It’s Simplify Your Life Week!

I’ve always thought of August as the month with no holidays. Maybe because it’s just too hot to think about celebrating anything. Ha, ha!

While it’s true that there are no “federal” or religious holidays in August (like Labor Day or Easter), there are a number of other “days” that are declared as special by some.

I found out that August 3-9 is considered National Simplify Your Life week.

While I couldn’t find an actual definition for this, I did find a number of other blogs that discuss it, especially those focused on helping organize your space, time, and just life in general.

I’ve always been a natural organizer, as my mother can tell you. From “playing” with my dolls by arranging them from smallest to biggest to “re-organizing” every crayon box I’ve ever owned by color families, bringing order to my surroundings is something I’ve always done.

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Just some of the books on organizing that I’ve accumulated over the years

I say, “I can’t function in chaos,” and that’s so true. When I’m surrounded by a mess, my brain just shuts down and I can’t think straight. I have to create order first, and then I can think clearly again.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this year, one of my goals for 2017 is to restore “balance” in my life. To find a way to fit in all the things I need to do so that there is a semblance of order and purpose. So I can make sense of it all and get it all (or at least most of it) done.

It has been a struggle, but I’m trying. Little by little.

Simplifying is just one part of organizing and creating balance. If you’ve ever watched any show on HGTV, you’ll see that the first thing the designers do is clear out a space so that it’s empty, and then start filling it with the most important things for that space.

If it’s a bedroom, obviously the most important thing is a bed. And then there are other essentials, such as dressers to hold clothing and lamps to provide lighting. And lastly go in the non-essentials, such as wall art, curtains, rugs. These things aren’t essential to the “function” of the room, but they do bring a sense of completion, a feeling of comfort and enjoyment.

Our lives are that way, too. We first should evaluate everything in our lives and decide what is essential, what is functional, and what brings joy. And then make a place for those things in the proper ratio.

For me, my essentials are my faith and relationship to my Lord, my family and friends, and my writing, which I believe is my calling. The functional things are my job (because I got bills to pay, ya know), my home, clothing, food, transportation. The things that make it possible to live. And then there are the things which bring me joy – art, music, entertainment. Reading books, drawing, playing piano, watching television. These are the little pieces that add spark and color.

But in the wrong ratio, they cause chaos.

Just like a bright color or bold pattern can overwhelm a room design, too much of the wrong things can cause imbalance and unpleasant consequences. If all I did was sit around and draw pictures, I would be in big trouble. I would have no job, no money, no food, nothing clean to wear, and my family would probably put out a “have you seen this kid” poster for me.

All kidding aside, though, I’m going to work on simplifying over the next week. I’ve already started with my email inbox, opting out of emails subscriptions I do not read and coupons I never use. And putting the rest in folders that make it easy for me to find what I’m looking for.

Simplifying your life can start, well…simply. What’s one thing you can do this week to simplify your life? Share by leaving a comment below.

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A New Season

Ah… Fall. My favorite time of year! I love the colors of the leaves, the crispness in the air! It’s the time to take long walks down leaf-strewn country roads. The time to wander through a corn maze or go to a Fall Festival. The time for apple cider and hot chocolate and all things “pumpkin spice.”

It’s the beginning of a new season. The heat of the summer is past, and as we look forward to cooler weather, we put away our tank tops, shorts, and sandals. I’m ready to break out my jackets, sweaters, and cute boots. How about you?

It’s a new season for my writing, as well.

I’m working on Book 2 in my series, and I’m finding that it’s a very different experience the second time around.

When I started working on Book 1, no one knew about it. Just me and the Lord. It was our little secret. I could work at my own pace. I could make mistakes. I could start, stop, and then start again. I had the freedom to create this little world of my imagination however I wanted.

After a little while, I let a few people in on my secret – those I trusted with my little dream. I even let a few of them read my work! It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

As time went on, more people entered my writing world, as I joined a writers group, then a critique group. I met more writers at conferences and made new friends.

But for the most part, my writing world was still “quiet.”

As I begin work on Book 2, it’s so very different. My writing world is crowded. There are more people involved. More who know about my little dream. More who ask me, “How’s it going?”

I’m trying to get published. Which means going to conferences, meeting agents and editors. Sending proposals. And waiting. Lots of waiting.

But there is still much to do during the waiting periods. I have social media to worry about. Did I tweet today? What should I share on Facebook? I need to update my blog. What will I write about? Am I “engaging” my audience? Am I building my “brand” and “platform”?

For, you see, that is what agents, editors, and publishing houses look at. It’s what they expect me to do – to market myself and my writing. But also, to write. All while holding down a day job. And cooking. And doing the laundry. And oh yeah, trying to have a life somewhere in between.

