Monday, August 26, 2013

Birth Pains: Breathe, One, Two, Three, Breathe, One, Two, Three

I've often heard that writing a book is like giving birth to a child.

I guess I kind of shrugged off the analogy, never really taking it seriously. Until I actually wrote a couple of books.

When I first sat down to write Broken Crowns, it was fun! Every day, I was filled with the excitement of the story within. A few paragraphs here, a few edits there, imagination on the page--how exciting! I told some friends, basking in the warmth of their congratulations. Everyone was excited for me; most wanted to know the due date. 

A few weeks into it, morning sickness hit. I spent hours, sometimes days, stumped on a plot hole, feeling almost ill as I tried this way and that way and the other way to navigate around it. I lost sleep, lying awake at three in the morning as I tried to work out the kinks of my uncooperative story.

As the ideas finally came together, so did the writing. I fell into a rhythm--second trimester energy! I'd write every day. I had a plan, and the plan flowed almost effortlessly onto the paper. The manuscript gained weight and meat. The end was in sight!

Then, the due date. The manuscript was almost done. Just the last few pages, ramping up to a climactic ending. I couldn't do it. Breathe, just breathe, I'd instruct myself. The strenuous pain of pushing out those last few ideas was so. stinkin'. hard. "Come on, honey," my husband coached. "You can do this. I believe in you!"

Transition arrived. My mind started going crazy; the words started flowing, I couldn't have stopped even if I had wanted to--there was just too much. One hour, two hours, three hours. I wiped the sweat; exhaustion began to set in.

And then it was done. My beautiful, little book. My perfect creation. Sure, it had flaws, but can you ever tell a new mother about the flaws in her baby? Nope.  Page after page of imaginative story, the product of months of planning and hoping and dreaming and exertion and pain and energy.

So now you know why I cry when those inevitable two-star reviews come in on Amazon. I've sent my baby out, and many people will tell me what a beautiful child I'm raising, how they've enjoyed getting to know my child, and I puff up to bursting with pride in my lovely little one. But there are the inevitable nay-sayers that will tell me the things I have done wrong, how I should fix those things that I haven't got right.

So for the tears, can you blame me? For my pride in my work, can you blame me for that either? ;)

Pretty Little Maids was an easier process, as a second child often is. I'd been through the routine, I had it down. But morning sickness still hit. Those silly plot holes still plagued me. When I hit transition, I still sweated and labored and lost sleep as I worked myself to exhaustion to get those last few pages out. But then, it was done. Pretty Little Maids weighed a little less than Broken Crowns--it was almost 20,000 words shorter. But I couldn't compare the two--they were both beautiful in their own unique ways, both representing months of hard work and love of writing.

The due date is almost here for my third child; I'm nervous and excited as I look forward to the moment of truth. It's going to be hard, but I'm resting up for the exertion before the reward that I know is going to come.

Monday, August 19, 2013

WARNING: Prudish Characters on Board!

Deborah Heal is a fellow author and the contributor to this guest post on my blog. I found her article to be poignant to today's fiction, and I hope you enjoy the post as much as I did. Sexual purity in modern fiction is certainly pretty scarce these days, even infiltrating Christian fiction occasionally. I encourage you to check out her website and "like" her Facebook page, found at the bottom of this article.

Writing Christian fiction is not for the faint of heart. As my friend Tom Jones (the pastor not the pop star) recently told me, if you’re going to be a writer you have to grow a thick skin because people will criticize.

A few weeks ago, I received a criticism of my young adult trilogy from a friend of mine who is a deacon in the Episcopal Church. She said that teenagers are going to roll their eyes at my characters Abby and John for their commitment to sexual abstinence. She assured me that mainline denominations believe that concept is misogynous and outdated, and that as long as the couple is mature enough and respect each other enough, sexual activity is suitable and even assumed—especially if they are engaged.* See more below.

A recent (3-star) review of Every Hill and Mountain by SKJAM! REVIEWS closely mirrors her view.

“This book is aimed at the Christian young adult market, so there is quite a bit of God-talk …The sexual prudishness of the protagonists will probably have older teens, particularly ones not raised in more conservative Christian communities, rolling their eyes. Conservative Christian parents, on the other hand, are likely to approve of Abby and John’s chaste relationship.

