Archive for February, 2009

[BIB/ReadersRoom] – Blogging about Blogging*

Today’s writing related question: Bloggers: how do you blog? Toss out a post whenever inspiration strikes, build up a reserve? Or have a set time of day? If so, when?

This is almost a twist on the question “how do you find the time to write?” (okay, it’s not really, I just really like that blog post). Actually, this question gave me all the excuse I needed to answer a different question: just how many words to I blog in a year. I finally got around to doing that math:

2005 – 168,000
2006 – 238,000
2007 – 189,000
2008 – 143,000

In short, I write about two novels worth of words a year in blogs (and now I also see why I fondly remember 2006 as my best blogging year. I went nuts with reviews and thinking A LOT about stuff, mostly my faith. Also that year my family faced A LOT of tragedy so I was

working through a lot of that. I find that a good chunk of the blogs I write today end up linking to blogs I wrote that year. I can also note that my production went down considerably in 2008 as I had more work to do in terms of stories requested by editors).

My blog started off as a weird competition between me and a friend of mine. It has since evolved (… uh, no, there was no scene involving an “I win! I win” dance) because blogging gave me a way to build an audience for my writing when I didn’t have much published at the time. And it has given me many other writing opportunities to do other writing. So, does blogging take away from my real writing time? No, I consider blogging PART of my real writing time.

I understand that the time I spend blogging is time that I could be working on a novel or a short story or an article. Last year I began being more methodical about my blog that would allow for regular updates, spontaneous blogs, and getting more story/paid writing done (since as of last year, I had a lot more editors asking me for stories).

I try to have a reserve of blogs set up in advance. Since there are times when I have more time to blog (usually between story/novel projects: I have found that it’s hard for me to blog regularly while “creating” new words/universe but I have no problems blogging while editing or revising a story). Unless it’s time sensitive, I spread them out over a period of weeks (if I’ve truly worked ahead). Right now, I have 2 – 3 week’s worth of blogs done as I gear up to write a story I promised an editor (more on that later if she likes the end result).

If inspiration (or need) arises, I go with it. But I’ve found that having a surplus helps because there are times when I have spent a lot of time thinking on one topic, say for example race relations, and end up writing a series of blogs on that topic. Then I spend a lot of time thinking about something else, for example, faith, and produce a lot of blogs on that topic. I’m well aware that I have a cross-pollinated audience who might not be interested in a protracted series on one topic, so by working on them in advance, I can sort them better (so that it’s not all blocks of reviews, or theology, or race stuff, or writing).

I also set things to post between 6 and 8 a.m. that way they are there first thing in the morning … when people arrive at work and are goofing off by cruising the internet (and also why you want you “big” blogs coming out on Mondays). However, I regularly violate another blog rule: the best blog length is about 300 words (500 at the outside). With pictures.

So yes, my blogging is part me being conscious of marketing myself.** However, as much of a bump as my blog traffic gets with regular posting or a particular blog getting a lot of links/exposure, it’s nothing like the marketing that comes with, you know, actual stories being released.

*“That’s like jerking off by thinking about masturbating.” –Richard Danksy
** “And wasted if you don’t have enough to market.” –Richard Danksy, in the name of tough love, because blogging shouldn’t become a replacement for the other writing I should be doing.

The Twelve – A Review

I can’t seem to get away from J. Michael Straczynski’s work. After his long tenure on Amazing Spider-Man and his current runaway hit, Thor, he now tackles the high though achingly familiar concept, The Twelve. The story begins in Berlin during the final days of the Nazi regime when twelve heroes independently descend upon the SS headquarters and fall victim to a Nazi trap. The Twelve are Rockman, Black Widow, Blue Blade, Master Mind Excello, Mr. E, Laughing Mask, Dynamic Man, Firery Mask, The Witness, Captain Wonder, and the Phantom Reporter. These were heroes from the Timely Comics era, Marvel Comics’ predecessor. Placed in “freezing tubes” to be defrosted after the Americans leave Berlin, the plan goes awry and the Nazis never come back for them. The US military is called in after the chamber is discovered by a modern day construction crew and they discuss whether or not they’re going to thaw them out. Then again, considering these are the times of Civil War and Secret Invasions, it’s not like trust in super heroes isn’t at a premium. Awakened, the story revolves around how the Twelve react to the future and how the current heroes react to the past.

We have a long time fascination with the World War II era/The Greatest Generation. It was a simpler time we often long for, when good guys and bad guys were clearly delineated. After all, the Nazis were and are the quintessential evil villain. The idea of altruistic relics of the past confronted with the cynical reality of the present/their future has been done since Captain America was frozen in ice and awakened in a time not his own. Told from the point of view of the Phantom Reporter, a “tourist,” or a costumed hero who tags along with major heroes, The Twelve has a reporter’s feel and tone.

