Tag Archives: Jody Hedlund

How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

[tweetmeme]

A Baker’s Dozen of Links for Writers

It’s the season of sweets, gift giving, and toasting to a new year.

So, from me to you…

…A Baker’s Dozen of links to articles, interviews, and posts from this last year that have inspired me to write, reaffirmed my commitment to write, or changed my perspective when I write.

1-5. Stocking Stuffer posts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (at The Bookshelf Muse) on:

Each post offers five simple tips that will help you tighten up your writing and/or strengthen your story.

6. Lynn Capehart’s article in The Writer on inclusionary writing. I won’t ever look at character descriptions the same again.

7. Lydia Sharp’s post on the Difference between inciting incident and catalyst. This post, along with a great first chapter critique I won over at Becky Levine’s blog, helped me reshape the first chapter of my novel and set my story on track again.

8-11. Author interviews I’ve had the honor to conduct, in which authors share the story behind the story, offer insights into the challenges of historical fiction and research, or talk about the passion behind their characters:

I’m looking forward to several more author interviews this year from Cathryn Grant (whose debut novel, The Demise of the Soccer Moms, will be published as an e-book in January), from Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a wonderful collection of short stories), and from Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, due to be released April 12, 2011).

12. Kristen Lamb’s post on the Writer Reality Check. “Takes guts to be a writer,” Kristen says, and she lists some realistic expectations for those of us who want to make writing more than just a fun little hobby.

13. A call to action from Writer Unboxed for all Writers to Pay It Forward. “Paying it forward is something we can all do because no matter where we are in our writing careers, there’s always someone just one step behind, hungry to learn.” Much of the time, I’m the one a few steps behind. I could not grow without the encouragement, support, and wisdom from writers who are further along than me, and I can’t fully embrace those lessons until I pass them on to someone else.

There you are! Happy New Year, my friends!

May your days be full of writing and your muse be close at hand.

[tweetmeme]

Ego throws a mean left hook.

Ego is a funny thing.

Sometimes Ego is my driving force that gives me just enough courage to put my work out there. Other times, Ego whispers something that sends me spinning and knocks me out for a few days.

Several weeks ago, I had my eye on a couple of writing contests. I considered submitting a story I wrote, one that got some good feedback. As I wavered, Ego leaned into my ear and said –  all syrupy and sweet – “Oh, it’s good. Just do it.” She was so encouraging. I clicked “submit.”

Days later, I read a different story to a group of writers, my confidence still inflated. I received some good responses, but those weren’t the ones I heard. What I tuned into was one or two critiques that made me question my writing and myself, and then I focused on Ego’s quiet little whisper that followed.

“I’m not sure why you brought in that story anyway,” she said as we exited the studio. “You know they hated it. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t even like you.”

Knock out.

Man, she’s mean.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg doesn’t call the problem Ego, but she writes about it just the same. She says “Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos.”

I have to take my successes for what they are: rewards for hard work done on a story. When I feel good about a story, I can relish the moment, even write a post about it, but I can’t play into a false belief that everything I write from that point forward will be perfect.

Then again, as Goldberg says, I can’t let my failures drain me either.

See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice. Write something else. Let go of your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it.

The problem with Ego is that, whether the words I hear are praise or a put-down, it’s always all about me. And, when I’m all into me, I’m not into writing. The best way to avoid that pitfall is to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Write something else. Through successes and failures, just write.

How do I do that?

1. I Keep it short. If I’m writing a short story or a first chapter (or if I’m knee-deep in a 50,000 word first draft), I don’t want to get stuck on perfecting one scene. I keep it short, get the first draft done, and then share it with writers who know what they’re doing. I can trust that a good roundtable session will help me filter through the parts that need more expansion and bump the sections that don’t belong.

2. I Pull out something old and rework it. I hate looking back, which doesn’t make for easy rewrites. But, after spending some time learning the craft, I might pull out an old story and apply some of those new techniques. That’s the best time to see how far I’ve come in my writing.

3. I Enjoy the process. This is especially important when I’m working through early drafts of a piece. Sometimes a whole page of writing reveals only one gem, but that gem may turn out to be the crux of my story. In a feedback session, I might hear the one suggestion that clears up the whole picture for me and brings that story into focus.

I love Jody Hedlund’s final comment in one of her recent posts, because it speaks to my struggle as well:

Perfection is unattainable. We need to guard against thinking we’re already close to perfect. And we need to guard against thinking we need to be perfect. Instead, we can begin to develop a quiet confidence in our writing abilities—seeing how far we’ve come, but knowing we still have room to grow.

