Writing Prompt – February 2019

A regular feature of this blog is going to be a writing prompt. On the fourth Friday of each month, I’ll post whatever I came up with as a result of the previous month’s prompt. I’ll also supply a new writing prompt for the upcoming month. I encourage you to write your own piece and either post it in the comments, or, if you have your own blog (even better), post a link.

Terrible first drafts are welcome. So are unfinished pieces. It’s also OK if you end up not quite following the prompt and going in a different direction, instead. This is not a literary contest or journal, and the purpose of this exercise is to get you (and me) writing.

I’m going to pretend there was a writing prompt last month. I found this one on WritingPrompts.com and ran with it.

“Your character is going on a trip to ———– . What is s/he packing?”

The following short story was inspired by the prompt above. It is a rough draft, and it’s unfinished.

 

Packing

by Karen Goltz

Tina grabbed the largest suitcase in the closet, but she would still need to be careful how she packed. One suitcase wasn’t much, no matter how big it was.

She wanted to rip the clothes off their hangers and just shove them in her luggage, but she couldn’t do that. Not only was there a space constraint, he was watching her. Tina ignored her headache and forced her expression into one of disinterested neutrality as she tried to figure out what to bring and what to leave.

The closet was a walk-in, though a smallish one. Tina faced the side that contained her wardrobe, her shirts to the left and her pants, skirts, and dresses to the right. Steve’s clothes hung behind her, mocking her in their neat array. How many of her husband’s shirts had Tina hung up over the years? How many pairs of pants, taking care to hang them the way he’d shown her, so that the creases lined up? She grabbed a pair of her own pants, hung the way she preferred—folded in half longways so the butt-cheeks were stacked on top of each other, then threaded onto the hanger. Simple, quick, and done, not like the multi-step process Steve insisted upon. None of her pants needed the creases preserved, and honestly, you couldn’t see the creases in Steve’s pants when he wore them, either.

Tina grabbed the next pair in line, then the next, then paused. Capris. It was January, much too cold for capris. Would she be back by the time the weather had warmed enough to wear them? Would she ever be back?

She turned away from the offending pants and stomped over to the bed. Her suitcase lay open, its cavernous interior defining her near-future life in cubic inches. Tina lined the bottom of it with the two pairs of pants.

“You want to put your shoes in first,” Steve offered. “So the soles don’t get your clothes dirty.”

“Don’t tell me what I want to do.” Tina’s voice was low and controlled, and she refused to look at her husband. The fact that he was right only made her discomfort worse. She knew how to pack a suitcase. This whole situation had her so discombobulated that she couldn’t think straight. She was beginning to feel a bit queasy, as well. Tina left the pants where they were and went back to the closet.

She shoved the capris aside and plucked a few pairs of dressier pants than she usually wore from their hangers. Then a couple of comfortable long skirts and her suit. The dresses were all for summer, so she left those.

A few more trips between the closet and the bed, and Tina’s side of the closet was still lined with clothing. Some of it was summer-wear, but most of it didn’t fit her anymore. She hadn’t realized how many of her clothes she’d outgrown.

Outgrown? Who was she kidding? Thirty-seven-year-old women didn’t outgrow their clothes. They got fat.

“The shoes?” Steve prompted. Tina ignored him as she ignored the heat that had risen to her cheeks. Her suitcase contained less than a week’s worth of clothes. Where were the rest of them?

Right.

She began picking through the hamper, dropping Steve’s clothes on the floor and shaking out and folding her own. Those she added to the suitcase. Steve’s remained on the floor.

The suitcase was filling up, and the anger that had been energizing her began to wane. Once her suitcase was full, then what? Tina’s head pounded and her stomach churned. She needed ibuprophen. Or—something.

The tiny master bathroom was next anyway, so she swallowed four ibuprophen dry before tossing the whole bottle into her suitcase. She tried to avoid looking at her reflection in the mirror before opening the medicine cabinet, but she caught a glimpse of flat, greasy hair, pallid skin, and glassy eyes. Her stomach roiled.

Tina took the bottles she wanted and added them to her suitcase. She left the medicine cabinet open so she wouldn’t have to risk seeing her reflection again. It was easier to pretend she was the innocent victim of Steve’s injustice if she could imagine herself beautiful and fragile. It would help if he would be more of a jerk, too. Why couldn’t he yell at her or insult her instead of giving her helpful advice about packing and calmly depositing his dirty clothes back into the hamper?

She had little warning that her stomach was going to rebel before she found herself on the floor in front of the toilet, spewing yellowish liquid and four brownish-red ibuprophen pills into the bowl. Nothing solid. When had she last eaten? Her stomach roiled again, and Tina decided not to think about that right now.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me when I’m sick.” She hadn’t been aware of the thought forming until she uttered the statement in a thick voice. It felt right.

Steve said nothing.

Tina wiped her mouth with a tissue and flushed it along with the paltry contents of her stomach. She grabbed her hairbrush from the counter and her bag of hair accessories from the top drawer and returned to the bedroom. Steve stood near the hamper, staring at the floor.

“I said I can’t believe you’re doing this to me when I’m sick,” she repeated.

“You’re not sick,” he mumbled, not looking up. “And you did this to yourself.”

Tina couldn’t believe she’d married such an idiot. “I am sick, Steve. I just threw up!” Let him yell at me, she thought. It would be so much easier to hate him if he would fight with her.

Steve raised his head and met her gaze, and Tina wished he’d continued to stare at the floor. His face was anguished, not angry.

“You threw up because you’re hung over.” His voice was steady, but it cracked. “You are sick, in a way. And you need help. And I can’t help you.” He took a deep breath. “Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And pajamas.”

Tina sank onto the bed. There had been two weekends when they’d gone away together and she’d forgotten to pack her underwear and socks, and one when she’d forgotten her pajamas. Back when they used to go away together. Back when they were good together. How could he bring that up now?

