Friday, October 24, 2014

Arts Week

One evening Gavin Delahunty, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art,
did a fantastic Gallery Talk for DTS. Here he gives us the background of this piece by Jackson Pollock. 

I enjoyed looking up into "The Day the Clouds Came Down" with students and friends. 

Abbie Powers and Katie Fisher do a Gallery Talk on their creation (see previous post). 

The DTS Gospel choir performed in chapel one day. Glorious!
I'm headed to campus this morning to hear the final message from Dr. Rob Johnston, who has keynoted arts week at DTS talking about how God reveals himself outside of the Bible ("general revelation"). Dr. Johnston was moved to enter ministry by watching the movie, "Becket." I had a similar experience watching "Schindler's List." Has a narrative shaped you and/or altered the course of your life in some way?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Arts Week

I took this photo today as I lay flat on my back on a classroom floor at DTS, staring up into a firmament of silk.

No, I don't normally lie on the floor at work. But this is arts week at DTS! Tomorrow on Wordless Wednesday I plan to feature more photos of this art installation on campus. Sisters Abbie Powers and Katie Fisher collaborated to bring us "The Day the Clouds Came Down."

Abbie writes, "I am an installation and performance artist working primarily in silk, the female figure, movement and video projection. Hand-dyed expanses of silk reference the sublimity of the natural world, the intimacy of the figure, and the evanescence of our breath....

"Silk forms suspended from the ceiling reference clouds, flowers, and underwater environments, as well as an intimate connection to the female figure. The suspended installation pieces are manipulated by either a machine or the viewer, activating both the art piece and the surrounding environment."

Her web site is

Katie is one of my beloved students. She writes, "I am a visual artist. My formal training is in graphic design and illustration. At times I pretend to be a writer. [Don't let her fool you. She's terrific!] Currently my educational interests have taken me into pursuing a Masters of Arts in Media Arts and Worship. Box & Turtle [the name of her web site] is my refuge from the stack of books beside my desk and the endless paper deadlines. I hope you enjoy the spirit of my work and find refuge in it as I have." You can find more beauty from Katie at

Until tomorrow...

Survey: Vast Numbers of Christian Men Addicted to Porn and Having Affairs

By Mark Ellis, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (ANS) — A national survey of Christian men reveals that alarming numbers are using porn and engaging in sexual infidelity.

The 2014 survey was commissioned by Proven Men Ministries and conducted by Barna Group among adult men who identified themselves as Christians.

The statistics for Christian men between the ages of 18–30 are striking: Some 77% view pornography at least monthly; 36% view pornography at least daily; and 32% admit their addiction to porn (another 12% think they may be addicted).

The survey's results for middle-aged Christian men (ages 31–49) are no less disturbing: Some 64% view pornography at least monthly; and 18% admit being addicted to pornography (another 8% think they may be).

Some 55% of married Christian men viewed porn at least monthly, and 35% had a sexual affair while married, according to the Barna survey.

"These statistics knock the wind right out of you," says Joel Hesch, the founder of Proven Men Ministries. "There definitely is a problem with pornography and affairs among Christian men, and people are starving for the church to step forward with solutions. Pornography is one of the biggest unaddressed problems in the church.”

Those who identify themselves as born-again Christians revealed similar struggles with pornography and affairs, with 54% admitting they look at pornography at least once a month and 31% having had a sexual affair while married.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Prodigal Pig

Today I'm happy to feature Don Regier, author of Prodigal Pig Tale, an interactive e-book for iPads and Macs. It is a fantastic, fun book with lots of options for play and exploration (for kids of all ages).

So, Don, what's the story?

The action begins on the McSwine family farm, a run-down piece of real estate populated by lovable pigs. Cunningham (Hamlet) McSwine schemes about leaving so he can follow his heroes, Sir "Frank" Bacon, Pablo Pigcasso, and Captain Pigcard. Sonny, a ragged farmhand, warns him against it, because he himself left home, wasted his inheritance, and is now suffering on a pig farm.

When Hamlet follows his dream, his older sibling Decker must decide whether or not to forgive his brother.

Forgiveness—there's a topic for everybody. What inspired the story?

I got the initial concept from [the late radio preacher] J. Vernon McGee. He alluded to the "prodigal pig" during my first semester in seminary in 1965. I never forgot the idea.

