That Moment when You’re in Love Again

A few months ago I was on a train from London back to Edinburgh. There are few places more conducive to writing than a first-class British train: being served snacks, a pleasant level of ambient noise, plentiful leg room and plugs, scenery going by. I pulled out a novel from a few years ago to work on. It’s my London novel, so I’d decided to take some time off from my usual editing and writing work to have some fun with it while I was in the city.

On that train journey, I tackled a rewrite of a seminal scene in the book. (She thinks he’s dead: he isn’t dead.) It’s a big reveal and it didn’t have a big enough impact in the somewhat forced way I’d written it originally. So I started over, letting myself watch it like a movie, and suddenly there it was. The perfect line. A take-your-breath-away, tears-to-the-eyes kind of line. Then another line, and another, until suddenly…the scene worked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, watching it in my head, for the rest of the train journey, for the bus ride home, through the evening, going to sleep, for the next three days…

That’s why I write. Not for the glory, certainly not for the money. For the moments I fall in love with my book all over again.

Reclaiming Diversity: Different Ways to Worship

There is a fine line between celebrating ‘diversities of gifts’ and committing heresy, so I’m writing this very carefully. After all, even a typo can undermine the whole of Scripture – you may have heard of the Wicked Bible, printed in 1631, in which the word ‘not’ was omitted from ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ As a seasoned proofreader, I trust I won’t make that obvious a mistake, but systematic heresy can be harder to spot!

I’ve been thinking about those writers, teachers and churches with whom we have clear differences, but also enjoy fellowship. For example, I know Christians who very clearly believe in Jesus, but also speak in tongues and practice prophecy. The Free Church is not cessationist, so we would not consider these things heretical, but we might quietly consider it instructional that the Spirit never seems to overtake us in the same way.

There are Messianic churches where the name of God’s Son is Y’shua rather than Jesus, and they blow the shofar to indicate watching for God’s coming and celebrate certain aspects of Jewish culture. Some Christians consider it inappropriate to celebrate a feast such as Passover, where for others it means celebrating the foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice.

And if we imagine ourselves on the outside looking in, there are Christians who see the Free Church as too old-fashioned, legalistic, joyless, or (believe it or not) even too wedded to extrabiblical documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

On a surface level I’ve sometimes found these different genres of Christianity depressing; aren’t we meant to be one, and obvious to the world because of our oneness? On the other hand, while I’ve no problem considering Charismatics true Christians, I’m uncomfortable around someone speaking in tongues. I am happy to take communion at my parents’ Cowboy Church, but I deeply disagree with some of their very Dispensationalist eschatology.

But lately, as a result of broader reading on Christians from different traditions and denominations, I’ve come to think of these secondary differences in a celebratory way. Remember the ‘one body with many members’ metaphor in 1 Corinthians. Traditionally we think of the ‘many members’ as being individuals within the body, but perhaps they could also refer to individual churcheswithin the great, worldwide, even historic Body of Christ? Because it seems to me that the different practices of various denominations show off the many facets of our common faith.

For instance, the Charismatics’ exuberant gifts demonstrate the supernatural power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the characteristic that dominates their worship. The Free Presbyterians’ solemnity, on the other hand, speaks of the great and awesome fear of the Lord that Christians are called to. The Messianic Church witnesses to the world of the promises of God to the Jewish people for millennia past, the promises that are ‘to the Jew first, and also to the [Gentile]’. Even Cowboy Church has its particular aroma of Christ: that of pure, childlike faith, and an attentive watching for Christ to come again.

We see these same principles in Christian writers. C.S. Lewis shows the beauty of logic in faith: two things which seem to be opposed but are actually in perfect unity through the Creator of both. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer went exploring through the rich depths of God’s complexities, and if their ‘discoveries’ contained too much of man’s philosophy, they erred in awe of what they had learned about God’s compassion and abundance.

Some churches and preachers proclaim the otherness of God, others his nearness; some his justice, others his mercy; some focus on creative praise, others on serving people in his name. Like the fruits of the Spirit, none of these attributes should be absent from any church’s theology, but they may excel in one area or another.

