A Broken Heart— Repaired

Hi, readers of WordServe Water Cooler! Thank you for having me! I’m Martha Ramirez and though I write for young adults, I have a few children’s stories that have tugged at my heartstrings.

BrokenHeartBroken Heart, my new picture book, was inspired by my own heart journey and having to stay strong and pray for the best.

In 2014, I underwent open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect we never knew I had. Broken Heart is about a brave girl who learns doctors have to mend her broken heart. Seven-year-old Julia goes on an unforgettable heart journey and takes her twin sister along for the ride. Like Julia, my heart defect was not discovered at birth. Unlike Julia, it was discovered many, many years later.

I knew the moment I lay in my hospital bed that I had to write a book about a girl with a broken heart. I also kept a journal, planning to rewrite the memoir I recently finished (super-excited!).

Photo by L.I.L.A. Images

Photo by L.I.L.A. Images

With Broken Heart, inspiration came at me with full force. I couldn’t stop writing until I got to the end. I was so content with the way the story unfolded, it was as if an angel whispered the words to me. When my good friend Mary Jo Prado offered to illustrate the story, I was ecstatic! She’s a talented illustrator and super creative. Without a doubt, I knew she could bring the story to life. I was even more thrilled when she added small but significant touches, such as the actual double doors from the hospital I stayed in.

One of the things I felt strongly about when writing this story was to write from the heart and not to worry so much about how it would turn out. I’m a plotter. An organizer. I always set up my stories beforehand and I always know my GMCs (goals, motivations, and conflict), but not this time. This time it was okay to write like the wind and not worry about the details. Of course, I took the time to go back and make certain all my writing goals were accounted for. But I learned there really isn’t a wrong way to write as long as you follow your heart.

Sean Connery in Finding Forrester says it the best, “You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is . . .  to write, not to think!”

I sincerely hope Broken Heart touches others as it touched me. It’s truly an honor to be here.

What children’s book has touched your heart?

******************************************************************************************
In addition to writing, Martha Ramirez is a 2012 Genesis Semi-Finalist, a member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), YALITCHAT.ORG, the Muse Conference Board, CataNetwork Writers, and American Author’s Association. Her articles have appeared in various places including the Hot Moms Club and For Her Information (FHI) magazine. In 2012, her blog was nominated website of the week by Writer’s Digest. She looks forward to expanding her career and is hard at work on her next young adult novel. She currently resides in Northern California where she enjoys gardening and kickboxing (not simultaneously). Visit her blog at: Martzbookz.blogspot.com

The Power of Story

It was pitch black as my car slowly followed Micah’s along the winding mountain roads, our tires kicking up dust in our wake. My adrenaline sizzled, preparing both my mind and body for the next hours of our night hike up Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs.

My friend Brad sat next to me in the passenger seat, keeping my mind occupied on our conversation. I shared with him about my last year – graduation, what the Lord had been teaching me at Focus on the Family that summer. As he thanked me for sharing, a response spilled from my mouth without my permission.

“It’s not my story to withhold. God’s writing it. I’m just living it.”

My mind froze as I replayed that comment over and over in my head, realizing both the truth and the responsibility that came with it. Have you ever had one of those thoughts? You know it didn’t come from you because there is no way that you are that brilliant. And it both hits you and spills out of your mouth in the same breath with the unmistakable ring of truth to it. I knew it was a Holy Spirit inspired response. Divinely inspired light bulbs are great, aren’t they?

Kariss mountains

In the few years since that night hike that changed so many things for me, I have come to understand and value the power of story. The more I read and watch, I realize that there are only two stories that matter in life and everything else is a cheap imitation.

1) The story of Jesus Christ

2) Your story

That’s right! Your story is the second most important story in history. Why?

There was a man in the Bible named Nicodemus. For those of you reading this who do not claim to be Christians, you are in good company. Nicodemus wasn’t either, at least he wasn’t at the time he talked with Jesus. He was curious and confused. He came to talk with Jesus in the middle of the night. In John 3:11, Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen…”

Never mistake that Jesus has the absolute most powerful and influential story in history. But because He made you and gave you life, your story is the second most influential to people in your sphere of influence. Most people do not appreciate a know-it-all. However, your story automatically has credibility because you are standing before them and telling it, physically present and accessible to them. You lived it and they can relate to it, or at least ask questions.

