Have We Met? Creating Characters Your Readers Will Feel They Know

Last semester at school, my daughter made friends with quite a few international students, including several from Mexico. So when one of them invited her to visit Mexico this past summer, my daughter was ecstatic. She had the time of her life, deepened her relationships with the friends she’d made here, and returned home already talking about her next trip.

A few days ago, an earthquake struck Mexico City, where her friends live. They texted her that day as they stood outside their school watching the walls crack and nearby buildings collapse.

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She and I watched the news together, glued to scenes of rescue efforts. My daughter studied faces, searching through the throngs of people stumbling over debris as they searched for the missing. Had she passed by some of those collapsed buildings when she’d been in that city just a few weeks earlier? Quite possibly. Did she know any of the people walking by, streaked with dirt, hands scratched from digging through rubble, or shouting with joy when they were reunited with a loved one? She might. People she knew well, friends she loved, were impacted by this disaster. They were afraid, traumatized, comforting friends and strangers, tired, homeless, helping others. So she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen. And because I knew their names, had heard their stories, had witnessed the love and friendship they shared with my daughter, neither could I.

I watch the news every night. I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I sometimes see, through the lens of the Bible, end time prophesies unfolding before my eyes. And it helps me to know how to pray.

But I have never watched with the intense interest, concern, and compassion with which I have watched the last few days, with my daughter. What has made the difference? People I have met, people who matter to my family, are involved. And so I am involved. I care deeply about what happens to them, so I am mesmerized. I am emotionally connected to her friends; I know their names and their faces; my chest literally aches for them. And their faith and trust in God in the midst of tragedy humbles and inspires me.

And it strikes me – this is how we, as Christian authors, need to write our characters. When we create the people in our stories, we do so in imitation of the creation of the first man and woman, and our words breathe life into them. We have been charged with the task of taking the dust and mud of an empty page and forming it with our fingers into characters with such depth that they become real to our readers, as though they know them personally.

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When that happens, everything changes. Readers become emotionally connected to the people in our stories—relatable because of their strengths and weaknesses, their flaws and their capacity for greatness, their ordinariness and their uniqueness—and intensely interested in what is happening in their lives. They will ache with them when they experience hardship and tragedy, and rejoice with them when they triumph over their circumstances.

And when some of those characters live out their faith on our pages, whether they are stumbling around, scratched and streaked with dirt, or shouting and dancing with joy, our readers too may be humbled and inspired to live out their faith in their own lives.

So this week I pray for Mexico and I pray for all the suffering and the lost in the world, that they may experience God’s mercy, comfort, and love. And I pray that God will, in some small way, use the words, the actions, the faith of the characters we create, to impart that mercy, comfort, and love to those who read their stories and come to know and care deeply about them.

How about you – have you ever connected so deeply with a character you felt as though you knew him or her personally? What was it that drew you in so deeply?

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The God We Draw Our Readers To

“Your book really helped draw me closer to God.”

Are there any more thrilling words for a Christian author to hear? That is, after all, our ultimate goal, isn’t it? To point our readers to God?

That is certainly the reason I write. Because God gives me the stories and I want to be obedient in writing them down to the best of my ability and to do what I can to get them into the hands of readers. Not for my glory, so they can know me better, but for His glory, so they can know Him better.

So yes, that feedback thrills me like no other. And it also terrifies me like no other. Because it compels me to ask myself: Is the God my story has just drawn someone closer to the one true God? Or have I allowed my incomplete, in-a-mirror-darkly comprehension of who God truly is, as well as my preferences, my biases, and all cultural influences, to shape my understanding of God and therefore cause me to present an inaccurate picture of who He is?

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“The book I just read might be controversial, but it drew me closer to God, so it must be all right.”

I can’t tell you how often I have heard this from fellow believers. And it tears at my heart every time because it brings me back to another question that haunts me: If the words I write draw my reader closer to a god that is not the one true God of the Bible, haven’t I done more harm than good? And, even more frighteningly, will I now be held responsible for leading this reader—who trusted my words, my theology—astray even a little?

Matthew 12:36-37 says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

As one who has been appointed a steward of words, these verses challenge, convict, and sober me. If the feedback I have received has been honest, my writing does have the ability to influence and shape the ideas and beliefs of others. According to these verses then, will God not hold me accountable for the words I use while claiming, by virtue of the fact that I call myself a Christian author, to represent and portray Him through my stories?

Consciously or unconsciously, readers turn to Christian writing to help them with three things: to begin to comprehend who God is, to understand who they are in relation to Him, and to decide how that relationship, once rightly established, should inform their actions and reactions, as well as their words and thoughts, in the midst of whatever situation comes along in life. And all of this happens (ideally) as they read our stories and witness how these truths are lived out by the characters on the pages of our books.