Steve walked over to the dresser, opened her drawer, and stepped back. “I’m not going to pack for you. And you need to leave.”

“Mommy, where are you going?” asked a small voice from the doorway.

Tina felt sick again, and glared at Steve. “You didn’t tell her?”

Not looking at his wife, Steve walked to the doorway to meet their daughter and knelt before her. “What are you doing up, Rosie? I told you to keep your feet up and rest.”

“My show’s over and I couldn’t reach the remote,” the six-year-old answered. She peered at the suitcase on the bed and her mother sitting next to it. “Mommy, where are you going?”

Tina kept her gaze on the man on the floor. “Daddy’s making me go away.”

“Tina!” Steve turned on his knees, outrage making his face look almost comical. Tina was glad to finally have a target.

“Well you are,” she insisted. “I don’t want to pack this suitcase and go away from my family! What was it you just said to me? ‘I’m not going to pack for you, and you need to leave.’ Wasn’t that it?”

Rosie looked at her father in horror. “Daddy, please don’t make Mommy go away! I’ll be good, I promise!”

Steve hugged his daughter, being careful not to touch her legs. Below her shorts, her feet and shins were wrapped in gauze shiny from the burn ointment underneath. “You are good, Sweetie. This isn’t your fault.”

Tina sat silent on the bed, wondering if she was going to throw up again. Was this her family now? Father and daughter embracing in their shared guilt and misery, while she wallowed in her own alone? She wished the room would stop lurching.

“Tell her it’s not her fault, Tina.” Steve’s voice was hard.

“It’s not your fault, Rosie.” Tina couldn’t muster any emotion to put behind her words, and Rosie heard blame. The little girl disentangled herself from her father and waddled over to her mother. Tears trickled down her cheeks and dropped off her chin.

“I’m sorry I got you in trouble, Mommy. I’ll be more careful next time. I’ll use the teapot instead of a pan. I’ll make your coffee right! Just don’t go!”

Tina knew she should feel tenderness towards this poor, injured child, but she couldn’t feel much of anything beyond a sense of total wrongness. She felt wrong. The situation was wrong. There was only one thing she knew of that could bring rightness back, but she didn’t have access to it right now.

“It’s not up to me,” she said.

Rosie waddled back to her father. “Say she doesn’t have to go, Daddy! Say she can stay!”

Steve sat on the ground and pulled his daughter into his lap. “Do your legs hurt?” he asked.

The child shrugged in non-answer.

“Your legs hurt because you dropped a pan of boiling water on the floor and it splashed on you—“

“I said I was sorry, and I’ll do better next time!”

“You never should have been boiling water, Rosie. Mommy should never have let that happen.”

“Mommy was sick again and needed her coffee. I’ve seen her make it, and I wanted to help.”

“I know you did. But Mommy wasn’t really sick. She drank—something—that made her sick, and made her not really know what was happening. She should have been taking care of you, not the other way around.”

Rosie dissolved into tears. “But Mommy took so much care of me when I was little, and it’s time I started taking care of her.”

Tina looked away from the pair on the floor so she wouldn’t see Steve’s accusative glare. She had told Rosie that. It had made sense at the time, but now it seemed a bit ridiculous. The girl was only six. But still, there was nothing wrong with a six-year-old making a cup of coffee with a French press. Isn’t that what they called independence?

[UNFINISHED]

The prompt for next month is also from WritingPrompts.com:

“Write a horror story in which one character is an architect. Include a steak somewhere in the story.”

I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

 

Discovering My Real Genre Problem

My Original Genre Problem

Way back in 2011 when I first developed the concept for my novel Virtuous Women, I thought it had a genre problem that would render it unpublishable by traditional publishers. It’s set in a Christian subculture, with that theology and worldview permeating the book. That would make it Christian Fiction, right? But the point is to reveal the toxicity and danger of that theology and worldview, so no Christian bookstore in the world would have it on its shelves. General Fiction? Maybe. But there’s so much religion, it might turn off secular readers. That was the genre problem I thought I had eight years ago.

But a lot has changed in the last eight years. Over the course of the last few elections Christian patriarchy has shown itself to be much closer to mainstream society than people realized in 2011. Some of our highest elected and appointed officials adhere to a strict Christian patriarchal philosophy. Public policy is being based on it. The success of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has drawn sharp attention to this reality. What once seemed like a quaint belief system held by a powerless minority is now recognized as an inherent threat to American democracy and the civil rights of women, non-Christians, and many others.

Despite its Christian setting, my book is now firmly mainstream. My genre problem of 2011 is not a genre problem in 2019.

My Actual Genre Problem

But I still have a genre problem.

I’m participating in the Women Fiction Writers Association Pitch Event, where I get to have my 50-word pitch and the first 250 words of my first chapter reviewed by a number of agents. I posted my entry shortly after the window opened.

Fifteen-year-old Hope never questions the strict patriarchy of her upbringing, even when her mother dies in childbirth leaving her to care for ten younger siblings. But her family’s gradual disintegration on the altar of faith compels her to escape, and Hope must overcome a life of submission to achieve independence.

And thus began my genre problem.

One of the WFWA volunteers sent me an email asking who my protagonist was, and how old she was for most of the book. Stating that Hope was fifteen triggered the Young Adult warning flag. In order it to be considered Women’s Fiction, my protagonist needs to be at least nineteen years old for the majority of the book.

Virtuous Women is not Young Adult. It spans a seventeen-year period, with a thirty-two-year-old Hope at the end of it. But the book is divided into two parts, with the first part taking place during Hope’s adolescence. As I explained to the volunteer, Hope is 15-17 for the first 25% of the book, 18-19 for the second 25% of the book, and 26-32 for the last 50% of the book. So yes, technically she is the age of a Young Adult protagonist for nearly half the book, but the story is not about her journey from adolescence to adulthood; it’s about her journey from submissive helpmeet to independent-person-in-her-own-right.

Is It Really a Problem?

