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Christian Fiction Freebie: Pandora-the One Who Ran Away

Meet Pandora, the first of the seven Humbled Goddess Girls.  Pandora’s Deed released from Mantle Rock Publishing in February 2016. Click on the image below to purchase the Kindle version for $2.99.

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SAVANNAH BARRETT balanced the stack of envelopes atop her still-steaming latte and bumped the mailbox closed. She stepped to the right, making room for her fuzzy-leopard-coated neighbor and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.

A blast of wind tore through the parking lot, and Savannah pivoted, losing a long, white envelope with embossed teal words.

“Here you go, sugar.” Leopard-print knelt straight down, her tiny skirt shrinking as she retrieved the letter. She stood and placed the envelope on Savannah’s stack.

“Thanks.” Savannah brought her latte close to her chin, securing the mail as she crossed the lot to her apartment.

A battered cardboard box leaned at a precarious angle on her stoop. She hooked a heeled sandal underneath and slid it to the ground.

Her keys. Where were her keys? She cast a glance over her shoulder at Nellie, her beat up Nissan, and groaned. Still in the ignition. A strip of duct tape waved like a flag from the driver’s side handle.

“Great.” As she lowered her latte to the tiny concrete porch, the letters fell to her feet. She slid the envelopes underneath the lip of the box, protecting them from the droplets, and hurried back to Nellie.

Rain pelted her as she fumbled with the handle, tugging and jerking until the stubborn metal yielded. She spotted her keys on the floorboard, snatched them, and slammed the door so hard the handle pulled free and dropped to the asphalt.

Sighing, she tossed it inside the car. Wouldn’t do any good to tape it up in the rain. She dashed to her apartment and unlocked it.

The dampened envelopes clung together. She balanced them on the box then laid them out on the counter to dry.

By the time she returned for her latte, rain had collected in the lid. Fantastic. She dumped the water in the small rectangle of grass before her apartment window and wiped the mouth with her sleeve.

A tiny sip of caramel macchiato sent warmth down her throat and through her soul. She secured the deadbolt and the chain, and grabbed the package.

Her adoptive mother’s scrawl covered the bright yellow label. Savannah eyed her calendar, which hung lopsided on the refrigerator by two weak magnets. Rose had sent a birthday present, no doubt.

Savannah sliced the tape with her apartment key and opened the damp lid. A shiny teal ribbon looped around a white dress box. Underneath, the Dreyfus High 2005 senior class cheered at her from a shiny yearbook.

She tossed the dress box into a crate of textbooks next to her wall-mounted mattress. Why would Rose send her a yearbook when she didn’t graduate from Dreyfus High?

A trickle of water dripped from her kitchen counter to the floor. She grabbed a handful of paper towels and mopped up the puddle left from the envelopes then blotted them with another wad of towels.

Perfect calligraphy smudged over the fancy white envelope, leaving dark splotches surrounding the embossed teal print. Savannah tore through the wet paper and spread out the letter. Not a letter. An invite.

They wanted her to come to the high school reunion? Why?

Savannah’s chest constricted. No way could she go back. Not ever.

Fourteen years fell away, and she saw her chunky middle-school face in the lipstick-smeared bathroom mirror. She’d adjusted her dress, smoothed her hair, and blown herself a kiss before walking into the gymnasium to join the other students.

Geoff Spencer grinned as he took her hand and led her across the dance floor to the opposite corner. “Let’s get our pictures made.”

The photo backdrop sheet reflected the dance’s jungle theme, complete with bright parrots, monkeys, and snakes. A sturdy fence surrounded the area, and a walkway led to a small stage where couples could pose.

Her friend Megan waved from the front of the line. “Let’s pose together.”

Savannah joined her, barely squeezing through the opening. She made her way to the stage and draped an arm over Megan’s shoulders.

“Say ‘Friends forever.” The photographer snapped the picture. Then Megan and Savannah exited the space.

“My turn.” Geoff dragged her back to the end of the line, and the photographer turned his attention to the other couples. Finally, the line dwindled to the two of them.

