Monthly Archives: May 2013

Seek Constructive Feedback from Those You Trust

Thanks to everyone who commented on my short story last week. I hope it’s finally finished. But anyone who writes knows that a story is never finished. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it aloud in an effort to determine if I’ve chosen the best words. First it will be submitted to a Writer’s Digest Contest. If that fails, Chicken Soup for the Soul™ and finally to Guidepost Magazine. If at first you don’t succeed (and you probably won’t) try, try again.

My tip for aspiring writers is to seek honest feedback from people you trust. The story is for the reader, so the reader is the authority. Their criticism will improve your work. A special thanks to the two people who suggested changes that I believe improved my story: My husband, with whom I’m celebrating our 30 year anniversary this week, and Pat Miller. What a bonus to have a retired teacher who taught Creative Writing in my book club. Good teachers never stop teaching and helping. I appreciate the comments on Facebook as well. Feel free to post comments on my blog at www.sheliastovall.com and subscribe.

I’m attaching the latest revision. See if you can tell the difference. This story many never win prizes or be published but as I’ve thought about the hours I’ve invested in writing it, I hope that it might help others who are dealing with the pain of losing a loved one or unexpected job loss. Someday, if things happen in the right order, my children will have to deal with my death. I hope they’ll remember this story and know that I understand what they are going through and that the place to go for healing is to scripture and on their knees in prayer

May God Bless you and keep you until I post again.

_______________

In Everything Give Thanks

People don’t typically die from a broken leg, but a blood clot ended my mother’s life. We buried her on the Saturday before Memorial Day. On her last night, she watched a program on HGTV while I sat with her, working on my laptop, in the hospital room. With visitors interrupting all afternoon, I’d hardly accomplished anything. At 11:00 pm, I turned out the lights, but I could hear her sigh and every few minutes she’d ask me to readjust the pillows under her leg. When the clock showed midnight, I convinced her to call the nurse and ask for pain medication. After taking a pill, she was asleep within minutes. When my sister arrived early the next morning, I whispered, “She’s had a rough night.” Mom seemed to be comfortable so I didn’t wake her before I left. The doctor had scheduled her release from the hospital, but my only concern was a meeting with the board of my company.

I went home for a quick shower and then rushed to work. I spent the morning preparing for my important meeting with little concern for anything else. With the boardroom door closed, all eyes were focused on the CEO when a knock interrupted his speech. The receptionist stood in the doorway searching the room until she locked eyes with me and crooked her finger for me to come. I felt the stares as I exited. She whispered, “You have an emergency phone call.” As any mother would, I thought the call was about one of my children. I hurried to the nearest phone, and picked up the line the receptionist indicated. My older sister was waiting and said, “You need to come to the hospital now.” And hung up.

As I made the short drive to the hospital, I fumed, “What could be so important? Didn’t she realize that I have an important job?” When I arrived at the hospital, both of my sisters were crying and I saw something I’d never seen before, fear in the eyes of my father. He said “They’re still working on your Mama.”

“What do you mean they are working on her? She was fine when I left this morning.” My cousin, a cardiologist, stepped out of Mom’s hospital room and seemed to be speaking from a bad television script. “We did all that we could but she’s gone.” His words echoed through my mind. “She’s gone? He can’t mean she died. She was fine this morning. People don’t die from a broken leg.”

I remember little of the next few days. The scent of roses permeated the air as I stood for hours with my family in the funeral home, greeting those who loved Mom.

For weeks I would instinctively reach for the phone to call her. The patterns of my life had shifted, and I was off balance. While reading scripture, I ran across 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” As I pondered this scripture, I became angry. “Give thanks! Give thanks for everything. I’m supposed to give thanks to God for Mom dying?” In a rage, I threw my Bible across the room. I was a 42-year old woman having a temper tantrum. Later in the day, I picked up the Bible and felt shame when I touched the broken spine. I hid it in my closet. Mom would have been disappointed in my behavior and I knew I was failing her. It was rare for me to find time to read the Bible, much less to study it, but I was hurting and didn’t know where else to turn. I knew that Mom had looked to scripture for comfort but I found nothing but fury. When I think of the hardships she’d endured, I’m in awe. She battled illness throughout her life, buried my infant twin, and watched our house burn with all our possessions when I was four. She nursed two sisters through cancer and lost both. But through every trial, she would sing praise songs and spend time studying His word. I couldn’t understand what she found in scripture that I was missing.

