Help! My Life’s a Tilt-a-Whirl and I Wanna Get Off!

I watched the pink and orange eventide rise behind the bare-limbed trees lining our backyard.

The day was gone again.

Lost in a shuffle of orthodontist and doctor appointments, car pooling, awkward schedule changes due to the weather (again), blog posts and interview questions due yesterday, and a hopelessly floundering manuscript, life felt like a tilt-a-whirl and I wanted to get off.

How in the world could I keep the pace my life was going? How could I meet everyone’s expectations? How could I make sure I was being a mother and a wife first?

Through Me, I heard Abba whisper.

I’d recently forced myself to become diligent about reading the Bible again, after “forgetting” to make it a daily habit despite the five Bible applications on my smart phone and the three hard copies in a dust-covered stack on my bedside table.

No wonder I felt lost.

No wonder I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore.

I can’t.

Be still, He whispered again. Anything is possible through Me.

I can’t.

But God can.

IMG_0785Obviously He’s not going to write the blog posts for me. He’s not going to drive my kids to the orthodontist. He’s not going to bathe the five nonagenarians at the hospital for me during my nursing shifts.

But His power, through my heart staying centered on Him, can be made perfect.

And I can rest, knowing everything in His will to be done, will be done.

Eventually.

Writers or not, we all have times we feel lost and overwhelmed, insufficient and incapable. But if we keep our eyes on Him, He will renew our hearts. He will accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine (Eph. 3:20).

And best of all, we can rest in His peace.

 “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ … have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”

Colossians 3:15-17 (TMV)

If Ever There Was A Time For Writers . . .

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*****

“It is the miraculous language that drags me back into its delicious kingdom again and again . . . meticulously chosen words . . . I want to enter this kingdom, with such desperation, I am willing to die for it . . . And to enter a book, to let my life course out and stream past me, is to, in a  small way, die.”

On Reading, by Cynthia Cruz, via The Rumpus, 4/29/2013 

*****

If ever the world groaned for hope, it is now.

If ever the world needed writers, artists, poets, and musicians, it is now.

Even a glance through centuries past testifies to the power of artists, those sage interpreters of the soul, to draw hope from the detritus of despair and unveil rainbows from the bleak abyss of injustice.

And so, if God has called you to write, He has called you to deliver His people from this present darkness.

If that sounds like a big job, it is.

If that sounds like it’s too much for your feeble pen to handle, it is.

Because only a Savior can sand down the sharp edges of pain. Only a Savior can sweep darkness away with a great exhale which leaves in its wake a symphony. Only a Savior can deliver us.

So what’s a writer to do?

First, like the brown, peeling bulbs we tuck into the earth in the fall, don’t be afraid to plant the seemingly worthless and ugly. God is smitten with the beauty we allow Him to create with the broken, insignificant and useless parts of our selves. Keep writing, even if there’s no tangible payback or reward. Be faithful with little, and He will be faithful with making much of whatever meager loaves and fishes we lay at His feet. Spring comes, dear one. Spring comes.

Second, take time to celebrate Sabbath. Renew your mind and stretch your imagination by reading a book outside your usual genre, or a book in the Bible you haven’t considered in a while. And as you do, pray God gives you eyes to see and ears to hear what He wants for His lost ones. Look for ways to infuse His whispers into your stories.

Third, if you feel stuck, dig deeper. Press into the words you pen, and let them press into you, that they may make an unmistakable imprint of redemption and hope upon the reader by the time the last page is turned.

Make people want to enter not just any kingdom, but God’s Kingdom, breaking into the world by the surrender of your pen today.

*****

    “I spoke to the prophets,

gave them many visions
and told parables through them.”

Hosea 12:10 (NIV)

*****

How can you let God lead you more in your writing life? In what ways can you more fully surrender your pen for His glory? 

*****

Amy writes words of hope for a hurting world. Look for her debut novel, How Sweet The Sound, coming March 1, 2014 from David C. Cook.

