Would You Believe?
All you fiction writers, listen up.

Today’s December 25 and you know what that means.

OK, maybe it’s not December 25 when you’re reading this, but just imagine it is. You’re writers, remember? Jeeze!

So today’s December 25 and you know what that means.

Right, you missed another deadline. I mean besides that.

Stuck?

I’ll give you a hint. Jolly Old Gnome (what a gift for description). Bet that rules out your editor. How about Old Saint Nick?

You got it! Santa Claus! (And please—don’t ask how he’s related to subordinate clause—I don’t need another reason to drink). Now here’s my question: how many of you believe in Santa. Hands! I’m lookin’ but I’m not seein’. Come on, put down your coffee and your cynicism and get with it. How many? You’re kidding me. That’s pathetic.

Here’s what I want you to do. Go to whatever mystical machine produces music in your cave and pump up one of the season’s greatest carols. No, not that one. I mean, it’s beautiful, but that ain’t it. No, not that one either. I’m talking about the one where the man’s poking the dead dog in the ditch with a stick. Come on, you know it. It’s the one where Mary Lou waits daily at the end of the dirt road for Johnny, the n'eer-do-well who dumped her, to return. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Try harder. Remember—no bell, no wings. How about the jilted groom down by the river who . . . Wait. A little louder, please. Bingo! That’s the one! Reason To Believe, one of the Boss’s best.

What’s that you say? Reason To Believe isn’t a carol? OK, you got me. Got me on a damn technicality. It’s really a hymn, who’s parsing when you’ve got a refrain like “At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.”

Which brings me to Luke (don’t you love a smooth transition?) Take a gander at his gospel in the New Testament. Not a Christian? So what? We’re talking great literature here. The New Testament’s filled with tremendous lessons for writers of any and no faith. Ditto the Hebrew Bible. But right now let’s talk about Luke, the only one of the Gospel writers to include the complete cast of characters of the nativity of Jesus. Manger, shepherds, kings, camels—all of it comes together in Luke.

Ah, a naysayer. It wasn’t winter; it was summer. And a lot of those trappings? Straight out of good old-fashioned pagan Saturnalia. Maybe so. But I’ll betcha Luke knew what the story was. In fact, that’s the whole point: Luke knew what the story was—the story that at the end of every hard earned day would give people a reason to believe. Did he alter some facts? Could well have. Luke was a writer. He was one of our gang. He appreciated that twisting a fact can often improve a story. Let those among us without chronological sin cast the first adverb.

No, Luke knew how to tell a story. He also knew that, as a writer, his job was to give people a reason to believe. Not just believe because he knew how to create a setting and describe a character, which he did. Believe because he gave his writing intent. His writing preached. Now don’t everybody speak at once. Let me say it, instead. We’re writers, not preachers. We tell stories, not give sermons..

Says who? (Or is that whom?)

This is one of those writing rules that should be Ten Commando-ized into tiny shreds. Writers sermonize—or they should. If the word sermon frightens you, stick in” message”—a more p.c. term—instead. Fiction writing is better writing, truer writing with intention. It should have a purpose. It should, in short, encapsulate our “message,” the message that goes “here, dear reader, is a reason to believe.”

Believe what?

The whole mise-en-scene, of course. But what else? Oh, I don’t know . . . believe, maybe, that good overcomes evil; believe that love can come in many forms all of which can conquer; believe that even an unhappy ending can impart valuable lessons. Gee, sounds almost like—gasp—sermo—oppps!—messages.

Truth is, if we’re not sermonizing (there, I said it) in our storytelling, if we’re not giving people a reason to believe, we’re cheating both our readers and ourselves. And if we’re not giving people a reason to believe, maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten how to believe. Maybe we’ve forgotten the wonder of belief, having tossed it aside like so many other childish things. Maybe it’s time to start brushing up on our believing skills, developing them the same way we try to develop other aspects of writing—the high-falutin’ ones like style and diction and voice.

If your belief is really rusty, then start simple. And nothing’s simpler than believing in Santa Claus. So even though Christmas has come, why not leave a little something on the table for the old guy? Last night I set out scotch and salsa but you may want to go the more milk and cookies route. Could be the next day they’ll still be on the table, in which case you can indulge (well, maybe not the milk). But don’t take untouched as a sign that Santa wasn’t there (he could have just had carb overload). In fact, I’ll bet he made it to your place and, even better, I’ll bet he left you a gift.

Go ahead—find out. Pick up a pen, put your fingers on the computer keyboard—do whatever way you make marks on paper—and start writing. Chances are before too long you’ll notice a difference.

But only if you believe.

Here ends the sermon.

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