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End Goals: Dealing with Grief, Pain, and Other Uglies

Years ago, another writer composed a poem about the four seasons, and how grief is the other season. It will last as long or as short as is needed, and then it must end so the mourner can live. She had experienced great grief in her life, but the ones she expected to come alongside and help her through that time were anxious that she stop mourning, stop making them uncomfortable.

Around the same time, I battled depression, and the main advice from Christians was “pray,” and from others was “be happy” or “stop wallowing.” In essence, just get over it. People weren’t really interested in listening. That was inconvenient, boring, and uncomfortable. I just needed to paste on that smile so no one would feel guilty for not caring.

The depression lifted after I dug in to Scripture and stopped trying to escape the wilderness, but learned to walk beside God, trusting Him to know the way out.

After my parents’ marriage broke apart, the refrain became “forgive”. I was angry, hurt, shocked. Forgiveness was a bridge too soon. Besides, other people were pouring their own complaints and hurts and angers into my ears, and were too absorbed in their own pain to hear mine.

When forgiveness came, it was after much prayer, many filled pages in my journal, and after much honesty with myself and God.

So, what’s the point of this whiny list of troubles?

A traveler in Dallas needs to go to Paris — that’s his end goal — but there are many miles and an ocean in between where he is now and where he eventually must be. He might agree that, yes, he needs to take a particular route from Lisbon to Paris, but that part of the map is irrelevant at the moment. He’s not in Lisbon yet.

And there are other stops he must make first: from Dallas to Denver, from Denver to Memphis, from Memphis to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, and so on. Once he arrives in Lisbon, then he can make the final journey to Paris.

It’s that way with life. People may think we need to hurry up and arrive somewhere — arrive at forgiveness, arrive at physical fitness, arrive at a buoyant outlook — but those are end goals, destinations that often come only after long journeys.

Although God may provide instant answers, as He sometimes does, most often the noblest things come after hard work. In the journey is where we learn, where we hear His instruction, where we face truths and look in mirrors and come to new understandings.

Oh, what we would miss if God allowed us to nod our heads or wiggle our noses and “genii” our way out of our troubles.

People may dismiss our problems as not worthy of their time and attention, but don’t let pride or bitterness make us react in kind whenever we encounter someone else who, like us, needs more than a peppy motto or a “just pray about it” pat answer or a neat package of memorized Bible verses.

Just as the Word and the Spirit will heal, so too will love and listening, and honest words spoken in kindness.


Comments from an online discussion after this article was originally written and posted elsewhere (April 15, 2015):

Grief is a strange thing. and people handle it differently. Some need to share and some of us need to hide it. Who can say which way is right–I think it depends on the person. It is often impossible to share someone else’s burden when you are full of your own. (Nancy P.)

I don’t always speak what I feel or think — either it’s not the right time or the right listener, or maybe I don’t know yet what I’m thinking or feeling, so speaking about it may be of little use.

That’s why I keep journals. I can work things out on the page, and often God reveals the truth as I write. That’s one reason I write out my prayers, too: I sometimes, when I go back and read them after weeks or even years, I see and understand the words in a new light. Journaling is long-term effective therapy for grief, depression, mood disorders, and more.

Something I (wrote) in my prayer journal today:

There is a difference between showing someone compassion, and allowing that person to feed off of you like an emotional, mental, or spiritual vampire.

There are people in genuine need who simply want you to hear them, to stand beside them, to give them wise words but not to preach at them or scold or be superior. On the other hand, there are people who take advantage of kindness and the desire to help, and they drain you dry. They suck away your joy, your energy, your very substance, and they refuse to stand on their own feet, to seek God for themselves, to find joy where they may.

From such, turn away (2 Timothy 3:5, slightly out of context). There is a time to kill, and a time to heal (Ecclesiastes 3:3). In this case, “kill” means pulling out the weeds that can choke the vine of your life. (Elizabeth E.)