This same reviewer jumps to the conclusion that the reason my characters are so “prudish” is because they’ve been the victims of an abstinence-only sex ed program. He continues:

“And [Ryan’s] reasoning for having sex with Kate shows the perils of abstinence-only sex ed and purity culture–a more streetwise woman than Kate would have noticed how bogus the logic was.”

Speaking of bogus logic. Modern sex-ed programs do everything but assist teens into bed with so-called “safe sex” instructions. It is the abstinence-only programs that teach girls (and boys) to be “street smart,” to warn them of the perils of listening to their hormones talking.

Of course, I was quite conscious as I wrote the trilogy that our culture has taken the position that abstinence is passé, uncool, unnecessary, and an impossibility. (And possibly even dangerous to the health of its practitioners.) No one could watch contemporary TV or movies or read secular novels without realizing that “dating” (if the word is used at all) equates with a sexual relationship. Actually, “relationship” itself equates with sexual activity.

And I knew that many contemporary mainline denominations are silent about what the Bible says about sexual purity. My deacon friend actually asserts the Bible doesn’t even teach this.

But I have to admit I’m more than a little shocked that this reviewer and especially my deacon friend would find Abby and John’s commitment to abstinence a negative. After all, even if you believe that it is impossible to live a sexually pure life wouldn’t you still want novels to present this ideal to teenagers? I would say that although it is impossible to fully live up to any of the Bible’s commands we still need to hear what they are. (And turn to Christ as the law’s fulfillment.)

I once read an article in which young people had been interviewed about teen novels that adults write for them. More than one complained that adults seemed only to write about teens having sex and using alcohol and drugs. “We think about more than that,” one girl said. “We think about lots of other things, important things.”

I respect that and try to offer teens substance in my books. I believe they are looking for heroes and role models such as my fictional characters, Abby and John. I disagree that my characters are sexually repressed prudes. Here is the passage from Every Hill and Mountain that apparently offended my critics. Abby and Kate’s boyfriends are stuck at Abby’s house and spend the night downstairs in the living room. During the night, an emergency comes up and Abby must find her boyfriend John quickly.

The tricky part would be finding John. Pat had brought a sleeping bag from the hall closet for him, but Abby had no idea where he put it. Other than the soft snores coming from the vicinity of the couch, the room was completely quiet.
She discovered the answer to her question when a hand came out of the darkness and grabbed her ankle. She stumbled and landed on a warm chest. A bare warm chest, from which came a soft whoosh of air. Right after the whoosh, a large hand covered her mouth. The precaution was unnecessary. She had recognized John’s cologne and knew in an instant that it was no nightmare monster attacking her.
He put his mouth to her ear and whispered, “What are you doing here? I thought [Ryan] Turner was the one planning on nighttime shenanigans.”
Abby pulled his hand away from her mouth and tried for indignant, which was difficult when whispering. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Roberts. If I was inclined to get into your bed, and I’m not, it wouldn’t be with Ryan in the room.”
“Well, you are in fact in my bed, and you’d better get out of it quick. I know the Bible says God will never give us any temptation stronger than what we can handle, but…”
“Just to be clear, you are the one who dragged me into your bed, and—”
“Abby. Please. Have pity. What is it you want?”
If felt wonderful being in John’s arms, but she had promised him and God that she wouldn’t intentionally tempt him to break his commitment—their commitment—to abstinence.
“Come up to the computer room,” she whispered. “There’s something you have to see.” And then she rose less than gracefully and stood looking down at him. “And don’t wake Ryan.”

I think they’re being heroic, not prudish. After all, they certainly think sex together would be pretty wonderful. Consider another passage that exemplifies the thinking more typical of our culture today. Here, Abby’s friend Kate tries to convince her that premarital sex is okay.

“Ryan said virginity is like a tamper-proof seal on a bottle of aspirin. It’s meant for the man you’re going to marry. And now that we know we’re getting married, what’s the point of waiting. You’ll see when you’re engaged, Abby.” Kate turned on her side away from her. “Let’s get some sleep.”
Abby lay staring up at the blinking red smoke detector light on the dark ceiling, wondering if she even really knew her roommate any more.

How sad that Kate has fallen for that line. It’s not that she lacks “street smarts.” She just forgot to run away from temptation, something that John becomes quite adept at in Unclaimed Legacy.

