Monday, November 21, 2022

Why I Took a Writing Sabbatical and am Back at Work on My Novel Now -- by Rachel

If you’re lucky – and I am – you have a passion that is central to your identity. It frames who you are, whether it’s art or medicine, homemaking or leadership. For me, that passion is writing. I hardly know what I think or feel until I’ve found a way to express it in writing. 

But having a passion that is also a commercial venture can get confusing. About the time my novel The Language of Sparrows was published, the complications in my life spiraled. It involved a painful divorce (what divorce isn’t?), promotions at work that required longer hours, and my girls entering their teens, which – surprise! – is more complex than raising little ones.

When I first started writing, my girls were young and I had a fulltime job. I got up before dawn to write, and edited during my lunch hour. It was exhausting and exhilarating. I finished two novels, published the second, and began work on the third.

If John Grisham and Diana Gabaldon could get their start stealing time to write in the wee hours around jobs and families, so could I. I was the little engine who could, chugging up the writing tracks with confidence. Until I couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t be a single mother, manager and author. I was burnt out. As any writer knows, letting your imagination dream up a coherent novel-length story requires loads of listening time and mental energy day after day after day. With my crazy busy life I no longer had time or mental energy.

I was convinced I had to write that next novel though, because I was published now and needed to strike while the iron was hot. I kept trying, unsuccessfully, until at last I surrendered to the blank page and stopped writing altogether. What a painful time that was. You see, writing isn’t a hobby for me. It’s my heart and soul. Without words I was emotionally parched.

It took about a year for me to rediscover the kinds of writing that didn’t have anything to do with publication. It was journaling for myself and writing poetry and short articles to share with friends. That kind of writing helped me rediscover the long-forgotten happiness of stringing words together for the fun of it, of saying exactly what I meant and saying it well. Writing bliss!

I’ve read so much writing advice that insinuates that if you’re a real writer, you’ll write through thick and thin, no matter what. I am a real writer, but I absolutely believe the time off was necessary and good, as it may be for many real writers.

During what I now call my sabbatical years, I got out of the house more, spent time with my girls, had profound relationships, took a few vacations, thought through hard personal topics. I experimented with different kinds of writing. I lived and I loved and I grew. Gradually, I returned to my third novel, but I wrote in slow snatches as I could find the time and only as ideas came to me. After several years I’m a little over half way into my first draft.

Time has allowed my story to marinate. As a result, it has more plot layers, richer characters and deeper themes. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I think the time away from the story has paid off personally and creatively.

My girls are young women now, and a couple of months ago, I took early retirement. I’m back to writing my novel consistently. It’s my new unofficial job. It’s unpaid at least for now and comes with a demanding boss (ha!) 

I’m excited to be back at it though. I’m loving the pages piling up and the story taking shape. Also, it fills my heart to be working again with my favorite friend and critique partner, Christine Lindsay. As we write our novels, we’ll be sharing some of our tips on writing fiction and living well as a writers on If writing is your thing, I invite you to join us.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Why I Stopped a Successful Writing Career. And Why I Started Again: by Christine

Rachel and I at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta Canada 2022. Yes, the lake is that exact turquoise color.

I stopped writing about five years ago. Something I never thought would happen. 

I had just returned from a writers’ conference in Dallas. While my one-sheet for my then work-in-progress hadn’t cornered a new agent or big publisher, I was asked to send the completed manuscript when it was finished. But sometime shortly after that my successful writing career stalled. Its engine sputtered, clanged, rolled and bumped to the side of the road. Maybe a little smoke wafted off to a lifeless prairie. Can you hear the coyotes howl?


“Why?” You ask. “Why did you stop a successful writing career?”


Firstly, let’s define successful. My books had won a number of awards. No small amount of critical acclaim for which I was proud. Yes, proud. Pride does not insinuate that one has a big head, nor is it an emotion to be ashamed of. Pride is simply this: “A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements…”


I was happy, fulfilled, that my writing had produced six books of quality. I considered that success. And royalties you ask…


A tumbleweed rolls past.  


By the time you count the dollars I spent on marketing I probably broke even. My success with small publishing houses had garnered little monetary reward. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost gratitude to the small houses that published me, but it’s a tough business out there, and small houses don’t reach readers in the same way big houses do. 


Still, that didn’t bother me. Success to me has little to do with royalties. The issue was simply, BURN-OUT. My writing engine was toast, steaming slightly by the side of the road, and I had no desire to even turn the ignition key. 


