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Posts Tagged ‘Australian Christian novelist’

I have many vivid memories of my maternal grandparents, seen here with my mother and me. Often on Sundays when I was growing up, they would visit us for lunch. Afterwards, my grandfather would ask us to go for a walk with him, perhaps out towards the University of Queensland or to the Toowong cemetery, where we would look at all sorts of interesting gravestones, or even down to the Brisbane River. Then, once home again, we would enjoy a scrumptious afternoon tea of fresh scones and other treats.

Sometimes, in the early days of TV, we would drive to my grandparents’ home to watch a show with them on Friday nights. And, during the summer school holidays, I would usually stay with them for a week. Most mornings, they would allow me to play the piano in their lounge room. I so enjoyed sifting through their old Scottish and Irish ballads, sacred solos and dance music and trying to play and sing whatever I found.

My grandfather had various occupations in his lifetime, including school-teaching at Rosewood, running a fruit shop in Brisbane, then a general store in Harrisville. As a child, I heard many stories about these places, particularly from my mother, who grew up in Harrisville. So, inevitably, this information has shaped my latest novel, Down by the Water, an historical novel I am launching this coming weekend.

Yet this novel is not my grandparents’ actual story. There are many differences, including the fact that my main characters have five children, whereas my grandparents had seven. But so much else about them influenced what I wrote. I even had fun weaving some of their old music into my story, as I described the local dances in Helidon, where my main character Meg grows up—and my grandmother did too. I also had photos and family records to refer to, but it was those memories from times spent with my grandparents and the things I heard as a child that helped most.

Such childhood memories can be powerful, can’t they? And how powerful they are too in shaping our attitudes and making us the people we are today. I can still remember some of the rather stern warnings my grandfather gave me about life in general, during our Sunday afternoon walks. And I hope I never forget my grandmother’s kindness and gentleness towards me on so many occasions.

I have dedicated Down by the Water to my grandparents and am delighted I have had this opportunity to let some of those memories at least live again via my novel. But this whole experience has also challenged me to remember the way God has shaped my life and walked with me and treated me with such kindness for so many years now. Without God’s gracious, patient hand on me down through the years, I would not be here writing these words. I need to remember that—and to let such memories influence everything I write.

In the years ahead, I hope I will continue to be able to say honestly, along with King David:

I remember the days of long ago, I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Psalm 143:5-6

Is that your sincere hope too?

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I have another confession to make. I have felt more than a few twinges of fear and dismay at the prospect of releasing my latest novel, Down by the Water, later this month. Putting a book out there in public can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also feel a little like serving oneself up on a big platter for anyone to pick at or carve up or even reject altogether!

I can still remember what it was like to have to watch someone reading my very first novel, after they had purchased it from my book table at a conference. Eek! That was quite a few years ago now, yet that same trepidation at sharing something I have created and laboured over long and hard is still there.

But this time around, a much bigger challenge is how best to promote my book online in these days of COVID restrictions when larger face-to-face meetings are too uncertain to plan and rely on. While I happily write copious emails, produce this weekly blog on WordPress, use Facebook and Skype and often cruise around reading and researching online, pretty much anything beyond that is way out of my comfort zone. So … why would a technophobe like me ever decide to host a sudden death, Facebook Live Book Launch event?!

Thoughts that this might be all too hard for me did cross my mind. Yet I love this seventh novel of mine, probably more than any of my previous ones. And I want it out there because, apart from anything else, it deals with important themes such as giving and receiving forgiveness and knowing God’s love and grace. So … what to do?

Firstly, I opened my Bible and found some passages dealing with fear and dismay. Then I settled on the following verses to leave open right beside my laptop, so I could glance over at any time and read the words out loud again:

But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend. I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:8-10

Of course, these words are clearly addressed to the children of Israel way back in Old Testament times who were in a far more desperate situation than my current little scenario. But they spoke to me this week too. And strengthened me. And reassured me so much.

Then I prayed, reflecting on and using the words I had read. And later, I asked my little prayer team to pray too. Now it is up to me to keep my eyes and ears focussed on God and not fall for that undermining from the enemy, don’t you think?

So … if you too have been experiencing a touch of dismay lately, may these words encourage you to hang in there. And may the Lord our amazing God be very close to you, strengthening and upholding you, whatever challenges you are facing right now.

