What I learned: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

bird by birdI find what you’re about to read a bit of a paradox. Not for you necessarily, but for me as I wrote. These little posts are a way for me to comment on books positively by sharing what they taught me about the writing process. However, this book, Bird by Bird, was all about the writing process and to share too much would do a disservice to the author, Anne Lamott. What ever will I do?

I’m glad you were curious enough to keep reading. And I really love that even if only one person, you, read this far, the preceding line was totally appropriate. And the little “you” tucked into the last sentence. Moving on.

I appreciated this book a great deal. It was on my Christmas book list after it came up on a Google search of books on writing. I’d never heard of her before I saw the book, but I’ve since grabbed another of her works if that gives you any indication of the curiosity she stirred in me.

Non sequitur warning. As I wrote “google” in the previous paragraph the little red “Hey moron, who taught you to spell!?” line showed up underneath. I thought, When is WordPress gonna get with the program and add hip new words like “google” to their spellchecker’s database? Then I capitalized the “G.” Then I realized I am that moron. Then I remembered google was a word far before Google was a company. Then I went back to my original thought, but this time appreciated the oversight because it kept me from using the  mathematical term where I intended the website. To quote the great Marty McFly, “this is heavy.” And it was Marty and his friend Doc who introduced me to the whole idea of a paradox in the first place, which isn’t irony, but many would say that it is…

That paragraph was heavy with something.

That paragraph was heavy with something.

Sorry, what was I writing about?

Dora“Bird by Bird!” Said the annoyed blog reader, like a six-year-old watching Dora the Explorer.

Thanks. I’m having a stream of consciousness morning, but I’m back on task now.

I’ll mention only three things from this book, but it was full of loads of practical advice offered in a sarcastic, self-deprecating, sometimes others-deprecating way.

1)  Commit to a routine. I gleaned this from a story in the book that really wasn’t intended as a tip. She was remembering the daily routine of her writing father and I’ve embraced it as my own. As a father of five kiddos under the age of nine and someone holding down a full-time job to pay the bills, I had to find dedicated time to write when I wasn’t needed elsewhere. Since January, 6:00 – 7:30 AM has been that time, and it’s been a wonderfully productive experiment.

2) Don’t worry about perfection, just write! This admonition is a merging of two different chapters. In the first, Lamott offers the plain but necessary advice to just write the first draft without worrying about elegance, perfect punctuation, an editor, or anyone else. It’s a first draft, a receptacle for the ideas spilling out of your head, a place to be creative and free from inhibition. No one’s going to read it but you, so just write. I completely embrace the idea and it was encouraging to read it from a more accomplished writer.

The second deals with the bully Perfectionism. She’ll (Perfectionism, not Lamott) taunt you while you write and haunt you once you’ve finished. Cackling and pointing, she flies around in your head contrasting you with other writers, reminding you of your past failures, and casting doubt over your dreams. After reading the chapter I was inspired to throw water on that witch (Again, Perfectionism, not Lamott)! You don’t need her. She’s no good for you. Do the best you can and move on.  I needed that advice.

3) Bird by bird. The title intrigued me from the time I saw it. So much so that I didn’t read the back cover before digging in to the book. I savored the story of her brother’s procrastination induced stress over his science project on birds and her father’s sage advice, “just take it bird by bird.” The idea’s a simple one, just focus on a singular idea, or concept, or location, or character, or whatever and write about it. Describe the sun. Write about Joe’s annoying habit of playing with his ear lobe. Does the car have a rattle? Tell us about it. Just write, and let the story begin to flow from the work.

Flipping through the book, I saw dozens and dozens of sentences and paragraphs underlined in read, chapter titles that brought back great thoughts I’ll use as I continue to learn this craft, and practical concepts to keep me humble and focused on the job at hand. She can be quite crass, and her language is seaworthy at times, but I whole heartily recommend Bird by Bird if you are looking for a helpful, encouraging book on writing and the writer.

Keep Discovering Writing.

