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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mansions of the Heart: Book Review














Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth 

by R. Thomas Ashbrook 


Ashbrook shows that there can be much more to being a Christian than church attendance, prayer, Bible reading, missions, service, and tithing, as vitally important as all of those things are.
There is also the opportunity for a deep, deep relationship with God. Drawn from Teresa of Avila’s classic, The Interior Castle, written in the 1500’s, Mansions of the Heart guides the reader through deeper spiritual growth.
First, Ashbrook defines each of the seven mansions, which allows the reader to see where he currently resides. Here’s a list of the mansions:
Outside: Lost; not yet a Christian
• First Mansion: New beginnings
• Second Mansion: Between a rock and a hard place (Here’s where a lot of Christians shipwreck and either go back to their old ways, or remain Christians, but don’t progress
• Third Mansion: Following Jesus
• Fourth Mansion: Discovering the love of Jesus
• Fifth Mansion: Longing for oneness with God
• Sixth Mansion: The passion of God’s love (Here’s where Ashbrook described the Dark Night of the Soul)
• Seventh Mansion: A life of love in the Trinity
After describing each of the stages (which are fluid), Ashbrook suggests ways to progress into further mansions, thereby deepening our relationship with God. Within each chapter, Ashbrook touches on the following areas with respect to the mansion in which we currently reside:
• “Your Heart’s Desire” in relationship with God
• “Key Activities” in response to God
• “Changing Patterns of Prayer” in communication with God
• “Jesus’ Initiatives” to draw us into a deeper intimacy with God
• “Schemes of the Enemy” to try to destroy our growth in God
• “Keys for Growth” that help us cooperate with God
Mansions was not a quick read. In fact, I expect to be working with it for a long time to come. But it was just what I needed at this time, along with a number of other books that I have recently discovered.
If you feel you are being called into deeper intimacy with God, this book is a great addition to your spiritual library.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Organizing your Prayer Closet: Book Review

I’ve read a number of books on living a spirit-filled Christian life over the past several months. Several have dealt specifically with prayer. When I ran across Organizing your prayer closet: a new and life-changing way to pray by Gina Duke, I hate to admit it, but I was somewhat put off by the title. Not by the prayer closet aspect of it, after all, Jesus told us to pray in secret:
But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly. Mt. 6:6.
Oddly enough, it was the word, “Organizing” that put me off. Being someone who strives to be organized, you would think I would’ve bought this book the moment I learned about it.
It took me nearly a week to buy it, but during all that time, while I was also reading a book on Christian mysticism (Mansions of the heart: exploring the seven stages of spiritual growth by R. Thomas Ashbrook–which I will review next week)–God kept prompting me to take another look at it, maybe buy it. 
When I did, I found, not surprisingly, that it is a wonderful tool for organizing our prayer life. It is indeed a method that, if followed, would revolutionize nearly anyone’s prayer life. It will revolutionize mine, for sure.
After reading brief, introductory chapters that explain (and give scriptural references) for Gina’s reasons behind her organizing strategy, the rest of the book offers templates to fill in your own daily prayer requests. 
Gina suggests beginning by offering “Praise and Thanksgiving,” followed by “Freedom and Forgiveness.”
Freedom and Forgiveness is where we speak with God about our struggles with sin and bad habits.
Then there is a category called “Prayer Petitions,” where we intercede on behalf of others. There’s an area for “My heart/My passion,” where we talk about the desires God has put into our hearts. Generally, these are the talents God has given us, which we are developing and using in some way.
There’s a section called “Ambassador Notes,” where we we write about instances in which we were able to share our faith. There’s a section called “Insights & Updates,” where we examine our prayer life and see what God is doing with our prayers.
There’s a section where we record God’s Answers to our prayers. And a section called, “At the Right Time,” where we record when the prayer was answered.
There’s a section called “Ears to Hear,” where we record instances where God speaks to us through the Word or through spiritual mentors, or in other ways.
Finally, there is a section called “Faith & Follow-through,” where we record instances where we felt prompted by God to do something special for someone. Here we record what we felt prompted to do, as well as what our follow-through was. Or if we did not get to it this day, what we intend to do, soon.
I am very excited about this new plan for organizing my prayers. Over time, I will have a record of how God has been working in my life, as well as the lives of those people for whom I pray.
Do you pray in an organized manner such as this? Do you find the idea appealing? 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Smart Edit Software Review

