Saturday, 29 January 2011

Scribbling Saturday: Sequence

When you write, when you put down the story fresh from your inspiration, it seems so right. You cannot see how it could be improved, except perhaps for some spelling and grammar. Why is it then, that left to lie for a while, to go cold from the heat of inspiration, you can see so many things wrong with it?

My historical biography of Alina de Mowbray was quite short, so I put in some chapters of background information. What was daily life like? What did they wear, eat? Marriage customs etc. It gave a fuller picture to the story. The story itself was told in chronological order, obviously, so how could the book be in the wrong order? But it was. I thought about it a lot while I was in hospital with nothing to do. And when I came home I completely reorganised it. The manuscript is now with two publishers who have asked to see it.

I am now editing (again!) the first of my Flight of the Kestrel books. I suddenly realised the other day that an important meeting happens far too late in the story, and a whole sub plot happens far too early. Luckily, with the software I use (yWriter), it is easy to move scenes from one chapter to another, but first you have to decide where they are to go. And then I had to check if I had referred to the rearranged scenes elsewhere in the book which would not make sense now they are moved.

Yet it was so right before. I chose to put the scenes where I did, and I must have had a good reason. But now it's so wrong. It's on days like these that I wonder why I put myself through all this and don't go back to cross stitch. That has a chart to make sure you put everything in the right place.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Thinking Thursday: Doing Silly Things

In the Bible there are lots of places where people were asked to do things that didn't make sense. Sometimes they seemed to be really silly. Look at these:

Numbers 21:6-9
The Israelites were bitten by venomous snakes and God told Moses to make a bronze snake – those who looked at it lived, those who thought it was silly, died.

2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman was the commander of the king of Aram's army, and he had leprosy. Elisha told Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times to be cured. He thought it was silly, but when his servant persuaded him to do it, he was healed.

John 3:1-21
Nicodemus was told by Jesus he had to be born again. He thought it was silly and Jesus had to gently explain it to him.

Why didn't God explain, or make it simpler? I think there are two reasons.
Isaiah 55:8-9 "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
We cannot always expect to understand God's plans, we have to trust him that he knows what he is doing. But the second reason comes from this. We have to humble ourselves to his will. I think sometimes God asks us to do something that doesn't make sense so we can show him we will be obedient, no matter what.

James 4:10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.
When we seek to serve God we often expect Him to call us to something extreme or difficult. God doesn’t always want missionaries to China – sometimes He just wants you to talk to your neighbour. What is God asking you to do that seems too silly?

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Scribbling Saturday: New First Officer and the Crew of The Kestrel

So, in recent weeks I've talked about editing my first Flight of the Kestrel novel. It has been edited a few times already and improved a whole lot, but over the years I have improved a whole lot too. Whether it's enough to make me a decent science fiction novelist remains to be seen, but I have learned enough to look at this novel with fresh eyes and see the holes in it.

For example, let me set the scene with this excerpt:
As he left the meeting, Martin's head was reeling. Everything was happening so fast, and he was missing a First Officer. There were so many things to arrange. For example, if the other races were going to send extra crew, where were they going to put them? He was so absorbed, that he almost bumped into a figure coming the other way.
"Parks! They let you come!"
"Couldn't keep me down once I heard. How did you swing it?"
Martin grabbed him by the arm. "We'll talk later, right now there is so much to do." He paused in the process of dragging him along. "Am I glad you're here."
As they walked away, they made a mismatched couple. Martin was of average build, with brown hair, rather unremarkable. Nathaniel Parks was tall and wiry, and blond. But despite the difference in their appearance, they were very good friends.
- - - - - - - - - -
Joseph Martin is the captain of The Kestrel and he has just been sent on an urgent mission. The first thing Parks has to do is to assign quarters for all the extra crew from the other races, and since The Kestrel is a small ship with a crew of 11, 6 extra crew is going to be quite a squeeze. So his introduction to the rest of the crew is to upset them all. He tells Martin that he intends to have a quiet chat with each crew member to get to know them all, but here's the problem: When?

In the rest of the novel, I can't find a place to put these conversations without breaking the flow, and although they will be a good place for some 'show, don't tell' about these characters, I don't know what to say. It's driving me mad!

