Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Midnight Prayer

(I'm revisiting old posts - and sometimes updating them. This post was originally published in January, 2007.)

When I was in college, my mom introduced me to the writing of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. I quickly devoured her books Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now, chronicles of her conversion to Christianity and thence to Eastern Orthodoxy, and of life as priest's wife in a new mission church.

I enjoyed her lucid prose, her word-portraits of her parishioners, and the explanation of the parts of Eastern Orthodoxy I had hitherto found utterly mysterious. As a former Protestant, she went about explaining the exact oddities I had puzzled over in exactly the way this still-Protestant wanted explained. But there was one habit of hers she wrote about that I couldn't make heads or tails of.

In fact, none of the icon-writing, confession-making, or fast-undertaking puzzled the teenage me so much as her assertion that she spent a half hour every night out of her bed, awake, and praying. She woke up at the same time every night, hauled herself out of her bed, and said the Jesus prayer. Over and over and over.

As I said, I was in college, and the idea of purposefully giving up one minute of precious sleep was horrifying.

Okay, that's not quite true. I stayed up late with the best of them. But waking up early after I had finally gotten to bed, waking up for the express purpose of going to sleep again after I'd finished my prayers, waking up without planning on getting dressed and going somewhere? It just didn't make sense. It didn't sound like anything anyone outside of a monastery would do. It sounded like torture. It gave me the same feeling that reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs gave me. "Dear Lord," I would think, grudgingly, "I suppose I can believe that some people are called to serve you like this." Followed by, softly and to myself: "But oh am I glad it's not me." Followed then by a whisper I barely dared let myself hear: "please, please, please, I know you could call me to that too, but oh please don't." I thought I'd rather go without food for a month of Fridays than ever have to take up such a hard habit.

You know where this is going, right? ... But then I had kids. Then I had kids and found myself up at nights nursing them, sometimes four or five times a night when they were in the midst of teething or illness, going month-in and month-out without a full night of sleep.

It was with Bess, my first child, that the thought occurred to me that Mathewes-Green's habit of watching (as I learned this sort of fasting from sleep is called) might have started when she herself had had her children. But somehow, it wasn't until I was nursing Gamgee, my second, that I thought of using those nighttime nursings for prayer. All I can say is that the sleep-deprived new-mom mind moves a little slower than old molasses.

And now I find myself looking forward to the middle of the night. Not always, of course, but more than I used to. Because three in the morning is quieter than any other time of the day, and the darkness takes away the distractions I've grown used to. In the daylight, I can always find a book to read, a magazine headline to scan or a blog article to look through. In the middle of the night I can't read. In the middle of the night, with my boy at my breast, there's no one to talk to except God.

And so I do. 

I find that I'm often anxious in the middle of the night. My imagination conjures up attackers hiding in dark corners and then jumps ahead to my plans for the day and points out all the ways that they might go awry. 

But there's no one to talk to about those worries but God. And so I do. I talk to him about my plans, which makes me start to think about whether or not they fit in with his plans, and then I talk to him about that to. It's a time for me to settle down, to present the thoughts whirling 'round my head for his inspection, and to listen to what he has to say to me about them. Or about anything else. And slowly I grow calm, and slowly my son stops nursing, and then I say goodnight to him and to the Lord, and everyone in the house goes back to sleep.

Other nights, especially on those four-or-five-wakings nights, I can't think straight enough to even worry to the Lord about my day. So I say the Jesus prayer, just like I learned from Mathewes-Green., over and over: "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner." Other nights I'll sing Tallis' canon, All Praise to Thee My God This Night, over and over in my head. It's a song that resolves all nighttime fears, even the fear of death:

"Teach me to die that so I may
Rise glorious at the awful day."

