Oh, to be cloned, times two

Synod 2018The week of June 11 was one of those times when I wished I could be cloned so I could be in two places at the same time. Actually, it would have been nice to be in four places at the same time.

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) held their major, annual ecclesiastical meetings concurrently on the campus of Wheaton College, near Chicago, from June 11-15, 2018. As a regular contributor for Christian Renewal, I’d been anticipating and planning to attend this event for several years.

But having recently reported on concurrent regional meetings of a URCNA classis and an OPC presbytery, I knew how difficult it was to go from meeting to meeting and catch the most important discussions. Thus my desire to be clones.OPC

It addition to that, the annual Write-to-Publish conference was held from June 13-16 at–you guessed it–Wheaton College. Three members of my local writing group attended it, two of whom I’ve gone with in the past, but I couldn’t register. There was just no way I could immerse myself in the WTP networking and learning experience at the Billy Graham Center, while trying to stay on top of ecclesiastical action up the hill in the Edman Chapel and Coray Alumni Gymnasium. Therefore my desire to be in three places.

But there’s more, I’m working on a writing project with Leland Ryken, prolific author and long-time professor in Wheaton’s English department. Being in Wheaton gave me opportunities to discuss the project face-to-face with him, which is infinitely superior to email. Hence, my desire to be in four places at the same time.

Despite not being cloned two times, I had an amazing week bursting with blessings. I heard important discussions in both ecclesiastical meetings and greeted many pastor friends I hadn’t seen for years or had never met in person. I also touched base with my editor, John Van Dyk, whom I’ve seen only a handful of times.

Smiths
Diane and Pete Smith, organizers extraordinaire

While I didn’t participate in the Write-to-Publish experience, I ate lunch with writing friends three times. Over one noon break, the Three Amigos visited my favorite place on Wheaton’s campus, the Marion E. Wade Center, which houses fascinating memorabilia and books written by seven British authors: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Most of these would make my list of favorite authors.

Leland and I talked through several issues at this important stage of our project, and I enjoyed wonderful conversations with his wife, Mary, as well. I enjoyed fellowship with many other women, especially when I had the privilege of leading devotions for the Ladies Afternoon Tea on Tuesday in the Todd M. Beamer Student Center.

And I signed a lot of copies of my nine published books. As usual when I sign Little One Lost, God provided meaningful interactions when dear women shared their stories of loss. I’m both honored and humbled by these moments, which make me feel as if I briefly function as the ears and arms of Jesus.

Who needs to be cloned?sign

 

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HOPE in 2018

DSCN6035One of the best things about Facebook is reconnecting with old friends, and I recently had an interesting exchange with a few far-flung friends from my school days.

We talked about the word God is leading us to choose for 2018. We may all view this word a little differently, but essentially it captures an attitude or quality we want to try to develop or focus on more during the coming year.

I’ve done this for the last couple of years, and I’ve been amazed at how much God reveals to me about that word during the course of the year. During 2016, God impressed upon me over and over the abundance of JOY in him and his word. Because I was alert for joy, I discovered it more in Scripture, in books I read, in other people, in creation, in myself, and especially in God. I’m convinced we can’t begin to comprehend the incredible fullness of God’s joy.

As I prayed and considered a word for 2017, I began thinking about PEACE. Frankly, I didn’t really want that word and was a little concerned about it. Why would I need peace? What might happen during 2017? Choosing the word generated a gnawing anxiety. Even my vivid imagination never created a scenario in which I would lose my sister, my mother, and my father within the year. But that’s what happened.

My sister’s health deteriorated quickly and she was placed in hospice care. We siblings kept vigil at her bedside for five days, and she went home to Jesus on January 12. Less than a month later, while we were still reeling from that loss, we learned that my mom’s cancer had returned with a vengeance. Her only option was hospice care. After eight extremely difficult weeks, the Lord took her home on April 10. The grief of losing our mother less than three months after our sister weighed heavily on us, but Dad’s loneliness, after 68 years with his beautiful bride, nearly crushed him.

His struggle with memory difficulties had made him heavily dependent upon her, and we doubted he could remain in his independent living apartment. Surprisingly, he lived there successfully (although not without a few concerning issues) for six months.

