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Posts Tagged ‘writing non-fiction’

Last week, I reached a milestone in my little corner of the blogging world. I did not notice until this week because of a glitch in my numbering system, so what a surprise to discover I had written 700 personal blogs since July 2009!

At first, I thought, ‘Ho hum—who cares?’ After all, I enjoy writing my blogs and hope to continue for a while yet, regardless what number blog I am up to. But then I paused … and listened. It was as if God was whispering gently to me, ‘Whoa, Jo-Anne! How about you stop right now and think about all that has happened for you over these past almost thirteen years?’

So, I stopped and reflected. What a crazy but wonderful writing and speaking journey I have had in those years! Not only did God enable me to churn out a blog each week, but also to produce five more novels and two non-fiction books to add to my two previously published novels. Who would have thought? Certainly not I. And who would have thought too that I would have the opportunity to speak at all sorts of places along the way? I have lost count of how many such events have taken place, but it would be over two hundred, many wonderful, some … well … interesting!

As I looked back, however, I realised so much else has happened during these years too that I did not expect—personally, family-wise and certainly wider afield. For example, we sold our home of 32 years for what to us was a staggering sum and came to live here in our lovely, restful unit—an unexpected blessing indeed. Family-wise, we welcomed a fourth grandchild—another lovely blessing. In that time too though, my special ‘soul friend’ Joy suffered from dementia, something I did not expect to happen to her, eventually passing away last year. And, of course, who would have thought we would all be facing a worldwide pandemic in 2020—and 2021—and 2022?

We can plan and work towards what we dream of doing and what we may also believe is what God wants for us—and, by God’s grace, these plans and dreams may be fulfilled beyond our expectations. Yet, for many of us, this does not turn out to be the case, for one reason or another. For some, the question ‘Who would have thought?’ may be a joyous exclamation, while for others, it may well be a deep cry of anguish.

Yet, however surprised or shocked we may be at the twists and turns in our lives, positive or negative, God surely is not. And perhaps that is what God wanted me to see, as I reflected on these past thirteen years. Perhaps God is challenging me to remember who truly is in control of my life. Perhaps I need to be much more thankful I belong to such a loving, powerful God. And perhaps I need to realise my role is to keep living for and trusting in God, whatever happens.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track. Proverbs 3:5-6 The Message

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I have discovered I need to be prepared for anything when heading somewhere to speak. Sometimes I arrive, only to find some promised piece of essential equipment has not materialised. Or I may turn up to find everything has been taken care of beautifully. Some helpful person has the data projector or TV screen ready and connects my laptop up so that everything works perfectly, while another offers to help with my books. I always go well-armed, however, for all situations—because you never know, do you?!

Then there are the adventures of connecting with people before or after I speak. Sometimes, I discover someone knows someone in my family—my husband or one of our children. Or sometimes, someone tells me they have heard me speak elsewhere in the past. I hold my breath a little at that, but am touched as they perhaps mention something I said back then. And I am touched too, as happened this past week, when someone bounds up to my book table to say they bought my first three novels years ago after I spoke at their church—and thankfully loved them. But each time, I never know who will be listening as I speak and what interesting encounters I may have with people.

All this has taught me some important lessons. Wherever I go, I need to go prayerfully, listening for those prompts from God. Whatever I say, I need to say carefully, with gentleness and sensitivity, but also with honesty. And whatever words I put in my books, I need to write them with much deep thought and prayer. Wherever I go, I want to be the best co-worker with God I can possibly be (1 Corinthians 3:9 NLT). And wherever my books end up, I want them to reflect something at least of the heart of God for our world.

Recently, a friend wrote to tell me how she picked up one of my older novels from near the letterboxes in her section of the retirement village where she lives, took it home to read and ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’. Residents often leave books they have read in such places in the village, so, after finishing it, she then put my novel near some letterboxes in another part of the village. The next time she went past, someone had taken it. ‘It’s so good to see the seeds being sown,’ she wrote. ‘Only eternity will reveal it all.’

