Monday, February 28, 2011

The Camel Game

This one's going to be REAL short.

Have you ever read one of those studies on stress?  You know, the studies where they list all sorts of life events and assign a stress point-value to each one?  Well, right now, I am going through four or five of the "biggies" simultaneously and my stress meter is seriously in the red!  I'm not dying, divorcing, having a baby, or getting married; otherwise, you name it, and I'm probably going through it.

At least I've figured out why.

Twelve years ago, a pastor with whom I was working told me, "You have a lot of performance issues, Dee. God is going to break you of them."  Break is the operative word here.  As a teacher, I have been complimented many times for my "flexibility." The problem is that flexible people are hard to break.  What's that Chinese proverb about trees? "The tree that does not bend with the wind will be broken by the wind."  You probably also know the expression, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."  Over the years I've had a lot of near-death experiences, emotionally-speaking, and so I've gotten stronger.  Flexibility + strength = someone who is really REALLY hard to break.  God's been gentle over the last decade...maybe too gentle.  My performance issues are still there, in droves.  (You'd think that writing The Voice would have opened my eyes to both the problem and the solution, but it didn't.)  Anyway, I've come to the conclusion that God is playing the camel game with me this year.

Maybe you are old enough to remember the camel game: the one where you kept putting straws into its basket until it snapped in half.  Schaper Toys marketed the game, called "The Last Straw," in the mid 1960s.  That camel was NOT flexible, even if he was held together with a rubber band!  He was hard plastic and when he got overloaded, he fell apart.

Sadly, whenever God gives me as much as I can handle, that's exactly what I do: I handle it.  In order to break me, then, He will have to give me MORE than I can handle, and I think He's really close at the moment.  If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I am not enjoying the experience.  Of course, that's probably because I keep trying to handle the load.  ("Bring it on, Lord!")  As I sit here reading the cover of the "Last Straw" box, which promises Fun and Laughs for Everyone, I am not having fun or laughing.  Then again, if I am the camel in this metaphor, maybe I'm not supposed to be having fun.  I do hope God is enjoying the game, though.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Time to Kill

 There is a time for everything,
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build...    (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, NIV)
Many years ago, long before I knew God or had written anything of significance, I helped plan and run a sci-fi/fantasy convention for fans of the "Darkover" series by Marian Zimmer Bradley.  I've forgotten most of what went on at that convention, but a few things managed to stick in my brain, many of them quotes from a panel of writers who participated in a Q&A session with the fans.  If memory serves, the panel included Ms. Bradley and also Katherine Kurz and Anne McCaffrey...all of them favorites of mine at the time.  I can't recall who said what (we're talking more than 25 years ago), but some of these gems still spring to my mind on a regular basis and have influenced my own writing.  For example:
Of the harp and the violin, which is the greater instrument?  The violin.  Why?  Because the harp cannot sin, while the violin can sin but chooses not to.
Having attempted to play the violin when I was younger, I had to agree with part of that statement. (The violin can definitely sin in the wrong hands!)  I myself never had any better luck with the harp, but I admire those who can play it, which is probably why I taught Katan to love the kinnor. (Like Yochanan, who is arguably the most autobiographical of my characters, my hands have little skill at drawing music out of inanimate objects; most of my own music comes from my voice, although I have learned--like Yosef--to make joyful noises on my "flute," an antique alto recorder.)

The comment that most affected me was one I am fairly sure was made by Ms. Bradley, who caught my attention by criticizing one of my favorite writers, Robert A. Heinlein:
I lost all respect for Heinlein when I read the end of Podkayne of Mars.  Podkayne should have died.  By allowing her to live, he weakened the story and destroyed its believability for me.  I hate killing off my characters, but sometimes it is simply necessary.  The writer who cannot kill a character when the plot demands it, is no writer at all.
Writing fiction is a godlike endeavor.  In my opinion, it is the closest thing to pure creation that a human being can achieve.  All other forms of art take what already exists--clay, paint, stone, fabric, metal--and shape it into a new form; only fiction writing creates worlds, peoples them with characters created in the author's own image, and then maps out a destiny that the characters are doomed to follow to its bitter end.

