Category Archives: writing
Last night I finished a book I enjoyed despite long pages of tedium and an abundance of flashbacks. Halfway through, with numerous other books waiting on my Kindle, I asked myself why I kept reading. I skimmed over large sections, sometimes whole pages, (all totaled, maybe half the book) and yet, continued to the end. Rare for me, as I don’t have the patience to waste time on mediocre novels.
The reason I kept reading despite the my page-skimming? The author planted a driving question I needed resolved.
I was pretty certain I knew the answer. I’ve read enough predictable novels to expect predictability, but I was pleasurably surprised. In the end, the novelist not only answered my question, but in a way I’d never suspected.
As you work on your novels, remember to plant questions in your readers’ minds. More importantly, make sure all those questions—those unknowns anchored at the end of scenes and chapters—point to a larger question, a driving question. It may make the difference between a sludge-pile novel and a best seller.
As a side note, if a reader can skim over anything and still catch the story, delete. It’ll save a tree. 🙂
Today wasn’t one of my best writing days. Although I hit my word count goal, I didn’t stagger away from my computer until near three. Since I normally start novel work by 7:30, that made for a long day. One with editing and publicity work still waiting to be conquered. In light of my rather murky muse, it’s no wonder I considered a major gear shift. In fact, as I puttered around the house, sweeping away the mountainous cobwebs that had gathered on more creative days, I plotted and planned another book entirely. And even convinced myself I needed to set my novel aside–the one I’m 45,000 words into and planned to have completed by the end of January–to start on a fresh book. Ah, a blank notebook, a blank screen, with ideas popcorn kernelling through my head.
Good thing I’m a praying woman. Hesitant to veer too far off my schedule without clear confirmation, I spent the afternoon in prayer. And nope, I never did get the novel-chucking, muse-chasing confirmation. So tomorrow, I’ll plunk back in my office chair, poise my fingers over my keyboard, squeezing out another 2,500 words (I upped my daily word count goal this year), whether they fly or crawl. Because sometimes we need to persevere and not everything comes easy, even when God’s behind us. (Like my old track coach, I believe occasionally He makes us sweat, not because he’s mean, but because He loves us and wants to help us be our best.)
Tonight as I sat and evaluated my behaviors, I realized how easy it is to chase one idea after another. After all, a novel sounds so exciting when its first birthed. Not so much when you’re halfway through, staring at a stack of notecards wondering if you’ll ever make it to *the end*. But if we keep sifting through ideas, we’ll end up with a lot of starts that sort of fizzle out. With anything, but especially with writing, there are times you’ve got to muddle through. Those great ideas can wait. Jot them down. Chew on them. Pray about them, then when you finish the project you’re on, go back to them. They’ll still be there, only now you’ll have a finished book behind you, giving you the confidence to push through when your muse decides to take another nap.
I challenge you to make that a goal this year—to finish what you start. It doesn’t matter if it stinks. You can always rewrite it, or delete it. Shred it? Feed it to your puppy? Douse it in lighter fluid and have a winter bonfire? And your time won’t be wasted. No time spent writing ever is. You’ll have learned a little more while developing perseverance—grit, and you’ll have gained confidence.
As an editor-for-hire working under Tiffany Colter, I see a lot of writing—good writing, beginning writing, and all stages in between. I’ve learned, most often, strong books and stories are but a few tweaks away. Today I’ll offer a few freebies—some snippets I share with paying clients—on how to take your writing from good to great.
1. Give your reader credit.
As writers, we want to make sure our reader understands what we’re trying to say, catches the foreshadowing, correctly reads the intended emotion, so we slam them with an abundance of colorless words. Then we repeat the idea again. And again. And again. There’s nothing worse than reading something numerous times, even if it’s presented in a new way. Give your readers credit and expect them to pick up on your message the first time. Most of them will catch the frown, the shift, the narrowed eyes, the chill breeze, and will feel quite proud at having done so.
For non-fiction, keep similar ideas lumped together and present them in a concise and clear manner. After each chapter, ask yourself: “What information or idea does this paragraph provide and have I already presented that in a previous chapter or section? If so, delete. (Starting with an outline is imperative!) When writing chapter summaries, remember you’ve already sufficiently expanded on the idea. Now’s not the time to rephrase everything, but instead, to breifly recap key points.
2. Be original.
This applies to big-picture content as well as words and phrases. Avoid clichés and find unique ways to phrase things instead. I’ve read about enough stomach flutters and racing pulses to give me a migraine. The occasional stomach upset is okay, but skilled writers go beyond the common descriptions, perusing psychological sites and body language books to find other equally telling, less clichéd physiological responses.
