I remember the first time I heard those words directed at me. I stood at the podium after class, waiting in line to ask one of my favorite college English professors how I could improve my less than stellar paper.
I bit my lip and crossed my arms, swaying back and forth anxiously as he read my thesis. He wrote, “SO WHAT?” in big red letters next to my carefully wrought sentence. My heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach where all bad little creatures dwell—the dark hole that life fills up with every negative thought, action, or word.
My cheeks reddened, as he looked at me, emotionless.
“I don’t understand,” I managed to say, fighting back the disappointment I had in myself, the over-achiever, the people pleaser. I had always been the girl who sat in the first row, the one who read every assignment and had prepared my questions and comments before class. I wanted not just to impress my professors, but to genuinely learn more about my favorite subject and more about myself. I wanted to be the best me I could be. I still want that.
“Your thesis statement tells me what you’re going to talk about, but it doesn’t tell me why it’s important,” he said flatly like he had said it every day of his life (and probably had).
For the rest of the day, I pondered on the question. Why was what I had to say important? How would it affect readers, and why would they care?
That one question changed my whole writing life. Every word we type should have purpose and meaning that is far more than just story or entertainment. You've been given something amazing—the power to wield words and bend them to a purpose. That’s divine. In the beginning was the Word, after all.
Nothing speaks life or death into people more than words. They are powerful, and they can change everything.
Even in fiction.
Another professor told us, “Never write something that you don’t intend to keep forever. If it’s not impactful and something that makes you proud, then it’s not worth writing.” That was another statement that changed my academic career. I have every paper I’ve ever written. I gave each of them my all. Were they all stellar? No. Not even close, especially knowing what I do now. But were they all important? Yes. Every topic I chose from then on meant something to me, and I hoped it would mean something to whoever read them. I remember the first time I wrote, “So what?” on a paper a year or so after I graduated. I was helping a friend proof her graduate paper, which was fantastic but didn’t address that pivotal question. I struggled to type the words, remembering what a kick to my heart hearing them was for me. But I did it anyway, to love and help her more.
I’ve since asked that question boldly numerous times from friends to clients, and always, always to myself.
Our writing should mean something. Before you even type the words, it’s best to tackle that question head on.
The benefits of knowing so what:
1.) You’ll write with purpose, which will enrich your writing experience. 2.) You’ll know exactly who your market is. 3.) It’ll be easy to stay focused while writing.
Literature students aren’t the only ones who write about the “so what.” Agents do too. When an agent submits a proposal, they cover a variety of topics advocating your book. Perhaps the most important one they answer is why this book needs to be on the shelf. How does it add to the conversation of other books written on the topic? In essence, why this book?
As an indie author, it’s even more critical that I understand these foundational elements of my books because no one else is there to do it for me. I’m a one-woman team when it comes to their creation and their marketing. I need to know what need each book is trying to fulfill in my audience.
For example, my novel FABLED was written because I wanted an escape. I’ve always sensed that magic was present in real life—not the witchy type of magic most think about—but the kind that comes from a life full of adventure and experiences. That’s why I wrote about an average girl who finds herself in a world she only knew existed in books. I wrote that book for people like me—Modern Romantics as I sometimes call us. We want to believe something extraordinary is lurking around the corner, and for better or worse, we’re going to find out what it is.
RED RIBBONS was created to explore the strength and supernatural ability the love of family gives us. When we’re surrounded by people who build us up, who nourish and love us even at our worst, we can fearlessly stand against adversity. No evil can win when one has love, forgiveness, and a familial bond.
OF LOVE & LEGEND is a reminder that chivalry isn’t dead, but it’s hard to maintain. In legend, Arthur is often referred to as a Christ-like figure, but it is clear through story he wasn't perfect. He’s noble and good, but even he is flawed. Lovable, admirable, kind, but flawed. When the parallel is made between the modern man of today and King Arthur, it’s not difficult to see how work and duty often distract from love and marriage. Their legend is a warning to us all. Relationships take work, and sacrifices—sometimes devastating ones—will be made.
In my upcoming book, THE BUCCANEER BELLE, sisterly love covers a multitude of sins. The commitment to our loved ones will cause us to stop at nothing to save them.