For the first time in my life I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I’d had minor disappointments, but nothing came close to losing Mom. I’d never faced a tragedy and the result was a shallow faith.

I didn’t know how to accept Mom’s death, and Daddy suffered too. God’s words continued to taunt me “In everything give thanks.” What could I possibly find in the loss of Mom for which to be thankful?

Lonesome and depressed, Daddy started losing weight. In an effort to lift his spirits, I started calling each evening. He had never been one to talk on the phone, and I was surprised at how long we talked. One night, I was smiling when I hung up the phone and a thought occurred to me. I’d always communicated with Daddy through Mom. Whenever I called my parents, I talked to her. Even if Daddy answered the phone, he would hand the receiver to Mom. Daddy and I spent more time talking in the months following her death than the other 42 years of my life combined. He told me stories about his boyhood and shared suggestions for dealing with my teenagers, and he became my friend. I realized that had Daddy died before Mom, I never would have truly known him. “In everything give thanks.”

Daddy and I talked about death. I’d taken him to the funeral of a friend who had suffered from stomach cancer. That same weekend, a young man had been killed in a senseless car accident and I worried about my own son’s driving skills. Daddy shared his wisdom. “If you are born, you are going to die, and no one can do that for you. The good Lord will call us when it is our time. Worrying will not change it.” These words have stayed with me and I thought of them as I stood over his grave on the next Memorial Day weekend. Daddy had died in his sleep due to a sudden heart attack exactly a year after Mom’s funeral. “In everything give thanks.” I pondered these words and discovered that I could give thanks for his easy death. I was thankful that his days of mourning were over, thankful that he no longer feared being ill, attached to machines, as his own father had suffered, and I was thankful for his wisdom that I could pass on to my children as I grew older.

After Mom’s unexpected death, I never left Daddy without hugging him and telling him that I loved him. “I love you” were the last words I spoke to him. “In everything give thanks.”

It was to be another difficult year. My younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. My older sister developed an unusual abscess on her thyroid and almost died in an emergency surgery. And my brother suffered a back injury requiring surgery. We were unsure if he’d ever have the ability to work again. With each crisis, I realized how much I stood to lose and that I was dependent upon God. “In everything give thanks.”

On the weekend before the next Memorial Day holiday, I was visiting my younger sister who had completed 12 weeks of radiation treatments. I studied the sparkling water in her backyard pool on a perfect spring day and said, “If no one I love dies this week, then I’ll be happy.”

The next day at work, the CEO informed me that he’d decided to outsource my department and they no longer needed me. I remembered what I’d said and tried to smile. “In everything give thanks.”

I went through the festivities of my son’s high school graduation that week. When I study the pictures of me smiling with him in his cap and gown, I look happy, but I was numb and broken. A good description might be “the walking wounded.” But no one could see my wounds. As I recall those long summer days, I see the blessings. I had always worked outside of my home, and spending the summer with my children was a gift. But I was hurt and angry about my uncertain career.

The remnants of hurricane Dennis dumped a week of rain on our farm. When the skies cleared, I went to work in the garden. I hadn’t had the time for a garden in years. My childhood summers had included many days of working with my family in our enormous garden. I studied my own pitiful plot and the rows packed with weeds. My first inclination was to give up, but that would have disappointed my daddy, the farmer. I’d had hard rows to hoe in my childhood, and Daddy would say “Just keep your head down and before you know it, you’ll get through it.”

In my fight to save the garden, I had to get on my hands and knees to pull the weeds. The smell of the loamy earth took me back to my childhood days. I’d hated the feel of dirt under my fingernails and I thought those days were behind me. My parents had taught me how to work hard and the result had been a successful career. Remembering the elegant boardrooms I’d had the privilege to sit in, I wondered what the other executives would say if they could see me now, on my hands and knees in the dirt! In the back of my mind, I could hear Mom saying “Looks like someone got too big for her britches.”

The sun beat down on me and a cardinal’s song reminded me of Mama singing as she worked and I started singing. Squirrels ran above me in the trees, and I reminisced of playing in the woods with my brother and sisters. With each weed I pulled, I started listing my blessings and thanked God for them. When I reached the end of the last row, I sat back and looked at the wilted weeds strewn to the side, and I could see the beautiful garden. “In everything give thanks.”

God’s timing is always perfect. I started my new job on Veteran’s Day, just as my severance pay was ending. When searching for a new position, I decided to focus on what I love rather than a prestigious job title or salary. That’s how I ended up as the director of a small town public library. Merely seeing the cover of a book I’ve loved makes me smile. How had I missed this when choosing a career path? As I sat on a bench in front of the building full of books that was to be my new workplace, I was amazed to see God’s plan revealed. “In everything give thanks.”

