Amazon Customer Reviews on the Bible: Putting Criticism into Perspective

3 star review

Receiving a long awaited publishing contract is a euphoric feeling. It’s also terrifying for someone like me, a recovering people-pleaser.

recovering people pleaser

I love absolutely everything about the creative process. From spinning a story world into existence, breathing characters to life or muddling through their spiritual and emotional transformations, I find the entire journey exhilarating. I even love the grueling grind of editing. (Most days, at least.)

With my debut release scheduled for summer of 2018, life is a whirlwind of excitement. Edits and marketing plans, launch teams and beta readers, book covers and website designs. So much to take in. So much that should be overwhelming me. But there’s only one aspect of the coming year that causes my knees to knock. When my amazing author relations manager at Tyndale asked me if there was anything she could pray about for me, I confessed the issue that continues to keep me paralyzed in fear…the dreaded approach of reviews.

fear

Writing is a tough gig, especially when you consider you’re putting your deepest thoughts and musings out for everyone to see. It’s an open invitation for anyone to take a peek inside your most vulnerable, shadowed places. And people, as we all know, judge. For a recovering people pleaser, the very idea is terrifying. The thought of someone not liking my book sinks a stone to the bottom of my stomach. Even worse is the idea of receiving scathing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. My head knows it’s not possible for everyone to think my story is the best thing ever written, but my heart is having a hard time preparing.

As I was wrestling with my fear, I began mulling over the classics. How did the world’s best selling authors react to criticism? As I googled “best selling books of all time”, God reminded me of something very important. I think most of us know what the number one best seller is, right? No, not Gone with the Wind or Ben-Hur or To Kill a Mockingbird. The biggest blockbuster to ever sweep planet earth was, and still is, the Bible.HolyBible

As I sat in my chair, a smile lifted my mouth. What would it be like if the Bible had Amazon reviews? Could you see people writing them in? “I really tried hard to get into this book but all those begats in Matthew 1….what was this guy thinking?” Or maybe, “From a historical perspective, this book was highly accurate but around the section called Judges things got weird. Too gory. Two stars for me. And don’t even get me started on The Song of Solomon.”

Out of curiosity, I braved a look on Amazon. Imagine my amusement to find the Bible has thousands of reviews. Some of them related to binding and aesthetic features from the individual publishing houses, but some actually about its content. Goodreads was even more divisive.

What’s my point?

If God’s perfect, holy, inerrant, divinely-breathed Word receives a wide slew of reviews, ranging from five stars all the way down to a “one star, do not buy”, I have no reason to be ashamed if my book is lumped in as the same. Truth is divisive. Creativity and art attracts some and repels others. What brings life to one may cause another to shrug and walk away. That’s okay. My job is write. God handles the results.

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Jesus wasn’t concerned about whether he made everyone happy. The fact is, He spoke the truth at all times, knowing that doing so would deliberately offend the religious hypocrites of the day. So be it. He came to do the will of the Father and only the will of the Father. Nothing more, nothing less.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. This is for any facet of our lives. When God calls us to do something out of our comfort zone, it may be, well, uncomfortable. Sometimes divisive. It may cause people to look at the world in a new way. If I’m worried about whether everyone likes my book or not, I’m missing the point. I cannot find my worth, my value or anything else based on the fickle applause of man. That is an ever changing idol that will leave me empty and wounded…an ever-moving target, impossible to hit.

target and arrow

I write to discover my own shadowed places. I write to please the Author of Life. I write because I love and want to share that love in return. To some, the story will fall on hard hearts and deaf ears. Some will find it a nice tale. Some will find it life-changing. There is beauty in all of it. I need only be faithful.

Thousands may be watching, but I live for an audience, and the approval, of One.

Are you a people pleaser? How has it affected your life? What do you do to combat it on a daily basis? I would love to hear!

 

 

Pursuing Dreams

It’s an odd thing to see a long awaited dream fulfilled.