Everyone has a secret, something he or she is running toward or from, as they try to figure out where they fit in this new world. Squadron Supreme and even Rising Stars, in retrospect, either look like they were practice runs for this series or Straczynski going back to his familiar themes, putting different heroes through same paces. Since this is a finite series, it can’t be a matter of all set-up and no payoff.

“But there’s something we can give you that’s more important that money or a place to live. Purpose. We can give you purpose again. The world needs people like you, maybe even more than it ever did before.”

In taking 40s era heroes, patriots of a simpler time, and transporting them to now, The Twelve examines what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost as a people. It’s easy to view a bygone era through rose tinted glasses. The 50s-era show Mad Men looks like a grand old time, until you ask yourself “where are all the black folks?” (oh yeah, they’re in the back at the bus still). Instead of sexism and racism, our culture wrestles with terrorism, the erosion of civil liberties, and the loss of national optimism.

The Gospel has power to transform individual and society, so traditions and mindsets need to be periodically examined to see if they remain relevant. For example, some commands in Scripture are time bound and culturally limited. It is dangerous to ignore the voice and lessons of tradition. At the same time, we need to recognize when it is time to jettison traditional beliefs. Culture shouldn’t determine theology, but the impact of culture on the biblical writers and all biblical interpreters (us) shouldn’t be ignored. Many cultural issues, from the role of women to the issue of slavery, have had to be re-examined over time through our culturally impacted lens of Scripture.

Yes, this kind of story has been done been done time and again and your gut instinct might assume this to be a generic Watchman retread, but the characters are intriguing and Straczynski manages to balance sophistication and fun. I love the art work, especially the expressiveness of faces. I’m hoping that all of the potential of this book is fully realized.

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The Table Benediction

by Darrell Johnson

Go now in the joy of knowing that you have been included.
Included at this table.
Included as His table.
Included in our common life.
Included in the Life of God;
in the Life of the Triune God;
in the Life shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Go in the joy of knowing that you have been included
in the inner life of the God Who is love.

Go, find joy in telling others that they too are included!

Go, find joy in bringing all God’s people to His table!

“Do not be afraid, little flock,
for your Father has chosen gladly
to give you the kingdom.”

You are included!

from THE WORK OF THE PEOPLE: Visual Media for Mission & Worship

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Ambassadors of Love

Many people call themselves Christian and we often refer to ourselves as a Christian nation. Have you ever wondered how some people can call themselves that? Or rather, how some folks can do some of the things they do and cloak themselves in religion or the Word of God?

On the flip side, there are a lot of folks who cloak themselves in the veil of religion to simply justify their biases. In other words, they have a belief/predisposition then seek to undergird said belief with Bible verses; bringing their vision to their faith and creating dogma around it.

Which is why I don’t tend to dump on Christianity when a “Christian” does something kooky or Islam when a “Muslim” does something contrary to their tenets. There are folks who call themselves Christian, Muslim, Wiccan or what have you whose actions clearly run contrary to the beliefs of those faiths.

We’re all eikons, image-bearers of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as such. Christians, in particular, ought to be ambassadors of God. Take that seriously, to reflect God, His love, His holiness.

Too often we run around as if we have diplomatic immunity, a get out of hell free card, that places us above everyone else. Instead, we ought to be the first servants. I think that’s what being missional boils down to for me (and how my faith makes sense to me).

If there’s a “fear” to my faith that I keep coming back to it’s that I take very seriously Christ’s words when He talks about people doing things in His name and when they finally come to meet Him, He tells them that He never knew them. Cloaking myself in His name and missing the point of my religion … that’s not the kind of Christian I want to be.

What defines how you see yourself in your faith?

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The Non-Committed Generation?

Related to my anti-emo folks angst, I’ve been encountering more and more of what I can only call floaters. Folks who drift from thing to thing, taste-testing opportunities and communities, unable to commit or develop roots in anything. They are transitory figures, here one minute, gone the next and thus are hard to count on or invest in.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or a (postmodern) cultural thing, but it seems like these folks are easily distracted and nearly incapable of following through on things. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t throw too many stones. I juggle a lot of balls which gives the illusion of non-flightiness when in actuality should I get bored with something, I turn to the next thing. I just keep cycling through the same few things rather than keep finding something new each time.

I wonder if it’s a symptom of the same consumer mentality which has led to church members drifting off to the next charismatic preacher or bigger program, because they come together not to form a community but to be entertained or serviced. How we tend to seek out churches based on who has the best show, where you don’t have to do anything and you don’t have to reveal anything. And too often we, as the church, enables such narcissistic behavior.

