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

Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

Jigsaw 3 bits out

Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!

Struggling with Surrender?

I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. – John 17:4

Property of Shelley Hendrix

Property of Shelley Hendrix

Recently, while on a trip out west, (I’m a Southern Girl), my husband shared his experience with “surrendering to the ministry.” We didn’t realize when he shared this phrase that it was unusual to ministry friends in another part of the country. They jokingly said things like, “You surrendered?!” and put their arms up above their heads–revealing the idea that this made being a minister sound like the death of the good life. How awful, right?

We all got a good laugh. I mean, they were right. We had just never thought about it that way before.

Stephen and I still laugh about it. The friends who kidded us are some of the most trusted, sacred, and wonderful people we’ve ever known. It reminded us, though, that our words matter. We often become so accustomed to certain phrases, slang, and lingo that we forget how these same words or phrases land with others. We had heard “surrender to the ministry” our whole lives in the walls of our churches, so it sounded totally normal to us.

Surrender? 

When I was growing up, one of my biggest pet peeves came to me courtesy of my own mom. Anytime I wanted to know what any word meant, she refused to tell me. She always said the same thing: “Look it up.” I don’t know why I asked her after the third or fourth time she answered me in this same way. What I once resented, I now genuinely appreciate: a love of words and their deepest meanings. (I also appreciate the convenience of carrying a dictionary with me wherever I go, thanks to today’s technology!)

With this in mind, I looked up the word “surrender” for us.

Surrender, according to Dictionary.com, means:

1. to yield (something) to the possession or power of another; deliver up possession on demand or under duress.
2. to give (oneself) up, as to the police.
3. to give (oneself) up to some influence, course, emotion, etc.: He surrendered himself to a life of hardship.
4. to give up, abandon, or relinquish (comfort, hope, etc.).
5. to yield or resign (an office, privilege, etc.) in favor of another.
6. to give oneself up, as into the power of another; submit or yield.

The choice to surrender continues to be a part of my own journey. I’ve learned as a follower of Jesus that surrender is not a one-time-call-it-done experience.

Surrender is only a “bad” thing when I forget (or don’t understand) its purpose within the context of relationship to God.

Sometimes I think I need to know WHAT I’m surrendering to: the ministry, my vocation, financial status, size of platform as a writer, role in the body of Christ, etc. But the truth is, I only need to know to WHOM I surrender. When I get this right, everything else falls peacefully into place. I can then live with purpose, and without all the pressure!

You are reading this, most likely, because words matter to you, too. I want to encourage you to pause today, and perhaps from time to time throughout the week, to write down and reflect upon the attributes of the One to whom you have chosen to surrender. Rather than focusing on our platforms, or even the next project, let’s take time to engage fully with the One to whom we choose, once again, to surrender.

The Surprising Secret to Juicing Up Your Writing

“Sitting at a computer is the place for taking a clunky sentence and smoothing it out, making it read better. I do some of my best writing in my head before I fall asleep for my afternoon nap. I recommend that!”

—Tony Hillerman, quoted in Tony Hillerman’s Landscape by Anne Hillerman

Business Coaching

What’s Making You Tired?

I don’t know about you, but it seems like I spend at least half of my writing time combating fatigue. Maybe it’s my crazy on-the-road schedule as a national speaker and business coach. It’s possible the myriad of personal problems, some huge, some small, drain my emotions and my body. It could be the anxiety I feel when juggling all of the fine details that go into a professional writing career. Social media — check. Blog — check. YouTube videos — check. Marketing my books — check. Pursue new speaking/coaching gigs — check.

As I view the list, it’s no wonder I’m wiped out. But knowing why I’m tired won’t change the fact that my books and articles won’t write themselves. No one but me can put my words on my pages — the messages I believe God started a burn in my heart to share and show.

But this brings me back to my original problem. What to do when I finally get time to write, but feel too tired to type a word?

The solution is so simple, I’m embarrassed to admit I overlooked it for the longest time. A time-proven technique for juicing up your writing. A secret to turning on the creativity, when your muse is turned off.

And here’s the secret. Take a short nap.

Hot Air BalloonsSounds crazy, right? But it works. One of the reasons I resisted was my fear I’d fall asleep and waste all of that precious time. However, I’ve found it doesn’t happen. Somewhere in the dozing phase, my mind starts whirring with ideas. So much so, after an average of twenty minutes, my inspirations wake me up. Napping has transformed my craft and my process.

I should have known. From the beginning of my writing career, I’ve committed and adhered to taking a weekly sabbath rest. One full day off. No writing. No marketing. No work. It’s one of my secret answers to the question I hear so often, “How do you get so much done?”

You see I learned this secret from the Best-Selling Author of all time. God took the first Sabbath, or shavat vayinafash in Hebrew. The term literally means God rested and got a new soul. And we’re meant to live in His image, so why wouldn’t we renew our souls through rest?

Gold Clock

Resting has a Supernatural Way of Restoring Time

I thought, if it works for a whole day, why wouldn’t a mini-sabbath work for part of one? So I tested the theory, and found a twenty-minute nap can infuse me with as much energy as taking a week’s vacation. Seriously. It’s like gaining an extra day.