So, whatever Ego mumbles in my ear today, I know what I have to do. Write.
Or, rewrite.
Whatever it takes.

Because, Ego isn’t going away.

*****

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.

[tweetmeme]

Welcome Author, Jody Hedlund

“We aren’t just fighting a battle for religious freedoms…[w]e’re struggling for human liberty as well.”
~ From The Preacher’s Bride, by Jody Hedlund

*****

Writers are compelled to categorize novels into genres. We can’t help ourselves, since it’s one of the signs of a good query. But a skilled author will write a novel that stretches beyond the limits of genre.

A great story captures readers from outside one set audience, anchors them into the lives of the characters, and makes them forget they’re reading Historical or Women’s or Christian Fiction.

Jody Hedlund’s debut novel, The Preacher’s Bride, is that type of story.

Based on details from the life of John Bunyan (the writer of Pilgrim’s Progress), The Preacher’s Bride is rooted in the Christian Faith. However, readers who might not normally be interested in Christian Fiction will still find Jody Hedlund’s novel compelling.

Hedlund weaves struggles with religion, class, and politics in and around an irresistible love story between John Costin and Elizabeth Whitebread — two kindred spirits who fight for their beliefs and convictions, no matter what the cost.

Once I dipped into chapter one of The Preacher’s Bride, I began to steal moments during my day to read more — to find out what might become of mean Mrs. Grew, to look for clues about the mysterious man in the black hat, to encounter the next moment when John and Elizabeth stood in the same room. Hedlund’s descriptions of those moments between John and Elizabeth, along with deeper conflicts that surround their daily existence, lends such power to the story that I simply didn’t want to put The Preacher’s Bride down.

Today, I am honored to host Jody Hedlund here, as she answers a few questions about her debut novel and her writing. For a chance to win an autographed copy of The Preacher’s Bride, just leave a comment at the end of the interview.

*****

CC: In the Author’s Note in The Preacher’s Bride, you mention that history “fails to recognize the woman who stood by [John Bunyan’s] side and helped shape him into the hero we all know and love.” How and when did you discover that Elizabeth Bunyan had her own story to tell?

Jody Hedlund

JH: During the course of teaching my children world history, I began to learn more about some of the great heroes of all times—especially faith heroes. I was particularly fascinated with the little-known women who helped shape the great men. These wives were strong, courageous, and faithful. I decided their inspiring stories needed to have a voice.

As I was reading a biography about John Bunyan, I ran across a small excerpt about Elizabeth, his second wife. I loved the brave way she defended John during one of his trials when he was under arrest for his “unlicensed” preaching. Her strength to face a court of persecutors and her determination to faithfully support her husband touched me so deeply, that I decided her little-known story needed to be told to the world.

CC: The Preacher’s Bride takes place in England in 1659. Historical fiction presents several challenges, such as time-relevant details like setting, dialogue, and cultural norms — all of which you master with ease and grace in your novel. How did you conduct your research, especially in the midst of your busy days of mothering and home schooling, and did your research guide you in unexpected ways?

JH: I generally spend about eight weeks or more immersing myself in the research of my novel before I begin the actual writing. When I’m in research mode, I consider it part of my daily writing work, which I block into my schedule. While my writing time is hardly ever uninterrupted or perfect (when I’m at home surrounded by my kids!), I make a commitment to it every day, rain or shine.

For The Preacher’s Bride, I tracked down quite a number of biographies. I also drew extensively from the writings of John Bunyan himself—especially from his autobiography. After studying original church records, street maps of old Bedford, and learning as much as I could about the time period, I finally began the writing.

Having the upfront research helped me to be able to delve into the story and feel like I was already living in England in the 1650’s. Of course, I still needed to do plenty more research as I wrote, but I tried not to let it bog me down from telling the story.

CC: What impressions about John and Elizabeth’s story do you hope The Preacher’s Bride will leave with readers?

JH: Sometimes life can throw incredible challenges into our paths. It’s easy to want to give up or look for the easy way out of difficult situations. But real growth comes when we push ourselves to stay on the path, fight through the challenges, and persevere, no matter how hard.

CC: On your blog, you’ve published great posts on finding an agent, creating an online presence, and the roller coaster effect of writing, all in the midst of promoting one book and working on a second. What advice do you have for writers-on-the-rise who also juggle blog posts with novel or short story writing?

