Thursday, October 27, 2005

JK: Something I Didn't Know

Some years ago I read an article about a 16 year old who had won a Merit Scholarship in Science for her early work related to water quality. What impressed me wasn’t just her terrific focus and follow-through at such a young age, but something her step-father said about her. He noted that when he picked her up from preschool, she’d get into the car and say, “Tell me something I don’t already know.” I love that. It could be the bumper sticker for life-long learners. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”

I suspect one of the reasons we continue to read the backs of cereal boxes, the tiny print on tea bags, buses as they roll by, those little packets that fall out of packaging, even the stickers on mattresses, is because we might just discover something fascinating written there that we otherwise wouldn’t know.

I know that’s one of the reasons I write. The research in itself promises amazing tidbits regardless of the source. I paw through books at garage sales. I eavesdrop at restaurants. One never knows when I might use information about wheat production or pick up a great phrase that shows up in one of my characters’ mouths. And yes, like the internet, not all one hears is “truth” but it is always fodder for speculation that must be run through the filter of wisdom.
Our readers want that kind of enthusiasm for newness as well. In addition to a good story, they want fresh metaphors. New plot twists. They want to discover some obscure piece of trivia or history that makes a reader say, “Well, I’ll be. I never knew that.”

This presents a special challenge for Christian writers. Most of us want to reach those who not only know and love the Lord, but those who haven’t yet discovered that he offers an infinite array of new learnings. We want to stay fresh without wandering into squirrelly theology. We want to encourage deeper thinking without losing our audience in obscurity or dogma. We want to introduce the effect of Jesus on the lives of our characters by showing it through story, and sometimes that means we might not even use his name. We might not have our characters pray out loud. We might have them even struggle with their own faith. That introduces us to the possibility of attack, questioning whether we’ve written a Christian novel at all.

I remember quite well being told that my novel A Sweetness to the Soul couldn’t be sold in a certain Christian bookstores because it wasn’t “Christian enough.”

While it soothed that sting when that book went on to earn a national award for Western writing and was recently named by the Oregon Heritage Commission as one of the best books published in Oregon in the past 200 years, I still struggle with what wasn’t Christian in a story of a young girl’s discovery of forgiveness and love. My character didn’t know about grace until her friend, who was not a Christian, told her of what she knew about the One who loves us most. It changed my character’s life.

But maybe that’s what I was to learn after all: Because of that characterization of the book not being Christian enough, my exploration when I write and read, has taken on new depth. I daily ask God to be my guide in making sure that what I write is something worth knowing, told in a way that enhances and never detracts from the greatest story ever told. And if I’m blessed, along the way, I’m likely to learn something new I didn’t know either.

Jane Kirkpatrick, award-winning author of A Land of Sheltered Promise and her memoir newly revised, Homestead.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

PH: Triggers—Evoking Memory to Create Story

Following the death of both my mother and father, I was in such an emotional gauntlet. I had to face many things that were hidden and kept secret by my family, and face them alone without ever having had them talked about or made right. The retrospection induced all sorts of reactions. Those particular reactions became the basis for my novel Katrina’s Wings.

After that experience, I realized that if I paid close attention to life I could practice culling the emotion of life, pain, suffering, delirious joy, from the truth and weave it into fiction and never run out of plots. The culling process involves keeping either a written or a mental diary of emotional triggers. A baby shoe falls out of a drawer and my emotions are awash with melancholy.

Why? I sit down and write down the feelings generated by the trigger’s sudden presence. Up to the surface bobs something I wouldn’t normally associate with one of my children’s old shoes—the loss of those days, the naïveté of early motherhood, the terror of holding a child and feeling responsible for its life. I walk into a swim arena and the smell of chlorine triggers mental snapshots of growing up near a municipal park. I write down the feelings evoked and a meaning is attached to that memory, the relationship between past and present, how the past works to shape the present. I weave the retrospection into character and now I’ve revealed my character in a showing manner to the reader.

The reader’s emotions are engaged by the bare honesty and now through character the story has its engine. Triggers do not come in definable shapes. In the midst of a Bible study, something an author wrote triggered an emotion in me I could not identify. I ran and wrote down the emotions while they were fresh. I wrote and wondered and, as Christ’s mom did when she could not define all that she had seen, I pondered. Three days passed and suddenly I realized that profound meaning from my past was beating its way to the surface of lost memory. I couldn’t write fast enough, the words pouring out of me.

This story went from journal to memoir to thesis to novel over the course of the year. It started with a trigger that initially had no obvious form. We tend to cast off or ignore such thoughts because we cannot define them or reduce them to plot summary. But we cannot see spirit either.

If you’ve struggled to try and shape your story out of a plot, try using raw emotional material. Trusting those emotional triggers is the key to filling the writer’s toolbox with oceans of useable material. Memory is a gift from the writer to her readers offering a vantage point not otherwise afforded them. It helps us understand why so many novels were started on coffee-stained napkins.