“Last ones?” The photographer yawned.

“Yep.” Savannah grinned. She stepped through the fence, and Geoff bumped the decorative gate shut behind her—only it wasn’t decorative. It locked, trapping her.

Behind the backdrop, giggling girls removed the sheet to reveal another depicting a mountain and deep blue clouds. In the forefront, bamboo trees hosted a mother and baby panda.

Her heart stopped. As Geoff leered from the other side, the crowd of students waved their fists. “Panda! Panda! Panda!”

The photographer struggled with the gate. It didn’t budge.

She should have known. Why else would Geoff have paid her sudden attention?

The chants stopped, and something creaked overhead. A bucket swung then teetered, dumping stalks of celery in her lap.

“Panda! Panda! Panda!” Amidst cheers and claps, the chants resumed.

While the principal sent the shop teacher out for tools to free her, she tugged the sheet, ripped it from the ropes holding it up, and cowered beneath it.

Taking a deep breath, Savannah blinked back to the present. She eyed the blurred numbers for the RSVP. Fate herself decided she couldn’t go. She shredded the invite into tiny wet pieces and dropped them into a bag of leftover takeout Chinese.

She settled on her worn linen couch, a spring poking her leg as she eyed the yearbook. Would her fingers burn from touching it? Curiosity battled resentment, and she took it in her hands.

Flipping pages to the senior spotlights, she traced the colored pictures. Megan Carter, her former best friend and partner in crime, glared through glazed eyes beneath jagged jet-black bangs.

A pang struck Savannah’s chest. Megan, who’d wanted to be a pediatrician from the second grade, listed her ambition as moving to California to be a beach bum.

On the next page she found Athena Lewis, another good friend, listed as Athena Clark instead. Athena, who’d sat next to her every week in church and spouted off scripture at every given opportunity? Married with a child in high school?

Below Athena, Anabelle Cooper’s frown punctuated her airbrushed face. The caption reflected her desire for happiness.

Tears wet Savannah’s cheek. They’d all been so close. But these girls were strangers. All her fault.

A couple more pages past, her heart flip-flopped when her gaze landed on Geoff Spencer’s sun-kissed face. A wave of nausea rendered her clammy.

She knocked herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand. “Shouldn’t have looked.”

His smile seemed genuine, less of the playful smirk she remembered. She eyed the caption. Born again Christian? No way. His life goals were to attend college, to find a good wife, and to have several children? Not the Geoff Spencer she knew.

She snapped the book shut and forced several deep, calming exhales. If Geoff Spencer was a Christian, then she was a deep-sea diver. No way. She’d take the stupid yearbook straight to the dumpster as soon as the storm ended.

Thunder cracked, as if in response. The book slipped from her grasp and landed on the carpet. A shiny piece of paper poked out of the pages.

First a glance, next a stare. Finally, she grabbed the book and peered at the marked page. Her breath caught when she saw the heading. The Ones We Miss. There, in the center, her brace-faced eighth grade picture overlaid a pale pink heart. Her picture, before Lynn Thomas, who died in a house fire. Before Keith Wells, who lost his battle to cancer.

And worse—apologetic messages from the horrid people who ridiculed her and drove her out of town, dedicated to Pandora, the dreadful name she legally changed years ago.

Six words, etched by a scratchy pen, sent a jolt through her. With all my heart, I’m sorry. And the signature beneath it… Love, Geoff Spencer.

She closed the yearbook and tucked it in the crate beneath her birthday box. As she settled on her couch, she raised her cooled latte and toasted the air. “Here’s to twenty-eight. May it be drastically better than fourteen.”

NaNo Time!

A few years ago, I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo, and it was a total debacle. I posted the whole thing on a blog for the world to see (and cringe). It was a great experience. Even though it was rough, horrible writing, a lot of people followed the story and gave me tons of encouragement. And I won NaNo that year with a story that eventually ended up in the ACFW First Impression’s contest and led me to my wonderful editor, Deirdre Lockhart.

I’ve decided to participate again this year, although I will not be posting the story. I’m going to write the first draft of book two of the Cavernous series, Cocooned.

