My Journey as a Writer
"The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord, and you also will testify."
- John 15:26b, 27a -
- John 15:26b, 27a -
How To Deal With Writer’s Block
Writer’s block. Is there ever such a thing?
I realized there is a valid reason when it comes. And I also realized that fighting it can be frustrating, futile, and even counterproductive.
Why waste time staring at a blinking cursor when you can cook your family a wonderful dinner? Why bang your head against a wall of a blank page when you can run outside, smell the scent of freshly mowed grass, and be fit?
I have learned to listen to my character, Dr. Tony Sparker who said, “Stop. Look. And listen.” I had quite an argument with this guy. I asked him, “Why can’t I edit you?” after getting stuck at Chapter 10. He stared at me point blank and said, “Because I am about to edit you.”
My struggle is not much about self-doubt, although I have tons of that lately. Will I ever be good enough? Will this manuscript be ever perfect enough? But it’s about looking deep into my heart and asking myself, “What’s aching right now?”
Psychoanalyzing myself is probably the one thing I should have done early on. It was all about coping mechanism. You may wonder, "Coping from what and how?" (Read here on "My Adopted Pets: How I Coped When My Firstborn Moved to College. And it's not your usual kind of pet).
So as the home front grew quiet and my life returned to almost normal, I started to pick up the pieces… pieces of papers left on the floor from a hurried packing (that firstborn who went to college is a self-confessed procrastinator and she thought she could do the same with packing). Being the last to move into her college Residential Learning Community (as how Santa Clara University would call their dormitories because it offers so much more than a living quarter) gave her the reason to lay back and relax for weeks and weeks, so that when the day came for her to fly out, things were literally scattered on the floor and on her bed. It was like the remains of a tornado. She’s lucky though that these past few days, all I wanted was to cherish loving moments with her so the urge to nag and scold this eighteen-year-old baby is put on a leash.
Back to my writer’s block, I knew there was something going on within my mental recesses because I was still able to write my daily devotionals.
Why were my stories put on hold?
As a writer, who’s new to the craft, it was amazing to discover that these characters of mine have minds of their own. The more I talk to them, the more I see how they have been planted in my subconscious and unconscious by a Creative Spirit that longs to inspire me, and perhaps the world around me.
When finally, I wrote the blog on "My Adopted Pets" the dam opened, and it revealed what was hidden in my heart.
The stories that I'm writing are stories from my heart, veiled in the parables of contemporary and epic fantasies.
The best way to deal with it is to do what the heart dictates.
So, I heeded and immersed myself in the experience of motherhood and separation anxiety and half-empty nesting.
I found other avenues for my creative spirit.
The daily devotional, for one, kept me attuned to the Father’s greater will, which is to love and love and love. And if that means putting aside my writing craft to pour my love and devotion to my daughter, so be it.
And it was not always easy.
Part of me felt guilty that I have neglected my craft, and even resisted this. Yet whenever I tried to pull myself to writing, greater guilt ensued for neglecting my daughter. The greater love won and fell into a conspiracy with Mr. Writer’s Block.
So here I am now with my new reality, determined to get back on track, at the same time discerning on which track to follow.
With my daughter’s departure, the primary reason for my sabbatical from work is gone (Read My Story on why I quit my job as a nurse in 2015).
Where is the Lord leading me? His will always resides in the voice of the needy.
Who needs me now?
My 13-year-old daughter, for sure. The three years I spent at home showed me that this is where I belong. Yet my husband also needs me, to alleviate the burden and stress of being a sole provider with the increasing expense of private education for my two daughters. He wants me to keep my nursing license active and it has been active for the majority of the states in the US.
Ever heard of the compact state license for nurses in Texas? And with my Ohio and California nursing licenses still active, I can literally work in more than half of the states in the US.
And here I am a stay-at-home mom.
No wonder I’ve been doing experiments in my kitchen. (Read my blog on How To Dehydrate and Activate a Dehydrated Sourdough Starter).
That’s what happens when you leave a double-degree holder (BSN and MD) at home. I did miss the intellectual challenge that these professions had given me in the past. I feel like cobwebs had crept inside my synapses, causing a delay in neuronal transmission of information. But what I didn’t miss were the on-call duties, weekend and evening shifts, and the stress that went with it.
At this point in my life, I want something more than a career that gives me money. I'm nearing my golden years and now I can honestly say, I know what I want to become when I grow that old.
I want to be a published novelist and a health professional specializing in the holistic care of body, mind, and spirit. That’s my dream life. I don’t need to retire if I can do that until I die.
They say your purpose and vocation is the point of intersection between what you love to do, what you are good at, and what the world needs.
Writing, my love for cooking healthy food, and my passion for healthy living (yoga, meditation, running) spur me to be more and do more for my family and my community.
I’ve preached and ingrained that in my firstborn’s mind as she discerned her path to college. I wished I learned that early on. Yet, would I have decided differently?
They say God uses clues from your past to lead you to your future destiny.
As I look back, there's nothing from my past, beginning from the moment I answered God’s call to go and follow Him, that I regret.
I am where I’m supposed to be. And this gives me much consolation.
A saint was once asked what he would do if God would take his life that very moment. And he said, “I’d keep doing what I’m doing.” This is the beauty of living in God’s present moment. You know you will meet Him as a friend should He decide to take you.
No regrets and what ifs.
If the end of my earthly life should happen, and I have not published my book, perhaps, it’s meant to be published by someone other than me. But if by God’s grace and mercy, He should want me to see the work in published form, then I shall see it in my lifetime. My duty is to say “yes” to the present moment.
So, is there ever a perfect moment to write?
The moment comes when the heart is pounding and longs to spill the inspiration to draw others to God. And when that comes, one must heed, without waiting for the perfect writing implement. Any blank page would do. Or the perfect moment. The here and now would do. Or the perfect words. The rambling thoughts can be snipped later into a more disciplined prose.
Write from the heart. Love from the heart. Live with all your heart.
And that’s how I dealt with writer’s block.
By living the perfect present moment.
The Parable of Running
In my blog The Power of Three that Broke Through My Writing Challenges, I described the three things that fuel my writing.
Praying, Reading, and Running.
I realize these do not only fuel my writing, but also my life as whole because it feeds the three essential parts of my being: Spirit, Mind, and Body.
So what am I reading right now?
Still covering a few pages at a time of The Magnolia Story, which inspires my writing life, The Way of Perfection to keep my spirit fed with spiritual nuggets from my spiritual mother, St. Teresa of Avila, and the Anatomy of Running, to avoid injury to my body.
Why the latter and why the concern for injury?
As most of you may know, I am training for the February 2019 Disney Half Marathon.
What I love about this training is that it brings back memories of the first book I wrote and self-published, Running the Millionaire Lane. That is a memoir on how I discovered my call as a writer and how running primed me to pursue that call.
I have learned many harsh lessons since then, which I blogged in How Running Got Me Writing and Vice Versa.
As I train for the half-marathon, I don't have much illusion of self-publishing another memoir on running. I may end up eating the dust off the covers of the book, when it languishes in some corner of the house or library.
But the lessons I'm getting from the run are too precious for me not to ink in black and white, so I decided to post each run with lessons learned on my Facebook page of Running the Millionaire Lane, where you can follow my pathetic struggle of achieving my goal.
The only thing that's keeping me on track so far is the $40 I paid in RunBet, which pushes me to run 4x a week using the Podrunner Interval Program Freeway to 10K, otherwise, I would lose the bet, and my money.
I have two more weeks to go, and I will get back my money and perhaps even earn, if the others who pledged to run, lost on the bet. Let's see...
Anyway, it was with this high stake in mind that made me hit the running trail yesterday.
My husband said, "Bring a gel pack or a small container of water so you can hydrate after 45 minutes."
Having run the same trail for 45 minutes without needing hydration made me say, "No, I'm good. I don't want to deal with urinary incontinence."
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, repeatedly said, "Apply sunblock." This was part of my routine, because I tanned easily with my brown skin, so I took her advice.
As I headed out, I decided to do the uphill run because the path was a long straight course. Intending to run long and slow that afternoon, I thought the open sidewalk beside the main road would be ideal.
How wrong I was.
As I heaved up the climb, the sun soaked my exposed skin, the wind blew at 14mph against my struggling body, and the 95F heat burned my fuel faster than expected.
I had been regularly running for two years averaging five days a week because it helped manage the pain of fibromyalgia and arthritis, but never had I experienced lung burn as I did yesterday, which was surprising, because my pace was not any faster. In fact, it was slower than usual.
I usually feel my lungs burn whenever I run at a pace of 12 min/mi or faster, or when I run in cold, winter weather. This would sometimes result in a coughing fit and spasm of my airways, from the need to inhale and exhale at a higher rate.