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First Publishing Credits

Wizarding_World_of_Harry_Potter_CastleAs a writer, is there anything better than writing about something important to you and getting paid to do it? Many of us write for the simple joy that is being a wordsmith, but there’s also plenty of us that would love to see our writing become a means of provision. And who would complain about one of our characters getting their own land in a major theme park? None of that is happening for me yet, but I did get a third article published and thought I would share how it happened in hopes of encouraging you to do the same.

slideshow_1002031157_chickfila_0101_CC12I don’t have the art of freelancing down and I am intimidated by the thought of preparing concepts and sending them off to unsuspecting publishers so I started in the land of Familiar for my first couple publishing credits and we will see where it takes me.  Writing as a former Florida State football player, my first professionally published piece was in Unconquered Magazine, a monthly periodical of Seminole Boosters.

2 roadsThe second work I had published was a little poem that ran in a monthly magazine published for families in Florida who are touched by Special Needs. It was another effort without compensation, but it was also another publishing credit and I had the privilege of seeing something I wrote out for the public to read.

cover-august-12-issueOn my next try I expanded the niche just a little to a magazine published for homeschooling families, but still wrote about something near and dear to me in an article called “Nobody’s Normal.” This is the same magazine that published my third article, “Hospitality That Proclaims the Gospel,” and both of them produced some grocery money!

I earned $40 for each of the articles The Old Schoolhouse printed. Nothing that would allow me to retire in the mountains, but not pro bono either.

The process was relatively simple. I found a magazine that depends on contributors for their material and I inquired. They produced a projection of topics for their next six months of magazines and I submitted three ideas I thought they might like. They picked two of them. Having them provided what they were looking for was great for me, because, like I said, I’m a bit intimidated by the unsolicited approach.

I’m glad there are magazines like these out there where writers like you and me can get some experience before the New Yorker comes calling.

I’d love to hear about your first publishing credits or your efforts to get your first one in the books.

Keep Discovering Writing!

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How Do You Name Your Book?

gratefulComing up with the right name for your book is huge. It has to capture the heart of your story, be attractive to the eye, and also get noticed by search engines. When I wrote Grateful, I wasn’t concerned with SEO, but I did wonder if the title wouldn’t reach my audience, they being fans of college football. I settled on the title because gratitude was the primary theme of the memoir, and my friend, who happens to be a social media guru and a college football fan, liked it. There you go.

While reading The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, I was struck by this passage about how the general editor, John Piper, came up with the title.

I worked on the title — The Power of Words and the Wonder of God — the same way I work on a poem. I want it to be pleasing and memorable.

* First, there is an intentional cadence or meter I find pleasing: (“The POWer of WORDS and the WONder of GOD”).

*Second, there is consonance or alliteration between the W’s in “Words” and “Wonder.” Compare “The Power of Language and the Wonder of God” or “The Power of Words and the Majesty of God.” Both cadence and alliteration are lost.

*Third, there is assonance. Six of the nine words are dominated by the sound of the letter O: “Power,” “of,” “Words,” “Wonder,” “of,” “God.” Compare: “The Strength of Language and the Marvel of Deity.”

*Finally, I think the juxtaposition of “Words” and “Wonder” and “God” is unusual, provocative, and attractive.

All of that, I think, helps people remember the title, not because it is displeasing — the way 9/11 is remembered because it hurt — but because it is aesthetically satisfying.

He put far more thought into his title than I did for mine, although I was mindful of alliteration in the subtitle: from Walking on to Winning it all at Florida State. The “at Florida State” was important to nail my bull’s-eye audience.

So how about you, how do you come up with titles? Have you come across any particularly well crafted ones? Do you know of any good book naming ideas?

Keep Discovering Writing.

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New Year, New Routine, New Reads

It’s 6:00… AM. My phone alarm went off at 5:30 (The alarm tone is currently set as a clip from the end of “The White Rider” off the Two Towers score. Epic). I don’t know about you, but 5:30 is not my favorite time to wake up. Having five small children in the house keeps me from ever sleeping it, but 5:30 still feels like yesterday. So why am I up before roosters and paper boys? Because I’m sick of not writing.