On Beyond Index Cards: A Review of Scrivener Software for Writers

My first novel, slated for publication with David C. Cook in early 2014, involved hours and reams of research. I researched everything from fossils, to barbecue restaurants, the history of Haiti, pecan recipes, and more. I organized text, web links, and photos into dozens of Word documents, which I then had to flip open and closed while writing and editing each chapter. Add this to the half-dozen internet browser screens I had open for research, and, well, my computer was on the verge of crashing.

So was my brain.

At the time I didn’t know any better, so I never lamented the process. But now that I’ve found Scrivener, a software program for writers of any genre, I marvel at how I ever kept my sanity. Currently neck-deep in an intense season of editing, I’m especially glad I can dump my manuscript in there, blow it up, and put it back together again with Scrivener.

Now, I will warn you. What you’re about to read may sound like an infomercial, but it’s not. I downloaded the trial version (highly recommended), quite skeptical about how much easier this could really make my writing life. But after just two days, I bought the software outright. First of all, this little slice of computer engineering GENIUS only cost $45—a small price to pay for sanity. An even smaller price to pay for the time it’s saved me, and the fun it brings to the novel writing process.

What’s so great about Scrivener? Below, I’ve summarized my personal favorite aspects of the program—so far. And I say “so far” because the software has so much depth of capabilities and bells and whistles, I discover something new and even more fun every time I use it.

1. Love me a Trapper Keeper!

I am a true child of the 80s. When I took my kids back-to-school shopping earlier this fall, I teared up, grieving that they shall never know the true beauty of the Trapper Keeper. Oh, sure, we found imitation versions on the shelves, but nothing close to the ultimate office supply nerd’s dream machine contraption, which kept everything in check, even when the bully on the football team rounded the corner and flipped my books in the air, sending everything—including my fragile, Love’s Baby Soft ego—to the floor.

Well, never fear those bullies again. Scrivener is your virtual Trapper Keeper. The  program holds everything you need for your novel—websites, photos, places to jot down random thoughts and ideas, references, and notations—everything. And since it’s all in one location, nothing falls out.

2. The corkboard is adorable.

Say good-bye to sticky notes falling on the floor when it gets humid outside. Say hello to the floor you haven’t seen for months, since it’s been covered in index cards. Scrivener allows you to not only create virtual index cards and post them on a virtual corkboard, but you can also rearrange them, even when your manuscript is complete. Need to move chapter 30 back before chapter 14? No problem. Instead of scrolling back up and down through pages of text, just point, click and drag!

Better yet, each index card can function as a chapter synopsis, and you can attach various and individual scenes to each card, again, for easy viewing and rearranging, even within a chapter.

And as an added bonus, you can print out the index cards you create within the program, complete with lines to cut them the exact size of a 3×5 card.

As the website says, “Make a mess. Who said writing is always about order? Corkboards in Scrivener can finally mirror the chaos in your mind before helping you wrestle it into order.”

Don’t like index cards? That’s okay, because you can do your writing (also with rearranging capabilities) via the outlining mode.

3. Don’t just think about Harry Connick as you write out your protagonist’s next love scene. See him on the screen.

Don’t just think about the New York City skyline as your villain creeps through Central Park. Keep a photo of it on your desktop as you write.

Character, setting, and other research organizers allow you to attach photographs, charts, maps, and more all together and accessible as you write. One of my supporting characters looks like Matthew McConaughey. Seriously. He does. So whenever I need to jot down notes about his character, I open up my folder and there he is, gazing at me. Beautiful.

(woah–where did HE come from?!?)

 4. Worry about Word later.

It took me awhile to get over the fear of not writing in Word. But alas, the designers make it possible for you to compile all the text behind all those index cards and export it into one, seamless document which dovetails easily into Word.

