Many Are Missing the Point of Today’s Hobby Lobby Decision

heart_pills_whiteToday the US Supreme Court ruled in the controversial “Hobby Lobby Case” that the government has no authority to require closely-held companies to provide, at their expense, free birth control to women. We see it as a small victory for freedom.

From this ruling, various political movements on either side of the issue have found a victory or a rallying call. Pro-life groups see it as a ruling in their favor. Liberal women’s groups professing a conservative “war on women” have used it as a call to vote in November’s elections or donate money.

As we said a little over 2 years ago, the idea of a “right to birth control” means that people have a right to purchase or a right to use birth control. It does NOT mean that someone else has to pay for it so you can have it for free.

The Hobby Lobby case was about that very question. Should the owners of Hobby Lobby have to pay for employees to have birth control coverage that included some methods of birth control that the company’s owners found to be against their religious beliefs?

The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) mandates that employer-provided health insurance must cover a variety of medical services. For example, for birth control alone, the law required employers who pay for employee coverage to cover “at no cost” some 20 different methods of birth control. Hobby Lobby’s owners objected to 4 such methods. (More on “at no cost” in a moment.)

And that is where the progressives charge in. Their righteous indignation and vitriol at the Hobby Lobby ruling is only starting:

Wendy Davis, Democrat candidate for the Texas governor’s seat: “Today’s disappointing decision to restrict access to birth control puts employers between women and their doctors.”

Lena Dunham and Sandra Fluke:

Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion used terms like “radical,” “havoc,” “startling breadth,” and “minefield,” perhaps displaying her own limited intellectual capacity to grasp the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility.

All invoke an image of a greedy male cigar-clad fat cat sitting in the corner of the exam room of his helpless female employee’s doctor visit in order to snatch away her birth control pills. If only he would just let her have them!

People like Wendy Davis, Sandra Fluke, and Lena Dunham don’t want you to realize that many forms of birth control can be obtained inexpensively–with some methods, depending on circumstances, being paid for completely by private foundations. US News & World Report put together this survey the last time the issue bubbled over in 2012. Liberal progressives want you to think that the only way a woman can get birth control is for the government to require someone else to give it to them for free.

This begs the question, is this issue truly about birth control, or is it about power? Suppose Hobby Lobby were to increase the paychecks of their employees by an amount equal to what the average birth control method would cost. The employee would then be free to purchase said birth control or use the money for something that was more important to him or her. (Yes, that’s right, men would get the increase too.) But we doubt that would be satisfactory to the Sandra Flukes of the world.

To us this seems to be as anti-freedom as it gets. Convincing women that they need to be dependent on someone else to give them free stuff that is available in the marketplace should be offensive.

What of the Hobby Lobby employee? There is no law or other government edict or executive order or action handed down by a pen and a phone that requires a female (or male!) employee to continue working at Hobby Lobby. If coverage of the 4 types of birth control that Hobby Lobby doesn’t want to cover is important to those individuals, they are free to seek employment with another company that does provide health insurance covering such services.

Hobby Lobby is also accountable to its customers. If they feel Hobby Lobby is treating its workforce unfairly, they are free to send their comments to the company or even shop elsewhere if they want to send a stronger message. Decisions have consequences, and Hobby Lobby is not immune from the consequences of its decisions.

We don’t know what the outcome will be for Hobby Lobby. Will its employees and customers support the bold decision to challenge the government’s health law? Will employees quit en masse to work for another company? Will customers flock to other craft supply stores?

Because people are free to interact (lawfully of course) with their employers and stores in a manner they see fit, we don’t know the exact consequence for Hobby Lobby of today’s Supreme Court action. But we do know one thing: Government can’t guarantee free birth control without controlling people. They can’t promise free stuff with one hand without taking the other and using it to force someone else to make it or to pay for it and give it away. The Sandra Flukes of the world would have us think that the Affordable Care Act provides free birth control and that this is something that must be fought for in order to maintain. But is it really free?

The Daily Caller reported in April that Morgan Stanley surveyed health insurance issuers earlier this year about the cost increases of health insurance policies. Not surprisingly, it is one of the largest annual price spikes (of nearly four times the previous annual growth rate) in recent years as the regulatory impact of Obamacare has become known to insurers. Before Obamacare was implemented, women using birth control pills likely had a co-pay or co-insurance fee.

When this charge disappeared, liberal progressives gleefully pointed out this fact, hoped for votes and campaign contributions, and decried a Republican “war on women” at any attempt to limit or change the arrangement. But birth control wasn’t free before Obamacare, and the unfortunate news is that despite the best-laid plans of progressives, birth control pills are still not free. As the super-sized annual insurance premium increases show, instead of a co-pay, now you just have to pay for birth control pills up front in your annual policy premium whether you use them or not.