Simple Life_hrI finished Operation Turn The Page(s) with time to spare, which allowed me the freedom to dive in to the books I’m reading now: Simple Life by Thom & Art Rainer and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Simple Life opens with a challenging yet encouraging chapter on priorities which got me reflecting on how I spend my time. Then, in the introduction to Bird by Bird, Lamott references her father’s uncompromising routine, “Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning.” I have to be at my non-writing office at 8:45 most mornings, when I get home it’s prime daddy time, and after the kids go down at 8:00ish, there are chores to do and often my wife and I will watch a Redbox. Mr. Lamott’s schedule sounded pretty appealing to me, so I’m giving it a shot. The White Rider beckons at 5:30, I shower and all that stuff, aim to be writing by 6:00, wrapped at 7:30, and giving my family time until I leave for work. So far it has been a good fit. I’ve knocked out another chapter’s first draft on my current project, eliminated the oppressive feeling of getting further behind, and that allows me to focus on my family when it’s time to focus on my family. Also epic.

When I was playing college football, part of our off-season conditioning included a horrible activity called “Mat Drills.” They were the product of a legendary football coach who also happened to be a military buff, which is why, I think, they were so often compared to Boot Camp (If you’re curious, here’s a video of the University of Georgia football team doing Mat Drills; their coach was my coach at FSU). Anyway, they happened at 5:50 AM in February. Well, a new coach’s reign began a few years ago and he moved these drills to the mid-afternoon, and it’s his reasoning that’s applicable here. He said it was better for your body to go through the grind at roughly the same time it would have to compete at a high level, something to do with muscle memory and psychology. It makes sense, I guess. On page six of Bird by Bird, Lamott writes, “You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.” Hmmmm, maybe they are on to something. I’ll let you know if I start feeling particularly creative around 6:00 every day.

Monday through Friday I work on my big writing projects, like Grateful or my current book. Saturday morning is reserved for updating the blogs. (Just to show how new I am to this schedule, I sat down for my Saturday morning blogging and when I finished I realized it was Friday.) And Sunday, to honor the Sabbath, I write devotionally to and about God. I’ve not done that yet, so I don’t know what it will look like exactly, but I’m excited about the concept.

Do you have a routine? Are you like me, juggling work and family and still trying to find time to write and read? Can you offer an encouragement?

Keep Discovering Writing!

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Books on the old Christmas list

Operation Turn the Page(s) is moving along nicely, 2 books finished and good progress in the next two. One of the main reasons I wanted to knock them out was all the books I’m hoping to get for Christmas. I thought I’d share the ones on my list and see what titles you’re looking forward to this year. In no particular order…

Books on writing or the creative process

Read any of these? Any of them on your list? Have any recommendations?

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Operation “Turn The Page(s)”

I know it’s cliché, but it’s time for my December 10th Resolution. I have a habit of reading multiple books at the same time. Not literally of course, that would be confusing. But I’ll have a few spines cracked and bounce around between them as I go. Well, I’ve let a few fall through the cracks and I’m sick of seeing them lying around half consumed. So today I vow to get them all finished before the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2012. I’ve tracked down four, but I think there are five left to finish. My strategy is to start with the book that I’m closest to finishing, and progress leaving the most reading for last. I’m hoping to build some momentum that way. Here’s the list in order.

  1. “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief” by Francis S. Collins. (Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project) 75 pages were remaining when I began Operation Turn The Page(s).*
  2. power of words“The Power of Words and the Wonder of God” John Piper and Justin Taylor, General Editors – 33 Pages Remaining (You can get this as a free .PDF here.)
  3. Safe in the Arms of God: Truth From Heaven About the Death of a Child” by John MacArthur – 148 pages remaining
  4. In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson – 148 pages remaining.
  5. ????

So there it is, 404 pages to read in 21 days. It really shouldn’t be a problem, but with Christmas letters to write, cookies to bake, gifts to buy, traveling to be made, family time to be spent, work to be done, etc, etc, etc, we’ll see how it goes.