In Cavernous, Callie Noland’s mother disappears, and then she’s snatched from her father and forced to live in the newly formed Alliance of American States. Cocooned continues her journey, taking her from an Alliance prison into a food sweatshop, where she will experience the devastation of the flailing nation firsthand. She’ll have encounters with American military personnel and eventually become the face of the rebellion.

Good luck to all other NaNo 2015 participants! My goal is 75,000 words, so about 2,500 per day. Here goes nothing!

A “Delight”ful City for a Story

Am I the only writing nerd who sits around reading lists of city names only to have my imagination run off? I struggle with naming cities in my stories, but considering some of the ones that exist in real life, maybe I don’t need to worry so much 🙂

Here are a few interesting ones I came across while researching for my WIP.

  • Delight, Arkansas
  • Brilliant, Alabama
  • Paradox, Colorado
  • Needmore, Florida
  • Coffee, Georgia
  • Magic, Idaho
  • Oblong, Illinois
  • Dinwiddle, Indiana
  • Moosehead, Maine
  • Boring, Maryland
  • Whynot, Mississippi
  • Opportunity, Montana
  • Toast, North Carolina
  • Loco, Oklahoma
  • Defeated, Tennessee

And of course, some of my favorite Kentucky towns:

  • Normal
  • Fisty
  • Lovely
  • Ordinary
  • Possom Trot
  • Rabbit Hash
  • Monkey’s Eyebrow
  • Typo
  • And many others 🙂

What are some interesting town names near you?

A Novel is a Highway, Always Under Construction

2012-09-10 14.55.30


This picture is one of my favorite stretches of road, a little country drive that winds its way along train tracks and a river. Peaceful, relaxing, and a great distraction from day-to-day drama–until it rains hard and the road washes away. The right side of the road is continually needing to be rebuilt and resurfaced.

It’s a good metaphor for life and a great one for editing fiction. I’ve been sitting on a “finished” novel for about two months now, in the revising process, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to step back and quit editing. It seems like with every read I find a part of the story that’s bumpy, or there’s a plot hole, or a big section that’s completely washed out from something I rewrote in another place.

Which begs a question–how do you know when it’s polished enough? And how do you get there?

I’m not the only person who’s ever asked that question–in fact, a Google search hits up several bloggers offering their own bit of advice. Author Carolyn Jess Cooke likens it to that scene in Forest Gump where he takes the football and runs with it. She talks about finishing when it pleases overall.

In the writing forums I’ve participated in, this question comes up a lot, and the answer is usually the same. You don’t ever truly finish editing. At some point, you have to just let go and go for it. Right now, I run my chapters through Editminion, which gives me a good overview of weak writing, prepositions and such. Then I exchange critiques with partners, and they usually pick out the big plot issues. I do a little revision and send the chapter on to my freelance editor. I make most of the changes she suggests, and do a final read using the following techniques.

1. Create a Wordle of each chapter. Wordles are AMAZING! The only negative is they’re a public document.  The way a Wordle works is to analyze each word in an excerpt of text and size the words in accordance to frequency. For example, here’s a screenshot of my Wordle for the first chapter in my WIP. You can tell it’s a Christian Fiction because of the size of the word church, for example. Part of the scene happens in the church. But some other words that stood out to me–phone, eyes, shoulder, face–how many of those could be overused?

Wordle Chapter One

2. Search for commonly overused words with Microsoft Word’s Find feature. This article has a great list. My bad habits are back, going, reach, look, saw, eyes, etc. Lots of repetitive words.

3. Search for “ly” with the Find feature. Most of the time, these can be cut. I’ve never found an adverb I can’t write around, although I do sometimes use them in my writing. I  aim for about one per every 1000 words, which comes to about two or three per chapter (YA).

4. Read through to find places to add sensory details. Can readers smell your setting? If there’s food, have you described it in a way to make their mouths water?

5. Do a line-by-line read-through for show/don’t tell. Can readers pick up the emotion in each scene? Did I just say anger washed across a character’s face, or did I describe what that looked like?

