About Rachel Phifer

As the daughter of missionaries, Rachel Phifer grew up in Malawi, South Africa and Kenya. She holds a B.A in English and psychology from Houston Baptist University, and lives in Houston with her family. Her novel, The Language of Sparrows, released July, 2013.

Creating a Vision for Your Writing Career

No doubt you have a vision for your writing career, but have you ever put it down in black and white? Taking some time to sort through and pray over your writing objectives can provide focus and direction for a solid future. If you do create a vision, here are a few pointers to help you brainstorm.map

Why Do You Write?

Make a list of all of the reasons you write. Write about the joys that come with writing – the way your senses sing when you’re in writing mode, the enchantment of building a story world, and the satisfaction of carving away the dross as you edit.

What does writing do for you as a person? Has it strengthened your work ethic or made you a better communicator, for example?

What does writing do for your loved ones? For a long time, I struggled with whether I should write when I had a family to take care of. But I finally accepted that though I have more time when I don’t write, I’m a more satisfied and centered mother when I do. Likewise, how does your writing impact your spouse, your siblings and your parents?

What does writing do for your readers? Even if you’re not published, maybe you’ve touched others through a blog entry or devotional. If you are published, think of some of the reviews and reader emails you’ve received.

Writing about your motivation might not seem essential, but it gives you something to come back to when you’re feeling discouraged, especially if you tend to second guess yourself. And it’s a good way to count your blessings.

What Holds You Back?

List everything that gets in the way of writing – other priorities, fear of failure, dry creative well, etc. Evaluate the obstacles and work out ways to overcome them, whether with self-talk to overcome doubt or jump-starts for writer’s block. Also, think about how you can honor your other God-given priorities, such as family and health, while being true to your calling as a writer.

What Is Your Writing Style?

Set out some basics, such as genre and style. List authors you admire and would like to emulate. Do you want to write spare or with a literary bent? Are you writing to the masses or to a niche? What kind of topics do you want to engage?

But don’t simply stick to the descriptions that define your writing for the market. In your heart of hearts, what do you want your writing to be about? Think of the nerve you want to touch in your readers. Bringing beauty alive, illustrating aspects of God’s character, or simply entertaining people in their harried lives can all be things that could go on your list.

What Are Your Goals?

Think of goals that are measurable and within your power, goals you can clearly illustrate that you’ve met. For example, finish a novel in a year or submit a proposal to twenty agents by March.

This is also the place to plan over time. How much writing will you do in a given period?  If you’re not published, what are you going to do to move toward that end? If you are published, what actions are you going to take to develop your career in the next year, over the next five years, the next decade? This is where plans for your future get laid out, so the more specific you can be about writing, marketing and networking, the better.

What Are Your Hopes?

In the writing world there is so much beyond our control. As long as you realize that there are no guarantees for some things, it’s okay to set your hopes out too.

So write out the dream agency and publisher you want for your career. Talk about the kind of sales numbers you’d like to see and whether you’d like to write full time as your only career. Write about how you’d like your books to be remembered. Then plan out ways you can encourage those things to happen.


Evaluating a Writing Career When Life is Busy, Complex, or Just Plain Hard

If yowatchu’ve read many writing blogs you’ve seen the advice: writers write, period. They write because they can’t help it. They write through thick and thin. And if they’re not writing, they probably don’t have what it takes to be a Real Writer.

Maybe. On the other hand, nobody has to write. Writing is compelling. It may even be a calling. But no one is chaining you to your laptop. You can walk away from a writing career. And sometimes walking away is the right choice (at least temporarily).

There is a cost to pursuing a writing career when the timing isn’t right, and it can be steep. There are a few reasons to consider delaying a writing career, or walking away entirely.

When life sends an emotional tsunami your way, consider taking a break. Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing, wrote through her sister’s suicide and a variety of other hard knocks, but when she was diagnosed with cancer, to her surprise, she couldn’t put pen to paper. Divorce, death of a loved one, catastrophic illness and the like can leave even the most determined writer too numb to write, not just for a few weeks, but for a year or two. If writing is therapeutic, then by all means, write. But if your creative well is dry – and it might be – give yourself permission to take a sabbatical. Chances are, your publisher will understand once you explain the situation.

When your phase of life is not conducive to writing, consider delaying your writing career. If you have kids at home, are you able to give them enough undivided attention while you write, market and do whatever it takes to make a living from your writing? When they think of you, are you a back slaving away at the laptop or someone there for them to confide in, cuddle with and ask for help? You won’t get a second chance to be a mom or dad, but you might get a second chance at writing once your kids are independent.

If you have a day job, are you able to devote yourself to your work, or is half your mind mapping out stories instead of doing what you’re paid to do?

