Thursday, May 29, 2014

Even After Death: Wedding Day Recollections

AKA: All the Things That Went Wrong... And the One Thing That Was Right

The day was actually kind of a blur.

I had a terrible migraine and no amount of medicine from my mom or well-wishes from my bridesmaids would make it go away. The weather was true to Florida: hot and humid, with the obligatory thunder storm in the afternoon. I waited in the back room of the church, surrounded by bright colors and bubble-lettered proverbs, a hand-held fan pointed at me. Naturally, my hair got wrapped around the blades of the fan and had to be cut only moments before my traverse down the aisle. Someone brought me a tropical drink from the reception punch bowl, which had, in a freak wedding mishap, turned green, instead of the tropical-yellow it was supposed to be.

My wonderful friends cutting my hair before I went down the aisle

Eventually, it was time to go down the aisle — at which point I went down too early, and walked far too quickly to be justified as a "wedding march", to a butchered song by a string quintet I couldn't hear anyway. Apparently, according to my dad, I was hyperventilating, but I have no such recollection.

I do recall, however, that the moment I saw him, my migraine went away.

We stood facing each other, holding hands. We ignored the words spoken to us (a fact that is quite evident as I watch our wedding video — our mouths are moving in constant chatter, not with our minister, but with each other). My stomach growled and my feet hurt as I told him that a distant mutual friend got engaged that morning (an occurrence that I just had to share with him at that moment when we were pledging our lives to each other). My worst fear and greatest delight came true: his vows were "better" than mine, if you can say such a thing. He refused, quite elegantly, to utter the requisite phrase, "till death do us part", not as some do nowadays to avoid an indissoluble situation, but because this lifetime would never be enough for him, a sentiment that adorns the ring that he gave me on that day: even after death.

Even after death. A phrase envisaged by a devoted twenty-year-old and a prayer prayed for over a decade now.

Even after death. A precarious wish surrendered time and again to our Creator. I find myself telling Him that I wouldn't be so afraid of the afterlife if I could face it with him.

But I digress.

The remainder of the day can be recalled, not by the truest of memories, but by piecing together regurgitated facts and recorded moments. Three cakes were cut, a bouquet was tossed, dances were danced and toasts were made. I changed out of my dress in the bathroom of the banquet hall — my grandmother's Oscar de la Renta earrings (my "something borrowed") were permanently borrowed by one of our wedding guests. I have my suspicions as to who that light-fingered guest might be, but I'm not a Mr. Holmes and I have never recovered those pearl earrings. My getaway dress was yellow, and had been tailored within an inch of my breath. Surrounded by our well-wishers with sparkling wands, we raced to our car — my grandfather’s Mercedes Benz that we often joked looked like the Bat Mobile (except that his cars are perpetually white. When my family's also-white cars adjoin with his for dinner, it looks like an achromatic car convention).

And then, we were alone.

We had been alone before, of course, but never like this. Not with the express intention of not being seen by anyone we knew for more than a few hours. I'd like to say that once those doors closed and we were off, I was confident and self-assured, but I wasn't.

He assuaged my fears and insecurities in a way that only he could. And he's been doing the same ever since.

Oftentimes, in the beginning of our marriage, I would ask him: “Do you love me?" And he would say, “Of course. I married you," in a matter-of-fact, how-could-you-even-doubt, kind of way. And maybe it's not enough to remind someone that you married them — so much happens after the wedding. And, to some people, being married and being in love can be mutually exclusive events. But to him, that is irrelevant. There is no alternative for him, or for me.

Our wedding day was not perfect, and our marriage is a reflection of that: imperfectly perfect. Over the course of our thirteen-year relationship, this man has become, and always will be, my best friend. Not in the cliche way that preteen girls proclaim when they have BFF bracelets that are broken or forgotten mere weeks later. Or in the sadly reminiscent way that a parent talks about their college roommate. No, Tyler is my best friend in the sense that I want to do anything and everything with him —  and with him alone — as long as there is breath in my body and life in my heart, and, if our Maker would grant us our request, even after death.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To Curse or Not to Curse?

Yesterday, I read an article written by a pastor in South Carolina who wrote a novel in which he included foul language (as he stated, “PG-13 language”). He was defending/supporting his position as to why he used that kind of language in his book. And it got me thinking…to curse or not to curse?

Stephen King says, “You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have...resonance and realism. If you substitute [profanity] because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader — your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story.” (On Writing, p. 186)

I would say that a decent amount of writers feel this way — that if you’re using profanity, you’re telling the truth, because real people curse.