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I have a confession to make. Even though I prayed throughout writing and editing my latest, soon-to-be-launched novel, Down by the Water, I doubted the moment would actually come when I would hold it in my hands. I thought it might—and I sensed God wanted me to persevere with it. But what if I was wrong? What if it never came together and I had spent three or four years writing it for nothing?

Besides, what was I thinking to release another novel in the midst of all the current uncertainties? After all, while my books are sold in Christian bookstores across Australia and online in various ways, including from my own website, most of my sales come via speaking engagements that cannot happen at the moment.

I am sure end-of-year tiredness did not help either. While 2020 was a quieter year, which in fact enabled me to finish my novel, it also held its challenges. I was concerned about the welfare of family members and others in our wider community. I missed meeting face to face with our beautiful church family, despite hosting a group in our home most of the year. And I missed my speaking engagements, where I could share from my heart and encourage others.

But then on Christmas Eve, those shiny, brand new copies of the novel I had poured my energies into for so long arrived. I was in the middle of my Christmas baking, so at first took it all in my stride and left the boxes where they were, unopened. After all, I knew what the cover would look like. Yet I was a little afraid too. What if I was disappointed with the end result? What if what I had seen and approved online did not come together as I imagined it would?

Slowly, I prised open that first box. And as I did, memories of eight other similar occasions in previous years came flooding back. I paused for a while, as I realised again how faithful God has been to enable me to see six other novels and two non-fiction books through to publication. Then I lifted out that first copy—what a surreal moment! Yes, there it was at last in my hands, looking even better than I had imagined.*

At that point, I was filled with remorse for my lack of faith, but also such gratitude to God for persevering with me and for being so kind and gracious towards me anyway.

Is there something God has put on your heart to pray about or work towards in the coming year? Yes, we need to remember God is sovereign and knows what is best for us. But in 2021, I for one know I need to be bolder in my faith and firmer in my trust, as I keep my eyes on the Lord. I want to believe more and not doubt. Truly, I want to be so much more like Mary, the mother of Jesus, about whom her cousin Elizabeth exclaimed:

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ Luke 1:4

Is that your heart too right now? May we all continue to hope and trust in our amazing God, whatever 2021 might hold for us.

*Please watch for further news about my novel Down by the Water and my Facebook Live book launch later this month!

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Have you ever in a rash moment said yes to some activity or event way out of your comfort zone, then later wondered why? Perhaps you agreed to walk x number of kilometres or lead a group or sing in public … or anything else you would not normally choose to do. Such experiences can feel surreal, can’t they—as if we are there, yet not there?

Last week, I did something I have in fact done before, but not for some years—I took part in a radio interview via phone from another state. During this 20-25 minute interview, my task was to share why I had written a particular short story that won a place in a recent writing competition (‘Stories of Life’), then talk about the events that shaped me to become the writer I am today, using stories as much as I could.*

Sounds easy, right? Yet at this stage of the year, and especially after seeing my current novel through to publication, my brain is a little tired. I had a script—a few dot points I had submitted earlier to my interviewer—but still felt nervous on the day and well out of my comfort zone.

What to do? First off, I prayed—and I also asked my little email prayer team of nine women to pray, if they happened to read my email in time. How wonderful it was to hear back from three of these faithful friends almost immediately, assuring me they would be praying! But I was also touched when my interviewer prayed for us both, before flicking that switch and launching into our conversation.

At first, I stumbled a little. But as we reached that part of the interview where I needed to share my writing journey via stories, I became so involved in it all, I forgot about everything else. I was even able to laugh at myself at one stage (although not out loud!) when I realised I was holding my phone in one hand and waving the other around as if speaking to a live audience! But as the interview proceeded, I also began to feel a deep sense of awe as I shared how God has led and shaped me via all sorts of experiences during my various occupations. All over again, I was reminded of the loving hand of God on my life, shaping me, teaching me, guiding me, setting me on my feet again. And as I kept talking, my heart filled with praise and thanks to God for all God’s gracious, constant love and care through it all.

As 2020 draws to a close, may I encourage you too to look back on this year—and on your life in general—and see how faithful God has been, through the good and the bad. And as you do, may you see and sense afresh, as I did, the gentle hand of God, our awesome potter Father, shaping us, his clay, to become more and more like him.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

*Should you wish to hear my radio interview, please tune into ‘The Story’ on Vision Christian Radio at 9.30am (EST) on 13th January 2021.

