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Saturday

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all! I always get a little melancholy about this time of the night on Christmas because I know it's about to be over--so indicative of my outlook on life. Anyway, you probably don't really care about that...

I wanted to share with you something a friend of mine posted on Facebook last night. He said he was at a Christmas Eve service and sat next to a homeless man. When the offering plate was passed, the homeless man dropped in three pennies and two nickels--assumably all he had. Then he listed his address as "Salvation Army."

This story brought me to tears and humbled me as I suddenly realized all the many blessings I take for granted. I mean, we say we're giving God our all, but what if our "all" looks like that? This story reminds me of Luke 16:10.

Here's the verse in King James: "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much."

And in the New Living Translation: "If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities."

I am reminded by these verses of our responsibility to give back to God the gifts He's freely given us.

Be blessed this Christmas season because--no matter what you're dealing with in life--you already are.

Thursday

Holy Hearts

You've probably heard the verse in Matthew about the pure in heart being blessed "for they shall see God." That's always been a curious idea to me, being able to see God. In what ways can we see Him if we're pure? In our lives? In our thoughts? In the blessings around us?

Lately I've been thinking about the importance of guarding our minds. My high school Bible teacher always used to say that the mind it is where the battle takes place, and it's so true. Actions are just ripe thoughts, really.

As writers, we bear a special responsibility to guard our hearts and minds. Popular literary theory would suggest that there is no intrinsic connection between an author and his or her work, but I disagree with that completely. In my opinion, you can't escape your own preoccupations, and your values will find their way into your writing whether you intend for them to or not.

So just a reminder, as the Bible says, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." It's important to write your characters as flawed--otherwise, they'll be boring--but remember we also hold a high calling to let a light shine through our writing, especially as inspirational authors, and the best way to do that is to guard our minds in the first place.

How have you found your thoughts working to shape your actions in our own life?

Wednesday

Two Dog Bowls and One Seeking Heart

If you know me very well, you know I adore animals. I've always been an animal lover and even became a vegetarian at the age of five upon the sudden realization that meat comes from a different source than apples.

My love for my own dogs, though, is pretty difficult to put into words.

Sometimes I get the impression people think I'm a little over the top. I don't know what it is that gives me that feeling... perhaps it's the strange looks I get when I dress the dogs up for each holiday, the expression of panic most visitors get when they come over to my house and immediately get licked in the face with puppy kisses, or maybe it's the fact that Maddie sleeps on pillows like a human.

But the fact of the matter is, my dogs are like furry children to me.

Humor me for a second and let me tell you a little about their stories. Maddie was born at the Humane Society. God bless those people. Her mother and father were found wandering around on the side of the road, and her mother was pregnant at the time. Some gracious person picked them up and took them to the Humane Society. In other circumstances, the dogs could've easily been hit by a car or taken to the kill shelter. But they weren't.

All the puppies were adopted within weeks from the Humane Society, but Maddie was returned about five months later for tripping her elderly owner. That just so happened to be about the time my husband and I were looking for a puppy. And the rest is history.

A few months ago, though, we decided Maddie needed a friend. I'm a huge believer in animal rescue, as there is currently a terrible problem with pet overpopulation in America, so naturally I started researching dogs at various local rescues.

I didn't want a shelter dog (from a kill shelter) because shelter dogs have a stigma. They're not always vaccinated. They sometimes come with emotional baggage. And let's face it, kill shelters are terribly sad.

But then I found Schroeder, my handsome purebred Cocker Spaniel, and he changed all that. We took a chance on him, and oh, what a glorious "chance" it turned out to be.

So you can see how my dogs teach me daily about redemption. They came from awful situations, and now they're sleeping on Brookstone blankets. At least, when we're not looking.

That's where this blog fits in.

Maddie has this obsession with their food bowls. She wants their food to be in both bowls. If one bowl has food but the other doesn't, she will paw at the empty bowl until someone comes to fill it up. So the other day, there I am, sitting on the couch and watching TV, and Maddie walks over to her food bowls and proceeds to shamelessly paw at the empty one in an effort to get my attention. I told her, "Maddie, you have plenty of food in the other bowl. Eat out of that one." Reluctantly, she walked over to it and ate from it.

And in that moment, I thought to myself, how many times does God say to me, "Ashley, you have plenty of food in the other bowl. Eat out of that one."? Sometimes we get so distracted with what we think is the perfect means of sustenance that we miss out on the bigger bowl. We're so filled with discontent that it blinds us from seeing provision.

In what ways do you find yourself focusing on the empty bowl, and how has God called you to a bigger one He's already provided?

Saturday

A Tale of Mr. Lizard and Redemption

So, tonight I was enjoying a lovely evening with my mom, puppies, and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama (How cute is her hair in that movie, anyway?) when suddenly I spotted an unexpected guest on my multicolored doormat: Mr. Lizard.

I should begin by saying that I've had a great sensitivity to life ever since I was a child. At the mature age of five, I decided I wanted to become a vegetarian--soon as I realized what meat was. And guess what? I've been meat-free ever since, almost twenty years now.

So you can imagine my chagrin when I see Mr. Lizard, who usually greets me from the wreath outside my door, inside my house. I like talking to these creatures, not touching them. He scurried into the closet and inside the bottom compartment of the vacuum cleaner. So I took an old t-shirt, wrapped it around that part of the vacuum so he couldn't escape, and proceeded to carry the whole thing outside. Foolproof, right?

Wrong.

I carefully set the full-sized red vacuum outside, and all I could see at this point was the tip of Mr. Lizard's tale. I brushed it with a random Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupon I happened to have laying around, and the lizard doesn't move.

So I brushed the tail again. And again, and again. But he still didn't move.

And then I realized what happened. When I moved the vacuum cleaner, I smushed him.

