Friday, 26 August 2016

Growing a second skin – or dealing with book reviews

Today I read a bad review of one of my books. Well, it wasn’t that bad. It was still 3-stars and it said I had written about an interesting time period and I had handled the mystery element well. But it also said the narrative was flat and the dialogue awkward and stilted. Sigh.

I knew I shouldn’t have read it. When I saw the three stars I knew it would be a mixed bag; I should have just moved on. But it’s like a car crash; you’ve just got to look, just to see that no one’s that seriously hurt … haven’t you? Well, apparently not. Some writers claim that they consider reviews of absolutely no consequence whatsoever:

“A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”  Iris Murdoch

I wish I felt the same Iris; you’re obviously made of stronger stuff than me. But I am trying to grow that second skin, honestly …

I know some writers who never read their reviews. Or claim not to. I am not one of them. I do like to think I can learn from them and if sufficient people are saying the same thing – eg my dialogue is awkward and stilted – then perhaps it is and I should do something about it. However, I should think that my editor would have told me that before the book was published …

So the flip side is: what is written is written and no review, good or bad, will change it. Neil Gaiman has some wise words for us:

“If you make art, people will talk about it. Some of the things they say will be nice, some won’t. You’ll already have made that art, and when they’re talking about the last thing you did, you should already be making the next thing. If bad reviews (of whatever kind) upset you, just don’t read them. It’s not like you’ve signed an agreement with the person buying the book to exchange your book for their opinion.”  Neil Gaiman

Can authors really reach this level of ‘I don’t give a damn’? Or do they just say that in public and do the voodoo doll thing in private? I have a sneaky suspicion JRR Tolkien was of that ilk:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”   J.R.R. Tolkien

Another good piece of advice I’ve come across is from Stacia Kane (yes, I had to look her up too).

“Authors, reviews are not for you. They are not for you. Authors, reviews are not for you.”   Stacia Kane

She’s right. Reviews are there to help other readers decide whether or not the book is the right kind of thing for them, not to make the author feel better about themselves; we have chocolate, wine and devoted pets for that [replace with your own vice or sycophantic fan as appropriate].

And finally, as this is the blog of the Association of Christian Writers, I should end on a spiritual thought:

Bad reviews are good for the soul. They expose your fears, insecurities and pride. So I suppose we should be grateful for them. They help put you and writing in perspective. Don’t they … don’t they … oh for heaven’s sake, just pass the chocolate.

Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing lecturer, based in Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and adults. Her children’s books The Young David Series and the Young Joseph Series are available from SPCK. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy Denby Investigates Series, is published by Lion Fiction, the second, The Kill Fee, will be coming out in September . Her novel The Peace Garden  is self-published under Crafty Publishing

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Finding My Way, by Fiona Lloyd

In my opinion, somewhere along the line we’ve got it wrong with our family. Between them this year, our offspring have visited The Netherlands, Germany, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Crete, Thailand and Australia. My husband and I went to Whitby.

We had a fantastic time, though: we’ve been trying to be more active this year, so our fortnight at the coast involved lots of walking and fresh air. (The best routes also included ice creams and / or several cups of tea).

For one of our first walks, we decided to visit a local farm shop, where they specialise in humungous ice cream sundaes, with a choice of around 20 flavours. Being the obsessive one in our relationship, I’d studied the map the night before and planned out what I thought was the best route.

            “It’s pretty straightforward,” I announced. “We just walk down this path until we reach the woodland, turn left through the trees, and then cut across the fields.” Hubby – naively assuming I knew what I was talking about – nodded his agreement.

What could possibly go wrong?
I was half-right…the first section of the walk went exactly as expected. We made our way down the track, and turned off through the woods at the appropriate point. Here the path meandered around more, taking in small streams and several muddy puddles. In was only when we reached what I thought was the far side of the wood that we discovered that we had performed a near-perfect circle, re-joining our original track slightly further back. But I’m not easily deterred, so – having had a little tantrum – I plunged back into the trees. Hubby, bless him, made appropriate noises of encouragement and followed on behind.

We must have squelched our way through the woods at least three times before we finally worked out what was going wrong. Following the twists and turns of the path while not being able to see any landmarks meant that I had completely lost my bearings. We’d marched past the correct turning several times already, but had discounted it because I’d (incorrectly) thought it was going in the wrong direction.

We could have done with one of these!
Often, my writing feels like this. I set off confidently in the belief that I know where I’m going, but then run aground in a sticky patch. What I’d thought was a crystal-clear outline starts to look a bit fuzzy round the edges, and I find myself wandering round in circles, searching desperately for a hint that will set me back on course. The temptation to give up can be overwhelming…but I'm learning I need to persevere. Sometimes, slowing down to consider all the options (and maybe exploring an idea I’d previously rejected) is the best way out of an oozy mess.