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Can you think of a time when you put off beginning some big, new project because the whole thing looked far too daunting? That was how I felt earlier this year when I decided to open that cupboard where all our old photo albums were stashed and do something about them. And that was how I felt too, when I began writing my current novel, Down by the Water, around four years ago. I had already written six novels and two non-fiction books—surely that was enough? To make things more difficult, this novel needed to be set in Queensland in the early 1900s—and hadn’t I vowed and declared I would never write another historical novel? I knew what a time-consuming task that could be, with so many facts needing to be checked.

Yet soon those ideas for the opening chapter began to emerge. Yes, since then, those first few pages have changed many times over, as I realised what needed to be revealed early on and what did not. But I knew I had to keep working on them, because those early pages are vital in winning or losing potential readers.

Beginnings can be hard, can’t they? Yet so can endings. And that is where I am now, tying off those final details of my novel before it is published. The actual writing is finished—and I have lost count how many times that manuscript has been checked through at various levels, not only by me but also by seven other people. I even have a lovely cover for my book. Yet, while I have heaved a sigh of relief that this whole, huge task is almost complete, I also feel quite tentative about releasing this novel out into the big world. What if all that work turns out to be for nothing? What if no one else thinks the story worthwhile? What if …?

Yes, this year, I have been very clearly reminded how challenging both beginnings and endings can be. And perhaps that is why, while reading Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians recently, I noticed in particular how he began and ended these.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:3 and also 2 Corinthians 1:2

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 1 Corinthians 16:23

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14

Curious, I then discovered similar greetings in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians and also Timothy. In the midst of all the challenging situations those early believers faced, Paul obviously sees God’s grace as key—that overwhelming kindness of God shown in particular in sending Jesus into our world. And as we too choose to rest in that same grace that accepts us and loves us unconditionally and forever, we can know that same peace Paul prayed for those early believers, right here in 2020.

However difficult you and I have found those beginnings and endings this year, God’s grace and peace are always there for us. So Let’s truly hear Paul’s words and take them to heart. Let’s reach out and receive these amazing gifts and be strengthened and comforted as we do.

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At the moment, I am making my way yet again through my current novel, checking for errors and tweaking this and that to make it the best I can. It is painstaking work—and it seems to have gone on forever. But each morning, as I open my laptop and go to the relevant document, I am cheered by the polite, little greeting that awaits me there. On the right of my screen, I always see a little box that says happily:

Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.

How encouraging is that? But recently, that little message did more than cheer me up and inspire me to pick up where I left off with even more determination. It also alerted me to open my ears to hear what God might want to say to me. It was as if God highlighted that little box on my screen so that I could not miss a much more important message it contained.

Then it hit me. In an instant, I sensed God saying: ‘That’s exactly what I’ve said to you so many times over the years, Jo-Anne. Whenever you have pulled back from following me for a while and gone your own way, but then turned around and repented, I have always been there waiting for you with open arms. Time and time again, like your laptop does each day, I have said to you, “Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.” What a joy it has been to offer you forgiveness each time—and how good it is to pick you up and help you stand firm again!’

Then my mind went to the Apostle Peter’s story in the bible. I love Peter. He seems such a full-on person—always the leader, opening his mouth on behalf of the other disciples and stepping out when others might well have feared to. I love how he was brave enough to get out of that boat and walk towards Jesus on the water (Matthew 14). I love how he realised early on that Jesus was the only one worth following and the only one who could offer eternal life.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. John 6:68-69

I love too how he declared he would never deny Jesus, fully thinking that was true—and I always feel sad when I read how he did deny him, then wept bitterly over it (Matthew 26:75). But later, when the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore as Peter is fishing with the other disciples and proceeds to provide them with breakfast, I hold my breath at what unfolds. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loves him. And three times, Peter replies, Lord, you know that I love you (John 21).

Can you imagine how Peter must have felt, as Jesus treated him in such a loving way and reinstated him to be the strong shepherd and leader he had called him to be? What grace Jesus showed him that day! And what grace Jesus shows each of us today, whenever we turn back to him, as he says with such love: ‘Welcome back! Pick up where you left off.’

