Friday, December 20, 2019

A Smoking Wick or a Burning Flame?

I love the Advent season with all of its symbols. Garlands. Wreaths. Calendars. Creches. And lights.
A seven-foot tree reigns over my living room. Garlands wind their way up the stair railing and drape the fireplace mantel. Open my front door, and a nativity scene will greet you in the entry. While I love all the greenery symbolizing my hope for eternity with God, and while the creche reminds me of the reason for Christ’s coming, it’s the lights that I focus on the most.


Jesus the Light of the world.

Candles grace every room in our house for the season. Old-fashioned, multi-colored bulbs encircle the tree casting its glow through the front windows. Since no lights adorn our property outside, I like to think that people driving by see the beauty shining inside.
My favorite symbol of light and life is the advent wreath, four candles in a forever circle surrounded by greenery. Some traditions use blue tapers; others use purple and pink. A white pillar, the Christmas candle, often sits in the center. My Advent wreath comes from Italy. A ring of crystal (more light!), and the Christmas candle is part of the circle. While there are several traditions that assign meanings to each candle, I prefer what the Lutheran Church instituted long ago: faith, peace, joy, hope, and the white Christmas candle represents Christ’s love.

Every once in a while, we end up with a dud candle. For some reason, it smokes but won’t flame. I can fix it if I dig into the center with a knife, give the wick more length, and then scrape off the extra wax that smothered it.

The failure of the dud candle kindles some questions. Am I a smoking wick or a brilliant flame for Christ? Can people easily see the Light of Jesus in me and in my writing, or do I give off the smoky scent of a snuffed candle, desperately needing some painful work to be done on my heart?

Reflecting His Light

This advent season as we struggle against the whirlwind of Christmas busy-ness, let’s take some moments to reflect. Let’s make sure our wicks are trimmed, and that we are His Light to each person we meet.  Let’s make sure that every word we write somehow, some way, points to faith in Christ, to the peace that passes all understanding, to the joy of knowing Jesus, and to hope in the Savior of the world.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

WRITE Where You Are NOW

 About a month ago, a friend mentioned how much her daughter had enjoyed my holiday décor last year when she made a guest appearance at our writers’ club Christmas Dinner. As a teacher in Indonesia, she misses much of the traditional holiday festiveness celebrated here. The compliment stirred my enthusiasm for the fussing over Christmas that would soon descend upon our home.

Last week as I set about tucking away fall, replacing the oranges, browns, and yellows, with reds, greens, and golds, I couldn’t help but think about Mandy’s comment. “If she only knew . . . ” I murmured. That the multiple totes my husband hauls from the attic contain a most eclectic, random assortment of items. Tucked among the gold tree ornaments, nativity and stable, and my snowmen collection is a vast array of fabric scraps, bits of ribbon, stray pine cones, silk flowers ranging from the no stem variety to singles to a few well-worn bunches, pine branches and garland in random lengths and of a variety of “needle” material, as well as mounds of cotton batting that substitute as snow. Let’s not forget the few hand-crafted creations that have survived from my children’s long-ago elementary school days.

For years finances permitted very few dollars be allotted toward decorations. Hence the scavenging and collecting that led to the random contents of many totes. While I could afford now to replace some of my bits and pieces with real rather than pieced-together décor, I prefer the make-do-with-what-I-have approach. In fact, I think my favorite part of decorating for Christmas is the fashioning of arrangements and accents and festive touches throughout the house from the bits and pieces wrought from years of collecting. Had I waited to do “real” decorating until I had enough “real” decorations, we would have missed out on a lot of holiday cheer across a good number of years.

The same principle rings true for writing. If we wait until we have more time to write or better ideas, nothing may ever be written. Maybe it’s the yearning for additional training or an agent or an interested publisher that keeps some of us from taking that first or next big step. But waiting to feel like a “real” writer will get you nowhere. That sense that we’ll “arrive,” maybe hopefully someday, has to be one of the more common pitfalls writers face.

Rather than postpone serious efforts to move forward, choose, for now, to make do with what you have and where you are. If you can only carve out minutes here and there to write, then do it.

“But I can’t afford to travel to a big conference.” Then look for online courses and seek out blogs and podcasts that teach story-crafting skills.

“If only I knew or lived close to other writers.” In this digital age, an entire community of experienced writers willing to share their knowledge and expertise is literally at your fingertips.

While you peruse and seek, WRITE. Look for networking and connecting opportunities. And WRITE. Read and study and practice what you’re learning. And WRITE. Don’t wait until all your writing ducks fall into place to get serious about committing your thoughts, ideas, characters, and storylines to paper or hard drive.