Several other things inspired me: a clay pig that our thirteen-year-old son Brent made in 1985; a scale model of an abandoned gas station on display at the Southland Center; and a personal need to forgive someone.

I love that the story comes out of your own journey. Your book has fab photos, too. Tell me about the set you created.

When I built the set, I started with 1:18 scale model cars. In rusted-out condition they litter the farmyard. I built the house from scratch in the same scale. It looks like a familiar scene that you might encounter on a drive in the country, but it's really a miniaturized model.

Brent helped me make the pigs with Sculpey craft clay. You just roll it around in your hands, and out comes a pig! I photographed everything on a tabletop in my backyard studio. The book features a 3-D gallery where the scenes come to life in depth.

Where can folks buy it? 

Prodigal Pig Tale ($2.99) is available on iBooks for iPads and Macs. 

Where can they hear more from you?

My blog explores a variety of subjects. I'd like for people to comment on the “forgiveness” post with their own forgiveness experience.

Thanks for joining us!

Don is associate professor of Christian Education emeritus and director of special projects in Creative Services at Dallas Theological Seminary. I hope you'll tell your "forgiveness story" and check out his book for your favorite little (and big!) people.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Compelling Love

Compelling Love Original Trailer 1.21.14 from Kurt Neale on Vimeo.

“The most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.” – Christopher Hitchens
When it comes to differences in sexual orientation and gender identity, the culture wars tend to force us into positions of tolerance or intolerance. But what if we were able to reach beyond such polarizing positions and connect with those whose beliefs, values, and lifestyle we disagree with or even find offensive?

Over the past year, Dr. Gary Barnes and Kurt Neale traveled the country, posing this question to scores of people with different sexual and gender identities. Compelling Love & Sexual Identity is the result: a thought-provoking and moving feature-length documentary film that captures their personal stories and candid responses.

Join them for a FREE and EXCLUSIVE screening of the film at the Lakewood Theater (1825 Abrams Rd.) in Dallas on Thursday, November 6 at 7:30pm.

You may get tickets on the website This event is open to the public, so family and friends are welcome to attend.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Churches Talk about Race Relations

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9 brought race relations to the forefront of the news. A survey of evangelical leaders conducted three days prior to the shooting indicates that racial reconciliation was already an ongoing topic among evangelical churches in the United States.

Seventy-one percent of the evangelical leaders surveyed said their churches have discussed the need for racial reconciliation from the pulpit, in seminars or in courses, according to the August Evangelical Leaders Survey.

“The survey shows that evangelicals care about racial reconciliation,” said Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals. “Most have addressed the issue publicly. Some have placed special emphasis on it. Others haven’t but know they should. A few have not, even though many of their members are minorities.”

Paul de Vries, President of New York Divinity School and Senior Pastor of Immanuel Community Church in Manhattan, said, “Even in our racially diverse congregation, racial reconciliation is an important theme going forward toward more complete healing.”

While the survey asked about the churches that leaders attend, denominational, educational and organizational leaders indicated that the topic has been important in their contexts as well.

For example, Doug Beacham, General Superintendent of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), said his denomination started engaging the issue 20 years ago, when the former IPHC General Superintendent worked to unite two Pentecostal denominational fellowships, which were divided by race, to create the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of North America, a fellowship that continues today.

When the IPHC gathered in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1996, denominational leaders repented of seven specific sins, including the sin of racism. The denomination also made changes in their leadership and departmental structure to be more representative of the denomination’s diversity.

“Racial reconciliation remains a major focus of our movement,” Beacham said. “We continue to host and encourage regular dialogue within and outside the denomination between white and African American pastors and churches. Needless to say we still have a long way to go, but I am thankful we are engaged in the process.”

Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University, said that racial reconciliation has been one of the university’s most visible commitments. Bethel University has an undergraduate major and minor in reconciliation studies, an annual reconciliation day with chapel and programming, a Chief Diversity Officer, and several initiatives to increase diversity in the administration, faculty and students.

Anderson said, “Sermons, seminars and courses in churches on racial reconciliation are not just a response to current events. They represent a deep expression of Christian faith – one that was an issue in biblical times as much as today.”

The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Who Were the Women with Shaved Hair (1 Cor 11:5)?

