Friday, April 30, 2010
Still, there is grace. Grace to serve. Grace to love. Grace to wait for the sunshine.
When I was a little girl my aunt had a poem hanging above her big claw-footed bathtub. I read it over and over. Loved it. Held it to my heart:
People are like stained-glass windows
They glow and sparkle when it's sunny and bright
But when the sun goes down
Their true beauty is revealed
Only if there is a light from within.
In 2008 when my husband almost died from a serious heart blockage and a bunch of other stuff hit our family, I struggled. I so wanted people to see Jesus in me. I wanted to show the world that even though life was hard, I still loved my Lord and thought Him beautiful.
Today I feel the same. Watching the pain my children have been through this month (major surgery, a broken bone, two painful break-ups, the lists goes on) and caring around the clock for my eldest boy whose independence has been stripped away as he relies upon us to even get in or out of bed, has taken its toll. I struggle.
And yet I want to be my Father's daughter. I want His light within me to shine and draw others to faith.
The problem is I'm so . . . HUMAN. I never seem to handle these things the way I wish I did. The creative melancholy within me plumbs the depths of the pain. After several nights of little sleep I'm not always a nice person. And I find it's been hard to write encouraging spiritual words when I'm drained of energy.
I want to be superhero Paula, woman of God who leaps past life's storms with a single bound. Instead I'm just plain ole me. Paula who cries out to the Lord to make her faithful no matter what.
And maybe in that tiny little thing, some light leaks out. Just when I think I'm not shining at all something happens to show me He is still being seen. The other day my son said his dad and I were his latest heroes. You don't hear that from a seventeen-year-old too often. Maybe all that lifting his injured leg, bringing him food, and commiserating with him is showing Jesus after all.
When writing the spiritual thread in our novel, perhaps this is the key to reach out and massage the hearts of our readers. Instead of superheroes, we write real people who don't always react the way they want to. Instead of faces set like flint, mouths that spout "hallelujah," and emotions that never seem raw, we write characters who are human, yet whose light leaks out even when they don't think is.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
As I sit here trying to figure out what to write, I think of the times I had no problem sitting down and writing on paper what was in my heart. When I was a young girl, the opening lines began with something like “Once upon a time…” As I jumped into my teen years, it switched to “He broke my heart…” Still, each story/poem always spilled from a place deep inside me like an overturned bottle of ink.
So why do I find it so hard to write like that, now that I’m “grown up?”
Whether it be story, poem, article, or blog, writing deep usually means dredging up emotions I’m not quite sure I’m ready to handle. So I swim on the surface.
Don’t get me wrong…there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are a lot of nice things to see when you’re swimming on the surface: the sky, the horizon, tropical islands—stuff like that. But when you dive deep, you experience beauty and wonder that is foreign to surface swimmers. There are colors and textures that God has hidden below the foam, held in check by the buoyancy that only diving deep can reveal.
When we allow the Holy Spirit to become the deep current—the spiritual thread—in our writing, we find ourselves face-to-face with wonders we never imagined. Sure, sometimes we might encounter a sea monster or two, but when that happens we can find peace in knowing He is right beside us, willing to be our champion. And it is there, within the profound aquamarine tranquility of His presence, that our true writing journey begins.
That touched my very soul
It bore the mark of majesty
And ancient days of ol'.
From hand to pen and back again
The depth Your heart did share
Dove deep into the waters
Revealing treasurers rare.
Awake my soul! so I may write
The words He has for me
This golden thread His Spirit weaves
Beneath the foam of sea.
("Below the Foam" by J. N. Hups)
Monday, April 26, 2010
The problem is, I live in mortal dread of . . . I’m gonna whisper it so it doesn’t sound so scary . . . preaching.
Ack! Run away! Run away!
