I Didn’t Sign Up For This!!!

Babies CryingSometimes I wonder if I’m a masochist, because a writing career is a mixed bag of blessings and curses.

The blessings are many. You finally get to hold in your hands your words published in a book (yes, electronic versions count!). You have the satisfaction of knowing others are reading your work. You get your name in the local paper for doing a booksigning, or you’re a guest author at a local book club. You might even get paid to speak to an audience!

And then there are the curses. A reviewer hates your book. You knock on the doors of the local media till your knuckles are sore, but no one answers. Your great idea for marketing falls flat. You check your Amazon.com sales numbers on your author central page, and it’s like getting slapped in the face with the wet towel of reality. (“What? I’ve only sold 17 copies of my book in the last six months? That CAN’T be right!”)

The fact is that for us writers, who pour our heart and soul into our writing, all those negative responses drip, drip, drip onto the rock of our confidence, until the sharp edges of our desire and motivations (those things that enabled us to set out on the road of writing in the first place) become worn down, replaced by recesses of self-doubt and exhaustion. It takes a lot more energy and perseverance to repair that accumulating damage than it does to bask in the sunshine of the blessings we experience.

This, then, is why a writer needs a talent to forget.

As Philippians 3:13-14 instructs us, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Every writer I know acknowledges that they have been called to write. The thing we don’t like to acknowledge is how hard it can be at times to do that very thing. None of us embraced our call to write with a joyful shout of “I can’t wait to experience frustration, misunderstanding, isolation, and a hundred painful book signings in almost deserted bookstores!”

At least, I know I didn’t.

And yet the promise remains for us as powerful as it did for St. Paul. We might not have to endure blindness, or imprisonment, or persecution like that famous evangelist, but we can still ‘strain toward what is ahead’ when we fix our eyes on the prize that is Christ Jesus, and not on the obstacles we have to surmount to get there. Like St. Paul, we need to consider ourselves ‘as yet to take hold of our goal,’ no matter how accomplished we might feel when our names are in the local events calendar, or someone contacts us to speak at a program.

Forget what is behind, then, and press on, because that mixed bag you’re holding is well worth the prize.

What is your favorite way to forget and then press on?

Honing Our Lives

knife sharpeningAs iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

While every writer knows that in today’s marketplace, interacting with others on a regular basis is a necessity for selling books, the real heart of writing – sitting down and putting words on a paper or screen – is a lonely job.

For me, however, “lonely” is not the word I would choose to describe my experience of writing. “Lonely” carries a negative connotation, the idea of being “cut off” from others, or “without” the company of others. In contrast, when I write, I feel a freedom to explore my own ideas and the joy-filled opportunity to connect with the Spirit within me. Writing is my “alone” time, not my “lonely” time. It is a personal retreat that renews me because I get to luxuriate in the word-smithing gifts that God has given me.

And yet I can’t deny the truth of Proverbs 27:17; without the other writers, marketing experts, and loving friends in my life, I wouldn’t be able to make the most of those same God-given word-smithing gifts. That’s not to say I’ve always felt this way – when I was new to my craft, praised by my writing teachers in high school and college, I had no use for the comments or criticisms of my peers. If my teachers liked my work, why should I listen to other students who struggled to compose even simple essays? It took me decades to understand the importance of my readers as opposed to the praises of my teachers. Here’s the difference:

The praise of others encourages you (and that’s a great thing!), but it’s honest criticism that will help you improve your craft.

It wasn’t until I began writing as a freelance magazine contributor that I first received truly effective editorial direction. Editors know their audience and work to appeal to them, so they have to play to the crowd. Teachers, on the other hand (I can say this because I’ve been a writing teacher myself), are the final audience of one person, and once a student has mastered what that teacher wants, there is no room to grow. And since all of us like to be praised, it’s tough to walk away from all that positive reinforcement to seek criticism!

As with so many endeavors in life, though, we have to push the boundaries to become the best God intends us to be. In the writing life, that means giving up the comfort of praise in order to find the challenge of improvement: we have to ask many people how we can do better, listen carefully to their comments, and use them to grow our craft.

