Stitching Your Story

We were almost ready to begin our ladies’ Bible study the other night when Sandi asked about my writing. I told her about the revisions I’m working on, and how they’ll make my story better.

Then she leaned back in her chair, shook her head, and said, “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you write books like you do!”

I knew I had the perfect analogy for her. Sandi is a quilter, and she’d understand: Writing a book is like making a quilt. 

First you select a design, the “big picture” of your finished quilt.

For a book, the “big picture” is the genre and basic plot.

As you make the design of your quilt your own, you choose colors and patterns. You spend hours selecting just the right fabrics to fit your design.

As you plot your book, you develop characters with goals, motivations, and conflicts. You choose a setting that will complement the plot. And you work on your story structure, plotting or outlining the way it works best for you.

Elliza Mummert Sherck's quilt

When you start constructing your quilt, you work on one block at a time, stitching each piece into place.

When you start writing your novel, you work on one scene at a time – beginning, middle and end – stitching with words rather than thread.

Finally, you lay all your quilt blocks out on the floor to see how the finished project will look – and then you revise the design by moving blocks around and creating different color combinations.

And your novel? Revisions are part of the process! Switch that scene to a different character’s point of view. Rearrange the chapters to bring your antagonist into the picture earlier. Ramp up that happily-ever-after ending!

And last of all, when everything else is done, you finish your quilt by stitching the layers together and binding the edges, sealing the work you’ve done.

With your novel, it’s the work of editing and polishing that puts the final stamp on the story.

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But the thing quilting and writing have most in common? The finished product is a work of your heart that you share with others.

 Mark and Karen's Quilt

Is Writer’s Block Real?

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Ernest Hemingway fought bulls in Spain, dodged bullets as a war correspondent, and hunted big game in Africa . . . but when he was asked to name his scariest experience, he said, “A blank sheet of paper.”

Recently I received an email from a buddy of mine who’s convinced she’s got writer’s block. Convincing me, though, is a tough sell. You can quote Hemingway all you like, but I think writer’s block is a scam.

Hold on. Before you sharpen your pitchforks and/or chastise me for being a heartless friend, allow me to explain.

Just because you can’t pump out fifty words to save your life doesn’t mean you’ve contracted the dreaded Writer’s Block Virus. It simply means you’re going to have to work. Yes, indeedy, welcome to Realsville. More often than not, writing is work. Grunt work. The kind that makes you sweat.

Oftentimes when one thinks they might have writer’s block, it’s simply a case of having to search deep inside to come up with a sentence or two. Sometimes that’s super hard, but it’s never impossible . . . unless of course you’re in a coma and/or your fingers are broken.

Granted, you might not have a clue what to write on your current work in progress (WIP), but writing isn’t just about a WIP. You could write a letter to a friend, an encouraging note to your pastor, a measly shopping list for crying out loud. Writing is writing. It all counts.

I hear you, though. You want to make progress on your Great American Novel, yet you’ve all of a sudden skidded to a stop. Instead of throwing your hands in the air and crying, “I’ve got writer’s block!” give one of these ideas a whirl:

• Write something completely different. A sonnet. A piece of flash fiction. A rebuttal to a letter to the editor.
• Walk away and refuse to think about your story for a day, a week, or two even.
• Kill off a character (one of my personal favorites).
• Add in a new character.
• Do something creative with your hands. Paint a poster. Bake bread. Color with your kids.
• Begin work on another scene.
• Go to a mall and eavesdrop on conversations.
• Write the last scene.
• Think of an event that would make your protagonist weep. Write it.

What do all of these ideas have in common? They put your mind on something other than the spot you were stuck in so that hopefully when you do eventually come back to it, you’ll have a new perspective.

But what if you’re still stuck?

That’s when you need to pull out the big guns. Call a trusted writer buddy and cry on their shoulder, then brainstorm like nobody’s business.