Patricia Hickman is the author of Katrina's Wings

Thursday, October 20, 2005

JK: Read Well

For those who wonder, I read poetry and non-fiction when I’m writing fiction, in part for research but also for discovery and unveiling.

The verb to read, taken from the Old English verb, raedon, I learn from Kim Stafford’s book The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listenings and other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft, had as part of its original meaning “to give and take counsel, to take care of a thing or take charge…and the sense of explaining something obscure or mysterious.” Kim’s interpretation is that we need not limit “reading” to deciphering what has already been written. Reading goes beyond that. It takes us into reading the landscape, for example, or “writing to learn what you know,” as the poet mary anne radmacher writes. I think it also means reading our past.

I’ve been reading John Bradshaw’s book Family Secrets, The Path to Self-acceptance and Reunion. Inside I discover a section about the realm of the private, natural areas of concealment in our lives. These become important for a character study, to find out where my character might have a secret or what kind of shame might purge forth from the crossing of a boundary by another, a boundary that perhaps that character didn’t even realize was there until someone violated it. Success/Failure; Tangible Possessions (home, money, property); Intangible Possessions (ideas, opinions, feelings, values); Intimacy (love/spouse, friendship); Sexuality; the Dignity of self (good name, face, body); Bodily Functions (eating, elimination); Birth; Intense Suffering and Pain; Death and Dying; and the first item Bradshaw lists, The Sacred, prayer and mortality.”

Reading these lists of concealments helps define who in my own life I would share my grief and suffering with and why discomfort and embarrassment follow the simple act of someone opening by mistake the bathroom stall door in a crowded theater restroom. “I’m sorry,” “No, no, I should have closed it tighter.”

These invasions violate, however intense or fleeting. Someone from the outside has entered our cave of concealment and we are left with something to read from the experience.
I can explore these moments as part of my character’s life. I find myself wanting more time with my characters, more opportunities to know what they’d want exposed and what left concealed.

Writing means I must also explore these concealments within my own life, my own family. What makes me feel invaded and why? Answering those questions will deepen the story for my character and hopefully for the reader as well.

Raedon, to read, to give and take counsel, to take care of a thing or take charge, explain something obscure or mysterious.

There is much to read in the lives of our characters and in our own lives. It is one of the gifts of writing. As old narratives used to say, read well, dear readers. Read well.

Jane Kirkpatrick, A Land of Sheltered Promise and her memoir Homestead.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

JSB: Motives

One of my favorite writers of all time is A. W. Tozer. He was a preacher, of course, but it is for his pen that he's remembered. His many books, most notably (for me) "The Pursuit of God," continue to inspire Christians everywhere.

Tozer had a knack for cutting through the fluff that often poses as serious thought and getting to the heart of a matter. Most of the time, he challenged the church. He didn't like seeing Christians get sidetracked with frivolous concerns like…SUCCESS!

Every writer has a secret (maybe not so secret) longing for material success. Part of that is the understandable idea of ROI (Return on Investment). We spend months or years on a novel, and naturally want lots of people to read it.

But Tozer reminds us that God has a different economy. He said:

"Any serious-minded Christian may at some time find himself wondering whether the service he is giving to God is the best it could be. He may even have times of doubting, and fear that his toil is fruitless and his life empty.... Before the judgment seat of Christ, very little will be heard of numbers or size; moral quality is about all that will matter then....In Christian service motive is everything, for it is motive that gives to every moral act its final quality."

What's your true motive for writing? Is it for recognition? For the world's idea of success? To prove your brother, who told you you'd never amount to anything, wrong?

Or is it because you want to honor God with your gifts?

Now I will say there's nothing wrong with success or recognition. But they should never be the sole (soul?) reason we write. Or do anything, for that matter.

This is not just a bromide. It's a constant struggle within the Christian artist. In my days in Hollywood, acting and writing, I saw so many Christians who compromised their beliefs in order to score a well paying job.

I was one of them.

After yet another bout of justification, I sat down and wrote something just for myself. It turned out to be a novel called "The Darwin Conspiracy." It ended up getting published, and I was a Christian fiction writer.

Now, I do not believe one has to write for the Christian market in order to honor God; only that the work we do, in whatever form, be a reflection of the light inside us.

For example, I would love to have written the screenplay of "The Hustler" starring Paul Newman. It's tough, gritty but very much a moral tale. It's about a man who sells his soul for a pool game, and suffers for it in the end.

Or "The Godfather," another film that shows the tragic consequences of wrong choices.
Or "Storm of the Century," Stephen King's TV mini-series about a town's compromises with a demon, and the awful results. Is that not biblical?

I'd love to have written the novel "Eight Million Ways to Die," about an alcoholic ex-cop on the mean streets of New York. He fights his addiction, his angst at the state of the world, and the killer he is seeking. At the end, one small blip of hope elevates all that has come before.

The point is that Christian artists have many options, but their primary motive must always be to honor God, and let the worldly honors fall where they may.

James Scott Bell,, is the author of Breach of Promise and several other novels

Friday, October 14, 2005

RI: Who Do I Write For?

