plot and republish them. I've only read the Christian version. After seeing how tightly woven Christian concepts are into this story, it makes me wonder what the original looked like. I'm not sure I'd be able to find an original version, nor am I sure I'd really want to read it. It just has me curious.

Anyway, one more Firebird story to go. At least, one more to go before Kathy finishes her current work-in-progress. Then I guess I'll have to look forward to more sleepless nights.

Friday, September 01, 2006


(AKA Trojan Horse for the Force Part II)

As promised, I went back after finishing DragonKnight and I've started Kathy Tyers' Firebird trilogy, starting with, appropriately enough, Firebird. Like I said before, this book is the reason I read Christian Sci-Fi/Fantasy at all. Simply put, this is one of the best.

Firebird is the story of Firebird Angelo, the third-born daughter of the ruling family of a planet called Netaia. Because of her position in her family, Firebird is what's known as a "wastling". She is a back-up heir for her mother, the queen of Netaia. Should anything happen to her two older sisters, Firebird would be able to assume the throne. But as soon as her older sister, Carradee, gives birth to her second daughter, Firebird's life is forfeit and she will be expected to die for Netaia. In Firebird's case, this death will come during an invasion of a planet called Veroh.

Firebird's plans, however, don't work out when she is captured by Veroh's defenders, members of the Federacy, a galaxy-spanning government. More specifically, she's captured by Brennen Caldwell, an ace pilot on the fast track to the High Command of the Federacy. Brennen is also a Sentinel, a member of an ancient and somewhat secretive religious order. Brennen surprises Firebird by not only treating her with great dignity and respect, but by insisting that she not throw her life away for Netaia. Why would he do that?

Well, you're gonna need to read the book to find out!

The one thing I noticed during this second re-reading is how closely parallel some of the concepts of this story are to another epic space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Sentinels especially sound like Christianized Jedi more than once. But that's not necessarily a bad thing; it gives readers a "point of contact" that allows them to slip into the story a bit easier. They're dealing with familiar concepts with a not-so-subtle twist. Hence my "Trojan Horse for the Force" comment.

Tyers does a marvelous job working with this story and she really captures the emotional content of Firebird's journey from death to new life. You won't be disappointed with this one.

As for me, now it's on to the next book, Fusion Fire.


Tonight, Jill and I had to take a trip to Fairmont to get her a new cell phone. Hers died last weekend, most likely because her contract expired and the phone company wanted us to buy a new one. So we decided as long as we were in town, we might as well take in a movie.

The movie we took in was Accepted. In the interest of all fairness, I went into this with very low expectations. Sure, the commercials looked funny, but that's the job of advertising executives. The fact that the previews included one for a certain movie made me worried that what we were about to see was going to be very, very low-brow.

In some ways, it was. I mean, all you have to do is consider the name of the fake college that's created by our intrepid hero, Bartleby Gaines (yes, that's his real name): the South Harmon Institute of Technology. Well, maybe not the name. The initials then. Figure it out yourself. They make liberal use of the initials almost to the point of eye rolling.

There were also some logical lapses in the plot, which in some ways was entirely predictable. I know one of my faults is that I overanalyze movies too much, but there was one glaring plot hole that just did not make sense to me at all. After careful consideration, I won't share what it is. It does kind of give away big chunks of the early plot, so I'll leave it to my intrepid readers to suss out what the plot hole was.

But now onto why I left the theater with a big smile on my face. First of all, the movie was fun. It was. Predictable or not, the story was a fun ride. I'll give you an example to look forward to. If you're paying attention, you won't be all that surprised by the way the movie ends. But it was still a great ending nonetheless.

Second, Justin Long did a fantastic job in this movie. At least, I thought he did. He evoked a sort of new millennium Ferris Bueller in his performance. He did seem to rely on slapstick gags a bit too much, but it was enough to truly drive me bonkers. It's almost enough for me to overlook those abominable Mac commercials.

Third, Lewis Black was a stitch every time I saw him. Loads of fun.

So there you go. Fun movie, go and see it.