Speaking of originality, take the time to add unexpected twists to your books or novels. Scan your local newspaper, stalk your neighbors—whatever you need to do to move out of the Sunday School classroom into an area not yet explored. And keep me guessing. If I know what you’re going to say or how the conflict will resolve before I finish the book, why do I need to finish it? This can be difficult for novel writers. When crafting a novel, the writer needs to move the story toward an emotionally satisfying ending. But you still need to keep the reader guessing. As your hero and heroine move toward happily-ever-after, throw a few obstacles in their way. Create a reader expectation, then flip things. Give them a reason to turn that next page…otherwise they won’t.
3. Address a felt need.
This is true for novel and non-fiction writing. If you want people to talk about your books, articles, and blog posts (i.e., if you want to generate a book-selling buzz), you need to hit readers where it counts—at their heart. What do people long for and how can you bring that into your writing? For fiction, it’s often best to have one of your main characters struggle with that need. For example, your hero could be nearing a mid-life crisis. What does he need? Purpose? A dream to believe in? Something to live for? Or perhaps your heroine is lonely, or lugging around baggage and longing for freedom.
But again, don’t slam your reader over the head with this. “Jane longed for freedom from the emotional scars plaguing her….” Gag! Instead, weave hints throughout your novel, perhaps a glance toward a fun-loving couple, a tear after reading an emotive poem, a sifting through old mementoes. And remember, you’ve got an entire novel to introduce your characters to your readers. By itself, each clue may seem insignificant, but over the course of a story, they paint a vivid picture. Be creative and contemplative, asking yourself what events, scenes, or objects can convey whatever emotion or need you’re trying to express.
For non-fiction writing, there are two ways to address a felt need. You can either tell your story, including your struggles and lessons learned along the way, or you can create a point-by-point informative book that presents a problem (loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression) then provides step-by-step solutions or aids. Regardless, the information presented needs to have value *to the reader*. It needs to move beyond a personal life history essay, because honestly, unless your Steven Curtis Chapman or Michael Jordan, no one cares.
4. Connect the dots for your reader.
You’ve got a story to tell, one you believe can inspire and encourage others, one with significant meaning to you. Unless you find ways to connect your readers, to show them how your story relates to their life, your account will be little more than a “What I did last summer” essay. Boring! This points back to that *felt need* and requires a bit of work—of knowing your audience.
5. Make sure every word packs a punch.
The best writing is clear and concise. Why take two paragraphs to state something that can be said in one? Why use ten words when five will do? For example, spoke softly can become whispered. Nodded her head simply nodded. Do we need to know a smile “graced her lips”? Where else would a smile appear? On her foot?
Speaking of clarity, whenever possible, use words that evoke images or stir emotions. For example, don’t tell us he sat in the shade of the tree. Name the tree so we can see it. Don’t tell us her perfume smelled sweet. Describe the scent so we can smell it. The young child you describe resting in his mother’s arms, is he a toddler or an infant?
In a nutshell, great writing takes work, knowledge, and perseverance. Select each word, each plot or idea, carefully, and take the time to get to know your reader. Address a felt need and do so with creativity, immersing your reader in your book and giving them every reason to turn that next page. Doing so will add punch and emotive value to your work which in turn will create a loyal readership.
**Let me help you. Because I’m in the Christmas spirit, I’m offering free one chapter critiques. To claim your *gift*, simply leave a comment or subscribe to this blog.
It’s barely into December and I’ve already begun to plan for the 2011 CWG Writers’ conference. Honestly, I started saving and planning last February, the day I left last year’s conference. I’ve come to realize I’m a conference junkie. Although I’d love to go to every conference available, there are two I’m particularly fond of: The CWG Writing for the Soul (in Denver, Feb, 2011) and the ACFW conference. And it’s not just because of the excellent teaching, although that’s great, too.
For me, it’s like reuniting with family, spending time people who get me. If you’re a writer, you know exactly what I mean. Sitting in a room with other writers, it’s so refreshing to know I’m not the only one who spends hours talking to imaginary people, living in imaginary worlds, and pacing my office as I act out potential scenes. (If you catch me arguing with myself, just nod and smile, and perhaps say a prayer that it won’t turn too violent.) Yes, other people stalk their neighbors, mailman, grocery clerk, in-laws, and spend hours on the internet researching everything from painless, odorless poisons to the popular names in the 1860’s.