If you think the 4 forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby objects to are a key concern, then write the company and vow to do all of your craft supply shopping elsewhere (and follow through! Alternatively, you could give up your crafting habit and donate these funds to one of the organizations that provides free birth control to women). Conversely, if you strongly agree that Hobby Lobby is doing the right thing, then let them know that too and do all your craft supply shopping there. If the issue is not of high importance to you, then shop at whichever craft supply store offers the best coupons or weekly ad deals. This is the essence of freedom, and that is a beautiful thing.

Summer Reading Giveaway!

ripples-fadeWelcome to Freedom Forge Press’s stop on the Summer Reading Giveaway!

As the 4th of July approaches, we take a moment to reflect on why we are here and share a blog post from 2012 on that very subject.

Many things in life are seldom missed until they’re taken away. So it is with individual liberties.  When I graduated from high school, I left home to join the US Army. As any veteran or currently serving member knows, basic training is designed to break down individuals and rebuild them into components of a unit.  My experience was no different.  Something as simple as calling home to talk to mom and dad was a luxury.  Internet, email, favorite TV shows, the simple freedom to leave and go someplace else (that wasn’t on the drill sergeant’s agenda), even drinking a soda were all things I never considered to be “freedoms” until they were taken away on the day I put on Army green.

Basic training spanned over the 4th of July holiday for me.  I can remember our company being given a special “treat” on the day America celebrated her independence.  We marched onto a field, in hot uniforms, and were given the chance to watch an evening fireworks display—seated on the ground in straight lines of course.  The display went on for about a half hour.  As I watched the brilliant colors explode across the night sky and reflect on the faces of my fellow soldiers, I realized for the first day in weeks, we weren’t being yelled at, weren’t doing pushups, and weren’t given detailed instructions on what exactly we were supposed to do.  We just sat, enjoyed the moment, and relished in freedom before returning to the remaining weeks of our training.

I and many others willingly gave up these basic freedoms in order to serve as part of a military force that swears, above all else, to protect and defend the US Constitution.  We swear to obey all lawfully issued orders—not allegiance to a single person.  We bear the burden of service so that others would not have to bear it.  I’ve since returned to civilian life, and I see too often that people are willing to trade away their individual freedoms in exchange for the fleeting stability of a government program or a promise of benefits or for “the greater good.”

On Independence Day, think for a moment on what it means to be free.  Does the picture you form in your mind include the government telling you what size soda you can buy and sell? Does it include bureaucrats banning lemonade stands and bake sales?  Does it include the government telling parents what they can and can’t put into a lunch their child takes to school?  Does it include a government that tells people who they can and can’t marry or what people can and can’t do with their own bodies?  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are said to be rights that are inalienable to us.  They can’t be taken away, nor can the government “grant” them to us.  It is government’s fundamental job to protect these rights and not destroy them while pursuing a self-proclaimed and self-serving notion of a “greater good.”

We should not allow the government to freely intrude on our freedoms.  We must demand and hold elected officials accountable for the choices they make on our behalf and how they carry the torch of freedom—whether they hold it high and let it shine brightly or whether they try to dim its eternal flame.  Mankind was meant to be free.  That’s why I founded Freedom Forge Press—to find people’s stories of freedom, their essays and their cautionary tales and showcase them for all to see and so that the torch of freedom is able to shine ever brightly.

What do you associate with freedom? Leave a comment below, and have a great Fourth of July!

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Is Virginia’s Recent Lyft and Uber Ban An Example of Keeping It All in the Family for Governor Terry McAuliffe?

Did the McAuliffe Administration Ban Uber and Lyft from Operating in Virginia as a Favor to the Cousin of the Governor’s Father-in-Law?

Last Friday (6/6/14), Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles fired the latest salvo in the ongoing battle of corrupt governments and tech start-up firms Uber and Lyft, which use technology to match drivers and riders. Virginia’s DMV issued a cease and desist order to the companies because they do not have the appropriate business model per state law. This action follows civil penalties the DMV assessed in April: $26,000 for Uber and $9,000 for Lyft.

We are always suspicious when a government shows a sudden and unexplained interest in an issue—much like our suspicion of New York City mayor Bill De Blasio’s immediate fixation upon taking office with banning the city’s horse drawn carriages despite it being a rather distant issue in his campaign. Likewise, we became very interested when one of Virginia’s executive agencies, under the administrative direction of Governor Terry McAuliffe, showed a sudden and intense interest with Uber and Lyft.

