Posted in Christian Fiction, Writing

This Work In Progress: A Writer’s Perspective

First Draft Cover for my next novel
First Draft Cover for my next novel

When I taught college freshmen English, a lifetime ago, we used a textbook titled, Works in Progress.  The concept was that any writing is a process of planning, researching, planning some more, writing, editing, and editing, and editing.  We would require multiple drafts of the same paper from our students.  We emphasized group critiquing to help them find their own mistakes better once they had the easier practice of seeing the mistakes in somebody else’s writing.

In other words, if they learned nothing else, the students learned that writing is most definitely a serious business.  But they also learned that writing is a fluid one too.  I would remind them that even published poets have been known to interrupt a reading to correct a word and explain that the next time that particular poem was published, the poem would be “corrected.”

Mark Twain put it this way: “Find the right word, not its second cousin.”

Admittedly, my blog posts are thoughts I have prayerfully crafted to convey thoughts I feel the Holy Spirit has laid on my heart to share, but there is an immediacy to blogging that doesn’t lend itself to the laying aside of a finished draft for the needed perspective that makes for truly great editing.

My fiction writing is different.  Once I complete a novel, I have to let it set for a while before returning to it.  I need the “this is my baby, so it must be perfect” feelings to wear off so I can more truly see the novel for what it is.

I know that there are as many ways to craft a novel as there are people out there trying to do it.  Of course, there are core truths to a good story that any good novel should have.  If you are new to writing, you should study the kinds of novels or writing you want to do to help you determine those elements and patterns.

Of course, my master’s degree in English is with an emphasis on creative writing.  I have even taught creative writing at the sophomore level at university.  But, I always have new things to learn about improving this craft that I love.

My latest draft is a spin-off of my last novel, The Texas Stray.  It is giving me fits because it covers themes and characters that are outside my comfort zone and experience.  One character does not know Christ.  Another is on the path to finding Christ again.  The novel covers issues like divorce, alcoholism, and adultery because some of my characters are truly broken.  My goal is to create a story that shows how God unbreaks us.

There are questions that keep me up at night about this draft.  Can I do some of these subjects justice?  I am not experienced first-hand with the three issues I just mentioned (by the grace of God).  My main hope is to tell God’s truth about these types of things without being judgmental or insensitive.  I know it can be done because I have known people who have survived these things and held on to their belief or found their belief in the Creator.

My other worry is how I have labeled my novels so far.  I call them Christian Fiction because God is at the core of the writing I do.  However, do I mislead?  In other words, even though it is possible to grow up in a household where people don’t curse or get divorced or cheat at Monopoly (I know because I grew up in such a household), is it wrong to call a novel a Christian novel if some of the characters are not so good?  What if even your main character says a bad word or makes a dumb decision?

These questions are especially perplexing to me with my latest draft because my main characters are really fallen people in a fallen world who have a hard time finding their ways to redemption.  They have material distractions, a wavering moral compass, and holes in their souls they don’t even know how to define, much less fill.  In other words, I am telling a story that is largely overshadowed by what not to do.  Does that make it a less Christian novel in some way?

As I begin the true editing process of this work, I have narrowed down the overriding themes of my first draft.  Do I have too many or are they closely-related enough to work together?  Most importantly, how do I integrate God’s answers to my characters’ struggles without it seeming to be “preachy” instead of being woven naturally into the narrative?

These are not questions I expect anyone to answer for me.  I have to answer them myself.  I offer them here as a peek through the looking glass that is the writer’s process.  It is a laborious task with very little benefit at the end of it for most. (There can be only so many Francine Rivers or Tracie Petersons out there.)  But, I do it anyway because I feel compelled to write.

My goal is not to eventually quit my day job.  My thought is that I will continue to labor in full faith that God will get His message to the people He put me here to use this talent to get the message to.  That’s why I write a blog as often as I feel I have something to contribute.  That’s why I spend my free time sweating over storylines and characters knowing that the finished work will be something I publish myself, my only hopeful goal the other-worldly one we all seek, that of the Father blessing our final journey with these two words: “Well done.”