I carried the contraption back inside the house, returned it to the closet, and slumped into my couch. Then I looked at my dog Schroeder and explained the whole thing. He looked back at me, so concerned, and I started crying.

I kept picturing Mr. Lizard's tail and how it didn't move when I touched it, how I was the one responsible for that. It would've been easier had I run over him accidentally with my car, because then I would've had to keep going, and I never would've seen him. But I did see him, and he was motionless, and something about that was terrifying, particularly because I knew I was at fault.

Then, because I sometimes get irrational thoughts, I figured I'd check just one more time to make sure he was still dead.

And guess what?

He wasn't.

His little green body was clinging to the side of the closet wall, and I swear he looked terrified. I was shocked. Here I was, confessing my heart to Schroeder and even crying over Mr. Lizard's tragic passing, and meanwhile, he was having a little party as he tried to decide whether he wanted to squeeze inside the Apples to Apples box or the Lord-of-the-Rings-themed Risk. And let's be honest, how do you choose between those two?

What followed was a string of rescue attempts--including but not limited to my using a hanger to help him down and screaming like the stylist dyed my hair orange when he actually climbed onto it. Ultimately, though, you'll be relieved to know Mr. Lizard found shelter in last year's Easter basket, into which he ran directly before I carried him and the Easter basket safely to the front porch.

And I realized, what I was mourning, God was in the process of redeeming.

Okay, so maybe that sounds a little dramatic...this is a lizard we're talking about, after all...but the lizard is really more of a figure than anything else.

Is there anything in your life that you've given up on because it looks like hope is lost? Maybe it's a lot more serious than a lizard in the house. Don't despair; God is always in the process of redeeming that which we've lost. It's only when we really give up control that healing begins.

Monday

Fiction Family

This post is kind of writing related... I mean, it has the word "fiction" in the title.

Okay, so not really, but I had to share--today I found out that Jon Foreman, my favorite singer of my favorite band, Switchfoot, has another band called Fiction Family. The only other band member is Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek.

Yes folks, this is pretty much the best duo of all time, short of Taylor Swift joining up with one of the guys from Jars of Clay.

I even considered joining the Street Team but then realized that, like shopping in American Eagle and wearing bright-colored bangle bracelets, that's probably something I'm not longer allowed to do now that I'm in my midtwenties.

But, ahem, just in case you're interested, here's the link. And if you sign up for the e-mail list, you get a free song download.

http://www.fictionfamily.com/

Saturday

To Become A Better Writer... Watch TV?

Hope all you readers are doing well and are enjoying the cool temperatures. Down in Florida we're still wearing short sleeves.

My husband and I really love the show Lie to Me. It's about this man named Cal who is an expert at discerning whether or not people are telling the truth, so he starts this organization called The Lightman Group that uses facial expressions and verbal cues to solve mysteries and crimes.

We're only on Season Two, but we've been watching the episodes on Netflix non-stop. Last night while we were watching it, I asked myself what about the show I like so much. Several things I came up with are the character development, the interesting plots (subplots and main plots), and the fact that I feel like I've learned something when I watch it. So basically, don't try to lie to me because I'm now well-versed in my ability to detect what your scrunched eyebrows and grimace might mean. Just kidding, of course. Kind of.

What are your favorite books, movies, and shows? What have you learned from them that has helped your writing?

God May Be Calling, But What If The Line's Busy?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what happens when God places a call on our lives, but we're a little too busy with all our good efforts to pick up. Who's on the other line? Well, it's probably not Satan incarnate, unless you are really outside my typical blog audience.

More likely, it's those nice folks at church, asking if you can volunteer for a few more service projects. Or maybe it's a coworker who wants to know if you can pick up a few extra hours.

Or if you're like me, maybe it's yourself. And no, I'm not schizophrenic.

I've seen this happen to friends who hold the idea of their "ministry" so close to their hearts that they are inflexible when God Himself brings a change to their plans, and I've done this many times personally when God is telling me to relax and I feel the need to explain how concerning and significant my efforts are.

The conversation goes something like this, "God, I know You're listening, and I know you care, but this stuff I'm doing here is pretty important, so please help it work out the best way it possibly can, and please give me strength as I work so hard to exhaust every possible avenue to make this happen."

When really, the prayer should be more like this: "God, I'm listening. And I'll follow."

The. End.

I challenge you today to live in faith rather than in a form of faith that's really driven by self-imposed, false humility and a legalistic, works-based salvation structure. Remember that it is by grace and grace alone we are redeemed, and all we are that is good is because of Christ's work in us.

So stop trying too hard to BE that person, whatever he or she looks like in your mind, and realize you already ARE if Christ is at work, living within you.

Wednesday

A Hint--Okay, Maybe a Handful--of Sparkle


So, I was watching Dancing with the Stars a couple nights ago. If you know me at all, you know I've always had a secret dream... well, maybe it's not that secret... of becoming a professional dancer and figure skater. And during the show, I thought to myself, "Man, Cheryl's dress is sparkly."




See, I love anything with sparkle, anything that says, "Hello world, I have pizazz!" I'm one of those women who shamelessly wore sparkly bangle bracelets until my early twenties when suddenly I realized the accessories might have a minor impact on my credibility as an instructor.

So naturally, I notice things with that Wow! factor. You can insert your old-school Batman jokes here.




The question is, how do you get your writing to sparkle like Cheryl's dress? For me, the trick is adding Southern charm and humor. Know how I stumbled across that? By realizing that in the first draft of my book, the setting was virtually nonexistent. I'm not kidding! After I started paying more attention to adding a setting in revision, it really came alive and has now become one of the cornerstones of my brand.

But I want to hear from you! What tricks and tips do you have for making your own writing shine and giving it that wow factor?

Monday

A Little Trick for Adding Humor

Looking to add a little humor to your manuscript? Maybe you're writing a comedy, or maybe you're writing something more serious but just want to add a few opportunities for your readers to laugh during otherwise overly-serious moments.

I've been doing an overwhelming amount of polish edits lately before sending my manuscript off for review, and something I noticed myself doing (without even really thinking about it) is having my protagonist ask a funny question and answer it herself.

This technique works particularly well if you're writing in first person or third person close point of view.

For example, let's say your protagonist is walking out of a grocery store and sees a gruff woman slap her child in the arm and yell, "Stop hitting your brother!"

Your lead character could say something along the lines of, "Does technique really work for you? Talk about leading by example."

Now, I just came up with that off the top of my head, so I realize it's not that funny, but you still get the idea. And don't feel like you have to stick to question/answer format, either. Your answer doesn't have to be a real answer. It can be sarcastic or even a tangential type of answer.

Your turn! I want to hear your thoughts and questions. Do any of you brave souls even want to volunteer an example?

The Joys of Distractions


Lately, I've been hard at work on polishing my proposal and manuscript. If you're a writer, you know this process also entails being hard at work finding distractions! But sometimes distractions can be helpful because they allow our creative energy a chance to recharge. So, in case you need a little break from whatever it is you've been working hard on, I thought I'd share some of my distractions with you today.

1) Bubble Shack Soaps


I found these little treasures on my honeymoon in Hawaii, and I've been ordering them onlin
e ever since. You can find them at bubbleshack.com or Target's website. I recommend the Chocolate Malasada, Plumeria, and Awapuhi, the last of which is great for sensitive skin.

2) Castle

My husband and I watch this show regularly. If you haven't seen it before, the premise is that Castle (pictured on the left) is a mystery writer who hooks up with a local investigator, Beckett (pictured right). Castle gets inspiration from the cases, and his creative expertise helps Beckett solve her cases. There's a love interest that's a constant tease--just the kind of thing that makes great TV--and a lot of humorous pop culture references.

3) woot.com
Woot is a website that sells refurbished items for super cheap. I snagged a Flip for just $75 the other day. They only sell one item per day, but the item changes every day at midnight, so check often! You can save a bunch of money this way.

4) Blue Heart Blessed by Susan Meissner


First off, I've had the privilege of meeting Susan Meissner, and she is just as graceful as you would expect. This first person novel had me from the first page, and I'd definitely recommend it. I can't wait until I have more time to dive further into it.

5) Jenny B. Jones' blog


Jenny is pretty much delightful in every way. Any time I find myself feeling overwhelmed or just in need of a laugh, I head over to her zippity blog, and I think you should too. Check it out: http://www.jennybjones.com/blog


So now, you tell me... what sorts of distractions do you enjoy when the hum drum of daily activities puts you in the mood for a little color? Websites, TV shows, books, anything really. I want to hear from you!

Thursday

Establishing a Platform

Today I'm going to write about something I wish someone had told me earlier on... the need for a platform.

When I was at the ACFW Conference, the question of platform came up a few times, and I suddenly realized that editing a few fancy schmanzy literary journals and being an English teacher, while impressive-sounding to people, does not constitute a platform.

Simply stated, a platform means a lot of people. People who are already reading your writing in some format, who may also be interested in reading your book. And yes, I do realize that last sentence was a fragment.

Maybe you're freelance writing for a magazine, doing public speaking in some kind of arena that's related to your book (i.e. speaking to tea parties about your book on The Joys of Tazo Tea), or writing a blog that's related to the issues or target audience your book addresses. The possibilities are endless.

Don't get discouraged if you hear "no." A lot. Many magazines will already be swamped with articles to choose from, and the same goes for newspapers and other media outlets. Just keep trying and eventually you'll hear "yes."

And while you're searching... can you let me know if you find any media interested in any articles related to Southern charm? :)

Wednesday

The Long Fall of Faith

Thought for the day...

Faith is not looking from a staircase and measuring the distance down; faith is looking at the next step and jumping hard.

Tuesday

What Keeps You Going?

Ever so often--sometimes when I'm burned out from editing or sometimes when I'm so sleepy in the morning--I look at my book and think, "What in the world do you think you're doing?" You know those moments... when you look at a word like "the" and wonder who was in charge of putting the letters in that order. When you forget how to use contractions for a second, and genuinely wonder if you intended to use the word "quish" in your last draft.

I had a moment like that at the ACFW Conference, as I realized I really am nothing without Christ. When I finally said, "Okay, God. What am I doing here? Are you sure this wasn't a mistake? Because I hardly even remember my name at this point." that I found myself in the depths of God's mercy, which is a beautiful place to be. So, after that I received a couple full manuscript requests... a symphony to a novelists' ears, right?

Mostly.

We'll put it this way. I'd like to consider myself a quick learner, but not when it comes to being OCD. I continue going back to my perfectionist tendencies, like the one-more-chocolate-mint-after-I've-already-eaten-too-much-pasta mindset.

And so here I am, plugging away at final polishing edits, and changing way more than I intended in the attempt to get my book just perfect. And you know what? It will always fall short of perfection. And that's sometimes discouraging. Because the fact of the matter is, I don't care if you're Jane Austen, there is no such thing as mastering the art of writing. In writing, there is only progress and further progress.

But in those moments when feel like a puddle of melted vanilla ice cream in a sea of chocolate milkshakes, something keeps pushing me through, and that is the absolute certainty I am doing just exactly what God has called me into. And at the end of the day, that's all I need to worry about.

And you know what? Surrender looks a lot different than I thought it did. It's a lot easier, and a lot simpler. Stop trying to control everything. Do your best, be faithful, and let go.

Sometimes He only reveals the next step when we'd like to see the next three. But that's okay, because He loves us deeper than we can know.

So I want to encourage you if you're feeling overwhelmed... everyone feels the vanillas from time to time, especially when under pressure.

