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Are “If Only” Excuses Killing Your Novel?

If Only

When she was a toddler, my daughter used to hang at the front door, begging to go outside. You could see the longing in her eyes–if only I can get to that tree, if only I can play in that dirt, if only I can break out of this “cage” and explore…

Even today, as a kindergartener, she always needs convincing that the grass isn’t greener in other pastures.

And of course, she’s no different than any of the rest of us. How many adults miss important details in our lives because we’re too busy worrying about “if only?”

If only I made more money…

If only we lived in a bigger house…

If only we drove a better car…

If only I worked with different people…

The problem with the “if only” mindset is that we don’t spend enough of our focus on how to do our current tasks well. Instead, we complain about what we haven’t been able to accomplish because circumstances don’t suit our standards. And we forget that we have a heavenly Father who has given us everything we NEED.

Hebrews 13:5 says:

Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.

So, how does this translate into writing? Through participation in various forums and critique groups, I’ve heard a lot of “if only” excuses.

I could be a better writer if only I had more time.

I could finish this novel if only I didn’t have writer’s block.

I could edit this myself if only I knew the grammar rules.

I could sell this novel or get representation if only that publisher or agent would take a look at it.

It’s almost like “if only” becomes a crutch, like we don’t have to worry about writing better or completing our work because we have an excuse for failure. It’s like we’re saying the only reason we aren’t successful is circumstance out of our control. We can’t possibly learn how to do it better. We can’t possibly improve our craft. But that’s just not true!

The sad thing is there’s a point in time when if only becomes regret. If only I’d spent more time learning grammar rules. If only I’d listened when that critiquer told me how to fix my manuscript. If only I’d been more prepared when I sent that query or made that pitch.

Thomas Edison has a history of failures, but we remember him for his great successes. He once said of his failed attempts at the light bulb that rather than failing, he’d found 10,000 ways that would not work. He further said,

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

That’s the if only that will leave us with the most regret. If only I’d tried one more time. If only I’d put forth a little more effort. If only I hadn’t given up.

I’ll leave you with this advice from bestselling author Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors):

As a writer, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of being discouraged and giving up when you are rejected, either by agents or publishers. You absolutely must plow forward.

Platitudes in Christian Fiction?

Sometimes when reading Scripture, I come across words that make me curious about their origin, and then, once I find their initial meaning, I try to understand how I can relate it to life and writing. Take “platitude,” for example. A platitude is some kind of statement that usually has a moral or religious intent, but it’s been used so often it’s become boring or trite.

I didn’t dig too deep this time (wrapping up soccer!), but Google’s dictionary told me it originated in France, from the word plat, meaning flat, and it’s usage peaked somewhere around the mid 1920’s. In today’s society where people get paid to babble about whatever they choose on blogs and national TV, maybe it should make a comeback.

I came across the word in Job 13, where Job is talking to his critics. After questioning them and asking them if it will be well for them when God searches them out, he says this:

Your proverbs are platitudes of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.

Trite, flat, boring, and overused. Hollow, empty words.

To the modern world, many Biblical themes might be considered platitudes. Though we, as Christians, all know that God’s message is timeless and those moral statements are treasures, those outside of the faith might consider them old-fashioned and trite.

Still, I believe wholeheartedly that God’s moral wisdom belongs in our stories, and his themes should be resounded over and over. At the same time, there are certain themes that become our pet issues and we often beat them into the ground to the point that they become rote. How can we continue relaying the same simple truths time and time again without making them seem like platitudes to the secular world?

I think the answer, both in writing and in life, lies within relationships and attitudes. All the time, I hear people complain that they try to talk to someone about their faith and “they just won’t listen.”  This just makes me wonder how the message is being given.

I’m not saying I think we need to sugar coat God’s truth, but I do think the delivery needs to come from compelling characters that people want to read or be around. In life, are we that person, serving others and forging friendships to open doors for conversations about faith? Or, are we that pushy, “my way or the highway” person, who forces the conversation whenever possible, as if it’s the only reason we have to talk to a particular person.  In writing, do we interject our message to the point that it feels contrived, rather than the natural flow of the story? Do we throw a Christian message into the plot just to call it inspirational fiction?

I’ve learned this from teaching–the same general fact can be delivered to a class of students. From one perspective/attitude, they dismiss it. From another, they embrace it. And the perspective they embrace ends up being the one that requires the most effort, the one that makes it the most meaningful to them.

So, there you have it. We’ve come back to grit, which seems to be my favorite theme these days. It takes a little more effort to be that person who cultivates relationships so Biblical truths will be more palatable, as they are coming from a friend. It takes more effort to write characters who show their faith rather than just dropping it into a dialogue.

And for an extra bang for your buck, especially if you are interested in melodic trances, meet “Platitude,” mixed by Onova (otherwise known as Christian Lejon), released back in 2007.