Yesterday, I did not cough but at the 22-minute mark, I took the inner path under the shade of the trees and buildings.
My lips longed for a cold drop of water, and my throat felt like sand. If only. At that moment, I regretted not listening to my husband.
When a man crossed the street with a cup in his hand, I had to restrain myself from snatching that precious cup from him. I imagined how the liquid would cool my burning throat, quench the thirst. And that thought did not help at all.
The shady cover was temporary because I had to go back to the open road to head back home. That long straight trail felt like a vast desert under the scorching heat of the sun. The road shimmered like a mirage.
I tried to cheer myself by looking at the clear blue sky. A cloud, looking like Jesus in His tunic encouraged me. "You can do it," He seemed to say. So I fixed my eyes above and for a moment, I forgot about the heat. The cloud beckoned, and my legs prodded me forward, but it disappeared shortly.
Where was the wind when I needed it the most to blow me downhill and relieve me of the excruciating heat?
Ahead, two young women were walking towards me. As they passed me by, they smiled. The energy to lift my lips robbed my legs of what little fuel I needed to get me going. Their smiles were encouraging, but all I could think of was I probably look like hell, or suffering its torture.
As I approached a train overpass, about 0.25 miles away from home, I knew I had to stop under the shade. Increasing nausea overtook my stomach. My muscles quivered and my lids could barely open.
I leaned against the wall, took out my phone, and dialed. While it rang and rang, I prayed, "Please pick up or else the police or paramedics will pick me up from this sidewalk."
Finally, my husband answered. "What's up?" He sounded like he was still on the training bike doing his own Sunday work-out.
"Please pick me up. I'm dying."
"Seriously. Where are you?"
I croaked my location and ended up gagging as I hung up the phone. Nothing came out of my empty stomach. He called again and asked if I was alright.
"Just get here asap," or something like that were the only words I could manage to gasp out, and I hung up again. I was too sick and breathless to talk.
It may just have been a few minutes before he arrived but it felt like hours. As soon as I got in the car, he gave me the gel pack and a bottle of cold water. Thank God! After taking in the life-saving remedies, I said, "I should have listened to you. These would have gotten me home."
He just laughed, but the concern was in his voice as he urged me to finish the gel and water. At home, he gave me a cold pack to put on my chest.
"Heat stroke," he said.
More like a heat slap. Or a close stroke with death.
"I think I need you to come with me to that Disney Half-Marathon," I said. The original plan of our group was to join the event without the family in tow. But after this event, I know that the last 0.25 mile was crucial, and I have a feeling my husband will get me through, whether by cheering words of encouragement, or handing me a gel pack, a bottle of water, whatever... I need his presence and support.
"I can run with you, probably pace you. But this is your run, and you dictate the pace," he said.
"I like that. At least I know I won't end up in Shrek's swamp groping at the water spinach, vomiting and weak, (in Tagalog, "Hindi ako pupulutin sa kangkungan) because you'd be there."
What a comforting thought. It was Running the Millionaire Lane all over again but this time, on a different level.
"You know, I need that. Your support,” I told my husband. “Not just in running but also in my journey as a writer. You’re my alpha-reader. Your encouraging words are crucial to getting me through that last 0.25th mile. One discouraging word or silence can make me lose fuel—my dream of becoming a novelist buried forever."
He understood. Because yesterday morning he woke up to a most strange dream.
"I was flying and..."
After listening to his narrative, I laughed out loud. “That is the answer to my prayer because my Chapter 6 draft seems corny, and I asked God for a better version. Oh, that's perfect!” I said. “And you’ll know why when you read Chapter 5 of my web novel.”
So he read Chapters 3-5, and I got his precious feedback. He’s supposed to be my alpha-reader, the one who would go through my draft yet he had not been doing his part. And it can be frustrating at times when you expect support from that one person who matters most in your life and not get it. God has His strange ways of reminding people.
Thanks to that dream, Lord. You did a St. Joseph strategy on him.
Back to my writing journey, that running incident taught me several lessons.
I needed to listen to my mentor who could help me set my pace, advise me what to do, what to watch out for, and so on.
My husband has been my running mentor since ten years ago when I took on running, a sport I hated.
And I did not listen to him yesterday. So I got in trouble.
In the same way, I have my writing mentors. They've been there and done that. I don't need to reinvent the wheel. Their experience will help me navigate this new road I'm trekking.
This is the reason why I enrolled in the Jerry Jenkins Guild, but if I don't heed Jerry'a advice and of those who have been on this journey, it would be like running without the gel pack or the water.
It's good that I have my critique group who could encourage me by being with me in the writing journey, but a mentor is there to point me to the right directions and give solid advice and recommend resources where I could learn more.
But I have to do my part.
Read, learn, and apply.
These will help me get through my running journey to half-marathon. These will get me through my writing journey and hopefully into publication of my novel.
So What’s Up?
The Readrunner* is back and this time, Running the Long Lane.
*I used to blog about running @Readrunner.blogspot.com, and my last entry was dated March 7, 2010, because in July of the same year, I sustained a back injury and was advised by my doctor not to run anymore. Now that I'm back on the running track, it's time to resurrect that blog in this website and raise it to a new level. How to cross-over from the writing journey blog is the big question.
The first book I self-published was Running the Millionaire Lane.
If you want to learn what-not-to-do as a newbie writer, you got to read this book.
It’s available on Kindle. It will not tell you what not to do, but will show you!
Don’t write in passive sentences.
Don’t publish a draft.
Don’t pantser (write off-the-seat-of-your-pants) without a clear beginning, middle, or end.
For $0.99, this will open your eyes to the sad reality that evades most newbie writers (like me).
Writing a book entails more than passion and purpose.
Learning the craft takes a while if talent is meager.
That’s clear value for your pennies!
But one thing this book will teach is determination.
And if your goal is to run 10K in a few weeks, this book will inspire you.
Determination got me from point A (someone who hated running) to point B (someone who craved running).
It did not occur overnight.
And many people who read it actually said, “If she can do it, I can.”
Yes, that’s how pathetic I am as a runner, enough to inspire anyone, especially a non-runner.
Because I managed to finish a 10K on my first race (almost crawling to the finish line), and improved on my time after a few weeks of training.
And those who read the book, and allowed it to inspire them, also managed to run 10K after a couple of weeks.
I published this book ten years ago.
It seemed prophetic when I mentioned potential migration to the US because here I am ten years after, living on the other side of the world and pursuing my writing dream.
In 2009, we moved to this land of milk and honey. But I had to “milk the cow” back then and “gathered the honey that exposed me to tons of bee stings.”
Nothing fairy tale-like about our immigrant story.
In 2010, I sustained a chronic back injury from an occupational hazard of lifting my patient, which limited my ability to run.
In 2016, concurrent with my decision to pursue writing as a full-time career, ministry, and work vocation, I found a chiropractor who managed to pull me back to running.
Since then, I found running as the best remedy to writer’s block, coupled with praying and reading.
And here are the top lessons I learned from running that I applied to my writer’s life:
1) Maintain a good pace.
- Going too fast risks injury and robs me of the joy of the activity. Going too slow does not achieve my goals.
- The right pace is to start slow and increase to a comfortable breathing pace.
2) Minimize extraneous movements.
- Keep feet grounded. Take small brisk steps. Keep my hands close to my body. Avoid distractions.
3) Less is more.
- Make it simple. Don’t complicate the set-up. Use the basic tools needed to get going.
4) Be consistent.
- Thirty minutes once a week is not enough.
- Two or three times a week is better than nothing.
- Cross training in between minimizes boredom.
5) Having a purpose keeps the passion going.
- Motivation fuels the engine.
- The higher the purpose, the greater the motivation.
Recently, family and friends spurred me to train for a half-marathon.
Why I bit the bullet after telling myself, I will never run in a race again and subject myself to unnecessary stress and pressure, which are potential ingredients for running woes?
It was because they made it sound fun!
“Let’s join the Disney Princess Half-Marathon in Florida next year!”
And I thought of every magical reason I could concoct.
One, I get to become a running princess for a day. Sounds like Cinderella without the glass slippers.
Two, it’s a couple of months away. I have time to train. Surely, it won’t be that hard.
Three, a chance to win a Disney medal and celebrate in Disney style (hopefully with the fireworks and roasted Turkey legs).
… As long as I finish the run in less than 3.5 hours so Mickey Mouse’s magic broom will not sweep me off the running course, I should be okay.
So here I am spicing up my writer’s life with a running goal, which hopefully would push this manuscript in progress to the next level—publication.
Any runners out there who want to join the ride? Or writers for that matter?
