This Writing Thing? It’s Not About You

candle-97505_1280It’s a burning idea.

A passion that can’t be quenched.

A germ of a story that won’t go away.

You’re a writer. It’s who you are. Ingrained in your DNA. Found in your identity.

Words are your joy.

But sometimes those same words become your greatest enemy. Maybe you’re not conscious of this happening. Maybe it’s been a slow fade down what is now becoming an even slippier slope. And suddenly you’re at the end and you don’t want to put words on the page.

Or maybe you do want to put words on the page, but the right words aren’t there. You’re drawing from an empty well.

God does not call us to be perfect vessels for His work. He does not expect you to be all together all of the time. And yet so often, we put that pressure on ourselves, don’t we? We expect that we should always be able to sit down at the computer, slit a vein, and write as though the words will always be there.

In that moment, we are relying on our own strength for this thing we call writing.

We become obsessed with our words. We become caught up in the euphoric high of stringing 90,000 words together into a manuscript. And we forget the Orator of those words. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, these are not your words. This is not just your passion.

It’s not our strength that gives us these ideas we turn into stories. It’s not our strength that gives us the words to write these stories. And it’s not our strength that carries us through the times of intense burnout. While we might not consciously think that it is, or make the decision that it is our passion, our drive, our ability putting these words on the screen, when we remove our focus from the true Source, we begin to falter.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Do you believe that?

Do you believe that God is carrying you through? We remember that in our daily lives a little bit better than we do in our writing lives. We get caught up. Focused. Driven. Forget God’s timing. God’s way. God’s provision.

That sometimes we have to take a backseat to our dreams, remain faithful to the calling He has laid on our hearts and let Him direct everything else.

It’s surrender. It’s release. It’s not giving up. It’s not giving in. It’s giving over. Remembering where this true fount of word-joy has come from. Whom it has come from.

Do you take time to hit your knees before you write? Because this isn’t about you and what you can do. It’s about what God can do through you as His vessel. Do you dedicate your writing time—no matter how small or large that might be—to your Creator? Without Him, there would be no you. No you to write these words and stories only you can write…though the power and grace of your Savior.

This writing thing isn’t meant to be done alone. Are you trying to?

Maybe it’s time to stop and start over again.

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The Mountain Crumbling Power of Persistence

There isn’t anything much more intimidating to a writer than a blank page.

An empty file.Untitled

A blinking cursor.

And a deadline.

Somehow, in the next three or six months you have to pull eighty to ninety thousand words out of your head and throw them into some semblance of order.

And do it well.

 What is the one key thing that will get you to that goal?

Some people depend on speed to get them through to the finish line. They can pour words on the page in writing spurts that make my head spin. They can write an entire novella in a week. Or a novel in a month.

Other people depend on their muse – writing only when it strikes. They may write for four hours one day, and not again until three days later when they find the idea for the next scene.

Some people depend on catching what little time they can out of their busy schedule. Five minutes here, twenty minutes there….

Whatever your writing style, there is one key ingredient you need to have:

Persistence

Persistence is that drip, drip, drip of water

          seeping into solid granite.

                      One by one the words come.

                                    Relentlessly.

Persistence doesn’t let life interrupt the commitment.

If you have a life that likes to intrude on your writing (and who doesn’t?), make time when the little ones are asleep, or when everyone is out of the house, or when someone else can care for things at home for an hour while you grab solitude at the coffee shop.

Before my children graduated from our homeschool, I rose an hour earlier than they did and wrote. I would write seven hundred fifty to one thousand words a day while they slept.

Persistence protects the writing time.

Turn off the text and tweet messages. Don’t answer your phone. Close the internet browser. Don’t answer the door. Set a timer, and don’t do anything but write until that timer goes off.

I set my timer for twenty-five minutes. When it goes off, I change the laundry, or let the dog out, or check my email, and after five minutes, I set the timer again.

Persistence forms a habit.

If possible, write in the same place at the same time each day. Write for the same amount of time each day. Aim for the same word count each day. Day by day, day after day, builds habit.

