Monday, August 23, 2010

I Don’t Belong: The Anne Rice Syndrome

There’s a joke that goes something like this: One Christian tells another Christian that he loves his church because the people there accept him, warts and all. “They love me for who I am, they accept me, and they don’t judge me.” The other Christian replies, “That’s not a church, that’s a bar.”

When I read last month that author Anne Rice declared, “I quit being a Christian” on her Facebook page, this joke came to mind. Not that Rice’s announcement or predicament is funny.

Her complaint? She still follows Christ, she says, but she wants nothing to do with Christians. It became “impossible” for her “to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider.” Two key words there: “belong” and “outsider.”

I became a Christian as a teenager during the Jesus People movement of the 1970s, much of which was about being the outsider. Not that our Christianity wasn’t genuine, but truth be told, in our worst moments and in the foolishness of our youth, we fancied ourselves a cut above the average Christian.

We thought we cut to the core of what it meant to be Christian. We were more like the apostolic church, and we weren’t weighed down by social and political nonsense, especially if it came from the Right. We didn’t care for hymns, we liked contemporary music. We reached out to what academics call the “marginalized.” We were different. Outsiders in the Body of Christ. Yay us.

Don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe the Jesus People movement was a movement of the Holy Spirit. But many teenagers who became Christians at that time had a decided lack of humility when it came to their fellow Christians. This probably had almost as much to do with being a teenager as it did with the movement itself.

But I’m not a teenager anymore and neither is Anne Rice. Yet she stomps her feet like one. She declares that for ten years she tried and failed to belong. Failed how? What did she want? What would have been her measure of success? How do you follow Christ but fail to belong to the wildly diverse, wounded and wonderful entity we call the Body of Christ?

I can’t get past the suspicion that Rice never had any intention of belonging, that she kept her announcement locked away in her heart as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card so she’d never really have to be one of those people.

As C.S. Lewis noted, the Body of Christ “is not a human society of people united by their natural affinities.” The fact is the members of the Body are members (better translated “organs,” as Lewis said) because they are different. The Lord has no use for a Body full of heads or a Body full of hearts. We’re only called to unity on the essentials of the faith, what Bible teacher Beth Moore calls the “spine” issues.

Many young people in the Jesus People movement felt they didn’t belong around their more traditional fellow Christians. We often felt out of place, and we took a perverse delight in that, believing ourselves at the forefront of a new movement, with the old way of thinking crumbling into history.

We were wrong. We belonged. We were part of a Body that stretches back two thousand years and includes Orthodox and Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist. If we felt uncomfortable around traditional Christians, that was as much our fault as theirs. If we felt unwelcome, it was partly because we cultivated that feeling and thought it a badge of honor. We never asked ourselves if our fellow members of the Body felt they belonged around us.

We wanted a church that would allow us to walk in as we were and walk out just the same. No meat replacing milk, no iron sharpening iron. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, work that way. Of course a church must allow you to walk in as you are, but you must walk out a different person, eventually. If not, you’ve merely been bending your elbow at a bar.

You can choose to acknowledge your membership in the Body of Christ, with all its mad flaws, or you can choose to play the lonely rebel, refusing to even take on the name “Christian,” like a child who won’t acknowledge her last name because someone might know her embarrassing parents. The role of outsider may feel more comfortable, for a time, but it is an unhumble place to be.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Playing with Names

I enjoy all the various task involved in plotting and writing a novel, but I think my favorite part of the plotting stage is when I get to make up names. Not just people names, but place names—the names of streets, mountain peaks, restaurants, and lakes. All the names that add flavor and a sense of place.

If the setting for your novel or short story is fictitious, you can’t use an actual town name for your town’s name or the name of a real canyon for your fictitious canyon, but there’s no reason you can’t take the name of an actual town, say, Big Timber (in Montana), and use it as the name of a hotel in your book, or that you can’t take inspiration from a place name, taking, for instance, Grizzly Peak (Colorado) and turning it into Grizzly Mountain Road.

Highway maps and atlases are the best places to go for place names, though I’ve also found some unusual names on my road trips through the Rocky Mountain West. I love the sound of Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming. Each time I pass the “Middle Fork Crazy Woman” sign on I-25 I want to stop and take a photo. One of these days I’m going to use that name.

I may be biased, living in the West as I do, but I think place names in my part of the country are especially rich and evocative. There are names that suggest pine-covered mountains. Glen Haven, Black Forest, and Turquoise Lake in Colorado. Deer Lodge in Montana. And there are rough and crusty names, real western names, like Chugwater and Buffalo in Wyoming, Bear’s Mouth and Beartooth in Montana, and Battlement Mesa, Rifle, and Gunbarrel in Colorado.