I understand what keeps drawing you back to writing. Seeing characters and storylines take shape, falling into the words, going into that writing zone – there’s an exhilaration to it that doesn’t exist in “real life.”

But you can always blog, write short stories and vignettes, or spend years writing a book at a more leisurely pace. Consider putting aside marketing and seeking publication until there’s time. You may even find those years of leisurely writing add up to something incredible. The Far Pavilions, The Help and The Thirteenth Tale all took five to ten years to write. Time gave the stories extra layers, which is likely what made them bestsellers. And some bloggers have unwittingly developed a large following. Once they were ready for primetime, they had that elusive platform publishers are always looking for.

Last, consider whether writing is helping you avoid something that needs your attention. I hate to say it, but many writers are so determined to write because they’re avoiding something – social anxiety, unhappy families, addictions, character vices and mundane lifestyles. For all of the challenges of writing, it seems easier than trying to fix a deeply flawed life. But please hear this: healing your life is far more important than anything you will ever write. It will be difficult and scary and will take at least as much time as it took to become a proficient writer. But in the end, changing your own story may be your true calling and offer the most joy.

24 Ways to Develop Your Muse



Charles Dickens’ Dream

The muse that lives deep in your subconscious is something of a sprite. You can write without her of course, if you don’t mind being methodical. But when the muse shows up, she takes your writing to a whole new level, offering plot surprises, adding in soulful wisdom you didn’t know you possessed, and giving your story a dreamlike quality.

The problem is that your muse is not easily tamed. She comes and goes at her own will. She is notoriously right-brained and knows nothing of schedules and deadlines. And yet, like the stray cat in your neighborhood, she can be lured in.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things that work with my muse. Your muse, I’m sure, has his own personality, so your mileage may vary.

  • Let your mind drift. When your guard is down, as you take a shower, walk the dog or do dishes, great ideas will surface.
  • Ask yourself tough plot questions before you go to sleep. Your mind will get to work on it without your conscious self even being aware.
  • Flirt with writing challenges that are too difficult for you. Your muse will take the dare, if you give her time.
  • Explore scene kernels. Take a snatch of dialogue or a small piece of action and set your mind to simmer for a few days before trying to expand it into a full-fledged scene.
  • Fire your internal editor. You can invite him back later once your muse has completed her work.
  • Release guilt, self-doubt and worries. The muse likes to play, so be a child at play.
  • Read poetry. It will enrich the word creator within you.
  • Write lists of random evocative words. (See above).
  • Take entire writing days. Send the kids to Grandma’s. Take a vacation from your day job. The longer you immerse yourself in the writing, the more your muse will surface.
  • Take breaks from the writing. Muses need their rest too.
  • Write dangerously. Forget the market. Forget your audience. Break a few conventions. You can always scale back later, but a few writing leaps will give your muse room to expand your story.
  • Do your research. Whether you’re writing about a Viking ship or a modern day heart surgeon, your muse can be more creative if she’s well-informed.
  • Say no. No to committee meetings. No to the internet and solitaire. Writing time is golden, and it has to be protected.
  • Follow rabbit trails. Leave the outline, and see where the what-if leads. Sometimes the muse just knows.
  • Sleep well. A rested muse is more creative.
  • Conversely, stay up late. If you’re on a roll, don’t let the muse leave.
  • Do something you haven’t done before. If you’re not a singer, sing out loud. Cook exotic meals. Dance. Hike. Learn origami. Trying something new, especially something physical, releases another part of you.
  • Let your muse free while you immerse yourself in a new book or movie. She’ll extract ideas that become totally original when they mix in with your story.
  • Put it in writing. Notes have a way of kick-starting your subconscious into action.
  • Twist the story without a clue of how it will resolve itself.
  • Go outside. Sunlight and wind and grass invigorate us, and thus our stories.
  • Live mindfully. Taste what you eat. Turn off the TV and listen to the sounds in your home. Feel the words on your tongue as you talk. Bring your senses alive and it will build new grooves into your story.
  • Be patient. If your story is in knots, work on some other aspect. Meanwhile, your muse will be untangling the story threads under the surface.
  • Most of all, don’t try too hard to design the first draft. Ride the story’s waves. Control has its place, but the stories with the biggest hearts come from a place of freedom.

There is more to the mind than we know. It has multiple levels and works in ways we don’t always understand. Give those deeper levels permission, and your muse will work hard for you.

Writing with a Hook

What will make your book fly off the shelves? A good story, high quality writing or a strong Fish-hookvoice won’t help you unless readers know your book exists.  And for that, you need such an interesting premise that readers around the country are chatting up your book. In other words, you need a hook.

Yes, the dreaded hook word. I’ve heard about for years, but it seemed rather elusive. But recently, I’ve been studying my bookshelves to find some broad categories of hooks, and it’s getting clearer. Here are a few concepts I’ve found.