  1. Do you read one book at a time, or do you bounce around like me?
  2. Do you have a book, or books, to finish before the New Year?

* As of this post I’d already finished The Language of God. It was on top of the stack, so I finished it before implementing my plan.

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A birthday story excerpt from “Grateful”

Grateful: From Walking on to Winning it All at Florida State came out in 2010. One of reader’s favorite stories involved my freshman year, my mother, and a birthday cake. Today being the anniversary of that special moment, I thought I’d share the chapter with you here. I hope you enjoy, and if you do you can get your own copy of Grateful.

I had dressed out for the four home games up to this point but hadn’t traveled to any of the road games. Coach Cottrell had promised me that he would try to let me dress for one of the road games and he proved to be a man of his word. “Ryan, I’ve got good news. Since you are from Georgia, I am going to let you dress out for our game up at Georgia Tech.” It wasn’t customary for redshirts, much less redshirt walk-ons to travel with the team so this was an incredible treat. We were set to play the Jackets on November 2nd and my birthday being November 3rd it was about as good a birthday gift as I could have received; little did I know that my turning 19 would lead to near humiliation.

I had a lot of work to do. There are eight people in my family and thankfully I also had a lot of friends interested in following me too. Not to mention we were ranked number 3 in the country at the time and people just wanted to see a great football team in action. Needless to say I had to round up a bunch of tickets. The way it worked was that scholarship players received four tickets and non-scholarship guys received two. Depending on where the game was being played the guys would shift from having extra tickets to needing extra tickets. The guys in South Florida would trade their away tickets in North Carolina for tickets to the game down in Miami and vice versa. So, that Thursday I was begging and pleading with guys to get as many tickets as I could because I didn’t have any tickets to trade. Thankfully, since we had already played UM, and with the help of my defensive lineman friends I was able to get what I needed.

On Friday the team met at the stadium to catch our bus and ride to the Tallahassee airport. The support staff, the coaches’ families, and a handful of Seminole supporters would join us on our charter flights to the game locations, this week being Atlanta, GA. After only about one hour in the air the plane touched down at Hartsfield International Airport. Four or five charter busses were there waiting on the tarmac with a full police escort to take the team to the hotel.

The escort was sweet! Coach Bowden would be in a police cruiser leading the way while about six officers on motorcycles would flank the caravan as it headed into town. As the buses neared intersections, two of the motorcycle cops would speed ahead and block the intersection so that they didn’t even have to slow down. Sometimes they would block entire roads so that the convoy could travel the wrong way down one way streets. This was always one of my favorite parts of the road trips.

Late Friday afternoon the team pulled up to the Marriot Marquis in downtown Atlanta and everyone received their room keys and went to drop off their bags. But that isn’t how it went for me on this trip. About the time the team was checking into the hotel, I was a couple hundred miles south in Tifton, GA riding in the back seat of a little sports car on my way to Atlanta.

Coach Cottrell had arranged things for me to be able to dress out but, I wasn’t able to travel with the team. I had to provide my own transportation, meals, and lodging. It was very similar to my recruitment and coming to FSU on an “unofficial visit.” We can just call this an “unofficial road trip.” I called on one of my friends from high school to crash in their Georgia Tech dorm while I was in Atlanta. That Friday evening I spent time with my family, reconnected with old friends from Augusta, and got a tour of the Tech campus from my high school friend, Cliff. Friday felt like any other weekend trip to Atlanta to visit friends but Saturday was bizarre.

Were I on an official road trip I would have had a wake-up call in my hotel room and after rolling out of my plush bed I would have joined the team for a bountiful breakfast. Instead, I woke up with a sore back from a night on the couch and a classic, college dorm room breakfast of milk and cereal. We were scheduled for a night kick-off so I was on my own for meals all day. I met my parents and long time friend Kelly Points for a birthday lunch; her and I were both born in Charlotte, NC on November 3rd. We killed time around Atlanta until it was time for the team to gather for the pre-game meal. Our plan was to be at the hotel when the busses left so that we could join the caravan and make sure I was able to get into the stadium with the team. My mom had bigger plans though.

