Snowflakes Welcome Here

November was rough. Actually, it’s been a rough Autumn. I utterly failed to do NaNoWriMo, I didn’t meet my exercise goals, and I didn’t get a job I really wanted. There’s no point into relating the trash-fire that is our political system here in the States so let’s just move along.

Let us love WinterI’m not sorry to see winter arrive and with it, a change of scenery. Fall is magical in New England, but leaf mold is not. The icy temps and cold air mean I can breathe better which is always appreciated. Something about the cold helps me think better too.

I’m a native of the Northeast and of Scandinavian (among others) descent so cold is in my blood. I’d rather be shivering than sweating. As a family, we don’t turn the heat on until at least mid-October, preferably as late as we can. This year with the warmer temps we didn’t turn the heat on until the 15th of November, a record.

Writing has been better since December arrived as well. I was bogged down in the middle act of my book, something was off with the pacing. I used the snowflake method to examine my plot from a high level and figure out where I had gone wrong. What’s the snowflake method? Well, it’s one of many ways you can outline a novel. Usually you do this before you start to write.

The best description of the snowflake method can be found at Advanced Fiction Writing.  There are other methods and the Now Novel blog has probably the best run down. Why would you want to do this after you’d already written most of the book? For me, this is a way to look at the structure of my novel and spot any issues. If you think of a novel as having a skeleton, this is where you’d find broken or missing bones.

When I first started writing novels I was what you’d call a Pantser, as in I wrote by the seat of my pants, no outline, no synopses, just a vague idea. I’d sit down at the keyboard and start bashing away, sometimes producing thousands of words of a plot line that would later be axed or characters which would be pulled off the page and shelved forever. Writers have figurative (and sometimes literal) trunks that they toss unused content in. I’ve shelved two novels and countless characters. The problem with novels that you don’t outline ahead of time is the sheer number of revisions it will require to become a book worth reading. I don’t have years between books at this stage and can’t devote that kind of time to multiple revisions so I outline.

If you haven’t given outlining a go in your own writing, check out the snowflake method. You may find it’s a good step in-between pantsing and plotting. If nothing else, it will give you the time to put some ideas on paper and make some more room in your head. If you do plot, what method do you find best? Sound off in the comments with your favorite way to get a novel started.

Happy writing,

Christa

Barbie Bye

Writing Advice: The Good Stuff

Looking for writing advice? The internet has a ton waiting for you. You’ll find the good, the bad, and the downright odd a Google search away. My favorite odd advice? Edgar Alan Poe suggested that a writer better the story this way – “Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.” Or how about this gem from Kurt Vonnegut:

Some of what’s available is personal to that writer and may not apply to you. Not every writer drinks coffee or tea for that matter. Not every writer gets inspiration from the same sources. We don’t all write about the people we love. Don’t worry if some piece of advice you receive doesn’t relate to you. And when some if it is downright twee (like this glurge below) feel free to roll your eyes and move along.

(did I just call a Wordsworth quote glurge? Yup. ’cause it is.)

Then there’s the stuff that’s good as a guideline, like don’t use adverbs, but it clearly (wink) doesn’t apply in every situation.

 

All that being said, there are some universal bits of advice that I believe every writer needs so without further ado, here is the best advice I have received and found to be true regardless of what stage you’re at in the journey from idea to written novel.

Read. A lot. I’ll let Faulkner explain since he does it perfectly.

 

Keep writing.  Even when you don’t feel like it. Put your kiester in the chair and your fingers on the keys or your hand on the pen. Writer’s block is a myth. If you wait to feel like writing you will never finish a single book.