I don't know why I don't just delete the whole thing. Well, I do. It's because I'm a writer.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Thinking Thursday: The Narrow Will of God

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. [Matt. 7: 13, 14]

This message was for those seeking to follow Jesus. It goes with his message “no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14: 6) The emphasis is that of the many ways one can live, there is only one way to come to the Lord God. The gate is narrow, there is only one way through.

However, once through the gate, once on the way, many Christians continue to believe that the way is narrow. They believe that God’s will has a very specific, very detailed plan for their life, and they must be careful not to stray from it. They fret their lives away trying to determine the will of God in every situation and worrying in case they miss it. Let us pursue that thought for a moment, and see where it leads.

If God’s will is so narrow, then becoming a Christian puts you in a straight jacket. Where does that leave free will? I do not propose to get into the question of foreordination and free will. That has challenged great minds for centuries. Let us just consider God’s plan for your life.

If God’s plan is so detailed, why are you not aware of his leading in every small decision you make, many times in a day? What shall I wear? What shall I have for breakfast? Which friend shall I call for a chat? You may think that level of detail is absurd. God doesn’t care what you have for breakfast, or maybe only to the extent that he wants you to eat healthily and look after your body. But you know that already, from scripture. (Is it possible that the rest of God’s plan is in scripture too?) If God’s plan does not go down to that level of detail, where do you draw the line? After all, the friend you call may be the one in need who had not thought to call you.

Whatever level of detail you settle on, because you are not aware of God’s direction in every decision, there must be times, many times, when you chose wrongly. That means that God’s purposes are thwarted, and he has to make adjustments to his plan. Can you see God continually having to re-think things for millions of people because they have not stayed within his narrow will? What kind of a God is that? And what kind of a child of God are you, to be outside his will so often?

Can you see that this makes us flawed followers of a flawed God? We cannot tolerate the thought of a flawed God, and though we know we are flawed, to fail God that often is a great burden. The Bible has much to say about our status as forgiven, saved children of God; about the work of the Holy Spirit within us to make us better servants. This idea only gives us a huge burden of guilt for letting God down so often and frustration at not being able to determine his will for us. When you think it through it does not ring true.

Let me give an example. Suppose I am not very happy in my job and have been trying to find another job - so far without success. Is this God telling me that it is his will that I stay in my current job? Or could it be that which job I do is irrelevant to his plan and I just haven’t been good enough for any of the jobs I have applied for? It makes a difference whether I keep trying or not.

I believe that God gave me a mind, and asks me to worship him with it too (Matt. 22: 37). I think he expects me to use good judgement in making decisions, using the intelligence he has given me and the guidelines he has given in the Bible. If he wants me to do or say a certain thing because it is important to his plan, I am sure he will make it plain. If he needs me to be in a certain place, he will make sure I get there. There is no way that God’s plan can be blocked or spoiled, otherwise he would not be God.

“the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25, cf 5:21). He knows, and foreknows, all things, and His foreknowledge is foreordination; He, therefore, will have the last word, both in world history and in the destiny of every man; His kingdom and righteousness will triumph in the end, for neither men nor angels shall be able to thwart Him. [J I Packer, Knowing God, p.27]

Or as God himself has said:

I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do as I please…
What I have said, that will I bring about;
what I have planned, that will I do. [Isaiah 46:10, 11b]

When I pray to know God’s will, I ask him to make it plain if there is a certain way to take, but otherwise to help me to use what he has already given me to make the best decision. I even think sometimes there is no right way, but I can have free choice of what I want to do. It doesn’t matter. If it did, God would tell me.

The day you decide to live this way, a great burden of guilt and frustration will fall from you and you will be able to serve God better as you learn and grow.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Scribbling Saturday: Planning

Last Saturday I mentioned that I am very plot driven as a writer. The trouble is, that it is not usually a very complex plot, which does not make a very long or absorbing story. I add extra bits as I go. Now I am editing my very first Kestrel novel in the light of all I have learned since, and it's really hard to keep track of.

The latest edition of Writing Magazine has the first of a series of articles on developing a story. It's called The Big Idea, and the basic question is, how do you develop your original big idea into a whole story without straying away from it? The answer, which apparently many well known authors use, is to write individual ideas on index cards and arrange them on the floor. As each idea sparks others, you can write more cards and fit them in.