I refuse to believe that writer’s block is real. Is that naive? Cold-hearted? Ignorant? Perhaps, but those are the least of my sins. I serve a pretty big God. If He wants me to write, I will, block or no block. Therein lies my confidence.

Screenwriting for Fun and Energy

As this posts, I’m stretching my writing muscles. Doing something I’ve never attempted before. Writing a screenplay for a contest.

It’s not something I’d ever put thought into. After all, I’m a non-fiction author, although my work is story-rich. But I do have these fascinating plot thoughts that simply won’t go away. So what’s a writer to do with them?

According to a Hollywood screenwriter I met at a recent conference, “Enter a contest and have fun.”

Getting Through

Releasing, April, 2015 through Barbour Publishing

And the timing is right. I just finished writing a book I’m very passionate about called Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over, releasing through Barbour Publishing in April, 2015. I’m totally jazzed about Getting Through, but I’m also drained. It takes a lot to wade into soul-deep true stories of people who’ve experienced unwanted tragedy — many of them my own.

And as I prepare to work on my next non-fiction project, another soul-wrenching work speaking life into hurting people, I need a mental boost. So I’m challenging myself in an out-of-the-box way. I’m screenwriting for seven days in the 168 Film Project, Write of Passage contest.

But right before I started, something very interesting happened. And I wondered if God had hinted at all of this in the past, although I’d forgotten.

It was October, 2010, and I was in South Carolina on the cusp of discovering a life-changing secret about my identity. Though DNA tests wouldn’t confirm it for several days, I would soon learn my dad isn’t my biological father. At forty-six, the news blindsided me from left field.

On this particular day, I was getting ready to visit my dad (the only father I’d ever known), and as I neared his house, I thought my heart might explode from its pounding. I needed to catch my breath before I faced my fears.

It was Sunday evening, and I pulled into a plaza parking lot only two blocks from my dad’s house. The place was deserted, except for one vehicle.

Writing Screenplays

Stretching a Different Set of Muscles Can Energize

I glanced up and the license plate immediately caught my eye. I have no good explanation as to why, but I took a picture. I thought the personalized plate was curious, and remember wondering if God was telling me something. But at the time, I hadn’t even signed with my literary agent, much less sold a book.

Besides, I had bigger things on my mind, so I saved the digital photo in a file, and promptly forgot about it. Until recently.

A few weeks ago, I ran across the picture while looking for something else. Then I realized I was getting ready to enter my first screenwriting contest. And I wondered….

Does it mean anything? Probably not. Could God have hinted to me all those years ago? Possibly so. Is it fun to consider? Absolutely yes.

Whether anything comes from screenwriting or not, this is what I’ve realized. In order to infuse your writing with fresh wind, sometimes you need to do something totally off the wall, very different from what you’ve gotten used to. For a short time.

So I’m not working on a screenplay because I hope to invent the next Hollywood blockbuster, I’m screenwriting for fun and energy. That way, when this contest is over, I’ll have new fodder to make my next book even better than the ones before. And maybe that’s what God had in mind all along.

How do you stimulate your writing in creative new ways?

Anita Fresh Faith

12 Reasons for Writers to Love Facebook

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True Confession: For me, Facebook was love at first post.

Apparently I am not alone. Facebook reigns as Social Media King, with 750 million active users. Here are a dozen reasons why Facebook is this writer’s Social Networking BFF.

1. Cure for Isolation: I am a relational gal and it is no secret that writing can be an isolating business. Facebook is a 24 Hour Kitchen Table “Come and Go” Conversation that never ends. I can connect to other writers who are also trapped at home on a deadline. In fact, Facebook is a virtual water cooler for thousands who work at home in their PJs but enjoy a little human connection with their coffee break.

2. Primes My Writing Pump: I read Facebook the way some read the morning paper (before newspapers all but disappeared). I like to peruse my friends’ thoughts while I sip my coffee. Writing a comment here, a question there, gets my writer’s juices flowing. Before long I fill in my status, which is much less daunting than writing a first sentence on an empty page. Interacting on Facebook eases me into a writing frame of mind.

