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I wonder how many of you, authors or otherwise, struggle with this whole area of looking for praise for what we produce? I  have been thinking about this in connection with the recent release of my fifth novel Heléna’s Legacy. Of course I want people to like this book. And of course I want it to impact and encourage as many people as possible. After all, I believe in this novel – and I believe it was something God wanted me to write. So I’m happy to get out there and promote it for all it’s worth. And I’m very pleased (and relieved!) when people respond positively – when they congratulate me, when they say they love the cover, when they warm to what I’ve written.

In one sense, I have to ‘pursue’ praise. By that I mean I have to listen to my readers – there is no point in continuing to produce novels no one likes and no one buys. And that includes taking on board praise as well as criticism. But in my uncertainty as to whether my book is ‘good enough’, I find myself on occasions seeking so desperately for that reassuring praise that may never come. I look too eagerly for people’s responses. My wellbeing begins to depend on it. I analyse their words too closely and, if face to face, try to discern if they mean what they’re saying. Perhaps they’re merely trying to be nice and not hurt me. Or perhaps while they compliment me on some aspect of the novel, they’re secretly glad they can find at least something positive to say about it!

So where is the point where I begin to seek praise for praise’s sake only – to make me feel good or to boost my ego – rather than look for it to show me I have written something that will be well-received and hopefully used by God? Where do I step over into self-centredness, caring more about my own honour rather than God’s? Where is the dividing line between humbly and thankfully accepting people’s praise and letting it go to my head?

I guess the real question in my heart is this: Whose praise am I seeking the most – men’s (and women’s!) or God’s? Recently I read the account in John 5 of how Jesus heals a disabled man, telling him to pick up his mat and walk, but is persecuted for this because it is the Sabbath. The persecution then gets worse when Jesus calls God Father, yet this doesn’t deter him from confronting his opponents even more strongly. ‘I know you,’ he tells them (v 42). ‘I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts.’ Then he asks a question that pulled me up short: ‘How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’ (v 44)

Yes, I know and am so thankful for the fact that I am fully accepted by God and saved by grace – that none of my works, written or otherwise, will ever ‘earn’ me eternal life. But here Jesus clearly shows the importance of taking God’s opinion of us into account over that of mere mortals, of living in a way that please God above all else. And I’m sure you too look forward to the day when, like the faithful servant in Matthew 25, we ourselves hear our Master’s ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (v 21)

Now that’s definitely some praise worth pursuing, don’t you agree?

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Last week I wrote my hundredth blog for this site – a milestone in my blogging ‘career’! So many of my thoughts have gone ‘out there’ into cyberspace since I began my weekly words of wisdom in July 2009 – but has it all been worth the time and effort put into it? My site stats tell me well over a hundred people decide for some reason to open my blog each week, with one amazing week recently when 375 people accessed it. What I write about is just something I consider might be worth sharing – nothing special. But each week I hope and pray these words convey some aspect of God’s heart – something that will encourage or challenge any who read them.

I like to think I have learnt a few things in this blogging journey of mine. I can certainly see via my site stats that some topics are more popular than others. I notice that those aimed more at other authors tend to lose or miss the mark with those who aren’t at all interested in writing. I’ve discovered it’s worth taking time to think up a good title for my blog – plus some sort of interesting and arresting comment to write on Facebook when I put my blog link up there each Tuesday morning. I’ve had some winners and some losers – some of my blogs have fizzled and some have, for no obvious reason, sparked a great deal of interest. Obviously, I still have a way to go to make my blogs consistently readable.

So I smiled when I realised this particular blog I am writing now is listed as ‘Blog 101’ on my computer. Even now, after writing a hundred blogs, I still feel I am in the basic learning stage of ‘Blogging 101’! There are so many skills and key aspects I’m sure I have overlooked and have yet to master. I think I often forget to keep my readership in mind and tend to use both personal examples and vocabulary that may not mean much to the average reader. I am frequently far too wordy. I play it safe at times and don’t honestly write what is on my heart to say on a given subject. I occasionally write my blogs when I’m too tired, with the result that my writing becomes stodgy and uninteresting. And some days I labour far too long over a blog, pouring time and effort that should be spent on my current novel-in-progress or talk I am preparing rather than ‘second guessing’ what originally came to me to blog about.

