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Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

IMG_20191007_105632077This spring, I decided to plant a tomato seedling in a pot on our balcony. I hoped it would grow into a nice, rounded little bush and, in time, bear at least a few little cherry tomatoes. But, to my surprise, it has continued to shoot up, sprouting more and more leaves and yellow flowers, daily growing ever higher! Yet it was not its size that captured my attention this week, but rather the pungent scent of its leaves as I touched them gently. Immediately, I was wafted back many, many years to those lush tomato bushes my father took delight in growing in our backyard in Brisbane, where I grew up.

As a little girl, I often liked to join my father while he gardened. One day, I decided I would help him, so I gathered up my skirt to form a soft kind of pouch and made my way along our rows of tomato bushes, picking whatever fruit I saw there.

Once finished, I joyfully showed my stash to my father. But alas—he took one look, then chased me up our steep backyard, roaring with rage, as those tomatoes scattered everywhere! You see, they were all still green—my father had been patiently waiting until just the right time to harvest them. But I did not know that—and I had picked them far too early to be of use to anyone.

Perhaps one could say I was scarred for life, since I still remember this event so vividly! Yet, as someone who has also enjoyed gardening, I can well understand how devastated my father must have felt at losing his precious tomato crop—or a good portion of it at least. Besides, this whole childhood experience taught me a good lesson which, even now as a writer, I need to put into practice. Stories ripen too, like those tomatoes. A whole novel needs time to grow and develop, perhaps even to change shape from what I as the author originally envisaged. It needs gentle nurturing—and often much pruning—in order to be palatable to any future readers. So the whole process cannot be rushed, if my precious story is ever truly going to provide enjoyment and nourishment and blessing to others as God intended.

Recently, I heard two excellent sermons both based on Ecclesiastes 3, which begins:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot … (3:1-2)

What a good reminder to hear—twice over—just when I was feeling frustrated that my current novel would not be ready in time to pitch it to a potential publisher at an upcoming writers’ conference! As a result, I decided to relax about it all and to keep on faithfully writing and fine-tuning my story, trusting God for the eventual outcome and for the Spirit’s enabling throughout.

I remembered those green tomatoes. I remembered there is a time for everything. I remembered my times are in God’s hands and that those hands are so trustworthy—and I pray you will too.

But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands …’ Psalm 31:14-15

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Jo 17It has been an interesting experience these past few weeks to pick up my novel writing again, after completing two non-fiction books. While I love writing non-fiction, it is such a joy to feel I can let loose and create a whole new story from scratch.

Novel writing can be a slow, exhausting process, but it can also be so fulfilling, as the various characters develop and the strands of the story come together. And for me, it can easily become all-consuming too. I relate deeply with my characters. I feel their joy and pain and confusion. I immerse myself in their world. I ache for them and hold my breath at times in the hope they will make good and right decisions.

With my current novel, I felt relieved when I completed the first five chapters—always the hardest for me. The story seemed to be taking shape and gaining momentum. But because I knew I was approaching a very sad section, I baulked. I did not want my main character to endure such grief, yet I knew that was where the story needed to go. I put it aside and wrote other shorter pieces for a while, but eventually, I decided to take the plunge again.

Yet as I wrote, I became sadder and sadder. You see, without giving too much away, a little boy drowns in this novel—and his death is intrinsic to the plot. I had to describe the actual event. Then I had to portray the family’s grief and anger and lack of forgiveness too from one family member towards another. As well, I had to visualise the lasting effects of such a tragedy on my main character and begin to help her work through these in a realistic way.

At that point, I felt exhausted, as if I had struggled through those raging floodwaters myself. My earlier chapters, while being so fulfilling to write, had taken much perseverance—and now that I was on the other side of this difficult part of the plot, I wondered if I had what it took to unfold the rest in a sensitive way that would touch readers’ hearts. Had I perhaps forgotten how to write a novel, after living in the world of non-fiction for so long? Was I capable of allowing the story to develop as it needed to?

