“Please, Fence Me In!”

Blog—picket fenceHave you read this yet? Jeff Goins has a way with words, and sometimes he grabs my attention with a topic that arrives right on time. I’ve been mulling a couple of the points from his post. I don’t disagree with the post. The truth is, I’m not thinking about marketing when I’m kicking around potential titles. I know some would say I should be more concerned about that, but I’m really thinking about a lovely white picket fence.

Sure. It’s all about marketing, and I get that. But it’s about content.

For me, the title is the neat, welcoming picket fence that defines my boundaries. When I’m drafting the gate is open to almost any and all words, but eventually some of those words are shown the sidewalk when I know which ideas, scenes, and sentences play nicely in the yard with the others.

But that fence. I guess I need a plat survey to know where the posts will go before I can seriously evaluate what stays or goes. It’s the granddaddy of all college term papers in my mind sometimes. Writing needs a raison d’être. I’m on the hunt for that.

The nugget I needed in Goins’ post was this: choose an argument.

We called this a thesis for college papers, but it never goes away in our writing. This argument is the work’s reason for being, the lifeblood of the work itself. To be honest, a storyline is a beautiful thing (especially in memoir), but I need to consider the why behind the story. Why tell it? Why should my reader invest time and emotional energy in the story? The tension in the argument makes all the difference, and it’s still there when the content is “just a chronological story.”

There’s a big idea out there somewhere. It may be entertainment, but I think there’s something deeper. Stories have purpose. They draw us in. They teach us. They engage us. They sit with us in a kind of conversation (usually while I sip mug after mug of java). And stories also have a life of their own, flowing at their pace and following their chosen path. The reader rides the current, and the current is the story. But that’s no excuse for words traipsing all over the page without restraint in my mind.

I have a favorite title in mind, and I haven’t been able to shake it. In a moment of brilliance—at least I hope it was!—I saw a connection between the main character’s name, her understanding of her identity, and a couple of different meanings of that name. We’ll see if White Wave Crashing remains when all is said and done. I definitely need to take a closer look at my work’s purpose, audience, and argument because these are posts or pickets in the fence that defines my book.

Goins makes a fantastic point about marketing. An author has one chance to grab the reader’s eyeballs in order to get their fingers leafing through the pages. He’s right about the marketing, and if I could see just a little further down the road—

What do you think?

Does the author let the work grow at its own pace? A sculptor might say the rock speaks, and he merely responds by removing whatever is not part of the piece it wants to be. Maybe authors are like that. Maybe I am a little like that, too—on a good day when I am not self-editing the self-edits or plotting every curve, rise, and fall in the WIP.

I say, “Fence me in, please!” I’ll be working on this in order to have a loose framework, but I don’t expect to write a final draft the first time through. This is a process. Even knowing what the book is not is a very good thing.

What has helped you in choosing an argument? Can you share an argument you used in a sentence or so? If you write memoir, how do you think this plays into that genre? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~j

Advertisements

Memories: Papa and Teddy Bear Love

My grandfather had a gentle heart, patient Southern drawl, and slow-moving ways. Mommy’s daddy towered over everybody, and his lanky, six-foot-eight frame ducked through doorways when he came to visit. Wet-combed, thin hair lay flat in the morning, but the shorter hairs on top rebelled as the day went on.

Every memory is filled with sweetness to counter my deep longing to see his soft, creased face again. There were games of “Stick ‘Em” in the living room chair. He sat quietly with a soft smile on his face. I heaved a giant hand or foot wherever I could manage and “stuck it” in place. In his big hands corn husks and bandanas became dolls, paper took flight, and leaf “boats” floated in rain puddles.

Hundreds of faded black-and-white snapshot memories drift through my mind, but a precious one is saturated in vibrant color.


There were four girls now: eight, six, four, and tiny. Suddenly I was a big sister. The baby was loud and red-faced a lot of the time. Mommy’s friends made a fuss over her. “She’s adorable!” they said. “Is she sleeping well?” they asked. “What a good baby!” they said. They had to ask, “How are you managing four girls?” “Daddy’s really outnumbered now, isn’t he?” everyone said.

Can they see me? I wondered.

We picked my grandparents up from the Amtrak station. Nana squeaked in high-pitched, happy-about-the-baby talk and did the grandmother things. Papa came with her.
Yay! Papa will play with me! Everyone else is too busy. Papa made time for me.

Dinner time. Pots and pans. Bang! Clang! Plates and silverware. Clink. Clink. “Jenny, go outside! You can’t be in here while we’re making dinner.”

I was in the way. Again. Navy blue tennies scuffed down the hall and out the front door. I plopped down on the warm concrete porch, feet dangling and kicking the edge over and over. My scrunched-up face rested in tightly-clenched fists. Why did they send me out? Mommy and Nana don’t like me.