Douglas Gresham, executor of C.S. Lewis's estate and co-creator of the Narnia movies, warns about this when he speaks about the moral responsibility that writers have.  I was privileged to hear him at a conference two years ago, but his words sometimes haunt me:
When we read a story in which a damsel has been tied to a tree and is about to be eaten by a dragon, before we rejoice in the fact that a prince is about to ride to her rescue, we must ask ourselves whose fault it is that she needs rescuing in the first place!
He points out, and rightly so, that the imagination of the writer is a formidable weapon for good or for ill.  Is it right, I often wonder, to create a character for the sole purpose of doing him in?  In spite of this moral dilemma, I have made the conscious choice to follow the advice of Ms. Bradley.  When it is necessary to the plot, theme, or character development in one of my stories, I kill the characters.

In my own defense, I will point out that some of the bloodshed in my novels is unavoidable.  Since I write historical fiction, it is not always my idea to kill the characters.  I mean, I wasn't the one who decided to chop off Yochanan's head: blame that one on Herod Antipas.  If I had been plotting that story, I would have allowed Yonni to ride off into the sunset and sit at Yeshua's feet until the end of his days.  (I am forced to admit, however, that it wouldn't have been as good a story; as Yeshua himself pointed out, "it is inconceivable that a prophet should die anywhere other than Jerusalem.")

I can't pass all of the bucks onto God, though.  I confess, I have killed off an awful lot of people just because they were in the way.  Real life may allow for 628 facebook friends, but just try to keep track of all of them in a novel!  And make them three-dimensional!  It's bad enough that Jesus chose TWELVE disciples.  To have him juggling a large family as well...brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins...and gets positively overwhelming.  Some of them simply had to go.  So, if you are squeamish about such things, don't read my books.  (You might not want to read the Bible either, because an awful lot of people die between those covers, and most of them are women and children.  But that's a topic for another blog.)

Sometimes I laugh and tell myself that, when I get to heaven and meet these people (the ones I didn't simply fabricate) they are either going to laugh in my face or beat the tar out of me for the things I said about them.  Please, understand that my novels are just that: works of fiction.  Because of that, I take the moral risk of doing things to the characters that I would never dream of doing to real people.  But I want you to understand that I get very little pleasure from their pain and suffering; it hurts me to torture and kill them, and sometimes I mourn for them to the point where I cannot eat.

I used to feel the guiltiest over Yoshiah bar Zebdi, a little boy whom I created for the SOLE purpose of drowning, just so it would give me a deeper motivation for some of the traits I had decided to develop in Yakob and Yuannan.  At the moment, however, I am filled with remorse about something I haven't even written yet.  You see, I refuse to kill a character I don't love.  A few months ago, I realized I was going to need someone to die, and so I wrote him into the story.  Now, before I can take him out of the story again, I need to fall in love with him.  I need to make him REAL.  (If I don't care about him, neither will my readers; if I don't love him, neither will they.)  And so I am making him lovable, writing all the little things that make him a real, lovable, LOVED person.  And the whole time I am doing this, I know what's coming and it is killing me to know this and be powerless to prevent it, but I NEED him to die for the greater good of everyone in this story.

There is a time to kill.

When I read the Bible and God is wiping people out left and right, I look at it differently now.  When I read the newspaper and God is allowing people to die in all sorts of tragic and "senseless" ways, I look at it differently now.  I have a feeling God has the same rule I have: He won't kill someone He doesn't love.  There is a greater good and only He knows what it is.  If He doesn't care about them, how can He expect us to?  And He wants us to care.  Oh, how He wants us to care!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How Do You Do That?