The Free Church does not make much use of the liturgical calendar, but I have always found it helpful to celebrate Christmas and Easter because they provide a yearly resting-place from which to contemplate specific acts of Christ. In my day-to-day schedule I praise God for what he has done, but I wouldn’t meditate on any particular event for weeks on end were it not for these reminders. Just as these holidays can help us focus on Jesus’ accomplishments, visiting different churches can help us home in on aspects of God’s character.

A word on heresy. I have spoken here on more or less stylistic differences. There are also grey areas – how serious is the practice of ordaining women ministers, or the various views of the Creation narrative? I have known Christians of different positions on these issues whom I firmly believe to have been true believers, and yet some consider these ‘dealbreakers’.

In my view, true heresy is easily spotted because it detracts from the glory of Christ or the authority of Scripture. We cannot tolerate the veneration of saints, for example, because it detracts from Christ’s position as the sole mediator between God and man. We cannot tolerate Arianism because it teaches that Christ is a created being, subordinate to and separate from the Father. We cannot even tolerate Church-sanctioned gay marriage, because the Bible teaches that this is an abomination. These are all things that demonstrate human ideas, not facets of God’s glory.

The buzzword of the 21stcentury is diversity, and its connotation in popular culture is often one of a moral free-for-all. ‘Not wrong, just different’ is used to justify people’s hedonistic choices. But if we can ‘redefine’ (another buzzword!) those terms to apply to the church, we have the magnificent paradox of diversity in unity. A diversity of gifts. A gorgeous tapestry of faithful, scriptural believers, all encompassed in the great, dazzling Bride of Christ!

 

What It’s Like When Your Book Comes Out

It’s been a few weeks now since I received a large envelope from Christian Focus with the first copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel. I knew what it was straightaway, and opening that envelope was exciting! For some of us! ‘Look, Floraidh,’ I said, ‘It’s Mommy’s new book!!!’ My three-year-old pushed past me grunting something to the effect of ‘Wow. I want a cookie.’ And she was right, life had to go on that afternoon, and I didn’t get a chance to engage much with my book until the next morning, when…

I put on some makeup and posed with the front cover, wearing my VERY BEST SELFIE FACE. Let the marketing begin! My publisher does do marketing, and they blog, and tweet about new books, and distribute them, and all that. But it’s still a small release, part of a wide-ranging children’s series, and a book like that needs a bit of a boost. Although I did get to see it in a real, live bookshop, and that was the culmination of my life from the age of thirteen – yes, I’ve been writing seriously since then! And it was amazing seeing it on a shelf where someone might buy it, because…

Can I tell you how much I hate selling stuff? I really, really do. Every time I post something on Facebook actually encouraging someone to buy a book, I’m like UGH I HATE MYSELF. Yet, I think it’s a good kids’ book, and I want readers to discover Bonhoeffer, and the only way for that to happen is if they know about it! People have been really kind and want to buy them, and I’m so grateful. Frankly, I need the support, I just hate asking for it. And it opens up lots of practical questions, like…

How does someone in America buy a signed copy? There isn’t a ‘signed’ button on Amazon, and you can’t just email the distributor a list of addresses, and it’s inefficient for the publisher to send them out themselves. So in the end I bought a box of books from Christian Focus, and am selling them at a slight discount (I still make more than my usual commission price, so it’s cool) and mail them out, then invoice the buyers for the book plus postage. Which is all fine. And I get to sign copies, which I LOVE. But I feel bad charging people for postage! Also, it means we’re entering the danger area of…

PEOPLE ACTUALLY READING AND RESPONDING TO MY BOOK. One guy responded to the IDEA of my book on Facebook by being outraged that a novel about Bonhoeffer would be written by a Presbyterian. I didn’t mind. It allowed me to talk about why I thought Bonhoeffer, despite some admittedly nutty theology, was still a great Christian example that our kids should know about, and then some other people weighed in backing me up, and it was all food for thought. But I haven’t gotten any Amazon reviews yet, and I checked the other day with bated breath. What if someone had given me two stars? There were no stars, which is much, much better than two, but it’s still nerve-wracking. I spent a year really loving Dietrich’s company. What if other people read what I wrote about him and go ‘Meh’, or ‘Nope, I still think he was totally unsuitable as a subject’, or ‘I’ve read a third of the Metaxas book and I could’ve written a better kids’ adaptation’? And yet…

The publisher liked it! Liked it enough to say we should keep working together. Liked it enough that we’ve discussed a number of other projects that I’m really excited about, not to mention another subject in this series, who I love…will I tell you now?…no, I’ll write another blog post. So where does the release of my first book leave me?