Have you discovered the joy of habit? One thousand words a day, five days a week, will give you 250,000 words in a year.

Two hundred fifty thousand words in one year.

How many books is that? In my world of writing for Love Inspired Historical, that’s three books, and a bit more.

That’s the kind of output agents and editors love.

 Will you make persistence a key weapon in your writing arsenal?

39 Cathedral Spires

 It is the relentless power that can split boulders and crumble mountains.

Sentencing Ourselves to Pieces: Read a Whole Book!

theguardian.com

theguardian.com

I wrote an essay in my sleep last night–about books. Everyone in my dream was holding a book open, some paper books, some e-books, but all tilting their heads, reading thoughtfully. Books were not dead, the page would live on as a vital and treasured source of knowledge and experience. It was a good world. It was a good essay. It was a good dream. I kept pondering whether I should wake myself up to write it down. I did not, concluding that my slumbering self would surely remember an essay of this import.

I know what happened. I made the mistake of watching a 2010 documentary on the future of education just before bed, and paid particular attention to one interviewee’s prognostications about the book. Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, who describes himself on his website as an “internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant and designer in the critical areas of education and learning,” says this about books and kids:

You don’t have to read them (books) to take in what’s in a book. . . If I said to kids, “You know, you don’t have to read all that much. But what I’d really like you to read are these few things and these excerpts, and these parts, and then I’ll tell you why you should read them. . . And no, you don’t have to pore through Silas Marner as I did in high school. There are very few books you have to have read.”

(I confess I would have been more willing to grant his pain in high school had he named The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace. Silas Marner clocks in at a mere 200 pages.)

Let me understand this. If a writer’s work is truly important and excellent, it earns the exalted status of being pieced and excerpted. And then I wonder about the writers whose work rises to this esteem. How did they arrive at their insights, brilliance, and genius? Through an education built on carefully selected snippets?

We have forgotten why we read, I fear. We need information, yes. We need knowledge and discernment more. We need imagination far more. We need beauty and possibility even more. Without these, we are sentenced to a single spirit, a single mind, a single life.

This is what I used to say when books lay on every shelf and people at least aspired to read. We need to read whole books for far more important reasons now. College students can no longer attend to an entire lecture without Facebooking. We text through our meals, we interrupt our visits for every vibration in our shirt pocket. We finish very little single-minded or single-handed. We are sentencing ourselves to pieces, dividing our language, our hours, our very selves among multiple media, shrinking our thoughts into bits and tweets, excerpts and texts. We cannot attend. We no longer seek silence. We have lost our ground of being, and cannot remember what holds us together.

Last week I walked into a first grade classroom. The kids were sprawled on the floor, cross-legged on the carpet, leaning over their desks, all with a book in hand, faces inches from the page, intent. SSR time, Silent Sustained Reading. For twenty minutes every day. Were these the faces in my dream?

k-12news.com

k-12news.com

Maybe college classes can do the same. Maybe we can, as well. Silent. Sustained. Reading. Maybe we will remember back to first and second grade, why we read books then, from beginning to end. Why we write them. That slow immersion, that aching marinating in a world of such light, drama, and color, whose ending would bring delight, even wonder, and always an appetite for more. We always longed for more of the book, never less.

“Why are we reading if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” asks Annie Dillard in her excellent book, The Writing Life. Why indeed? Why are we writing if not to do the same? But don’t stop reading with this quote. Read the whole book. Read as many whole books as you can. Sentence yourself again to beauty and whole-hearted delight.

Woman hugging page

“I Believe in the Power of STORY”

When I read, I want a book that makes me stop and think. That’s why I put a study guide in the back of my novels. But I agonize over what type of questions to ask.

Taking notes helps us remember what we read.

Could the questions guide readers to thinking about a character’s growth during the story? Possibly the themes the story is dealing with. How a reader might relate personally to the character’s trials. What repercussions one decision might have had on the story’s outcome had it been different.