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives.
Proverbs 27:21 NIV
Like any other writer, my dream is to be published.  There is always the temptation to pull an Abraham and do it myself, but I've forced myself to wait on God's timing.  The business is tough to crack, but not too tough for God.  (He knows all the right people.)

My job is to write books that are publishable.

I must admit, I understand why publishers cringe when approached by a self-published author. I've gotten to the point where I can pick a book off the shelf, read the first chapter (or less), and identify it as self-published.  (This is not a compliment.)  Whenever someone says, "I published a book. Would you like to read it?" I have to paste a smile on my face, because I have a strong suspicion that my honest appraisal is not being sought.  I mean, can you really tell a friend that he may mean well, but it is still in poor taste to advertise one's illiteracy?

For this reason, I was hesitant to show people my work, especially since it has not been published.  And so, rather than present people with the above speech, I spent a few years going to a few close friends who were trustworthy and knowledgeable and asking them for some peer review and feedback on my drafts.  I took the time to listen to what they had to say, made some much-needed revisions, and then repeated the process with a few other readers.

Lately, however, the paradigm has changed, and I find myself caught between a rock and ... a bigger rock. (Trying to avoid a cliche here.)  The turning point?  My mother finally liked one of my books.

Now, one would expect that the least reliable critic would be an author's mother.  After all, what mom doesn't think her child is perfectly wonderful?  My mom, however, knows me.  She knows that I do NOT want to walk around with my slip showing and a piece of spinach between my teeth, if you take my meaning.  So when Mom sent me a postcard praising The Carpenter, I knew I had finally written something worth sharing.

Still, she is my mom, so I decided to get a second opinion.  I gave Beloved Disciple to my pastor.  I figured, if it's heresy, he'll be the first to tell me so!  He never read it.  Never.  (It's been three years but he never cracked one of my books.)

His wife, however, made a point of seeking me out to tell me how much she had enjoyed it, and asked if I had any others.  Now THIS made an impression on me, because she could easily have pretended she'd never seen it.  (Besides which, the lady is brilliant.)  I gave her The Voice, which she finished in half the time and told me it was even better.  Then she read The Carpenter.  Then she read Brothers. 

She must have spoken to a few people, because others in my church started to ask about the books, so I printed a few copies (well, photocopied) and gave them to some of my other friends.  And they told two friends.  And they told two friends...

At this point, I have to sit and think hard in order to remember who has read the books.  I've gained a following.  And along with the following, I've received some pretty heady compliments, which puts me in a tough spot.  I don't want to seem self-promoting; at the same time, I want the books to be promoted!  So I've asked my readers to put some of their comments in writing.  A few of these can be seen on facebook (DLMaynard Immanu'el Novels) but many others have not yet made it into the public forum.  The overall consensus, however, is that these books are impacting lives, drawing people into a deeper love-relationship with Christ, inspiring them to read their Bibles, and helping them understand what they are reading there in a way they never have before.

My readers want to see the books published, and they want MORE.  Several of them are even nagging me to quit my job so I can write full time.  There is a growing prayer group dedicated to seeing these novels published, and I have volunteers researching markets for query letters.  Three or four copies of each novel are circulating for reader feedback, and there is a constant waiting list. Last week I printed another run and all of the books were snatched up by the end of the day.

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but man is tested by the praise he receives.  

Earlier this week I received a valentine that read, "To my favorite author."  I cried.  That card is going to be kept forever (right next to my mom's postcard) because the lady who sent it to me is a voracious reader.  Voracious.  I do not take her praise lightly.  As far as I'm concerned, that valentine was like winning a major award.

Today, another woman whom I deeply respect approached me and said, "I had to stop reading and ask God how you do that!"  How do I do it?  I don't know.  I think my friend was right to ask God, because He is the one who is making this happen.  I'm thrilled that He chose me to partner with Him in this work, because I get to see the books first.  When I read them, it's often hard to remember that I wrote them, and I like to think I would feel the same way about the books if someone else had written them.  (Like Tolkien and Lewis and the other Inklings, I couldn't find enough of the kind of books I like to read, so I wrote some.  It delights me when other people like them, too!) 

