Rote (n): routine; a fixed, habitual, or mechanical course of procedure.
It’s been years since I’ve thought of what letters I’m hitting. For those of you who can speed type, you get this. You think of the word. It pops up on the screen. You need to delete a word? Poof. It disappears. There was a time you thought, “Alright, ctrl+delete, and bingo!” There was a time you had to cheat. “Shoot. Is my finger on y or u?”
How many of you turn on your computers and instinctively pull up the tabs in your browser, your emails, and any other programs you start up immediately? Within five seconds I have WordPress, Google mail, and Facebook up and running. Might not even be that long.
I’m sure there are those of you who cook like this. You bring out the food, you chop it up, throw it in, and you’re done. Very little thought. That lasagna has been cooked a hundred times. It is a routine.
Lately I’ve been playing a game called Paragon. It’s a moba. Basically two teams of five clash in epic battle. You purchase skills as you level, and you develop a routine on how you purchase those skills. When I was playing today, after I purchased my first ability, I thought, “Shoot, was that the right one?” Even though I didn’t remember purchasing the skill, I bought my starter skill.
This list goes on. Driving. Swimming. Mechanical work. Those who are masters do the same thing over and over in often times boring repetition. Do you know how many horrible things I said about my keyboard class? But I kept at it. Because mom said so.
Combat is rote memorization. Your body is trained to respond through repetitive exercises. In the same way I think “word” and it appears on the screen, they think “parry,” and their body instinctively blocks the blade. They think “shoot,” and they immediately aim at center mass, compensate for recoil, find cover.
But why do our heroes master these skills in months, sometimes not even?
For your characters to become good at something, they have to be prodigies (I do understand these exist and they learn select skills very quickly), or they have to train for a long time intensely.
This doesn’t just go for combat. Pick up the book Blink. It’s basically all about training your instinct through mastering a subject. By making it rote. Someone bought a counterfeit piece of art. A bunch of experts looked at it and instantly said the buyer, a museum, was making a mistake. They couldn’t say why. Years of training their brain, years of seeing real and counterfeit art, and they knew that art was fake. It’s rote. They made looking at art rote memorization.
Basically I’m just pleading with you to make your characters learn things in a realistic manner. I know there are books which do a great job. But others cheat, and it makes the book feel fake. As for prodigies, just make sure it’s important. Otherwise you’re dangerously close to a Mary Sue character.
I have been playing The Division a lot lately. The game is based on you being a sleeper agent who is to bring order to NYC after a designer virus wipes out about 90% of the population.
NYC is broken up into districts, and each district has a coordinator. This coordinator gives missions. For the most part, you hang out with them for about five minutes of dialogue throughout a couple hours of clearing their district of evil. Then you move on.
In any line of fiction, these people would be forgotten quickly as nearly anonymous NPCs. The characters would all blend together, basically be the same person, and we would all move on and forget them.
However, Ubisoft and the dozen developers and publisher who were involved in this game made a very smart move. They played off stereotypes to create slightly over the top personas that I still remember.
The first coordinator was a soccer mom. “I think this is going to be dangerous, hun, but I’m sure you can handle it.” Then just amplify the worrying about you but believing you’ll do your best by 100%. You could hear the “I owned a minivan and went to soccer games for my kids” in her tone.
Then there was an action movie actor. “Dude, when this thing blows over, you’ll have to talk to my agent. I mean, if he’s still alive. He probably isn’t. So I guess we’ll have to make our own movie without help. But you would be so awesome to act beside.” He was such a tool.
Let’s not forget the zen master. “There is imbalance and a disconnect. Actually literally a disconnect. Someone took down one of our communication relays. Go spread some karma.”
Each coordinator was an over the top stereotype, and that made the character stick. It made it so I could immediately create a concept in my head of who that person was, and though there may have been some deviation at times, overall I knew what I was getting. And it was hilarious.
In your own writing, how many bartenders (or ultimately the role of information broker) do you have? Whether they’re at a space station, in a wooden tavern, or in a downtown bar, how often are those bartenders interchangeable? I try to distinguish them, but it’s difficult. By making them over the top, Ubisoft succeeded in making each of these otherwise anonymous characters pop.
