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It's a ... novel!

It’s a … novel!

As I put the finishing touches on a manuscript I will enter in the Genesis contest with American Christian Fiction Writers I am deluged with advice from the blogs of other writers, critique comments, bullet points from books on the craft of writing and of course, my own gut feelings.

When you have a baby, you want the best for it.  You want to be the best parent, give great counsel, love unconditionally, and have moments when you can sit back and beam proudly at your accomplishment. It’s no different with the birth of a manuscript.

The problem with parenting is that often love is blind and you find yourself overlooking things that should be corrected, behaviors that should be stopped, disciplinary action that should be taken and a few other mistakes. The problem with writing – ditto.

My first big struggle came when input from a contest judge stated my story was good and publishable but she questioned whether first person was the right point of view for the story.  Two other judges in the contest gave feedback that my voice was light and funny and really lent enjoyment to the story.

So what to do?  I decided to take chapter one and try a different point of view.  I worked diligently, but in the end I couldn’t do it.  It just didn’t feel right. The story didn’t flow and it didn’t make me smile when I read it back.  I made an executive decision to leave the point of view alone.

My second struggle came with the advice every writer gets from every critique, every article and every bit of advice from seasoned authors – too much back story.  My first reaction,  “But you have to get to know my MC before you will really understand the story.  She is her history. You want me to cut all that good stuff out?  I’m going to need a lot of anesthesia for that kind of surgery.  And a supply of pain killers afterward.” 

I began cutting, bleeding and moaning at each step.  What I discovered in the long run was all that history is what led me to know my character intimately. And because I knew her so well, I could tell her story in the present letting her personality and her actions suggest the history that made her the way she is.  Brilliant!

The third big struggle was with the story being “overwritten”.  I had to study that comment because I wasn’t sure what it meant.  Reading back through the manuscript I found  it was all action.  Action is good.  Action is key. Action is what moves the story forward. However, as I observed from some of my favorite reads, now and then the reader needs a chance to catch a breath, experience a golden moment, bask in a lazy description of the scene, the prophetic moment, the romance, the MC’s dreams, even a crazy conversation between two characters that seems to have no relevance to the main theme.

When I went back and broke up the action a little with some of this frosting on the cake stuff, I loved it.  It began to read like a novel you can’t put down.

I’m excited about one or two more edits before submitting it for the contest.  And I’m excited that once again I learned a couple of valuable lessons in the process.

  • You can love your work too much and it will cause you to ignore valuable guidance. Just like parenting, once in a while you have to look past the “my perfect child” part and address the little flaws that if not corrected can result in a big problem.
  • You can love your work too little and let the miles and miles of advice take you away from your core idea. Editing and correcting, cutting and revising are good until you find you’ve lost the “you” in your writing. Each writer is unique in some way. Don’t lose sight of your special something that exists in everything you  compose.
  • You can never know too much about your character, but you can certainly reveal too much about your character. Back story is like Elmer’s glue – a little goes a long way. Don’t put so much in that your reader gets stuck . But include just enough to get the reader attached.
  • As in all things, seek guidance, pray, trust your instincts and be willing to take a risk. Every parent knows there is a lot of “seat of your pants” parenting that goes into a well raised child.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”   Kurt Vonnegut

Psalms 32:8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

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MB900431278[1]Our Christmas program at church took place yesterday. It was filled with music, a little drama and a bit of narration to tie it all together.  I composed the narration and as I wrote in an earlier blog, I agonized over every word, praying it would be exactly right to bring people closer to Christ.

I want to share with you a piece of that narration I never could have known would have much deeper meaning in light of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

To introduce the part of our program that emphasized the birth of Jesus and led into a touching rendition of “Isn’t He Beautiful”, I wrote the following:

What child is born that a mother’s heart doesn’t melt the moment she sees his squirming wrinkled body?   What long anticipated newborn comes into this world that a mother’s love doesn’t overflow in a flood of emotion?

The weight of carrying, the pain of labor – all forgotten in the moment of that baby’s first cry.  A mother’s heart swells and she is convinced at that moment that her child is more beautiful, more perfect, more amazing than any other.

Mary was no different than other mothers in that respect. But when she gazed upon the infant Savior, she was consumed with much more than motherly love.

Mary saw a miracle, a mystery,  a majesty far beyond anything she’d ever experienced.  And at that moment, this woman of grace exhaled her last normal oxygen filled breath, and inhaled a new life.

Never again would her lungs expand without the presence of Jesus filling them.

Never again would she speak without the experience of Jesus softening her words.

Never again would her arms reach out without the feel of Jesus in them.

