Monday, March 17, 2014

I want to be a writer... Where do I start?

A few weeks ago before youth group, one of my former AWANA clubbers came up to me with a big smile on her face.

“I read your book when it first came out, and I want to be a writer too,” she said. “I have all these ideas, and I don’t know where to start. What can you tell me?”

Wow. What can I tell her? Writing is such an adventure and a non-stop learning journey – and I am a very long way from my destination. However, I’d be glad to share a couple basics I’ve learned that I hope will help my friend – and any other aspiring writers.

Write what you know.

I learned this concept in my college creative writing class. For a Civil War history buff, historical fiction might be a good fit, but not Amish mysteries. For someone who enjoys teaching and Bible study, perhaps devotionals would be a good place to start.

However, I would encourage any writer not to limit himself by only what he knows. We can always research and expand upon what we know. We writers must never stop learning.

Jump at opportunities to improve your craft.

This could be as simple as taking a creative writing class or participating in a writer’s group. It could be as big an investment as attending a writer’s conference.

This was my second year attending the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference (FCWC), and I can’t say enough how helpful, informative, and inspiring a writer’s conference can be.

Here’s my list of why I love writer’s conferences…
… I’m surrounded by people who are as crazy (or crazier) about my craft than I am.
… I have a chance to meet with editors and agents and present my work in person (instead of hoping my query wiggles its way to the top of some editor’s slush pile).
… I can attend workshops, critique groups, develop friendships, and network with other authors.

Even if a writer’s conference seems intimidating, make it one of your goals. It will help you take your writing seriously.

Develop “rhinoceros” skin.

As writers, we have to have thick skin. At my first writer’s conference, someone called this “rhinoceros” skin. Not only must we accept criticism, but we must learn to welcome it.

I may have shared this story before, but it’s worth sharing again. One of my professors in college announced at the beginning of the semester that for our writing assignments, she would select the worst submissions, and we would critique them as a class.

All of us grimaced, hoping and praying ours wouldn’t be picked. However, we quickly discovered that if ours were selected, we were nearly guaranteed an A on the assignment after revisions. Score!

Learn to welcome feedback and suggestions. They will only help your writing become stronger.

Have a support system in place.

As much as criticism can help us write better, let’s be honest. It often hurts. Rejection hurts even more.

That’s why having a support system in place is so important.

I like how Ellie Kay described the need for what she called “author partnerships.” During one of her keynote addresses at FCWC this year, she outlined five types of people writers need in their lives:

1.       The encourager – Someone who comes alongside us and believes in us.
2.       The fun friend – Someone who helps us “lighten up” and have fun.  (Yes, we writers sometimes take ourselves far too seriously!)
3.       The adventurer – Someone who pushes us to try new things and to attempt things that scare us.
4.       The artist – Someone who helps us perfect our craft.  
5.       The prophet – Someone who speaks truth into our lives and helps us be accountable.
Do you want to be a writer? Start with what you know, and embrace the adventure ahead! If I can be of any help to you in your writing, please contact me on my author website.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fill your life with the right choices


Our world is obsessed with health, fitness, calories, and cutting carbs. Why else would New York City attempt to ban large-size soft drinks and Starbucks venues publish calorie counts on their menu boards?

I am all for being fit and eating healthy, but I think our culture has become so concerned about waistlines that it has overlooked the bigger, root-cause issue: time lines.

What do I mean by that? Well, a timeline is simply an order of events that define history. I’m using the word here on a smaller, more personal scale. How do we spend our time? The answer to that question will define us better than the matter of what we eat.  

In Matthew 15:10-11, Jesus told the multitude that what a person says and not what he eats pollutes (or on the flip side, refines) a person. He said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

The choices that we make – and not just the choice of whether to have pizza or a salad for supper – matter.

Last time, we talked about the importance of redeeming time, and I want to build upon that thought by asking a simple, but challenging, question: With what do we fill our lives?

We have to be honest: Most of the time in a day does not belong to us. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most adults ages 25-54 spend 7.7 hours sleeping, 8.8 hours working, and 1.0 hours on household chores. Subtract that from 24 hours, and we’re left with 6.5 hours. From there, we have to subtract time to eat (1.1 hours), leaving us with 5.4 hours left. You will also have to calculate in family responsibilities as appropriate.