Forming Good Writing Habits
I cherish the Lenten Season because the 40 days in the desert enable me to get rid of bad habits and form new ones.
Last year, I formed the habit of exercising 30 minutes a day for 5-7 days a week.
At first, it was a struggle. I dragged my feet to walk, run or cycle. But God’s grace came in the form of writing inspirations. Whenever I exercise, plot scenes jump out, creative ideas spurt, and my writing never suffered dryness nor block.
After Lent, exercise became a habit. My body craved for it. It primed my creative spirit to write. When writer’s block threatened to overpower me, I turned to exercise. It never failed to combat the writer’s nemesis: writer’s
This year, the Lord lead me to form a new habit.
Weave writing seamlessly into my daily routine.
This was a struggle. I had carved hours for writing and when family chores and obligations violated those sacred hours, my writing goals fell apart.
I sensed the Lord wanting me to enjoy a balanced life. He did not want me to trade my relationship with Him and with my family for the writing craft. But He also wanted me to fulfill my mission of writing for His glory.
How to do the seamless weaving became my Lenten task.
Whereas other people gave up chocolates, bad habits, pleasures, and the like, I gave up my will.
I allowed the Lord to show me how to weave my writing seamlessly into my routine.
First task was to look at my priorities and my existing routine.
I had decided that God would always come first, then my husband next, and then the children, before the ministry of writing for the community and for myself.
I usually wake up at around 5-5:30am for my daily prayer, so God made me share my daily reflections and inspirations from my spiritual journal. As He nourished and guided me, I wrote and testified to God’s movements in my life.
The result: a daily devotional in this blog site and a forty-day desert retreat for Lent for my subscribers. It increased my readership more than 100% without clear intent on my part.
Next task was to work outside my routine.
Shoulds and musts became my enemy. I had to let go of all these notions that I cannot write or edit my novel unless all the ingredients for my writing recipe were fulfilled:
• that I sat on a particular place,
• use a particular tool (laptop, software, etc)
• write at a particular time (between this hour to that hour)
• fulfilled specific steps to prime inspiration
When I allowed God’s spirit to take me to the road less traveled by most authors who swore to these routines, I experienced God’s infinite ways of evoking writing inspirations.
When I immersed myself in the daily routines of household chores, exercise, driving for the kids, talking to them, and being with my family in their struggles and triumphs, the creative spirit inspired me to transpose and transcend everything to become writing prompts, parables and inspirations.
I wrote using my iphone and almost anywhere. When scenes and dialogues appeared while I drove, I wrote those in the garage, as soon as I parked the car. I wrote while on my stationary bike or on the treadmill (walking at 2.8-3mph with an incline of 10 for 45-60min), or even in the car line.
When place and time became a non-issue, I became more productive.
The result: I wrote from the heart and my novel became more meaningful and realistic. It resonated more to me. The characters spoke and made me laugh and cry.
If no one else would read this book, it would not matter. The book already affected and changed my life.
Last task was to allow God to set my deadlines.
These past year, I was a pendulum that swung from the stressed-out-must-finish-this-page writer to the it-can-wait-the-world-is-not-ending-tomorrow writer.
This is the area of my greatest struggle: reading God’s timeline.
I came to understand the reason for this from the two verses below.
2 Peter 3:8
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.
“Lord… a thousand years in your eyes
are merely a day gone by.”
My mind opened to the possibility that God’s Day One in Genesis is equivalent to a thousand years for man, which makes science and religion compatible (be it the concept of Big Bang Theory or Darwinian Evolution or Ice Age).
I came to understand why the saints, like St. Paul would announce apocalyptic messages. “The end of time is near.”
For God, Year 2500 is near and can happen in a blink of His eye. But for man, his own mortal end is nearer and he would be long gone by then.
I have always feared that my end would come before I have fulfilled my purpose.
With this understanding came the wisdom to allow the Lord to give me my daily bread.
As long as I adhered faithfully to my priorities, He fulfilled His writing goals in me.
I have yet to see the long-term result. So far, the short-term outcome is a more joyous, peaceful, loving, harmonious, and fulfilling existence with my Lord and with the people around me.
Should I fail to publish this book in my lifetime, may my life become God’s story to be written in the hearts of the people I touch.
So that at the end of my life, even though I come empty handed of these so-called earthly achievements, my heart is full of the love of God and He would recognize me as His.
That is God’s greater purpose for me—to love Him and to love the people He sends my way.
“Why is the groove on your forehead as deep as the Grand Canyon?”
“Forgive me, my lord. I know you’ve done so much to keep me writing, but I feel like Sisyphus.”
I sketched an image of this character in Greek mythology and sensed my angel peering behind me. ”Each time I write a sentence or two, I end up erasing the whole paragraph. Then I start editing chapter five and end up going back to chapter one, for the nth time. What is wrong with me?”
"You're a snowflaker."
“Huh? I fear I’m imagining your guidance. How do I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to do? What if I’m like Balaam (Numbers 22:21-24:25), who heard God’s command the first time, then, later on, thought God changed his course and was directing him to go the opposite direction?”
“Then he’ll send someone to correct you, as long as you remain true to your conviction to follow His will.”
That was nice to know. I guess God puts room for a lot of errors for a child like me.
“Remain as a child before Him, and He will overlook many of your mistakes. It’s easy to be sidetracked, like Balaam, when more distinguished people talk or present more enticing offerings. You get swayed and think perhaps you’ve misinterpreted God’s commands. So you go back to Him and reason with Him.
That had occurred to me many times in the past. Because of my vanity and ego, I thought God was directing me to do something else only to realize that I had been deceiving myself. My bias and judgment made me blind.
“But if you remain true to your intention of doing the Lord’s will," he said, "He will correct you, even resort to a talking donkey to catch your attention.”
I laughed because many times He had used the most unlikely people and circumstances to guide and direct me, to remove the boulder from my eyes, and keep me away from harm.
“Okay, what’s a snowflaker?”
“Remember the pantsers and the plotters? Which one are you based on how you’ve completed your first draft?”
“Neither. Plotters write with structured direction for their story, even chapter by chapter scenes. I didn’t. I began with a goal, i.e., to inspire people to embark on a spiritual journey. Then I envisioned this setting to be the desert.”
“I wrote the lessons I learned from my journey, my forty days in the desert of discipline.”
“And you built from these spiritual foundations. You had a spirit seeking for a body.”
“I guess. That’s why I created my characters and shoved the lessons in their mouths. At first, they swallowed it hook line and sinker, but later, in the middle of the story, they started creating their lessons, even dared to teach me!”
“They'd come alive.”
“Yes, until I had great desire to learn from them that writing became a joyful and spiritual experience. I listened to my characters and watched them conquer their challenges. I finished writing the novel in three months.”
“But that was in December of 2015. Why are you still working on chapter one?”
“Because my first few chapters were contrived and stilted. They were not my characters talking. They were me telling them what to do and where to go."
“There’s a craft to telling their stories. A learning curve for you. But don’t worry. More help is coming your way.”
Randy Ingermanson's book, How To Write A Novel Using The Snowflakes Method kept propping up in webinars, so I bought it.
The moment I read the first sentence, I could not put it down. Brilliantly written. And just what my simple mind needed, a fictionalized non-fiction. And the icing on the cake, written as a fairy tale. How cool is that for a fantasy writer like me?
Just by reading the first few pages, I discovered what kind of writer I am. Finally, a book written for the likes of me.
“I am truly a snowflaker," I told my angel while biking indoor and reading the book. "The backstories of my characters fell like snowflakes. No wonder I could not write a proper blurb or summary. Pieces were missing in my giant puzzle."
"So how did their backstories came about?"
"Like they answered my question, 'Why were you there on that scene? What happened to you? What’s your motive for doing what you did?' And they just talked to me. It was amazing! The backstories were more important than the color of their eyes or their built or where they live. Once they spilled, I began to understand their world and how it works and how they respond to it. It’s like an epiphany. When I looked back at the chapters I have written, I said, “Aha, so that’s why you said this and you acted this way." I was able to deepen their character with the use of interior monologue, knowing now their motives and their backstories. Oh, I love being a snowflaker!”
I wrote a new blurb on the margins while reading the book and identified my target audience (a very narrow, hard-to-reach market which I’ve been in denial for so long—oh dear, what have I gotten myself into?) In chapter 4, I learned how to create my own snowflake. The author did not just tell me how, but showed me. By chapter 5, my one-sentence summary gave birth to my one-paragraph summary. And at chapter 6, started with my character summary.
“I’m glad I didn’t discard my previous versions. Now I’m finding the spots in my jigsaw puzzle for those pieces."
“Just like a snowflake landing where it must land. Now you know how a snowflaker builds a story. Snippets and scenes come like pieces of a puzzle.”