He had survived polio as a baby, but it may have affected his balance later in life. Falls or near falls brought him to the emergency room too often in too short a period during October. He spent ten days in nursing care, while we worked with his doctor and others to determine the proper placement for him.

In God’s providence, we were able to move him into an assisted living apartment in the same building. It even had a window overlooking the parking lot—his most crucial requirement! He adjusted amazingly well.

On Christmas Day, my husband and I planned to pick him up and bring him to our house for lunch. When we arrived, he was experiencing a great deal of pain. I called 911. We spent the rest of the day in the ER and hospital. That evening we learned that his abdominal aortic aneurysm, which we’d known for some years could kill him instantly, was enlarged and bleeding into his abdominal cavity. He could survive for a few weeks or it could be a matter of hours. He initially was doing so well, we thought we might have him with us for a month or more.

Two days later, he entered the Comfort House. He was alert, able to talk and sit in the chair. During his first night there, his condition worsened and he became unresponsive. On the last day of the year, a Sunday morning, he went home to be with his Lord.

In God’s gracious providence, I’d lived over six decades without a significant loss. In his bitter providence, he took three members of my original family home to heaven within one year. I definitely needed PEACE in 2017.

For several weeks, I’ve felt compelled to focus on HOPE during 2018. In the recent Facebook conversation, one of my school friends encouraged me to go with HOPE. She expressed her hopes for me “to start sleeping better” and for a year “with less grief and many healing memories….of great book sales and many inspired words written down” as well as “spontaneous laughter” and so on. May it be so. That is my HOPE.

Exoneree available!

book in handMy collaborative memoir with Uriah Courtney about his wrongful conviction, incarceration, and subsequent exoneration is now available. Such a thrill to finally hold the physical copy of the book in my hand this week!

What if America’s judicial system, designed to protect the innocent, convicts the wrong man and sends him to prison? Uriah Courtney was incarcerated over eight years–for a crime he did not commit. But God set him free–spiritually and physically–to a new life inside his heart and outside razor wire.

Exoneree relates how badly the judicial system can go wrong, but how intensely a dedicated few seek justice. It depicts God’s protection amid the horrors of incarceration. And while it shows dark depravity, it shines with divine transformation.

A sensitive man who loved the outdoors and his family, Uriah viewed life imprisonment as a death sentence. Yet God worked through this trauma to bring him new life. Uriah’s transparent narrative transcends most jailhouse conversion accounts, as he confesses how becoming a Christian helped him cope in some ways but didn’t solve every problem.

Uriah-GlendaEven after his release and exoneration through God’s providence and the efforts of the California Innocence Project, Uriah faced unexpected challenges. In his warm and personable voice, Uriah describes how focusing on Christ helps him to continue overcoming the bitterness and anger often associated with trauma.

And that’s a story everyone needs to read.

Exoneree can be purchased directly from the publisher, Wipf and Stock, on their website. Amazon offers paperback and Kindle versions.

 

 

 

Pulitzer Prize Good News

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded last Thursday to Kazuo Ishiguro, which is good news. Ishiguro writes literary novels that defy genre boundaries and garner popular appeal.

Here’s the New York Times online story about the award. And here’s a Times 2015 interview with Ishiguro that explores his reading opinions and related reflections. A former editor, Robert McCrum, muses about his friendship with Ishiguro in this piece. And James Wood, of the New Yorker, gives his take here.

If you want to dip into the award-winning literature of Kazuo Ishiguro, be prepared for the unexpected. You may want to start with The Remains of the Day, his portrayal of a dignified butler on an introspective journey at the fading of his days.

November

winterIt’s November, the between month. Between leaves tumbling in sun-warmed colors and snowflakes feathering from a slate sky. Between roaring combines churning dust clouds and dazzling white blanketing latent fields. November. Cold, gray.

I was born in a dreary November more than 80 years ago. In the same old farmhouse that cradles my weary bones and bleary memories. I am cold and gray. I am November.

Shrieks pierce my mind. My heart thumps in my throat as the ambulance careens around the corner and lurches into our pasture.

My eyes flutter open and focus on the book in my lap. The sound is only the phone. And like the old fool I am, I’ve left it in the kitchen again.