5. Other cool features I love:

  • A name generator with every ethnicity and region imaginable!
  • Templates
  • Word count features, by chapter and whole document
  • Color-coding for chapters, editing status, and more.
  • Progress tracking
  • Keyword options
  • Formatting assistance

The website sums it up best:

“Most word processors approach composing a long-form text the same as typing a letter or flyer – they expect you to start on page one and keep typing until you reach the end. Scrivener lets you work in any order you want and gives you tools for planning and restructuring your writing. In Scrivener, you can enter a synopsis for each document on a virtual index card and then stack and shuffle the cards in the corkboard until you find the most effective sequence. Plan out your work in Scrivener’s outliner and use the synopses you create as prompts while you write. Or just get everything down into a first draft and break it apart later for rearrangement on the outliner or corkboard. Create collections of documents to read and edit related text without affecting its place in the overall draft; label and track connected documents or mark what still needs to be done. Whether you like to plan everything in advance, write first and structure later—or do a bit of both—Scrivener supports the way you work.

But wait. Before you buy, please note:

As with any computer program, there are negatives. Some folks–including an adorable and brilliant writer friend of mine–hate it. Also, while a PC version is available, the program was designed to operate on Macs, and the designers even admit it will probably work best on that platform. Try the trial version before you buy it to see if it will work for you and your computer operating system.

Also, you do need to have at least a smidge of computer savvy. And patience. There is a learning curve to this program, and the designers have been kind enough to offer a thorough, interactive tutorial and instruction book. While helpful, the program is so rich even I—a borderline computer geek—felt a little overwhelmed initially. And I don’t know if I’ll ever use all the functionalities.

That said, Scrivener has truly changed the way I approach my novel writing. I feel like it really frees my mind to focus on the prose, because I no longer have to remember where everything is on my hard drive . . . or if my dog ate a sticky note or a stack of index cards.

I honestly don’t know why more folks aren’t using and/or raving about the software.

Try it for free for 30 days.

I can’t throw in a set of steak knives, but I’d be willing to wager you’ll like the program, too.

Thoughts on Publishing: What Would the Wright Brothers Do?

“If we worked on the assumption that

what is accepted as true really is true,

then there would be little hope for advance.”

~Orville Wright

A lot of hoopla surrounds the publishing industry, these days more than ever. In the midst of the business, it’s easy to forget the original dream and heart of the artist.

This is not a new phenomenon.

Nor is it unique to the publishing industry.

Take the Wright brothers, for example. I wonder if Orville and Wilbur had today’s airplane industry in mind when they first sketched out their dream to fly. I assume they were two wildly imaginative, brilliant brothers who had a knack for ingenuity, and who simply wanted to feel their feet leave the ground. Who simply wanted to fill their lungs with air free from the heavy, constant pull of gravity.

Sure, they must’ve been pleased to see the initial progress of their invention, how flight began to morph into bigger, stronger vehicles which allowed others to feel weightless freedom, too.

But what would they think now?

Of the pushing and shoving and security detail in airports? Of gunfire, like rain pouring from silver wings? Of hijackings? Of crashes? Of bankrupt airlines? Of their beautiful, wooden machine used as weapons of mass destruction on 9/11 nearly a century after liftoff?

Of course, modern-day airplanes are still a marvel. Their massive engines bring orphans into the arms of adoptive parents; soldiers into the embrace of waiting wives and newborns; food to the starving; medicine to the dying; peace to the war-torn; relief to the hopeless.

All of these things–the good and the bad–began with a dream which lolled around the hearts of two gangly boys for years, and which eventually tamed the winds on a lonely, sandy beach.

And so it is with the publishing business. A single page of script begins as it did with the Wright brothers, with a small dream in a great, big heart. From there, the dream takes flight. And after that, it becomes a part of the industry–an industry which carries words to distant places.

Some stories give life and hope.

Others tear down and destroy.

Much ado is made over the various branches of publishing: self, electronic, traditional, mainstream, Christian, small press, large press, and on and on and on. I suppose this is not new. But the industry is merely a vehicle for syntax to take flight.

Our job as authors is to keep the original dream alive, despite commercialism, competition, money, and what all the writing blogs say.

If you’re an author (like me) who follows Jesus, our job carries the even weightier responsibilities of strengthening, encouraging, and comforting. As Christ-followers, we must choose building up over being edgy for the sake of being edgy. We must choose loving accurately over nosediving into the murky waters of what itching ears would have us say.

Write brave, yes.

