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.
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.
Suzanne Hartmann is the author of the e-book, Write This Way: Take Your Writing to a New Level . She is also the author of The Race that Lies Before Us , a Christian suspense novel available next year through Oak Tara. On the editorial side, Suzanne is a contributing editor at Port Yonder Press and operates the Write This Way Critique Service.
Suzanne, how long have you been writing?
I graduated from Western Illinois University with a degree in Composition and Linguistics in 1985. Other than a few short stories I sold for a reading workbook, all of my writing was non-fiction until 2006, when I started writing my first novel.
Tell us a little about your book, Write this Way.
Write This Way is a blueprint for writing a novel. It leads authors through necessary ingredients for their first draft and the steps for the revision process. It is written in the easy-to-understand, just-the-facts-ma’am style I have become known for on my blog. Because it is full of easy-to-find information about grammatical and stylistic rules/guidelines, it is also perfect for both veterans and new authors to keep on hand while crafting their next novel.
What motivated you to write it?
As I critiqued other people’s writing, I noticed that certain issues repeatedly came up. I wanted to let others know that these mistakes were easily fixable, so I wrote a series about them on my blog called Top 10 Mistakes New Fiction Writers Make. The more I critiqued and edited, the more I saw certain issues come up. So I wrote more series of articles. Eventually, I had so many articles that it was difficult to find a particular one, so I decided to consolidate them into an e-book which would allow authors to have all the information at their fingertips as they write and revise.
Your book starts with the basics–grammar, outlines, etc. Why?
When I first joined a critique group, I was shocked to discover that one of the other members had no idea how to punctuate dialogue. Since then, I have realized that we all struggle with our own bugaboo problems—many of them basic issues. So when I started writing Write This Way, I decided to start with a quick review.
What are three things a writer can do to drastically improve their writing?
1) non-fiction and fiction: Make your writing more active by getting rid of passive voice, and related to that, using “was/is” as little as possible.
Excellent reminder! I’m going to piggy-back on this by providing an example. Often helping verbs can be strengthened by using the past-tense verb alone. “We were going to the store,” becomes, “We went to the store.” And most often, was, is, were, can be replaced by stronger, more descriptive or emotive verbs. Ex: She was hungry can become, “Hunger consumed/taunted/mocked/gripped her.” Often to avoid those “was/is/were” weasels, you’ll need to brainstorm possible ways to reword the sentence, but once you do, it becomes much stronger!
2) fiction: Show a scene instead of telling about it. This sounds easy, but just including action won’t do the trick. You need to make readers feel like they’re right in the middle of the scene with the characters. It’s like the difference between watching a movie and a friend telling you about a movie.
Another great tip! I had a crash course in this when I first started writing radio dramas for Christ to the World. When you write dramas, you can’t use introspection. Everything MUST come out in action. It forces you to write strong dialogue. Descriptive and intentional details can also eliminate a lot of telling. I wrote an article about this called “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’.” You can read it here.
3) fiction: Use motivation/reaction units (MRUs). This simple technique all by itself will take a person’s writing to the next level. In a nutshell, MRUs are a string of actions, one leading to the next. The first action is the motivation for the next action, which then motivates the following action, etc. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the transformation of your writing.
You have a chapter on critique groups. I’m a critique group/partner addict! Later this month, I’ll link you all to an article I wrote about this very thing. Suzanne, what can writers gain from critique groups?
I can’t stress enough the importance of having other writers look over your work. In my opinion, it can be the difference between creating a very good story and an excellent story. Self-editing is important, but we each have our own weaknesses and we’re too close to the story, so there are just some mistakes we won’t find in our own writing.
Do you offer advice on how to find a good critique group or partner? If so, can you share it here?
Although it’s not a necessity, it is helpful to be with others who write in your own genre—at the least with people who enjoy reading the genre you write. It’s also a good idea to have a group made up of people at different writing levels. But don’t get bogged down in trying to find the perfect one. Critique groups ebb and flow as members finish a novel and new members join. The important thing is to get involved in one (or more).