I grasp the sides of my walker and hoist myself out of the recliner. It will probably stop ringing by the time I get there. “Don’t you dare do that to this old lady.”

My slippers shuffle across the linoleum to the table, where I’d left the cordless phone after Charlie called during breakfast. I pick it up and press talk. “Hello?”

“Maggie, that you?”

“You were expecting Marilyn Monroe?”

Elizabeth chortles, and I wait for her snort, but she cuts it short. “You okay?”

“Of course, I’m okay. I’m standing here talking to you, aren’t I?”

“You weren’t in church yesterday, so I just wondered.”

“You and half the county.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, honey.” She chuckles.

I ease into a chair. “Well, maybe only Charlie.”

“Checking up on the old lady?”

“Just like you.”

“You mean I’m an old lady too, or I’m checking up on you like Charlie?”

“Both.” I grin, even though she can’t see it. “When are you coming over for Scrabble?”

“You up to it this afternoon?”

“Sure, I’m always ready to trounce you.”

“Ha!” She laughs like a crowing rooster. “Look up last time’s score.”

“Can’t. I threw that paper away.”

Now her laugh ends in the familiar little snort. “See you at two.”

“Wear your asbestos pants.”

She doesn’t reply because she’s already hung up.

I guide my walker to the desk and replace the phone in its charger. No sense letting the battery go down before something happens and I really need it.

The ambulance vision flashes in my mind, and I take a deep breath, dancing around the other images vying to be seen. I stretch out both hands in front of me and focus on the gnarled knuckles. The indented finger around my wedding band.

When William slipped on the ring, he looked into my eyes and the corners of his lips rose in that slow smile. If not for his smile, I wouldn’t be here today. In the decrepit old house where I spent most of my life, except for those college years in Iowa City. My brother, Charles, worked beside Dad every day and was obviously cut out to be a farmer, but that wasn’t the life for me. I was going to be a teacher, move out east or maybe to the west coast. Anywhere far from hogs and corn.

Then during Christmas break of my junior year, William Briggs from down the road came calling. And his slow smile stole my heart. His brother wanted to take over their family farm, which was fine by him because he planned to become a doctor. I easily envisioned myself as a doctor’s wife. I could teach while he was in medical school.

But by the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma and teaching certificate, things had changed. Charles had been killed in action in Korea. Dad came in from scooping a heavy spring snow out of a feed lot, laid down to rest, and never woke.

Neighbors rallied to put in the crops and do the chores, but my mother didn’t have a head for business and needed someone with brains—someone like William. We moved up our wedding, and then we moved in with Mom.

I shake my head in a vain effort to dispel those memories. Adjusting to married life and the first year of teaching had been difficult enough, but complicating things by living with my mother while William learned to farm the place had been insane.

I take a deep breath. What I needed was some exercise. On the enclosed porch, I slip on my hooded sweatshirt and zip it up. I wrestle the walker through the door, and the cold air startles my lungs.

The walker slides along the smooth path into the pasture. A wisp of morning mist rises from the pond in the hollow like an unsettled spirit. I bow my head. The moment stretches into minutes. Then I turn away.

I stand and survey the land, feeling like a tiny figure frozen in a Grant Woods landscape. Acres of corn stubble spread like dunes of raked sand. Bean fields that lay covered with gold and russet velour blankets only a few weeks ago, now rest like shaved gray heads.

Clouds scud above, and a gust of wind invades my jacket. Time to turn around.

As I near the house, the LP truck rumbles down the road and pulls into my driveway. A man hops out, gives an energetic wave, and dashes around the back of his truck. By the time I’m within talking distance, he’s already fastened the hose onto the nozzle and another five hundred dollars flows into the tank.

The driver is Harold and Lucile Stanhope’s boy. He grins. “Should you be walking clear out there by yourself, Mrs. Briggs?”

“You offering to come walk with me every day?” Why can’t I remember this guy’s name? He was in Margaret’s class.

He laughs. “I wish.” He makes a note on his clipboard so the Co-op doesn’t neglect to send me the bill. “Nothing I’d like better than to walk with you on a fine day like this.”

I raise my eyebrows. “What’s so fine about it?”

“It’s not raining, and it’s not snowing. Yet.” He checks the tank’s gauge. “The roads are clear and dry.” He looks at me and grins again. “Yep. It’s a fine day.”