And this is the same for each and every one who lays down the former life and embraces the Christmas miracle.

As those words were shared during the program Sunday, my heart rushed to the parents grieving for lost children in Newtown, Connecticut. A senseless, tragic, unimaginable few moments have left them shattered. There are no words of comfort that could ease their pain, no quote of scripture that will cause the tears to stop falling – at least for a time. Grief, while it may soften, will be their constant companion for the rest of their life.

But the words God gave me for that narration reminded me of what we take for granted every day.  We have nothing except what God gives. The people we treasure in this life are merely on loan, sent by God’s grace to enhance our experience. Mary certainly discovered the truth of this when she watched her Son die.

Here is a wonderful reality in a time of great loss.  The physical presence of a loved one is gone, but God makes sure the memories are left behind to carry us through our time of grieving.

Like the words in the narration, here is what those parents are left with.  They will never again take a breath without the presence of their child filling it, never again speak without the experience of their child softening their words, never again reach out their arms without the feel of their child filling them. The experience of a child, regardless of how short the time span, changes us forever.

Nothing justifies the evil that took those children away.

But God, in His great compassion, will not leave those mothers and fathers bankrupt. He is prepared to fill their emptiness, catch their tears, heal their hearts and gently care for their children until they are reunited in the moment He chooses to bring them together again. Let us pray that through the cloud of pain and grief, they can see the hand of God extended.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev 21:4

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As I put the finishing touches on the script for our church Christmas program I have been thinking about the responsibility that comes with writing.

In writing comedy, you have a responsibility to make people laugh. If you are writing non-fiction you have a responsibility to present accurate information.  If you are writing for small children you have a responsibility for making sure you help them fall in love with reading. If you are writing for middle grade you have a responsibility to help them grasp change and growth.  All writing, especially if it becomes published, carries with it the responsibility of applying your best to produce positive, lasting effect.

Writing a Christmas program should be easy.  After all, the Story is the story – angels, shepherds, camels and kings.  But still, every person in the audience is different.  They hear, perceive and observe in different ways.

A former church I attended used live animals in the Christmas pageant. I guarantee you that when the young children saw sheep they wanted to reach out and touch them. Adults worried about the mess on the carpet. Only the farmers in the crowd actually had thoughts of shepherds on a chilly night. 

Even a live baby in the pageant, while appealing to everyone, elicits different thought and emotion.  The women will feel the prick of tears, and the miracle of the birth.  Children will smile and see baby Jesus. Men will be stoic but at the same time feel the mystery.

I’ve been working on this narration and dialog for weeks and I can tell you I’ve had a few sleepless nights.   My passion is that it reach out and carry the beautiful, life saving message of a Savior’s birth in a way that no one can miss. I know there will be an audience comprised of long time Christians, new Christians and people who haven’t yet made a commitment.

All of them will walk in with their own private burdens. All will bring experiences into the sanctuary that will color what they see, hear and perceive.  Will it be enough to bring them closer to where they need to be?  Will it magnify the manger, add meaning to the message and glorify the God I serve? Will it speak convincingly to the one who has never heard the story before and at the same time be fresh and amazing to the one who has heard it a hundred times?

My fretting and worrying finally ended last night as I polished the narration.  God reminded me that the responsibility of this writer is to compose but it is His job to reveal. Mine is the task of arranging words and capturing thoughts in catchy phrases and colorful prose. His is the task of carrying those words on wings of love and compassion into the hearts and minds of His children. Mine is to retell what He has already written, to sing His praises and to express what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt – a Savior came in the dark and lit up the world. My Father will lift the writing to a level that only He can. Praise Him for His gracious gifting and His faithfulness in guiding us to use what He has given for His glory.     

For the Word that God speaks is alive and full of power ; it is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating to the dividing line of the breath of life  and spirit, and of joints and marrow, exposing and sifting and analyzing and judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart. Hebrews 4: 12

 

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Am I crazy or what?  I don’t need Daylight Savings Time.  I need Sanity Savings Time. For those of you who may not be aware, November is National Novel Writing Month. It comes with it a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 31 days.  You can participate with hundreds of other writers at NaNoWriMo online where you enter your daily word count, get lots of encouragement and follow others who are doing the same thing.

My decision to accept the challenge came just like everything else I say yes to – jump in there impulsively and wonder why later. Now that I’ve begun, I’m analyzing whether this is even possible. I have to admit I skimmed over the 50,000 word part when I first read about NaNoWriMo. But now my brain has led me to the point of realizing the expectation is 1,613 words a day.