Like the essays my college freshmen grudgingly turned into their overworked TA so many years ago, this life of mine is too a work in progress.  Thank YOU for joining me for part of the journey.  This yoke we share is not a heavy one, according to the ONE WHO SAVES.  May your burdens this day be light.

In Christ,
Ramona

Posted in Christian Fiction, Christian Living

A Name In Lights or In the Light?

Broadway
Only by losing the self do we truly see our “names in lights.”

I don’t mind if you have something nice to say about me . . . . I want to leave a legacy.

Nichole Nordeman’s song, “Legacy,” explores the concept that God’s idea of success is not the world’s idea of success.  Being a fan and knowing the depth of her writing, I can well imagine that this piece is as much a warning to Nichole herself as it is to the listener, for in it, she expresses her great desire to shine the Light of God instead of her own light:

I won’t lie, it feels alright to see your name in lights
We all need an ‘Atta boy’ or ‘Atta girl’
But in the end I’d like to hang my hat on more besides
The temporary trappings of this world.

The legacy Nichole defines in the remainder of the song is very specific: choosing love, pointing to God so that His mark is left on the good she does, leaving offerings out of her abundance, living mercy and grace, and praising God without worrying about what others might think about her.  In other words, Nichole defines legacy as a true life lived in Christ, being so committed to shining His light, that our ego or pride gets pushed aside so that God always comes first.

At first, living this way may seem like we have placed our ego on a chair, waiting for an outing that will never happen again.  Our egos feel deflated and cast aside.  But, at the same time, when we see our egos laid out in this way, we see them for the pathetic things they are.  For, what is more lonely than a ball gown and an empty pair of slippers, lying like the promise of something that will never really be as wonderful as one might have imagined?

When we empty ourselves of ourselves, we make room for Love, for the Holy Spirit to fill us and shine for others in a world of darkness.  We are calm, strong, patient, merciful, and we always know peace.

This putting aside of the ego is a hard, life-long practice, however.  It takes discipline to face each day knowing you plan to pay attention to your inner thoughts, your words, your actions.  What motivates you?  What does your self-talk revolve around?  Are you concerned about being right because it makes you feel better, or are you looking out for what is the rightness of God’s truth, which begins with love and compassion?

Working on my writing is also an act of fighting the ego.  I must constantly hold myself to a standard that seeks to shine the right kind of Light.  If all I want is to see my name in lights, i.e. write the “great American novel,” then I am no better than any other humanist who has attempted to make herself feel better about herself because somehow I have couched my endeavors in the lingo of making the world a better place.  But, if I really believe that God has given me a certain ability with words in order to serve Him, then I have to keep praying that my ego doesn’t get in the way of the messages He wants me to send.

I also have to fight the desire to hole myself up in a corner and write all the time instead of doing some of the other things that a life in Christ requires.  Love, mercy, patience, and offerings are not exactly accomplished through written words on the internet or in a book.  Balancing the talents God gives us to work for His good is a daily act of saying no to the ego so that our choices are based on God’s needs (which is most often the needs of others) instead of our own wants.

Nichole sums it up best:

Just want to hear instead, “well done, good and faithful one;”
No, I don’t mind if you have something nice to say about me.

Posted in Christian Fiction, Christian Living, Christianity

Thoughts on Receiving

The old saying, “give as good as you get,” isn’t exactly a Christian one.  It implies taking retribution into our own hands, not allowing God to be the one who metes out justice.  Secondly, it is the complete opposite of the Golden Rule, totally denying the thing that matters most, which is love.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love,” Paul tells us.  “But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

But I was reminded recently not only of the importance of giving love to others, but of being a good receiver of love as well.  For some of us, it is harder to be a receiver than a giver.  Whether we are like Martha, so caught up in the details of the thing that we forget the main reason we gathered in the first place, or are just so addicted to control that we don’t think anything can be done right unless we are on top of it, we fail to open our arms and release that control long enough to receive the help or encouragement or compliments that other people are trying to give us.