We arrived while the team was already in the room eating and I went ahead to check in with Coach Cottrell. While I was in with the team, in a very professional environment where I already felt like an imposter my mother was doing what only another mother could understand. Coach had answered all my questions so I headed towards the door to find my parents. As I left the land of “cool and focused” I entered into the land of “you have got to be kidding me!” My mom was partially hidden but I could see her face as she stood in the lobby of the hotel beaming as proudly as a toddler with a brand new puppy. She was hidden by the object of humiliation that she held in her joyful hands… a Texas sized birthday cake for me. Her intentions were to bring this labor of love into the pregame meal to share with the team and have them sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I shuddered in horror as I stared into her hopeful eyes and then considered the eternal shame inevitable associated with having my mom stage a surprise birthday party on a freshman year road trip. The lump in my throat was the only thing that kept the shock induced vomit from escaping as my face turned whiter than the icing on the cake. In the seconds that I had to think; I said what any mortified teenager would say… “Throw it away, now!”

Oh, my mom tried desperately to reason with me but every passing second brought another look over my shoulder to the dining room door. Were one of the player to walk out it would all be in vain. I would have crushed my mother’s feelings and had my future dreams of being cool crushed at the same time. Something had to happen and it had to happen fast. The decision was an easy one for me as I sacrificed my mother’s love and devotion on the altar of fitting in and insisted that she and the cake disappear. It must have felt like a love struck suitor being rejected while on a knee with a ring in his hand to her, complete rejection. She nobly acquiesced to my immature demands and the cake found its resting place in a hotel trash can, whew! The ride over to Bobby Dodd stadium was icy but we finally arrived and I was able to step back into the world of “cool and focused.”

Getting into the game for me resembled the experience a fan has going to a game much more so than that of the team. Had I brought my own car I would have been forced to find and pay for parking, but it was more like being in middle school and going to the movies because my mom and dad drove and dropped me off. So, as the team was smoothly stepping off the bus in the travel uniform I was awkwardly sneaking around in street clothes hoping for Coach Cottrell to notice me before security did. I had to look like a crazy stalker, desperate for an autograph or something as I lurked in the shadows like Gollum. Coach spotted me and waved me over as he began explaining to the security guards what was going on. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

“Coach, if he isn’t with the team party he cannot come in this gate; he will have to get a ticket like everyone else.”

Coach Cottrell sympathetically replies, “Listen, he doesn’t know that we know but, we all saw that his mom brought a birthday cake to the team meal and if he gets embarrassed again I don’t know what he’ll do.”

“She did what!?” exclaimed the guard.

“Shhhhh! Keep your voice down. Just play it cool and let the poor kid in, he won’t affect the game whatsoever, I can guarantee that much.” Coach Cottrell pitched in full recruiter mode.

“Man, she really tried to bring a cake into the team meal? Mothers… God bless ‘em. I’ll let the kid in, but just this once… tell him I said to keep his head up, I’m sure she meant well.” With that the guard stepped aside, Coach Cottrell waved me in with his trademark grin, and I, blissfully ignorant, strode through the gate and into the visitor’s locker room.

I had dressed out for the home games that season so I knew what to expect, but I still had a sick feeling when I pulled out my jersey and saw that there wasn’t a name on the back. There was a better chance of one of the Yellow Jacket cheerleaders getting into the game and taking a snap for us than there was for me to play; so it made perfect sense that my name wouldn’t be on the back of my jersey. But, for a teenager who was excited to be on the field in front of a bunch of his friends and family, “perfect sense” was perfectly depressing. Once I pulled my jersey over my shoulder pads and had them on I forgot about the name issue, but It didn’t take long for the Georgia Tech student body to remind me.