3. Testing Material: Since I write humor, Facebook is a great place to test comedic material. If I get lots of good comments, I cut and past the post into a “Humor File” to use later in a blog or book.

4. Finding Topics that Hit a Nerve: Recently my daughter wrote a FB status about the pros and cons of when to share news of a pregnancy. More than 300 passionate responses from readers later, Rachel knew she’d stumbled upon a hot topic for her blog (www.thenourishedmama.com).

5. Easy Daily Journal: Everyone knows writers should journal daily. But what with all the social media we are now required to do to build our platform, who has time to journal, too? It’s a comfort to me that I have recorded the highlights of my experiences in a brief (publicly read) journal over the last 5 years… on Facebook. Romance novelist Eloisa James wrote an entire memoir (Paris in Love) based on a year of Facebook posts! Because the posts were so well-written, to my surprise, the book was hard to put down.

6. Gathering Ideas from Readers: In her bestselling book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin sprinkles short tips and thoughts from her blog readers’ comments throughout the book. This added interest and variety to her book, especially when presented in bullet-point format.

7. Finding Original Quotes, Quips, and Anecdotes From Others: I wrote a couple of Facebook posts during a vacation when my husband and I both caught the flu. An author friend, writing a book on marriage, asked if she could use my posts as anecdotal material. I was happy to share; and she was gracious to attribute the quotes to me and mention my latest books as a reference in her book. A win-win!

8. Practicing “Writing Tight”: Today’s internet-skimming readers don’t have patience for long, meandering prose. Writing short FB posts is terrific practice in the art of writing tight. Today’s writers must know how to nutshell and extract worthwhile thoughts with as few words as possible. This past week I experienced two incredibly fun hours at a birthday party with four of my grandsons. Rather than bore my friends with a blow-by-blow account of my adorable grandchildren, I posted: “I went to a birthday party at a skating rink today and did the hokey pokey with four of my grandsons. And that’s what it’s all about.”

9. Facebook Friends are Faithful Fans: I’ve discovered Facebook friends to be faithful supporters of my blogs and books, generous in helping get the word out by re-posting press releases, book sales, and good reviews.

10. Networking: You never know how a Facebook relationship can lead to opportunities for writing or marketing your book. My daughter struck up a friendship with another prolific blogger who asked Rachel to guest post for a popular teacher’s blog. Rachel did so well that she was offered a paying gig to write regularly for http://www.weareteachers.com. We’ve also landed radio, podcast, and other web interviews because someone in media saw and liked our posts, blogs, or book topic on Facebook.

11. Random Polls: In our upcoming book Nourished: A Search for Health, Happiness and a Full Night’s Sleep (Zondervan, January 2015), my daughter (and co-author) wanted to address the Top 10 Everyday Stressors Women Face. So I posted the question, “What are the daily things that slow you down, trip you up, and steal your peace?” We gathered dozens of replies and categorized them into 10 areas that formed the basis for an entire book.

12. A Word for the Weary: How often have I received the perfect word of encouragement, comfort, or advice from someone on Facebook, exactly when I needed it? I’ve also had the privilege of regularly encouraging others via Facebook. For those who welcome it, Facebook connections can be a true ministry of words, whether or not you are professionally published.

How have you used Facebook to reach your readers?

Telling the Nasty Stuff

Browning 9mm PistolA friend who has been serving as a reviewer of new books for a major Christian magazine recently told me that she was thinking of giving up reviewing because the books get worse every year: sappier and less realistic and just plain boring. Her comment got me thinking about my Christian students’ struggles as writers and what struggling alongside them has taught me.

The stuff of most creative writing is story—the account of something that happened. That’s because, without something happening, there’s little to tell. Nonfiction works of all sorts and even the most lyrical of poems proceed via story, if only implied. Fiction, of course, is all about story.