"A matter of putting the pieces together. And those that do not belong to this puzzle may belong to the next, book 2 or 3—“
“Or 4, 5, 6 or 7.”
“You never know the grand designs of the Almighty. You must always come prepared for whatever He hands, big or small. Do you think Peter would have been able to handle the thought of building a church with the seat in the Vatican City?”
Peter, the small fisherman in the town of Nazareth? Our first pope. No, he would have sunk the way he did in the water when he saw the waves.
“Now you know why Jesus said, ‘I have much more to tell you, but you cannot handle it now.’ Be satisfied with your daily bread. That’s all you need. Seeking more than the concerns of today would be spiritual gluttony and avarice and may only lead to useless worries and anxieties. Or worse pride and presumption. Go back to work. You know the scenes. You’ve seen it in your mind.
"How to write it as I see it is the hardest part. It’s like trying to spit out something that’s stuck in my throat," I said.
"If you rely on your abilities alone, yes. Allow the spirit to transport you to a realm where you experience what you see and write it as though you’ve possessed the body of your character."
The alpha, theta, and delta states.
"That where meditation and contemplation come in handy. You drift from one realm to another, from the conscious, subconscious and unconscious. The empty vessel filled with abundance. A brimming noisy bowl will not have room for divine inspiration."
"I have another question. A snowflake just dropped on me, and it looked like the perfect prologue, but you know how some gatekeepers (meaning agents and editors) get turned off by it. Should I write a prologue or not?"
"Rules are there to guide. Don’t fall into the trap of the Pharisees. You learned that in the Realm Makers webinar."
"Ending a sentence with a preposition, using an adverb, etc. These are guides, not strict rules. Kristen Stieffel urged to use it judiciously."
Now I'm reading another book she had recommended, The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke. It was an eye-opener.
"The Sabbath is made for man not man for the sabbath," my angel said. "Just finish your work. You can’t please everyone. Apply the rules of the trade just to break in. Then you can break the rules if needed."
I admit I wrote prologues in the past because I got lazy. I had dumped all the information in that poor opening pages and abused my readers (a crime that some writers commit against their readers, according to one author). But now, after all the feedback, I may need a prologue after all. This is the fourth prologue I have written. I wonder if this will end up in the trash again.
"Should that matter?" my angel said.
"No, because each version is better than the last. And I'm getting more and more detached from my work. It's easier to discard unnecessary scenes, sentences, or words. But when will this endless revision ever stop?"
"There is an editing curve. When you hit the peak, it starts to go downhill. Stop and backtrack. Identify the sweet spot, the peak. And for the deleted scenes, put it in a folder titled Unused Scenes. These are part of the story that may or never be inked on the page."
"So this is the technique of a snowflaker. Organized randomness."
"Mindful execution. From a simple solid foundation, a snowflaker builds complex structures and able to foreshadow."
Now I know why the OneNote App works excellent for me. I can put snippets in many folders and grab the scenes as I move along the chapters.
Just like that, the groove from my forehead disappeared. Now I am back on track.
"Have you heard about Scrivener?" my angel said.
"The what now?"
“I feel such a failure," I told my guardian angel. "I have not touched the manuscript since last year. Two weeks after, I'm still on the same page."
“Pulling your hair again? There are more silver strands in there than I remember."
“I know. I know. Was too busy to pluck it out. Now they're invading my scalp. I may need to dye my hair. I don't want to go that route."
"Then don't. Seems you're wanting to do things you don't need and neglecting to do the essentials."
"You're speaking in riddles again. Spit out."
"Please, my lord," I said.
"Where did you leave off?"
"Chapter one needs a rework based on the judges' and editor's feedback."
"That was last November," my angel said.
"We traveled for Thanksgiving." I reminded him. "Had to plan the itinerary, and there was the college application deadline for my daughter, you know, FAFSA and CSS profile application. Then Christmas snuck up on me, with decorating, cooking and entertaining guests. I had to be flexible."
"And your decorations are stored. The guests are gone."
"And my creative mind is as dry as my chaffing winter skin."
"Is this from disappointment and discouragement again?"
I sighed. "I just don't know when this will ever end, this constant revision. Write for the smartest reader and waste not explaining using dialogues, then I get this feedback from one judge that he doesn't get it, whereas the other two did. I don't think it has anything to do with being smart or not. I think it's based on where people are coming from, their background and experience. I got the lowest score from him. How do I strike a balance?"
"What do you mean?"
"Your purpose is attached to the audience you are meant to write for. You're not designed to write for everybody."
"Choose my audience?"
"Your audience had been chosen for you from the moment you were designed by the Creator. Your voice was created specifically for that audience."
"Who is my target audience?"
"You will figure out with your style of writing-- where you naturally settle, without much effort. It will be a journey of discovery."
"Why a journey? Why can't you tell me upfront and be done with it?"
"Because your life on earth is a training ground for the kind of life you will live in eternity. Be happy with what you've accomplished this week."
"Getting back on track with your diet, your exercise, your house projects. Even getting approved for Google ads in your blog site."
What my angel said lifted my spirit somehow. I forgot about those accomplishments. And more.
#1 I got a platform where I regularly publish devotionals and blogs.
#2 Got my feet wet by attending a writer's conference, hiring an editor, becoming a member in a local writers' chapter, submitting entries for writing competitions, and even pitching my work.
#3 Established a writing routine in the past months (until the holidays disrupted it, groan).
#4 Refurnished my home office and made it conducive for writing. (My husband and I felt like Santa's elves, cramming, nights before Christmas as we hammered on the Ikea cabinets.)
"Celebrate your small victories. You're not Wonder Woman."
I remembered the quote from The Word Among Us January 2018 edition.
If we focus only on the things we have yet to do, we risk losing sight of the progress we have already made.
"How come other authors can do it? Like Cara Putman. She is Wonder Woman, according to James Rubart," I said.
I had been listening to the 2017 ACFW conference audio recording, especially those sessions I had missed because I left early to pick up my girls from school. Thanks to the winter weather I was able to run indoors and listen at the same time, hoping to rekindle inspiration. "I think she's more of a multi-purpose cooker," I told my guardian angel, "with the pressure cooker setting in constant use. Whereas I'm a Crockpot."
"A slow cooker—" he said.
"No need to rub it in."
"But you know slow cookers tend to produce more flavorful and tender stews—"
"Which I can also do with a pressure cooker."
"To each her own. Whatever works better for you and gives you more balance and joy. Everything that you do must cater to the health of your body, mind, and spirit. That's where the salvation of your soul lies."
"I guess I need to evaluate last year's goals. What worked? What didn't?"
"Adapt and discard. Last year you dreamed of a writer's life and worked towards that dream."
Dream 2017. That was the title of my spiritual journal.
"This year," he said, "build on the foundations of your writer's life, the life you want to live for the next several decades. What kind of life would that be? Remember you want not just a writer's life, you want an abundant one."
"A healthy, wealthy, happy me." That was my goal when I embarked on this journey.
"You're not just in this for the money."
"I want to create a writer's life, not just write for a living."
"It has to weave seamlessly into your spiritual and family life and not be a deterrent to both."
"Of course. I don't want this to become my mammon."
"Then design your writer's life the way God wants it."
Design 2018. That's going to be the title of my spiritual journal.
"Are you a Christian writer or just a writer writing for the Christian market? Do you pray before you work? Do you depend on the Holy Spirit for inspiration or do you rely more on caffeine?"
"I got a formula!"
"These are the three things that make me feel rich and alive. Pray. Run. Read. Whenever I do all three, I become productive in my writer's life."
"Pray + Exercise + Learn = Write. Why don't you make an infographic and stick it on your whiteboard."
And the infographic flashed in my mind. I can work on that.
"Adapt that. What other things worked for you?”
"Attending the writer's conference worked. (Read here on my ACFW conference testimonial). The monthly ACFW chapter meetings did too. That topic yesterday was spot on--All You Need To Know About Taxes by Paula Gibbons, CPA. She even recommended we need to write our business plan. I feel like God is preparing me to generate substantial income from this endeavor. It's taking shape, this dream. Design 2018." I waved my hand in the air. "I wonder about Critique groups and beta-readers. What would work for me?"
"You'll never know unless you try."
"I hate doing weeknight meetings. Those are the only times my family spends time together."
"Virtual communities exist," he said.
"Lead me to one. Please."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not."
I heaved another sigh. Less is more.
"Remember Teresa of Avila?" he said.
"Yes." I knew what he was getting at. "She'd rather spin her wheel than write the books she was made to write out of obedience."
"Treat your writer's life that way, and you shall reap in abundance."
"Welcome to the Dark Night of the Soul," he said.