Which brings me to another soul-searching question: Am I even capable of depicting this God—whose thoughts and ways are so much higher than mine—accurately, when the voices of the culture I am immersed in, of special interest groups, government leaders, the media, and countless other influences are so strong?

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The answer is no. Not without the help of the Holy Spirit. Not without a solid knowledge of Scripture. Not without prayer. A lot of prayer. Prayer for guidance, for the words to write, for the ability to block out the relentless noise of the world around me pounding in my ears every moment of every day so that I can hear the still small voice. The voice of love. The voice of truth. The voice of the one true God of the Bible.

May that God be the one our words draw others to every time they read them.

Seven Steps to Guaranteed Success as a Writer

Every author seems to have a different idea of what “success” in their field means to him or her. For some, selling at least five thousand (in Canada) or ten thousand (in the States) books, thereby qualifying them to claim the lofty title of “Bestselling Author” is the goal on which they set their sights. For others, maybe it’s a hundred thousand copies, or a million.

For some, it isn’t about the numbers, but about awards. But which award is the one that will make them feel as though they have finally arrived? Is it the Carol? The Christie? The Pulitzer? I’ve noticed several big-name authors who have won awards in the past entering the contests again, so maybe one award isn’t enough. What, then, is the magic number?

Or maybe it’s a certain amount of positive feedback, a sufficient number of glowing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, recognition at conferences or even on the streets, enough followers on social media.

You see the problem. Success is a wildly ambiguous and deeply personal concept. Chasing that elusive label can be and, I suspect, is in most cases, a discouraging, disheartening, and depressing endeavor. The intended audience for our work can be mind-numbingly uncooperative when it comes to providing us with the accolades, reviews, purchases, and general awestruck-ness in our presence that would finally push us up to that mountain peak we are continually scrambling to reach. So too, for that matter, can agents, publishers, editors, and judges of contests.

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A month ago I posted on this site about my love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. I have to admit I am coming down a little harder on the side of love these days as my books are currently finalists for five awards. Am I encouraged? Definitely. Am I grateful, honored, and excited? Absolutely. Am I able to bring myself to claim that I am now a successful author as a result of these affirmations? Not even close.

So what is the solution? To continue to blindly stumble along, attempting to achieve some random number of readers or books sold or reviews in order to feel that I am now a success? Or is it possible that I, as a Christian author, need to look at the whole success thing from an entirely different perspective? If so, the perspective that is inevitably the best one to try to view things from is that of Jesus. During his time on earth, Jesus said some radical, countercultural things about success. He suggested that “making it to the top” in the eyes of the world was not only a poor measure of success, but could, in fact, be considered spiritually detrimental because it is those who are the least in the eyes of the world who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Not that we should refuse to work hard or strive for excellence. Quite the contrary. Working diligently and doing our best honors God. The difference is in the motivation. The Bible teachers that everything we do should be done as to the Lord, and not unto man. By that standard, our success cannot truly be measured by sales, awards, or accolades bestowed on us by other human beings.

For an author who believes, then, success can only be defined by whether or not our work accomplishes the purpose God has for it. So here, in my humble opinion, are seven steps to follow in order to be guaranteed success in your writing:

1)      Listen for and receive the words God has for you to write

2)      Study the craft so that you can write those words in a way that honors the one who gave them to you

3)      Humbly accept feedback and editing that makes the work better and stronger

4)      Pray about the best platform for your work to appear on

5)      When the story or teaching God has given you does come out in written form and become available to others, seek His guidance as to the best way to use the resources of time, money, and connections he has gifted you with in order to market and promote that work

6)      Pray that God’s will may be done through the words you have written

7)      Leave the results to him

If I follow the above steps and don’t find success in the eyes of the world—however I or other people may define that—I can still trust that the plans God has for my work have been or will be fulfilled, whether or not he ever reveals those plans to me. And I can let go of all my strivings, and rest in the sure and certain knowledge that my work is a resounding success.

It’s an Honour Not to be Nominated

I have a love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. On the one hand, I can definitely see the value, particularly for newer writers attempting to become more well-known. Winning an award, even being a finalist, offers great exposure for the author and no doubt increases sales. Finding your name on a shortlist can also provide much-needed encouragement to keep pressing on in a business that is notoriously discouraging, even soul-crushing at times, for those trying to break in.

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But there’s a flip side, as always. What about authors who enter contests year after year without ever seeing their names on a shortlist? That can only add to the soul crushing I mentioned earlier, perhaps even drive a new writer to give up entirely and seek another career. I know that personally I have often contemplated the merits of quitting writing and taking up burger flipping or cab driving, or any job, really, that doesn’t involve putting myself out there and subjecting myself on a daily basis to criticism and rejection.