Seriously, I think preaching should be afforded the same status as telling in our critique groups. That is, whenever it crops up in a manuscript, critiquers should circle it, highlight it, cross it out, draw skulls and crossbones in the margins, and otherwise call attention to its horribleness.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, torturing myself by reliving instances of preaching in my own writing. Inevitably my wincing and cringing leads to dramatic vows never to smack my reader in the forehead with a . . . wait for it . . . Important Lesson.
But how do we avoid the detested P-word in our writing?
My critique group suggestion was not completely insincere. I’m blessed to be in two fabulous critique groups, and members of those groups have called me out on preachiness. One critiquer in particular—whose authenticity as a Christ follower I find compelling—won’t hesitate to raise the red flag when I lapse into Christianese. He seems to have a radar for it, so I highly respect his opinion. As with other bad habits in our writing, sometimes another reader can see it more clearly than we can.
If we’d like to stop extraneous preaching in our manuscript before we get to critique group, I suggest applying Jeff Gerke’s formula for when to use exposition. You can find this in his book The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction.
“. . . your reader can tolerate telling to the degree that she is interested in what is being told and to the degree that the story can’t advance without the information.” (The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, 185)
To me this means that if I’m going to include an outright reference to God, Scripture, or Christian doctrine, I better have earned that moment by making my readers care enough about my character and story to tolerate an undisguised message and by making that principle integral to the plot.
In case you’re wondering how I choose to weave a spiritual thread into my writing—I try to let it happen organically. Is that an oxymoron? TRY to LET it happen. As I brainstorm a novel, a spiritual theme presents itself. For the last novel I wrote, the theme was ‘to love is to serve.’ For the novel I’m working on now, the theme is forgiveness. As I write, opportunities arise for my characters to experience events that relate to those themes.
As my characters move through their arcs, I seek to develop my theme and hopefully leave my readers with a glimpse of one small aspect of the character of God or a deeper understanding of our continual need for Jesus.
That’s my approach. Sometimes I’m too subtle. Sometimes I need the megaphone wrested from my hands.
Evangeline Denmark has storytelling on her heart and in her blood. The daughter of novelist, Donita K. Paul, Evangeline grew up living and breathing good stories. She has co-authored two children’s books which are under contract with Waterbrook Press and also writes adult fiction. Evangeline is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers, serving as chapter secretary.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
So I guess whatever I said wasn't that important. I'll try again :)
I was going to give you an idea of what encourages me, but that's gone into cyberspace. I was going to encourage you to deepen your relationship with God so that He will shine forth in your writing -- zapped.
Instead, I'm going to ask for feedback.
Now, my husband asks for feedback when he doesn't have a clue what to do -- "Honey, if you could do anything at all for your birthday, what would you want to do?" or something to that effect. I figured his ploy out quickly, especially when my answers showed up on my birthday.
However, in this case, I really want to know what encourages you to keep on writing. What keeps you going through the rejections, the re-writes, the long tedious hours of writing? Where do you get your ideas? How do you reconcile your writing with your faith? How do you weave faith into your writing without sounding like a sermon?
I'll share my answers to the above questions:
1. The story is in there and it has to come out.
2. I understand rejection just means I haven't found the right editor yet.
3. Re-writes always make the story better.
4. I'd rather write than work a regular job. Now, that's tedious.
5. I get the ideas from where ever I can find them -- the newspaper, conversations, television shows, books I've read.
6. My writing mirrors my faith life, I think -- most often my characters are not always nice people, are confused about their future, pained by their past, and wish their present belonged to someone else.
7. Now, that one I struggle with. I want the reader to get it right away, so I'm not always subtle. Kind of like I am in real life. I hate getting hit over the head with a two-by-four when I've made a mistake, and so I'm really working on not doing that to my characters.
Now, it's your turn. I really do want to hear. And if your answer turns up in the mouth of one of my characters somewhere down the road, well -- thanks.
Monday, April 19, 2010
So often, you hear that you must "write a good story" in order to sell it. But there is so much more to the challenge than that. And in Christian fiction, you get to add that third element combined with physical and emotional. The spiritual thread.
