When God Provides …

Just last night I was reading the last chapter in the book of John (Chapter 21). In this chapter, the disciples had witnessed Jesus’ death, but not his resurrection, and in light of all that had happened, Peter made a grand announcement – he was going fishing. He decided to go back to doing the things he’d done before Jesus came into his life. He was (essentially) giving up on his ministry and walk with God in order to return to the life he used to have before he found Christ.

The other disciples went with him, and they toiled all night, but didn’t catch a single thing. I’ve read this story many times, but this was the first time that it occurred to me what a blow that must have been for these men. They thought that Jesus was dead. The ministry that had consumed their lives for three years was suddenly gone. And even fishing (the one thing they used to be good at) wasn’t working for them any more! It was like they couldn’t catch a break!

But then something amazing happened. In the midst of that moment of total failure, Jesus came on the scene:

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”  “No,” they answered (John 21:4-5 NKJV).

Jesus then gave them instructions – he told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. And even though they didn’t know it was him speaking, they obeyed. The result was a miracle catch so large that they could barely haul it to shore. That was when they realized what was happening – they realized that Jesus wasn’t dead! The biggest tragedy they’d ever faced wasn’t actually a tragedy any more!

Of course they rushed to the shore to meet with Jesus face to face. And when they arrived, the Bible gives us a detail that is small, almost to the point of insignificance, but so powerful that it overwhelms me:

When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it,and some bread (John 21:9 NKJV)

Jesus had just given his disciples a monumental miracle. He’d just revived their dreams, their faith, and even their careers in one single supernatural act. But that wasn’t all he did. He cared so much about these men that he also cooked them breakfast!

I can’t get over how beautiful that statement is, and how much meaning it has for our personal lives. We don’t serve a God who only cares about the big things. When He moves in our lives, he doesn’t pass over the “insignificant” details. He provides for the big and the small, the significant and the seemingly insignificant. He doesn’t just provide – he is MORE than enough.

Isn’t that amazing?

As we near the end of this year, there may be some of you who are wondering how everything went so wrong. You may feel just like the disciples did at the beginning of this chapter – facing a life that looks to be in shambles. Or maybe you’re not in dire straights, but there are certain areas of your life that just aren’t working out the way you’ve wanted them to.  I’m here to remind you that God is with you in all of this. He sees where you are. He knows your fears and your frustrations. He has not abandoned you. In fact, he can take everything that you thought was wrong and make it all right again – and he can do it in an instant!

So if you’re struggling, frustrated, or just unsure … cling to Jesus today. He is the one who will NEVER leave you (even when you feel alone). He will NEVER abandon you (even when everything looks terrible). He is NOT done with you (no matter how impossible your situation may seem). And best of all – he CARES. He cares about the little things and the big things. He cares that you have enough – and that you have more than enough. He will give you the testimonies that will stun and amaze your friends and family. AND he will also do the “little” things that hold a personal power and meaning for you that can’t be expressed in words.

The love of God is more – more than we expect, more than we imagine, more than we could ever understand. And his love never ever fails.

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Getting Started

When I finally finished and published my last book, Dream Chasers, at the end of 2014 the first thing that ran through my head is “What should I write next?” It wasn’t long before I’d found an idea that I liked – one that fit nicely as a companion piece to the one I’d just written, but could also stand alone as a useful tool/guide on its own. I decided I wanted to write a book on beginnings – on how to actually start moving forward with the things that God has asked you to do or laid on your heart.

So I did what I’ve found works well for me: I started writing down thoughts about how the book would be laid out. I built a structure that I thought would work for the book I was writing, picked my examples from the Bible, figured out what points I was making, etc. I was excited about the topic for about a week, and then suddenly all of the air went out from it. I lost my drive to write the thing.

Has that ever happened to you? Well it seems to be a running theme in my world. I get excited about a writing project, right up until I actually have to write it. Then suddenly it feels like the driest topic imaginable, and getting the first few hundred words on paper feels a lot like pulling teeth.

What do we as writers do when this happens? I think it depends. I certainly don’t believe there’s one correct answer. In this particular example, I ran off and started writing other things. I think at least part of my apathy came from the burnout of having just finished a similar book. I just didn’t have it in me to come up with a fresh take on such a similar subject. So to give myself a little bit of a break, I worked on completely unrelated projects in completely unrelated areas. I wrote skits and plays. I wrote guest articles for blogs. I wrote whatever I felt like writing as I felt like writing it … and I did that for six months.

Do you know what happened as a result? One day I woke up and thought “Hey, I should get back to that book I’ve been ignoring.” and when I went back to my notes to look at what I had, I no longer dreaded the idea of writing it. It wasn’t an easy transition. It took a while to get back in the flow. But now, less than a week later, I have my first chapter done, and I’m over the 5,000 word mark (which is the minimum word count I need to hit before I can claim that I’ve gotten started).