It would be wonderful if everyone who read my books loved them (and posted glowing reviews for them.) But as they say, you can’t please all the people all the time. However, I really listen to every comment I receive about my books, whether positive or negative. Sometimes I learn some pretty good stuff that will help me to be a better writer.

But not this time. I pray that I will remain firm in my commitment to please God rather than reviewers.

By the way, I am a prudish and happy member of a radical, extremist, and conservative denomination that still believes premarital sex is sin.

*But back to mainline denominations. Is my deaconess friend even right about their teachings on sex? Do you have experience with such churches? I sincerely would like to know their various positions on sex. Wait! that came out wrong. I mean, I would like to understand what churches are teaching about sex today. You may leave your answer in the comment section of my blog. Click here to go to the article.

You can read more about my books by clicking on this link.

History, Faith, and Fiction Woven Together
“Particularly interesting is how the past and the present are woven together to bring history to life and to make the story complete.”
--Amazon Reviewer

To that reviewer and others who said similar things, I say, “Thank you, very much. I do try to be a good weaver.” 

I loved researching the "Olden Days" for my young adult trilogy. It would have been so much easier to do if I could go back in time to see what it was really like. The characters in my books find a weird computer program that lets them do just that. Abby calls it "time-surfing." It's only virtual time travel because I didn't want them to accidentally mess up the whole space-time continuum thing. But it's amazing all the same. 

Some Christians might be a bit uncomfortable about this fantasy concept of time-surfing. But as Brother Greenfield says in 
Every Hill and Mountain, "Our God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Hallelujah! If he wants to give us a gift like that, he can.” 

It's an amazing gift, all right. Except sometimes Abby and her friends learn more than they ever wanted to know about people from the past. Still, studying their lives of people teaches them about God's love and goodness in a new way. From the distance that only time gives, they clearly see that God has a plan for his people, that He's in the business of redemption, that He makes all things new. I hope my readers get that. Writing about it reminded me, too. 

Deborah Heal, the author of the Time and Again time travel mystery series, was born not far from the setting of her book 
Every Hill and Mountain and grew up “just down the road” from the setting of Time and Again. Today she lives with her husband in Waterloo, Illinois, where she enjoys reading, gardening, and learning about regional history. She has three grown children, three grandchildren, and two canine buddies Digger and Scout (a.k.a. Dr. Bob). She loves to interact with her readers, who may learn more about the history behind the books at her website and her Facebook author page.

Friday, August 16, 2013

My Story

It's been almost a year since I signed my first publishing contract on my first book. I can still remember the pure adrenaline that shot through my body when I pulled in the email from my editor saying that they would like to publish my book.

All my life, for as far back as I can remember, I've loved to write. I've also loved to read. I remember when I was in the first grade, I had checked out The Boxcar Children from the library and read it through. I loved it so much, and there was a limit on how many times I could renew it. So, instead of having to return it and check it out over and over and over again, I sat down with my notebook and a pen and copied the book word-for-word from the page so I could return the original to the library and read my own copy. I think I made it through chapter 3 before a massive hand cramp and suppertime stopped my progress.

I doodled my own little manuscripts over the years to come, enjoying the free reign of letting my imagination take me. Some were shorter pieces, some longer, all ludicrously juvenile (at least from an adult's perspective). But when I wrote those pieces, I looked on them as master works, evidences of art that took a lot of sweat and grit and determination.

I wrote my first full-length novel, Broken Crowns, in 2006 during my lunch breaks at the law office where I was a receptionist. Like my more juvenile pieces, when I was finished, I felt a surge of satisfaction. An entire book, all 89,000 words of it, sat there on my Microsoft Word, the reflection of months of unleashed imagination. Of course, the next step was publication, right?

With the zeal of a never-before-published author, I submitted my book to all the biggest publishing houses I could think of, then sat back to wait for what I was sure would be an enthusiastic response. I was hoping for Bethany House, but I was sure Zondervan or Tyndale would probably pick it up. I was crushed when the rejection form letters started rolling in. Not even a hand-written acknowledgement of my hard work. Just a note that looked like it had been copied a million times and stuffed in envelopes and sent out.

2006 passed and 2007 rolled around. I was busy; my husband and I were missionaries in Ireland that year. I continued to send out proposals with no more fruition than my first attempts. I started looking at smaller publishing companies, but still, no bites. At last, I put Broken Crowns on a flash drive, stuffed it away in our files and discarded my dream. 