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Jo 17I wonder how you are feeling, in the midst of this crazy pandemic. What words would describe what is going on inside you as a result of what is happening—or not happening—around you? … Fear? Confusion? Concern? Anxiety? Anger? Grief? Worry? Depression? Loneliness? Perhaps all of these? Or perhaps you are personally at peace, yet feeling these things in and for others. That too can become a little overwhelming at times, can’t it?

Until recently, I was too busy completing my current novel to stop and contemplate how I was feeling deep down about the weird events in our world. My mind was full of different questions instead. What parts of my early chapters could I leave out to get to the action quicker? What other sections could I remove? How could I bring my characters to life more? Writing a novel can be all-consuming—it can be tricky to weave things together in a way that draws readers in and keeps them turning those pages.

Yet now I have put this novel aside, for the moment at least, I am noticing more how coronavirus has impacted us all. Yes, I have been concerned for family members trying to hold onto their jobs and pay mortgages. But I can sense something bigger around me too—a kind of desperation and even panic. When will this end? How will it end? Will our country be in ruins? How will we all survive?

Then one morning, as I sat at my desk, enjoying the warm, winter sun streaming through my window and listening to the birds outside, I picked up my old bible and turned again to the Psalms. They are my ‘go to’ place when I feel in particular need of God’s comfort and reassurance and encouragement. I began to read Psalm 94 and soon came to the following verses:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul. (18-19)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.

Sometimes, it does seem as if everything is slipping away from us, don’t you think, as we look at all the things we had hoped to do in these months? Many we know were planning overseas trips and looking forward not only to seeing special places but also family members in other countries. Then there are those in much more disastrous situations, watching their livelihoods slip away, as shops and businesses are closed or as customers are afraid to venture into such places. Meanwhile, our leaders must wonder at times if their ability or power to make the wisest decisions for our nation and turn things around for everyone is slipping through their fingers. Yet, whatever our situation in life, that unfailing love of the Lord is still there, willing and able to hold us firm and stop our panicking, downward slide.

So right now, I’m reaching out my arms to the Lord and holding on tight, drinking in that comfort and hope and deep joy only he can give. And I hope and pray you can do that too.

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Jo 12During this coronavirus time, I have worked steadily on my next novel. I edited as I wrote and also edited the whole manuscript four or five times after completing it. Then I sent it off to my first manuscript reader/editor—and the next—and the next—and the next. Then I submitted it to my old publisher. And each time, there was more to edit—and more—and more. My manuscript was around 97,000 words initially, but is now around 87,000 words. And I’m still going. Is it any wonder that some nights I have gone to bed with words swimming before my eyes?

In this time too, I have written three short stories, critiqued two manuscripts and a portion of two more. And I have kept writing my blogs each week—and emailing friends and family who have felt a little isolated. I was glad I could do all this, but there comes a point where all this reading and writing can become a little tiring—especially the discouraging task of throwing thousands of words out that you have laboured long and hard to put in your manuscript in the first place!

So recently, we went away for a short break. And while driving along near the coast north of Sydney, to my surprise, I caught sight of some olive trees. Immediately, my mind went spinning back to my visits to Turkey in past years. During one trip, a friend and I travelled along the Mediterranean coast together, hopping on and off buses at various spots and taking in the mind-blowing sights and experiences of that region. Along the way, I saw many, many olive trees growing on the rocky hillsides and, to me, they were a beautiful sight, with their silvery foliage and often rounded, compact shape. I was amazed too at the way they could still flourish in such dry, barren terrain through the hottest of Turkish summers and produce those nutritious olives that are such an important part of the Mediterranean diet.

The same day I saw my olive trees here in our own country, I read the following verses in the Psalms:

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. Psalm 52:8-9

When things coincide like that in my life, I have learnt to suspect God might want to say something to me, so I listen. And I realised I could relate to what David wrote in this psalm. I am indeed like that olive tree flourishing in God’s house. After all, God has enabled me to write all those thousands of words I have written in recent weeks—and God will sustain me as I complete the necessary editing and polishing. I don’t need to fret or complain or wonder if I will stay the distance. Instead, I know I can grow and flourish under God’s protective covering, watered and fed and cared for by our all-loving, all-powerful Creator God.