And the good news is that we reached our destination before closing time – and surely all those additional miles justified the extra scoop of ice cream?

Fiona Lloyd works part-time as a music teacher, and serves on the worship leading team at her local church. Fiona self-published a violin tutor book in 2013 and blogs at You can find her on Twitter at @FionaJLloyd. Fiona is vice-chair of ACW and is married with three grown-up children.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Don’t you know there’s a war on?—A catchphrase used during the Second World War to anyone who thought that peacetime conditions still obtained.

We have just finished rereading C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, in which Narnia comes to an end. It is a tale of invasion, sabotage, and combat; but it is also a tale of political intrigue, deception, and treachery. The two go hand in hand, but the latter is the more catastrophic, for it corrupts the heart of Narnia.

At the end of last month, a Christian friend who lives in France was visiting. It was just after the murder of Father Jacques Hamel in Rouen.  ‘It’s as if we are living through a war,’ we said to each other. ‘In fact, that’s what it is. There’s a war on.’

This is not just about IS versus the West. If only it were that simple. We now see military conflicts with three (or more) sides. We now see violence that can be directed against anyone, anywhere, without warning. We now see combatants with no interest in avoiding death, so that they are impossible to deter. It is no longer nation against nation, but few against many.

But I’m not concerned  only about military activities. Those traditional strongholds of solid, thoughtful statesmanship, Britain and the United States, have been descending over the past few years, at first gradually, and now rapidly, into political pandemonium. (Please note: this isn’t a politically motivated blog!) Whatever our political allegiance, we must surely all have been alarmed at the way public discourse has moved away from the reasoned, respectful discourse we grew up with, into the realm of deceit, insult, and aggression. Truthfulness, fidelity, courtesy, neighbourliness, take flight. Something very peculiar is going on in the world of 2016. It is a moral crisis like that which our parents or grandparents endured in the 1930s and 1940s.

Christian saints in 1939 discerned that the military conflict then engulfing the world was the manifestation of something deeper—a spiritual conflict. The lines were easier to draw then, as Germany and Russia had been captured by atheistic powers with no respect for traditional laws of conduct, while Britain and the USA could still claim to be nominally Christian nations. The collapse in public standards of honesty, generosity, and restraint that we are witnessing now, alongside the worldwide cruelty and callousness with which it is intertwined, looks to me like the breaking out of a more complex spiritual struggle.

This is no time for Christians to be merely partisan. It is all too easy to see the hostility of IS towards Christianity—or the recklessness of a politician—and stop there. After all, we have never encountered anything like it before. But we should discern that this abominable behaviour is a symptom of a deeper nexus of evil, which, I fear, we are all caught up in. It’s important to remember that, if only in small ways, our lives have contributed to the global mess.

Other people can only take sides or despair. Christians are called to something more powerful, which only we can do. If we go back to basics, we know perfectly well that the spiritual battle is no new situation at all. It goes on all the time. It’s just that the long peace in the West has lulled us into unawareness, indifference, and conformity.

What can we do? We can be repentant, rather than judgemental. We can pray with love—for everyone involved, including ‘enemies’. We can recalibrate our lives daily so that we do not think and behave as if we were citizens of this world only. We can take mental hold of eternity: we have a much better hope than the dreadful death cult of IS. And we can encourage one another in these things. Christian writers, especially those with a Christian audience, are very well placed to do so, following C. S. Lewis’s example.

All worlds draw to an end, except Aslan’s own country.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Keeping the dream alive - by Helen Murray

I had no idea how tired I was until I got to Scargill this year.

It’s a short drive to Scargill from Skipton, which looks a lovely town, but I pass by the inviting cafes and intriguing independent shops because I know that real treasure is just around the bend. And the other bends. And over the hills, and across the valley.

Scargill is a place to breathe. I think I stopped breathing a while ago; maybe as long as two years. I’ve become busier and busier; aware that my jokes about living on a hamster-wheel are no longer funny, but the extent of my suffocation was only evident this weekend.

I have dreams that have been shelved, because there’s just no room for them.

I’ve told myself that I’ve put them aside just for now, that life won’t always be so frantic, that there are seasons for everything, and this season is one of constant motion, clock-watching, going, doing, coming back. That might just be it.  Around that distant bend might be a time when there are fewer demands on me, physically and emotionally.

But where is the bend?  Will I ever get there?  Isn’t life for living right now?