I hope my blogs will continue to improve. I don’t want to be lazy or shoddy in the way I write or too preoccupied with other matters that I don’t give my best effort to them. I want my current readers and supporters to keep on reading what I write, whatever the subject. I want new readers to find my blogs and be interested enough to return often to my site. I want to write with integrity, from the heart, about things I know are true and will hopefully build up and encourage others. But most of all, I want God to be glorified through the words I write.

So here I am by God’s grace, launching into my second ‘century’ of blogging, praying God’s wisdom and insight will flow through my words and the gifts of writing and of encouragement I believe God has given me will bear fruit.

May it be so, Lord!

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In recent days, I have been involved in finalising the cover of my fifth novel, ‘Heléna’s Legacy’, due for release in June. I was asked by my publisher, Ark House, for suggestions and in the process, told them one thing I don’t like on a cover – a front view of the hero or heroine! I like my readers to imagine these characters themselves. And as the author, no image ever seems to do justice to this ‘real’ person I have walked beside for months who has persevered and struggled and triumphed and lived through so many different experiences.

When the cover was returned for approval, however, I found a front view of the main character on it! And yet … well, she looked lovely, with a rather pensive, sad expression that exactly suits the storyline. So I rapidly had to revise my own mental concept, step back a little and try to appreciate what the graphic artist had come up with. Now I’m very happy with the result – and I hope my readers will be too.

It’s sad but true that we do tend to judge a book by its cover. For this reason, I’m very glad all my novels have excellent covers. In this day of economic downturn and questions about the future of books and bookstores, we authors need all the help we can get! But all of this has led me to wonder how I myself come across to people – how the ‘cover’ I present to the world expresses what is inside me. What do people see when I get up to speak somewhere? What do people notice about the way I live my daily life?

Well, I know they see a grey-haired woman who is definitely not slim and perhaps make judgments about that! It is amazing how people are put in ‘boxes’ simply on the strength of having grey hair, I’ve discovered. Perhaps we would be suitable to speak to Seniors’ Groups, it is suggested nicely – when I absolutely love speaking to young mums or people of any age, including Seniors! But much more importantly, I hope I carry with me in what I do and say – and yes, even in my appearance – something of who God is. After all, each of us is created in God’s image, as Genesis 1:27 tells us. And as the psychologist David Benner puts it in ‘The Gift of Being Yourself’, each of us, when we are prepared to be our true selves, actually is a ‘unique face of God to the world’! What a privilege – but what a responsibility as well.

So I hope both in my life and through my novels, by God’s grace, I reflect that grace and love clearly in a way that points people to God. ‘Let you light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’, Jesus tells his disciples (Matt 5:16). I hope as I speak, that my words carry something of the ‘fragrance of life’ that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 2:16. And I hope and pray that the ‘cover’ of the book of my life will attract people to God and not turn them away.

But I’m so relieved that when God looks at me, the inside matters much more than the outside! In 1 Samuel 16:7, when Samuel is sizing up Jesse’s sons as potential future kings, the Lord reminds him:

Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

How about you? What does your ‘cover’ convey? And what does God see in your heart?

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It has been brought home so shockingly to us all this past week how uncertain life is and how, while we might think we know what 2011 will hold for us, the reality might turn out to be quite different. As we have watched the TV coverage of people’s homes and livelihoods being destroyed by the floods in Queensland and elsewhere and heard of the loss of life involved, I am sure that, apart from feeling deep grief for those so badly affected, even the strongest of us must have experienced some personal inner quaking and questioning. What if this happened to me? What would I grab if I had to leave my home in a hurry? What really is important to me in life?

I also experienced uncertainty of a different kind this past week, as we farewelled our younger daughter Tina at the airport on her way to Ghana. Her fiancé, who is Ghanaian but a permanent resident here, is currently in Ghana visiting family, and Tina has travelled to join him for around a month. In that time, they plan to get married – but when she left, our Tina was still unsure if this would happen or not. Communication is difficult between Australia and her fiancé’s hometown – and besides, she knows weddings in Ghana aren’t the big, costly events they are here! Well, Tina seemed fine about it all. In fact, she was very much looking forward to all the new experiences ahead – and of course to seeing her fiancé again. It is her mother who is feeling the uncertainty!