So what works for you? How do you get started when you have a huge project in front of you? Do you wait for inspiration? Do you just slog through until it sticks? Knowing how you get started is a great tool in your arsenal. It will make you that much more effective and efficient in the future!

Own Your Voice: Tips and Tricks

So in my last post, Own Your Voice: Here’s Why, I talked a little bit about how important it is for us as authors to acknowledge the value of our unique voices. We all have authors who inspire us, who make us want to be better writers. But there’s a huge difference between being influenced by someone else’s writing and attempting to copy it.

In fact, I believe that this is one of the biggest sources of frustration that new authors face. When you try to write “like” someone else, it can feel forced, inauthentic, canned, or shallow. If your writing doesn’t have the depth or the spark that you want, the solution may be as easy as letting your unique voice shine through.

So how do you go about “owning” your voice as a writer? Here’s a few tips that might help.

1. Know Yourself: It is impossible for you to write in a way that is authentically your own  unless you know a little bit about yourself – about the way you speak, think, and write. The specifics of what you’ll need to know vary depending on what kind of writing you do, so this type of self-analysis will be very different for each individual. But the fundamental question is the same: What are my natural tenancies and strengths in this area?

Remember that this is not about the kind of writer you want to be. This is about acknowledging the way that your mind naturally flows, the well-worn paths that your thoughts tend to take. For instance, I’m a non-fiction writer and my books tend to be either informative (teaching a lesson) or persuasive (making an argument). So in order to know myself better, I should ask – how do I explain things to people? How do I try to convince people that I’m right?

In my case, I tend to explain from the big to the small. I like to understand the big picture before I get into the minutia of the smaller details. I find it easier to understand them when I can place them into a larger whole. So when I’m teaching I tend to present things the way that works for me. I’ve also found that I like to tell illustrative stories and anecdotes in my explanations or arguments.

Knowing this about myself in advance has helped me tremendously when planning out new books. Instead of building a structure and then trying to fit my personality and preferences into it, I have learned to build my book around my natural tenancies. That, in turn, has made it easier for my voice to shine through.

2. Write What You Know. Or more accurately “Write What You Understand.” This is applicable regardless of what kind of writing you’re doing. If you can’t wrap your head around a concept or if you don’t “get” your characters enough to not only understand their motivations, but sympathize with them (at least a little bit) your writing won’t work – at least, it won’t work from the perspective of your voice.

Jane Austin is famous for saying that she would never write a scene between two men without a woman present. She knew that men spoke and related to one another differently when they were alone, and she didn’t trust herself to write those scenes with any authenticity. Now I’m not saying that’s a rule you have to live by. By all means, use your imagination to take your writing places you’ve never gone and to explore concepts you haven’t experienced. But don’t let that exploration take you so far that you lose what’s grounding you in reality. Make sure that whatever you’re working on starts from a place of personal truth – it’s the best way to keep your voice, your point of view, your flavor shining through.

3. Read Your Writing Out Loud. And as you do, ask yourself one question: “Does this sound like me?” Now I’m not saying that every character you ever write will have to speak exactly like you do. Of course you’re creating someone fictional, and so their speech and thought patterns will all be different. That being said, while your characters or exposition might not mirror your speech, you should always be able to recognize your own voice in the overall tone of the piece.

If, while reading out loud, you find yourself stumbling over phrases, getting lost in your own sentences, or struggling to find the flow of your writing – you’ve found a problem. The problem might be a matter of structure. Maybe you just need to polish a few things out. But you might also be struggling because the tone of what you’ve written no longer rings true to your authentic voice.

So if you find yourself stuck, unable to easily read your own writing out loud, ask yourself another question “How would I say this?” Don’t ask how you would write it differently. Force yourself to say it out loud. You might be surprised at what you come up with. At the very least, it will bring  you closer to your authentic voice.

4. Let Someone Else Read It. This is one of those tips that seems so pointless, but has actually worked wonders for me. Find someone who knows you well, someone you trust, and ask them to read your work. They don’t have to be a literary professional – this is one of those situations where your bookworm mom or best friend who majored in English will be completely fine. You don’t need them to edit or proofread what you’ve written. Their only job is to tell you if the writing sounds like you.

Now this can be a frustrating process – so make sure you’re prepared before you go in. The idea of what a book “sounds” like can be difficult to pin down, and the feedback you get may not always be  helpful. But if you’re hunting for the authenticity of your voice as a writer, these are the people you want to listen to. They’re the ones who will tell you if the words on your page sound the way you think they sound.