You see, while I love, love, love the creative process of writing a full-length novel, I hate, hate, hate marketing. I cringed every time I promoted my books on social media. I hated the time spent on fruitless newsletters and writing guest blog posts. Other authors do so much better at marketing their own books than I do. I admire their stick-to-it-tive-ness. But in me, it's something that really goes against the grain. And I wanted to simply write and be a normal person. I needed a break. 


As time passed, the almost complete outline for my current book gathered dust. And I didn’t care. 

I was living, not trying to balance a part-time job, care for my elderly mother, and squeeze time in with my husband as he approached retirement, or play with my grandchildren.


Gosh, the freedom was exhilarating. 


But as I reached my own retirement something wonderful happened. Time! Luxurious time just for me. Would I take up an old hobby: water-color painting, perhaps? 

Or blow the dust off my half completed novel? 


That’s when my best friend and critique partner, Rachel, came for a visit. Rachel, too, had recently retired (early for her). For almost seven days we talked about writing. Cold embers stirred. Discarded coals glowed. Okay, that doesn’t quite match up with my engine metaphor, but for the first time in five years I wanted to slip the key into the ignition and turn it.


I’ve picked up my work-in-progress. The coyotes are gagged silent, and the birds in my backyard are singing the hallelujah chorus. I have no idea if an agent or publisher of a large house will take it up once it’s completed, but I don’t care. I’m writing. I’m loving every word that appears on my laptop screen. I'm writing this book for me.


I hope you’ll rejoin Rachel and I as we both focus on our current novels. In addition to that we are restarting our blog, Novel Renaissance to encourage you too along the way. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

5 Ways Settings Affect Character Arcs -- by Rachel

Yes, I know we've been offline for a long time. More than a year. But Pinterest has given me a longing to put some of our earlier posts into visual charts that are easy to digest and put to use in your writing. So we may be showing up from time to time with something like the graphic below. 

If you'd like more detail about the ways setting affects character arcs, take a look at our earlier post here: Settings that Change Characters & Characters Who Change Settings

Friday, December 2, 2016

Here's to the Gift of Writing -- by Rachel

There are days you totally get the prophet Jeremiah. He decides he’s not going to speak anymore, but the words burn like a fire shut up in his bones.
How often have you wished you were normal with no need to write? On those days where you’re trying to fit it all in: a full day of work, a kid’s basketball game, dinner and laundry, and somehow you’re supposed to find writing time too? There’s the agony of staring at a blank page and watching your book drop in Amazon rankings.
You’ve even decided to quit. Often. Finally, a friend tells you to get over it. “You’re a writer,” they say. “You know you’re not really going to quit writing. You always come back to it.” Of course you do, because you find the story is a hot coal in your hand until you begin writing it down.
So, if you can’t walk away from writing, isn’t it time to look at it from another perspective? “I suggest you learn to write not with blood and fear,” Jane Yolen says, “but with joy. It’s a personal choice.”
And there is joy, lots of it.
There is what drew you to writing in the first place: the thrill of a coherent story coming together scene by scene, characters who walk off the page, that zone, where reality falls away and you’re virtually swimming in your story world, and words become so sharp and real you’d swear you could taste them.
You were the one gifted with heightened senses and the words to go with them. So while your walking partner says, “Oh, isn’t this a pretty trail?” you see the arching trees washing the sunlight green with a cathedral’s light. You have words to describe the autumn breeze, clean and as crisp as chilled cider, and you can describe the sense that this place, this moment calls out to you like a forgotten dream.
You have the privilege of exploring and fleshing out new ideas until you get them exactly right (ideas, by the way, you almost certainly would never have come to unless you’d spent day in and day out with your fingers on the keyboard). 

And when you’re done, and the book is published, you receive emails saying things like, “I read your book and was so moved by it, I turned back to page one and read it again.” Wow, you think, did I actually create something that could do that?
You did, because you have the privilege of being a writer. Yes, the writing life presents some difficult challenges, but nature and hard work have developed a skill in you that is both beautiful and multilayered. A skill that makes you feel alive when you use it and when you share it with others. If you need to put publication aside for a time and write at your own leisure, by all means do. But don't sacrifice your craft.

Instead, when you’re having a thorny writing day or month, remind yourself how much better your life is because of writing. In fact, jot down a list of all the ways writing brings you joy or makes life better, and when you want to quit, take another look at it. Because writing is a gift. And to remember that is the way forward.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Spiritual Undercurrents, Unspoken Truths – by Christine

Some of my favorite artists, such as Vincent Van Gogh (Post Impressionist), captured their images without detail but with bold colors. I liken this to the subtle ways authors need to convey the spiritual undertones of a novel without overtly stating those truths.