 

Grow a thick skin.  Feedback is vital to producing a book that people other than you want to read. Get a group of people that are willing to read your first draft – beta readers. Find yourself a Critique Partner (someone to trade novels with to get critical feedback) or hire yourself a darn fine content editor. I did all three. Speaking of which, that first edit letter is going to kick you in the squishy bits of your soul. It’s gonna hurt to hear that the sentences you spent weeks crafting, slowly falling in love with your own words, are precisely the ones your editor wants to set fire to. She may even highlight three whole paragraphs and comment with only ‘meh’. Sometimes the main character you think is a witty, sarcastic delight your editor or even publisher, will think is a shrew. You’re gonna need to listen. You don’t have to make every change your editor recommends, but you’ll need to defend your choice so save that spine for when it matters. Let the little stuff go. And get used to it. Every book is going to go through that excruciating editing process.

 

Don’t give up. Rejection is part of the process. The chances of you landing a literary agent with the first query letter you send are slim. Same if you’re querying publishers directly. I was turned down by at least six agents before I decided my book might be too niche and I submitted directly to publishers. It took a lot of research and several queries before I found a publisher. And finding a publisher or landing the lit agent isn’t the final stop. Not by a long shot. You’ll still have to help sell the thing. Your first book may not hit. Mine hasn’t. Ouch. It’s gotten good reviews, but my lack of a readership, no street team to speak of, and general marketing ignorance hurt it’s chances. Book two’s in the can and will be out in a few months so I’ve got a re-do. Don’t let one failure discourage you. Heck, don’t let ten failures discourage you. There have been authors who have had to start over with new rep, new publisher, multiple times. Even the stars of the literary world experience rejection. Keep writing.

 

Don’t compare. Ever. Everyone’s writing journey is different. It can be hard to look at the success of author friends who have hit with their books, or get representation before you, or get better deals at bigger publishers. Or get movie deals, or get faboo reviews from a reviewer that dissed you. Don’t take out your ruler and measure. It’s a huge mistake. Celebrate your success and congratulate your peers for theirs. What’s yours is yours alone.

 

For newbie authors I am putting together a more complete guide to the stuff you should know before you send your first query letter. And for my fellow debut authors I’m putting together a post on everything I wish someone had told me before my first book published. So watch this space.

Blessings on you all. Go write something.

Christa

The Truth Beneath Our Surfaces

As regular readers know, I have a book coming out shortly – The Broken Trail. It’s a contemporary Christian romance in which a smart, successful education consultant travels to a rural Maine town to help turn around the local private school and ends up locking horns with the town’s police captain. I write fiction that reflects the real world so there’s some challenging stuff in it; the challenges of kids in foster care, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and the damaging impact of church gossip. Not light stuff. At heart, it’s a love story, but it doesn’t look away from all the struggles surrounding the couple.

Katherine, the main character, is downright unlikable in spots (but in the end I promise you’ll love her) because someone who has survived what she has, someone with her wounds can be tough to deal with. On the surface Katherine is intelligent, successful, even nice. To get by she made a habit of not letting anyone below that surface other than her mom, her sisters, and her best friend. They know the real, messy,and complicated person who is in desperate need of healing. I bet you can think of one person in your own life (maybe even you) who fits this description, someone who smiles on the outside while a whirling mass of conflict inside.

A photo by Jeremy Thomas. unsplash.com/photos/jh2KTqHLMjE

As the book opens Katherine has traveled to Maine to work a contract that she’s overqualified for with the hopes that a small town and the wilderness around it will bring her some peace. She doesn’t know how to change and deep down inside, she doesn’t know if she can.  Pete, one of the central characters, spots this conflict from the first time he meets her and she’s surprised because she’s managed to fool everyone around her for years. Little cracks in her surface appear right about the time Mac, our hero, decides he’s falling for her, and she starts to lose hold of her carefully constructed facade.