So excited about the future! (Except my book launch on Sunday, and speaking at a denominational event in September, both of which leave me terrified about the future, but that’s okay, it’s only the immediate future.)

Because I hate selling things, I would like to GIVE AWAY a copy of my book to say thanks to you all for taking an interest in my work and celebrating with me. If you’d like a copy, please leave a comment below or on Facebook about why you think it should go to you!

 

The Joy of (un) Solitude

This week I had a most unusual experience of meeting face-to-face with another writer. We’ve known each other since uni, fifteen years ago, and a few years ago reconnected and realised our writing careers were following similar paths. Our styles are not similar, but we critique each other’s manuscripts, discuss ideas, bemoan the difficulties of finding an agent, compare experiences of paid writing work.

Most of the time I like the solitude of writing. That’s because to me it doesn’t really feel solitary. My characters, the ones I’ve really invested in and known for a while, feel like real people. Friends. Writing feels not like creating a new incident in their lives, but discovering it. In some ways this came out of my somewhat solitary childhood. I grew up in the woods, and I was definitely the “different” kid in school. I generally preferred my own (and my characters’) company to going out with schoolmates.

But I always longed for some kind of intersection too. If I was different, I wasn’t shy about it. I got my friends to read my fledgling novel, just because I so wanted other people know my new gang, my imaginary friends. As I got older, I joined both real-life and online writing groups and came to actually enjoy getting constructive criticism just because it meant someone was really engaging with this world of mine.

Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom to two toddlers, people often ask me how I find the time and space to write. They ask this with a sympathetic grimace, as if it’s this extra burden to fit into my day. Well, they say you’re a real writer when you can’t live without writing, and I fit it in like I fit in eating and sleeping. Even when I’m editing or working on a commissioned piece, the moment I can’t wait for in my day is when the kids are asleep or at nursery, and I can write. It’s the world that feels most mine, and that solitude is a privilege.

Now that I’m getting work published, I get the solitude of writing and the un-solitude of people reading it, reviewing it, writing to me about it. Even telling people I’m a writer means they’ll ask questions and I can talk about what it is I do during those quiet hours. This is a place of great intersection.

And getting to see another writer friend in person, that’s just a whole new level of a treat.  She understands the doubts, the craft, the pride, the graft, and why, no matter how busy my day gets, I’ll never stop writing.

Choose My Own Adventure

I have fallen in love all over again. With an idea, that is.

I love ideas. They are so fresh and shiny and unspoiled by failed drafts and one-dimensional characters. Ideas are potential. And even better, my idea has a great playlist.

The year is 1250. A man is told by his two-hundred-year-old father that he may have the lifespan of a Methuselah. He ages slowly; most of the last millennium is the prime of his life. He is now reaching the end, and reflecting on history – what he’s lived through, what he’s learned from it, how it repeats itself, what is unique about each age. He experiences the lifestyle of a pauper, a king, an explorer. Great lands, revolutions, cultures, religious movements.

Which brings me to the bit where you choose the adventure. Which great periods or turning points in history would you send my Methuselah to in the past 900 years or so? I’m looking forward to the fall of Constantinople, the French Revolution, the Black Death, and the Enlightenment, to name a few. What lessons could we in the 21st century learn from someone who’s walked through that past? And what is unique in our day?

Beating Writer’s Block

One of the great struggles of fiction is sitting down with a blank page or screen and a vague idea in your head (if you’re lucky) and thinking: What does happen? How do I get through this plot hole? What does these characters need to discover? Or even (if you’re unlucky): Who are these people, anyway?