After all, neither flying nor faith are safe.

But write with prayer, precision, and while feeling the weight of the cross on our wrist.

*************

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”

~Orville Wright

*************

What about you?

How do you stay true to your dreams and the truth you long to pen upon blank pages?

How have the Wright brothers (re)impacted you today?

Everything I needed to know about writing I learned from my Dad’s level

When I was a little girl, Saturdays were my favorite day of the week, because Dad took me to the hardware store. Never a man without a project, Dad and I strolled the aisles and picked out all the uber-cool and necessary items. Back home, he let me watch him build.

Even as an adult, Dad helps me builds projects around our house: corner benches, window seats, entertainment cabinets, wainscoting, and more. I’ve often thought about tackling carpentry projects myself, but I’ve always been afraid his gifts of patience, precision, and measurement didn’t pass down through the genetic pipeline.

Until last week, that is. I gulped hard, then set about transforming a small, unused closet in my son’s room into a book nook, complete with a seat, shelves, and trim. As I worked, I couldn’t help think of how similar building and woodworking are to the craft of writing. So, here for you today are the top ten applicable things I learned:

1) Borrowing ideas from others is a compliment. I found the book nook idea at my favorite DIY blog. I copied some of the ideas, but ultimately, the project quickly became unique to my home and my son’s personality. Application: Don’t be afraid to consider how to tweak popular (even Shakespearean) story lines into your own masterpiece.

2) Sketch out a plan. I drew sketches with all my ideas and at all sorts of angles. This really helped when I took it to the hardware store and explained my ideas to Mr. Friendly-But-Skeptical-of-a-Female-Builder in the blue apron. Application: Plot and outline. And know that girls can build, too.

3) Take time to measure. And measure again. I measured most boards at least three times before cutting them. Even so, I had to take some pieces back to the saw for additional trimming, because of angles I hadn’t anticipated. Application: Research. And research more. You may not need all the research you gather for your story, but it’s better to have too much than not enough. You can’t make a piece of wood longer, after all.

4) The level never lies. My Dad always spends more time leveling than he does nailing and drilling. As a young girl, this seemed like a waste of time. Now, with one (fairly) successful project under my belt, I understand how one unlevel board can ruin the whole project. Application: You can never fact check or edit too much.

5) Shims come in handy. A side board which supported the nook’s seat wasn’t level. I added a shim to the low end to make it right before I drilled the seat plank on. Sitting crooked wouldn’t be much fun. Application: Take time to smooth out and adjust your prose.

6) Sometimes you have to yank out a bent nail. I stink at hammering. Should be the easiest part of a project, right? Not for me. I’m hammer challenged. Inevitably, at least a few of my nails bend, and I’m tempted in frustration to just hammer them in anyway. Sideways. Application: Don’t be sloppy. Take your time.

7) When stuck, ask a master for help. Switch projects for a moment: Last winter I painted my kitchen yellow. Three times. After the first two shades came out neon and lemonish and all wrong, I bawled like a baby knowing I’d have to paint the whole room a third time. I called my Dad. We knocked it out in a couple hours. Application: Read and talk to established authors. They help get you out of writing ruts.

8) Wood putty and spackle are my new best friends. For holes. Dings. Bent nails I hammered in anywayApplication: Edit.

9) Sandpaper makes all the difference. Application: Edit some more.

10) Invest in a good paintbrush. The final touches of a project are when I’m most tempted to take shortcuts. I’m tired of looking at the mess. I just want to get ‘er done. But alas, these are the moments which make a project shine. I found out the hard way that using a crappy paintbrush when applying high gloss paint to cabinetry looks plain awful. Application: Don’t skimp before hitting the send button. Edit again.

Yes.

One.

More.

Time.

What about you?

What ways do you find real-world experiences help you re-frame the writing journey?

What’s your most handy advice? 

 

The Joy of Research

What’s black and white and red all over?

Or is it “read” all over?

No matter.

The answer is: The desk of a writer.