Recommended reading:
The Bait of Satan by John Bevere (1994)
Unoffendable by Brant Hansen (2015)

“More Like Guidelines”

“Phony Rules of Writing” is a brief,  useful article about commands we should disregard. I have told many a writer to jettison these very rules and to do what the story / sentence/ paragraph requires rather than mimicking what their junior high English teacher taught from the textbook.

One shudders to recall those stilted, bloated, “perfect” essays with the introductory sentence, three-to-five main points, and the closing restatement of the paragraphs above it. And that restatement better not be boring! Nosirree. It had to be creative, original, dazzling, all while repeating what the reader already read.

Ay-yi-yi.

When novelists try to apply that same structure to fiction, oy vey.

As the article states,

Whether we’re experienced writers or just beginners, we all follow certain rules. Not all rules of writing, however, are equally valid or useful.

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.


For the origin of this post’s title, click here to watch a clip from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Back in Business

A few months ago, on our Editing Service page, we posted this update:

(5-15-16):
We are temporarily suspending our editing services, due to editors being required elsewhere. When we return, we may add book formatting to our services.

Meantime, as you hunt for an editor, you might also be interested in this article: “How to Find the Right Editor For Your Book“:

Okay, here’s the sad fact: If your editor is not returning a manuscript covered in red ink/littered with Track Changes, you need a new editor. That’s our job. Our number one goal is to make your work look brilliant. We aren’t judging you, we aren’t trying to make you look bad, and we certainly aren’t saying your writing isn’t fabulous. We’re saying: “Hey, good manuscript—here are the things you can/should do to make it even better.” Because that’s what you’re paying us to do.

However, we are now open to receive manuscripts once more, and are even considering sailing out into deeper waters: the aforementioned book formatting, as well as writer coaching. These will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and therefore will not be added (yet) to our list of services offered.

Also, Elizabeth Easter has submitted her name and services for inclusion in the 2017 edition of The Christian Writers Market Guide.

We look forward to helping fellow authors pursue their literary endeavors.

 

 

 

 

Review: Laughing at the Moon

poetry anthology^front cover

A poetry book for a traveler! That was one of my first thoughts on reading my friend Elizabeth Easter’s poetry collection.

This slim volume challenges the reader to look into the poet’s skies-and asks the question of life’s wanderers: “What if I don’t want to be safe?” Should I take an uncharted route, a new daring direction in life?

Elizabeth writes of love, troubles, family, whimsy and travels. A prose poem begins the book, inviting the reader to sit with the author in a house she and her father restored and look out the window with her, searching for words to begin these tales with.

Some verses are short and poignant, like Companion. Others, like Sir Gallivant and the Dragon, tell a full, rich-detailed story.

Threads of emotion, courage and memory run along these pages like the blue lines on a map. Where they lead, only you can travel with the author.

Interested in reading this book and supporting Penworthy Press? Find the title here: Laughing at the Moon on Amazon.com.

 

 

Freeing Truth

On social media, a fellow writer and fellow Christian posted regarding the weird zone a pastor must walk between complete honesty and diplomatic reticence, lest his congregants be offended by truth and kick him out, and how the same weirdness exists in the Christian publishing industry: Can’t offend the readers, so let’s publish this not-quite-truthful fiction because it’s “clean” and it’ll keep us in business.

Below is a comment I almost posted in response:

The lack of complete honesty is one reason I stopped working for a Christian publisher: I quickly learned editors were expected to praise, not to correct. After all, praise was encouraging, but correction was negative and mean. It was okay to fix commas, but not to suggest deep revisions. It was okay to talk to a young writer about his/her first novel, but it wasn’t okay to tell them they need to do much more research about characters / history / health matters with folks who were experts in their fields.

I started holding back and doing the diplomatic thing. After all, maybe I was too intense. Maybe I was too demanding. And, after a time of introspection and second-guessing, I admitted there were a couple of instances when I coulda said something a bit more diplomatically, but I also admitted that I had never not told the truth.