Other highly successful authors swear by it. Now I do too.

I believe the quality of my writing has improved from the regular practice of napping, and/or resting in quiet meditation to allow my creative juices freedom to flow. Sabbath renews my soul, clears my mind of clutter, and revives my spirit.

So I challenge you — the next time your eyes droop as you face the keyboard, go against your instincts. Don’t push through. Don’t beat yourself up. Submit. Give your body the refreshing rest it’s crying out for, and feel the juicing begin. Not only will you feel better, but chances are your readers will benefit from your better books.

How do you deal with writer’s fatigue?

 

Fuel Up Your Creativity!

My family is blessed to024 live in a beautiful part of the world – the Black Hills of South Dakota. Even three years after moving here, we’re still not immune to stunning vistas and fabulous sunsets.

This time of year, my husband and I try to get up into the Hills at least once a week. Whether we’re setting out on an evening drive to seek out the Custer State Park bison herd or lacing up our hiking boots to explore a new trail, we’re eager to hit the road.

But before we head up into the wilderness, my husband always stops at the neighborhood gas station to fill up the car’s gas tank.

We wouldn’t want to get half-way out to the back of nowhere and run out of gas, would we?

Writing needs fuel, too.

Every morning, I turn on my computer and head into the wilderness of my imagination. Characters talk to each other, situations develop, conflicts explode – or simmer – and it all gets typed into the file of my current work in progress.

At the same time, another story – or two – or three – simmer on the back burner of my mind. Characters lurk back there, taking on lives of their own.

Meanwhi9780373282777_p0_v1_s260x420le, there’s a book release coming up next month. So marketing plans are being developed in another part of my brain.

With all that energy being expended, I have to make sure I fill up my brain’s gas tank on a regular basis.

But how?

 Rest. A Sabbath rest.

Resting doesn’t mean to unplug, unwind, turn off and disconnect. Doing those things may give us a break from our normal routine, but they don’t refuel. Our minds, bodies, and spirits need re-fueling and re-creation.

We need to rest in God.

 

God gave us the Sabbath. One day that is His out of our week.

One day to worship, study, connect with His Church, fellowship with other believers, make family memories….

One day to re-fuel our energy and our connection to Him – the source of our creative gift.

It isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s a challenge every week to clear my plate before Sunday morning. It takes planning to be able to put away the normal daily routines and take up the gift of the Sabbath rest.

But when Monday morning rolls around again, I’m so glad I made the effort!

What will you do today to re-fuel your life?

Overwhelmed by Your “To Do” List?

Photo/KarenJordan

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it” (George Bernard Shaw).

Buried beneath a mountain of paperwork? Paralyzed by some impending deadlines? Dreaming of a week on the beach?

I considered a “real job” until I read the job description: “Ability to work independently and multitask.”

I love to work independently. But I tend to hyperfocus most of the time. And I struggle with multitasking all of the time. So, I passed on that job opportunity.

I’m not so sure multitasking works well for my daughter Tara, either. She seems frustrated at times when I call as she prepares dinner—holding a screaming baby, listening to a whining preschooler, dealing with two squabbling little boys, and talking on the phone, all at the same time.

I can’t even concentrate on my writing projects at times with dishes in the sink or a hamper of dirty laundry waiting on me. And if the phone rings, I lose focus completely. Then, when I start worrying about all the details of my life, writer’s block paralyzes me.

Revelation. I woke up early one morning overwhelmed with my “to do” list. So, I decided to take an early morning walk at sunrise.

As I walked down the street toward the lake, the view of the sunrise surprised me. And I forgot about all of my worries as I soaked in the beauty of the dawn. I tried to capture the moment with my camera.

After pausing a few minutes to admire the view, I continued my walk. Most mornings, I enjoy listening to the sounds of nature as I walk the trails near my home. But since I took another route to the lake, I decided to listen to my favorite radio station.

Imagine my delight as I encountered the lyrics to “Light Up the Sky” by the Afters: “You light up the sky to show me that you are with me ….”.

In an interview with cbn.com, Matt Fuqua, vocalist/guitarist for the Afters, says, “The story behind Light Up the Sky is a part of the story of all of us … [It’s] a picture of what it looks like when you make it through [a] really challenging time, and you look back and see how God was using all of those things for good and that you were never alone.”

Reflection. God drew my attention to the majesty of His creation as I observed the heavenly canopy of the sunrise reflected on Lake Cortez, glowing through the trees near my home the next morning.

Did God light up the sky to show me that He was with me?

I couldn’t deny it. He opened my eyes, and I could see evidence of His Presence all around me.


How has God revealed Himself to you?

Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/theaftersvideos (“Light Up the Sky” by The Afters)

 

Writing Inspiration from Anne Rice

Sometimes, what you need is a little inspiration from those that have braved the path before you. That’s really what this blog was designed to be– a way to help those who are a bit behind on the publishing path. To offer knowledge, encouragement . . . a helping hand.

Regardless of what you think of Anne Rice, she has “been there, done that.” I came across this interview on You Tube and found the information pretty interesting.

Hope it inspires you today.

What authors inspire you to keep perfecting your writing craft? What words of advice have kept you going?