Monday, September 26, 2005

JK: No Mountain To Climb

When my sister was very ill she told me one day that when you’re going through a hard time, it’s difficult to concentrate long enough to read an entire book. So I’d call her and give her little things to think about, metaphors of rocks, rivers and earth or everyday things she could consider to giver her encouragement. For instance I told her that the word family came from the Latin word famalus meaning servant hoping to ease that guilt sick people often carry as they watch others meet their needs. Or I reminded her that what brings on the bloom of a flower is not the quality of the soil or the amount of rain or fertilizer or even that a stake gets placed beside the plant before its really needed, to help it weather winds. What brings on the bloom is the lengthening of the days, the increase exposure to the sun. Despite her illness, she was still working toward that bloom and there were still things she could do which brought meaning to her life and the lives of her children.

She said those thoughts helped her and after she died (she passed away at the age of 55 so I am now “the older sister.”), I put them together into a small book initially published as A Burden Shared. After 10,000 copies, it went out of print and then Harvest House picked it up and reissued it with lovely photographs and re-titled it as A Simple Gift of Comfort. I often read from that book at the close of presentations whether to the Western States Juvenile Justice Directors or the European Council of International Schools or a small book group. I’m always amazed at how the words seem to touch people, how they comment on those thoughts long afterwards. I suspect that if we knew everything about our audiences, we’d discover that each person is in a hard place, struggling perhaps not with life or death issues, but struggling to be good parents, good employees, good caregivers, good servants, and welcoming words of comfort.
The piece that receives the most comment I offer here today to each of you as Christian writers. “You don’t have to climb the mountain today, only find the footholds that will greet you in the morning. You don’t have to graduate today, only take that first class. You don’t have to write a novel, just pen a paragraph. Somehow we seem to think we must have faith enough to finish before we first begin.

We gain by just beginning, take on new strength with each small step, even if we have to later change our course. Clarity and direction rise from the swirl of indecision; courage and potency appear through the malaise of unworthiness and woe. Your faith need not be strong enough to finish, only adequate to embark. We can take the next first step together.

Jane Kirkpatrick, award-winning author of A Land of Sheltered Promise and Homestead, (October, 2005).

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

DR: Reviewing Reviews

I’m stinging a little right now from a less than glowing review of my new book. Never mind that this reviewer did say a few nice things about my story. Never mind that another publication gave the same book a bunch-and-a-half of stars. Never mind that I just got a letter from a reader who said “[after reading your book] my heart is full of God's love, forgiveness and redemption as I haven't experienced for a while.” Never mind that I know in my heart that my worth is not tied up in what one reviewer thinks of my book.

For now, all I can think about are those few pithy phrases that call my talents as a writer into question. It doesn’t help that one of my overly adverbized and adjective-ized sentences straight from the book is glaringly quoted right there in stark black and white, shockingly proving the acutely perceptive reviewer’s point. And it sure doesn’t help that the review came out the day before I got on an airplane and headed to a conference to teach an eager group of aspiring authors how to write well. Ouch.

What I’m trying to remember is that reviews are part of the territory for writers. Most of us have received at least one or two unflattering—or even scathing—reviews in our careers. This wasn’t my first and it won’t be my last. In the past, whether I’ve agreed with the reviewer or not, I have to admit that my writing has probably improved far more as a result of what I took to heart from bad reviews than what I took to heart from rave reviews.

If I choose to believe every praiseful word of the occasional reviewer who thinks I hung the moon— Whoa! Stop right there. That’s a dangerous place to go in itself. For you see, (and I’m sure this comes as no surprise to many of you) I did not hang the moon. But oh, how easily a few flowery words can persuade me that maybe I had a little something to do with it.

You know, my editors could say the very things this reviewer said and I would cheerfully run to my computer to fix my mistakes…before anyone else could see them. Ah. So now I see the source of this sting. It’s pride. Yep, full circle, back to my pride.

So I reluctantly conclude that I’m far better off taking the glowing reviews with a grain of salt, and paying sharp attention to the reviews that remind me there’s room for improvement and I have not arrived, nor probably will I this side of Heaven.

Will someone please remind me of that next time I’m pouting about a bad review?