I keep the Bible with the broken spine on my bedside table to remind me of my brokenness and Christ’s broken body that was sacrificed for me. There have been more trials in my life, and I wish I could say that “in everything I gave thanks,” but God has more refining to do. At least I’ve learned to look for the blessing in each hardship because I know that if I can find blessings in the deaths my parents, then I have the hope of finding a blessing in most any circumstance. I’ve also realized that when I want to give up, the place to be is on my knees, thanking God for His many blessings. It could be that He needs to pull the weeds that are choking me. It may be painful, but it is His will that must be done, not mine. “In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 

 

In Everything Give Thanks

It had been a weekend of celebrations, my niece’s graduation from nursing school and Mother’s Day.  If only I’d known it was to be the last Mother’s Day with Mom. Would I have done things differently?  On Tuesday, Mom fell and broke her leg. People don’t usually die from a broken leg, but a blood clot ended her life. We buried her on the Saturday before Memorial Day in 2003.

On her last night, I’d stayed with her at the hospital. She watched a program on HGTV while I worked on my laptop. With visitors interrupting all afternoon, I’d hardly accomplished anything. At 11:00 pm, I turned out the lights, but I could hear her sigh and every few minutes she’d ask me to readjust the pillows under her leg or back. When the clock showed midnight, I convinced her to call the nurse and ask for pain medication. After taking the pill, she was asleep within minutes. When my sister arrived early the next morning, I whispered, “She’s had a rough night.” Mom seemed to be comfortable so I didn’t wake her before I left. The doctor had scheduled her release from the hospital, but my only concern was a meeting with the board of my company.

All eyes were focused on the CEO when a knock interrupted his speech. The receptionist stood in the doorway searching the room until she locked eyes with me and crooked her finger for me to come. I felt the stares as I exited. She whispered, “You have an emergency phone call.” As any mother would, I thought the call was about one of my children. I walked to the nearest phone, and picked up the line the receptionist indicated. My older sister was waiting and said, “You need to come to the hospital now.” and hung up.

As I made the short drive to the hospital, I fumed, “What could be so important? Didn’t she realize that I have an important job?” When I arrived at the hospital, both of my sisters were crying and I saw something I’d never seen before, fear in the eyes of my father.  He said “They’re still working on your Mama.”

“What do you mean they are working on her? She was fine when I left this morning.”

My cousin, a cardiologist, stepped out of Mom’s hospital room and seemed to be speaking from a bad  television script “We did all that we could but she’s gone.”

His words echoed through my mind. “She’s gone? He can’t mean she died. She was fine this morning. People don’t die from a broken leg.”

I remember little of the next few days other than standing for hours greeting those who loved Mom while smelling the scent of roses behind me. For weeks I would instinctively reach for the phone to call her. The patterns of my life had shifted, and I was off balance. While reading scripture, I ran across 1 Thessalonians 5:18 “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” As I pondered this scripture, I became angry. “Give thanks! Give thanks for everything. I’m supposed to give thanks to God for Mom dying.” In a rage, I threw my Bible across the room. I was a 42-year old woman having a temper tantrum. Later in the day, I picked up the Bible and noticed the broken spine. Mom would have been ashamed of my behavior and I knew I was failing her. It was rare for me to find time to read the Bible, much less to study it, but I was confused and didn’t know where else to turn. I knew that Mom had looked to scripture for comfort but I found nothing but fury. Mom had battled illness throughout her life, nursed a father with tuberculosis, buried my infant twin, lost everything in a house fire when I was four, and she nursed two sisters through cancer and lost both. Through every trial, she would sing praise songs and spend time studying His word. I couldn’t understand what she found in scripture that I was missing.

For the first time in my life I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I’d had minor disappointments, but nothing came close to losing Mom. I’d never faced a tragedy and the result was a shallow faith.

I didn’t know how to accept Mom’s death and Daddy suffered too. God’s words continued to haunt me “In everything give thanks.” What could I possibly find in the loss of Mom for which to be thankful?