It’s also a time to be encouraged and refreshed. Sitting alone in my office day after day, sifting through heavy-handed critiques and fatal plot holes, it’s easy to get discouraged. There’s nothing like spending time with others who’ve “been there, done that” to help get me back on track.
Most of all, it’s a spiritual retreat where I get to connect with, laugh with, pray with others who have given their lives to write for Christ. That’s my favorite part of all. Last year as I listened to Brandylin Collins share a message on how God would perfect the plans He has for me, or when I soaked up Liz Curtis Higgs’ message on digging deep to find *my* story, and as I looked around at all the other hope-filled faces, it struck me. I was sitting in a room full of people who longed more than anything to worship Christ with everything they had. And it was beautiful. A room full of hearts surrendered to God, ready to do His will, whether that meant writing a devotional, an article, a novel, or a nonfiction.
This year I’m looking forward to another chance to learn, grow, and connect. And of course, I’ll come prepared to pitch a novel or two. How about you?
Wanna join me? Come with me to the CWG blog as I share some tips on ways to increase your chance of success as you *gulp* pitch your novel.
Today’s post comes from Jim Magruder, blogger of “the Writer’s Refuge“. Jim is an award-winning advertising copywriter and executive speechwriter. He is also a novelist and blogger and has had non-fiction magazine articles published in Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Journal, Marriage Partnership, Home Life, Christian Communicator, Today’s Freelance Writer, and The Art of Self Promotion.
He and his wife, Karen, have served for over a decade helping young couples build vibrant marriages. Today he shares tips on adding depth and life to your writing.
Three Things I Learned From Nicholas Sparks by Jim Magruder
We all have writers we admire. But how many actually inspire you? How many do you want to emulate? How many entice you to read every book they write and leave you wishing you wrote them?
For me, there are only two. One is a non-fiction writer, the other, fiction. I will limit my remarks to the novelist here. Nicholas Sparks is my favorite contemporary fiction author for several reasons. He writes in the genre I desire to write. I’m intrigued by the way he develops his plot, weaves in six subplots, climbs into the head of his characters, layers in meaning that helps the reader better understand life and relationships, and how he can catch you looking with his curve ball endings.
While some critics call his tales “sappy,” his throngs consider him a master storyteller of poignant love stories with unpredictable bittersweet endings.
If you’re not familiar with him, you are with his work. His breakthrough novel was The Notebook. It debuted in 1996 and earned him a $1 million advance. He was 29. He followed up with 16 novels and a memoir, most became bestsellers. He has over 50 million copies of his books in print. Six novels have been adapted to the big screen—so far.
His website offers encouragement and advice to writers, his novels are taught in schools, and he continually gives back to his community. Nice guy. By reading him and studying his work, I have learned a few things about this craft we call writing. Here are just three.
1) Parlay your pain into inspiration. Sparks’ career could have been derailed by family tragedy. His mother died in a horseback riding accident at 47. His father died in a car accident at 54 and his sister died at 33 of cancer. Yet, after the grieving process, when he had enough emotional distance, he parlayed his pain into inspiration. His novel, A Walk to Remember, in part, grew out of his sister’s experience. He is a testimony to the fact that life’s most painful experiences are sometimes best understood by courageously writing through them.
2) A bittersweet ending is better than a happy ending. If you have read Message in a Bottle, Dear John or Safe Haven, you’ll see that a complex, bittersweet ending with the inevitable Sparks’ twist is more rewarding than a happy ending—and much more compelling. Truth is stranger than fiction, except with Sparks. He skillfully puts truth and fiction on a level playing field so you can say goodbye to the predictable ending. Who says you have to feel better at the end?
3) Stretch yourself. Don’t be afraid to take risks with your writing or your audience. Nicholas Sparks seems to own the love story today—at least the “let’s-make-it-into-a-movie-tearjerker.” It would be so easy for him to get comfortable. Yet, in Safe Haven, a story about a woman in peril and on the run from an overbearing alcoholic husband, Sparks takes some risks. He tackles the complexity of domestic violence (a subject his readers may not be comfortable with) while weaving in a budding love story amid the lurking threat of danger. This novel, like The Guardian before it, was a departure for him. Yet, it’s a story he wanted to tell and he told it brilliantly. Another bestseller? Of course.
The next time you read a Sparks’ novel, or any novel, analyze it. Read with a critical eye. Try to identify at least one thing you learned from the author or the work that will make you a better writer.
Jim and his wife, Karen, have served for over a decade helping young couples build vibrant marriages. His writing typically centers around three things; the writing life, “matters of the heart” (building strong relationships) and meaningful love stories with memorable themes.