Every once in a while, I hear novelists discussing the all-important topic of "Who Do I Write For?" Nobody appeals to all readers, and that's just a painful fact of life. So novelists (and their pesky marketing departments) like to know who their demographics are.

Tweens? Teens? Twenty-somethings? Gen-X? Gen-Y? Gen-anything?

Boomers? Fogies? Men? Women? Other? College-grads? High-school grads? Seekers? Finders? Losers? Weepers?

I suppose it makes a difference. But there's another way to look at it, which is to get spiritual. A novelist can throw up his hands and say, "Well I write for an audience of one. I write for Jesus." I know a fair number of novelists who say exactly this.

And that's nice, but I bet the marketing folks are wondering how many books Jesus buys. (Oh, those Mammonish marketing mavens! Not very spiritual, are they?)

In my view, the spiritual dodge is kind of a cheat. It's changing the meaning of the word "for" in the question "Who do I write for?"

It's like Bill Clinton saying that it depends what the meaning of the word "is" is. The plain meaning of the original question is "Who is my target reader?" When you spiritualize it, you're changing the meaning of the question to, "Who am I trying to please with my writing?"
Don't get me wrong, I think that's an excellent question. A novelist who doesn't have his priorities straight isn't going to get much else straight. Of COURSE a Christian novelist is writing to please Jesus.


But let's be clear. Jesus doesn't read my books. Or yours. Or anybody else's. He doesn't buy the varmints, he doesn't write Amazon reviews for them, he doesn't recommend them to his friends.

The marketing people want to know who's buying and who's reviewing and who's doing that word-of-mouth thing.

They're right, of course, in some green-eyed way, dollar-signed, CPA kind of way. That question is important for figuring out that market-positioning crap.

But that's not important to the novelist, who really is asking a third kind of question: "What kind of reader am I writing to please?" Novelists don't do cold-hearted calculational market-positioning. Not if they're Artistes, anyway. And we're all Artistes, here, thank you. We're not art-prostitutes. We don't sell to the highest bidder. We write for our inner Artiste.

And there, I think is the answer to the original question.

I write for me.

I know it sounds selfish and egotistical and arrogant. Yeah. It is all that. I think it's also the only way to create art. I write for me. I write the kinds of books that I'd like to read. I write to whack ME in the gut. I write to touch MY emotions. I write to keep ME awake half the night turning pages when I already know how it turns out.

I write for me.

And in doing so, I get all those other things too.

If I'm a real Christian and I'm writing for me, then by gum, I'll be writing something that pleases Jesus. (Ooh, that rhymes! I could write a song about that.)

If I'm a real human (and some would debate the point) and I'm writing in a way that zings my emotional buttons, then I just betcha I'll zing a few of yours too. Whether you're a Gen-Xer or a Tweener, or a Fogey. Whether you're Man or Woman or Other. See, that's one of the big points of those irritating know-it-all cultural anthropologists.

As I understand it, these folks claim that there are two fundamental things to know about people:

1) All people are completely different
2) All people are completely alike

Latching onto Door Number 2 there, I conclude that "writing for me"
is the same as "writing for you" or "writing for Joe Schmoe" or "writing for Australian aborigines". And here's the thing--Door Number 1 implies that I'll actually have something new and interesting to say to all those folks, because I'm completely different from them. And different means interesting.

So I write for me. I claim that writing for me is the only real way to be a genuine, Grade-A, first-class artiste. I claim that writing for me is the only way to really make Jesus happy. I claim that writing for me is the only way to write something so authentic and so new that readers out there will flock to me in droves.

I claim that writing for me is the only way to avoid being a publishing slut.

I could be wrong in all this. But I think I'm right. I think you know it. You know it because you're just like me.

Only different.
Randy Ingermanson
Publisher, Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

Thursday, October 13, 2005

JK: Look Up

One of the joys of living eleven miles from a paved road is a quiet early morning walk with my dog, usually with Brody (or Mr. Pig) and the younger pup, Fritz. But I often put it off thinking I really need to get in to my writing space and write! It’s my job, after all, right? But the dogs bark and tug at my sleeve so I head down the driveway dribbled with rocks, walk around the steep padlock turn and then up the sixteen percent grade (the place where I mashed my foot on top of my husband’s so he raced 70 miles an hour down that roller coaster grade while I shouted at him to stop!) on up to the first cattle guard.

Usually, I’m keeping my face to the ground, watching for rocks since the uneven ground still plays havoc with my foot (ala airplane accident residual). And that’s what I was doing, keeping my eyes peeled to the ground, head down, hat shading my eyes when I heard the tell-tale buzz, a sound once heard that is imbedded in one’s blood stream.
I looked up and there it was, all coiled, the rattler letting me know I encroached.

Somehow, the dogs had lumbered right on by and stayed well above us on the grade, sitting, watching the scene below play out.

I tossed a rock the snake’s way and it slithered beneath a sagebrush and I could go on, maneuvering my way around it.

