Reading as a Writer

Dickens_Great_Expectations_in_Half_Leather_Binding I just returned from a trip to England during which I read, for probably the fourth or fifth time since my childhood, a book I have always loved: Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Part of my goal for this read was to physically experience the book’s setting. To trace Pip’s steps through the dirty London streets and walk along the Thames where he rows his boat to check on Magwitch. To shop in Covent Garden where Herbert Pocket goes to get the best fruit to welcome his new roommate. To visit the Temple courts where Jagger lives and works. To see with my own eyes Newgate prison—which doesn’t exist anymore, I’m sorry to say, although there is a sign marking where it once stood.

My bigger goal, though, was to read a book I had long loved in a completely new way: as a writer reads. Reading as a writer is a kind of dissection, really—not just of the work, to figure out how it works, but of my own psyche as a reader. What is it that has always enthralled me about this book? I ask myself. Why have I returned to it again and again in the course of a lifetime? I examine the story, the details, the transitions, the very sentences of Dickens’ masterpiece, looking for applicable clues about how to make my own writing successful.

There’s no better writing teacher to be found, no better course of instruction or writing program, than a book you loved as a child and continue to love in adulthood. For me, that’s Great Expectations and Robinson Crusoe, The Good Earth, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the dark fairytales of Helena Nyblom. And works of nonfiction like Helen Keller’s autobiography and Jade Snow Wong’s account of growing up the fifth daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and a hagiography I wore out as a child called Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. There are more, each one a teacher with the rare pedagogical skill of educating not by presenting something new but by confirming and demonstrating old truths.

Reading as a writer, I learned from Dickens that even the most honorable characters are most engaging and memorable in their failures and absurdity. I knew this. We all know this. It’s why Peter and Thomas are my favorites of Jesus’ followers. And it’s why Esau is so impossible to hate. (I don’t know how God manages it!) Through their faults, they become more believable, more real. Jesus himself, though without fault, becomes 100% human in moments when he seems least likeable, such as when he balks at healing the demon-possessed daughter of a Canaanite woman who argues that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15.27 NRSV).

Great_Expectations_(1917)_1Each character in Great Expectations is a surprise. Miss Havisham experiences remorse. Estella confesses genuine emotions to Pip. Jaggers ends up being as much a father to fatherless Pip as he is a heartless professional. Pip moves from fear and repulsion toward Magwitch to concern and compassion. Through such surprises, Dickens helps me find the life-giving contradictions and winsome growth opportunities in my own characters.

Dickens also taught me how to keep my reader focused through blunt meta references to “the last chapter” that I would never have recommended to my own students. He was writing serially, after all, so his readers would have needed more help remembering what had gone on in the previous issue than the contemporary reader of the assembled chapters would need. Still, it’s a helpful technique. And referencing one’s previous remarks and chapters is certainly freeing.

Students in my writing courses often complain about my “reading as a writer” assignments. I’m always wanting them to apply what they learn from their favorite writers—or from one of my favorites—to their own writing, and I’m never pleased with their flowery, laudatory assessments of their favorite books’ writerly techniques.

“You’re reading like a literary critic!” I rant. “You’re reading like a teenager in love. I want you to read like a writer!”

It is the hardest way to read, I think, but surely, once you’ve read a book the first time through, the most useful. Once my students get how to do it, they thank me.

“Don’t thank me,” I tell them. “Thank the author!”

In case you’re wondering, reading as a writer won’t wreck the book for you. To the contrary: Discovering what made you love a book gives you a new appreciation for it—so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’re eager to read the book again soon.

Sing it, Lamb Chop!

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This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend.”

If you never watched the fabulous Shari Lewis perform with her puppet Lamb Chop, you might not know this delightful ditty from her Emmy-winning show that ran on PBS from 1992-1997. My youngest daughter enjoyed watching it as a toddler, and since I got to join her in front of the television, this song found its way into my permanent recall bank.

For better or worse, the tune takes over my head every time I have a task that seems never-ending.

Which is my way of introducing my topic today: platform building.

You see, platform building for a writer doesn’t end when your book is published. Instead of thinking of platform building as the first step toward publication, I now see it as the task that underlies the entire creative, marketing, and career development process. As long as you write, it doesn’t end.

But instead of looking at that task as an overwhelming, time-consuming responsibility, I’ve chosen to see it as the lifeblood of what I do.

My platform is my path to accomplishing the work that gives my life meaning. In my case, I want to bring people into closer communion with God’s creation, and I do that through the written word, telling entertaining stories about nature, and in particular, about birding and dogs.

Using this perspective motivates me to continue, and expand, my platform-building. Here’s a quick snapshot of what that looks like for me.