I purchased SmartEdit to help copy-edit my manuscript. I am pleased with it, and will touch on why. But it cannot replace a solid grounding in grammar rules, I discovered when reading a friend’s manuscript. She also used Smart Edit.
Here’s a screenshot of SmartEdit overlaid on your manuscript


It takes SmartEdit several minutes to go through all of the things it checks on your manuscript. When finished, it lists possible problems, giving you a snippet of each one. When clicked, it takes you to that place in the manuscript. Nothing is highlighted or changed. Snippet by snippet, the writer decides what to do with each problem, or possible problem. Here are the things it checks:
Adverbs: These are the pesky words that end in “ly,” that are especially deadly when used as part of a dialog tag. “I’m mad,” he shouted angrily. It also picks up many other overused words such as “really,” “only.” (Two of my pets.)
Repeated phrases: If I see that I’ve used “I don’t know” 100 times, it’s a problem. I’ve not only overused the phrase, but I have a totally clueless character who needs to get a clue or be seriously downgraded in importance. I found this in a YA manuscript written a good number of years ago by yours truly.
Repeated words: This tallies the number of times a particular word is repeated. It’s useful, but I have a better way of checking for this, which I will write about in another post. 
Possibly misused words: This tallies things like the misuse of accept/except; breath/breathe; illusion/allusion; advise/advice. The list is long, and if you’re prone to this type of error, SmartEdit is worth the cost for this alone.   
Clichés: If a character uses a cliché in dialogue, that’s one thing, but the narrative voice should not use clichés.  
Redundancies: SmartEdit found these in my manuscript: “empty space,” “fall down,” “reason why,” tiny bit.” 
Sentence openers: SmartEdit shows the number of times a sentence is opened with a particular word. This is useful if there are too many sentences on a page opening with the same word. 
Sentence length: SmartEdit creates a graph of the sentence lengths in the manuscript. I haven’t found this to be useful. 
Dialog tags: SmartEdit counts the number of times “said” is used, as well as every other dialog tag. There are times when the person speaking the dialog is obvious, so the word “said,” if present, should be removed. With all dialog tags listed, it also alerts you to other possible problems. On the YA manuscript I mentioned above, it tagged “thought,” “decided,” “wondered,” and “remembered.” These are all problems that need to be fixed for obvious reasons.
User defined: SmartEdit will also check for words or phrases that the writer wants it to zero in on. This works the same as everything else in SmartEdit, however I found this to be clunky when working with my personal list of weasel words, as I call them. I have a more streamlined way of checking for those, which I will discuss in a different post. 
SmartEdit also checks for proper nouns, acronyms, foreign words and phrases, profanity, AND it checks punctuation
On the punctuation side, SmartEdit checks for curly and straight quotes and apostrophes. Have you ever looked at your manuscript and noticed, every once in a while, a straight quote interspersed with the curly ones? It would take too long to explain why it happens, but SmartEdit finds them.  
Exclamation points: I’ve read that an average sized novel can employ one exclamation point. If you run SmartEdit and discover more than three, I suspect some deleting is in order.  
Em-dashes, en-dashes, and ellipses: SmartEdit finds these, but what it doesn’t tell you is that these constructions should also be used sparingly. Not as sparingly as exclamation points, but rarely, nonetheless. Or so I was told numerous times, from numerous judges, on contest entries. The characters in my friend’s manuscript use ellipses in about 50% of all dialogue. About 95% of that needs to be removed. Same goes for em-dashes and en-dashes, although she didn’t overuse them. I have been told by contest judges that I overuse them. (Or used to, before I knew better.)
SmartEdit will also find when there are two or more spaces between sentences. The use of a double space between sentences was dropped a decade or more ago, however we’re probably all guilty of adding an extra space every now and again, by accident. 
Comprehensive as SmartEdit is, here are places where it’s not helpful at all: 
Semicolons are never used in fiction. SmartEdit doesn’t catch them, and my friend used them liberally in her manuscript. It would be nice, too, if SmartEdit cautioned people on the overuse of ellipses, em-dashes and en-dashes, instead of simply tallying them. I suppose its creators assume an understanding that they’re not to be overused. 
Run-on sentences, or what is known as comma splices. SmartEdit doesn’t catch these, nor does Microsoft Word’s grammar checker. Run-on sentences occur when there are two independent clauses, which should be separated by a period. If they are separated by a comma, a conjunction must be used as well. My friend’s manuscript had way too many run-on sentences, which agents and editors see as a mark of an amateur, among other issues, which I will discuss in another post. 
Misplaced modifiers: SmartEdit won’t catch these. “Joanie and I run to the fence on high alert.” The sentence sounds as if the fence is on high alert. 
Gerunds: (verbs ending with “ing”): SmartEdit doesn’t catch these, which often make for clunky prose. “The child was dancing and laughing.” Removing the to-be verb (was) and the gerunds, the sentence reads, “The child danced and laughed.” [True, it’s a bald, uninteresting sentence, but the verbs are stronger. It’s a better base on which to build.]
User-defined words and phrases: I mentioned this above. While SmartEdit will catch them for you, I’ve found a better way to deal with them. Because writing about it would add a couple hundred words to this post, I will do that in a separate one, next week. I will also touch on some other important issues that SmartEdit doesn’t catch, which mark a work as amateurish.  
So that’s it for SmartEdit. It shouldn’t need to be said, but in case it does, while SmartEdit helps tremendously with copy edits, if you have story problems that would prevent a manuscript from being publishable, SmartEdit can do absolutely nothing to remedy that. You need a human being who specializes in developmental edits for that. 
Have you tried editing software? Which one do you use? What have you discovered about it? Strengths? Weaknesses? Is it very similar to SmartEdit? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