A few week ago, I published this post on's Engage blog (formerly Tapestry):

Erotic art from Pompeii. I've edited it for modesty,
but it demonstrates that no one has a shaved head.
The past fifty years at Pompeii have uncovered an enormous amount of social data that helps us understand New Testament backgrounds. Because the city was buried relatively instantly in A.D. 79, everything was preserved like a time capsule in the same era in which some of the New Testament was written. Interestingly, one of the places that yields data for us is the brothel.

The house of ill repute in Pompeii depicts erotic scenes associated with certain rooms where sexual options appear in paintings with price lists. And this unlikely place actually sheds light on Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:5. There he writes, “But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head” (1 Cor. 11:5).

Perhaps you, like me, have been taught that having a shaved head identified a woman as a prostitute. Here are quotes from a couple of commentaries that take such an interpretation:

  • “There is the local and contemporary custom that had prostitutes and the likes shave their head” [sic].
  • These women were “cropping their hair, after the manner of the notorious Corinthian prostitutes.”

(Notice that in both cases there is reference to the culture of the day to figure out Paul’s meaning; all commentators resort to culture in trying to figure out the local practices and what they meant.)

But we have no evidence whatsoever that head-shaving was a practice done by prostitutes. We do, however, have evidence that doing so was associated with the punishment for adultery. In fact, we find such a connection in the Old Testament.

In an academic article on the subject, Dr. Phillip Payne writes, “The article in 'the shorn woman' implies a recognized class of woman, probably the accused adulteress whose disgrace paralleled the symbolism of loose hair, since by it a woman places on herself the accusation of adultery. This allusion perfectly fits the ‘bitter water’ ordeal of letting down the hair of a suspected adulteress (Num. 5:11–31) and, if she is convicted, of cutting off her hair.… This custom is paralleled in non- Jewish customs cited by Tacitus (A. D. 98), Germania, 19; Aristophanes 3, 204–07; and Dio Chrysostom (A.D. 100), Discourses, 64.2–3.”

The brothel art in Pompeii depicts prostitutes with full heads of hair, never shaved. Other erotic art from Pompeii shows sexually promiscuous women with their hair done up as the matrons wore it (see photo below). Prostitutes probably indicated their profession not by their hair style but by their dress, as is still true in most places today.

So what does Paul mean if he’s not referring to prostitutes? Payne is probably right. Most likely the wives in Corinth were “letting down their hair,” a practice probably associated with spiritual freedom in Dionysus worship. But doing so was the equivalent to taking off their wedding rings, which shamed their husbands and suggested they were “available.” It’s not that what these women were doing was suggestive or immodest any more than taking off a wedding ring is sexy. But it was shameful and dishonoring because of what it communicated.

And the instruction appears to be something applicable only to wives. The “head” of a woman” is probably her husband (cp. Eph 5), not all men everywhere. Notice, too, that Paul does not tell all the wives they need to do something about their hair (which was their covering, v. 15). He has in view only those marked as speaking to or for God (i.e., praying and prophesying, v. 5). This latter detail is often lost in the debate. Paul was not discussing whether or not women/wives should speak in the gathered assembly. That was a given. The question was only about how they should do so.

Sources: Plutarch; Elaine Fantham in Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009; Richard Oster, NT Studies 34, 1998; Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii. Los Angeles: The Getty Museum, 2001; Phillip Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Pris. Pap. 20:3 (Sept. 2006); p. 12. 


Corinthian Head-coverings

Submitted by Henry Rouse

Hi Sandi, I really appreciate your article, especially since we are beginning a preaching series through 1 Corinthians at our church. You got me thinking.

I also wonder if we actually miss the main point of the passage, especially in my conservative (fundamentalist/literalist) tradition. We focus SO much on getting the cultural practice correct that we actually do things that go 'fundamentally' against the teaching of the text. Surely Paul's point is that the Corinthian believers were doing things that brought shame and dishonor to their "head". That is, the wives were dishonoring their husbands and the men were dishonoring Christ by what they were doing in their cultural setting, especially when it came to their participation in worship in the church. His instruction is that they should stop dishonoring their "heads" when they come to worship. The correct application for today would be to examine if we are doing things in our worship practices that culturally dishonor our husbands, wives or Christ. What I find interesting is that, in my tradition, seeking to apply this passage and 1 Corinthinas 14 ultra-literally we have prohibited our wives (and all women) from participation in worship and forced them to wear culturally irrelevant and embarrassing head coverings. Have we in fact disobeyed the real point of the text and dishonored our wives in an attempt to force a culturally irrelevant literalistic application which is unwarranted and hermeneutically poor?