For what it's worth, I think the key to success is simply knowing what you're called to do and never, never letting go of that.

Have you experienced this feeling lately? How did you find God's calling in your life?


Thursday

The Space Between Perfection and Wholeness: Grace

You don't have to know me long to realize I'm a recovering perfectionist. Big time. We're talking parents-had-t0-make-me-stop-studying-in-high-school perfectionist. It's something I still struggle with often, particularly when under a lot of stress.

Over the past few years, I've started to realize that "perfectionism" is usually just a selfish attempt at control masking itself as some high moral ground. We say to ourselves, "I want to do this as well as possible because I'm being a good servant of Christ," but what we really mean is, "I want to do this as good as possible so I can be sure of the outcome." Two very different things. I've been realizing that perfectionism often belays trust in a holy God who will work through our mistakes for His glory. He doesn't need perfect people in order to use us well; in fact, the broken people are often the ones who can be used the most powerfully, because they allow God's great grace to be vastly manifest.

But what does that type of wholeness, that type of trust in God's grace, mean in the day-to-days of life?

At the ACFW Conference, I came to the realization that I was trying too hard. Trying to figure out who I was supposed to talk to when, trying to figure out how to describe my writing, trying to leave positive impressions on everyone. All of those things are good in and of themselves, and in my head, I thought I was surrendering them to God. But when I came to a point of sheer exhaustion and didn't even know which direction was up, I realized that praying, "Help me know what to say to this person in order to represent my book well," is a whole lot different from praying, "I have no idea where to go or what to say, but I trust You're the one who's brought me to this place in life. So please, somehow, help me walk in step with that great plan, a plan that's outside of myself yet also woven into my purpose."

I'm not advocating laziness by any means, but what I am saying is that if you are a perfectionist like me, give yourself a break. Don't worry about every little word of your manuscript having to line up with some greater plan God has for your book because He's not limited by words like we are. If you trust Him and commit your way to Him, He will make it all work out. That's the mystery of faith, and the beauty of grace.

Wednesday

This Is What a Dream Looks Like


This weekend I attended the ACFW Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The conference was absolutely phenomenal, and I can't wait to post more about what I learned. But for now, check out these pictures of all the fun.



Here I am with Carol award winners Christina Berry (author of The Familiar Stranger- a must read!) and bestseller Terri Blackstock. We shared a flight back home.


This is Etta Wilson from the well-respected agency Books & Such. She was kind enough to get a picture with me.

Katie Johnson, one of my friends from the ACFW loop.


Another sweet new friend, Kathy Lay!


The wonderful Jennifer Slattery, whose manuscript I've had the pleasure of reading in part, and let me tell you, it's wonderful. She's going to be published in no time.


You may recognize these ladies! Here I am with some of my absolute favorite authors (L-R) Deb Raney, Diann Hunt, and Denise Hunter. Such kind people!



Me with new friend Cheryl Eklund.

Ane Mulligan, my zone president.


The fabulous Cara Putnam who couldn't be more helpful.


And you probably recognize this face as Jenny B. Jones, a two-time Carol award winner who is every bit as adorable in person as she is in her books. What a privilege to meet her! And no, I didn't plan the coordinating purple.

What a dream it was to meet all of you! Thank you for your kindness and for welcoming me into this group of talented storytellers.


Sunday

Don't Forget the Ice Cream

It happens almost every time I go overboard.

I feel like I'm going to get sick.

My throat gets sore, my nose gets stuffy, and I get exhausted.

I've been battling this feeling this week in particular as I polish my manuscripts before I pitch them, while at the same time keeping up with my regular job.

And here's what I've learned: don't forget the Haagen Daazs.

Friday

Defining Moments

Yesterday, one of my students came up to me and told me that he really wants to pass my class, but sometimes he has a hard time finding motivation to do assignments. I told him I'm glad to hear about his enthusiasm, but ultimately, it has to translate into action in order for it to count.

I'm in this mad race to finish all my stuff before conference season. I literally had a dream last night that the woman who runs my favorite ice cream store also happened to be an editor. I pitched her my book while she made my milkshake.

Talk about my subconscious trying to say something...

In any event, I want to encourage you while you also put the finishing touches on your books, or perhaps even race to finish them in time to pitch them. Remember that things in life, particularly large projects like books, are not accomplished suddenly, but by a lot of small steps.

Today has been my "focus on writing" day, and let me tell you, I am already exhausted. I get so jittery when I try to write for a long time! I start finding all sorts of things to look up on the internet or work on around the house. But sometimes, I just have to tell myself a firm, "no," and keep going.

Be encouraged that the finish line is not as far off as it seems, especially if it feels ever-evasive. All of your decisions to work toward a project are forward-moving decisions that will eventually get you to your goal.

Be blessed in your work today.

Tuesday

Quite the Character

So, lately I've been realizing that pretty much all of my characters- at least my good ones- live inside me. Okay, not literally, but you get the idea.

At some point, I started taking personal character traits, exploiting them until they no longer represented (only resembled) myself, and then formed these traits into various characters. Call me schizophrenic, but it seems to be an approach that works.

If you having trouble with characterization, try complicating that particular character. Think of a trait you can identify with, perhaps even a trait about yourself, and imagine how giving the character that trait would make him or her more three-dimensional and believable.

Another perk to using this method of characterization is that you are intimately connected with your characters without even trying to be. One of my main characters is a bit germaphobic, which isn't difficult for me to describe because I myself cringe before touching a public door handle.

I'm not suggesting you make your characters autobiographical, because they'd all end up the same. What I am suggesting is that you use traits unique to your own identity to enhance your characters.

What are your thoughts about this method of characterization? Have you tried it before? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Do you have any other suggestions for strong characterization?

Thursday

Switch It Up

Chances are, if you're revising a completed first draft of a manuscript, you're going to start feeling burned out. It can be difficult to stay motivated and focused, especially when other projects call for your attention. Here are a few suggestions I have that I hope will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed.

1) Pray. Don't forget to reconnect with the Lord, who's the reason you're motivated to write this book anyway. If you lose your connection with him, you'll start feeling like what you are doing doesn't matter. Look to Him and the Bible for encouragement and affirmation.

2) Do something fun. Check Facebook for a while, or look at a few ebay auctions. Maybe you can find something that would be cool to write about.

3) Change your surroundings. If possible, go on a weekend trip. If not, go to Starbucks. A change of surroundings makes the world of difference in terms of reframing your perspective.

4) Have a friend look at your manuscript. There are only so many plot holes you will be able to see, because this book is your baby. A good friend, on the other hand, won't hesitate to tear it apart and tell you what works and what doesn't.

5) Stop overloading yourself with information. Getting ready for conference season, I've been trying to educate myself as possible lately, and finally struck a breaking point where I realized there was no physical way to internalize all the information the internet has available to me. Don't get so bogged down researching that you stop doing what's more important: writing.

Hope these tips have helped you. Do you have anything to add?

Tuesday

Kind of Really Need to Not Be Wordy

So, as I'm revising my manuscript, I'm realizing how wordy my first draft was.

I think there's a great temptation to explain too many things to our readers, most likely because in the first draft we are still trying to explain them to ourselves. :)

It's taking me quite a while to do, but I am going through sentence-by-sentence and editing out every unnecessary word.

I've found one of the biggest problem areas I have is my dialogue beats.

I probably have a million -ly endings tagged on to words, for a quick adverb fix.

He said sincerely. She laughed awkwardly. He grinned widely. She inhaled deeply.

Now, I think you can get away with the occasional -ly ending, but not when you are using it as a cop out instead of coming up with clever, specific language.

Instead of telling the reader how something is said, find a way to show that. How did the character's facial expression change when he or she heard the news? What can the character be doing in the background of a conversation that will mirror what is happening in the literal conversation?

Try doing a Google Images search for facial expressions you imagine your characters to have. Or, grab a mirror and imitate the expression with your own face. You may be surprised what you come up with.

If you're like me, you might have a lot of inhaling, coughing, and giggling. Be on the lookout for pet words you use frequently. It's okay to repeat yourself, but not to be redundant.

If you get rid of these -ly endings, you may have more words, but your sentence will likely be less wordy. Big difference.

Also, try this exercise: pick a particular passage in your WIP that you know is wordy. Then, go through and cross out every word that is not furthering your paragraph. This exercise might shrink your paragraph down to a couple sentences, but that's okay, because it will likely help you come up with new material.

Any time you can avoid wordiness, you pack more meaningful information into each word, just like a poem. This helps with pacing. And strong pacing is always a good thing.

Questions for comment: What strategies do you have to avoid wordiness? Are there any particular ways that you struggle with this topic?

Kill Your Darlings... and Your Contentment

So, whoever came up with that whole kill-your-darlings bit was a smart person.

You've undoubtedly heard it before: if you love a line in your WIP so much that you can't imagine deleting it, you probably need to.

When I first heard the saying, though, I have to admit I was skeptical. Probably because I felt like it erased any ability I had to objectively critique my work. If I thought something was good, who was to say my judgment wasn't good enough?

Well, let me tell you, after hours of macro-editing my WIP over the past few days, I have been converted. I have deleted entire scenes that I once thought were brilliant. And you know what? The new stuff is way better.

I think what happens is not that we suffer from some inability to accurately perceive our own writing as good or not good (although that might be true sometimes too), but rather, that whenever we think a passage is particularly strong, we become content with it.

Contentment in writing is a dangerous thing.

It keeps us from pushing forward. So yes, maybe your "darling" really is outstanding, but if you delete it, you'll leave an empty space that pushes you toward something even better.

After all, you wouldn't want to delete one of your favorite lines, only to substitute it with something lame.

Something to think about.

Do you have any examples of how this principle has worked in your own writing? Have you been hesitant to "kill your darlings," even when you had a gut feeling they weren't bettering a passage?

Sunday

Finding More Time

As I write this, I'm in a time crunch.

Sound like your life?

If you're anything like me, it's always a struggle to organize your time so that you have enough to commit appropriate amounts to the various things in your life.

I'm a teacher, so at different parts of the year, my busy-ness schedule looks a lot different, but not matter how much free time I have, it somehow never seems to be enough. Whenever I'm bogged down with a giant stack of papers waiting to be graded, I feel like there's hardly even enough time to vacuum. Whenever I'm out of school, I somehow manage to come up with a long list of various out-of-school projects, ranging from working on my manuscript to learning how to quilt. And no, in case you are wondering, I don't know how to quilt. That one's on the list next to "paint the bathroom" and "catch up on scrapbooking" (aka the not done list).

In other words, my commitment level always seems out of sync with the amount of time I have to actually work on stuff.

So yesterday, I was thinking to myself... how can I be more efficient? I obviously don't have some secret answer to time travel, so the best I can do is try to become better organized with the time I have. I thought to myself, if I got up an hour earlier each day during the week, that would be a total of five hours more productivity available to me. If you have a busy schedule or are raising kids, you can apply the same principle in smaller, more frequent segments as well. For instance, four fifteen minute segments a day during the week will also total five hours. Those fifteen minutes on Facebook might not seem like a lot at the time, but they add up.

What strategies have you found helpful in organizing and making good use of your time?

Friday

You've Finished the First Draft... Now What?

First, let me begin by apologizing for how quiet my blog's been lately.

Conference season is nearly underway, and many of you, like me, may be working on novels to pitch at a conference.

I recently finished the first draft of my novel, which felt like a tremendous feat.

And then I began to come to the realization that editing can take more time than initial writing, at least, if you want to really craft your novel.

So if you have finished a manuscript, be proud of yourself! Many people quit halfway through. However, don't lull yourself into thinking you're done, or even close to done. Chances are, unless you're a prodigy writer (and maybe even then), revision will mean more than inserting a few commas.

While grammatical revision is certainly important and necessary, it's also important that you revise your plot. Look for holes, cliches in the writing, characters who can be combined, and even ways to add new subplots. Add a twist. Increase the stakes. Make us care about your characters even more. Now that you have the skeleton of the story, you have the freedom to add or take away from it.

Don't become so married to your original draft that you hesitate to change it. Have a few friends read through your manuscript and ask them to tell you honestly what works and what doesn't.

Above all, read.

Become an expert reader. Reading other books of a similar genre will help make you an expert in it, and reading books about the writing process can help you learn how to self-edit your manuscript, which is a valuable skill even if you plan on working with a professional editor.

I have been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Plot and Structure. These two books have dynamically changed the way I look at my manuscript. I would definitely recommend them.

So, take a few days off. Buy yourself come chocolate ice cream, and sleep in.

But after those two or three days, adjust your perspective, and get ready to rip your manuscript apart. :)

Wednesday

What to Bring to Appointments with Editors and Agents


As a first time ACFW Conference attendee, one of my initial questions about the Conference was what I should bring to be prepared for meetings with editors and agents. I’ve done some research to answer this question, and I hope you will find it helpful as a checklist, especially if this is your first conference as well.

  • Bring a one sheet. I might just have an abnormal interest in them, but I actually think one sheets are fun to make. Get creative with these and use them to catch the attention of agents and editors. They should include the title of your work, its genre, a brief summary of your story, a brief bio of you, and preferably a headshot. Try to come up with a cute tag line to put under the title like, “When summer comes to an end, will autumn’s cool chill their love?” Okay, so that wasn’t cute at all, but you get the idea. You might even want to use a quote from your book under the title. Whatever you do, do not forget to include your contact information.

  • Bring a proposal. Do your research before the conference and look at the agent or publishing house’s requirements for proposals, then tailor yours accordingly. I’m clearly not an agent, but I can imagine they get a lot of ill-formatted proposals, and as an instructor, I can understand the frustration that must accompany that. Do your homework and pay attention to what the editor or agent wants. You are trying to impress him or her, after all.

  • Bring a synopsis. The synopsis will probably be the hardest thing on this checklist to write. It’s difficult to summarize something you’ve worked so hard for so long on. However, it’s important that you take the time to make your summary strong. Research blogs and books for tips on making your synopsis shine.

  • Bring your first 2 to 3 chapters, depending on how long they are. Agents and editors will want to take a look at your actual writing, and will be particularly interested in your hook/beginning.

  • Bring questions. In her May 21, 2009 blog, Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary Agency suggests that you bring a list of questions with you to conference appointments that are long, lasting between 10-15 minutes. The reason? If you know within the first few minutes that the editor or agent is not interested in your book, you can still learn valuable information through the appointment and get some of your questions answered. Rachelle’s blog is full of valuable information, especially for first-time ACFW Conference attendees, so make sure you check it out if you haven’t already. The link is http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/. Rachelle is a very well-respected agent, and you can find more detailed information about all of the points on my checklist, not just this one, in her blog.

  • Prepare a verbal pitch. Yes, I realize this is the only point that isn’t parallel with the others. It is also the only point that doesn’t regard some sort of physical material you should bring with you. However, it stands out for a good reason. The verbal pitch is one of the best ways to capture the interest of an editor or agent. You don’t want to sound rehearsed, but you also want to make sure what you have to say is polished. You’ll want to have a short version of your verbal pitch as well as a longer version that will be appropriate for agent and editor appointments. Make sure you introduce yourself before diving into your pitch, and don’t try to tell your whole story. Give the agent or editor enough information that he or she can easily will be intrigued, but not so much information that he or she will be confused. The editor or agent does not need to know the life history of all of your background characters. Think about what’s most important to your story, and use that to your advantage.
Questions for Comment: What questions do you have about meeting with editors and agents? Is there anything about the idea of appointments that makes you particularly nervous?

Monday

What to Keep in Mind When Meeting Agents


My blog posts for this week will concern the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Conference. For more information about the Conference, click here.


Some of you who are reading this blog may have attended the Conference before, perhaps even multiple times.


However, many of you, like me, have probably never attended a writing conference. I’ve been to plenty of church conferences, and even a conference about teaching university-level composition, but never a writing conference.


My goal is that this blog will provide you will useful information whether you’re attending the ACFW Conference for the first time or the fifth.


If you are attending the Conference for the first time, you probably have plenty of questions about what to expect. The question at the top of my list was how to appropriately interact with agents and editors.


I learned it’s never a good idea to verbally tackle agents and editors in a bathroom or hallway. Good thing to learn before getting dubbed the bathroom pitch girl.


It is, however, acceptable to pitch in an elevator, thus the term “elevator pitch.” I wonder which category the Starbucks waiting line falls into?


Since I’m clearly not an expert on the subject, I asked Etta Wilson from Books & Such Literary Agency if she would contribute her expertise, as she has vast experience as an agent, editor, and even an author. Thank you, Etta, for your contribution to this blog.


What is the biggest mistake authors make when meeting agents for the first time?


This is tough to answer with only one point because so much depends on the author's basic personality and whether or not they feel confident about themselves and their work. It's nearly always obvious when an author has a canned comment ready or is a bit pushy. Agents, like authors, are simply human, and some will work well together and some will need to look more.


If an author attending the ACFW Conference wants to approach an agent outside of an official appointment setting, for instance, at an agent table during meals, what is an appropriate way for the author to do so? What kind of information about his or her book, including how much information, should the author give in this kind of informal setting?


Assuming the author knows something about the agent's preferences (fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or historical), he/she should have a couple of enticing summary sentences in mind about the work and their background. Occasionally an author can make a strong impression by noting a personal connection with either the agent or another client of the agent, but it should be legitimate.


What are some important things for authors to remember when forming a pitch?


While a pitch should be memorable, short, and honest, authors should not be crestfallen if an agent declines to see the work. There are many reasons why an agent may be unable to pursue a particular novel, and it could be for the author's best interests in the long run.


What kinds of materials should authors bring with them to agent appointments?


I like to see a proposal, 3 or 4 sample chapters, a brief synopsis, and a bio. That may seem like a lot for a brief appointment, but it can save a lot of time later if I'm interested.


If you could give first-time conference attendees any advice about meeting with agents and pitching their work, what would it be?


Believe in your work and be kind. We're all in this together, and the writing and publishing of wonderful reading is a high calling for all of us.



Questions for Comment: If you have attended the ACFW Conference before, do you have any advice for first-time attendees, especially regarding appointments with agents and editors? If this will be your first time attending the Conference, what questions do you have about it?

Friday

Elijah Moments


This post is not necessarily writing-related, so I apologize for that, but I wanted to share.

Matthew 16:10-13

The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?

Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

I think it's easy sometimes, at least for me, to read passages like this one and respond with something along the lines of, "Yeah, you legalistic, pagan Pharisees. You were so worried about the rules and regulations that you were blind to deeper spiritual truths. So glad my own faith is more sophisticated."

Sounds a little conceited written out, but, don't we have that thought process all the time? When I was reading these verses earlier tonight, though, I was struck by the spiritual blindness that they implicate.

But the thing is, we're not blind. We're just closing our eyes.

The religious leaders of Jesus's day did not recognize John the Baptist, or Jesus for that matter, as the dynamic spiritual leaders that the Old Testament prophecies about. Why not? Because they were expecting the second Elijah to come, look, and act in a way that fit perfectly with their own assumptions.

Thing is, God has a way of working beyond the wildest stretch of our assumptions. Sometimes His plans, His purposes, do not look like we expect them to.

The problem is, we get so caught up in waiting for our own expectations to be fulfilled that we close our eyes to what God is doing in our lives. We don't recognize our own Elijah moments because they don't always look like the Elijah's we've dreamed up for ourselves.

Have you ever had a time in your life when God has stretched you to take off a spiritual blindfold and recognize His will as different from what you expected it to be? Why do you think we're usually more comfortable imagining our own Elijah moments, asking God's approval for them, rather than seeking the dynamic and legitimate work of God's Holy Spirit?

Monday

What Makes Inspirational Fiction "Inspirational"?

Have you ever read a book that you really enjoyed but that seemed just "clean" rather than "inspirational," only to find that all the characters come to know the Lord at the very end of the book? If so, you know how frustrating and forced feeling such an ending can be for a reader. It is also my opinion that these types of endings make Christianity feel artificial, like a stamp to place on something (book, person, etc.) in an attempt to label it, perhaps even so it will be more acceptable for a CBA market. This artificiality is disheartening to me because it betrays the actual nature of Christianity as faith that challenges us from our inner being to listen and love Christ every day.

Are you struggling with how explicit you ought to be about Christianity in your WIP? If you are writing inspirational fiction, it is vital that you include faith-based elements. However, you also don't want those elements to feel forced or preachy. How do you strike a balance?

What I am learning to do is to let those faith-based elements rise organically from within the plot. I think about my friends who are not Christians when I write my scenes, and I ask myself if they would say the inspirational elements seem forced. Notice that I didn't say I ask myself if these friends would agree with the inspirational elements, because that is another issue entirely. You don't want to shy away from complicated topics just because someone might disagree; someone will always disagree.

While a few scenes where your characters are either in church, at a Bible study, or having a very clear spiritual conversation with good friends can provide an opportunity to put actual Bible verses in your book (which is always a good idea), you have to build the foundation for these scenes to give them more impact. Otherwise, it's like killing off a character I hardly know versus one that I do: readers just don't care very much. On the other hand, I still remember scenes from Robin Jones Gunn novels that I haven't read in years where the characters had God-encounters, and those scenes still stick out to me because I was so invested in the characters. You have probably have similar memories from books you love.

It's really a similar strategy as we take when trying to live out a Christian lifestyle. Passing out tracks at a gas station is probably not going to be as effective as buying someone else's gas.

What are some ways that you have found to incorporate inspirational elements into your plot without those elements feeling artificial? Do you have any examples of books you have read that have done this effectively?

Friday

Music Sets the Tone

Hope you all are enjoying your Friday and looking forward to the weekend. This blog will be relatively short because I don't want to belabor an otherwise short topic.

Today I want to encourage you to set the scene, not only for your literal writing, but also for your writing environment. In my WIP, the main character and her best friend just arrived in Hawaii for a vacation. It's not terribly difficult to write about the setting in her everyday life since I made her hometown similar to mine. However, Hawaii is a totally different story. My husband and I went there for our honeymoon, but that is the only time I've been.

So, I thought to myself, why not find some Hawaiian music online to set the mood? Let me tell you, it worked. I feel like my MacBook Pro and I travelled through space to Hawaii for a few hours. I used Pandora.com, which I would definitely recommend because it's customizable and free. You can obviously use cd's and other websites as well.

If you're having a hard time finding inspiration or are simply looking for some extra details for the setting, give music a try. On the internet, you can find music that represents most generations and regions. I hope you find it to be a helpful (and fun) tool.

Tuesday

Kill Your Adverbs

So, we all know we're not supposed to make our writing wordy, but what exactly makes writing wordy in the first place? Well, one answer to that question is the overuse of adverbs, especially of adverbs ending in -ly.