The themes of these books can be boiled down to two essential cultural problems—busy lives and the need for escapism and broken families. The stats:
Last year, CNN reported that Americans spend 10 hours a day looking at a screen to include video games, television, tablet usage, computers, and cell phones. We are looking for an escape. Why? Because we’re surrounded by negativity—broken families, rising debts, troubled relationships, and longer hours of stressful work. Hence why we “Modern Romantics” escape into other worlds to find solace and the adventure and hope we seek. (FABLED)
According to the CDC, there has been an average of 800,000-850,000 divorces every year in the US in the past decade. Families are broken, which means there’s a need for hope in books and entertainment that show a strong family structure even if there’s a significant loss. (RED RIBBONS, OF LOVE & LEGEND, and THE BUCCANEER BELLE)
As writers, our goal is not only to understand the needs and motivations of our characters; we must also seek to do the same for our audience. Our readers’ experiences are directly attributed to how well we give them what they want and need.
Writing is an immortal reflection of the times we live in. We best serve [L]iterature, if we write with the realization that our words will some day be the literary history of an era. Are our books reflecting our culture’s problems, needs, wants, and collective character?
Crazy runs thick in these veins. It’s woven amongst the thorns of a broken heart and rooted deep within this bittered soul. She told me, “You can be anything you want.” The reality – I’d become her. Slowly, with every passing moment, my spirit entwines itself with hers. As I stare at her grave, I’m not afraid of the death that surely awaits, but I’m terrified of the dash that summarizes the entirety of her life. One linear motion of lunacy that put her here beneath my feet. “I’ll join you soon, Mama.”
Though I've made the switch from traditional publishing to indie publishing, it hasn't been that long ago that I struggled with receiving rejection letters. And being an independent author comes with its own difficulties. No matter what path you take in your writing career, there will always be bad days looming in the future. I hope these steps will help you survive your next bad day.
When I think of people who inspire me, I realize I am not easily moved. I've never been drawn to Katniss-like characters or the powerful strength of superheroes. I am inspired by people who have lived real, gritty lives plagued by obstacles and years and years of hard work—by people who have held on, tooth and nail, to a dream that is much bigger than they are. Recently, I read Brian Houston's LIVE LOVE LEAD, and I am deeply moved by his pioneer spirit and his devotion to seeing God's vision realized in Australia and across the world.
Following up that fantastic read was a sermon by Christine Caine that focused on endurance and how it took her nearly 30 years to grow her ministry. Hillsong, too, has been growing for that long.
I'm entering the new year with an ending of a season, and I don't just mean the literal definition of season. It has been a season of great heartache and one I wondered many nights if I'd ever recover from. Perhaps you're walking through the same season. If you are, know that you're not alone. There are many of us scattered amongst your life, and it's highly probable that you may not even know who we are. Broken people are everywhere in our lives, but O how we’ve gotten really skilled at perfecting our masks and pretending.
So allow the writer in me to get real, raw.
Last year, I met a sweet and talented writer who didn't do anything “by the book” in industry terms but somehow landed a major book contract before having written the whole book or even finding an agent. Not to mention, she landed this miracle with her first attempt at writing a book. I know, right?! At that point, I had done everything I knew to do to be in her shoes, and yet I wasn't. She, and everyone else—or so it felt—still looked at me as an inexperienced writer. She treated me that way as she went on with her spiel about not giving up. I struggled to hear her out with a smile, because my heart was screaming, "Who are you to tell me about not giving up, about what’s meant to be, and about the importance of timing?" I couldn’t help but wonder how this sweet lovely well-meaning lady could teach me anything about perseverance. I had wrote more books than her, pursued this career for longer, and had been working towards this dream that she’d already obtained for seven years (at that point). And then when she said, "I never even wanted to be a writer," the dagger that she'd been unknowingly stabbing me with for twenty minutes served its fatal blow. I didn't tell her all my writing credentials or the fact that at the time I was training to be a literary agent. I didn't say anything. Mostly because I couldn't. I was literally afraid to open my mouth, scared all that was going through my mind might spill out. I simply smiled and walked away feeling more defeated and minimized than I’d ever felt before.
I wanted to give up. After all, maybe she was right in her thinking. When I’m good enough, it’ll happen. Just like it did for her and for others.
The enemy almost had me fooled this year. I have thought about that well-intentioned but crippling conversation these past twelve months, and I still struggle to be okay about it. The short of it is this: Whatever my purpose, whatever God's perfect will is in my life, now is not the time. He is building my endurance, strengthening my muscle, and equipping me to run the race before me. That's why I don't connect to people who have had easy journeys. I'm inspired by people who are fighters, relentless in their pursuit of dreams. Visionaries who kept going when they felt like giving up and who moved forward because they didn't know how to stop.