We have to build the case from several scraps of information, so bear with us.

Virginia’s DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb returned to head the DMV in 2010 following an appointment from Virginia’s previous governor, Bob McDonnell. He remains in office now under the McAuliffe administration. Lyft and Uber have had a presence in the Northern Virginia area outside of DC since 2011—without any publicly reported issues from the DMV until this year. So the timing is certainly curious. Why the focused attention on these two companies? Why now? Why with so many other issues in the Commonwealth, from passing a budget to fixing roads, is Lyft and Uber worthy of attention?

By our reckoning, only one thing has changed since the DMV Commissioner returned to office in 2010. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe assumed office in January 2014 after winning a plurality of votes in Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election to succeed Bob McDonnell.

Does the governor have an axe to grind against Lyft and Uber? Maybe not a personal one, but organized taxicab companies sure do. They view these start-ups as unregulated and not playing on a level playing field. And that’s where things start to get interesting.

The Taxicab Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) is a trade group representing 1,100 member companies with 100,000 passenger vehicles. This association, like any “good” trade group, sends letters to elected officials asking for rules and laws that favor their members—or for governments to simply ensure that those rules and laws are applied to all competitors in the marketplace “equally”—to ensure “fairness” you see. To translate into basic English, this group wants to protect the status quo, with all the rules, regulations, and barriers to entry for new competitors, and political gift giving intact. If you’re a new business like Lyft or Uber, and you are a threat to the status quo, or you don’t give your fair share of political tribute to elected officials, then woe be unto you.

Following the money was the logical starting point.

Paul Mears Donation VPAPAccording to the Virginia Public Access Project, Virginia’s taxi and limousine transportation industry was the fifth largest provider of campaign cash in the 2013 Virginia election cycle. We drilled down to statewide campaign donations, and found that the largest individual donor from this industry group was Paul S. Mears, Jr., of Orlando, Florida. His political contribution of $5,000 to the McAuliffe campaign was more than double the second-largest individual donation recorded from the taxi and limousine industry. Paul Mears III also showed up on the list, contributing an additional $1,000 to the McAuliffe campaign.

Paul Mears, Jr. operates Orlando-based Mears Transportation Group. According to the company’s website, Mears offers luxury van, sedan, SUV, and shuttle services in 51 airports and metropolitan areas, including Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport in Virginia.

Interesting stuff indeed, but would McAuliffe, following the nationally-splashed ethics headlines of the previous governor’s administration, engage in political chicanery for a measly $6,000? If he would, it certainly would be a fantastic return on investment for the Mears family.

But perhaps there’s a force even stronger than money and the political influence it can buy.

Further digging into the bowels of the Internets turned up an Orlando Sentinel article from 1998 describing business deals between Terry McAuliffe and father-in-law Richard Swann.

Of McAuliffe, the article quoted Eileen Miller, then the executive director of Public Campaign, which seeks to reform campaign fund raising (emphasis is ours):

“He’s always been a mover and shaker when it comes to the money trees,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of a nonprofit group, Public Campaign, which advocates reform of campaign fund- raising. “It’s inevitable he would get caught with his hand near the cookie jar. McAuliffe is playing fast and loose on the edges of what’s ethical.” 

A separate Orlando Sentinel article on Richard Swann had this to say:

Whispers of political cronyism seem to dog Swann whatever he does. A prominent Orlando lawyer and full-time chairman of American Pioneer, Swann has been mentioned in federal investigations of prominent Democrats at both the state and national levels.

Swann is comfortable in gray areas. A teetotaler at home among clinking cocktail glasses, Swann is not addicted to politics, friends say. Rather, his political strength comes from an ability to mix politics with business to forge a powerful network of friends that help him in both worlds, which is something he calls ”synergism.”

The article additionally discussed the relationship between Swann and McAuliffe, and Swann’s uncle, one Paul Mears, Sr., father of Paul Mears Jr.

The Mears family doesn’t seem to be a fan of Uber and Lyft. Mears III co-signed a letter (full text here) earlier this year from the TLPA discussing concerns with Uber and Lyft and other traditional taxi/limousine service company competitors.


Now isn’t that a coincidence? The governor’s father-in-law believes in mixing politics with business and calls it “synergism.” The cousin (Mears) of the governor’s father-in-law (Swann) provided the largest individual contribution by more than double of any other person involved in the taxi/limousine industry in Virginia in 2013. He provided it to Terry McAuliffe. And he has a taxi/limousine business presence in Virginia that sure doesn’t appear to care much for competitors such as Uber and Lyft. What a coincidence!

