Tuesday, June 27, 2006

We interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program

To talk about guilt.

Guilt is natural, even healthy. It's our brain's response to conviction by the Holy Spirit. When we've deliberately hurt someone we love, lied about something to cover our backs, taken what doesn't belonged to us, or callously ignored someone in need we should feel guilty. If we don't we've got serious problems. However, sometimes we feel guilty over things that aren't sinful, aren't wrong, and aren't harming anyone.

Which brings me to the reason for this interruption.

Why is it so many female authors feel guilty about writing?

Perhaps it's because we feel our only calling should be to our children and/or spouses. Perhaps it's because we feel that writing is taking time away from more important things - like laundry, dishes, dusting. Perhaps it's simply because the American ideal is that we should have it all perfectly balanced and wonderfully maintained. No job left undone, no child left coloring pictures while we pursue our writing careers, no husbands wondering if the pile of papers on the computer desk will ever be removed. We are to be super thin, super fit, super productive, but most importantly, we are to make sure everyone is happy all the time.

But are we really?

I don't think so. Happiness is dependent on circumstances. I want to teach my kids joy. Joy in a task well done. Joy in spending time just being together. Joy in knowing we are where God wants us, doing what He wants us to do.

Just look at the Proverbs 31 woman. You know, the one we all love to hate. She obviously loved her family and made them her priority. She worked and she worked hard, taking the talents God gave her and using them to enhance every aspect of her family's life. And that didn't just include dishes, laundry, floors, games of tic-tac-toe and hide and go seek (remember, she had servants!). She made coverings for her bed, then she made linen garments and sold them. She bought fields and used her earnings to plant vineyards. She traded and her trading was profitable. She was savvy, smart, and eager to do whatever God called her to. And I have a pretty good feeling she didn't feel guilty about it.

Personally, I think she understood a lot better than we do the truth of life. It isn't about balance, but about love. It isn't about not pursuing our dreams, but about knowing that our dreams are only worth pursuing if we're taking those we love on the journey with us. It isn't about doing it all, but about working hard at a task God gives us, knowing that nothing we do can steal away any of the passion and love we have for our family. Being who He has made us is the only thing we should ever be striving toward, and who He made us may very well be a combination of wife, mother, and writer.

So, about guilt. Feel it when you should. When you shouldn't, when you know you're on the right track, doing what God has called you to, trust that He will provide the time and the energy you need to continue His good work in you. Then let the guilt go and press onward.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Secret to Success #3

Today I feel like crud. I won't go into the gory details of my illness, because it isn't actually an illness. If you suffer from migraines you'll understand. If you don't, I'll spare you my sob story.

I sent my kids and hubby off to church in the pouring rain and spent a half hour in absolute silence and darkness. It's a mark of author craziness that I am now woozily beginning to think about working on my manuscript.

Which brings me to writing secret #3 - consistency. Strangely enough, a lot of unpublished authors I talk to don't like this word. To them, it implies rigid structure and rigid structure somehow implies an inability to follow the muse. Being authors we've got to be able to write when that illusive muse strikes and wait in comfort and ease and angst when it flits away again. Right?

Wrong. Writing isn't about muse as much is it about consistent hard work. Because, like any other job, writing is work. If we don't embrace that before we're published, we're not going to last very long after we're published. Furthermore, we can't improve as writers if we aren't consistently practicing our craft.

To take this outside the writer's world, I'll use my eleven-year-old as an example. Jude has been playing piano for five years, and he is truly gifted. He loves and plays all kinds of classical music, plays at church, and competes at the local and state level. Jude's problem is that it's always been easy for him to learn music and play it well. This past year, he discovered that procrastinating (as he's done in previous years) isn't working as well. Sure he's gifted, but so are hundreds of other kids. Some of those kids know the importance of consistent hard work. Some, like my son, prefer to play at practicing. The music still sounds great to the untrained ear, but a judge can quickly tell the difference between those that have learned through consistent hard work, and those who are coasting by on their talent. Eventually, those that are working hard will far outshine those who are simply working when they feel passion and excitement over a particular piece of music. At some point, my son will have to choose - does he want to play at being a pianist or does he want to be one?

