At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Aging Well

I slept in today...if you count 6:55 a.m. sleeping in. I felt I deserved a treat like that given that I turn 43 years old today. I could get another bonus if Cardiff City FC can topple Everton in their Premier League clash today (I have a thing for Welsh teams). There is some hum-drum today: I have to mow the grass after two quite dry weeks. I might want to do some grading so I'm not playing catch-up next week. But we are headed to Llywelyn's Pub in St. Charles for a birthday dinner, and I am going with my wife who loves me and my children who have been such a joy to my heart. There's a lot to be thankful for.

I tend to get reflective at watershed moments like these. I sometimes compare myself to others when they faced this age. Not in a jealous sense, where I'm thinking "That should be me." (People who exhibit that type of character should be avoided.) But in a thoughtful sense, as in, "It's interesting where different people are at the same stage."

At his 43rd birthday, my grandfather served three small Presbyterian churches as a pastor, a diligent endeavor that proved so busy that the family would move from Pennsylvania to Kansas in a few years. But Grandpa himself was busy completing the family quiver, because before he would turn forty-four, my father was born in the small Keystone State town of Mercer.

My father: At 43, he was finalizing the details and draft for his first book (first, that is, if you discount his doctoral dissertation), a commentary on the biblical book of Joshua. A pastor friend of his had just died and Dad was beginning to get contacted about transferring from where we were in Westminster, Maryland, to his friend's church in Baltimore. By the time Dad turned forty-four, we made that move. Of course, during the time Dad was forty-three, he saw me enter college, as well...a transition that we both handled well, I think.

At 43, Martin Luther finally became a father with the birth of his son, Hans.

At 43, St. Athanasius was exonerated of all theological charges against his at a synod in Rome. (Now that's something I don't expect in my life this year).

At 43, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. I must say we've had worse Presidents than JFK. His inaugural address is still one of the most inspiring pieces of literature I've ever read.

At 43, my mentor Dr. Louis Voskuil was entering his fifth year as professor of history at Covenant College in a tenure that would span about thirty years and influence countless souls.

At 43, C.S. Lewis was in the midst of his BBC broadcast talks to the British public, chats that would form the basis of his classic Christian apologetic work, Mere Christianity. To this day, it remains the greatest non-fiction work I have ever read.

At 43, PD James published her second Adam Dalgliesh novel, A Mind to Murder, part of series that would stretch all the way to when she turned eighty-eight in a life of sheer brilliance and genius.

Then again, at 43, Pete Rose returned to the Cincinnati Reds as player-manager. Sports fans know how tragically that turned out.

And Martin Luther King, Jr. and Blaise Pascal were well-known leaders and thinkers. But they never saw the age of forty-three, having died before they even completed four decades.

I'm not as well-known as the above listed individuals. Then again, I have published one novel, written three others, and am finishing up a fifth. I have a vocation that keeps me intellectually engaged and gives me some great professional relationships. I have a lot of friends, have benefited from a pair of wonderful parents, and most of all I have the most wonderful wife and children I can imagine.

Not bad for turning forty-three years old today. I have a lot to be thankful for.

I'm aging well. No complaints there.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Little Things

It was this morning, and I was in the midst of gulping down one more cup of coffee before heading to church. As is my wont, I looked back over my Twitter feed. Perhaps there was one more thing that had occurred on the international or local scene that was worthy of prayer when I got to church. There was one thing that caught my eye. Yet it wasn't a global or nearby event. It was a tweet that had to do with writing.

Duh, you say. Of course it caught my eye.

One of my followers addressed me in the tweet: "Fonts might be the hardest thing in a book. It conveys so much. Am I right @LukeHDavis?"

Okay, so now everyone has my Twitter handle. Follow away at me.

But back to my friend's tweet.

Fonts. The hardest thing in a book? Conveying a lot? Maybe. Maybe he had something there. I thought about it, and the more I kicked it around and added a few things, I saw a blog post forming.

My friend had a point. The little things matter in a book. He meant fonts. I'd expand it to fonts and spacing.

All this coincided with something my wife shared with me today. Christy said that a number of doctors have reported that nearsightedness is on the rise, especially among teens and young adults, and it's mainly due to so much texting and keeping the noses buried up next to cell phone screens. It seemed to me that's a little nugget of critical information. If vision is becoming a more and more widespread issue, then how we format our stories and display them--while never a substitute for a great story--can do a lot for convincing people to stay with us as we tell our tales.

Years ago, during the brief season when I was a pastor and doing it very badly, I was speaking with a friend about projecting our church's brand and identity into the community. One thing Jeff said was very instructive: Whatever you write or communicate needs to be inviting. The fonts of your words, for example, need to have a minimum of sharp corners and hard angles but still look professional. This can explain, for a number of organizations, why some companies use Arial or Comic Sans MS for their fonts. Some opt for something more crisp and professional that still isn't off-putting to the human eye, like Times New Roman. Since I'm used to Times New Roman for writing papers and expecting it of my students, I chose it when I wrote the manuscript of my first novel, Litany of Secrets, and have used it in each successive novel (74K words through #5 as we speak!). I use it for several reasons, but two in particular are (1) it's relatively easy on the eyes and (2) the lack of funkiness displays publishing gravitas and professionalism. For the title page, I did deviate and "LITANY OF SECRETS" was displayed in Lithos Pro Regular, which has a Greek script aura about it; I did that to blend with the Orthodox church theme of the novel.

Questions to consider about fonts? They come down to the following: What makes it easy to read? What makes the reader believe you are a professional and take your work seriously? What might help in drawing the reader into the story?

