Simple Steps to Writing Success

WomanWritingID-100110284Looking back over my writing career these past 25+ years, I think I did a few things right. Not big things like majoring in journalism or doing an internship at a publishing house. Both of those things would have been wonderful, but unfortunately I didn’t have those opportunities.

I attribute my modest success as a writer to simple things my parents modeled for me.

  • I didn’t let the odds get me down. I knew I wanted to write, and I was going to give it my best effort, no matter what. No matter what people told me about how few people got their books in print, I made up my mind to do the best best I could and see where it took me.
  • I studied the craft. I learned the rules and when to break them. I studied and recognize that I’ll always need to study. If I want to be a writer, I will need to learn more about the many things I still don’t know.
  • I listened to my heart. I wrote from the places in life where God was teaching me. I watched where He was moving in my life and tried to join Him there. This meant writing about pain and disappointment and failure and not following the typical path most writers take. My writing covers a wide range of topics, from fiction to nonfiction to academic books to Christian living books to devotionals. And I’ve loved writing all of them and been blessed to partner with amazing publishers for all of them.
  • I committed to learn. Intelligent people understand that they can learn from anyone. I’m always impressed with seasoned authors who go to writer’s conferences and attend seminars that are presented by writers with far less experience than themselves. Why would they do this? Because they’re listening for something fresh and new. They have the heart of an avid, willing learner. Be open to critique, to editorial feedback, to the wisdom of those in the industry.
  • I refused to quit. I’m still learning and experimenting with new genres. I was always working to absorb new knowledge about my craft. Successful writers must be self-motivated learners. ALL writers experience rejection, which is simply an opportunity to reevaluate, rewrite, and resubmit (unless the writing stinks). But don’t stop writing!
  • i gave back out of gratitude. Many people poured into my life as a writer. But beyond that, God gave me the opportunity to become a full time, stay-at-home writer. The reality of that truth will always overwhelm me. No bit of knowledge or ability or skill that I possess is my own–it all belongs to God. It’s been my privilege to sow into the lives of other authors through conferences and one-on-one mentoring. I hope to continue to do this and encourage other authors to do the same and “pay it forward” by investing in the lives of future writers.

 We can trust God to direct us to success through the simple steps of life.

We don’t have to strive to achieve “greatness.” We don’t have to worry that we’ll somehow “miss” His will.

We only have to be faithful today, to listen for His voice today.

Then to walk in day-by-day obedience.

This is what true success looks like.

It’s that simple.

 

What Writing My First Novel Taught Me

My thanks to Donna Winters for inviting me to guest blog for her at Great Lakes Romances. Visit her blog to find great books by Michigan authors.

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Hallie stuck her head of tangled red curls around a corner of my mind when I was twenty-two years old. She was just fifteen, and for the next ten years she refused to leave me alone until I finally sat down and told her story in my first contemporary Christian novel, Hallie’s Heart and the sequel, Morningsong.

Hallie blames herself for the drowning death of her little sister. She accuses God of being a monster who watches his children suffer. After struggling for two years with her guilt, she steals her father’s Harley and heads off to the scene of the tragedy–her Aunt Mona’s Lake Michigan beach house to face her demons. What unfolds is her story of confronting God in the rubble of her guilt, anger, and feelings of abandonment.

Why did I write Hallie’s Heart and the sequel Morningsong?

I grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, alone the Lake Michigan shoreline. I wanted to write a novel that incorporated places and experiences that had influenced my life. The book is set, in part, on the grounds of Maranatha Bible conference and in other locations in the West Michigan area, such as the Cocoa Cottage bed and breakfast.

I was attacked by a serial rapist when I was nineteen years old. I wanted to write a book that honestly confronted questions about God’s goodness and sovereignty in tension with our suffering.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

God is good, all the time–no matter what circumstances look like to us. Life is hard and sometimes just plain awful, but God’s love never fails, and his goodness never changes.

What did you learn writing Hallie’s Heart?

This book was my opportunity to ask God tough questions about my own abuse and horrible circumstances my dearest family members had struggled through. I found hope and strength through my characters. I learned it’s okay to question God and bring him our anger. That’s not something I was allowed to do when I was growing up and that I felt I was allowed to do even as a young adult Christian.

I also learned that faith often grows in the darkness and the silence, when we may not sense the presence of God at all.

What was your favorite scene in the book?

Hallie's Heart cover smallerIn one critical scene in the book, Hallie and her Aunt Mona are having an argument on the breakwater at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon as a storm comes in. This key scene changes the course of the book. And I found that at the end of the chapter, I’d written a scene totally different from what I’d planned. Sometimes your characters simply take on a life of their own and surprise you.

What’s the toughest test you’ve faced as a writer?

Although I write fiction, I also write nonfiction. My writing always flows from my own conflicts and personal and spiritual growth. I’m a consultant on post-traumatic stress disorder. This means that my “research” has included painful trauma and PTSD treatment for a number of kinds of traumatic experiences. I’d rather do research that takes me to the south of France, but I love knowing that my writing has impact. Check out PTSDPerspectives.org. In June Love Letters from the Edge: Meditations for Those Suffering from Brokenness, Trauma, and the Pain of Life will be release with Kregel Publishers. I wrote this book with my best friend and colleague Wanda Sanchez.