Even the simplest of sentences tells a story: the subject has to do something. Often a lot of somethings, as there’s rarely only one verb—one instance of something happening, that is—in a given sentence. And in the more interesting sentences, subjects don’t just do something but interact with others—direct and indirect objects, subjects of dependent clauses and infinitive phrases—doing their own things.

The most successful stories, by their nature, involve rich, round characters. To create such characters, I tell my students, they must “tell the good about the bad and the bad about the good.” In novel workshop, though, my students invariably start out with flat characters whose believability is further hampered by their being in some way outside of society: outcasts incapable of interacting.

“No,” I tell them. “You have to make your characters interact, talk to one another, be in conflict. If you don’t, then nothing’ll happen. And if nothing happens, you won’t have a story.”

Still they resist, hold back, thinking that by leaving out crucial details—characters’ names or some conversation in which a key event occurs—they’re creating suspense that will make their readers want to read on and find out.

“But we won’t want to read on,” I tell them. “Suspense is created through building, not omitting. Yes, there are things you should omit. Chekhov said leave out anything that doesn’t drive story, that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece at the beginning of your story, it has to be fired. But that’s just it. In the story of that gun being fired, the gun needs to have been on the mantelpiece—or under the sofa, loaded, where the toddlers are playing—in the first place.” All the stuff of the drama needs to be there, on the page, for the story to succeed.

With these tenets of storytelling in mind, I would like to consider the central story of much contemporary writing about faith: I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s a story believers feel called to tell and need to tell—the very stuff of evangelism—but they often want to leave the first part out.

The story of the lostness, the sin-life that necessitated the salvation, is Every-Believer’s gun on the mantelpiece, but it poses some problems for the teller. Stories of sin often take us to material that might offend our believing audience, for one. Worse, to tell one’s sin-story convincingly—that is, concretely—is to become the sinner to one’s audience, particularly if the sin-story one tells is of sin engaged in after one became a Christian. Of course, none of us stops being a sinner after being saved, but we don’t want anyone to know about that.

This is perhaps why, though I’ve attended all sorts of churches in which the prayers of the faithful are publically identified and offered up, I have never once encountered among the litany of prayers for the sick and grieving, for job losses, for the birth of a child or the selling of a house any of the prayers I typically find myself praying. Prayers about my failures as a wife and a mother and as a friend and a colleague and a neighbor. Prayers of a desire to be led out of some specific temptation. Prayers expressing an explicit resistance to letting God’s will be done.

There are practical reasons for keeping one’s present and past sins secret, but there’s more to it than that, I think. As believers, we want to pretend that sin stops, that there’s a “before” to our Christian story that’s understood and doesn’t need to be explained—and shouldn’t be, if it involves any unsavory details or questionable language or doubt-riddled claims—and an “after” that is dazzlingly sin-free, more pure and clean than any on earth could bleach it.

The problem is, without telling the before—well and concretely—we can’t really convince anyone of the after. Or interest them in it.

Which leaves me with some questions for my fellow Christian writers out there to consider. What can and should Christian creative writers do about the nasty aspects of their faith stories? Avoid them? Tell them? Tell them vaguely? And what are the repercussions of each choice?

Six Keys to Writing a Story with Spiritual Content

 

1. Hook the reader. Every good story neceltic crosseds a hook, including the spiritual story. Set up the spiritual story with an intriguing question and a clear goal. In The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, we are first introduced to Father Emilio as a man who narrowly missed sainthood. He now lies in a hospital bed, sullen, uncommunicative and suspected of a terrible crime. The reader is left wondering how a godly man came to be in such a place and what his future holds now.

2. Lay the foundation for the spiritual resolution. Miracles and sudden moments of salvation may happen in real life, but will feel contrived in fiction. Not only that, but they can also be hurtful to those with unanswered prayers or who have had to work through long, hard years of healing. Build the steps toward a satisfying spiritual conclusion into the structure of the novel at every turn. The story has to earn its ending, so that when it comes, the reader will feel as if it couldn’t have worked out any other way.