I cringed. This was the title of the book I started reading by St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite mystic, and Doctor of the Church. It was about purgation and purification from all earthly desires and motives to achieve union with God.
"You do want your foundations to be built on rock not sands, right?" my angel reminded me.
"Then be careful about the design, make sure it is solid as a rock," he said.
"Now I know why I can't seem to pick up from where I left off. You don't want me to be building on loose foundations."
"Spot on. Didn't take you long to figure it out."
Yes. I smiled. Thirty minutes on the stationary bike, sweating it out with joy. Pray + Exercise got me writing. Beat that slow cooker!
"Remember, you are called to be a light in this darkness, salt in this blandness. Give joy. Make people laugh. But do not let them forget. When people escape into your world, let them see the real world. Instead of forgetting, remind them of what is true and real through your fantasy."
Post scriptum: That evening, I discovered that Realm Makers recently launched an online critique group. Thank you, my guardian angel.
He immediately reminded me of the mistakes beginners often commit using parallelism from The Dark Night of the Soul, on beginner's mistakes in the spiritual journey.
"Avoid these mistakes at all cost, and you shall benefit much from the critique group."
Novel writing is like creating a fish. I started with a fishbone. It all began with the desire to write a story. Inspiration hit me when I took on the 40 days of discipline to wake up at 5:00 am and do yoga. This was to manage my chronic back pain.
After 40 days, I had forty lessons written in my spiritual journal.
“Now you can start writing your book,” my angel had inspired me. “Use each chapter to contain each of those lessons. What's your setting?”
“The desert,” I said. “Christ journeyed forty days in the desert before He started his ministry. I can use the desert to reveal the inner struggle that each of us must face. I've always been drawn to the image of the desert, mortification, the temptation of Jesus and how He overcame it.” The wisps of memory of the three months I spent inside the Carmelite Monastery brought a smile. In there, I drank from the font of wisdom of the contemplatives and the desert fathers.
“But I also want the mountain,” I added, remembering St John of the Cross' Ascent to Mount Carmel. I like the idea of God being on top of the mountain where He can vanquish all the evil within me, like Frodo bringing the evil ring to Mordor. But I also want it to be an adventure. Like Indiana Jones with all the plot twists and chase.”
“So You want it to be an epic adventure,” my angel said.
“Yes, with my hero as the victor, who has super powers. I love those humans with godlike powers. The Greek mythology, Marvel and DC comics, Six-million dollar man, The greatest American hero, X-men, TV series heroes.” I was rambling.
“And he will achieve all these powers when he vanquishes the Tempests of the desert and climbs the summit.” My fish bone had taken on flesh and cavity.
“But can I also make it into a love story?” I said. I'm a sucker for happy endings. Love Disney fairy tales where the prince always ends up with the princess. I grew up with teenage pocketbook, Mills and Boon, Harlequin, and Barbara Cartland.
“Whatever sends you the giggle and thrills,” he said.
I beamed. My fish now had heart and lungs.
“I want you to enjoy the whole process of writing. Just prance away. Bring your character to where you want him to start and lead him to your happy ending. In the middle, let him do what he wants and you can play around with all sorts of plots twists. Just don't get everything so twisted your reader will get lost in the maze and would demand for an airlift out of it.”
So I did as my angel told me. Suddenly a whole new world opened up to me. And God started to talk to me through my characters, teaching me the lessons I learned and adding their own take of the lessons.
They had layered my fish with muscles and skin. Sometimes, in the middle of my writing, I’d cry when I hear the voice of my Lord in the mouth of my hero.
“You do know your hero is a mirror of you and your struggles,” my angel said.
“Then how come on occasions, he refuses to do what I tell him to do? Refuses to go where the road would lead him directly to the mountain?”
“He likes to explore and see if he could navigate the pit or touch that fire and not get burnt.”
“Test his powers, hmm?” I said.
“Just like you.”
I held out my hand to him. “Stop layering my character to become me.”
“But you are the voice of your character. Why do you think he is so real to you? That's your voice talking to God and to the demons inside and around you.”
The more I listened to my hero, the more convinced I became.
“Now, you have to stop making him explain all these stuff to his readers. He's a character not a narrator or an emcee of your stage play. Let him do his thing and describe it as it is. Your readers are not dumb. Dig into his motives. What was he thinking when he jumped off that cliff? Just that one thought. Don't let him expound and extemporize like he knows he has an audience out there waiting for his every move. He's being chased okay? No time to dig deeper into his motives than the first instinct he had. You can make him ponder when he's lying on the grass, gasping for breath or hiding behind the rock.”
Less is more, I reminded myself.
“And nail that lesson in your head. You want your readers to own your story. Don't delve into specifics otherwise they won't be able to relate to your character. Look at the parables of the Master Storyteller. It is subject to anybody's interpretation and open to the movement of the Spirit. Minimal musings and pondering. Just descriptive narration if you want to capture a larger audience and speak to different time periods.”
I nodded and remembered my struggle at describing every curtain that hang on the wall and flower in the vase. God spoke through Sol Stein, author of the book On Writing and said, "You're a writer, not an interior decorator."
“And child,” my Lord said, “enjoy the process of writing. You don't want a character who's always on the run. You want him to take a deep breath, enjoy the scenery, interact with his heroine and companions. I want the same for you. That's pacing for you and your hero so you don't end up dead even before the story ends.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
So I had fun cutting and pasting pictures of my characters, images of movie stars who would resemble them and browsing Travel magazines and identifying the places I imagined where he'd end up.
“I like this pace, Lord,” I said one day while running on the trail.
“Remember, you are more than a writer. Don't let this new ministry consume you. It's supposed to add thrill and adventure to your life. Here’s a useful tip,” my angel said. “Always have your beginning and ending before you, so you don't stray away from your story design.”
Was he talking about me or my character? I shook my head. I'm reading too much of his layered language.
“Like I said, layer but keep it simple," he said.
I nodded and worked on the scales, fins and tail of my fish. Soon it’ll be ready to swim.
What A Writer's Conference, Editorial Feedback and Critique Taught Me That Books on Writing/Editing Could Not
It's been a week since I got home from the American Christian Fiction Writers' (ACFW) Conference yet it seemed just like yesterday.
My husband said when I entered the kitchen, "So how was the conference?"
"Like Grand Rounds!" (Note for non-medical readers: This is a medical conference held when a patient's case becomes too problematic for one doctor and needs the input of other medical experts).
And I had every reason to say that. Three weeks ago, the first 50 pages of my manuscript came back to me splattered with blue and red inks, bruised and bleeding. I could barely touch it.
My editor, Julie Marx warned me that I had to be thick-skinned for editorial feedback and critique.
I am Titanium, right? I can handle this. I've had lots of practice in medical school. But no, my skin peeled like onions bringing tears to my eyes (weeks after the shock). It was like an encounter of the third-kind, (with my family and friends as the two other kinds who'd dare read my drafts).
My manuscript required major catastrophic revision. And she said things that shook the very foundation of my story. When I quoted the book of Revelation as a spring board for my dystopic fantasy world, she warned me against it. She suggested making it purely fantasy so no one will accuse me of being heretical. That really bothered me and it fed on my doubt whether I should heed her advice or not.
"You prayed that I would use her to speak My message and I have spoken," the Lord said.
"But how can I be sure that it is You and not the enemy trying to deceive me? I mean, look at Peter. You told him that he is the rock and upon him you will build your church and yet, the next minute he opened his mouth, you rebuked him and said, `Get away from me Satan, your thoughts are not God's thoughts. Anyone can be your mouthpiece and the devil's mouthpiece at the same time! How will I know?"
"Because I will speak in the silence and peace of your heart where love, faith and hope reside."
Argh. "My mind and spirit are anything but silent right now. You shook the very foundation of my book," I said.
"So now, it is Your book. I thought it was to be My book and you'd only take dictation. Didn't C.S. Lewis teach you that?"
"I know, I know."
"And what did he say?"
I sighed and mouthed verbatim… "Quote, I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say. End of quote."
And I relented and knew that fighting the Lord would just put me in Jacob's position. Even if I win, I will end up with a limp and would be begging for His blessing.
"So how can I create a pure fantasy world out of this manuscript that have quotes and quotes from the Bible?" I asked my angel. "It's impossible! And she also said I should remove the Prologue. But I love that Prologue. It's a very beautiful Prologue. God dictated that to me, remember? I could not have come up with that Prologue on my own!"
"That Prologue is for you, not for your readers," my angel said.
"It's your synopsis, a guide, map, whatever you wish to call it."
"But the Abbot of the Abbey, writing a love story... it's both ridiculous and brilliant! It's a great hook."