Do adults want to read a book about a teenager?

I think they may, if the teenager is dealing with themes still relevant to adult women. I’ve found this with other books that deal with teenagers forced to grow up too quickly. The first (and probably best) example that comes to mind is White Oleander by Janet Fitch. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It follows the story of Astrid, a young girl forced to navigate the Los Angeles foster care system after her mother is arrested for murder. Astrid is an adolescent for the entire book, with the possible exception of the epilogue, when she’s finally aged out of the system. I first read it when I was around 30 years old, and my teen-angst years were well behind me. I loved it. More to the point, my city’s public library has the book shelved under ‘Adult Fiction.’ So does the Boston Public Library. It’s got a teen protagonist, but it’s not Young Adult.

In the world of Virtuous Women, girls begin practicing how to be helpmeets at an early age. Many teenagers, including my protagonist, are expected to raise and even homeschool younger siblings while managing some or all of the household chores. In these circles it’s not uncommon for girls to marry in their late teens (or younger). The issues that Hope is dealing with are not those of adolescence, but of identity–as a woman and as a person.

Problem Resolved?

After going back and forth a bit with the WFWA volunteer, she agreed that my book probably qualifies as Women’s Fiction, but I should remove the red flag from the pitch. I changed it from “Fifteen-year-old Hope…” to “Hope Wagner…” She still needed to get approval from the other judges, and I haven’t heard back. I’m hoping that her silence means there are no further issues. Agents will begin looking at the entries a week from now.

I’ve considered restructuring my book as a result of this situation. Right now it follows a linear timeline. Perhaps I should begin in her adulthood and relate the events of her teen years through flashbacks. But I don’t think that would work well for this story. Hope’s life and attitudes as an adult make no sense without the knowledge of what she’s already been through, and there’s too much to tell through flashbacks.

I can only hope that I find an agent who will look past Hope’s age and see the story instead. When it’s time to write a back-of-the-book blurb, I’ll keep this issue in mind. As long as I emphasize Hope’s emotional journey rather than her age, I should be OK.

And maybe I’ll take a cue from Janet Fitch. The blurb on the back cover of her book states, “White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid, a brilliant poet imprisoned for murder, and her daughter, Astrid…” I find this a bit sneaky, because Ingrid is a secondary character. An important one, but this book is Astrid’s story, which Ingrid helps to shape. The rest of the blurb outlines Astrid’s experiences, not Ingrid’s. But if this is what will keep my book off the Young Adult shelves, then I’ve got a couple of important secondary characters to highlight, as well.

What Do You Think?

Do you think books about adolescents are, by definition, Young Adult? Let me know in the comments, and please list any books you’ve read about children or teenagers that you think adults would enjoy. I’m always looking for suggestions for good books!

Rethinking My D&D Inspired Writing Project

In my last post I announced my intention to embark on a D&D inspired writing project as my next book. I was leading a D&D adventure for my kids’ homeschool coop, and I knew I’d have to engage in some serious worldbuilding. It seemed logical that I could build a D&D inspired writing project around that.

And it was logical…to a completely inexperienced Dungeon Master.

Problems with Writing a Novel While Running a D&D Adventure

The first problem I encountered was the fact that I was a completely inexperienced Dungeon Master. I had to learn everything from the basic rules of the game to how to run an adventure.

The second problem I encountered was the fact that most of my players were just as inexperienced as I was, and I had to guide them more than is typical for a DM. This was, after all, a homeschool study group, and I was the study group leader as well as DM. I was, by design, teaching the game in addition to leading the adventure. This took up a lot more time than I realized.

I watched a lot of YouTube when learning how to play and, more specifically, how to run an adventure. There I stumbled across Mark Hulmes, host of the High Rollers D&D and Tabletop Weekly YouTube Channels. In addition to his excellent tutorial series on how to fill out a character sheet, he also had a series called DM 101, which is a crash course on how to be a Dungeon Master.

In one of those episodes Hulmes made the valid point that DMs who try to use their adventures to write a novel will invariably become frustrated when their characters don’t behave in accordance with the DM’s vision. He said, “If you want to write a novel, just write a novel.” It’s a valid point, which I took to heart. And to be honest, I didn’t have the time to be developing a novel in the middle of all this learning and teaching anyway.

There’s Still Writing Involved

That’s not to say I didn’t do any D&D inspired writing. I took care to write detailed descriptions of my characters’ surroundings, and I enjoyed specifying exactly what happened in their combat encounters. At one point my players were battling a Black Pudding Ooze while completely blind in a magical mist. When one character tried to throw a small stone at it and rolled extremely low on her attack, I described how she’d lost her bearings and threw the rock in the wrong direction entirely. Another player tried to hurl a larger boulder at the creature, but a previous minor injury from a fall caused his knee to buckle at the wrong time, and he dropped the rock on his own foot. Everyone loved that one.

I also wrote a lot of lore and history that made up the world I’d created. And that’s where I found the real value in DM-ing as a writing exercise. The ultimate purpose of running an adventure is enabling your players to have fun. As characters, they’re going to do what they’re going to do and it’s the DM’s job to create an adventure they’ll enjoy. But they’ll need a world in which to have that adventure, and worldbuilding involves ample opportunities for creative writing. Sure, there are plenty of worlds already written and available for Dungeon Masters to use; you don’t have to create a new world from scratch every time (or ever, for that matter). But that’s not my style.

So How Does My D&D Inspired Writing Help Me Grow as a Writer?

I’ve never written fantasy or speculative fiction before; all of my fiction takes place in the world as it exists. I might focus on a somewhat obscure subculture, such as the world of extreme Christian patriarchy in Virtuous Women, but I built that world through research, not imagination.

Through my experience DM-ing, I’ve found that I love worldbuilding. I plan to convert some of my lore and histories into short stories, some of which I may publish on this blog and some of which I’ll submit to magazines. Maybe someday I’ll write a full-length fantasy adventure novel based in my D&D world, but that’s something much farther down the line.