I don't know how to give up writing. I have often wished God gave me an easier dream, one that wouldn't hurt so much, but the greatest works ever done we're completed outside of comfort and inside of radical.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. - Psalm 31:8
I want a grand, free spacious life, but I've also always wanted it to be simple and quiet. Both desires have been hard to obtain in my current walk, but God is teaching me more and more about how my passion for both is actually obtainable if I choose to simply follow, trust, and most of all, just be me.
5 Tiny Steps to Moving Forward
1.) Don’t look around.Comparison leads to death. Dreams die when they stand next to giants. So do we. Our smallness and insignificance become the loud voices that rule our lives and defeat us before the enemy even has the chance.
2.) Savor humble beginnings. “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” Zachariah 4:10. I am reminded of this verse and it's importance. I've been missing the joy in my humble beginnings because of my desire to get to year 30—the fulfillment of a dream. But it's the time leading to that fulfillment that gives us our story, our testimony, and our relevance.
3.) Don't take it so seriously. It's hard for dreamers to not take their big, still small, dream seriously. We are committed to it, after all. Wholly devoted to what moves us. I write books, fantasy ones mostly. They're fun, and I still try to include some applicable wisdom of life in them. But they’re still only stories, meant to make days more enjoyable, not change the world. I want to give light, hope, and magic to my readers, but I must keep in mind the weight of their importance in the world. Not to diminish the years of work involved and the skill to create them, no. I only mean to keep myself grounded in truth. My real contribution to the world is a life lived for Him.
4.) Let it go. We must lose our life to save it. We have zero control of our creative careers. Artists face a unique challenge. No matter how hard we work, work does not equal success. It's one of the rare instances in the world where reaping and sowing do not equate. I have known many writers who are like me, in the trenches for years and years, while others have quick success. There's no rhyme or reason that our mortal minds can make sense of, but His ways are not our ways. We are completely subject to His plan. In order to live fully and happily, we must learn to let our dreams go and rely on hope, while staying committed to being content with the present.
5.) Don't be afraid to cry out for mercy. There is more than one entry in my prayer journal entitled Mercy. When I was a kid, my parents liked the tickle bug. They'd tickle and tickle until my brother and I would be gasping for breath between giggles. Remember that feeling? Minus the happy laughter and fun, that's what I feel like sometimes—a helpless kid crying out for mercy in a moment when I cannot control anything. Lord, I'm desperately gasping for breath. Plant me on solid ground, teach my feet to follow only after you, and guide me to abundant life. Rid me of my desperation, insecurity, brokenness, and discontent. Lord, please. Mercy.
Hope is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. - Hebrews 11:1
God has put my feet in a spacious place for this season, maybe forever.
While that grand, big spacious place can feel lonely and overwhelming, not knowing where to go from here, I am also reminded how free it is to be standing here—just God and I staring into the clouds, dreaming a dream, telling stories, and planning a hopeful future, however impossible it may seem.
God has tied my heart to a dream that I love and that sets my soul on fire when I stop trying to define success in the world's terms. Words are—have always been—my safe place. I will no longer allow words to be used as anything else.
As for the writer who tried to share encouraging words, I know her heart was pure and kind. She simply doesn't know or understand my journey, and that's okay. If you've had relatively quick success in your profession, that's wonderful. A blessing. You've been spared. And I imagine you have a strong testimony in another avenue of your life.
That's yet another blessing in this journey: I never had a strong testimony in my personal life. I've been spared in that regard, but God is revealing to me more and more that my writing career will be how He reveals Himself in my life as He molds a better character into me.
This is my trial, my season, my cross to bear. For now and maybe forever. But in thanksgiving I will walk forward, continuing to tell my stories without focusing on anything other than the joy of just creating. In this I will be faithful, even on difficult days and through gut-wrenching conversations.
I will keep walking. Keep writing. Keep believing. Won't you join me? If you feel that you're tied to a dead-end dream, take my hand. We'll get through it together, keeping in community with other likeminded warriors is important. You are my people. God made no mistake when He made me or you, and it was no mistake when He planted this dream in our hearts. May we enjoy our season. It will never be here again, and someday in the far, distant future we will look back and see His purpose in our pain and how it molded a future that surpassed anything we could have ever dreamed, even with our wild imaginations.
"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."— Elie Wiesel