My most recent reminders about the blessing of receiving have come in the form of well wishes from those who know me well and have heard about my recent troubles with my oldest cat.  Unfortunately, I had to take her to her last vet visit a week ago.  That, if you haven’t already experienced a similar situation, is a rough thing to do.

Fortunately for me, I am surrounded by understanding people who have sympathized with my sorrow.  One of my friends even got me a beautiful flower arrangement!  Feeling God’s love through the kindness of these people has been a real blessing that makes me want to reach out to others as well.

Another reminder about being open to God’s love and the love of others came in the form of taking  the time to actually stick around after my exercise class to talk to the other people who had come to class.  Before class, I had had an up and down day.  By the time class came around, I was mostly on the down side of things.  When class was over, I was my usual tired, sweaty self.  But, then the magic began to happen.

First, I saw a person who used to be on the same workout schedule as me but that I had not seen for some time.  When she asked how I had been, I decided to share a little more than just the usual, “OK.”  Then, another classmate took up the conversation with me and asked me to sit down.  I started to listen more than talk as this person filled me in on some of the challenges she had faced throughout her life, recurring dental problems that were really crazy.  As I continued to listen more than I talked, I was impressed by her upbeat attitude despite her extraordinary challenges.  By the time I left the workout center, I was feeling more upbeat just because I had had the chance to listen to what this woman had had to say and how positive she was about the challenges she was facing.

The only thing I wish I had done was take a moment to thank my workout “friend” for sharing.  I hope that she received as much from giving as I did from receiving.

God has so much He is willing to give to us.  How often do we fail to receive, even from Him?  David is a perfect example of one who understood the importance of being a good receiver.  Over and over in his psalms, he implores God to bless him with forgiveness, escape from his enemies, or just peace.  He thanks God in advance for the gifts David is sure God will give, even to those who don’t deserve it, especially since none of us deserve it.  And David is bountiful in his praise of God, exhalting God’s goodness and power and love for us.

If we could only see ourselves through God’s eyes, the bare truth of all our sin and all the love He has for us anyway, how much better would we be at extending love to everyone else around us?  None of us are free of mistakes.  We all deserve the same chance to repent, to build our faith, to give and receive love that we give ourselves all the time.  Why can’t we just extend it to everyone else?

Maybe it begins with being more open to receiving the love that is offered to us, especially the love that God offers.  The better we are at receiving, the better we’re going to get at giving love, not just to God, but especially to those around us.  What a wonderful way to shine His light!

And speaking of shining His light, I found out yesterday that the two novels I donated to my local library finally finished the review process and are on the shelves!  One of them was even checked out.  Since I am trying to write the kind of fiction that helps readers build a stronger relationship with God, I am so excited that I was able to make my books available to people in this way.  Now, God can do the work He intends to do with my writing, whether it be a lot or a little, in people’s lives.

Thank YOU so much for taking the time to read my blog and help me in my quest to share God’s love with others.  It is so much better to be writing to a live audience than feeling like the tree falling in an empty forest, wondering if it makes a sound.

Posted in Christian Fiction, Writers, Writing

Is There Art in This Fiction?

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This apparent sketch of a domestic kitty cat isn’t actually a sketch at all. It is a picture I took of my feisty critter with a digital, “dummy” camera when he had snuggled himself under the blanket thrown over a chair. I was able to convert the picture at a great website called photofunia.com, which you can use for non-commercial effects such as this. In other words, what appears as decent art is in fact a picture I can really take no credit for.

The act of writing, whether it be a blog, a newspaper story, or fiction, should always strive to be a work of art, crafted with much consideration of word choice, phrasing, rhythm and meaning. It is not something where one can claim, “they have an APP for that!”

Even those of us who give the credit for any writing goodness to God have to work to stay in touch with the whispering of the Spirit in us that leads, hopefully, to the message of Light He would have us give.

It occurs to me that this blog, which I began mainly because I was self-publishing my fiction, has become something else entirely. I named it “GoodChristianFiction” because I hoped that people looking for Christian novels to read might stumble upon this title and be intrigued enough to check out my books.