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?

Words of Hope for the Rejected Christian Writer


“George Moriarty, Detroit Tigers, 1911” Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

George Moriarty was a major league baseball player with a reputation for stealing bases. I’ve always been impressed with his story, particularly this quote from an artlcle by Eric Enders: 

“He was a weak hitter,” sportswriter Joe Williams once wrote, “but he had that rare something in his makeup which produces leadership, that divine spark that invests mediocrity with might.”

We all approach our dreams with either lackluster or fervor, and those who chose the latter most often succeed. I mentioned the fervor in my last post–Angela Duckworth’s “True Grit.”

Moriarty was also a writer. According to Enders, he used to recite his poetry for “schools, American League banquets, and the like.” One of his poems, “The Road Ahead or the Road Behind” references grit.

He opens with this:

Sometimes I think the Fates must
Grin as we denounce and insist
The only reason we can’t win
Is the Fates themselves that miss

Of course, being a Christian Fiction writer, I think of this more in terms of what God must think of my self doubt. I was reading the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this past Sunday, just thinking about all the skills God has blessed me with and how I sometimes hold back in using them because of my lack of self confidence. “I’m not good enough” could be translated as “He didn’t create me to be good enough.” And that’s simply not true.

Moriarty continues with this line:

Yet there lives on an ancient claim
We win or lose within ourselves
The shining trophies on our shelves

Can never win tomorrow’s game
You and I know deeper down
There’s always a chance to win the crown

He’s talking about grit here. He even uses the word itself in a later part. Believing we can achieve our goals and fighting for them instead of rolling over and giving up. I love that line about the trophies not winning tomorrow’s game–we have to keep fighting and not just settle for the tiny hints of success we have passed.

But when we fail to give our best
We simply haven’t met the test
Of giving all, and saving none
Until the game is really won

Of showing what is meant by grit
Of fighting on when others quit
Of playing through, not letting up
It’s bearing down that wins the cup
Of taking it and taking more
Until we gain the winning score

Of dreaming there’s a goal ahead
Of hoping when our dreams are dead
Of praying when our hopes have fled
Yet losing, not afraid to fall
If bravely, we have given all

I wish I could find the source for this article I read a few weeks ago about how most people who start out to write a novel never finish. Part of the success of being published is having the tenacity to follow through with writing, editing, and revision until we reach “The End.” Another favorite line from this poem is “hoping when our dreams our dead.” To seek a publishing contract means to seek rejection and hope for that opportunity to push through. We can’t give up when someone tells us they don’t like our story. We just have to work harder to make it better.

Moriarty ends with this:

For who can ask more of a man
Than giving all within his span
Giving all, it seems to me
Is not so far from victory

And so the Fates are seldom wrong
No matter how they twist and wind
It is you and I who make our fates
We open up or close the gates
On the road ahead or the road behind.

Yes, God gives us the tools we need to make our fates, but we have to choose how we are going to use these tools. How can we give up on ourselves or settle for mediocrity and follow these simple words from 1 Corinthians 10:31?

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

It Takes Grit to Write Novels

For years, I’ve watched a ton of high-ability students underachieve in my science classes. They aspire to go to Ivy League colleges, become six-figure wage earners, and park their fancy cars inside fancy garages attached to fancy homes. And yet they don’t have the wherewithal to sit down and memorize ten facts that would yield an A on a test. Yes, I know education is not about teaching to a test, and yes, I know that rote memorization is a “no-no,” but let’s face it. Without that skill, most of us would have never graduated college.

Memorization is not the easiest thing. You have to work at it, sometimes repeating the same fact over and over a hundred times until you know it. That takes grit–essentially the gumption to not give up, keep working hard, and push until you win the prize.

The same issue strikes would-be authors as they try to muddle their way through a novel. I’ve seen so many people give up on a story after a few bad critiques. Or, they’ve self-published drivel rather than revising tirelessly to make their book great.

I love this TED talk from Angela Duckworth, defining the concept of grit. Every time I et discouraged, I listen again. It inspires me to remember that if I work hard–really hard–at improving my craft, I will be published one day.

She makes the point that:

there is really no domain of expertise where the world class performers have put in fewer than ten years of consistent, deliberate practice to get where they are.

Well, I’ve been writing on and off for about six years, so I guess that means I’ve got four more to go before I’ll reap the benefits of my efforts.

What that tells me is to keep at it. Keep trying, keep working hard, keep pushing past rejection to make myself better.

Aspiring authors, are you with me? Push up your sleeves and get some grit. Read educational books, join critique groups, and keep writing. We’ll get there 🙂

Writing Perspective: Is My Poor Your Rich?


Proverbs 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is a slave of the lender.

