The Purgatory of Novel Writing

Up until about six years ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard the word ‘purgatory‘. I simply thought you died, your soul rose to heaven and you lived there forever. The end. Hallelujah and thanks be to God.

When I started researching the teachings of the Catholic Church, however, I discovered another stage in the afterlife experience. A refining process. A…purgatory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Purification, it says, is necessary since nothing unclean can enter the presence of God in heaven. Including our sin-stained souls. So even though our sins may be forgiven, we still have sins. We still have imperfections. Even after we die.

“What?” I asked, appalled. “You mean that I can spend an entire lifetime trying to be good and holy, and then there’s MORE work AFTER I die?”

The idea was overwhelming—exhausting, even—and I wasn’t sure if I had the courage or stamina for such an endeavor.

And then I started my writing career.

For years I worked as a journalist before branching out to begin my own projects. First on the list was this dystopian trilogy that had been burning in my heart.

I started writing it in a hotel lobby in San Francisco during a family vacation when my oldest daughter was 13 months old. Now, as she approaches her fourth birthday, I have witnessed my Capacity series grow from a stand-alone novel into a trilogy.

In doing so, I have slaved to improve my writing. I have studied the techniques of good writers, and hungrily consumed articles and books about writing. I have devoted hard-to-come-by spare time to bettering myself in this industry.

Years. I’ve spent years working hard to be skillful, and now I’ve reached revisions.

From a distance, revisions sound pleasant. Fun, even. Like frolicking through a bug-free meadow, scooping wild daisies in each hand, as my manuscript grows stronger with each step. The sun warms my skin from a cloudless, cerulean sky, and my novel—once a victim of incongruity and grammatical errors—is now fully whole. Complete.

In my hands, it radiates with newfound perfection.

Which is not only neat, it is necessary.

After all, no imperfect manuscript can enter the publishing world.

The problem is that revisions themselves are not fun. There are no meadows, no daisies, and certainly no sun-filled cerulean skies.

The result of revisions is heavenly, no doubt.

But revisions themselves are tedious and tough. They require vulnerability and thick skin. They demand you to scour your work for each imperfection—every tiny mistake—and eliminate it.

Then you must invite others to help you do that.

It’s not easy to give other people a magnifying glass and ask them to find all your blemishes. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes downright humiliating. Some writers may not think they have the courage or stamina for such a purgatorial endeavor.

But, if anyone wants to enter the pearly gates of publishing, it is absolutely necessary.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Messages

Desperation happens at least twice a week, maybe more.

I mean, I love my sweet girls, but counting to 15 a billion times or rehashing the ABCs repeatedly can get a bit…well, suffocating. Monotonous at best.

It’s wonderful, no doubt. And I love getting to be the one who’s there with them doing these things. Being present in their lives. Helping them grow and learn. Witnessing each new level of development, every lightbulb moment.

But there are times when those things are suffocating. Like I need something deeper. Something with more meaning.

Something like another adult.

In those moments, the craving for another adult is so intense—so real—I can feel it moving beneath my skin. It rises to my throat and squeezes, crushing my windpipe until I fear I may not be able to breathe without it.

“Hey daddy! How’s your day treating you?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent that message to my husband, either by text or voicemail.

It’s a flare signal. A plea for my most trusted ally to come to my rescue. To offer me an air bubble, however small, before I have to dive back beneath the waves. To give me just one detail—one syllable, even—from someone whose wisdom has matured a bit more than my three-year-old’s.

Waiting for his response is agonizing. Those long, drawn-out rings on the other end of the line. The blank, lifeless text message screen. My flare signal fizzling out, unnoticed.

And then it happens.

Those three gray dots start wiggling beneath my text message or “The Hubs” pops up on my phone. And even though I’ve been swept away in a tidal wave of temper tantrums and dirty diapers, someone has noticed me. Seen me. Heard my call for help. Someone has seen my distress and started to respond.

In that moment, hope eases the panic and I can finally breathe.