It sounds like a great idea, but my plot is already written, and I have to find the holes and rearrange things. I think I have to write a lot of index cards.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Thinking Thursday: Be Very Careful How You Live

Eph.5:15 Be very careful, the, how you live - not as unwise but as wise.

A friend introduced me to the music of Christian singer/songwriter Michael Card. One of the songs gave me pause for thought. The chorus says:
I have decided
Gonna live like a believer
Turn my back on the deceiver
Gonna live what I believe.
I have decided
Doing good is just a fable
I just can’t ‘cause I’m not able
Gonna leave it to the Lord.

This rang true with me, because I have a constant struggle to ‘do good’ and only seem to be able to sustain it for short periods. I get very frustrated when I read books and hear sermons which tell me to ‘trust in the Lord’ or ‘live by the Spirit’, without actually explaining what this means in practical terms. The question is “So how?”

If, in the words of the song, I am “gonna live what I believe”, what does that actually look like, lived out every day? In fact, what do I believe?

Our Pastor used to often say that our lives do not reflect what we say we believe. There is another of Michael Card’s songs which says:
You are the light of the world, O Lord,
You make your people shine.
So how could there be any darkness in me,
If you are the light of the world?

You are the bread of life, O Lord,
Broken to set us free.
So how could there be any hunger in me,
If you are the bread of life?

You’ve overcome the world, O Lord,
You’ve given us victory.
So why should I fear when trouble is near,
If you’ve overcome the world?

I am very wary of lists – of the books that promise 6 steps to holiness, or 10 steps to a better prayer life. There are no easy solutions, as I found out as a teenager when I joined a cult that taught me that I just had to be obedient and I would get into heaven. Having a list of things to do seemed simple, until you really tried to be perfect all the time, then you realised how hard it is in reality. But a list can be a good way to start when you can’t see the way forward. I remember an old saying, “God cannot direct your steps unless you move your feet.” So I have spent some time in the Bible and made my own list as a starting point to “live what I believe.”

1. Seek the Lord
Ps.9:9 The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Ps.9:1 I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.
Eph.5:18-20 … be filled with the Spirit …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything

God must be our starting point. The more often you think about Him, the more likely that your steps will be in a direction He approves of. Ephesians chapter 5 begins “Be imitators of God.” How can you imitate someone unless you know what He is like?

2. Forgive yourself
Isa.43:18 Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.

Accepting God’s forgiveness can sometimes be hard, but forgiving ourselves can be harder. We often handicap ourselves by remembering our faults and failings, instead of looking to God to help us do better. You need to hold on to God’s promises and believe that you can succeed if He is with you.

3. Maintain a spirit of goodwill
Eph.4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

God has promised us “peace … which transcends all understanding.” There is no need for us to be miserable, and especially with non-Christians. Do your work colleagues or your neighbours think of you as a cheerful, kind and helpful person? Often it is our lives they read before they read our Bible. And believe me, doing good to others is a very uplifting experience, and can easily become a habit!

4. Be a person of integrity
Eph.4:17 …you must no longer live as the Gentiles do…
25 …speak truthfully…
26 In your anger do not sin…
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs…
31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
Eph.5:4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking…
8-9 …Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)

These are such basic ways to behave that they often get forgotten, or overlooked in all the ‘more serious’ sins in the lists of which we are not guilty. How easy it is to join in the gossip at work or to make jokes about people. How easy it is to lie to cover our mistakes or to lose our tempers. I am not saying that we can be perfect in these things at once, and we will often slip back, but the more often you keep aware of these things and make a conscious effort, the more of a habit they will become. And don’t forget to apologise when you are in the wrong or have spoken unwisely – it has a remarkable effect on people. Soon these things will be part of your lifestyle.

5. Seek out beauty daily
Ps.8:1a,3a,4a,5b O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth…
When I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers…
What is man that you are mindful of him…
You…crowned him with glory and honour.

This may seem to be a strange item in the list, but we all need lifting above the mundane and reminding what a great God we have and what great things He has done. Hamlet called man “this quintessence of dust” and wondered at how he compared to God’s creation. But this great, almighty God has given us so much, and sent his only Son to die for us. Find some way to remind yourself of this often – even if it is a picture of a beautiful scene up on the wall.