His name still eludes me, but I remember he has a daughter getting married soon.

“How are the wedding plans going?”

“Oh, the planning’s done. Jennifer got married in October.” He patted the pulsing hose. “Now I just have to work my tail off to pay for the blessed event.”

My legs and arms are turning to jelly, so I head for the back door. “Well, best wishes to the happy couple.”

“Thanks.” He waves.

“See you later.” I maneuver through the door, and he has the good sense not to offer to help me. Why can’t I remember his name?

My hood hung up, I push into the kitchen. What’s for lunch? The daily question. The refrigerator contains some wilted lettuce in a baggie, a few cheese sticks, and Rubbermaid containers I don’t want to open for fear of what might be growing in them.

Soup’s always good. I open a can of chunky chicken and dump it into a pan.

The phone blares, and my heart leaps. But it’s probably only Margaret.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mom.” It is Margaret. “How’re you doing today?”

“Fine. You?”

“Fine, too.”

My daughter and I have scintillating conversations.

I decide to ratchet it up. “What’s on your agenda for the afternoon?”

“Paperwork. Then leading bingo in the activity room at 3:00. Want to come into town for it?”

“No, thanks. Elizabeth is coming over for Scrabble this afternoon.”

“Oh, good deal. Keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay.”

“We can only hope.”

She laughs. “Mom, I work with elderly people all day, every day, and you’re the sharpest pencil in the box.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Glad I’m sharp enough to write, since I can’t dance anymore.”

“Who are you kidding? You never could dance.”

I chuckle. “You got that right.”

“Have you had lunch yet?”

She’d moved into hovering daughter mode. And her question reminds me of the soup on the stove. “I’m heating some soup, which looks like it’s boiling. I’d better take care of it.”

“Don’t forget to turn the burner off.”

Definitely hovering. “I won’t.”

As soon as I hang up, I shut off the burner and put the pan on a cold one. I check again to make sure the knob is turned to off. One time the oven was on all night. I shudder to think what that did to the REC bill.

I eat from the pan to save dishes and dump the extra in a container, which joins the others in the fridge. I slide my walker into the living room and sink into the recliner. As I reach for the open book lying on the table, my fingers brush Emily’s picture.

The book feels heavy as I pick it up, but I hang onto it like a lifeline. I smooth the page and stare at the words, which blur. My mind wanders shadowy paths.

A baby’s face smiles at me, drool dripping from her lips. She giggles and grows into a leggy teen, bouncing on Blackie’s back as he bursts from the barn and pelts toward the pasture. I run outside, yelling for him to stop. But Emily tugs the reins and spins him around, laughing. “It’s okay, Mom. I have everything under control.”

Only she didn’t. She couldn’t control the demons in her mind. The demons that drove her to tie a gunny sack full of heavy rocks to her waist and wade into the pond. She tied knots well, and her body stayed submerged until Charlie glimpsed her red shirt shimmering beneath the surface. By the time William and Charlie dragged her out, it was already too late. William cleared her airway and performed CPR during all the years before the ambulance screamed down the road. He kept at it, until the EMT pulled him away and told us she was gone.

So many gone before me! Charles, Dad, and Mom. My precious Emily. Two little grandbabies who never saw the light of day. And William. That dear man with his slow smile and his warm heart.

He would have been a wonderful doctor. He loved people. But he loved the land too, and he was a great farmer. He taught me to see beauty not only in breathtaking sunsets, but also in the deep sheen of corn leaves. The myriad hues of green in the trees and grasses covering the rolling hills.

And I taught. Other people’s children off and on, but mostly my own. Teaching Emily to sound out words as she cuddled on my lap. Teaching Charlie to count apples and subtract the ones we peeled. Teaching Margaret to form letters on the blank backs of desk calendar sheets. Good times. Special moments with my children who had grown up so fast. Now their children were adults, some married with kids of their own.

“Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?”

Elizabeth waltzes through the kitchen and into the living room as if she owns the place. “Oh, sorry. Did I wake you?”

“No.” I blink. “Well, maybe I dozed off for a minute. What time is it?”

