Friday, April 25, 2008

Where Is God in My Writing Efforts?

I often put dates beside verses in my Bible. When I run across the verses at a later time, the dates remind of events and times in my life when that verse meant something special to me, such as bringing comfort or a challenge.

I have in my Bible a lot of notations beside Psalm 138:8~~”The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your love, O Lord, endures forever—do not abandon the work of your hands.”

The first notation I put beside Psalm 138:8 is “Palace and TS 6-30-88.” In other words, on June 30, 1988, I laid claim to the promise that God would fulfill His purposes for my writing (How Can You Lose a Palace? is another writing project of mine.) Beside that date are the words “Still waiting 6-9-88” and then “11-4-89.” After that, I didn’t write any more dates.

I have never been one to claim that I know what God is going to do. I do not see that verse promising that He will see my writings published, even though from a human perspective one might be tempted to conclude that. Notice that it says His purposes, not mine, and He can accomplish all kinds of purposes in me in the process of my efforts to get published. Fine.

In more recent years, another verse has spoken to my heart in relation to my writing—2 Thessalonians 1:11~~“…we constantly pray for you, that our God might count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.”

That verse blows me away—every good purpose of mine? I have trouble imagining that God using His power to fulfill “every good purpose of mine and every act prompted by my faith.” I still don’t claim to know whether God is going to see Tangled Strands published. What I do know, for now, is that He can’t make that happen if I don’t do my part in getting it into the shape it needs to be in.

In my March 30 blog titled "Venturing a Writers' Conference," I told how God worked in a special way for me to attend one. Since then, when wondering if I should do this, I've often gone back to that provision to remind myself of that evidence of His blessing.

This past month I got another one. I entered the first fifteen pages of my story in the Genesis Contest. The responses I got were helpful with its shortcomings, but more inportant to me were the encouraging comments about my writing. I see them as another sign of God's blessing on this pursuit.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Animals Don't Carry the Baggage Humans Do

When we asked our vet what he would do if it were his cat who had lost a foot, he didn’t have to think long before replying.

“I would take the leg off,” he said. “Animals adjust instantly to things like this. They don’t have the emotional baggage we humans carry.” Between that and the fact that CJ had hung so tough with his vital signs and all, we made the decision.

“We take the whole leg off at the hip,” the vet explained, “so that they don’t have a stump left to try and walk on it.” Oh. It made sense, but it didn’t prepare us for the sight of his ballooned, furless and rose-colored hip full of black stitches when we next came to see him. I overheard a nurse tell someone else that she got the feeling we were pretty shook up. She was right.

They kept him several days after the surgery, making sure he figured out how to eat and use the litter box in his new condition. When we got him home, Pixie instinctively knew something was wrong and kept her distance, but in only five weeks the two of them would be tussling together again.

How did he lose the foot (and also two inches of his tail)? We’ll never know. The neighborhood theory is that he tangled with a coyote (some had been seen at night) but had managed to escape, maybe down his favorite storm drain where the neighbors found him that morning. The doctor doubted that and said he though it must have been a car. But we never found any traces of blood and the like on the street.

Today Captain Jack lives a happy and pampered life. He has zilch memory of ever having another leg. He can’t jump quite as high as he used to, but I have a picture of him on the high kitchen counters just below the ceiling. He can run like the wind and dance across the yard when he’s really happy. He loves us to death and still purrs his heart out the way he did at the beginning when he saved his own life by being so loving for the vet staff. He’s a real character, with personality, devotion, and smarts to spare.

We’ve proved that afresh in the last three months when we successfully trained him on Pixie’s electric fence.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How the Captain Lost His Leg

April 17 is the third-year anniversary of our sweet Captain-Jack-CJ kitty losing his leg. It was on an unforgettable spring Sunday. Unusual for him, he hadn’t come home the night before, nor that morning before we left for church.

When we arrived home, a neighbor rushed over to tell us our kitty had been “hurt.” I’ll never forget the moment Fred handed him to me with one foot totally gone, the stump all bloodied with jagged bones sticking out.

Why do things like that happen on Sunday when places are closed? We had to take him thirty minutes across town to a “weekend vet.” I sat in the back seat beside him in the carrier. He would be silent for a while—and then he would let loose with this piercing wail of agony (something else I will never forget).

That establishment wanted $800 just to keep him and treat him overnight till we could get him to our own vet the next morning. Of course that was out of the question. We settled for their hydrating him and giving him antibiotics and pain meds, and we took him home. We threw quilts on the office floor, and I slept there beside him that night. Once he had the pain meds, we didn’t hear any more wails out of him, but by morning, the smell was beginning to be pronounced.

Meanwhile, we wrestled with what we would do about him. We were prepared to put him down if that was best for him, but we had a grandson doing his own wailing that he would give us all his money providing we didn’t let anyone “kill” CJ.

The next morning we were at our own vet even before they opened. Those were the people who had saved CJ’s life once already when someone brought him in as a half-grown kitten to be put down because he had an infected eye. But the vet staff found him so loving, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. They confided to me that they had put him in the “witness protection program” until they could find him a home. They were the ones who named him Captain Jack because the decisive way he swished his tail reminded them of a pirate's sword.