The door creaked, and Papa ducked out into the sunlight. He eased down

next to me. His legs bridged over the front walk, and the grass flattened under the weight of his giant feet. One hand settled next to me.

He was a good listener.

“Papa, they don’t like me in there. They send me outside all the time.” My tennies bounced off the concrete.

“Oh?”

“Everybody’s too busy to play, and they keep telling me I’m in the way. They don’t like me anymore. The baby came home, and now I’m always in trouble.” Tears finally came. I kicked harder.

“I think you need this.” A small teddy bear came out from behind his back. The chocolate-brown body was worn and nubby and more flat than fat. The yellow fabric on his paws and nose was faded. Above his nose was a threadbare spot. Two curves of black stitching formed a happy mouth. Hard plastic eyes glinted in the sunlight.

“For me? Thank you! I love him.” Teddy nearly disappeared in my tightly wrapped arms.
“I love you. And so do they,” he nodded toward the noisy, open window. “They’re almost done in there. Your Nana and your mom will just tell me I’m getting in the way, so I think I’ll just stay here.”

TeddyBear (3)

“They tell you that, too?”

“Yup.”

I pulled me feet up and shuffled into criss-cross-apple-sauce. “They don’t like you either?”

“They do. I still get in the way.”

I thought about that.

We talked about the sun heading for quitting time. I told him the porch was going to turn orange. I showed him the tiny, black ants husling along the cracks of the sidewalk between lunchtime popsicle stains and their hole. Busy, busy!

The front door creaked as Mommy held it wide open. “Daddy and Jenny—it’s time for din-din.” I squeezed Teddy once more.

The steaming-hot chicken pot pie landed upside down with a plop! The crust was broken and leaking. A short, sweaty glass of milk waited beside it.


Thanks for reading, friends. Do you have a sweet story related to a precious relationship? I’d love to read your short story. Share it in the comments below…

~J

A Tree in a Forest…

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound?”

If an author crafted thoughtful paragraphs and no one’s eyes found the web page to take them in…

The writer’s creativity flows directly from the heart. Many of us hold a fragile heart gently in cupped hands, timidly presented for others to see. Does that resonate with you?

Today I fought the urge to peek at the blog stats, and I’ll do the same on many other days. The days I peek, I usually have one of two responses:

“Oh my words! People know I exist! I’ve been found—and read!”

“Oh. My. Words. They’re falling somewhere in a forest silently, I guess.”

In the emotional roller coaster response to blog metrics, I learned one thing: I didn’t fall in love with writing because people read what I’d written. (Though it felt good to be read and discuss what was turning over in my heart and mind with others, if I’m honest.) I loved writing because of the precious process and it’s longevity. The written word is a beautiful thing—a gift, really.

The process of writing, for me, is the expression of my heart and thoughts about everyday life and the familiar people, places, and things in it. It’s remembering what was, identifying what is, and pondering what will be…or pretending what could be. The writing process is ordering moments for myself and my own sanity. It’s crafting a story for others, hoping to connect to an other person in another time or place through characters, events, and well-written turns of phrases. It’s sharing “the real Jen” with others and finding other authentic writers out in the big, wide world.

Writing is both solitary and relational at the same time.

Spoken words are puffs of air briefly and vibrantly alive in front of an audience. But each breath carries a new sentence, and with that, the old one fades away, almost forgotten. Our technology captures so much of the spoken word. There’s an app for that. (Dozens of them!) That’s where the spoken word lives beyond the puffs of air, the breath every syllable rode on. I’m thankful I can find things in the “spoken word forest” that I missed or revisit spoken moments I loved. But conversations have to be captured in my forgetful gray matter. That’s unfortunate.

Ah! But the written word…

The longevity of the written word is amazing. We can read the thoughts of people we’ve never met. Their hearts are scrawled on pages, and our hearts are knit with theirs. Thoughts are captured, and we learn, understand, and grow. It’s fantastic! Ancient texts, great classic literature, my contemporary in another city. I know that person existed because I’ve read their words. Wisdom. Truth. Intriguing stories. The reality of everyday life. It’s as if the words continue to live, and the heart behind them continues to beat (even if it’s long gone).

So here, in this little-known corner of the Blogosphere—my words wait. And they breathe the moment they are found as if they fell to the page a second before. A connection between us is created, and it’s like you know me.

And if you comment below, it’s like I know you!

~j

Character Sketches: Stranger Things

I’ve been thinking about writing interesting characters with depth, the kind that draw a reader into the story. There’s something in the details. There are precious details that shouldn’t be overlooked, and then there are the things that tell too much. Yeah, I’m probably guilty of “TMI” more often than not. If nothing is left to the imagination, there’s not much left for the reader to do than scan the words on the page. There’s no engagement there.