The are the obvious Indian names—such as Shoshoni, Washakie, Gros Ventre, and Absaroka—and the not-so-obvious Indian names, such as Ten Sleep in Wyoming, named for the Indians’ way of measuring distance (the town was ten sleeps from Fort Laramie).

New Mexico’s various Pueblo peoples have been the origin of some wonderful place names, including Kewa, Ohkay Owingeh, Tsi Mayoh, and Pojoaque, the latter the Spanish rendering of the original Tewa Po-Suwae-Geh and pronounced poh-WAH-kee. How could you not love that word?

Place names of Spanish origin include Alamogordo (literally “fat cottonwood”), Vallecito, Ojo Caliente, and Cortez, and French trappers and traders in the nineteenth century left us with a host of French place names, many of them in Colorado, including Laporte, Cache la Poudre, De Beque, and St. Vrain.

If I come across a name that strikes my fancy, I stick it in a folder for future use. Antelope Hills, Yellow Jacket, Wolf, Grindstone, Never Summer, Wildhorse Mesa, Roundup, Burnt Ridge, Wintergreen, Nokhu Crags, Dry Rifle, Deadhorse—all tucked away.

And then there’s Stem Beach. A tiny town in Colorado. I’ve got that one tucked away too. The origin of the name is a total mystery to me. I could probably do an Internet search and find out how the two-building town south of Pueblo became Stem Beach, but I’d rather let my imagination run wild. I know there’s a story in that name.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Update on Yang Caizhen

Yang Caizhen (see my post of March 28), her arthritis and health reportedly worsening, remains in a Chinese labor camp. Sentenced in November 2009 to two years' imprisonment for being part of China's growing "religious problem," she spends 15 hours a day making cigarette lighters.

Caizhen's daughter, Esther, though worried about her mother (and her father, Pastor Yang Xuan, who also was sentenced to a labor camp), noted in an interview that her faith has grown as a result of her parents' arrest and imprisonment: "I had this faith before. But I found it is meaningful for me just recently. Before this, if you asked me to share some testimony, I would tell you God loves you, but I didn't want to share more. But now, I think it is really valuable, really meaningful for me."

If you wish to help Yang Caizhen, you can send her postcards supplied by Voice of the Martyrs for free by calling 1-800-747-0085 or emailing Please specify the number of sheets (multiple postcards per sheet) you wish. The message on back of each postcard reads in Chinese: "We are praying for you, your family and the other prisoners. We are also praying for your release soon! Please know that we care about you very much. God has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.'" Each postcard requires a 98-cent stamp.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Living Hebrews 13:3

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3.

While Christians in the Western world attend Palm Sunday services and look forward to Easter next Sunday, let’s remember fellow Christians who live in countries where simply being a Christian, let alone witnessing to one’s faith, brings hardship and even danger.

Many of these Christians live in places where they don’t dare gather; others gather quietly in “house churches.” Many of them liven in places where Christianity, though persecuted, is growing by leaps and bounds; others live in places where Christians are so brutally persecuted that it’s impossible to get a true idea of how many Christians there are.

In the Internet age it takes only a little effort and time to support Christians imprisoned for their faith. A number of websites are dedicated to spreading the word about persecution and helping those who wish to support their brothers and sisters in need: focuses on the persecuted Christians in Linfen, China. Last fall the Chinese government, unnerved by the explosive growth of Christianity, sent 400 police officers and other officials to physically destroy Linfen’s church, one of the largest in China. Many of those attending the church were beaten and imprisoned, including Yang Caizhen (pictured above), the wife of pastor Yang Xuan.

According to HelpLinfen, the fifty-five-year-old Caizhen “supported her husband’s ministry by giving up a successful medical career to help in the Linfen House Church and care for her family.” She was arrested on November 30, 2009, and sentenced to two years of “re-education through labor.”

When you go to HelpLinfen’s website, click on “Click here to Send a Letter of Encouragement.” You can then print out a letter, in both English and Chinese, to send to Caizhen and others in the reeducation camp. (Note: You must enable East Asian languages on your PC. For Windows XP: Start > Control Panel > Date, Time, Language, and Region Options > Regional and Language Options > click on Languages tab > check Install files for East Asian languages box > click OK.)

ChinaAid provides help for persecuted Christians throughout China. At its website you can read the story of Jiang Zongxiu, age thirty-four, who was arrested on June 18, 2004, for handing out gospel tracts in the local market. While in police custody, she was beaten to death. ChinaAid “paid the maintenance fee for her remains, sent two teams to her hometown to visit her family and provided funding to help cover the living and education expenses for her four-year-old son.”