Traditionally we go out onto the field to warm up in waves. The skill guys go out, followed by the bigger skill guys (full backs, tight ends, etc), and finally the rest of the team goes out. Upon the arrival of the last group we will come together for our stretches. Being on the 14th string placed me in the very last row of the stretching lines which was in the back of the end zone, right in front of the students. The last row also left me a full 55 yards from Coach Van as he was calling out our stretching routine. I was mortified of humiliating myself during the stretches because it was very hard to hear his whistle from where I was, particularly when we would do our back stretch. The Seminole method in ’96 was to lie on our backs with our feet pointed towards midfield and on the whistle we would roll our legs up over our heads and work to get our toes to touch the ground behind us. It is a very unflattering position but tolerable because there are 100, twenty-four carat behinds sticking in the air and not just your own. We would release from that position when Coach Van would blow his whistle again, but when we were in that yoga inspired contortion it was very hard to hear him. My strategy was to release early because it was better to be the only guy sitting than the alternative, my plan backfired though.

My premature uncurling caught the attention of the student section who unfortunately noticed that I didn’t have a name on the back of my jersey. They offered a few generic comments but it wasn’t too bad until we broke out for our position warm-ups. As the forgotten members of the ‘Nole offense, the tight ends were relegated to about a ten yard stretch of end zone right between the running backs and the offensive line. Of course, this left us right in the heart of the student section for about 15 minutes… plenty of time for the “little engineers that could” to get creative.

I was accused of sneaking onto the field, of winning a contest, and being a coach’s son as the reason I was the only one on the field without a name on my jersey. They questioned my ability with unrelenting passion so it became game time for me. The tears I shed as a middle school football player being booed by my classmates prepared me well to withstand the jeers of a few uber-enthusiastic college kids. No matter how creative or crass they became nothing they said could rival that middle school nightmare. I decided that I was going to be the best warmer-upper on the field and prove myself to those shirtless number-crunchers. If a pass was in the air I was catching it and when I lined up to block I was going to drive my unsuspecting team mate off the field. The first time I tried to hit Kamari Charlton he stiffened and very quickly put the fear of upper classmen into my head to overwhelm my desire to impress. I toed the company line for the rest of the blocking warm-ups and let the Tech fans have their fun. Melvin Pearsall heard what was happening and with a heart of gold took me under his wing like an older brother would a younger brother. He turned and said to me, “So, did you have to sneak into the stadium?” and smacked me on the helmet… just like a big brother.

Once we were done with our warm-ups, I was freed from the ridicule of the students and it was quickly my turn to gloat. Granted, I had about as much to do with the outcome of the game as they did but I was the one on the field while they were stuck in the stands looking at a 49-3 win for the Seminoles. Name on my jersey or not, I had the last laugh as we jogged off the field victorious. They may not have respected the back of my jersey, but after that game they sure respected the name on the front. They were gracious enough to call me out and try to make amends and I was gracious enough to tell them where they could find some cake.

After the blow out win in Atlanta we had four games remaining on the 1996 schedule. A resounding win the following week against Wake Forest secured the ACC championship for us and the next two weeks followed a similar script to the previous two. Southern Mississippi and Maryland offered little resistance as Warrick Dunn, who finished 5th in the Heisman vote that year, led us as we dominated those two games by an average score of 51 – 12. There was one game left in 1996 and it would be historic.

If you would like to read more about my career at FSU playing for Bobby Bowden and winning the 1999 National Championship, get your own copy of Grateful. I’d consider it a great birthday present!

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A thought provoking book on Words and their Creator

I spent the last five days in Nashville, TN for a conference and while there found a book I couldn’t ignore. It was in a bargain basket, the only one of its kind, and I felt it was left there for me. Called “The Power of Words and the Wonder of God” I bought it and began reading it as soon as I could. I’m only two chapters in but wanted to share it with you. Perhaps it will inspire you as a fellow wordsmith and we can talk through some of the ideas.

Keep Discovering Writing.

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Spellchecker vs. Proofreading

I’ve been a lazy writer. Too often I let spellchecker serve as my proofreader and subsequently publish some foolish errors. I’m sure the seasoned writers will find this revelation a bit elementary, but I needed to learn it so I figure others might as well. Here are the errors that highlighted my haste. They appeared in What I Learned, Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin.