As writers we have to choose, too. Do we want careers, or do we want to follow the muse? If we want to follow the muse, then we can afford to spend six years writing a book. If we want careers, we need to build the habit of writing into our lives now. Even when our kids are young. Even when we're so tired we just want to veg in front of the television. Even when we really don't think we have the time. Consistency in writing creates authors who are prepared for the demands of publication, who have created habits that will allow them to fulfill contracts and (even more importantly) know how many contracts they will be able to fulfill. Consistency in writing is not a choice for those of us who truly want to succeed. It is a necessity.

If you're struggling with this issue, believe me when I say I understand. Balancing life and writing is a challenge we all must face. However, God does not give us gifts without gifting us with the ability to use them. Take time this week to find time. Look at your day. When does writing best fit in? If you can't pick consistent times (I know I can't) then choose a daily writing goal and stick to it. Muse or no muse. It's the only way to prepare for the day when you must not only produce wonderful stories, but produce them on your publisher's timeline.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Secret to success #2 - courage

Courage. It's a word made for heroes, right? People who are thrust into extraordinary circumstance and do what must be done to protect themselves, their children, their friends, their world. We hear about them all the time (though not nearly as much as we should) and are astounded by their bravery and selflessness. Perhaps we aspire to be like them, or wonder, if met with similar circumstances, whether we'd live up to the example they've set. Whatever the case, we admire their bravery and are in awe of their ability to overcome. They have stepped outside themselves, given what they had, offering it up as a sacrifice and sometimes losing much in the process.

What does this have to do with writing?

I'm getting there. Slowly. Because I'm moving slow this morning. See, I got up this morning thinking about the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. Every day we get up and go about our lives. If you're like me, that means trudging through loads of laundry, dirty dishes, layers of dirt and cat hair. It means planning meals, buying groceries, separating squabbling kids, giving out Band aides, hugs, and words of advice (that are most often ignored). It means supervising, cleaning, cooking, listening, loving, teaching. So many ordinary things. Yet, that in itself becomes extraordinary, because it requires sacrifice of self. The thing is, I don't want to cook dinner for the hundredth night in a row, I don't want to sweep the floor, do the laundry, put away the millionth dish of the month. I don't want to work hard every day and feel that I've accomplished nothing, do the dishes only to have to do them again and again and again, sweep the floor and find a trail of crumbs five minutes later. Yet I do it, knowing that in so doing I am providing a wonderful environment for my children to thrive. And isn't that every mother's God-given purpose? To give her children wings so they might one day soar?

Which brings me to secret of success #2 - courage. Courage to do the same thing day after day after day, feeling as if no progress is being made, looking at words on paper, knowing there are 60,000 more left to write and setting to work writing them; courage to write the manuscript and look at it with objective eyes, to face the flaws and fix them, and then to mail it out even though we know it will never be what we want it to be; courage to embrace a God-given purpose, to find the path He's leading us on, and to stay the course even when it gets hard. Because it will be hard. Published or not, we'll always have critics. Our writing won't satisfy every reader every time, so our focus must be on pleasing the One who placed the creativity, imagination, and dream within us. We cannot be afraid to write what He puts on our heart, and we certainly can't be afraid to send it out into the world. Moreover, we cannot let fear of failure keep us from trying.

Successful writers fear rejection and criticism, but they have the courage to keep writing.

I leave you with this - Mark Twain said, "Courage is resistance of fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." I've thought about those words often in the past few months. We will always have fear. What moves us from ordinary to extraordinary, is not fearlessness, but our ability to give those fears over to God, to let Him do the worrying, while we continue the work He's given us.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Secret to writing success # 1

There's something satisfying about making lists, so I'm at it again. First, I listed rules for writing. Now, I'm listing secrets to writing success. Who knows? If we put these thing together, we might have something worth talking about!

Secrets. Who doesn't love them? As a suspense writer I'm intrigued by the word, by the mystery and unknown that it invokes. Secrets are the building blocks on which relationships can be made or broken, the backbone of wonderful myths (think Nessie and Sasquatch), compelling oral tradition, and the perfect beginning to many great novels. Secrets make life interesting, but when it comes to writing there are none. So, why title this post secret to writing success #1? Because, it seems so much more exciting than common sense writing advice or traits of successful writers or any number of variations on that theme.