My method of finding story ideas

Writers are often asked where they come up with their ideas. I thought I would share mine.
First off, I study tropes. Every genre has its tropes, aka story hooks. Romance has dozens of them, such as “Baby on a Doorstep,” “Beloved enemy,” “Presumed Dead,” “Mail-Order Bride”–to name a few of my favorites. Stories will often combine two or three tropes for plenty of exciting conflict. Add a specific hero with a need, a specific heroine with a need, a specific setting and a specific time period, and you’ve got a one-sentence log line for a book. It’s the specifics–the twists on the tropes–that take an idea from generic to salable.
Several years ago, I collected hundreds of interesting (to me) log lines from all of the various Harlequin and Silhouette (Series Romance) linestucked them away in files and never looked at them again until a few months ago. This happened (not looking at them for so long) because I had switched from writing series romance manuscripts to writing for the young adult market, which uses entirely different tropes. (And yes, I collected files of YA tropes, as well.)
Tip: If you’re searching for starter ideas in your chosen genre, study the tropes. 
A few months ago, I took my hundreds of log lines and culled the ones that either are 1. no longer interesting to me, 2. would not work for my intended audience (inspirational historical series romance), or 3. employed tropes that have been done to death, such as “marriage of convenience.” 
Beginning last week, I got serious about my plan to write a series of books that take place in fictional Twin Forks, Washington between the years 1910-1922
For each of my generic log lines, I asked, what enneagram character types and combinations would work for this idea? If the idea is generic enough, there are often dozens of possibilities. So I drilled down farther. I asked, what character types are most likely to be in this situation? Once I came up with the expected, I asked myself if using unexpected types and combinations might make a more intriguing story.
Being that I’m a lifelong student of the enneagram, I know how individual character types behave under pressure, as well as how each type might behave with each other type. Of 45 possible character combinations, I find about 27 combinations to be interesting enough for me to want to write at least one novel about.
Once I had chosen a character combo for each idea, I looked at my time period, 1910-1922. A lot happens during that time. There’s Peary’s expedition to the North Pole; the lead-up to World War I (sinking of the Titanic, the Lusitania). After April of 1917, there are American soldiers going off to war, and between 1918-1920, there is the influenza pandemic. There’s the end of the war in November, 1918 and soldiers returning from the war in the spring of 1919. There’s the German and Bolshevik scare during and after the war. Women get the right to vote in August, 1920, and the country is in Prohibition from 1920-1933, although each state has individual laws about it. Prohibition went into effect earlier than 1920 in Washington state.
It was great fun to match ideas with things that were going on during the 12-year span. Here’s an example of what my process looks like:
Oops! I see a mistake on my card: The US got involved in WWI in April 1917. This story takes place 2 years prior, not 2.75 years prior.
Anyway, I now have 50 ideas for stories that take place in Twin Forks between 1910-1922, all slotted into a specific month and year. I can begin to make connections between the characters who live in this small town. The characters can age over time. Doing this will add tremendous depth to the series with each successive book. These ideas, I hope, will comprise my writing journey from today until I cease from writing.
If my publisher doesn’t like one or more of the ideas, there are plenty more on my master blueprint. And/or, I can self-publish. It feels comfortable to have many viable ideas, should one or more not pan out.
So this is my answer to people who ask, “where do you get your story ideas?”
Is your process similar to mine? Or different?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Seven Reasons to love Scapple