In the meantime, I have my work cut out for me. Of my group of ten players last term, seven of them are returning in the spring. Two brand new players have also registered, along with a nominally experienced player new to our coop day. Fortunately, one of my returning players is ready to try her hand at being Dungeon Master, so I’ll be able to split into two groups. However, my own kids are now going to be attending two days, not one, and I’ve been asked to run a group on our second day, as well. There are already six people registered for that group, with more likely. And three of those six also attend the first day, so I can’t just reuse the same adventure.

I have begun work on a new novel in the Women’s Fiction genre, but I don’t see me spending a lot of time on that right now. But that’s OK. It’s not the D&D inspired writing project I’d envisioned, but I’m definitely honing my craft by running these groups.

And I’m having a hell of a lot of fun in the process!

What’s My Next Writing Project?

It’s time to start thinking about my next writing project. The novel I’m querying (working title: Virtuous Women) has been such a big part of my life for so long, it’s difficult to think about something else taking its place. But it’s time. Until an agent or an editor comes back with suggestions, Virtuous Women is as complete as I can make it, and I need to move on to my next writing project.

Glimpses of Ideas

I’ve had a number of ideas percolating for a while. Please forgive me for being vague in my descriptions, but I don’t want to give away all my book ideas. I may end up writing some or all of these at some point in the future.

The one I’ve been thinking about for the longest I’ve ruled out because a core plot device is too similar to the one underpins Virtuous Women. It involves a teenager taking on a parental role for a younger sibling. Everything else is different, but both stories center on that theme. I’ll write it someday, but for now I don’t want to come across as too narrow in my focus. So that one can continue to percolate for a while.

I have another idea that I think speaks to the current political environment. It explores how certain policy decisions impact people’s lives in profound ways. There’s the potential for it to spark conversation on some very timely issues, not to mention the depth and richness of the stories I could tell. But it also runs the risk of becoming too dated too quickly, especially with the pace of publishing these days. That one might be better as a series of short stories that could later be gathered into an anthology. (I didn’t actually think of that until I just typed it, and now I really like that idea!)

There’s another that explores family dynamics that are completely different from those featured in Virtuous Women. It’s dark, though. Really really dark. It involves human sex trafficking. I would need to do a lot of research on that, and I’m not sure I can immerse myself in that world right now and still function well enough to care for my family and do all the other things I need to do. So that one’s on hold, too.

The last one that fits in the genre of Women’s Fiction (which, I’ve realized, is where my passion lies) was inspired by a viewing of “A Christmas Carol” last year (Patrick Stewart version). I can’t say much without giving away the entire plot, but it focuses heavily on the dynamics between two sisters. It’s strange that I keep coming back to that, since I’m an only child.

Challenges

The problem is time. I’m homeschooling two children who have different interests and are at different academic levels. I lead a study group at their weekly homeschool co-op. I’m Treasurer of that same co-op. I volunteer at my church. I’m an oblate at a Benedictine monastery 70 miles from my house on the other side of Boston. I manage our household finances. And then there are all the other, standard mom-things: grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, keeping the house (sort of) picked up, etc. Oh, yes, and that guy I married and made kids with? We still like to spend some time together as a couple.

Finding time in all that for my next writing project is, to say the least, a challenge.

But I think I’ve found a way to economize. The study group I’m leading at my kids’ homeschool co-op is a Dungeons & Dragons group. I’m the Dungeon Master (DM). And many DMs have gone on to become writers. As DM, it’s my responsibility to create a world for the players to inhabit. (There are some existing worlds I could use, but I’d rather just make up my own.) It’s my responsibility to create a plot, and keep the characters moving along in some sort of story, even if it’s not the one I’d intended. Dungeons and Dragons is the ultimate in having your characters come to life and telling you how the story goes.

So I think my next writing project is going to be a fantasy adventure novel. I’ll have to work on it every week, just to keep up with the study group. I realize the novel may end up being quite different from our game, and I’ll probably have to tweak the characters a bit, but I see real potential here.

It’s not Women’s Fiction, but my group consists of four boys and six girls,* and everyone has chosen a character reflective of their own gender. There will be some strong female characters, including a Dwarf Monk who kicks butt, a High Elf Wizard, a Human Cleric, and a Wood Elf Ranger who won’t be outdone by her two male High Elf Ranger companions (that would be my daughter). It will be interesting to see what these girls do with these characters.

So that’s my plan for my next writing project: A D&D-inspired fantasy adventure. I’ll miss my characters from Virtuous Women, but I think it’ll be refreshing to immerse myself in something entirely different from their world.

I hope you’ll stick around and follow the adventure!

*I know ten adventurers is way too big a group, but there was a lot of interest, and I didn’t want to turn anyone away. Hopefully by next term one of these players will ready to be a DM, and we can split into two groups. Until then, chaos reigns!

My next writing project will involve this book.

Let the Querying Begin!

I’m Querying!

I’ve finally begun querying agents, having done everything I possibly can to perfect my novel. This is the novel I began writing in 2011, finished in 2016, and have been editing and rewriting for over two years. It’s been through five beta readers and three rewrites. And now it’s ready to go out.

This is the hard part. Querying is a daunting task. First you have to write the query letter, and good luck finding consistent advice on what to include and in what order! Some sources suggest opening with an introduction, including the title, genre, and word count of your book. Others suggest diving right in there with a hook. Some emphasize the importance of listing “comps,” meaning comparable titles. This is supposed to help the potential agent or publisher identify the marketability of your book based on the success of similar stories. Others say comps aren’t that important.

I chose to dive right in with a hook. I begin with a provocative question (which is really a Bible quote), then continue with two paragraphs summarizing the plot. My third paragraph gives the title and word count. The fourth paragraph includes a brief bio and my publication credits. I end with common courtesy.