I don't see the issue as being head coverings, veils, short vs long hair or any such thing. The issue is simple; are we worshipping or even living in a way that culturally honors our mates and our Saviour? If not then we need to change the way we worship and live. We need to be people and churches that live and worship in ways that bring honor and respect to each other and to Christ within the culture that we live.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Response from Dr. Glahn: 

Henry, I think you totally got it. Spot on.

In addition, in a pagan culture, it's sometimes easy to add Christ to the cafeteria of gods, which may also have been part of what was happening in Corinth. My intern lived for a year in India, and she noted, "In 1 Cor 11 on men's hairstyles communicating participation in the Dionysian cult: It just seems to me that rather than focusing on the outward signs of hair style or marriage, Paul is focusing on what the believers' behaviors/styles were communicating to their respective cultures about who they worship.

"I think it's interesting and I can see it's relevance in a polytheistic culture, much like when Hindus accept Christ. Are they simply adding Christ to their pantheon and still showing the signs of worship of other gods, like wearing a bindi that would show that they've been to puja that morning? Or are they shedding off all of the other gods to worship God alone? I think there's a connection there."

Something often lacking in the debate as well is that 1 Cor 11 (head coverings) and 1 Cor 14 ("let the women keep silent") have a more significant chapter between them: 1 Corinthians 13...the far better

Thanks for taking the time to write and encourage. Bless you as you teach!

PS: On the "Notorious Corinthian Prostitutes"

S. M. Baugh in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.3 (1999): 443-460, noted that there is only one piece of evidence—literary—that Corinth had temple prostitutes, and that was based on Strabo writing hundreds of years after it supposedly existed.

Submitted by Sue Bohlin:

THANK YOU, Dr. Glahn, for all your hard work and the years of working on your Ph.D. to bring fascinating historical details, and thus greater understanding, to our reading of the scriptures.

And thank you for posting an edited picture of Pompeiian erotica. I understand the paintings and sculptures were everywhere in Pompeii.

Sort of like American TV these days.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie: Veil of Tears

The documentary "Veil of Tears" introduces viewers to India in its beauty and complexity. The film's special focus is on the women and their plight in a broad range of locales:

  • More than 50,000 female children are aborted every month in South Asia.
  • Females are often the last to eat and the most likely to be illiterate.
  • Girls are typically the first to work as child laborers and sometimes even sold to become one of 1.2 million child prostitutes.
  • Young girls throughout Asia are ravenously abducted and forced into a life of prostitution with every agonizing day one step closer to an early death from AIDS.
  • Widows in India bear the blame for their husbands’ deaths. They’re shunned by their communities, rejected by their families and forced into an inhumane lifestyle. Tens of thousands take their own lives just to end the pain.
  • Every year in India, more than 7,000 women are doused with kerosene and burned to death—by their husbands. The wife’s crime: an insufficient dowry.
  • Many women cannot be approached by men due to cultural customs, making their slim chance of hearing the Gospel even slimmer.

What can be done?

Trained women are the perfect solution to reach other women. Each female national who receives training already lives in Asia. In preparation for alleviating the plight of the poor, she has gone through three years of intensive training. The following advantages make her ideal to reach women in Asia:

  • She moves freely in areas restricted to outsiders or men and is accepted in good times and bad.
  • She knows the cultural taboos instinctively.
  • She has already mastered the language or a related dialect.
  • She lives among the community, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, and sharing the same cultural interests.
  • She has a passion and burden to reach women in Asia.

In many Asian cultures, men and women rarely mix, so traditional male missionaries are severely limited in ministering to women. However, it is possible to send trained, dedicated women to reach the millions. And that's exactly what's happening. In this moving documentary, viewers meet some of them and learn how to have a part in their work.

The film treats the poor with dignity, showing their gorgeous smiling faces and their tears and leaves viewers filled with hope rather than despair.

Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Become a Great Photographer

Part 2, from Ashley Scarbrough, photojournalist (and my intern)

Lights, Camera, Love: From a Good Photographer to the Best  

How would you respond if a photographer walked up to you and asked if she could photograph your family for an assignment in a Muslim magazine? Dorothy Greco came face to face with this situation during one of her first assignments as a young photojournalist. At the age of 23, she received her first yearlong assignment for a Christian magazine. She boarded her flight and set across the Pacific to London, England, and searched for a Muslim family to photograph.

