Thursday, June 2, 2011

Writing at the Crossroads

I found myself stuck. In my last book, A Shore Thing, one of the supporting characters, Suz, continued to pray for her soon-to-be ex-husband, even as he sat in jail for committing a felony. In Fade to Blue (released this month), Suz became the heroine. I already had a strong sense of her character, so I began the process of asking, “What if …?” and applying those questions to this very real person in my mind. Eventually, I found myself with more questions than answers.

What if …

But just when she does …

What if …

And at about that time …

What if…

As I followed single-mom, Suz, it quickly became apparent that one aspect of the story—her divorce in the midst of faith—would become an issue. So I continued to write and plan, to follow Suz on her path of finding out what she wanted to do, and to learn if her desires matched up with her faith.

Inevitably, my heroine found herself at a crossroads.

May I be honest? If faith wasn’t a thread in this story, I could let my character do or say whatever pop culture dictated. The issue of her divorce might not have been an issue at all and some other conflict would have risen to the top of the plot point chain. In Suz’s case, however, her faith is the point on which she pivots, so how could I ignore her struggle?

As Christians who write, we have to be so careful, though. I’d never want to steer someone wrong, or to as the Bible says “cause my brother to stumble.” Yet I have no interest in sermonizing either. Instead, I want my characters, no matter what the issue, to struggle with their decisions the way we all do at times. And that means that as writers we too have to press in to those corners that we inevitably find ourselves in.

The answers don’t always come easy. If you write, maybe you’re like me, and you often find yourself listening to the voices of many more than your muse. There are readers, of course, but also reviewers, editors, sales and marketing—even critique partners—all who have opinions about what our characters should or should not do. Daunting, isn’t it? But in Jeremiah 6:16, the Lord gives this advice to savor: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

To writers, this verse suggests standing at the crossroads with our characters. It suggests contemplation, prayer, and continuing to show up and write even through the tough patches.

With Fade to Blue, after I prayed and wrestled to the point of a near-ulcer over my heroine’s decisions, my pastor “happened” to deliver a sermon that provided the perspective necessary to taking that first step out of her crossroads—and I was ready with pen in hand. Don’t you love when that happens? No peptic medication necessary!

I love what Donald Maas says in Writing the Breakout Novel: “Some say success as an author requires a big ego: I say that it requires a big heart.” So true. Not only that, I believe that those big hearts must be softened by our experiences with God’s grace.

Next time you find yourself at a crossroads in your novel, don’t shy away, instead press in. Pray hard. Shut out the voices for a while. Instead, think about what it’s like to hold a seashell, constantly turning it over in your hand. Though they’re often tossed into the sea with nary a glance, seashells are intricately beautiful—even when broken. The more you examine your characters lives, no matter how shattered or sinful they may be—the more beauty can be found. Why? Because it’s in those dark places where God’s grace shines brightest.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I grew up as Julie Navarro, in a family of truly right-brained individuals. Among us you’ll find writers, artists, and musicians, all of us willing to talk about the arts at a moment’s notice.

Over the years, I’ve published several hundred articles and stories in magazines and books, including Aspire, Decision, Expecting, Focus on the Family, Key Magazine and God’s Abundance: 365 Days to a Simpler Life. As I wrote, I found a common theme cropping up: my family, the sea, and God’s timely work in the lives of those around me.

Maybe it was time to incorporate those interests into novels, I thought.
And so I did. Not once, but twice. Both times, God shut both doors and windows. So I continued to write and dream and raise my kids with Dan. Eventually I decided to write romantic seaside novels, and that’s where I found my voice.

When I’m not writing, marketing, or editing for others, I’m driving my kids around town, imagining that my mid-sized SUV is actually a sleek sailing yacht.


Casey said...

Thank you for being us here on the Alley today, Julie! It is a pleasure to have you! And what a great post to remind us of God's goodness in our writing lives. :)

Mary Curry said...

Julie, you wrote, "Don’t you love when that happens?"

I do and it happened for me while reading your post! The passage from Jeremiah that you quoted is exactly what my heroine needs to hear to help with the choice she is making. Thank you!

I'm really looking forward to reading about Suz's choices.

Ralene said...

Julie, what a wonderful post. Prayer in our writing is so important...and making our characters true to themselves while being wary of the consequences in our story is an thin balance. Thank you for sharing with us!

Casey said...

MARY C, thanks for stopping by today! Isn't it amazing how God can use things like this to help us out? :)

RALENE, an excellent thought, it IS such a thin balance, but once carefully constructed becomes a tight pattern to walk. Thanks for stopping by today. :)

Julie Carobini said...

Mary C! I was thrilled to read your comment. God is so good :) Ralene, thanks so much for your note about prayer and those thin balances. So true!

Pepper said...

This was Amazing! thank you for sharing your struggle and heart about this important topic. Wow! I immediately started mentally sifting through a few of my novels and asking important questions related to my characters' choices...but more importantly - MY choices.
Donald Maas is brilliant - and his quote really packs a punch!
And within our hearts are no longer our own to dictate as we will, Christ has made them new - so it SHOULD change the way we view life from a fictional as well as a nonfictional lens.
Thanks so much for being a guest at The Alley

Jillian said...

What a magnificient guest post! Great job Julie and Writer's Alley. "Ask where the good way is, and walk in it, you will find rest for your souls.” That passage puts my entire body at peace....beautiful.

Sherrinda said...

I love it! "press in, pray hard". Yes, there is such a balance of working hard and not giving up, yet praying for guidance and answers. Thanks for a great post!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Lovely post, Julie! I've had those moments when a sermon speaks right to my writing life. And yes, I do love when that happens! :)

By the way, I just got a copy of Sweet Waters in the mail today (won it on Cara Putman's blog), and I'm excited to dive in! (pun intended) :)

Beth K. Vogt said...

Exellent post. (Sorry I'm getting to it a day late!)
I love the verse--both for me and for my fictional characters.
"The more you examine your characters lives, no matter how shattered or sinful they may be—the more beauty can be found. Why? Because it’s in those dark places where God’s grace shines brightest."

I'm saving that quote in my "Writers' quotes" file!

Julie Carobini said...

Hi Pepper, I believe we met briefly through jamie Carie. Thanks so much for the kind words. Oh, Jillian, I love that verse too! And Sherrinda, you're right, writers do have so much to balance. We preach "bic" (butt in chair) but sometimes what we really need to do is step away from the computer and get down on those knees!

Julie Carobini said...

Sarah, So happy to learn that you won Sweet Waters. Hope you enjoy it! And thank you so much, Beth. Really humbling (and honoring :).