I decided to do it this way after reading a number of examples of query letters that worked. I’m a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and they have a section that helps aspiring authors. It includes advice on querying, pitching, even suggesting some agents. And they provided examples of query letters that worked for some of their members.

My Query Letter

Dear [Agent,]

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. That’s what Hope was taught to believe, anyway. But when her mother dies in childbirth, fifteen-year-old Hope must take over raising and homeschooling her ten younger siblings while keeping her father’s house. Her family’s religion teaches that women are happy and fulfilled as helpmeets and mothers, but all Hope feels is exhaustion, frustration, and despair. Her only chance for escape is courtship and becoming a helpmeet in her own right.

But after her father’s disastrous second marriage ends in divorce, Hope is forced to give up her dreams of having her own family and remain under her father’s authority, instead. As she and her siblings grow into adulthood, Hope watches her family disintegrate on the altar of faith. By the time she’s ready to abandon her father’s religion, however, she discovers that a lifetime of submission has compromised her ability to claim independence.

Told from the perspective of Hope, her father, and the woman who becomes her stepmother for a short time, Virtuous Women reveals the darker side of patriarchal Christianity and the high price paid by women who have no choice but to be virtuous. It is complete at 109,000 words.

I am a former parish pastor and have served congregations in four states. Several of my sermons have been published on DesperatePreacher.com, and I’ve had an essay published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen (2014). Last year I self-published a nonfiction book entitled Luther’s Catechism: A Modern Reflection. I also homeschool my two children. Between homeschooling and my ministry background, I’ve had several interactions with the patriarchal Christian community I depict in my book.

Per your submission guidelines I have attached [whatever you asked for.] My sincere thanks for your time and consideration.

Regards,

Karen Goltz

Choices

One of the reasons I started with the hook is because my wordcount is higher than recommended for a debut novel. The magic number is usually around 80,000. At 109,000 I’m definitely pushing it. But my first draft totaled nearly 140,000, so I have cut a lot. I wanted to get the agent interested in the story before she ruled it out on a technicality.

The bio is less important for fiction writers than nonfiction writers, but I wanted to highlight my personal connection to the material. My novel is steeped in religion, which is something a lot of writers get wrong. I needed to explain why I felt I could do it justice.

I left out comps because I can’t really find any. Aside from the The Handmaid’s Tale there hasn’t been a lot of popular fiction written about Christian patriarchy. And I’m not about to claim I’ve written the next Handmaid’s Tale.

Of course, this letter is only a template. I’m personalizing each letter a bit, but not much beyond the agent’s name and particular submission requirements. Although I did submit to one yesterday who specified he wanted a single page letter in a specific format. The first paragraph had to justify what was so great about my book, the second paragraph had to summarize the plot, and the third paragraph had to explain why I was the right person to write it. I tailored my query letter according to his specifications. In that one I did mention the success of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale as being one of the reasons why this book is so timely. Rather than a possible dystopian near-future, my book is about the living reality of many women today, and it’s not that different. We’ll see if he requests more.

Cautiously Optimistic

Yesterday I sent out two query letters before I ran out of time, and I planned to do more querying today. This morning one of yesterday’s agents emailed a request for the full manuscript and a synopsis. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but it’s hard. If this agent doesn’t offer to represent me, I hope she’ll be able to give me some feedback I can incorporate going forward.

At any rate, at least I know my first attempt at a query letter isn’t totally off the mark!

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The God You Perceive

I listen to a podcast called Holy Heretics, hosted by a former Evangelical pastor named Jon Scott. In a recent episode he stated, “The God you perceive is the God you receive, and the God you receive is the God you project.”

Wow.

Think about that. What God do you perceive? The Christian tradition only recognizes one God, but there are countless different perceptions of that God within Christianity. High church traditions emphasize God’s holiness while low church traditions emphasize God’s accessibility. Liberal Christians proclaim the transformative power of God’s grace while conservative Christians proclaim the transformative power of God’s grace. Some people are drawn to God’s love and acceptance while others are repelled by God’s judgment against sin. The Son’s death on the cross is an act of supreme love and sacrifice or a heinous example of child abuse, depending on how you look at it.

The God you perceive is the God you receive, and the God you receive is the God you project.

Today is the beginning of Lent, and I invite you to use this season to reflect on Jon Scott’s statement. The answer’s not as straightforward as you might think.

How do you perceive God?

A lot of people don’t really give this question much thought; God is God. Maybe you learned about God in church or from your family, and you’ve never really questioned those teachings. I invite you to question them. Not in order to cast doubt on your beliefs, but in order to better understand what you believe. Who is this God you worship? Or, if you don’t worship God but are brave enough and open enough to consider the question, who is this God you don’t worship or believe in? What does the bible say about God? How has God acted (or not acted) in human history, and what does that tell you about God’s character? Spend some time in the bible with an eye toward who God is, what God has done, and why. Look at your favorite go-to verses but also look beyond them. Anyone can cherry-pick through the bible and see what they want to see, but I encourage you to look at other verses, as well. And not just the verses, but entire passages, chapters, even books. What is the context of these verses? What was going on? Who was involved, and how?

If you’re not all that familiar with the bible, or even if you are, I suggest starting with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Read them in any order you wish. Those four books focus on explaining who Jesus is and why he came, and the entire Christian tradition centers on those questions. You might want to read the Acts of the Apostles immediately after Luke, as the book of Acts is written by the same author as Luke and continues the narrative beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, showing how his followers responded to those events in the months and years following them. And that should be more than enough to keep you busy during the six weeks of Lent.

How do you receive God?

Once you have a better idea of what you believe about God, consider how that belief affects you. Does it affect you? Does your understanding of who God is inform the way you live your life? Maybe it only impacts some aspects of your life and not others. Consider whether or not there are areas of your life that you believe God doesn’t apply or belong. There’s an old story that claims a Roman emperor had his legions of soldiers baptized en masse, but they all kept their sword hands out of the water. The common interpretation is that we all keep something back in our lives that we won’t give over to the lordship of Christ. Is there something in your life that you intentionally keep separate from your life of faith? Why? How does that fit in with how you understand your faith and what you believe about God?