On Voice of the Martyrs' website, you can find a wealth of information about the persecution of Christians around the world. One of VOM’s ministries, PrisonerAlert, offers opportunities to email officials and write to prisoners in some of today’s most dangerous countries for Christians, including North Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Myanmar, and Eritrea.

PrisonerAlert highlights the stories of Christians suffering for their faith, among them: 
  • Girmay Ambaye, who was arrested by security police in Eritrea for witnessing about Christ to people on a city bus (the third time he’s been imprisoned for his faith). 
  • Maryam Jalili, who was one of fifteen Christians arrested on December 24, 2009, in Pakdasht, Iran, while at a house church celebrating Christmas. 
  • Asia Bibi from Ittanwali, Pakistan, who was arrested by police last June and faces blasphemy charges for witnessing to Muslim women about her faith. 
  • Son Jong Nam, who has spent more than a year in a North Korean prison awaiting public execution. He risked his life returning to North Korea to preach the gospel.
PrisonerAlert’s website makes it easy to email officials and write letters to prisoners. Click on “Write an encouraging letter” on the home page. Such emails and letters throw an unwanted spotlight on the prisoners’ situations and have been known to shorten the prison sentences of Christians and even save their lives.

Bibles Unbound donates Bibles to countries where Bibles are scarce and Christians are treated with hostility. In some cases, Bibles are delivered by hand in covert operations, and those delivering them are at great risk. Thirty dollars supports the delivery of six Bibles. Except in the case of covert operations, you receive the names of those to whom your Bibles are sent.

Take a moment between now and Resurrection Day to offer comfort and support to persecuted Christians around the world.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting Ready for Genesis

Where does the time go? I take a break to get some work done and a month goes by. Most of the freelance copy editors I know experienced an uptick in work starting in early February, so maybe that’s good news for the economy.

But I’m not just copy editing. I’m working on my entry for the ACFW Genesis Contest—in particular, the one-page synopsis of my mystery novel. I already had an eight-page synopsis and a one-paragraph synopsis, but not this one-pager. It’s tough.

Synopsis writing isn’t fun, and for me, boiling down my plot to one page is especially difficult. Eight pages—okay. One paragraph—not too bad, because you’re so limited that it’s easy to focus on only the lead character and her three-sentence journey from problem to solution.

But one page? You’ve got to show the story arc, include much more of the plot. But how much? How many side (but important) characters do you mention? It’s a constant process of whittling down, going over what is now a one-and-a-half page synopsis time and again, striking out everything but the essentials.

Anyone else getting ready to submit an entry, or two, to Genesis? If you’re writing a synopsis, how’s it going?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Four Tips

Although I don’t like writing “rules,” I love writing tips. I like hearing what works for other writers, especially those facing the same challenges I face. How do they manage their time or deal with the dreaded Fear of the Blank Page? I want to share four tips I’ve found useful in hopes one or more of them helps someone else.

1. Grab 15 minutes. If you’re like me, you can’t get any substantive writing done in 15 minutes. It takes me about that long to “prime the pump” so the words start flowing. But there are things you can do in 15 minutes, at or away from your desk:
  • Decide on the name of a minor character or of some location in your book—a restaurant or street name, for example.
  • Give your character another complication, a small one adding to the dilemma he or she is in. How can you make life a tad more miserable for him or her? Maybe while your protagonist is changing that flat tire you gave her a passing car splashes her with mud or the heel of her shoe breaks.
  • Resolve that word problem. Say you’ve written the word “turned” too many times (it’s such a handy word). Come up with synonyms or, better yet, ways to rework sentences so you can remove the overused word and its synonyms altogether. 
2. Tell yourself it’s going to stink. I used to despair of that first 15 or so minutes at my desk because what I wrote during that time was never as good as what I wrote later, after I’d been at my desk for a while. And I let that paralyze me. I couldn’t stand writing those first bad paragraphs, so I occasionally put off writing, and at times writing became painful. Now I tell myself that what I write in those first 15 minutes will be bad—it’s just a fact. I still get that sinking feeling when I sit down at my computer, but it passes more quickly than it used to because I’ve come to expect it and I’ve learned to start my writing day in spite of it.

3. Find something that says, “I’m here to write.” I always have a hot cup of coffee or tea on my desk. It makes my desk a more comfortable place to be. It settles me and tells my body and brain, “This is your office. You’re not going anywhere, so start working.” I know a writer who creates his work space by turning on music. Though I could never do this—for me music is too distracting—he says it helps him get in the right frame of mind. Whatever works.