“Encouragement” and “praise” aren’t synonymous.

Encouragement, as seen from the word’s construction, means “to put courage into” someone, and (according to Merriam-Webster Online) “to make (someone) more likely to do something” or “to tell or advise (someone) to do something.” (Sounds like editing, to me.) Praise means “to express approval” — and in today’s language that also means accepting without question or revision the thing or the person being praised.

An editor can praise a writer’s creativity without accepting that the manuscript is publish-ready. Praise for storytelling does not equal acceptance of clunky dialogue or run-on descriptive passages.

All writers need to be willing to receive feedback that isn’t blanket approval. Otherwise, they may never see weaknesses in their writing or their stories. They may never understand what works already or what needs improvement. They may never understand why their books aren’t selling.

In other words, unless they are willing to learn, they will never grow in their craft.

There’s another reason writers need completely honest feedback. If they only receive praise but  never encounter negative responses, they will never look at their own work critically and contend for it.

What does that mean?

If a writer must provide a reason for a line of dialogue, for a plot element, for a character, for a descriptive passage, he begins to think deeply about how the story fits together, about what’s necessary and what needs to be pruned. He begins to think like an editor.

That perspective, coupled with the fact that the author is the creator of the story, has great power in determining the quality of the final product.

Tell the truth. Receive the truth. The truth will set you free.

Faith in Dracula: a Horror Devotional

faith necklace butterfly
Photo courtesy of Bohemian for Life

What does Bram Stoker’s Dracula have to do with faith?

There’s plenty of gore in Dracula, but the novel reads oddly like a collection of love letters, ship’s logs, recipes using paprika and just plain crazy journal entries. Every time I delve into its pages I feel disappointed that the first scary scene doesn’t appear for several pages. Unless you count “the dead travel fast”. But that’s really not too scary when compared to Dracula crawling upside-down along the castle facade. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

On several readings of-I’ll be honest-this favorite book of mine, I discovered some things I hadn’t before.

Dracula is a book on faith.

Faith in the face of incredibly daunting odds! From the second Jonathan Harker begins to realize that he is facing a supernaturally powerful enemy who will invade even his marriage to get power over him–Dracula becomes a fight of faith versus fear.

What is a vampire? Something that in modern times they say we can love, and if we believe the fictional hype, even wish to be like.

But the vampire is certainly the symbol of many trials that can invade our lives and cling- and suck the life from us. Anything that draws our strength, threatens to absorb us and make us what it is, that thing can be the vampire. Attractive at first, we will soon see it turn on us.

Jonathan does his best to have faith. Mina has faith. But it is really the strange Van Helsing that helps them most of all.

He knows Dracula, and the evil that is there. Van Helsing has faith to believe not only in the monster, not dismissing its impossibility(seeing the problem)-but also in God who is stronger than the monster(seeing the answer). Van Helsing even refers to Dracula’s brain as a “child-brain”(evil is not as complicated as we think). He courageously steps in to help the horror-haunted couple and their friends.

“Thus are we ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him. He have allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more. Like them we shall travel towards the sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause.” Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula

And in the end, Dracula is defeated by a race into the sunrise, a race that faith wins.

Dracula’s Van Helsing urges our faith to take action against our problems. He won’t let Jonathan and his friends just leave the Count alone. No, the vampire must be stopped.

And he won’t be stopped by our thoughts alone. We must take action to get the problem out of our lives. Act on our inward beliefs.

“Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James 2:14, NKJV

 

 

 

 

Other Worlds: What One Reader Wants in Fantasy Novels

NOTE: In the post below, dated originally in September 2015, a Penworthy member writers about what he/she looks for when reading a fantasy tale. Although this was written last year, it has languished in the “drafts” folder so long that we don’t recall which of us wrote it. 🙂 Therefore, Elizabeth has edited it lightly and added paragraphing, and we hope you enjoy what you read.