Where do you write?

Typically, in my living room. Our house is small. I do have an office, but it’s crowded with bookshelves and office equipment. I prefer sitting in my living room so I can look out the front window at the bird feeder and the horses across the street.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hallie’s Heart won the Christy Award for contemporary Christian fiction. I’m the author of ten books and co-author of a number of others. I served as managing editor for the Hope in the Mourning grief Bible (Zondervan 2013) and contributed to the Holy Bible Mosaic (Tyndale), as a contributing editor to David Jeremiah’s study Bible What It Says, What It Means, What It Means for You.

I’m a co-founder of two Christian writer’s conferences: the Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s Workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I’m also an expert consultant for Caring.com, writing to an audience of two million caregivers across the nation.

I have two adult children and live with my husband Dan in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. shellyI can often be found in the nation’s prisons speaking to women with Daughters of Destiny women’s prison ministry with my friend and colleague Wanda Sanchez or consulting on post-traumatic stress disorder as the co-founder of PTSDPerspectives.org.

I’m also a proud Harley-riding grandma in search of the nation’s best cupcake and looking for the next place to tell someone about my great God.

Meditations on the Death of a Cat

cat

God can use strange things to teach you how wonderful he is.

The other day he used a dead cat named Merlin to teach me a thing or two.

Merlin was a nineteen-year-old tabby who belonged to Penny, a woman who’d come to a writer’s conference where I was speaking. She’d signed up for a one-on-one critique session with me and had brought a devotional about Merlin, the cat she’d loved as devotedly as the child she’d never had.

One day Penny had come home from work expecting her usual loving greeting from Merlin at the door. But no Merlin. And no husband. Merlin had become gravely ill and been taken to the vet, who reported to Penny over the phone that Merlin would most likely not make it through the night.

Penny was devastated and spent the night grieving the cat she had loved so dearly for nearly two decades. In the morning, she headed to the vet’s office, where she was ushered into a room with Merlin. He lay unconscious and unresponsive, and she was devastated.

Penny told me how in that moment, she turned to God and cried out, begging him to allow her to see her cat one final time. As she told me how Merlin opened his eyes, rose to his feet, and marked her face as she heard the voices of a choir sing It Is Well with My Soul, I could feel myself struggling not to roll my eyes.

Merlin was a cat, for heaven’s sake. “Get a grip, woman,” I whispered silently to Penny as I smiled politely.

But as she spoke, something inside me shifted.

Conviction.

Awareness.

God knows our deepest desires. Our deepest longings. Penny and her husband hadn’t have a child. God had fulfilled Penny’s longing to nurture through Merlin. She’d loved her cat in many of the same ways she would have loved a child. God had honored the prayer she’d poured out in her grief.

Yes, Merlin was a cat. For heaven’s sake. And he’d helped Penny get a grip–on God’s love.

Suddenly I was ashamed of my judgmental spirit and in awe of a God who would stir a cat to its feet in answer to the heart-cry of one of his children.

Because he loves enough to feel our pain and meet us wherever we are.

Threads: Weaving Life into Fiction

Our mini doxie, Beanie Weanie

Our mini doxie, Beanie Weanie

Writers as Thread Gatherers

When Hallie’s Heart was first published, my adult children, Jessica and Nathan, were among the first to read it. It wasn’t long before they called me.

Nathan, who has always hated his middle name, was unimpressed that I’d chosen a derivative as the fictional name for the setting of my novel–Stewartville, Michigan. He also recognized the book’s description of Main Street in the primary setting. He told me he wished I’d called the town by its real name: Carson City, Michigan, the rural community where he and his sister had grown up. But since our family had lived there for ten years, I didn’t want run the risk of having friends think my characters were based on their actual personalities.

Jessica, whose name can also be found as a minor character in the book, immediately recognized real objects from our home and her life. And both of my kids immediately recognized that our family pet, a chubby black miniature dachsund, is memorialized in the book as a dog named Oscar.

Weaving

All fiction writers weave the threads of their lives into their stories, some in subtle hues and some in stark patterns. In Hallie’s Heart, I used real objects of significance to me and places that really exist to lend the book a sense of verisimilitude. The necklace that plays such a significant role in the plot was actually a necklace given to me by my Aunt Evelyn when I was twelve. My father was and still is a meticulous diary-keeper. My grandmother’s name was Hilma and her husband was Emil, and their spindled rocking chair sits in my family room. Mona’s beach house sits in an actual location at the end of a lane on the property of Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference in Muskegon, Michigan, the real-life setting of Gilead Bible Conference and critical scenes in the book. The Prayer Tower really exists and played a pivotal role in my life, as my parents’ home was just yards from Maranatha.

So why did I choose these scenes, objects, people, and details?

  • First of all because I could describe each of them in minute detail.
  • Secondly, because I believed I could communicate a semblance of the influence everyday objects and experience have in our lives.
  • And last, because I had already researched them through my relationship with these objects, people, and places.

Weaving and Storytelling

As writers we are always absorbing, always learning, always seeing new connections of past and present and of truth to life. In a few moments I’m heading downstairs to put in a load of laundry and clean out my lint trap. But even there I can find a story, if I’m looking. And who knows where a big wad of lint might lead?