Perhaps Paul Mears and Terry McAuliffe are just engaging in Swann’s “synergism” though most honest people might call it corruption instead.

Of course money, cronyism, buying influence, and corruption is not limited to Terry McAuliffe or Democrats. We reported VPAP’s listing of campaign contributions from the taxi and limousine industry was the 5th largest of all Virginia industries. The largest organizational donation within this group ($60,500) belonged to the Virginia Taxicab Association. Seventy-five percent of those contributions went to Republican candidates for the Virginia General Assembly. The largest recipient was Republican Speaker of the Virginia House, William Howell.

Such contributions are rarely made without some expectation of a political dividend. Suppose Terry McAuliffe had not become governor. Who’s to say that the General Assembly might not have passed a state law to formalize what the DMV did instead?

Examples like this are exactly why government’s power must be limited. When government’s power grows, the value of holding office, and holding influence with office holders increases. In such a dynamic, free markets are perverted into the kind of crony capitalism (or crapitalism) that are so pervasive today where businesses spend more time coddling political relationships than improving their products or services. Free markets and the consumer would be better served by removing laws and restrictive regulations that limit competition and raise the cost of doing business.

We’ll leave you with the parting thought from the OS article that discussed McAuliffe’s and Swann’s business dealings:

The ethical watchdogs see people such as McAuliffe as a symptom of a political system in which fund-raisers earn clout that can be turned into opportunities to make money for themselves. “One of the problems we see is that very often the lines between political fund-raising and doing personal business are very blurry,” said Paul Hendrie of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non- partisan watchdog group. “It raises questions about whether the policy decisions being made are influenced by these relationships.”

Questions indeed…

On D-Day’s 70th Anniversary, a Simple Mission: Remember Them

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on a day remembered as “D-Day.” D-Day was one of World War II’s largest-scale operations, involving nearly 5,000 naval vessels, 11,000 aircraft, and some 150,000 soldiers—mostly representing the United States, Great Britain, and Canada. The National D-Day Memorial Foundation provides a stunning narrative:

“The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most not yet 20 years old) entered the surf carrying eighty pounds of equipment. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by small-arms fire and bracketed by artillery, they found themselves in hell.”

D-Day PictureFrom this day-long mission, the Allies suffered nearly 12,000 casualties, with 4,400 confirmed dead paying freedom’s heavy price to wrest Continental Europe from the hands of a Nazi tyrant. Despite losses of life and limb on a scale many of us cannot imagine from our relative positions of ease and comfort, they achieved their mission. The sacrifices made on D-Day allowed Allied Forces to gain a critical beachhead in Nazi-occupied France and from there launch the ground operations that would eventually lead to victory in Berlin one year later.

Seventy years later, time has taken its toll on the heroes who survived that day. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently estimated that approximately 670 World War II veterans die every day. This is more than double the rate at which soldiers were lost in active combat operations during the War itself. As their time is quickly passing, an important and living link to our national past will be forever lost. And so we each should take up a simple mission. Remember them. Remember the comforts they put aside, the loved ones they left behind, the blood they shed, and the lives they lost in the name of preserving freedom’s flame for a future generation. For you.

Remember them when some politician comes to you and asks you to voluntarily give up your freedom for the promise of comfort or security that is shackled with unseen chains. Remember that we will not give away with a pen that which was purchased with blood. Remember that we are not granted our rights and freedoms by a benevolent government in a distant city—for such a government could surely take away with one hand what it gives with another. Remember that government’s only legitimate purpose is to preserve, protect, and defend our freedom, not grant back to us meager parcels of what we already own. Remember that when you turn away from defending your gift of freedom, you or your descendants will have to pay the price for winning it back after it is lost. Remember that your freedom has been paid for by heroes like the ones who served and died on D-Day and many other days like it. Remember the significance of what they did, and remember how it enables us to enjoy the life and freedom we do today. Remember them.

Writing Tip: Overwriting

Power of WordsGood writing is invisible. That’s the bottom line.

We’ve all heard the expression: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of well-intentioned English assignments or a romanticized view of the muses pouring sweet words into a writer’s ear, but many inexperienced writers are guilty of overwriting.

Sometimes called “purple prose,” overwriting is overly elaborate and flowery. It’s too descriptive. It draws the reader out of the story and calls attention to itself. Think of a good book or a good movie. You sit in front of the screen or turn page after page without really being aware that time is passing. This is invisible storytelling. In most good books, the words are there to take the reader along for the ride, not to call attention to the words themselves.