Whether writers or speakers or not, we all have the privilege of being God’s co-workers however and wherever we can. And no particular person’s efforts are more important than another’s. Yes, I wrote the book, but my friend grasped the opportunity and put it out there for someone else to read. And ultimately, while we might sow the seed or water it, it is God who enables that seed to grow and flourish, as Paul tells us:

It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 1 Corinthians 3:7 NLT

Let’s be ready, always, to plant or water or speak or share or encourage or do whatever God gives us to do. We may never know when that will be. We may never know the end result. But God does—and that’s what matters.

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I think about words a lot. After all, I am a writer. As I weave my sentences together, even in a short blog, I am always asking myself, ‘Can I put things in a better way? Will this be relevant to my readers? Am I saying something worthwhile that may comfort or encourage or challenge?’ Beyond that, I also ask, ‘Is this something God wants me to write—or am I off course? Does it honour God? Does it line up with God’s Word?’

When it comes to novel writing, there are many more questions I need to ask. Is this part necessary? Does it move the plot forward? Is this character believable? Do I need more or less description here? With non-fiction, there are questions too. Should I expand this or that point? Do my chapters each build on what I am trying to say? Should I add more illustrations—or quotations—or Bible references? On it goes.

As COVID allows, however, I am also a speaker—and this is where I need to think even more about my many words. Here they are not tumbling out of my mind onto my computer screen where I can then edit them. Instead, they roll off my tongue so easily and, once spoken, are very hard to take back. I may have been invited to speak somewhere to inform or entertain a secular audience for an hour or so, but I want to honour God in it all too. And in a church context, I want to share a message that will enable those present to draw closer to God in some way and allow God’s Spirit to touch hearts and change lives. What a responsibility! And how careful I need to be to listen to God through it all.

Yet we all need to be so careful in our normal, everyday lives too with the words we speak and write—a quick instruction here and there, a sharp response, a friendly chat with a neighbour, an email, a Facebook comment. Sometimes it can be so hard, can’t it, to reign in that tongue of ours, as James reminds us (James 1:26), or those words that can flow out so thoughtlessly into cyberspace? Before we know it, we can either build up or tear down.

In recent weeks, I have been thinking even more about the power of words as a possible topic for yet another book project of mine, along with trying to plan my speaking schedule for the year as best I can in our COVID context. And no doubt that is why I sat up and took more notice than usual when I read the following verses in Proverbs one morning:

Wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction. The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences. Proverbs 18:20-21 NLT

Wow—gulp! What power we have at our disposal each day with those words we wield!

I want my words to be wise and satisfying, don’t you? And I definitely want to bring life and not death via what I speak or write. Words matter indeed—to God and to our listeners or readers. May we each choose them carefully. And may we always harvest good fruit from them.

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Jo 12This past week, I actually managed to finish the first draft of my seventh novel—over ninety-eight thousand words. Woohoo! It still feels a little surreal—I have lived with my characters for so long that they feel part of me. At times, I have even found myself thinking in real life settings, ‘Oh, how would Meg (my heroine) have responded here?’ Or ‘This is what happened to Stephen.’ Or ‘Meg has just done that!’ It has been quite a journey.

I can’t remember exactly, but I think I began this novel around three and a half years ago, not long after my second non-fiction book, Becoming Me, was published. I love writing non-fiction, but felt drawn to write yet one more novel, this time inspired, a little at least, by the lives of my maternal grandparents. Yet I cringed at the thought. Only one of my past novels could truly be classed as historical (ie set prior to and during World War Two) but, after writing it, I vowed and declared I would never write an historical novel again. You see, doing so brings with it a second huge task, on top of actually writing. Everything needs to be checked to see if the characters could truly do such things in that time and place—and if they could, how long it would take them. Certain things could not be mentioned either, since they were not around then. And certain words could not be used. Yet in my heart, I still wanted to write this novel, set in Queensland in the period 1909 to 1926.

Now I am supposed to be ‘retired’ (!), but somehow I have still not quite discovered the meaning of that word. As a result, writing this current novel has been punctuated by speaking at a variety of places, supporting the pastoral team at our church for four months while our senior pastors were on sabbatical, minding grandchildren on a regular basis, accompanying the village choir, meeting with others—and so many other good and right things. I do not regret any of them. But it makes completing a full-length historical novel just that little bit more challenging.