4. Just start writing. Don’t wait for inspiration. For many people, the very act of writing (typing) gets the mental juices flowing. If you don’t know where to go from where you left off the last time you wrote, just start. Type anything. You can always delete it later (and you’ll probably want to). In her book Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George suggests something similar—free writing—when it comes to character creation. After she nails down the basics of her character, she writes a “report” about that character in a stream-of-consciousness fashion to “trigger the right side of [her] brain.” She says it not only helps her discover her characters but also enlarges her book’s theme and opens up ideas for subplots.

What writing challenges do you face? What tips do you have for overcoming them?


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wicca's Sweet Song

I became a Christian when I was 16, and when I was 26, I decided to dabble in wicca, a modern-day, neopagan version of witchcraft. What you might call “witchcraft light.” I did my dabbling briefly, on what I considered the relatively safe periphery, but dabble I did.

Today I thank God I wasn’t hooked by wicca or one of its neopagan cousins (druidry, Kemetism, Odinism, etc.), but at the time I didn’t see much of a conflict between wicca and Christianity. Or I didn’t want to. I was angry with God, and looking back, I think I wanted to take a jab at Him, and witchcraft light was the perfect vehicle. Wicca seemed so harmless. Sweet, even. It was just the ticket. Prove yourself, God. If wicca’s so bad, show yourself and tell me.

The television show Charmed, with its three pretty witch sisters, didn’t exist at the time, but the wiccans and witches I met in the 1980s were just like those sisters—fun, kind, and accepting. Especially accepting. The patchouli-soaked, post-hippie women I met worked very hard at being accepting.

There’s a lot of talk in today’s witch, wiccan, and neopagan communities about acceptance. You must accept the “path” others are on; accept others’ beliefs, even when those beliefs are obviously self-contradictory; and accept any combination of beliefs any practitioner wishes to cobble together. Some believe in astral projection, shamanism, and Keltrian druidism, others in the Green Man, the “Lord and Lady,” and Dianic wicca.

There are some, particularly more traditional witches, who don’t care for what they consider the “fluffy bunny,” cafeteria-style approach of today’s wiccans, but for the most part it’s all about acceptance. It’s like tolerance: You’d darn well better have it.

This acceptance doesn’t extend to Christianity, of course. Any witch, wiccan, or neopagan forum on the Internet is eye-opening in this respect. Christians, forum posters say, are killjoys, they believe in sin, they usurped pagans’ celebrations and witches’ sabbats for their own use, and they want to impose their outdated moral standards on everyone.

Worst of all, Christians acknowledge that truth involves exclusions—that God can not be both Jesus and Buddha. Or Jesus and Hecate, Jesus and Rhiannon. Jesus’ claim that “no man comes to the Father but through me” is Christianity’s most serious crime.

If you’re not aware of how the tentacles of wiccan/neopagan beliefs have worked their way into the culture, especially among young people, I recommend you do an Internet search for “wicca” and “forum” or “neopagan” and “forum.” But be prepared for some of the saddest reading you’ve ever done.

The most heartbreaking posts are by girls and boys barely in their teens. My mom and dad are Catholics, they say, or Baptists, and they don’t understand me. They don’t accept me. I’ve always been strange, they say, and now I know why. I was meant to walk a different path.

They want a secret, magic name, they want to dream dreams and see visions. They want acceptance—and they find it. They crave the supernatural and don’t realize that Jesus’ Incarnation was a mysterious, supernatural event far beyond the wildest wiccan imagination.

God was gracious to me and quickly showed me the truth about wicca and its cousins. I so easily could have fallen into it, and then tumbled into the rabbit warren of new age nuttiness. Wicca’s superficial attractions alone—the jewelry and incense, the music of Celtic-influenced wicca, and so on—were enough to pull me in. That’s how I was at that age.

Over the years I’ve learned that what seems harmless, even good, can be—and I won’t mince words here—evil. Some people are lured from God by obvious, black-hatted evil, but for most it’s the sweet song that grabs them. And sadly, for many of today’s young people, that sweet song is wicca.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Between Nancy Drew and Miss Marple

Anna Denning, the heroine of my mystery novel The Muncy Tree, is a forty-year-old woman. But when I was plotting my story, I tinkered with the idea of a protagonist in her early thirties. Why? Because I thought a younger character might be more marketable.