All too often, we are forced to reject submissions because the plot is lost behind overwritten passages. Sometimes, purple prose is so invasive that we never even get to the plot. An overwritten passage might look something like this:

She sat in the tall, wooden chair with the pink, plush upholstery. She picked up the heavy, leather menu and opened to the crème colored cardstock pages, perusing the items offered for dining. Should she order beef wellington with seared Brussels sprout, or butterfly shrimp imperial with sautéed mushrooms in crème sauce? The waiter arrived, pouring icy cool water into a glass. She watched the condensation appear on the crystal glassware and listened to the ice plop into the glass one by one like little children jumping into a pool on the first day of summer. The waiter smiled like the Cheshire cat and asked if she would like to look at the wine menu…

In the scene above, there is no need for so much description. And what are we supposed to take away from the scene, anyway? The writing isn’t slanted to make us feel a certain way about the character. We have no idea what she cares about, or fears, or likes. Is she nervous? Is she waiting for someone? Is she smug?

Instead, writers should use description to create the outline of a scene. I like to use the metaphor of a coloring book. The artist of a coloring book provides enough lines so that we see what the picture is supposed to be, but we are left to fill in the colors. An author should do something similar. Provide enough details to let the reader know what the scene is supposed to be. Trust the reader to fill in the rest.

When would such detail be justified? If the plot or the characterization requires such focus on detail, such a passage might be justified. For instance, if I want to illustrate that a character who feels trapped at her desk job, I might add a paragraph describing her desk in detail, but I would make the description work harder than simple description. I would add figurative language and words with strong connotations that suggested being trapped in order to show how she feels. I might compare the pattern on the carpet of her office to the bars of a prison. Or highlight the restrictive connotations of the paperclip chain she made. Maybe I could describe the intricate doodles she made in the margins of her desk calendar to show how bored she is. In any case, I would make sure the description contained strong connotations that helped characterize her and highlight the problem she has with her job.

Most importantly, writers must understand that the reader is not captive. The printed word is competing for a reader’s time. There’s DVR, smartphones, dogs, kids, restaurants, the gym… writers must earn the reader’s respect. Any word that isn’t pulling its weight should go—especially purple prose.

So often, we learn how to forge elaborate metaphors while in English class or writing workshops. Learning the tools is one thing. We need to know what we’re capable of before we can perfect our art of writing. But once we know what tools we possess, we need to know the most effective tool to use in each situation. If we use too many tools, we end up making even more of a mess than when we started.

Writing Tip: Character Flaws

Power of WordsWhen I teach creative writing to inexperienced young writers, a major element that “makes or breaks” a story is flawed characters. Too often, writers want to make their protagonists into flawless superheroes and overlook the importance of flaws.

Think about it: no one is perfect in real life. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Can you think of a fictional character who is perfect? Superman has physical and emotional limitations. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes. When creating a character, think of vulnerabilities: fears, allergies, idiosyncrasies, Achilles’ heels. Readers like knowing that characters are just as flawed as humans. Readers also like seeing characters develop as a story or a series progresses. If a character starts out “perfect,” that character has nowhere to go (except, perhaps, down?).

Perfect characters are off-putting. I often think about Ayn Rand’s heroes, Hank Rearden and Howard Roark. Aside from what we might perceive as arrogance (Rand would call it “confidence”), they have few flaws. They know what they want, they know how they’ll get it, they know that they’ll get it, and they ignore all else until they succeed. Her heroes are much less likeable than more “human” characters. If your character is a genius, he might be socially awkward. If your character is a perfect social charmer, he might be challenged in climbing his career ladder. If there’s a perfect genius or a genius socialite, we’re getting into the realm of cartoon characters, not realistic characters with whom we can empathize.

I also like to think about the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I remember discussing in college why the character of Satan seems so relatable to human readers. It’s because he’s a flawed character, and he’s working hard toward a goal. Some of the other characters, the more religious ones, seem too perfect for a reader’s liking.

Let’s look at some examples. First, a goofy one. Let’s imagine a detective. This detective is the best crime solver in the world, only—she’s addicted to chocolate. That’s right. If she sees a plate of nonpareils in front of her, she’ll pause on a hot trail just to have a bite. Imagine the fun you could have with such a character! On some level, we can all relate to being so obsessed with something that we’ll intentionally harm ourselves to get it. (Have you ever waited in line for midnight tickets to a well-anticipated movie? Thrown off a diet for a tasty morsel? Stayed up late reading a great book even with the knowledge that you’d be tired at work the next day?)