I find that blockage can be an issue in my first draft, but after that my problem is one of alternate universes. I have so many paths I want my characters to take. And often I end up writing all of them. From different points of view. Even though I know they won’t make the final draft. I think of it as self-fan-fictioning. For my money, Alternate Universe Indecision Spiral is as bad as writer’s block.

Anyway, I’ve found a number of ways to beat writer’s block, largely via preemptive strike.

1. Killer Playlist. The playlist is pretty much the first thing I do when starting a new project. Admittedly, a Broadway love story is a lot easier to soundtrack than a 4th-century Byzantine historical kids’ novel, but human emotions are universal, thank goodness. Listening to music that really encapsulates what I love about my books makes me want to write like nothing else.

On various playlists I’ve used a lot of old-style Broadway, a lot of classic rock, a soupçon of Gregorian chant, and a LOT of Jeremy Lindsay of Birds of Chicago and JT & the Clouds. You can, and indeed must, find him here, in order to enrich your life and art. Jeremy is an old connection from the States, and a wordsmith second to none. His songs have inspired whole characters and plot points. I once dreamed of writing a musical around them. Which brings me to…

2. Outside Inspiration. Watch and read excellence. Analyse the craft. Great work will make you despair of ever reaching those heights, but it will also drive you on to try.

3. Scrapbook. I’m not crafty and I’m not really suggesting anything involving glue and construction paper. But Pinterest is a great place to visualise characters and settings and collate research. I also sketch scenes and characters because it helps me think.

4. Write the parts you feel. It’s taken me a long time to learn that the pivotal parts are what people really want to read, and the whole story and description should hang on them. They’re also motivating to write, and once you see your characters in the exciting bits, they have a bit more flesh on them when you go to fill in the blanks.

Once you figure out how to work around writer’s block, you can move on to different problems, like the solitude of being the only one who really knows these wonderful fictional people, and deciding which completely engrossing project to devote yourself to out of the fifteen on your ideas board.

Now, if anyone can give me any tips for getting out of the Alternate Universe Indecision Spiral…

Making the most of time off

As a freelancer, every week is different. Two weeks ago I had to use every spare moment to edit for two different clients at the same time. Because of the children, it is not totally unusual for me to edit in ten-minute spurts. No one enjoys working ten minutes at a time.

Since finishing those projects it’s been quieter, which was just as well given the Easter holidays. And while I love having other people’s work always on the go, I’ve learned to appreciate time off from editing, because that’s when I get to be a writer. So in the past week, besides a lot of lamb-basting, tomb-cake-making, egg-decorating, pancake-frying, and vegetable-chopping, I’ve been thinking, researching and writing.

So here’s what it looks like when I’m not editing: in the past two weeks I’ve written a children’s story and worked on illustrations. Neither of these is completely working at the moment, but I think I know how to fix them, so that’s on the agenda. I’ve finished a book for researching my next subject for a historical novel. I’ve written my magazine column (first draft) and also a feature article (mostly). I’ve arranged a pseudo-book launch for the Bonhoeffer book coming out this summer.

I’ve also, for the first time in a month or two, managed to grab the odd few minutes to read. I have contemporary fiction in my pile just now (and I LOVE contemporary literary), but I’m rereading Vanity Fair at the moment. This is partly because it’s on my phone – for free! – but also because my first love is classic literature, and it’s so refreshing to dip back into it once in a while. And despite my blog name, I do love a good UNreliable narrator. It’s so much fun trying to work out when a character is telling the truth, and what their real motivations are.

Editing is fun. Creating something original is way more work, but it also feels so good. I mentioned at the start that sometimes I have to work in ten-minute spurts. That’s the case with writing too, which means that I get to research two pages at a time, I’m writing this while my kids are playing by themselves and I’m keeping an ear out for disaster, I’m late for a playdate, and much of what I write needs to be written in my head before I turn on the computer. If that won’t keep me sharp in my childrearing years, nothing will!

Next time I’m planning to talk about some of the agony and joy of writing fiction – not historical novels, where I’m writing to a plan, but leaping-fully-formed-out-of-Zeus’s-brain fiction. The struggle is real.