The main argument of the aforementioned pastor for using profanity, was that his character was a “fallen” character, which means that he would, realistically, use vulgar language.

After some thought, and a good phone conversation with my parents, here are some reasons why I have chosen to not use profanity in my book:

1. My writing is an extension of who I am.

These words that I write are part of me — I think about them, I mull over them, I go back and forth between synonyms, etc. So every word that is placed in my book is intentional. That would mean that I would have to be thinking about these words in order for me to write them. I don’t feel good about profanity being in my head, and I don’t feel good about those words being in my book — which is, essentially, an extension of myself.

As I was considering this topic, this passage in Ephesians 5 came to mind: 

"Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving."

My hope and prayer is that I can align myself with these principles and that people can see God through my writing, as I hope that they see God through my everyday life.

2. I wouldn’t want to speak curse words in a public reading

Pretty much every writer does public readings of his or her book(s). If I would ever have the privilege of doing a public reading of my own work, I can’t imagine saying foul words in front of my audience. Call me prude, call me whatever you want — but I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I can’t “own” those words.

3. I have a responsibility to my audience

Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but for the sake of the argument, I will continue. Every writing advice-giver will tell you that you CANNOT write a book solely for your audience — you will not be able to stay true to yourself. However, I do want to take my audience into account with certain aspects of my writing.

For example, my friend and mentor, LauriAnne Conkling, has said to me on multiple occasions that it’s refreshing when she is able to find a book that isn’t “raunchy” yet is still romantic. I want to be able to provide that for her, not because I feel forced or pressured, but because I want to read those types of books as well!

Toni Morrison has said:

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

This is the kind of writer I want to be, not just for myself but for other people who desire this same type of writer: one who is honest, yet doesn’t need to use vulgar language. One who is willing to discuss hard things, to get her hands dirty — but not like that.

Besides, if you’re going to put down my book because it doesn’t have any vulgar language in it, well... I’m not sure I want you reading my book, anyway. Ultimately, my real, true audience is God. And I want to write a book that he would be proud of.

What do you think about this? How do you feel about the use of profanity in writing (or in other art forms)? Are there writers that you read who do not include profanity in their writing?

Note: There are a few notable women writers of recent YA novels that have stuck to their guns and not included profanity in their books. I respect and admire these women: Veronica Roth, writer of Divergent, Suzanne Collins who wrote The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer, of Twilight fame.

Other articles you might enjoy:

Friday, May 16, 2014

How It Feels to Kill Someone

And Other Crazy Things You Might Google if You're Writing a Book 


The other day, I was writing a scene where one of my main characters just killed someone (defending his family) and I was trying to write about what he felt after realizing that he had taken another person's life (for an excerpt of this scene, click here).

Here's the thing: I've never killed anyone before, so how can I write about how it feels to kill someone? So what did I do? I looked around and made sure no one at Starbucks was staring at me...and then I Googled "How it feels to kill someone". It was informative and helpful in my writing, but also kind of...weird. Aside from being afraid I might end up on some FBI's list of people to watch, it was just strange to type that phrase into my search engine. But it got me thinking about what kinds of strange things we search for on the Internet! I compiled a short list of bizarre or funny things I've had to look up in this writing process:

-How to stab someone (which turned into: Using a knife to defend yourself)
- Parts of a rocking chair
- Code names for spies
-What happens if wheat is not harvested on time
- Replacement for 'no skin off my back'
-How to make dynamite
- The psychology of death
- Songs that make you feel sad
- Letters/telegrams from war
- Spit up rag babies (I couldn't think of what a burp cloth was called!)
- How to throw a knife
- Horse-drawn combine
- Tomato season
- How to start a fire
- Funny Southern sayings
- Parts of a knife
- Other names for 'dad'
- How long will it take an adult to learn to read
-Military sleep deprivation
-Railroads Alabama 1940

I'm sure there will be much more outlandish Googling in my future... What's the strangest thing that you've ever looked up online? Feel free to share in the comments.

P.S. - for one of the more interesting articles I found on "How it feels to kill someone", click here.

Book Update:

I have officially exceeded the 50,000 word mark! :) The month of June will be a big month for me, I have a workshop that I'm attending in Georgia and I entered my manuscript into a novel-writing contest at that workshop. So, if you think of it, you can say a prayer for me about that one :) I also have a 10-day seminar/workshop for my Masters program at the end of June, which I'm really looking forward to. My mentor for this semester will be Kevin Moffett! As always, I appreciate so much your prayers and support.