  • Give beloved fairytales, historical figures, novels or paintings center or side stage. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Sherlock Holmes), While Beauty Slept (Sleeping Beauty), The Girl with a Pear Earring (Vermeer’s painting), Dear Mr. Knightley (a love for all things Jane Austen) and The Constant Princess (Henry VIII’s first wife) are all examples. Readers want to spend time with favorite characters and art.
  • Tie the story together with a hobby. Ordinary hobbies such as knitting and cooking can certainly draw in readers who enjoy knitting or cooking themselves, but if you can find a twist, this will make it stand out from the crowd. For example, in The Language of Flowers, two characters with a love of gardening send each other messages not with notes, but with flowers, each delivery carrying a symbolic meaning only they understood. Unique hobbies can give your story a little flash as well – i.e., custom shoe design or wild life rescue.
  • Allow readers to vicariously do something they’ve always wanted to do. I bought Forgotten because it was about a character who, after being stranded in Africa for several months, returns to find that her job, her romance and her apartment are all gone. She’ll have to recreate her life. Spoiler alert: the book did not live up to its promise of the heroine of getting a life makeover, but that promise is what made me buy it. What other deep seated desires will connect you to readers?
  • Create zinger beginnings or zinger twists. When an old man in the prologue of The Lost Wife tells a wedding guest she looks familiar, and at last figures out that she was his wife just before the Nazis invaded Prague, that certainly sent readers to Amazon’s checkout cart (me included). In Half Brother, a boy arrives home to find his mother holding a baby chimpanzee, and that’s interesting enough to catch a reader’s attention. Burying a zinger in the middle of the book is a harder sell, since it’s not something readers will see when they browse. But if it’s good enough, it can certainly get people talking about your book.
  • Start with vulnerable characters at risk. The little boy locked in the cupboard in Sarah’s Key is a great example of this. But even more ordinary risks – a teen without adult love or support (Dandelion Summer) or a Puritan woman being coerced to marry a man she doesn’t trust (Love’s Pursuit) are good draws. Readers only need to hear the concept to feel they need to see the character to safety.
  • Create a character the world depends on. High stakes Tom Clancy type novels where the character must stop nuclear bombs from detonating or bring an end to a plague outbreak, or fantasy novels where the hero/heroine holds the key to the coming war (Lord of the Rings, Blue Sword) are examples.
  • Begin the story with profound emotion readers can connect with. Remember, readers don’t know the story or the characters yet, so it must be something they can easily connect with. In Coldwater Revival, the heroine is apparently stillborn at birth, but begins to breathe with the loving attention she receives from her father. In If You Find me, a girl sees her father for the first time a decade after she was kidnapped.

Think about what made you pick up your last book, or even better, what had you chatting up the book to every reader you knew? Once you’ve found the quality that made it so compelling, you’ve probably found the hook.

Refusing the Writer’s Call

Refusal of the call questis a common element of great stories, fictional or historical. The hero is called to a quest, but, initially, he balks. He says, whether through word or deed, “I’m not big enough for this task.” Or maybe just, “I’ve got better things to do than sacrifice myself for that.”

From Jonah getting on a ship sailing in the opposite direction of Nineveh to Bilbo Baggins telling Gandalf that all he wants is a nice tidy hobbit house with tea served on time, heroes have been trying to escape the call since mankind has been telling stories around the fireside. And for just as long, the stories have been winning the hero over to the adventure.

Why? Few of us see ourselves as heroes. We know we’re not up to the task, whatever the task is, and we’re right. We’re not big enough, strong enough, brilliant enough or good enough for the task at hand. And yet, deep in our souls, we know God made us for more than having our tea on time.

In all good stories, the hero finally accepts the call. After trying to outrationalize his call, Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes on the role of hero as he boards what is likely the last ship home to Nazi Germany, a ship that takes him ultimately to his death.

Having been elected to archbishop because he is quiet and conservative, expecting to make no waves in an El Salvador on the brink of civil war, Oscar Romero finally accepts that he must speak out, as he stands over the bodies of two murdered priests.

Paul accepts what he must do as God calls his name in a flash of heavenly light.

Little Samuel answers God on the third call in his small child’s voice: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  Not knowing, of course, that he was accepting a lifetime mantle as prophet.

We writers refuse our call, too. Sitting down at the computer and typing out a page is such a small thing, right? It’s tiny in comparison to the heroes that have been written about. And yet, it feels daunting.

There’s the courage it takes to face a fresh scene. Will it be beautiful or fall flat? It’s as if it’s a test of everything inside you.