Like Kathy Kovach, my books so far have been published through Barbour's Heartsong Presents line. They not only require a Scripture verse that embodies the story, but when you write the synopsis, the spiritual thread must be obvious and show progression/resolution. For some, that might sound easy, but for me, it's not always the case.
See, I grew up in a Christian home, going to church every week, memorizing Bible verses and learning what it meant to be a "good Christian girl." Unfortunately, I relied too much on the status quo and became complacent in my faith. As a result, the stories I wrote fell into that pit too. My characters were only two-dimensional, and their experiences didn't resonate with readers. My books needed a major overhaul. But what could I do?
The answer? Get back to the basics and find the real source of my joy and faith again.
Let me tell you, it's humbling to admit that you've been saved your entire life and been a follower of Christ for over 25 years, yet you have trouble defining your spirituality in a way that makes it easy to see from an outside perspective. And since I had pretty much become detached from that part of my life, everything I wrote showed it.
But there IS a good ending to this story. I promise. :) Just when I needed it most, my church was beginning a study on "Back to the Basics." It wasn't only a sermon series, but also adult Bible studies, small groups and special classes offered. So, I took advantage of what I could and committed myself to digging deeper and discovering the true passion of my heart. As a result, I not only connected again with God in a more personal manner, but I became aware of my own spiritual highs and lows. And that allowed me to see them in my characters.
Of course, now I had to go back and revise my books to add that spiritual thread. Once I did, the characters fairly jumped off the page at me with realism. The true proof in the pudding didn't come until the book was published, though. So, I waited with baited breath for the first reviews to come back once the book released. And when the first one came, I almost didn't click on it to read it. But curiosity won out, and I did.
And I was blown away.
I'll share it with you here:
"Amber is truly one of the strongest historical romance writers I've read in years. I just finished this book, and I'm thrilled with it! I told a friend, "It's the perfect blend of story, history and spiritual truth" and it's beautifully written, to boot! Sometimes historicals (as a whole) don't hold my attention, or the reader tries too hard to impress with historical lingo/tidbits. But in this case, I found myself caught up in the action right away and also found the story very believable. I could relate to both the hero and the heroine. And I love the way Amber presents the spiritual elements. She uses analogies. Great symbolism. Very subtle, and yet very effective. The heroine is led (quite gently)to the Lord by the hero. It's not at all manipulative. Believable. Real. And poignant. I can't say enough about Amber! Wow! This is her first book? Pretty amazing, when you think about it. Some of us write for years to get to this quality. Kudos, Amber! I can't wait to read the next one. And the next. And the next!" ~Janice Thompson, Double-Booked Reviews
And there you have it! Mission: Success. Lesson learned.
My writing has become ten times stronger, and the spiritual truths have only deepened my stories and added that bonus third element to help them resonate with readers. It's a good thing God is patient and forgiving and keeps teaching us the lessons we need to learn. Otherwise, we'd all be up a creek without a paddle. :)
Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since she was a child. Today, she is an author, online marketing specialist and freelance web site designer who lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart. They have 1 daughter and a border collie. She has sold eight books so far to Barbour Publishing, is a columnist for the ACFW e-zine and writes other articles as well. Read more about her at her web site: http://www.amberstockton.com/.
Friday, April 16, 2010
I couldn’t argue. They were right. I had been trained as a journalist—taught to remain objective and unbiased. Because of this, my characters’ spiritual journeys— their quests to fulfill their hidden needs—felt stilted, predictable, and … I hate to say it … preachy.
I love to hear my pastor preach a good sermon in church, but I don’t enjoy reading sermons in novels. And yet there I was, writing mini sermons every time my characters happened to get themselves into difficult situations. The common thread in my proud collection of rejections inspired me to buy a book so I could learn how to create compelling emotion in a story while weaving a faith element into the plot and characters. Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias was actually written for screenwriters, but I highly recommend that every storyteller read it in order to learn the art of conveying emotion.
