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,

Posted in Christian Fiction, Christian Living

A Name In Lights or In the Light?

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 Living, Writing

The Gathering Stone–A short, short story


The wind whipped icy fingers that cut through the knitted scarf I had wrapped around my neck before plunging headlong out of my mother’s house more than a half hour before.  If I stayed out here much longer, stamping from foot to foot, I might just freeze to death before I could even begin the grand adventure about which Mother’s caustic comments had sent me flying out the door in the first place.

I let out a puff of indignant breath, watching it billow and dissipate in front of me.  She wasn’t going to check on me.  She was going to rock in her favorite chair in the parlor, working on the cross-stitch she planned to donate to her church’s auction for some mission in Africa, carrying on as if nothing untoward had happened at all.

She could support other women’s daughters traipsing off to the far reaches of the earth as long as God’s name was attached to it, but let her own daughter propose a little trip to Central America as part of her anthropological studies, and it would seem the very heavens were destined to fall in.

“What on earth are you doing out here, Melissa?” my Aunt Gertie’s voice, sharp like a knife, split through the cold and my thoughts, making me jump despite myself.

“You don’t want to know,”  I pouted, hating that I sounded like some petulant child and doing my best to keep my teeth from chattering.

“I certainly don’t want to know out here in this freezing weather,” she shot back.  “Come back inside this house before you catch your death, and then you can vent until your lips are blue, if they aren’t blue already.”

She turned back into the house without giving me a second glance, and I followed her before I could think myself into a stubborn stance that could only end in frostbite.  Gertie was in the kitchen, pouring tea from the thick, brown pot she had purchased thirty years ago on her one trip to England.  She silently poured a second cup as I stomped my feet and tentatively felt the tip of my nose.  I wiggled it once I was sure it wouldn’t break like an icicle.

“It’s not this cold in Belize,” I muttered, watching Gertie splash a dab of milk in both cups.

She held up her hand without looking up.  “I know you prefer your tea plain, but you need it.  You could be Rudolph the Reindeer, don’t you know.”  She gestured at the chair across from her.  “Sit.  Drink.”

I obeyed robotically, feeling the smooth liquid warm my belly and slide to my toes, which tingled annoyingly.  “All I want, Aunt Gertie, is to spend the semester abroad.  It’s the most popular course in the department, and they only have the one slot left.”

Gertie poured more tea into her cup, giving me one of her famous, side-long glances.   “And you’ve got the money to pay for this popular course, I suppose?”

I sank into my chair.  Leave it to Gertie to cut to the heart of the matter.  “Isn’t that what my college fund is for?” I spluttered finally.

Gertie raised a perfectly coiffed eyebrow.  “So, you earned the money that’s in that fund?”

This would be a losing argument.  I’d already had it with Mother, who likewise refused to count all my hours of studying for the top grades I had been bringing home since kindergarten as ‘work.’  “I might as well be back out in the garden,” I exclaimed.

“To the gathering stone,” Gertie agreed, nodding absently.  Her dark eyes looked into a distance I couldn’t see.  She snapped back to the table quickly.  “You may as well settle in your mind that you won’t be going anywhere except to the campus up the street until you are a woman full grown, with your own means of taking care of yourself.  If you hadn’t noticed, the budget in this house isn’t . . .,” she stopped herself.

I grimaced.  My father had been dead for almost a decade, but between Mother and Gertie, it might have been yesterday.  “Is it any wonder I want to experience more of the world?” I asked, thinking more of my desire to be away from the sorrow, to have a day where I did not have to be reminded as if I could forget that I was fatherless.

“Just because your father’s days were cut short doesn’t mean that you have a short life to live,” Gertie comforted, patting my hand with her boney fingers.  “You will have plenty of time to travel once you have graduated.”

I ran my palm around the curve of the brown teapot.  “That’s easy enough for you to say.  At least you’ve seen a little of the world.”

Gertie stood up suddenly and began gathering the tea things, her back turned to me.  She coughed and switched the water on in the sink with more force than was necessary.  “Seeing the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” she said in her cutting voice again.  “But, as I said, you’ll find out for yourself soon enough.”

Mother showed her face in the kitchen doorway then.  “Have you talked some sense into her, Gert?” she asked.

“I’m sitting right here,” I said.  “Why don’t you ask me?”

When she turned to me, her blonde hair streaked with gray, her eyes looked more tired than usual.  For the first time in my life, I had the feeling that I had somehow failed her.  I was almost ready to give up my dream then.  Almost.

“I can see what you are thinking,” Mother blurted, pulling a chair from the table and having a seat.  “I am not trying to make you feel guilty or even trying to keep you from growing up.  We don’t have the money, Melissa, and that’s the bottom line.”

“But if I could get the money?” I asked, feeling the first glimmer of hope.

“Then you could apply it to the second mortgage we’ve taken out on the house to keep up with our expenses.”  Mother spat.

Aunt Gertie sat back down again, and we three sat looking at each other, the silence in the room so deafening that even the ticking of the clock over the kitchen sink came to me as if through a thick wall.  I could forget about Belize, about the Mayan ruins in the jungle and the weekends on the beach with handsome Mike Spears in swimming trunks.

“What did you mean by a gathering stone in the garden, Aunt Gertie?” I finally asked, unable to look at my mother any longer.

Gertie just kept herself from jumping out of her own skin.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

Mother shot Gertie a withering look.  “What have you been telling her?”

