I picked up a great little book a couple years back at a writer’s conference called “The Art Of War For Writers” by James Scott Bell. It’s filled with short readings that have been a spur in my side as a person who wants to write. I wouldn’t mind tracking through his book with you wannabe artists out there.

His first point is this (and it’s kind of crass): “Write this down: It’s about money. The publishing business is a business.”

His lesson is that if you intend to do more than just hobby-write, then you can’t be blind to this reality. All the great writing we can produce is fine, but if it can’t gain a readership, then you’re really just writing for you and God. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that but…if a writer writes in the forest and nobody reads it, has that writer produced a word?

How is this thought helpful? For me, it encourages me to continue sharpening my saw. To improve my skills. And to keep writing. Too many Christian artists, recognizing that God has gifted them, stop right there, assuming that God will do the rest of the heavy-lifting. Their talent will just naturally be recognized because ‘God gave it to me.’

But this isn’t how life works. He gave us Eden, but expected us to cultivate it. He gave you a body, which you must condition. To some he gives marriage, which then must be nurtured. And if he puts the spark of the artist in you, then your journey has only just begun. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, and get down to work.

Your thoughts?

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” ~ William Strunk, in The Elements Of Style
Tip #6 in James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers is: A wise and well-respected writer once said, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ Listen to him.

It’s a famous quote from William Goldman, a prolific novelist and screenwriter (who wrote The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Bell’s translation of Goldman is this: What makes a successful book or career is something of a mystery. Every now and then some new writer hits it big and everybody tries to figure out why.

What’s my take-away from this fact? Keep writing. And stay true to your voice and your passion. Don’t write to catch the awesome wave hitting culture right now, ‘cuz by the time you’re done writing, the wave will be long past.

Keep working on the page in front of you, says Bell. Make it the best you can be.

Tip #9 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: The outsized ego is not a weapon of value.

 Curious how that’s the tip I come to the day after the national election of Donald Trump. But I digress.

Bell says of this tip: You write because you believe you have something worth a reader’s time. This is not necessarily an act of pure, unadulterated ego. It is an act of confidence based upon mutual exchange. You are offering something of value to a consumer.

 I find it a fascinating way to describe the act of writing (and certainly applies to any art we place out in the ether for the public to interact with). Because of this exchange, artists are subject to praise and/or criticism, which we must learn to process. “The ego can easily become inflated or deflated,” Bell adds. “In either case, be ready to put the ego where it belongs – out of the way.”

 This is a tough one. I know I struggle with it. Being a follower of Christ certainly gives me some tools for handling my ego properly. When disappointed, I can say, “The Lord is my agent, I shall not want.” When my head starts to fill up with hot air, I can say, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” When criticized, I can humbly say, “God, show me what part of this is valuable for me, and what part I should just give over to you.”

Tip #12 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: Develop a writing improvement program.

 Unless you think your writing needs no improvement (in which case, STOP WRITING NOW), this is critical for us. We need to strive to keep raising the bar of our craft. Bell gives three suggestions for this:

  1. Exemplars. Find writers whom you love, then find examples of their writing that you love, then actually study, even write out, these passages in their entirety. The goal here, Bell says, is to “incorporate rhythms and possibilities into your own writing.”

A few years back I discovered the writing of David Foster Wallace, a brilliant writer who tragically took his own life. But I fell in love with his imagery and his use of language.

“I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue,” he writes in an essay, called “Shipping Out”, about taking a cruise. “I have jumped a dozen times at the shattering, flatulence-of-the gods-like sound of a cruise ship’s horn.”

Re-read that paragraph, slowly, and savor Wallace’s words.

Wallace ultimately found the experience of cruising to be empty, even soul-crushing. But rather than use those words, like a good artist he found metaphors and symbols to convey what he felt.

“How long has it been since you did Absolutely Nothing? I know exactly how long it’s been for me. I know how long it’s been since I had every need met choicelessly from someplace outside me, without my having to ask. And that time I was floating, too, and the fluid was warm and salty, and if I was in any way conscious, I’m sure I was dreadless, and was having a really good time, and would have sent postcards to everyone wishing they were here.”

  1. Outside Comments. Learn to consider, even treasure feedback given you by your critique group of reader network. One of the best parts for me of participating in a recent script contest were the comments I received of a writing mentor assigned to me. “Why do you use so many –ing words?” “This ending isn’t working for me.” “You need to shorten this.” Yes, it’s intimidating to put your writing “out there”, but isn’t that the point of writing?
  1. Self-Study. Bell says to pick an area of weakness in your writing – for example, ‘Creating Sympathetic Characters’ – and deliberately trying to improve that area. Buy books that address that need. Google articles. Re-read novels with characters you loved, and ask yourself why you love these characters.

The Internet provides extraordinary resources today that used to be available only in the classroom. I just paid $90 to purchase an online screenwriting class taught by Aaron Sorkin, one of the best in the business. Are you kidding me?! It was a no-brainer. Five hours with Mr. Westwing himself?!

I’ve rephrased James Scott Bell’s 15th tip in the “Art of War for Writers”: Don’t worry about the competition – become the best you.

 Bell shares the experience we’ve all had as artists – where we read, see or hear something that is so absolutely brilliant that we say to ourselves, “I’ll never do anything that amazing. I won’t even come close, so why even try?”

Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “Comparison is the death of joy.” But rather than despair in that moment, Bell encourages us to call to mind a new perspective. When you say to yourself, “I could never do that,” think to yourself, “That’s right. Nor could any other artist do what that artist has done. Because the brilliant thing they’ve created comes from their own mind, and life and heart and experience. No one else could duplicate it.”

Which means…drum roll, please…I also have something unique to create which no one else can duplicate. I have a unique voice, and a unique story, and a unique style. So rather than try to become the next best This Person of That Person, why not become the best You.

Be inspired by them, certainly. Learn tips and techniques from then, better yet. But drop the comparison game. Bell ends by quoting John Wooden: “Don’t try to be better than they are. You have no control over that. Instead try, and try very hard, to be the best you can be. That you have control over.”

Entrepreneur.com posted a helpful article by Steve Lazuka the other day: 4 Keys To Writing Content That Readers Will Love.

Steve’s points are: 1) Be irresistible. 2) Write mobile-friendly copy. 3) How-to posts add value. 4) Use power words.

While his middle two suggestions are practical (and I am begrudgingly coming round to agreeing with his point), his bookend suggestions are artistic, and are what drew me to the article. Writing is about so much more than putting words on paper. It’s about putting the right words on paper.

Mark Twain said, The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Reading is about so much more than finding information. There is an experience of reading that comes when you spend time with an author who understands the art behind good writing. Robert Frost continually stressed the sound of a word to the ear, and he would labor long hours to find just the right word or turn of phrase.

His famous poem, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” transforms from a good poem to a great poem, simply by the repetition of the last line: And miles to go before I sleep.

I re-read books like “The Three Musketeers” or “Mere Christianity” or Augustine’s “Confessions”, or Thoreau’s “Walden” not because I’ve forgotten the story or the lesson, but because I want to hear the author’s voice once again.

Much of what we write is rushed, and oftentimes necessarily so. But look what happens when we rush. It causes me to default to a weaker word, or lapse into the passive voice, or slap on an –ing to a verb, like a trowel of sheet-rock paste, so I can just stick in onto the sentence and be done with it.

Today’s world demands a different sort of writer than even a generation ago. We’re fighting to catch the eye of a busy, distracted reader thumbing through his Flipboard. But we can still work to be irresistible.  Thanks for the reminder, Steve.

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Tip #19 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “The writer must rely on self-motivation.”

The writing life (and I suppose it’s true for any other artistic calling) is unlike any other vocation when it comes to getting down to work. Most jobs are regulated by external motivation. A time clock to punch. A regimented schedule. Appointments to keep. Deadlines to meet. Rush hour traffic to navigate. The writer gets out of bed, and…walks down the hallway to his or her office. Sure there’s a deadline, but it’s off on the horizon somewhere. (The catch is…same with his or her payday. It’s out there somewhere.)

And so the motivation to work, and schedule, and produce must be something that is cultivated from within. So how does the artist cultivate it?

There’s negative motivation, says Bell. Nothing like an looming mortgage payment to put the fear of God in you. But we don’t want to always operate with an ax swinging over us.

Bell keeps his eyes on the prize by having the photos of a few prolific authors hanging from his office walls, each one at work. Stephen King, dog at his side, feet on his desk. “This is my idea of good working conditions,” Bell writes. He also has a picture of John D. MacDonald, at his typewriter, pipe in his mouth.

For Bell, these photos urge him forward to work harder, and smarter, as a writer.

In my office hang the four paintings from Thomas Cole’s famous The Voyage of Life series. It reminds me to do as the Bible says, and “measure my days”. We don’t have all the time in the world to chase our dreams. That encourages me to keep the pedal to the metal.

How about you? What things prod you to keep at it, and use your time well?

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip #21 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Put your heart into everything you write.”

 How do you know if you’re putting your heart into your writing? It’s like this, Bell says:

Heart = Passion + Purpose


Passion means heat, and strength of feeling,

Purpose means you know what you want the reader to feel,


Heart means directing passion so that it serves your purpose.

He then gives two examples of authors who did just this: Jack Kerouac, whose book On The Road became a clarion call to the beatnik generation. And Ayn Rand, whose book Atlas Shrugged still shakes and shapes the political landscape to this day. Both books ironically were published in 1957, and both continue to fly off shelves sixty years later.


Because they wrote their books with heart. They believed in what they were writing, and they cared about their craft, Bell concludes.

It’s hard to imagine people would take the time to go about the business of writing if they didn’t believe in what they were doing, but just survey your Flipboard, and look at most of what’s thrown up on the blogosphere and you’ll see that it happens all the time.

Additionally, it’s my thought that blog-writing has become so formulaic that it has almost a gravitational pull that sucks away creativity and passion.  (Why, I think I’ll go out now and write a blog: “5 Steps For Recovering Your Passion To Write”.)

Bell has a simpler suggestion. Make out a list of things your passionate about. Then make out a list of your favorite book and movies, reflecting on how they make you feel.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

I’m going to amend tip #24 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell to read as follows: “There Are 3 Essentials For Writing A Novel”.

Bell begins by humbly taking issue with the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Though the quote is meant to encourage writers to be themselves as they write and not follow a formula, it’s simply not the case that there aren’t tried and true essentials for good writing. Bell identifies three of them, drawing inspiration from John D. MacDonald.

First, there has to be a strong sense of story.

“I want the people I read about to be in difficulty,” says MacDonald, and “I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.”

Bell’s translation: Create characters readers will be drawn to and put them in desperate straits soon.

 Even the Bible teaches us this. We get to live in paradise all of two chapters before the snake slithers into the garden. Jesus has barely dried off from his baptism before he is led into the desert to face off with Satan. Go and do likewise.

 Second, the writer must make the reader suspend their sense of disbelief.

Bell writes, “Readers want to suspend their disbelief. They start out on your side. They hope your words will lift them out of their lives and into another realm.”

 But to create that world, you need to be ready to do your homework, and if you must do research in what you’re writing about, then do it. You should sound like you know what you’re talking about, so the reader can place trust in your story-telling.

Third, the writer ought to have a bit of magic in their prose style.

Writers should always be stretching their writing muscles, trying to lift their prose out of the mundane and mediocre. Bell offers several tips here:

  • Take note of good writing that makes you soar as you read it. (I’d suggest you actually write down sentences and paragraphs that move you.)
  • Do writing exercises. For example: describe someone who has “wild hair”, by writing 3-5 minutes without stopping, and by completely ignoring your ‘inner editor’. Write hot, revise cool, quotes Bell.
  • Read some poetry. Ray Bradbury tried to read poetry daily. It’s interesting Bell recommends this because I’ve been taking up Shakespeare for my bedtime reading. And after a week of reading “Hamlet” and marveling at the Bard’s vocabulary and turn-of-phrases, I’m discovering in some subtle way how it’s shaping my own choice of words when I speak and write. I have yet to cry out, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” to Janis (a good thing), but there is something about the cadence of Shakespeare’s voice that elevates my own.

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This past weekend, I joined a nervous but excited group of nearly 300 writers and artists who descended on the Burbank Marriott to hob-nob with another group of nearly 100 not-so-nervous producers and agents, in an annual event that’s been dubbed the Great American Pitchfest. Gatherings like this are held around the country, but this is the Momma of Pitchfests, and it showed in the finely-tuned organization and broad talent-representation on display over the weekend.

While it’s far from cheap (I shelled out nearly $400 for registration and several ala carte options), it was a worthwhile investment regardless of what happens in my follow-up. To sit across the table from a living person you can lock eyes with is certainly an improvement over a cold call or lonely query letter. And the opportunity to practice a valuable life skill – being able to sell yourself and your project in a short period of time – is invaluable.

Here’s are a few quick takeaways from the weekend.

