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Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

On this particular Monday morning, I did not feel like grocery shopping. Still, it had to be done, so off I went. I scooted around the supermarket in record time and headed for the nearest checkout. Then I noticed the worker there was a lady with whom I had previously had a conversation about my books. On that occasion, she had asked me what I wrote about, but someone had interrupted and there had been no time to answer her. I had left the store that day feeling rather frustrated—would I ever get another opportunity to talk with her? Yet there she was now, about to serve me again—but I felt too tired and grumpy to connect with her. Perhaps she had forgotten all about that question she had asked me anyway.

Imagine my surprise then when the first thing she said was, ‘So … are you still writing?’

My heart sank. I did not want to talk about writing—or anything serious, for that matter. Yet I was touched she had not forgotten our previous conversation.

‘Wow, I’m amazed you remembered I’m a writer,’ I managed to say. ‘Yes, I’m still writing—and speaking. I’m speaking at a club this week, but I’ve also spoken at quite a few churches.’

‘Oh … what sort of things do you write about?’

At that point, I decided to opt for a relatively safe response.

‘Well, my novels focus on different serious issues we all face in our lives sometime or other, such as forgiveness or grief or dealing with life’s challenges … lots of things like that.’

‘Wow—I must check your books out online.’

By this time, I was wider awake—and praying hard!

‘Um, I have a card here,’ I told her, as I fished around in my purse.

She finished packing my groceries and I paid her. For a moment, it seemed she had moved onto the next customer, but she turned to me again.

‘So, where’s your card? Thanks so much. Have a good week!’

I left, feeling somewhat stunned but also a little ashamed of myself. God had given me a wonderful, unexpected, second opportunity to connect with this lady, yet I had not wanted to engage with her at all. Instead, I had wallowed in my tiredness and grumpiness and it had not even entered my head to consider what God might want me to say. Then the Apostle Peter’s words came to mind:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. … 1 Peter 3:15

I had not been prepared. I felt I could have been much more open. I should have mentioned other themes in my novels like the love and grace of God, but now the moment was gone. Yet, in the midst of all these whirling thoughts, I sensed God’s amazing grace and acceptance pour over me. And as I drove home, I prayed. Lord, please may she look up my website and see why I write and what I write about. And please may we have an even better conversation soon.

I’m so grateful God understands. And I’m so grateful God uses us even in our weakness in ways we may least expect.

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I was standing in our local Koorong bookstore, promoting my latest novel, when I noticed a lovely young couple nearby. Initially, I thought they might not be interested in talking or looking at my books, but how wrong I was! I cannot remember now whether they approached me first or vice versa, but I do remember their smiling, relaxed manner and how intently they listened as I explained why I was there. Soon we were deep in conversation about writing and about my books. Then after buying two, they said goodbye and moved on.

Not long after, however, the girl came back.

‘Tell me, how did you actually start writing?’ she asked me. ‘How did you know that was what you should do?’

I explained how I had always loved writing, but never considered becoming a writer and opted for teaching instead. I told her too how, twenty years before writing my first novel, I had declared to my husband I would write a book ‘one day’, never truly thinking I ever would. Then I began sharing how, when I was in my fifties, God used some words from Isaiah 42 to challenge me to start writing while visiting a friend in Turkey—at which point she stopped me in mid-sentence.

‘Um … this might be a weird question, but … were you on the radio recently?’

For a moment, I was dumbfounded, but then remembered my Vision Christian radio interview in January about a short story I had written and about my writing in general.

‘Well, yes I was earlier this year, although I understand the interview was re-broadcast a few weeks ago too.’

She was stunned, but eventually managed to tell me how, as soon as I mentioned Turkey and Isaiah 42, she remembered hearing someone share this story on the radio. She had sensed even then that God was nudging her to start her own writing journey—and now she was overwhelmed that she had ‘randomly’ met me in person and was standing there hearing that same story again.

We stared at each other, both blown away at what had happened and how surreal it all felt. Yet it soon became clear too that we both knew we were on holy ground. Now she could not ignore that nudge God had given her already to start writing—now, through our ‘random’ conversation, she was not left in any doubt that this is what God wants her to do.

What an amazing God we have—a God who continues to love us and reach out to us and challenge us to step out in trust and do the things God has put in our hearts to do! When I think how I almost missed talking to this couple because I felt they would not be interested, I cringe. Yet God overruled—and I am so grateful.