Let’s look at Song of Ice and Fire. Catelyn Stark goes into a tavern where there’s a woman that she remembers as a child. The woman ate a fruit that made her teeth red. Always red. She was an obnoxiously nosy woman. I remember her. She lasted a full ten pages. She was a stereotype of the nosy neighbor.
Stereotypes often exist because of some truth. The soccer mom exists. I get they each have nuances, not all soccer moms are the same, but in five minutes of dialogue you don’t have time for nuances. In ten pages you don’t have time for nuances.
Now don’t take this as me saying everyone fits in those stereotypes. I’m simply stating that if you have a character who will not show up often and will be easy to forget, find a mold, cast him, change a couple things, and plop that person onto a page.
What I am saying is we understand stereotypes. We can create a full image with very little information. Use it. It’s an excellent way to convey a lot of information about a character in a very short period of time.
I was watching an interview with R.A. Salvatore. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of his writing. However, he is successful, he sounds like a great guy, and at the very least he’s wise. I don’t like horror, but I still am glued to anything Stephen King says. You don’t need the author that has you stuck to the pages to find an author who can give sound advice.
Salvatore was asked once what the best college degree would be for a writer. The response left me puzzled.
Why engineering? Maybe if you wanted to write about architecture? Either way, there was a lot of confusion.
You can’t write when hungry.
In this age of self-publishing, if that’s the path you will be taking, it also costs money to make money. You are your sole investor. It’s $200 for an editor on a novel, often times more, rarely less. Even more rarely if you want quality.
An artist is at least $300 for the cover art. Sure you can do the layout. Of course you can go with stock photos that look immensely generic and someone else may have used. However, don’t you want something original? Something tailored specifically to your book? It just looks better.
Then there are book fairs, conventions, writer friend hangouts, and buying enough books up front so you can sell them at different events. This isn’t cheap. Don’t even get me started on the investment in marketing.
Guess what you can’t do if you’re a starving artist? Any of this. You’ll perpetuate the starving part and art will be a miserable endeavor for you. I have friends in this boat. They can’t sell out. Getting a job outside writing will nullify their dreams (marketing, guys, you are all marketers of some sort).
I sell restaurant equipment. This is what I am known for. I sell restaurant equipment and go on mission trips. I work about 50 hours a week. Fortunately in outside sales there’s a little fudge room. I am struck by my muse and 4:30 and nothing is happening? As long as I get caught up on emails before 8 am the next morning, I’m good. I’ve gone on a writing rampage to answer emails at 1 am.
However, this job is my literary life blood. With it I was able to go to a convention in Utah where I learned, networked, and met a friend I’d known online for around three years. I was able to buy original cover art which will eventually become metal bookmarks. And marketing. I so hate marketing.
All of this was because during the day I sell restaurant equipment. I work a normal job. One writer I met in Utah was a lawyer. His hours were significantly less forgiving than my own and he had a family.
The world works on money, and money from a primary source makes it easy to fund the writing (or drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.).
The short of it? The whole Bohemian thing is really cute. Now get a job.
This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.
Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.
On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.
Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?
“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”
The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.
What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?
As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”
“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”
“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”
At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.
“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”
“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.
Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”
One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”
“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”
“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”
Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”
“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.
Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.
They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.
Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!
“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.
“If you can, then come down from that cross!”
“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.
Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?
From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”
Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”
Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!
“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t
he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”
Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.
The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.
After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.
“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”
“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”
“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”
The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.
Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.
Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.
“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”
“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8
The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.
Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.
A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.
Joha wanted it.
He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.
Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”
Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—
“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.
“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”
Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?
His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”
Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.
His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.
They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.
“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”
Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—
“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.
“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”
“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”
“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”
Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?
One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”
The large trader confirmed it.
Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.
Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.
“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”
Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”
“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”
Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.
The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”
Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.
He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.
In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.
He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.
Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.
Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.
But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.
Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.
At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.
And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.
But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?
Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.
Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.
Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?
Forgiveness of sin…
Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.
Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary was next weekend. There were people coming in to celebrate 60 years of love. A menu was created, the food was purchased and stored in the freezer. My aunt was asking for advice on a van, since she liked their van and wanted to know the pros and cons. There was wiring being done on their house by Grandpa. There were plans to go out and eat with people for the next two weeks. That’s simply how they rolled. Last Wednesday, they were preparing to go to Ash Wednesday service. Grandpa had to drive as Grandma’s been deteriorating from Parkinson’s. It’s a horrible disease, and those who have seen it know how debilitating it can be. Her mind is still good, but her mobility is hampered more and more.