A group I’m in has issued a prompt for readers to tell what they’re looking for in fantasy stories. The following three criteria are the main ones by which I judge all the stories I read, regardless of genre. (Readers be advised, this is a long post.)

3) Setting: there are two aspects to this. I care about not only how the setting is built, but also how it feels.

The time and place — the universe, if you will — in which the story is set is not required to obey the real-world laws of science, but it must remain consistent with itself. The rules by which the universe operates must be clearly laid out and then obeyed. Rule-bending and seeming contradictions must be rationally explained.

The world as a place should also give me a feeling that it’s many times bigger than whatever portions we see in the story, just as the real world is so much bigger than the portion any one person can see, visit, or otherwise experience in a single journey or lifetime. Even if the story is set in a place that’s completely “unrealistic”, I want it to feel real enough that I could plan a vacation there (or a detailed escape plan, as the case may be).

2) Storytelling: However the story is told — first, third, or even second-person, past or present tense, fantasy or sci-fi or mystery or any other genre — it must flow smoothly. As with above, there are two sides to this aspect: the mechanical construction and the semi-nebulous “story-feel”.

In regard to mechanics, choppiness and unusual constructions only work if properly and consciously manipulated. Prose is as much an art as poetry, and should be crafted as carefully. Stories should be written in a way that strikes the ear pleasantly when spoken aloud, since a reader hears the story recited in his own voice even if he does not read it aloud. The sound and cadence of a story don’t spring to the forefront of my attention on a casual read-through, but after I’ve finished reading, when I’m trying to analyze why I like or dislike a story, the flow of the words and the flow of the action almost always factor in. The sound of the words affects the image that forms in my mind. The right sound, the right flow, the right imagery: these things can cause the words on the page to fade away, so that what I see is not the words on the page, but the story itself playing out like a movie in my mind.

Concerning feel, the main thing is balance. Action and calm, lightness and seriousness: these should be woven together smoothly and in proper proportion to the type of story. Characters the readers are supposed to take an interest in should all be given enough page time to properly develop, and should all have equal (but distinct) roles in and influences on the outcomes of events. However neatly-constructed the setting, and however beautiful the prose (and however engaging the characters, see Reason 1 below), a story will not be worth a re-read unless it’s actually a good story.

I have no problem with tropes such as the coming-of-age journey, the dashing knight rescuing the fair maiden, or the Chosen One versus the Evil King; however, I’m also drawn to fresh and unusual concepts. But whatever the basic idea, the story must be told in an interesting way. Every scene has to matter, and every situation should be approached in a creative fashion. Even when using tropes, originality is a must, and subverting the expected is especially desirable.

1) Soul: The most important point on my informal mental checklist, the thing that draws me in to a story and keeps me reading, is the people. I want to see characters to whom I can relate. This is one of the most-repeated pieces of writing advice, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Strong characters are the heart and soul of a good story. I can’t love a protagonist unless I can get inside his head, understand what he wants and why, and sympathize with his struggles. Likewise, the villains I love to hate are those whom I understand. Show me what drives a person, and I’ll care about what happens to him.

All of the above is achieved only when an author gives his character a “soul”.  A character must be put together like a real person, with real needs and desires, and flaws that are believably balanced with his good traits. The best character development is accomplished when a person is revealed to the reader slowly: At first, we see just enough to make us interested in the person, but details and histories are revealed slowly, tentatively, much as a real person gradually opens up to a new friend.

When characters are realistic, I cannot help but care about their futures.

When I care, I want to know what happens in the whole story.

Then, even if I never read the book again, even if I forget the title and the author and the characters’ names, a good story will stick with me in the form of people — friends, of a sort — whom I remember for years after.

In summary, here’s a short version of my list, in order.
1) Characters matter the most.
2) Style matters a lot too.
3) World-building also matters.

On a side note, this is the first time I’ve ever put these ideas into words. Funny, how long it can take to put one’s thoughts into shareable form. 🙂