May you too be aware in this time of God’s unfailing love and nurturing hand on your life, as you grow and flourish like that olive tree.

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Jo 17At first when the person phoning me told me her name, I thought it was someone else. But as I listened further, I was catapulted back to a time around thirty years ago when I worked as an assistant editor. Back then, this person had been one of my colleagues and we had spent many lunchtimes chatting together.

It was good to catch up with what had happened in her life, but also sad. Her husband had passed away and she herself has faced many health battles. But afterwards, as the memories swirled around in my brain, I began to feel quite sad for another reason. In that role, I learnt much about writing and editing. Back then, I had no idea I would become a writer many years later—but God knew. Yet instead of dwelling on these positives, I began to think how much better I could have done that job. Back then, I lacked confidence. Back then, I was afraid to say what I thought and unwilling at times to make good and necessary decisions. Yes, if I were given that role again, I decided, I would do things differently.

Around a week later, the phone rang again. This time, it was another work colleague from that exact same job! He had no idea our other colleague had called and we had a wonderful conversation, catching up on what had happened to us both since then. But again afterwards, I could not get the memories of that job out of my mind. While it was good to laugh along with this second caller about the mistakes I had made and how long it had taken to edit certain jobs, I found that sad feeling slowly creeping over me again. Back then, I was such a perfectionist. Back then, I did not know enough. If I had my time there again, I would work so much faster.

Eventually, as I reflected on all that regret, God enabled me to see things in a different and much healthier light. I had done my best in that role, after all, and the staff seemed sad when I left. I also grew emotionally and spiritually in that time. And God used that role to equip me not only for my next job but also for my whole writing journey. Back then, God had loved me and cared for me—mistakes and all!

And now, God is doing the exact same thing in this season of my life—and yours. It can be good to learn from the past, but God longs to pick us up and move us on too. Thousands of years ago, this is what God told the Israelites to do:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:18-19

The Apostle Paul also writes:

but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race … Philippians 3:13-14 New Living Translation

May God strengthen us all to forget those former things and, instead, grasp hold of what God has for us to do in this new season facing us in our world right now.

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Jo 23Sometimes it’s good to stop, isn’t it, and think about why we do the things we do? Perhaps for you, this isolation time has been an opportunity to do exactly that. And once we have thought about whatever it is, we can decide whether to continue on or try something different—or perhaps simply stop and be refreshed for a while.

Take blogging, for instance. This blog happens to be Number 600 of my personal, weekly blogs, each around 550 words long—yikes! That’s more than three of my novels put together! I began blogging in July 2009 and here I am, still going strong. But when I remember each blog would have taken me at least two hours to write—and some much longer, as I reflected on what I was trying to say—I shake my head a little.

So … why am I still writing them? Is it all worth it?

I still blog for various reasons and the first is quite practical. As a wordy writer, restricting myself to around 550 words each week on a topic that has touched or challenged me is an excellent exercise! My 550 word limit is self-imposed, but I try to stick to it, as it forces me to express myself more clearly and succinctly, remove unnecessary information and focus on my main point.

Much more importantly, however, I enjoy reflecting on some event in my life or something I have observed or that God has shown me and putting it into words, so that others too may be blessed in some way. Yes, sometimes I end up taking hours to come up with those 550 words. But in the process, through trying to listen to God as I write, I internalise more of what God is saying to me and always end up the richer for it. So even if I do repeat myself and write about things I already covered years ago, I am not in the same place as I was back then. We all change over time—for better or worse! But I do believe that, when God’s Spirit is alive in us, we can change for the better, as we listen and apply the lessons God is teaching us.

I also blog because I want to continue to use the gifts God has given me to the best of my ability. We all have seasons in our lives, don’t we? In my life, I have found I have used certain gifts where God has placed me for a time, but then that time passes and I need to use other gifts and abilities. Now in this season, surely, as well as doing other things for God when the opportunity arises, I can write and share from my heart in a way that will hopefully encourage and build others up?

Each one should use whatever gift he (or she) has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 1 Peter 4:10

Yes, let’s keep asking those important ‘why’ questions. But let’s also be faithful in doing what God gives us to do. After all, what a privilege it is to be entrusted to share God’s grace with others, however we can, in our world that is hurting so much right now!

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