When we saw the doctor, we heard the same thing we had the day before: all his vital signs were normal! Not only had he not bled to death in twenty-four hours or more, but the crazy little guy had normal blood pressure and no fever. How could we decide what to do? Finally, we put it to the doctor—if he were your cat, what would you do?

You already know the answer because you can see CJ’s picture. I’ll tell you the rest of the story tomorrow. [I’m sorry it’s been a while since I posted, but first I was sick, and then I was out of town and sick. Now I’m home but still recovering.]

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Bleakest Moment

The other major thing I learned from Angela Hunt was that every plot has to work up to what she called a “bleakest moment.” If you think about the novels you’ve read, I imagine you’ve noticed that events in the story always seem to get worse and worse until something really terrible happens. Well, that is known as the black point, or in Angie’s words, the bleakest moment.

Following this worst-of-the-worst happening in her plot skeleton was the character’s need for help, either from inside or outside herself. It was satisfying to discover I already had that. Then it needed an “epiphany” where the character comes to realize something that will help solve the problem. And that too I already had, so I was encouraged. But as I sat in class and thought about my Tangled Strands story, I was pretty sure I did not have an event traumatic enough to qualify as the bleakest moment.

One of the features of the classes Angie teaches is that at the close, participants have the opportunity to sign up for a fifteen-minute, one-on-one time slot with her to ask specific questions relevant to their story. One of the topics for which I chose to use my time was the bleakest moment issue.

I explained to her that the closest I came to one was the crisis with the baby’s illness and being rushed to the hospital near the end of the story. She asked, “Could you have the baby die?” That was any easy one to answer. “No!” I need that “baby” many years later as the main character in book #4—if, of course, this ever goes that far.

As I thought about it following the conference, I realized the part that needed to be “bleaker” had to be in the relationship between the guy and the gal. The baby crisis actually brings them closer together, another reason it would not work. Something needed to happen that drives them further apart. It didn’t take me long to figure out how I could accomplish that, and I set to work on it. I like what I came up with, but I’d like to find a couple more ways to make it even bleaker.

The biggest challenge was creating that new first chapter, the one where it happens to Sharon. In the original, the first chapter was where her friends find out that she has, without a word to anyone, taken off—skipped out—with a charmer in a yellow convertible. What I had to do was show her in the act of doing the skipping. That took some adjustment in my thinking, and I still had some decisions to make about just how much of that I would cover. Since then, I have rewritten it again, twice.

Of course the logic of starting with the main character makes such perfect sense—now that I know who my main character is supposed to be. The truth is, writing that new first chapter was only a first step. I continue to look for ways to give Sharon more of a focus in the early parts of the story.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Main character and SOTP

I’ve learned from the writing community that those who write novels do it two primary ways. Some figure out the whole story ahead of time and sketch out a well-planned plot. Others work more spontaneously. When they start, they don’t know everything that is going to happen. Instead, the story unfolds for them as they write it. Sometimes they find characters having a mind of their own and going off in directions the author hadn’t planned or thought about. I know what they mean because I had that experience with a different set of characters many years ago.

The truth is, seat of the pants (SOTP) is the way I wrote Tangled Strands. All I knew when I started was how things were to end up. I had few if any ideas of what was going to happened on the way. I remember thinking up the childbirth scene in the back seat of a coworker’s car on the way to a conference in central Indiana. After I got there, I scribbled it out on a small piece of lined notebook paper. Back in Texas, many evenings I wrote scenes in my head as I drove to and from my evening teaching at the community college. When I got home, I would still have enough evening left to keyboard the scene into my computer.

The characters of Tangled Strands are what is called, in acting circles, an “ensemble cast.” There are five main characters and a sixth who comes later. Many years after writing it, I started worrying about two things. The bigger of the two we’ll get into further down the line. The other was the question of a main character.

Believe it or not, I couldn’t figure out who from that ensemble cast was my main character . Did I actually have one? Was it necessary to have one? Towards the end of the story, the character Sharon really became the main one, but she didn’t appear “on stage” until chapter 11. I now know that an ensemble cast is definitely not the way a beginning writer should go.

That brings me to the 2005 Florida Christian Writers’ Conference. One of the course offerings—six hours of instruction over the three days—was with Angela Ewell Hunt on novel writing. I didn’t know then what a prestigious and prolific writer she is, but I thoroughly enjoyed the course and learned so much.

At the end of class one day she promised that the next day she would teach us a foolproof formula around which one could build any plot. The formula worked perfectly built around the sketch of a skeleton, and the first part of the skeleton was the head.

Guess what the head stood for? The main character. According to Angie, every story must start with a main character.

Ouch. It sounds so logical and simple now, but not then. The character I had started with was a key one, but she did not—-in all my unplanned plotting—-end up the main one. The idea threw me into a dither for a few hours, but that evening I bypassed evening get-togethers and went to my room with my journal, determined to figure this out.

What exactly would my story look like if I started with Sharon? I knew that if I were serious about this writing challenge, if I wasn’t going to waste the money I had spent on the conference, then I had to put into practice what I learned.

That meant Chapter 1 had to happen to Sharon.