If this blog offends you because it seems that I am exalting myself, I am truly sorry.  That wasn't my intent.  I am not promoting myself...but I am promoting these novels.  I hope your curiosity has been piqued enough for you to check out the comments on facebook; if you've read the books, I hope you will be inspired to add some comments of your own.  If you are one of the people who has blessed and encouraged me, THANK YOU.  If you are praying for the success of these books, THANK YOU.  And if you ever see me getting a big head, please PLEASE stick a pin in me.

I love you all!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Brothers Chapter Titles

Up until now, the only one of my books that had chapter titles rather than numbers was The Voice, where each title was a Hebrew word or phrase.  After much consideration, I've decided to assign titles to the chapters in Brothers: each title is a phrase used somewhere in that chapter.  (The name preceding each title is the brother from whose point of view the story is told.) Here's the Table of Contents:

A Note About the Dates and Names

Part One: When We Were Children

Katan: “A Matter of Teshuvah”
Yisu: “Like a Knife in the Gut”
Katan: “Practically a Mitzvah”
Yisu: “Nothing but Dust”
Katan: “The Thing about Living in a Sukkah”
Yisu: “You Can’t Believe Everything Your Father Tells You”
Katan: “All I Had Hoped For”
Yisu: “Promises”
Katan: “To Touch the Hand of God”
Yisu: “His Father’s Tomb”
Katan: “The Rod”

Part Two: Rites of Passage

Yisu: “If It Please the Rabbi”
Katan: “The Life of a Fisherman”
Yisu: “Manna”
Katan: “The Laws of Hospitality”
Yisu: “Psalms of Ascent”
Katan: “What Takes a Grown Man’s Strength”

Part Three: Burdens

Yisu: “Old Enough to Hang”
Katan: “Absalom”
Yisu: “Death”
Katan: “To Honor Our Fathers”
Yisu: “Onarion”

Part Four: Love

Katan: “Something That Would Last Forever”
Yisu: “It’s Just Part of Life”
Katan: “So Much for L’Shanah Tovah”
Yisu: “The First Commandment”
Katan: “His Zealot Son”
Yisu: “All the Other Answers”
Katan: “Like Mortar Cured in the Sun”
Yisu: “The Dust of Death”
Katan: “It Could Have Been Me”
Yisu: “If Wood Could Feel Pain”
Yisu: “Because I Know”
Katan: “Like Snow in Summer”
Yisu: “For He Will Be a Help to Me”
Yisu: “Flint”
Katan: “Let’s Just Get This Over With”
Yisu: “For a Good Cause”
Katan: “Under the Chuppah”
Yisu: “Alone”
Katan: “There Was Leah”

Part Five: Sacrifice

Katan: “Standing Watch”
Yisu: “God Will Strengthen”
Katan: “Purim”
Yisu: “The Edge of the Ruin”
Katan: “God Forbid”
Yisu: “I Will Rejoice”
Katan: “The Broken Things”

Part Six: Mercy

Yisu: “The Path of Healing”
Katan: “Brace”
Yisu: “God Is Merciful”
Katan: “My Father”
Yisu: “Hearts Don’t Break”

A Glossary of Hebrew and Aramaic Terms 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Walking the Tightrope

"Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

I used to picture the "narrow road" as a sort of footpath winding up through the hills, something like the blazed trails I follow when hiking in the woods. I would imagine Jesus walking the path ahead of me; as long as I kept my eyes on him, I would know where to go.  Lately, however, I have been challenged to alter that mental image somewhat.