JH: A well-written, compelling story is THE most important thing to an author’s career. No matter where we’re at in the publication process, there will always be other responsibilities that clamor for our attention—social networking, querying, editing, answering emails, etc. We can and should budget time into our writing work days for those kinds of things. BUT, ultimately, the story itself is what counts the most and so we need to remember to give it our best time and energy.

CC: And finally, what are you reading these days?

JH: Currently, I’m in the middle of extensive in-house editing for my second book, The Doctor’s Lady (which is releasing in Sept. 2011), so my face is buried in papers lined with red ink. But when I squeeze in time for reading, I tend to gravitate toward the books of writer friends that I’ve come to know and appreciate.

Thanks again, Jody, for your interview! For all you readers, don’t forget to leave a quick comment to be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of The Preacher’s Bride! I’ll draw the winner’s name on Tuesday, November 9th.

To find more information about Jody Hedlund visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter or become a fan on Facebook. If you’d like to purchase a copy of The Preacher’s Bride click on over to www.christianbook.com or Amazon.


[tweetmeme]

This just in….

I’m breaking from routine. For those of you who know me well, breaking from routine can send me into a tizzy — there’d better be a darn good reason to deviate.

Today, I have two great reasons:

1. Beth Hoffman, author of the New York Times Bestseller Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (a beautiful novel that was released in paperback October 26th) has highlighted me on her website. I hope you’ll take a peek at my guest post. I’m thrilled to be a writer mentioned in her Brava & Bravo category. I’m also thrilled I’ll get a chance to meet Beth in person this week as she stops in Wisconsin during her book tour.

Also, this week I’ll post an interview with debut author, Jody Hedlund. Her novel, The Preacher’s Bride, was released in early October and is another book I didn’t want to put down. She’s an author to watch. Stop by on Wednesday, read about her novel and her writing process, and drop your name in the comment section (if you do, you’ll be entered into a contest to win an autographed copy of her novel).

See there? That little shake-up was well worth it.
[tweetmeme]

Curiosity, Minus the Cat

Writers, by nature, are curious people.

We are always searching for the who and the where and the what, digging up answers from our psyche – or the psyche of an imagined character – to create story after story.

We question other writers, too, asking How do you do it? How do you survive the absence of your muse? What do you say to someone who doesn’t write, who rolls their eyes to find you hiding in the basement – again – huddled over your laptop?

How do you spend your days? We want to know. To answer this very question, Cynthia Newberry Martin hosts a guest author once a month. Every bit of detail I read in those posts either inspires me or connects with me in such a way that I find the confidence I need (yet again) to call myself a Writer.

So, it should be no surprise that writers get tagged now and then with three questions or twenty-five or (this time) eight. Suzanne Conboy-Hill and Ann M. Lynn both tagged me, and it’s taken me way too long to respond. I can whip out a flash fiction story in half a day. But, ask me something about myself, something I should be able to answer easy enough, and the first response you’ll hear are crickets.

“Me?” *nervous laughter*

SO, here are eight tidbits of information about me, along with links to three other writers whom you might want to check out for yourself. No formal tagging here – I took too long, game’s over I’m sure – just simple recognition.

And, thanks Suzanne and Ann, for the questions!

1. If you could have any superpower, what would you have?

Telepathy. There, I said it.

I won’t lie. I obsess about every submission I send out. Wouldn’t it be lovely to know the second an agent or an editor picks up my submission with their very own hands?

Yes or No. Yes or No. One flash of a thought in their minds, and I’m on my way – to strangle my muse or to celebrate. No wait times, no checking and re-checking the inbox, no more stalking the postman.

2. Who is your style icon?

If we’re talking wardrobes, then I’m in trouble.

For fashion guidance, I depend on the goodness of my friends. Friends with money and with taste. I accept hand-me-downs without hesitation, because – left to my own devices – I am a fashion disaster. So, if you see me wearing something sassy and in style, you can assume I got it from a friend.

3. What is your favorite quote?

It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite quote. There are so many great ones that I love about life and about writing. I latch on to one quote that strikes me on a particular day, but the same quote might not mean as much to me the next day. So, here’s one I’m holding onto this week from Mary McNamara’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times:

…[I]f you’re a writer, you don’t write for money or fame or a chance to dish with Oprah Winfrey. Basically, you write because when you’re not writing, you’re even more cranky than when you are writing.

Yep.

4. What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

“Ever?” I have a terrible memory. That’s one reason why I write — because I forget the things I insist on remembering. Recently, though, my favorite compliment came from my daughter who’s almost four.

“You look beautiful,” she said. Her eyes traced my outfit from head to toe.