I learned an important lesson today about perspective and poverty from a conversation with a student about random things–wrestlers he wanted to see in person, Halloween, his dreams, the future. Mid-conversation, he glanced down at the table where I was working.

“Teachers always say they’re poor,” he tells me. “But you’re sitting there with a laptop, a cell phone, and an iPad. I’ve never owned any of those things.”

My heart stopped. Tears welled in my eyes, and I could tell that he knew he’d gotten to me. What could I say to that?

I finally explained to him that most teachers consider themselves poor not because of how much money they make or the worth of their belongings, but because of how much debt we have to pay off from our education. How most of us never have that much extra money in the bank because we delve it all out to bills. He seemed to understand, especially when I said that sometimes it’s better to have nothing than to owe more than you have.

Sometimes we Christians love to whine about our deficiencies, and to plead poverty when we misuse what God has given us. Other times, we work as hard as we can to make our way in a debt-driven society, but fail because of circumstance. Regardless of how we find ourselves in financial holes, they bring many of us to despair.

Worrying about money and stressing over how to stay out of financial holes is a great temptation for me.

One reason I try so hard to seek publishing is the chance to pay off my student loans and live debt free so I can spend more of my money serving Him. This would be a game changer, giving me extra income to just write a check when there’s need. And trust me, working in a low-income school system, I could write thousands of checks every week and it still wouldn’t be enough.

The conversation also made me think harder about how I depict poverty and wealth in my writing. Am I in danger of alienating readers because I only consider wealth from my own perspective? Do I describe an “impoverished” home that some would be blessed to dwell in? Do I write about meager meals that would be a feast to some?

Or, for that matter, because I only consider many things from my perspective? Health? Success? Luxury? Definitely food for thought!

Cool Animated Video on the Blog Writing Process

I’ve thought a lot lately about strategies to better manage my time. When I first decided to take steps to become a serious writer, I didn’t consider the extra time needed to interact on social media and engage in self-promotion and marketing.

Add that time to the allotment for reading for enjoyment, meeting writing goals for my novel, and setting aside quiet time, and my little side hobby has turned into what’s practically a second full time job.

So, I started researching better ways to generate topics for blog posts and keep myself organized in those writing tasks that aren’t specifically putting words on paper.  This video made a lot of great points about organization, outlining, researching, etc., so thought I’d share.

Happy blogging! Now, off to reconsider my strategies…

All These Things–Does Materialism Creep Into Our Fiction?



It’s a challenge to live in a “gimme” society and shield our children from the wiles of materialism. Let’s be honest–it’s a challenge to shield ourselves. We’re continually surrounded by advertisements, samples, new technology, and a lot of times we worry more about how we’re going to obtain these treasures than we do about sharing our faith and living to please Him.

We read passages like Matthew 6:33 and Luke 12:27, acknowledge their truth, and then become distracted by earning an income and arranging to get more things.

Matt 6:33 Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you

Luke 12:27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say to you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

It’s a temptation to let this carry over into our writing. After all, we often fantasize about things that fall under the pride of life–fame, fortune, luxury. Sometimes we give characters objects and experiences that we could never have and live vicariously through them. How many books, for example, base their premise on the celebrity falling for a Cinderella, or the underdog rising to the top?

Just as it’s important to consider modesty when describing how our characters dress, or prudence when deciding their actions, we should consider the avoidance of materialism and covetousness when placing objects into our settings.

Of course, we sometimes need our main characters to have such traits to show their growth. I’m not talking about that, but rather those background things that cement our characters in the settinig.

Do we, for example, set them at tables with an abundance of food, eating gluttonous meals and disposing of the leftovers? Do we dress them in the latest fashions and accessorize them with designer handbags and expensive shoes? Do they drive brand new cars and live in outlandish homes, or strive to fit into a luxury-seeking crowd?

Are their kitchens stocked with the finest china, or their walls covered in exquisite art?

What do our characters spend money on? When they go on dates, do they dine at the finest restaurants? Do they buy expensive coffee on the way into work every morning? Do they spend an hour covering their face in expensive makeup and styling their hair?

This is especially important when writing for teens. I watch them in my classroom every day, emulating everything they take in. They braid their hair like Katniss and get tattoos like Tris. One student can walk in holding the latest model cell phone, and four or five of them will have one in the next week.

IMHO, it’s important to show them that it’s okay to live in a modest home and watch a television instead of a theater/projection system. It’s fine to drive an older-model used car. Our characters can order from the 99-cent menu at McDonald’s as opposed to ordering the six-dollar bagel.

We should make an effort to have them occasionally giving as well as receiving. Maybe they take the leftovers from their family dinner to the elderly lady next door or sift through their closets to find clothes to donate to the needy.

Do you have any suggestions? What are some other ways we can clip materialism from our writing?

Procrastinating Evangelism?