So thank you, Frederica Mathewes-Green, for putting the idea of night-prayer in my head, even though it was years before I knew how to use it. Somehow, I think I might still be saying the Jesus Prayer in the middle of the night years from now. My kids'll outgrow their need to nurse at three in the morning, but I don't think I'll outgrow my need for quiet, undistracted time with my Lord.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; if you purchase a book from this link, I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.  (See full disclosure on sidebar of my blog.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

OCCWC 2016, Part III: What I Found Myself Saying Over and Over Again

"But it's my only line..."

Along with meeting and listening to some amazing people at the Orange County Christian Writers' Conference, I also got to take appointments with attendees who wanted to talk about small press publishing, queries or pitches, working with an editor, or publishing with Kalos Press.

Each appointment was different, but there were a few subjects that came up over and over again.

It's not enough to have a good story

Some people write because they're writers. Yes, they have subjects or styles or themes that they love and use over and over, but they write because they're writers. You just can't stop them. They're writers and they're going to write for the rest of their lives. They love books and words and hone their skill through hours and days and weeks and years of practice. They write. They always will write. That's just who they are.

But other people write because have a specific story to tell. They've had an extraordinary experience or God's taught them something they can't help but share. They might well become the first sort of writer eventually, but they came to the craft by a different path.

I spoke to quite a few people who were working on memoir, and I found myself, over and over, talking to them about the craft of writing. Many of these people really did have extraordinary stories or good and true spiritual messages to share.

But no one is ever going to hear those stories or messages unless these writers learn their craft. You can have the best, most worthy story in the world, but if you don't learn how to make the reader turn the page ... well, no one is going to keep reading long enough to benefit from your message.

(Btw, this isn't a comment on the skill of anyone I talked to. I read queries and proposals, but I don't believe I read any attendee's chapters. This was relevant to many of the attendees, but I'm not critiquing any of them here.)

Many memoir ideas, queries, and proposals I've seen over the years are so focused on the experience or message of the writer that they forget the experience of the reader. As a writer, you have to think of your reader. Even if you are crafting your book out of real experiences, you must use the skills of a novelist. You need to present those real experiences with an eye to story structure and character arc. You have to be mindful of tension - not the whodunnit? tension of a murder mystery, but the tension what-happens-next?, the tension of and-then-what?, that is, the tension that will pull the reader through chapter after chapter, all the way to the end of the book.

Non-fiction writers must make their stories as compelling as any novelist, or only the most motivated reader is going to bother to read them.

The difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing

There's apparently a lot of confusion about this out there. Here's your one, simple rule of thumb:

If the publisher pays you, it's traditional publishing.
If you pay the publisher, it's not.

Now, there are different kinds of traditional publishing, and different kinds of self-publishing. This infographic by Jane Friedman is a fantastic resource for understanding all the variations on the spectrum.  As you'll see, there are a lot of different terms in use, and so it's always important to dig a bit deeper and make sure you understand exactly what you're being offered in any given situation.

And that leads me to the second important point on this subject:

There is no one right form of publishing.

Over and over, I had people ask me which I recommended: self-publishing or traditional.  And the answer always was: it depends. It depends on you and it depends on your project. Do you want to do most of the marketing, all of it, some of it? Is your project aimed at a narrow niche or does it have broad appeal? Are you the super-organized sort who can handle all the bits and pieces of a big project? Do you want the support of a large publishing team? A small one? No team at all?

Those are just a few of the questions you'll want to ask yourself. The truth is, there are authors doing well in all of the channels you'll see in that infographic I linked. Find people who are flourishing in the path you're considering, and study them. Learn the best practices for whatever path you choose. And then, go for it!

What is Kalos Press?

This was maybe the best thing I got to do: I got to talk up Kalos.  :)

Here's the official description of our press off of our website:

Kalos Press was established to give a voice to literary fiction, biography, memoir, essays, devotional writing, poetry, and Christian Reflection, of excellent quality, outside of the mainstream Christian publishing industry. 

We believe that good writing is beautiful in form and in function, and is capable of being an instrument of transformation. It is our hope and ambition that every title produced by Kalos Press will live up to this belief.

