Title: Story Craft
Author: John R. Erickson
Star Rating: ★★★★
Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!
“The goal of Christian writing should be to discover the beauty expressed in symmetry, structure, and coherence, and then to do a professional job of describing it in stories that are shaped by the most influential Book ever written.” [pg. 121]
I found this book on the recommended reading list of a Christian writing contest hosted by Athanatos Ministries. Its subtitle was ‘Reflections on faith, culture & writing from the author of Hank the Cowdog.” Now, I’d never read or even heard of Hank the Cowdog before, but the description interested me, so I purchased a copy. And I’m very glad I did.
This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a ‘how-to’ book for authors. But it is a very helpful account of one man’s journey from being a publisher-rejected author to being the seller of more than seven million Hank the Cowdog books. The first part of Story Craft is called ‘One Writer’s Journey’ and outlines Mr. Erickson’s life. The second part is called ‘Faith, Culture, and the Craft of Writing’ and contains Mr. Erickson’s observations and commentary on the relationship between art and culture. The third part, ‘The Top 20: If I Were Teaching a Class on Writing’ includes tips and recommendations from Mr. Erickson to aspiring authors.
One Writer’s Journey. Whenever I read a book and like it, I think, ‘How wonderful it must be to write like this! To be able to express one’s self with such ease and perfection!’ I never stop to think that the author may have struggled over which in a series of synonyms he should use, or whether the leading female should have brown curls or blonde braids. In short, I do not think of authors really as people at all, but rather as some sort of omniscient creatures who can write without effort. Mr. Erickson’s story did much to dispel this subconscious notion.
As a child, John Erickson didn’t aspire to be an author. He barely ever wrote until his senior year in high school when he was required to write a poem. It was then that he discovered the joy of writing. After that he took several writing classes in college and wrote stories imitating the style of his favorite authors. He began to write consistently, spending several hours every morning in that pursuit. After writing several cowboy stories for Livestock Weekly, The Cattleman, and Western Horseman, he alighted upon the idea of posing a smart-aleck ranch dog as the narrator of his stories. Although adults were his intended audience, all ages embraced Hank and his quirky style.
But Hank the Cowdog wasn’t an immediate ticket to success. Publishers rejected his stories as “too regional” and some asserted that his stories had “too much integrity”. Finally, Mr. Erickson decided to self-publish. He writes quite frankly of the financial struggle and the frustrations of his publishing company, Maverick Books.
“Would I recommend self-publishing to other writers?
Yes, but with the caution of an older man who wears scars and knows from experience that there is nothing amusing about unsold boxes of books in the garage. Self-publishing can break your heart and your bank account. I don’t know the success-failure ration, but I’m sure the numbers would be depressing.
Our venture should have failed – but somehow it didn’t, and that is important information. If we don’t approve of the books and movies offered by the establishment media, we have the option of creating something better. It will require the best efforts of brave entrepreneurs and enlightened investors. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.” [pg. 28-29]
Now, Mr. Erickson has published 75 books (59 in the Hank the Cowdog series) and has won several awards for his writing. His books have been translated into four different languages, and he’s traveled all across the U. S. speaking, selling, and reading his books.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the biographical section (for me, anyway) was when Mr. Erickson was approached by CBS who wished to turn Hank the Cowdog into a thirty-minute Saturday morning cartoon. In the hopes of gaining exposure for his work, Mr. Erickson agreed. He soon realized his mistake. In the stories, Hank lives on a ranch with his master, High Loper; his master’s wife, Sally May; their son, Little Alfred; and Slim Chance, a hired hand. To Mr. Erickson’s outrage, CBS removed the family element entirely and instead portrayed Loper and Chance working for ‘Miss’ Sally May, who is ranch boss!
“Why had they done this? I could only conclude that someone at the network had decided to use a Saturday morning cartoon series, and my Hank book, as a platform for a secular ideology that viewed women as an oppressed minority, men as brutes, marriage as slavery, and motherhood as a waste of time.
They had politicized my innocent, funny little story……. And they had done it by stealth.” [pg. 33]
Mr. Erickson is currently working with his two sons John and Mark and film group Odyssey Pictures to produce an animated film version of Hank the Cowdog – one which will remain true to the stories as Mr. Erickson wrote them.
Faith, Culture, and the Craft of Writing. The relationship between art and culture is a significant one and one which few Christians grasp. Art at the same time documents culture and guides culture. How does it do this? By portraying things as they are and by portraying them how they should be.
It seems as though portraying things as they are and as they should be are two different things. Actually, they blend together quite nicely. I, as a Christian artist, believe that the world is a world of structure in which law and justice reign supreme. I believe that the world should be a place in which God’s word is kept perfectly by every creature. But I know that it isn’t. Now, the task is to portray the world both as it is – sin-filled and sin-cursed, abundant with greed and pride – and as it should be – perfectly submissive to Christ’s authority. I do this by showing my protagonist as a sinful creature, but as he grows through the course of the story, he becomes a man more and more governed by God’s law.
It is precisely at this point that the difference between Christian and non-Christian writing becomes most clear. A non-Christian may bring his protagonist into higher levels of self-realization or independence, but he will never put him under submission to God’s law. And this is because no unbeliever believes that the world should be submitted to Christ. The believing and unbelieving views of what should be are entirely different.