Second, a more serious example. Your character is all-around likeable, moral, intelligent, and loving. The only problem is, his family died in a house fire which he managed to survive as a young child. Though the memory is foggy, it’s left him with a sense of worry. He’ll constantly seek out a physical escape route whenever he’s in a new setting, just in case something should go wrong. He’ll schedule unnecessary maintenance checks whenever something even remotely seems to go wrong with a car, appliance, etc. When he has dinner at his new girlfriend’s house, perhaps he snoops around, checking wires, cords, and plumbing code just to make sure she’ll be safe. This makes for an interesting character and interesting situations. He won’t be able to help himself, and the reader will have a fun time being held in suspense: just how much will his new girlfriend tolerate before she kicks him out?

In any case, flaws make characters more fun to read (and easier to care about). Of course your character should have great qualities as well, but make sure you add some idiosyncrasies to keep things real.

Book Trailer Reveal: Patriots and Tyrants

Freedom Forge Press is pleased to reveal the book trailer for our upcoming novel. Patriots and Tyrants by D. G. Bagwell is the first in the Grandchildren of Liberty series. Check out the bottom of post for information on how to pre-order the book at a special pre-release price.

 

Patriots and Tyrants-Front-CoverWhen genius JP Cain saw the nation he loved crumbling, he did the only thing he could. He founded a new one. He and 117 like-minded souls founded the Republic of Secundus, a nation on an alternate Earth that was anything but Eden. Filled with animals out of prehistory, Secundus forced the colonists to fight for their very existence. If they could win, a new dream would be born: A republic based on the ideas of personal freedom, liberty, and responsibility.

Two decades later, the citizens are embarking on a new mission: to help free the world they escaped. The United States has broken under the yoke of tyranny, and Secundus’ best hope rests with political prisoner, former historian, and radio personality Lukas Faber.

But even with JP’s technology and their drive, can the people of Secundus overcome the forces of the UN, the mass media propaganda machine, and the shadowy figure pulling all their strings? They are all that stand between Earth’s greatest tyranny and true personal freedom.

Let the battle begin…

Patriots and Tyrants is available for pre-order on our publisher’s store. Pre-orders will receive a special introductory price of $12.95 (free shipping to US addresses) and will be fulfilled as soon as paperbacks are available from the printer. Reserve your copy today!

Special thanks to Jason Lee of Vektor Visual for his artistic vision and expertise on the cover!

Writing Tip: Over-Explaining (Trust Your Reader)

Power of WordsMy early writings were guilty of over-explaining. As a teacher, I’m used to explaining instructions over and over again. Half the time, students aren’t listening; the other half, they aren’t focused. In my daily instruction, I’m sometimes asked to repeat the same instructions, in different ways, three or four times.

This does not translate well to writing.

Over-explaining in writing creates boring, tedious prose that makes a reader want to put the book down. Good fiction writing is the opposite of analysis. Points are implied or made indirectly, not blatantly stated.

When I first started writing, I wanted to make sure my reader got my point. I’d write things like:

Jane walked a lap around the track, narrowly missing the piles of goose droppings that always ended up near the high-jump mat. She shook her head and wondered why her school was the only one without a rubberized track to practice on. The other schools, with their fancy districts, had so much money that they bought rubberized tracks for the fields as well as field houses for the indoor season. During the winter months, Jane had to practice in the halls of her high school. She grimaced at her shin splints, something caused by the hard hallway floors. It just wasn’t fair that her school didn’t have the money for more proper equipment. This also meant her school could never host any track meets. It wasn’t like the other schools, which had fancy uniforms that seemed to be new every year. Jane’s school could barely afford shorts and jerseys that matched…

I’d go on and on. I wanted to make sure the reader understood that Jane was bitter about her district’s lack of money compared to the wealthy districts in the surrounding towns. As a young writer, I’d re-read the paragraph and nod my head—take that, wealthy districts! Jane hates you! And now all the readers out there will know it!

I never put myself into the mindset of a reader. What I failed to realize is just how wordy and full of “telling” (not “showing”) that paragraph actually is. “Telling” too much leaves little (or no) tension. Readers like the feel smart when they read. They prefer to be “shown” things and feel like they’re figuring things out for themselves. The dark secret is that a good writer works very hard so that the reader doesn’t have to. If a piece is well-written enough, the reader will feel smart, but it’s actually the genius writer who put all the pieces in place.

In the above scene, what I should have done is added tension somehow and shown how Jane felt about the other teams. Maybe I could place her at a track meet:

The 1600 was called for warm-ups, and there was only one heat. Jane laced her shoes. She bent to stretch, but she didn’t quite touch her toes: dried goose droppings caked the tips of her sneakers. Sprinting on the dirt track in back of her school was never a good idea during early May, but where else was she supposed to practice?