We all have a version of that facade. It’s the face we put on for the world when we’re hurting, or feel a need to protect ourselves. We put up that shield in all sorts of places,

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Source: Wikimedia

cocktail parties, school events, work, and sadly, sometimes church. One of the many things I love about the church I attend is that it’s  a safe place to leave your facade behind. And if you bring it, the good souls there will probably see beyond it anyway. People there are ‘broken in the good way’ so to speak and they encourage others to be the same, compassionate, kind, patient, speaking the truth in love. That doesn’t mean that at coffee hour I don’t haul my shield up in preparation for small talk. Luckily, more often than not, it’s half-hearted and I end up having a conversation with someone who hasn’t bothered with theirs at all.

The truth is that even folks who are well put together and look like they’ve got a handle on it, often don’t. One of my favorite things is getting to know someone who is willing to be real, to let themselves be vulnerable enough to be honest about themselves and their struggles. It’s where true friendship begins. Too many humans are walking around in armor, protecting themselves against the slings and arrows of fate along with the judgement and nastiness of others. It’s a lonely way to be. When we build these walls we keep out more than just the bad stuff.

 

 

Book News!

The Broken Trail will be out on October 1st! Right now you can pre-order the digital version for a ridiculously low price. Click here for the linky-thing: The Broken Trail

If this is the first you’re hearing about it, there’s lots more places to go to get extra content, book teasers, my deepest thoughts etc  My Twitter handle is @CricketMacD. Although I warn you in advance that’s my personal Twitter so it’s filled with all my fandom stuff as well as a healthy dose of politics and the occasional gripe about how hard writing is because we all know…

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I’ve got a whole Pinterest board dedicated to the book and even a board started for the sequel so check it out there as well.

And today I even started a Tumblr blog, cause you know – I’ve got so much spare time (this is a joke I have no free time).

I like social media, although I’m not in love with how you can lose hours to it. Anyone else find they look up from a ‘quick few minutes’ and find it’s six hours later?

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Anyhoots, these are the neat places you can go to check out more content, updates on versions (Print copy links coming soon), and read more incredibly witty things by me!

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A Pitch for Forgiveness

In the business world as well as the creative industries there’s something called the ‘elevator pitch’. It’s a way to summarize your project for a prospective customer/agent/publisher/producer. The idea is to make the pitch concise enough to fit the length of a ride in an elevator from one floor to the next. It’s something that writers have to develop in order to promote their work and it’s something I am terrible at.

I don’t generally do concise. In my day-job world I’ve had to learn to curb my verbose tendencies. My six paragraph, heavily-researched emails have long since turned into bullet points and brief phrases. But in my writing life? Not so much. Pitches are important though so when I was on the spot to offer one a few weeks ago (and I’m not sure how well I did) I knew it was time to sit down and really think about what The Broken Trail is about and how to communicate that in just a few words.

It’s a contemporary, Christian romance, but what else is it? I’ve never written a book with genre predominantly on my mind. Every book I’ve ever written (it’s up to three now) I’ve started with a character and a seed of a plot. First book was Kennedy and her recovery from a trauma. Second book was Elsa and her secret identity. Neither of these books has seen the light of day. The Broken Trail started the same way though – Katherine popped into my head almost fully-formed. “What if a highly-intelligent, privileged, but wounded woman went to teach in the rural North Woods of Maine?” That was the seed that started it all.

Now that the seed is a fully-formed flower I have to find a way to describe it that makes someone want to read it. To describe a morning glory one might say it’s an Impomea, a typically annual climber with trumpet-shaped flowers, but would that do justice to this?

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Nope. My first few tries at an elevator pitch were just as inadequate.

The book is a love story, sure, but it’s also a story of transformation. Katherine has to change in order to find love with Mac, She has to forgive an old hurt in order for it to heal. It’s a painful lesson many of us have to endure over and over again until we finally accept it. There are people out there who will hurt us and never apologize, never be held accountable for their sin against us. It’s human to refuse to forgive them, but that impulse leads to bitterness and in the end poisons our lives.

