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: email@example.com.
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.
As a writer, publicist, Clash of the Titles Marketing Manager, and freelance editor, I tend to have quite a few fires burning at once. What I don’t have is time to waste. I imagine you could say the same. Over the next week or so, I’d like to talk about ways to increase productivity. We’ll start with a brief discussion on time management (Most often, I’ve found it’s not a matter of how much time we have, but instead, how we use our time.) Then I’d like to talk about the necessity of goal setting. I know, all you list-hating free-thinkers are balking right about now. But trust me, a bit of self-imposed fencing and stretching goes a long way.
But before we can change our outward behaviors, we need to change our mindset. We need to evaluate our thinking, rooting out those faulty thought processes that get in our way. These will vary from person to person, and often, they’re cloaked in “logical thinking.” Meaning, fear of failure will hide behind “commitments to responsibility” or indecision, etc.
One time-sapper I’ve seen time and time again, enough to think it might be inherent to writing, is discouragement. Feelings of discouragement cause writers to question their calling and has led many to squander days, months, sometimes even years, moping about looking for some sort of discouragement-zapping confirmation.
Today I’m at the Robin’s Nest to talk about this very thing and I invite you to join me. Because quite honestly, with all the work required to see a novel/book from big-picture idea to print, you don’t have time to fight against yourself. (Which is what discouragement is–you fighting against you, rendering yourself ineffective.)
On Wednesday, Mary Hamilton talked about the why of writing. On Friday, she expanded this even further, encouraging us to focus on our why when things get rough. Today, I want to speak to those who feel ready to quit. You’re tired, beat up, discouraged, and quite frankly, beginning to wonder if your why is enough. You may even be tempted to question whether or not God’s behind you. (If that’s the case, you might want to read this post, too.) It’s okay to take a breather, to regroup, recharge…but if you’re a follower of Christ, quitting is never an option. For He gave us not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-discipline. Tap into that Spirit, His Spirit, today, and keep on keeping on! I doubt it’ll be easy. No red carpet experiences here, but your hard work will be reworded–if you’re working for the right motives. If not? Well, then, I’m thinking your efforts might turn into quite a bonfire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
(Today at Living by Grace, a Facebook faith community, we’re talking about this very thing–staying on course when the going gets tough. I’m hosting and I’d love for you to join us. After you read this post of course!)
Are You Stuck in Haran?
A writer’s life is equivalent to white-knuckling a never-ending roller coaster, in the dark, without a seat-belt. Only, you never signed up for that ride, right? You chose the steady upward climb free of twists and turns, and after ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty years of spinning; you wonder if perhaps you’re on the wrong path. That still, soft Voice that called you into writing has faded behind a mess of rejection, disappointment and fear. What if you heard wrong? What if God changed His mind? Maybe He’s forgotten about you entirely.
Or maybe you’re right where He wants you to be, following the long, winding, equipping road towards the goal, each treacherous step, every angst-filled tear all part of the training. What if you’re only one rejection away from the Promised Land? Will you persevere, walking by faith and the determination of a child saved by grace and destined for victorious living, or will you settle in the land of Haran?
A while back, George Lakatos from Grace Community Church in Smithville, MO gave an awesome message (listen to it HERE). To sum it up, the message centered on two biblical characters: Abram (who would later be called Abraham) and his father, Terah. Both men started in the same place, Ur of the Chaldeans. Both men left Ur to embark on a God-ordained journey to the Promised Land, but only one arrived. Terah, the patriarch died at the halfway point, in the land of Haran.
Ur was a wealthy, sophisticated, comfortable city. It must have taken great courage for the men to leave. They had no idea where they were going or how long it would take to get there, but they had God’s promises tucked within their tunics. These promises carried them all the way to Haran, but for Terah, they couldn’t carry him over the hump and into the unknown.
Terah continued as long as the road was easy. He and Abram followed along the Euphrates River, a well-traveled route with access to food and drinking water. They journeyed on foot, each step carrying them farther and farther from the land they knew. Day after day they marched on, the fatigue in their legs growing with each step, their doubts warring for their allegiance. Then they got to Haran, the halfway point, and Terah settled.
Genesis 11:31b (NLT) “He was headed for the landed of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there.
That is a powerful verse. Terah was headed for Canaan, but settled in Haran, where he died fifteen years later, never reaching his final destination. Never seeing the Promised Land.
Have you settled? Are you stuck in Haran, on the halfway point from where you were when God called you to where He wants to take you? It’s time to leave Haran. Abram settled with Terah for fifteen years. Fifteen long, wasted years. But he didn’t stay there indefinitely. After his father died, he gathered his things and resumed his journey.
If you want to be a successful writer, knowing the why behind your words is as important, perhaps even more important, than the what. Without a clearly defined goal, your writing will lose focus, and will thus lose your reader. I’ve heard it said every business and ministry needs a mission statement, otherwise they risk becoming too broad and thus, ineffective. I believe the same is true of writing. The why hones your message, spurs your commitment, and helps prevent wasting hours on indecision.