Can you see why I still feel a little numb at this point? Yet I also feel so grateful to God and thankful for this amazing opportunity to write a story that has been in my heart and mind for many years, long before I sat down to write the novel. I am well aware it may or may not be published—that will be my next challenge, along with many edits! But whatever the outcome, I am so glad God enabled me to persevere. Yes, I chose to sit down and write—but God inspired me to keep going and gave me the strength and ability to do so. And that can be true for each of us, however we are gifted and whatever God puts on our heart to undertake.

I have long been encouraged by the words the Lord spoke to Zerubbabel, who had undertaken the task of rebuilding God’s house in Jerusalem:

Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord. Zechariah 4:6

May these words also encourage you today to keep persevering in doing what God has given you to do.

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IMG_1279Since 2012, I have visited various Koorong bookstores in different parts of Australia to promote my novels and non-fiction. This Saturday, 27th July, will be my next, at Koorong West Ryde in Sydney from 10.00am-3.00pm, in conjunction with my author friend, Steph Penny, who has written an excellent book entitled Surviving Singledom. We would both love to meet with any of you who can make it there on the day!

When I started these book signings, I soon discovered some people can be shy about walking up to authors at a book table and chatting. Perhaps they believe, as I used to when I was young, that authors could not be real people but instead, some other alien race—because, after all, how could anyone possibly write a whole book? For me, that was too wonderful to imagine—yet, in the end, that’s exactly what God enabled me to do!

I soon discovered too that some people just want to go about their own business and not be held up talking to some strange author! These customers know exactly what they came to the store for and are very careful to avoid eye contact, as they scuttle past. They have a large neon sign flashing that says to me, ‘Don’t try to sell me anything—I’m not interested in your books and I’m in a hurry!’ I understand how they feel too—I’m sure I’ve done the same to other promoters on occasions.

But thankfully, there are also those who are brave enough to come and ask questions and seem genuinely interested in our books—and that there actually are Australian Christian authors around! Usually then we describe what our books are about, which may well lead into some heartfelt discussion, in my case, on the topics of becoming who God created us to be or on having a soul friend or on the love of God—or, in the case of my friend Steph Penny, on the challenges of being single. Sometimes too, we hear, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book!’ or even ‘I’ve written a book but don’t know where to go from here.’ Then we have the joy of sharing our knowledge with them, including telling them about Christian writers’ groups and conferences where they can learn so much more.

Then there are the ones and twos whom God seems to draw to our table—those ‘God encounters’ when something wonderful happens as we chat and some small and precious ‘kingdom moment’ occurs. On those occasions, I thank God, not only for giving me the right words to say but also for my little prayer team of eight women who specifically pray for these God encounters wherever I go to speak or promote my books.

Whoever we are and whatever our situation is in life, let’s seize the moment and embrace these God-given opportunities we all experience with joy and trust in God, who is able to do far more with our few words than we could ever imagine!

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21

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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 23Yesterday, I noticed a small, stand-up calendar on my desk. According to the month it showed, we were still in April. As I went to flip the page over to May, I gasped. Surely only a few days had passed since I had changed this calendar from March to April? How could another month have disappeared so quickly?

It seemed to me the year was fast slipping through my fingers, with no new book completed and very little preparation for upcoming speaking engagements done either. True, I submitted another non-fiction book to my publisher in January. And true, I have at least begun a new novel. And I had prepared for a speaking event this past weekend, only to have it cancelled, due to unforeseen circumstances. But … well, I seemed to have achieved so little in the light of all those weeks and months that have now passed into oblivion.