I'd add to that: we want to tell the church's stories. We're a small press (we'd fit in that second column from the left on Friedman's chart: traditional, but no advance) and we have the flexibility to take on more niche projects, projects from authors who have stunning voices but maybe smaller platforms, projects that are lovely and innovative.

You should check us out.

And here ends my series on the 2016 OCCWC. I'm glad I got to go and I look forward to keeping in touch with folks I met there in the years to come.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Weekly Links: Shakespeare, the Queen, and more!



The “gains” of cultural conservatism, then, are never going to be on the same ledger as those of progressivism, since so many of these gains are going to be about impeding the speed with which bad things happen.

-"Sanctify Christ In Your Hearts (Sermon)":
It’s got all the usual stuff in it: medieval images, cartoon word balloons, Conan the Barbarian quotes, WWII stories, a Star Wars reference, quotes from 17th c. bishop Robert Leighton, tips on how to defeat anti-trinitarians in argument, a venn diagram, and a story about the worst answer I ever gave on a pop quiz. You know, preaching.

So the Angels of the Lord pry him out of Sodom, picking him up, practically, and hustling him across the plain, his wife and daughters plodding, and probably weeping, along behind. Other people have noticed, so it’s not novel of me to say, but this is how the Lord saves. It’s not like we want to come away out of sin and live free of its destructive power. No, we set up our tents next to the tents of the wicked, and get to know all the neighbors, and when God decides to intervene, lest we perish forever, we cling on for dear death, sure that God is being a big meany, and whatever it was wasn’t that bad anyway. He picks us up out of the pit and pulls us out. And we are all irritated and stressed.


-"Top 5 Clich├ęs Christians Use About Their Writing": I really like Mike's point #2 ... as L'Engle said, "Bad art is bad religion."  Here's the real heart of the post:

The question I have is whether God is also “glorified” in a good, well-crafted story.

-"Which Shakespeare Play Should I See? An Illustrated Flowchart": I love this. It's funny and fantastic.

-"Why We Should Jettison the 'Strong Female Character'":
Yet, despite their likeableness and roundedness as characters, these new princesses betray some concerning anxieties about women’s place and agency within the world. Within the kickass princess trope lurks the implication that, to prove equality of dignity, worth, agency, and significance as a character, all of a woman’s resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits simply aren’t enough—she must be capable of putting men in their place by outmatching them in endeavors and strengths that naturally favor them, or otherwise making them look weak or foolish.

-"Supporting Creativity":
If everyone struggles to make space in their lives to create, then why is being full-time creator always assumed to be the dream? For those who have the skills and enjoy the business aspects of a creative career, then yes it is a dream job. There are those who are invigorated by the challenges of freelance work. But there are also people who have much to give to the world and who are happier when they have a steady paycheck. There is nothing wrong with having a day job you love and a part-time creative career that you also love. There is much to be admired in art that is squeezed into the nooks and crannies of daily responsibility. Not just that, but daily responsibilities are often dismissed as mere chores without recognizing the myriad ways that chores create order out of chaos, beauty where there wasn’t any before. Many daily responsibilities are hugely creative and worth the center space they take in our lives.

-"9 of the Queen's Unexpected Powers and Privileges": Okay, this isn't related to fiction at all. It's just fun and I don't have a good category to put it in.

Have a lovely Sunday evening!
Jessica Snell

Thursday, April 21, 2016

OCCWC 2016, Part II: The People

Yes, this is my only conference-related pic.

I really should do this post last, because it's probably going to be the best one, but I can't wait and you can't stop me.

The people at the OCCWC were a blessing. What struck me over and over again during the weekend was how generous almost everyone at the conference was. Both the staff and the attendees were generous in sharing their wisdom, information, and opinions.

But even more striking than that, they were generous in listening. Veterans of the industry listened to the students, older writers to younger, editors to writers ... and vice versa on all of those.

