2017: The Journey

The writing life is as full of ups and downs as a train ride through the Rocky Mountains. For those of you who put your words to paper and send them out to the world to read, this is not a revelation. As I write this post, there are just four hours left in 2016, a perfect time to reflect on the year that was, and to look ahead to the one about to begin.

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Personally, it was a year of both peaks and valleys with my writing. I had two romantic suspense novels come out, the second and third books of a trilogy. The books, and the series as a whole, received great reviews and feedback, a definite mountain experience. Sales were somewhat disappointing, however, which at times was deflating.

I finished writing and am now in the polishing-and-receiving-critiques phase of a two-book series, which is very exciting. Not entirely sure the best route to take to get them “out there” at the moment, though, and the task of figuring all of that out is somewhat draining, I have to admit.

I made much more of an effort this year to figure out marketing strategies and the best and most effective ways to promote my work. The support I received from fellow authors and readers was very encouraging, but the sure knowledge that so much more remains to be done in this area, and that promoting my own work is just about the last thing I want to do, is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

Some days the pull down into the abyss, the temptation to quit and “get a real job” was strong. But there were good days too, days I was able to rise above disappointment and disillusionment and focus on producing the best work I could in order to honor God and the gift he has given me and, after that, to leave the results up to him.

Riding a train through the mountains is an interesting experience. For the ordinary passenger, there is little or no view of the way ahead. Once a summit is achieved, there is a moment of awe at the breathtaking view spread out to either side. Before one even has time to truly enjoy being at the top, however, the train once again plunges down into the unknown. Only an unwavering trust in the one operating the engine prevents panic and allows one to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The same is true for me as I look ahead to 2017. In 2016, my writing journey shifted from spectacular to worrisome to exciting to exhausting, sometimes from one day to the next, occasionally from hour to hour. The way ahead appears equally daunting and exhilarating. Which leaves me with only one recourse, one resolution, if you will: to trust the one who knows the path I need to take far better than I do, who can see it much more clearly than I can, and who alone can guide me along it every step of the way.

And if, as other resolutions fall to the wayside, I can keep this one, 2017 will be a year of peace, regardless of the peaks and valleys I will inevitably traverse along the way.

Seven Essential Tips Every Successful Writer Must Apply

Fresh StartsI think every published author wishes they could go back in time to whisper in their younger self’s ear. Doing so would certainly save volumes of time and energy. I’m sure five years from now, I’d wish for the opportunity to tell today’s me something I need to know right now.

These are the thoughts rolling through my mind this new year, clean with the possibility of fresh starts. I think it’s important to slow down sometimes.

We need to reflect on the past in order to improve on the future. So I’m reminding myself of the tips I’d give my younger self, knowing I’ve let some slack, and resolving to begin again. I believe the seven following tips are essential, things every writer must know.

  1. Ray BradburyRead as much as you can. Phrases such as, “Great writers are great readers,” hold a wealth of truth. The more we study, the more prepared we are to succeed. Reading teaches us the subliminal art of sentence flow, heart tugs, and scene staging. It also shows us what to avoid, as we learn from the mistakes of others. It’s the best motivator I know.
  2. Eavesdrop. Most of my best dialogue came from listening in on someone else’s conversation in restaurants, conferences, stores, airplanes, etc. I write non-fiction, and I tell true stories or compilations based on real people, but even if I wrote fiction, I would use this technique for writing believable and fascinating statements.
  3. Listen to outsiders. The more detached someone is from you, the more objective their writing feedback is going to be. Family and friends tend to fall into two camps: they either gush over everything you write, even your sloppy first drafts, or they nitpick, make digs, or outright blast anything you pen. Make it your mission to interact with people on social media, critique groups, or professional advance readers who are willing to respond honestly.
  4. Pull on your thick skin. You might want to consider whale shark skin for this one, (estimated at 6″ thick). Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” professional writers soon learn, no one’s handing out Kleenex around here either. When rejection stings, stiffen your spine, and pitch again.
  5. Douse distractions. It’s going to happen. Ten people want five different things from you at once. You’re working on one project, when the siren call of another beckons. But professionals know the power of tenacity — grinding your behind into the seat, tuning out the voices trying to break your focus, and writing through to the finish line.
  6. motivational quotesSet time-stamped writing goals. I’ve really let this one slip lately, and my work is showing it. But my One Word is Reset, so I am resetting my goals. The difference between a dream and a goal is a measurement. So my refreshed writing goals include a minimum of 5,000 words per week. This reasonable number allows for flexibility, while pushing me beyond a normal comfort zone. It’s doable.
  7. Touch your own heart. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing on, why would anyone else be interested? If I’m bored, my readers will feel boredom. If I’m thrilled, my readers will feel a flutter of excitement driving them to turn the page.