You gotta be able to pitch.

Let’s face it – as much as an artist might prefer to hang out in their office or studio and make art, unless you can connect your art to an audience (good), who might then invest in your art (better), so that you might make a living at art (best), the reach of your art will be limited. For many, that’s more than fine, for they do it for the pleasure of doing it. The joy is in the journey. But if you hope for more, then pitching must become a way of life.

Christian media guru Phil Cooke calls pitching “making your dream someone else’s dream”.  I found that description helpful each time I charged into the Marriott ballroom, like a Marine taking Guam, for my next 5-minute sitdown with an unknown gatekeeper. These agents and executives weren’t there for their health. But neither were they there for the purpose of making sure emerging talent never breaks through. The entertainment world is looking for content – we are the content-providers, and they are the content-solicitors. It’s the search for a needle-in-a-haystack, but that’s how the circulatory system of Hollywood – and in fact every business works.

My wife Janis wants to help set up therapeutic horse-riding centers in the San Gabriel valley. She must learn to pitch – and make her dream become other’s people’s dream. If you can’t get the word out about your product or your plan, then you’ll be stopped before you begin. If a tree falls in the forest…

You gotta be able to pitch quickly.

Five minutes were all we were given for each pitch, and an over-sized countdown clock in the corner kept it’s watchful eye on us. “Feels like speed-dating,” I heard someone say. No sense protesting how unfair that is. This is life. Commercials or radio ads have 30 seconds to buy your interest. Scriptwriters have it drilled into them ad nauseum, “Make your first ten pages crackle!” The best sermons catch your attention quickly and don’t let go. When you shop, you’re making split-second decisions based on a few short looks. If the first few seconds hook you, then you pick up the book and turn it over in your hand to see how the backcopy reads. If that piques your interest, then you crack open the book and skim a page or two. The longer interaction is birthed from the pitch. Most every decision we make in life works that way, from choosing a spouse to what TV shows you watch.

You gotta be able to master your pitch, then be willing to adjust it.

I wrote out pitches for each of my projects, with multiple versions for each: the 15-second hook (ye-‘ole ‘elevator’ pitch), the 1-minute pitch, then a 3-5 minute pitches. Then I worked my darndest to memorize them. Not so that I could woodenly regurgitate them to a bored executive. But so that I could engage that executive should he or she start asking questions. The reason a musician drills the scales into his brain and fingers, is so that when it’s time to jam, his free-flowing fingers have a safe place to return to if need be. My worst pitches were like recital pieces where I played the notes straight out. The best pitches were like a jazz riff where I could let go of the sheet music because it was in my heart.

To be successful, you must see yourself as part of a pitching team.

The work doesn’t stop with an agent or producer saying to you, “Send me your script.” Sure, go celebrate, but make sure it’s just a small cone. Save the sundae for later. Because now that person, should they like your work, must pitch it to their connections, and they in turn must pitch it up to their circle. This is especially true in Hollywood where a dizzying labyrinth of producers, and financiers and executives must be navigated for you to enter Valhalla. All this to say, get over your grousing about this part of being an artist.

Or you’ll end up just like the great painter Reginald Makalowski. Haven’t heard of him? That’s ‘cuz he never learned to pitch.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

Tip 30 is this: The key to reader bonding is falling in love with your lead.

My wife Janis and I recently rewatched the classic Jaws, a movie that ruined summer for a generation, and set in motion an entire industry of shark movies. But no matter how many sequels and lookalikes Hollywood makes, none will surpass the Spielberg original. Because Hollywood thinks it’s all about the shark. But it’s not.

It’s about the three lead characters: Sheriff Brody, Hooper and the unforgettable Quint.

These three characters are so uniquely drawn, and so powerfully acted, that it doesn’t matter that the shark doesn’t show up for half the movie. We can’t take our eyes off the screen for watching these three.

JSB tells us that if you want to create great lead characters then note the following:

  • Lead characters must have grit, wit and “it”.
  • They develop character through crisis.
  • They reveal their deepest thoughts, yearnings, secrets and fears.
  • They must allow the reader/viewer to bond with them.

I can point to countless beats in Jaws where these qualities were present. Brody listening to Hooper and Quint show their war wounds, and opting to be silent. Quint’s harrowing revelation that he was aboard the Indianapolis. Hooper saying, “Ain’t got no spit” as he prepares to go into the shark cage to face off against the monster.

Leads can be hero or anti-hero or flat-out villainous (Heath Ledger’s Joker), but they must exhibit something that rivets our gaze upon them. Spend some time with yours today, and see how they match up with JSB’s criteria. How can you – thinking of Jaws – give them a little more bite?

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

Tip 31 is this: Deploy characters that reveal both inner struggle and inner conflict.

 It’s important to understand the difference between the two. JSB describes the inner struggle as something the character brings into the story. It’s part of their soul which is present before the story even begins.

The inner conflict is tension that is created by the plot of the story itself. It’s something which happens which strikes the bruise of the character’s inner struggle, and forces them to react, grow, or run.

Bell gives the example of detective Mike Hammer in the story One Lonely Night as he realizes that he takes a twisted pleasure (inner struggle) in chasing down and shooting the bad guys (inner conflict).

I’m sure you can come up with dozens of examples. It’s Marty McFly absolutely hating when someone calls him a chicken because of the inadequacy he feels in his family (inner struggle), but getting into constant trouble with Biff and others who bring out that rage (inner conflict). It’s Hans Solo overcoming his mercenary self-interest (inner struggle) to return to the fight and help rescue his friends (inner conflict). It’s Tom Cruise’s lawyer in “A Few Good Man” always opting to find an easy way to plea-bargain his case (inner struggle), learning to stand up for justice even though it’s Jack Nicholson’s colonel that he’ll have to face down (inner conflict).

Now imagine these stories if that tension were not present, and these characters had no internal challenge to overcome when facing the external threat. Imagine if they walked into the story fully developed, mature and capable. The stories would be hollowed out not only of entertainment value, but more importantly its emotional heart.

So go back into your stories, and re-examine your main characters, through this lens. See if you can identify what hidden demons and ghosts haunt them and weaken them from within.  It’s better when the heroic is not just described, but discovered.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip 33 is this: A premise must be supported by fresh, solid scenes.

What is a story or a movie or a play but a succession of scenes stitched together? Sounds so simple, doesn’t it. But the key to good writing is that each scene has a purpose for being there, and has a sizzle all its own. If you keep a journal, you don’t write down that you had Raisin Bran for breakfast. But if a hairy spider crawled out of your Raisin Bran, I bet that would get jotted down.

“Colorful characters can flit across the page, but unless they are engaged in pitched battle, the reader won’t care,” says JSB. He then offers several ideas for beefing up your scenes.

Make your dialogue flow. He suggests writing a scene only in dialogue to get at the narrative punch of the scene. Early on in my writing, I began the habit of writing both novels and scripts of the same projects alongside of each other. I never could quite put my finger on why I did that, but Bell has helped me make sense of this. Writing screenplay scenes gave me the dialogue I needed to figure out where the scene was supposed to go.

Cut or hide exposition. Especially today where people’s reading skills have been weakened by social media and 3-point blogs. So take that long paragraph where you want to wax eloquent, and try to imbed those ideas either in dialogue or in the characters’ thoughts.

Flip the obvious. So you’ve got a truck driver in your scene. The reader expects a big, burly, bearded guy in the seat. Why not make the driver a woman, says JSB. But not a big, burly woman, but a woman in an evening dress. See where that takes you. Don’t opt for what’s expected or cliché.

Know what you’re aiming at. Every scene should have a bullseye, Bells writes. Something that turns the action around or reveals something unexpected. Figure out what that moment is. Ask yourself, “Why is this scene even in here?” If you can’t find a compelling answer, then take it out.

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If you watch a TV show tonight, take a look at all the people on the screen other than the principle actors. The pedestrians on the street. The patrons in the lunchroom. The students milling around the hallways. Look at every nurse, shopper and policeman. And the cars on the street. Even the shadows you see passing behind glass doorways.

No one “just happened” to stumble onto a TV set one day and were lucky enough to find their way on camera. Every single one of them is meant to be there, and is paid to be there.

Welcome to the world of the background actor (BG), possibly the most curious job I have worked (except for the summer I sold $400 sets of cookware to young, single women – I stunk at the job but had fun while doing it.)

So what’s a typical day in the life of a BG actor like? For starters, there’s nothing 9 to 5 about this. Every day is shaped by the needs of the particular production you’ll be working for. An actor’s “call time” (when he or she must arrive on the set) typically falls between 6:00 and 9:00 am (I’ve been needed as early as 4:30am and as late as 2:00pm, and for the strong of heart, there are “night shoots”.)

Most shifts probably average out to eight hours. You sometimes “wrap” early. I’ve worked as little as three hours, but that’s rare. More often, you’ll be tacking on overtime. BGs are guaranteed an 8-hour paycheck ($96 for LA and its $12-an-hour minimum wage; double-time after ten) and you are contracted by the production company till their shooting is finished. I’ve just wrapped up a 3-day movie shoot with three straight 12-hour days.

Another novelty is that every day presents you with a different “office” to work in. You might work in any of the half-dozen big studios in Hollywood, but more than half the time, you’ll be on location around the city somewhere. Last week I reported to a nearby airport, to the world-class LA Biltmore Hotel, poolside in the backyard of a $3 million mansion, and to an abandoned hospital that was closed down a decade ago.

Once you report to set, you first check in and receive your all-important payment voucher, your Wonka golden ticket which assures that a week later, a paycheck will arrive in your bank account or mailbox.

From there, you navigate your way to “wardrobe” where the clothes you have brought are approved for the shoot, or an outfit is given you (many productions even arrange for “pre-fittings” where they will pay you for a couple hours to make a separate trip, days in advance, to be sized up for your wardrobe.)

Next, it’s on to the hair-and-makeup people to receive their blessing.

Once you get a thumbs-up from these fine folks, you take you and your stuff to an area called “holding” which is where you’ll hang out whenever you’re not on set. Usually, “holding” is little more than plastic chairs under a canopy, but this is the place where you can read, chat, play with your phone or stare off into space and ponder the fate of the universe.

Most productions will feed you a decent breakfast, and virtually all productions will provide what usually amounts to a very sumptuous 3-course lunch, and every production keeps stocked a “crafty” section of chips, cookies, fruit and coffee throughout the day. Our grocery bill definitely has gone down while doing this job, and the waistline keeps threatening to go up.

Then comes the moment when a production assistant sticks his or her head into holding and asks you to come to set.

Ah, let the magic of Hollywood begin. Which I’ll describe next time.

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Faith without art is dead, I like to say. Art is food which my soul craves, as we explored earlier. Here’s a second reason why my faith withers without art:

Creating art is proof that we are made in the image of God. 

Our God is the Master Artist – and his love for creativity and beauty is evident everywhere we look around us at what he has made. Why did he design fruit the way he did?  Look long and hard at a strawberry. Now look again. Notice its symmetry, its shape, its colors, its texture, its balance.

Isaac Newton said the human thumb was enough to convince him of God’s existence. For me, a bowl of strawberry shortcake does the trick.

Sure, we need food, we need fuel. But why go through the trouble of packaging it like this? The Bible tells us in Genesis 2:9 that God “…made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”

The ‘good for food’ part makes sense, but why the ‘pleasing to the eye’ part? Why all this bother to create such detail and precision in its presentation?

To put it simply, because God loves us. This strawberry tells us that he is a God of wisdom and beauty and creativity – and these are things which he wanted to share with us so that we would enjoy them as well – which tells us that he is a God of love.

In Genesis 1, we see God standing back from his handiwork, like a painter stepping back from his canvas, and saying to himself over and over again, “This is good.” Then in Genesis 2, God turns the work of creation over to us, so to speak. He commands us to step inside the garden he has made and work it and take care of it – to make it even more fruitful and beautiful.

Humans made in the image of the Master Artist will themselves create beauty where none existed before.

To be made in the image of God separates us from every other form of life which God has made. The human genome is 96% similar to that of a chimp, but what a difference that 4% makes.  To be created in the image of God means that human beings are

  • relational,
  • rational,
  • responsible
  • and reflective.

Humans made in the image of the Master Artist will themselves create beauty where none existed before.

It’s in our capacity for reflection from which the impulse for art springs. No other creature on all God’s earth creates art.  My cat does not create etch-a-sketch designs in the litter box. This is something utterly unique to human life. And why not – we alone are created in the image of God.

Therefore faith – which is deficient in art – denies a supreme aspect of our humanity. Pass the whipped cream, please.

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Faith without art is dead. Or is certainly much weaker than it needs to be. Why? Think of the role art plays in a typical worship service you attend. There we learn:

Art has the power to help us worship.

Who hasn’t had their heart stirred by a song or hymn? Who hasn’t found the reading of a psalm or other scripture powerful enough to dislodge anger or doubt or anxiety just with its words?