“It’s 2:00 on the nose, honey.” She gets the Scrabble game out of the hall closet and brings it to the kitchen table. “I said I’d be here at two, and I am.”

My body seems heavy as I struggle to stand. “Sorry I’m not ready. I haven’t even made coffee.”

“I’m not drinking coffee lately anyway.” She opens the board. “It bothers my gallbladder.”

I ease myself onto a chair. “You ought to have that thing yanked.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Easy for you to say. I don’t want to have surgery if I can avoid it.” She shakes the bag of tiles and holds it out to me. “Go ahead and take one. Let’s see who starts.”

I examine my tile and smile. An A.

She glances at hers. “Aha! I got a C.”

I show her my tile. “Looks like I make the first move.”

“Oh, shoot.”

As I place my seven tiles on the rack, I keep smiling. This game is off to a great start.

Elizabeth loses gracefully as always and puts away the game. She goes to her car and brings back a small casserole in a disposable pan that she puts in the oven on timed bake.

She pauses on her way out. “Now, remember. Supper will be ready at 6:00.”

“I know.” You’d think I hadn’t just beaten her pants off.

Her car shoots down the road, leaving a comet trail of gravel dust. The sun has dropped behind the barn and casts long shadows.

I slip on my sweatshirt and head outside. The morning’s gray sky has broken into white clouds that sail across intense blue. The humidity must be low for once.

I pause by the pond. No mist rises now, and I allow the images to wash over me.

Emily’s pale face surrounded by her darkened hair, streaming dank water onto my shirt and pants as I cradle her head in my lap. William bending over her face, pressing his mouth to hers. Charlie pressing her chest with his crossed hands. Water bubbles between her parted lips like suffocating baby drool. I will her to gasp. I beg God to make her breathe again. But she doesn’t.

I lean on my walker and look at the hills. That’s where my help comes from.

Bent and broken corn stalks gleam in the light of the low sun. Tall grass stems glow like bronze reeds. It’s a fine day for a walk on the farm. Especially for November.

Time for this old lady to go home.

The above short story by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-9 of the December 14, 2017, issue of Christian Renewal.

Renewed Strength

This morning, two of my favorite Scripture texts became real to me as never before. You probably love these passages as well. The first is Isaiah 40:28–31.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

The second similar text is Psalm 103:1–5.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 
All my adult life, I’ve considered these as beautiful, meaningful, and true verses. But they hadn’t come to expression in my life. I knew God did all these things in the figurative sense, even in the literal sense for some people. I saw God blessing me in many of these ways over and over; however, I felt older and weaker as I aged.

Yesterday was particularly brutal for some reason. Perhaps recent grief sapped my physical strength. Maybe my adrenaline reserves had been depleted. I suspect I’m fighting off a cold. Whatever the reasons, my physical strength seemed at an especially low ebb. Immediately after dinner, I fell asleep in my recliner. I woke and spent a brief time on the computer, before stumbling to bed at 10:00.

cloudy-skiesAnd I felt just as exhausted when I woke this morning. Although I’d slept fairly well, I was still tired. I crafted some correspondence and did a little online research that initially seemed a waste of precious time. Then I did my devotions.

I’m reading The One Year Chronological Bible, published by Tyndale, and I finished Job this morning. I absolutely love that book of the Bible! I love God’s direct speech to a mere mortal: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7). I love God’s vivid imagery and relentless litany describing His power and sovereignty.

We’re all a bit like Job at times. When we suffer with no apparent cause, a niggling part of our sinful nature would like to give God a piece of our mind. Certainly, we’re tempted to ask, “Why?” But as someone once suggested to my husband and me, better questions to ask God might be, “What do You want to teach me through this?” and “How do You want me to serve You in this?”

As I spent time communing with God after my Bible reading, I realized how my earlier correspondence and online research had piqued my literary interests and fueled my flagging creativity.

The more I thought and prayed, the more I became aware of God’s blessings in my life and His awesome power. Is anything too hard for the God who laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions, who stretched a measuring line across it and laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4–7)?

My spirit was refreshed and my strength renewed. I felt as eager to tackle my work as a war horse spoiling for battle (Job 39:19–25). I’m rising on eagle wings.