The novels I checked for discussion questions had between 7 and 13 questions. Here are some of the likely candidates:

I believe in the power of story.

I believe in the power of story.

31 Questions for a discussion guide:

1. What is the significance of the title? Would you have given the book a different title? If yes, what is your title?

2. What were the themes of the book? Do you feel they were adequately explored? Were they brought to life in a cliché or in a unique manner?

4. What scene was the most pivotal for the book? How do you think the story would have changed had that scene not taken place?

5. What scene resonated most with you personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?

6. Has anything ever happened to you similar to what happened in the book? How did you react to it differently?

7. What surprised you the most about the book?

8. Were there any notable racial, cultural, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic factors at play in the book? If so, what? How did it effect the characters? Do you think they were realistically portrayed?

9. How important is the setting & time period to the story? How would it have played out differently in a different setting? What about a different time period?

10. Were there any particular quotes that stood out to you? Why?

11. Did any of the characters remind you of yourself or someone you know? How?

12. What motivates the actions of the characters in the story? What do the sub-characters want from the main character and what does the main character want with them?

13. What were the dynamics of “power” between the characters? How did that play a factor in their interactions?

14. How does the way the characters see themselves differ from how others see them? How do you see the various characters?

15. How did the “roles” of the various characters influence their interactions? ie. For a woman: Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, professional, etc.

16. The main character’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us who come from a different culture. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. 

17. If you could smack any of the characters upside the head, who would it be and why?

18. Were there any moments where you disagreed with the choices of any of the characters? What would you have done differently?

19. If you were in the main character’s position at this point, how would you respond?

20. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters in the story?

21. Did you think the ending was appropriate? How would you have liked to have seen the ending go?

22. How have the characters changed by the end of the book?

23. Have any of YOUR views or thoughts changed after reading this book?

24. What do you think will happen next to the main characters?

25. Are there any books that you would compare this one to? How does this book hold up to them?

26. Have you read any other books by this author? Were they comparable to your level of enjoyment of this one?

27. What did you learn from, take away from, or get out of this book?

28. Did your opinion of the book change as you read it? How?

29. Do you feel as if this book changed your views on the primary subject of the story? Why?

30. If you could change something about this book, what would it be and why?

31. Would you recommend the book to a friend?

Q4U. What questions would you add to this list?

Shameless: How to Fail a Book Signing (but Not the Writing Life)

“Art is born out of humiliation.”  W.H. Auden

I had a fantastically unsuccessful book signing in a big box store not long ago. (Yes, signings still occur, despite the takeover of social media.) Afterwards, licking my wounds, I turned to a book on my own shelves, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. In it, Margaret Atwood, Rick Moody, Billy Collins and a constellation of such literary brights offer up the most companionable ignominies and embarrassments. (Fittingly, I bought the book used, online, for a penny.) My own parade of humiliations that night were paltry next to theirs. Still, couldn’t I do better?

Two weeks later, an Internet search on “book signings” confirmed my suspicions. According to several book signing experts, I did indeed do everything wrong. First, I missed the Webinar on “The Seven Steps to Turn Yourself into a Celebrity.” In another  article, I violated nearly every one of thirteen steps, beginning with, “Decide, in advance, what sort of clothing you want to be seen wearing by your reading public.”  (Did I do this? No.) Step #6 advised bringing along a printout of your manuscript for fascinated readers. (Really?)  My most egregious error was the last step: my failure to inform the store managers that I would be the bookstore’s official greeter while I was there. Nor did I walk around with several copies of my book introducing myself to everyone in the store, as he advised, pressing my own books and bookmarks into their astonished hands.

I would rather demonstrate the wonders of Balinese kitchen knives through the Christmas season at Walmart than resort to such tactics.

We all know we need to successfully promote our own work. But when we sacrifice leisure, sleep, money, and most costly of all, time with our families so that we can write, none of us makes these difficult choices to be stalkers or hawkers with a leer and a bookmark. We write because we believe in our deepest-down spirit that God has called us to keep naming the world. We write to serve a meal to the famished, to dress the wounds of the betrayed and lonely. We write to offer hope and a story to the depressed. We write to offer clear thinking in a muddled marketplace. We write in humility, in insecurity, in desperate prayer.