“There’s nothing to tell,” Gertie shot back, “as you well know.”

I stood up and pulled my coat back on, wanting, no needing, to get away from them, from my life.  “You said it was in the garden,” I said.  “What does it look like?”

Mother stood up then.  “It doesn’t look like anything because there is nothing there.”

“Then why would Aunt Gertie say something about it and then get all dreamy-eyed?” I shot back, my sympathy for our financial troubles evaporating again.

Mother sighed from her toes.  “The gathering stone,” she said, “isn’t in our garden, Melissa.  It was in the garden where Gertie and I were girls.  Take off your coat.”

I shrugged.  “I’ll go to the museum then.  It’s free today, and there’s an exhibit on shrunken heads I’d like to see.”

“Don’t be gruesome, Melissa, just because you are disappointed,” Mother ordered.

“Life is disappointment, Mother,” I said, just keeping myself from wincing at the drama in my own words, but I had gone too far to stop myself now.  “Can’t you understand how I might want to escape the disappointment, just for a little while?  Just for one semester?  Aunt Gertie did it!”

Gertie came up behind me and ripped off my coat suddenly.  “Sit down, Melissa,” she said in her sharpest voice yet.  It startled me so, I did exactly as she asked.

“I don’t know what made me mention the gathering stone today, dear,” she began in a softer tone.  “Perhaps all this talk about travel is what did it.  Your mother and I took our first travels at the gathering stone, you see.  It was a huge chunk of rock, a boulder to our young selves that we could climb upon and pretend.  That rock was a raft on the Amazon, an airplane soaring over the Atlantic, our wedding altars.”

“So, you called it the gathering stone because?” I said.

She shrugged, remaining silent.  Mother answered.  “Because our dreams were gathered there, I suppose.  Now, let’s pick out a good movie and make some popcorn.  I’m in the mood for a comedy.”

I glanced between the two of them.  “There’s more to this than you’re letting on,” I said.  “If you think I’m just going to forget something as mysterious sounding as this, you’re crazy.  What was the gathering stone, really?  Did you meet your boyfriends there or sneak out at midnight to light candles and chant like the Ya-Ya Sisterhood?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mother scoffed.  “We were young children without Xboxes or computer games.  We had to use our  imaginations.  That’s all it was.  Now, let’s go to the living room and relax.”

I was all ready to grab my coat again and head to the museum, or the Starbucks in the Student Union.  I had at least five dollars in my left pocket and a bit of a gift at getting the boys from my classes to buy my lattes for me.  Sitting down with my Mother and Aunt for two hours watching a movie, being forced to stew in the juices of my latest disappointment was just too much to bear.

“Don’t go,” Aunt Gertie’s voice stopped me.  It was a pleading voice, not the sharp one that had greeted me an hour before.  “There’s really something you should know, Melissa.”

“If you open your mouth, Mother, to tell her to be quiet, I’ll scream until I faint,” I promised.

“Very mature,” Mother responded, but she stayed silent otherwise.

“What do you want to tell me, Aunt Gertie?”

“I’ve never been to England,” she blurted.

I blinked.  Hard.  Three times.  “What?”

“The teapot,” Gertie said, swallowing.  “The teapot is from England, Melissa, but that’s not where I got it.”

“Why would you tell me it was?” I asked, feeling sad and outraged all at once.

“Did I?” Gertie asked, her voice rising to a strange pitch.  “You’re sure I didn’t just talk about England so much that you assumed I had been there?  I’ve read an awful lot about it, you know.  I spent many an evening at the gathering stone reading about it.”

“So, why did you never go?  What would be holding you back?”

Gertie smiled a sad smile, a face that showed me more than anything the depth of my own ignorance.  It had not been an easy life for all of us, but Gertie had always been the tag-a-long, the tall, awkward sister to Mother’s attractive curves and curls, all angles and hard lines.  Mother had lost her husband, but Gertie’s only wedding altar had been the stone in her parents’ garden.

And now I knew she had never been anywhere, she who had toted the brown teapot from church social to bridal shower for decades, explaining the fine points of high tea and knitting teapot cozies as if she had not only visited the United Kingdom but become one of its citizens for a season.

“You’re trying to shock me into forgetting about Belize,” I said.  “Forget about it.  You already made your point with the second mortgage threat.  I know I might as well tuck that idea under your gathering stone and move on.”

Gertie laughed, a bubbling sound that seemed to come from her very core.  “Well, it worked, didn’t it?”

“Now, can we watch the movie,” Mother asked in her most bored voice.

The two sisters walked out arm in arm, discussing what title they wanted to slide into the DVD player.  I stayed in the chair a few moments, staring at the teapot and trying to imagine younger versions of my mother and aunt on a huge stone in their parent’s back garden.

Finally, I decided it wouldn’t matter if Gertie had made it to England in reality or only through her own imagination.  Somehow, her stories were so real that they might as well have been.

Now, if there were only a gathering stone in our own garden, even just a small one I could carry in my pocket, well then, maybe, I could dream myself into a college course of a lifetime.

Or I could check out a book at the library.

I threw some popcorn in the microwave, slipped off my sneakers, and rubbed the now cool crockery that had been the symbol of Gertie’s independence for the length of my lifetime.  It was cold comfort, but it was the closest thing to England I was likely to get in a wintertime of Sundays  tucked into the cupboard that served as our computer station, “Pinning” fantastic pictures to my board titled “Where the Gathering Stone Stayed.”