It’s about listening to God well, rather than those negative, discouraging voices in our heads, and recognising God’s hand in those ‘random’ encounters, don’t you think? And when we do, God will surely will make the way forward so clear for us.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

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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 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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Jo 12I hope I never cease to be moved by the amazing life stories I hear at times from the most unexpected people. One such story inspired me to write my first novel around sixteen years ago—and parts of others too have found their way into my novels since then. Yet it is often these very parts that people think I have made up myself. Surely that couldn’t happen, one sceptical reader told me once to my face!

But truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, as I discovered again last Sunday when I met a lovely man from South America at a church where I was speaking. After a while, I asked him how he had come to know or hear about God. His face lit up—and, with great excitement, he launched into his story. From what I remember of it all, his uncle belonged to the army back home and was involved in one of the ongoing wars with a neighbouring country. Eventually, the uncle’s troops won their battle with the enemy soldiers, so they entered their town to raid it and take whatever they could find for themselves. But by the time the uncle got there, the only thing left was an old book.

‘What use is that to me?’ he thought in disgust. ‘Oh well, I have some time now—I might as well read it.’

It turned out to be a bible. And as he read, he began to wonder if it was all true, so he showed it to a Catholic priest in his own town.

‘Oh, you shouldn’t be reading this,’ he was told. ‘We’re the only ones allowed to do that. Give it to me!’

But this soldier refused to and eventually found another Christian pastor, who explained to him what this book he had found was about and helped him understand it. As a result, this man then became a believer.

Yet that was not the end of the story. Eventually, this soldier told his sister about the book and about Jesus Christ—and she believed in him too. Then in time, this lady told her son—and he also believed. … And this son was the man I met right here in Sydney last Sunday. Now this man constantly tells his own children in no uncertain terms about God’s precious book, the bible—the word of God that is true and powerful and active.

This man’s uncle did not know, when he first picked up his bible, that it is indeed a much stronger weapon than any gun or grenade or knife he had been issued with—or doubled-edged sword, for that matter!

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

Yet God spoke deep into his spirit through the book he found, despite his ignorance. And thankfully, this uncle had an open, seeker’s heart that reached out to God and was so responsive, as God’s Spirit drew him close.

What a story—and what a challenge! May my own heart be equally open to God—and may I always value my own ‘old book’ as much as this man did.

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Jo 17Recently, I did something I have never done before. Each day for one whole week, I deliberately chose to do some special activity I have wanted to do for some time but always had a reason not to. On top of that, I did not cook dinner any night that week. Instead, we ate out or bought takeaway. You see, the whole thing was a unique birthday present for me—and what fun it all was!

Originally, my husband had wanted me to enjoy a few days away somewhere by myself—to relax, recharge and spend time with God. I thought about this lovely idea and even looked up various venues online but did not feel settled about any of them. Then one night, it came to me. I did not want to go away anywhere. Instead, I wanted to enjoy different, interesting experiences within reach of our own beautiful unit, then come home and not have to cook dinner! A win-win situation, don’t you think?

In the end, we called this wondrous week ‘The Festival of Jo-Anne’ (!)—and I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I went shopping, twice over. I went to the movies. I had coffee out. I had a massage. I read. And in between, I had time simply to sit and be and reconnect with God. Yes, it was all very good indeed.

But one reason I enjoyed it even more was that, two weeks earlier, I had finally finished the first draft of my latest novel that had languished on my laptop for over three years, waiting patiently for me to unfold the rest of the story. This special week of mine then was also for me a time when I came up for air, so to speak, when I allowed my poor brain to rest, when I graced myself a little more than usual—and when I sensed God’s love and grace being showered on me from every angle. It was a lovely, hiatus period—a time to gain clearer perspective, not only on my novel, before I plunged into all that necessary editing, but on my life in general.

At one stage in writing this particular novel, I wondered if I should keep going. Should I be content with the eight books of mine that have already been published? Was that where God wanted me to stop? But one day, I sensed God saying gently to me, ‘Jo-Anne, whether you write this book or don’t write it, remember I’ll be just as delighted with you either way!’ What gracious, loving, freeing words to hear! I did not need to feel pressured to produce in any way. Instead, I had permission to write the sort of novel I have wanted to write for some time and to leave the outcome in God’s hands.

Yet I think God was saying more than that too. I think God wanted to remind me that, all the time, whether celebrating the Festival of Jo-Anne or writing or speaking or whatever, I can rest fully in this amazing love of God that accepts me, no matter what.

How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 36:7 New Living Translation

Maybe you too need to hear this reminder right now?

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