But it occurs to me that I rarely, if ever, send God a quick text message. During my panic-stricken moments, I find that I am desperate for my husband, not my Father. That I mistakenly view my husband as my most trusted ally—the one who will rescue me from drowning—instead of my Savior.

And yet, God is readily available the moment I say His name.

With Him, there are no unanswered ringtones, no lifeless screens.

There’s only rescue.

 

What Is My Capacity?

Published.

That’s the word imprinted on every writers’ heart. As if the word itself is made of celestial light and angels’ voices instead of scratches of ink.

It’s the ultimate dream to be mass produced and read by the entire world.

Before I faced the first page of Capacity, that very dream pushed me to the computer. It called to me each day, pulling me into my office like the tide to the moon. Which is appropriate considering I did most of my work before the sun came up.

This dream of being published demanded that I be relentless in my work, fighting for each scene—each scrap—of the story.

Fitting, since Capacity is about a girl named Marian who must fight for each scrap of her own dignity. A young girl whose country requires all eighteen-year-olds to compete against one another to see who is the greatest. To set apart the smartest and strongest, and set aside those who aren’t.

In essence, to see who has the most worth—and get rid of those who don’t.

It occurs to me now, as my husband finishes reading the manuscript, that it feels like my own Capacity is being measured.

A twinge of anxiety tightens in my chest as I begin to let others inside the private world I’ve been building for over a year—and to be evaluated according to its strength.

Will I be labeled Green, like those with the highest Capacities in Marian’s world? Will I be so-so like the Yellows? A subpar Red? Or completely excommunicated like those who fail the Capacity and get sent to the wasteland outside the city?

What is my Capacity? All I know is that whatever it may be, it can only be revealed when I share my work. So I will prepare as much as I possibly can, pray to avoid pure humiliation, and hope that one day I may find myself counted worthy by readers.

After all, it’s the dream to be mass produced and read by the entire world.

Isn’t it?

Do You Measure Up?

My three-year-old loves visiting the penguins at the zoo. It’s not because of the way they waddle like her younger sister or even the way they swim up to the glass. To be honest, it’s not because of the real penguins at all.

No, her favorite thing to do is stand beside the pictures of penguins that hang on the wall.

Why?

Because she still doesn’t quite measure up to the Emperor Penguin.

“Am I as big as him yet?” she asks, trying to see how close the top of her head is to the 45″ arctic beast.

“You’re getting closer,” I assure her. “But you’re not quite there yet.”

 

In that moment, it occurs to me that we have hearts for comparisons. We want to be bigger, stronger, better. Always. There’s something in us—even at three years of age—that simply has to stack up. Even to a freakin’ penguin.

You’re not quite there yet.

The words roll off my tongue to encourage her—after all, she is much closer than she used to be. But when I think about it, I hate hearing that message myself. I can’t stand it when I’m not quite somewhere. I want to be there, wherever it is.

I take a look at my daughter, whose blond hair reaches the penguin’s chin, and realize she’s got a ridiculous measuring tape. Who uses a penguin to measure their height? It seems warped, twisted somehow, like it’ll never give an accurate read out.

But what do I use as a measuring stick? 

Almost instantly, tons of comparisons come flooding back to me.

  • My favorite movies and TV shows reminded me that I could be much more disciplined with my eating habits. That, surely, if I gave up guilty pleasures (or food all together), I could look like that beautiful actress onscreen.
  • A co-worker’s fat commission check implied I could have matched pennies and dimes if only I had worked harder or been more competent at my job.
  • The upper end of the corporate ladder inspired me to become a slave to work…or risk the shame of not stacking up.
  • Oh, and did Jill just buy a new house right after she got back from Thailand?

Measuring sticks, all of them. All broken, imperfect measuring sticks.

And yet, I let them measure and define my worth.

So what do you use as a measuring stick?

Because when we compare ourselves to anything that is not Christ, we scrap and fight for something that is imperfect. We spin our wheels, straining and struggling, to be something that is not perfect.

In short, we use a pretty ridiculous measuring tape.

And I don’t want to settle, comparing myself to an Emperor Penguin. I’d rather measure myself against the King of Kings.

“Am I as big as Him yet? As kind and loving as He?” I will ask.