Several generations ago, Christians in vast numbers got out of the art game. Dancing became a taboo, even though dance is a human art form endorsed by the Bible. (You’ve maybe heard the joke: Why are Christians against premarital sex? Because it leads to dancing.)

As Hollywood started to hit its stride in the 40s and 50s, Christians in large numbers started saying, “Christians shouldn’t go to movies.” And we turned that art form over to others.  “Christians shouldn’t listen to rock music.” And we turned that art form over to others.

All the while cutting off our nose to spit our face, because with each art form we surrendered, we lost one more way to communicate the beauty and truth of God to our world.  Christians need to be in the arts, at every level, in every form.

Art has the power to teach us. 

Jesus could have just said, “Show compassion to those who are victimized by violence.” But instead, he spun the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus could have said simply, “Forgive one another.” Instead, he told the story of the Prodigal Son.

Why did Jesus do that? Jesus could have simply said, “Remember my death on the cross.”  Instead he gave us bread and wine as symbols of his death, and said, “Do this to remember me.”

The Bible could have been written in just straight narrative. But instead God uses all types of literary forms in its pages: history, and letters, and poetry, and songs. Why all this art? Because art is a tool God uses to reach us and teach us.

For centuries during the Middle Ages, most people in Europe were illiterate. They couldn’t even read their Bibles. Thank God they could worship in cathedrals and chapels that were designed to lift the worshipper’s gaze heavenwards. Thank God for stain glass windows, and statues, and paintings which told the story of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God. And shame on those early Protestants who, in their zeal to distance themselves from all things “Catholic”, diminished and even destroyed art, removing it from their sanctuaries.

And with art’s power to teach comes this:

Art has the power to weaken or strengthen our character.

Parents should read lots of good stories to their children. Good stories do what scolding or lecturing can never do. They make us want to be good.

Chuck Colson points out in his book, “How Now Shall We Live” that children’s moral choices are not based on abstract standards of right and wrong but on the people they admire and want to be like. Good stories provide us with models to follow and heroes to look up to.

My life was forever changed in my first year in college. After an early conversion to Christ at the age of 11, I drifted away from God in high school. But in the fall of my first college semester, I watched the movie “Ben-Hur” with Charlton Heston, and by its end, I was sitting alone in the student lounge, crying my eyes out, asking Jesus to take me back and make me his again, once and for all.

The art you feed your soul with – the movies you watch, the music you listen to, the pictures you look at – will invariably determine the man or woman you will become.

God created the arts for humanity. They belong to you and me. If ever we are to redeem this culture and bring it back to God, it will not happen unless we reclaim the power of art for Jesus Christ.

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Tip 37 is this: Discipline cliched or predictable story beginnings.

Call me Bear. 

JSB gives three Thou shalt nots in this reading.

Don’t start your story with a description of weather.

Don’t start it with a dream.

Don’t start it with ‘Happy people in happy land.

He offers a couple exceptions. You can describe the weather but “only if you connect it to a character viewpoint and use it to add to the tone of the scene.”

I begin my novel A Sparrow Could Fall with weather, but I think it passes Bell’s smell test. You be the judge.

The thinnest peel of orange sun peered above the western horizon as the pick-up pulled off the blacktop onto the gravel road and headed north. It was the only sun the man had seen that gloomy October day, and appeared now beneath the clouds like a sliver of light under a windowless prison door. Then the opening vanished as quickly as it appeared, slammed shut by the brooding darkness. The man turned back to the road ahead.

I’m after both giving the reader a character viewpoint and also setting a somber tone.

But at least it’s not a dream, which Bell says do not attempt until you are a best-selling author. Then you can break every rule in the book.

As for “happy people”, the idea here is to inject tension into the story right away. If the husband dies in a car accident in chapter two, it’s – and I quote – Not soon enough.

Here’s a project to consider. My idea, not JSB’s. Read through this list of the American Book Reviews 100 Best First Lines. (Click here.)

Write down your ten best. Think about why you like them so much. Then go and do likewise.

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“The Art of War For Writers” by James Scott Bell is one of the best books for writers I’ve come across. It’s filled with more than short readings that cover everything from soup to nuts about the writing life. I look forward to sharing this journey with you as we reflect on what Bell has to share.

Bell’s second entry is this: The writer must understand the essentials of success for a long-term writing career, and the count the cost accordingly. He then gives – in typical blogging style – a list of 10 characteristics of that successful writer. (Personally, I weary of the 3-Reasons-Why… / 5 Practices Of…  style of blogging. One day I’m going to write a blog: “7 Reasons Why I Hate Blog-Lists”).

  1. Desire. “It’s got to be a hunger inside of you,” Bell writes. Most of us could check that one, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
  2. Discipline. “It’s all about production,” he says. “A quota of words, six days a week.” I agree. You can’t just write when the mood suits you. You must lash yourself to your writing mast and write for a regimented time or word-count. Even if you just do a face-off with the computer screen. One day soon, the dam of creativity will burst for you if you give it a chance.
  3. Commitment to Craft. “The writers of great books zealously learn the craft of their profession.” I have a dozen screenwriting books on my shelf. I’ve invested in a couple of classes. I’m beginning to connect with some writer’s groups in Hollywood. This step is critical.
  4. Patience. “It takes time.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, James Bell. I know. Now hurry with the other 6 steps.
  5. Honesty. “Be willing to confront your weaknesses as a writer.” Ouch. Mine is too easily being discouraged. We can’t let our world come crashing down on us because we didn’t get enough ‘likes’ or comments on our post. We have to have the long view. In this day when even my cat is blogging (Maggie’s latest – “4 Reasons Why Your Owner Doesn’t Change The Litter Enough”), it’s just going to take a long, concerted effort to break through and gain a readership.
  6. Willingness to learn. Basically a repeat of #3. Bell is stretching his list so he gets 10 items, not 9.
  7. Business-like attitude. Should go without saying.
  8. Rhino. “Learn from every rejection.” Personally, I love getting slapped hard in the face, or opening up an email that says, “You’re worthless as a human being and you can’t write either.”
  9. Long-term view. “Don’t think: ‘Do I have a book inside of me?’ Think: ‘Do I have a writer inside of me?’ I like that a lot. You’ve gotta have multiple projects circling inside of you. My life hasn’t ended because the “Ben-Hur” movie crashed and burned. I have three other projects waiting in the wings. On to the next project.
  10. Talent. And I love what Bell says here. Read closely and carefully. “The least important. Everyone has some talent. It’s what you do with it that counts.”

Your thoughts. Which of the ten items challenges you the most? Let’s dialogue.

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Next up in James Scott Bell’s The Art of War For Writers is this principle: Discipline Is Always The First Step Toward Victory.

Bell writes: “Victory in anything, from war to football, is founded in training and discipline. Nothing worthwhile is gained by sloth and wishful thinking.”

Then he shares a particular discipline he practices that for him has meant all the difference:

Write a quota of words every week.

British writer Anthony Trollope set for himself the goal of writing a certain number of pages per week, and learned to stick to it, though he worked a full-time job until his writing career was established. Trollope said of this habit, “It has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”

I’ve learned for myself that if you wait for inspiration, inspiration will be fleeting. The inspiration comes in the act of regimented writing. So whether you are a writer, musician, painter, journalist – whatever your art, discipline yourself to give daily time toward a weekly goal of creative output.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

Tip #7 in James Scott Bell’s The Art of War For Writers is: No whining.

It won’t help you get published, Bell says.

So I recently received a note like many I’ve received before like many you’ve received before:

Thank you so much for thinking of Bla-Bla-Bla Literary Agency for your query. I wish we could offer a more personalized response but on average, we receive 500+ email query letters a week. Do know that every query letter and sample are read (Bla-Bla-Bla) and even though your project is not right for us (Bla-Bla-Bla), it might be right for another agent so don’t…bla-bla-bla…give up! I’m also sorry I have no agent recommendations to offer.

But it’s pointless to sulk and rage at the universe. Do what I do – pick a game like racquetball where you can go and smash a rubber ball around a court really hard at 125mph for an hour…and then get back to work.

Bell quotes Christina Katz, who suggests that all writers sign the following pact with themselves:

“I ______________, being of sound mind and body, do solemnly commit to keep my grousing to myself for the period of one year. This stuffing of a sock into my mouth includes, but is not limited to, whining about all matters related to the publication of my work. I will not grumble…I will not cry…I will not moan.”

Paul tells us, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” (Phil.2:14). ‘All things’ includes your…bla-bla-bla…writing life.

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Tip #10 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: Status, worry and comparison are ways to madness, not victory.

 Bell writes: One of the biggest obstacles of all comes from comparison with other writers and worrying about your status in the publishing world. This is the way to ultimate madness.

 He then offers several tips on what he means:

  • Stop checking your Amazon index.
  • Stop Googling yourself.
  • Don’t jump at every chance to promote yourself. (e.g. drive a thousand miles for a booksigning where you sell a half-dozen books).
  • Don’t forget to exercise and nurture other interests in your life, besides writing.

I’ve been reading Ezra in my quiet times lately, and just this morning I read in chapter 8 where Ezra lists by name the heads of households, and how many were in each household, of those who returned with Ezra to Jerusalem out of exile. The thought occurred to me: Each of these individuals mattered to God. Each one mattered to Israel’s future. Each one had a voice, and each one had unique God-given value.

Sometimes when you scour through Facebook or Twitter, and see that you are one of thousands, a lone voice in a vast social media desert, it’s easy to feel small – especially when you are seeking to get started. As I meditated on what I read from Ezra, here’s what I wrote in my quiet time journal (before I picked up “The Art of War”:

“Twitter reminds me of how many souls are out there, each with dreams and passions. My part is to be true to what God has given me. I can be inspired by others, but not imitate them (except for an occasional ‘best practice’ that might seem useful.) I should learn to serve them, and not use them.”

Being true to your voice. Serving not using. Trusting, not fretting (for God is near!) And writing, not moping. These are ways it seems to me to overcome that comparison-bug.

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Tip #13 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Break through the wall.”

We all know what Bell is on about here. Ye ‘ole dreaded wall. Where all creativity is blocked, and words fall straight to the gravel at our feet, and we’re stuck on page 27 for an eternity, with our characters desperately looking at us at the keyboard, begging us to get them out the place where we last left them.

But the neurons flow like slush through our brains, and even the tiniest preposition is stuck in our craw. The wall – creative constipation at its worst.

How do we break through it? Bell offers several tips.

  1. Write anything. “Write something that is not your novel,” he says. “Write a jingle for a commercial. A free-form commercial about your car.” This is why it’s good to journal or keep a little blog. It gets your writing something, and something is better than nothing.
  1. Make music. Bell says he plays a ukulele, and that something happens in his brain when he picks it up that sparks creativity. I’ve found as well that there is some strange interconnectedness between playing guitar and writing. The sections of the brain that govern these two arenas must be next-door neighbors, because attention in one area tends to inspire the other. If you don’t play an instrument, try immersing yourself in a favorite song or two, and see what happens.
  1. Exercise. Bell quotes Stephen King who refers to his creative spark as his “boys in the basement”. When he goes on a long walk, King finds that his ‘boys in the basement’ start going to work and ‘sending stuff up’ for him to use in his writing.
  1. Randomize. Here’s an interesting suggestion. Bell says, “Open a page at random. Look at the first complete line on the left-hand page. Put that line in your book and start a scene with it.” What a great writing exercise!

Are there any other suggestions you might have for what helps you break through the wall?

Tip #16 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Don’t let worry drag you down.”

 We’re in a section of Bell’s book where we’re talking about our attitudes. There is plenty of talk on skill development later on, but I think he’s right to spend a lot of time working on what’s between our ears before we talk about what’s on our computer screens.

Being a fruitful and holy Christian comes down largely to our attitudes. Paul tells us in Romans 6 to “consider ourselves dead to sin”. Colossians 3 tells us to “set our minds on things above”. In other words, check your attitudes and thoughts at the door.

And worry is a huge issue for most of us (I recall Jesus having a thing or two to say about it!)

Bell tells us that worry is just part of the deal. Even established writers are besieged with it. He quotes Harlan Coben who, though published, finds himself saying of new things he’s working on: “This is terrible! I used to be so good. When did I lose it?”

So take that energy we expend with worry and convert it straight into writing, is Bell’s suggestion. Because you as an aspiring artist are trying to climb a challenging ladder. For writers, that ladder has the following rungs: Wanna be / Learning / Finished novel / Multiple novels / Published / Multi-published / Breakout Hit.

So don’t worry…sing aloud with me…be happy. And keep at it. Make art.

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Tip #18 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Spear some fish.”

What he’s talking about is the art of generating ideas for our writing. Whether you’re writing sermons, blogs, or books, you know it’s true that if you wait till you sit down at the computer to figure out what you’re writing about, you’ll quickly become very frustrated.