My angel allowed the reading of the day to speak to me, as though he had grown tired of my whining: Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.
"Didn't you ask what God thinks of your manuscript and use the editor as His mouthpiece? And now He's telling you-- go back to the drawing board," my angel added.
I sighed. When I heard the editor say that, I just stared at her. Literally, I could feel nothing. Was I angry? No. Was I sad? No. Numb. That was how I felt. Wrapped in God's grace, I didn't feel the sting.
But when I got home that day and my husband asked me, "So what did she say?"
"She shredded my manuscript to pieces," I joked.
"But did she say anything good about it?"
I scanned my brain and all I could think of were all the things I needed to improve on. She may have said something but my disappointment at not having floored her with my "wonderful" writing blared like a horn that would have drowned any positive remarks. Doubt settled in the pit of my stomach like a demon and I served it with coffee, tea and biscuits.
I wanted to dig the soil and bury what little talent I thought I had.
"You do know what the Master said to that servant with that one talent?" my angel said.
Yes, I sighed. The gospel reading that Sunday shouted at me:You worthless and lazy servant, you could have deposited it in a bank for an interest.
In my writer's mind, it translated:
"If you're too lazy to revise your manuscript and do the hard work required of traditional publishing, instead of burying your work in the hard drive of the computer to see no light of day, you could at least go indie and publish it in kindle. Someone could stumble upon it, through some mysterious designs which only I would know, and read the message I planted in those pages."
I sighed. I don't want to self-publish another rough draft. "Yes, Lord. I will try to revise it."
So I tried to rewrite the first line and chapter, in vain. For 21 days I struggled to get out of my titanium cell of self-doubt. I had high hopes. The idea of not being able to pitch my work at ACFW and miss the only chance I have this year to speak with an agent disheartened me.
Yet I had prayed that God would use my editor to tell me exactly what to do and I'd obey it.
"I'm really getting conflicting signals here," I complained to my angel. "He said, the time has come. So why this? Is this like Moses going to Pharaoh and then getting denied multiple times?"
Humility and obedience. The words hammered in my head. Okay. Okay. I will not pitch. I tried to convince myself. My flicker of hope dimmed every minute as I repeated the words.
"But you need to prepare your one-sheet and synopsis," my angel said.
"What? But the manuscript is not ready. I don't have the first five chapters."
"The bridegroom comes like a thief in the night. You don't want to be caught sleeping without oil in your lamp."
"Alright, alright. I will do it."
In the conference, the first friendly face I saw was that of my editor.
She hugged me and said, "How's your manuscript going?"
"Nowhere." I laughed. "It's still in the ICU needing resuscitation."
She looked me in the eye and said, "You have a story to tell. Believe you can do it."
Her words sent 200 joules of shock that brought my pulse of hope in fibrillation.
Validation. For one week, this word evaded me yet it sat at the tip of my tongue. What was that word The I desperately needed to bring back my inspired creativity? Affirmation? confirmation? Assurance? No. Validation-- the knowledge that I'm pursuing God's Purpose, that my dreams are aligned with His plans.
I had hoped that He would send me signs, signals and people. For weeks, words of inspirations from the Bible could not get me out of my pit of despair. The promise of wonderful things to happen at ACFW hung like flimsy thread that I could not grasp. I didn't have what it takes to be a writer: these words roped around my neck. But with Julie's validation, the coil loosened.
"Pray for me," I said.
And she did. Right there in the middle of the lobby. I saw the silver lining in my dark clouds. She pulled me and introduced me to the other writers who lifted me with their warm smiles.
Sarah-Meg Seese approached me and said, "In 2015, I came at a conference like this for the first time. Now, I'm a published author."
Is that another dangling carrot for me, Lord? I thought.
"Learn what you can from the masters. Rub elbows with published authors. This is your reality. It is not a dream anymore," my angel whispered.
In the large banquet hall, I watched with awe when the emcee called out those who've signed their first contract and published their first books after last year's conference. Sarah was among them.
I could be that person next year. My pulse steadied but still fluttered on occasions .
Come CEU time, I entered a smaller room. Best selling author James Rubart spoke. My eyes fixed on him. I understood his language, I thought in amazement. He spoke of my hearts' desires in the light of God's designs and my destiny. He also happened to write in my genre, speculative fiction. I held on to each word that came out of his mouth. "Write from your heart. The best story you can write is your own story. The movies that you watch, books that you read all have a common theme. You are drawn to it because of God's design and purpose written in your heart."
I approached him after the conference and talked to him about my book. When he nodded and said he liked the idea, adrenaline rushed through my veins. A best-selling author actually thinks the story is good! My heart pumped with vigor and oxygen entered my shriveled brain.
The more I connected with authors and writers, the more I saw my inadequacy. I looked at my syllabus and realized, in my lofty pride, I signed up for the upperclassmen courses when I was just a freshman. I thought I had bought and read every writing and editing book out in the market and had no need of the workshops. I failed to grasp that theoretical knowledge does not make one a writer.
My angel laughed and said, "Remember how annoyed you were with patients who consulted Dr. Google and think they already know their diagnosis and treatment?"
I shook my head. Even after I graduated from my internship, I was not confident of my ability to treat a patient. It took years of residency and clinical practice before I sharpened my clinical eye and learned my craft.
"It's the same with the writing craft," my angel said. "You may not kill a patient physically but you can kill a soul for eternity with your written words. Learn and master the craft."
"You are writing into someone's eternity." These words had been repeatedly spoken throughout the conference, from the emcee's lips Colleen Coble, the keynote speaker Randy Alcorn and the worship minister Rachel Hauck.
That brought me to my senses. I joined the freshmen workshops like Crafting the First Line by Rachel Hauck and the first chapter revealed itself to me--paragraphs I've struggled with for six versions. The workshop on Creating Settings That Become Characters by Liz Johnson made me see, smell, taste, and touch my world of fantasy.
When I shared my idea for my first line and first chapter to another editor Kathy Ide, during the 15-minute consult, she said, "I like it. That's so much better than what you submitted for critique." She discussed other techniques that I could use to improve my first five chapters.
Another 200 joules of shock catapulted my manuscript.
Finally, I sat in a roomful of people waiting for my agent's appointment. Some looked fidgety and nervous. My seat mate asked me, "Are You pitching?" I smiled and said, "No, my manuscript is not yet ready. I just want get up close and personal with an agent to remove that notion that they would bite and devour me."
And so I approached Julie Gwinn and asked her to critique my one-sheet because I had no idea what a one-sheet was until that conference. She started asking questions about my characters and I started revealing my plot and the three book ideas I had in mind. We had a lively exchange with each plot twists.
"I love it," she said.
I thought I saw her eyes lit up which made me blurt with disbelief, "You do?"
"If you can write it the way you said it and send me the proposal."
That delivered the final 200 joules that stabilized my patient.
"I wish I had a videocamera here that recorded all that I told you," I said and joined in her laughter.
The Lord in His mysterious ways had molded me to act, think and speak in a manner that brought about His purpose, and brought me back on my writing track. I received the validations I had sought for, from chance encounters in restrooms with strangers-turned-friends (Kristen Joy Wilks), seat mates who'd manifest God's leadings in my life (yes, Andrea Michelle Wood, feel free to ask me about medical stuff), fellow writers who sat on my dining table, sharing their journeys, struggles and triumphs (Bruce and Joyce Hammack, you're one inspiring power couple), generous souls who'd offer to sign up in my Newsletter to increase the number of my subscribers (yes, Janine Rosche, your 30 is an incomparable feat to my 3, which includes my ever-supportive mother-in-law), push books through their reviews (Zan Marie Steadham, I salute you for what you do), and give so much of themselves to support organizational endeavors (Jessica White, you could run an LLC with all the things that you do as a support staff). It was like I had come home to my pack, where I felt safe, comfortable and at peace.
This morning, while running on the trail with these events in my head I realized that the Lord gave the most difficult task to my first editor, AJ Marx. She spoke as a prophet with words that are not easy to embrace. And I have to say unless an author learns to accept critique with humility and obedience, she will never grow as a writer.
Had Julie "played it safe" and encouraged me to go for it, I would have pitched a raw manuscript that anyone would spit out. I would have left that conference comatose. It took a lot of courage on her part to be the bearer of bad news but her loving prayers gave me the grace to accept the harsh reality in humility and obedience. So when I got the critique from Kathy, I had been embraced in grace. I no longer needed the titanium shield to hear that my first few pages did not do my story justice at all.
Because I had no intention of pitching, I approached agent Julie G. calm and relaxed. I spoke to her the way I would speak with a friend-- animated and full of humor. I avoided what every newbie would suffer when pitching their first baby--high tension nerves--and the common result that would go with it, a glazed look of disinterest from the agent that could peel a fragile onion skin apart.