That kind of generous listening made for really good conversations.

Yeah, but who was there?

Okay, with a few exceptions, I'm not going to name any of the attendees, because they weren't there in any official capacity and so they deserve to manage (or not) their public images however they please. But the pros were there officially, so let me tell you about a few that stood out to me (though, heavens! I am going to end up missing some very cool folks) ...

The Spec-Fic Folks

It's not a secret around here that I love sci-fi and fantasy. (Hey! go read my first pro-pubbed spec. fic. short story here. Seriously. I'll wait.) And at this conference, I got the chance to listen and talk to some Christians who are writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy in real life.

-Mike Duran - Mike is one of those talented folks who writes both novels and short stories. His blog is chock-a-block with great thoughts about the intersection of faith and fantasy. He was kind enough to answer my questions about what it was like to be a Christian writing in this space -- and he also engaged the whole table with a hilarious theory about why so many Christian fantasies seem to involve the Nephilim. This post on his blog is a good example of the kind of thinking he's engaged in.

-Paul Regnier - Paul is one of my two exceptions, but only because I came home, checked my Goodreads to-be-read list* and discovered, yep! he's on there. A little while before the conference, I'd gone on Enclave Publishing's site and marked down a few books that looked fun to me. Read that description. Doesn't a humorous space adventure sound like a fun way to kill a few hours? (Yes. The answer is: yes, it does.) Paul was a blast to talk to; I'm glad I got to meet him and I'm looking forward to reading his book.

-Ben Wolf - Ben is a writer and the founder of Splickety Publishing (which looks fantastic - I got to page through some of the issues at the conference bookstore and I'm pretty sure I'm gonna subscribe). He was generous with his time; I got to chat with him about flash fiction, and his Christian vampire novel is now on my to-be-read list (hey, now that I've read one, I've got to keep going, right?).

-Realm Makers - Okay, this is not a person, but a lot of people at this conference were talking about that conference. It's definitely an event I want to keep my eye on.

The Editors

-Kathy Ide - Our Fearless Leader! Kathy is the reason there was a conference at all, and she was such a gracious hostess. And she'd probably be the first to turn around at point at her volunteers, so I should mention: there was a stellar bunch of volunteers at the conference who worked hard to make everything happen and they were amazing. Thanks, guys!

-Jennifer Edwards - I had so much fun meeting Jennifer. We got to the conference early on Saturday morning and spent an hour drinking coffee and animatedly discussing our lives as editors at small Christian presses. (You can check out the press she works for here.)  Meeting someone else who does what I do is so rare. I loved, loved, loved talking (in real life!) to someone who is doing the same kind of work I do every day.

-Lindsay Franklin - Lindsay's another one who could go under "spec fic", but I mostly talked to her about editing. She was lovely to talk to, and you should go poke around her website, which is fantastic!

-Debbie Dillon - Debbie runs Joyful Kitchen and Christian Women's Voice Magazine.

-Susan Osborn - Susan's not just an editor, she also employs a bunch of editors! It was interesting to hear her speak about being both an editor and a small businesswoman.


-Eric Lorenzen - Eric could also go under "spec fic", but I put him here because we mostly chatted about self-publishing. He had some great info about all the different things that go into putting together a high quality self-published book (there's more to it than most people think).  

-Carol Alwood - Carol wasn't on staff, but I wanted to mention her because her website for church planters' wives looks like a neat resource.

Like I said: I'm still leaving out a ton of interesting people, but I hope that gives you a taste of what it was like to be there!

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

*My to-be-read list isn't in order according to which book I want to read first. It's in order of: 1) modern non-fic, 2) older non-fic, 3) modern fiction, 4) older fiction.  When I want a new book, I just skim the whole thing and pick one.  (Or five. Let's be honest: this is me. When I have I ever read just one book at a time?)

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; if you purchase a book from this link, I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.  (See full disclosure on sidebar of my blog.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

OCCWC 2016, part I

If a con attendee comes home without handouts, did the con attendee actually attend the con?