My first book – a small treatise about finding meaning in life – led me to discover my own passion: writing about engagement with nature. To market that first book, I gave retreats and workshops about identifying what you love and what God calls you to; as a result, I added speaking opportunities to my platform. Then I began writing my Birder Murder Mysteries, a light-hearted series about a birder who finds bodies (incorporating my own passion for birding and mystery). To sell books, I began reaching out to birders around the country (and the world!), connecting with them online, attending birding events, sharing information and becoming interested in conservation issues. That influenced additional books in the series, and led to more interaction with like-minded nature-lovers, which has both enriched my writing and my life with speaking/marketing opportunities and new friends. Six years after my first Birder Murder was published, I now have plenty of ideas for future books and venues to market them, as well as a list of birding hotspots to add to my bucket list of personal adventure.

My memoir about my dog is building a new addition to my original platform, giving me more places to talk about nature and to sell all of my books. I’ve begun volunteering with my local Humane Society because of it, and I now see all my writing as advocacy work for improving the human-nature connection. Yes, I know that my platform building doesn’t end, but neither do the rewards I’m finding when it comes to new experiences, learning interesting things, and contributing to my world.

What joys are you finding in the never-ending task of platform building?

Note to My Younger Self, On Writing

file6681269982727Dear Dena,

Congrats! I know you’ve written two entire book manuscripts and had some poems published. That’s a big accomplishment, especially for a teenager.

It is a tough one, though, this craft you’ve chosen (or, more accurately, the craft that chose you). I want to give you some advice, since at age 44, I’m a little lot older and—hopefully— wiser than you are.

First, drop the attitude. You are not God’s gift to writing. When your mom suggested that you put your current age on the book manuscripts you were submitting to publishers, you said, “No. I want to be known for the quality of my work, not get attention because of my age.” Sheesh.

Girl, you are taking yourself WAY too seriously. After all, you’re not building the Sistene Chapel. Currently, you write teen romance novels. Just look at the titles of your two books: “Someday, Somewhere” and “Magical Daydreams.” Need I say more?

Yes, you have some talent. But you need to be open to all sorts of editing/coaching if you’re serious about becoming a professional writer. Being humble and teachable will take you further than talent alone.

Second, continue submitting to magazines. Many of them have a much bigger circulation than you realize. Today’s popular magazines, which are mostly read on a crazy/wonderful thing called the Internet, have tens of millions of readers from all over the world! Guideposts, which your parents receive, has hundreds of thousands of faithful subscribers. While you dream of writing books, and that’s a worthy goal, your most powerful legacy might happen when a reader picks up a magazine and finds hope at just the right moment.

Third, keep journaling. The diaries you’re keeping will provide endless sources of ideas in the future. (They’ll also provide your future husband with hours of enjoyment at your expense, but that’s beside the point.) Write honestly about your heartaches and joys. Journal about what you eat and drink, and try to capture in words specific sounds, smells, and tastes. Jot down story ideas, snippets of dialogue, and funny character names. Never forget that everything, even especially the lessons learned in life’s darkest moments, is material.

Fourth, find a community of like-minded artists. The drive to write is both a gift and a burden. At times, your path will be strewn with obstacles, rejections, and discouragement. You’ll need people who “get” you. And over the years, in many different ways, God will bring creative soulmates into your life.Being-wellknown-here

Trust me on this: treasure and maintain those friendships. After more than two decades as a writer, I’ve had six books and hundreds of articles published. Some of the journey has been joyful; other parts have been excruciatingly difficult. But by far, the best part has been the relationships I’ve built with my fellow writers. They have enriched my life far more than any acceptance, contract, or award.

Above all else, keep listening to God’s voice. Never let other people’s voices (especially those of your critics) drown out His approval and love. He gave you the talent and desire to write, and He will be faithful to give you opportunities to hone and use your gift. As Randy Alcorn says, “Being well-known here doesn’t matter. Hearing God say ‘Well done’ does! To be known by God–it doesn’t get any better than that!”

Much love,

Me

Failing Machines and Eternal Trust

CalendarImageShe was doing well. She had just gotten remarried to a man who not only loved her, but also loved her children. The heart failure of the past year was behind her and with the help of a specialized machine, her body was getting stronger each day as she awaited a heart transplant. Her future seemed brighter than it had in long time.

And then. . . suddenly. . .

The machine failed.

Her heart stopped pumping and in what seemed like the blink of an eye, she was gone.

In my bewilderment and sorrow over her family’s loss – actually, over the world’s loss of a beautiful, kind-spirited woman who lit up a room with her smile – I was struck afresh by the realization that as much as we want to believe we can control the circumstances of our lives, only God knows the number of days each of us will spend here on earth.

We fret and worry. We diligently put money into savings accounts and strategize about the future.

We give our children vaccinations, teach them about stranger danger and make them wear seat belts when they ride in a car.

We take our vitamins, make healthy food choices (most of the time!), and schedule our annual medical checkups. We think we are in control.

But then . . . suddenly. . .

The machine in which we have placed our trust fails.

We come to an abrupt awareness that we weren’t ever really in control and we spent so much time worrying about our future that we forgot to enjoy our present.

Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26 NIV)

We cannot control the number of our days here on earth, even with the most technologically advanced machines. But when we place our faith in Jesus, we can rest assured that He controls our eternal future.