The scriptural reading for that day could not stress it more:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
I never thought a single ACFW Conference could propel my writing into a crucial momentum. All the experts in one venue were used as the Lord's channel of revelation. It was not coincidence but synchronicity that the event was just a short drive from my house.
Truly, the Lord provides for His beloved as they slumber.
Now I can say, my manuscript is ready… to be taken to the operating room for major reconstructive surgery.
Out-of-the-country summer vacation and family reunions pulled me off course.
For three weeks, I failed to run. Finally, when all the visitors had gone, I returned to my routine.
I went out for a run.
To my aghast and surprise, I panted and heaved after mere 15 minutes under the sun. I felt so lame.
Picking up where I left off with my writing was just as hard.
"Should I start with book 2 or should I wait until I find an editor, an agent, and publisher for book 1?" I asked my Lord.
I have searched for the right editor to work with me and have not had much success. So I prayed and prayed.
As always, prayer was more effective than my own efforts.
One day, I saw an event ad for the American Christian Fiction Writers' Conference. To my delight and surprise, this year's conference will be held at Gaylord Convention Center, here in Dallas!
What a blessed coincidence. Or was it?
I have learned in my walk with the Lord that there is no such thing as mere coincidence.
Someone who allows the Lord to move in his life will find, not a coincidence, but divine orchestration.
As soon as I signed up for membership to get the discounted rate, I received an invitation from the local chapter of ACFW and met my future editor-mentor.
Finally, I am back on track.
At the same time, this led me to another confusing situation. How should I manage my day with a book to edit and a blog site to maintain?
I did not want to happen what had happened to me in the past when I started this website.
I know the way of the Lord is the way of peace and tranquility. Many times in the past, I had bit more than I can chew and ran ahead of the Lord.
As I began to doubt, my Lord assured me as He assured Gideon.
“Go with the strength you have. It is I who send you.”
Still, I falter like the man in the Bible, and the Lord treated me in the same kind manner.
“Please, my lord, how can I do this? My family is the lowliest, and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.”
“I shall be with you,” the LORD said to him.
“If I find favor with you, give me a sign that you are speaking with me.
These past few months, He had guided me with signs, some glaring and others subtle. I learned to listen to the voices within and around me.
Yet the Lord would warn that not all inspirations would come from Him.
Like Peter, anyone can be used by Satan to distract and pull me off course, include myself. And it is not because I intend to but simply because of my weaknesses. I can become an instrument of both good or evil.
In the end, the recipient of the idea veiling as inspiration ultimately discerns as Jesus had discerned when He turned to Peter and recognized Satan whispering behind him. With a rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan, your thoughts do not come from God but from man," He successfully uncovered the plot of the devil through an innocent mouthpiece.
I too must discern with a humble heart which of the inspirations cater to my ego, my baser instincts or my spiritual side, and only I can see this depending on how much I know myself.
"I will wait for Your sign my Lord. I will wait for Your promptings. I am confused."
"Should I really stop blogging and publishing devotionals while I work on the book or not? Send me Your clarity Lord."
Today is the Feast Day of Mama Mary's Queenship. May I follow her example: she who never acted unless prompted. She waited in patience, holding God's promises, pondering upon it and keeping it close to her heart. I shall do the same.
I held my angel's hand and said, "Pray with me."
And I ask all my readers to pray for and with me.
For three days, I shall remain silent and not act. I will pray as I wait for the Lord and read His signs.
I love writing reviews on Travel Advisor under the pen name Pilgrim Pinay, and when I got an email from them, it came as a surprise because I didn't realize they were tracking my reviews.
I observed that the reviews that gave directions and tips tend to get the most helpful thumbs up from readers.
It was the same with blogging. I started this hobby in 2008 and maintained two blog sites, now both inactive: The Sentiments of a Young Filipino MD Turned US Migrant Nurse and Readrunner. The most read article was on How We Passed the Road Test for Driver's License on our First Take.
The first blog site was an offshoot of an article I wrote, The Sentiments of a Young Filipino MD, sort of an advocacy piece that went "viral" on yahoogroups. The other blog site was a result of running that later gave birth to my book Running the Millionaire Lane. Both blogs would also have tips and advice.
Looking further back, my first published article on the international level was featured in the Union Catholic Asian News regarding the plight of the Vietnamese refugees in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, an advocacy piece.
What do these all mean? I can't help but ask myself as I continue to journey and discover the writer's life.
In the gospel last Sunday, the Lord led Elijah to the mouth of the cave and said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and rending wind came, but He was not in there; neither was he in the earthquake and the fire. Then Elijah heard a tiny whispering sound. And there he found the Lord's presence.
In my life, I often look for the Lord in heart-rending moments, in shaking events or in fiery discourses; but I've learned these past years, that He'd often speak in the silence of my heart.
Two years have gone by from the time He led me to my sabbatical. I have seen His presence in my writing. I'm at peace and certain that where I am right now is His will for me. My current disposition, habits, and practices are conducive to listening to this tiny whispering sound that Elijah heard.
When I visited the Philippines over the summer, I only intended to meet up with friends and family and visit the northern region. Yet within those three weeks, I've become more observant. I've become a pilgrim and not a tourist.
Pilgrim vs. Tourist
Matthew Kelly, in his book, “Resisting Happiness” wrote: Tourists want everything to go exactly as they have planned and imagined it; rush around from one place to another; cram everything in; busy buying souvenirs; get upset with delays; demand prompt attention and service; focus on themselves; go sightseeing; count the cost.”
“Pilgrims look for signs; concerned with things they feel called to see and do; aware of needs of others; look for meaning in everything; count their blessings; spend loving moments with people around them.”
In this recent travel, I realized I have become a pilgrim and learned to listen and watch out for signs without actively intending to.
There were many changes from the last time we visited in 2013, and yet many things remained the same. With the many rises in condominium units and commercial buildings, the poor congested areas seemed to increase as well.
Traffic had gone from bad to worse. We moved at 5-10mph on the main thoroughfare.
Is it a traffic crisis?
Well, that would depend on whose point of view.
I recalled the chemistry experiment about the two frogs that reacted differently in a boiling pot of water. One frog was put inside a cold pot of water which was heated on a stove. This frog swam in comfort. Slowly the fire increased the water's temperature approaching the boiling point, but the frog barely noticed the change until it was too late; whereas the other frog kicked and panicked as soon as it was immersed in the already heated and near-boiling water.
As immigrant balikbayans, we were the latter frogs. The traffic was intolerable. Even coming from a city where traffic is probably considered bad compared to another metropolis, we found this type of congestion severely energy- draining.
We wove through 10-15-mph-moving vehicles while motorcycles wove in between car gaps. At intersections, throngs of pedestrians would join the party. I realized how I had changed these past years when the sight of people crossing the streets at a kissing distance from the car actually scared me. It had been a long time since I had seen such a thing. This would happen throughout the day and the week and would worsen during rush hours on weekdays. A 5-min walk could take a car 30 minutes to cover the same distance.
So why weren't the people walking?
My husband and I decided to walk one day and recalled why. Hello, steaming humidity and heat! Amidst the spa-like condition, we had to weave through narrow sidewalks with oncoming cars appearing in surprise from parking garages at every building we crossed. It was like playing this game Froggy where the risk of getting smashed in the middle of traffic was as high as the humidity of the air. As we walked, my husband complained not of sweating but “sapping.” I laughed at the apt description of sticky sweat dripping from his back like a rubber tree trickling out sap.I had to put a paper towel under his wet shirt as we approached the bank.
So yes, that made walking less desirable than sitting in the air-conditioned car on an almost-parking mode.
When we drove outskirts, we thought we had escaped the crawl of the congested metropolis only to be confronted with yet another one—the tricycles driving at 5mph on the National Highway. My husband gritted his teeth in exasperation as he wove in and out of his lane to avoid the creeping vehicles.
This long haul to what could have easily been a two-hour drive to our scenic destination gave way to long conversations with my tween and teenage daughters.
We passed by rice paddies where farmers manually planted rice under the heat of the sun.
"When we were student nurses, part of our curriculum was to live for one semester in one of those far flung poor communities," I told them. "We'd cross the rice fields along the pilapil, the mound of dry land in between the paddies to get from one cluster of houses to another. We conducted health surveys, community consultations, home visits, and health education. Some of my classmates even home-delivered a baby. I used to pray that I wouldn’t have to do that, although my health bag was always ready. I regularly boiled my instruments to keep them sterile and wrapped them in ironed cloth. That was the most practical way of sterilization back then," I said.
We passed by a town, and my husband commented, "Look at how the shacks and huts are standing right beside new houses built of concrete."