<--- 3 Things I Learned                                                                   How It Feels to Kill --->
        From My Mother                                                                    Someone: An Excerpt

Sunday, May 11, 2014

3 Things I Learned From my Mother

There’s about a million and a half things I’ve learned from my oh-so-amazing mother. For the sake of time (and everyone’s sanity), I was able to, miraculously, narrow it down to three things I’m really grateful she taught me:

1. Number My Priorities

It was my junior year of high school and I was overwhelmed to the point of tears — my head cradled in my arms on the kitchen table, paralyzed by the amount of work that I had to do for school. My mom sat next to me, with her pen and paper and said, “What do you need to get done?” We sat there, her writing down everything I needed to accomplish, and then together we numbered each item in order of its priority:

    1. Ride my horse (this was usually a priority in the Stearns Family!)
    2. AP Euro paper rough draft
    3. Stats homework
    4. And so on…

This may seem like a really simple thing, but I have continued to use this method for overcoming any feeling of paralysis that might come on due to a long to-do list. I number the things most important to me, and I get those things done in order. If I don’t have time in a day to accomplish all of them, I move on to the next day. And renumber.

2. The Power of Prayer

My brothers will confirm that one of the most consistent sights of our childhood was my mother having her morning Bible study and prayer time. Every day, she would sit at the kitchen table, sipping her coffee, with her rather fat Thompson Chain Reference Bible open in front of her. Our late cat, Perry, found that the opened Bible was her favorite place to sit, and her and my mom would play this game: mom would push her off, Perry would find a way back on.

I remember my mom teaching me how to pray when I was about 7 years old. I came up to her one morning, and she offered me a spot on her lap. She showed me her very-detailed prayer list and revealed to me her “prayer secret”: A.C.T.S.

A: Adoration
C: Confession
T: Thanksgiving
S: Supplication

Every morning, my mom would spend time pouring out her adoration to God, confessing her shortcomings before him, thanking him for everything he’d given her and then appealing to God for her friends and family. Now, if that doesn’t bring you closer to God, I don’t know what will.

Whenever I have something “big” going on in my life, I always tell my mom. For starters, I do this because I love my mom and I want her to know what’s going on in my life. But I also know that when my mom says she’ll pray for me, she's really going to pray for me. And something tells me that she’s got God’s ear.

3. Strong is the New Skinny

My brother, Joey, was in second grade when his teacher remarked on how toned my mom’s arms are, and that she wished her arms looked like that! For some reason, this memory has always stuck with me. My mom is a slender woman, but she is strong. You don’t get to be as good of an equestrian as she is just by being skinny.

When I think of what I want to look like, I don’t think: “skinny”, I think: “strong”. A big reason for this is because of my mother: she never emphasized wearing makeup or having the nicest clothes and she was the first to have a cinnamon roll on horse show weekends but, above all of those things, my mom is a strong, capable woman who is beautiful inside and out. I hope that when people look at me, they see her strength living inside of me.

My beautiful (and strong!) mother on her trusted stead, Patrick

What’s something your mom taught you that you’re thankful for? Share in the comments (or, better yet, share with your mother!)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Keep on Dreaming (Even if it Breaks Your Heart)

Way back on the radio dial
A fire got lit inside a bright-eyed child
Every note just wrapped around his soul
From steel guitars to Memphis all the way to rock-n-roll

Did you ever have that moment like the lyric in this song — a fire lit inside, every note wrapping around your soul?

From an early age, I fell in love with words. Not just in books, but everywhere. I was drawn to country music since before I can remember, not just because of the sound, but because country music is all about telling a story. And I’m a sucker for a good story. I was stirred by Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing” and laughed at Lee Ann Womack’s “I’ll Think of a Reason Later”.

One of the first books I read as a kid on my own brought me into an enchanted place: Black Beauty. I read it under the covers, in the back of the car, and brought it to school with me. I remember the magic that took place on mere pieces of paper, the longing that welled in a seven-year-old’s soul. I was transported to a world that I wanted to be a part of.

I think we all have had moments like this in our childhood, or even as adults: the thrill of your first touchdown, the excitement of successfully organizing an event, the way the notes wrapped around your soul as you learned to play the guitar, the victory of conquering your first calculus problem or the way that all of those horrific science terms just made sense to you.

Keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart
Some dreams stay with you forever,
Drag you around but bring you back to where you were.
Some dreams keep on getting  better,
Gotta keep believing if you wanna know for sure.