Lonesome and depressed, Daddy started losing weight. In an effort to lift his spirits, I started calling each evening. He had never been one to talk on the phone, and I was surprised at how long we talked each evening. One night, I was smiling when I hung up the phone and a thought occurred to me. I’d always communicated with Daddy through Mom. Whenever I called my parents, I  talked to her. Even if Daddy answered the phone, he would hand the receiver to Mom. Daddy and I spent more time talking in the months following Mom’s death than the other 42 years of my life combined. He told me stories about his boyhood and shared suggestions for dealing with my teenagers, but most important, he became my friend. I realized that had Daddy died before Mom, I never would have truly known him. “In everything give thanks.”

Daddy and I talked about death. I’d taken him to the funeral of a friend who had suffered from stomach cancer. That same weekend, a young man had been killed in a senseless car accident and I worried about my own son’s driving skills. Daddy shared his wisdom. “If you are born, you are going to die, and no one can do that for you. The good Lord will call us when it is our time. Worrying will not change it.” These words have stayed with me and I thought of them as I stood over his grave on the next Memorial Day weekend. Daddy had died of a sudden heart attack exactly a year after Mom’s funeral.

“In everything give thanks.” I pondered these words and discovered that I could give thanks. I was thankful that his days of mourning were over, thankful that he no longer feared being ill and lingering attached to machines as his own father had suffered. And I was thankful for his wisdom that I could pass on to my children as I grew older.

After Mom’s unexpected death, I never left Daddy without hugging him and telling him that I loved him. “I love you” were the last words I spoke to him. “In everything give thanks.”

It was to be another difficult year. My younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. My older sister had a strange abscess on her thyroid and almost died in an emergency surgery. My brother suffered a back injury and didn’t know if he’d be able to return to work. With each crisis I realized how much I could lose and that I was dependent upon God. “In everything give thanks.”

On the weekend before the next Memorial Day holiday, I was visiting my younger sister who had completed 12 weeks of radiation treatments. I studied the sparkling water in her backyard pool on a perfect spring day and said, “If no one I love dies this week, then I’ll be happy.”

The next day at work, the CEO informed me that he’d decided to outsource my department and they no longer needed me. I remembered what I’d said  and tried to smile. “In everything give thanks.”

I went through the festivities of my son’s high school graduation that week. When I study the pictures of me smiling with him in his cap and gown, I look happy, but I was numb and broken. A good description might be “the walking wounded.” But no one could see my wounds. As I recall those long summer days, I see the blessings. I had always worked outside of my home, and spending the summer with my children was a gift. But I was still hurt and angry about my uncertain career.

The remnants of hurricane Dennis dumped a week of rain on our farm. When the skies cleared, I went to work in the garden. I hadn’t had the time for a garden in years. My childhood summers had been filled working with my family in our abundant garden. I studied the rows filled with weeds in my own pitiful plot. I wanted to give up, but I knew that would have disappointed my Daddy, the farmer. I’d had hard rows to hoe in my childhood, and Daddy would say “Just keep your head down and before you know it, you’ll get through it.”

I knew the hoe was going to be useless. In my fight with those thick weeds, I had to get on my hands and knees. As I smelled the loamy soil I was taken back to my childhood. I had to smile as I thought of the elegant boardrooms I’d had the privilege to sit in. If they could see me now on my hands and knees in the dirt! In the back of my mind, I could hear Mom saying “Looks like someone got too big for her britches.” With each weed I pulled through my ‘long road to hoe,’ I thought of my parents and my love for them. A cardinal’s song reminded me of Mama singing as she worked. As squirrels ran above me in the trees I reminisced of my brother and sisters playing in the woods as children. A robin pulled a worm and fed her babies and I remembered to thank God for being able to provide for my family. With each weed I pulled, I thanked God and started singing. When I got to the end of the last row, I sat back and looked at the wilted weeds strewn to the side, and I could see the beautiful garden. “In everything give thanks.”

God’s timing is always perfect. I started my new job on Veterans Day just as my severance pay was ending. When searching for a new job, I had decided to focus on what I love instead of the salary and job title. I accepted a position as the director of a small town public library. I’ve always loved books and seeing the cover of a book I’ve enjoyed fills my heart with a warm feeling. How had I missed this when choosing a career path? As I sat on a bench looking at the building full of books that was to be my new workplace, I was in awe of how God had blessed me. “In everything give thanks.”