Two things resulted from that encounter: I was reminded to keep looking up; and secondly, that things change. I’d once been so afraid of encountering a rattlesnake that I didn’t even want to follow my heart (or my husband) to this land 52 miles from the nearest pizza place. But even fears are reduced to a manageable size if we listen to the warning signals and find a way around them. Our fears don’t have to hold us hostage.

Mostly, my walks are uneventful, times for peaceful prayer, inhaling clean air. But in the silence, story ideas get plotted out and filled in, with sagebrush looking on as silent editors. The river swirling over smooth rocks and the pant of the dogs are the only sounds breaking into the calmness of the morning. But instead of a dozen thoughts bombarding me at once, I can hear that inner voice.

Perhaps that’s why I resist going out there, think my “work” is to write. My work, I’m convinced, is to engage, to be aware, to listen to God’s calling and convey it on the page. Today, it said “look up” and I am grateful.

Jane Kirkpatrick, A Land of Sheltered Promise and her memoir Homestead.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

BJH: Hearing Voices: Part Two

(Continued from previous post )

In addition to the voices described in Part One, there are other narrative "choices of voices." A story narrated by a terrified thirteen-year old Irish girl who’s just arrived in America is going to be starkly different (at least we would expect it to be) than that of a college student who was born and raised in Minneapolis, just as an eighty-year-old widow’s narrative voice isn’t likely to resemble that of a forty-something who’s obsessed with staying young.

A story might be told in the voice of a middle-aged alcoholic fisherman from Maine. He’s never quite sober, and his narrative voice will reflect that. And if a narrator lives in a never-lifting fog of severe depression, her voice won’t be similar to that of a young woman in the exhilarating throes of first love.

We have a wide range of fictive devices to use in developing a narrative voice in addition to the core personality, the character, and background of the storyteller: the length of our sentences and paragraphs, the words we choose, the way we handle description and setting through the narrator’s eyes, and more.

Because the variety is so vast, it’s crucial to keep in mind consistency. Although occasionally a narrator may change tones and go from carefree and lighthearted to tense and obsessive, he’s still the same person, and you can’t forget that. He's not you, and you must keep your focus and not let him lapse into your own voice. There will be-–there must be-–a difference between your personal voice and your narrator’s voice. Yes, you’re telling the story, but unless you’re writing an autobiography you’re telling that story through someone else’s voice and viewpoint. If you don’t want to jerk your reader around, it’s vital that your narrator maintain his voice. The tone may change, depending on the scene described and the emotion accompanying that scene--but it still remains your narrator’s job to let the reader see the scene through his eyes, not yours.

An example: For decades, Pete Hamill has written as both a reporter and a columnist for the New York Post, The Daily News, and New York Newsday. He also held the position of editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He’s covered murders, the Vietnam war, the Ireland "troubles," Olympic Games, earthquakes and other disasters, and reported from just about anywhere in the world you can name. He’s a hardline Irish American from Brooklyn who worked as a laborer and a graphic designer before turning to journalism. He’s written essays, columns, news reports, novels and other pieces all over the map. As a no-nonsense journalist, his writing is salty and to the point, sounding as you might expect it to sound. Here’s an excerpt from Piecework, a collection of his essays on current affairs:

"We all knew the legend: back home in the coal country of Pennsylvania , he’d played basketball and football, he’d been a boxer. In the age of Hemingway, such credentials were more important than they should have been .... It was not in me, then or now, to fawn over famous men; by the tough code of the ‘50s, that just wouldn’t be hip. But the Bennington girls had no such restraints, and they went for Franz the way sharks go for drowning sailors."

And here’s an excerpt from his novel, Snow in August, a book I’ve recommended to just about everyone I know who loves to read for the sheer power and magic and beauty of the writing. Interestingly, I have heard nothing but exuberant raves from those who have read it, including the hardest of the hard-nosed readers. Snow in August, by the way, is an exquisite, brilliantly written story of an eleven-year-old Irish Catholic boy and Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a Prague refugee (neither of the two main characters is the narrator). It takes place in 1947 Brooklyn, and is told in third person multiple:

"He rose into a frenzy of words and letters, hearing sounds from his mouth that he did not think, moving to music that nobody played, rising into clouds, moving palaces across distant skies, speaking to birds, joining hands in a dance with Mary Cunningham and the Count of Monte Cristo, soaring and swooping and breaking for third, up, rising up, full of rain and fire and salt and oceans, all the way up, chanting the letters that named galleons and cowboys, pirates and Indians, borne by the letters, swept through golden skies above the crazy world, above Brooklyn, above Ireland, above Prague, above the fields of Belgium .... And then fell to his knees in utter emptiness."

You have to know the context of the scene, of course, for this to make any sense. But do you hear the difference between Pete Hamill’s voice and that of the narrator, even though Hamill is the author of both excerpts?

Again, I emphasize that you must do what Hamill is a master at doing: keep the narrator’s voice consistent throughout the entire story, and keep your own voice out of it.

The ability to manage this with the power of a writer like Hamill might be part genius. But even genius requires practice and work and experience. Years of it. So be patient with yourself.


