The Heart of the Matter

Nothing is scarier for a writer than to feel that they are out of words. It happens to me, alarmingly often, and from what I hear I’m far from the only one. The condition is akin to a fireman turning his hose onto a blazing fire only to realize there’s no water. Except, of course, that would matter.

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It is the lot of writers, I believe, to constantly question themselves and their ability to produce anything anyone will ever want to read. And that’s what’s at the heart of what I feel on those melancholy occasions when I start to think I can’t produce such a thing. Does it even matter? If I never write another word in my life, would anyone care?

Two different questions, actually. I’m not entirely sure anyone would care, but I am fairly certain that it would matter. The reason for that is, while there is very little that my finite mind can comprehend about a holy, infinite God, I have come to realize something as I have written my novels. He is the giver of the stories. He is the creative source. I don’t think anyone who writes, or paints, or creates or plays music, can deny that there is a power outside of himself providing the inspiration.

And we are created in his image. Which means that we are creators too. Genesis contains no record of Adam and Eve writing or drawing or sculpting, but I’m sure they exhibited their creativity in many ways. Certainly they were the first witnesses to our wildly creative God in the plants and trees around them, and the endless parade of animals and birds and sea creatures passing before them to be named.

Thankfully, creativity continued to flow after the fall, a kind of compensation maybe, a gift from the Creator. So that yes, there would be pain and suffering and sickness and disease in the world now, but there would also be music. And the music would lift us, if only for a while, out of the pain and sorrow and give us the strength to go on.

And there would be ugliness, and destruction, and the gradual disintegration of the planet, but there would be beauty too, in paintings and sculptures and stained glass and architecture. And that beauty would remind us that the God who painted the sunsets and sculpted the mountains and formed the stars is near to us even when he feels far away.

And work would be hard and we would struggle to survive and there would be war and conflict and death, but when we needed to escape the harsh reality of the world around us, we could pick up a book and get lost in a story, or be swept away by words of poetry, and remember that there is another world, and that we are only temporary sojourners in this one, and that, even here, we are never alone.

So it matters. It matters that we accept the gift from the creative God who calls some of us to paint, or to play an instrument, or to write. And if I feel like I don’t have any words of my own, it’s because I don’t. But I can trust the keeper of the words to give them to me when they are needed–to bring joy or offer comfort or provide hope.

And that is all that really matters.

Great Expectations. Or Not.

Every part of the novel-writing journey is painful interesting, but the most interesting of all has to be the last few days leading up to a release. Under no other circumstances in my life do I experience such an intense combination of excitement and abject terror.

I have a new romantic suspense book coming out soon. Today, to be exact. (By way of a shameless plug, it’s The End Begins, Book 1 of The Seven Trilogy, a love story between a Christian woman and the army captain sent to keep the believers in line when martial law is declared after a terrorist attack.)

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The idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—painfully akin to being stripped naked and critiqued by perfect strangers—has, at times, overwhelmed me to the point of barely being able to draw in a breath and seriously considering calling the whole thing off. Minutes later, the idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—thereby bringing the circle that is the writing process to completion and fulfillment—can fill me with inexpressible joy and anticipation.

My thoughts swing wildly from one end of the expectation spectrum to the other as I wait for the big moment to arrive.

This book could sell thousands of copies and make me a best-selling author.
No one will ever hear about, let alone read, this book.
What I’ve written could actually change the world.
The general reaction among readers will be “Meh.”
The legacy of this novel will endure long after I have gone to the grave.
This novel will sit on my parents’ shelf, gathering dust, until it is eventually bagged up and carted off to a thrift store.

The process is crazy-making; there is no doubt about it.

Thankfully, there is an out to the temptation to work myself into a near-catatonic state of over-anxiety and unrealistic expectations. I can remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit. The story came from God. I have no doubt of that. I am deeply aware, as I am writing, that the words are not coming from me but from a source outside of and greater than myself. And since God doesn’t do anything without a purpose, it follows that he has a plan for my novel.

That plan may be for millions of people to read it. For what is contained between the covers of my book to change the world forever. Or for the impact to echo down through generations like a shout hurled into the vast depths of the Grand Canyon. Or it may be for ten people to take a look at it, nine of whom will toss it aside, unmoved, and forget about it immediately.

If that one last person is meant to read it and somehow be changed or impacted by it and that is what happens, then in God’s economy the novel will have been a resounding success.