One of the most important things I learned from this book was that we don’t need to explain faith or God or salvation to our readers. We need to show them examples in a character with whom they’re connected. Our characters’ purpose is not to preach to our readers, their purpose is to build a relationship with our readers and invite them to participate in an experience.
As Iglesias says in his book, “Preaching is frowned upon in dramatic writing because it’s telling. Most writers know that they should ‘show, not tell.’ Show your theme in action, and make the reader feel instead of telling him. You do this by dramatizing your deepest beliefs about human beings and the best way to live their lives” (39).
This concept changed the way I write. I realized I could let my characters live their lives. I could let them mess up. I could let them make the wrong decision. No. Let me rephrase that. I had to let them. If I had not made so many mistakes in my past, if I had not experienced darkness and pain, I would not know the pure joy and freedom that is found in redemption. And the same is true for our characters. Instead of fighting those things in my writing, I started to embrace them. I’m learning how to get emotionally involved in my stories.
“We learn best when we’re emotionally involved, not when we’re lectured. Great movies teach us about life while moving us emotionally. The more meaningful the theme, the deeper the emotions.” (40).
As writers who are also Christians, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to write stories with meaning. For me, developing a spiritual thread in my novels has been about learning how to deepen my characters’ emotions and invite the reader into their experience. This means leaving out a lot of jargon. It means reliving some of my own pain through their struggles. It means showing the darkness so our readers can walk with our characters into the light.
A lifelong storyteller, Sara Richardson is passionate about communicating reasons for hope. Previously she has been an advertising copywriter, an Internet communications manager, and a whitewater rafting guide. In addition to writing fiction, Sara has published nonfiction articles in parenting and family magazines. As a member of MOPS International, Sara enjoys speaking to moms’ groups. She earned a master’s degree in journalism from Regent University. Visit her at www.momstories.org.
Monday, April 12, 2010
I remember walking with a friend to junior high school and asking her, “Is this all there is? We get up, go to school, go home, sleep and do it all over again. Is this all there is to life?” Years later I would be reminded of that moment when I heard the song by Steven Curtis Chapman, “More to This Life”. I grew up going to a church where I didn’t clearly hear the message of the Gospel and yet, the Holy Spirit was nudging my heart and awakening me to the truth that there was more to this life.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “...He also has planted eternity in men’s hearts and minds [a divinely implanted sense of a purpose working through the ages which nothing under the sun but God alone can satisfy], yet so that men cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Amplified)
At last week’s Mile High Scribes meeting, Denise Holmes spoke on “The Moral Premise” based on the book of the same name by Stanley Williams. She shared how if a story doesn’t connect emotionally with the audience (reader), it is unsatisfying. Based on the above scripture, we can reason that without “eternity” in our stories, they also will be unsatisfying.
What do we mean by “eternity” or something “eternal”? As Christian writers this sparks many a debate as to whether we should write stories with scripture verses and a clear message of the Gospel or if we can have the messages of unconditional love, redemption and forgiveness without specifically getting into the person of Christ.
I believe the answer is found in what God has called you to write. For a book to resonate with believers and unbelievers, the common thread is the truth that God has planted eternity in our hearts. Whether we have reached the point in our lives where we recognize that “only God can satisfy” that vacuum or if we are still seeking to fill that gnawing hole with material things, other relationships or power. This is the “spiritual thread” that can be in our characters no matter who we are writing for.
I encourage you first of all to be sure that you understand personally what it means to have God satisfy the eternity in your heart. This is something that is more than a single decision, but as others have shared this month, an ongoing commitment to spending time with our Creator. He can fill the deepest longings of our heart and equip us to better understand how to convey that to our audience.
Elaine Clampitt is Secretary/Treasurer of Mile High Scribes, the ACFW South Denver Chapter. After homeschooling her 4 children, serving as Treasurer of a private high school, and owning her own company for 10 years, Elaine is now enjoying the "empty-nest" season of her life by pursuing her passion for writing and ice hockey. She is excited that the Colorado Avalanche made the play-offs this year.