Monday, October 10, 2005

BJH: Hearing Voices: Part One

If I had to pinpoint the one question I’m most often asked--and the one element in the craft of writing that seems most puzzling to writers, both beginners as well as experienced ones--it would most likely have to do with voice. The writer’s voice. Usually, you’ll hear it discussed along these lines: "I haven’t found my voice yet." "I’m still searching for my distinctive voice." "What do you perceive my voice to be?" "I don’t know if my voice is contemporary or historical."

What is this "writer’s voice?" Why does it baffle so many writers? And why is it important anyway?

In trying to bring a little clarity to an issue that doesn’t necessarily have to be so confusing, here are just a few thoughts:

We often confuse "voice" with "style." They’re not the same thing. "Style" is made up of the decisions you make about your novel, the fictive devices you use in writing your novel, the technical approaches and elements of the craft. "Voice" is what all those other things add up to. The result. The whole. Voice is what your novel "sounds like."

The voice of a novel is not the author’s voice. It’s the narrator’s voice. The voice of the person telling the story. At times the narrative voice is first person: "I." More often, it’s "he" or "she." Sometimes, rarely, it’s "you."

Voice is what readers "hear" throughout the reading of a story–and long after, if it’s written well. The one overriding voice that makes the novel original and distinctive.

What dictates that narrator’s voice is the sum total of who and what the narrator is. His personality. Her character. His background. Her attitude. All of him. The essence of her.

A novel’s voice–the narrator’s voice–may be an informal, conversational voice. This can be a bit like sitting down with a friend, someone you’re comfortable with, and telling him a story. It’s often used by the first-person narrator, frequently found in coming-of-age and young adult novels. It’s exactly what the description says: it’s informal, a kind of confiding voice. A come-as-you-are, inviting voice.

Other novels have a more formal voice. That doesn’t mean it has to be stilted or artificial. It really has more to do with the emotional distance from one’s characters. It’s not quite as up front as the informal voice. Historical novels often employ it, but it’s definitely not limited to period stories. We find it often used in third person POV, but it can also work in first person, depending on the makeup of the narrator. As with the conversational voice, the education and background of the narrator are important factors in how the story is told. Many of the older writers used this voice--Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Tolstoy are only a few. But this is a voice that’s also common among more contemporary writers, as well--James Michener, Thomas Flanagan, Allan Eckert, Richard North Patterson, Stephen Lawhead, Susan Howatch, and many others.

The risk in using the formal voice is that you can easily fall into sounding like "the writer" instead of the narrator. As with all the other voices, you need to be consistent, while not "performing" to impress your readers with what a brilliant writer you are.

Then there’s the extremely formal voice, sometimes called the "ceremonial" or "authoritarian" voice. Some writers use a mix of this and the formal voice. Think Dickens. He often mixed the two in his writing. The extremely formal voice calls for complete detachment from the characters and a kind of "speech-giving" overriding tone. The use of this particular voice has more than one downside. The one I most often see is that it makes for a slow story. It can also take the edge off a story, serving to make it dull business indeed. I’d say there needs to be an excellent reason to use this voice--and the writer using it should be coming from a background of much experience in the craft of writing fiction.

It’s important not to fuss or worry about your voice. Real damage has been done by some writing instructors pushing and preaching at students to "find your voice." You don’t find your voice. You grow it. It’s a part of you, and eventually it becomes a part of your fiction. Just tell the story you want to tell with the characters who seem right for it, tell it to the best of your ability--and be patient. In time, although you may never be able to define it, your voice will begin to sing through your fiction. At some point, an editor, a reader, another author will comment on "your voice." You might be surprised to hear what it is or how it sounds to others. You might even be surprised to find out you have a voice. But after a good measure of experience--writing experience, because more than anything else, that’s how it’s developed, by writing--you will take on a voice that’s your very own.

I’ve touched only the surface of the subject. There are other, less-often used voices, but no less distinctive, and there are also authors who can change voices as easily as changing shoes. More in Part Two.


Friday, October 07, 2005

AEH: The Value of a Dream, pt. 2

(Continued from previous date)

The second thing I’d like you to realize about dreams is that they can make you focus on the wrong things.

As God promised, I did travel and sing (with a group called the Re'Generation--anybody remember them?) and as I sang that year, I assumed my future would lie in music. After all, during that year we recorded albums, sang at Disney, performed over 500 concerts, and saw the country from sea to shining sea. Though I learned that life on the road can be tough, I still thought God’s plan for me was etched in stone and it looked like a musical score.

And then I experienced a Colorado blizzard—the storm of ’77, to be precise. My 12 fellow Re'Gen singers, three snow plow drivers, and a family of five, were trapped together in the Woods family's farmhouse in NE Colorado for four days with little food, no water, no power, no heat. It was an adventure for this Florida girl, and I filled my journal with stories of everyone using my toothbrush (I was the only ReGen girl with the foresight to bring her makeup kit!) and melting snow in the fireplace just to get water to flush the toilets.

I remember mixing pancake batter with melted snow and adding a drop of food coloring just for fun, then trying to bake the things in the fireplace. Not delicious, but hey, when you're hungry . . .