If I was into tattoos at all I’d put “Forgive and Be Free” somewhere on my person as a reminder of how good it feels to let go of anger, resentment, and bitterness. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I finally got it, that God had forgiven me for every evil thought and deed so who was I to keep my forgiveness from anyone else? Letting go of the wounds from what was at times, a difficult past, was like gaining wings. The happiness that followed was a bonus I never expected. If you’d asked people who knew me then they would probably say it was about the time I stopped wearing all black. And they’d be right. Color came back into my life when I learned to let go and forgive.

These days I am still the same angry creature of my youth, but it’s brief. I flash, flare, and flame out. I can’t keep a hold of a grudge, or remember a slight, or stay worked up about a hurt I’ve suffered.  It’s not because I’m so perfect, my family can tell you that. I’m quick-tempered, occasionally exacting, and frequently anxious. I am a sinner who has been redeemed, not sin-less, a work in progress.  But I can forgive because Jesus lives in me and He has absolutely no time for that nonsense. Who am I to hold a grudge when the maker of heaven and earth has seen fit to forgive me?

As Forgiveness is a main theme in The Broken Trail, so is Love in all its forms: eros, agape, phileo, storge. There’s something important to know about love.

 

Love Keeps

That list you have in your head that you pretend isn’t there? Time to cross it off and throw it away.  This doesn’t mean that you loan money to your gambling cousin again or you restore ties to your ex-boyfriend who hurt you so badly, it means that you let go of that hurt and forgive them as you have been forgiven. And, like Katherine (or Elsa), you let it go.Elsa Peaces Out

Now, after all this discussion you might be wondering if I ever did come up with an elevator pitch for my book?  Finally, I settled on this: Katherine Grant is a woman with everything but peace. In a tiny town in the mountains of Maine she tries to find it in her budding love for the town’s police captain, but she learns that she has to deal with the brokenness of her soul before she can truly offer her heart to anyone.

Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think!

 

 

 

 

 

Follow me. I have cookies.

Hey folks!

A little news. I have an author page up at Amazon! Right now it only has the short-story anthology I was published in, but coming soon will be The Broken Trail! You can follow me there to get a link to preorder the moment it’s ready! How cool is that? Oh, and sequel info will be there as well so FOLLOW ME! I should have some epic pic here, but all I could find was

I-Have-Cookies-Follow-Me-Cookie-Meme

This is true. I have the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  Follow me and be rewarded!

https://www.amazon.com/author/christamacdonald

Just because I’m nice, I’ll even post the recipe here:

 

  • One stick of butter (not margarine, ladies please. Margarine is oil)
  • 1/2 cup of packed DARK brown sugar – yes it matters that it’s dark
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp Vanilla extract (good stuff, regular stuff, just make it the real stuff)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 & 1/4 cup of AP flour
  • 1 tsp of baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp of salt (if you’re using salted butter you can reduce to 1/8th or a pinch)
  • 1 bag of Ghiradelli Chocolate chips (This is the ‘secret’ of this recipe. These chips are so dang tasty and at the portion I put them in… guaranteed success)
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  • Optional – nuts of any sort. My family does not care for them so I leave them out.

Directions:

Beat butter and sugars together in stand mixer until light and fluffy. If no stand mixer available hand the husband or the kids a bowl and spoon and have them do it. 😉

Add vanilla and egg and beat again until smooth.

Add all remaining ingredients – yes I said all. (I don’t bother with the sifting thing. I put in the flour first, then the salt and baking soda and finally the chips. Only then do I mix and it seems as though the chips aid in making it all fully combined, but not over-mixed. It creates a soft and crisp cookie. I may be wrong, but I think this step is crucial)  Mix until just combined.

On a cookie sheet lined with parchment (or wax) paper scoop out cookies in even portions. Best done with a small disher, but two spoons will do. Bake at 355 degrees on a rack in the middle portion of the oven for 12 minutes.

CHECK THEM AT TEN. I’m not kidding. Depending on how small you dished them out, they may be close to done. Always take cookies out when they are slightly underdone and set them on a trivet on the counter. They’ll need a few minutes to finish cooking. Then slide them onto a cooling rack.