Ideas are like fish in a stream, Bell says, and you need to spear them while you have the chance. When it comes time later on to make the meal (to bake the idea into your writing) you’ll have it on hand.

Where do we get these ideas? “You have to become an idea factory,” Bell says, then offers some specific pointers in how to get there.

First, you have to get them down on paper. Spear that fish! I find that ideas parachute into my mind while I’m out jogging, and they can be so vivid, it’s like they’re running alongside me. But if I don’t write it down right away, by the afternoon the idea is like a stray animal that has disappeared into the woods, and I’ll never see it again.

Then he takes the ideas he’s jotted down, and takes some time at the computer to play around with them. “I’ll expand upon them, brainstorming outward from what I have.” If you don’t clean the fish, if you don’t put some clothes on your orphan idea (the metaphor-mixing police will be after me for that one), if you don’t at least describe what it was that made the idea’s colors pop in your mind, you risk forgetting what made it special to you in the first place.

Then Bell puts the cleaned fish in the fridge overnight. He allows the idea to cool down. “This gives the boys in the basement a chance to work overnight while I’m sleeping.” Love that image!

If in the end you don’t utilize the idea, don’t throw it away, because the idea might become an element for a future project. I found this to be so true in sermon-writing, where a meaty thought I put in the freezer because it wasn’t suitable for my current series became the perfect addition for a future topic.

Bell says, “Get used to thinking this way, and your creativity will explode.”

What are some things you do to help generate ideas?

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Watching the Super Bowl last Sunday reminded me of the power of momentum.

Momentum is a funny thing. Once you catch it, it can be like a long wave you can ride on. Once the Patriots caught fire midway through the fourth quarter, you knew they were going to tie the game up. Why, you even knew they were going to win the coin toss in overtime, and Atlanta would never even touch the ball again. There are seasons like that as a writer. Where you’re eagerly at the computer, writing easily, gladly, daily. The Midas touch is yours.

But once you lose momentum, it can take forever to find it again. Ask the poor Falcons. How can something that was so easy an hour earlier suddenly become an effort in futility?

So what do you do? Well, what did Tom Brady do? I saw three things in the game which he modeled. First, he kept stepping back onto the field until he found his rhythm. He kept doing what quarterbacks do. He didn’t quit.

Down 28-3, the Patriots went on a long, methodical drive in the third quarter where at last they scored a touchdown. Patriot fans everywhere we’re screaming at their TVs: Hurry up! Stop taking so much time between plays! But that drive was important to allow the Patriot’s offense – which had been pummeled by Atlanta up till then – to find itself. The writer who’s stuck must do the same thing. Keep taking the field. Keep typing. Put words on a page.

Second, TB didn’t allow reoccurring setbacks to hold him down. After their first touchdown, they missed the extra point. Brady could have said, “There’s just too many bad-breaks rolling our way.” Atlanta then recovered the Patriot’s onside kick. “See, it’s not our day,” they could have said. But the defense made a critical stop, and down the field the Patriots went again. Just when they were inside the five, ready to punch it in again, Atlanta landed back-to-back sacks, forcing the Patriots to kick a field goal. 28-12. “It’s just too hard. Too deep a hole to climb out of.” But nobody said that. They chose to focus on the fact that they now only needed two scores to tie the game, rather than focus on the fact that they would have to cross the endzone four times to do it.

Attitude is everything, when you’re looking to build momentum. It’s not like Atlanta just folded up and rolled over for the Patriots. Atlanta made some amazing plays in the back half of the game. When Julio Jones made one of the most insane catches ever seen in a Super Bowl putting the Falcons on New England’s 22, the Patriots could easily have cashed in their chips. But they refused to allow any negative play to stop them. One sack and one holding call later, the Falcons had to punt. Needing 91 yards to tie the game, no one said, “It’s too far. I’m too tired.” Julian Edelman promptly went out and made his own insane, ridiculous catch.

Negative plays are a part of the writing life. The hits, the setbacks, the rejections just keep coming. We (for I’m preaching to myself here) must set our minds that we are not going to stop no matter what.

Third, once TB found his rhythm, he poured it on. Once the monster was awakened, Brady became an unstoppable force of nature. Every pass was a tight, beautiful spiral laid perfectly in the hands of each receiver. He was even composing music at one stretch, directing a receiver with a hand motion to cut up field where he then tossed a pass as feathery and beautiful as a hanging note from an oboe. By that point, the Falcons were toast. Brady was going to bring that trophy home.

I have this bad habit of getting into a writing groove and then calling it a day way too soon. I know I’m on a roll. I can feel it – the words are flowing like an ice-jammed stream suddenly let loose by an afternoon of sun. But then I’ll let it all freeze up again. Sometimes when you got it, you need to run with it. Forget about taking the walk. Dinner can wait. Pour it on. Let the momentum carry you along.

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Tip #22 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Finish your novel, because you learn more than way than any other.”

 This is Bell’s shortest entry of his 77 different tips. But why waste words here. Just get the stinkin’ book done!

 Bell writes, “Some writers tinker over their words endlessly, perhaps fearing the end result. It might stink. Yes, it might, but it’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

 I so appreciate his bluntness. For years, I was a tinkerer, not a writer. And the reason was, I had several would-be books lying around my computer in unfinished form – a chapter here, three chapters there, an outline and title there. I would tell others about these wonderful stories I was going to write.

And it never happened. I’d write energetically for fifty pages or so, then stop. Looking back it was for a number of reasons.


Being a busy pastor, I’d hit stretches when I plum had no time, and I’d stop logging the words-a-day goal I had set. Once you stop the engines of any regular habit, it’s often difficult to fire them up again.


Inevitably, there are places in any long writing endeavor where you say to yourself, “This is dumb.” You begin to doubt yourself. When you’re at the beginning of a hike looking up at the peak from below, the idea of the hike seems so romantic and fun. Then you disappear into the woods, and the bugs start to nibble on you neck, and your calves start to grumble, and suddenly it’s not so fun anymore.


Hopefully, you have a storyboard in your mind of where you want to go, but it always happens that some of your characters become unruly along the way, and they start speaking for themselves, saying, “Yes, but…” or “How about this…?” and you reach impasses (which are really opportunities in disguise) which cause you to lose your way.

More than fifteen years ago now, I resolved with all my heart that I would finish my sequel to “Ben-Hur” no matter what. I put all the other projects and ideas aside, donned my toga, and systematically plugged away.  It took months. But I never will forget that day when I typed the final words of the final paragraph of the final page of the final chapter.

Sure, there was endless rewriting yet to come. And a marketing maze I could barely get my brain around. But the joy of actually finishing the hike and being able to say without fudging it – “I wrote a book!” was one of the greatest joys I have ever felt.

It gave me confidence that I could do it again. And though it took more than a decade, I crossed that line again with “A Sparrow Could Fall”. Then last fall I finally wrote Day 40 of the 40-Day purity devotional I had aspired to write for so long.

My thought now as a writer still on the hike, looking for Publication Peak, is to throw so much content out there, that I have to be noticed.

‘Cuz here’s the thing. In this age of digital publishing where everyone and their dog too is “publishing”, the only way to press through the crowd is to create content – lots of it. Content that is good, that is consistent, and…drum roll, please…that is completed.

I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip 25 is this: Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours.

 Bell received a letter from a young writer who signed up for contest that compelled him to write a novel in a month. He marveled at the difference it made to his writing. Where ordinarily his writing sessions were spent hemming and hawing over editing what he had previously written, he found that the quick writing energized him.

Bell was not surprised. He writes, “I contend that new writers would actually improve their craft – and chances of getting published – if they would write faster.”  First, because it invariably helps them actually finish their book and “…you learn most about writing a full-length novel by actually writing a full-length novel.”

 And secondly because it brings you closer to becoming a “professional”, which according to Bell is “someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn’t feel like it.”

 When I was writing the first draft of my novel “A Sparrow Could Fall” during a 3-month sabbatical a few years ago, I was meandering somewhere about three chapters in, going nowhere fast. One day during my devotional, I read  how through the leadership of Nehemiah, Judah finished building the walls around Jerusalem in 52 days. Whether a nudge from God, or some gas in my belly, I picked up the calendar and counted the days remaining in my sabbatical – sure enough, 52 days.

Well, if they could build a wall in that amount of time, I could finish a novel. And sure enough, on the night before I returned to work, I wrote the final page of the novel.  Bell is right. Write hard, and write fast, and magic can happen.

As if to prove the point, Bell then finishes his chapter by illustrating from the examples of eight famous novelists how each one put this principle into practice. “Their books were not the product of small bits of inspiration, but rather steady, dedicated, intense work, day after day,” says Bell.

To quote the Bible: Go and do likewise.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip 26 is this: Test your premise to prove it worthy.

 Vacationing in Tulum, Mexico a few years back, I noticed a number of abandoned half-completed resorts on my beach walks. Someone at sometime began work on a considerable investment, but then ran out of money, time or interest, and pulled the plug.

I wonder how many writing projects and stories over the years have been started, then abandoned, just like those resorts? We’ve probably all had them.

When you sit down to write a book, the journey you are committing to will last at least several months. If ever there were a case of “counting the cost” – as Jesus said – then this will be it. So you want to make absolutely sure that the central idea of the story as well as the characters who will drive that idea home are worth such an investment of time.

Which is why JSB encourages us to take our premise out for a test drive. And invite your main characters to come along for the ride.

What’s helpful about this entry is that Bell lays out a gauntlet of very specific questions to ask yourself.

  • Is your main character someone you can see and hear?
  • Does he or she have obvious or potential heroic qualities?
  • Does your antagonist provide sufficient opposition? Is ‘death overhanging’? And can you picture in your mind a climatic battle which the main character will win?
  • What inner journey will your Lead travel in the story?

Once you have answers of substance to those questions, Bell recommends you take a breather from the project, then come back at it and assess the market for your story. Be honest about this. Write out a “back book cover” paragraph of the story and pass it around, asking for ruthless feedback, and an answer to the question: is this something that a reader would seriously pull off a shelf?

Story ideas, like seeds, will far outnumber what actually produces a living thing. Following Bell’s advice will help you narrow down your options, making sure that you invest your watering and weeding in the right places.

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I attended a recent screenwriting symposium at CBS Studios hosted by Azusa Pacific University. A session by industry veteran Sheryl J. Anderson (known for her work on shows like Flash Gordon and Charmed), was filled with helpful tips and encouragement for the vast army of “emerging writers” that’s out there.

Some of her thoughts that stood out:

Be good people as well as good writers.

In the end, Hollywood is a small town and a person can get known with surprisingly speed, if not by their writing then by their attitude. I’ve found this to be true just from the little bit of background acting I’ve done.

If you find the work easy, then you’re not doing it right.

Whew! I must be on the right track then. I usually end writing sessions spitting at the mirror, breaking things, and filling out work applications to Walmart.

You don’t want to tell people you’re a writer till you have a few good scripts in hand.

The conversation usually goes like this. Someone up the food chain will ask you, “What’s your goal?” When you say, “Writer,” they’ll then ask, “Do you have a script?” Should they hear about it/look at it and like it, they’ll then say, “This is good. What else do you have?” In other words, don’t constantly be reworking one script over and over again.

How do you know that you have a good idea?

Most novice screenwriters should be able to answer this question. Answer: Can you wrap up your idea in a crisp logline? To create such a logline, answer these two questions:  Can you summarize the subject in one word? And can you summarize the theme of your story in one sentence?

Can you wrap up your idea in a crisp logline? Can you summarize the subject in one word? Can you summarize the theme of your story in one sentence?

Tips for the screenplay itself:

  1. It’s got to sizzle from the start. “I can tell by page 3 if it’s good,” says Sheryl, “but will usually read to page 10 because I’m obligated.” There are 400 shows out there, so gripping the viewer early is essential.
  2. The traditional 3-act format for TV has now moved toward a 6-act format with elongated teasers and tags. She quoted David Kelly whose rule was that every scene should end with a question, where the viewer asks, “Why did that happen?”
  3. Each scene should have a ‘spine’ – that helps hold the story together. If the scene doesn’t advance the story or reveal character, then cut it.

Finally, for Christian writers looking to inject faith in their stories, she offered this word of advice (to which I whispered a sweet amen): Be real. Don’t think inserting a Bible verse in the story makes it good writing. And don’t shy away from conflict (a besetting sin for many of us, which is odd since the Bible’s stories are filled with it.)

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

Tip 32 is this: The writer who understands redemption is on the border of enduring fiction.

Redemption is the grist of the story-telling mill. So many of the greatest tales are those of redemption found – or forfeited.

Bell gives some classic examples from Rick in Casablanca to Tommy Lee Jones’ Sam Gerard in The Fugitive to Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons.

He quotes Flannery O’Connor who reminds us that our stories need to show in some fashion “grace being offered”. Whether it is accepted or not isn’t what matters – a lesson not always appreciated by faith-based story-telling which often feels the need to paint a rainbow over the story by the end.