This past weekend, I had the joy and honor of attending the Orange County Christian Writers' Conference as a member of the staff. I went as a representative of Kalos Press, and committed to spending both days in the Resource Room, taking appointments with writers who wanted to talk about small press publishing, working with an editor, tightening up queries or proposals, or, frankly, anything else writing-related that came up.

Of course, the real fun of teaching or presenting any subject is that you learn twice as much in the process as your students or listeners do, and this weekend's con was no exception to that rule. In listening to the attendees - as well as to the other editors and writers on the staff - I learned a ton, and met some amazing Christians who have made wrestling with words their lives' work.

So, over the next few days, I'm going to post about the things I learned from my time there, the things I found myself repeating over and over as I met with new writers, and (best of all) about the amazing people that I met as we all gathered together to celebrate books, writing, and words.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Monday, April 18, 2016

that verse in Jeremiah 29 that everyone loves to quote

So, how many coffee mugs have this verse on them, eh?

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  -Jeremiah 29:11

It's a great verse, a very great verse. It comforts me, and I'm not being sarcastic.

But it's worth reading in context.

The context? It's something God said to the people who were heading into captivity. There were horrors before them. They were going to be torn away from their homeland. All through Jeremiah, God constantly warns the people of Israel not to believe the prophets who lie to them, promising them peace and prosperity.

This is not a verse promising immediate peace and prosperity.

It is a verse that promised that the Lord was in control of his people's future, and that he still intended to do good for them. They were still his people. He was not abandoning them. He would make a way through the horrors for them, as he had once made a way through the Red Sea.

I'll be honest and not sarcastic about this, too: this sort of Biblical meditation scares me. I don't want horrors, even if the Lord makes me a way through them.

But the true horror, the horror of horrors, is the idea of falling out of his hand. It is the idea of not being his people, and him not being my God.

And that is exactly what this passage reminds me: that the Lord does not abandon his own. He is faithful. He will be found by those who seek him. They will be his people, and he will be their God, and none can snatch them from his hand.

And I guess that's the lesson about reading verses in context that needs to be heard again and again: You might lose a facile comfort, but you'll gain a deeper one. Yes, this popular verse in Jeremiah does indeed promise that the Lord has good plans for us, plans that give us a hope and a future.

But the hope and the future is not some bread-and-circuses air-dream. It is not hope and a future that can be crushed by war or famine or hardship.

It is Himself. It is his own presence and goodness and peace.

And joy forevermore.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Weekly Links - Supergirl, Slushpiles, and more!

SOME GOOD READING FOR YOUR SUNDAY AFTERNOON, set out in my usual categories of faith, family, and fiction ...


-"The Gospel of Jesus on Sexual Binaries": I'm not sure which snippet of this to quote (because I really want to quote the wonderful last line, which seems like bad form). 

There is more humility in saying, "Lord, I offer this day up to you, and that's all I got, because I suck," than "I need to make a sincere and thorough morning offering, which I will do as soon as I'm in the proper frame of mind, which I will work on achieving as soon as I dispense with these emails, and -- oh, gosh, I never printed out that thing that I need to scan and return, and -- oh, nuts, we're out of paper. I'll write it on the list. Now, where's a pen? Why are there never pens in this house? My life is so chaotic! Ugh, the heck with this, I'm going on Facebook."


- "Seven Tips for Keeping the House a Little Bit Cleaner" - I'm a bit late on this one, considering spring cleaning is supposed to happen before Easter, but it's still a great read.

This Russell Moore article ("Why Porn Kills Sex") is a reaction & reflection to this TIME magazine article (behind a paywall, I'm afraid), and they're both worth reading.

- "Understanding the Spectrum" - a fantastic comic about autism.


- "In Praise of Daredevil's Karen Page":
While Matt preaches endlessly about giving everyone a second chance, and God being the only one who can decide who lives and who dies, Karen is the one who actually responds to killers with empathy. Matt doesn’t sit by Grotto’s side—Karen does.

