Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Adventure of Living: A New Chapter

In June I shared I moved. In writer terms, the move caused me to edit my life as I downsized my living arrangements. The new house required some repair and changes to meet my needs. That was part of the revision stage of the move. The other part of the revision of my life came when I moved in and realized the rhythm of my daily routine changed as well.

Today I am officially announcing a new chapter in my life. I have accepted a teaching position in Kosovo, or as the Albanian Kosovars call it, Kosova. I will be teaching fourth grade at Prishtina High School. (By the way, you can follow Prishtina High School on Facebook. Click on the link.)

Prishtina High School
Editing, revising, a new chapter…see how cleverly I wove writing into this post? But this post isn’t about writing. It is about following God’s will.

As in most situations, I can look back now and see how past events lead me to the place I’m in right now. Actually, maybe this is about writing. As authors we lay the groundwork for events taking place in our novels. We piece the story together in a meaningful way. Readers finish the book, look back on the early elements of the story and see how it all fit together.

This is my story.

I was an elementary teacher for half of my career before moving to the university to teach in the education program. I loved teaching and wanted to pass the love of what I did on to college students.

Several years ago, Tom and I accompanied five of my teacher education students to Kosova for a cross-cultural learning experience. For a week, my students worked with high school students learning English. While I was working with my students, Tom visited a gypsy community. One of the gypsy men had an idea for a septic system for the community.

“He has an engineering mind,” Tom told me later. “I think when we retire, I’d like to come back and help him build that septic system.”

We talked about returning one day. He could work with the gypsies and I could teach, but Tom’s heart condition altered that plan. It was just an idea, we told ourselves. As we prayed, this did not seem to be God’s plan for us.

Shortly after Tom died, my daughter asked me to accompany her on a trip to India. Although my passport was valid, it had to be valid for six months following the projected return date. My passport was a week short. I had to get a new one. I grumbled.  “A passport should be good until it runs out!” (Yep, that was me.)

Do you see where I’m going with this? Groundwork.

I am a teacher. They need a teacher.
I have been to Kosova and have a heart for the people there.
I have a valid passport and I’m ready to go.

All of the paperwork I needed fell into place. My family is totally supportive. At every turn, I see God’s hand guiding me…leading me into this new chapter of my life.

It will be hard but it will also be joyful.
It will be challenging but it will also be rewarding.
It may be scary at times, but it will be exciting.

Living in God’s will for your life is like that. It’s an adventure.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Painting Pictures With Words In An Instagram World

Readers and writers agree. Getting inside the head of your character is paramount to creating a strong, believable story.

In the past I’ve shared how I create biographies and excel spreadsheets for each character. I write down birthdates, hair color, college attended, and anything else I can to describe the person. When I add information in the book as I craft it, I include that information in the spreadsheet.  I’ve even developed family trees to identify members of my character’s family.

Many authors go a step further, pulling images from the internet to represent a character. Some authors use those images in digital posters reflecting a character or characters.  And a few well-known writers “cast” a movie star to play the part of the character they are creating. The bonus there is that the author can not only “see” the character, but can “hear” him or her talk and envision the character’s physical expressions, and mannerisms.

We use words and images to capture our characters. We use these tools to get to know the characters in our books and to be consistent in over the course of the manuscript. (How confusing it would be to discover our main character, a brunette in chapter one, was described in chapter twelve as a fiery redhead.)

We are writers. We love words. We love word pictures. It’s what we do.

While we all love words – to hear them, write them, read them - we live in a visual world.  We know the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Consider the most popular social mediums of our day.  We gravitated toward 140 characters (Twitter) and quickly moved on to no characters. 

Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are popular for a reason. Instagram gained popularity as an image-only format.  I know of several people who prefer Instagram because it immediately zooms in on the key content of the person posting.  In a quick glance at someone’s feed you can easily identify their passions and pains, how they choose to spend their time, what motivates them, and what they value in life.   Every person’s feed, when taken in whole, paints a picture of who they are and creates a “vibe” about their place in the world. 

With social media in mind, I reached a place where I wondered what my characters would post on Instagram. This is a different perspective. This is not an image for me to hold before me as I write, these are the images that inform me of my character’s sense of self.

For example, in my current work in progress (WIP) I am convinced my male protagonist, Sam, would post images of his car, his boat, and his friends at concerts and ball games on Instagram. A closer look would reveal him as a visual name dropper, posting pictures of him rubbing elbows with important people. Analysis of images would reveal he is not merely at a ball game but is enjoying his company’s box seats.

He is the producer of those images. Allowing him to do so helps me to think about what is important to him.

But I happen to know that all can change. I’m the author. I know that those who follow him will notice when his Instagram feed changes –when color and substance portray a man whose life experience is deeper than the metallic finish on his Mustang.