Consider your feelings about God. Do thoughts of God invoke fear? Love? Admiration? Respect? Loathing? Really think about that and reflect on it. It’s not navel-gazing unless you never move beyond it, but it’s a valuable question to ask as part of an overall process.

How do you reflect God?

Once you’ve articulated to yourself who God is and how you have received God into your life, think about how others might perceive God through your words and actions. Be careful here: there’s a profound difference between what we want people to see in us and what people actually see in us. Try to step outside yourself and look at yourself with someone else’s eyes. Imagine you’re someone who knows nothing about the Christian understanding of God. Look at your social media posts. Think back on conversations you’ve had. Examine your calendar and your credit card statement. How do you spend your time and money, and what values do they reflect?

You might notice a disconnect here. Don’t be afraid of it. Describe how someone might see God if they had only your words and actions to go by. Write it down or say it out loud, to yourself or to someone you trust. Be honest. Does that description match the God you worship? If not, take another look at your beliefs about God. Are they really what you say they are?

The God you perceive is the God you receive, and the God you receive is the God you project.

Who is God to you?

What Do You Want from Me?

What do you want from me?

This is a real question. I’ve been writing this blog off and on for almost seven years, and I have no idea what I’m doing. First I wrote reflections on things in the news that caught my attention, as well as observations about what it’s like to live life as me. Then I got into some theology, followed by writing, peppered with homeschooling insights and experiences. I’ve begun series and abandoned them (not to mention other entire blogs I’ve launched then quit). I wrote on politics during the 2012 presidential campaign, but remained mostly silent during the atrocity that was 2016. I just couldn’t write intelligent commentary on that whole farce.

After years of no coherent theme, inconsistent postings, and broken promises, I really want to get this right. So I’m asking: What do you want from me?

Of course, the biggest problem with me asking this question is the fact that I have no subscribers. None. Zero. Will anyone actually answer me? I’ll post this on Facebook, where I might get a response from a couple of friends, and Twitter, where it will be ignored, and that’s it. But it’s a question I need answered.

If you’ve read this far, do me a favor. Two favors, actually. First, answer the question in the comments here or on whatever social media you saw this. Second, share this on your own newsfeed with a personal request that people read and answer this.

Some of you have been reading off and on for years. Thank you. You know which of my posts have had the most impact on you. Tell me.

If you’ve read this far and have no clue who I am, THANK YOU!!! I want your opinion, too. I’m not going to ask you to read through six and a half years of blog posts to decide what you like best, so I’ve included links below to some of my old stuff that I think gives a pretty good representation of what I’ve done. If a title interests you, read it. Or click through the category cloud to the right. Let me know what speaks to you.

And if most of you tell me to shut up and go away, I’ll take that under advisement. But I make no promises.

So take a look at some of my old stuff, or read the ‘About Me’ section and just tell me what you’d like me to post about, and how often. And thank you for your time and your engagement.

2017

Repeal and Replace – Words Matter

Will God Fix Climate Change?

2016

Middle Aged and Frumpy

I’m Not That Mom

2015

Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage, and Scare Tactics

The Fallacy of Biblical Inerrancy

2014

Endings and Beginnings – A Poem

Income Inequality and the Myth of Redistribution

2013

Click “Like” If You Agree

Whose Christianity?

2012

Todd Akin and His Mission from God

Dear Real Estate Industry

2011

Do College Students Have Justification for Joining the ‘Occupy’ Movement?

Identifying with the Church-Harmed

A Modern Magnificat

The Original Magnificat

 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

 

A couple of weeks ago Father James Martin, SJ posted this on Twitter:

 

It’s been bugging me ever since.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of writing my own song of praise to God; I think that’s actually a really good exercise for all practicing Christians. But a song of praise in the style of the Magnificat is something entirely different.

Let’s look at some of the more popular praise songs in the current hymnal for the ELCA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Most of them fall in one of three categories: call to praise, expectation based on who God is as revealed in the bible, and personal response.

Call to Praise

These hymns encourage (or command) people to praise the Lord, usually by repeating the same phrase over and over again. #819 Come, All You People exhorts us, “Come, all you people, come and praise…” throughout its three verses. #853 When Morning Gilds the Sky repeats “Jesus Christ be praised” twice in each of its five verses. #872 Praise Ye the Lord has four verses giving a variety of ways in which we should “Praise God.”

Expectation Based on Who God Is and What He Has Done

This was the most common type of praise song in the hymnal. They include such favorites as This Is My Father’s World (#824), The God of Abraham Praise (#831), Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise (#834), Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (#836), Beautiful Savior (#838), Crown Him With Many Crowns (#855), and How Great Thou Art (#856). Each of these hymns tells about the wonderful things God has already done in the world (the beauty of creation is a popular theme, as is God’s faithfulness to Israel and the atoning sacrifice of God’s only Son), and how we can continue to expect God’s merciful and redeeming activity.

Personal Response

Finally we have those songs which describe one’s personal response to God’s grace and salvation. These include Shout to the Lord (#821), Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (#857), and I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me (#860). While I appreciate the sentiment behind each of these songs and I recognize that they are, in a way, witnessing to what God has accomplished in an individual’s life, I truly detest singing these songs in a worship setting. There’s more of an emphasis on our response than on what God has done, and it feels like we’re singing praises to our own piety and worship.

 

But I digress, because none of this has anything to do with why I struggle with the Magnificat.

There’s no call to praise in the Magnificat. It begins with Mary’s personal response to God (verses 46-49), and then quickly moves into what God has done to cause that response (verses 50-55). And that’s where I struggle.