Why would a Muslim family welcome a Christian photojournalist into their home? How would she connect with them? Why would they trust her? After a week searching around London, an imam and his family welcomed her in. Twenty-four hours later, Dorothy returned to her hotel room humbled and amazed.

How did she build that trust and connection? To become a great photographer, you need more than the Photoshop skills and the knowledge of light. You need to connect with people. The deeper relationship you build with your subjects, the better storyteller you become.

Practical Tips to Develop Photographer/Subject Relationships:

  1. Manual Focus: Months or weeks before you go off on assignment, research the culture you will be diving into.  Brainstorm ways to relate, connect, and build relationships. Ask questions, listen, read, and take notes. 
  2. Focus Your Lens: Before you set out on assignment, take a breath. Spend 30 seconds, a minute, or even an hour to get focused. You’ve done the research, now step out there.
  3. Put Down the Camera: Charge the batteries, grab the memory cards, organize the lenses and camera bodies.  Set the camera bag down.  Put the phone away, let the emails go unanswered for a few hours and get to know the people.  Spend some time working beside them and serving them. 
  4. Develop the Photos: When you return back from your day of work, silence the doubts about your work. Put the obsession with perfection away in a dark closet, lock the door, and throw away the key.  Perfectionism destroys assignments, steals joy, and can harm people. Don’t try to be the best. Give your best. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

From a Photojournalist: What Makes a Great Artist?

From my intern, Ashley Scarbrough (part one of two):

Lights, Camera, Love: A Photojournalist’s Take on What Makes a Great Artist 

 As a child, I would slide out the dusty photo boxes from underneath my parents’ bed and scatter the photos across the rosy carpet. I saw my mom and dad suited up in camo gear, fresh from the morning hunt, skinning bucks. I discovered my dad’s teenage years sporting bell-bottom blue jeans and an afro hairstyle. I laughed at my brother in his cooking lessons with a giant mushroom on his head. And I blushed at the sight of my butt-naked baby pictures that showed me drinking from the backyard hose. There is nothing like a good picture to tell a story. And that’s why I decided to pursue photojournalism.

It was from these photos that I learned about my family. I got to meet people, like my grandfather, whom I never knew. As I grew older, I loved meeting people and just hearing their stories: the teenage breakups, the first kiss, the volleyball championships, and art competitions. A good story is the photographer’s adrenaline rush. But unfortunately, as I soaked in these stories, I got lost in the rush and forgot the irreplaceable piece of every good story: the people.

Recently in my photography journey, however, I had to relearn one basic life principle: we must love people.  Photojournalists search long and hard for a good story, but the secret to capturing stories is not hidden in any special formula. We find the stories when we love people.

I am not talking about the love we use to describe our favorite type of cake. The love I have in mind is more than just about a favorite pair of shoes, or a dream home. This love listens when you want to snap a quick photo. Love puts down the camera, to comfort a hurting friend. Love waits until they know you care. People want to open up to and show their deepest sores. No amount of energy or time could drown it out. This love breathes hope into a broken story. In this love, a person finds rest, safety, and strength. When a person burned by the past speaks, it cools their scorched hearts. Through the ebbs and flows of conversation, this love touches the most jagged of souls, molding them into smooth stones.  

Only love can capture authentic stories. Out of this innocent love for people, I fell in love with photos as a child. The photos underneath my parents' bed were like the children's photo books that all my friends read at night. When I scattered the family photos on that rosy carpet, I traveled back in time. I smelled the trail of my grandpa’s cigarette smoke as he walked the farm. I heard my mom fire the 22 from the deer stand. I walked alongside my dad in his bell-bottom blue jeans. I slurped my brother’s soups from a spoon during his cooking classes. 

Love. That’s what makes a great artist.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Advice to Writers

Build a Better Mouse Trap: Part 4

This is the final post of a four-part series by author Brandt Dodson.

In my previous posts, I’ve discussed my concern over the anemic results of my marketing efforts and how I’ve learned that my writing was not what I had envisioned. I’ve discussed the things I’ve learned from more successful writers and how I’m learning to apply them to my own work.
Now, I will list some of the resources I’ve used. I hope these help you. Some may not. You will have to decide which ones are right for you—which ones enable you to take your writing to the next level.