Take a look at the covers of today’s Christian novels. Of those with people on them, a majority feature women in their twenties and thirties. So you’d think it’s women in their twenties and thirties who are buying and reading most of the books, right? Wrong.

The statistics—who buys and reads books—run counter to the covers. According to a study on, 32 percent of book readers are over age 55 (the average reader is age 44), the average age of those who most often buy books is 50, and readers age 55 and older buy the most e-books. (That last statistic is especially surprising.)

When you break it down by genre, 92 percent of all mystery/detective novels are bought by those born in 1966 or earlier. The number one fiction genre is the mystery/detective story, accounting for 16 percent of all books, fiction and nonfiction, purchased. (At least when you include statistics for secular mysteries. Romance is the number one genre in Christian fiction.)

I enjoy mysteries with protagonists in their thirties, even twenties, but a character in her forties or fifties interests me more. I can identify with such a woman. She’s lived more. She has a depth that’s naturally missing in younger characters.

Sure, an author can try to add that depth to her twentysomething character, but she then runs the risk of making the character a little too mature, too considered and accomplished for her age--a little “off,” like those TV sitcom kids who talk like wiseacre thirty year olds.

Anna Denning couldn’t be a twentysomething. She’s experienced too much of life, and although she has her insecurities, she also has the confidence of a woman who knows things only time can teach you. And she’s a better amateur sleuth for it.

I’m not in marketing, and obviously those who are know what they’re doing, as sales of Christian fiction are holding steady in these tough economic times. But surely there’s room for the slightly older protagonist, especially in mysteries. One in the vast middle, say, older than Nancy Drew but younger than Miss Marple? Maybe even one in the same age ballpark as the author who created her?


Friday, January 22, 2010

Get Serious

When authors are asked for their writing advice, many of them say something like this: “Write every day.” Or as Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing, read and write “four to six hours a day, every day.” This piece of advice has been uttered so many times it’s become a rule of writing. Want to be a writer? Write every day. End of discussion.

I’m a freelance copy editor who works forty to sixty hours a week. As a single woman with no other source of income, I have to work that much. I’m supposed to find four to six hours a day, every day, to read and write?

Let me go into some detail here. I sleep seven hours a night—maximum. I rarely watch television. I take care of two energetic and slightly troubled shelter dogs and try to keep my house clean enough to prevent the neighbors from complaining about a “funny smell.” And I don’t sweat the smaller stuff. I leave the dishes in the sink when I have to, let the checkbook go unbalanced, and allow dog fur to join forces with dust and form disturbingly large bunnies. And I still can’t find the time to write every day.

My schedule is somewhat different from King’s. According to On Writing, King writes in the morning (his goal is 2,000 words a day), naps and writes letters in the afternoon, and spends his evenings reading, watching the Red Sox on TV, and, if necessary, working on revisions. He also walks several miles a day. His walk alone would take up most of my free time on any given day. (I have just this one quibble with King’s book; it is, in fact, one of the finest books on writing out there.)

The Write Every Day Rule (or versions of it) goes unchallenged much of the time. Every aspiring novelist I know wants to write every day—and not a single one of them can. Which is fine, their problem, except this rule implies they’re ipso facto not serious and not going to make it as writers. I give up my social life for more than a year to plot and write my book and I’m not serious? My dogs think my office chair is a removable part of my anatomy and I’m not serious?

Not serious, never going to make it. For those of us who aren’t kids anymore, who have adult responsibilities and an ever-shrinking number of years in which to fulfill our dreams, that’s a spirit-crushing pronouncement. Imagine the discouragement mothers of young children or men who work overtime to support their families feel when they’re told they’re never going to make it as writers simply because, talent aside, they’re not going about it right. Why even get started? Just pack away the computer.

I’ve come up with my own rules of writing. Write as often as you can. Work hard. If God has called you to a career in writing, be prepared to continually give up some things you might rather do—such as going to a movie, watching TV, or going to bed early from flat-out exhaustion—in order to write. If you have to walk away from your writing for a week because of work or family responsibilities, well, it’s tough, but that’s that. Don’t let it discourage you. What works for others—their schedules, their rituals—may not work for you. Follow good advice, discard the bad.

Most of all, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t be a writer. Only God and your writing skills can determine that. A rule that can be followed only by those whose lives are far different from yours is worse than useless.

I’m writing this on a Sunday night, TV off, dogs finally settled. You see, I do write as often as possible, and I do give up a lot to do that. I just can’t do it every day. Maybe one day. I’ll publish my novel and make enough money to cut back on my copy editing. You know, work forty instead of sixty hours a week. And then I’ll have a schedule a little like Stephen King’s.