J. Grace Pennington

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Some of you may remember last year’s Read-to-Win event on the Homeschooled Authors website. It was a blast, with featured books, prizes, and interviews to help you get to know your favorite homeschooled authors better. Well, this year we’re gearing up for the event again, with a few tweaks! I’m excited to be featuring Implant, my young adult dystopia novel, this summer. It will be on sale for just 99 cents for the whole summer, and if you review it, you’ll be entered to read cool stuff. I’m really excited to get to share it with a bunch of summer readers. So stay tuned for more news about great books to read and review this summer!

Implant read-to-win

How Else are You Supposed to Hold Up Your Books?

One of my favorite movies ever is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty–the new one, with Ben Stiller. (I have the ticket stub in my wallet still to remind me to get out there and stop dreaming and start living, but that’s neither here nor there.) Aside from being incredibly inspiring, it’s just brilliantly executed. The storytelling is excellent. But of all the best aspects, from a writing point of view, my favorite is the way they bookended the film.

Bookends are those things you use to hold your books up so they don’t tumble down. But if you only have one bookend, you’re only covered on one end of your series. Either the beginning is sturdy while the end fizzles into a haphazard pile, or the end is well-supported while the beginning topples. For bookends to really be any good, you need them on both ends.

What do bookends have to do with storytelling in general, or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in particular?

{spoilers ahead}

The very first frame of the film shows Walter sitting at his desk, in his small, bland, angular room, too nervous to reach out and press the button on his computer to send a “wink” to his co-worker on eHarmony. The last frame of the film shows him outdoors, bestubbled, reaching out to confidently grasp her hand in his.

The story is about what happens in between to change him from the person at the beginning, to the person at the end. The final moment perfectly mirrors the first moment, creating a snapshot of the story, supporting everything that came between.

Like bookends.

As I’ve been working on editing Firmament: Reversal Zone, I’ve been trying to tighten it, make it flow better, bring it all together into a more coherent flow. My plots can tend to ramble, and the original beginning of this book was pretty rambly and uninteresting. How to make a better beginning? I thought of Walter Mitty, and I knew the answer. Bookends. Where is Andi at the end, and how can I show her in a different place at the beginning, necessitating the middle to bring her to a better place?

I can’t tell you that yet. Spoilers. But finally, instead of being intimidated by having to come up with a whole new beginning, rather than worrying about making it worse or being inadequate, I opened up my shiny new laptop, opened up a brand new document, and asked Andi a question.

Like the ticket stub in my wallet reminds me–stop dreaming. Start writing.

Yes, But Why?

Show, don’t tell.

It’s been hammered into our brains through every English class, creative writing course, and book for aspiring novelists. Always they tell us “show, don’t tell” until we can’t unhear or forget the words. Until they become mere sounds and we discount them due to familiarity. Like when someone says “eat healthy” or “Jesus loves you.” Sometimes we hear things so much they no longer really register.

Show, don’t tell, we hear. And sometimes we just have to stop and say, “Yes… but why?”

I’ve been delving into this as I work on edits for the fourth book in my series, Firmament: Reversal Zone. So many times I catch myself merely saying, “He looked angry” instead of describing the tilt of his eyebrows, the veins in his neck, or the slight clench of his fists. Or I realize that instead of explaining that there was a slight shift in the vibrations under Andi’s feet as she stands on the deck and watches the stars come into focus as pinpoints of light rather than long, indistinguishable spears, I say that “the ship stopped.”

But why is the more detailed approach better? Of course, there are situations where telling is acceptable. For instance, the reader is probably fine hearing that Andi ran down the hall, they probably don’t need to know what the floor felt like, what doors she passed, and how many meters she ran. At least, not usually. Because usually, it doesn’t make any difference to the story. But when it comes to emotions and to placing the reader in the scene, in the world, with the characters–I have to keep reminding myself not to skimp on the sensory input descriptions.

Again, though… why? Situational judgment calls aside, showing is better than telling because telling (he was angry) produces, at best, a very generic image in the reader’s mind. Whereas showing (his fists slowly clenched, the motion mimicking the downward tilt of his eyebrows and the gradual bulge of the veins in his neck) gives the reader a clear mental image. You’ve given them the movie in their mind, all they have to do is push play.

That’s what it comes down to. Giving the reader exactly what you want them to see. Don’t leave them hanging, don’t say “there was a look of sadness on her face.” A look of sadness is not something we can visualize… a single tear rolling down a flushed cheek is. A vacancy behind her eyes is. A head tilted down as she refuses to make eye contact is. What are you trying to communicate? Show us. Don’t tell us.

That’s why.