Covered in words and, yes, sometimes blood, my writing nooks are piled high with books, inch-thick binder clips full of internet printouts, magazines, journals, sticky notes and more. Commonly known as research, this is what the necessary, most rewarding (and fun!) part of the novel-writing process looks like.

Many novels are character-driven, so some folks might not think research plays much of a role in writing a solid story, especially if you’re following the old adage, “write what you know.” However, for characters to have depth, you have to know them. Really know them. You have to know their hobbies, their likes, and their dislikes. You need to know what it felt like to grow up in their hometown and region. You need to know what it feels like to live in the current story setting as well.

So, if you’re new to the writing process, I thought I’d share three research tips with you today.

Research tip #1: Libraries are not dead.

When I’m in all-out research mode, you can find me at my local library at least twice a week, if not more. I live in a relatively small town, so sometimes the strange call numbers I need are not represented on the shelves. But thanks to an amazing, free system called Evergreen Indiana, I can (and do) check out books from all over my state. In fact, Evergreen offers over 2.6 million bibliographic records and provides access to over 6.2 million items. (I think I’ve checked out 1.2 million so far!)

The internet cannot replace the richness of photography and history found in books. Also, books make me feel hot on a story trail like a blood hound after a fox, especially when references at the back of one book open up a wealth of resources and other books I never considered.

The other great (and possibly the best) thing about libraries: there’s no dust or laundry vying for my attention.

Research tip #2: The internet rocks.

If you’re as old as me, you might remember when the go-to resources for current event research were microfilm reels, aperture cards and microfiche. Only after thumbing through phone book-thick books of references could one find relatively current articles on a research topic. Then, there was no guarantee the library carried that journal or magazine. And if it did, squinting through the microscope-like lenses to try to find the information led to headaches and frustration.

Thank goodness for the internet. A few key strokes and you’ve got a gold mine of information to cull through. Here are a few of internet research sites I find especially helpful:

Research tip #3: Master the art of conversation (or listening, rather).

I’m lucky to be a nurse as well as a writer. Not just because it allows me to have enough money to eat, but also because it offers me so many chances to talk to and learn from folks I’d otherwise never meet. My favorite patients are octo- and nonagenarians, because I can pick their wise and nimble brains for topics like what it really felt like to live through the depression and what really makes a marriage work for 60+ years.

But you don’t have to be a nurse (or a patient, for that matter) to enhance a story. For one of my novels, I spent an afternoon talking to a local bar owner five states away, just to hear what he had to say about local lore and life.

Take time to listen to people,  and you’ll gather interesting story ideas otherwise never imagined.

What about you? What are your favorite research tools? Websites? Resources?

The publishing business: all that glitters

The morning began as usual, checking my twitter, facebook and email accounts before I stuck a toe out of my warm, cozy covers.
 
Did my post post?
 
Did my scheduled tweets tweet?
 
Did anyone RT them? Comment on them? Reply to them? Even see them?
 
Get more speaking engagements. Submit more articles. Write more controversial stuff, like her. Write more edgy stories, like him. Promote more books for people so they’ll someday help promote me. Comment on that-one-blog so the agent notices. Read three more blogs and comment on them, too.
 
My posts and tweets and updates sound stupid. My blog looks outdated. The only responses I ever get are crickets chirping. I shoulda posted a link to that one-really-good-writing-article. Why didn’t I RT so-and-so? People might pay more attention to my writing if I RT someone with a little more Klout. I’m too messed up for that industry professional. I’m not messed up enough for the other.
 
Does any of this stuff matter?
 
And when was the last time I added a word to my manuscript?
 
Oh, yeah, my manuscript. The thing that pulls my heart. The story that makes my gut churn with excitement and fear, possibility and hope.
 
The publishing journey glitters. Veteran authors, publishing houses, editors and MFAs pull us like the sparkling bodice of a circus dancer, flipping and tumbling effortlessly through the air, her partner eagerly waiting to catch her in his arms and raise her into the air for applause.
 
And yet, we who write for publication must be careful. We sit in the dark stands under the Big Top, munching on popcorn, coveting glow-in-the-dark necklaces, lost in the illusion and elusive space between what is real and who we are.
 