I arrived at beautiful Scargill and I lifted my eyes to the majestic Yorkshire hills and slowly, gradually, my Help came. In chapel I heard the words, ‘Someone here might feel as if they’re in a little prison,’ and my eyes filled with tears.

How can a prison be made of good things, precious things?  I am blessed in so many ways. A loving husband, healthy, energetic children, house, car, the means of making a living.   As I spent time with friends talking and thinking about our life as writers, and wandered in the gardens, gazing at the view, God began to whisper to me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any writing. I’ve given up all but one of the writing slots that used to be a joy, and have seriously contemplated finishing with that one too.  As for my novel – well, that moved to a back burner a while ago and slowly the light underneath it went out. 

At Scargill this year those two days away gave me the space to realise that without the main thing, even the good things start to strangle you.

The main thing for me is space. I need to recharge, and regularly. Physical space, alone, uninterrupted. This is essential for head-space, which is necessary for me. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. I hadn’t realized. Without it I’m exhausted and dulled. I can’t relax. I can’t cope with things, and the physical and emotional consequences spill over into my spiritual life as well. I’ve struggled to worship and I’ve struggled to write.

Writing is part of me. It’s a gift from God and it’s how I process life.

My ‘One Word’* this year is ‘Alive’, ironically. I've been feeling anything but. I mentioned this in a tearful conversation with a wise lady while I was away who smiled reassuringly and said, ‘Oh well, it’s only the summer!’

I need to turn this ship around.

It’s going to take time. By starting now I hope to avoid the iceberg that surely waits if I continue on this course. I need space to write, even if it cannot be the way it was. Writing gives me back the life the hamster wheel sucks from me. I need to keep my dream alive, because God himself sowed that seed, and it needs water and light. I’m starting with this blog post.

I think many dreams die because life tramples all over them. I don’t yet have a clear rescue plan, but I know that if God has brought me this far, He’ll take me a bit further. He’s breathing Life into me once again, and I need to do the same with my dreams. It feels like a huge mountain, and in the short time since Scargill there've already been setbacks that threaten to derail my new and fragile determination. 

So I'm holding onto my little bit of faith and the whisper from God that I heard in the hills of Yorkshire.

 I’m looking forward to being fully alive. After all, it’s only the summer.

“…the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.’   Psalm 18:18

Amen to that.

*‘My One Word: Change your life with just a word’  by Mike Ashcraft & Rachel Olsen, Zondervan 2012

Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

Having spent time as a researcher, church worker and Hand Therapist, Helen is now a full time mum and writer, currently supposed to be working on her first novel. Or at least working on something. 

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has two blogs: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith, and Badger on the Roof where readers are treated to a blow by blow account of her novel-writing progress, or lack thereof. It's been a while since there was anything to report, but she hasn't given up.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01

Monday, 22 August 2016

Building on Firm Foundations

Like many people, we are on holiday at the moment. I am staying in Cornwall with my in-laws, looking out of the window at St Michael’s Mount - what bliss!

One of the things we are enjoying whilst here is the fruition of my husband’s parents’ decades long dream of building a house from scratch. This has been in their minds for as long as I’ve known them, and many years before. 

Pouring concrete for firm foundations
This week is foundation week, and we’ve all watched excitedly as thirty cubic metres of concrete has been poured into trenches. It’s a very exciting time in the plan, because having been through the process of finding the site, designing the house, and finding architects and contractors, proper building can finally start. 

It got me wondering about house building as a metaphor for writing. There are those wondrous times we can see real progress on the page in the shape of actual volume of material, but lots of work has to go on beneath the surface before a book, poem, article or suchlike appears on the top. 

So what do we need to do to get from the dream to the reality? What builds a good foundation for writing?

It may sound simple, but knowing where you’re starting from and where you hope to finish is a important part of writing. Even if I’m writing a short article, or some boring bit of web copy, I still try to think of it in terms of a story. Where am I starting? Where do I want to get to? How do I get from one to the other? 

Then comes the nitty gritty of the planning - time to put your architect’s hat on! What’s going where? How is this bit going to link to this other bit? Where can I put in those ideas I really like so they’ll fit in with everything else? Figuring out how the sum of many parts can make a whole is an infuriating time for a lot of us, but I don't think we get away without doing it.

After all that, finally, comes the practical stage. Project management is something we all have to do. As much as our WIP might be calling us, we still have to figure out our time. In my life it’s to do with finding time for writing when I also have to shop, cook, clean, finish decorating the kitchen, wash the PE kits, take the cats to the vet…. you get what I mean! Fitting everything in can be a huge task, and project managing my day so that I get a good, uninterrupted time to write is a major achievement. 