But I still don’t feel “finished.”  Novel, under construction. Somebody’s going to have to take this thing away from me 🙂

What are your strategies? How do you know when you’re finished editing?


A Soul’s Journey–Frozen Fractals All Around

Julia set (highres 01)

By Solkoll, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sorry. It’s summertime, and I’ve seen the movie Frozen about twenty more times than I’ve wanted to, so it’s on the brain. And I’m aware that this post might solidify my status as a nerd. Just bear with me 🙂

I can’t get this line out of my head:

My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.


Not only is it adorable to hear little girls everywhere singing their hearts out about fractals, but I thought it might be a great concept to describe the character arc of a Christian fiction progatonist through a fractal.

Factoring in this thought was something I’d just read in Krista McGee’s Anomaly, which is one of the better books I’ve read lately. In it, the main character is a musician, and she plays out her emotions and thoughts in her songs. If it works for a song, why wouldn’t it work for a mathematical pattern?

This idea isn’t completely original. I’ve tried several different methods to organize plot, including Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I really like his method, although sometimes it’s a little too linear for me. So today, as I was trying to reorganize the plot of Cocooned, the second book in my trilogy, I did a web search and found the picture at the top of my post. I imagined my four characters, each moving on their own fractal path, with the protagonist and antagonist facing off at the end of the story, just like the two bigger fractals in the picture seem to be facing off. I can see my whole plot in that picture.

I tried to imagine the white and blue spaces as safe moments for the character, that build as the color intensifies. They walk through these situations, in and out of the paths of other characters, spiraling into the climax of their own. There would be some things to draw them away from their main, spiraling path. I loved the symmetry of it, and the pacing/timing seems perfect for the twists and turns I’d like to place in the story.  It fit so perfeclty. How cool is that?

If I ever end up publishing Cocooned, I’ll share it someday 🙂

Anyone else have any cool fractal pics?

Lessons from the Classroom for YA Writers

Engaged Student

I wish I had started out as a writer first, then a teacher. I think my first few years would have been much better. Writers tend to notice things about people that others don’t.

That said, I’m thankful for the time I’ve spent trying to sell curriculum to resistant young people every day, because I think it makes me a much better writer. Here are five things I’ve learned:

1. Teens respond better to active, engaging material than passive.

In the classroom, this translates to hands-on activities and interactive models, such as the potato gun above–one of my all-time favorite projects from some of my favorite students*. In writing, this means drawing them into the action and letting them experience it as the character. They don’t want to just stand by and let you tell them a story. They want to think, feel, taste, smell, touch, fear, rejoice, and be.

2. Teens thrive on relationships.

They want to have them, hear about them, talk about them, dissect them–it’s a challenge sometimes as a teacher to get them to stop thinking about relationships long enough to teach them something. You might think I’m only talking about romantic relationships, but it’s more than that. They thrive on building strong relationships with the adults in their lives, even the elderly. They are interested in watching how two teachers interact with each other, or how a mother interacts with her baby.

That’s why I feel like it’s important to consider the relationship dynamic between ALL characters, not just the main ones, and adding in a few details to show appropriate behaviors between people. Maybe someone holds the door open and someone else thanks them. Perhaps an older couple is walking by in front of them, holding hands. Sadly, a lot of kids do not have good role models to imitate. In Christian fiction, especially, we need to keep that in mind.

3. Teens are smarter about life than we think.

I’ve critiqued a lot of aspiring YA writers, and one of my pet peeves is how they sometimes try to explain every little thing. It’s like they think teen readers won’t know the meaning of words or understand the history behind an event. Believe it or not, teens are usually pretty up-to-date on current events and fairly knowlegeable about history. After all, they get three years to study it in high school. I’ve had some great intellectual discussions with students about surprising topics over the years.

They also have experienced more than we might believe–pain, loss, joy. In fact, many of them could teach us a few things about coping.

We have to be careful to not make characters too naive. In a recent discussion with a group of young readers, we talked about the Princess Diaries and how frustrated they were with Anne Hathaway’s character being inept at so many things. While most of them liked the movie, they didn’t find her character relatable. Their average/awkward is a lot different from the way Princess Mia was painted.