A great mistake of 2016’s Ben-Hur remake was to have the arrogant Messala suddenly repent of his wrong-doing at the end, and ride off into the sunset with Judah, their friendship magically restored, to have their best life now. Judah’s forgiveness and Messala’s contrition came much too easily. Any follower of Christ knows that redemption requires blood.

An opposite mistake is to offer no redemption at all. The Walking Dead is hemorrhaging viewers by the millions (I jumped off several seasons ago) because it gave up telling redemption stories and opted for violence-porn. Who wants to hang out in a universe plunged in darkness with no sign of light or hope anywhere?

I like Bell’s word choice – we have to understand redemption.  And who better to do this than those who have received it in full because of the grace of a merciful Savior? We’re not there yet, but I remain bullish on the idea that Christians will one day soon be regarded as among the world’s best story-tellers and artists.

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Tip 34 is this: When you are stuck, call on a word and its cousins.

Writing a story is like driving a car through mud. Generally, you’ll make progress, but not without a lot of wheel-spinning, and slipping and sliding, and of course the occasional getting stuck altogether.

How do you get the car moving again? JSB shares a personal strategy he uses here that I’ll bet you’ve never heard before:

Get out that tool of yours that sounds like a dinosaur: your thesaurus.

His usage of it is clever. If he is trying to come up with something about a character’s background, he’ll open his thesaurus at random, land on a word, then peruse all the synonyms given for that particular word. Bell writes, “Invariably, I get a web of pictures and possibilities for whatever I’m looking for.”

For example, he puts his finger on the word “fugitive”, then sees synonyms like “escapee, refugee, runaway”, which leads him to wonder if his character is a bounty hunter, or a prison guard, or an actual fugitive.

Bell uses this peculiar technique even when he’s trying to come up with dialogue to take his scene in an unexpected direction. The randomness of the words, and its cousins, becomes a stimulant to further creativity, allowing him to get his scene or character out of the mud its caught in.

It reminds me of that great scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams has each of his students get on top of his desk. He says, “I do this to constantly remind myself to look at things in a different way…even if it may seem silly or wrong.”

One of the things I enjoy about sharing a script with others is to receive – sometimes jarring – feedback that comes from an unexpected perspective. (Some writers are threatened by this. Don’t be one of them.)  But if you don’t have access to a reader or a writer’s group, then allow your thesaurus to serve as one.

Give it a try today in your writing, and see where it takes you.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

Tip 35 is this: Use of a voice journal will keep characters from becoming little versions of the writer.

Let’s let JSB tells us what he means:

“The voice journal is my favorite way of getting to know a character. The voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode.”

So basically you sit down for five to ten minutes at the computer and let your character speak, writing non-stop without any editing. Just see what the character will say. Bell’s example:

“My name is Pierpont Feenie, and people stare at me because I’m six-foot-nine…” and off he riffs for several paragraphs.

I remember doing something like this with a character in a novel who at first was supposed to die in a house fire. During a rescue scene where the hero was circling the burning house looking for a way in, he peered into the basement, and to the great shock of my imagination, there was my doomed character staring back at the hero, quite alive, and quite insistent that he be rescued. The nerve of him getting all Westworld on me!

But I never would have guessed that until I allowed that character to speak in its own voice.

However, I don’t do this nearly enough in my writing, and JSB has challenged me – as he has a nasty habit of doing – to dig my writing spade deeper than I am accustomed.

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Here’s a third reason why faith without art is dead.

Creating art helps us capture the fullness of human experience. 

Is it any wonder that after telling us in Genesis 1 that we were made in the image of a creative God, the Bible shows us in Genesis 2 Adam composing the very first poem? And it’s a love poem at that. Which is appropriate for this is the first wedding.

God presents Eve to Adam, he gives her away, and Adam is so overcome with emotion that he sticks out his hand and says, “Hi, I’m Adam.” No! He cries out, “This is now bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” A poem! Why a poem? Because poetry helps communicate the full depth of emotion that he is feeling.

For centuries, artists were the real movers and shakers of society. But then science moved into town and became the neighborhood bully. During a period of history we call the Enlightenment, when human reason was made out to be the measure of all things, the methods of science were used to question everything, including art. And the role of the artist in society was greatly diminished as the scientist took center stage.

But science can only take us so far in describing what it means to be human. Take a kiss for example. My junior high biology teacher once defined a kiss as: “the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction.” But then one day I in the seventh grade I kissed Beverly Christiansen. And discovered the power that launched a thousand ships. Orbicularis muscles, my eye.

Sure, a kiss involves my body’s muscles, hormones and chemicals – and without them I could not enjoy a kiss – but to say that a kiss is nothing but muscles, hormones and chemicals, now science you have gone too far.

There is something more to it, a deeper reality to it, that touches the frontier of the human soul and spirit – a frontier that science cannot explore.  For that we need art. A true kiss leads to such emotions and such experiences that it can only be consummated by a song, or a poem, or a dance, or a painting.  And for that, we need art.

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With all our talk on the need for Christians to reclaim the arts for Jesus Christ, it’s important to throw out a few essential qualifications. So here are five observations to make about the relationship of faith and our pursuit of artistic endeavors. Saying that faith without art is dead does not mean:

That art needs to be religious to be good art. 

Were the trees in the Garden of Eden which were pleasing to the eye religious trees? No; these were trees, and God made them so their beauty could be enjoyed by all. Nature should rightfully be celebrated in art. A song does not need to be written about God to be written for God. Adam’s love poem for Eve honored God who made human love possible but it doesn’t specifically mention God. A novel does not have to have Christians in it to talk about Christian themes.

That art needs to be created by a Christian to be good art. 

Mozart wrote heaven’s music even if he never bowed the knee to heaven. Ansel Adam’s photography is no less stunning whether he went to church or not. The poetry of Robert Frost is no less worthy of praise because he kept God at arm’s length. It makes it twice the tragedy when a person spends so much time contemplating creation and fails to see the Creator, but their art is still good art. Their craft is still God-given, and God’s people can enjoy it.

That art needs to always “put on a happy face” to be good art. 

Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” are not filled with beauty but depict the ugliness of humanity at its worst. But in their truth-telling, these movies force us to examine the world we live in, and examine ourselves – and in that journey we step closer to beauty and truth. Art should never be afraid to wrestle with the great Biblical themes of Creation, Fall and Redemption. And this sets such art apart from the sadistic rap song which shows us the ugliness of life and then stays there, wallowing in it, rubbing our faces in it.

That because something is religious it is automatically good art. 

Slapping God into a bad song’s lyrics doesn’t make it a good song. Just because the “Left Behind” series has sold millions of copies doesn’t mean it’s good art. Christian filmmaking is getting there, but artistically is still catching up with true standards for excellence, largely because we abandoned the field decades ago. There are reasons why films receive Oscars, reasons why some symphonies are called ‘masterpieces’, there are reasons why some books become considered ‘classics’.  There are laws of stewardship which must be learned. There is a craft and depth to true art which must be mastered, which reflects the artistry which God himself has placed in creation.

This DOES mean that Christians need to get in the game and start bringing their gifts and passions to bear in every artistic field. 

Because if art in the end is about deepening our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God, then who better to be leading the way? And God’s people have led the way in most centuries but our own. It’s time to change this.

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“The Art of War For Writers” by James Scott Bell is one of the best books for writers I’ve come across. It’s filled with more than 70 short readings that cover everything from soup to nuts about the writing life. His third reading is titled: Know the difference between a hero and a fool.

A ‘writing hero’ according to Bell:

  • Knows it takes hard work and a long time to get published.
  • Learns the craft.
  • Keeps growing all his writing life.
  • Fights to make his writing worthy even when no one’s noticing.
  • Is persistent and professional.
  • Gets knocked down and regroups to write again.
  • Makes his luck.

Meanwhile a ‘writing fool’:

  • Thinks success should happen immediately.
  • Doesn’t think there’s much to learn.
  • Thinks he’s fully grown already.
  • Is insistent and annoying.
  • Gets knocked down and whines about it ever after.
  • Cries out how unlucky he is.

I love Bell’s list. Too many Christian artists use God as a cover for their sloppiness. But God will have none of it. Look closely at the next flower you come across today. Really study it. Is that sloppiness you see in God’s artistry? Allow that flower – and Bell’s essay – to propel you forward in your art.

I don’t know who said it, but writing is rewriting. That’s the name of the game.

The Beatles had their moments when songs seemed to appear out of thin air. Paul McCartney says writing, “Yesterday” was like that. One day he woke up, and the melody was there, he threw in the words “Scrambled eggs…” to start the song, and a classic was finished by lunchtime. But most of the songs McCartney and John Lennon wrote were collaborative efforts that went back and forth, trying this, trying that, starting, stopping, “What about this chord?”, “Will this bridge work?”.

Robert Frost had a few poems that came as if by magic. “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” came after a full night of writing something else. Suddenly, it was there inside of him, and he wrote it “in one stroke of the pen.”

But most of his poems he “wooed like Jacob for a perfect phrase.” He told his students once, “Refuse to be rushed to market…Don’t come as a product till you have turned yourself under many times.”

This past week I had the pleasure of participating in a competition called the “Write Of Passage” sponsored by 168film.com. The idea was to write a 12-page script in 168 hours (one week) built off a theme you were given at hour-one. Each writer was also given a “Development Executive” (DE) who would read and advise the drafts of the script.

There was an old Barry from long ago who would have resisted critique and collaboration, but he was younger and foolish (and had more hair) than me. Now that I’m more exposed on top, I’m more open to someone who has their hand on a different part of the elephant.

Now that the week is over, looking back I think I most enjoyed taking what was a fine first draft and making it shine. My DE Katarzyna was gracious and thorough. Someone once said, “The best we can do is never the best we can do.” There may be a cap on what we can accomplish left to ourselves, but it’s amazing how someone or something else – a mentor, a class, a competitor – can bring even more out of us that would have remained untapped otherwise.

Never feel a failure as an artist if your ‘good enough’ just doesn’t seem good enough. Keep at it. Go around the barn again. There’s more in you than you imagine.

Tip #8 in the “Art of War for Writers” comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.”

Commenting on this, James Scott Bell says, “The writing life is full of fears. Fear of not being good enough; of not getting published; of getting published and not selling;…of getting stomped by critics.” Dwell too much on these fears and you can become catatonic.”

 To overcome our fears, Bell offers three suggestions:

  • Act as if you had no fear.
  • Don’t wait for your feelings to change; turn fear into energy for writing.
  • Set writing goals that challenge you.

As Janis and I begin the fourth month of this year of faith, my heart is yet filled with tension and fear. Nothing is certain, and nothing is promised. But each morning I strap myself to my chair and begin to write. I just finished day 32 of my 40-day Purity devotional (I just passed page 190). No matter how often the thought crosses my mind, “This is dumb”, or “This is pointless” I just keep plowing ahead. I think that’s what Bell is saying.

Tip #11 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: To keep from turning off those who can publish you, you must not be desperate.

 Bell shares a couple of rather unbelievable stories of desperation at work (an anesthesiologist pitching an editor while the editor is giving birth!?!) Bell writes: “There are many ways a writer can give off the scent of desperation. And believe me, agents and editors can pick up that scent from a distance of 300 hundred yards. When they smell it, they mentally spray themselves with repellent that puts up on instant protective shield.”

 I was sharing with a good friend recently about my faith-adventure of taking a year off to write, and how I was entering the marketing phase of my work. My friend is an exceptional musician and singer, and he wrote back with some wonderful advice. “Let your persona lead ahead of your work. You are not like the various emotionally-fragile disasters [that agents] have had to try to deal with in the past. You’ll show up on time, you can be trusted, you won’t be hung-over or high. You are committed to success. Not desperate, but determined.”

 Those are really good words, and I hope you’ll take them to heart as well. Not desperate but determined. Desperation comes from despair. Despair feeds off of fear. And fear is birthed when we stop trusting in God, and decide we need to take things into our own hands. That’s not a good place to be in for an artist. So make sure you work first on your relationship with God before you work on your art. Offload all that fear and despair onto him. Then get back at it.

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Tip #14 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Turn envy into energy.”

 Let’s face it. We’ve all fallen for it. We see “success” happen to another person, and suddenly we’re like Luke, Leia and Han trapped in the garbage chute – wallowing in some really dark and smelly emotions. Gore Vidal famously said, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

 Envy has multiple sides, Bell writes. Believe it or not, there’s a good side to envy. The emotion proves that we care about our art. We need passion or what’s the point? The problem though is that passion is so easily turned to the dark side (since we’re channeling Star Wars).

The negative side to envy becomes self-defeating, in that it keeps us from writing. Or worse, it can become outright poisonous, where our creativity becomes toxic  to everyone it touches (I think of Salieri vs. Mozart, as depicted in the film Amadeus.)

 Bell’s advice is to let yourself sulk for no more than an hour, then get back to writing.