When we finally dug ourselves out (literally--the house was buried) and reconnected with our director, he read all of our journals. One night a few weeks later, he and I were talking and he said, "What are you going to do when you come off the road?" I shrugged and said I supposed I'd go back to school and get my degree in music ed. Then he said, "I read your blizzard journal and you really have a way with words. Why don't you think about writing?"

Hmmm. Because I believed that God speaks to us through the voices of our spiritual authorities, I listened. And when I went back to school, I changed my major to English. Didn't have a CLUE what I'd do with it.

Graduated from Liberty University on May 12, 1980, and got married the very next day. (My parents did approve of my hubby). In those days I took whatever job I could get, so for a while I taught school, then I wrote curriculum for a church, then I became a secretary. Finally, on faith, I decided to step out and become a freelance writer.

Which brings me to my third point: dreams can limit your vision.

In 1983 I began writing not because of a dream, but because my husband was a youth pastor, and I knew I would have to help pay bills. Very basic motivation. I also knew I wanted to work at home because I had a baby I couldn't bear to leave. So I "dreamed" of a freelance writing career, but honestly, I'd have been grateful for work I could get. I had business cards printed up and sent them out to all the advertising agencies in town . . . and waited.

To shorten a very long story, for five years I wrote brochures, catalog copy, radio copy, and hundreds of magazine articles. Then one day I saw an ad about a contest for unpublished picture book writers. I had never published any kind of book, so I studied the picture book format (yes, there is one!) and wrote a story in about 20 minutes. Sent it off and tried to put it out of my mind.

Then one day I learned that my story won the contest. (I was flabbergasted.) I had never dared to dream of writing books; I’d been happy just to help put food on the table. From picture books I moved into middle reader books, then my editor said, “Why not try adult novels?” and I shrugged and said, “Well . . . okay.” Now it’s 18 years later and I think God wants me to be a novelist . . . but every day, every book, is different. "Expect the unexpected" isn't just my marketing slogan. It's my life.

If you'll allow me to change gears for just a moment: A friend of mine, Karen Kingsbury, once shared the following story about her two children, Kelsey, six, and Tyler, three. Seems the family was coming home from church where they had heard a particularly hard-hitting message, and Kelsey was hammering her baby brother with spiritual truth. “Tyler, you need to decide about heaven and hell,” she told her brother, who sat calmly in his car seat with a pacifier in his mouth. “You need to make up your mind. Tell me, Tyler, which is it? Heaven or hell, where do you want to go?”

The little boy, who had been staring blankly at his sister, pulled out his plug and said, “Disneyland.”

I love that story because I think it exemplifies the challenge we writers face. Sometimes we want to talk about heaven and hell; our readers want to go to Disneyland. Even when reading nonfiction, they want to be entertained, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Our challenge is figuring out how to inject serious truths into entertaining words.

But before the Spirit can use my books to inject truth into a reader’s life, I have to learn that truth myself. A couple of years ago I painted a quote on my office wall: “The act of writing is the act of discovering what you believe.” I write because writing forces me to find God’s answers to some of life’s most perplexing problems.

Through my stories, I’ve grappled with breast cancer, lost a son in a tragic accident, suffered from a rare and fatal brain disease, committed my child to a mental institution, dealt with a rebellious teenage daughter, grieved over infertility, lived as a prodigal, had my lover murdered, been attacked by a white supremacist, suffered from agoraphobia, given birth to a caveman’s baby, and fished for piranha in the Amazon—and that’s only in the last couple of years. And you know what? A third of those situations came from my real life.

I never dreamed I’d write about any of those situations. Some of those experiences aren’t exactly what a sane woman dreams of, but I don’t regret either my fictional forays or my real life trials. Living through them has made me wiser . . . and much more sympathetic. My dreams were too small. God’s leading is tailor-made, a perfect fit. Sometimes he takes me through heavenly experiences; sometimes I'm glad this life is all I'll ever know of hell. And there is the occasional trip to Disneyland . . .

So—in a country that thrives on Rocky movies and tales of underdogs, am I telling you that dreams are a waste of time? Not really. What I want you to see in this rambling history is that it’s far more important to walk humbly with God and align your dreams with his.

Remember that “fondest dream” I asked you to visualize yesterday? Now—which would you rather do—realize that dream or be what God wants you to be, no more and no less?

I’ve come to realize that while dreams are inspirational, they’re not nearly as important as obedience. Following the Lord’s leading far more important than jogging toward a distant dream that may not be part of His plan for you and me. If you commit your way to him, He will prepare you for whatever lies ahead. Just remain true to His Word, listen to the godly leaders He has placed in your path, and keep an ear tuned to that still, small voice.

The Spirit of God moved David to write:

You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
Psalm 139:15-16

Our dreams can lead us in the wrong direction, make us focus on the wrong things, and limit us, but God says, “I know the plans I have for you . . . They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

I’ll take his plans over mine any day.