Visit his blog to be encouraged in your writing journey and reach out to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week we talked about goal setting and approaching your writing with determination and intentionality–making it happen instead of allowing it to come when it may. Today I’ll share a few ways to avoid time-sapping pitfalls while maximizing every moment for optimum productivitiy. My friend Terry Palmer hit on a large number of these tips in a comment he left on last week’s post. Perhaps after you read today’s article, you’d like to click back to see how he makes the most of his time. In A Woman After God’s Heart by Elizabeth George, she talks about foregoing the good to find the better and foregoing the better to find the best. In writing, this means evaluating each moment in order to determine the best use of your time.
Organize your day around your creativity. For example, I need silence when I write. It took me a while to realize this, and initially, I went through my day following my to-do list without really evaluating each moment. As a result, I’d start with household chores and sometimes leave writing until the evening when my husband and daughter were home. Now I do the majority of my writing during the school day and do edits and critiques (which require less focus) in the evening. I do my blog posts in the morning while my daughter gets ready for school (largely while she takes her half-hour long shower–ugh! If you’ve got teens, you understand).
Stay focused! This is a biggie and takes a bit of self-control. Especially if you have an Iphone that beeps every time you get a message or text. In fact, you might need to shut off your phone and disconnect your internet until your creative writing time is done. Here’s why…to write effectively, you need to immerse yourself in your work. Every time you pop out of story or book world to check an email, send a text, or pop in on Facebook, you’re breaking the flow. This is espeically true in fiction. Great stories are written by authors who become their characters and temporarily leave reality to slip into story world. If you’re teetering between reality and story, you’re largely remaining on the surface of your creativity.
Watch out for the email monster. Between Gmail, Yahoo, and Facebook messaging, I get about 100 emails a day. A while back, after two days of spending a great chunk of my day dealing with emails, I realized what a time sapper this was. Now, I deal with emails at one set time. (I will periodically check my Iphone for important messages.) This is especially helpful when dealing with all those annoying “reply all” emails. By waiting until the conversation is done, I can get the jest of it by scanning one email–the last one and can quickly delete the rest. This has been much more time-effective than popping in and out.
Utilize every moment. I don’t watch television or movies because they don’t stir my creativity. (You may not be able to say the same.) Novels and books, however, show me strong writing and awaken my muse. Because of this, I read to relax. This means even when I’m relaxing, I’m learning. I also have projects and tasks that I can pick up whenever a spare minute arises. Let’s say I have five minutes between dinner and church each Wednesday. I can either spend those five minutes watching television or reading, or I can work on an edit. Five minutes a week over the course of a month equals just over a half hour. Although, most often I’ll have three or four “five minutes” sprinkled throughout a day, resulting in maybe an hour by the end of the week and four hours by the end of the month. That’s a lot of time.
Find ways to multi-task (when possible). For example, I clean the kitchen at 3, when my daughter gets home for school. This allows me to connect with her while she eats her afterschool snack, and while we chat, I putter. (This has also helped our relationship as she’s less inclined to talk if she thinks I’m trying to initiate a conversation. But if I’m “just hanging around” so to speak, she relaxes and starts to jabber.)
Most days, my daughter catches the bus to school, but on Wednesdays, she has late start so I drive her. Not wanting to waste time, I do my errands on Wednesday morning since I’m out and about anyway. And I lump my errand-type tasks together. This saves a great deal of time. Instead of driving to the library and home again on Monday, the grocery store and home again on Tuesday, and the post office and home again on Wednesday, I hit everything in one go. Which means, if it’s Monday and we’re out of certain things, we survive. And no, my family hasn’t starved and the house hasn’t collapsed.
This also requires a bit of pre-planning. Gone are the days of waiting until three oclock to plan dinner. Instead, I plan a week’s worth of meals, make a list, and get everything I need in one shopping trip. I do the same with housework. I operate on a schedule, cycling through our house by cleaning one area or item per day. And yep, while cleaning, I make the most of my time, either by spending a moment with my Savior or by brainstorming. And if I mop the floors on Tuesday and they look a bit dirty on Monday, I don’t sweat it. They’ll get done in due time.
I refuse to give in to writer’s block. When I hit a wall, I hit my knees. I believe God has called me to write and has a purpose in everything I write, therefore, I trust Him to give me the ability to follow through. (You can read more of my thoughts about this here in a post entitled, How Big is Your God.) And He’s been faithful. Every time. In fact, I start each day with prayer, laying out my responsibilities and asking God to help me fulfill them. If I hit a major block, I assume He’s asking me to spend more time with Him, so I do. The result has always been exponential.