If we’re not careful, we could write characters that might come across as an insult to today’s savvy teen readers.

4. Teens have short attention spans. 

It’s been my experience that teens lose focus after about 10-15 minutes. In my classroom, I have to find creative ways to throw in hooks every so often to pull them back in. And honestly, I think that’s true for a lot of adults, too. I’ve seen a lot of students take books back to the library before finishing them. Instead of being a story they couldn’t put down, it was something easily dismissed. At the very least, a writer should put a hook at the end of every chapter.  You’re not going to keep them turning pages with a bunch of info dumps, either. They’ll just flip through and skip pages to look for the next action scene.

5. Teens are brutally honest. 

One thing I love about working with high school students is that you never have to worry about what they’re thinking. If they love an assignment, they’ll tell you. If they hate it, you’ll know. So, hard as it may be to handle their blunt feedback, if you’re going to write YA, you might consider having a couple of teens read your story before submitting, and REALLY listen to their advice.

*Photo used with permission.


Through Devastation, Joy

The Bernie Madoff story has always fascinated me. How could one man orchestrate something that ruined the lives of so many? How could he sleep at night, knowing all of his gain was because of their loss?

Recently, I read this article from the Wall Street Journal, telling how some of the victims have done over the last five years:

I think about all those people who were in retirement, thinking they were set for the rest of their lives and suddenly losing everything. Some have adjusted to a simpler life, but others have been destroyed trying to rebuild their financial lives from ground zero. I can’t imagine that kind of loss. Someday I want to write a fiction story about a character who goes through something similar.

Instances of loss are all around us. Homes burn to the ground or are demolished by tornadoes. Children, mothers and fathers are lost to freak accidents. Loving spouses bury their longtime mates. We sometimes bury ourselves in our sorrows, taking comfort in the fact that Christ understands them and sympathizes with our pain.

And yet the Bible is so clear that God wants us to be a people full of joy, not of devastation.

Someone once told me you can’t worry and be joyful at the same time. I know Matthew 6 tells us we aren’t supposed to worry, but financial stability is always on my mind. Even as a tenured teacher, I worry a lot about keeping my job as the tides in educational leadership continue to change. And I worry about costly illnesses. These days, with the changes in our health insurance policies, it seems like any of us could be just a few rough medical bills away from financial ruin.

But then, I remember Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls— Yet I will rejoice in the LordI will joy in the God of my salvation.


How many times (a day) do I forget that my purpose is His purpose, and that my life is a vapor?  I was not put on this Earth to maintain financial stability, but rather to spread His good news to as many people as I can. Good news–joyful news. We have a Savior. He is risen! We can have eternal life through Him!

The temptation to mope through life and bemoan our circumstance is an ever-present thorn in today’s society. We have to be like Paul in Philippians 3:7–counting all things loss for Christ, and remember Mark 8:36, that if we gain the world, yet lose our soul, it’s all in vain.



Meme-Based Religion and the Status Bible

Sometimes it scares me how impatient we’ve all become, and how few people seem to take time anymore to stop and smell the roses. But the things we do take time for…always Facebook, right?

According to this NBC News article from 2013, smartphone users check their Facebook pages an average of fourteen times every day. That’s the average. The article goes on to mention that 79% of users check their phones in the first fifteen minutes of their day.

Think about how different the world might be if those same people checked their Bibles first thing or opened their Bibles fourteen times every day.

I think there are a lot of Christians out there who live busy lives and take comfort in being able to post a Bible verse or a religious-themed meme. We do so with good intentions–it’s an easy way to “share Christ” with everyone who follows us in their news feed. But what are we really sharing? It’s Cracker Jack Christianity. Dig through the sticky muck on our newsfeed and pull out a cheap imitation for the real thing. But at least people are reading Bible verses, right? Well, yeah. Right.