Like many of you, I’ve been a hobo on this circus train since my youth, curled in a small, black space under a box car, hoping no one will find out I’m there, spying, watching and mimicking every move . . . while at the same time hoping the Ringmaster will discover me, dress me in the finest costume of tulle and sequins and tights, crown me princess in the center ring.
 
At some point, as each of us steps into the publishing business, we must decide to whom–and for whom–we will perform. I suppose a piece of every life involves some degree of performance. But how big a piece we give up, well that part’s up to us.
 
Good magicians, like good circus performers, don’t tell you their secrets. But I will tell you mine, and it is this: YOU are the main act.
 
You’re it.
 
Because you are the artist.
 
No matter which trapeze the business has you swinging from–commodity or compadre–you’re the one with the words. Anything the business brings beyond that is a side show compared to the talent, skill and gift you bring to the center ring . . . a gift that can’t be enhanced or revealed, covered or consumed by a shiny costume.
 
I re-discovered this recently as I read over pages of a document my grandfather left my grandmother, printed words etching a burning love story into the cold stone of history.
 
My history.
 
The beginnings of another new novel.
 
You have a history too, and from behind the cage bars it scratches and roars to be told. Feeding it isn’t enough. You must let it loose and tame it. Balance the weight of it on a small, round stand. Parade it carefully in front of the masses.
 
There’s a hoop only you can soar through. A tightrope only you can walk. A story only you can tell.
 
Don’t lose it in the spotlight. Don’t let it become ensnared and choked out by the ropes and pulleys, smoke and mirrors.
 
Do this, and you’ll survive–and perhaps even thrive–in the publishing circus.

Because all that really glitters in this great show is you.

What about you? How do you remain true to yourself and be the best possible steward of the gifts (and time) God’s given you, while walking the tightrope of the industry?

NaNoFAILNo: Cracking the code

Ever feel like these 2008 Olympic tri-athletes?

I did last month, when (ten years postpartum) I decided to get in shape. Though our three golden retrievers have always kept me walking, this fall my prodigious cross-country-running son inspired me to pick up the pace a bit and run.

I followed all the training recommendations, slowly building up pace and stamina. I alternated running and walking until I could run a good couple of miles without stopping. As I trained, I noticed a tiny twinge in my left knee. Nothing major. Nothing too painful. Then I ran a 4.5 mile race on Thanksgiving Day. My knee hurt about half-way through, but I continued, finishing the race with a dull throb I thought would dissipate.

The next day, the pain felt excruciating. Days of ice, rest, compression and ibuprofen didn’t help. Convinced something major was severed—or needed to be—I went to the orthopaedic hospital for x-rays.

I left with the disappointing diagnosis of tendonitis. As much as it hurt, I expected a cast or bandage or something to show for it. Instead, I limped back home and continued rest, ice and ibuprofen for the next 5-6 days.

Finally, the pain subsided and I attempted my first walk since the race. I barely walked a block before the knife-like pain dug into the side of my knee. By the time I got home, all I could do was curl up in my bed with an ice bag and weep. One by one as if at a wake, our three dogs and three sons filed by the bed offering reassuring licks and hugs (respectively).

All of this occurred as NaNoWriMo drew to a close, along with my pathetic word count. I struggled with feelings of failure, futility, inadequacy, even doom regarding both my running and writing. Even so, I gleaned some wisdom from the experience—wisdom I thought fellow writers might appreciate.

1) First, it’s okay to try and fail.

Like most folks, I started NaNoWriMo with fervor and motivation. I had accountability partners. I tweeted word counts. Laundry piled high. Then life happened: three kids had to be three places at once; my family actually needed clean underwear; a day job and bank account needed me to work more hours; one dog licked open a hot spot and two others stepped all over my laptop whenever I sat down to write. 

All the while, that annoying NaNoWriMo daily word counter thingy crept upward. On the first day, the counter said to maintain a 1,667 words/day pace to meet the 50,000 goal. As writing time waned, the goal increased to 2,300/day. Then 6,534. On November 30, I would’ve had to write 26,000 words to meet my goal.