- "On Reviewing Bad Books When You're Part of the Literary Community" - oh my goodness, this spoke to my SOUL.

- "Why Supergirl Is a Better Superman Story than Superman v Batman": Works for me.

- And here is an interview with S. B. Divya, who was a slushpile reader for a sci-fi magazine, and recently moved up to assistant editor. I found it fascinating.

- "Writerly Bits: What I've Learned in 5 Years": This is one of those lovely, detail-heavy pieces that are always fun to stumble upon.

Happy Sunday!
-Jessica Snell

Friday, April 8, 2016

Upkeep is part of wisdom

So, being a person who loves "a little sleep, a little slumber, a folding of the hands to rest", the end of Proverbs 24 always makes me wince a bit.

But the last time I listened through it, I was struck by the image of the stone wall that was broken down.

For a stone wall to be there, surrounding the sluggard's vineyard, it had to have been built at some point, right? Sure.

And that's a lot of work! I haven't ever built a stone wall, that I can recall, but I've helped build lots of other things, installed things: a shelter, a roof, a plot of lawn that needs to be turned into garden ...

That kind of thing is lot of work. Building and installing things is a lot of work.

But here's the thing I'm realizing: it's the sort of work a lazy man can do.

It's the sort of work that I can do.

You can build something on an impulse. You can be in love with the idea of the thing, and push yourself flat-out to get it done. That takes a kind of energy, sure, and that energy looks like the opposite of laziness.

But it's not.

It might just be impulsiveness. It might just be hubris. It might just be a desperate escape from boredom.

Wisdom, though ... wisdom and diligence ... that's something else again.

After you build the wall, diligence is taking care of it. Diligence is going over it regularly and doing the necessary repair. Diligence is pulling out the weeds that grow in the cracks.

There's a regularity of care implied here, and it's opposed to the impulsive method I often use in order to get things done.  There are so many times when I don't bother to get my work done until it becomes urgent.

But that kind of scrambling seems, I think, very different than the picture of wisdom that Proverbs paints.

Wisdom is calmer than that. Wisdom is more orderly than that.

I want to learn the grace of upkeep. Because I am more and more convinced that upkeep is part of wisdom, and that the best things don't happen without that kind of diligent, constant care.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Thursday, April 7, 2016

a new book - "heaven help me"!

I started reading Elizabeth Goudge's novel "The Dean's Watch" and stumbled across the paragraph in the picture above. Here's the relevant bit typed out:
Like all creators, he knew well that strange feeling of movement within the spirit, comparable only to the first movement of the child within the womb, which causes the victim to say perhaps with excitement, perhaps with exasperation or exhaustion, "There is a new poem, a new picture, a new symphony coming, heaven help me."

I love that.

I love how she says, "the victim," as one who knows. 

I know that feeling. Any mother knows that feeling. "Oh my goodness, I am really going to have to go through with this now, aren't I?"

Any artist knows that feeling. "Oh my goodness, this is a real live idea, right?"

I am feeling that right now, as I start my new novel. The die is cast, the plot is set, the roller coaster has tipped over the top of that first long climb, and now I am just hanging on tight for the breath-stealing ride down.

There is a new book coming, heaven help me.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

This post contains an Amazon affiliate link; if you purchase a book from this link, I receive a small percentage of the purchase price.  (See full disclosure on sidebar of my blog.)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Ugly corner fix

This is the story of a small, happy, homemaking fix. I hated how ugly this cardboard box of printer paper was on our entryway shelf:

Then I thought: I have yarn; I can fix this.

And so I crocheted a basket to fit the printer paper box, using a large hook and several strands of yarn at a time.

And lo, the ugly corner became pretty:

It's a simple, small thing, but now when I look in that corner, I no longer feel growly about the ugliness.

I love sweet little solutions like that. 

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell