Embracing the Unexpected

This may very well be my last blog entry in 2014, and so before anything else I want to wish everyone who reads this a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

But before the year ends I want to tell you a little bit about the whirlwind of a week that just happened to me. I help to run the theater program at my church – we perform skits as a part of our weekly church services. We also put on a few full-length productions every year, normally around the holidays. We’d spent the past few weeks working on a silly, funny Christmas play based loosely on A Christmas Carol, and I was kind of excited about it. But then last Sunday I got what seemed like terrible news – we weren’t going to be able to do that particular show. Without going into too much detail, it became clear rather quickly that we were going to have to scrap the play entirely and start over with something new.

I had a full cast of actors (many of whom had made special arrangements to be in the show) who were excited to perform, a whole bunch of families who were planning on coming, exactly 2 weeks until the show date, and NO SHOW. Given the position I found myself in, you might not be surprised to hear that my first thought was “Where can I get my hands on a new script?” You might also be able to imagine the horror I felt when my pastors suggested that I might want to try writing a show of my own.

Write a show? I had two weeks! The way I saw it, I barely had enough time for the actors to learn their lines, and they wanted me to WRITE them first? Didn’t they know that I wrote nonfiction? Didn’t they know how badly I struggled with things like plot and dialogue? I didn’t even have an idea – I mean, literally, not even an hint of a spark of an original idea for a Christmas play. The whole thing just seemed impossible …

Except that behind the panic (and believe me, I was in a panic) I could see the hand of God pushing me to do this. I knew it wasn’t just my pastors asking me to do something. I knew that this was too perfectly orchestrated to be an accident. I also knew, from personal experience, that just about every time I’ve ever agreed to go along on these crazy leaps of faith I’ve ended up on my feet.

And so on Monday morning when I got to work I got a coffee and locked myself away in my office with a few mindless projects so that I could focus on brainstorming. And only a few hours (and several spreadsheets) later, I suddenly had one! Paula Casill, the girl who’s never had a particularly inspiring idea for a fiction piece in her entire life, suddenly had an idea that she found exciting, one that was big enough for a full-length play, and one that she wanted to write! Was it even possible?

Apparently so! Over the next few days I spent every free moment glued to my computer typing like a madwoman. Some scenes were so easy I wrote them off in one go. Others took thought and time and conversations with actors and re-writes in order to get them sounding natural. There was very little time for things like sleeping, grocery shopping, or communication with the outside world. But by Thursday night it was done – a completed script.

The show isn’t until Sunday, so I can’t say for sure how well we’re going to pull it off, but all early signs point to it being just as good as (if not better than) our first production. Our actors are all on board, and rather than being frustrated with all of the work they “wasted” working on the old show, they’re excited at the prospect of being involved in something original.

But here’s the most amazing part – the play uses a standard “storyteller” dramatic device to make it easier to transition between scenes and the storyteller’s narration was written in a classic children’s poetry style. When the script was finished I looked at it and realized that it is perfectly suited to be adapted into a book. So that’s the new plan! As soon as the show is finished I’m going to start working on the book! Just like that, without even realizing what I was doing, I ended up writing something awesome in a completely new genre!

Why am I telling you this story? Well, for two reasons (and no, neither of them involve patting myself on the back).

The first is this – because I think that there are a lot of people out there who reject and despair at the uncomfortable, out-of-the box situations that happen in their life. They see them as impossible challenges (or at least, that’s how I saw THIS) and that often leads to giving up, running away, or some other form of surrender. But when we can learn to trust GOD more than we trust in our own abilities, these impossible challenges suddenly become POSSIBLE.

The second reason is that I have been reminded first-hand how often God will use our challenges and adversities to expand and bless us. I didn’t come into this December looking to write a children’s book. In fact, I’ve NEVER wanted to write a children’s book. It just didn’t seem like something in my wheelhouse.  But God had plans of His own, and He knew exactly how to use my current circumstances to accomplish His will.

So when the unexpected challenge or the impossible mountain suddenly appear in your life, let this story be an encouragement to you. Don’t run away. Don’t give in to fear. Stand up, square your shoulders, and plow ahead. You never know where that kind of persistence and determination can bring you. I can’t tell you what’s waiting for you on the other side of your mountain, but I can say this much – it’s worth fighting for!

Write the Book – Tips and Tricks

In my last post (Write The Book – Here’s Why) I let you all in on two very specific secrets that everyone who’s ever written a book learned along the way. The first secret was that writing a book is hard – it’s much harder than you think, and certainly harder than it looks. Even the ways in which it’s hard won’t be what you’re expecting. It is a process that uncovers your greatest insecurities and exposes your biggest weaknesses. It’s not a “fun” thing to do.

But the second secret was that all of that difficulty, all of the struggle that comes with writing your first book is absolutely and totally WORTH it. Why? Because the process of writing a book is the most effective way to turn yourself into a writer. It will teach you what you cannot be taught in any other way. It will test you and refine you. It will make you better and force you to grow. And most importantly, it will make every single thing that you ever write in your future (books included) THAT MUCH easier, stronger, and more definitively YOU.