You reach, you pray, you cry, you plan, you anguish and lament, you work and beg, and pray some more. Hoping, wondering. Sometimes, your focus can become muddled. That was the case for me a few years ago. My dream was to become a published author. An admirable goal, especially since I wanted to write stories that pointed people towards Jesus, right?

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The problem with dreams, with any dream, is they can become gods if we let them.

In all my dream striving, I lost my joy and instead became plagued with despair. God tenderly revealed to me I was pursuing the dream more than I was pursuing Him.

Pause. Time for a heart check and reevaluation. My prayers changed. Instead of asking God for a publishing contract, I asked Him to help me write stories He could bless. I asked Him to reveal my own wounds and give me the courage to expose them to His healing light…and then have the audacity to write about the scars afterwards.

He did.

I’m happy to announce I recently signed a three book contract with Tyndale House Publishers! me-signing-contract-with-tyndale-houseThe very first book of this Civil War series, Engraved on the Heart, will be released sometime around May of 2018. Books two and three, tentatively titled Where Dandelions Bloom and Cadence’s Song will follow in 2019 and 2020. I have no idea why God has blessed me so, but I’m typing this through tears, still amazed. To be among such talented authors like Francine Rivers, Candace Calvert, Rachelle Dekker, Allison Pittman, Joel C. Rosenberg, Diann Mills, Lisa Wingate, among numerous others, is humbling. And to work with Tyndale’s incredible editors, artists and businessmen leaves me in shock. I’m so thankful to God for their willingness to embrace me with open arms. When God said, “Yes”, He said yes in a big way.

I’m excited to step foot on this new adventure, yet I pray I don’t lose sight of the beautiful lesson He’s taught me during the past few years of waiting.

The world will tell you to reach for your dreams before time runs out. God says to trust Him because His timing is perfect. The world says the only way to be more is to work harder, push, do, strive. God says if you’ve given yourself to Him, you are His child and heir. Your identity is already rock solid. (Rom. 8:15-17) The world says the only way to reach your dreams is to become a better multi-tasker. Cram in more. Do it all and have it all. God says to be still. He will give you rest. The world issues demands and still, many people never see the fulfillment of their dreams. God promises if you delight yourself in Him, He will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4) road

Goals are wonderful things, but they are not the destination. True satisfaction and lasting joy can only be found at the feet of Christ. Jesus is not walking with me towards a dream. He is my dream. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Check out Tyndale publishers here. www.tyndale.com

A Writer’s Prayer

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Lord, thank You for the gift of language. Thank You for written words that connect and reveal Your heart to ours. Thank you for the gift of creativity. The way Your Spirit moves through the realm of the unseen muse is a precious gift.

I lift up my words, my written thoughts, my stories on the altar to You, Lord. I do not idolize them, Father, or think they are without flaw, for like me they are messy and tainted by sin. Yet I offer all that I have and yield it to You. In my weakness, show Yourself strong. Where I fail to understand, teach me. When criticism shreds my heart, remind me my heart is to beat for You alone.

Take these feeble words and work Your perfect plan. Spin and weave them into a dance that reveals Your love to hurting souls. Remind me that I cannot continue to fist these words in my hands, even loosely, and still lay them on the altar. Help me surrender all control to You.

I kneel before You in awe of what You are going to do. You are the Author of Life, my Redeemer and King. I love you, Lord. Amen.

 

 

Writing and Living From Your Scars

by Tara Johnson

I was recently asked to give an aspiring writer my best piece of writing advice. I could have told her to study the craft, which is extremely important, or given her a list of blog and books to follow. Also important. Or I could have given her a checklist of a thousand other steps to pursue her dream, but after much thought, I gave her my best piece of advice: write from your scars.

Let me explain.

crying boyNot long ago, my two year old son fell outside on the driveway and scraped up his hand. At the sound of his wailing, his sisters and I ran to his side. When the girls tried to convince him to let them see, he covered the scrape with his chubby fingers and jerked away from them with a teary scowl. Why? Because he didn’t trust them with his boo-boo. He’d been victim of their teasing enough to wonder if they were trust worthy. Would they tease him? Laugh at him for being melodramatic? Unintentionally make the hurt worse by poking and probing? No, letting them see was too risky.