Angela Hunt lives and writes in Florida where it never snows. Too bad.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

AEH: The Value of a Dream, pt. 1

Right now I’d like you to close your eyes and visualize your fondest dream. If you could have any wish right now, what would it be? Hold onto that thought for me.

Which brings me to my topic: the value of a dream.

There’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein song that says, “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, then how ya going to have a dream come true?”

I’d like to tell you three things about dreams. But before I do, I have to say there’s only one dream remaining on my unfulfilled list: before God calls me home, I'd really like to go on a cruise.

That’s not to say that I don’t look forward to seeing my children get married . . . or to spoiling a grandchild. Sure, I’d love to write the great American novel and see my books at the top of the best seller list and have a couple become classics and never go out of print. But I’ve learned not to waste a lot of time and energy on dreams that may or may not be part of God’s plan for me.

The first thing I’d like you to know about dreams is that they can lead you in the wrong direction.

When I was young, I never dreamed of being a writer. Not once. I’ve always loved to read, and I’ve always been a bit of an introvert and fairly self-motivated. I’ve since learned that those are qualities that help a writer, but I didn’t know that growing up.

One thing I did know—I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior when I was six years old, so I knew my life belonged to him. I didn’t know how he would use it or where he would take me, but I knew I was His and that He had a plan for me. I also knew that God would tell me what he wanted me to do in three ways: through His Word, the Bible; through the leading of my parents and spiritual leaders, and through His voice.

Well, because my grandmother sang, my mother sings, and God gave me a measure of musical talent, everyone encouraged me to involve myself in music, so that’s what I did—piano lessons, the band, the chorus, the church choir. I took voice lessons and learned how to conduct. I learned all this stuff, and wondered what I would do with it, but I was DREAMING of love and romance. I had a complete set of pots and pans in my hope chest by the time I was fifteen. I had a secret fiancée when I was sixteen and a ring—a diamond chip —when I was seventeen. And my dreams were leading me in the wrong direction.

One afternoon I was reading my Bible, and I heard—not with my ears, but with my heart—God say, “You will travel and sing.”

This was a surprise to me, because I wasn’t dreaming of traveling and singing. I’d been planning my wedding. Twice I brought home fine young Christian men whom I loved, and twice I told my parents . . . . and they said no.

I'd love to tell you that I meekly accepted their advice, but I wept and gnashed my teeth . . . and then I realized that God speaks to me through my parents, and if I wanted God to bless me, I needed to honor and obey them. So I broke off two engagements and waited. I realized that dreams don’t always point us in the right direction, but the plan of God is good.

What does any of this have to do with writing? I'm beginning to wonder myself, but sometimes God's plan is like that. (VBG). Stay tuned.

Tomorrow: part 2

Angela Hunt,

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

DR: Music to Write By

I love to listen to music while I write. I’m picky though. It can’t be just any music. Anything with vocals is out, lest I suddenly find myself typing lyrics instead of my story. Anything with too distinct a beat gets my foot tapping, and that messes with the rhythm of my fingers on the keyboard.

But when I find the right soundtrack for the scene I’m working on, it’s amazing how music helps me get in touch with exactly the emotions I need to express my characters’ melancholy mood or sense of elation.

My favorite CDs to write by have turned out, not surprisingly, to be movie soundtracks. Not only are they usually mostly free of vocals, but they seem to have the perfect ebb and flow between loud dramatic themes and quiet, contemplative melodies.

I’ve always wished there were some way to set my own novels to music for my readers. Wouldn’t it be incredible to buy a novel that came with a soundtrack that could somehow be programmed to play jungle music when your characters were trekking through the Amazon, switch to violins and flutes while your characters fall in love, and beat out the drums to up the tension during the chase scenes.

Maybe it’s already been done and I just haven’t discovered it yet. I have listened to a few audio books that had little snippets of music to introduce the chapters, but I’ve never seen an entire novel set to music.

I have no clue what it would take to pull off such a feat. Maybe the CD would contain four or five distinctly different themes and the reader could simply play the track suggested at the beginning of each section or chapter of the book, repeating the same themes every time the novel is in a particular character’s point of view? I don’t know, but I’d volunteer to be the guinea pig on such a project in a flash!

I’m not holding my breath, and while I wait, I’ll continue to turn to these favorite composers and soundtracks to write by:

€ James Horner (Searching for Bobby Fischer, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart)

€ Dave Grusin (Bonfire of the Vanities, The Firm)

€ James Newton Howard (Dying Young, Snow Falling on Cedars)

€ John Barry (Dances with Wolves)€ Michael Convertino (Children of a Lesser God)

€ Stephen Warbeck (Charlotte Gray, Shakespeare in Love)

€ Hans Zimmer (The Last Samurai, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Spanglish)

€ Michael Kamen (Band of Brothers)

€ Danny Elfman (Black Beauty)

€ John Williams (Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and scores of others)

€ Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland)

Deborah Raney COMING IN OCTOBER, OVER THE WATERS, a Steeple Hill special release>From WaterBrook Press, A NEST OF SPARROWS, HOLT Medallion Winner

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

JK: Quilting Connections

I had thought perhaps that libraries were that place where women connected best through the years but now I’m thinking it’s in quilting groups. I’m not a quilter by any means but I know many women who are and they’re treasures, every one.