And I’m finding that it’s just much “louder” this time around. I’m not sitting in my writing room, just me and the Lord, playing with words, creating characters and worlds from my imagination.

There are expectations, people to please, audiences to find, pressures to excel.

And while all of this can be a good thing, it does a number on one’s creativity.

I’m finding that I must try even harder to shut out the “noise.” I have to be mindful to close myself off to the outside world and immerse myself into the writing world. Consciously. Forcefully, even.

The desire to write is still there. Maybe even more so, since I am re-visiting characters I have come to love. Like visiting with old friends. And I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.

It’s still fun. It’s still thrilling and terrifying. But it’s just different. A new season. But just as I look forward to sweater weather and bonfires, I can look forward to this new season – with all its possibilities and unexplored paths and new discoveries that are just waiting for me. And soon the new will become as familiar and comfortable as my favorite pair of boots!

What about you? What is YOUR favorite thing about Fall? What have you discovered through the different “seasons” of life? Please join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

ACFW Conference Day 1

Hello all! As promised, this begins the run-down of my time at the ACFW Conference in Nashville, TN.

I’ll try not to bore you with ALL the details, because a LOT happened. But I will give you the highlights.

I met up with my friends from our local ACFW Chapter early on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 24, and we headed out. My friend Ane, who was driving, and my critique group leader, Ruth, and I. We stopped a couple of hours away and picked up another member, Cindy.

The day was lovely, even though it had started out with rain. But as we drove, the skies cleared up. We stopped for lunch just outside of Chattanooga in a little town called Monteagle. And we had a great time in fellowship together and talking about writing on the way. I felt like the conference had already started as I was already learning so much!

We arrived in Nashville a little after 3pm Eastern time. Nashville is on Central time, so it was 2pm there. That was a little weird to get used to.

The conference was at the Omni Hotel in downtown Nashville. It was a beautiful building inside and out. My room was very nice!

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I didn’t have the best view as I looked down onto the building across the street, which I later learned was the Music City Center.

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After little sleep the night before, and a 6-hour trip, I was tired. So I took a quick nap before meeting up with Ruth and Cindy for supper in the hotel restaurant. It was nice, and we sat near the window, where we looked out on a beautiful old church building and could watch people passing by on the street.

The conference didn’t officially start until the next day, so we had the evening off. We walked around the hotel, getting familiar with the surroundings, and visited the conference registration table to get registered.

We got cool nametags to hang around our necks. Each person had a unique set of ribbons. Mine had brown for the “First Time Attendees,” a peach colored one for our “zone” – which is the Southeast Zone. And I had a light blue one indicating that I was a contest Finalist.

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We also got a nice nice bag to carry our stuff in and an almost 50-page booklet with a map of the conference center, each day’s schedule of meetings and classes (and a description of each class), pictures of the conference staff, ACFW board, and the various editors, agents, and mentors available for appointments. Plus, lots of cool features, like an interview with the keynote speaker, best-selling author Ted Dekker. And a feature on the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the legendary Janette Oke. Yep, THAT’S the kind of company I was in.

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Among the various ads for books and publishing houses, there was a list of this year’s Carol Awards nominees. The Carol Awards are for “recognition for quality fiction published in the previous calendar year.” So many great books were listed there.

And then there was the Genesis Award Finalists. How cool to see my name listed among those! And the First Impressions Winners. That contest takes place in the Fall and is for the first five pages of a manuscript.

There were also pictures of the winners from the 2015 Awards Gala and the list of other nominees for this year: Mentor of the Year, Editor of the Year, and Agent of the Year. And a list of the MANY conference volunteers! It takes a LOT of people to make something this big go so smoothly.

There was even a helpful section called, “Getting the Most from Your Conference Experience.” How thoughtful!

I got settled into my room and had a good night’s sleep, anticipating the next day when the conference would actually get started.

Happy News!

I’m back from the ACFW conference in Nashville, TN. What a whirlwind! I’m not sure if my head has stopped spinning yet. I’ll write more about my experiences there later, but first, I need to let you in on a secret. I couldn’t say anything about it until now.

Back in March, I entered an ACFW contest called “Genesis.” It’s for unpublished writers. I had to send in a brief synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript. There were 10 categories, and my category was Romantic Suspense.

Why enter contests? There are a couple of reasons. One, you get great feedback. Your entry is judged by published authors. The judging is “blind,” meaning, you don’t know who the judges are, and they don’t know who you are. The advantage is that you get honest, unbiased responses to your writing.

Another reason is that if you make it to the latter rounds, you can get judged by editors and agents. This is a great way to get industry feedback. Is your story “marketable”? Would someone be interested enough to publish it?

