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.

feet

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!

 

 

The Civil War, Messy People and Jesus: Why I Write

 

With my debut book release with Tyndale scheduled for summer of 2018, this week I’ve begun the daunting task of writing another story. It’s set in one of my favorite time periods…the Civil War.

This isn’t a new assignment for me. This will actually be the fourth Civil War story I’ve penned, uh, typed, but the research involved is always staggering. Always bloody and gruesome, yet filled with heroism, astounding tales of beauty and forgiveness…even humor.

lincoln beardPeople like 11 year-old Grace Bedell who wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter when he was running for President and convinced him the population would find him much more appealing if he grew a beard. (He listened.) Or fiery John Brown or the reckless zeal of Roger Pryor who, after firing the signal cannon that launched the attack on Fort Sumter, thought to celebrate by grabbing what he thought was liquor from the physician’s supply. Instead he swallowed iodide of potassium and almost poisoned himself to death. belle boydOr the eccentric Belle Boyd, who rode horses into parlors for attention and fancied herself the most beautiful, heroic feminine star the Confederacy could ever produce.

There are other stories of drunkards and misfits, spies and traitors, women and Zouaves, generals and cowards . All of them fascinating. I suppose what is most interesting to me in studying these odd assortment of lives is how often they acted, and reacted, and lived and died for a cause or an ideal. They all claimed to be ready to meet their fate with a hero’s fortitude, but peeling back the surface, most of these fascinating legends were terrified of one thing…the hole inside.

In reading their journals, the cry for significance screams from the pages of now still ink pens and dry blotters. They signed up to fight or spy or whatever their task was without a moment’s hesitation. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in the Union or the Confederacy or the Underground Railroad or whatever ‘the Cause’ was. But for some of them, it was their chance to be seen. Heard. To matter.

They wallowed in insecurity. In fear. They were desperate for a father’s love. For a mother’s love. To catch the attention of a beau or a spurned lover. They were tired of being rejected, or had been pampered and spoiled to a sickening degree. Some were abused. Some were desperate. All were messy. All were broken. All were consumed with a need to “make their mark”. vinicius-amano-145607

Yet most refused to look deeply at the reason why. Scores of these legends would have rather thrown themselves in front of bullets or screamed through a hellish battlefield than look at the demons inside.

We’ve often heard it said “History repeats itself.” I don’t know that history repeats itself so much as human nature repeats itself. We’re all a jumbled mess of broken hearts desperately yearning for love, stumbling about in the shadows looking for that illusive something. No. Correction. Someone. Jesus.

Heart _But it’s easier to fight for a cause than look at our own pain. Easier to drown in noise than face the truth of silence. Easier to follow the crowd than stand the rejection of walking alone.

That’s just one more thing that makes Jesus so remarkable. As I sat watching the sun break through a cloudy sky during our church’s sunrise service, the pastor said someone I’d not considered. He spoke softly. “Upon having the nails driven through his hands and feet, and being lifted high, Jesus could have chosen at that moment to say ‘It is finished’ and breathed his last. He didn’t just die for us. Instead, He chose to suffer for hours and feel our pain as well.”

jesus painJesus chose to feel the pain. He leaned in to the crushing agony, the numbing screams of severed nerves, blood loss, asphyxiation, rejection, shame. He stared unflinchingly into the darkness. And because He smashed death and darkness to pieces when He arose, He offers freedom from the misery of it all.

This is why I love to write. Whether past or present, real or allegorical, all people are broken. Over and over, the human condition reminds us of our need for redemption. For Hope. For a Savior. As I write, I unearth more of my own brokenness as well. Writing is discovering the shadowed, scarred corners of my heart and understanding how God has redeemed them. How He has redeemed me…that discovery then bleeds over the pages of my story world and the struggling characters inside.

So I begin again. The names and characters will change. Plots and places will be altogether different. Their motivations and crises will alter but the Hope that will transform their lives will remain the same. Praise God, He is forever the same.