To her left, a trio of runners in shiny red shorts stretched in unison. Even their sneakers matched. Hell, even their bejeweled hair clips matched. Damn Southport and their money. One of the girls looked in Jane’s direction and giggled. Then she cupped her hand and whispered something to her teammate. The three of them chuckled. Jane followed their eye line to her shorts.  

Yes, they were the same shorts the boys’ team wore. Yes, her team had run out of girls’ shorts. So what if Jane was the only distance runner for the girls and came up with the short straw when it came time to distribute uniforms? The only thing that mattered was how anyone performed in the race, and Jane was about to show them all. She took off for a warm-up lap, leaving the giggling clones behind her.

By adding conflict and other characters, I’m able to show not only that Jane is bitter about her district’s financial situation, but also that she is not going to give up based on her condition. In fact, the end of this short scene suggests that Jane will use her circumstances as motivation for success. In any case, it’s a stronger scene, and it trusts the reader to pick up on Jane’s bitterness without explaining too much of it.

I’ve read too many books written by talented writers who then sabotage their own talents by over-explaining:

She shivered as he glared at her from across the room. She felt the edge of her pocketbook to make sure the can of pepper-spray was still there. She was terrified he might attack her.

In the above example, the first two sentences do a great job showing us how the main character feels: she’s obviously scared of the guy staring at her from across the room. We don’t need to hear that she is terrified; that’s already been shown through her shivering. The threat of attack is inherent in her reaching for the pepper spray.

Sure, there are times when it’s easier and simply more efficient to condense information into “telling,” but in general, “showing” allows more tension, provides better characterization, and increases reader interest.

Writing Tip: Exclamation Points!

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Exclamation Points!

This lesson will be short and sweet. Exclamation points annoy editors. They annoy readers, too, even if only on a subconscious level. Why?

They’re lazy. And tacky. They’re a mark of an inexperienced writer.

The bottom line: Use exclamation marks sparingly. Instead, let your language do the work.

Here’s an example:

It’s raining outside!

The exclamation mark tells me, as a reader, that there’s something exciting or important about the rain, right? But what? Instead of using an exclamation mark, choose more specific, precise language to bring a clearer message to the reader. The message should still contain an “inherent sense of exclamation,” but the punctuation mark itself should not be necessary.

For instance:

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom. (Inherent sense of exclamation: The house is going to be flooded!)

The rain obliterated the convertible. (Inherent sense of exclamation: Should have put that top up!)

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving water. (Inherent sense of exclamation: There won’t be a second Dust Bowl!)

Noah had been right after all. The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge. (Inherent sense of exclamation: A flood of Biblical proportions!)

All of the above sentences contain an inherent sense of excitement, but the language of each sentence already implies the excitement. In these instances, an added exclamation mark would just look tacky.

The rain pounded the window, pushing through the tiny crack at the bottom!

The rain obliterated the convertible!

The rain soaked into the drought-dried dust, speckling it with life-giving waters!

Noah had been right after all! The flood started with three heavy drops that announced a deluge.

Tacky.

And unnecessary.

Exclamation marks don’t have to be eliminated entirely, but as a general rule, if you can show it with language, avoid using an exclamation mark.

Writing Tip: Point of View

Power of WordsWriting Tip: Point of View

Point of view is one of the last things I “got” as a student of writing, but when I did, it was an “aha!” moment that changed my writing. Point of view is one of those things that we don’t actively realize as we’re reading, but it’s necessary for good storytelling.

We are human. By nature, we are limited in our perspective on the world. If I’m sitting in a room full of people, I’m going to be focused on things that interest me—perhaps dynamics between couples, or maybe I’ll be checking out hairstyles in anticipation of my upcoming appointment at the hairdresser. If I’m an athlete training for a triathlon, I might be checking out body figures, looking for muscle mass peeking through clothing. The point is, my focus in any given situation will be limited.

When writing, it’s important that each scene is told through one particular point of view. The “point of view character” is the character through which we experience a scene. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to help the reader better understand and enjoy a scene, we must be limited in the amount of information we are given. When we provide details, they must come from the perspective of the point of view character. If I’m the point of view character, for instance, I might not know what my face looks like, but I do know how others react to me.

As an example, let’s examine a scene that will be told in third person limited to me. Here are two versions:

She stood at the counter staring at the cute shop clerk. Her face turned into a crooked smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. Then she blushed as the guy behind the counter smiled back.

She stood at the counter. Her lips contorted involuntarily. He really was that cute. She smoothed the folds of her paisley shirt to calm her burning cheeks, but when she looked back up, he was still staring at her, smiling back.

