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.”

How Much Wrong Teaching is Too Much?

There is an ongoing debate in Christian circles about whether non-fiction or fiction books are best. Proponents of each, particularly those firmly planted in their perspective camp, tend to be slightly (sometimes more than slightly) disdainful of the other. I have always maintained, however, that this is not an either/or proposition. As every good preacher (including Jesus) will tell you, it’s vitally important to spend time expounding on the Word, but when you launch into a story to illustrate that Word, that’s when everyone suddenly straightens in their seats and becomes even more engaged. Both are needed. The same is true with fiction. In my opinion, if classified as Christian, a story must be firmly rooted in good theology if it is going to have a powerful, lasting impact on the reader.

But is my opinion the right one? If not, it wouldn’t be the first time. And lately I have had ample opportunity to consider how strongly I feel about the stand I have chosen to take on this.

Not for the first time, a massively best-selling book and subsequent movie, classified as Christian, has generated much discussion–even, sadly, heated, public debate–among the body of Christ. One review, posted by a pastor, casually mentioned that, yes, some of the teaching might be, strictly (and biblically) speaking, wrong, but that overall the message was so powerful that it wasn’t really enough to worry about.

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That got me thinking. If a book calls itself Christian, how much wrong teaching is acceptable, and how much is too much? Now, I’m not talking about passages of the Bible open to interpretation, or the differences in beliefs between various denominations. I am talking about teaching that is clear in Scripture and that has been affirmed by two thousand years of church doctrine, teaching that in many, if not all, cases, is actually a salvation issue. Wrong teaching, then, for the purposes of this post, is defined as teaching that can be shown in Scripture to be misleading, inaccurate, or just plain not true. Is there room for a small amount of that in a book that calls itself Christian, if the story is good? Can the story ever be good enough or powerful enough to overcome it? Or is a small amount of bad teaching more like what the Bible describes as “a little leaven that leavens the entire loaf?”

In three of the gospels, Jesus tells his followers to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 6:6) Now, the teaching of the religious leaders of the day sounded good. It certainly sounded like it came from Scripture, and in fact had its roots in Scripture. But somewhere along the way, truths had been twisted to suit the ends of the teachers. In the case of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that end was to control and oppress the people and to maintain their own elevated status in society.

Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of good to say about that. In fact, he was far harder on those who professed to follow God, yet whose teachings had veered away from the clear truths of Scripture, than he was on thieves and drunkards, prostitutes and adulterers. Can we then conclude that Jesus took wrong teaching, even—or especially—by those calling themselves his followers, fairly seriously? Possibly to the point that any good and right teaching they did present was undermined or even negated?

If you are an author of Christian fiction, how important is it to you to weave good, solid biblical theology throughout your writing? As readers, are you willing to overlook some wrong teaching if the prevailing message of the story is strong enough to overshadow it?

Why I’m Not Posting to this Blog Today

Okay. Here I go. Computer is booted up and ready to go and I am finally going to write that blog post I have committed to sending off at some point today. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. But I’ve got it together now. I am ready to put words to paper and come up with something brilliant.

social mediaRight after I check my Facebook page to see if anyone has tried to contact me. Hey, new marketing advice from someone I’ve never heard of. Might be the missing piece I’ve been looking for to send my book sales soaring. Yes, I will subscribe to your newsletter. Sign me up.

Okay, back to work. Feeling a little sleepy though. Maybe I should go outside for a few minutes; a little fresh air might clear my head. I should probably take a quick look at the weather site to see what I should expect if and when I get out there. Looks pretty good. Okay, I’ll log out right…  Wait, that headline is interesting. Just going to click on that to see what the article is about. A bear roaming the streets in a town a thousand miles from here? Fascinating. How did they…? Stop. Focus. I’m supposed to be writing that post.

And I will. Right after I check the sports page to read the write-up on the game last night. Yes, I watched the game (what else did I have to do?) and know exactly what happened. Still…

Oh yeah. I need to register for NaNoWriMo and see who else has signed up that I can be buddies with. Preparing to write that novel is consuming far more of my time and thoughts these days than actually sitting down to write the thing would. Which reminds me, I need to do that too. I have a book contract, a looming deadline, another commitment. I have to write the third and final book in a trilogy. I’m going to get started on that soon. Maybe I’ll go back and read the last few chapters of book two in the series to get me in the zone again.

As soon as I send out a quick tweet so my readers know I’m still around and haven’t fallen off the face of the planet. There. Done. My 140-character contribution to the global conversation. Now back to that post.

Wow, that coffee smells good. I’ll just grab a cup to fortify myself so I can really be productive today. Oops. We’re out of cream. Better text a shopping list to my husband. If I take the time to go to the store, this post will never get written.

Okay, I’m back, fortifying cup of coffee in hand. Wait. What’s that notice in the bottom corner of my screen? My anti-virus coverage is about to expire? That can’t be good. I better renew that. Should I stay with the same company? As far as I know, I haven’t had a virus, so they must be all right. I’ll just e-mail my writer’s group and ask who everyone uses for protection. Really don’t want to lose all this great stuff I’ve written—or thought about writing, anyway—just because I didn’t go with the right company. There, I’ve put the question out there. I’ll go back on in a few minutes to see if anyone has responded.

My phone’s buzzing. My husband, responding to my text. Oh yeah. I forgot he has to work late tonight. I guess I better go to the store then.

No problem. I got quite a bit done this morning. Pretty sure there wasn’t anything else too pressing. If there was, it will still be here waiting for me tomorrow, I’m sure.

For some reason, it always is.

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.