What do we do with a wound? Usually we try to hide it.

But when I walked up and knelt down in front of him with sympathy, he finally uncovered his injured hand to let me examine the damage. He trusted me not to hurt him anymore than he’d already been wounded.

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And here’s the thing…there was no way for me to give him the help he needed until I could understand how severe his injury was. Once he was brave enough to lift his chubby fingers away from his wound, I could begin to treat it. Because he trusted me, I was able to wash it, clean it with hydrogen peroxide, bandage it and kiss it until his tears subsided and he was playing once more.

This is a beautiful parallel to what happens in our own lives. Because we live as messy people in a broken world, we all have wounds. Some are bigger than others. Some have cuts deeper than others. Some of us have lived with the crippling shame of sexual, verbal or physical abuse. Some of us have been told we’re unwanted or unloved. Some of us can’t seem to shake depression or are mourning the loss of a loved one. Some of us have a childhood that we barely survived or an adulthood that has left us disillusioned and depressed. Some of us are victims of our own horrible mistakes.

And just like Nate covering his scraped palm, or dealing with a throbbing finger that has faced the fury of a wayward hammer strike, we cover our hurt, wrapping our fingers around the searing pain, keeping it concealed, restrained and locked away from prying eyes. We don’t want anyone to see, anyone to know. The pain is too deep, the vulnerability too precarious.

But here’s the thing…God can’t heal what we are unwilling to expose to him.

When we are brave enough to come to Him with all of our shame and broken pieces, His light and love can start to heal those nasty wounds. He is our safe place. A Daddy who lovingly cleans the wound and kisses the sting away.

What happens with a deep wound when it finally heals? Yep. It leaves a scar.

scars

Scars tell a story. They are proof that you were wounded and survived. Writing from your scars, for that matter, living from your scars gives hope to others who are hurting, those who are still trying to hide their devastating wound from curious eyes.

Be brave. Be courageous. Write from your scars. Live from your scars. There is a world of hurting people needing to see that wounds can be healed by the Great Physician. god's light

The stories that change lives are the ones that make the reader uncomfortable. Sometimes, that includes the author.

Books are Not My Babies…and Other “Idol” Chatter

Y’all, this writing gig is hard.

I recently saw a pic that summed up the process perfectly. “You read a scene and think, ‘That was nice.’ Time it took you to read the scene? Five minutes. Time it took the author to write the scene? Five bazillion hours.”

reading

Okay, so maybe that’s an exaggeration but you get the idea. It’s hard work. More than I ever dreamed possible. And just when I think the sleepless nights, the outpouring of creativity, the frazzled nerves will pay off, I get word that more revisions are needed. So it’s back to work. Again.

Years ago, I sat in my first American Christian Fiction Writers Conference, as a dewy-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears writer listening to Tamera Alexander speak. Tamera said something I will never forget. “The stories you write, the books you sell, they are not your babies. They are products.” baby

Wise words. And, boy, was she correct. That single piece of advice has saved me much heartache. Why? What did she mean? I took her wisdom, at least in part, to mean this: don’t let your heart grow attached to something that will devastate you if it is taken away.

Creativity, imagination and the mysterious muse are beautiful gifts lavished on us by a loving Creator, but when we elevate those gifts into ‘baby’ status in our hearts, we have unwittingly set up an idol. So when our ‘babies’ are rejected, criticized, or anything in between, we grow defensive, we lash out, or live in the land of angry, miserable resentment. Are we consumed with our stories or consumed with our Savior? Worse yet, do we use creativity as a smoke screen? A way to be consumed with ourselves, our Amazon reviews, or our latest rankings as some sort of attempt to prove our own worth or to puff up our battered pride?

Heart _Idols are sneaky things. They come disguised as good things. Great things, and they are. The problem is not the idol. The issue is the shift of devotion that occurs in our own hearts. 