Folks who do the flitting thing tend to be one of two camps (typically defined by how generous I’m feeling toward them). On the negative side of the ledger, they are not committed (to much of anything) and foster little sense of connection. They fly by seat of their pants, living for the moment in the most visceral of ways. A lot of their tendencies smack of selfishness, because if something (or someone) more interesting pops up, they’re gone with that breeze.

When I’m feeling a lot less frustrated, I see that often they are simply looking for the right fit for them, sampling different things in order to find out where you fit. They form discrete communities and stray from them with great difficulty. They are “truth in the moment” kind of folks, simply non-linear thinkers who come at life from a different perspective.

Yeah, it’s tough to plan things around types who rarely follow through. At the same time, they recognize that non-commital trait in themselves and there is some guilt about it. I like to look at it this way: their heart is in service, in wanting to join in with Christ’s redemptive mission … they just haven’t found that place, that ministry, that calling which fits them.

We all have that selfish part to us and sometimes working through it means just throwing yourself into something and sticking to it even when you don’t want to … for a time. If only to make it through and develop your perseverance muscles. Sometimes it’s just about finding your place, finding what resonates with you, that place where you can best be plugged in. Until you have a relationship with a place or a people, you aren’t committed to it. On the flip side, unless you commit, you can’t develop a relationship. At some point, someone is going to have to take a risk. So continue sampling and when where you land fits, dig in. You may end up surprising yourself.

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Friday Night Date Place – On Jealousy

Jealous thoughts cause trouble
Yapping all the time
You know they’re listening for rumours
So that they can drop a dime
–Jealousy, Club Nouveau*

I’m not a jealous person by nature.

It’s not that I don’t value my relationships or don’t get worked up about them, but I’m just not all that jealous a person. I’d like to believe it’s because I’m pretty secure in my relationships. More likely, it’s because I’ve seen the dark side of jealousy a few times too many. It’s a surprisingly short jump to go from following our significant other to their home and through their routine to buying a weapon, strapping on a diaper, and driving cross country to straighten someone out.

We recently had a discussion about jealousy at one of our gatherings. Though jealousy has been called “the dark side of love”, it has at its root zeal and envy that revolves around a sense of passion. Like with many things, it can be good and it can be twisted into something bad. The good side of jealousy is simply a protective reaction in a perceived threat to a valued relationship. It guards against trespassers into the relationship.

When it goes bad, it’s an unchecked passion, love twisted into an unhealthy obsession and irrational possessiveness. Jealous becomes a weapon to guilt, scare, or trap a partner in a relationship. (It’s funny how our jealousy seems perfectly reasonable, but our Significant Other’s jealousy is some kind of character defect.)

God describes Himself as a jealous God (Exodus 34:14), so obviously this can’t be a bad thing, right? We need to remember that we were created in God’s image and while we are quick to anthropomorphize God, He doesn’t have our qualities perfectly, we have divine qualities imperfectly.

So yes, there are times when we are to be jealous in our relationships. We don’t want to run so far away from anything approaching jealous that we develop a pathological tolerance, an emotional disinterest, or the absence of jealousy where we’d expect to see it. We want to guard those relationships that matter to us … just check yourself before you find yourself knee deep in bushes in order to check your man (because, if it gets to that point, you probably have all the answers to any questions you have anyway).

*Probably the most depressing thing about this blog was the fact that I found the lyrics to this song on a site called “Golden Oldies”. Oy.

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Learning as a Christian Lifestyle

Christianity was mean to be a lifestyle, one that was meant to distinguish us from the world. Some of our elite few have figured out how this is supposed to look: protesting Disney, boycotting laundry soap, not going to movies or watching television. Thus we become known for who we are against rather than who we are for. Interestingly, what you focus on tends to be what you become (think about that all you gay protestors).

One aspect of a “Christian” lifestyle is the posture that we are all learners, even those of us who function as teachers. We’re all God’s students. Now, information download isn’t the point and a lot of our churches have become great for making folks knowledgeable. It leads to dilemmas where you find yourself having conversations solely with other Christians who know as much as you.

Learning is a function of discipleship. Think of discipleship as a kind of spiritual apprenticeship. Where teachers share their learning but with a mindset difference: not one of a person above handing down knowledge to those who don’t know but rather more like people working alongside others, sharing what they’ve learned and challenging others to work out meaning in their lives. If nothing else, it would certainly dispel the misperceptions of “positions” in the faith.