Puritan project

reformation_heroes_front__33203__81433-1294352909-1280-1280Since last March, I’ve been writing biographical sketches about Puritans. These will appear in Puritan Heroes, which I’m writing with Dr. Joel Beeke for Reformation Heritage Books. Puritan Heroes will be formatted similarly to RHB’s popular Reformation HeroesMarketed for all ages, it will be written to appeal to twelve-year-old readers.

This is a big project that I was reluctant to take on. Puritans? What do I know about the Puritans? The required research seemed staggering. And weren’t the Puritans a bit boring? How in the world would I make biographical information about them interesting to adolescents?

But the Lord led me to believe this was something I should do, so I signed the contract. My life seemed busy before, but it has been intense since. And, like most people, I have family and other commitments that keep me from focusing exclusively on work.

As usual for a large project, I created a chart to schedule my writing. I’d have about three weeks per Puritan. Wow! That was tight. A little too tight for comfort, but I kept on schedule…until what we euphemistically call “the holidays.” That oxymoronic time of year when we feast and fellowship with family, giving thanks to God for all He’s given us and (a short time later) praising Him for the great gift of salvation through Immanuel, God with us. The last two months of one year and the beginning of the next are full of joy, but always seems to include unavoidable stress. This year, my schedule became unexpectedly complicated with another project and family matters.

I fell behind on the Puritans. Still, I’m more than halfway through the project with the first drafts for twelve of the twenty-two proposed subjects completed. I’ve focused on one at a time, and God has provided the information needed for each story.

Something surprising happened along the way. I fell in love with the Puritans. I felt an amazing affinity for each individual and rejoiced in their wholehearted faith. I had long known Anne Bradstreet as a fellow poet and kindred spirit, but many of these dead white men now live vibrantly in my mind as well.

41fser4qegl-_sy346_What joy to learn from John Howe about Delighting in God, to witness the marital love and fruitful ministry of Joseph and Theodosia Alleine, and to discover the “warm-hearted divinity” of Richard Sibbes (p. 128, Richard Sibbes, Early Stuart Preacher of Piety by Harold Patton Shelly).

Lord willing, Puritan Heroes will be close to being in your hands by this time next year. Meanwhile, I’m embracing the challenges and blessings of my Puritan journey.

The Delight and Truth of Fiction

flaming-mapleWilliam Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI, was recently appointed as the social media coordinator for Reformed Fellowship, publisher of the The Outlook. In his continuing task to help Reformed Fellowship build an online presence and engage meaningful internet discussion, he posted yesterday (October 20, 2016) a link to my article on Fiction’s Delight and Truth.

I wrote the article over a year ago, and it appeared in 2015’s November issue. At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate, I felt then and I still feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever written. In my defense, I submit what Leland Ryken (longtime professor of English at Wheaton College) wrote after I shared it with him:

Your essay is what I call a moon shot in my classes. It is absolutely perfect as a complete coverage of the material in a small compass. Congratulations on work well done. You did it better than I could have.

Considering Leland’s prolific writings on the subject and his astounding output as an author, I take this as the highest compliment. And I give all praise and glory to God, the I AM who writes all our stories as part of His great and never-ending story.

 

 

5 Basic formatting mistakes

DSCN5742When you’re submitting a manuscript to publishing professionals, you want to avoid written work that screams, “Amateur!”

While editors may be able to plow past glaring errors and see the potential of your epic story, why create roadblocks? You may think your manuscript looks fine, but someone in the industry can spot amateur mistakes at a glance.

Formatting is the foundation that supports the content of your submission. This reminds me of the birdbath my husband’s father made decades ago. Constructed of concrete, rocks, and a tire rim, it’s heavy. Far too weighty to sit directly on the dirt of my flower bed. It may look okay from one side, but a different angle clearly displays its actual tilt. It needs a solid foundation.

DSCN5743

In much the same way, your view of  your work may differ from the perspective of an industry professional. Before reading a word, an editor can spot basic formatting mistakes that identify the writer as an amateur. Give your work a solid foundation to avoid an initial off-kilter impression.

This post addresses five basic formatting errors to avoid: not double spacing, extra spacing, double spaces, emphasis formatting, and fancy fonts. Those first three sound spacey, don’t they? And a couple of them may sound like double speak, but they’re not. Trust me.