Story is a powerful thing. We live in a culture where we want to hear what the next Hollywood star is up to or which politician creating a national scandal. People want to know stories. No matter how nondescript you feel yours may be, you have the ability to influence people mightily for Jesus through a willingness to share what God has brought you through.

My mom has always told me, “Never forget from whence you came.” You don’t have to have a successful career or a story worthy of Lifetime. You simply have to be willing and open to share.

Let your writing imitate life in the best ways. In fiction, no one has to know where some of the intimate details come from, but I have learned that what some of my readers love the most came from experiences I had or watched.

What the Lord laid on my heart to share with Brad is very true. My story isn’t mine to withhold. Listen for His gentle whispers. He will give you the words to say when the time comes, and He will use your story, in writing and in life. The pressure is off of you! So share. You have a powerful story because it was and is being written by a Mighty God!

How have you seen God use your story to impact others?

Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

projects.latimes.com

projects.latimes.com

This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

Note to My Younger Self, On Writing

file6681269982727Dear Dena,

Congrats! I know you’ve written two entire book manuscripts and had some poems published. That’s a big accomplishment, especially for a teenager.

It is a tough one, though, this craft you’ve chosen (or, more accurately, the craft that chose you). I want to give you some advice, since at age 44, I’m a little lot older and—hopefully— wiser than you are.

First, drop the attitude. You are not God’s gift to writing. When your mom suggested that you put your current age on the book manuscripts you were submitting to publishers, you said, “No. I want to be known for the quality of my work, not get attention because of my age.” Sheesh.

Girl, you are taking yourself WAY too seriously. After all, you’re not building the Sistene Chapel. Currently, you write teen romance novels. Just look at the titles of your two books: “Someday, Somewhere” and “Magical Daydreams.” Need I say more?

Yes, you have some talent. But you need to be open to all sorts of editing/coaching if you’re serious about becoming a professional writer. Being humble and teachable will take you further than talent alone.

Second, continue submitting to magazines. Many of them have a much bigger circulation than you realize. Today’s popular magazines, which are mostly read on a crazy/wonderful thing called the Internet, have tens of millions of readers from all over the world! Guideposts, which your parents receive, has hundreds of thousands of faithful subscribers. While you dream of writing books, and that’s a worthy goal, your most powerful legacy might happen when a reader picks up a magazine and finds hope at just the right moment.

Third, keep journaling. The diaries you’re keeping will provide endless sources of ideas in the future. (They’ll also provide your future husband with hours of enjoyment at your expense, but that’s beside the point.) Write honestly about your heartaches and joys. Journal about what you eat and drink, and try to capture in words specific sounds, smells, and tastes. Jot down story ideas, snippets of dialogue, and funny character names. Never forget that everything, even especially the lessons learned in life’s darkest moments, is material.

Fourth, find a community of like-minded artists. The drive to write is both a gift and a burden. At times, your path will be strewn with obstacles, rejections, and discouragement. You’ll need people who “get” you. And over the years, in many different ways, God will bring creative soulmates into your life.Being-wellknown-here

Trust me on this: treasure and maintain those friendships. After more than two decades as a writer, I’ve had six books and hundreds of articles published. Some of the journey has been joyful; other parts have been excruciatingly difficult. But by far, the best part has been the relationships I’ve built with my fellow writers. They have enriched my life far more than any acceptance, contract, or award.

Above all else, keep listening to God’s voice. Never let other people’s voices (especially those of your critics) drown out His approval and love. He gave you the talent and desire to write, and He will be faithful to give you opportunities to hone and use your gift. As Randy Alcorn says, “Being well-known here doesn’t matter. Hearing God say ‘Well done’ does! To be known by God–it doesn’t get any better than that!”

Much love,

Me

Failing Machines and Eternal Trust

CalendarImageShe was doing well. She had just gotten remarried to a man who not only loved her, but also loved her children. The heart failure of the past year was behind her and with the help of a specialized machine, her body was getting stronger each day as she awaited a heart transplant. Her future seemed brighter than it had in long time.