So, on to the secrets.

As I've spoken with other published authors, I've found that there are certain traits we all possess. The first is imagination. Seems simple doesn't it? It's not. Imgination is a powerful thing and can lead us on a merry chase if we let it. We want to write something unique, something that hasn't been done before. In our quest to do so, we often cross the line from compelling to unbelievable. Unbelievable can be the death of a well-written manuscript.

I know what you're thinking - Monsters, Frank Peretti's newest book, or one of any of thousands of examples of stories that are so farfetched a reader could never imagine them to be reality. Stephen King is a perfect example. His stories are unbelievable. Yet when we read them, we believe. We don't stand outside the action shaking our heads and rolling our eyes, because King's characters demand that we believe. Their fears, their struggles, their pain is real and compelling. While one might argue the merit of reading such fiction, one can't deny that King paints vivid and real pictures of both the depth and heights of human emotion.

And therein lies the secret. Imagination must be tempered with reality, it must be balanced with a voice that speaks to the human condition, that vividly reflects the struggles and triumphs of the characters. Stories are believable when characters are believable, and in that respect we must box our imagination and strive for truth. To this end, character sketches are invaluable. In each scene and chapter successful authors paint an ever more compelling picture of their protagonists, leading the reader step by step to a satisfying conclusion. For this reason, imagination balanced with a vivid understanding of people is the first step to being a successful author.

So, are your characters real? Do their actions ring true as you move them from one scene to another? Will your reader believe their actions and reactions, or step back, shake her head, and be pulled out of your story?

Just something to think about on this rather gloomy Maryland day.

Friday, June 16, 2006

What Readers Want

Every author wants to know what readers want to read. While we must follow the guidelines of a particular publishing house in order to have our books picked for coveted store shelf space, what we want more than anything is for readers to find our stories to be satisfying reads. As an inspirational author this can be a particular struggle. How do we balance what we want to write with what we're told readers want to read?

I've been asking myself this question for three years. Today, I received my answer in a surprising rush of emails that began in the wee hours of the morning and continued until early this afternoon. One after another, readers responded to my books. One in particular offered such a concise outline of her thoughts on inspirational romance that I asked her permission to post it here. I'll paste it below. Please forgive me for removing one sentence, S.

Thank you for your book, When Silence Falls. My mother gets Love Inspired books regularly and passes them on to me sometimes....I enjoyed your book so much I had to tell you. I appreciate that you can portray Christians as having more realistic lives. I could not recommend a book to a non-Christian that portrays Christians as less than human, so super-spiritual that they seem to float above the bills, relationships, and difficulties of life on earth. Our values, integrity, and faith are constantly under fire. Christians are not sappy, but strong in the knowledge that we have access to wisdom, strength, guidance, confidence, and love beyond ourselves. I wish we always accessed it perfectly, but we don't. Pretending that we do is dishonest. Sometimes we get overwhelmed, tired, angry, fearful, and confused, but if we are obedient, we go to God and to other Christians for the help we need to be successful. I liked that the character of Wayne had a past that made people who loved him still wary of the propensity for weakness. I liked that you didn't immediately have Cade, as a professional, act unprofessionally, with a lot of romantic references (even in his thinking} blurring the ethical responsibility he had, though he had a prior childhood relationship with Piper. Of course, you know the boy gets the girl before you pick up the book...it's inspirational romance! I do hope you will write more in your subtle, engaging style. Thank you. S in Oklahoma

Thank you, S. You've expressed beautifully what I hear from so many readers - - give us real stories about real people who have real struggles.

I'll leave you all with this thought - if inspirational fiction does not reflect the truth of life - both its beauty and harshness - it can't ever touch the hearts and souls of those reading it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Just Do It

Personally, I hate that commercial. You know the one - skinny people jogging, jumping, exercising, and looking so fit and happy that all of us less than fit people feel like slugs. The fact that I hate the commercial doesn't mean its message isn't true. Half the battle for exercise-lacking humanity is that we think our fitness plans to death. We get up in the morning thinking about jogging (and not liking the thought), or thinking about playing a game of football with our sons (and liking that idea even less), thinking about the fifty sit-ups that will firm our abs (and abhorring that idea with every fiber of our out of shape being). Somewhere around noon, we realize we've spent half the day thinking about exercising and absolutely no time doing it. So, we spend another four hours thinking about the reasons why we spend so much time thinking and not much time doing. By the time we head to bed, we've utilized several million brain cells, but haven't moved from our front porch. Yep. I hate the commercial, but it's a good one.

