My Writer's Journey
"The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord, and you also will testify."
- John 15:26b, 27a -
- John 15:26b, 27a -
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.
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