So, I made up a little exercise. I’ll nonchalantly take in the scenes around me (and the people in them). Each person I see is now a character, but there are rules—

  1. The person must be a complete stranger.
  2. Jot notes on the physical appearance (physique, posture, clothing, movement).
  3. Include notes on the person’s presence in the place (sound, language, gestures).
  4. Imagine the internal workings of the mind (choices, values, self-esteem).
  5. Quick “day in the life” sketch of the stranger.

I wonder how this kind of exercise will change my writing skill. It might be helpful, but I’ll let you know. I think the benefit is having a jotted list first and selecting from that. Rather than starting with a written piece, I can whittle down what I really need: a basic description and puzzle pieces for a story line, dialogue, and character interaction in relationship to others.

If you’ve done an exercise of this nature, how did it develop your skill in the craft?

What kinds of information would useful in an exercise like this to develop characters?

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you feel like sharing below.

Thanks for reading along!

~j

Water, Water, Everywhere…

As I reflect on my life, I’m sensitive to something I’ve glossed over more recently. As I explore it, bear with me. Maybe we’ll discover something unique and useful as we go.

I was thinking about water—different kinds of water. Water can be completely still in stagnant puddles. It can be strong and forceful in  the motion of white-capped waves. There’s something between those two that has always been the topic of my archived blog—gentle motion as the result of an impact, ripples.

Stagnant water has some appeal at first glance. It’s smooth like glass, nonthreatening, and looks peaceful. But something else is going on. Check out stagnant water areas, and the ecology is pretty consistent. While certain kinds of life can found there, some general rules apply:

Stagnant: adj

1. (of water, etc.) standing still; without flow or current
2. brackish and foul from standing still
3. stale, sluggish, or dull from inaction
4. not growing or developing; static (Dictionary.com)

Spiritually speaking, I hope I am never in the stagnant water category for long. Not to be confused with periods of rest, times of slowing down, or seeking direction—stagnation is an eventual standstill leading to something foul. The closest thing in Scripture related to stagnant water is the “sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6,9; 10:26; 13:4; 19:24; 20:4; 26:14). Over and over, we are warned about complacency and laziness. Our stagnant condition, when we find ourselves in it, can be our responsibility to a certain extent. We absolutely must be active. The stagnant condition is detrimental. I’ve experienced it, and it was a tearful wake up call—a wake up call I hope always happens whenever I settle into this state.

The other extreme water condition that came to mind was the strong, forceful motion of white-capped waves. So much is going on with this water. It’s in motion, impacts everything it touches, and can be heard a long way off. Captivating, exciting, and maybe overwhelming—waves can be so impressive! Some of us dream of riding one. Others wait for one to crash near on the beach. I can stand watching them pound the beach all day, awestruck!

Wave: 
1. a disturbance on the surface of a liquid body, as the sea or a lake, in the form of a moving ridge or swell. n.
2. to move freely and gently back and forth or up and down, as by the action of air currents, sea swells, etc. v. (Dictionary.com)

Dictionary.com listed more than a dozen definitions of wave on the site, so I picked the two that made the most sense in this context. A disturbance on the surface, a swell, back and forth or up and down movement. There is untamed power in the foamy wave’s crash on the beach, and maybe there’s something soothing in the repetition. The motion is consistent. Forward and back. Forward and back. Powerful advance…followed by retreat. I don’t want to be known for that kind of life. I want to be known for a life that moves more forward than back, one that progresses and matures. No one really wants the life characterized by fear at the sight of a little conflict, or the one that languishes and dies. The only retreat I want to be known for is something like Luke 5:16 (withdrawing to spend time alone with my heavenly Father).

No, I’ll take the little splash that leads to the ripples on the surface. The beauty of it is that there is a specific cause and effect. In my case, it’s Truth causing a disturbance in the surface as it hits. It doesn’t seem like a lot of power, but it travels outward, impacting the water in every direction. Truth advances outside of my small world, and it’s a matter of simple hearing and living according to the truth I know—sometimes sharing with words.

Thanks for reading along. This post is a rewrite of an older one, and I like it so much more this time around. I hope you enjoyed it. Water is a theme in my life much of the time.

~j

What Do You Want in 2017?

Ally Bishop at Upgrade Your Story offered a brilliant challenge to writers in 2017, and I took time to noodle it and respond. If you’re a writer who doesn’t get excited about New Year’s resolutions (short-lived or beaten into submission for months on end) this idea may be encouraging. Take a peek at the question:

What do you personally want out of your writing this year? This is just for you. It’s not word count, a finished manuscript, or sales. What do you want from the craft?