Deborah Raney, author of A Nest of Sparrows and Over the Waters

Monday, September 19, 2005

JK: Knowing, Not Just Believing

There are some moments in a life when, to paraphrase psychiatrist Carl Jung, we “don’t just believe, we know.” Maybe it’s the day we simply knew we’d be hired for a job. A day in 1994 stands out for me, a day I came upon an old Oregon Trail diary and the quote that forms the basis for the Kinship and Courage Historical Series. “Today we men wagons turned east the Oregon Trail, all driven by women their men having died and been buried on the trail.” I turned to my husband and said, “Now there’s a story!” I knew someday I’d write about it, just not when.

Surprisingly, when I’d tell women about that quote, they’d gasp and say, “What do you think happened? At what point did those women know that life as they knew it had ended and that they couldn’t go home to the home they’d left?” When I’d tell men they’d usually grunt and say, “Sounds kind of depressing, all the men died. Who’d want to read about that?” Since women buy 85% of the books but men make 85% of the publishing decisions, I knew I needed to find another way to talk about that story.

It came to me one day that this wasn’t a story about men dying, it was a story of triumph. When we get bad news – when someone says I don’t love you anymore or you’re being laid off, or we get that dreaded call in the night telling us someone we love has died – we want to turn back from that wilderness place. But we don’t get to and it’s a mark of our character how we allow others to help us in our vulnerable places, help us find new direction, to turn around, again, to overcome in this wilderness place.

A screenwriter might call that place of knowing, the “turning point.” Some call it “the defining moment.” That moment of knowing does something for us, something that takes us beyond merely speculating or considering and wallowing in the place of head thoughts where we are allowed to hesitate and stay the same. Knowing permits us to move, to act and to resist the negative voices saying, “Who would want to read that kind of story?”

C.S Lewis once wrote that we find God only in the present. I believe – no, I know – that God wants us not to simply sit and vegetate, not to rest forever on the warm white sands of a vacationing mind, but to know, truly know that He is with us, that we are not alone in this writing journey. And in our knowing we can act, and our stories will be the light in a sometimes dark and dreary world.

“Stand at the crossroads and choose,” writes the prophet Jeremiah in Chapter 6:16. “Ask for the ancient ways. Ask for the good way and walk in it. And you shall find rest for your souls.” There it is, really, all captured for us as it must have been for those eleven wagons of women along the Oregon Trail. Choose. Look to our pasts, to all that has been given and accomplished, to the evidence of God’s presence in our lives.

This day, I hope you’ll not just believe in what you’re writing but will know of its importance. I hope today to not just to believe, but to know this was the story I was supposed to tell and get on with the telling.

Jane Kirkpatrick, author of A Land of Sheltered Promise and Homestead (out October, 2005).

Thursday, September 15, 2005

BJH: More Than Memories

Let's pretend: You're resting in the mall after a shop-till-you-drop day–and you've dropped. Your feet hurt, your back aches, your head throbs. So you're having a latte while you sit there on one of the little white benches, indulging in what writers do involuntarily--or voluntarily, depending on your state of consciousness: you're people-watching.

You're slightly brain-dead, so at this stage everyone who happens by looks pretty ordinary. Not uninteresting--just ordinary. And it's rather a relief, no one catching your attention or sparking your imagination enough to make you start digging for your notebook. You're too tired, too wrung out to work.

But then--there she is. Someone who not only captures your attention but rivets it. She's young--probably no more than sixteen if that-–wearing an over-sized t-shirt and dirty jeans. As I said, she's young, but her eyes are old. Her mouth is hard, even angry. Her misery couldn't be more obvious if she were wearing a sign.

Your attention leaves the girl and fastens on the toddler she's dragging along--and she's literally "dragging" him. A little boy--perhaps two or a few months more. Dark curly hair, enormous brown eyes, dimples. He's adorable. Or at least he would be, if he were clean and his face weren't tracked by tears and smudges where he's been rubbing his eyes. He can't keep up with his (1) mother; (2) older sister; (3) aunt; (4) babysitter. He keeps looking up at her as if to explain that he's doing his best, he's trying not to lag behind, and why is she so angry with him anyway? Somehow those pleading looks arrow right to your heart.