Then in the stillness around me, I became aware of God’s gentle voice speaking into my spirit. I sat up straight and breathed deeply. Yes, in this year, I have done my best. I have tried to take more care of myself, after ten busy, busy years of writing and speaking. I have tracked with several women, listening as they have shared what is happening in their lives. I have provided many meals for visitors in our home. I have minded grandchildren. I have rearranged our garden a little. And yes, I have kept writing too. Gradually, my heart was able to receive that gentle reminder of God’s total love and acceptance of me, whether I produced anything or not, whether I was digging the garden, speaking to a large group, writing that next great Australian novel—or simply doing nothing.

‘Am I not enough for you, Jo-Anne?’ God seemed to say. ‘Don’t you trust me to watch over you and bring good out of all the various strands and events in your life? I see exactly where you are up to in your writing. I knew ahead about that cancelled speaking engagement. I’m aware of how you feel about those fleeting months. But surely your times are in my hands? And don’t you yourself matter more to me than anything you might produce?’

I turned then to a book I am using at the moment entitled The Ignatian Adventure which contains spiritual exercises for each day—Scripture readings, other reflections and personal questions to ponder. I turned to the day’s reading—Jeremiah 17:7-8:

But blessed is the man (woman) who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He (she) will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Yes, however fast those months fly by, I know I will bear fruit as I continue to allow my roots to go down deep into God. The fruit may vary in type and in abundance—but the Lord is trustworthy and his love for me will never change, month after month, year after year, and on into eternity.

As the year slips by, are your roots going down deep into God too?

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We all know how powerful stories are. Many of us spend hours glued to TV screens as we watch plots unfold, mysteries solved, the ‘baddies’ brought to justice, the ‘goodies’ almost mess things up but then win through in the end. But there is nothing like hearing a real life story told from the heart. And when God is involved, there is even more power in those words we hear or read.

This past Sunday at our church, the usual sermon took the form of interviews with four different people. Three of these interviews had been filmed previously and interwoven at different points as the stories unfolded, while a fourth happened live in the service. All illustrated a journey through a very difficult situation in the lives of those involved and God’s eventual deliverance. One story involved business difficulties and financial loss; another, the struggle to conceive a child. A third dealt with loss of a partner’s faith in the context of ministry, while the fourth grappled with holding onto God in the midst of enormous physical pain and suffering. I had never been in any of these situations, but my heart was touched and my faith in God strengthened as I saw the pain of those who shared but also their faith in a loving God remain firm, even in the most desperate of situations when there seemed to be no miracles or easy answers.

Afterwards, our minister reminded us of Paul’s story in 2 Corinthians 1 about the hardships he and Timothy suffered as they journeyed through Asia:

We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor 1:8-9)

Paul shares his story honestly with us, here and elsewhere in Scripture, so that his words still encourage and inspire us today.

But Jesus himself clearly believed in the power of story too. Many times in the Gospels we see how he used parables to get his message across in simple, powerful ways. In the middle of Luke’s Gospel, for example, we have parable after parable recorded that Jesus told—the Good Samaritan (10), the rich fool (12), the great banquet (14), the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son (15), the shrewd manager (16), the persistent widow; the Pharisee and the tax collector (18), to name a few. Yes, Jesus’ culture was different from ours today, but the power of story does not change. Surely in endeavouring to share the good news about Jesus today, we would be foolish to ignore the power of story?

Which brings me to the second reason I was so encouraged by hearing these stories of difficulty and deliverance. I write stories. That’s what I do. Even the work of non-fiction I have just completed is a story of my own experience of a beautiful, spiritual mentoring relationship. So how encouraging it was to be reminded of the power of story to minister to others and to convict!

But what about you? Do you have a story to tell of God’s grace in your life? It may not seem earth-shattering to you, but God can use it, whether written or spoken. So keep looking for those opportunities to share it. And keep telling it truthfully and with love.

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‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ I asked my husband a few days ago.

‘Oh, the good news!’ he responded.

‘Well, I’ve edited fifty-six of my blogs,’ I sighed. ‘But the bad news is I have fifty-seven more to go!’

This all began quite a few weeks back. At that time I was thinking and praying about what my next writing project should be. I had completed my first non-fiction work and submitted it to a publisher. I knew I had the beginnings of three other novels on my computer—yet was it right to tackle one of these? Or should I try more non-fiction?