If that seems too difficult, break open your Christian toolbox for we have multiple resources there for sanding down our inflamed egos. Like reminding ourselves that we create first for an “Audience of One”.  Or go straight at the envy and ask the Lord to teach you how to be glad for a person when life smiles on them.

What do you do when jealousy starts to sour your heart?

Tip #17 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “Stay hungry”.

It’s a bit of a sobering read. Most of us writers climbing Publication Mountain have the thought that getting to the top is when at last we’ll “arrive”, and never have to worry another day in our lives.

Not so fast, says Bell. “Most writers think getting published is the key to the Kingdom. We have arrived in a literary Valhalla to take our place among the gods of print…It’s all an illusion, of course. There is no Valhalla. It’s more like a dusty Barnes & Noble. And whatever shelf space we have can dry up in an instant.”

He shares of writing friends who were dumped by their publishers and others who can’t get a contract though they write award-winning novels.

Part of me wants to say, “Yah shore ya betcha, Mr. Bell. Easy for you to say, looking at us peasants from the other side of the fence.” But intuitively, even Scripturally, I know he’s right. If fame is the goal, then our pursuit of art is all wrong. (Right now, I’ll just settle for security. Enough provision so I can live to fight – and write – another year.)

The Bible is filled with warnings about how quickly life can turn on us, and if we don’t have our eyes on the right things, we will end up empty and in despair. “Seek first the kingdom…” Jesus stressed.

And for the artist? Well, it’s about the art, isn’t it? You paint, because you love to paint. You make music because it brings joy to your soul. You write because you come alive when you put words together in a magical way that touches the heart.

Bell quotes a famous screenwriter from the 1940s, Preston Sturges, who seeing the fleeting nature of Hollywood success said, “When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook and start the whole thing all over again.”

I think that’s what it means to stay hungry.

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In her book Making a Good Writer Great, writer and script-doctor Linda Seger has an entire chapter devoted to helping writers bring out the “shadow” side of their characters.

“We each contain many contrasting character traits – both good and bad,” Seger writes.  “Sometimes we’re cruel, vindictive, petty and hateful. We get jealous of those who are doing well. We want to kill off the competition…We also have a great capacity for good. We do extraordinary acts of kindness. We’re willing to struggle to help each other. We can be uncompromising in our integrity.”

Seger’s encouragement is to allow those same inner struggles to come out in our characters. Christian authors sometimes struggle with this. Seger says of many of her religious clients, “They are well-intentioned people who sincerely want to write [stories] that enrich the human spirit, but they shy away from exposing human flaws or negative characteristics. Their characters have nowhere to go because they start off so nice and perfect.”

Every one of us has a shadow side – things we hide away from others (even from ourselves) – for fear that if others knew about it, we’d be rejected, or worse. Our shadow is shaped by our families, our culture, our failures, our sin. The shadow side of us may even contain good traits that have never been allowed to flower because of ignorance or fear.

Why explore the “shadow” in our art? Well, because it’s honest, for starters. But more to the point, because the most memorable stories send their characters out on journeys into the unknown, where they can face their demons, and fight dragons, and receive wounds that in the end, will lead to a growth of their souls.

The shadow knows, like it’s said. So don’t leave your shadow behind.

Are you comfortable exploring the shadow side of your art? What steps can you take to give the shadow more visibility in your art?

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Tip #20 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “A gentle reminder can deliver great force at just the right time.”

 Sometimes as we’re writing we fall into ruts, and we need reminders to shake things up, so that we keep things fresh and on track. So Bell uses post-it notes around his writing station to hold him accountable. The notes he mentions in today’s reading are the following:

Emotion, Emotion, Emotion.

Translation: Remember that the primary objective of novel-writing is “to give the reader an emotional ride”, says Bell. This is important to remember if you’re a “Christian” writer hoping to inspire readers to draw near to the Jesus you love. If in my passion for conveying “truth” I fail to stir the heart of the reader, then I’ll fall short in my quest.

When I write a screenplay, I have to keep telling myself, “This is show business.” I have to be mindful of how to draw an audience.  Producer Mike Nepoliello says, “If what we write is funny, can I make it rolling-on-the-floor funny? If’s it’s a naibiter, can I make sure the reader wants to bite their fingers off? If my story can lift a hundred pounds, can I make it benchpress two hundred?” When someone says to him, “But my story’s gotta be about truth,” Mike replies, “Fine, but can it be about truth under pressure?”

Be dialogue happy.

“Let the dialogue flow,” Bell says. You can pare it down later.

Sadly, if your book looks like a Dicken’s novel with oceans of narrative, the modern reader is likely to pass. In screenwriting, it’s said your script should look like “bird footprints in snow” (in other words, lots of white space.) It’s just the way the world is right now, so don’t rage at the machine. Make your peace with it, and write more dialogue.

Surprise me now.

“Whenever the story even holds the hint of dragging, I want to create a surprise,” advises Bell. Do what Raymond Chandler always did, he says: Bring in a guy with a gun. (!) You get the point.

I’m reading a biography on DaVinci right now, and while it’s technically accurate, I’m 200 pages in with 300 to go and I’m about to say bye-bye. If you can’t make the life of Leonardo Stinkin’-DaVinci  remotely fascinating, shame on you. How much more in a novel is this a requirement?

This is just a sampling of writing reminders we could leave ourselves. For me, I’d add the following: Give me 5,000 words a day!  Use Power Words!  Show, don’t tell!

If you were to stick post-it notes around your writing area, what reminders would you leave yourself?

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Tip #23 in the “Art of War for Writers” from James Scott Bell is: “The writer of potential greatness settles not for ‘mere fiction’.”

 Bell shares a spirited conversation he had with some writing pals about the greatness of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It seems he was the only one of them that had warm fuzzies about the book, and what impressed him the most about it is that Melville “…was going for it. In sports parlance, he was leaving it all out there on the floor…He was himself pursuing a whale of artistic vision.” (And as you probably know, Melville enjoyed little commercial success from his masterpiece.)

Bell sees similar chutzpah in the early writing of young Stephen King, who though he was still unpublished with a completed novel or two under his belt, still managed to keep the lofty view of what he wanted to achieve with writing, even though there was no food in the fridge.

As one who has written not a little with not much to show for it so far, I hear what Bell is saying. Still give it your very best as you settle into your chair each day. Keep growing. Keep sharpening your saw. Keep hanging out with other writers who can push you. Keep aiming high.

We Christians banter often about doing our thing “before an Audience of One”. If nothing else, let that thought inspire you to keep pursuing excellence in your art.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip 26 is this: Edit slow, edit tough, with a process both clear and cool.

 Writing is rewriting, we’ve heard it said again and again. But are there better ways than others to go about it?

Bell’s entry here is short and sweet, which is a bit surprising since he’s written an entire book on the subject (Revision and Self-Editing) which is on my shelf. But just take his Table Of Contents, for example, as an example of what editing entails:

Characters * Plot & Structure * Point Of View * Scenes * Dialogue * Beginnings/Middle/Ends * Show vs. Tell * Voice & Style * Setting & Description * Exposition * Theme

Whew! You never knew as a writer all that you were up to, did you? But editing ought to give attention to each of these elements.

Obviously one of the best ways to edit is to get your work into other people’s hands and invite (then accept!) their feedback. I’m good at weeding out most of the spelling errors and typos out of my manuscript, but the more nuanced critiques usually need to come from other eyes and brains than your own.

In a TV series I’m writing, I have my main character show a fondness for Dr. Suess. Kinda cute, I thought. Something to draw kids in. It’s still an undeveloped idea, but then my wife read my synopsis and said, “That Dr. Suess thing is kinda creepy.” It totally flummoxed me, but no sense getting irate about it. Obviously, if this idea is a keeper, it’s going to need some spit and polish.

Yet there has to be a balance here. And Bell is spot on when he says this: “I will say that there does come a point of diminishing returns. You can workshop or critique group something to death and reach a place where it isn’t improving. At some point you have to send it out.”

 There is no perfect bit of writing. Not Hamlet’s To be or not to be soliloquy, not the apostle Paul’s love poem, even Psalm 23 could be reworked (“David, you’re mixing metaphors here. First, you’re talking sheep and shepherds, now you’ve brought me into a banquet hall. You better smooth this out or it’ll never amount to anything.”)  Everything can be rewritten.

So edit slow, edit tough, then comes the time you’ve done enough. Get it out there.

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.

 Tip 28 is this: The fully engaged writer must extend operations to two levels of the story.

 Sounds like a mouthful, but what Mr. Bell is on about is the need when we write to remember the emotional heartbeat of the story. Obviously the plot line or pitch concerns what happens to the lead character. But the story only comes alive when we describe what happens inside the lead character.

If we do this, Bell promises you “will elevate your manuscript above a mountain of slush passing before the bleary eyes of agents and editors.”

 He provides some key words to help us distinguish between the outer and inner trappings of our writing. Think of “action” (outer) and “reaction” (inner). Think of “motion” (outer) and “emotion” (inner.) Goal / Growth is another pair of words to keep in mind.

Bell uses the example of Rick from Casablanca to illustrate the inner journey of the Lead, and in case we still don’t fully get it, he provides 9 questions to ask yourself while writing which will help broaden and deepen that journey for your characters. Examples:

Who does the Lead need to be at the end of the novel to be ‘whole’? And Where is he now? And Why is he this way?

 I think this is what frustrated most when I saw the film “Dunkirk”. By design or neglect, Christopher Nolan gave us only surface depictions of his main characters. It kept me from caring. Compare this to the Spielberg classic, Saving Private Ryan, where Spielberg adds inner dimensionality to each character, beginning right off the bat with Tom Hank’s trembling hand.

Take a fresh look at your story. Is it an ordinary one-story house, or are two levels there for your characters to move about in?

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Usually when I write, it’s a disciplined process, taking a few hours a day, fit evenly into the schedule along with other activities. But once in awhile the “Muse” comes on me, and when that happens, I have no choice but to hide away in my office, shut off the phone, disconnect from social media and basically disappear.

How It Began

This happened back in February 2015 when I was on a 1-month writing sabbatical from my pastoring responsibilities in my church. During those four weeks, I wrote from scratch a 120-page, two-hour movie script called Deep Freeze based on an adventure story I wrote back in the 7th grade (a 200 page novel handwritten in several spiral notebooks.)

That screenplay went on to be a finalist in one of the top five international screenplay contests that Hollywood puts on each year. (It also was the “fleece” that I laid out before God when I was considering whether or not to take this crazy step of leaving ministry for a season, selling the house, and moving to Hollywood to write.)

Stephen Spielberg always said he needed to make “Jaws” first, because that allowed him to go on to make his more serious films. I always joked with my wife and daughter that this goofy adventure story (about a 30-foot snowstorm that wipes out the upper third of the country) would end up being my ticket into Hollywood, and allow my Ben-Hur sequel and other “normal” projects to get made.

Well, it’s not just a pipedream.

So Close, And Yet…

Last spring an HBO producer read my “treatment” for Deep Freeze (a treatment is basically a 2-3 page short story version of the movie) and was enthusiastic about it. He agreed to read the script, but was considerably less impressed with it. He returned to me a page of “notes”.

Notes are detailed comments from a producer. Which might not sound like much, but it’s not a given that a screenwriter would be given notes. Producers are working on umpteen projects at once, and if they thought a project stunk to high heaven, 1) they wouldn’t read the entire script, and 2) they wouldn’t provide notes.

This producer did not ask for my screenplay back, but in giving me notes, he wasn’t saying “no” either. Receiving notes can be interpreted as a rough sort of compliment.

Now, no writer particularly cares to receive notes. What they want to receive is an email saying, “This is amazing!”, and a 6-figure check. Notes, at first, kinda suck. Foot…meet groin. Cup of cold water…meet face.

But the wise writer will not do anything for the first 72 hours. They won’t grab a knife and hold their wrists over the sink. They won’t whip out an email reply to the producer, insulting their mother, and telling them they’re obviously clueless for not recognizing the unparalleled writing talent right there in front of them.

No writer particularly cares to receive notes. What they want to receive is an email saying, “This is amazing!”, and a 6-figure check.

As I carefully read through the notes I was given (not doctored up, by the way, with comforting language or nuanced niceness, but rather, blunt black  & white professional terseness, that would send anyone under 30 running for their colorbooks and safespaces), I realized that I had been given a gift.

I always knew the story as I wrote it had its strengths and weaknesses. Everything can be rewritten and spruced up (even the Bible – “Hey Mark. This chapter one of your gospel really stinks. Your beginning is abrupt, your character development is lousy, and take out about a half-dozen ‘immediately’s.”)

Areas To Look For Weaknesses In Your Script

The Beginning Of Your Story Must Sizzle

In my first draft, I begin the story at the beginning of the snowstorm, so we spend the first hour of the movie with six friends as they get trapped in a country farmhouse, and gradually realize that they’re in serious do-do as the blizzard ramps up and the snow piles up. The tension also ratchets up, but gradually over time, and then all hell breaks loose in the second and third act. It’s what I call the “slow burn” approach, which is maybe fine for a mini-series, but for a movie seldom works.