Then He’ll look at me and see how much I’ve grown—how much closer I am now than I used to be—and He’ll smile, those eyes of His filled with grace.

“You’re getting closer,” He’ll say. “But you’re not quite there yet.”

And for once, I’ll feel the victory in those words.

 

It Takes a Village

It’s true what they say: It takes a village to raise a manuscript.

Okay, no one actually says that, but it’s true nonetheless.

Over the last year, I have poured countless hours (and cups of coffee) into Capacity, the first installment of my dystopian trilogy.

It’s my baby, and I try my darndest to take good care of it.

But I’m definitely not the only one who’s contributed to the nourishing and flourishing of this project.

Each Saturday morning, my husband—the rightful captain of our marriage, though he disputes that fact—spends special “Daddy Daughter” time with our girls so I can roll up my sleeves and get to work.

Each week, my Writing Buddy (and the best Writing Buddy in the world, I might add) looks over new chapters, and pours out great insight as to how to make them stronger.

And, I’m lucky to say, one morning each week, a family member graciously takes care of my kids so I can spend time with imaginary people.

It’s through the collaborative efforts of this small but powerful village that Capacity has grown and strengthened. Without you all, it would still be struggling through its first plot twist.

But, because of you, the 325-page manuscript is in the hands of my alpha reader. My husband. My champion. The one who gets a sneak peek into every aspect of my life, whether it’s beautiful or in need of critique. We have even designated one night each week to “Reading Time” after the kids go to bed.

And you know which book he’s choosing to read?

Mine.

That’s a pretty cool feeling.

But, best of all, it’s a great reminder that Capacity—and my writing career in general—is out of my hands completely and in the hands of someone else. Not simply the Alpha, but also the Omega. I have received His love and blessings on this journey already, and even if His ultimate vision differs from my own, I cannot wait to see where He will lead me.

When Do You Rest?

“Is nap time over now?” my daughter asks for the fifteenth time in the same amount of minutes.

“No, Marie. Go back to your room.”

Casually (and oh-so-conveniently), she wanders through the play area on her way back to her room. “Can I take this car with me to my room?”

“Having another toy in your room won’t help you rest. Leave it alone and go to bed.”

She huffs her displeasure—making sure she’s putting on a good show—before returning to her room empty-handed.

From one bedroom, my one-year-old wails, pleading to be let out of her crib. From the next room, my three-year-old starts kicking the walls. Or doing construction.

“Lord, please help them rest,” I beg, imagining the rest of the day without naps.

Loud voices. Tears. Whining. Tantrums.

“Seriously, God,” I pray. “Help them sleep. They’re so much better off when they’ve rested.”

But I can’t even fold my hands in prayer.

My hands are too busy folding four loads of laundry. I need to fly through them so I can unload the dishwasher, refill it with the dirty stuff piled in the sink, clean the house, and hope I can squeeze in a blog before nap time ends. When the kids wake up, it’ll be time to shovel snacks down their throats, cart them off to gymnastics, then race back home to greet the babysitter so my husband and I can make a youth group engagement up at church.

Rest. 

I can almost hear God say it.

When do YOU rest?

I look around at all the junk littering the countertops, the dishes crusted with day-old food, the overflowing hampers. And those are just the things I can see from my spot on the living room rug.

How on earth can I rest when I’ve got so many things to do? So many people to take care of?

To me, the answer is clear: I can’t.

So I get back to praying that my kids will sleep so I can be productive.

In that moment, I can almost hear God chuckling. At the hypocrisy. The immaturity. The self-righteousness of it all. Like the world depends on me to make it turn. Like organizing the countertops has some sort of priority in the grand scheme of things. Like it will alter someone’s life if it doesn’t happen.

The fog of fatigue settles in my head, and I imagine how the remainder of the day will look without rest.

Loud voices. Tears. Whining. Tantrums.

But this time they’re mine. My stern brow, my short fuse. The deep breaths through my nostrils when I’m about to lose it.

My kids pick up on these things and copy them. In those moments, they look too much like their mother and nothing at all like their Father.