My mother did this for me after I’d finished my first draft of Dream Chasers. One afternoon she sat in my living room, skimming through the book and reading out loud the passages that were so formal, dry, and clinical that they sounded like someone else entirely. Mind you, they didn’t sound that way in my head. When I wrote them, they were filled with tone, nuance, and wit – I promise. But one glance from a perspective other than my own showed me what those words sounded like to other people’s ears. She was able to demonstrate very quickly and concisely just how far I’d wandered away from my authentic voice.

Own Your Voice: Here’s Why

Over the years my church has developed a series of topic-specific Bible Study courses that they call “Bible Institute.” I’ve been very privileged to have the opportunity to teach a few of those classes. There’s one particular course that’s always been my favorite, and it also happens to be the one that I get to teach most often.

At the end of 2014 my pastors asked me to teach it again – but this time I’m sharing that responsibility with my BFFFC (Best Friend Forever From Church … a different person than my BFF/SNOO). We’ve been taking turns, teaching alternating weeks, and helping each other out along the way. It’s been a lot of fun, and one of my favorite aspects of the experience has been getting to sit back and listen to her unique perspective. Hearing her teach the material has been exciting. It’s given me a fresh outlook, a shift in focus. Even though I know what she’s going to be teaching, hearing her explaining it has opened my eyes to things I’ve never noticed, connections I’d never made. I LEARN in her classes. It’s awesome.

But two weeks ago when we were discussing our schedule, she suddenly sighed and said (in the most self-defeated tone imaginable,) “Maybe you should just teach the class from now on. You’re such a better teacher than I am!”

Um … what?!

First of all this woman is a teacher by PROFESSION. She teaches for a living. And secondly, she’s GREAT at it! She makes her topics come alive in a personal and instantly-applicable way that I could never do. Her stories are funny and self deprecating. She has a wonderful flow between covering the source material and explaining it in her own words. She’s awesome, and I love listening to her teach. In fact, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion wishing that I had her perspective and her voice – wishing I could teach like her. It never occurred to me that she was sitting in my classes wishing she could teach like me!

It turns out we were each suffering from a certain degree of voice-envy. We both wished we sounded like someone else (each other, in this case.) But isn’t that silly? We were both able to benefit from and enjoy each others voices, and that’s a great thing. But it doesn’t mean that we should try (or even want) to change our own.

In thinking about this, I’ve realized what a common trap voice-envy actually is. As a reader and a writer, it’s one that I find myself struggling against all the time, and I think that it’s one that plagues too many writers and would-be writers in this world. After all, we all have favorite authors of our own, men and women whose words come alive to us on the page, people who inspire us to try our own hand at writing. And far too often we start our writing journeys by wishing above all else that we could write like ___________ (fill in the blank with as many other writers as you’d like).

But writing is an art form. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something completely abstract and experimental. The words that you put on the page paint a picture. They tell a story. And the picture that you are painting is as much a product of your interpretation (your artistic voice) as the subject you’re conveying.

Could you imagine if Van Gogh had tried to paint like everyone else, or if Jane Austin had tried to write like a man? What would have happened if William Shakespeare or Earnest Hemingway had abandoned the originality of their voices in order to sound like someone else?

I’m not saying that we’re all destined to be the next Shakespeare. But what I am saying is this: the world doesn’t need another copycat. The world needs artists with original voices, people who are willing to write from their own perspective, to tell stories their own way. That doesn’t have to mean that we throw out all convention and toss the rules to the wind. We all want to write well. But if you’re serious about the endeavor of writing, then you need to be willing to own your voice.

By all means, read. Read as much as you can as often as you can. Glean what you can from the masters. Learn what good writing sounds like. Let other authors inspire and influence you. But don’t ever lose your voice. It’s what makes you special. Without it you will never produce anything that can teach or inspire others.

Setting Goals

Setting goals – it’s one of those things that we all think we understand, and of course it’s especially popular at the beginning of every new year. We set these goals with all sorts of good intentions, but it normally doesn’t take us long to abandon them altogether.

Why is that?

One reason, I think, is that while we are generally determined to do better, we are often less enthusiastic about being better. Of course we want to achieve that level of success, finish that book, lose that weight, etc. We just aren’t as thrilled about having to do the work it takes to get there.

The other reason, I think, involves a simple lack of clarity. It amazes me how often people set goals that are either outrageously unattainable (I’m going to write a book a month for the next 12 months!) or so vague that they can’t be measured (I’m going to save money this year!)

So how do we fix these problems?  How do we change our patterns so that the goals that we make become achievable as opposed to forgettable?  How do we help ensure that we’re setting ourselves up for success instead of failure? What can we do differently today that will change our outcome tomorrow?

Well, everyone’s different – what works for me might not work for you. But here are a few general guidelines that have helped me along the way:

1. Get Specific. This is one of the simplest things that you can do to help make your goal achievable. If you’re serious about a goal, then you should be able to specifically define what qualifies as success in your mind. Do you want to save money? Great – how much? Do you want to get healthier? Do you want to write more? Well, that’s wonderful, but what does that ACTUALLY mean in your mind? If you can’t tell me that, then you don’t have a goal, you have an idea. Ideas are nice and all, but you can’t achieve ideas. You can’t work toward ideas.