Still, I’m 24,000 words farther into my WIP than if I never tried at all.

2) Second, free writing leads to discovery of strengths, weaknesses and voice.

Psychologists use a journaling technique with some patients in which they tell them to use their non-dominant hand to write themselves a letter. Many times, this leads the writer in unexpected directions, opening doors to new and more productive stories. Similarly, as I continued through NaNoWriMo, I discovered new ways to write scenes. New characters felt free to emerge. I felt free to kill a few off and start over. I found my voice and lost it several times over, and even discovered new ones. Free writing, well, it frees us from editor mode, allowing uncharted creativity to emerge.

3) Keep going, but stop if it hurts.

I learned after-the-fact running shouldn’t hurt, and if it does, you should stop. Same thing with writing.

I know—I know. We’re supposed to allow our hearts to “bleed upon the page.” We ought to pour ourselves through our pens until we can sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen” in a grand, unrelenting crescendo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

But, most of us writers are melodramatic, hyperbolic saps. Seriously. If it’s too difficult, take a break. Find a new angle. Cross-train by reading a few books. Settle in to what works for you. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, be proud of whatever word count you achieved. If that sort of jump-start works for you, participate again. If you hated it and the whole month felt like a proverbial knife-in-the-knee, don’t bother.

4) As Captain Barbosa (from Pirates of the Caribbean) said, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

So it goes with writing, including NanoWriMo. Writing advice on the web, in books or taught in classrooms are guidelines—not code—we need to tweak and apply to our unique lives. For example, the “write every day” advice is not feasible for my life stage, which includes boys, dogs, work and possibly undiagnosed ADD. For a long time, I beat myself up for not meeting that seemingly ultimate criterion for being a “real writer.” Now I’m learning to embrace my quirky—if manic-depressive—methods of achieving word counts.

You might wonder what’s become of my knee injury. I decided to head to the local swimming pool. A competitive swimmer in college, I returned to the place I knew I could find a niche and was gentler on my joints and 10-year-postpartum body. As I glide (pain-free) through the water, voices and the noise of the world are assuaged until all I focus on are breathing.

Kicking.

Reaching.

Pulling the water behind me.

More water.

More words.

Ever behind us.

Ever before us.

Ever beckoning each of us to write.

What about you? Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? If so, what did you take away from the experience?

Strip down and never lose sight

Crisscrossed with knee-high boundaries of grass, the field stretched far below the hilltop. To the distant right, the sound of a fast-moving four-wheeler buzzed louder until I saw it speed toward the horizon, followed seconds later by a skinny-ing mass of runners.

Along with all the other camera-laden parents, I  darted across the fields, staking strategic positions to capture my son rounding a corner or blazing down a hillside. I hurdled boulders, pushed through sluggish throngs, and catapulted my rattling, aging body from one carrefour of the course to another.

When my runner passed by, I whooped.

I hollered.

I scurried across the field to the next junction to cheer him on some more.

Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the state middle school cross-country championship. Hundreds of kids flashed by. Yet within that undulating motley horde, I found and locked eyes with my son. 

The corner of his mouth turned up when he saw me.

He gulped more air.

He lengthened his stride. 

He disappeared.

And I scurried to the next junction to cheer him on again . . . until I met him at the finish line, red-faced, breathless, and satisfied.

We’re not unlike these cross-country runners, you and I, especially if we feel called to write for the Christian market. After returning from the 2011 ACFW conference, I spent days processing not only that event, but also my writing journey as a whole. I argued with my muse, re-evaluated my purpose, and gasped for clarity amidst the torrid winds of the publishing industry.

Until I watched my sons race last weekend.

And I remembered.

I remembered running up the hill of uncertainty after taking years off writing to focus on parenting.

Around the corner was an industry professional who said no to a query, but invited me to Mount Hermon, where my heart for Him and writing collided like a flare on a pitch black highway.

I rounded the craggy corner of tens of rejections.

Then I “happened upon” a newspaper editor who just “happened to need” a new weekly columnist.