Writing doesn’t just demand one part of us. We have to take the role of architect, surveyor, designer, builder, project manager. An electrician to give it some buzz and power. A plumber to keep things flowing. What a relief that we have an awesome God, who has an awesome plan. However we are doing with the process of our writing, he has ideas beyond our belief with what to do with it. As the architect from the beginning of time described in Genesis, to the story teller who shares his story of love through the gospels; we are never the only ones involved in our projects. 

Abbie has been writing ever since she could hold a pencil. She wrote a memoir, Secret Scars, (Authentic, 2007), and later, Insight Into Self-Harm (CWR, 2014). She founded and directs Adullam Ministries, an information and resource website and forum about self-harm and related issues. She blogs at Pink and Blue Mummyland and tweet as @AbbieRobson and @AdullamSelfHarm. She lives in Rugby with husband John and two children.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

"The cross is in the time"........................Ruth Johnson

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance. 


Our first year of retirement we enjoyed five cruises while waiting at the crossroads to see which direction God would point us in.  It would seem we are to continue straight ahead.  Over the years, the people we have met, the things we have done, the experiences and lessons learned are part of the future God is setting before us. Nothing in the Lord is wasted.  Everything He uses to prepare us for the next step in His plan. We cannot see into the future, but it’s time to step forward to enable him to reveal His purposes in us and for us.   
Each morning I welcome the Father, Son and Holy Spirit  as I have come to understand that the deposit of His Kingdom (Eph.1) within me only grows when I walk in a constant relationship with Him.  In asking Him about that deposit I know  intercession, prophetic utterances and writing are the gifts He has given me, and Jesus’ story about the talents brings the desire not to bury, but invest those in readiness to enlarge the place of my tent. (Isaiah 54).  
Years ago, a friend impacted me saying, “The Lord wants you to know the cross is in the time”.  I contemplated that for months.  God doesn’t work in our time frame for the Bible tells us that He knows both the beginning and end of time.  His Father heart towards us is always for good, but He has allowed man to choose his own path, and provided Jesus to save us when we reap the consequences of our actions. He is all seeing, all knowing, is in everything everywhere, and if we seek His Kingdom and His righteousness, He will supply our needs. (Matt.6:33)  Therefore, in these troubled times, we can rest assured He is in control, nothing can separate us from Him, and in Him the best is yet to come.

‘Time’ then took on a new significance, the clock often connects me to prayer or scripture.  Recently Jer.6:16 prayer the referendum in June, 2016.  My cancer diagnosis where God used time and numbers.  Another occasion was 11.11.11 where several people prayed with me to thank God for ending two World Wars and saving our nation. We started at 11.11am and finished at 11.11pm.  As we ended I believe the Lord declared, “One is won!  I have the victory and prayer will always save your nation.

I'm setting aside time this August with an urge to complete my fourth book after two years of it sitting on the side. When you read this I know I’ll be excited because the Lord has edited, probably altered the plot and changed the ending.  By 21st September I expect to report, “It is finished”! 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Power of Prayer by Sue Russell

A few days ago Lynda Alsford posted here on counting one's blessings. Lynda often writes wisely, and I read her post with nods of agreement.It made me think of a book I reviewed some years ago by an American author, Julie Saffrin. The book is called 'BlessBack' and is well worth reading, dealing with the effects of expressing gratitude in a deliberate and positive way.
Lynda's post set me thinking about the myriad blessings in my life, all undeserved. Here in rural France I am particularly conscious of the bounty and beauty of our planet, God's gift to his creatures. Hay has now been collected by busy men in tractors, leaving the fields stripped and golden.
The maize is standing tall, but it will be taller still when it is harvested in October, to be stored as winter feed for the cattle. Those same cows and bullocks, unaware of the preparations being made for their benefit, loll about in the fields, lazily chewing. In the crowded markets the stalls are loaded down with produce, much of it local, a bewildering display of variety and colour. The summer fruit is brilliant and sumptuous - melons, nectarines, apricots. God's provision is indeed sublimely generous.
I have never really gone hungry or wondered where my next meal is coming from. The chances are this is true of many of us. We not only have plenty, but also the opportunity of choice. And for all this, and much more, I am truly thankful. But of course there are many in our world who battle with hunger and thirst, for any number of reasons, geography, and the carelessness and greed of other people, among them.

This makes me both uneasy and helpless. What can I do that will make a difference? Yes, I can contribute to disaster funds, support my local food bank, seek to avoid waste. But I can also pray, and this may be my most effective weapon against all I see to be wrong in our world. At the very least it makes me more aware, more open to God's leading; and I am certain that from my little prayers, offered sincerely and thankfully, God can and does reap a harvest of which I will  probably know nothing.