The following are some of my favorite tools (with examples below).
  • Symbols
  • Metaphors
  • Subtext
  • Simile
  • Setting
SYMBOL: A thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
The sari used in the front cover of
Shadowed in Silk

In Shadowed in Silk, a silk sari covering a woman's face is the symbol. Firstly, the sari represents the way the Indian people despair in British rule; they feel invisible like second-class citizens (even in their own country).
In addition, my main character Abby must hide herself in the guise of an Indian women and dons a sari, covering her face with its veil. The covering of Abby’s face represents the subliminal direction that Abby feels invisible to those who should love her, including God. Towards the end of the book, when Abby unveils her face she shows without words that she now understands the biblical foundation of the entire book.
Abby’s story is reminiscent of Hagar in the Old Testament when Hagar cried out in the desert, “You are the God who sees me…I have now seen the One who sees me.”

METAPHOR: A figure of speech that refers, for rhetorical effect, to one thing by mentioning another thing. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities. Where a simile compares two items, a metaphor directly equates them, and does not use “like” or “as” as does a simile. One of the most commonly cited examples of a metaphor is the “All the world’s a stage.” From Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Captured by MoonlightIn my favorite scene, Eshana uses the following metaphor; I will sing your praises, Lord. Though You have dressed me in funeral clothes, I will sing your praises with joy.  
In this book, Eshana shows that dying to our own agenda is necessary to obey God and accomplish His bidding. I used this metaphor in one of my favorite scenes when Eshana is imprisoned by her fanatical Hindu uncle for living joyfully as a Christian instead of wearing the coarse white funereal sari of a Hindu widow.

In Hindu custom (not their Veda scriptures) there is a tradition where widows are to be treated as something dead, ugly, something to be ostracized. Eshana’s uncle has her pretty, joyful clothes torn from her body when he imprisons her behind bars in an unused part of his palace.   
Eshana prays above—without me preaching it—that most of the time the Lord will have us go through a little funeral of our own, dying to our dreams so that He can lead us into something greater of His choice for our lives.

SUBTEXT: The meaning beneath the dialogue; what the speaker really means, though not saying it directly. This kind of miscommunication can reveal deeper truths.

The spiritual theme of Sofi’sBridge is that we must shine through the work He puts in our hands. And it’s not always easy. Obstacles hit us at every side. Here is one of my favorite uses of subtexts.

In this scene Sofi has just had a confrontation with Charles, her deceased father’s business partner, who has been fraudulently stealing from the family business and worse. Sofi’s fragile, younger sister Trina encourages Sofi to keep on fighting for the work God created her for by saying the following:

Trina stood and slipped her arm through Sofi’s, watching Charles’s car drive out of sight. Her chin lifted, but her voice matched Sofi’s weariness. “Don’t let him scare you, Sofi. The enemy’s all talk. Just talk.”

Did you catch the subtext?

They are both staring out at Charles driving off. He is their enemy, but he is not their only enemy or their greatest. It’s subtle, but I hope the reader sees that in this scene the real and greatest enemy for everyone is Satan, who tries to convince us we are incapable of doing the work God gave us to do, as in I Peter when Satan is described as a roaring lion.

SIMILE : figure of speech that makes a direct comparison, showing similarities between two different things. Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws resemblance with the help of the words “like” or “as”.
In Veiled at Midnight I used this simile to show how Cam recognizes his spiritual condition. There is also a little bit of subtext in this simile.
"The truth hit him like an artillery barrage. His beloved ayah saw clear through to his soul. He was just like his wretch of a father."
And the subtext in the above quote: Cam is not just like his immediate father, but that his condition is that of all mankind.
SETTING: The description of the setting around a spiritual conversation can present an image full of suggestion.

Veiled atMidnight – Romans 8:38-39 is the foundation of this book. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing that happens in this world, even as our country is torn in two, even if we have an addiction that imprisons us—nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The following setting conveys this truth.

Deep in the glass the swirling amber turned to flames, and Cam felt himself falling…falling into the fire of his cremation, as if he saw his future. This was the way he would die in India, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Cam lifted the glass up to rest its rim against his lips, and let the sensation of falling take him to his grave if need be. A bird sang. A moth fluttered against the lampshade, and Cam cursed the distraction. Outside the open window in the darkened garden, a bird trilled again.

The setting helps us to see that no matter how much Cam feels he is losing his battle with alcoholism and his fear that it separates him from God, that God comes to him as gently as a moth fluttering against the window. God is calling him as sweetly as a bird outside. The fact that God is speaking to him is not overtly spoken but conveyed through the setting.