Grandpa went upstairs to get changed. It would be quick, they would make it to church on time, and he had a nice outfit picked. After twenty minutes upstairs, Grandma called for him and received no response. She, very likely, struggled up the stairs. Grandpa was unresponsive. She proceeded to struggle back down the stairs, as her cell phone was downstairs, where she called my aunt.
We received text messages and phone calls halfway through our own Ash Wednesday service. By the time we were out and I saw the text that Grandpa had collapsed, then called my aunt, she stunned us with the news Grandpa was dead. She said passed, but as a writer words have a certain levity to them. Passed doesn’t do justice what happens at the end of life. Dead does.
I was to go to Utah the next morning for a writer’s convention. The plan was after church to do laundry, hang out with mom and dad, and be to bed by nine, since I had to be up around four. I nearly did not go. I definitely did not bring the clothes I was thinking I would. Due to the grace of Mom, I ended up with clean clothes at all.
Grandpa wasn’t supposed to die. His shoulder gave him problems, he was slowing down, but he still was filled with vigor at 83. There were countless plans surrounding him and his life, and no one expected the phone call. There were no health issues.
Suddenly my brothers were flying or driving in with their families. One of them expected to drive in next week for the celebration of marriage. Neither of them expected to come back home for the mourning of a death.
Life ends abruptly. Not always. My other Grandpa suffered for years from numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to the point he was basically incoherent for the final stretch. There were no plans made into the future, and every day we showed up to the nursing home and he was still breathing was a bonus. But how many people in our novels die that death?
When I was sitting in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room with Grandma going through all the reasons he couldn’t be dead, when plans were made and cancelled because of death, when I heard of the project which were happening and would not be neglected, I realized something about death, something I never realized because I’ve never before been in a house with a dead body that so immensely affected me.
Death leaves threads which are unfinished.
How often do characters going into battle have no tomorrow? A Victorian novel where two characters duel in the morning, but they have no plans for lunch later on. A teen about to be on the receiving end of a slasher flick doesn’t do their homework, unless we want them to be doing their homework when the horror starts. Even those who walk onto the battlefield. Our soldiers have families at home. They plan on seeing those families. Leave is planned out in order to visit them, sometimes during important events. Maybe it’s as simple as a planned poker game that evening, even though they are aware they are going into an encounter shortly.
People don’t plan to die. Make plans as if they will survive.
Bran, in A Game of Thrones, has an entire chapter on how he has planned out his life. Then he is pushed out a window and falls to become a cripple. His plans are interrupted.
Ned plans on exposing the incest of Jaime and Cersei, until they catch him. Then he simply plans on making it home to his family, hiding in Winterfell, and taking care of his kids. Both of these plans are decapitated when Ned loses his head in a rash decision by Joffrey. Not only that, but it was for naught. By Clash of Kings everyone knows of the incest anyway.
In H.P. Lovecraft, often his characters do not plan out anything beyond the terror inducing events of the present. The men go into a cave with no thought of tomorrow, a guaranty to their own mortality. While I still love his writing, why wouldn’t the man researching a hidden horror in a crypt make plans to return to the surface, writing fanciful notes from the psych-ward he would so justly deserve?
When a healthy character is about to die, especially in an epic where tomorrow matters, have them make plans. It makes it more real. It makes us understand. We recall that death strikes at any time, and the reaper does not care what we wanted to do tomorrow. It takes us all the same.
The rest of the week will consist of information from the writer’s conference, which was a blast. Today, however, having been the funeral, this is what slapped me in the face.
In memory of Grandpa, who gave countless virtues and blessings to his daughters, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. Who taught us faith, an even temper, and a determined approach to this world. You were taken by a thief in the night, but you’ve left behind so many great reminders as to the amazing man you were. I miss and love you, Grandpa. Until we meet again.
I get published next week. Or the week after. It’s surreal. It becomes more surreal when you’re told three months after final proof approval you’ll be in print. Then you send in final proof approval and they say you’ll be in print within 5-7 business days. I went to a vanity press, that’s why the dates are a little weird. I also think they’re a little slow and trying to push as much through the pipeline as possible. Being in the restaurant equipment industry, I get this sentiment.