I wonder, too, about the big-name authors, the ones who appear to have “made it” in the business, whose books are well-known and widely read and whose sales and fan base is firmly established, who continue to enter these contests. Not being in this position myself (yet smiley-163510__340) I wonder what it is that motivates them. At what point do awards stop losing their meaning? Do they ever? If you no longer need the exposure or the affirmation that your work is good and has an audience, what do you get from winning an award, especially when it means a lesser-known author will miss out on the honour? I’m a little afraid to ask any of them, in case the answer is that you never get over the feeling that your work isn’t good enough, that even if fans have been loyal so far, you may lose them on your next book, that your agent may drop you, or your publisher fail to offer you another contract, as they seek out newer authors and you get left behind. Is there ever a point where, despite what others think, you yourself feel that you have “made it” and that your position in the publishing world is now secure?

I suspect that, for most writers, the answer is no. And so continuing to win awards must ease that trepidation a little, at least for another year.

As I write this, we are in the throes of another awards season for Christian writing. I love that the names of friends and colleagues, not to mention well-known authors whose work I admire (and even mine, occasionally) are showing up on shortlists and that many are going on to win awards. I hate that so many others are, right now, feeling more discouraged than ever about their efforts. It is difficult, some days, not to envy those whose work is being affirmed with numerous public accolades. In this season, it is more important than ever for us to remember that, in the world of Christian writing, we are not in competition with each other. We have all been gifted and called to write by God, and he has a plan and purpose for each of us and our work. Whether or not that involves human recognition in the form of awards is, from a divine, eternal perspective, not really all that important.

As long as we are obedient to the call to write (or flip burgers, or drive a cab, or whatever work is put in front of us to do), and we do it with all our hearts, as unto the Lord and not unto man, we can look forward to receiving the greatest and most meaningful award of all one day, in the form of the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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.

Are We Ready?

My latest romantic suspense novel released yesterday. The Morning Star Rises is the third book in The Seven Trilogy, after The End Begins and The Dragon Roars. In a recent interview, I was asked if I thought I had accomplished the purpose I’d had for the series when I set out to write it.

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It was a great question because it made me stop and ask myself what that purpose had actually been, something every author should probably do. Had I wanted to tell a strong, compelling story? Yes. Did I want to be obedient and write the story God had given me to the best of my ability? Always. But what was my unique, specific purpose for this particular trilogy?

Thankfully, I knew the answer. My hope and purpose in writing The Seven Trilogy was to pose the question, “Are We Ready?” to the North American church, the body of Christ, in the twenty-first century.

Times are changing. There is a shift in society that can be felt in the air and seen and heard in the public square in both written and spoken form. Hostility toward Christianity and the Bible is growing. If, as a society, we continue on our current trajectory, the very real possibility of persecution of believers could soon exist, not just in other countries around the world, but right here, in the west.

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In writing The Seven Trilogy, I created a world, forty years in the future, in which such persecution is not a rumour, not a distant, far-off possibility, but reality. With Canada under martial law after a radical group calling itself Christian blows up several mosques across the country, the military is sent in to oppress and keep an eye on believers. Basic rights such as owning a Bible, teaching Christian principles to children, and receiving a fair trial are stripped away. Punishments are meted out swiftly and ruthlessly.

Army Captain Jesse Christenson and believer Meryn O’Reilly find themselves on opposite sides of a ideological chasm that seems impossible to bridge. Can they find a way to be together?

In the midst of the chaos and confusion of this time, when everything they believed in when it was easy to believe is put to the test, the Christians in the story cling to two truths: God is still on his throne, and he has not abandoned them.

A common thread among reviews of the first two novels is that the story made readers stop and think about what they really did believe, how much they were willing to sacrifice for those beliefs, and whether or not they would be able to withstand the threat of severe persecution.

So we’re thinking about whether or not we’re ready. And we’re talking about it, me as much as anyone. Because I didn’t write the books as someone who had it all figured out and wanted to impart my great wisdom on the subject to everyone else. I wrote them as someone deeply concerned, not only about whether the church as a whole is ready for what is to come, but about whether I am ready.

I still don’t know. There is no way to know, really, until what is coming actually arrives. But we can take steps to prepare ourselves.

The believers in these novels wish they had read more, studied more, committed more Scripture to memory before it was taken from them. We still have time to do that.

They regret not doing more to share the gospel with their children and with everyone else in their lives before they had to risk their lives to do so. We can still talk freely about the gospel and expect to receive openness and interest at best, or mocking and dismissal at worst.

After all churches are closed, they agree to continue to meet in secret, risking imprisonment if they are caught. We are still able to meet and worship openly without fear of reprisal.

There is still time, but time does appear to be running out. If The Seven Trilogy inspires believers (including me) to ask ourselves if we are ready, if it generates discussion and gets us thinking about the best way to use the time, resources, and freedoms we have left wisely and effectively, if it drives us to our knees to ask God to help us prepare ourselves and our families for whatever the future brings, then yes, its purpose will have been served.

All is Calm

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.

Much 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, snatches 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).

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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.