Actually I can’t figure on a whole day in which to accomplish the 1,613 words. At least eight hours of my day are spent at work, not writing.  At least one hour of my day is spent in bible study and scripture reading, not writing. Another two or three hours of my day are spent in activities with family, church, and friends, not writing. Then there’s housework, cooking, driving, sleeping, showering, dressing, talking on the phone, eating, etc, etc. – not writing.

But, here’s the amazing part of this post – after two days I have actually written 4,527 words! That’s well over the average daily count and it’s a miracle.  When did I do it?  I have no idea.  I squeezed a few minutes from my lunch break.  I put down my fiction novel for the time being. I wrote while watching a movie with my husband. I wrote during some really early morning hours. I’m pretty pumped after two days.

How do we ever accomplish the things we pack onto our ridiculous schedules? By sheer determination, organization and teeth gritting tenacity, that’s how.

I’m watching my children do the impossible balancing of schedules with kids in school and extracurricular activities. I see things happening at church because already busy people commit and get busier. It is true that the more people have on their plate the more they seem to accomplish.  They are the people who can’t seem to say no and always seem to squeeze it in. They get much done but they sacrifice much at the same time.

There is a balance – I just haven’t quite found it yet. There are so many things I want to do and I’m not getting any younger. On the other hand, my body doesn’t always cooperate with my ambition. It keeps demanding rest and nourishment.

My brain is still running at full speed it seems because the ideas keep flowing. On the other hand it doesn’t always retain the stuff it needs to for as long as it should. A lot of my creativity can be found laying in the wake of where I have been. I had a great idea but by the time I get to the place where I can write it down it’s gone.

I’m not averse to slowing down a little. On the other hand, the minute I slow down I fall asleep. I hate that.

All this rambling is just to ask this question – can I do it? Can I write 50,000 words in 31 days? Probably. Will I have to sacrifice something else to get it done? Probably. Am I ready to reprioritize my whole life and cut back on activities? Probably not. Am I going to wear myself out periodically? Most definitely.

But my great goal is to have this on my epitath after I die:   With God’s help, she finally got everything done.

Lord, you establish peace for us;
    all that we have accomplished you have done for us.  Isaiah 26:12

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This morning I looked out my office window to see the first deer of the season snacking on a big birch tree just a few feet away.  Gentle, graceful creatures with soft gray hides and inquisitive eyes, they always brighten my day.   I am blessed to work in a facility that is surrounded by meticulous landscaping, about a hundred trees and a scattering of wildlife that often frequent the area.  As pleasant as the arrival of  deer is, the sad thing is it signals the nearness of winter.

Winter is not my favorite season by a long way.  I hate being cold.  But winter scenery is another matter.  I do love the beauty of billowy clouds, snow on the evergreen, even the bare tree branches against an azure sky.  I love the first sign of twinkle lights in  windows and the first sound of Christmas carols on the radio.

What I don’t like is coming to work in the dark and leaving work in the dark.  I vote against bitter wind, sleet and below zero temperatures.  I’d like to ban storms or at least limit their visits to when I’m already cuddled in front of the pellet stove with a cup of hot chocolate and a good book.

Alas, every season, every activity, every hobby contains the good parts and the bad parts.  I’m a writer. It’s what I love to do.  I love the light bulb burst of a new idea and I love the furious flow of words from my brain to the paper or computer screen.  I don’t love writer’s block, editing for the tenth time or getting to the middle of a great manuscript and finding myself at a loss of where to go next. If only writing were fun and productive all the time.  Or for that matter, parenting, cooking, working, teaching, reading and so on and so on.

Jesus certainly faced the same challenges in His life on earth.  I would guess He loved the opportunity to heal but didn’t care for the moments when healing didn’t happen because of someone’s lack of faith.  I’ll bet he loved spending time with his closest friends and followers, but hated the moments when it seemed they hadn’t learned a thing from Him; when they questioned who He really was and failed to accept the power in His very name.

Today I spoke with a friend who is really under attack right now and it’s no surprise.  She has had a renewal of faith and is on fire with hope, enthusiasm and joy.  I don’t imagine satan likes that much.  So, he’s out to shake her up.  She’s finding herself in the not so likeable part of the Christian walk.  It’s a reminder that there’s work to do to stay focused and motivated through the ups and downs of life.  Here’s the workout program.  Repeat as often as necessary until you feel those spiritual muscles bulging.

1)  From a  kneeling position, inhale deeply, exhale and pray.  Pray early, pray late, pray always.  Pray when it’s going well and when it’s not.  This will build strength within.

2)  From a sitting position, lift your Bible as often as possible and read.  This will strengthen your mind and your resolve.