This has become my mantra: keep on dreaming. Even if doors get slammed in your face or you have to go in a different direction, it’s important to always keep hope alive because God created us to do something uniquely suited for each of us.

What was it for you that “lit a fire” within you? And what inspires you to keep on dreaming?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Kill Your Darlings

A Rant About Abuse in the Catholic Church

I have a kind of peculiar habit of reading the news while doing yoga.

While in warrior II this weekend, I came across an article that bothered me. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. You can read the article here.

The article at first seemed positive: Pope Francis put together a pontifical commission for the “Protection of Minors” in the Catholic Church… AKA, how to keep children from getting sexually abused by priests. The aim of the commission is to “look at programmes to educate pastoral workers in signs of abuse, identify means of psychological testing and other ways of screening candidates for the priesthood, and make recommendations regarding Church officials’ cooperation with civil authorities on reporting suspected abuse.”

While it seems like a step in the right direction, the overwhelming feeling that I had was this: if you’re having to mandate so heavily because of such egregious failures, here’s a news flash: your system is broken.

For decades, we have known that children were being abused by Catholic priests. And the answer is…(YEARS LATER)…to put together a group of smart people to talk about the problem? It just doesn’t seem to fit.

The even more infuriating article that I read about this situation was one in which the Catholic Church refused to agree with the UN that what was happening between the priests and children was TORTURE and, to make matters even worse, they are pawning off the problem onto the priests’ countries of residence. If you don’t believe me, you can read more here:

I will say it again: this system is broken. And it’s going to take A LOT more than a pontifical commission to fix it.

There’s a phrase in the literary world that I feel somehow applies here: kill your darlings.

Essentially, this means if it’s not good, let it go, regardless of how “dear” it is to you. This needs to happen in the Catholic Church — a massive upheaval where they return to scriptural principles rather than man-made ones. But that’s a conversation for another day.

The more personal point that I want to make here is this: unless we are willing to look ourselves in the mirror and see our faults and failings, we cannot make any significant change. As a writer, I have to be willing to “kill” my darlings in my novels, but I need to be willing to do this even more so on a personal level. If we’re going to make a difference in this world, I believe we have to be willing to be honest about what needs to change in our lives, our families, our communities and then do whatever we need to do to cut out the bad (AKA, kill your darlings) and then bring in the good.

I know this is a departure from what I normally write about, but (as I’m sure you can tell) this was on my heart.

What’s one area in your life where you need to “kill your darlings”? Feel free to share in the comments :)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Some Disheartening Facts Re:Publishing (Warning: Not for the Faint of Heart)

As you all know, one of the reasons why I’m writing this blog is to involve you guys in my writing journey. So, here’s the latest, as well as some oh-so-interesting publishing facts…

This week, I reached the 40,000 word mark on my book (41,493 to be exact). According to Amazon, the median novel length is about 64,000. So, I’m presumably a little more than halfway done writing (the first draft of) my book! As I’m writing, I’m also researching what it takes to be published. It’s a long process, but here’s the P.S.-long-story-short version:

- Once you finish a book (I mean really finish it, I.e. It’s free of grammatical errors, all the plot lines are tied up nicely, etc.) you begin to query agents for representation. For the most part, you cannot send your manuscript to a large publishing company without representation. (If you do, it ends up in the “slush pile”, and may or may not get read by anyone.)

- To query an agent, you send them a one-page letter that introduces you and your book. Every agent is looking for something different — one agent may not accept young adult novels, while another is looking specifically for non-fiction or another represents only sci-fi writers.

- If an agent is interested in reading your work, he/she might request a partial manuscript (usually the first 50-100 pages) and/or a full manuscript.

- If the agent likes your manuscript, they may offer to represent you, which means that they will send your manuscript to editors at publishing houses (so it won’t end up in the slush pile! Yay!)

The more I’ve read up on this process, the more I realize how grueling and disheartening it is. Here’s one literary agent’s stats from 2010:

36,000 query letters received (that’s 120 per day).

839 requests for partial manuscripts

98 requests for full manuscripts

28 book deals were made with this agency and they currently have 6 projects on submission

That means that a writer interested in this agent has a 0.27% chance of getting a full manuscript request and a 0.09% chance of getting represented by this agency. However, once a writer was represented by this agency, they had a 77% chance of getting published. BTW, this is not an agency in NYC. This agency is in Colorado (AKA, NOT the publishing capital of the world). This is pretty consistent with the other stats that I’ve read.

In the mean time, this is what I’m doing:

Courtesy of Writer's Market

So that’s the real deal. Prayers are requested and appreciated.