A pang of sadness hit me. True, some have managed to make a good living, perhaps from working abroad as an OFW, but many town folks are farmers who could barely make ends meet.
"Being a farmer means being poor because they don't own the land. And even if they do, the harvest could barely cover the costs of farming," I told my daughters. "They would tend to bear many children so they would have helping hands on the rice field but that also increased the number of mouths to feed."
As we passed by a public school and students in uniforms came out, I looked at their faces.
How many of them would end up in congested Manila or go abroad and work as a domestic helper in Dubai or Hong Kong?
I voiced out my thoughts and said, "If only the suburbs were developed enough, so people didn’t have to throng in Manila or work abroad. But that would mean providing better opportunities and providing better services outside the city—not just work but education opportunities like good schools, and competent teachers. This would need smart and intelligent students pursuing degrees in education. Yet this would not happen if salaries for teachers are not attractive. Thus the rippling effect. Doctors and nurses wouldn't stay in the provinces if there were no good quality schools and services available for their children. That would partially explain the inadequacy of health care services in the outskirts, which would further push the people to move to the cities."
"Stop," my husband said.
Yes, thinking about the problem was energy draining. We drove out of town to recharge and not drain our batteries. So I kept my thoughts to myself.
The problem is so much deeper and complex.
There was no simple solution to a systemic problem that had metastasized at every cell in the society.
Of complacency and lack of urgency
As I lie down on the beach with a book in my hand, enjoying the sound of the waves and the wind blowing on my hair, I thought of the events that had happened over the previous days.
The Philippines is an archipelago and is composed of more than 7,000 islands. I should have thought of this when I complained about how slow things move.
Time drags. Time is relative. Perhaps when I retire and am no longer in a hurry to get things done, I might settle on a remote island in the Philippines, but right now when I crave efficient use of my time, I cannot tolerate all the redundancies of steps. Such a waste of energy and resources. It must be the humidity, the heat, and the traffic. People have no energy to speed up.
Even bank transactions took hours and sometimes days when one had to come back and personally pick up a check that needed to clear. Even when entering malls, we had to fall in a queue because of the manual bag inspection and body frisk or pat down at the door. Paying for purchases in the malls also involved extra steps: after the cashier had punched in the price of the item, and the customer swiped the credit card or paid in cash, another staff would inspect the item, mark the receipt with a pen, and staple the receipt on the bag. I had to hold my breath, one time when the phone rang just when the cashier was in the middle of performing these arduous steps all by herself, and she just had to take that call! No wonder the queue was just as long.
Yes, this was one thing we noticed and had forgotten: how long things get processed in the Philippines.
I recalled another incident when my husband and I sat in a bank, waiting for our turn to make a simple payment transaction.
"Look at how that one man hovers around the two tellers, signing something they've done. For one transaction to happen, a pen needs to sign a paper, then a stamp pad needs to hit the same paper, then another pen then the machine and then finally the pen of the customer. Too many steps for a single transaction, like they fear that simplicity would lead to errors. It's crazy!"
We went out of the bank, thirty minutes after. The whole transaction could have been processed in less than five minutes if only there was a sense of urgency and efficiency. I guess they have not heard of the wisdom of the mantra, "Less is more." Or perhaps people have gotten used to this pace, and so everyone appeared contented.
"Everything moves too slow! I just can’t take it," my sister-in-law, also a US immigrant once commented. I smiled. She's right. We've been so used to efficient living where we can plan our day ahead of time that the traffic and slow processes were intolerable.
"I guess it's also good that Filipinos migrate and experience how things are done abroad. Perhaps it'll broaden their perspectives and realize, things can improve and everything need not be complex and hard and run at a turtle's pace," I told my husband. "Weren't we surprised too when we moved to the US that obtaining a driver's license and a vehicle plate would only take us less than five or ten minutes?"
He laughed at the memory. We were ready to spend the entire day at the BMV and came out so fast, we spent more time at a nearby mall than our original business for the day.
Having worked at large institutions in the US, I have experienced the culture of process improvement. We regularly ask the question, "How can we improve the process? How can we make things faster and more efficient? How can we make things easier and create a better experience for our customers, patients or end-users?" This could mean decreasing steps, taking out redundant processes, automating things, providing guidelines, constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. In the end, these resulted in greater productivity, cut down cost and increased profitability and value of the company.
I guess that culture still needs to seep in. Slowly it's happening in certain sectors.
You wished too there was a sense of urgency.
"But life is so easy here," a local friend contradicted. "When I wake up, breakfast is ready. When I come home, my laundry is done and my clothes pressed and ironed. When I need something, the driver can run my errands. I go to the bank and tell the clerk to come out and take my paperwork. You just have to set up a system for yourself. As long as you have the money, things are easy."
It was the same for my aunt. She loved how she could weave her way around the system. She knew the right people to approach who could meet her needs.
And another friend, a US citizen would rave about wanting to retire in the Philippines. She loved how she could easily arrange for services to meet her needs: a driver to bring her to places, maid to prepare her food and run her errands.
I hate to think that the common thread that would draw people to stay in the country is what money and influence could buy: affordable help and service, no matter how slow or fast.
I am ashamed to admit that I am a better person in the US than in the Philippines. I am more generous, kind, and peaceful. When I was in the Philippines, I felt like I was in the jungle and I played by the rule of the Survival of the Fittest where dog eats dog. In all my endeavors, I had my own selfish interest in mind. "What's in it for me?" was the primal question whenever opportunities come up. I recognized it as the Poverty Mentality.
I also do not like to think that only three kinds of people would thrive in the Philippines: those who have the three Ps—Power, Popularity, and Peso, and that for the middle and low-income groups, all there was left was that one P that the have-nots would hold on for dear life.
But I could not help it because when I attended mass in this country, I sensed an air of heaviness and despair. It was a starting contrast to the atmosphere that I would sense at mass here in the US, where people simply go to worship and give thanks. This particular chapel in Manila vibrated of pain and suffering. I came out exhausted.
I have also observed how the lowly serving people are so tolerant of impatient customers or employers. They remain unfazed even with abusive words, or have they just gotten used to it?
The more I pondered about this, the more I sensed a system that's deeply rooted in a culture of colonialism.
Could it be that the three hundred years of Spanish colonization and oppression, followed by more years of servitude to foreign nations, would only lead to an independence that did not really mean much but just a change in the color and face of those who'd oppress the poor, now no longer foreigners but Filipino elites?
Will it take another three hundred or more years to undo the damage that was done to this culture? It seems the bondage is deeply rooted. It may take more than just economic liberation, but also mental, social, cultural and spiritual liberation.
Should that stop people from doing anything about a problem that seemed Leviathan in size?
"We cannot help everybody, but that shouldn't stop us from helping those whom we can."
Those words came from my socially-conscious 18-year-old niece who lives in the Philippines. I take my hats off her.
She's the same niece who chose to spend her grand debut birthday celebration in the Jesus Loved the Children Foundation at the Riverspring School. Most well-off girls would splurge money for a grand 18th birthday celebration, but she chose to spend it in a worthy cause. She organized her family and close friends to be part of this outreach program. With simple games to entertain the kids, snacks, and lunch, she made a difference in the lives of everyone. One good deed breeds and inspires more good deeds. This is the rippling effect. Whether you're a small stone or huge one, you will create a ripple in a body of water.
I have seen other similar efforts of social initiatives, personal advocacies, underground and behind-the-scene reforms in the political arena, and creative business strategies geared towards poverty alleviation. The results are not yet apparent and striking, but I sensed the rippling effect.
What kind of ripple am I creating?
Writing for advocacy. It's all coming back to me.
Perhaps it’s time to get inspiration from the national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal. Did he not expose and lament over the situation of the country while living abroad while Andres Bonifacio led the revolution from within?
I know there’s a reason why God would lead some people to migrate while the others to stay. These past few days, He seems to be reminding me of the words He spoke before we migrated to the US.
“When the LORD, your God, brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would give you, a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, with houses full of goods of all sorts that you did not garner, with cisterns that you did not dig, with vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant; and when, therefore, you eat your fill, take care not to forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. The LORD, your God, shall you fear; him shall you serve, and by his name shall you swear.
The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.
The LORD, your God, shall you fear, and Him shall you serve; hold fast to him and swear by his name. He is your glory, he, your God, who has done for you those great and terrible things which your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy strong, and now the LORD, your God, has made you as numerous as the stars of the sky.”
As an immigrant and a dual citizen, I hear a soft whisper within me: “A time will come when you will have to take a position to help My little ones. You have to push and prod big people, those with the three P's, to make them move and help My little voiceless ones.”
"How, my Lord?" I asked.
“You too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”
Is this another call within a call?
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