And then there is the ongoing uncertainty I should be used to in relation to writing novels and getting them published. After working hard on a book for months, there is no guarantee anyone will want to publish your ‘baby’. Even if they eventually do, there is no guarantee people will flock to buy it! On top of that, I as the author need to do my part in promoting the book – but there is no guarantee these promotional opportunities will be easy to come by either. ‘Don’t give up your day job’ is a piece of advice authors hear very often.

Perhaps you are facing a quite different uncertainty in your life right now. Maybe you are unsure about your job situation or how some difficulty in an important relationship will be resolved. Perhaps the following words from Scripture will resonate with you as they did with me this week:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money. Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14)

We can’t ‘boast and brag’, as James goes on to say, about what is going to happen for us, as if we are in complete control of our lives. God, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, is the one who has ultimate power and authority and the one to cling to in times of uncertainty. And when our best-laid plans unravel and things fall in a heap around us, God will always be there for us, both now and on into eternity. Yes, we are called to be God’s people in this world, but the best ‘treasure’ we can have, the one that moth or dust – or floods – cannot destroy is the treasure of a rich relationship with our God in heaven, as Jesus himself points out in Matthew 6.

May God strengthen, support and comfort you in this uncertain world.

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At times, walking into bookstores can be a bit daunting for authors. There are just so many books out there already other than our own. Perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes knew something way back around the tenth century BC when he declared: Of making many books there is no end … (Ecc 12:12). So why am I trying so hard to add to their number? Well, there are several answers I could give, some more noble than others. Take self-interest, for example. It is definitely gratifying to see my very own books on the shelves and to have people buy and enjoy them. But if that were all there is to it, then I suspect the novelty would soon wear off.

For me, my main motivation is that I believe God has called and gifted me to write. And as I pursue that call, I have found that writing for me is utterly liberating and fulfilling. Yes, it has its testing times and frustrating days, but it also has the power to make me feel fully alive. And just when it threatens to become that little bit too difficult, God specialises, I’ve discovered, in sending unique morsels of encouragement my way.

A few days ago, my son handed me two large boxes with the comment ‘Happy Christmas!’ Inside were two long awaited Braille copies of my third novel ‘Laura’, which tells the story of a girl who is blind. My son was simply delivering them to me from a friend who had persevered over many months in arranging the transcription of my manuscript into Braille, for which I feel so indebted. I had promised another friend who originally inspired this novel that I would try to get a Braille copy for her – and I can now fulfil that promise. And this also enables me to lend the second copy to others who have enquired – like a contact who wanted a friend who is both deaf and blind to be able to read it.

Then this very same week, I also received the news that the dedicated workers at Christian Blind Mission in Melbourne have now completed the narration and recording of each of my first three novels – ‘Heléna’, ‘All the Days of My Life’ and ‘Laura’! This means my books are now available in Daisy/MP3 format for anyone with a print disability to borrow from CBM’s audio library (see www.cbm.org.au). I am so delighted that those for whom reading books such as mine would have been a huge challenge, if not an impossibility, are now able to access and enjoy them.

In all of this, I am reminded of the words of 1 Peter 4:10:

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

That’s what I believe I am called and privileged to do – to be faithful in allowing God’s grace to bless others through my books. That’s why I write. Yes, there may be many and much better novels out there already, but God has a plan and a purpose for mine as well, I believe. Even – or perhaps especially – for those who are visually impaired.

I am humbled by that – and so grateful.

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These days, I get to do quite a lot of bookselling. Soon after my first novel was published, I discovered that authors not only have to write their books, but they also have to be reasonably adept at marketing them. Publishers can do a certain amount – but most authors have to play their part too. So I had to learn a lot very quickly – and in the process, discovered I had to guard my heart closely. I still do.