In the first example, we step out of the point of view character. Unless there’s a mirror at the counter, she would be unable to see her smile in order to compare it to her shirt. Likely, the man behind the counter is the one comparing her smile to the design on her shirt. Since we’re supposed to be in her POV in this scene, we can’t step outside her body and look at her.

Instead, she can FEEL her lips contorting, and she might GUESS at what they look like, but she wouldn’t know, and it’s not a detail she’s likely to notice. Think about it: when was the last time you compared your smile to something (unless you were looking at a picture of yourself)? Similarly, she cannot see herself blush, but she can feel her cheeks heating up. In the second example, “he really was that cute” allows us into her mind.

Staying within a single point of view character (per scene) is important because if we experience a story in an omniscient way, we become overwhelmed and bored. As humans, we want a character to latch onto, to know, to root for. Any character is going to be flawed (this is a good thing), and experiencing a scene through the character’s flaws lets us understand that character as a human being.

Here is that same scene written in an omniscient point of view.

She stood at the counter, thinking about how cute he was. Her lips curled into a smile that looked like the paisleys on her shirt. He couldn’t help checking out her curves, and she smoothed her shirt as a way to hide her embarrassment. She looked a little bit like his ex-wife, but he couldn’t tell without seeing the eyes. He continued to stare at her, willing her to look up. When she finally did, she was blushing, and she hoped he didn’t notice too much. The last date she’d gone on had been disastrous. Her face had stayed red the entire time. But now, he was smiling back, and he couldn’t wait to ask her out for drinks. While he continued smiling, she tried to remember what in the world she had come to the store to buy.

In this example, there is too much information. I’m in her head, then his, then hers again. It’s overwhelming. Instead, I need to experience the scene through just one character’s perspective. Even if you’re not a romance reader, a good way to fully understand point of view is to pick up a romance novel. These books are written in alternating perspectives, usually third person limited from the lead male and lead female roles. Usually, these novels switch point of view by chapter—sometimes by scene within chapters.

Editors may refer to switching points of view as “head hopping.” If you hear this comment, it means you have left the perspective of your point of view character and are giving us information that your character couldn’t possibly have known.

When editing, I often scribble the point of view character’s name at the top of each chapter. Then, as I go through the scene the first time, I make sure there is no head-hopping going on. On the second read-through, I try to add details that provide even more perspective from the POV character’s perspective. This is a great way to add indirect characterization. If I’m trying to show that a character is afraid, for example, without blatantly saying “she was scared,” I can use this technique. For instance:

She stepped up to the doorway. A reflection in the glass storm door made her shudder, pulling her jacket tight against her frame. She glanced behind her, but she was alone. She shook her head, wondering what her lawyer would say if he found out where she was. No matter. She was here now. She rang the doorbell and waited. She glanced at the evergreen bushes behind her, the ones screening the porch from the street. The ones that had screened Timmy’s body from view. Her throat tightened, and she pushed against the memories…

In this scene, we can tell this character has had a negative experience with this house, and she is trying to reconcile the past. Because we’re in her head, we know that she’s at the house against the recommendation of her lawyer, and we know she is mourning for someone named Timmy. We can tell she feels vulnerable when she pulls her jacket tighter against her, and we know she is worried when she thinks she sees are reflection in the doorway.  

For point of view, you can always use first person point of view as the narrative perspective (think Katniss of The Hunger Games). Some publishers dig it; some don’t. Just make sure the narrator’s voice is likeable and will offer you a wide enough perspective to tell the whole story. (In The Great Gatby, Nick Carraway becomes a nearly omniscient narrator since he is telling the story years after it has happened, a workaround for the limits of first-person narration.)

If you’re having trouble writing third person limited, write in first person first; then switch. For instance:

I stepped up to the counter, worried that I had imagined the whole thing. I wondered if maybe the silly smiles we exchanged last time had been a product of my boy-crazy brain. I smiled at him, and I breathed relief when he smiled back.

This is written in first person POV, and the switch to third POV is easy enough:

She stepped up to the counter, worried that she had imagined the whole thing. She wondered if the silly smiles they exchanged last time had been a product of her boy-crazy brain. She smiled at him and breathed relief when he smiled back.

A plethora of often-contradicting POV advice resides on the Internet and in books on writing. Some editors insist that the main POV character stay “in control” for at least the first fifty pages. Others are more tolerant of switching perspectives. In any case, it’s a good idea to experiment with point of view early on in the drafting stage. Doing so allows writers to find the best voice (or voices) for the story.