With these questions bombarding my brain, I soon descended into a morass of self-doubt and self-pity—until I remembered how helpful the Psalms had been to me during past writing struggles. I began reading them yet again and eventually came to Psalm 18:16-19:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. … He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

While that dear little boy in my novel might not have been rescued from actual deep waters, I knew God would rescue me. At other times in my life when I felt things were all too hard, I have experienced that loving hand grasping me firmly and helping me stand on solid ground again. God has drawn me out of many deep waters—and I know God will delight to do that for you too.

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Jo 12Have you ever experienced a time when someone reminded you of something helpful you said to them once, yet you had no memory of ever saying it? You know this person is not lying—you know you must have said those words they remember. Yet you still feel something of a fraud, taking any credit for the encouragement you gave them, when it has now gone from your mind!

Recently, I heard how Jeanie Wood, whom I met around two years ago, was about to release her first novel (The Travel Club, published by Elephant House Press).That’s nice, I thought, I’m so glad she will have the joy of seeing her book in print. Now people often tell me how they would like to write a book ‘one day’—and equally often, I suspect they will never get around to it or have the self-discipline to complete such a big task. But Jeanie had actually followed through with it all and achieved her long-held dream.

Then one day she messaged me, thanking me for encouraging her to write a novel ‘just for fun’. Wow, I thought, did I really say or write that? I remembered chatting to her when we first met and offering to read a few chapters of some of her writing, which she subsequently sent me. I remembered too how one piece of non-fiction she had written was very sad and would have stirred up past memories for her of difficult times. Was that perhaps the reason I had encouraged her to write something quite different? Whatever the case, God had obviously used those three words I can’t even remember saying or writing to spur her on and help usher her into a new and extremely fulfilling part of her writing journey.

But then there are other words we say at times that do not bring joy and fulfilment. I wonder if someone has ever reminded you of something you said or wrote that hurt them, yet you were unaware that was the case—and again, may not have remembered saying or writing it.

This too happened to me once. In that instance, while I remembered what I wrote, I had no idea my words would offend. Imagine my horror then when, a few years later, this person let me know in no uncertain terms how deeply I had hurt her. I then had to write back, asking what she meant, only to be shocked all over again at the depth of her feelings as she reiterated in fine detail what I had said and done. Yet how to apologise? I did try—and I also tried to explain what I had meant, but I am unsure how successful my overtures were.

Sometimes we can be so amazed and grateful that our words have impacted others in a positive way, can’t we? At other times, we may wish we could take those words of ours back and swallow them whole! Either way, let’s continue to learn to listen well to God, to seek to tame our tongues and to share more of those positive, life-giving words rather than any that will hurt or discourage.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4:29

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Jo 17It can be disconcerting at times to discover certain literary ‘masterpieces’ on my laptop that I wrote over ten years ago now! My style has changed markedly since I began my writing journey in earnest in 2004, as has the style of novels publishers and bookstores want. So when two people asked me recently about my earlier novels that are no longer available for purchase, I almost baulked at lending them my own copies, because I find it hard to open them without wanting to change things and edit out more than a few words! I also own recorded versions of these novels produced by CBM Australia and narrated by well-known Australian actors, yet I cannot bear to listen to them because I know I would want to change far too much.

In the end, I went ahead and lent these friends the novels they wanted. After all, they understand they are my earlier novels—but they still wanted to read them. So far, one friend has returned her copy, telling me in the process how much she enjoyed it, to my great relief! Yet I know there was so much more for me to learn back then about the art of novel-writing—and there still is.

In the light of all this then, you can imagine my feelings when I recently found the following poem of mine, written way back in 1985! I am not a poet, but that year, many things were stirring in me that I felt I needed to express somehow. So, having been inspired by Isaiah’s amazing prophecy about the coming Messiah (Isaiah 9:6), I wrote the following—and I have sensed God challenging me to share it once again with you all:

 

Wonderful Counsellor, surround me with your wisdom.