Remind Me Later

I type happily away on my computer, writing my current novel, engrossed in a scene of drama, betrayal, fear, doubt, and growing tension — all ready to swallow my character up in a maw of darkness, or give way in a moment of light. The climax approaches — the stakes are beyond the stratosphere — he’s giving in — he’s — he’s —

Then suddenly the vision is lost, and my eyes are filled with a large gray box with blue borders reading, “Your computer may be in danger! An update is ready for McDonald anti-virus protection. Would you like to receive updates now?”

Underneath are three options:

Receive Updates!

Remind Me Later

Never Remind Me

I don’t want to receive updates! For one thing, it will take seven hours and twenty-three minutes for the thing to download, and then it will have to restart my computer, and then I will constantly be receiving notifications about DANGEROUS sites and programs that I already trust completely. For another thing, my internet is turned off right now, so I couldn’t receive them even if I wanted to.

I really would rather not be reminded later either. I don’t want the updates, and the box always manages to pop up at the most inopportune times. Why do they think it’s a good idea to remind me later anyway? “Oh, right! Updates! Thank goodness you reminded me, I had forgotten all about that!”

In a bold moment, I allow my cursor to hover over the Never Remind Me button. This cycle has been going on for months! Every week, the box pops up at me! It’s time to end my misery with one courageous click! Time to step out in the faith that I will NEVER want to receive updates, and breathe the free, sweet air unfettered by weekly reminders that I neither want nor need — I must end my bondage!

But in the moment of decision, I shrink yet again, hating myself for my cowardice. It’s just this: that word “never.” If it said “Don’t remind me for a really long time” or “Give me a break from reminders for about three months” I would do it in a heartbeat. But “never”? Um…. that’s an awfully long time. What if I want updates someday? How will I ever remember that my computer might be in DANGER without being reminded? Will the fatal click doom me to a future of a computer so laced with viruses that I cry in agony, “Why didn’t I receive updates when I had the chance? Curse the day in which I determined to never be reminded!”

This vision, be it prophetic or pathetic, stops me every time. Never… that’s just not wise. After all you never can tell when you might decide you do need those updates.

Cowed into submission once again, I meekly click the safest option, just as I have done week after week after week after week.

Remind Me Later.

Image by xkcd comics. This post was published on The Pennington Point several years ago, but I thought I’d recycle it here.

It’s Not Easy

About half the time I’m driving–to work, to church, traveling, or just running errands–I like to listen to podcasts, lectures, sermons, audiobooks, etc. I like to feel I’m being productive, to not just drive but also to try to improve my mind. The other half of the time, I need to unwind and I like to play music. Usually Pandora over my bluetooth speaker. Which usually means one of three channels–Tenth Avenue North, my default Christian channel; Wicked, my default Broadway channel; or Owl City, my default alternative/pop channel.

I’ve listened to these three so much over the years that they are pretty much tailored to all the songs I like. One particular song that comes up frequently on the latter station is a favorite of mine (not an especially meaningful category, since I have hundreds of favorite songs, but anyway). It’s called “Superman” and is by a band called Five for Fighting.

I’m not a Superman fan. Superheroes isn’t my favorite genre in the first place, but where I do like a superhero, it’s almost guaranteed to be Marvel, not DC. I like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve yet to come across any other DC comics heroes that I really can enjoy watching. Least of all Superman.

In my mind, Superman is the essence of everything wrong with superheroes in general and DC in particular. Too unrelatable. Too much power. Too little weakness. Sure they give him his token Kryptonite, but really, it’s not like there’s Kryptonite at every corner Mini-Mart. Superman is basically a god. And gods don’t make very compelling protagonists.

Or can they?

I’m more than a bird,
I’m more than a plane,
I’m more than some pretty face beside a train
and it’s not easy
to be me.

Maybe it’s the very lack of humanity that can make these characters human. It’s like an inverted fish out of water story–instead of a fish on the land with the beasts, it’s a wolf tossed into the water among all the fish. He may know he’s better, he may be able to walk and may have superior mental motor function, but he’ll always feels like he’s drowning.

It was always the appeal of the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He could have been content with his superior status, his strength, intelligence, and relative immortality. He could have reveled in being impervious to disease and emotion and all the drama and weakness that humanity faces. Instead, he pursued humanity. He craved all that we take for granted, because in his perfection–he was lonely.

It reminds me also of another story of a god among men, of the one true image of perfection, who came so that He might better relate with us, to allow us to follow in His steps, but who would never walk with anyone who could truly relate with Him.

And I know it wasn’t easy to be Him.

Does this make me a Superman fan? I’ll admit, I still just can’t bring myself to care much for the character. But it does remind me that whenever I myself create superior characters, to remember that sometimes their humanity is found in the very thing that separates them from it.

And it also makes me feel a new empathy and compassion for those far above me in status of whom I might otherwise be envious.

Maybe in our own ways, it’s not easy to be any of us.