CHAPTER 1

Washington D.C., 1861

            Cadence Piper walked down the darkened street, clutching her reticule to her middle. Her booted footsteps clicked loudly against the gritty walk. She winced at the echo that drifted back from the inky alley to the right. A shiver crawled down her spine…

dark street

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.

wounds

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.

Finding a Voice: When God Changes the Plan

I sprinted behind my son, attempting to wrap his dripping hair in a towel. Wrestling him out of the bath had worn me out. Wrestling him into pajamas was even more difficult. Now he had broken free and was running down the hall. He squealed in delight as I huffed, “Boy, when I get a hold of you…”

We rounded the corner and I stopped short, blinking in surprise.

My husband stood in the living room, a big grin on his face. His hands gripped a beautiful violin and bow. The irritation with my wayward son melted away. violin

My breath caught as I walked in slow steps towards him, an amazed smile tugging my lips. “I don’t understand.”

“Happy Anniversary, honey.”

I studied the way the beautiful instrument caught glimmers of light. I ran my fingers across the gleaming wood.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to play one. Ever since I was little.”

My husband beamed as he laid it in my hands, much like transferring a fragile newborn. “I know. I remembered. And with our nineteenth anniversary next week, what better time to finally give you one?” He studied me, trying to gauge my reaction. “Do you like it?

I couldn’t speak for a moment. Words choked in my throat. It was more than his thoughtfulness. My husband is not the mushy, gushy romantic sort. When I told him I was going to write this piece, he groaned. “Come on, Tara. Don’t make me sound sweet. I have a rep to maintain!” He is a sweet guy, despite his valiant attempts to hide it. But no, it was more than that.

It was even more than the violin itself, even though I’ve adored violin music since I was a child. My instruments are voice and piano, but if you want to captivate me, play some David Garrett and I’m transfixed. david garrett No, it was something beyond that.

When he asked me if I liked my gift, I cried, stood on my tiptoes and gave him a kiss, a huge smile wobbling through my tears. “Yes! Oh, yes!” He gave me far more than he knew.

Some of you know what I’m about to share. Some of you may not. Others may only suspect.

Several years ago I was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a disorder that keeps the stomach from pumping. It’s a vagus nerve problem which involves pain, nausea, esophagus spasms, reflux and a host of other issues. This nerve dysfunction has now progressed into my larynx. Have you ever had a back spasm? I now have those in my voice. Gastroparesis is a progressive disease. Unless God intervenes, it will get worse. In short, I am losing my ability to sing.

This might not be a big deal to some. For me, it’s been a hard blow. I mean, I wasn’t just a sing-in-the shower kind of girl. I was signed with a Christian record label. Ten years ago, I thought God had made it clear He wanted me to use my voice to help others find freedom in Him. When He began whispering hints of change, I was confused. The God-ordained plans that had seemed so certain to me suddenly shifted. And I was reminded of this important truth…the more you build your identity on something other than Christ, the greater the pain when that identity crumblesmicrophone

It’s been a time of grieving. Yet, it’s also been sweet to sit at His feet as He has tenderly prepared my heart, teaching me, loving me, guiding me onto a new path, a new adventure.

On the days when the grief felt like shards of glass embedded deep into my heart, God impressed this beautiful passage from His Word into my Spirit:

“I will compensate you for the years
That the swarming locust has eaten,
The creeping locust, the stripping locust, and the gnawing locust—
My great army which I sent among you.

You will have plenty to eat and be satisfied
And praise the name of the Lord your God
Who has dealt wondrously with you;
And My people shall never be put to shame.”  Joel 2:25,26 AMP

When I’m tempted to mourn over the ‘should be’ or ‘could have beens’, I take a deep breath and whisper, “He will restore what the locusts have eaten.”

God has show me a great creative beauty in writing. He has allowed me to sign with the remarkably talented literary agent Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency. I’m currently working on my ninth fiction story and my third nonfiction work, as well as numerous blog posts and magazine articles. And as I’ve studied the craft of writing, I’ve learned something quite interesting. Do you know what professionals call an author’s unique way of writing? Their “voice”.