Believe me – I’m speaking from experience here. The process of writing my first book was insanely difficult – it took me three years and probably 15 drafts to finish it. It was a miserable experience. But it left me with an indescribable sense of fulfillment when I finished. What’s more – the lessons I learned writing my first book made the second one so easy that it almost felt like I’d managed to cheat somehow!

But how do you actually get through the process of writing that first book – especially since it IS so difficult? It’s a good question, one that I’ve been asking myself for the last week or so. I wanted to be able to give my friend (remember Kelly – the one who’s just started writing her first book?) some tips that would serve as more than just generalized encouragement. I wanted to tell her something that would actually help her find success. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Find a writing buddy – You’ll need the encouragement and help of someone who’s done this before (or someone who’s willing to do it with you). Friends and family are great at being supportive, but you’ll want to be in contact with at least one person who understands the specifics of what you’re dealing with every day.

2. Create a plan – One of the best things you can do for yourself is plan what you’re going to write before you write it. The level of detail you go into will depend on the type of person/writer you are. But don’t make the mistake of going into your first writing project with only a vague sense of what you’re going to do.

3. Write every day – (or 4 days a week, or whatever works for you) The point it – you have to make it mandatory. You’ll have good writing days and bad writing days. Some days you’ll write entire chapters, and others you’ll struggle through a few sentences. That’s all fine (and it should be expected). But you have to make writing a habit, or you’ll never get through it.

4. Make yourself accountable – Again, how this happens will vary depending on who you are. Are you the type who won’t be able to sleep if you haven’t met your daily writing goal? Or do you need the pressure of external deadlines (like someone asking to see pages every week) to keep yourself on track? Figure that out – and then set up a system that works for you.

5. First write, then refine – If you’re busy freaking out over your chapter length before you’ve written your first 500 words, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to start by writing. Until you’ve written something down, there’s no way to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Don’t paralyze yourself with fears and worries before you get the words out. Just write.

6. Don’t give up – You’ll have plenty of opportunities. You’ll have days when you want to throw it all away. Don’t let those days get to you. Just keep moving forward. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of this journey, and when you do, you’ll have something to show for it all. You’ll have a book, and a wealth of experience and knowledge that you wouldn’t trade for the world. You’ll have that secret little smile that creeps on your face when someone tells you how they’ve always wanted to write a book – and you’ll have plenty of words of encouragement and sage advice to give them – because you’ll know exactly what they’re facing, and  you’ll still be able to assure them that it’s well worth the effort.

 

Write the Book – Here’s Why

I have a friend (let’s call her Kelly) who recently began the long and arduous journey of writing a book. I found out a few weeks ago when she posted something on facebook about becoming an author. I reached out to offer her my congratulations, and discovered that by “becoming an author” she meant “beginning to write a book.”

“Oh!” I said in my least disappointed voice. “Well … that’s just wonderful!” She explained that she’d written the first few pages of the first chapter. We went on from there to talk about her ideas for this book, and for the next. It was easy, in that context, to be encouraging and genuinely excited. But as I walked away from the conversation, I couldn’t help but say a quick prayer that this book that she’d announced to the world would actually happen.

Because there’s a little secret about book-writing that I’ve learned over the past few years, one that I am very careful about sharing. The secret is this: Writing your first book is incredibly hard. As you can imagine, that’s not the kind of secret that I’m eager to share with the people in my life who are considering taking the plunge into the writing world. I’m not looking to discourage anyone. But it’s kind of hard to see someone who I know and love starting along on this journey without the first clue what they’re facing.

Sure enough – the next time I saw Kelly (a week or so later) and asked her how the writing was going, we had a completely different conversation. This time she seemed deflated, overwhelmed, and ready to give up on the project entirely. Suddenly she didn’t think her writing was any good. She was afraid of the mountain of work that was waiting in front of her. She felt stuck.

I remember that feeling so well – the feeling that everything you’re trying to do is pointless and the finished product of your hours and hours of work will barely produce enough words for a picture-book and will be universally hated by anyone who ever sees it. I spent plenty of time in that place – and I’m pretty sure every other person with a book under their belt has felt the same way too.

But here’s the other secret that I’ve learned along the way – and this one is worth sharing: It’s worth it. The whole process of taking an idea out of your head and cultivating it on (virtual) paper until it is shaped into the story or argument that you’d imagined – the whole long, difficult, frustrating process is totally worth it. It’s worth it even if that book never goes to print. It’s worth it even if it isn’t a huge commercial success. Even if it’s absolute garbage and sits in a drawer and never sees the light of day, that first book you write is totally worth the time and effort it takes to write it.

Why? Because there is no way to learn how to write a book except to go out there and write one. You can read and study and get advice and do all the research you want, but nothing can properly prepare you for the process of sitting down at a computer, starting, continuing, and ultimately finishing a book of your own. Because the truth is that writing is a uniquely personal process. Your approach and technique will not look like anyone else’s. You have a  unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Your style, your voice – they belong only to you – and these are all things that you have to sort out for yourself.

So if you’re toying with the idea of writing a book – if that’s one of the dreams that’s in your heart, then go and do it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t wait for a “good” time. Don’t put it off. Just sit down and write the book. It’ll be hard. It might very well be one of the hardest things you do. But when you’re done you will emerge as a different (hopefully better) person – one with a set of skills, a unique voice, and incredible sense of accomplishment that you cannot develop in any other way.