Screenwriters are taught ad naseum to make the first ten pages of their script to crackle. One producer I heard recently as a workshop said, “I can usually tell by page three if it’s any good. I’ll only read to page ten because I’m obligated.” Yikes! And you’ll notice that about movies these days – if something doesn’t die, or explode, or burn up, or turn into a zombie in the first five minutes, people will start tuning out.

The producer said in his notes to Deep Freeze, “Nothing happens till page 52!” And when I looked at the story honestly, he was right. My strategy in taking my characters slowly into a frozen hell, taking a leisurely amount of time to learn about these characters, so that we would care about these characters, so that when I kill them off later, it would hurt, well that strategy was misguided.

The Conflict Of Your Story Must Lend To The Heroic

And speaking of killing them off, the producer called me out on another problem, which I intuitively knew was a problem. The Christian writer in me who is so fed up with the mamby-pamby way most Christian writers present conflict or trouble (i.e. setting up strawmen villains who are easily overcome) that I way overcompensated in Deep Freeze. (By the way, DF is not meant to be a faith-based story, though I do insert a pastor in the story whom I present as “normal” and “heroic” – opposed to the way Hollywood usually presents people of faith.)

I kill off two of my original six characters and have two of the women kidnapped and brutalized by the bad guys. I thought for sure an HBO dude wouldn’t mind it, but he called me out on it. And you know what? I’m glad he did. In opting for “realism”, I diminished the heroic potential in my story, which was meant to show how ordinary people face extraordinary danger.

People go to a movie 1) to get away from “realism” if they can, and 2) to feel something, hopefully positive, that can make them laugh, think, feel and most importantly – be entertained. “It is, after all, show business,” I’ve heard said many times. Give people a reason to fork over $15 for two hours and come away feeling good about it.

The Characters Of Your Story Must Have Depth

And speaking of my bad guys, I don’t show them at all in the first act. They explode on the scene in the second half, and we never learn their names, their backstory, their motives. Just pure, relentless evil – which always arises in times of crisis or survival. There is actually an artistic reason for taking the approach that I did. It wasn’t “wrong”. But for the purposes of movie-making, my approach didn’t sit well with this producer. He wanted names, motives, and reasons to fear them, and cheer their inevitable defeat.

How To Approach A Rewrite

I can’t speak for any other writer, but based on my experience rewriting Deep Freeze, here are some of the lessons I learned.

Take Some Time Away From The Story

There are two temptations I felt in the first week or so, both of them wrong. The first is to say, “Screw it!” and walk away from the project. There are times with an idea or a project when yes, you count your losses and move on. But not with one rejection letter from your query, or one producer who says, “Not for me.” Especially when you get some serious nibbles with a project – as with mine – you continue to peck away at it.

Give people a reason to fork over $15 for two hours and come away feeling good about it.

But not right away. The second temptation is to dive right in to the rewrite, with an, “I’ll show them!” kind of spite. But I doubt this seriously moves the needle forward to where you want to be. Any rewriting you do will likely be only window-dressing, and not repair the main potholes in the story.

So just walk away, simmer down, go play a week of golf, or do what I did, and take six weeks and start a new ministry. (Seriously – go to trainyourselfministry.com. This was launched in the aftermath of receiving my notes.)

When you spend so much time with a particular story, you get locked in to seeing it only a certain way. Time is needed to dislodge yourself from that track you’ve been on.

Slowly Invite The Story Back Into Your Life

Every writer has a different approach to writing. Some discover their story in the process of writing. Others cover their desk, walls, and pets with index cards, creating and arranging scenes on an elaborate storyboard. I like to walk with a story for quite awhile, sometimes days, before I sit down to write.

I envision scenes and structure and dialogue while I’m out jogging or having my afternoon coffee. This was how I wrote sermons. After reading and studying my passage or topic, I spent the rest of the day doodling, boogie-boarding, cutting the lawn, and then the following day I could literally sit down and write a twelve page sermon without stopping in three or four hours.

That’s what happened with this rewrite. (And granted, we’re talking about a major rewrite, which is what this needed to be. If we’re talking about sprucing up some dialogue or adding a scene, disregard everything I’ve said.)

I knew the movie had to begin at the end of the storm – when all the action kicks into high gear – and not the beginning. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. How do you just pass over the genesis of a 30-40 foot snowstorm?

But after walking with the story for a few days, sometimes bribing it with cookies, and sometimes holding it at gunpoint and demanding that it spill its precious secrets, one early morning (4 or 5am), it suddenly played out in my mind, just like a movie. The first two scenes in their entirety were just there. I got up and wrote the first three pages in ten minutes. And they remain largely untouched in the final revision.

Find Your Motivation And Write

If you don’t know my story, I’m a 25-year pastor who is taking a bold, arguably stupid, year off from ministry (i.e. earning a paycheck), living off of retirement savings (something in your early 50s you’re not supposed to do), so that I can get on paper as many writing projects as I can that have been piling up in my heart for years.

The clock is ticking and so my project list is very tight right now, with not a lot of time to squeeze things in. But a few weeks ago, I came across a screenplay contest that caught my eye, and suddenly the thought was there: Let’s get Deep Freeze done for that.

Turns out the best I could do was not the best I could do. There was more inside me, but it took someone outside of me to bring it to the surface.

With that tiny, little push, I cleared my slate and calendar, and a few days ago, after about ten days of constant coffee, no social media, and tethering myself to the computer, wrote “The End” on a bright, new, lean, mean (103 pages opposed to 118, another “note” from the producer – “It’s TOO LONG!”) Deep Freeze.

It feels good to shave, and walk outside again (Hey, how come it’s getting dark so early now? When’d that happen?!) I feel  invigorated, and hopeful. (Though give it a day, and for no reason at all, other than that I’m a writer, I’ll feel dejected and filled with self-loathing.)

I honestly think the story is far better than what it was. Come to find out, I wasn’t writing to please a particular producer, I was writing to please me.

My first ten pages are better. You better not be getting popcorn when the credits roll, or you’ll miss an amazing beginning. All the major players and stakes are introduced in Act One. You’re ready to fasten your seat belts and hang on for the ride. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll hide your eyes, you’ll get faked out by a brand new James Cameron double-ending that I’ve added (a great dramatic, happy ending where you think everyone’s safe, until NOT SO FAST, here comes twice as much trouble.)

Whether my HBO contact grants this a second look-over is out of my control. But none of this satisfaction I’m feeling right now would be there if I had just said to myself, “That’s good enough. That’s the best I could do.”

Turns out the best I could do was not the best I could do. There was more inside me, but it took someone outside of me to bring it to the surface. And for that I’m grateful.

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The following is an article shared with my supporters through Patreon. But it may be of interest to those of you who are writers and artists. It shares how I took a little 12-page script and developed it into a full-bodied 4-episode TV series ready to be marketed. For more information about our work or how to support us through Patreon, go to www.patreon.com/bearclifton

I hope you each had a great Thanksgiving. It was 93 here that day, making it one of the strangest Turkey-Days ever. As some of you know, though Janis hates facial hair, I am legally, technically, prenuptially, maritally, and farcically allowed to have a beard in the winter beginning on Thanksgiving. But I threw Jan a bone: if it ever gets above 70, I have to shave. Well, you can see what a fine kettle of fish this is. Last year I snuck in a goatee during a January cold snap, but my prospects are looking grim so far. Greater love hath no husband than this…

As another sign of my love for my woman, I sent Janis back out East for 12 days during Thanksgiving, to replenish the part of her that needs green. So what did I do with all that time? I wrote a 50-page episode of “Tinkerville”, bringing me up to 4 completed episodes for this 1-hour TV drama series I’m creating.

As my Patreon supporters, you get an inside look at some of these projects I’m developing, so let me give you a bird-eye view of how “Tinkerville” came about. Here’s the “logline” of Tinkerville:

Inspired by “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Tinkerville is an hour-long family drama that follows the adventures of Jonathan Tinker, a powerful angel who goes incognito as a school maintenance man in a suburban town to protect a junior high boy named Josh who will save the world as an adult.

So how did this project evolve? I’ve long had the thought that “It’s A Wonderful Life” left a lot of untapped material to be explored. The idea of an angel that can “tinker” with a person’s sense of reality (as Clarence did with George Bailey), so that they can see their lives differently, opens the door to a lot of story ideas. (A few movies like Family Man have mined some jewels from that vein.)

Hold that thought.

A year ago last October I entered a short script called “Turbo Jam Boosters” into a $1,000 “Write A Script In A Week” contest about a junior high boy, Josh, who feels left out in his family, and so he acts out by deleting his older brother’s senior project. My script won that contest, which was a cool way to begin my writing sabbatical. (You can read the script by going to patreon.com/bearclifton and viewing this article.)

During the fall and early winter I went on to other projects (writing the movie screenplay for “A Sparrow Could Fall” and writing the purity devotional “Train Yourself To Be Godly”.)

But as we got into the meat of winter, with the inspiration of my goatee, Tinkerville began to take shape in my mind. I began to walk around and get to know Jonathan Tinker. (Some people write stories by writing – I write by walking and thinking and dreaming, sometimes for weeks first before I put down a single word. Then when I write, it pours out like a waterfall.)

It dawned on me in the dreaming phase that the short script I had written would mesh perfectly into the pilot episode I wanted to write. In the short, Josh manages at the last minute to retrieve his brother’s deleted project with the help of two friends. In the pilot, guess who helps him get the project back? You got it – Tinker.

In the pilot, Tinker has just moved in to the town, and I have Josh and his buds secretly come to his house to vandalize it, before Tinker tinkers with them. The idea was to have Tinker befriend Josh, and to have him and his friends and family become recurring characters.

WRITING TIP: DISCOVER YOUR OWN WRITING STYLE. Some people write stories by writing – I write by walking and thinking and dreaming, sometimes for weeks first before I put down a single word. Then when I write, it pours out like a waterfall.

I was very pleased with the pilot episode I wrote, and I sent it off to one of the top five screenplay contests this summer – the Austin Film Festival – and it was selected as a top 20% finalist for the TV category. So I know I’m “onto something.” (Again, the pilot episode can be viewed at the Patreon website.)

To actually sell a TV series in Hollywood, you need to be able to produce what’s called a “Bible” for your series, where you describe:

  • what it’s about,
  • who the main characters are,
  • what the arc of the entire first season is meant to be,
  • where your series might go with future seasons
  • why would anyone watch this series.

I began to play around with a “Bible” for Tinkerville, but still didn’t fully know what I had on my hands. I knew that I wanted Tinker to only act “simple and innocent” in front of people, but unlike Clarence in the movie, I wanted Tinker to actually be a powerful, high-level angel. I wanted him to be in command of situations, and have some authority about him.

And I knew that I wanted him to use his power to help people in the town see their lives differently and change for the better. Which suggested to me that the show would include a lot of independent episodes which didn’t necessarily fit together. Josh would pop in now and then to give some continuity, but that was about it.


Most people say that you shouldn’t write more than a Bible and a pilot for proposing a new series, because chances are if your series is “picked up”, a showrunner and team of writers will take over and actually write the series. But I knew as an unknown writer that I would need to write some more episodes of Tinkerville, if only to demonstrate to myself and others that I could write episodic TV. And besides, I needed to explore the direction the series could go in.

So over a monthlong period in early-spring I wrote out two more episodes of the show. For years, I have carried with me the idea for a movie about a man who’s seven years into his marriage, and his marriage absolutely sucks and he’s convinced it’s all his wife’s fault. Through a bit of magic, he goes back in time to the day he proposed to his wife, and he is allowed to undo it all, and go on to marry someone else. Seven years later, he ends up in the same place. With a lousy marriage. Meanwhile his “former” wife is enjoying a spectacular marriage with his best friend. The lesson of course is that all along, it was his fault, not his wife’s.

Well guess what? Guess who sends the man back in time to learn this lesson? You got it. Tinker. And “Seven Year Itch” became the second episode.

I also finished a third episode which I called “PC Land”. Logline: When Tinker is suspended for using “hate-speech”, he gives a merciless superintendent a frightening taste of what happens when political correctness runs amok.

Slowly, the Bible was taking shape in my mind, but I still was missing a common thread, or “arc” to link all the stories together. I decided to take a break from T-ville and give some time getting the Train Yourself Ministry website up and running. (You can view the website here at trainyourselfministry.com).


Fast-forward to putting Janis on the plane a week before Thanksgiving. My goal for that week was to finish the Bible, but to do that I needed to develop one more episode. Janis and I had watched the second season of “Stranger Things” a couple weeks earlier, and two ideas took shape in my mind: 1) that Tinker needed to be a part of a larger angelic community and 2) that he needed a nemesis.