An author friend emailed me, strongly suggesting I should do something with the many blogs I have written. An older friend whose godly opinion I value so much urged me to do the same. Various other friends and family members to whom I mentioned the whole concept felt this was the way for me to go too. Then not long after, I read some encouraging words from Isaiah 61 that seemed to indicate that the idea had God’s blessing and that my efforts would prosper. Soon I was fully on board, ready to tackle this next challenge.

Since July 2009, I have disciplined myself to write a weekly blog that would say something about God and faith and often about writing as well, in an effort to reach out and encourage others and hopefully draw them a little closer to God. So now I had the task of wading through more than a hundred and fifty of these, deciding which would be suitable for inclusion in my proposed book. Some I immediately decided against using. They were too personal or too ‘for that moment only’ or … well, just plain not very good!

But then came the real slog. Then I had to begin to read the ones I had selected yet again, this time not only editing them but also grouping them into categories such as ‘Encouragement’, ‘Following God’s Call’, ‘Perseverance’ and other similar titles.

So now I have arrived at Number 57. Sometimes the going has been easy and delightful as I remember why I wrote this or that blog and rejoice again over some God-moment in my life. At other times, I move slowly, taking in again some deep lesson from God that I wrote about originally with a contrite heart and a spirit touched and comforted by God’s own Spirit. And I sit again in God’s presence, asking myself where I am now with that particular issue or difficulty.

Yes, it is a lot of work—and at times I wonder if I would have started at all, if I had know what I was letting myself in for. But then I realise perhaps the key thing this whole exercise has shown me yet again is the utter faithfulness of God in my life. Time after time, I read how God reached out to me, met me at my point of need, rejoiced with me, grieved with me, persevered with me, forgave me—and all of this in absolute love for me. And I remember God’s words to the Israelites so long ago:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” (Jer 31:3)

My blogs are indeed testimony of the truth of this in my own life—and I am humbled and oh so thankful.

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This past week, I received an email from an old friend in which she described beginning a new year as being like looking at a huge, blank canvas and not having a clue what kind of picture will emerge on it. Do you relate to that image as you look ahead to 2012?

I certainly do—as do many of my author friends in particular, I expect. We may have spent the past year writing our novels or works of non-fiction, but what will happen to them in 2012? Will they end up being published? Or will they still be sitting there in a year’s time—along with a pile of rejection letters? Perhaps we had a book published this past year, but will it continue to sell well? Are we even with the right publisher? And what speaking engagements and promotional opportunities lie ahead for us?

In the eight years I have been writing, if nothing else, I have learnt that no one year is the same as another. I have had five novels published in that time, some of which have sold more than others. And at the beginning of each year, I have tried my best to line up as many speaking engagements as possible. Some years I have been almost overwhelmed with speaking opportunities, whereas in other years, for no apparent reason, I have suffered a dearth of them.

So as I stand on the brink of yet another year of writing and speaking, what can I do? Well, I can hope my sixth novel will be accepted for publication. And I can also hope my very first work of non-fiction will be too. I hope both these things fill part of that blank canvas for me in the coming year—but I can’t bank on it. I hope too that many speaking engagements will be scattered along the way, but I can’t be sure of these yet either. Some people are to get back to me in the new year, while others have yet to respond to my emails. And of course, I plan to keep writing—perhaps another work of non-fiction or one of those other novels I have outlined on my computer. But I’m not sure any of them will ‘work’—I’ll simply have to begin writing and see.

All this uncertainty can be very off-putting. But this past week, I was reminded clearly from Isaiah 2 that there is only one way for us to travel such an uncertain road. In verse 5, God says to the children of Israel through Isaiah, but surely to us too:

Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Then in verse 22 at the end of that same chapter, I read the following:

Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?

My dear friend finished her email I mentioned above with the thought that God knows already what that finished picture on the blank canvas before us for 2012 will look like. I don’t know about you, but I find that hugely reassuring. How privileged we are to know we can trust the Lord and walk in his light rather than bank on mere human beings in the year ahead! God knows. God sees. And God will undertake for me and for you.

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