Mary was a young Jewish girl in ancient Palestine, engaged to be married, who was told by the angel Gabriel that she would be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. As a result she would become pregnant and bear a child who would be the Son of God. Shortly afterwards, the newly pregnant Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant with a child heralded by Gabriel. And when the two women greeted each other Mary burst out in the song we call the Magnificat, in which she praises the God of Israel for fulfilling the promise he’d made so long ago.

But at this point in the narrative, God hadn’t done any of those things yet. The infant Jesus was barely formed in Mary’s womb; he was months away from even being born. The proud had not yet been scattered; the powerful were still on their thrones and the lowly were still low. The hungry were still hungry, and the rich were still rich. His servant Israel was living under Roman rule. How could Mary sing praise for things God hadn’t yet accomplished as though they were her current reality?

The answer is hope. Mary had hope. And hope is what I struggle with. I look at the world as it is, and my hope withers and begins to die.

That’s why I’m not blogging much, despite my best intentions. I can’t comment on what’s going on in the world right now, because it’s too painful. I follow the news much less closely than I used to, and rather than informing me, I find it’s building my prayer list. All I’m learning from the news is who else needs prayers.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Prayers are good. It helps to bring us closer to people we don’t know, who are suffering in ways we haven’t experienced. But to proclaim Christ’s victory as already accomplished? In a metaphysical sense, I’m fine with that. But in an experiential sense, I just can’t go there.

And that’s exactly where Mary went. She had hope that the child God had put in her womb would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away empty, and so she lived with the expectation that those things were already accomplished. And it was also with that expectation that she raised her son. His work is not yet finished, but he certainly began it, and it has continued throughout two millennia.

We’re still not there. The proud still stick together and look out for their own interests with the help of their powerful friends. The lowly are still low, the hungry are still hungry, and the rich are becoming richer. But to give up on hope, to not hold onto the expectation that those things will change, is to accept that that reality is here to stay. And once we accept it, then we approve it.

I cannot give the status quo my approval. I have to believe that there is a better way. And I believe that that better way is through Christ. So here is my Magnificat, created out of hope and desperation:

My Magnificat

My soul clings to the Lord,
and my spirit depends on God my Savior,
for he sees the struggles of his people
and strengthens their resolve for justice.
For the Mighty One has supplied his creation with abundant resources,
graciously ensuring that no one need experience want,
and his mercy inspires many to share what they have.
He has endured throughout the years, undefeated by tyrants as the lowly continue to
resist.
God’s love and compassion have brought down the regimes of those who cultivate
hate and fear
and he has enabled us to see the other as ourselves.
His Spirit works in those who love peace to speak truth to power,
and sacrifice comfort and convenience for justice and equity,
continuing to insist upon the reality that all people are created in God’s own image
and his mercy, compassion, dignity, and love will ultimately rule the world.

Finding Balance

Well it didn’t take long for this post to become necessary. Six weeks ago I announced the resurrection of my writing and publishing activities. I noted how I was almost finished publishing my first book through Quiet Publications (now done), how I needed to update the Quiet Publications website (still in progress), and how I was bringing back Quiet Devotions (still on schedule to begin on November 30). I also noted that I was working on the final edit of my novel before I begin searching for representation (still editing), and that I would publish on this blog weekly.

A week later I did publish another post on this blog. My next post appeared two weeks and one day later. That was three weeks ago. Do you notice a pattern here?

Once again I’ve overestimated my abilities. If I could write full time, I could probably do what I said I’d do in that first post. But I can’t. In addition to writing, I raise and homeschool two children. I run all of the administrative aspects of my husband’s software consulting business, including payroll. (And by that I mean I actually do the payroll myself, not just send the information to ADP or some other payroll processing company.) I’ve stepped up my volunteering commitments at my church and at my kids’ homeschool co-op. And I’m still doing the whole stay-at-home wife and mother thing, which, while often considered less demanding than “real” work, takes a fair amount of time and energy. In addition to all that, I feel I need to pay more attention to my overall health and wellbeing, which also takes time and energy.

What I’m doing isn’t working, so I’m trying to find balance in my life.

In January of 2012 I published a post about following a New Year’s Rule of Life instead of making new year’s resolutions. The rule of life is based on the four categories in Jesus’ greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” I wrote that almost six years ago. Finding balance is clearly an ongoing theme for me. Even though we’re still more than a month away from the new year, I think it would be beneficial for me to give this some thought now. After all, January 1 is an arbitrary date, and there’s no sense in putting off something beneficial (hopefully) because the calendar says it isn’t time yet.

So here’s how I hope to find balance in my life moving forward:

Heart: I define this as the ways in which I nurture the important relationships in my life. The most important relationships I have are with my husband and with my children. Tom and I are already taking time every evening and some mornings to focus on each other, plus we go on a biweekly date night. As two busy parents of two active children, this is the best we can do right now. But we are taking time for each other every day, which is important. Figuring out how I’m nurturing my relationship with my children is more difficult. So much of what I do is for their development, education, or wellbeing, which are important, but don’t necessarily nurture our relationship. I guess the “heart” things I’m doing for them include regular cuddle times (I’m thrilled that they haven’t outgrown this yet, even though they’re 8 and 9) and occasional surprises like movies together or ice cream.

Soul: This past September I became a Benedictine Oblate at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts. When I did so, I vowed to practice Benedictine spirituality to the best of my ability in my own life situation. I can’t pray all the daily offices (much as I’d like to), but I can get up a little earlier than everyone else in my house so I have some quiet time to focus my thoughts and prayers on God. Ideally I’d like to practice Lectio Divina every morning, but the reality of my life situation is that I can’t, and I’ve given myself permission to not feel guilty on those days when my quiet prayer time is shortened because of health or family obligations. Saint Benedict was serious about balance and dealing with life’s realities, and there’s room in his Order for local and situational adjustments. I just need to take care that those adjustments truly are necessary, and not excuses. (That’s why I’ve removed GardenScapes from my phone and try not to check email, news, or Facebook before my prayer time. Emphasis on try.)