I love to express my thoughts through words. I play the piano. Thankfully, speaking is far less taxing on my voice than singing, so my speaking calendar is quite full. And now I’ve been given a beautiful violin. Do you know why I teared up so quickly when my husband presented me with my exquisite gift? I knew something he didn’t know. Do you know which musical instrument most resembles the tonal quality of the human voice? The violin.

He will restore what the locusts have eaten…

Sometimes we cling with white knuckles to our own plans so tightly, we fail to realize God is trying to give us something far better. But in order to receive it, we must relinquish our hold on the old before we can receive the new.

teddy bear Jesus

I don’t want to settle for good and miss out on God’s best. Through this whole process, God has taught me an amazing truth. Sometimes, to give you a voice, God must first break your instrument.

God may heal my singing voice. He may not. Either way, I’m content. I’m happy. God never takes away without giving something better in return. I have a voice, and I’ll use it for Him as long as He gives me breath.

Because you can have a voice and still not have a voice.

 

 

Unquenchable: The 2016 Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference

I don’t know where to begin.

For starters, I’ve been to several writers conferences. All of them were inspiring and beneficial. All of them taught me something valuable and allowed me to meet other writers, but Mount Hermon is different.

mount hermon unquenchable

Never have I been at a conference that is so incredibly organized, yet feels so laid back and unscripted. The familial, intimate atmosphere permeated every single workshop, worship service and the times in between. The entire conference was Christ-centered and deeply moving.

In short, I was changed…for the better.

Thanks to the incredible generosity of Kathy Ide and her “Promising Beginnings” contest, my registration was completely paid for. I can never thank her enough. Not only were my writing skills sharpened by leaps and bounds, God spoke to my heart in profound ways and I was able to form friendships with some of the most talented and humble people on earth.

mount hermon 2mount hermon meet and greetmount hermon nancy rue

This year’s theme was “Unquenchable” and the keynote speaker was Carol Kent, carol kent a dynamic woman with a heart-rending story. Carol reminded us that we will be tested on the words we write, oftentimes feeling like a firestorm of authenticity. Trials are a certainty and will be varied in their look and intensity, but God always delivers—sometimes from the fire and sometimes through the fire.

I learned the basics of writing nonfiction from Alice Crider, how to write fight scenes from Ben Wolf, writing to pierce the heart by Bill Giovanetti, creative marketing from Marci Seither, starting a podcast with Kathi Lipp and how to plan a book launch with my amazing agent Janet Grant (pictured on the left), mount hermon janet grantKathi Lipp and Lisa Wingate. One of my favorite workshops was “Creating Conflict” with Love Inspired editor Elizabeth Mazer.

And the friendships forged—what a delight! From sitting at the dining table with Francine Rivers, chatting with Lisa Wingate and Robin Lee Hatcher, meeting the adorable Nancy Rue (who I want to be when  I grow up) and my amazing roommate Eli Rose (right) mount hermon eli rose , who has the most inspiring life story I’ve heard, I was laughing with delight at their fun-loving personalities and kindness. (When Kathi Lipp offers to drive you to San Jose to buy clothes because the airline lost your luggage,  you know you’re among God’s people.) I found my sister-separated-at-birth. Sarah Bennett (pictured left) mount hermon sarah bennett and I clicked, perhaps because we both like to laugh, or maybe because we are both the most sarcastic people on the planet.

Did I mention Sarah Sundin, Tim Shoemaker, Vicki Crumpton, Linda Howard, Sherri Langton or a hundred others who made the conference so incredibly special? I can’t even list them all here, but the friends I carried home in my heart are deeply loved. An extra special thank you to Robin Lee Hatcher, who so kindly sat down with me and looked over my current manuscript, encouraging, correcting and guiding to help me write the best story possible. Robin, you are a treasure! mount hermon robin lee hatcher

The skits were hilarious, the music and worship powerful, the camp beyond beautifulmount hermon, but perhaps the single defining moment for me occurred while Mick Silva was speaking.