And spacing is something to consider as well: I don't mind if I'm reading a single-spaced book (your garden-variety Bible is a fine example of single-spacing), but normally if I'm doing that I'd prefer it be set in large print. It's certainly unreasonable from a publisher's point of view to up the printing cost of a book with double-spaced typesetting. But there is certainly a happy medium. I'm presently working through L.B. Graham's The Darker Road, and his lines are set a shade more closely than mine. His are at what seem like 1.25 inches, barely closer together than my inch-and-a-half. But in some form or fashion, you need to give readers room to breathe, without the words piling on top of each other. When my mom read Litany of Secrets, one of the things she first mentioned was how the spaced lines were easy on her eyes.

Again, there's no magic formula; it's just a pragmatic measure to find what works best. And nothing will ever be more important than first and foremost telling a great story. But neither is there any excuse for doing the little things poorly. At the very least, it's a chance to show your readers you've put some conscientious planning into your final display.

As always, I'm interested in your thoughts and opinions. Fonts and spacing? Are they make or break? What do you prefer?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Our World: Interview and Spotlight on Litany of Secrets

It's very exciting that Litany of Secrets is receiving interest and good press all over the world. Toni Abram heads up the Information Point, an organization in Great Britain (Twitter handle is @The_Info_Point) that spreads the word about both centronuclear myopathy and myotubular myopathy. As Detective Cameron Ballack, the hero of Litany of Secrets, is afflicted with MTM, it has been an exciting venture to talk with Toni about my debut novel. Today, a spotlight and interview about Litany of Secrets was published in the most recent issue of the Information Point's "Our World" newsletter.

You can see the article here, and while you're at it, check out the other articles in this very excellent issue of "Our World!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Back to School

Tomorrow I start my fifteenth year in teaching. While that pales in comparison to other seasoned veterans, it still represents a decent haul for me. As I look forward to another year (five Ethics classes and a total of ninety-one students), I find myself irresistibly looking back on things I've learned.

1. I never feel totally ready for the first day. There's always some last-minute rush, something administrative that ties me up. Today I was scrambling to do seating charts, with the seating diagram to my right, my class rosters online to my left, and the IEPs of students who will need preferential or strategic seating in front of me. It took me a total of ten minutes, yet somehow it seemed like forty. I put the assignments for the week at the edge of my white board, seconds before I realized I had to revise my syllabus and then print it out. A curriculum mapping meeting chewed up a little bit of time, and then I had to fill out forms for our new employee vision plan. By the time I came home from our final day of in-service, I was ready to collapse on the sofa.

2. I have a REAL attention problem! Part of the joy of writing is that you can sit (or stand, or lie down) and pound out your story when it's flowing well. The down side is that world tends to crowd into everything else. And it gets pretty bad at school. At least ten times in meetings this past week, an idea for my present writing project (a.k.a., novel #5) would pop into my head and I'd have to write it down. The problem was I'd often be off-kilter and had missed fifteen seconds of what the speaker said. Yes, I have a problem.

3. My view of teaching has changed. Yes, there are principles you should carry into the classroom and there are nuts-and-bolts things to take care of. But more and more, I look at my role more as a storyteller. I get to tell students the story of morality and how humans have tried to resolve moral quandaries. I get to use illustrations and anecdotes that students will harvest in their hearts, because people love stories that resonate. And most of all, I get to share my life with students as they share theirs with me, and we find ourselves as characters in God's unfolding story, yet to be written.

Those are heavy thoughts as we approach the first day, but there you have it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Plowing New Ground

I had plenty of time to think today. Had to decompress a bit after pounding out four thousand words over the last few days, so I drove down to Defiance, Missouri. Yes, the same Defiance that is the literary canvas for my Litany of Secrets. So inspired, I cycled from the center of Defiance (which is about a hundred yards from suburban Defiance) up the Katy Trail until I was about two miles from the Highway 40 overpass that crosses the Missouri River. It was on my way back that I snapped this picture from the bridge over the Femme Osage Creek. Those of you who have already read through LoS will know it as the spot where Cameron Ballack and Dana Witten have a conversation on a blustery February morning in chapter 60.

On the ride back, I was thinking about writing, specifically about the murder mystery/crime fiction genre, because I've been asked by some people if my novels are Christian murder mysteries. Please forgive me for not knowing what to make of that question. It's not that Christians automatically put out substandard products (unless you count a lot of Christian rock music in the 1980s and thus get ready to heave last night's pizza), but I tend to eschew a "Christian" label for my stuff.

Redeeming the murder mystery? Yes, of course. Seriously wanting quality, tradition, and values to shine through in my books? Absolutely. But I tend to follow C.S. Lewis on this one--especially his oft-quoted (and likely just as oft-paraphrased) words: "The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature."

Nonetheless, the "Christians writing good literature" has undergone quite an evolution. My dad sent me an article from The Weekly Standard which tells the recent saga of how Christian crime fiction has come of age. Walking the reader through the work of J. Mark Bertrand, whose more philosophical tome Rethinking Worldview is a great tool for thinking well, Jon Breen also points out how the world of "Christian" crime fiction (which I still can't stomach as a label) has evolved from its former strictures and has thus made a path into better quality literature for literature's sake. It is worth your time for a read.

The jury is still out on the label, though. I still like to maintain that I write across the evangelical-secular state lines; that I offer compelling, page-turning stories that resonate with the human spirit; that characters are capable of relentless, calculating evil (murderers) and heroic attempts of justice and altruism (the flawed yet determined heroes); and that events and people are capable of redemption.

Call me crazy, but there is plenty of room for those flowers in the murder mystery garden. The way I see it, it's fun to be plowing that new ground.