You notice that his mother--you're a writer, and writers tend to make assumptions, so you assume the girl he's with is his mother--doesn't look at him. Her focus is straight ahead, but you sense she's really not looking where she's going. Instead, she's thinking about getting the boy home, where she can plunk him down for a nap and grab some sleep herself before time to go to work. Or maybe she's been searching for a job and this has been just another day of finding nothing. Or she's berating herself for getting into this fix in the first place--if she'd been smarter, she'd have made him marry her somehow. Or ... she might be thinking that she could just take the boy into the department store and leave him there to become someone else's problem while she runs, chasing the freedom she's never tasted, the youth her child has stolen from her.

Every few steps she gives the little boy another hard yank and a harsh scolding, and he wails a little louder. But he keeps looking up at her as if he's trying--desperately trying--to communicate with her, to let her know he wants to please her, and not understanding why she's unhappy with him ... again.

They're a spectacle, the two of them, hauling down the mall, both disheveled and visibly upset, the toddler crying, the mother spewing her fury at him. People turn and look with indignant or accusing stares that say they'd like to call Children's Services right there on the spot. The same thought crosses your mind. You're disturbed enough that you collect your shopping bags and get up to follow them. Even though you're walking behind, you can sense the girl's rage and the child's bewilderment and terror. His pain.

Your own emotions are doing battle: you're torn between compassion for the child, a longing to rescue him, and a natural outrage at the mother for her coldness, her harsh treatment of her little boy. Yet on another level you can't help but wonder just exactly what their situation is, and you even feel a nudge of pity for the young girl who's clearly in over her head. A child with a child.

Depending on which is stronger–-your outrage or your Good Samaritan instinct--you'll either hail a security guard and hope he can at least persuade the mother to calm down, or else you'll give up the pursuit and find another bench, where you'll sit and pray for them, the mother and the child.

But whatever else you do, do this: dig your notebook out of your purse. Yes, the notebook, the one you always carry with you and wouldn't be without. (You're a writer, remember? Writers always carry notebooks. Or AlphaSmarts. Or handhelds. Or something that will put words down for keeps.) Now, write down what you just witnessed. You don't have to get too detailed, just a sketch. But--and this is the important part--write down how the scene you just witnessed affected you. What you felt. The initial confusion. The subsequent anger and outrage. The heartache for the little boy. The attempt to understand the mother. The compassion for both of them. The urge to pray.

"But I'm not working on anything remotely like this." Most likely you're not. Perhaps you never will. But at some point there will almost certainly be a scene that calls for at least some of the emotions you've just experienced. Outrage. Anger. Heartache. Pity. Compassion. Your characters may bear no resemblance whatsoever to the mother and child you saw today. That's not important. It's the feelings you need to capture, the feelings that were running through you in such a torrent you found it difficult to contain them or control them. Record what this scene did to you--and then one day you can mine that notebook for these same emotions and use them for a scene in your novel, a scene with which you're struggling, struggling with feelings you can't quite capture solely out of your imagination.

For the writer, memories-–any kind of memories–-aren't so much about recalling what happened as remembering how you felt when it happened ... and retaining those feelings for future reference. This is one way that God can filter through your writing genuine emotion, emotion that's truthful and real, the kind of emotion your readers can experience with the characters in the same way you experienced it.

For a reader to work through a character's struggle and share the emotions inherent to that struggle in ways that will resonate long after the novel has been returned to the shelf, the emotion has to be real, without a glaze of the artificial or contrived. And to avoid the plastic feelings and reactions that all too often distinguish a novel's characters, or to guard against the maudlin and overly sentimental writing frequently used to evoke emotion from the reader, the writer needs to be well-acquainted with the honest emotions that his characters experience.

This "memory notebook" can prove to be a veritable treasure chest of stored emotions and "real feelings" from which to draw whenever needed.

It's also an intriguing look at how the Spirit of God sometimes brings life and art together to speak to others, even while providing a barometer of your own heart.

-BJ Hoff, author of An American Anthem and An Emerald Ballad

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

JSB: Champions

The other night I watched one of the greatest tennis matches I've ever seen. At the U.S. Open in New York, 35-year-old legend Andre Agassi bounced from way back to defeat a 25 year old sensation, James Blake. I almost turned it off after the first 2 sets, which Agassi lost 6-3, 6-3. It looked to be a blowout. But then...from somewhere deep down, Agassi pulls out the third set. Still, he had never won at the Open after losing the first two sets. Then again, after having his back against the wall, he wins set number four, and we go to the final set.