One of my favorite sayings about Christianity is that “no one is a Christian alone.” Jesus Christ came to shape us into a community of believers, so we might draw on each other’s faith and gifts to grow His kingdom. That applies to our writing careers as well.

We need to be iron for each other.

To whom do you turn to be iron for you? For whom are you iron?

The Only Story That Matters

july 013I was beginning to panic about my book sales. Despite my hard work and ceaseless efforts to promote my new book, I just wasn’t making a dent in the supply of books I’d bought from my publisher. Since I’d borrowed the money from our family savings, I felt guilty that I wasn’t refilling the coffer as quickly as I’d so optimistically assumed I would.

What more could I do? Post even more frequently on social networks? Write more guest blogs? Camp out on the doorsteps of radio and television stations to get their attention? Go into even more debt by hiring a publicist, in hopes he could convince people to buy my book? Beg the few bookstores still in existence to push my book at customers?

I didn’t do any of those things.

Instead, I asked God for help. I prayed for more book sales.

And He delivered.

Within days, I heard from two stores who had taken some of my copies that they needed more. Some event bookings I’d been pursuing for months finally came through, and I added them to my calendar. One night as I lay awake in bed, thinking about my book, I realized there was another market I could tap into, and the next day, I discovered solid leads for doing exactly that.

And then my daily Scripture devotional chimed in with Jeremiah 32:17.

universe“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

Yes, I was reassured and completely grateful for God’s generosity to me in the form of helping me sell more books as I had requested in prayer. I’d asked, and I’d received.

Praise God!

To be honest, though, I felt something even more compellingly: I felt chastised. I’d asked the omnipotent Lord, who created the universe itself, to help me sell books! Who did I think I was to even imagine He would care about a few hundred dollars in my life? It’s not like I needed a PLANET or anything. I wanted material success. I wanted to put some money back in the bank. I wanted God to make me feel better about a story I wrote. A story!!

Talk about putting myself at the center of the universe. I was humbled. Embarrassed. Aghast at my own egocentricity.

And, most of all, stunned by God’s patience with me, because this isn’t the first time I’ve let my selfish priorities slide in over what I know to be the single most important relationship of my life: my relationship with God.

It’s true – nothing is too hard for God, and that includes loving me…and you.

And really, that’s the only story that matters, isn’t it?

 

Overcoming Fear of the Blank Page

blank pagesWhy are you afraid of that page? You’re creative, right? You have a brilliant idea for a book, and you’ve loved writing since you could hold a pencil.

If you find staring down a blank page terrifying, know you’re in good company. A search on Pinterest for writing quotes shows that at least half of them have to do with braving the blank page.

Prolific writers and gifted writers alike confess to an absolute terror when sitting down with a fresh scene, but they’ve learned the tools to tame their fears. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1)      Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and your book deserves that best. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before getting the family up or heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.

2)      Outline or jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions once you begin writing. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I look at the blank page.

3)      Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something beautiful, once you’ve got something written down to work with. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”

4)      End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work where he still had something to write, he guaranteed that he would have the words to begin the next day’s work.

5)      Prime the pump. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a notebook. Each day, he wrote a letter on the left-hand page to his editor and friend, sometimes about the work, but often about family, politics. and whatever interested him. Once he finished his letter, he was ready to fill the right-hand page with the next scene in his novel.

6)      Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you might be surprised with what it brings up to the surface.

7)      Jot down random words. Ray Bradbury typed up lists of nouns and adjectives, reviving old childhood fears and fascinations, and remembering recent beauties and horrors. When he was stuck, he always found something in the list to get him writing.

8)      Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but breaking the task down makes it less frightening.

9)      Remember the joy. Writer’s block, obstacles in the writing, marketing, the difficulty in getting published, or finding time to write can all make writing a burden. Remember what brought you here in the first place – the love of words, dreaming up stories, bringing healing to the world, or whatever it is. Stick with that and forget the rest.

10)   Read and read some more. “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment,” Hart Crane said. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Even better, start your writing day by reading a page of someone else’s breathtaking writing.

There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself. What gives you the courage to write?

 

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 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 created 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?

So Many Books, So Little Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steampunk

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

Metafiction

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

Urban Fantasy

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

Musical Fiction

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

Robinsonade

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

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

Preferably with chocolate.

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)