There are a number of things in the Bible, and especially in the New Testament, that seem to contradict one another. Skeptics point to these things as reasons to disbelieve the scriptures. On closer examination, however, the so-called "contradictions" are usually easy to explain when taken in context; most of the time, the contradiction exists only in the mind of the careless reader. There are a number of Biblical truths, though, that are not so easily understood.  They aren't contradictory, but they do reflect the paradox that is God. In attempting to understand these truths, or to explain them, we run into a difficulty: things that can be intuitively grasped cannot always be put into words that accurately convey that experience. (I'm having that difficulty at the moment.)

The Apostle Paul had the same problem, I think.  Peter refers to Paul's writings as "hard to understand," while in the same breath acknowledging that Paul wrote "with the wisdom that God gave him" (2 Peter 3:15-16).  Perhaps this is why Paul frequently interrupts himself to explain what he is not saying (Romans 3:8 and 6:1-2, for example) and why he emphasizes the futility of trying to understand the gospel without the illumination of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

But I digress.

Jesus frequently said things that boggle the mind and seem to contradict the message of salvation through grace and grace alone.  Here's one of them: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).  [Footnote here: We tend to view the Pharisees as bad guys, hypocrites who were always getting it all wrong. But you have to understand the context in which Jesus made this remark. The Pharisees were the men who tried hardest to live in a way that would please God. They devoted their lives to living according to God's commands rather than paying them lip service. For Jesus to say my righteousness has to EXCEED theirs would be like me telling you, "You need to be richer than Bill Gates."]  So how does that jive with his later remark: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29)?

There is a fine linea razor-thin linebetween the temptation to work for my salvation and the temptation to "go on sinning so that grace may abound."  That razor's edge, I believe, is the "narrow road" to which Jesus referred.  If I am relying on my own works to get me into God's favor, then I am self-righteous rather than Christ-righteous.  If I am not allowing Christ to live through me, but blithely follow my natural inclinations into sin while presuming that God's grace will save me, then I am self-centered rather than Christ-centered.

I don't know about you, but I am not a tightrope walker.  A hike in the woods I can handle; following Jesus along the razor's edge, however, is beyond me.  If I try to follow him along this narrow road (and I have), I will fall (and I do).  It is inevitable.  Even with his help, I will slip off...the fact that he will catch me and hold on to me does not turn my failure into victory!  (I can pretend that I walked across, but everyone knows I was dangling below the rope the whole time.  There is nothing victorious in such a journey.) So how do I cross?

The logical solution is to climb up on his back, right?  (We all know the "Footsteps" poem.)  But if I try to cross the rope piggy-backing on Jesus, I need to hold on to him, tightly!  This can be exhausting, as anyone who's ever carried a child this way knows.  The kids just can't hold on for long, and they begin to slip.  Again, Jesus can and will catch me, but ultimately it's just another way for me to fail. I should know: I've tried this many times.  Each time the result has been the same.  I cling to Jesus until I have blisters and cramps, and then I am in too much pain to hold on any longer, and off I slip.

So what, then, should I do?  How can I walk this narrow road that leads to life?  Is it any wonder that so few find it?  And how can my righteousness possibly exceed that of the Pharisees?

The answer is so simple that it is almost impossible to see.

Nothing.  I can't.  No.  It can't.  (In that order.)

Jesus is the only one who can walk the rope.  If I am going to get across, he has to carry me.  In the words of scripture, I have to be IN him.  (I prefer the image of being in his arms to that of being in his stomach, but take your pick.)  I used to get hung up on the "Follow me" that he so often extended to people, and try to follow him.  BUT THAT IS NOT WHAT HE WANTS.  Sure, he told the disciples to follow him, but that was before he sent the Holy Spirit to indwell them.  Read John 14 carefully and you will see that Jesus promised it would be better for them when the Spirit came, that they would do greater things and that they would be in Christ and one with Christ.  "Follow me" was his invitation to them while he walked in the flesh, but "live in me" is his invitation to us.

How can I enter the kingdom?  In Jesus.  No other way.

So, you may ask, practical person that you are, just how do I get "in" Jesus?  Do I pray more? Read the Bible more? Spend more time with him?