Elaine will be speaking at next month's Mile High Scribes meeting on "Embrace the Vision." For more information see www.milehighscribes.blogspot.com. You can learn more about women in the world of ice hockey at www.thewomenof hockey.com.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Seems like God's people are dealing with a lot of struggle these days. Broken relationships, crushing financial burdens, health issues, and a plethora of other hardships are pulling upon our reserves. Many of my friends are plain ole tired.
My personal journey has been much the same. The Refiner's fire has been almost relentless for the last several years. If I made a list of all I've dealt with you guys would probably show up at my house with a truck-load of chocolate. Then again if you were really honest with me, I bet I'd need to share my stash.
Many of us have been fighting the good fight harder than we've ever fought it before. If we were to look at the spiritual thread of the last few years of our lives, we'd see a reoccurring theme: stretching, stretching, stretching . . . and I don't know about you, but flexing all those spiritual muscles has sometimes left me aching and worn. And as a writer that dry crust feeling has often manifested itself in lack of creativity and productivity, which of course makes me feel even more empty inside because my passion lies latent.
Renewal is essential for anyone, but for a writer it is paramount. Here are some things that have helped me as I've navigated stormy waters that toss me upon a rocky shores and leave me there to shrivel up.
- Know and Rely on the Love God Has for You. God is Love. The most important epiphany of the last five years of my life sounds quite simple, yet it is profound: Knowing and relying on God's love really is the foundation of life and the only road to survival. I can only stand in the storm when my roots go down deep into the soil of God's love. When everything else crashes around me, God's love remains steady and sure. We really cannot lose His love. And it really is enough.
- Be Playful As much as I've not wanted to be the person who faces hard times by gutting them out, I've fallen prey to that method of survival. There is some merit to putting on your game face and just getting through the hurricane. But in seasons of long-term struggle, we have to play. While I've believed this for some time, I'm often not very good at living it. But last year at the Colorado Christian Writer's Conference (CCWC), I had the opportunity to attend a clinic called The Joy Of Unblocked Creativity.* Guess what many of the assignments included? Play. I made sand art. I did drama. I danced. I put on dress up clothes. And guess what? Back in my room between sessions words began to flow. Beautiful, creative fiction appeared on my screen after a year of not being able to create that type of writing. Since the clinic I've begun writing a new genre where I can be more playful. I sense God saying to lay aside some of my deeper writing for a while and lighten up! The season He's called me to walk through requires a lot of emotional stamina. And right now I don't need my writing to plum the depths of my soul. I need for it to help me giggle--and just maybe when it's done it'll do the same for someone else.
- Build in Margin Anne Lamont once said, "If you want to be an artist you have to have time to stare out the window." I take her thoughts a step further. If you want to be an artist who represents God's heart, you have to have time to stare out the window, yes, but you also need time to stare into the Savior's face. Create white space so both your spirit and your artistic soul can experience, not just navigate, life. Do it every day. Plop yourself in a chair with a cup of tea and just sit. Make time for spiritual disciplines, but rest in them. Instead of doing, doing, doing, allow time to listen and process. And find creative ways to have extended white space. Last year I was completely worn-out when I left for CCWC. I needed desperately to disconnect from life's demands. I often found myself wrapped in a blanket on the tiny little deck outside my room during that conference. I just sat there and stared at the sky. I drank in smells of spring and let the breeze tease my hair. I felt the sunshine on my bare toes as they peeked from beneath the blanket. Sometimes I prayed, sang or read my Bible. But a lot of the time I just WAS.
- Cut the Unnecessary Drama. Frankly my life is one big soap opera these days. I've had enough bleakest moments in my family to bring several novels to their climax. I don't have time or energy to spin my wheels in unnecessary drama--I've got enough of the real kind.
- Discern Who and What Gets Priority In this season I've had to be intentional about my priorities. It's meant cutting out some really good things and backing away from some relationships, but only by doing that can I give myself to the people and responsibilities God has led me to.