Because of me. Because of my weariness. My refusal to rest.

Casually (and oh-so-conveniently) I unplug my phone from its charger on my way to the sofa.

“Can I at least bring my phone and read a little? Scroll through Facebook?” I wonder.

But having a toy with me won’t help me rest. Even a three-year-old could understand that. So I leave it there, just one more thing junking up the counter. One more thing I’ll have to take care of later.

I walk, empty-handed, over to the sofa and stand there with gritted teeth. Like I need to mentally prepare myself to lie down.

How is the absence of work the hardest work to do? 

But the moment the cushions absorb my body, I feel better. Less hurried. Less anxious. Less fatigued. Rest, I realize, has some sort of priority in the grand scheme of things. It alters people’s lives when it doesn’t happen. Not only is my own life affected, but the lives of my children and husband as well.

My mind clears, the fog of fatigue rolling away, and His words finally come.

Everyone is better off when you’ve rested.

Hot Pursuit

My kids have a gift.

Momdar.

That’s what I call it, at least. Their ability to find me anywhere—at any time—is impressive. Albeit a little smothering.

After some pitter-patter footsteps and a series of “MOOOOM!” shouts, they seem to have no trouble locating me at any given moment. Even if I’m on the toilet.

So much so, I’ve learned not to try to do anything privately anymore. It just upsets the children. Instead, I invite them with me—even to the restroom—and they happily follow.

Always.

When I’m desperate (and in need of a shower), I’ve tried giving them their favorite things—milk, Mickey Mouse and graham crackers. But even that doesn’t do the trick. Their Momdar is still alerted. And sure enough, before the water warms, my youngest toddles into the bathroom to offer me crackers or play on the floor outside the glass door.

As if just being in my presence is better than anything else in this world.

I’m a wanted woman, that’s for sure. And these kids are in hot pursuit.

It’s in those long, dragged-out moments—when my desire for privacy is so palpable it practically slips beneath my skin and starts crawling—that I realize God actually wants us to seek Him this way.

He wants us to be in hot pursuit.

He doesn’t want one moment of peace and quiet to Himself.

He wants us. All of us. All the time.

He wants us to have a God-dar that beeps when we’ve strayed too far away. And He wants us to search, to ask, to call out His name until we’ve found Him again. Until we can sit at His feet, knowing that His presence alone is better than anything else in this world.

And yet, I find that really tough to do.

After all, if I had the choice to spend time in God’s Word or mindlessly enjoy snacks and TV shows, I probably wouldn’t even hear the proposition. My eyes would already be glued to the next episode of The Man in the High Castle while I shoved another Nutella-covered animal cracker in my mouth.

But what if His absence upset the children? What if we were in hot pursuit?

Because the truth is, He invites us to go with Him everywhere. All the time.

Sometimes He’ll invite us somewhere exotic and beautiful. Fun, even. Other times He’ll invite us to some pretty filthy places. But no matter what, He’ll be there, too.

And I want to be a child who happily follows.

Always.

Look, Daddy

“Mom, watch my new trick!” my three-year-old shouts. She’s about to do something amazing. Or so she says.

I turn my focus toward her, the small girl absorbing every ounce of my attention—a gift I hadn’t realized was so precious—before she does it. Her trick. She has lots of them now. Spinning on one leg. Cartwheels. Falling face-first onto her mattress. Tumbling fearlessly off the couch into a tuck, roll, and finish.

I must admit, some of her ‘tricks’ give my heart a slight hiccup. Still, I can’t help but watch. I can’t help but to celebrate each new feat. These awkward gestures she is learning in her small body. This adult-sized ambition packed tightly into her toddler coordination and execution.

As her mother, I get to be there to cheer her on. To support her and encourage her to be bold. To try new things.

I’m grateful it’s me she wants as a witness.

And I truly delight in these new accomplishments. Even the simplest ones.

My youngest has caught on to this attention-grabbing technique.

“Look, Daddy!” she shouts, then twirls herself dizzy. Or runs as fast as she can on two stubby legs. Or celebrates that she put her fork on her plate when she wasn’t using it.