1.    Writers Digest

I still read it. Even though it is largely aimed at the beginning writer, I never fail to find it helpful. I subscribe to it as well as the newsletter.

2.    Publisher’s Weekly

This magazine is invaluable in helping to stay abreast of the rapidly changing publishing scene.

3.     Writing instruction books

I’ve read hundreds of writing instruction books, far too many to list them all. But here are a few of the ones I found helpful:

How to Craft a Great Story – Creating Perfect Plot and Structure by Chris Sykes
Writing a Bestselling Thriller – Strategies to Get Your Book Published by Matthew Branton
How to Write Best Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (very dated market information)
Story Engineering – Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks
Story Physics – Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling by Larry Brooks
Make a Scene – Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Crafting Scenes by Raymond Obstfeld
The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark
Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
The Power of Point of View – Make Your Story Come to Life by Alicia Rasley
Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
The Art and Craft of Storytelling by Nancy Lamb
Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost
How Fiction Works by Oakley Hall
Getting the Words Right by Theodore A. Rees Cheney
Simple and Direct – A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun
Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynne Schmidt, Ph.D.
The Elements of Storytelling by Peter Rubie
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife, Ph.D. and K.D. Sullivan
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

As you can see, a good number of the books I listed above deal with story. That’s because I found that to be the weakest link in my writing. For you, it may be entirely different. But I would recommend at least some of these for you, since successful writers are good storytellers

4.    Attend at least one conference a year if you can

Conferences can be expensive, and I realize everyone can’t do this. But if you can, then do. There are conferences every year that are dedicated to one genre or other. For me, Thrillerfest tends to be my primary choice. But of late, I’ve begun attending one of the Writers Digest conferences. These are directed more toward craft than any specific genre, and I’ve been able to learn as well as make connections with some excellent teachers.

5.    Read

I read nearly all of the NYT Bestselling writers in any given year, particularly (though not exclusively) those who write in my genre. I contact many of them through their websites and have met them at conferences. I talk to them. I listen.

6.    Scout the internet for screen writers conferences and books

I understand we’re talking novel writing, but many of the techniques used to entertain and hold a reader can be learned from our screenwriting comrades.

7.    Analyze

Read a novel for pleasure. But then, go back and analyze it. Underline the author’s opening line and last line. Did the first one get you on the hook? Did the last one let you off? How did they develop their characters in a way that made you care? Did they use description? Primarily dialogue? Did they rely on stereotypes? Then, look at your own writing. How is yours different from theirs?

Analyze the movies you watch in the same manner. Again, these are different media, but they are both designed to accomplish the same goal: Telling a story in an entertaining way.

8.    Be on guard

Watch for the ways a story falls flat for you. How would you have done it differently? What failed? Why? This may be a story you’ve read, watched, or heard at work while standing at the water cooler.

9.    Read interviews of your favorite writers

Search the Internet for interviews with your favorite writers, particularly the ones where they talk about craft. Learn their thoughts, their approaches. You may not be able to meet them, but you can still learn from them directly as well as from reading their work.

10. Don’t beat yourself up

There is a certain amount of luck in reaching the top of the bestseller lists. Many of the writers I’ve mentioned in these posts have told me they don’t know how they did it. Most of them have told me they simply wrote the best story they could. The rest was serendipity. There are things in this business over which you have no control.

But you do have control over the quality of your work. Do the best you can with craft, and learn the proper marketing techniques that are best suited for you and your work. If you do this, you will have done all that can be done. And there is satisfaction in that.

11. Don’t quit

If your goal is to reach #1 on the NYT list, then do all that you can toward achieving that goal. True, I just told you there is a certain amount of luck to this. But you can also improve your chances of encountering that luck with persistence. Don’t quit. Ever.

I’m not there. But I’m well on the road, much farther along than when I began this journey. I’ll get there. And I’m confident that if you focus on improving your craft and work diligently on taking your work to new heights, you will reach your goals too.

Monday, October 06, 2014

What Bestselling Writers Do

Build a Better Mouse Trap – Part III

 This is part three of four in a series about writing by author Brandt Dodson.

In my last post I outlined five characteristics of successful writers—the kind of writers at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Here are the rest:

Successful writers know their market.
Lee Child was recently asked if he would ever write a non-Jack Reacher novel. He said, “No. I write Jack Reacher. If someone wants to read something else, I’m not the guy. I write Reacher.”