He made the statement, “Our failures only matter when we allow them to prevent us from embracing Christ’s sufficiency—or from allowing Him to embrace us.” Mick reminded us that in order to write to change lives, we must be brutally honest. He also addressed the danger of being so passionate about writing it becomes our idol. Idols, no matter who or what they are, only give weak doses of love. Books improve life but they shouldn’t replace life.

mick silva quote

When Mick finished speaking, I walked outside and wept.

Perhaps I was exhausted. Maybe I was overwhelmed with all I was taking in. Perhaps I cried because his words stirred something deep inside me. Or maybe it was the realization that in my own writing, I’m still not being as honest as I should be.

As I lay in my bed that night, I scribbled down these words: “The things I am desperate to hide are the very things God can use to set someone free.”

These words have now become my life song.

Thank you, Mick. Thank you, Mona Hodgson. Thank you, Kathy Ide. Thank you, Janet Grant. Thank you to the amazing people I met at Mount Hermon. I pray our friendships continue to blossom and flourish.

Most of all, I thank You, Jesus. May the words of my mouth, the words of my pen, and the meditation of my heart be ever pleasing to You.

 

Plot Twist!

“Plot twist!”

It’s what I yell out in the middle of a chaotic day. It’s what I mutter to myself when I’ve blocked off writing time only to discover my three year old has found a sharpie and is chasing the cat through the house threatening to give him a new fur-do. “Plot twist” is what I choke out with a cringe when I’m scheduled to speak at an event but sense the tell-tale signs of a migraine screaming in to ruin the day. “Plot twist” is what I sigh when the checking account is too low for comfort, or when my children have a melt-down or when a loved one receives an unwelcome diagnosis.

plot twist

Life has a way of throwing our good intentions right out the window…if we let it.

For years I thought that to write, my little nest had to be in order first: the floors swept, the dishes washed, the kids quietly working on some James Dobson-approved project. When all was quiet, when all was calm, then I would be able to sit down to my laptop and pour out my heart.

It hasn’t happened yet.

Likewise, some of us say we can’t be used by God until we get our act together, until our children stop rebelling, until our finances are secure, when our health is better or when we’ve figured out the reason for our own hot-mess cycles of behaviors and mistakes.

The problem? If we wait to be used by God, to yield to him only when our life is perfect, it will never happen.

life roller coaster

The Mayberry mentality is not realistic. We may have good days here and there, days that trick us into thinking every day should flow as smoothly, but the majority of the time life throws us curve ball after curve ball. Plot twists and changes. And then what do we do? Wait for perfection before we live our life? Do we wait for everything to be rosy before we get on with kingdom work?

That’s not what God says is going to happen.

I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace. In the world you have tribulation and distress and suffering, but be courageous [be confident, be undaunted, be filled with joy]; I have overcome the world.” [My conquest is accomplished, My victory abiding.] -John 16:33 AMP

The good news is, God meets us in our chaos. When we are at our most strung-out and overwhelmed, that is when He shows himself strong.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.
When you walk through fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.” Isaiah 43:2

Even though some days I fight against the uncomfortable sensation of being stretched, I have found I’m actually better at writing when I embrace the chaos, because that is where God takes over. Who wouldn’t want the Author of Life guiding the words flowing from heart to pen? And those days when there are so many unexpecteds that I’m scanning the horizon for a plague of locusts to arrive? God fills the gap between my weakness and my need. Not for my glory, but for His. when you pass through deep waters

“…for this reason, to keep me from thinking of myself as important, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan, to torment and harass me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might leave me; but He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you [My loving kindness and My mercy are more than enough—always available—regardless of the situation]; for [My] power is being perfected [and is completed and shows itself most effectively]in [your] weakness.” ~2 Corinthians 12:7-9 AMP

Embrace the uncomfortable. Lean in to those plot twists, for that is where God shows Himself strong. He’s not “just enough”. He’s more than enough.

Have you ever told yourself God can’t use you until _____________…? Have you been frustrated searching for the perfect day, the perfect time, or the perfect life that never arrives? How has God met you in your need and showed Himself powerful in your life?

 

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.