She sticks out her tummy in triumph. Ta-da.

Look, Daddy.

It occurs to me I’ve never said those words to my Father before.

Instead, I fall into the rut of convenience and comfort—a means of pleasing myself and myself only—and by doing so, I stray away from intentionally using my God-given abilities to actually please God.

I don’t think much about showing Him any new tricks. Heck, I don’t think I have any. But even the smallest thing, if done for Him, makes Him rejoice.

So I turn my focus toward Him now, absorbing every ounce of His attention—a gift I know to be infinitely precious—before I do it. My trick. I may not have many. But there’s one I do have. One I’m determined to have.

To let people know I see them, and that they are valued. However that may look.

A smile. A sincere compliment. A hug. Even a high-five.

In a world smothered by fear, I will help a stranger in need.

Look, Daddy.

In our technology-saturated society, I will put aside my gadgets to be truly present with people.

Look, Daddy.

In the face of prejudice and oppression, I will embrace.

Look, Daddy.

In a country filled with angry voices, I will write and speak Truth.

Look, Daddy.

And, as the loving Father that He is, He will celebrate these feats. These awkward gestures I am learning in my small body. This godly ambition packed tightly inside human execution.

He’ll cheer me on. Support me. Encourage me to be bold in His name.

He’ll be grateful it’s Him I want as a witness.

And, I hope to God, He’ll truly delight in these actions. Even the simplest ones.

What Is a Beta Reader?

You guys!

You may not believe me, but I have some pretty big news: I recently wrote the last sentence in my novel, Capacity.

It’s been a long time coming.

I’ve spent an entire year squeaking this story out, squeezing it into the early hours of my mornings or holding office hours at a local coffee shop. But it is finished.

Well, sort of.

I still need to patch up some loose ends, plug some holes, and let my husband take a peak. After all, I consider him my alpha reader. My primary peer editor.

After all of that, however, I will be on the lookout for beta readers.

What is a beta reader, you ask?

It is someone who enjoys reading, and can identify a novel’s strengths and weaknesses from a reader’s perspective. Someone who can point out if something is amiss or unbelievable. Someone who can offer up suggestions to make a manuscript stronger.

It’s someone who can make my novel better.

Will that person be you?

If you’re interested in being a beta reader for me, please comment below or message me privately. It may be a short while until I’m completely ready to share my work in this way, but your input will be invaluable in shaping and strengthening my novel.

Thank you so much in advance!

Hopefully you’ll get to pick it from a shelf someday and read it that way as well.

Will I Miss It?

For whatever reason, my husband and I decided it’d be a good idea to bring our toddlers to a professional basketball game. He works in the sports industry and I grew up with basketball in my blood. So what the heck? It’d be fun.

Once we got our tickets, we found our seats and let them close their cushioned lips around us.

Not too long into the game, the crowd around us roared to life. My husband turned toward me with disbelief in his eyes.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

I quieted the toddler in my lap and shook my head. “No, what?”

He pointed to the jumbotron as the last remnants of replay flashed onscreen. But my lap-child was wiggling again and I looked away to tend to her.

The rest of the basketball game went by in a blur. A blur of giggles, tickles, and removing my children from the cascading cement steps. A fuzzy haze of voices. My voice. Repeating common phrases like “No thank you” and “Get down from there!”

For all I knew, only four people were in the entire arena. The same four that could have been at home doing the exact same thing.

Except for one man. The beer vendor.

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you tonight,” he chuckled.

I nodded. “Every night.”

He smiled, a nostalgic look in his middle-aged eyes. “Yeah, well, one day you’re gonna miss this.”

For a moment, I paused. If for no other reason than to question the man’s sanity. Or perhaps his rose-colored rear view mirror. Or maybe he’d been drinking a little too much of the stuff in his tub.

After all, what was there to miss? I’d come to watch basketball. A game that’s as much a part of my personal history as the skin I wear on my bones. Most of the athletes were taller than my 7′ Christmas tree, and I had hardly seen them. Barely even noticed they were there.

Instead, I’d been constantly removing two tiny people from the handrails in the stands.