For instance:

Slowly, Abigail meticulously moves on her newly-sharpened ice skate, becoming somewhat angelic as she goes into a carefully- executed spin.

As a general rule, it's a safe bet that you can delete just about any word that ends in -ly and replace it with a more appropriate word.

For instance, if I were to rewrite the above sentence, I could say:

An angel on ice, Abigail glides on her new skates, then turns into a blur as ice flies up from her polished spin.

Notice how I got rid of all of the adverbs and replaced them with either stronger verbs or images that do a better job on conveying my meaning?

Generally, too many -ly adverbs mean that your verbs aren't strong enough and are relying too heavily on the support of modifiers. Obviously -ly words are okay sometimes (I just used a couple, in case you didn't notice), but it's their overuse that makes sentences clunky.

Studying poetry can help you learn to chose just the right word. I know it has helped me. Here is one of my favorite poems by E.E. Cummings. I got this particular one off of AmericanPoems.com. Notice how each word he chooses (as well as the grammar and punctuation, which I love about him) is very intentional and brings something specific to the poem.


i carry your heart with me
e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bed
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Monday

Finding Inspiration in Everyday Life


So, my husband and I just adopted a new dog from a local animal shelter. He is so precious! I would definitely recommend getting your pets from shelters and rescues, because you are literally saving their lives. Pet overpopulation is such a tragic problem right now. If you are concerned about getting a particular breed or age, you can almost definitely find that at a rescue or shelter. Our new little friend is a purebred Cocker Spaniel and is very young! Check out Petfinder.com or AdoptAPet.com.

Because I feel so strongly about companion animal adoption (both our dogs are rescues), I am writing a subplot into my WIP about animal rescue.

This process with our new dog (currently named Fleming, but his name could change) has given me so many great ideas for my book. Although he is pure sweetness and so much fun to be around, it is a lot of work getting a new dog. We are having to keep him separated from our other dog because he is still recovering from being neutered last week, and because we want to make sure he doesn't have any doggie colds from the shelter that he could pass along to Maddie. Keeping them separated is not easy, nor is it easy trying to spend time making sure they both have plenty of attention.

As you can probably imagine, the new dog has already cut down my writing time a bit. However, he has also given me amazingly valuable life experiences that I can write into my story. It's one thing to describe a scene you are imagining, but it's another thing to live that scene and know what the emotions, the exhaustion, the happiness, the sounds, the time, etc. are really like.

Sometimes I even write about frustrations I am having... for instance, my main character does not like doing dishes!

Questions for Comment: What things do you feel passionate about? Or perhaps even frustrated by? Have you tried writing those things into your stories? Have you found that doing so makes your stories more realistic and colorful?


Friday

Edit Later, Spell Check Now.

I am a firm believer in waiting to make major edits until I am done writing something. Editing usually takes on a multitude of levels, so trying to critique my work on all of these levels at once while I am writing it leads to one frustrated perfectionist. I can't get anything done. I make myself reread everything I have already written before I start writing something new. I decided to quit that approach around page 36.

Now, I have been enjoying writing my novel with my inner critique light turned off. My creativity has definitely been cultivated by this effort, because every time the practical side of my brain wants to say "that's not feasible," the creative side of my brain says, "I will come up with a way to make it feasible."

That said, I have also found it incredibly helpful to try to make accurate word choices and use proper spelling as I go about writing my manuscript.

For instance, who knew "catapult" was spelled with two a's? Not me. Until about four minutes ago.

While Spellcheck software might catch most of the spelling errors we make, it cannot help us remember the alternative, clearer wording we almost chose.

I have found that it's worth the extra second or two to pick the best wording and Google questionable spelling (as well as grammar) as I go along. Otherwise, the errors could be lost until they find themselves in the hands of an unsuspecting reader.

Do you participate in the editing process during or after writing? Perhaps a little bit of both?What strategies have you found that work well to help you cultivate creativity while also keeping your format, style, and grammar in line?

Monday

Review of Remember to Forget


From time to time, I will write book reviews of pieces I've read that I think you might also enjoy. For my first book review installment, I will look at Remember to Forget by Deborah Raney.

Imagine yourself driving through a bad area of New York City, when suddenly your car gets carjacked. Panic, fear, and shock run through your head. But for Maggie Anderson, another emotion tags along: relief.

Maggie struggles in an abusive relationship. In the past, all her attempts at escaping have proven futile, as Kevin, her frightening boyfriend, always finds her, wherever she tries to hide. The carjacking provides a totally different opportunity, however, and for the first time, Maggie realizes that her dreams of escape might actually be realized.

Trecking across many states in the pursuit of a new life for herself, Maggie eventually ends up at a charming bed and breakfast and makes friends with your typical bed-and-breakfast types, including a handsome bachelor, Trevor, who has his own past to deal with: a wife and child who were suddenly killed.

Will Maggie ever learn to trust again? Will she act on her interest in Trevor, or be forced to return back to Kevin?

Remember to Forget does a brilliant job of weaving together characters with difficult pasts. Raney makes Maggie quite believable, as Maggie continues to question herself and the kindness of others throughout the book, evidence of the trauma she's experienced. Trevor is irresistible, and you'll find yourself screaming, "Open your eyes, Maggie, and tell him how you feel!" half-way through the book. The tucked-away bed and breakfast works as a perfect hiding spot for Maggie, and you will enjoy hiding away alongside her as she learns to heal from her abusive past.

The beginning of this book is so engaging that it had me dreaming I was Jack Bauer after reading it at night! The ending is equally sparkling and will have you skipping pages to find out what happens.

While the plot sags just a bit in the middle of the book, the character development is excellent so it gives you a nice opportunity to focus on the characters themselves.

Remember to Forget is an excellent choice if you like a quaint setting or are looking for a quick-read romance with a hint of adventure.