The more I write, the more I question myself at times, and yet, when I go back to the basics, I find the truth, the way, and a successful writer’s life. Which brings me to a bonus secret.

Pages in a Thousand BooksI can write until my fingers are numb. I can start writing at dawn’s break, pushing until the wee hours of the next morn, but if I am not inspired, it’s all for nothing. My personal inspiration come from prayer, provision, and praise for my Maker. He’s the one who gifted and called me. This is my most powerful secret.

What inspires you to write? Do you have any tips you would whisper to your younger self?

New Possibilities for a New Year

Empty road to upcoming 2017 at sunrise

The sunrise of a new year.

  1. Your future is not limited by the past. While past successes and experiences can inspire the future, as I wrote about in my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, the future does not need to be limited by the past. New scientific discoveries can build on past knowledge, but they also can disrupt old paradigms. For example, the microprocessor made computing available to nearly everyone, with a modern laptop more powerful that a computer that once took up an entire room. Thanks to this invention, most writers prepare their manuscripts using convenient word processors instead of typewriters, and keep their contact list of agents, editors, and publishers on their smartphone in place of their Rolodex. In the not-so-distant future, writers might conference with editors and other writers in virtual reality, skipping the long lines at airports and time spent traveling. As a writer, your next fresh idea can define the future. Your past projects may influence your future goals, but feel free to try something new and even disruptive. Progress happens when people dream new dreams. Let the start of the New Year serve as your excuse to pursue a great new project.
  2. New friendships are waiting to be discovered by you. Writers quickly learn the value of relationships in their profession. After all, writing is all about communicating and collaborating. Even when writers spent quiet hours alone putting their thoughts on the page, the needs and interests of their readers shape their work. The audience of readers is always present when a writer expresses ideas with words. By the time a book reaches the shelves of a bookstore or the warehouse of an online retailer, the writer has collaborated with many people – literary agents, editors, illustrators, cover designers, copy editors, reviewers, publicists, and marketing directors. These colleagues as well as radio interviewers, blog readers, online reviewers, customers, and conference coordinators become new friends in the life of a writer. Resolve to maintain the friendships you have formed as a writer in years past, while staying open to the possibilities of accepting the input, advice, and encouragement of new friendships in the year to come.
  3. To accomplish your goal, break it down into discrete, doable steps. Whether you are planning to write a blog post in one evening or a book in six months, if you have a plan divided into measurable and actionable steps, you are well on your way to getting the job done. Fit your plan into your lifestyle and your current schedule to keep it realistic and achievable. Can you envision setting aside two hours every evening to complete a new manuscript? Should you schedule a vacation in a secluded and beautiful setting surrounded by nature in order to disconnect from everything and make your writing deadline? Having a plan that matches your working habits and the needs of your family and other responsibilities increases the likelihood of reaching your goal. Great new projects need to-do lists and new friendships need time set aside to develop the relationships. Make a plan that fits your life so your dreams can come to fruition in the New Year.

What do you plan to do to prepare for the new possibilities awaiting you in the New Year?

10 Words That Change Everything

Image/KarenJordanWhat was your “One Word” for 2016?

This year, 10 words changed everything for me. I focused on these words because they were the titles to several chapters in my book, Words That Change Everything, published this year by Leafwood Publishers.

I shared a little about the power of these words during an interview that Anita Brooks and I had on Bridges with Monica Schmelter on WHTN Christian Television Network.

I refocused on these 10 powerful words as I compiled the FREE 15-day devotional guide to Words That Change Everything: RESTNotes.

BookCover/WordsThatChangeEverythingBookCover/RESTNotesMy 10-word focus continued as I prepared to teach a Bible study based on my book at my church every week this fall.

I never imagined how a few words could change everything for me.