And when our book releases, shall we then don our best barracuda suit, polish our teeth, slick back our hair and begin the hard, shiny sell, suctioning ourselves to every unfortunate person who innocently wanders into a bookstore? Did any of us sign up for this?

Let’s take a breath. We don’t need to sell. We don’t have to sell out or sell ourselves short, or sell our own snake oil. We need to offer. We’ve just spent two to three years composing, listening for God; we do indeed have something to offer. We offer our work, and, more importantly, we offer ourselves. In all of our promotion, we need to think, how may I serve others? How may I serve my readers? We might end up giving books away—a lot of books. We might do some speaking gratis. We might end up on the short end of the accounting sheet. We might end up praying with a stranger. But at the end of the day, the year, the decade, we’ll count it differently:

We got to give. We got to give more than we knew we possessed. We got to be part of a global conversation. We got to know new readers, who taught us more than we knew. We got to pray for strangers who became friends.

Don’t listen to “sell-a-ton-of-books” schemes when they violate who you are and what you’re to be doing in this world. Go ahead and “fail” a book signing if you must. Be a real writer, without shame.

Writing Life Lessons

photoNo matter what stage I’m at in the writing journey, whether it’s researching, plotting, writing, or editing, I continue to learn. Currently, I’m in my last round of edits for my debut novel, Shaken. Man, has it been humbling. I don’t claim to have all the answers to this writing journey, but here are a few tips I’ve learned from trial and error. Like my novels, I’m always a work in progress.

Paint a scene

This seems like a no-brainer, right? I thought it was, too. Except sometimes I don’t write all that is in my head. Thank goodness for an editor who reads the story and asks me to fill in the holes. Use the senses. Again, you would think this is obvious, but too often we forget. In my second book, I open with a beach scene. Can my reader smell the smoke from the bonfire, taste the salt in the air, feel the whip of the sea breeze, hear the lap of the waves, see the fireworks exploding? If not, I need to keep crafting.

Make connections

Link scenes, events, and characters. As my granddad told my brother when he came home from college late one night, “Account for yourself!” Make sure all your elements are accounted for, and again, not just in your head. If a character just spoke yet the scene ends and they are nowhere to be found, make sure there is a clue to the reader of where they went and when they exited the conversation. Again, these should be obvious, but sometimes when I focus on the story line at large, I forget these important little details that further immerse the reader in the story.

Books are not movies

I tend to see my book playing out like one of Nicholas Spark’s movies – sweeping, southern, and characters that tug at your heart. Except, books are not movies. What a viewer can take in in a few seconds of a new scene takes a lot longer to paint in a book. The best movies come from books that paint vivid scenes. Think the party scenes in Gatsby where Fitzgerald describes the house and guests in great detail. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading this right now and at least read those scenes.

Kill your “darlings”

This is a lesson one my college professors shared with me, and regardless of the time passage, it doesn’t get easier. First, let’s define “darlings.” It is any piece of your story that you are attached to that does not ultimately propel the story forward. You may think a scene is epic, but will your readers care? Does it demonstrate an irreplaceable character quality or scene that is essential to your reader’s knowledge of the story line? Is your attachment greater than the reader’s? If yes, then don’t be afraid to kill that “darling.” Your story will be better for it. Trust me, I know it’s painful, but strike with your red pen and make the page bleed.

You’ll never be completely satisfied

photo copyStop looking at the blinking cursor. Save and send. Your story will never be perfect. If you are waiting for that, choose a different career. I emailed my mentor a couple months ago and told her I thought my story sucked and I wanted to start from scratch. She laughed (I could sense it over email), and told me that it was great for where I’m at now. The next novel will be better than the first, and the third better than the second. If you know you have done all you can do right now, then allow yourself to be satisfied with the results and send that sucker. I still find mistakes in my short stories from college, and I couldn’t count how many times I have edited those pages. But I’ve also increased in my ability and my knowledge since college. I’ll focus on doing my best now and realize that I’m always growing.