I’m in love with yet another piece of writer software, known as Scapple. It helps with brainstorming, and is made by Literature and Latte, the folks who bring us that other fabulous piece of writing software known as Scrivener.
Scapple is like having an infinite-sized white board or an endless roll of butcher paper. In the screenshot above, when I go to print that out, it will take 12 pieces of paper. Yet I can have the fun of doing it all on my computer screen, in a readable size, until I am ready to print.
This is only today’s output. Because I am brainstorming ideas for a series of novels set in fictional Twin Forks, WA during the time period between 1910-1920, I expect I will quadruple the size of my Scapple board over the next few days. 
What I like about Scapple: 

  1. Unlike other brainstorming or mind-mapping software, nothing is automatically connected. I have tried similar software and that is my #1 complaint. I often don’t know what will be the center of my thoughts, and I don’t like having to organize and connect them around hierarchies–or at all, in the beginning. With Scapple, it’s all free-form until I decide I want to join them by stacking them or drawing lines or arrows between them. 
  2. It is infinitely expandable.
  3. Moving notes around is incredibly easy, as is re-sizing, coloring and deleting, besides a bunch of other fancy things you can do with the notes, if you are inclined to play.
  4. When I’m done brainstorming, I can print up my notes or I can export them to Scrivener. 
  5. I can also import things into Scapple, such as images and text. Most of what you see on the screenshot is text that I imported into Scapple from Word files. 
  6. Scapple is simple to use. If you’re familiar with Microsoft Publisher, you already know how to use Scapple. 
  7. It’s available for Mac users as well as PC users. I’ve found in the past that sometimes, the more artsy software (such as the latest version of Dramatica) is available only for Macs. I’m grateful to L&L for making this available to Microsoft users. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Eliminating Weak Words from a Manuscript

For the past three weeks, since the ACFW conference in Dallas, other than picking my grandkids up after school two or three times a week and having dinner at McDonalds, Taco Time or Subway, and buying them endless decks of Pokemon cards, Walmart or Dollar Store toys, or books—while their mother tends to their baby sister  in the NICU of Sacred Heart’s Children’s Hospital, 90 miles away—I have been holing myself up in my office.
I have been editing a manuscript, The Perfect Wife. This manuscript has been a finalist in four contests, including ACFW’s prestigious Genesis contest. In three of four, it took second place. I don’t know if it took second place or third, in the Genesis. The information wasn’t made available to me. 
It feels pretty cool to have a manuscript final in a contest. 


But it is also frustrating when the scoresheets come back with scores that strongly suggest the manuscript is close, but not close enough, to be of publishable quality.
So I rolled up my sleeves and took a very hard look at my manuscript. And I discovered some things. It was loaded, and I mean LOADED with weak words.
Like a miner with a pick-ax, (yes, my grandsons are big into Minecraft), I worked at removing the coal to release the diamonds.
I replaced 750 “was” and “wasn’t” from sentences in the text, leaving only 170 that held their weight.
When I had removed 3400 other prose-weakening or unnecessary words, and saw that approximately 2000 similar words remained, (which would put me under the word limit for the line I am targeting), I started adding words back in—descriptive words that would help to create definite, not vague, images in a reader’s mind. I did no padding, but only filling.
Another comment I sometimes hear from judges is that I “haven’t quite found my voice.”
With the bland and unnecessary words scrubbed out, I do believe it enables my voice to shine through. I hope so. 
Have you discovered problems like this in your work? What have you done about it?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Back from the ACFW Conference

I’ve been back from the ACFW conference in Dallas for a week, but have been busy reorienting to life, as well as to new possibilities as a result of attending the convention.
I did not win the Genesis contest, historical romance category, but I’m not disappointed in the least. Being a finalist motivated me to attend, but a far bigger goal needed to be addressed while there. If I succeeded at that, I “won,” whether or not I won the contest.