I keep the Bible with the broken spine to remind me of the valleys I’ve crossed. It reminds me of Jesus and his broken body. There have been more trials in my life, and I wish I could say that “in everything I give thanks,” but I’m stubborn. I’ve learned to try to look for the blessing in each hardship because I know that if I can find blessings in the deaths my parents, then I have the hope of finding a blessing in most any circumstance. The other lesson I learned is that when I want to give up, the place to be is on my knees thanking God. It could be that He needs to pull the weeds that are choking me. It may be painful, but it is His will that must be done, not mine. “In everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonia

Receiving Rejection

IMG_0038I was hoping to post that I would be attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in July, but I was declined. I was discouraged for about two minutes and moved on. I’m going to receive many rejections. If anyone had told me last year that I’d have my own blog site sharing the journey of my fledgling writing career, I would have laughed out loud. Something that made me recover easily was a book I picked up, When the Morning Glory Blooms by Cynthia Ruchti. On paragraph three of her “Acknowledgments” page she said “My Abington editor, Ramona Richards, blessed me deeply during this process, championing the book and the way it was written, encouraging me when I needed it most, and introducing me to the joy of working with editor Jamie Chavez for the substantive edit.  Much gratitude to you both and to all of the brilliant and talented Abingdon Press team….” I always read the “Acknowledgments” of any book because I want to know if they mention their editor or agent. If I like the book and it’s of a similar style to my own writing, the agent or editor might be someone to consider in the future. I was encouraged because the editor she mentions, Jamie Chavez, is my editor.  See Jamie’s blog from last week  “Stacking the Deck in Your Favor.” http://www.jamiechavez.com/blog/2013/05/stacking-the-deck-in-your-favor/.  Cynthia Ruchti also mentioned that it was an eight year process to produce When the  Morning Glory Blooms. God’s timing is always perfect. I’ll apply to the Sewanee’s Writers’ Conference again next year. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing.

What to Do When You’re Stuck

IMG_0038My third novel has not been working out. I couldn’t figure out where it was going. I put the book aside and I’ve been working on a short story for a Writer’s Digest Contest. My primary reason for entering a contest is to get feedback from professionals who can help me improve my writing skills. The prize money would be great, but I’m not holding my breath. I know there are many talented writers who will enter. If I don’t win, I can submit it to Chicken Soup for the Soul ™ or perhaps Guideposts Magazine. The goal is to get published in a reputable book or magazine so that when I seek an agent, they’ll be able to take notice. I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and ran across this quote. “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” ― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life These words encouraged me because I couldn’t see where my novel was going. Using the bones of a story model that was shared with me by Carolyn Wall, the author of two wonderful novels, Sweeping up Glass and Playing with Matches, I started thinking about my story.

Character Setting Conflict Attempts The Resolution
Has to Have some attributes that will make people like her/him. Somewhere the main character doesn’t want to be. Somebody somewhere wants something. Moving the story along. What are the scenes that help the author get closer to resolution. Happy ending, but everyone doesn’t get everything they want.
An ordinary person in an extraordinary situation.
Put them in a place they are uncomfortable.

I also checked out Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. from the library. Her story tracker tool also helped me to reflect on my story.

Story Tracker

Act I

Character Plot Subplot Setting Other

Act II

Character Plot Subplot Setting Other

I realized that my story ran like a travel log. I knew the character and the setting but what were they doing? I had started out with a hook, but I hadn’t introduced conflict. Ding, ding, ding, ding. I shared my solution with my husband, and he said “I don’t like that. I like Jim.” Ding, ding, ding. I discovered I have a character the reader likes. Yipee! But there has to be drama, conflict, and something interesting to keep the readers’ interest. I hope these tools will help you if you’re ever stuck. Keep slogging through. Don’t forget E.L.Doctorow’s advice that you just have to see two or three feet ahead.  Perhaps your story will lead you to a place you didn’t know you were going. That’s the best surprise of all. It’s the magic that makes all writers keep writing.

A Good Place To Start

My writing buddies.

My writing buddies.

For a Christian writer attempting to get published, a place to start might be Chicken Soup for the Soul™. They currently have 10 books in progress for which they are accepting submissions.  You won’t get rich at the $200 per short story that is published (plus 10 free copies of the book.) But you will be able to say “I’ve been published” and Chicken Soup for the Soul™ is a brand that people recognize. Also being published in Chicken Soup for the Soul™ might encourage an agent to take a second look at your query letter. You’ll have to be patient because it could take up to 3 or 4 years for their books to develop. Check out www.chickensoup.com to learn more. The best benefit is that your story may inspire or touch someone. Isn’t that the best reason of all to write? I’ve not been paid to endorse Chicken Soup for the Soul.™ This is simply a suggestion to any Christian writer wanting to get published.