I’d also add, it’s important to find one with similar work ethics and time commitments. If you’re a keyboard blazer, you won’t want to hook up with a tortoise, and vice versa. Suzanne, I know you do a lot of critiques. From your experience, what are the most common mistakes you see writers make?
Grammatical mistakes: using passive voice, overuse of participial phrases, incorrect dialogue structure.
Stylistic mistakes: not hooking the reader soon enough, telling instead of showing, including extraneous information (information dumps and episodic scenes)
Hooking the reader applies to non-fiction and fiction, and normally takes a number of intentional rewrites. For fiction, purposefully leaving a few questions un-answered works well. For non-fiction, zero in on audience need and speak to that. Make your book necessary, not merely entertaining.
In regard to writing, if you were able to go back and do things differently, what would you change?
I would push myself to write on a regular schedule whether I felt like it or not. This is something I still struggle with and know I need to conquer to keep writing when my to-do list threatens to overtake my writing time.
Excellent advice! I’m going to throw another one out there—add freelancing to your portfolio. Learning to write on assignment, on a schedule, helps strengthen your ability to press through writer’s block. Although it takes time, ultimately it saves time because it makes you a more productive writer.
Speaking of time, how much time should a writer spend learning via craft related books?
There’s so much to learn, and things change over time, so a writer must continually learn about the craft and the industry, whether it be through craft related books, magazines, seminars/conferences, or participation in writing groups.
As I mentioned a while back, writing conferences are great ways to learn and network. This weekend is the Christian Authors Guild conference and at the end of the month, ACFW hosts their amazing conference in St. Louis, MO. I’m already preparing for the Christian Writers Guild, Writing for the Soul Conference in Denver. (I’d love to see you all there!)
Suzanne, thank you for chatting with us today. Excellent tips from an excellent book!
Today I mentioned the benefits of freelance writing. To help you understand how to use diverse writing opportunities to strengthen your career, I’m offering a free one-hour phone consultation to a lucky reader. (Although I don’t believe in luck. Luck=hard work + perseverance + Divine intervention.) To be entered into the drawing, leave a comment, fb or tweet this post, or become a new subscriber. Remember to shoot me an email at email@example.com if you share or tweet the link so I’ll know.
What the phone consult will include:
1) Why writer diversification is important
2) The difference between fiction and non (to help you write effective articles)
3) How to establish and increase an online presence
4) Ways to generate article ideas
5) How to find leads
6) How to build up writing credentials (In this industry, you can’t go from zero, no creds, to 80, writing for CT, overnight. You gotta do the grunt work, build your skills and your portfolio.)
Most writers have day jobs. Some hold multiple jobs, volunteer at their church, and raise a family. Finding time and energy to write can, at times, feel like chasing the wind. Ten, maybe twenty years ago, writers could use what little time they had to focus on what mattered most–their novel. Not anymore. In today’s ever-shifting, technologically driven economy, writers need to be journalists, bloggers, vloggers, marketing experts, and publicist.
In an effort to fulfill the duties of the constantly expanding job-description, novelists pump out blog posts about everything from what type of cereal they had for breakfast to how many ways their child can hang upside down. A quick peruse through Facebook will tell you how unsuccesful many of these well-intentioned authors are. True, blogging is necessary and frequent posts generate return readers…but only if you have the content to sustain them. Otherwise, you probably are doing more harm than good, leaving your readers frustrated and very unlikely to buy your novel once it goes to print. (This article posted on Michael Hyatt’s blog explains why.)
But unfortunately, quality writing takes time–time you don’t have.
That’s where I come in! Working under Tiffany Colter, the Writing Career Coach, there are numerous ways I can help you reach and engage your audience. First, you can become part of the Writing Career Coach Blog Alliance! Or, I can write blog posts and articles for you, then I’ll saturate the web with them, multiplying your exposure. Or, I can edit what you’ve already got, finding ways to make your opening paragraph sing. Send me an email at jenniferaslattery(at)gmail(dot)com and we’ll find the solution that best works for you.