Smart man. Lee isn’t saying he can’t produce something else. In fact, he did for many years while at the BBC.  But he is saying he knows his readership and he will give them what they want. We would be well advised to do the same. This doesn’t mean you can’t expand. In fact, you must if you are to grow as a writer and remain relevant. But knowing your market and giving them what they want is the first step to a marketing plan that works—the first step toward building a better mousetrap.

Successful writers know their craft

These writers know how to use grammar to their advantage. They understand the simplicity and complexity of the English language. They understand that what is not said in a story can be just as impactful as what is said. They understand and use subtext to their advantage. In short, they make the execution of a well-written novel look easy. They do this by knowing their craft.

Successful writers are diligent

The writers I’ve met and read that are highly successful have been diligent in the pursuit of their success. Ken Follett, Jack Higgins, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King were all determined to succeed. This doesn’t mean that writing and submitting the same thing will make us successful. But it does demonstrate that a determination to succeed will supply the fuel necessary to do what it takes to achieve the dream. I heard a saying recently that I really like: Dreams don’t come true; dreams are made true.

Successful writers are accessible

This may not have a direct impact on their sales figures, but I’ve noticed that successful authors tend to put something back. With rare exceptions, they aren’t selfish or boorish people. Lending a helping hand is something they enjoy. And why not? It is enjoyable.

During the course of my career I’ve taught at dozens of writing conferences and have mentored several writers into publications. I’ve given cover quotes, edited manuscripts, and connected fledgling writers with editors, agents, and publishers.

I enjoy it. But successful writers are writers first and teachers second. It is natural to want to pass on the techniques we’ve learned. But when this takes the place of writing, we are on a very different road.

Okay. So there you have it. Perhaps this is nothing new. In fact, you may have noted these before. But are you doing them? Are you thinking more deeply about your plots? Are you challenging yourself more? Are you truly giving the readers what they want? Something fresh?

It’s hard. No doubt about it. If this was easy, everyone would be doing it. (I know, I know. It seems like everyone is doing it.)

Introspection is the key to unlocking our writing faults. Looking into the mirror often reveals the warts we don’t want to see. You won’t like it. I didn’t like it either. Lazy writing is easy, and I like easy. But the rewards go to the diligent—to those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work necessary to take their writing to the next level. You can do it. You know you can. And there are resources that can help.

I’ll list some of the ones I’ve used in my next post.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Characteristics of Bestselling Writers

Build a Better Mousetrap: Part 2

This is part two in a four-part series on how to write great stories, by Brandt Dodson. 

When I recognized that my marketing efforts weren’t paying off with the dividends I had hoped, I began a studious effort to learn what is was, exactly, I was doing wrong. I began analyzing my writing. Were my characters original? Did my plots avoid the tried and true? Was I writing something that was different? Fresh?

I had to conclude that I wasn’t.

Before I proceed, for the sake of clarity, let’s define successful writers as having a very large and growing readership that places the author in the upper echelons of the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s a lofty goal, and I know that definition doesn’t work for everyone. But it gives a reference point for the purpose of this discussion.

Okay. So I determined that I wasn’t writing great books. Good books, I think, but not great. There are a lot of good books out there. But I’ve never wanted to write good books or books that are competently done. I want to write books that move people; books that inspire conversation at the local Starbucks.

With this revelation, I began reading and re-reading the novels of the literary stars as well as talking with them whenever I could. I’ve taken a two-year hiatus from publishing in an effort to improve my writing as well as develop a workable business philosophy. Here’s is what I’ve learned.

Successful writers break the rules

Yep. That’s right. Advice such as: Make your characters likeable, and never begin with weather, are well intentioned. Unfortunately, these rules often become restraints to creativity rather than guideposts for engaging stories.

I recently spoke with Lee Child, creator of the Jack Reacher series, and he said, “Why not begin with weather? If that’s where the story starts, why not?” In short, he was saying if weather plays a role in your novel, whether it is as a plot device or as a part of your setting or to establish the mood, why can’t you start with weather? Alistair MacLean did. And who said characters have to be likeable? Have you read The Godfather?
I’ve learned there is only one essential rule that all novelists need follow: You must entertain the reader. However you choose to do that, whatever road you take to achieve that goal, is fair game.