Let’s continue to be good stewards of our resources, to make healthy lifestyle choices, and to lovingly care for our children. But let’s also remain keenly aware that the things of this world will fail us. Worry is pointless and life is precious. We are not in control, but when we hold tightly to the One who is, our eternal futures are brighter than we can ever imagine.

So Many Books, So Little Time

278153_3301Do you have a TBR pile? Yeah, I hear you. Stupid question. Who doesn’t? In fact, I’ve got an entire TBR bookcase I like to call Storyland. It’s a magical place, filled with books I’ve promised to review, those I want to read because the back cover copy hooked and reeled me in, and a few that I feel obligated to plow through.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not whining. There are many more titles I’d add to Storyland if I had the money, but where would I find the time to read them all? Surely with so many books and so little time, the topic of reading outside your comfort zone is a moot point, isn’t it?

No. It’s not. I’m a big advocate of broadening your reading horizons even when—or especially when—your time is limited. Why? Many reasons…

1. It gets you out of a rut, opening your eyes to other possibilities that just might spur you on to greater creativity.

2. It demolishes prejudice. How do you know you don’t like a western if you’ve never read one? If story is king, the genre doesn’t matter. When choosing to read outside your comfort zone, choose titles that are classics or bestsellers (because there’s usually a reason they’re in that position).

3.  If you want to be a well-rounded writer, you must be a well-rounded reader. Don’t forget short stories, poems, and plays can teach and hone different skills than a novel.

4. You just might discover a new favorite author. It’s happened to me. Because I write reviews, I don’t always get to choose the books I read. I’ve come across some fantastic new authors this way.

5. There’s always something to learn, from a new time period, to a people group you’re not familiar with, or even scientific theories you’ve never heard of. Reading outside your comfort bubble is educational.

1207951_88385713Now that you’re chomping at the bit to try some new genres, here are a few you can check out:

Steampunk

Generally this is an amalgamation of the Victorian era with modern technologies powered by steam. Plus there’s an excess of spin-offs such as dieselpunk, atompunk, decopunk, and loads of others.

Metafiction

Put on your thinking cap because this one is a little tricky to wrap your brain around. Metafiction is a literary term describing writing that purposely poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality using irony and self-reflection.

Urban Fantasy

Think elves or magical fairies roaming around the alleys of New York City. Better yet, how about dwarves in the sewer system? This genre is usually set in contemporary times and contains elements of fantasy.

Musical Fiction

This is a genre wherein music is supreme, both as subject matter and via the flow and rhythm of the prose. Music is manifested through the language itself.

Robinsonade

Search your memory banks way back to junior high when you read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and you’ve just about hit the bull’s eye. The success of that novel spawned so many imitations that the title was used to define an entire genre, more simply described as a “desert island story.”

So go on…nudge, nudge…step out of your suffocating little box. Fling a completely out-of-your-zone book onto your TBR pile today. You can thank me for it later.

Preferably with chocolate.

Launching Your Book With Power

 

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How do you launch a book with power?

When we neared the launch date for our book, The Shepherd’s Song, we began to become anxious. Pressure built. How could be good stewards of this book that we felt God had place in our hands? What to do? We read, we Googled, we asked our friends but nothing seemed quite right. Then, we remembered.

The basis of the book had been prayer. We had prayed together during the writing of the book. We had prayed for each other and we had enlisted a prayer team to pray. The answer was simple. We would launch the book with prayer. But how?

Forty days out from the release of the book we began a forty day prayer launch. We prayed first for God to give us 40 people who would pray for 40 days. We put the request out on social media and we had 164 people sign up to pray with us. God blessed us abundantly.

This is how we set it up:

We created a list on Mail Chimp with a sign-up form that we posted on Twitter and Facebook and sent out to our newsletter list.  t was a simple request for anyone who wanted to join the prayer launch for the book.

We sent a one-sentence email prayer by Mail Chimp to the 164 people each morning for 40 days. Like these short prayers:

Put this book in the right hands at the right times.

Prepare the hearts of the people in Germany for this book.

Bless the marketing team as they plan for this book.

Bless the readers to accept God as their Shepherd.

For 40 days we all prayed. Then the book went out!

So, how do you evaluate the success of a prayer launch? You can’t measure the results in numbers. But here are some things that happened afterwards.

During an event at a church in South Carolina a woman we did not know came up and introduced herself. She said, “I prayed for this book.” A few tears were shed!

A woman in North Carolina was one of our first reviewers on Amazon. Her life had been changed by the book as she prayed for others to be moved by God’s Word.

Several of the prayer partners wrote to tell how the daily prayers had been used by God in their own lives on a particular day.

Best of all we were reminded daily that the book was God’s and not ours. That He would use His ways to share His words. That we had no need to be anxious.

What do think about a prayer launch? Some of you may have been part of this one. We would love to hear about it from your perspective.

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers

www.WritingSisters.com

 

Shepherd Song

 

 

Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

Jigsaw 3 bits out

Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!