Not double spacing

Manuscripts ought to be double-spaced. It’s true that some kinds of work or parts of submissions may be single-spaced. For example, my magazine editor prefers that I single-space my article and paste it into the body of an email message. Also, a synopsis or query letter in a book proposal could be single-spaced. But the line spacing for all manuscripts should be formatted as double.

To do this in my version of Word, I go to Format on the main menu, pull down Paragraphs, and click on the Indents and Spacing tab. Then I chose Double under the Line spacing option. If you have another software or newer version of Word (which is very likely), you can do a quick online search to find directions or a tutorial.

As an aside, always check for a publisher’s guidelines and follow them. Why cause an editor to shake her head and think, “Didn’t this writer read our submission guidelines?”

Extra spacing (first line indent thrown in for FREE!)

While you’re formatting your document for double-spaced text, take a moment to check for extra spacing between paragraphs. You don’t want six, twelve, or more points of extra space either before or after each paragraph. In my version of Word, I can make this choice directly beside Line spacing. Find the Before and After boxes under Spacing and click on the up or down arrow until you reach zero. This will avoid unsightly extra spacing between paragraphs in your manuscript.

Before you leave that Indents and Spacing box, look under Indentation and choose a First Line indent of .5 inches. If you’re already back in the document, you can format this with the indentation indicators on the left side of the ruler. They look like two triangles touching each other above a tiny bar. Move only the top triangle to the right a half inch.

Many amateur writers indent the first line of each paragraph by hitting the tab button. This isn’t something a publishing professional will immediately see, unless they happen to highlight hidden markings. But should you be so fortunate to secure a contract, the copy editor will not appreciate having to reformat all those tabs. And don’t you want to be your copy editor’s friend?

Double spaces

This formatting issue may seem to contradict the first one I listed, but I’m now referring to spaces between sentences rather than spaces between lines. Given my age, I totally get this problem. I well recall my high school typing instructor’s command to insert two spaces after each period that ends a sentence. What surprises me is how often younger writers do this.

Here’s the deal: computers are smarter than typewriters. They automatically format the correct amount of space between sentences. When you press the space bar twice, you format a wide space that looks weird. Period. Space. Then type the next sentence.

If you’ve hit the space bar twice throughout an entire manuscript and now want to change all those extra-wide spaces between sentences, it’s an easy fix. Use the Edit menu to Find and Replace every instance of two spaces with one space. Bam! Done. Works slick.

Emphasis formatting

You want to emphasize a word or a phrase, so you underline it, right? Wrong. In these technology-driven days, underlining indicates a hyperlink. Don’t confuse your reader or frustrate an editor by underlining anything that isn’t a hyperlink.

Perhaps you should bold words you want to emphasis? No. While style guidelines vary, editors seem to frown on bold formatting. The best thing is to write in a way that clearly shows the emphasis. But if you simply must highlight a word or phrase, use italics.

Italics also are sometimes used for thoughts inserted into first-person or deep point-of-view narratives. But it’s a good idea to use italics sparingly.

And exclamation points? Almost every editor advocates avoiding them. Some go so far as to say (perhaps tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not totally sure) to use only one per manuscript! (I know, sometimes you simply HAVE to use one.) Oh, and that ALL CAPS thing? You know it conveys shouting and is considered rude, right?

If you can find style guidelines telling you how to use bold and italics for a particular publisher, go with them. Otherwise, use special formatting sparingly. Bottom line? Write for emphasis, don’t format for it.

Fancy fonts

Editors don’t like fancy fonts. Unusual fonts make text difficult to read and distract from the content. You don’t want to distract an editor from your scintillating story, do you? Stick with tried and true fonts like Times New Roman (still the most frequent one I see listed on guidelines) or Arial.

I’ll admit I sometimes use Verdana or Tahoma or Trebuchet, depending on the editor or organization. If you’re self-publishing a book, you’ll want to use something other than the old standbys. You should do some research to see what fonts are recommended for the type of book you’re publishing and what fonts to avoid. For most submissions, however, I recommend sticking with plain Jane fonts.

Again, if you’re submitting something to a specific magazine or publisher, check the website for guidelines. Then follow them to the letter. Why risk annoying an editor because you didn’t take time to read and follow published guidelines?