So for my last WordServe Water Cooler post for the year, I offer these 10 powerful words to you.

  1. REST. “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:5-7 NIV). This scripture offers an effective prayer strategy for speaking truth to the warning signs of worry, symbolized by the acronym REST: Remember. Exalt. Surrender. Trust.
  2. Remember. “The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:5 NIV). We take the first step in overcoming our negative thoughts by seeking the powerful presence of God in our lives.
  3. Exalt. “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving . . .” (Phil 4:6 NIV). Praise can be a powerful weapon for us in our battle with worry. We can enter into God’s presence through praising Him (Ps. 100:4-5).
  4. Surrender. “Present your requests to God” (Phil 4: 6). In our day, the term “surrender” often means being taken into captivity. But in God’s kingdom, “surrender” suggests a renewed freedom from the enemy of our souls.
  5. Trust. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). God promises to guard our hearts and minds with His peace. God gives us specific instructions about how to embrace His peace—by changing our mental focus and exercising our faith.
  6. Solitude. “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:28-29 The Message). This scripture offers a powerful prayer strategy for stressful days. My writing life requires that I spend time alone without distractions. But at times, the isolation becomes my distraction.
  7. Silence. “Enter the silence” (Lam. 3:28). As we seek God in silence, the accuser (Rev. 12:10) always dangles threats and accusations.
  8. Prayer. “Bow in prayer” (Lam. 3:28). Prayer can be as natural as speaking with a good friend or as intimate as a whispered secret. It can occur at any time, no matter the circumstances. And God promises to listen when we call on His name: “And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours” (1 Jn. 5:15 MSG).
  9. Listen. “Don’t ask questions” (Lam. 3:29). How do you respond when someone won’t listen to you? Anger, rejection, or frustration? When Jesus instructed His disciples, He asked them on several occasions, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (Matt.11:15).
  10. Wait. “Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:29). Waiting rooms can bring out the worst in us. Long periods of waiting hoist all kinds of emotional red flags—from impatience and worry to full-blown panic attacks. Reminders of past pain, traumas, and personal loss make our present trouble seem intolerable. The dark clouds roll in, and we can’t see the light of spiritual truth. However, waiting does not need to produce hopelessness for Christ-followers.

Do you have any “Words” that have changed everything for you?

Celebrating a Book Birthday

Not only is today MY birthday, but my debut novel came out six years ago this month. It’s my book’s birthday!

We could eat cake and ice cream in celebration, I could tell you about all the labor I went through to push this baby out, or we could look at pictures of my baby and coo. But really, what I want to talk about is dedicating my baby.

Go ahead and coo first…

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Feel free to grab cake and ice cream, too, if you want.

Now back to the dedication.

I love dedicating my books. They are a little piece of me, but I couldn’t have created them on my own. Seeing them come to life is a humbling experience. And I am so grateful. Unbelievably grateful.

I cry every time I write my acknowledgments. Happy tears. Giggling-all-by-myself-though-I-know-God-must-be-looking-down-and-laughing-too tears. The kind of tears we were created to cry.

My first book I dedicated to an amazing couple in my life. The book was a romance, as you probably guessed from the pic above since the model is wearing a wedding dress. But I was crying lots of sad tears at this time I sold this book because my own marriage was falling apart. I was living in Kevin and Rebecca’s basement with my three children. I learned a lot from them while I lived there. I remember Kevin coming home and Rebecca telling him, “The kitchen drawer is broken.” Kevin said, “Okay, I’ll fix it,” instead of getting angry at her. I was like, “Oh. That’s what love is supposed to look like.”

I was so thankful God let me write a book about love even though I’d obviously failed at it. And I was thankful for Kevin and Rebecca’s love for me. At the time, the only thing I could give them in return was my book dedication. I meant every single heartfelt word.

Since then, I’ve remarried, and I rereleased that first novel.

Here’s my baby all grown up:

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This time it’s dedicated to my husband who has also shown me what love is. The first time he told me he loved me, I said, “I don’t know what that means.” He said, “I will show you with everything that I am.” He puts my heroes to shame.

Here I go talking about love again, when I’m supposed to be talking about dedications, but maybe they are one and the same. They are an expression of my affection for the people in my own life story.

I loved writing my children’s series with my kids and dedicating the books to them.