I want to write about my experience with publishing. Despite the dates, with the whirlwind that goes into getting published, it has been surreal. I have been published already two times, but they were short stories and it just feels empty. I don’t know if that’s me or if others get that, but when I see my short story out, I’m a little like Thor.
Publishing a novel feels different. I hope and think. It may also be that I want to build a large literary empire around it. I’m ambitious. I mean, what’s the point otherwise?
Anyway, you don’t care about that. What you care about is what happens after you finish the manuscript. Not after you finish the first draft, the second or third draft, but the draft where you had a friend look at it, your mom loves it, you love it, but it’s time to thrust it into the world.
By the way, did I say this is very subjective and everyone has their own way? I’ve spoken to a lot of published authors and even publishers on how they do this, and everyone has their way. The only thing that matters for success is that you have a way, you stick to it, and you’re hardheaded. Thick-skinned. Heavy-sacked. However you want to say it. Seriously. I just know I was a little side swiped by what all goes into this.
A common trend today in writing is once you’re feeling good about the book, find beta readers. These are often friends, though usually friends with some reading and editing insight. Also preferably friends who are bought off with a signed copy in the future and maybe a hug and a lunch. Or just mutual beta reading. While I still suggest hiring an editor, this is sort of a test group.
Give the manuscript out to a half dozen or so souls you trust for their opinion. Through writing groups I’ve made friends that I trust in different areas, whether it is grammar, plot, etc. They are still friends, but writing groups are also a great way to do strategic networking.
The beta readers can give a lot of information as far as what worked, what didn’t, and where you’ve been so distracted that even though you “edited” the part five times, you missed a period. I’ve had a few correct bad grammar habits I didn’t realize I had. Apparently towards is British and toward is American. Who knew?
After this, give it a run through for the beta readers.
While beta readers were digesting the manuscript, I was also working on some information touches! I give my beta readers a month, and I don’t want to slack off.
Think of a synopsis. I know, 250 words is difficult, but tell your story in 250 words. Keep doing it until it looks succinct and awesome.
Now that that’s over, tell it in 25. I know. Some of you had your eyes bulge. Your gut clenched. You may have even vomited. It’s okay. I’m here to hold your hair back.
The 25 word synopsis is important. This is the keynote, and it’s a brief description so people can get an immediate idea of what they’re about to read. It is not so much about your story, but about what it is like.
For G’desh (though this isn’t the exact one, as it’s on another computer):
An action epic inspired by Arabian Nights, in which two armies declare a holy war. Follow an assassin, prophet, and warrior in this mystical world.
Boom. 25. I rewrote those probably a dozen times. I think this may actually be my best yet, but it’s too late for that nonsense. The more you practice the 25 word keynote/synopsis, the better you get at it. From just those 25 words, a reader knows it’s going to be Arabian, magicky, there will be war and religion, and there are three view points, or at least three central characters. Maybe they’ll read the book based on that alone. Maybe they will at least read the 250 word synopsis which is far more detailed in breaking down the conflicts and characters. At the very least they have a brief idea of the story. This can also be equated to an elevator pitch.
Don’t forget a picture and author biography. Make the biography awesome. There are plenty out there to look at to get an idea. I throw a little mission statement in there about wanting readers to look to the classics, as well as get excited to go on their own adventures. This will help people understand and relate to you. Yes, it’s on a shallow level, but I’m going to tell you now half of it is perception. So figure out the perception you want, and conjure it up in 50 to 100 words.
I also used this time to come up with keywords for Amazon. It helps people search you more easily. I’d suggest doing research on good keywords. Despite the simplicity I probably went a week on and off to figure out exactly what I wanted.
In two days I will go over getting ready for proofs and release date.
As I said, there are a dozen ways to do this, especially self publishing. Everyone’s journey is different, and I’m by no means a master, but I was definitely overwhelmed when I signed the contract for the vanity press. What do you do to get ready for publishing? Leave comments to help educate.
If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.
Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.
In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.
So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.
What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.
Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.
So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:
by Mark R. Harris
A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
The air was gone,
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.
I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.
The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.
Thick roots seemed to ooze,
before my masterful strokes.
But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
and the strokes came slower,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.
This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.
Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”
And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.
Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.
But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?
Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.
If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.
Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.
So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.
What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?
Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.