Images of family and friends will bubble to the surface. A picnic by the lake will prevail over a formal business dinner. Romance will creep into his life. His followers will know it before he does as they begin to see images of Kate, her warm smile appearing with ever growing regularity. Sam’s followers will soon see a more honest image of Sam emerging. Not the man he wanted to portray but rather the man he is…or rather the man he is becoming.

But enough of Sam’s Instagram feed. Think about one of your own characters. What story does his or her Instagram feed tell? What images does he or she hold dear?  What is it that she or she wants to portray? How will those images change as your story unfolds? It’s an interesting exercise. I hope you’ll share some of your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Novel Creation...Indeed

While last week’s post chronicled my journey as a writer and a widow, it is actually an account of God’s presence during this season of my life. God created me and continues to shape me. I am a unique creation…as are you. 

As I shared last week, one of the first pieces I completed toward become a published author was to attend the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois. There I learned everything I could about writing. I attended workshops and met with agents and editors. It was at this first conference I met Eddie Jones who later offered me a contract for Breathing on Her Own. The conference was wonderful.

A very special part of the conference takes place at lunch. Participants have the opportunity to sit with conference speakers and publishers in a very informal setting as well as pick the brains of experienced writers. It was over lunch I learned I needed to have a blog.

I didn’t even know what a blog was much less why I needed one. Others at the lunch table threw around words like platform, audience, and following. I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, but if I needed it then I would do it.

Once I had the contract for Breathing on Her Own I had to finish writing it.  That and teaching my final set of fall semester classes at the university consumed my time. When I turned in the final manuscript (read “my best draft” since there was still work to do) for the novel the last week of November, I breathed deep and set my mind on learning what I could about blogging.

I researched the topic on the internet and landed on a free introductory course offered by Jeff Goins. I found his teaching clear and concise. I started implementing all that he suggested.

I named the blog A Novel Creation…in part because of the view I have that I am a novel creation in the sight of God and secondly because my goal was to share my perspective on creating a novel.

The first six weeks of producing the blog, I averaged 34 readers for each entry. Over time my audience grew to an average of sixty-three readers for each entry. Keeping up with multiple posts each week proved taxing. I wasn’t getting any other writing done. I made the decision to post only once a week. Every Wednesday. Interestingly, my audience grew. I attribute this to consistency.

I was using Blogspot, a Google platform. It was/is free and has served me well. A few weeks before Breathing on Her Own was released, the publisher asked me for information to include in the front matter of the book. He wanted to know my website URL.

Website? Are you kidding? After a bit of research, I purchased a domain name and linked my blog to it. I included a button for people to subscribe. Once I had my blog under the domain name I noted another increase in readership. By the time the book was a month old, 246 readers were regularly visiting the blog.

Why am sharing this? So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

1. Learn all you can about producing a blog.
2. Decide the focus of your blog. Who is your target audience?
3. Spend time choosing your website and/or blog name.
4. Be consistent. If you are going to maintain a blog, make sure you can meet the demands. For me, once a week is perfect.
5. Use the tools afforded you to add subscribers and accept comments or contacts from your readers.
6. Write about a topic you enjoy.

What tips do you have for new bloggers?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Writing Made Right: The Voice of New Beginnings

In a way, this post began several years ago. We don’t always see things clearly as they happen. At least I don’t. So I’ll just share my story. It is a story of new beginnings.
Tom and I made the decision to retire on a December morning in 2011. His surgeon had just told us the circumstances leading to his recent quadruple bypass were genetic.
            “Your cholesterol is fine,” she said. “Your blood pressure is great. You eat right and exercise. This was all genetic. It will happen again.” I stole a glance at Tom. His expression was grim at best.
            “I can’t say when it will happen,” the surgeon continued. “It could be a year from now or twenty-five years from now, but it will happen.”
            “Then I choose the twenty-five years,” I piped up. That got a smile from Tom.
            “You’re doing everything right,” she told him.  "Just keep it up."
            As Tom and I left the surgeon’s office, we made the decision to retire early. He had to turn sixty first. That would be the following September. The earliest date he could leave his job was October of 2012. I taught at a college operating on a semester system. By the time we got into our car we had tentatively set our retirement date for December 31, 2012. One year. It wasn’t set in stone. We still had to pray about it.

New Beginnings.

By the second week in January 2012 we were confident this was God’s plan for us. Tom spoke to people at his work. I spoke to the dean at my university.
            “When I retire I’m going to fish and golf every day,” Tom announced. “What are you going to do?”
           Good question. I could fish and golf… but not every day. I considered teaching an online class or consulting. I didn’t know what I would do. I prayed about it.

            One February morning I woke up with a clear picture of what I would do when I retired. “I’m going to be a published author,” I told my sweet husband.
            He didn’t cast a bit of doubt over my decision. “You can do it! What are you going to write?”

            Another good question. I had published education pieces in professional journals. I had written children’s stories for my students as an early childhood educator. Continuing in either direction would have made sense. “I think I’ll write a novel,” I told him.

            I used my week of Spring Break, to draft a business plan for writing. I then started writing the novel and researching writing conferences. I honed my skills by completing self-imposed writing exercises. I attended the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois for two days once the semester ended. There I attended workshops, networked with other authors, agents, and editors, and pitched my book to Eddie Jones of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas.

One Saturday evening in early August I received an email confirming one of the stories I had written as an exercise had been accepted for publication in Chicken Soup for the Soul. I went to bed happy. The next morning I wanted to show Tom the email, but when I opened my email account I not only had the email from Chicken Soup for the Soul, but a new message from Eddie Jones. It was a contract to publish Breathing on Her Own.

New Beginnings.

I spent the next few months teaching my final classes at the university, finishing my novel, and making plans to move to Florida for the winter. Tom and I enjoyed two wonderful winters in Florida. He didn’t golf and fish every day, but enough to make him happy. He bought a fishing boat the first year. The second year we bought a used truck camper and pretended we were young enough and agile enough to climb into the bed above the cab of the truck without a worry in the world.

Tom continued fishing and golfing. I continued writing every day. I wrote a second novel set in Door County, Wisconsin. My third book was about a widow who found her way back to living a full and happy life after losing her husband to cancer. The fourth one focused on a teacher caught in the middle of the “sandwich generation” scenario, caring for her mother while juggling a husband, and son at home. The fifth book I drafted was a romantic suspense where the main characters are in their early twenties.

In my spare time during those first two years of retirement, I published another story in Chicken Soup for the Soul, had a couple of articles published in The Lookout Magazine, wrote for Home Health Aide Digest, and began work on a nonfiction book tentatively titled Write it on the Doorframes. It is a book on Christian parenting.

Breathing on Her Own was released in March of 2014. Tom was as excited as I was. We had a party in Florida. We had another one in Ohio when we came home in June. It seemed 2014 was turning out to be the best year ever. We decided to sell our Ohio home and downsize. While we were downsizing our living space, we upgraded our camping space and bought a used fifth wheel camper. Life was good.

I purposefully did not even try to publish any of my other books. My publisher said it takes nine months to a year for a first book from an unknown author to “grow legs” and build an audience. Tom and I discussed a timeframe. The plan was to leave for Florida November 1st.  I would spend November and December polishing the second novel. We would be in Florida in February of 2015 when the Florida Christian Writers Conference takes place. I would have the book ready to pitch to Eddie Jones or another publisher at that time. It was a plan.

October 29, 2014 was a beautiful sunny day. In a few days we would be heading back to Florida. After lunch, Tom headed out for his daily bicycle ride. I headed to my computer to work. A few minutes later I received the call telling me Tom had an accident.

Tom’s tire went off the pavement, throwing him into a tree.
Yes, he was wearing a helmet.
No, there was no one else involved.

Two hours later, my precious husband of forty-three years was pronounced dead. Though it wasn’t announced, part of me died that day, too.

But this isn’t a story of endings. This is a story of new beginnings. Bear with me. 

Losing Tom has been the most difficult experience of my life. I find comfort in knowing it was his time. I have every evidence of it. The Bible tells us our days are numbered and that our life span is determined before we are even born. (Psalm 139:16)

I looked at my success in writing as a gift from God. God knew when Tom would leave this earth. He knew I needed something to do. A purpose. My writing provided all of that. However, I was stuck and I couldn’t figure out why.

I managed to keep my blog going. I piddled around with my books. Some needed tweaking while others needed some serious revision. “I should be publishing these!” It was the voice in my head. The voice telling me I was letting God down by not doing what he commissioned me to do. The same voice telling me in some way I was letting Tom down, too. The voice of disappointment.

New Beginnings.

Two and a half years after Tom’s death I made the decision to move to a different house. Downsizing had been our plan anyway. Moving is both physically and emotionally exhausting. The process, though, brought with it more than fatigue. It brought clarity.

I came to realize I needed those first couple of years to mourn -not to publish. I needed that time to heal. And I came to understand that the books I had drafted were indeed a gift from God. He had given me those so I would have a place to start when I was ready to return to my writing. I’ve since forgiven myself for not publishing any novels during that difficult time of my life. And I’ve now given myself permission to enjoy a new and different life. A life that honors God…and Tom. 

I’m listening to a new voice. It is the voice of courage and determination. It is the voice of New Beginnings.