It’s a story that’s gripping, but more importantly it’s a story that matters, and I want my writing be similar.

Spellchecker cannot find what doesn’t exist. Stinkin’ “to!”

The story is set in Georgia. I’m from the Peach State and might place a story their one day.

You may not believe me, but I know the difference between there, their, and they’re. It’s a mistake of hurry, not an evidence of ignorance, and this is why I have to stop depending on spellchecker to be my proofreader.

The spellchecker is not equal to a good proofreading.

Thankfully, I applied what I learned as I processed my latest post, What I learned: Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, and avoided this careless error.

Is there a place where there’s a little too much of your character’s experiences invading your mine?

The published post correctly had the word spelled, m-i-n-D. Good thing I let being more careful invade my mind.

As an aside, am I the only one who has the following habit of hurry? When writing I will write the final letter of a preceding word as the first letter in the one that follows. In fact, I did it while writing the previous sentence. It first read, “… letter in the one tha tfollows.” How weird is that? Am I the only one? Maybe it could be m ytrademark?”

Keep Discovering Writing.

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What I learned: Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

This is one of those books that kept coming up. Seemingly every person, and by person I mean woman, I know read and adores this book. I can’t remember how many ladies encouraged me to read this novel to better understand women, love, and even my relationship with God. Strong motivations. My wife finally tackled it and almost begged me to read it, but still I found other pages to turn. Since then, I began working at a Crisis Pregnancy Center and I regularly have the opportunity to meet women who have been battered, abused, and raped. (I write a blog on our website if you’re interested in checking it out.) A few of the ladies on staff have those words in their story and they’ve been courageously educating me on all I didn’t know. One of those conversations ended with the recommendation to read Redeeming Love and I finally relented. (I had just finished Chasing Fireflies so it timed up perfectly. Read What I learned.)

I’ve read two other novels from Rivers – The Atonement Child and The Shofar Blew – and I’ve enjoyed them both. The Atonement Child would be on my must read list, if I had one. She’s all about the third-person omniscient narrator which I find fun to read but intimidating to write. I struggle simply placing the elements of a story in the correct order much less providing motivations and reflections from every character. An author really has to understand his characters to write in that point of view.

This is another novel that inspires me as an author because it tactfully but directly deals with important issues. There are quite a few women who connect with this one because Rivers uses her characters to reveal the thought life of a woman who has been sexually abused. Those who have been there seem to appreciate her candor, sensitivity, and accuracy. So much so they recommend guys like me to read it and better understand. I say, “Well Done Mrs. Rivers!”

But what did I learn? I learned we can let fictitious characters reveal the hearts and minds of real people, and in doing so give the silenced a voice. Oh to be that talented.  A literary issue does come up in this story though – the inclusion of sexually descriptive scenes. There’s nothing graphic in the novel at all, but she describes moments and settings in such a way that you know what’s happening. More specifically, she lets the reader into Angel’s mind as she considers Michael and vice-versa. It made me squirm just a bit. At the same time I came across a blog post written by Charles Martin about his latest book, Thunder and Rain. It’s titled “Sexual Innuendos,” Reader Mail, and the Power of Words. Apparently there are some descriptive scenes in his book that took some readers aback. The focus of this particular debate seems to be on the reader and their convictions, but I’m considering it from a different perspective. If an author is truly getting inside his character’s heart and mind, and they are investing the creative, imaginative effort to create a multi-sensory scene, would it not require the author to direct his thought life to unhealthy places? As a married man, I think it unwise to imagine one of my characters in a sexual encounter. It would require me to create something that is reserved only for my bride and that’s not a picture I’m willing to paint. At the same time, I thought Martin’s motivation was sound and we’ve, my wife and I, sincerely appreciated the way he has written about similar issues in other books, particularly the magazine scene from When Crickets Cry.

What do you think? Is there a place where there’s a little too much of your character’s experiences invading your mind? Can an affair be vicarious? How would you feel if your beloved wrote a scene about his characters that was “descriptive?” I’m curious to learn your thoughts.

Keep Discovering Writing.

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