Robert Caldwell at BreakDividingWalls.org has challenged me in a few areas, among them being the idea of the lifestyle of discipleship. He puts it this way “This lifestyle, while governed by some common ‘essential’ characteristics, should be as unique and varied as our respective gifting, affinities and lives. In other words, my lifestyle for cultivating discipleship relationships will most probably be different than yours because my gifts, affinities and life circumstance are different than yours. And your context will most probably be different than that of a person you disciple for the very same reasons. However what should be common is that we have all been intentional about establishing the rhythms and activities of our lives to allow us to easily share life (Koinonia) with other disciples.”

So examine the rhythm of your life. See how you can best open your life to share it with other people or if there are areas of your life that you can change to help do this better. We’re all in this together.

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Final Crisis – A Review

A Mess on a Cosmic Scale

As a comic book fan, I just have this sense that Marvel event comics come across as such blockbusters while DC events have such an “also ran” feeling about them. Partly an issue of concepts, take for example, Marvel’s Secret Invasion: the shape-shifting aliens, the Skrulls have been secretly infiltrating all strata of life, government, and the super hero community as a prelude to invasion. Its core cast revolves around the most popular heroes/teams in the Marvel Universe (The Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc.).

DC’s Final Crisis has something to do with the New Gods … ties back to Crisis on Infinite Earth (1985), Identity Crisis (2004), and Infinite Crisis (2005) somehow … and the first issue features a lot of characters not immediately familiar except to those of us who have been lifelong fans of DC Comics (we’re talking one page of Green Lantern and one page of the Justice League for the casual fan).

Master of the “big idea” Grant Morrison writes it, so at least the idea is in good hands. Yet by the end of the series I was left with one question: what the hell happened? Somewhere in this mega crossover event the main story got lost. Final Crisis should be the main trunk from which the tie-ins branch.

There is the feeling that so much must’ve happened in the tie-ins that Grant Morrison was basically left stringing together arrows pointing to other books (by issue five, the series had really come off the tracks).

“But what happens in a world where good has lost its perpetual struggle against evil?” –Libra

Darkseid and his forces of Apokolips have essentially conquered earth, turning our technology and our heroes into night-missionaries spreading the gospel of anti-life. Having found the Anti-Life Equation, people are subjected to a message of “loneliness, alienation, fear, despair, self worth mockery, condemnation, misunderstanding, work, consume, die, judge others, condemn the different, exploit the weak.” This corrupting influence brings with it a cycle of destruction, warping man’s sense of right and wrong, and spirals into a pattern of fear, violence, and doubt; selfishness, separation, insecurity, and sensuality; causing us to believe lies about ourselves as we become trapped in a cycle of spiritual (and literal) death.

“Sure, life is hard. I fought monsters, gangsters, super-creeps. But I never backed down. I never asked for help. Lord, help me, now. Someone help me. I can’t hold back the storm on my own anymore.” –Dan Turpin

The need to deal with this corruption is one view of how redemption works. Any sense of assurance springs from faith in God as the ultimate protector, that sense that He is the ultimate, faithful judge. It doesn’t mean that He will spare you from every bad thing that could happen to you, but it does mean that we trust in Him ultimately exposing evil for what it is, and avenging us.

[A more cynical me would then make a point similar to this: ****** Died For Final Crisis’s Sins (Spoilers)]

Final Crisis, to be generous, is sometimes too clever by half. If I were in a less charitable mood, I would probably do a rant similar to the one I received from a friend of mine …

***SPOILER-LADEN RANT AHEAD ***

“Batman RIP didn’t end with him dead. Or even significantly impaired. It was a goofy arc designed to sell books that had a weak-ass ending tacked on to a left-field-if-otherwise-dumb premise. Setting up the battle for the cowl, or whatever they’re calling this summer “blockbuster” arc was supposed to be the point of the RIP arc, which sort of petered out. Instead, the wait until the end of Crisis and in a two page spread they shoot up the Bruce-ster with Darkseid’s Omega Beams.

“We all know Bruce Wayne has a plan for “In Case of Omega Sanction” – we’re talking about a person who has a $30mil asteroid, in case Supes goes rogue. A guy who was so concerned someone might try to drive him mad he created a back-up personality of Batman and sealed it in his subconscious in case he ever lost his wits. He was ready for a known and obvious threat. Bats is as Dead as Supes was. Or Black Canary, Green Arrow, or a half-dozen other DC heroes. Death is about as permanent as a haircut in their universe, which makes it more frustrating that they would do such a cheap ploy to sell magazines.”

***END SPOILER-LADEN RANT***

Yeah, that about covers my sentiments.

