Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mennonite Girl in a Hummer--Hurricane Katrina & Rita

Tonight, Hurricane Irene is rolling up the eastern seaboard, and I'm having flashbacks to the only hurricane experience I know--Katrina and Rita in 2005. I can still hear the wind howling through my memories!

I was privileged to be part of the medical team sent with Operation Hoosier Relief, sent by Gov. Mitch Daniels to help after Hurricane Katrina. We went with a multidisciplinary team made up of doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, pastors, Indiana State Police, pharmacists, Indiana Health Department workers, epidemiologists, and the Indiana National Guard. We slept in army tents on the parking lot of the Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi--just a short walk from the beach. We spent 18 days there providing free medical care and maintaining and supporting the infrastructure. There were checkpoints, curfews, and looting. The devastation and debris I witnessed cannot be conveyed anymore than conveying the actual beauty of the Rocky Mountains to someone who's never seen them. The people were grateful.

But one of my most memorable experiences there was surviving Hurricane Rita--in a tent! Friday morning before she rode in, we heard the levies had broken again in New Orleans, tornado warnings were issued, and flood warnings were issued for all coastal counties--especially those in trailers and tents, like us. As Rita bore down on the coast, we were told since we weren't in the direct path, we wouldn't evacuate. We had two types of tents, those with inner frames and ours that was more the circus type with just poles, ropes, and stakes. We were told by the National Guard that our tents could sustain winds of 30 m.p.h., but the people in the frame tents should go to the four corners of the tent and hold the tent down if the wind was too intense. For us with stake tents--well, we just prayed, but were told if the weather was too bad, we could run from our tents to the Coliseum--which was totally destroyed from the 30 ft storm surge of Katrina and now hauntingly empty and growing mold everywhere--plus, it was about 150 yards from our tent.

The Guard pulled big guard trucks on both sides of our tents and tied guide wires to our poles to reinforce our tents for the night. During the day and early evening on September 23rd, everyone was on edge, so we all piled into the recreation tent to play games in order to take our minds off the coming storm. Not only were we tense, but that day in clinic we could feel the tension rising in the local people who'd already been traumatized by Katrina. Looting increased again. The Indiana State Police began patrolling at night every 15-20 minutes on the perimeter of our camp--Camp Indiana. The first wave of "storm band" winds came in the late afternoon and evening when I happened to be in the framed tent. We did as we were told and hung on for dear life to the frame while the wind gusted and the driving rain came. The storm bands last about 10-15 minutes but feel like forever! By the time it went through, we were standing in about 2 inches of water.

Then came the longest, scariest night in my life. We went to bed in our pole and stake tent--us women had dubbed it the "Orphan Tent" since there hadn't been room for us to join the other women in the frame tent when we first arrived at camp. Our tent housed all the women doctors and nurse practitioners and was on the perimeter of Camp Indiana, next to the guys tent. We slept on cots and had intermittent electricity that lit one or two light bulbs and let us charge our cell phones. We went to bed at 11:30 p.m. and were awakened at 12:30, 2, 3:30, 5, 7, and 9 a.m. with severe wind and rain. I just prayed all night long that God would put angels at all our tent stakes to keep them in and keep our tent up. I've never in my life heard such howling as the storm bands approached, then hit our tent with a blast, flapping the canvas of our tent ferociously.

After each band passed, all us women in our tent, and the guys next to us, piled out of our tents to check the stakes. The guys had hocked a mallet from the Guard and went around each tent to pound the loosened stakes back into the ground. We also made a mass trip to the potty johns in the middle of the night--everyone gathered around the potty john while someone went--to make sure it didn't blow over while we were in them! Good thing too, because by morning many potty johns at our camp lay on their sides!

We never had to run to the Coliseum during the frightful night, but our Command Center told us the next morning they had clocked winds of 71 m.p.h.---and our tents were rated for only 30 m.p.h.--yet none had collapsed but the empty recreation tent.

I'll never forget serving after Katrina, but Rita holds a totally different spot in my memory. In all my life I've never felt such a clear calling and unbelievable open doors to go serve as I did when Katrina hit. I had no idea I'd live through a hurricane when I left my husband and children at home. When we answer God's call, and we are sure we are on His path, all is well with our souls. It was nothing short of God's hand at work.

So, dear writer friends, when you set out on a path to publish your books, know that God might call you to be an "edge walker" and walk a path that is stormy.

But if you know it's Him who calls you, then walk on.

(and yes, I'm Mennonite--nope, no bonnet!)

What storms of life challenge you? 
Let us pray for all involved with Hurricane Irene.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Confessions of an Unpubbed, Unagented Writer

How serious are you about getting your work published? And what are you doing to get there?

I've been writing fiction for twelve years, but I never told anyone until I'd finally completed my first manuscript--and that was at the ten year mark. Once you tell someone you've written a book, the word is out--you've made your first confession. When the word is out, you've committed it to your reality--so, what else can you commit yourself to? I can't speak for your journey, but I'll share what I've learned so far about mine.

Always pray.

I listen for that still small voice to stir in my spirit, recognizing the voice of my Shepherd, until I know what I need to write. Of coarse it's never perfect the first go around, but I just take a step and start typing. It takes FAITH to sit at the computer and let the words flow to the page.