In those precious hours of “free time” left, our decisions are up to us and consequently, matter most. Do we vedge in front of a TV because we’re so exhausted from our daily regimen? Or, do we fill our time with worthwhile pursuits and acts of service that will energize us and bless those around us?

We all need to take a step back from the business of our days to honestly assess what those remaining hours in our lives look like.

The choices we make unwittingly write our personal time lines. How will you fill yours?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Kill Time. Redeem It.

We are on day eleven of a new year, and by now, many people have already broken their resolutions or forgotten about them.

Maybe we should be less concerned with making resolutions and more concerned with simply how we live.

One of my favorite quotes on “time” comes from Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. In the first chapter on “Economy,” he offers an extreme, but hard look at the way in which people live. He proposes that man can be his own “slave-driver” and often spends his time on fruitless activities. And then he says:
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
I certainly don’t agree with all of Thoreau’s views (especially his Transcendental ones), but he does make some honest conclusions about the way man can waste his time.

At some time or another, I think we are all guilty of “killing time.” We don’t usually say it that way, though. Instead, we say, “I just need to kick-back,” or “I need some TV time.”

I’m guilty too and will confess to being completely hooked on BBC’s Downton Abbey. Although we all need some down time every now and then, the temptation can become to fill all our spare hours with distractions that steal our time instead of help us to redeem it.

Remember, time isn’t something that belongs to us or something we are entitled to. It is a God-given privilege, and as such, we have an obligation to be good stewards of it.

Ephesians 5:15-17 makes clear that God cares about how we spend our time.
“Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (NASB)
As one of my friends reminded me, every moment of time is a gift. We aren’t promised the next week, day, minute, or second. Are we throwing away our time on things and activities that won’t last? Are our choices injuring or impacting eternity?

A new year has just started. My prayer is that we all live it with eternity in mind.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Game of Life

Over the holidays, I’ve enjoyed spending time with my niece and nephews. My six-year-old niece insisted that my twin brother and I play the game “Life” with her, and who can say no to her deep brown, pleading eyes?

So of course I said yes, despite my last – and only – experience with the game. I was probably eleven at the time, and I ended up with two sets of twin boys and dead broke. I figured my odds could only improve.

I was wrong. I inherited a skunk farm (which cost me a pretty penny), owned a goat that ate my neighbor’s prize orchids, and had to get dentures.

Ridiculous game.

To my relief, my niece quickly grew tired of it, and we moved on to something else, but the experience left me thinking: How awful would it be if real life were just a game, subject to random chance?

I am thankful that it isn't. Instead, our lives are orchestrated by a sovereign God. I like what Ephesians 1:4 says: “… he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” God has an individual purpose for the lives of each of His children.

Ultimately, our lives are part of a bigger plan, God’s story of redemption. And at Christmastime, we are once again reminded of that beautiful, miraculous story of baby being born of a virgin – fully God and fully man – coming to earth to redeem lost mankind.

Praise God that life isn’t a game of chance. Sure, we will have our ups and downs – a goat may eat prize orchids or the tire in your car may go flat on your way to work.

But at the end of the day, our focus should be glorifying the one true God with our lives – wherever He has asked us to live, work, and serve. After all, isn’t that what the shepherds did – glorify and praise God and tell others about Him?

Wishing everyone a blessed Christmas!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tap into Your Creativity

Whether you’re a business professional, stay-at-home mom, teacher, athlete, or other hard-working professional, there will always be days that leave you feeling hum-drum: bored, bland, or weary.

We have to get imaginative to turn ordinary tasks into something more enjoyable. And quite frankly, that isn’t always easy. 

Especially as a teacher, I face this challenge. As the school year progresses, students grow comfortable with their class routines; a routine in itself is a good thing, but the problem arises when comfortable crosses the line to "checked out." 

Seventh-grade, middle-school keyboarding is a perfect example. Learning the home-row fingering and practicing typing drills are important but can become tedious, so I try to give my students a break from their typing textbooks every once in a while.

One exercise my students have come to enjoy is a story scenario (“code” for composing at the keyboard, which sounds much more like work). Italicized below is my scenario I gave the students last week. I asked them to finish the story, and I’ve listed the first few words of some of their imaginative responses.

Like any other school day, Jordan rolled out of bed, slipped down the stairs, and slouched over his bowl of Fruit Loops at the breakfast table. He had just shoved his chair back to rise from the table when he saw ….