Be willing to start where you are, with the time, tools, and resources at your disposal right now. But don’t get too comfortable with your present circumstances. Push yourself to improve. Challenge yourself to learn and grow. Set realistic goals and edge forward. 

The key is to consider yourself a “real” writer. Not someday, when the kids have grown or the spare room’s been converted into an office, or you get an agent. But today. Because what do real writers do? They write.

Beth connects with the YA crowd via substitute teaching and through her “back booth” office at the local fast food joint, and by reading YA fiction.

She's a "cheerleader" for saving sex for marriage and for "renewed waiting" because it's never too late to make wiser choices. She writes and speaks about her experiences as a "foundling" who located her birth parents and is making up for lost time with her biological family. Find her at and on Facebook at Beth Steury, Author.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Cinematic Secrets has created an ingenious 15-episode series called, “The Story of Film,” and I believe we can learn a great deal about our craft by watching it. The first two episodes reveal how filmmakers stumbled upon film techniques we now take for granted—the close-up, the flashback, depth perspective, etc.—and it’s not difficult to see how we can use the same techniques on paper.

Take the cut shot, for example. The earliest narrative films portrayed each scene from a single point of view, as an audience would see a stage play, but filmmakers soon realized this medium gave them the ability to switch or “cut” instantly from one point of view to another and back again.

An early example was the 1903 film, “A Day in the Life of a Fireman.” It showed a firetruck roaring up to a house afire, the firemen connecting hoses and setting up ladders, then one fireman smashing out a window on the second floor. Moments later, a fire ax breaks through another window on the second floor, the ground crew moves his ladder to that window, and the fireman emerges with an unconscious woman draped over his shoulder. Had this movie followed the stage convention of keeping the audience in the same position with the same point of view, that’s all we would have seen. Instead, the director used a series of cuts to tell the story in sequence:

* A fire truck roars up to a house afire.

* Cut to a woman’s bedroom filled with smoke. The woman struggles to her feet, then falls back on her bed, overcome with smoke.

* Cut to the exterior, where one fireman smashes out a window on the second floor.

* Cut to another smoke-filled bedroom, where the fireman breaks through its window and looks around.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman enters from the right and finds the victim unconscious. He tears down the window drapes and smashes out its window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman’s ax breaks through a second window and his ground crew repositions his ladder there.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the fireman hoists the victim onto his shoulder and exits the window.

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman clambers down the ladder with the woman over his shoulder.

* Cut to the woman’s bedroom, where the smoke sudden thickens and bursts into flame. They’ve escaped just in time!

* Cut to the exterior, where the fireman lays the unconscious woman on the grass, shakes her, pours water on her face, and she revives. (What do you expect? It’s 1905. They didn’t know CPR back then.)

Every cut shot is equivalent to the word then: “He did this, then he did that, then he did that,” and so on. A movie audience now accepts this storytelling technique, and virtually every movie made since 1905 has used it.

Here’s another one. A film shows a grocery wagon driver pull up in front of an apartment building, where the deliveryman goes in with a big basket of food.

* Cut to an interior shot, where he begins climbing the first flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where his horse eyes an open sack of feed leaning against the building. The horse draws the cart onto the sidewalk and begins to eat.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the horse really chows down on the open feed sack.

* Cut to the interior, where the delivery man climbs another flight of stairs.

* Cut to the exterior, where the ravenous horse drags his wagon over the curb, tipping it and spilling several bottles of milk onto the sidewalk.

And so on. In this case, every cut shot is equivalent to the word meanwhile. It’s a far more effective way of telling the story than simply showing a lengthy take of the delivery man climbing many flights of stairs, then showing another lengthy take of the hungry horse and the ruined groceries.

One more. In D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour 1916 epic film, Intolerance, he shows how human prejudice has led to the persecution and death of heroic figures throughout history. He does it with a series of cut shots. He shows how worshipers of two Babylonian gods slaughtered one another, then cuts to Jesus performing miracles with jealous Jewish leaders conspiring against him, then cuts to persecuted Protestants during the Reformation, etc. 

In this case, each cut shot is equivalent to the word, likewise. By juxtaposing these scenes from different periods of history that illustrate the same human tendency to be intolerant of other people, Griffith makes his point. We can do the same, especially in an epic story that spans several generations of the same family.

Such cinematic techniques are powerful ways to convey a message. Thanks to documentaries like “The Story of Film,” we can see how they work and apply them to our own storytelling.