And as a believer, it must then be a resounding success in my mind as well.

Which takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the events of this day (did I mention The End Begins is being released, even as you peruse this post?)

Order a copy and read it immediately. Or don’t. But if you think of it, do say a prayer that God will use it for whatever purpose he has in mind.

Which is the greatest expectation for my work that I can have.

I Want You to be Honest. Honest.

When the phone rang, I grabbed it with eager anticipation. A good friend had just finished reading the manuscripts of my two-book romantic suspense series. She claimed to love them both and wanted to discuss them further.

business-19148_1280Nothing thrills me more than discussing my work with someone who admits to loving it, so I looked forward to the conversation.

She didn’t let me down. At first. She gave me thirty seconds to revel (read: let my guard down) as she gushed about how much she loved the story-lines, the characters, the dialogue, the suspense and the romance.

There was a slight pause when she finished. I don’t think she actually said the word “but” out loud, but she might as well have. It crackled along the wire separating us like an electric current, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

Here it comes.

It actually occurred to me to start breaking up my words like I was traveling in and out of long tunnels and was losing the connection. I could tell her we’d have to continue the conversation sometime in the future. Like after the books had become massive best-sellers and her criticisms had become moot.

Problem was, she’d called me at home.

Short of lighting a match under the smoke detector (and don’t think I didn’t consider it), I was stuck.

For what seemed like hours, she pointed out every little hole in the plot, every weak storyline, and the periodic stretching of credulity.

As a rule, I avoid clichés like the plague. Still, during that conversation I went through a roller-coaster of emotions.

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The initial euphoria wore off alarmingly fast. Trepidation rose to take its place, soon supplanted by an actual, physical pain in my chest (which frightened me even as I grasped hold of the slim hope that I might be having a heart attack and would have to end the call so I could dial 911). Once I managed to get over myself, however, I sloughed off the self-pity and straightened in my chair.

Actually, this was pretty good stuff.

I reached for a pen and paper. Several scribbled pages later (both sides, single-spaced and running up and down in the margins), my friend ran out of suggestions. Or possibly oxygen. Either way, I admit to a sense of relief, coupled with a growing excitement.

She’d made some great points. Even addressed some issues that, deep down, I’d known were problematic, but had really, really hoped no one else would notice. The changes she suggested would definitely make the story stronger, more believable, more suspenseful and maybe even a little more romantic, never a bad thing.

The relief and excitement were soon overtaken by another emotion: gratitude.

Giving her honest opinion of my work hadn’t been easy for my friend. Several times throughout the conversation she had apologized, and gone out of her way to assure me that she really did love the books. Still, she cared enough about the stories—and me—to want them to be even better if possible (and trust me, it’s always possible).

I returned to the top of the first page of notes I’d taken, firmly scratched out Note to self: slash her tires, and settled in to contemplate her recommendations.

When I finished with the edits, I was ecstatic. If I’d ignored my friend’s advice, or set my own house on fire in an effort to avoid it, the books might still have been okay. Now, though, the humiliation humbleness with which I received her constructive criticism and applied it to my manuscripts had borne fruit.

(Brutally) honest feedback on our work is difficult—to take and to give. But if it comes from a genuine desire to help make that work more excellent, and if it is received with a thick skin and an open mind (a powerful combination for a writer to cultivate), it is also a priceless gift.

*This post originally appeared at http://wordalivepress.ca/blogs.

Oh Yeah, It’s Not About Me

Praise for my work is as difficult for me to handle well as rejection. In a different way, of course. Praise doesn’t crush my self-esteem, destroy my confidence, and send me to bed with a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream. But it has the potential to be just as destructive.

woman prayingPraise for my writing can go straight to my head.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it. But sometimes I love it a little too much. Occasionally I take the very dangerous turn from loving it to needing it. Craving it, even. I collect the glowing adjectives carefully and methodically, like rookie baseball cards, and store them away in my mind to bring out in times of flagging faith in my writing ability.

I forget that this isn’t about me. That I didn’t give myself the gift. I didn’t invent imagination. I didn’t come up with the ideas for the stories. I’m not my own source of creativity. And my glory is not the intended result of any of the above.

It is all from him and for him. This is supposed to be my mantra. I’m having it engraved on a piece of jewelry as we speak. To remind me why I do what I do. How I do what I do.
And I need to be reminded, constantly.