2008, 2009, 2010, and 11, and 12 passed. I had three children; where in the world would I have found time to write anyway? Then one day I noticed an old friend of mine from years ago had sent a notice to an online writer's group of which I was a member, advertising that she was a publisher now and was looking for manuscripts. The rejection from years ago rolled over me, and I almost deleted the comment right then. 

What could it hurt, though, really? So I dug out my flash drive, plugged it in, and sent the first three chapters as requested without much hope at all. When her response came back that she was interested in the entire manuscript, I was elated.

The rest follows naturally. She published me, which lit a jet-engine under my long-buried writing aspirations. I started immediately on a second book in the series, finished it in three months, and published Pretty Little Maids six months after Broken Crowns had come out. 

Of course, my writing continues now as I work on the first book of another series, as well as a third book in the first series.

Looking back, I had thought that each of my works, as I finished them, was the pinnacle of success. I had done a hard job, I had finished the work, and the stories were just so incredibly good. *snort* As I look back now, I have to laugh at them, but I realize in the middle of all that work, I was just growing. Learning. Figuring out my craft. Broken Crowns was a break-through, sure, but it was still a learning experience. Pretty Little Maids improves on it, but is still far from perfection.

I wonder . . . do we ever reach perfection? I don't think so. I think no matter how well I do, or how well something is written, there will always be something I could have done better. In some ways, that could be discouraging, but in other ways, it pushes me to keep striving for the best.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Shadow Here, A Reality There

I love the Twilight books.

I am not a Twi-hard in the sense that I have watched all the movies (most, not all), collected all the merchandise, gone ga-ga over Robert Pattinson or shown up at midnight viewings of the films, but I have read all the books. Several times. And I've thoroughly enjoyed them.

I'm not going to go into the oft-repeated debate about whether Stephanie Meyer is a good writer or not. Sick to death of reading/hearing it. She wrote a riveting story. I loved the story. The end.

A few days ago, our church lost a beloved woman to an aggressive battle with leukemia. It was short-lived and quick, and she was gone, leaving a hole in many, many people's hearts. This morning, as I was getting myself ready for the day, I was thinking about this woman and the many gifts with which she blessed the church. She impressed me so much each time I saw her in church. She always remembered my children's names, all three of them. She always asked how they were doing, if my oldest was doing well in preschool, how my middle child was doing as the only boy, etc. etc. Little details that most people don't take the trouble to ask about, much less think about, and come back later asking for more.

Her gift, to our family, was caring. She really cared about our kids, even though we weren't necessarily in the inner circle of her friends.

I wondered this morning as I was thinking of her how much more pronounced that gift of caring is in heaven; if here on earth, that's just a shadow of what her real gift is in heaven.

In Twilight, for those of you who haven't read it, or don't care to, let me summarize. The Cullens are a family of vampires who resist the "normal" way of vampire living, choosing instead to live as vampire-vegetarians - for lack of a better word - choosing to eat only animals, and thus, co-existing with humans in an almost normal fashion. Each of the Cullens have a "gift" of sorts. Edward can hear the thoughts of most humans around him. Alice can read the future, though granted, since the future is always changing depending on a person's decision, her gift is pretty subjective. Jasper can calm people around him by simply being in the same room with them. Carlisle has a gift for healing. Esme, a tremendous ability to love. Emmet has brute strength, and Rosalie is stubborn to a fault. 

Before each of these characters were transformed into their vampire state, they each had propensities for these gifts. Edward, in his human form, had been exceptionally sensitive toward people's thoughts and feelings around him. Alice had had a form of precognition. Jasper was a persuasive leader with a lot of influence over other people, etc. etc. etc.

As I thought of this woman in our church this morning, and as I delved yet again into another read-through of Twilight, I wondered what my "gift" would be. I doubt very much that our "ministry" to others is done when we get to heaven. I think we will still use the gifts God gave us as we worship Him in eternity, still serving, still loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.

Perhaps I'll be the pianist in the heavenly southern gospel choir. Maybe I'll be a scribe. Whatever God's continuing plan for me is after I've finished my blip of time here on this planet, I'm super excited to see what comes next. 'Cause, since God planned it, it's going to be a good one. :)