To recap, these are five glaring formatting errors:

  1. Not double-spacing between lines
  2. Extra spacing between paragraphs
  3. Double spaces between sentences
  4. Formatting for emphasis
  5. Fancy fonts

An editor may look past these formatting mistakes and actually read the submission before judging the writer’s ability. But why detract from your writing with poor formatting? Why not lay a level foundation to support your stellar writing?

jack
Kids (and adults), don’t try this at home!

This year, I’ve been working in my flower bed. I placed a stone foundation under that heavy birdbath. The picture of the process gives you a glimpse of the difficulty involved. Although I tried to do it myself, I had to accept assistance in order to accomplish my goal.

Laying a basic formatting foundation isn’t nearly as difficult as placing the birdbath on a stone. But I hope this post will help you avoid appearing inexperienced. Taking time to format your work according to industry standards will help your manuscript croon, “Professional.”

Looking for whip-poor-wills

whippoorwill
Image found on Illinois Raptor Center website.

Have you ever heard the whip-poor-will cry down the twilight? Years since I’ve heard the haunting chant, it still echoes in my mind. A chance glance recently reverberated melody and memories.

As a subscriber to Iowa Outdoors magazine, I receive its lovely DNR calendar each year. Each month features a gorgeous picture showcasing Iowa’s natural beauty. The dates are sprinkled with fascinating facts and timely reminders. May 2 tells us: 1890 Large meteorite strikes 11 miles northwest of Forest City, and Walleye season opens on Iowa’s Great Lakes.

A May 24 notation made my body pause and my mind reel backward: Look for return of whip-poor-wills.

Five years after my husband and I were married, we built our house on a wooded acreage. We would live in the basement and finish the hollow frame bit by bit. Soon after we moved, we discovered one of our location’s treasures: whip-poor-wills nested in the shrubbery along the fence line about fifty feet from our front porch. On summer evenings, we sat on the cement block serving as a temporary step and listened to the onomatopoetic call. (You can hear it at this link.) But we never saw the elusive and well-camouflaged nocturnal bird.

What a thrill to hear that rare call! And what piercing memories my mind associates with it. Little boys leaping to catch fireflies. A young husband’s strong arm cradling my shoulders. Stars sharpening in a darkening sky. Cool air. Warm hearts.

But one year the whip-poor-will was silent. The new neighbors on the other side of the fence had dogs. Whip-poor-wills don’t build nests, laying their eggs directly on the ground. We never again heard the whip-poor-will sing.

Some years ago, I wrote this poem, dedicated to my husband:

Vespers

 

When you and I

were in our prime,

we sat on the cool concrete step

with bare feet in dark grass

as dusk deepened.

 

Boys who had leaped

to snare random spurts of pale light—

squished into glowing rings on fingers—

quieted in beds.

 

Above our heads,

the Milky Way materialized

in a pointillistic arc

of bright blessing;

while the whippoorwill

sang vespers.

 

© Glenda Mathes, 2006; revised 2010

Standing and staring at the calendar created a melancholy feeling. If only I could look for whip-poor-wills with any expectation of seeing them return!

Thoughts and memories tumbled in my mind for a few days, until I wrote a new poem:

Look for return of whip-poor-wills

 

The tiny notation

On the calendar

Prepared by the conservation department

Puckers time as keenly as a pleat

Pressed by my mother’s hot iron

A quick stitch

Skips from childhood cotton

Past bridal satin

To parenting denim

 

And we two sit

On the front stoop

In evening’s cool

As the whip-poor-will

Sings its onomatopoetic song

Low tones bracketing

Rising trill

 

The melancholy notes soar

From earthy berth

Through honeysuckle blossoms

Past quivering cottonwood leaves

To echo in the deep blue

That turns black as a bruise

While the lonesome chords

Encircle my heart

And constrict

 

As I stare at the calendar

Alone

Waiting for whip-poor-wills

 

© Glenda Faye Mathes, May 2016

The poem’s persona is imaginary, but grows more real to me as I age. The whip-poor-will echoes in my mind may haunt me, but whatever losses in my life, I wait for a return far more significant. I look for the return of the King of whip-poor-wills and every other created being.