What writing tips have you picked up along the way?

They Also Serve Who Drink and Weep

Coming home .. .. The writing life takes me away from home often. I write this the day after returning from 2 weeks of travel, home to Kodiak Island, to my husband and sons and daughter and Yorkshire terrier who badly needs a groom. I walk through my door and want everyone to kiss me as if I have just been born, as indeed I have.

photo

I am home, but I cannot stop thinking about her, the woman I met on the plane. It was the fourth and last plane of the trip. I was almost there. I edged down the aisle and saw her—crying. Sobbing on her phone. My eyes went dark, my heart tightened. As I stepped past her, I heard her say, “They just told me. I have pancreatic cancer. He gave me 3 – 6 months to live. I don’t want to die!” and she dissolved again into weeping, running her hands through her hair.

She was beautiful, dark-skinned, dressed in expensive jeans, a leather jacket. Her phone was pink. She gripped it so hard, hanging on to whoever was at the other end. My seat was one row back and one row over. I could see her profile, hear every word. I looked around desperately. A woman was dying! And we were calmly sitting in our seats, buckling our seat belts against death—and would soon follow all the safety requirements, while she was no longer safe. What do I do?

a woman with hands covering face

Men sat in front of her, and in back, each one with the bland face we wear when we pretend we don’t hear because we too are afraid. I wanted to do this too, but there was an empty seat beside her. She would be alone this entire flight with no one .. .. And how could I forget what I had prayed that morning? In the hotel room, on my face, wanting this day, this one day, to have a pure heart, to serve someone . . . “May your kingdom come, Your will be done .. May I hear you and serve you this day . . ..” and off I went into another day of terminals and planes—and there she is near me, still crying, the seat beside her empty.  I have work to do—a chapter is due, edits for an article are due, but the seat beside her is empty.

airplane seat

Shaking, I unbuckle my seatbelt, lift my bag and stand beside her. “Is it okay if I sit beside you?” I smile. She looks up at me, surprised, with her ruined face and nods, trusting, like a child, her eyes again filling with tears. I sit, she watches me settle. “What has happened?” I ask her and it pours out, but there are hands now to catch what falls, our shoulders touch, I stroke her arm, and we mourn and grieve and sit together in the shock of it. She is young. She knows Jesus, but she doesn’t want to die she cries again and again through a twisted mouth. I silently scream to Jesus to give me the words. I need them when I am writing, but I need them even  more now … .and they come. At one point she grasps my hands and says, “God sent you to me.” Mostly I am there to cry with her, to drink chardonnay with her. I know the chardonnay will wreck me, but had she offered me whiskey, I would have drunk that too.

It wasn’t much. I write all this not for anyone to say, “Oh, what a great servant you are!” Because I am not. How many people have I not seen and walked past? How many have I seen and still walked past? But this is instead about this wondrous, terrifying God we serve, who has asked one of his daughters to die a hard, early death, and who asked another selfish frightened daughter to sit with her in her fear and aloneness for a short time. It was so little. And she staggered off the plane to walk into the end of her life—and I staggered into a car taking me to stages and microphones.

Here is what I remember : “They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton wrote in his sonnet “On His Blindness.” I was going to speak on podiums, in many places, before many people for two weeks, but none of that mattered then. Of all I did on that trip, perhaps this mattered most: “They also serve who only sit and weep.”

2013-04-01 07.20.39

Can tears really be enough? For that day, for that hour, yes. God will provide another servant, and another for every empty seat beside her.

Do we dare ask this each morning? “May I hear you and serve you this day.” Yes, dare. Then watch for the empty seat. Bring tissues. Drink wine if you must. Become a child. Give whatever you’ve been given. Sometimes it will be words. More, it will be your presence and your tears.

And the kingdom of God will come near.