And this is a big however…

According to several studies, there are a lot of Christians out there not reading their Bibles very often anymore. Take this article from the Huffington Post, for example (April 2013). They cite a survey from the American Bible Society claiming that only one in five Americans read their Bibles on a regular basis. It said that fifty-seven percent only read their Bibles three or four times per year, and that the same percentage of young people ages 18-28 read their Bibles three times or less per year.

What this means is for many, the only access they have to Scripture is whatever random verse they see on someone’s Facebook wall. They might base their faith entirely on that, thinking they’re okay when they’re not. And like Psalm 119:105 says, the Bible is a light to our path–without it, we’re just walking blindly in the dark.

This is what prompted me to write Cavernous. It’s a what-if book, considering the idea that our obsession with social media might lead to the next big political revolution. First, a presidential assassination, and then a planned effort that leads to the secession of several states. And a group of extremists who recruit through their Facebook page lead several states into secession to form their own country.

Is that so far fetched? How many blog posts have we shared without looking to see what the writers really stand for? How many memes have we passed on without looking at the names of the original poster? I for one have seen Christians post pictures from users or groups with inappopriate names  on multiple occasions and they probably didn’t even notice.

What if–we like the pages, we sign on via the comfort of our own homes, and then suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a great divide?

Suppose a new political leader came along who didn’t agree with three verses in I Corinthians–so he has them removed and reprinted. And he didn’t like part of Romans, and he couldn’t leave in the verses that address his favorite sin… and suddenly we have a Bible that doesn’t reflect God’s true plan of salvation. And we might not realize it because WE HAVEN’T READ OUR BIBLES LATELY!

It would never happen, right?

But think about it, thoughout history, political leaders have had influence on printing the Bible. The King James version, for example, was commissioned by King James IV and the church of England. And these days, anyone can self publish whatever drivel they feel like.

In Cavernous, one of the themes is to not only read Scripture, but to write it on our hearts. The main character, Callie, is able to stand up to the political leaders because of her Biblical knowledge. I’m not sure I could do that myself, which is why this is a message for me as much as anyone else. These days, it’s so easy to read the Bible. There are even phone apps that will read it out loud to you. None of us have an excuse to rely on statuses and memes to give us our daily Biblical nourishment.

Rant over 🙂 Back to writing!

When Your Goodness is the Enemy

Today in my professional development training, my principal ended with this quote from Jim Collins:

Good is the enemy of great.

In his book Good to Great, Collins asserts that we don’t have many great schools, newspapers, government agencies, churches… because we have so many good ones. It’s about complacency, or not holding ourselves to even higher standards. We’re content to let good be good enough.

We might make the same argument for books. I know of many self-published authors who put themselves on a deadline to finish their novels. They’ve written good books with minor errors that don’t sell, then had to rewrite and republish later to fix the embarrassing mistakes.

Our conversation today was regarding PGES, a new method for evaluating teachers, which has drawn both praise and criticism from many. Personally, I like it, although It’s never easy to take a look in the mirror and realize we have room to grow. Sometimes, with the constant criticism from many angles, it’s easy for a teacher to start feeling as though no one thinks they’re good enough. I think that’s true for writers, too. But at the same time, sometimes we get so much praise that we start to think ourselves better than we actually are.

Actually, someone else gave us a charge to pursue greatness long before Jim Collins walked the earth.

The Bible clearly teaches that we must use our gifts and talents to God’s glory. No question, to strive to be Christlike is a strive to perfection, and an acknowledgement that we are all far from perfect. Writing Christian fiction is a ministry, is it not? So then, would publishing mediocrity be to the glory of God? We have to humble ourselves, keep going back to the drawing board, revising until we’ve given our best.

Romans 12:3 comes to mind–such a simple verse, and yet so hard to follow.

For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

We should always accept that there’s room for improvement.

It amazes me when I critique someone’s first draft and they want to argue against common sense, industry-standard editing advice. They believe, mistakenly, that their work doesn’t need to be improved, often presenting it more for the pat on the back than the honest critique. Gone are the days of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.”

We can carry things too far and drive ourselves into perfectionism, but sometimes I think we all need to take a little more pride in our work. Myself included.