Today, Mary Hamilton shares how her “why” impacts her “what.” Come back Friday as she answers the next logical question: Why she continues to write despite obstacles, time constraints, and frustration. On Saturday, we’ll wrap up with an article I posted on FaithWriters some time back that poses a thought-provoking question–are you stuck in Haran? Although you’ll need to read the post to understand, but I use Haran as an analogy of stopping at the halfway point. You left your homeland (comfort zone) to follow your dreams, but then things got rough….
In a keynote address at the ACFW convention in September, author Tracie Peterson challenged us to define why we write. Is it only to be published? For personal recognition? For money? She asked, If you knew you would never, ever have anything published, would you still write?
I confess that I do write for publication. I look forward to the emotional high of seeing my name in a printed byline. And yes, I write for personal recognition, too. Does anyone not feel a jump in their self-esteem when a reader recognizes their name from an article or a book? Do I write for money? Not so much, although it does symbolize a validation of my writing ability.
But if I knew I’d never, ever be published, would I continue to write? The question brought to mind my son’s struggle with playing basketball for a team destined to lose every game. He wanted to quit the team before playing a single game, but we challenged him with the example of his hero, Michael Jordan. A quote from one of Michael’s books provided the inspiration, and motivation, for my son to stay on the team. In effect, Tracie asked us the same question that Michael Jordan asked: Do you love winning? Or do you love the game?
Do I love being published? Or do I simply love writing? Because if I simply love writing, I’ll do it no matter what agents or editors think. I’ll write whether I get a sizable advance or I get paid nothing. Writing simply for the love of writing frees us from so many pressures that we put on ourselves. It frees us to write what God lays on our hearts, not what we think will sell. It frees us to be obedient to the One who calls us to write, the giver of the gift.
Why do I write? Because I think better when I write. I speak better on paper than out loud. I write because I get a kick out of seeing characters come to life on the page, like having a whole community of invisible friends. And I love those moments when something I added to the text earlier suddenly appears later with a meaning that I never planned and never saw coming. I write because it seems God has put it in my heart to write certain stories. Even if they never get published. Even if they never earn a penny.
I write because, like Michael, I love the game.
A homemaker for almost 30 years, Mary L. Hamilton has been publishes in several Christian periodicals. She also wrote “Homespun Angel,” a Christmas play, and is currently working on a middle grade contemporary novel. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, reading, and exercising. (Well, maybe not exercising.)
Mary lives in the Houston, TX area with her husband, three nearly-grown kids, and a dog. You can find her on:
Drop by and say hello!
Today’s post comes from Fay Lamb, a freelance editor and author of Christian romance and romantic suspense. Her emotionally charged stories remind the reader that God is always in the details. Her debut romantic suspense novel, Because of Me, is soon to be released by Treble Heart Books.
Fay has a passion for working with and encouraging fellow writers. As a member of ACFW, she co-moderates the large Scribes’ Critique Group and manages the smaller Scribes’ critique groups. She also offers advice for self-editors as the Tactical Editor, www.facebook.com/TacticalEd. To find out more about Fay and her writing, visit her website at www.faylamb.com and enjoy her blog On the Ledge, a humorous take on the writing side of life.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
I learned a life lesson that applies to writing from my son’s violin tutor. My son is an accomplished violinist, but when he was just starting out, his tutor, a first string with the local symphony, struggled with keeping him on task. One day my son Corey walked in and he said, “Igor, I don’t want to play violin. I want to learn to fiddle.”
Well, Igor stood back in his old clog shoes, and he wiped a hand through his hair, which was always oily, and a big smile crossed his face. He’d just caught on to a way to get Corey to take his violin seriously. “Corey, you have to learn from the masters. You have to know the scales. You have to play these hard pieces that I’m teaching you and giving you to practice every day. And then when you have mastered the violin, you will be able to play it like a fiddle.”
That’s how it is with rules. I run across so many writers who don’t know where to put a comma. They play the comma by ear. If it sounds like a pause then that’s the place for the comma. Problem is, sometimes that pause is at the end of a complete sentence. When do you use an em dash or an ellipse? Why aren’t we supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction? The semicolon—don’t get me started on the semicolon. Ninety percent of us use it incorrectly. Exclamation points! For goodness sakes, are your characters screaming at everyone? Why is a sentence that starts with an “ing” word inappropriate, and what makes an “ly” telling? Do you realize that not every “ing” constructed sentence or every “ly” word is bad?
In order to have technique, I contend that you need to know the rules. And when you break the rules, you don’t break them consistently. As Noah Lukeman so aptly teaches in his book, A Dash of Style, you use them to your advantage. Too much of anything gets rather tiring, but put in an appropriate semicolon (and yes they are allowed in fiction—maybe not in dialogue for some publishers) or an em dash or ellipses for emphasis, and even misplacing a comma for a dramatic pause—these things adds zing to your writing.
You can’t write a masterpiece until you know how it is formed in just the same way that my son couldn’t learn to “fiddle” before he learned to master his violin. Practice makes perfect in music and in writing.