You see, I think we can easily get sidetracked in this world and lose sight of our original goals. In the pressure to succeed, our priorities can become a little skewed and we can begin to take on a kind of striving spirit that only leads to frustration and discontent. From the very beginning, my main priority in writing my novels has been to draw my readers closer to God as they relate to my characters and are carried along by their story. That is still true – but I also see the danger of becoming more focussed on the success of my novels as an end in itself. How many copies of my latest novel have I sold, I wonder? Is it doing better than the previous one? Are they all in stock in my local Christian bookstore? What other ways can I promote my novels?  Should I explore more avenues for speaking engagements? And so it goes on.

Of course it’s important to try to ensure I reach as many people as possible with my novels for the sake of drawing them closer to God. But it’s so easy to lapse into self-interest, to have much less pure motives, to want to be the ‘successful’ author over and above the kind of author God wants me to be. That may, by God’s grace, include the ‘success’ – but then again, it may not. And if it doesn’t, then am I content simply to do my best and to keep on persevering in the hope that my books and my speaking will make some sort of difference for God in this world?

Recently I read some challenging words written by Paul to Timothy:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. … For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. (1 Tim 6:6-10)

Paul is writing about financial gain – something most authors I have met don’t experience too often! But wanting to gain success for its own sake, wanting to see one’s name on that book cover at all costs – wanting, if you like, the fame, if not the fortune – is something I know I need to guard against. Paul then continues:

But you, man (woman!) of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.

That’s what I want to do. I want to keep it all in perspective and pursue the right sort of gain in my life and through my books. I want to be like my son in this regard, who, having recently been given a pay rise, was sharing with me how he could probably now afford some long overdue home renovations. Yet he doesn’t really care what sort of house he lives in, he told me – it’s okay by him if it looks a bit old and worn. I like his attitude – I think it has something at least of that godliness with contentment about it that Paul mentions.

But how about you? What gains in life are important to you? Where is your focus right now?

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As a novelist who is constantly trying to grow and learn, I like to read how other authors handle the various challenges the whole writing process brings.  Some write only when they are ‘in the mood’ and the inspiration is flowing.  Others say that if they worked that way, they would never write anything.  These are the more self-disciplined among us – the ones who can set themselves a target of writing so many words per day or per week.  Some are very organised and totally plan out their novel or other work before they start.  Others are what are known as ‘seat of the pants’ writers who have only a vague idea where they are heading when they begin.  And still others like me fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

When I begin a novel, I like to have a clear concept in mind as to what my story is about – what general challenges and joys my main characters will experience and what central issues the story will grapple with.  But I also like to leave room for my characters to develop, to make their own choices as to how they will handle this or that situation or even what sort of a person they will become.  It is an interesting journey, watching these characters grow and change.  As a result, life as an author can be fascinating and exciting – even totally absorbing and energising.

But it’s not always like that, in my experience.  In fact, many days I sit staring at my computer screen, wondering where all that flow of creativity and joy of bringing my characters to life could possibly have gone.  Should I discipline myself on these occasions to write anyway?  Or should I conclude that my ‘writer’s block’ has won out for the moment?

Well, at times I do go off and do something else for a while.  Yet at others, I know I simply have to ‘hang in there’ and push through this difficult stage.  And that’s why some words Paul wrote to the Colossians impacted me recently – words that on the surface seem quite a contradiction.   As Paul is endeavouring with all his might to help believers stand firm in their faith in Jesus Christ and grow in understanding and love for one another, he writes:

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me (Colossians 1:28-29).

So I get the picture that what Paul was trying to do wasn’t easy.  Yet in the midst of it all, he was being energised by a power beyond himself.  He was definitely ‘struggling’ and putting in a lot of effort of his own, but the energy that sustained him was not his alone.  Instead he was receiving and relying on ‘his’ energy – that is, Jesus Christ’s – to complete the task he had been given.

So on those days when I struggle very much with my writing, I try to keep my eyes on Jesus, knowing he called me to do what I’m doing and will ‘energise’ and empower me to complete it.  God is bigger than any writers’ block – his energy and creativity are inexhaustible!  And I’m so thankful for that.

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