The picture is of me (left) with Elizabeth Ann Boyles, also a finalist in the historical romance category. We’d both spent from Thursday until Saturday evening before the Awards Gala hoping to meet the other two finalists. In a group of 500 attendees it was a long shot, though not impossible.
As it turned out, we met just before the doors opened. We were standing outside, alone, waiting. After introducing ourselves, we broke out laughing. “So this is my competitor.” 
We hugged each other, and then we went in and sat down beside each other. We also expressed our hope that the other would win. We had a great time. Elizabeth is delightful. 
The the third finalist in our category, Elizabeth Lukinuk, won. She was the only winner who didn’t attend the conference, nor appoint someone to accept her award and give her speech. 
My biggest reason for attending the conference was to pitch my manuscript to several targeted agents/editors, and that’s exactly what I was able to do. I pitched to all of the agents that most interest me, as well as to the senior editor from Harlequin Love Inspired—the line I would dearly love to break into. Four agents requested to see a partial. The editor requested the full manuscript. Yay!
Since returning home, regarding the writing life, I’ve felt the need to think about my next likely writing project. I will choose from two stories that were plotted earlier. One was plotted in-depth and the other, roughly.
It’s the roughly plotted one that’s most likely to be my next project. It falls better into my series scheme. I love the theme, which explores the question: What is the best way to serve God?
The other idea should be the last book in what I hope will be a very long series. (We can dream, right?)
Over the coming week or two, I’ll dust off and send out the requested materials. Then, I will happily begin my new project while awaiting further instructions from the agents and the editor.
Attending the ACFW national conference in Dallas was an incredible experience for me. If God gives me another chance to attend, I will definitely go.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Heading to the ACFW Conference in Dallas

I’ll be departing for Dallas and ACFW’s annual, national writer’s convention, in the wee hours on Thursday morning, 5:00 am to be exact. I’ll need to leave for the airport at around 2:00 am. Not fun, but by doing this, I was able to  work around an additional night’s stay at the convention hotel, which would’ve cost another $200.
We’re not flush this year. Crops yields were below average, and wheat prices are not at the break-even point. Saving money counts! Fortunately, I had saved my harvest wages from 2014, telling my husband that if things looked promising for my writing in the coming year, I would use it to attend the national ACFW convention in 2015. Interestingly, my wages were very, very close to the exact amount that the convention is costing me. So I guess that is what God always intended for me to do, and He gave me the means of doing it. 
This convention will be different for me in a couple of ways from any other writer’s convention I’ve attended. For one thing, it’s a Christian writer’s convention, which is very appealing. For another, I’m looking at it as a job interview. I’ll be pitching a marketable manuscript, one that has taken second place in three contests, and is currently a finalist in ACFW’s Genesis contest, to an editor and an agent. The manuscript may or may not sell to this editor. This agent may not take me on. But I will have made some connections and the door to the possibility of traditional publication will have opened a bit farther.  And that is awesome. 

I’ve written my elevator pitch, my two-paragraph pitch, and my acceptance speech, should I happen to win the Historical Romance category
I promised to show you my completed one sheet (see above).
I also bought a dress to wear to the awards gala and a pretty jacket of navy blue lace. The dress is a stretchy jersey fabric in sunset colors: reds, burgundies, oranges, and with a touch of navy. I found a sparkly necklace in the same colors. And I plan to wear some burgundy pumps that a good friend gave me, which we jokingly call “Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz” shoes. (Maybe they’ll bring me luck?)  
What’s been happening with you, now that summer’s over? Have you attended any writer’s conventions lately?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Crazy Squash

One thing’s been amusing me all summer long. It’s my insane delicata squash (sweet potato squash) vine.
Sources I read said it could grow to be 6×9′, so I gave it that much space. It quickly outgrew it, stretching in all directions. When it started to overtake my flowers, I pulled out a huge stack of hollow vines.
Recently, I decided to let it have its way, including allowing it to smother the flowers, just to see how far it will spread. I think it’s about done.
It’s about 12×32′. It produced numerous squash, which aren’t quite ripe yet. I hope they’ll ripen before first frost, which could happen anytime now. I discovered delicata squash for the first time last summer.
If you haven’t tried it, it’s readily available in grocery stores and it is delicious.  







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