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I Believe the Words that You are Looking for is “Excuse Me”

Of Courtesy, it is much less
Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,
Yet in my walks it seems to me
That the Grace of God is in Courtesy
–Belloc, “Courtesy”

Public manners have degenerated in recent decades. It is now routine to hear obscenities shouted in public, and by all sorts of people, not just in traffic but even in Starbucks. I am as fond of colorful language as anyone, but I try not to inflict it upon strangers. I suspect many people sense they should have better manners, and need only a nudge.

Okay, so Roger Ebert and I have disagreed on many of our reviews, but apparently we’ve found the spirit of unity as we were both struck by this idea of the death of common courtesy in modern society.

I’m sure I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to lament the increase in crassness in our culture (and in our stories: I’ve little patience for the “extreme” side of horror as most of it is extreme for extreme’s sake, with no sense of artistry or purpose. In fact, I think it is another symptom of the demise of the fundamental respect for one another that I’m nostalgic for). It affects us on fundamental levels, including how the sexes relate to one another. Seriously, has wolf whistles and groping women ever worked?

I know I’m old school, but I’m not asking for much. Simple manners. Standing up in the presence of a woman. Opening doors for a lady. Not out of anything chauvinistic or paternalistic, but just simple gestures that say “I respect who you are. You can certainly do for yourself, but allow me the opportunity to serve you out of respect.” Saying “please” and “thank you”. When did being polite become a mark of being soft? For that matter, when did being hard become a social necessity?

Courtesy is not strictly distinct from the other virtues, but rather a quality to be found in them all. It has something to do with reverence, humility, and chastity. It is shaped by charity, the form of all the virtues, into the quality of mercy. It is the beauty of a brave and generous life.

Part of recognizing one another as Eikons, as image-bearers of God, the least we can do is act in common courtesy. Courtesy begins with a reverence for one’s fellow man, recognizing each individual’s dignity. But in our culture of disrespect, that has becoming increasingly hard to come by.

And yes, I have managed to find spiritual thoughts in this idiot in front of me flipping me the bird.

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I Understand A-Rod

Give me a break, baseball purists: there’s no need for asterisks. No sport has prided itself more on cheating than baseball: from spit balls to corked bats to gambling scandals (from Shoeless Joe to Pete Rose) to, I don’t know, not letting black people in the game.

I know I took Michael Phelps to task for his brand of apology last week, but I’m almost sympathetic to Alex Rodriguez. Almost. Yes, he’s a cheater and has tainted his legacy and any future work he has in the sport. Yes, this one stung a bit more because so many pinned theirs hopes on the idea that HE was one of the clean ones who would allow for the redemption of the sport. And I’m on board with all of that. I’m up for stamping a big ole asterisk across the entire hall of fame at this point.

But part of me gets where he was coming from.

I know there’s part of me that when I’m about to release a new novella or story, I don’t want to let my audience of readers down. I want to put out the best product I can. I don’t want to disappoint even a single paying customer with less than my best. Ditto my publisher: when I get an advance, no matter how large or small, I feel the subtle pressure to earn out. Yes, I still cash the check if I don’t, but I still want to justify people’s confidence in me. I know what it’s like to look around at my peers and be surrounded by a lot of people who are naturally head and shoulders better than you. Folks who you know you had better work as hard or harder than if you want to keep up. As entertainers and artists, we all face that pressure to succeed, that pressure to be seen as worthy, that pressure to live up to your potential.

It seems like it doesn’t matter how large your salary is or how good your reviews are, many of us wrestle with lots of insecurity: about job, about ability, about what others are doing, how others perceive you. Talk about believing the lie: even when you’re widely regarded as the best, you might not see yourself as good enough, pretty enough (memo to plasticized Hollywood), smart enough, talented enough.

And there is an underlying reality to that fear. This is a “what have you done for me lately” culture, and even as a writer, you’re only as good as your latest story. You’re always one book not selling well enough from your career being flushed away.

We live in a culture of deniability and instant gratification. Where peer pressure and worrying about what other folks are doing gets into your head. Short-sighted though it may be, our desperation and competitive natures can combine into a mix of bad decision making. We could yield to the temptations, the short cuts, of plagiarism or self-publishing, rather than do things the right way, the harder way. Where we have to read more. Practice more. Experiment more. Push yourself more. Where we learn and grow from the failures that it takes to climb up the ranks. Where we learn what works, what doesn’t, what people are looking for as we’re being shaped into the artists and performers we were meant to be.

I understand. It was still a poor decision, but I understand the root of it. We can all rebound from our mistakes (say like an early PublishAmerica mistep). So I’ll cut Alex Rodriguez the tiniest bit of slack and take his remorseful, apologetic, semi-confession for what it was and allow for the possibility of redemption.