6. Tell others
Ps.9:1 I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonders.
Eph.5:16 making the most of every opportunity

We need to tell others of God’s wonders, as well as telling God how great He is. I know it is scary, but you have faced other scary things in your life – exams, driving test, giving a speech. In every case you planned and prepared in order to do your best. Take the time to learn how to share the gospel and how to look for opportunities in conversation to make comments that may make people think. You never know what ‘seeds’ may take root and one day you may have the chance to discuss it further.

And if your life is living what you believe, others will notice and will take you more seriously when you explain why you live the way you do.

There is a chorus which I often hum to myself during the day, which gives me confidence:
And your grace clothes me in righteousness
And your mercy covers me with love
Your love adorns and beautifies
I stand complete in you.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Scribbling Saturday: Details, Details

It seems to me that some writers over-write, getting everything down that they can think of, and editing it down later; and some writers under-write, getting down the bare bones and adding to it later. I fall into the latter category, and wish I didn't.

My writing is very plot-driven. Only as I have progressed as a writer have I started to pay more attention to characters, and include character development as part of the plot. In the beginning my characters were cardboard constructions whose only purpose was to advance the plot. The trouble was, that no one was interested in the plot because they didn't care about the characters.

NaNoWriMo was a huge help to me. I knew my story outline was not worth 50,000 words, so every day the goal was to write as many words as possible without getting to the end of the scene. I had to put in as much detail as possible. It really changed the way I write - for the better, I hope.

My son was amazed that, after writing three novels about the spaceship The Kestrel, that I had no idea what the bridge looked like. In fact, I didn't know the layout of the ship at all. It didn't seem to be important to know what the surroundings were like. You're probably horrified too.

I am a great reader, yet never took the trouble to pay attention to how the book was written. I think it's about time!

So now I am going through the Kestrel novels again, from the beginning, to add in the details I should have put in originally! (All suggestions gratefully received.)

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Thinking Thursday: Elijah and Persistence

Reading: 1Kings 17:17-24 & 1 Kings 18:41-46

When we think of the prophet Elijah, we remember the spectacular stories. We think of the widow’s pot of flour and jug of oil that never ran out, and the fire falling from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering on Mount Carmel before the prophets of Baal. But I re-read the stories the other day and noticed something I hadn’t seen before.

Elijah was living with the widow, whose supplies lasted as long as she fed him. Then one day her only son died and she cried out to Elijah. Elijah carried the son upstairs and laid him on his bed. He prayed to God to heal him and then lay down on him. And what happened? Nothing.

Again Elijah prayed and lay down on the dead son. Again nothing happened. What would you have done if it had been you in Elijah’s place? I know I would have begun to doubt. Was God going to answer my prayer? Had I misunderstood? Was I praying for the wrong thing? The widow’s son was raised back to life – but not until the third time.

After Elijah’s spectacular confrontation with the prophets of Baal he told Ahab the king to go home quickly as it was going to rain. Then he went to a cliff top and knelt down and bowed before God in prayer. He sent his assistant to look out at the sky. Nothing.

Elijah’s credibility was really at stake this time. It wasn’t just an unknown widow in a tiny town. He had told the king it was going to rain. And did it rain when he prayed? No.

I was amazed when I read the story. Elijah sent his assistant seven times before he came back and reported that he saw a little cloud “like a fist.”

We often give mental assent to things which we find hard to believe when faced with the reality. We know God has His own timing and His own plans (Isa. 55:8-9). We know we should be persistent in prayer and wait for the Lord. But what have you been praying for and not yet seen? Will you be like Elijah and keep on until God fulfils His promise?

Hebrews 10:35-36
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Stroke Recovery: New Year's Resolutions

I know it's Scribbling Saturday, but it's New Year's Day, and thoughts turn to last year and this year. My goals for my writing and my life in general will follow, but here are my goals for my stroke recovery this year:
  1. Learn to walk without a stick
  2. Walk round the block
  3. Go back to work

And my wishes:

  1. For my throat to return to normal
  2. For my right arm to come back to life

And a very happy New Year to you all!