I fell behind, distanced from hope by whispers that no one needs or wants to hear my pathetic story or craftless words.

On the back stretch I caught sight of the waving arms of a friend who led me to my agent.

I lost sight of other runners sprinting ahead of me, pouring out multiple books a year, and I wanted to give up my goal to publish even one.

Around the next bend, a blog reader commented that the words on my website changed her life.

I coveted the bold, new uniforms of other runners and wondered if I should water down or change my message.

A fan on the sideline told me how a Christian book by a Christian writer saved her husband’s soul.

We are in a race, we faith-focused writers . . . a race to make Him known . . . a race to further the inbreaking of His Kingdom . . . a race beckoning us to finish hard, finish well, and finish strong . . . no matter where we fall in the pack.

And around every corner . . . along the loneliest stretches . . . down the effortless hills and up the steepest inclines, He runs to meet us . . . to cheer us on . . . to lock our wandering eyes upon His countenance above all others along the swarming sidelines.

“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! . . . Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way . . . ” (Hebrews 12:1-3, TMV)

What about you?

Where have you felt God’s presence along your race course? How have veteran Christian writers inspired you? When have you heard Him whooping and hollering, redirecting your steps and restoring your focus on Him?

The honest stain of truth

Professor looked like Jabba the Hut, jowls of  flesh hanging over the collar of his shirt. He watched, smirking, as fellow co-eds and I jockeyed for seats around the long conference table, Professor’s preferred room arrangement for this, our first college creative writing class.

Until I met Professor, I could always count on my writing to please teachers and professors. But assignment after assignment came back with haphazard red-pen scratches. I imagined Professor held my paper for a brief moment before tossing it aside.

Professor enjoyed two things: making students cry and picking favorites. I landed in the first group, and was left out of the second like a scrawny girl in a middle school dodge ball gym class.

The class favorites wrote about sex, of course, and they wrote about it often. Though I lamented my mediocre scores, I refused to write about something so sacred just for him.

One fateful morning, my alarm clock malfunctioned and I was late for Professor’s class. When I arrived, he stopped class and laid into me with a barrage of insults. On and on he spat about how lazy, irresponsible and stupid I was, daring to enter his class late. Too hurt to hold back tears but too proud to leave, I stayed for the whole class.

My notebook was a soggy mess.

That day, I resolved to please Professor–if not shock the hell out of him–with my writing.

And I did.

I wrote a short story full of violence and deceit, sex and betrayal, blood and fine champagne.

The story disgusted me.

Professor loved it.

I hated Professor for a long time after that.

Years later, I realized my sordid short story paralleled scars of abuse from my childhood. The rage I felt toward Professor was a pivotal breakthrough from flowery, Pollyannic prose, and the beginning of my journey of writing hard, writing real and learning to write well.

I can’t say I agree with Professors tactics.

But I think I understand, now, what he was trying to do.

See, good writing involves daring to go to deep and frightening places. Like John Coffey–the man who breathed light and life into dead things in The Green Mile–hearts come alive when we breathe into still and long-forgotten places.

Words become life when writers allow the pen to pull them places no one else wants to go.

Like leper colonies, places in the soul exist where fear hangs like shadows, veiling what we don’t understand and shielding us from disease and pain. And yet, the only way to be real and alive is to allow the pen to touch diseased and painful places.

It is the unsought job of the writer to burst through the gates of leper colonies . . . to run to those who are bandaged and losing limbs . . . to embrace those who smell like rotting flesh . . . and to caress touch-starved hearts until they stop trembling and maybe, just maybe, believe in life again.

Good writers learn to distinguish the honest stain of truth from pencil scratches on paper.

Good writers learn the events in life which enslave us are ultimately the ones which set us free.

Good writers endure hours–even days–of depression that come when the pen finds fragile, tender places.

Good writers touch ugly, diseased places, in order to touch ugly, diseased places of others.

Good writers allow the pen to pull them.

To set even one person free.

What about you? How have you learned to write more deeply? Has a person, teacher, mentor or friend influenced the deep, true pull of your pen? Do you believe words have the power to set people free?