Instead, my blog is most often about my own questions about living a Christian lifestyle. Of course, if truth be told, the messages I blatantly write in my blog are the same messages I am trying to convey more subtly in my works of fiction.

I am thankful that more of you than I imagined have found interest in what I’ve had to say. I hope that in the coming year, I continue to listen to the Holy Spirit and, hopefully, convey the messages God would have me convey. But, you may also see a little more posts on the art of fiction, this craft of loving words and wanting to share the unique ways you have found to put them together. I do have a graduate degree in the subject, after all, so one would hope I’d have something valid to add to the “fiction” conversation.

Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote:

Easy reading is d—m hard writing.

Hemingway claimed that the first draft of anything was garbage. Mark Twain cautioned to find the right word, not its second cousin. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, offers advice about writing that is perhaps best:

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

So, in this thankful season, let us all be thankful to we writers who have chosen to write our words instead of hoarding them. Perhaps, in this way, we are focusing our treasure in heaven where all things of true love, like real art, abound.

Posted in Christian Fiction, Faith, Love

Thank GOD we don’t get what we deserve

Goodchristianfiction need versus deserve

Our Father’s mercy and generosity toward us has not been what we deserved, but what we desperately needed. Surely, then, those who have received such grace are called upon to deal with others, not on the basis of what they deserve, but what they need.
–Paul Earnhart, Invitation to a Spiritual Revolution, p. 136

If God gave you what you deserved, what would your judgment day look like? If you had to live every day of this life knowing you were going to get exactly what you deserve when you pass into the next life, how would your perspective on living change?

These are the questions that popped into my mind as I read Earnhart’s section on the Golden Rule in his book about the Sermon on the Mount. I also realized that, too many days, I subconsciously work off a different definition of deserve, the one in which I see the world through the rose-colored glasses where my sin does not keep me from thinking I deserve better things: more free time, the latest technological toy, a new purse.

Thankfully, God, in His omnipotence, knows the real difference between what we need and what we deserve. He loves us enough to give us what we need when we ask for it in faith, including our own salvation, and not to condemn us to what we deserve.

When was the last time you asked yourself if you really needed something, or just thought you “deserved” it? How much more often do you tend to think of others in terms of what they deserve instead of what they might need?

I think this distinction between deserve and need is partly what made Christ accepted even among the “lowest denominations” of His society. When Christ told the truth to prostitutes and tax collectors, He did it in such a way as to speak to the sinner’s needs, not to make the person feel small because they had sinned.

If we could master this love of others in such a way as to see them only in light of their needs, not what we think they need but what we would need if we were in their shoes, certainly we would be as close to following the Golden Rule as we are going to get.

In the way of wondrous things, my Bible reading this week also helped me out with the deserve versus need dilemma. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes:

. . . we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (10:5b). . . . But he who boasts is to boast in the LORD. For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the LORD commends (10: 17-18).

If we see ourselves rightly through eyes that are obedient to Christ, knowing that any good thing we do is through the grace of God and not by anything remarkable of our own accord, then we will do away with the thoughts that make us contemplate what we “deserve” and blind us to what we and others really need.

I have to admit to some bad days this week, but I am happy to report that pulling out my copy of Psalm 143 and reading through it helped me pass through the valley and back up to the mountain. In this Psalm, David is running from very real enemies (his own king wants to kill him). For me, the enemies mentioned in the Psalm are not people, but the anxieties, fears, and “deserving” temptations that plague me on bad days. David begins the Psalm by praising God’s goodness. Then, he cries out his pain to God, followed by remembering all the good works God has done. In studying the Psalm, it strikes me that David’s equation for deliverance runs something like this:

my servitude + His majesty = my deliverance from my enemies!

So, what I need is to love God with my whole heart, first and foremost. I may deserve the anxiety and emotions that are a combined result of my sin and genetics, but what God gives me instead is what I need, His love, as long as I have the faith to open my arms wide and lean.

Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning;
For I trust in You;
Teach me the way in which I should walk;
For to You I lift up my soul.
Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
I take refuge in You.
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
Psalm 143: 8-10

Posted in Christian Fiction, Christian Living, Writers

Legacy: A New Chapter

The Texas Stray cover
Find my latest book at Lulu.com and in the Nook and iBookstore!

I wish I could say I was slick as all get-out and had planned a series on the concept of legacy to end up in conjunction with finally getting my second book published, but I’m just not that smart. Writing on legacy began for me because we had taken it up as the next subject of study in Sunday school class and because, before I started getting to use my writing through blogging and self-publishing a couple of years ago, I really struggled with questioning what God wanted me to be doing. (I still struggle with that, by the way, but it doesn’t consume me as it once did.)

Now that I have spent some time reflecting on what legacy should mean to a Christian, I of course realize even more that worldly things like writing a book are not what legacy is really about. But, since I am trying to use my writing to plant seeds for the kingdom, so to speak, I hope that my writing will be fruitful in that sense.

For all of my fellow bloggers out there, you know how exciting and frightening sharing a finished work can be. We never really are finished with editing anything we write. Something can always be improved upon, just as we ourselves can always find things personally to improve. But there comes a point when we must let the little bird leave the nest, and so I am ready with my second novel.

I want to take a minute, just a minute, to let myself feel good about this accomplishment. How many people always say they want to write a novel, but never get around to it? Now, by God’s grace, I have been able to complete two! I may never get published by a major house, but with print-on-demand venues like lulu.com, I am able to share my writing with someone other than a person I am related to. If I can touch just one person, haven’t I let God use me to His good purpose just a little bit? You can read more about my book here.

Now, concerning legacy. I need to make sure I don’t put all my hopes of bearing fruit into the proverbial writing basket. In fact, it would be complete arrogance and misunderstanding of the Word on my part to assume I have come close to living a Spirit-filled existence if all I did for others was try to write. Let’s face it, writing is probably 90% for the writer and only 10% for her audience.

No, I need to make sure I am harvesting the fruit of the Spirit in my daily life. I need to shine the light of Christ by being kind, doing things for others, helping those in need when I have the ability and resources to do so, and trying to see things from the other person’s perspective.

This week, with Thanksgiving, I think we will all have opportunities to reach out to others with Christ’s hands. What a wonderful way to begin the ending of the old year and move into the new one.

Thus endeth the lessons on legacy. Thanks for joining me in them.
Posted in Christian Fiction, Writing

Actions Make or Break Your Characters

Actions speak louder than words, in life and in the characters that we write about. Isn’t it ironic that even though our readers will only know our characters through our words, that it is truly through the actions that our characters take that our readers will come to know them?
There are so many different ways to approach and develop a story. Some people have all their major plot moments mapped out before they begin to write. Others have a general idea and sort of let things grow organically as they work through the first draft, taking later drafts to fine tune and give cohesive direction to their stories. But most all of us, I think, have to have a pretty good idea about the characters we are writing about before we begin. If we don’t, we can easily slip into the fallacy of the character’s actions not truly reflecting the person we are trying to represent.
I cringe any time I am reading a story and I discover that a character who had curly hair in the beginning is suddenly moaning over her straight locks. Usually, the gaffs are minor like this, evidence that the writer got caught up in the larger story and somehow missed the minor details on the re-run through. But what about when the thing that the character does, especially in those twist-at-the-end kind of stories, goes entirely against what the character has been throughout the story? When the twist becomes the main reason for the story, the characters fade to the background and, frankly, my interest in the story fades with them.
When you’re writing Christian fiction, your characters actions become even more important. Not that your characters should be perfect, because we live in a flawed world and we, presumably, want to create stories that will help people live better in that flawed world. However, the characters in a Christian story should match their actions to the words that define their faith. When they stumble, they should eventually recognize the stumble, confess it to their Maker and do the work it takes not to make the same mistake again. Their actions should seek Christ-like living as much as we are able in this flawed world and with the Holy Spirit’s assistance.
For a Christian, words should be married to action. When we are best at accomplishing this, surely we are closest to living as Christ would have us live.