As a writer, I want to craft authentic, believable characters on the page, the kind that draw readers in and captivate them for a while. A story can be plot-driven, but there’s no substitute for meaningful characters we fall in love with, cry with, or want to support and protect in light of the events or other characters in the story. A character whose temptations and choices make a reader say out loud “No-o-o-o, you don’t want to do that!” or “Yes-s-s-s! I’m so proud of you!” really works on the page and has the potential to make a difference in the reader’s life.

Real people have real, felt impact on others’ lives. For better or worse, lives are changed by relationships. (I want to write about that!) The characters on the page interact with one another, with me (the writer), and the reader. There’s powerful potential right there! But life isn’t scripted, and it’s not narrated as like some play-by-play scrawled on the page. A reader needs enough detail to construct a sensible scene, and their grey matter takes it from there.

One skill I’d love to master is telling a good story with these kinds of characters but giving just the right amount of detail. In the name of “clarity” I spell everything out. (I can almost hear myself say it—“No reader is going to misunderstand me!” ) Goodness! Readers are ever more clever than I give them credit for. If I tell them everything—which requires more words than a reader could possibly want to invest in—I’ll just end up boring them to death.

Now, all that up there is awesome, but there’s one little monkey wrench in the whole thing. My WIP is a memoir. So, the another part of this craft “focus” for 2017 is connected to embracing reality (I’m writing a familiar character, me!), finding the significance in the story (Why should a reader invest their time, mind, and heart in this?), and exploring the purpose of the story (A story has powerful potential, and I want to unleash that!).

I try to guard against the ugly places a memoir can go. This isn’t the time to craft cathartic “yack” on the page. But I don’t want to ignore the significant people, events, and experience that could benefit others. As I think about it, this is the time to explore the potential in my story and discover its shape, size, and weight.

Ally suggested writing vignettes to process pieces of story (changing the POV from my own to someone else’s), and I think that might be the perfect solution to some of the memoir mayhem. I tried it once and liked it—the difference between I and she was stark and wonderful. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Let’s see where the rabbit runs in 2017…

Thanks for reading along! If you’re planning writing goals for this year, I’d love to see what you’re thinking about. Let me know where you’re sharing them so I can take a little look-see.

~j

Remembering with Purpose

Do you wonder how a collection of my memories could be useful in your life? I’ve walked circles around that question and come to a sweet pause—the path diverges right there. I’ve gawked at the train wrecks in my storyline, captivated by the damage and long-term consequences. That never led to healing, transformation, or victory. The myopic perspective emptied the story of any sweetness, light, or power.

Story is powerful. We can experience refreshing, exhilaration, and even healing when we take time to read about others’ victories and deep soul transformation. How much greater the impact when the story reveals the presence of the Lover and Rescuer of the soul through the highs and lows! During the good, bad, and desperate moments in our lives it takes special eyes to see Him. (He is there, I promise.)

For me, to lean in or not to lean in; that’s the question!

Today I’m thinking about my story in a little coffee shop in Iowa. (I love to write in little, caffeinated hidey-holes.) The opportunity to share the beautiful plot twist written into my story by the Author of faith sprawls in front of me, and I’m taking it.

When I sat with little vignettes and tried to capture them, the purpose emerged from the shadows. I remembered details, but I took extra time to find three things: the power in the memory, the plans of the Enemy, and the presence of Jesus. These three pieces are important to the transformation that follows. They are also common elements in every story. Mine. Yours. Everyone’s.

Then I began to think about two questions that have the ability to shift perspective on nearly any life story.

What do I believe about God based on what has happened to me?
What is true about God based on what is written in Scripture?

Something settled in my soul in those two questions. I almost heard and felt Kachunk! in my spirit. These questions begged to be answered, and I understood why. My perspective about God is critical. It’s only in relationship to Him that I can understand some of the story details, events, and characters. I may never understand the hows and whys in my story in this life, but I have no hope of a healthy viewpoint or healing without God.

I hope you’ll have keener insight into your own story after reading White Wave Crashing. When my eyes took in the scenes of my life at a glance, I overlooked the presence of Jesus. I was angry He overlooked the indelible ink falling to the pages of my life. Was He invisible? Unconcerned? (The answer is, “No!” but it took time to discover that.) I hope you find that to be true as well. He loves us. Deeply. And He wants to sit with us in the exuberant joy, the deep sorrow, and the painful grief.

When you begin to remember, I hope you’ll find healing for your soul, too. There is victory over the enemy of our souls when we step forward and tell of the things God has done.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on remembering…and its purposeful place. Share below or at my  Author Page.

Blessings!

~j