Thus we should always seek to evaluate the standards of justice that is imbibed in a story. Who is portrayed as acting justly? (The statist judge or the conscientious lawman?) What standard of justice is used to mark the good guys from the bad guys? (Do the good guys steal too, only in a ‘good’ way?) Who is punished in the end? (The ‘sheltering’ parents or the rebellious child?) As Mr. Erickson says,
“Structure grows around justice….. If we have no expectations of justice, there is no force that will tug events into a structured story.” [pg. 75]
“A well-crafted story should leave the reader satisfied that the internal accounting has balanced and that justice has been done. The characters should get what they deserve. Tragedy or comedy, a story should resolve into justice.” [pg. 74]
Every movie you’ve ever watched and every story you’ve ever read taught a particular form of justice. That view of justice was determined by the author’s world-view. In this way, stories teach their audiences what to believe about the world and how to live their lives.
Another element which must be delicately balanced in a good story is the relationship of sin and redemption. It is important not to place so great an emphasis on one that the other fades out of view. Some of the books that I’ve read were so eager to reach the redemption of the protagonist that they omitted or briefly skimmed over the protagonist’s faults (why he needs redemption in the first place). Other stories positively wallow in sin before resolving in a cheap and rather meaningless ‘better’ situation. It is necessary that both elements be present but not in an overdrawn way. We need to know that our protagonist is a flawed sinner – without being defiled ourselves. We need to know how redemption from that sin is possible – without it being wooden or romantically unrealistic.
“It seems to me that consumers of entertainment would be much better served if writers started viewing themselves as practitioners of a craft and stopped pretending to be a kind of secular clergy that stands above the laws of man and God.” [pg. 81]
It is often said today that artists should create for arts’ sake or for the sake of beauty. But this is not a proper Christian perspective. We create for Christ’s sake – for the sake of God and His glory, not for any inherent value that may be found in art. Now, it is true that we should seek to create beautifully, but only because that beauty renders more glory to God.
For those of us who aspire to be Christian artists we must remember that we are not the elite of society – we are servants. And we must remember that we are responsible for every word, every flick of paint, and every frame of film that we ‘create’.
The Top 20: If I Were Teaching a Class on Writing.
“I’m not sure that writing can be taught at all, and, if it can be, I’m not sure that a classroom would be the best place to do it. My own experience has cause me to think that only a few of us are meant to become writers, artists, and musicians – and most are not. Those with that destiny often know it at an early age, can’t explain where it came from, and can’t be stopped. The others can’t be pushed, coaxed, or led into a vocation that wasn’t mean for them.” [pg. 25]
It’s important to understand that Mr. Erickson is not here saying that those whom God has blessed with the talent of writing will be able to write effortlessly without frustration or hindrance. Even talented writers have to work at their writing. Nor is he saying that bad writers cannot be taught to write more correctly. What he is saying is that learning how to write isn’t as simple as learning a few techniques, a few phrases, a particular pattern of action, or story structure. In order to be a good writer you must live life and you must love life; you must spend your time observing those around you and discovering the delight and idiosyncrasies of God’s creation.
Even though writers cannot be formed (hey, Presto!) by the infusion of a few principles, tips can be helpful for those who are writing. Here are a few of Mr. Erickson’s.
“When I was a young writer, I wasn’t content to build good honest walls. I wanted to build cathedrals. Instead of using plain brick, I tried to use granite blocks. But even a cathedral is built one stone a time, and if you can’t lay a simple course of bricks that is plumb and level, you shouldn’t be in the cathedral business.” [pg. 131]
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘Write about what you know.’ And we all think ‘But that isn’t exciting enough to make a best-selling novel!’ But no one starts their literary career by writing a best-selling novel. You have to train yourself in the motions and mechanics of story-writing by writing a few very bad stories, then a few not so bad stories, and then a few stories that are actually tolerable. If you are struggling with the subject matter as well as with how to articulate it, then your story will be miserable.
“I don’t like the term writer’s block, especially the implication that it’s some kind of pathological condition, as though writers should be ‘unblocked’ all the time….. What others call writer’s block I would call a fallow period or a time of restoration. Unlimited….happiness [is] simply not [an] option for human beings.” [pg. 152]
I know I certainly have times when it seems that nothing is in my mind or will ever be there. And I’m learning that instead of forcing myself through a paragraph, sometimes it’s just better to relax and let my mind dwell on something entirely different. After a brief rest, I often can express my thoughts much more easily. Now, it’s important to determine the difference between ‘writer’s block’ and laziness because one is natural and should be endured while the other is harmful and should be fought.
Quotes. These do better without any exposition.
“True strength comes from courage and goodness, not from a comparison to mediocrity.” [pg. 84]
“If the word art has any meaning, then surely it should aspire to something higher than the disorder that any fool can perceive on so many street corners in any American city on any given day.” [pg. 106]
“Any writer who depends upon one expletive (or even three) to express the full range of human emotions is no better than a composer who uses one finger to peck out a tiresome little melody on the piano.” [pgs. 116-117]
“I don’t accept that ‘reality’ must be bloody, bawdy, or blasphemous, lurid, lewd, rude, shocking, or ugly. Those qualities might describe a slice of reality, but hardly all of it.” [pg. 117]
“Anyone who claims to have ambitions of becoming a writer can’t afford the luxury of being a heavy consumer of entertainment.” [pg. 139]
Conclusions. A very interesting and helpful evaluation of the craft of story-telling. It reads almost like a story itself. Buy it off of Amazon.com here.