Christians have long found themselves in a quandary over how, when and to whom to extend praise. As a kid, I attended many churches where the congregation refused to clap after a performance. The idea, I assume, was to impart to the musician that he or she should not expect to receive any kind of affirmation or reward for using their talents. God alone should receive the praise.

I understand the sentiment. But even as a kid I had trouble seeing how the awkward silence following a performance, the deliberate withholding of an expression of gratitude and pleasure, truly glorified God.

On the one hand, as believers we are to support and encourage one another, and to give the workman his due. On the other hand, it is true that every gift and ability we have is a gift from God and is intended for his glory and not our own.

I wrestle with this tension, and I suspect I am not alone. Yes, I enjoy and appreciate receiving affirmation of my work and in affirming the work of others. And yes, I believe all glory belongs to God without whom I am nothing and can do nothing. Can these two truths be reconciled?

Only when, through the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit, I am able to examine the attitude of my heart and the motivation behind my work to ensure both are pure.

If my sole purpose for writing is to share the stories he has given me in order to bless others and draw them to him, I can in good conscience accept the affirmation from someone that the blessing has been received.

And when I do, I will thank God for the gift he gave me and for the privilege of using it to bring him glory.

I am a Writer! (Aren’t I?)

One of the things I hear aspiring (and, remarkably often, seasoned) writers assert over and over is how difficult it is to say the words, “I am a writer.” I know from personal experience this is true. I have one book published and a contract for three more. I have an agent and contribute regularly to three different blogs. I’ve been a finalist for three national writing awards and have written a monthly column in a newspaper. And, while I do occasionally allow myself to say those words out loud, they still fit me like a pair of shoes that is a size or two off.

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So how do you know if you are a writer? Two camps have formed in response to this question. On the one side are those who, upon hearing the lament from someone that they aren’t sure if they’re a writer or not, sling an arm around the person’s shoulders and say, “Do you write anything? A blog, a diary, grocery lists? Then yes, you are a writer.”
In the other camp, and way over at the opposite end of the spectrum, are those who maintain that one cannot possibly be considered a writer unless they have at least a couple (and preferably more) royalty published books and have sold a certain number of copies – in the thousands at least, if not the millions.

In my opinion, the answer to the question lies somewhere in the middle. As popular as it is to say, I can’t buy into the argument that scribbling thoughts or ideas down on paper automatically makes you a writer any more than whipping off a hand-drawn map to your house for a friend makes you a cartographer.

But neither can I wholeheartedly subscribe to the view that you must have written a few books before you earn the right to describe yourself that way. There are countless other valid, viable writing platforms that should not be dismissed with such a cavalier attitude.
I think the problem with defining the term either of those ways is that being a writer is less about what you write and far more about why you write.

If you only write to remember a story someone told you, or a dream you had, or because your agent insisted that since you are a speaker or a guru of some kind you should have a book to push at every appearance, I would venture to suggest that you are not a writer. Everyone is called to perform various tasks on a daily basis that, on a larger scale, could become a career. Take a mother who has just cleaned out her child’s scraped knee, or a man who parked the barbeque too close to the wooden deck and had to toss water onto a small flame, or the brother who helps his younger sibling with his math homework. These people are not now automatically a doctor, a fireman and a teacher. More is obviously required.

The simplest answer is that a writer is someone who can’t not write. (And who, while he may agree wholeheartedly with that statement, will still wince at the double negative.)
As Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, once contended, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

That, right there, is the definition of a writer. One who knows what it will cost to pursue that calling—heartache, loneliness, rejection, guilt over the lack of attention given to family and friends, and the thrill of being patted on the head while people say things like, “Yes, yes, but what’s your real job?”—and who doggedly, often desperately, pursues it anyway. Not despising any of these things, but embracing them, knowing they are all part of the incredible journey. And knowing too that the sheer misery you may feel at times is more than compensated for by the intense, indescribable joy of releasing the words God has given you—the fire shut up in your bones, if you will—onto paper for others to read and be impacted by.

If that description resonates deep inside you so strongly it brings tears to your eyes, then I sling a virtual arm across your shoulder and affirm that yes, heaven help you, you are a writer.