Blake then comes back, and pulls ahead, serving to win the set -- a big advantage. But Agassi AGAIN finds a way to break serve. He makes incredible shots. Blake does too. It's as even as can be, so at 6-6 they go to the tie-breaker.

Agassi loses the first three points. Blake only needs three more to win. Agassi once more fights back. And, amazingly, wins the tie-break 7-5. He's moving on to the semi-finals, at an age when most pro tennis players are coaching kids.

But this was not the best part of the match. That came in the post match interview.
Agassi and Blake stood together out on the court with a reporter. James Blake was gracious, complimenting Andre Agassi, saying he was grateful just to have been part of this match, and the U.S. Open. Then Agassi humbly said the true winner was not himself, but tennis. He thanked the fans for staying, and complimented James Blake for being such a great competitor and athlete.

In this world of self-promoting, trash talking, felony committing, millionaire whining, steroid taking professional athletes, these two were a breeze of cleansing air.

It's an old idea, sportsmanship. But it's one of the things that made our society civilized. I think it's time for a comeback.

Books are another important item in our civilization. And a certain kind of "sportsmanship" is necessary here as well. Authors must respect their readers. How do you do that?

--You constantly improve your craft. My bookshelf is stuffed with writing books, which I return to constantly for reminders and renewed inspiration.

--You write a story that engages you emotionally, on some level. An old saying is "If there are no tears in the writer, there will be no tears in the reader." Never settle for surface level.

--You show "grace being offered" (see my previous post)

--You take some risks. Don't settle for same-old same-old. My buddy Angie Hunt is a perfect example. Talk about expecting the unexpected! Another pal, Lisa Samson, is the same way with a different kind of literature. In any genre, you can make a literary adventure.

Do these things the way Andre Agassi plays tennis. Dig deep, write hard, and when you're finished with your book, no matter where it lands, you'll be able to say you gave it your all. That's what champions are made of.

James Scott Bell, author of Sins of the Fathers

Friday, September 09, 2005

JK: September 11 . . .

We all have our 9/11 stories. Mine came from a reader who attended my signing at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, the world’s largest independent bookstore. We’d been trying for years to have them host me there and it was finally scheduled – for a Monday, right after 9/11.

We didn’t expect many people. Folks weren’t gathering in public places. But nearly 100 people showed up (maybe because no airlines flew and people were stuck in Portland; or maybe they felt safe surrounded by books).
At the end of my reading, a woman told me this story. She’d read everything I’d written and had heard me speak a time or two. Since then, she said she’d been taking more risks, remembering that I said our lives are the stories that others read first. “There’s a Pakistani family living at the end of my street,” she said. “I’ve never met them. But since the Twin Tower attacks, they haven’t come out of their house. The shades are drawn. I thought how frightened they must be. I remembered your words, that when we feel powerless there are always two things we can do: get clear about what matters and have the courage to act on that.”

What mattered to her was expressing Christian compassion to a Muslim family. “I decided what I could do was bake bread. I took a loaf and knocked on their door.”

They invited her in, shared tea with her and they broke bread together, their conversations stilted only by the language barrier. She had shared what she could and with courage stepped into the unknown.

I’m not sure what she read in my novels that gave her that clarity. But as Christian writers, we hope our work will move people, that they’ll incorporate the story at some deeper level than where we’ve written.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I’m told that many search dogs had to be retired because they became so despondent and depressed when they found no survivors. So to encourage the dogs, volunteers buried themselves in the rubble so that they could be found.

That image brings me tears for I believe that’s what Christian writers do in part. We agree to bury ourselves in our character’s disappointments, fears, hungers and feelings of despair in order to reflect Christ’s suffering and choice to bury himself in life’s rubble for each of us. And when people find Him in our work, they are encouraged that there is a way through life’s trials, there is light, there is reason to keep searching. They find that joy in the discovery of the light and love we reflect. As writers, we too must bury ourselves in the struggles but in the process, we’re lifted from that rubble and brought closer to His light as well.

That reader who took her bread down the street answered in contemporary terms that ancient question: “Who is my neighbor, Lord?” She searched through the rubble of her own fears and anxieties and let Christ help her find a way to bring refreshment to someone in a foreign land.

Jane Kirkpatrick Author of A Land of Sheltered Promise