One of the metaphors out of quilting I love best is the definition of a Crazy Quilt as “organized chaos.” When I’m in the final chaos of revisions it feels like organized chaos. I’m most extended then, overcome with clutter and detail, trying to make sure I’ve not changed the eye color of a character half-way through or given her a back story early that I never use. I’m trying to see the big picture while stitching every detail into place. Sometimes it’s as though I’m wearing one of my husband’s work boots on one foot while standing barefoot on the other.

My life seems crazy, a hodge-podge of color and shape and texture but there is order there if I just seek it. Order as in Jeremiah’s words saying God knows the plans he has for us, plans for good, to give us a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11). The offer of an encouraging word just when I needed to hear it. The kindness of strangers lending their teaching skills. The nurture of laughter. These moments that seem disparate really aren’t. They’re patches of a kind, threaded together to form the quilt of who we are.

I was once invited to a quilters retreat to talk about stories in our lives. The women brought their sewing machines and materials and they worked away while I talked about the power of story. A few women convinced me I could quilt and I ended up staying up well past midnight working on a “nine patch” with its blends of green and brown, not colors I usually choose by the way. But I noticed the postcard featuring the cover of my book Hold Tight the Thread that I’d been using as a bookmark was designed in browns and greens and beige. Somewhere in my subconscious when I selected my “fat quarters” to make my little quilt creation my mind chose colors of my story, a book of both holding on and letting go. Out of the chaos of my life came something creatively connected. How serendipitous is that!

I hope you’ll look for the serendipitous moments of your creative day today. That word means “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

Here’s one last tidbit of detail that serendipitously arrived: Blood spilled onto a quilt can be neutralized with the spit of that same bleeding soul. Isn’t that amazing? Our own spit can wash away blood better than water or even some high-tech stain remover. All right, so that may seem like a useless piece of information – unless you’re a quilter who has just spilled her blood on a work of soft art. Then, knowing how to get rid of the stain becomes pretty important.

I don’t remember who wrote it but someone once said that to become a writer all you had to do was “open a vein and bleed over your paper.” So perhaps there are more links to writing and quilting than I’d earlier thought! So sew away.

Jane Kirkpatrick, author of A Land of Sheltered Promise and Homestead.

Monday, October 03, 2005

JSB: Go For Quality Every Time

Dennis Prager, in one of his recent weekly columns, wrote in part:
When my older son was about 8 years old, I was putting him to bed one night and asked him what he learned that day in school. Normally he would answer, as nearly all boys do, by saying, "Nothing." But that night he had an answer.

"I learned I have a yetzer hara," he told me. As a student at a religious Jewish school, he was using the Hebrew term for the desire to do what is wrong. It is basic Jewish theology that the human being has two innate drives -- one for good and one for bad -- and that life is a constant battle with the bad drive. While Christian theology uses different terms, such as "sinful nature," both traditions believe that the greatest battle for a better world is usually with oneself.

Judeo-Christian values have always understood that the world is made better by making people better. On occasion, of course, a great moral cause must be joined. For example, it was religious Christians who led the fight to abolish slavery in Europe and America. But in general, the way to a better society is through the laborious and completely non-glamorous project of making each person more honest, more courageous, more decent, more likely to commit to another person in marriage, more likely to devote more time to raising children, and so on.

JSB: This reminds us that the focus of the Christian artist must also be on making our work better by fighting the urge to do second rate work just because we believe in a cause.
Christian fiction in the 70’s and 80’s was a rare thing. Quality Christian fiction even less available. Many a book at that time was just a sermon wrapped up in cardboard characters, a jeremiad slapped between covers.

Sure, some of the great causes can, and must, be addressed in fiction. Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for instance. Even so, we owe it to our art to make it the best we can every time out.
Those who "write about writing" sometimes get that Moses feeling, like they are coming down from the mountain with tablets. Well, those tablets are probably Tylenol, popped because of another hard stint at the writing desk.

Still, some of us have learned some things over the years, and the urge to set them in stone, at least once, is compelling. Thus, in full humility (which I want everyone to know about) I offer my "10 Commandments for Fiction Writers." (Disclaimer: I did not get these from a burning bush, or even a warm dandelion. They come purely from a fellow traveler).

1. Thou Shalt write every day
This is the first, and greatest, commandment. If you write 500 to 1,000 words each day, you will look up in four or five months and discover you've written a full length novel.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts
Don't edit yourself on your first draft. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story. Your plot and characters will make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and record what happens.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy lead
The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the lead character. Keep turning up the heat.

4. Thou Shalt put a strong opposing force in the lead's way
The opposition must be as strong, or stronger, than the lead.

5. Thou Shalt get thy story running from the first sentence
Start with a person, in a situation of threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start.

6. Thou Shalt create surprises
Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story
Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts
Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin
Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life
Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain a passion for living. Keep writing!

James Scott Bell,