In each book that I have written so far, the spiritual themes create the foundation of the story. All else comes afterward as I plot, develop characters, etcetera. In every single scene I try to show the spiritual themes , the undercurrents, every chance I get in even my choice of colors in the sunset, or the touch of a hand.

My advice is to try to convey something delicate, something small in every chapter to keep this undercurrent streaming.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Six Keys to Writing Spritual Content -- by Christine

1. The Hook:
 spiritual story (no matter what your faith) needs a good hook to get things started. It will need an intriguing question and a clear goal before you even start to plot.

One of Rachel’s favorites is The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. The author introduces the reader to  Father Emilio, a man who narrowly misses sainthood. Lying in a hospital bed, this Christian man is sullen, uncommunicative and a suspect in a horrendous crime.

Starting off this fictional novel, the reader wonders how could this be happening to such a devout Christian? This is the hook for readers who are looking for a good spiritual read. We must know how this man came to this place, and will his faith eventually save him.

2. Set the Foundation for Spiritual Resolution:  It’s true, real life is stranger than fiction. Though miracles and sudden moments of conversion happen in real life, in fiction they feel somewhat contrived. These “miraculous moments” may actually hurt the people we hope to encourage in their faith. God doesn’t answer every prayer the way we want it. Many of us find our healing only after many, many years. 

While developing your novel, build solid, believable steps toward a spiritual conclusion that will satisfy all readers. Build that strong structure in your novel in every chapter. Your story must earn its ending. When the ending comes, then the reader will feel as if it couldn’t possible have worked out any other way.
I found this to be true in my own life, which is shown in my non-fiction memoir Finding Sarah Finding Me. I wrote with brutal honesty about my failure as a Christian after the reunion with my birth-daughter. By the end of the book, readers will see that I had to walk that dark road of despair so that God could actually work in my life and bring me the emotional and spiritual healing I needed.

3. Deeper themes: We read so much of the same themes over and over in Christian literature, the characters accepting the gospel of Jesus or asking, “Where is God when it hurts?” Good themes. But there are so many more spiritual themes to dig for.
Remember that your Christian novel will most likely be read by Christians. So, you’ll be preaching largely to the choir. Dig for those themes that speak to the struggles and goals the average Christian is working through. Here’s a few questions by Rachel:
  • What does it mean to live in the light of eternity?
  • How does prayer shape us?
  • How do you love your enemy?
  • What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily?
One of my favorite Christian themes was in my novel Capturedby Moonlight, where one of the main characters struggled with the fact that God seemed to be removing her from the position she thought was the very work He had called her to. It was a theme that I had worked through, when I had to ask myself if my calling to be a "Christian" Writer was really God’s will? Or was it simply my agenda? Was it perhaps the easier route? Or Was God asking me to simply be a writer of good stories?

4. Fairness and Truth: As a Christian, I’m committed to loving others as God loves them. This includes people from other religions. A theologian once said that we need to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions.

As an author I have taken great delight in this, especially in my trilogy Twilight of the British Raj. Let’s be fair. If we writers are going to look at the worst of--for eg--Islam, Buddhism, or atheism, we must also look at the worst of Christianity. We also need to look at the good in these other religions. In our novels, I think the worst thing we can do is take a soapbox attitude, shaking our fist in the air and shouting “Our Way is the Only Way, and Everybody Else is Wrong.”
The very people we hope to talk to about the love of Jesus Christ will never hear that message because our unloving “rhetoric” drowns it out. 

I did this in my trilogy. I loved showing the good and the bad in all faiths. I did this because I want my readers, Christian and Non-Christian to simply look at the beauty of Jesus Christ and his love, as the Savior I follow.

5. Show the Sacrifice: Both Rachel and I love the example of A Tale of Two Cities. Or think of the heartfelt sacrifices in the story of the Titanic. Sacrifice is the core of Christian life, so it must be in our Christian fiction. An act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind, or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will is the kind of sacrifice our stories need.

My favorite sacrifice in my novels is in Shadowed in Silk, where Indian Christian Miriam lays down her life to save others during the historical massacre of Indian people by a British officer. Or Geoff admitting he was a pious Christian with a slightly judgmental attitude toward Abby.

6. Beauty: We writers can take for granted that resolution is all our readers want. I love a good plot, but don’t forget to show beauty. Why does the reader want resolution in a novel? Because they have a deep-seated need to feel the beauty of God. An inner desire to see Him.
Author Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. Little moments like these show the beauty of God’s ways. These moments clarify the spiritual goal throughout your book.


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