Today we’re going to talk about discipline …Wait, did you feel that? It was a cold chill collectively rippling through my body and every other person reading this blog today. Because let’s face it, nobody really likes discipline except the body-beautiful types who live in a gym. Uh, that’s not me and since this blog primarily speaks to writers, I’m pretty sure that’s not you either.
The hard truth is … discipline hurts. I can still remember the looks of abject horror on my daughter’s face at the age of three whenever I would slap her hands, which one tends to do a lot with an oral child for whom I called Poison Control over 13 times. And no, I was not a bad mother who left her unattended (with a kid like her … are you kidding???). Usually the “tasting” incident took place within one to ten feet of me, whether it was crunching on a dead bug I’d killed with Raid, licking the Comet can while I cleaned the tub, or sucking on a tree spike. The girl had an oral fixation that would bring tears to a dentist’s eyes. And, yeah, those swats on the hand or bottom were painful, but SO necessary to keep my little girl alive and well so she could GROW into the woman God intended her to be.
Ahem … not unlike her mother. Trust me, as an unpublished and published writer, I’ve been taken to the woodshed more times than I can count. But when the hurt feelings go away and the tears finally dry from my eyes, I always come away with valuable lessons that help me to GROW into the writer God intends me to be. So I thought, why not share a few of my woodshed experiences? Because who knows—maybe I can spare you some pain ...
Woodshed Experience #1—Contest Judges:
God bless ‘em, contest judges have sawdust all over their feet from taking entrants to the woodshed. Some of them are kind about it while others definitely sting with their well-aimed swats. Either way, if we are willing to learn, they can impart a wealth of knowledge. The most important thing I’ve learned is to PRAY about every piece of advice given by a contest judge, because it’s been my experience that the Holy Spirit can use them BIG TIME in shaping us into the writers God wants us to be. Uh, ESPECIALLY if you get the same comment from more than one judge.
Judges told me my heroine was “whiney,” so I softened her by lending humor to her complaints and giving her polio as a child (Thank you, Donald Maas for your Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook!). Judges also told me that I needed to get the action up front, so I moved “the kiss scenario” from page seven to page five to page two and then finally to the first paragraph of A Passion Most Pure, saving the reader from wading through SEVEN pages of internal monologue!!! YIKES … what was I thinking???
Woodshed Experience #2—my agent:
Trust me, NOBODY is better at imparting lessons a writer needs to learn than my agent Natasha Kern. The woman is a master at shaping and molding writers into the authors that God wants them to be, even if it doesn’t always feel so good at the time. Like recently when she read my manuscript for Katie O’Connor’s story, book 1 in my next 3-book series about the O’Connors of Boston. “Julie, I think this could be your best book yet …” she begins on our casual stroll in the direction of the woodshed. I can still feel my stomach constricting at the pause in her tone before she enlightened me that I needed more “moral premise” to pull it off. Uh, come again? She suggested I read The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, an excellent book that shows how bestseller books and box-office movie hits not only include a “practical lesson” in the story for the hero or heroine, but weave that lesson through the story so magically that EVERY character is struggling with the same thing at the same time, albeit in different ways.
For instance, apparently I did this in book 3 of The Daughters of Boston Series, A Passion Denied, even though I had NO CLUE until after I read The Moral Premise AND a good friend pointed it out (thank you, Cathy Richmond!). You see, in A Passion Denied, everything in the book is about denying passion. Brady denies Lizzie his love because his past won’t let him go there, Lizzie denies Brady her friendship because she’s tired of being hurt, Patrick denies Marcy when he learns a secret from her past, Mitch denies Charity out of a fear from his past, Collin denies Faith out of hurt pride, and so on and so on. Unbeknownst to me, denial is woven throughout this book in a way that binds it and the characters tightly together, hopefully offering the reader a one-two punch at the end that will leave them gasping for more. And although I accidentally “stumbled” into moral premise in A Passion Denied, there is another Seeker/client of Natasha’s who, according to Natasha, is a natural at moral premise—none other than our own Mary Connealy. Humph … I always knew she liked you better than me, Mare!
So thanks to Natasha and The Moral Premise, I hope I was able to take Katie O’Connor in book 1 of the next series from a spoiled, controlling heroine to a deep and driven young woman by using a natural moral premise of the 1920’s era—women’s rights (when women first got the right to vote and the first Equal Rights Amendment was introduced)—and interlacing it with a moral premise of surrender—to God, to love and to an era that took our country to its knees, The Great Depression.
Woodshed Experience #3—my editor:
Without question, I have one of the best editors in the business. And when an editor with the vast experience and well-earned respect of my editor gives a green debut author like me her revisions, well, trust me, it’s a true learning experience. The number one lesson she taught me is a very simple and often repeated one, and yet I didn’t truly understand it or really learn it until book 3, A Passion Denied.
The lesson? WRITE FOR YOUR MARKET. For those of you who have read A Passion Denied, you know it is the “edgiest” (i.e. most passionate of the three books and John Brady’s past, the darkest of all the heroes in the series). But trust me, originally it was darker still because I strongly felt I needed a really dark past to keep Brady away from Lizzie and then in the end, enough shock factor to keep Lizzie away from Brady. My very wise agent tried to tell me that the “dark aspects” would not fly, but being as stubborn as my characters, I stayed the course—mine—and submitted the dark plot to my editor anyway after softening it somewhat. But in a way that left no room for confusion, my editor convinced me that my market (Christian romance readers) want to be inspired and lifted up, not brought down by a hero’s truly shocking past. After all, I am not writing women’s fiction here, but a “Calgon, take me away” type of romance to not only inspire, but leave them with a feel-good ending that will take them away (hopefully to my next book!). I can honestly say now that unless my editor had “taken me to the woodshed” on writing for the market, it is a lesson I would not have learned and one that could have easily cost me readers down the road.
Woodshed Experience #4—God:
Goodness, I wish I’d known what an emotional roller-coaster it was going to be AFTER I got published. Like a lot of unpublished writers, I thought all the anxiety and self-doubt would dissipate after I signed on the dotted line. I mean that would validate me, wouldn’t it? Give me confidence as a writer? But I discovered (thank you, God, for your mercy in this hard lesson learned) that true confidence is not in accolades from your editor or a really good review, but instead in where your heart is with God. HE is my confidence when my sales rankings on Amazon.com are high or low or when a 1-star review begins with the line “this is simply a horrible book.” Which is why I CLING to the following Scripture from 2 Corinthians ll:3 as my number one prayer: Dear Lord, do not let my mind “be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”
At the end of the day when lessons have been learned and the grass has been trampled thin on that path to the woodshed, for we Inspirational writers, there is no woodshed experience greater than that given by John the Baptist in John 3:30:
He must become greater, and I must become less.
God help me, I have so much to learn …