*As a side note: One thing I refuse to cut from my week, however, is time spent communing with or serving my local body. As writers, it’s easy to justify not serving. After all, when I write for Christ to the World, I’m reaching countless radio listeners in 23 countries. Surely my time is better spent doing that than teaching a small Sunday school class. Except God placed us in a local body for a reason, and we are a vital part of our church’s health. Besides, I’ve found when I put God first and do things His way, He takes care of everything else. Every time.
What about you? Any time-saving tips to share?
Thursday I plan to talk more about time management, but today I wanted to take a moment to discuss writing contests. At Gifts by Grace, contest judges give us a glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes and tell us what they believe leads to a contest winning novel.
If you’re an unpubb’ed, there are a few ways to rise above the notorious slush pile: write a stellar query, meet with an editor or agent at conference, or place in a prestigious contest. Although options one and two help add leverage, they leave a large number of “what ifs.” Like, what if cyberspace eats my email, or I flub my pitch and swallow my tongue? Contests are by no means a guarantee, but they help you create a buzz for you and your novel while providing invaluable feedback. That’s why each year writers nationwide clamor to finish and submit their manuscripts to various contest coordinators. (Read more here.)
Last week, we talked about the importance of approaching your writing with focus and determination. (Read the article here) Today, we’re talking about goal setting and why I believe it is imperative if you want to be successful.
It seems everyone wants to be a writer. And who wouldn’t? You work from home, plan your own schedule, and live in a fantasy world much of the time. But of the tens of thousands (perhaps even millions?) around the globe longing to pen that first novel, only a small percentage will actually follow through. Even fewer will see their work in print. Peruse agent and editor blogs long enough and you’ll soon learn why this is true. Most editors publish one out of every one hundred submissions. Some even less than that. Which means, if you want to succeed, you need to rise to the 99th percentile. A daunting task, I know. Like anything else, you won’t get there by accident, or by twiddling your thumbs. If you want to be part of that top one percent, you’ll need to work hard, when others rest. Persevere when others give up. Improve when others remain stagnant. Unless you view writing as a hobby, you’ll need to approach it with intentionality and determination. For me, that equates to setting daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals.
At the risk of using a cliché…. They say “Shoot for the stars and you may hit the moon. Shoot for the ground and you’ll hit it every time.” Here’s how this plays out in writing. Set a daily word count goal, although you may not always reach it, chances are, you’ll pound your keyboard for a while. Let you writing “fit in as it may”, most likely, other things will often crowd it out. Plus, I believe, this trains negative habits and makes that first deadline much harder to meet.
I write fiction novels, freelance articles, review for Novel Reviews, do freelance editing and marking for Tiffany Colter, the Writing Career Coach, write for Christ to the World Ministries, do marketing and function as host for Clash of the Titles, and send material monthly to Internet Café Devotions, Samie Sisters, Devo Kids, and the Christian Pulse. This doesn’t leave a lot of flex time.
But it does leave plenty of writing time. The other day, as I evaluated my schedule and the demands on it, I plotted out my year. I want to write X number of novels in a year. (Side-note: In my opinion, if you’re not prepared to continue to produce, don’t query that agent or editor. They’re not looking for a one-book dynamo. They want to invest in a career author.) I also want to write X number of Christ to the World programs per year, X number of articles, and have X number of monthly writing commitments to maintain. Using average word count estimates, I added how many words I need to write in a year in order to meet all my commitments. Yearly total = 203,000 words. Ouch! Only not really. 203,000 ÷ 12 = 16,917 (rounded) words per month. Doable. This means, writing five days per week (although I actually write six) in order to reach my annual word count goal, I need to write 845 words per day. Very doable. In fact, if I bump it up to 2,000 words per day (my normal output), I can even take a few days off along the way.
How about you? Are you prepared to do what it takes to rise to the 99th percentile, or would you prefer to hang out on Facebook? (Wonder what a similar annual breakdown of sitcom watching or FB chatting might look like. Ouch! So many wasted hours!) What would you like to accomplish in the given year? What do you need to accomplish each month in order to reach those annual goals? Then break it down by the day. How much time will you need to spend behind your keyboard? And what activity do you need to cut out in order to find that time? Television watching? Internet surfing? Scrapbooking? Sounds painful, perhaps, but remember, we’re talking about rising to the top one percent.
feel free to share your goals here. The rest of us will find your commitment challenging and encouraging.
Come back next week to learn some easy ways to eliminate time-sappers and maximize your time.