Take our children, for example. Are there more beautiful treasures? We sacrifice for them. We plan for them. We give and dream and hope and pray. We lose sleep and hair and sometimes our sanity, all because our love for them is so great, we can do nothing less than give them our all. I get it.

However, I cringe when I hear parents say they couldn’t live if something happened to their child. Our hope should never, ever be based on our children. No parent should outlive their child, but it happens all the time. I’ve outlived two of mine.

I grieve and cry but I have hope. In the words of King David when his own infant son died, “He cannot come to me, but I will go to him.” Because of Jesus, I have a bright, secure future and a peace that remains steadfast, despite the chaos swirling around me. I am not defeated. I am not destroyed. corrie ten boom hold everything lightly

I like the way Corrie Ten Boom put it. “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.” Whether it’s career ambition, money, material possessions, relationships, awards, children, attention, approval, busyness, entertainment or even yourself, beware of idols. Keep your heart on the One who created it. Don’t give your devotion to something or someone that cannot save. The temporary satisfaction they provide will soon become a consuming pit that will only leave emptiness and regret behind.

Stories are not your babies. They are products.

And babies are cute, but remember, they are also exhausting. Choose wisely.

Where I Get My Characters: Quirks, Stalking and More

Barney Fife. Scarlett O’Hara. Inigo Montoya. Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal Lecter. Atticus Finch. Sherlock Holmes. Elphaba. Luke Skywalker. All great characters with vibrant and memorable personalities. All a complex mix of flaws, quirks, dreams and failures.

Here’s the thing about finding characters…predictable characters are dull characters. I think most would agree that the above characters are all interesting, memorable and larger-than-life.

So what can you do when your characters seem lifeless and limp?

1. Find a trait from someone you know as a jumping-off point.

Mark Twain based his character Huckleberry Finn almost precisely on his childhood buddy Tom Blankenship.

“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”(from Autobiography of Mark Twain)

In my last book, Hope’s Tender Touch, I was struggling to identify the personality of my heroine Faith Hathaway…that is, until I realized I have a family member whose personality is exactly like the one I visualized for Faith. She’s accident prone, a worrier with a sharp sense of humor yet is completely lovable. Whenever I faced a roadblock on how my character should react, I visualized my beloved family member and Faith’s colorful personality came to life.

why

2. Core wound.

Another option is to form a character around a core wound. What is the internal struggle you picture your character will have? Perhaps she is a people-pleaser because she’s longing for acceptance. Perhaps he’s a person who’s a master deceiver, all in an attempt to hide his alcoholism. Perhaps your character learned to cope with being bullied by having an outrageous sense of humor. Whatever the core wound is, identify it, research that issue and then set up circumstances against your character that conflict with his or her wound.

3. Watch people. Be actively observant.

This is more than just a mild curiosity about people. Watch. Learn. Ask yourself why people do the things they do. Observe and then ask the question, “What if?” What if the cashier at the store can’t look customers in the eye because of a past abuse? What if the old lady you see shoplifting is doing so because she longs for an odd form of excitement in her life? Pay attention to speech, mannerisms, appearance and attitudes.

4. Find a quirk.

There is nothing more memorable than a unique quirk. Willie Robertson claims his Grandmother had mental health issues and, for a time, painted anything that was square in her house the color red. Some people arrange their paper money by serial number order. Some are chronic nail biters. Others insist the food on their plate cannot touch or deal daily with odd phobias or refuse to run a vacuum.

Make a list of character quirks…you’ll be surprised how the ideas start flowing. But there is a disclaimer here: give your character a quirk but know why they have this quirk. Is it a result of something traumatic from their past? Do they just look at the world in a different way? Do they love to shock people? Whatever the reason behind their quirk, explore it and weave it into the plot.

For more ideas I highly recommend Creating Characters: How to Build Story People  by Dwight V. Swain. Before long, your story will be brimming with smirking Rhett Butlers, swarthy Jack Sparrows and optimistic Anne Shirleys in no time.