My mind is tired, with indecision torn.

Where is the path prepared for me to follow?

I need you, Lord, to watch, to guide, to warn.

 

Almighty God, defend me with your power.

My weakness wins, my courage ebbs away.

O Holy One, great Lord of all creation,

For strength to stand secure I humbly pray.

 

Everlasting Father, how you love me!

I am your child, forgiven, forever free!

O hold me fast, transform me to your likeness,

Till men in me your face more clearly see.

 

Prince of Peace, bestow your calm assurance.

My heart is troubled, turmoil takes control.

O send your soothing Spirit to surround me.

Speak, Lord, till I am still within my soul!

 

Perhaps this Christmas, you too are at a crossroads in your life, as I was then. Or perhaps you feel plain weary and spent, after a year in which you have given of yourself in so many ways. If that is the case, I pray that, this Christmas, you can truly welcome the Prince of Peace into your heart afresh and receive those life-giving words I know the Wonderful Counsellor has for you. And may each of us, however we feel this Christmas, stop and give heartfelt thanks for the amazing gift of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

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Jo 12I wonder if you can remember a time when you felt so frustrated that you could not get on with what you truly wanted to do because of other pressing commitments in your life. Perhaps you had to work while others were enjoying holidays. Perhaps you had to be at home minding young children or caring for someone with ill-health while colleagues pursued their careers. Or perhaps you had to put study aside, in order to pay the mortgage and support a family. It can be hard, can’t it, to see others doing exactly what you yourself would like to be doing?

For the past four months, my husband and I have been supporting our church’s pastoral team while our two lead pastors (husband and wife) have been on sabbatical leave. We have felt so privileged to be able to work alongside our team and so many wonderful volunteers. Yet even though it was such a positive experience, at times I felt a little rebellious about where I found myself. I am a writer, after all, but in these months, I have not touched my current manuscript. In fact, I can barely remember my characters and what they have been up to! So why was I there ministering, instead of writing? Besides, I have missed my times of solitude, sitting at my laptop, lost in another world as I churn out those words.

Then it dawned on me that, for someone who belongs to God and is committed to doing what God wants, this is a rather silly way to think. After all, if I truly believed God called us to support our pastoral team, then surely I need not worry about what is not getting done—or written! Instead, I can be at peace and do what I have been given to do.

As I realised this, a second thought emerged. Could God possibly have had some further purpose in drawing me back into a pastoral role for a season? Through it all, what did God want to show me or teach me that could not happen any other way?

I decided to journal my responses. Firstly, I felt God wanted to point out how far I have come in those sixteen years since laying down a formal ministry role. I have grown so much, as I have gone on my writing and speaking journey—and I realised how thankful to God I need to be for that. Secondly, as a result of this growth, I believe I have approached this temporary pastoral role in an entirely different way. My trust in God has grown and I have gained greater confidence in using my God-given gifts. Thirdly, as I have ministered this time around, I have felt God’s deep love and affirmation and also a kind of healing from any regrets or sense of failure I may still have felt at leaving ministry all those years ago.

What a lesson, to realise I would have missed out on all this, if I had not helped out for these four months! God is so gracious and long-suffering with us, don’t you think?

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. Psalm 42:11

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BecomingMe-OFC-I will always be grateful I was able to find publishers for my six novels and my first non-fiction book, Soul Friend. Without these publishers, my writing journey would have been severely hampered. But I am also grateful I was able to produce my second non-fiction book, Becoming Me: Finding my true self in God, myself via Ingram Spark in 2016. This gave me freedom to include everything I wanted to include and also to set my own publishing time frame. Now, two years later, I still receive regular reports from Ingram Spark, detailing e-book and hard copy sales.