And then. . . suddenly. . .

The machine failed.

Her heart stopped pumping and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, she was gone.

In my bewilderment and sorrow over her family’s loss – actually, over the world’s loss of a beautiful, kind-spirited woman who lit up a room with her smile – I was struck afresh by the realization that as much as we want to believe we can control the circumstances of our lives, only God knows the number of days each of us will spend here on earth.

We fret and worry. We diligently put money into savings accounts and strategize about the future.

We give our children vaccinations, teach them about stranger danger and make them wear seat belts when they ride in a car.

We take our vitamins, make healthy food choices (most of the time!), and schedule our annual medical checkups. We think we are in control.

But then . . . suddenly. . .

The machine in which we have placed our trust fails.

We come to an abrupt awareness that we weren’t ever really in control and we spent so much time worrying about our future that we forgot to enjoy our present.

Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26 NIV)

We cannot control the number of our days here on earth, even with the most technologically advanced machines. But when we place our faith in Jesus, we can rest assured that He controls our eternal future.

Let’s continue to be good stewards of our resources, to make healthy lifestyle choices, and to lovingly care for our children. But let’s also remain keenly aware that the things of this world will fail us. Worry is pointless and life is precious. We are not in control, but when we hold tightly to the One who is, our eternal futures are brighter than we can ever imagine.

So Many Books, So Little Time

278153_3301Do you have a TBR pile? Yeah, I hear you. Stupid question. Who doesn’t? In fact, I’ve got an entire TBR bookcase I like to call Storyland. It’s a magical place, filled with books I’ve promised to review, those I want to read because the back cover copy hooked and reeled me in, and a few that I feel obligated to plow through.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not whining. There are many more titles I’d add to Storyland if I had the money, but where would I find the time to read them all? Surely with so many books and so little time, the topic of reading outside your comfort zone is a moot point, isn’t it?

No. It’s not. I’m a big advocate of broadening your reading horizons even when—or especially when—your time is limited. Why? Many reasons…

1. It gets you out of a rut, opening your eyes to other possibilities that just might spur you on to greater creativity.

2. It demolishes prejudice. How do you know you don’t like a western if you’ve never read one? If story is king, the genre doesn’t matter. When choosing to read outside your comfort zone, choose titles that are classics or bestsellers (because there’s usually a reason they’re in that position).

3.  If you want to be a well-rounded writer, you must be a well-rounded reader. Don’t forget short stories, poems, and plays can teach and hone different skills than a novel.

4. You just might discover a new favorite author. It’s happened to me. Because I write reviews, I don’t always get to choose the books I read. I’ve come across some fantastic new authors this way.

5. There’s always something to learn, from a new time period, to a people group you’re not familiar with, or even scientific theories you’ve never heard of. Reading outside your comfort bubble is educational.

1207951_88385713Now that you’re chomping at the bit to try some new genres, here are a few you can check out:

Steampunk

Generally this is an amalgamation of the Victorian era with modern technologies powered by steam. Plus there’s an excess of spin-offs such as dieselpunk, atompunk, decopunk, and loads of others.

Metafiction

Put on your thinking cap because this one is a little tricky to wrap your brain around. Metafiction is a literary term describing writing that purposely poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality using irony and self-reflection.

Urban Fantasy

Think elves or magical fairies roaming around the alleys of New York City. Better yet, how about dwarves in the sewer system? This genre is usually set in contemporary times and contains elements of fantasy.

Musical Fiction

This is a genre wherein music is supreme, both as subject matter and via the flow and rhythm of the prose. Music is manifested through the language itself.

Robinsonade

Search your memory banks way back to junior high when you read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and you’ve just about hit the bull’s eye. The success of that novel spawned so many imitations that the title was used to define an entire genre, more simply described as a “desert island story.”

So go on…nudge, nudge…step out of your suffocating little box. Fling a completely out-of-your-zone book onto your TBR pile today. You can thank me for it later.

Preferably with chocolate.