2. Try setting goals that you can meet all on your own. In other words, don’t put your success into someone else’s hands. This can be a hard one to face up to, because so many of our goals involve approval or acceptance by other people. But when our goals involve decisions that we aren’t empowered to make, we can end up feeling like failures just because of other people’s choices. So if you want a better job – don’t make “getting hired”  your goal. That’s not in your hands. But set goals that will make you a stronger candidate for the job you want, and set goals for how and when you will go out there and apply. Do you want to sign with an agent? Well that’s not a great goal, because at the end of the day it’s not up to you. But you can start SUBMITTING to agents – and that’s the type of thing that you can control and plan.

3. Set goals for habitual change, not end results. This isn’t an absolute must, but if you’re the type of person who forgets about your goals 60 or 30 (or let’s be real, 10) days in, it will help to keep you on track. Instead of setting the goal of loosing 20 pounds, try setting goals to change what you eat or increase you exercise. Instead of saying you’re going to finish your book by the end of the year, why not set a daily writing goal – one that’s manageable – and try sticking with it for a month or two? You’ll be surprised how those small daily successes will keep you motivated, and at how quickly they will lead you to real results

4. Build gradual increases into your goals. I love those people who decide every January that they’re going to run 5 miles every day and stick to a strict raw-vegan diet from now on. I love them, but I don’t believe them, because most of the time those types of extreme changes aren’t sustainable. What is sustainable, however, is change that comes in gradual increases. So rather than deciding that you’re going to write 5,000 words a day every day, why not go for gradual change? Set a low goal for January, one that’s easy to achieve – maybe you’ll decide to write 200 words a day or 1000 words a week. And then decide that on February 1st you’ll change it to something more challenging. And then do it again in March. These kind of gradual changes give you time to adjust your life to fit the goals that are important to you.

5. Only set goals that you want to meet. There is no bigger setup for failure than the goal that you don’t actually want to achieve. We set these goals out of a sense of obligation or guilt, but deep down inside we don’t care if they never happen. News flash – those goals are not only pointless (because let’s face it, you’ll never actually do them) but they’re also incredibly harmful to the goals that you actually want to reach. They clutter your plate, so to speak. They weigh you down unnecessarily. They stifle your momentum and steal your focus. None of those things will help you to reach the goals that are important to you. So this year why not do something radical and get rid of the goals that you don’t actually care about.

6. Keep track of your progress. This is so important for anyone who has a goal that’s going to take a while to reach. If you don’t have a plan to reach your goal, you won’t meet it. But just as importantly, if you don’t STICK to your plan, you’ll fall short in the long run. So revisit your goal on a regular basis. Look at how you’re progressing, and celebrate your incremental victories. It’ll keep you focused and motivated throughout the year.

7. Make adjustments. Listen, life is going to throw you curveballs this year, the same way it does every year. That’s just how it works. Some of the goals you set now will happen more quickly and easily than you expect. Others might suddenly become impossible as a result of unforeseen circumstances. That’s all fine. Don’t throw in the towel when things don’t work out. Don’t stop pushing just because you’ve already done better than you’d expected. Make adjustments to your goals throughout the year if you need to. It’s ok to redefine success as you move ahead. That’s part of life, part of growth. If we all stuck to our original goals the world would be full of princesses, ballerinas, fire fighters, and doctors. That wouldn’t be such a bad world, but you get the idea …

I hope these tips helped! Comment below and let me know what you thought. What kind of goals are you setting for 2015? What tips or tricks have worked for you? What important piece of advice did I leave off of my list? Let me know!

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!

ABCs of the Dream-Chaser’s Mindset

Hey everyone, happy belated Thanksgiving (to all of my American readers, of course)!

One of the things that I’m especially thankful for this year is the incredible reception that Dream Chasers has been given over the past few weeks.  I had scheduled a free promotional period on Amazon for the end of last week – and not only did it climb to the top 5 in each of it’s categories, but it broke into the top 100 in Christian Books & Bibles! I’m seriously astounded at what God has done – I even took screen shots so I could prove to myself down the road that it really happened 🙂

So as a way to say thanks to everyone who’s been so supportive and encouraging I’m going to give you all a little sneak peek at something I’ve been working on:

This is going to be an actual ABCs series – so I’ll be releasing a video every Monday for the next 26 weeks. I’ll be starting on this upcoming Monday, December 1st, but I wanted to give you all a chance to watch it first.

The information in these videos aren’t taken directly from the book – they’re brand-spanking-new bonus material that anyone can enjoy, whether they’ve read the book or not. So let me know what you think!

Thank you all!