Successful writers develop simple plots that are executed with simple words in simple sentence construction.

Okay, I’ll admit, I was a bit reluctant to point this out because it may sound as if I’m saying we need to write down to the masses. I’m not. But the fact remains that most of the best-selling novelists do not construct lyrical phrases or employ complex sentences to execute erudite thoughts. They tend to use simple sentences that drive home the point and reach as wide an audience as possible. One bestselling author told me he believes there aren’t enough readers to create a large readership for an author. In short, he said he thought that a successful career, one in which tens of millions of copies are sold, requires reaching people who generally do not read. They’re out there, he said. You just have to give them something they want, and tell the story in a way they enjoy.

Read the first page of Lee Child’s breakout novel, The Killing Floor, for an example of what I mean. Here’s an excerpt:

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

Simple? Yes. To the point? You bet. Ambiguous? Not at all.

Successful writers know story

There is a book out now that is titled: Story Trumps Structure. It’s an insightful book written by an insightful writer, Steven James. But I’m not sure the title rings true. Story does trump technique. But story is dependent on a proper structure, and this is a technique of craft at which successful writers excel. They are first and foremost, great storytellers who understand what makes a story work.

Successful writers develop fresh ideas or engaging concepts for old ones

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. And he’s right. But as a writer, he also knew that there are different approaches to the same idea. After all, Ecclesiastes echoes the same ideas expressed in the rest of scripture, but does so in a much different (some would say, slightly depressing) way.

When I was growing up, The Beverly Hillbillies was the number one rated show on television. Later, as an adult, while watching Crocodile Dundee, I suddenly realized the similarity between that movie and The Beverly Hillbillies. They are very different concepts with very different execution. But they are essentially the same story: A fish out of water. And that type of story always lends itself to humor. It is no mystery that both were comedies. (This type of story lends itself to great suspense, too. Remember the movie North by Northwest?)

All writers strive for high concept, but most of fail. Some of us reach so high for the concept that we end up looking foolish. One who didn’t was Michael Crichton.

Jurassic Park is high concept. Could anyone argue otherwise? Dean Koontz, himself a successful, high-concept writer, has said that Crichton’s ideas were some of the highest concept he has ever seen.

But others have succeeded at this too. Some have done it with their first book, right out of the gate.

Take David Baldacci, for instance. His first thriller, Absolute Power, took the idea of a man trying to hide an affair (nothing original there) and put it into the White House (pre-Bill Clinton). Suddenly, the man trying to hide the affair, as well as its subsequent murder, was the President of the United States, a man with a large number of resources. That’s high concept.

Or take John Grisham’s second book, The Firm. A young lawyer finds himself working for the mob. Need I mention that The Firm is still in print and launched Grisham’s struggling career?

Successful writers are well read

I’ve taught at a large number of writer’s conferences over the years and have talked with a lot of writers including some of my favorites. Among them are: Ken Follett, Lee Child, Steve Berry, David Morrell, Michael Connelly, Scott Turrow, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Palmer, and Harlan Coben. In virtually every case, I’ve found these authors to be well read. Not just up to speed on current literature, but the classics too.

And I’ve learned that successful authors know their genre’s history. They know what’s been done, when, and why. But just as importantly, these authors are well-read outside their genre too. Techniques in telling a romance story will carry over to a thriller very nicely, thank you.

Successful writers don’t read another author’s book to use it as a template. They study it to see why it works. Lee Child has said that prior to his own publishing successes he read the incomparable John D. MacDonald. Child has said that MacDonald’s ability to pull the reader into the story was intriguing and, to this day, he can’t figure out how MacDonald did it. Child writes a very different type of book, but the lessons he’s learned from MacDonald have been well applied.

Successful writers are endowed with insatiable curiosity

 Ken Follett has said that his drive to write Pillars of the Earth came from years of sitting in the old cathedrals of Europe and wondering about the people who built them.

Most successful writers are natural learners who are easily bored, and a good portion of them have held a variety of jobs. I challenge you to read the biography of writers such as Louis L’Amour, Dennis Lehane, or Ernest Hemingway, to name but three.

I’ve also learned that most successful writers love to read about obscure subjects. Information as varied as how screwdrivers are made to new discoveries in physics serves as grist for the mill. All of this information is read and then digested before it is regurgitated in some form or other in their stories.

In my next post, I’ll continue the characteristics of successful writers.