Set goals.

My first goal was to complete my first manuscript in my fortieth year and not see forty-one before it was finished. This is a true confession--now you roughly know my age. Once completed, I could take my writing more seriously. My first draft was handwritten on paper, and my first experience with editing was to type it into a Word document. Next, I began to search the web for information to learn how one goes about publishing a book. All I could see in my mind's eye was John Boy from the Walton's with that lightbulb hanging above his head, remembering how publishing happened in the old days. Thank goodness for the internet! I searched the web until I found a small affordable Christian writers conference close to home and wrote the check. I printed off my entire 120,000 word manuscript and packed it in my bag with trembling. I signed up for a one on one ten minute review with Doc Hensley and wondered how ridiculous I was for doing so. It takes FAITH to step out of your comfort zone.

Conferences are vital for networking.

I learned more in two days than I had in the prior ten years, and more in value than I could glean from surfing the internet. When you attend your first conference, be prepared to feel intimidated at first. But I was delighted to find so many other so-called introverts who loved to talk about writing! It's one thing to meet the person beside you in a lecture, but do not waste the opportunity to meet The Big Guys (and Gals)--sign up for critiques, meet agents, editors, mentors, get business cards, emails, blog site names. In a new setting I like to scope things out from a safe distance, but God had other plans--I found the only seat left for me at the evening dinner was between the two speakers--Doc Hensely and Chip MacGregor. It turned out to be a great opportunity I would have missed left to my own inclinations. Never underestimate who God puts beside you--step out in FAITH and hold out your hand.

Critiques are hard to take at first.

At this small conference I learned about the importance of membership in American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and wrote the check for the state and national groups. This opened an invaluable connection with a host of writers, editors, and agents who are willing to help mentor new writers. I joined a critique group and started sending off my chapters for review. I learned about "track changes"--a way to make comments on the work you are critiquing. But more importantly, I learned that having your "baby" critiqued is a bit painful, but necessary. On the advice of Chip MacGregor I sent my work to My Book Therapy by Susan May Warren for a paid critique. I learned that chopping off the first five chapters of backstory was not only necessary, but made my story much better. I learned about "hook" and how to pull the reader into your storyworld. Taking the advice of the experts takes FAITH that they are telling you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

Carving out space to write.

Chip MacGregor calls this BIC time--butt in chair. You must find a space and time to actually do the work. I cleaned out an old closet that had a window because it had actually been built as a nursery next to our bedroom. We closed off an unnecessary door, and put in shelving and organizers. I shopped for a tiny desk and put it together along with an office chair my son assembled for my new itty-bitty office space. Then I saved for a laptop--one of the most valued tools I've purchased by far. My Book Therapy had given me the diagnosis--I needed to rewrite the ENTIRE book, a complete overhaul. Starting over takes FAITH that what you want to convey to the reader is worth the effort. So I set my goal--one year to rewrite, and I'd also signed up for my first national ACFW conference in Denver.

The publishing world can be both crushing and exhilarating.

If two hundred people at my first conference intimidated me, I was blown away by the nearly five hundred people at the Denver ACFW, the six hundred the following year in Indianapolis. Doubts start to creep in when you are seated by successful published authors you've read, but never before put a human face to their work or their journey to get published. Be sure to take in as much as you can, but take time to be in your quiet space with God. USE the prayer room and attend the Harp and Bowl worship. I met people in person that I'd only previously connected to on the ACFW email loop. I learned how to make a one page and pitch it to an agent and an editor despite my inner quaking and shaking. I had an opportunity to meet with Tracie Peterson to ask her questions about my WIP (work in progress). Don't let self doubt eat all that God is doing by your FAITH in Him. Words are powerful, and Satan knows how to persuade you not to use them. Keep stepping out in FAITH.

Relationships come in time and with patience.

I utilized the group critique set up by ACFW, but working full time I've found I cannot put in the time to critique two others for every one critique I get back. So, I started praying for critique partners that I clicked with and could exchange one for one. One night I was stumped with some plot brainstorming and saw that Jaime Wright Sundsmo was online on Facebook. I struck up an instant message conversation about plotting and before you know it, the ideas were flowing back and forth. We connected regularly and met up at ACFW Indianapolis and did a lot more brainstorming over coffee and with lots of giggles and joy that we'd found someone each of us clicked with. I met with others at Indy who've helped me with my laptop documents, how to write a proposal letter and more. I keep praying for more personal connections and keep holding FAITH that God will connect me with who He wants for me.

Future goals--finding the balance.

I'm wondering if I can manage this "platform" that I will need if I'm published. I work full time and don't plan on quitting my day job anytime soon, even if my writing is successful. Now, I'm praying that if God wants my work published, it will happen. I'm praying I will be able to balance my faith, family, work, and the time it takes to blog, network socially, and travel when needed. Today, I'm working on learning more about blogging. I learned you can download free blog page designs quite easily. It's fun, but I'm not working on a deadline. I have FAITH that God will help me find the balance between the fun and the work of writing.

God bless your journey as He's blessed mine. The wonderful thing is, if I never get published, I will still have gained so much from the journey!