Listen to yourself.  What should I do to get in?  Go back and re-read the last few paragraphs.  Nothing. You can't.  He isn't asking you to.  He will pick you up and carry you.  Get this: you are the baby.  He is the adult.  What does a baby do to get picked up? Does it make an appointment?  Does it meet Dad at the office?  Does it write him a letter or make an eloquent speech?  Does it chase him around the house?  No.  Why not?  Because it can't.  (Duh.  It's a baby.)  So what does it do?

It cries.

That's all you have to do.  Cry.  "For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13).  What did I tell you?  Simple.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Do I know?

For some reason, I am having a recurring daymare in which John Banner (who played Sargent Schultz on Hogan's Heroes) repeatedly and enthusiastically asserts, "I know nothing, noTHING!"

Actually, it's no mystery...he's just expressing the anxiety I've been feeling for the past few months.

This writing thing is turning out to be an emotional roller-coaster.  I knew there was more to "the business" than simply writing the story.  I knew that.  I've spent years researching how to submit a manuscript, where to submit a manuscript, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum. I thought I had a handle on it. But now that push has come to the proverbial shove, I am afraid it is going to turn into shove-it-where-the-sun-don't-shine, if a Christian author is allowed to express such a sentiment.  Don't get me wrong; I know that the whole thing is in God's hands. But who am I kidding?  When it comes to the "business" of writing, I'm right in there with Schultz.  I know NOTHING.

If you check out the blogs of editors and literary agents, you will soon discover what I did: no two of them agree on ANYTHING (except that Publish America is professional death). 

To market or not to market, that is one of the questions. Whether the prospective author knows more about the market than the editors and agents...or to trust...perchance to allow the editors and agents to do what they are undoubtedly better at than I...THAT is the question. Some of the E&A are adamant that they will not consider a project unless the author has attached a comprehensive market analysis with sales figures, synopses of five different "comparable" books, a detailed compare & contrast essay that demonstrates that MY books are different but not TOO different (and keep it humble)(but sell myself)(but don't appear overconfident), a description of my "platform" (but don't waste time mentioning that I don't have one on a national scale), my plans to sell my book (but don't waste time telling them that I will do whatever they ask me to do)........Others come right out and say what I used to think: they know much more about these things than a first-time novelist, so don't waste time telling them ANYTHING about the market.

And then there's the bio.  I don't have one.  It's that simple.  Some of the E&A want to see it anyway; they want to know my interests, writing influences, educational background, related experiences; basically what makes me "tic" (pun intentional).  Others say that unless I have a successful (translation: lucrative) publishing history, they don't need anything but the dreaded words, "This is my first novel."

Speaking of E&A: most editors won't even look at a query from an unagented writer.  Most agents won't even look at a query from an unpublished (translation: lucrative) writer.  Do the math.

So anyway, here I am, all set to go off to my first writers conference in exactly one month, and absolutely betwiddled.  Befuddled.  Bemused.  Besturbed.

E&A, if you are by any remote chance checking out my blog to see if I have what it takes to make it in this business, let me set your minds at ease: I don't know.  As far as I'm concerned, it's not about me; it's about my writing, and I like to think my writing speaks for itself.  The rest...well, that's up to God.  (So is the writing, but I don't want to appear "overconfident." Interestingly, a Christian author is never supposed to express a belief that his/her writing came from God. That would be unprofessional to the max.)  But I will say this, HONESTLY, and not because I've figured out the right "formula" for selling myself to you: buy my books, and I will WRITE for you.  I will also do my best to be mature, courteous, cooperative, and professional in the process.  I know that I'm really just a selfish know-it-all at heart, but most of the people who know me (including my pastor's wife) think I am a nice person with a teachable spirit.  That cracks me up, but if that's the way I come across to them, I guess you and I will get along pretty well too.  So please, if God is tugging at your heart just a little, give me a chance.  One thing you can be SURE of: I won't tell you how to do your job, because, hey, what do I know?