·         The door open
·         A brown and black spotted bull
·         Nothing
·         A giant robotic rooster
·         The gunman coming to the door
·         A zombie
·         A random pie monster
·         A monkey
·         Nine men in bio suits who said, “You have to come with us.” (This is a personal favorite!)
·         A shadow
·         The school bus driver staring at him through the wet window with a weary look (Someone was paying attention to our English discussion on adjectives...)
·         A huge TV
·         His sister
·         His favorite super hero
·         Something not normal
Yes, these are middle school student responses! Their eyes were shining, and their hands straining as high as they could to get my attention to read their stories to the class.

I think there’s a lesson for us here: First, try to break up the everyday once in a while to keep life fresh and interesting; and also, don’t be afraid to turn ordinary tasks into something creative. You never know just what inspiration you might find or talent you might tap.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pumpkin Patch Reminders

Yesterday, my friend invited me to go with her to a pumpkin patch. Believe it or not, I had never been. (I thought pumpkins grew on the store shelves at Publix and Walmart. Just kidding.)

So, she introduced me to a “real” pumpkin farm where rows of pumpkins line hay bales, sit on counters, and rest in rustic carts. I was like a kid in a candy store. I couldn’t decide which one I wanted.


There were gourds and pumpkins of all colors, sizes and shapes, Cinderella pumpkins, and pumpkins so large I probably would have had to roll them to the car (had I the desire or money to buy one).

 


Some pumpkins were all covered with warts, so that they looked more like a storybook witch’s nose than a pumpkin.

“Eww,” I said, pointing to one completely disfigured and covered with warts.

“What do you mean?” my friend asked. “Warts give it character. It’s beautiful.”

I finally settled on a stout pumpkin with a curved, prickly stem and a multi-colored, little gourd with a pointy bottom (so hence, it rolls around on my desk).



Aren’t you thankful God isn’t picky in choosing His children? He loves us – tall or round, smooth or blemished, warts and all.

And our flaws do give us character, as my friend reminded me. A pumpkin patch would be boring if all the pumpkins were identical. It’s the variety and the imperfections that make pumpkins so unique and interesting. No one pumpkin is just like another.

Praise God He can use us – in spite of ourselves and our flaws – and that He’s uniquely designed us with a specific purpose in mind, one that will ultimately glorify Him.

Psalm 139:14 – “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.”

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Teaching Life

My dear readers, I have not forgotten about you, but I have started teaching, and my life looks radically different than it did before. Translation: I work something like a 50-60 hour work week - before I bring my work home with me.

Now I understand why teaching is a calling, because it isn’t just a job; it is a way of life.

How does this affect my writing?

*Winces.*

Let’s just say I’m squirreling away antidotes and character ideas for summertime. And after only two weeks of teaching, my storehouse is already looking fairly healthy. I’ll share one of my personal favorites with you.

Homework over the weekend? Whaaaatttt???

It’s hard to believe that students are already complaining about homework after only two weeks of school. Last week, my American history class thought that if enough of them complained, maybe they wouldn’t have homework over the weekend. (Don’t bother explaining to them that your work as a teacher never ends, and don’t expect them to appreciate the care you take and hours you put in to provide them a quality education. They really don’t care.)

So, I suggested we review the meaning of democracy and republic.
  • Democracy: rule by majority opinion
  • Republic: rule by elected representatives

Hmm, the classroom is not a democracy, is it? Nope. It’s more like a republic where an elected official (i.e. the teacher chosen to teach the class) makes the decisions with the best interests of the group at heart.

Certainly, that person takes the time to listen to what the people have to say, but in the end, he or she makes the best decision based on the information available.

Oh, and let’s not forget to review the pitfall of democracies… Right, the majority opinion is often wrong.

Ok, let’s move back to the lesson now.

The challenge
Whether you’re a teacher or someone with demands pulling on your resources, finding the time to recharge your battery and make time for what you love can be hard.
Your work should be rewarding, and you should certainly give it your best, but your work alone isn’t everything.
Make time for the people who matter and prioritize your pursuits. I know I am learning how to find the balance myself.
So what’s the status with book 3? Well, the rough draft is on my desk. My goal is to publish over the summer in time for an early fall release (in plenty of time for Christmas).
Any hints about the plot, you ask? Let’s just say plenty of adventure, surprises and life changes are in store.