She ignored the three blemishes on my face that might suggest I’m fifteen and not forty. Then, she stopped at my feet and gave me the eye.

“Except for your shoes,” she said.

She’s anti-Birkenstocks, and her comment reinforces my answer to number two above. Left to my own devices….

5. What playlist/cd is in your CD player/iPod right now?

Every year, Fall throws me into a melancholy mood. One of the ways I survive that mood is to play lilting music that rises and falls and lifts and carries. Ingrid Michaelson has been on my mind a lot. But the other day, this song struck my fancy:

6. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

A night owl. Late night hours are the most quiet times at my house. Plus, I’m just lazy before the sun comes up.

7. Do you prefer dogs or cats?

To this I say Achoo!” and “Pass the Claritin.” I love them both — from a distance.

8. What is the meaning behind your blog name?

I am forever running out of time. When I decided I wanted to pursue my writing for real, I knew I would have to do it during those moments in between — moments that are fleeting as soon as they start some days. And, I like hard and fast deadlines.

There you have it, more than you wanted to know. Now, along with Suzanne and Ann, here are three more writers whose blogs I read and tweets I follow — for inspiration, for lessons in the craft, and/or for a good laugh:

I’m off now, to practice my telepathy.

I’m sending you messages right now to leave a comment and retweet this post (stack those stats).

Just kidding.

(Sort of.)
[tweetmeme]

Three Ways to Make a Story Your Own

“Ideas are a dime a dozen.”

Even the source of the quote itself is difficult to pinpoint. Mary Kay Ash said it once. So did Douglas Horton. And, countless other writers and authors have incorporated the phrase into their own works.

How, then, do writers distinguish themselves? How do we mold common themes or similar plot lines into individual novels or essays that rise to the top of the slush pile or stick in a reader’s mind?

I think of this question each time I sit down to write, or rewrite I should say. When I punch out a first draft of fiction or of an essay, I don’t linger on one sentence or paragraph. It’s in re-reading the draft, when I check to see that the facts or main ideas are there, where I tell myself, “Okay, now make it mine.”

Adding my voice is a critical piece in rewriting, but there are other ways to make a story or an essay unique.

1. Think about the predictability of a story, and then avoid it.
Jody Hedlund wrote on this topic in a guest post on Merrilee Faber’s blog, Not Enough Words.  Hedlund discusses how slowing down our process and refusing to be lazy writers helps descriptions, characters, and even plots move beyond cliché into “greater depths of creativity.”

On Wednesday’s, I use “Today’s word” at Wordsmith.org as a writing prompt. The word of the day is typically anything but common in every day conversation. Still, the stories that unfold in my mind can easily end in exactly the way a reader might predict. And, predictability won’t earn me a second read.

2. Know what details to include and which ones to leave out.
Stephen King wrote an article on imagery (recently reprinted in the Aug 2010 issue of The Writer) in which he suggests a writer be choosy when filling in descriptions:

Imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.

King’s article highlights the importance of the reader-writer relationship. Like any relationship, I can’t be 100% responsible for making it work. As a writer, I do my part and provide just enough information to spark an image. Then, as King says, the reader experiences the joy of reading, “the joy of seeing in the mind, feeling the fantasy flower in the way that is unique to each individual reader.”

To use a simple example from my own writing, this sentence:

My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung.

doesn’t spark an image as much as this one:

My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable.

3. Give an old idea a modern twist.
A while back, I bought the Best American Short Stories 2009 anthology (edited by Alice Sebold). One particular story stands out in my mind as an example of giving an old idea new life. The story, called “Saggitarius” by Greg Hrbek, is about a couple who’s baby is born half human and half horse.

How well does a myth work as a modern short story, you ask? You’ll have to read the story yourself, but here’s an excerpt:

While they were arguing (again) about the surgery, the baby vaulted over the rail of the playpen, as if it were a hurdle to be cleared. They heard his hooves scrabbling on the rubber mat, but were too late to see him jump…When they reached the sunroom, they saw him bounding out the door. Upper half, human half, twisted in their direction; a look of joy and terror in the infant’s eyes. But the equine part would not stop….”

And, one more:

The diagnosis changes every week. Spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy as the cause of the musculoskeletal deformity; the body hair most likely the result of a condition called congenital hypertrichosis….”

Hrbek plays out an old idea within a modern setting with no fear and without looking back. And, he does it so successfully that, by the end of his story you, the reader, believe somewhere in the woods stands a father holding his Sagittarius son and loving him completely for the first time.

How do you distinguish yourself as a writer?

[tweetmeme]