The famous screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says that in every good story you need “intention” and “obstacle”. You need a main character whose intent is to do something big, and then you need to put something bigger in his or her way to muck up the works. Tinker had no adversary.

But of course, every Christian knows that the spirit world is comprised of angels and demons. I didn’t have to look any further than the real Bible to figure out the missing piece to the series.

So in the fourth episode – which I wrote the week before Thanksgiving – it all came together:

We learn Tinker’s true identity. That his true name is Prince Catharnoch, and he is a high angel, or seraphim, with powers as great as they come.

We learn Tinker’s backstory. That during World War II, not only were humans fighting, but there was a great battle in the heavens as well. And as angels fought for the defense of the earth, Prince Catharnoch went toe to toe with one of the great demonic angels, Melchorn. Catharnoch won his battle, but at great cost, being seriously wounded in the combat. When we first meet Tinker, he is just returning to earth after all these years, having largely recovered from his injuries.

We learn Tinker’s mission. Tinker doesn’t show up to do rehab. He is given a critical assignment: to protect a young teenager, who as an adult will do something great to save the earth. His name? Josh. Suddenly, Josh isn’t just an add-on to the story, but a critical part of its core.

We learn Tinker’s obstacle. Melchorn has learned that Catharnoch has returned to earth, but he doesn’t know where yet. And so he is searching far and wide for him, sending out lesser demons as scouts and spies. Tinker must purposely restrain his use of his power, lest he betray his identity. He knows he is not yet ready to face Melchorn. Furthermore, he fears what Melchorn would do to Josh should he learn his destiny.

All of this is made clear in episode 4: “All For One And One For All”.

WRITING TIP: DOES YOUR STORY HAVE INTENTION AND OBSTACLE? Aaron Sorkin says that in every good story you need “intention” and “obstacle”. You need a main character whose intent is to do something big, and then you need to put something bigger in his or her way to muck up the works.

And with this episode completed, I now had all the raw material I needed for my series “Bible”. Which you can view by clicking here.

So what now? It’s time for this little piggie to go to market. As with all my projects, it remains the longest of long-shots. Breaking in past the gate-keepers of Hollywood is such a wisp of a dream. But it does happen. Click here for a story about an unknown writer who just a few years ago sold a Bible and a pilot, doing much as I am trying to do. (It’s part of a 7-article series for anyone who wants to read further.)

I believe in the story I have created here. I think it is highly commercial and highly entertaining. It has some Harry Potter/Stranger Things mystique in its DNA. It’s faith-friendly, which represents a massive audience out there that Hollywood often overlooks. It’s also family-friendly – it’s the kind of show that an entire family would sit around and watch together, and how many of those shows are around today?

So pray for us often if you would please. Pray that I would have wisdom to know where and how to hobnob in this wonderland called Hollywood. If you have thoughts, or connections or ideas, I’m open to them all. Sometimes projects gain attention because somebody has a relative who knows a waiter whose big brother is best friends with a producer. And suddenly that little connection leads to a relationship where projects can be shared (i.e. pitched, is the buzzword.)

And as always, thank you for your patronage, which is helping to make this possible. Right now, the money you’re giving represents six or seven days where I’d have to go out and do background work, and every one of those days is a day where I cannot write or network.

Time and money isn’t necessarily on my side, but knowing that you’re there with me, and that God is superintending the whole dream is more encouraging than I can describe!

Talk again soon. Don’t hesitate to drop me a note with questions, comments, encouragements, etc. You can “tinker” with me whenever you want!


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In the summer of 2016, my wife Janis and I sold our home in Connecticut, stepped down from our jobs, and moved to LA. Mid-life crisis? Possibly. Crazy? Likely. Scary? Absolutely.

You’re not supposed to do this when you hit your fifties. But…you reach a point in life where you begin asking yourself: Is the only reason we’re alive is to die comfortably?

Both Janis and I are gripped by dreams we’ve never allowed to fully come out and play. For me, it’s writing stories, which I’ve done since I was a boy. So we came to LA for me to take a year away from ministry to write my little heart out, and try to join the growing chorus of Christian voices in Hollywood. It doesn’t hurt that our daughter and only child Hannah lives out here.

During this time, we’ve helped pay the bills by becoming “background actors”, and in this series of blogs I’ll give you an insider’s peek into what this peculiar line of work looks like.

Chris Flippin’-Captain-Kirk Pine is standing right next to me on the steps of a courthouse in Burbank. His eyes flash with that joyful wildness that has become his trademark look.

I’m dressed as a reporter from the 1960s, along with a dozen others, brandishing notepads and cameras, most smoking cigarettes because smoking was what people did in the 60s (herbals though, no nicotine on the set, because that would break like 71 laws in California these days.)

Mr. Pine marvels at the camera that’s right there in our faces because they’re using real film in the creation of a mini-series we’re working on to give it a classic look and feel.

My acting buddy

Outside of perhaps a basic hello, background actors are not allowed to buddy-up with any of the “talent”. Speak if you’re spoken to, but be respectfully mute otherwise.

Which is killing me because Chris Pine would be a perfect fit to play the lead in Deep Freeze, one of my screenplay projects. If I’d say, “Chris, I’ve written a story I think you’d love. Can I hit you with the logline?”, it’s 99.37% certain that I’d be kicked off the set. (A “logline” is a one-sentence summary of your story – but that one sentence has to absolutely sizzle. It has to be so amazing that a producer would whip off their glasses, and says, “OMG! Tell me more!”)

So instead, I’ve been practicing my logline aloud with my new friend Alex – An apocalyptic snowstorm buries the Mountain Plains under thirty feet of snow, forcing six friends trapped in a country house to fight starvation, sickness, madness, and a ruthless band of escaped prisoners if they’re to make it out alive! – just within earshot of my new friend Chris.

But alas, he’s focused on the vintage camera, and more so on what he does in front of the camera, like doing the smolder with his hair, getting beat up, and flashing his great smile.

The Vault Of Faith

Once I step outside that moment and catch a glimpse from above of what I’m doing, then it’s me who’s smiling. Because this is one reason among many why we took the vault of faith (leap is too weak a word) and moved West.

If you would have told me eighteen months ago that Chris Pine and I would be on a movie set together, taking direction from Patty Flippin’-Wonder-Woman Jenkins (I forgot to mention that tiny morsel), I would have encouraged you to see your therapist.

“Hey Alex, have I told you the one about the apocalyptic snowstorm that buries…”

But there it is in a nutshell – the lure of entering the world of background acting.

Now before you start getting envious, and start unfriending us and junk, even though I’ve spent ten paragraphs trying to describe how glamorous all this is, doing BG work is far from glamorous. It’s basically a minimum wage job, with some incredibly long hours, and torturous drives through the loveliness that is LA traffic.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll do my best to give you a revealing – and hopefully fun – glimpse at this most curious of ways to get a paycheck.

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One of my mottos is Faith without art is dead. This isn’t just a clever little play on a famous verse from the epistle of James. I believe that one of the best way to enrich and strengthen faith is through art. (The opposite is true as well.) It was a little known Billy Graham movie that brought me across the line of faith for the first time at the age of eleven. It was the classic 1959 Ben-Hur that sealed the deal when I was a freshman in college.

Yet the importance of art seems to always get short-shrift in our thinking. In education, it’s the “STEM” classes (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) that get all the attention and money. Even in church life, the importance of art in worship and teaching is often overlooked or underutilized. I’ve honestly been taken back by how few churches in the Los Angeles basin pay much attention to Hollywood – this behemoth world-culture-shaper in whose shadow they live. I’ve scarcely heard it even prayed for in the midst of ordinary worship services.

So I’d like to make the case over a few short blog articles why I believe that faith without art is dead, and if not dead is certainly hollowed out and weakened.

Here’s a very simple reason for why art is so important:

Art is food for our souls.

Art has an ability to slip through the armed guard of our minds to touch the deepest parts of our humanity.

Oftentimes, art is thought of as an “add-on” for life. It’s something nice to have, but not essential. When you buy a home, the first things you buy to fill that home are typically kitchen appliances and furniture and bedding and carpeting – only later do you think of paintings for the walls, or knick-knacks for the bookshelves. Those are “fillers”.

And yet, the arts are so much more than mere add-ons.

Imagine Christmas without those carols. Without candles. Without wreathes and a decorated tree.

The day after last year’s Super Bowl found more people talking about their devastation at learning how Jack really died in This Is Us than the game itself (though the game was a classic, I’ll grant you that. And any day that the New England Patriots fail to win the Super Bowl is a good day in my book.)

Truth be told, every time I’ve moved house over the years, the first thing that gets hooked up is the stereo, because those boxes just can’t get unpacked without America or Fleetwood Mac playing in the background. Imagine if there were no music in your life.

At the end of a busy day at work, when I’ve been devoting all my energies to levels one and two of Maslow’s pyramid, there’s nothing better than vegging out with a good movie or curling up with a good book – imagine if such things weren’t around.

When people need comfort from God’s Word it’s usually not Kings or Chronicles they’re turning to, but the Psalms (the Bible’s songbook.)

And yes, it’s true, when I go to the grocery store, I’ll make sure I buy food before I buy flowers, but can you imagine a world without flowers, without beauty?  There is something deep inside of us as human beings that thirsts for that which art provides, and without it, something within us dies.  Man cannot live on bread alone. And yes, faith without art is dead.

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Why do I say that “faith without art is dead”? Here’s a fourth reason.

Creating art deepens our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God.  

When my daughter was in college studying art, I stirred up a little hornets’ nest of discussion one Thanksgiving when I asked the question, “Is art all subjective, or is there an objective way to measure art?”

“Subjective” means that you the subject determine the worth or truth of something. “Objective” means the object determines the worth or truth of something. 2+2=4 is an objective statement.  “Math sucks,” is a subjective one.

So what about art? Is art merely subjective – to the point where we can only say “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? Or is there an objective quality to art? Is there a beauty out there that comes with a capital B, before which all beauty is measured?

The question is not unimportant. And think through the consequences of your answer. If you say that there is no such thing as Beauty – capital B – that there is no way to objectively measure art, that it’s all subjective – then that means you can have no opinion about the music your teenagers listen to or the movies they watch. When Robert Mapplethorp drops a crucifix in a bottle of urine and calls it “Piss Christ” you can’t speak up.  Nor should you be offended.

When a rap artist writes a song praising the murder of police and the rape of women you have to zip your lip, because he’s just artistically expressing his culture, we’re told. One man’s pornography is another man’s art, and who are you to judge it?

If art is all subjective, then this is where we end up. If beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, then art can mean anything, and ultimately then art means nothing at all.

“An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of the eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” ~ C.S. Lewis

But we all intuitively know that there is something objectively measurable about art. There is something that allows there to be a consensus that this painting is a masterpiece, or this movie is Oscar-worthy. We even detect the objectivity of art in subtle ways. When the evening news broadcasts a story about a death or a tragedy, John Philip Sousa is not played beneath it. The music is always somber and reflective. Which points to the objectivity of art.

Of course, Christians know what that objective reality is pointing to – it is God, who embodies for us and defines for us what Beauty – capital B is, and Truth – capital T is. So art when it functions the way God intended, will deepen in some way our understanding and appreciation of the Beauty and Truth of God.

In Exodus 28:2 God instructs Moses to “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron, to give him dignity and honor.” (The King James Version says, “to give him glory and beauty.”) Art which functions the way God intended will gives us these things: dignity, honor, glory and beauty. It will ennoble us, enrich us, inspire us, and will move us closer in some way to Beauty and to Truth.

C.S. Lewis put it this way – “An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of the eternal Beauty and Wisdom.”

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I’m blogging chapter by chapter through a great book on the art of writing by James Scott Bell. I encourage you to pick up a copy of “The Art Of War For Writers”.  

Tip 36 is this: Speed Is The Essence Of The Opening.

Now we know this. It’s laid into our psyche as children when Mom would begin with, “Once upon a time…” We feel it in our bones when we watch a movie and nothing happens in the first five minutes.

Sheryl J. Anderson, creator of the TV show Charmed, says she reads a script by page ten because she’s obligated, but knows by page three if it’s any good.

The Bible does this. Everything’s just splendid, and suddenly, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast” (Genesis 3:1). Jesus did it in his parables: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds…” (Matthew 13:24).

JSB says take the reader “by the lapels and drag him into the story world with no time wasted.”

He then drills the point home with example after example from best-selling novels.

Why is this necessary? I love JSB’s explanation. We need to understand why people read: “They read to worry. They read because they want to have their emotions wrenched by the plight of a character to whom they feel emotionally connected.”

This doesn’t mean you have to blow something up or kill someone or draw blood in the first paragraph. But it does mean you have to introduce a disturbance in the force right away.

So don’t fight it. Don’t try to tell yourself that it’s because people have short attention spans today. It’s the essence of good communication and compelling story-telling at all times and in all places. Speed is indeed the essence of the opening.

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