July 26, 2012

Does God only help those who help themselves?

Photo by Nat Arnett — sxc.hu
I just finished leading a study group at church using Cheri Cowell's excellent book Direction. I'll write a full review later, but for now, I want to look at an interesting aside in the book.

As part of a larger discussion of the lack of biblical literacy, Cowell cites a 2001 Barna survey that found, among those who identified themselves as Christians, the most widely recognized Bible verse is "God helps those who help themselves."

Do you see the problem there?

It's not from the Bible.

Cowell went on to emphasize the importance of biblical literacy, but I was left behind wondering whether this well-known aphorism has a detectable origin, or whether it's just one of those things handed down orally from the depths of time.

Indeed, we can find its origin if we look hard enough. A cursory Google leads you to Benjamin Franklin, but some additional digging turns up Algernon Sidney's Discourses on Government, published in 1698. The relevant passage appears under the heading "Section 23: That is the best Government, which best provides for War."
"...kingdoms and commonwealths acknowledging no superior, except God alone, can reasonably hope to be protected by him only; and by him, if with industry and courage they make use of the means he has given them for their own defence. God helps those who help themselves; and men are by several reasons (suppose to prevent the increase of a suspected power) induced to succour an industrious and brave people: But such as neglect the means of their own preservation, are ever left to perish with shame."
It's highly unlikely that enough people read Sidney for this to achieve a tipping point. But it is highly likely that Franklin read Sidney, which explains how that little nugget wound up out being reprinted out of context in Poor Richard's Almanac. But that is no doubt where enough people read it for it to become so popular as to be held up alongside the wisdom of Solomon and Jesus, if not actually mistaken as their words.

Cowell notes in Direction that spiritual illiteracy is a result of our sound bite culture. The scriptures are dense and hard to understand. It takes more work to understand them than many people are willing to apply. And even those who do read the Bible don't read much of it.

The worst of it is that Sidney's statement, which so many believers mistake for a Biblical truth, actually contradicts basic Christian doctrine. While it's true we are called to put to good use the talents God has given us, we are not called to do so in service to ourselves. We are called to serve others.

So if God doesn't help those who help themselves, whom does he help? "All who call on him in truth."
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Psalm 46:1-3

July 16, 2012

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com
Hey Kristen —

Sorry to pester you, but I didn't know who else to ask. I was going over a critique someone gave me, and they mentioned that top editors teach to never use italics, even with internal thought. Some say never to use italics at all.

Here's my concern. Almost everyone else I've run into says italics should be used for internal thoughts that would normally be spoken as words.

For example:

His eyes surveyed the plain below, then turned back to Albione. “That’s not good, brother.” 
No, it wasn't. His older brother didn’t complicate matters with fancy words. That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple finds out what happened here, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

One editor said it’s perfectly fine to use first-person internal monologue without italics. As a reader, this doesn't bother me at all. But I don't want to look like a hack when I send my stuff to an editor without italics, because they might think I have no clue about Point of View.


Will, there's still some disagreement on this.

The editor you mention is in line with the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, which says:

We no longer recommend that a person's thoughts, imagined words, and unspoken prayers (called unspoken discourse), when expressed in the first person, always be set in italics.

I tend to agree that you don't need italics for internal monologue because in deep POV everything is in the main character's head. Where we run into problems is when the narrative is in third person past tense (as yours is) and the internal monologue is in first person present tense (as yours is). Some, like the editor you mention, think it’s OK to leave it all in Roman, but others disagree. CWMS doesn’t recommend italics, but they don’t prohibit italics, either. Which is why you still see a lot of published books in which the internal monologue is in italics, just as you have it above. There are still plenty of editors who like it that way. But the trend seems to be away from that.

When the interior monologue changes person and tense, the italics provide a kind of "I meant to do this" visual cue to the reader signaling the change. But if the monologue is in the same person and tense as the rest of the narrative, there's no need. So what most editors advise is to keep everything in deep POV and in the same voice and typeface. This is what I recommend. So your example would look like this:
That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple found out what happened there, he'd be in a lot of trouble.
One place where many publishers still use italics is in what CWMS calls "unspoken discourse" and I call "silent dialog." This includes prayer, God talking to the POV character, and, for those of us who write speculative fiction, telepathy. A lot of publishers still put those in italics, although the Christian Writer's Manual of Style says it's not necessary for prayer. CWMS, oddly enough, does not directly address the issue of telepathy.

In your manuscript, I'd do it the way that makes the most sense to you. Of all the things that might make you look like a hack, this is the least of them, because it's a matter of style, not of right or wrong. Ultimately, whether italics are banned or encouraged depends on the publisher.

And you can pester me with questions any time. I use them as blog fodder.

— Kristen

July 9, 2012

Awesome Epic Quest

DawnSingerDawnSinger by Janalyn Voigt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kai and Shae, the central characters in DawnSinger, are intriguing and engaging. They’re been raised as brother and sister, but Kai knows this is a ruse. Shae’s true identity has been concealed for her own protection. This puts an unusual twist on their relationship, especially when the court minstrel starts flirting with Shae. The romantic element is a relatively small part of the story, but it’s filled with unexpected intricacies and ties firmly into the main plot.

The first half of the book is cloak-and-dagger political intrigue in the High Queen’s court, and the second half is straight-ahead epic quest. The stakes and tension are high right up through the end.

Voigt’s prose is eloquent, and she creates a lot of wonderful word pictures. When this is applied to dialog, the results can be a bit high and lofty and stilted, but many fantasy fans will see this not as a bug, but as a feature. The settings are rich, and there’s a map. All the best fantasy novels have maps.

This is the kind of story that stays with you long after the last page. The kind that keeps you wondering where your new friends are and what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to the sequel so I can find out.

Disclosure: I was given an advance e-version of this book for review purposes.

View all my reviews

July 3, 2012

Your hard drive will crash

Photo by Marcin Barłowski — www.sxc.hu
Several writing buddies have suffered computer crashes lately, and I feel their pain. We all have horror stories about writing a great scene or story that later disappeared in a hard drive crash. In my case, an entire short story vanished into the ether because when we restored from the backup, it wasn’t there. The backup hadn’t been run between the time I wrote the story and the time of the hard drive crash.

Hard drives are mechanical and like other mechanical goods they WILL fail -- it is just a matter of when. A good hard drive will last up to 10 years -- I've even seen a few little engines that kept chugging longer than that with some TLC -- but most fail after about 5-10 years.

The best approach is to have redundant backups: one local and one in the cloud. If one fails, you can use the other. And yes, I have a horror story about the failure of the backup drive. Drive Savers can help if your data is truly mission critical, but their service is so pricey you may find (as we did) that it’s less expensive to pay people to re-do the lost work than to pay Drive Savers to recover it.

Ideally, you want something automated that backs up continually. Microsoft’s Backup and Restore and Apple’s Time Machine will do this. You just need a honkin’ big external drive to connect them to.

There are a variety of online backup solutions available. I use CrashPlan because it was recommended by someone I trust, and got good reviews in the magazines I follow.

But external drives and service plans come with a price tag, and most writers are on tight budgets. If you don't need to back up your whole computer and just need a place to store your Word documents, a flash drive will work for your local backup; I've seen them at office supply stores for as little as $10. Dropbox rocks for cloud backups, and it's free for 2 GB, which is hard to exceed if you're only storing Word files. And if you store your working files (not just copies) to Dropbox, they will be backed up constantly.

Automated backups are best. If you don’t have them, put a system or procedure in place to help remind you to back up your current work at the end of each session. Or even hourly. This is an area where you really can’t afford to do things by halves.