3)  Spread your arms wide and reach out to others.  This will strengthen your commitment and build your confidence.

4)  Ask others to join your fitness club.  Ask them to pray with you, talk with you, share with you, commiserate with you and praise God with you.  This will build up your joy and inner peace.

And remember this – if you weren’t on the right path, satan wouldn’t pay you a bit of attention.  He doesn’t care what you’re doing as long as you aren’t doing what God wants you to do.  He doesn’t have a plan for your life.  He just wants to make sure you aren’t following God’s plan for your life.  A good exercise program like the one above will keep him from achieving his goal.

You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord Himself is the Rock eternal.  Isaiah 26:3-4

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Something kind of cool happened on Sunday and I was surprised by how much it boosted my confidence.  A guest pastor remarked on my introduction to worship, asking me where I found the piece that I had shared.  Before I could say anything two members of my church family who were standing nearby chimed in at the same time, “She didn’t find it.  She wrote it.  She’s a writer.”

The pastor’s response was, “You need to get that published.”

Of course getting published has been my goal for several years.  I still have moments of wondering if it will ever happen.  But being recognized as a writer by others really gave me a high.  I kept relishing those words over and over the rest of the day.

Isn’t that our goal as writers, to be recognized for what we do without having to come right out and announce it?  In fact, isn’t that anyone’s goal?  Spend time with children and have someone recognize you as a teacher?  Serve a great meal and have someone recognize you as a chef?  Hum an impromptu tune and have someone recognize you as a singer?

The ultimate flattery is having people see in you what you’ve set your heart on becoming.

The best model of this concept is Jesus.  He touched the infirm in a way that caused people to see Him as a healer.  He spoke the words that led people to call him teacher.  He walked in such a way that people followed, acknowledging Him as a leader.  And He died in such a way that people recognized Him as Messiah.

You can tell people anything you want but they won’t necessarily be convinced.  Show them through your daily actions and they will not only recognize you for what you are, they will also call it out to others.  Writer, friend, Christian – not titles I can put on myself.  Only when others put those labels on me do they have true meaning.

We need to work harder at living the role and not so hard at telling the role.  Hey – I believe that is the theme song of a writer – show don’t tell.

We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. 2 Cor 6:6

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Wow – I was hit with a huge case of writer’s block yesterday morning as I got ready to post a new blog.  I panicked.  Maybe it was the previous five days of VBS and having to be energetic and creative every day for a crowd of 3 to 12 year olds.  Maybe it was arriving at work and discovering the storm over the weekend had taken out 8 trees and flooded several areas on our campus.  Maybe it was catching my husband drinking directly from the ice tea container.  Maybe it was just the Monday blahs. 

I began to stress about it by 2:00 p.m and panic about it around 4:00 p.m.  I did rough something out but I scrapped it because it was not upbeat enough. 

When my husband suggested an evening motorcycle ride with a stop for dinner I thought, “Perfect.”  The fresh air always stimulates the brain and I was sure I’d return with a plethora of blog ideas.  I didn’t.

I am radically goal oriented and when I started my blog I made a commitment to post every Monday and every Friday.  If I couldn’t come up with something before midnight I would officially have failed.  I racked my brain, thumbed through magazines, brainstormed and prayed.  Nothing.

I woke twice in the night stressing about my failure.  I begged God to give me inspiration.  I actually had a minor panic attack about 3:00 a.m. thinking maybe my creative juices had run out forever and I’ll never have another idea or bright thought again.

I woke this morning with the blog on my mind and I still hadn’t come up with anything.  So here I am writing about not being able to write.  That’s really pulling from the bottom of the barrel.  It’s like turning on the oven when the power has gone off or singing about not being able to sing.  It’s like shopping when all the stores are closed.  Very unsatisfying and very unproductive.

Here’s what I’m doing about it so I won’t be in this position come Friday:

  • Trying not to panic
  • Thinking of other irritating things my spouse does besides drink right from the container.  (I only add this because I realize I could fill a blog with my list.)
  • Listening to every conversation wherever I go to try and net a fragment of an idea (if you are within hearing distance – watch out!)
  • Looking around everywhere I go for beauty or funny or poignant – any of which could trigger an idea
  • Giving it to God (picking it up again, giving it to God, picking it up again, etc)
  • Believing this is only a temporary lull in my otherwise cacophony filled brain
  • Reading back over past writings to remind myself I do have a gift
  • Praying
  • Repeating Matthew 6:27 (Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?) and inserting the words “or a single word to your blog”

So – if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.  I can honestly say I do not ever remember being hit by writer’s block before so I’m a novice at recovering.

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