I spent a couple of hours tonight on a Facebook party supporting debut author Nadine Brandes with the launch of her new release, A Time to Die, first in a series of three published by the newly-branded Enclave Publishing. It was incredibly cool, and a great time. She had video interviews, giveaways, great discussion, and it was interesting to connect with other writers and fans.

One of the activities we did centered on the premise of the book–what if you knew exactly how much time you had to live? How might you live differently? I would evangelize more. Although, I fear that knowing a date and time would just lead me to do as I sometimes do in other facets of my life–wait until the last minute and make a good run at it.

I’ve heard people, both in the church and out, throw around the “life is a vapor” and “no one knows when He’s coming” verses like candy, but they live their lives as if they don’t believe them. And they don’t share their faith as if they don’t believe anyone else is lost. So I’ve been thinking a lot tonight about evangelism and procrastination.

The Bible makes it really simple.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments. For this is man’s all.

Matthew 28:19-20 Go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We whine all the time about how our churches are losing members and people are losing their faith in God’s existence. But I think it’s time we face a bitter truth–we aren’t doing our jobs!

Think about it. How many employers would be content giving us a task that we ignore day-by-day? God has given us a charge–to go into the world and make disciples. And if we aren’t actively working on talking to people about God each day, we’re ignoring that task. The message is simple. God exists. He loves you. He sent his Son to die for you. Obey him and receive eternal salvation. Why is that so hard to share?

And we ignore this task for what? Sports? Work? Entertainment? Fear?

Have we made these things our all, when the Bible clearly tells us that keeping God’s commandments should be our all?

One reason I want to write Christian fiction is because it gives me a tool to share my faith. Even if someone never reads my work, I can tell them about my books and it opens the door to a conversation about God. But I should do so much more.

How do you fit evangelism into your daily lives?

Writers, Are You New to Twitter? Ten Things I Wish I’d Known from the Beginning

In the last couple of years, I’ve been playing around with Twitter and Klout, trying to shift my online presence into something more marketable. In a lot of ways, I love it, connecting with people who I’d never meet otherwise, who share common interests. I bought a couple of books over the summer that I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and have been able to tell the authors in person how much I liked them.

Still, putting yourself out there for the world to see, especially when you’re trying to glorify God in the process, can be a terrifying venture. Like many, I had friends using it and created my account after a quick skim of the fine print. Here are some things I’ve learned since that I wish I’d have known.

  1. Sometimes the “people” who follow you are bots. Actually, I knew that going in because I’ve encountered them on this blog as well, but on Twitter, it’s harder to tell the difference sometimes.  Web robots. Little software programs that do stuff on automation. So, if you try to interact with them, you won’t get very far. And there’s a good chance they’re promoting spam.
  2. It may not be in your best interest to follow celebrities. On the one hand, it might be fun to offer your support to your favorite actor or writer. I love Maggie Stiefvater’s tweets, for example. She’s very personable and human, and it makes me want to read every book she writes for the rest of her career. Another author, who I won’t name, was such an obnoxious jerk that I’ve completely sworn off his books. Disillusioned 😦
  3. Not everyone you follow will follow you back. It’s not personal. We all use Twitter for different reasons. I’m hoping to connect with authors. If you’re not an author or interested in reading my books, I might not want to connect through this venue, because that’s the purposed goal of my account.
  4. Don’t blindly follow people just because they follow you. It’s really okay if you don’t. Several times, I’ve caught tweets with book quotes that made me blush because I followed someone back that seemed “safe.” Investigate who they are before clicking to follow.
  5. You cannot edit tweets, but you can delete them. So watch really carefully for typos. Also, you can’t post the same tweet twice in a row. I didn’t want to–accidentally clicked again and it wouldn’t let me. So that’s a good thing,  I guess.
  6. Use relevant hashtags (one or two) and short links. Sites like Bitly let you post the long link and convert it for free.
  7. You shouldn’t just jump in and follow 2000 people because you can. Be selective. Twitter has a limit on followers–it’s a ratio between the number of followers and people you follow after that, to prevent abuse. From that point, you’ll have to go back through your list and find people to unfollow so you can add the ones you really care about. Which is annoying. Really annoying.
  8. Make use of lists, especially for people who aren’t likely to follow you back. Take the big publishing companies, for example, and literary agents. Add them to a list, and then if they do follow you, follow them back. You can still keep easy track of their tweets without adding to your count.
  9. Tweet at peak user times. When I first started, I sent out tweets at 6:00 am. EST. No one ever favorited, commented, or retweeted. Duh…they were still asleep.
  10. It’s more interesting to follow the people who change up the content of their tweets. Don’t just post links to your blog ten times a day. And don’t use it as a place to complain about everything that goes wrong in your life. Add clever videos, links, and quotes every so often. In other words, make it about more than just you.

Hope that helps. Happy tweeting!