3. Dig for deeper themes. As important as it is to show characters accepting the gospel or to ask where God is when it hurts, those themes are common. Most likely, your novel is preaching largely to the choir, so you need to find themes that speak to the deeper struggles and goals Christians are working on as well. What does it mean to live in the light of eternity? How does prayer shape us? How do you love your enemy? How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily? And so on. When you get those rare non-Christian readers, those themes might just speak more deeply to them about the gospel than the message they’ve likely heard before.

4. Be fair and truthful. I once heard a theologian say that we needed to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions, and if you’re going to look at the worst of, say, Islam or atheism, you need to be willing to look at the worst of Christianity. In the movie God’s Not Dead, when the atheist professor breaks down and admits that he’s a bitter atheist because God let his mother die, it didn’t ring true. The fact is, there are many atheists who have arrived at their worldview based on careful thought, however misguided we may believe them to be. They may also happen to make decent citizens and neighbors. And we’ve all found our share of gossips and control freaks in church. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you dig deeply, the light of Christ will show through all the more clearly because you’ve been honest.

5. Show the Sacrifice. From A Tale of Two Cities to Titanic, audiences have always stuck by a story that involves a heartfelt sacrifice. But it’s the core of a Christian story. Whether it’s an act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will, it’s the sacrifice that makes the story work.

6. Show the Beauty. Sometimes writers take for granted that the resolution is what the readers want. Don’t forget to show them why they want it. Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. These little moments that show the beauty of God’s ways clarify the spiritual goal all the way through the book.

40-Day Challenge: Telling the Stories That Matter Most

Photo/KarenJordanIn your busy life, how do you determine which things matter most?

A close examination of our priorities helps a lot. But often in the process of prioritizing, we realize that we’ve neglected some of our greatest concerns—like our health, marriage, children, or faith.

Priorities. As a writer, I have dropped the ball on some of my most important projects. I rationalize my failure to follow through with lame excuses. But I sometimes struggle staying focused on my main objective—telling the stories that matter most.

My daughter Tara phoned me with a similar complaint about her home life. “I can’t seem to get to the things that matter most to me.”

As Tara voiced her frustration, I understood her dilemma. Day after day, she faces the impossible task of meeting her family’s needs, having four small children in her home.

Prayer. The same issues haunt me, even though we have an empty nest. And I know that I must choose prayer as my first step to address any problem or decision.

James 1:5-6 promises, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help … Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought” (MSG).

Like Tara, I frequently ask advice from someone who will give me honest input. My husband Dan offers ideas about my organizational problems. But I also consult other reputable resources, like online links, book, or professionals.

40-Day Challenge. Do you need to reboot your writing life, too? I challenge you to accept this 40-day challenge to tell the stories that matter most to you. I’m working through this process myself.

  • Identify the “real meaning” of your work—your purpose, your audience, and the context for your stories. This evaluation process includes answering several vital questions. Why do I do what I do? Who will be reading or hearing my stories? What do I plan to do with my stories? Will I submit them for publication? If so, where?
  • Define some SMART goals and write them down. Goals help guide our decision making. Without goals, we often neglect to do the things that matter most.

    • S – Specific (or Significant)
    • M – Measurable (or Meaningful)
    • A – Attainable (or Action-Oriented)
    • R – Relevant (or Rewarding)
    • T – Time-bound (or Trackable)
  • Set up tasks for attaining your goals. Write down several reasonable and do-able steps for achieving your goals to help you plan and focus on the right things.
  • Compose a “to do” list, prioritizing all of your tasks. Schedule time on your calendar to work on your goals. This will help you stay on track with your deadlines and defend your time boundaries. It also helps communicate your goals to the people who matter most to you.

I hope that you will join me on this 40-day challenge because when we begin to tell the stories that matter most, lives change and hearts heal.

What goal-setting techniques help you tell the stories that matter most to you?