I loved writing the story of a pastor’s daughter (who can’t forgive her dad for running off with the church secretary until she falls for her own pastor) and dedicating it to my parents who are THE most merciful people in the world.

I loved dedicating my Christmas romance to my best friend who was “a gift from heaven” at a time when I felt like I had nothing left. This year she invited me to speak at a Mother’s Day brunch at the old folk’s home where she works as activities director. I got to announce in front of all her residents and coworkers that I was dedicating the book to her.

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Sometimes it’s fun to make other people cry happy tears, too.

Most recently I created a new baby with Love Inspired Suspense. This one I couldn’t have finished without the inspiration of my oldest stepdaughter. So I dedicated it to my step-kids. I was hoping to give  a copy to my stepdaughter when she was here for Thanksgiving, but the package missed her by a day. I just had to send them all a photo.

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I kinda wanted to make them cry happy tears, but I probably cried enough for all of us.

Dedication means both “self-sacrificing devotion” as well as “a name prefixed to a literary production in tribute to a person.” I’m able to prefix all these names to the front of my stories because of their self-sacrificing devotion to me. And there’s nothing else I’d rather celebrate on my birthday.

Though cake is good, too.

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A Library Located in a Village of Stilted Houses by the Sea

library-story

I loved going to the library as a girl. In the summer, after chores were done, we would go to town once a week, a trip that included a stop at the library.

I would always get the allowed quota–four books. 

At home I would sit in the tire swing under the elm tree and escape to faraway places in the pages.

I never imagined in the shadow of cornfields, alfalfa, and soy beans, that one day I would travel to a library in a village of stilted houses by the sea:

Our driver parked the van at the curve of a road on the mainland, near a dirt entrance across the bay to a smaller village of sea gypsies, the gypsy part of the name being a misnomer because they don’t move from place to place. They live there, a few hundred yards from the mainland in their simple stilted homes, because the lore of their people states that if they would leave, their skin would become diseased; they would grow sick and die.

sea library 1

“Where’s the library?” we asked our host as we passed a group of boys listening to a boombox, while laundry dried outside a simple house with a satellite dish in the backyard. As part of a literacy program we had been invited to check out the library in this small fishing village in Indonesia.

sea library 7

Our host pointed in the distance, to a destination I could not see, because all I saw in front of me was a series of rough wooden planks, nailed together in a single, rickety path above the water.

Walking the plank suddenly had an entirely new meaning as the boards weaved side to side as I shuffled across one and then another. I peered at the water six feet below as it flowed back and forth with the current. What happens when cell phones get wet? I wondered, as I took step after cautious step, on planks number three, four and five.

What happens when library visitors get wet?

My husband comes across

I was thankful for the years I spent as a child balancing on railroad tracks as I imagined being a tightrope walker on my way to our no-boys-allowed fort in a culvert under the tracks, never imagining I would need those high-wire skills four decades later.

Eventually all six of us made it across, some uttering not-very-silent prayers for God’s deliverance.

When we arrived at the library in the village school, we discovered the building was closed. School testing happened that week and the kids had a half day, an education reality that is common around the world. We stood around in the 85-degree heat with 90% humidity. The circle of sweat on my cotton t-shirt widened exponentially with each ticking minute.

“We can come into this home,” our host said, motioning us into a blue house with a corrugated metal roof across from the school.

sea library 4

“Have a seat, have a seat.” The woman and homeowner directed me to a far corner. Our group of six and a dozen children trooped in behind. Candies and other snacks hung down from the ceiling. The home was also a store.

We were invited to tell a story while the woman served crackers and bottled water. My husband told a tale of another stilted house with a boy, his noisy sisters, and their cows. It was a story about gratitude. Our interpreter echoed my husband’s hand motions and side effects, adding a few of his own, while the children listened, entranced.

The homeowner smiled as the children sang a song, moving with the tempo. More children arrived on the front porch, but there was no more room inside. 

In our culture, I hear arguments about the relevance of libraries in a digital world, but those debates were silenced for me in a stilted village where children pressed against the metal screen covering the front window in hopes of getting closer to the words, while the sea and the people swayed.

Do you have a library story?

Lynne Hartke’s first book: Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places is coming out with Revell/Baker in May 2017. She blogs at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?