Plus, being listed as a finalist gets your name out there. You get noticed by those in the industry.

And finally, it’s good practice. It gives you a reason to look at your work objectively and to polish it as best you can. To put in the effort to “put your best foot forward.”

So, I entered, hoping for some good feedback. And then I forgot about it. Went on about my business. Focused on getting ready for the Blue Ridge conference in May.

The week before I went to Blue Ridge, I got a phone call. It was on a Wednesday night. I was settled on the couch, eating supper and watching TV. I didn’t recognize the number but the caller left a message. So I listened. It was a lady from ACFW who was calling to tell me that I had made it past the first round of judging and was now a “semi-finalist!” Wow! I was blown away.

Honestly, I had forgotten about the contest. As I said, I was hoping for some good feedback, and that was pretty much it. I never thought I would be a semi-finalist. In fact, I had to go back to the contest website to understand what being a semi-finalist actually meant.

I was in the top 7 of the entrants in my category! I was instructed not to say anything on social media since the judging was “blind,” as I explained earlier. But I did call and text a few close friends, and my mom, of course. J

Our entries now went on to the next round of judges. If we made it past that round, they would let us know before June 15th, when they would announce the 3 finalists on their website. That was about 6 weeks away.

I put it out of my mind, concentrated on the Blue Ridge conference, went, and had a great time. But as June 15th got closer, my mind drifted back to the contest. I was sure I wouldn’t go any farther. After all, I was up against 6 other authors who had risen above the hundreds who had entered the contest. It was probably some strange fluke that I had even made it that far.

On June 14th, I hadn’t heard anything yet. So, I didn’t make it. No worries. I mean, I never even thought I would make it to the semi-finals. Even that was totally cool and unexpected. I left work that evening and went home, taught piano like usual, and then settled down in front of the TV to eat supper.

And then the phone rang.

With a shaking hand, I answered. The sweet voice of my coordinator came on to tell me that I was a finalist! Top 3 in my category! She instructed me that I would receive an email that night with my feedback from the first 2 rounds of judging, and that I would have 48 hours to make any changes to my entry and send it back to them.

I couldn’t believe it. I actually wished I hadn’t answered the phone so she would’ve left a message so that I could play it back again and again to make sure it was real. And that I really had heard her right.

I got my feedback, went through it, and decided what changes I needed to make. I updated my entry and sent it back in.

After that, there was nothing left to do. This round would go to 3 judges who were editors and/or agents. I wouldn’t hear anything else until they announced the winners at the Awards Gala during the conference in August.

This blog post is already getting so long, so I’m going to continue the story later as I recap each day of the conference. Tune in soon to hear the rest of the story!

Happy Blog-iversary!

I just realized that this month marks 3 years that I’ve been doing this blog. Wow! How did that happen?

Time certainly marches on, and day by day, week by week, the years roll on. And here we are, 3 years into this whole “blogging” thing, and I still have much to learn.

I started this blog because of reading the book, “The Circle Maker,” by Mark Batterson. In it, Mark explains how he had a “circle” of people praying for him as he wrote his first book. And it inspired me to create my own circle of friends and family to hold me up in prayer as I wrote my first book.

The blog became a way for me to communicate with you all as I progressed through the process. And then something incredible happened.

I gained a little confidence. I got serious. I read books about the “craft” of writing. I took an outlining class. I spent nights and weekends holed up in my writing room, pounding away at the keyboard until I had finished the first draft. A whole completed novel! I really did it! And you prayed me through it!

Then, I joined a writers group – my local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers. I started going to monthly meetings. I talked “shop” with other writers. I learned. And learned. And learned.

I joined a local critique group of 4 other women. I read their chapters and gave feedback. I shared my chapters and got feedback. And I got better.

And I kept writing. I wrote and edited and re-wrote and proofread and re-wrote again. I polished (and in some cases, wrestled) that little story into something else – a “manuscript” (which is what the publishing world calls it).

I began to see myself as a “real writer.” And then I did something truly scary – I attempted to get published.

I entered contests, sharing my writing with faceless, nameless “judges” who held my little dream in their hands. I went to writing conferences, meeting more writers and making new friends. I learned about “pitching” and what “one sheets” are. I sat down across from Agents and Editors and pretended to know what I was doing as I told them about my manuscript.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending the ACFW’s annual conference. This year, it’s being held in Nashville, TN. It’s my first time attending this large, national conference. I’ll write more about the conference later, but it’s hard to believe the path I’ve traveled in just 3 years. Going from a total newbie who knew next to nothing about writing to sort of feeling like I’m starting to get a handle on what it is to be a writer.