Miss it? I chortled to myself. How could I miss it?

But he’s not the only one who’s said those words. The message seems to be on the tongue of every parent who has made it beyond this stage. Like they know something we don’t. Like they’re in some secret parent club and all they’re allowed to say is, “You’re gonna miss it.”

But, honestly, what could anyone miss about this stage of life?

What is there to miss about being covered in someone else’s poop, pee, and snot? What’s so great about the middle-of-the-night interruptions and early morning wake-up calls? The long days and even longer bedtime routines? How could I mourn the loss of temper tantrums and conniption fits? Or the juggling act with several tiny humans as they all scream that they ‘need’ different things?

How would anyone in their right mind miss that stuff?

I spent the second half of the basketball game trying to figure it out. Racking my brain to discover what they know.

They’ve been in my shoes. These new-mom shoes. They know about the long hours, the aching muscles, the temper tantrums and conniption fits. They understand sleep schedules, and picky eaters, and constant noise.

The desperate need to throw in the towel some days.

We’re looking at parenting—the same exact stage of parenting, in fact—but seeing totally different things.

Like the story where blind men try to learn about elephants by touching different parts of an elephant’s body. One man hugs the beast’s leg and describes an elephant as a pillar. Another touches the tail and thinks an elephant is like a rope. One touches the ear, another the tusk. And, rightfully, they all say elephants are something different.

When it comes to parenting, I’m a lot like those blind men, clinging to one part and trying to understand its whole.

What these other parents see, then, isn’t rose-tinted. It’s more fleshed out. More truthful. More real. They can see a lot more of the elephant.

At this point in parenting, all I can see is how much my back aches from holding small kids all day. They know back pain is nothing compared to the heartbreak when kids get too big to hold.

I can see how hard I work to entertain my kids all day every day. They know it takes a lot more than silly faces and tickles to make their children laugh now.

I see how weighed down I am with snacks, drinks, bags, diapers, toys, and small people. Their hands feel even heavier now that they’re empty.

I dream about how quiet my house will be once the kids are grown or gone. They turn the TV on—not to watch it, but because silence feels dead compared to the noise.

I see the constant messes of spilled milk, chewed food, and death-trap Legos that I have to clean up. Their messes involve broken hearts, puberty, and body image issues.

I see how I have zero personal space or time to myself. They would give anything to see that little kid come into the room again. Even if they were in the middle of doing toilet business. But that little kid doesn’t exist anymore.

I sometimes think I could be so much more—DO so much more with my life—’if’…They’ve seen the fruit of parenting and know they’ve never done anything more important.

I see everything I’m missing out on, and worry I won’t have an identity when they leave. They see they’ve gained something greater.

I see tantrums, fights, and uncontrollable whining. To this day, they’ve never again come so close to pure innocence that they could reach out and hug it.

I see all my hopes, dreams, and ambitions. They witness their children accomplishing their hopes, dreams, and ambitions—and that’s even more satisfying.

I see myself getting pulled in so many directions I fear my body might snap like an overstretched rubber band. They know I will never be this pursued, adored, or admired again. Ever. For the rest of my life.

So, mama, maybe you’re wading through a dung pile trying to figure out this whole elephant thing. But keep in mind, you might not be seeing the whole picture.

The bigger picture is that you have a front row seat to your little person’s life story. There’s only one ticket, and it’s got your name on it.

Towards the end of the basketball game, my husband’s question changed. He knew I hadn’t seen the pass down the lane. The last second shot. The momentum shift toward our favorite team’s victory.

This time, his face was full of sympathy. Sorrow, even. Like I missed something.

“Are you getting to see any of this?” he asked.

I gazed back at the little person wiggling in my lap. The one whose smile could light up the entire American Airlines Center, but instead was begging for me to notice her.

Out of everything around her—the lights, the noise, the food, the excitement—all she wanted was me. Just me.

“No,” I said with a shrug. “But that’s okay.”

So will I miss it when they’re grown? I don’t know. Probably.

All I know for certain is that if I don’t pay attention, I’ll miss it now.

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