What's this have to do with writing? Well, I find that many writers (myself included) spend more time thinking and talking about writing than we actually spend doing it. We're either the over-analyzing type frozen in place by our insecurity (yes, that would be me), or we're the groupie type (no offense to anyone who believes he or she may fit this), so busy with our writing groups and critique groups we don't have time for our writing. Let me preface this by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with analyzing our writing, joining critique groups, or spending time with other writers. Doing those things has the potential to make us better writers. The danger is in letting those things become the goal rather than using them as tools to reach our goals. If we spend our time planning, thinking and talking we can not achieve our potential as writers. To write well, we must write. Thus, my title - just do it.

I bring this up as a reminder to myself more than to anyone who might be reading. However, I do believe that what one of us struggles with, many are struggling with. So, I challenge you to check your schedules, mark your calendars, and set your goals. Don't be afraid to reach beyond what you think you can do. If you write for a half hour a day, challenge yourself to double that amount. If you go by word count, add a few hundred words to your goal. Push yourself to achieve the potential God has laid in the foundation of you. Then check in and tell me how things are going. I fully expect to hear great and wonderful reports!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rule#4 Write from the Heart

This is my last post on rules. Really. It is. As much as I love the idea of following rules and finding success by doing so, rules are only parameters by which we can measure how fluent our stories are. To me, the key to good writing lies not in an ability to follow rules, but in an ability to write from the heart.

Case in point, I've got four books out. Three of them got great reviews. One did not. I've gotten great reader response on that less-than-stellarly-reviewed book, I've had many people tell me it was their favorite thus far, but the fact remains - in my mind it fell flat. I fought that story from page one to the end. I was so busy worrying about rules and guidelines that I forgot the most important element of writing - heart.

What is heart? It's that indefinable force that compels a reader to keep turning pages, that not-so-easy-to-define something that makes characters leap from the book and into the minds and souls of those who are reading. It's what is achieved when a writer lets go of preconceived ideas about what works and what doesn't and writes what is clamoring to be written. It's what happens when we trust ourselves and our abilities, our talents and our gifts. Some people call it writing in the zone. I call it writing with passion.

So, last rule - write your first draft with passion and heart. Then go back and apply whatever list of rules and guidelines you're working with. In that way, you'll better express your individual style and voice. And in the end, those things are what will carry your story.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Rule #3 Know Your Characters

Your characters are the thread by which you knit your story together. A great beginning, good plot, and outstanding pacing are nothing without appealing characters who stay true to themselves throughout your story. Knowing your characters before you write will enable you to create seamless transitions as your hero and heroine move from who they are at the beginning of the story, to who they will be at the end. This growth arc is vital to creating a believable and enjoyable read. Just as our struggles help shape our personality and character, our hero and heroine should be learning and growing as they face whatever obstacles we put in their way. Without such transformation, they become stagnant and unappealing.

Creating believable, enjoyable characterization isn't always easy. To ensure a flawless growth arc, begin characterization well before you write the first line of your story. Jot down descriptions of your hero and heroine, including not just physical attributes, but emotional ones. The past will be an important part of this. What shaped your characters' feelings about life, about the opposite sex, about marriage, family, his or her own moral code? What makes her so independent? What makes him so sure he'll never marry? How does each scene change that perspective? These changes may be subtle, but they must be there. Even as our characters struggle against their attraction for one another, they must also be drawing closer to one another.

If you're not writing romance, the same holds true. Most women's fiction is about relationships. Mother-daughter, sister-sister, daughter-father, best friends. Who are your characters to one another and how does their perspective of that relationship change as your story progresses?

Happy ending or not, your story must reflect the beauty of humanity, the complexity of interpersonal relationships, and the satisfaction that comes from accepting others for who they are, not what we want them to be. In doing this, you will touch the heart of those who read your work and draw them back for more.