Most importantly, what I’ve learned in that time is that being a writer is truly what God has designed me to be. It is not just what I do, but who I am. And when I write, I feel like the best version of myself.

I’m so thankful for your continued support, encouragement, and prayers. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, still plugging away in 2016. My little “circle” has grown bigger, but it’s still as special to me. Thank you for continuing on this journey with me.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share by leaving a comment!

The Elements of Fiction: Character

My last post on the Elements of Fiction dealt with plot, and it was hard to lock that topic down without morphing into this topic – characters. The two go hand-in-hand, just like peanut butter and jelly (I’m not a big fan of peas and carrots).

I said before that the plot IS the story, and without plot, you don’t have a story. Well, without characters, you don’t have a story either. Plot tells what happens, and the characters are the people to whom the plot happens.

I also stated before that the seed for my first novel began with a character. Once I discovered WHO this character was, the answers to the questions I had began to take shape.

A story usually has a “protagonist,” or main character, who wants or needs something and an “antagonist,” or the person or thing which opposes the protagonist from achieving his or her goal. Sounds simple enough. But of course, it’s not really that simple.

The protagonist must be special, someone the reader can immediately relate to, engage with, and root for. He or she must be both strong and fallible, real and flawed but also admirable and heroic.

Some novels may have a cast of characters that collectively represent a protagonist. Think Justice League of America. Or if you’re not a comic book nerd like me, think of the cast of movies such as The Breakfast Club or The Dirty Dozen. Each character has his or her own “story within the story.” Each has a personal demon to fight or circumstance to overcome. But their stories intertwine to form a whole entity that must prevail against a common antagonist.

Most books on writing will tell you, though, that this is hard to accomplish within a novel. Because a reader needs someone to latch on to, your story would be best suited by pulling out one strong protagonist for the reader to follow throughout the journey that is the novel. Otherwise, the reader might feel pulled in too many directions and can’t really focus on one particular character to identify with. They won’t have the same loyalty to a wide cast of characters that they will to one main character.

Now, this idea can shift according to genre. For romance and romantic suspense novels, there should be two main characters – the hero and heroine. Obviously, since the main point of a romance is for two people to fall in love, you must have two main characters who are both striving toward a common goal – to be in love. These novels will still have an antagonist – something that keeps them from reaching their goal. For a romance, it could be a person or persons. Perhaps a rival love interest, an angry ex, or even society that keeps them apart.

For romantic suspense, the antagonist usually takes the form of some kind of danger – a deadly threat to either the hero or heroine or both. Because of the suspense element, the two main characters are usually somehow involved in a criminal investigation, murder mystery, or a threat to the safety of others. Many of these characters have jobs in law enforcement, the military, or other public safety agency.

In the next few posts, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my characters (without revealing too much about the plot of the story!).

What kind of characters do you relate to the most? Are there certain traits that draw you to a character? Name a character who made a strong impression on you (for good or bad). Share in the comments.

The Elements of Fiction: Plot

The “plot” of a story is one of the most important things about it, if not THE most important. Because the plot IS the story. It’s the answer to “What is your story about?” Without a plot, you would just have characters sitting around somewhere doing nothing. And no one wants to read that, no matter how interesting, exotic, or eccentric the characters are.

Some authors began writing their stories with the plot already in mind, and fill in the characters as they develop the story idea. Others may begin with a character, and then decide what that character’s journey will be, which develops into the plot.

The seed for my first novel began years ago with a character. I could picture it, like a scene from a movie playing out in my head. A female, strong, independent, put into a situation where she felt insecure and lost. Out of her element, in other words. She was in a small Southern town, but she was from somewhere else – a big city. And she had to learn to navigate her new surroundings.

My first question was, “Who is she?” And the next question was, “How did she get there?” Followed by, “Why was she there? And what was she doing there?” As I began pondering those questions, the ideas for the story and the characters began to form in my imagination.

I had to figure out who she was and then I had to give her a reason to be there. And once I figured that out, the other ideas began to fall into place. Now, it took years for those first ideas to formulate into something that resembled a plot. Well, a good plot anyway. Because a story has to be good, of course.

A plot is like the vine that my co-worker had growing out of its pot and up around his floor lamp in his office – it grows, and it changes as it grows. It starts from a small seed of an idea and morphs into something that takes on a life of itself. A plot idea must be many things: interesting, fresh and new, believable, but also engaging to the reader, unexpected, twisty and surprising, and solid enough to carry an entire novel.

But it begins with just one idea.

What kind of plots do you enjoy? Murder, mystery, suspense, thriller, romance, drama? Do you prefer character-driven plots or action-driven plots?