Mind: I think my writing falls into this category. All of my fiction, nonfiction, blogging, and publishing activities have to share this space, and that means I can’t do as much of it as I might like. I have to prioritize. For the short term, my top priority is updating Quiet Publications to handle online orders and setting up the first few weeks of Quiet Devotions. After that I need to finish editing my novel and querying agents. For the moderate term my priority will be keeping Quiet Devotions up to date, while also getting started on my next nonfiction book. My long term plans will depend on how successful I am with my short and moderate term plans, so I’ll hold off identifying those just now. Posting to this blog is part of my ongoing plan, but at the bottom of the priority list. If something’s going to get missed, this is it. (Please subscribe so you don’t miss any of my erratic posts!)

Strength: As has been true for most of my life, I need to lose weight. But losing weight is not one of my goals right now. This category is called “strength,” and strength is what I need. Once again my family is without health insurance, and my margin for error is shrinking in regards to my health. My diet and exercise programs are focused not on weight loss, but on building physical strength and improving my overall health. I choose my food based on its nutritional benefits to my body (most of the time), and I’m trying to include cardio, strength training, and yoga in my regular routine. I’ve finally accepted the truth that there are a lot of good reasons to exercise, but weight loss is not one of them. My weight is determined in part by genetics (which I can’t control) and in part by my diet (which I can). So my focus is on my overall health, and if I happen to lose weight in the process, great.

As much as I would like to take those four categories and call it done, I can’t. Grocery shopping doesn’t fall into any of those categories. Neither does managing the household finances, or doing laundry, or working for my husband’s company, or even homeschooling my children. All of those things go to support my family, but none of them really nurture relationships or benefit me spiritually, mentally, or physically. But they are all necessary. So I have to add a fifth category: Necessities of Life. This one is tricky, because it’s difficult to determine what is truly necessary and what only feels necessary. I can only do the best I can, and keep reassessing my choices.

Then there’s the fact that I look at these priorities, and they’re all about me. My health, my family, my wellbeing. One thing that really got drilled into me at seminary is: It’s not about you. To a point that’s good advice, but taken too far it becomes toxic. (Hence the number of pastoral burnouts and broken marriages.) But without some focus outside of yourself, you become completely self-centered and self-serving. That’s not how I understand myself as a Christian, and it’s not how I want to live as a human being. So I have to add a sixth category called Giving Back. That’s where I put my volunteering for church and homeschool co-op. I need to be careful not to take on too much, though. It’s too easy to get sucked into the service vortex, where it’s almost impossible to say ‘no’ to others’ legitimate needs. But those needs are endless, and one person can only do so much. Even Jesus turned his back on people who came to him for healing, because he had other things he needed to attend to. (Mark 1:32-39)

Finding balance isn’t easy, and I won’t always be able to dedicate equal time to each of these categories. But this at least gives me a framework.

I will blog here as I can, hopefully at least every other week. But there will be times when I have to let this go, and I hope you’ll understand. And I wish you luck in finding balance in your own life, too.

Literary Pursuits – October 2017

It’s been two years since the last time I did a Literary Pursuits post (and two weeks since the last time I posted to my weekly blog, but we won’t talk about that). I won’t try to cover that entire time, though. I’ll just focus on the last month, which has been busy!

What I’m Reading

Not much, to be honest. Nearly all of my book reading has been for the kids. I’ve been working my way through the entire Harry Potter series as their bedtime story, and we’re now on the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Son has already read ahead and has finished the book (twice), but knows better than to ruin it for Daughter. They both love the series. Daugher was Hermione for Halloween.

In the car we’ve been listening to the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer on audiobook. The series started off well with Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy. A twelve year old street urchin from London disguises herself as a boy and is taken on as ship’s boy aboard a Royal Navy ship. The kids and I both loved her antics and spunk, and I loved the fact that it’s set in the early 1800s, so there’s a lot of history to discuss. The series remained decent through the fourth book, but began to go downhill by the fifth. Among other problems, there’s a lot of sex. We’re currently in the tenth book, Viva Jacquelina! Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Over the Hills and Far Away, and even though she’s still technically a virgin (barely), Meyer hasn’t been shy about describing the situations that tempted or threatened her. Last book we even had to endure banter about penis size. I’m hoping a lot of this is going over the kids’ heads, but I’m not counting on it. Oh well. They still love it, and we only have two more books to go.

As part of our unit on the Civil War, I assigned Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War by Steve Sheinkin. I found it funny, engaging, and informative, but the kids didn’t. I had to quiz them after each chapter to make sure they actually read it.

For my own reading I’ve been trying to make it through The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, but I’m finding it a challenge. That’s a pity, because the description seemed promising and the futuristic dystopian world he created is fantastic, but the story is a real drag. I’ll finish it, but only because I’m stubborn.

On my phone as part of my devotional reading I have Selected Writings by Hildegard of Bingen. I didn’t like her writings the first time I attempted them, but I have a better appreciation of them now that I have a better understanding of her historical context.

I also subscribe to two magazines. You know, the old fashioned kind that are made out of paper and actually mailed to you? One is Writers Digest and the other is The Christian Century. I’m on the current issue of Writers Digest and I’m running one issue behind on The Christian Century. Oh well.

What I’m Writing

I’ve been a little more successful here. For the past month I’ve been focusing on editing, rewriting, formatting, and printing my first book through Quiet Publications. I mentioned it here a few weeks ago. It’s called Luther’s Catechism: A Modern Reflection and it’s now available for purchase (hint hint!). I’m still trying to set up QuietPublications.com as an ecommerce site, but that’s all new territory for me and it’s slow going. In the meantime the book is available at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, in-store and online.

 

I’m also doing final edits on my novel. I’ve received feedback from a few beta readers, which was incredibly helpful. Once I’m done with this round I’ll start querying agents.

That’s about it for October. What have you been reading and/or writing? Please share in the comments!