I love this company’s efficiency, but I often smile when I receive that professional-looking, emailed monthly report for e-book sales in particular. You see, as time has passed since the release of Becoming Me, I usually discover that just one person, someone somewhere in the world, someone I will probably never meet, has bought an e-book version of Becoming Me. Yes, that means a whole USD$2.40 my little book has earned for me as the publisher—what a fortune!

Yet I never feel disappointed with these reports. In fact, this one sale always touches me, as I try to visualise who this reader might be. I pray for them too. I pray that something in my little book might speak to their hearts and provide the word from God for them that they need. After all, I’m sure this one person matters to God.

But occasionally I receive a different sort of email about Becoming Me—one from a reader I often do not know, commenting on some aspect of the book that has been meaningful to them. Recently, a lady wrote how, while she related to so much of what I wrote, the thing that touched her most was one small paragraph where I describe how, for many years, I wrote weekly letters home to my parents interstate, keeping them up-to-date with all our family events. This lady shared how, for over fifty years, she had done the same, even when her mother became a dementia patient in a nursing home. She told me how some people thought she was strange to keep writing these letters. Yet, as she read my book, she felt she had found a companion, someone who understood. How blessed I felt that God had somehow comforted her through my book, even in this small way!

These people whose lives we touch, the ones and twos, do matter to God, don’t you think? Surely we see this in how Jesus often went out of his way to minister to just one person. Examples that come to mind readily are the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), the woman at the well (John 4), the man born blind (John 9), Lazarus (John 11) and Mary Magdalene outside the tomb (John 20).

People matter to God. You and I matter to God. In fact, God seeks each of us out, like that one lost sheep, and, once found, will never let us go. And that comforts me more than any words I may ever write.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand, John 10:27-28

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Jo 17I have embarked on a new writing project. At least, it’s not actually new—it has been hovering around on my laptop for a couple of years, patiently awaiting my attention. Whenever I find time, I open the relevant files and try to work out where I’m up to. One contains a chapter outline for the whole novel, while another is filled with notes about the characters. A third contains the beginnings of the first chapter, which has morphed several times, as I have reflected on it further.

One thing that has kept me from becoming fully launched into this novel is my concern about how best to spend my time. What does God want me to do now? Since 2007, I have had six novels and two non-fiction works published, with many resulting opportunities to speak. Could eight books perhaps be enough?

As I prayed about it, I sensed God’s green light either way, as if God were saying, ‘Jo-Anne, I will be so delighted in you if you write this novel—but equally delighted if you don’t!’ What a wonderful, gracious, freeing message to hear! I could be at peace about it all. I could write it—or not write it.

The months passed and that novel still did not grow at any great rate. Then one day, I read Isaiah 26:8 again:

Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts.

These words seemed such a good, timely reminder to me to check my motives in continuing with my novel. Was I writing it merely to get my name out there again? Did I want to be known as this prolific author who keeps producing books? Did I hope this novel would bring me greater personal kudos or renown? Or did I truly desire to write it to honour God and to share God’s amazing love and grace once again in story format?

My heart said a fervent ‘yes’, in response to this last question. Furthermore, I felt a strong urge deep inside to create the sort of novel I personally want to create this time around, irrespective of current writing conventions or literary fashion or whatever! Yet I was still wary about it all. Already, my life is full—would I ever be able to find the necessary time?

I read on in Isaiah 26 and came to the following verse:

Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us (12).

I know this was written in the context of Israel’s finding peace as a nation. But what a good, personal reminder to me to be at peace and allow God to shape this future novel—and its time frame! After all, it was only through God’s strength, guidance and inspiration that I was able to write my other eight books, when I initially thought it would be impossible to write even one. Truly, whatever I have accomplished has all come from God.

So I plan to trust God to guide and inspire as I write—and be at peace in the process. Surely that’s the best perspective to have in it all? And, whether you seek to serve and honour God through writing or something entirely different, I hope and pray this will be your perspective too.

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