- Intercede There has been SO much junk that I've had absolutely no ability to change, control or shape in the last few years. I can't fix the pain my loved ones and I have had to navigate. But I can pray. In prayer my inadequacies give wing to God's adequacy. My lack of control gives way to His sovereignty. My desire for change coupled with a complete inability to bring it about gives way to mountain moving prayer and deepening faith that trusts HIS methods instead of my own. Prayer is a refuge. A peaceful place. A safe trust.
- Cultivate Your Prayer Buddies. I wouldn't have survived the last three years if it weren't for a tight circle of praying friends who've proven trustworthy, who hear my heart, and who stand with me in prayer. It's as simple as that.
* If you're feeling like dried out crust, consider taking a time out and signing up for the Unblocked Creativity Clinic at the Colorado Christian Writer's Conference. Here's a testimonial from an attendee from last year: I came to the 2009 CCWC emptied of creativity and heavy with the burdens of the past year. The Lord sent me to the Unblocked Creativity Clinic. There He asked me to play, to process, and to praise. Back in my room I wrote fiction for the first time in over a year. The words started coming again, more beautiful than before. I left the conference with renewed hope and energy. (Okay, okay, so that attendee was yours truly.)
A writer, speaker, and homeschooling mother of four, Paula Moldenhauer is passionate about God’s grace and intimacy with Jesus. Her website, Soul Scents, offers devotional thoughts, and you can visit her blog at GraceReign. Paula serves as president of HIS Writers, the north Denver ACFW chapter. A devoted Pride and Prejudice fan, she loves good conversation, peppermint ice cream, and walking barefoot. Her greatest desire is to be close enough to Jesus to live His fragrance.
Monday, April 5, 2010
I sometimes don't know what the verse will be until I dig into the story, get to know my characters a little better and see their fears, their goals, their dreams. But once I have the verse, I make sure the story is filtered through it.
In Merely Players, (Available in the 3-1 Florida Weddings,) the verse is, "O Lord, Thou hast searched me, and known me." --Psalm 139:1
Again, the main characters must come to terms with this verse. Their inner struggles happen when they go against it, when they refuse to forgive.
The heroine, Meranda, wants to do things her own way, follow the path of her own choosing rather than God's.
The spiritual thread is not only the way we minister in our stories, it helps us maintain a strong character arc, so that our people start at one end of the thread, but make their way to the other--stronger for it.
Kathleen E. Kovach is an award winning author, leader of the local critique group JOY Writers, and the Rocky Mountain Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers. A mom and grandmother, she lives in northeast Colorado with her husband of over three decades. Visit her online: www.craftcinema.blogspot.com, www.kathleenekovach.blogspot.com, www.KathleenEKovach.com.
Friday, April 2, 2010
If you haven’t already, please check out the information about the retreat on our events page. We’d love to see you there!!
As Christian writers we hold a great responsibility to proclaim the Word of God through our stories, whether we write fiction or nonfiction. Jesus reminded us that to those who have been given much, much more will be required. Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we are to be prepared and ready to give an answer of the hope that lies within us whenever we are asked about it.
But biblical literacy is at an all-time low. Even among those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Yet including a spiritual thread in our stories isn’t a “new” concept.
In Mark chapter 4, Jesus explained why He used to story to convey His message: “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight. These are people—
Whose eyes are open but don't see a thing,
Whose ears are open but don't understand a word,
Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
He continued, “Do you see how this story works? All my stories work this way.” (Mark 4:11–13 The Message)
Many people who won’t open the Bible to learn who Jesus is will read a book. And if the writer is a Christian who desires to impart God’s love and message to those who read their stories, the biblical worldview will show up in them. I believe it should be a natural outflow of their spiritual walk with the Lord.
Because as Jesus also said, “These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.” (Luke 6:47 The Message)
Marjorie Geary Vawter is the ACFW Colorado Area Coordinator. Having the Word of God as a firm foundation for life is her passion, and is the topic of the upcoming ACFW Colorado retreat.