Why the Ninja? And Other Great Questions Your Writers’ Group Will Ask

NinjaWriters are a strange breed. We pretty much live inside our own heads, which isn’t a problem as far as we’re concerned. In fact, inside our heads is a pretty great place to be. Kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible, including eating a three course dinner in the form of chewing gum, or turning into a blueberry as punishment for being greedy (a little something we writers like to call poetic justice).

There is a downside, of course, which is that non-writers don’t always get our compulsive need to take ten minutes to compose a grammatically correct text while they’re standing in front of a wall of cereal boxes waiting to hear which one we’d like them to buy, or our propensity for bolting upright in bed at 3 a.m. and shouting “Yes! That’s how she did it!”
Which is why we writers need to seek out other writers–to convince ourselves that we’re not really crazy. Or, if we are, that there just may be a way to convert all that crazy into an actual career (yes, Dad, you can still call it a career if you don’t have regular hours, a place of work, or any viable income, per se).

A writers’ group is a fabulous place to find that support and encouragement. Connecting with people who have a mutual passion for wordsmithing and a mutual penchant for consuming copious cups of coffee daily–which is critical to maintaining both sanity and an ever-increasing word count.

One of the keys to an effective group is trust. Putting yourself out there as you share your work requires tremendous vulnerability, something we self-preserving writers aren’t that keen on. Remembering that other members only want to encourage you to make your work as good as it possibly can be is the secret to surviving (even embracing) the process.

Another key is honesty. Feedback such as “that’s the most amazing writing I have ever read; don’t change a single thing” is all well and good. Very well and very good, in fact. Only it’s not all that helpful. Something like, “I really enjoyed the dialogue between the butcher and the housewife over the meat counter at the grocery store, but I didn’t get why the Ninja darted out of the back room and grabbed a rump roast before back-flipping his way down the International Foods aisle” is much more useful. Now you can go back and read that scene over, realize that the Ninja, while really, really cool, is in fact unnecessary to the plot, and take him out.

Painful as it may be at times, a willingness to receive constructive criticism and honest feedback from people you trust (and who are always willing to make allowances for the fact that you live life on the outer fringes of reality, especially since they usually share the same postal code) inevitably leads to stronger, tighter, more excellent writing.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

Are you part of a writer’s group? Have you found it helpful?

The Sound of Silence

Hear that sound? No? That’s because it is the sound of silence. The kind of inexplicable, almost supernatural, silence that expands to fill the void left in the wake of a tornado or an eardrum-shattering fireworks display or, in this case, the Christmas season.

prayer and contemplationMuch is made of the fact that Christmas is a time for peace, for reflection on Christ and the greatest gift ever given–his life, death, and resurrection. In reality, though, if they happen at all, those moments of reflection are generally stolen ones, snatched here and there in the midst of rushing through crowded shopping malls, cooking and cleaning madly before friends and family arrive, and squeals of delight as children tear paper off of gifts spilling out from under the Christmas tree.

All good things. Martha things. Things that should be and need to be done. But things that can so easily distract us from the Mary thing. Sitting and listening. Meditating on the words of Scripture. Contemplating the wonder of some of the most profound and stirring words of all, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1).

Emmanuel. God with us. What an incredible, almost incomprehensible thought.

And not one we can only contemplate at Christmas, thankfully. It is in this time, in the deep silence that follows the noise and (mostly) joyful rushing around and checking off of lists and the general chaos and confusion, this almost supernatural time of stillness, hibernation, and rest, that we are finally able to find minutes, sometimes hours, for uninterrupted, undistracted contemplation.

On the words of Scripture. And on the words given to us as a treasured gift, not to hoard but to give, to share, to continue to pass along the powerful message that the Word dwelt among us. That the Word dwells among us. Not just in Bethlehem, not just at Christmas, but here, now, in the silence and stillness that follows the often frenzied celebration of his birth.

So as we enter into this, a new year, a clean slate, an endless stretch of possibility and potential, may the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to him. And may the words he gives us to share with others bless them and draw them back to his presence every day of the year ahead.

Let us continue to share the message of Christmas. That hope came when there was no hope. That light came into deep, impenetrable darkness. That joy came into sadness, grief, and loss. It came two thousand years ago. And it comes today when we are finally still enough to know that he is God. When we stop long enough to listen, to meditate, to contemplate and, in the silence, unwrap, discover, and experience for ourselves the greatest gift of all.

The Word with us.

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