These are simply sublime when warm, but just as good when cool.

Since my husband told me he loved me after just two weeks of dating I know he didn’t marry me just for these cookies.  But sometimes, I suspect these have at least confirmed for him that he was right all along in his choice of a wife.

 

Elsa Peaces Out

 

Fight Club

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Like Fight Club, the first rule of dysfunctional families? There is no dysfunction. It’s all fine here. Nothing to see.  Move along. Ask any veteran of a family with issues and you’ll hear the familiar echo. Someone called DSS? Nothing to see here. A neighbor called the cops? We’re all fine here, officer. Again and again in the stories of survivors of abuse, chaos, and brokenness is the idea that no matter how bad it was, it was better than foster care.

In the sequel to The Broken Trail a character will consider becoming a foster parent. In all honesty, it’s something I deeply desire to do, but know is not the right time for my family at this moment. My kids are too young.  My youngest needs to be at least a middle-schooler before we open our home. I know this, but the longing remains.

Our house isn’t ready either. I’d like to take in multiple kids so we need dedicated bedrooms that currently we don’t have.  Our house is a converted barn so we have a loft that the kids all share and that’s not gonna fly with the commonwealth of Massachusetts. We’ll have to partition the space into real bedrooms or we won’t be able to be foster parents.

So we wait. I pack my hopes away and try not to look at the web sites full of children needing homes. Ideally I’d like to buy a whole new house with six bedrooms and take in a whole mess of kids, but God has not said yes to that dream. I don’t know why and I know better than to rail at Him for it. His Providence has saved our souls so many times over the years that I have learned to trust Him. I can’t tell you how many times something has gone seriously wrong and suddenly, just as we need it, a solution appears. God provides.

Since it’s God that has placed this deep desire in my heart to minister to foster children I can only assume it’s for some work he has planned. So I wait in hope.  Hope that He will use us to minister to His children.

Our youngest has been on us to adopt. He’s noticed that his big sister and brother are close in age (he thinks of them as twins) and he doesn’t have a sibling that’s close in age. He wants us to rectify this by adopting a brother or sister. He’s graciously offered half his bed. We’ve tried explaining the complexities of his request, but he’s not having it.  This morning as he was munching his granola, he again advocated for a brother “I could give him my toys. He’d like to live with us.  You should go get him.” If only we could. If only it was that easy.

God has blessed us with four babies, three living on this earth. That alone taught us that parenthood is some serious stuff. It’s life and death, really. I remember being in the delivery room when they handed me my firstborn. I stared down at him as he looked up at me and I thought “Dear God, please don’t let me blow this.” And I remember being in the doctor’s office after they couldn’t find a heartbeat during my third pregnancy and being told “We don’t know why this happens. It just does.”

Life and death. It just happens. But it doesn’t just happen. It’s God’s Providence. Even if you don’t believe in God. I like to think of the lives we live as being strands of thread in a great tapestry we never see until we reach heaven where it’s revealed in all its complicated wonder. Every struggle you’ve had, every trial you endured, every joy, every pain went into this story – this tale beyond your own understanding.

God is the author. I hope he’s written a chapter where Steve and I get to be foster parents, but even if he hasn’t I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being his actor on the stage. I long to be used for some greater purpose because it’s a privilege to be one of his actors, his characters, his chessmen on the board. Another author recently said God doesn’t use us, he partners with us and I have to admit I bristled at that. I’m not God’s equal, I am his instrument. It’s an honor to be used as I was created to be.

I now have the privilege to be an author myself. Last night I got to see the cover for The Broken Trail. I’m ridiculously excited about it. But I want to say openly that God is the author of that book. Even if it was my fingers that typed it and my life experiences that informed it, and my brain that thought it up, it was still God who authored it through his instrument who is happy to be employed by Him.