And there’s the courage it takes to call yourself a writer. The voices are insistent. How many times have you told yourself that you should just concentrate on being a parent, give your talents to your church and your job, and live a peaceful, ordinary life? You don’t have time for this story? Or more likely, you’re not talented enough for the story you want to write?

But if God made you to write, you’re going to be restless until you do. You can play the role of Jonah, and get on the ship going in the opposite direction and fight it out with the big fish. Or you can accept that being brilliant and big-hearted enough for the story is not what’s at stake. If God made you for this writing quest, he’s planning on equipping you as you go. Sit down at your computer and get started.

Six Keys to Writing a Story with Spiritual Content


1. Hook the reader. Every good story neceltic crosseds a hook, including the spiritual story. Set up the spiritual story with an intriguing question and a clear goal. In The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, we are first introduced to Father Emilio as a man who narrowly missed sainthood. He now lies in a hospital bed, sullen, uncommunicative and suspected of a terrible crime. The reader is left wondering how a godly man came to be in such a place and what his future holds now.

2. Lay the foundation for the spiritual resolution. Miracles and sudden moments of salvation may happen in real life, but will feel contrived in fiction. Not only that, but they can also be hurtful to those with unanswered prayers or who have had to work through long, hard years of healing. Build the steps toward a satisfying spiritual conclusion into the structure of the novel at every turn. The story has to earn its ending, so that when it comes, the reader will feel as if it couldn’t have worked out any other way.

3. Dig for deeper themes. As important as it is to show characters accepting the gospel or to ask where God is when it hurts, those themes are common. Most likely, your novel is preaching largely to the choir, so you need to find themes that speak to the deeper struggles and goals Christians are working on as well. What does it mean to live in the light of eternity? How does prayer shape us? How do you love your enemy? How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily? And so on. When you get those rare non-Christian readers, those themes might just speak more deeply to them about the gospel than the message they’ve likely heard before.

4. Be fair and truthful. I once heard a theologian say that we needed to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions, and if you’re going to look at the worst of, say, Islam or atheism, you need to be willing to look at the worst of Christianity. In the movie God’s Not Dead, when the atheist professor breaks down and admits that he’s a bitter atheist because God let his mother die, it didn’t ring true. The fact is, there are many atheists who have arrived at their worldview based on careful thought, however misguided we may believe them to be. They may also happen to make decent citizens and neighbors. And we’ve all found our share of gossips and control freaks in church. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you dig deeply, the light of Christ will show through all the more clearly because you’ve been honest.

5. Show the Sacrifice. From A Tale of Two Cities to Titanic, audiences have always stuck by a story that involves a heartfelt sacrifice. But it’s the core of a Christian story. Whether it’s an act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will, it’s the sacrifice that makes the story work.

6. Show the Beauty. Sometimes writers take for granted that the resolution is what the readers want. Don’t forget to show them why they want it. Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. These little moments that show the beauty of God’s ways clarify the spiritual goal all the way through the book.

Overcoming Fear of the Blank Page

blank pagesWhy are you afraid of that page? You’re creative, right? You have a brilliant idea for a book, and you’ve loved writing since you could hold a pencil.

If you find staring down a blank page terrifying, know you’re in good company. A search on Pinterest for writing quotes shows that at least half of them have to do with braving the blank page.

Prolific writers and gifted writers alike confess to an absolute terror when sitting down with a fresh scene, but they’ve learned the tools to tame their fears. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1)      Start early in the day. Your mind is at its best after a good night’s sleep, and your book deserves that best. Even if all you can give in the morning is half an hour before getting the family up or heading off to work, getting a few paragraphs written gives you that dose of courage that makes you feel as if you can finish the scene later in the day.

2)      Outline or jot down a few notes beforehand. Having the skeleton of what you’ll write gives you a good start, even if you veer off in different directions once you begin writing. I’m no outliner, but writing down a few key points for the scene ahead gives me the feeling that I’m not staring into an abyss when I look at the blank page.

3)      Remember the first draft is just the clay. It’s rough. It’s flawed. And that’s okay. Later you’ll mold it into something beautiful, once you’ve got something written down to work with. As the popular Nora Roberts quote goes, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank one.”

4)      End your day’s writing in mid-stream. This was Hemingway’s technique. By leaving his day’s work where he still had something to write, he guaranteed that he would have the words to begin the next day’s work.

5)      Prime the pump. Write anything at all, even if it’s not your story. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a notebook. Each day, he wrote a letter on the left-hand page to his editor and friend, sometimes about the work, but often about family, politics. and whatever interested him. Once he finished his letter, he was ready to fill the right-hand page with the next scene in his novel.

6)      Write quickly. Too much thought might be what holds you back. Writing fast allows your subconscious to take over, and you might be surprised with what it brings up to the surface.

7)      Jot down random words. Ray Bradbury typed up lists of nouns and adjectives, reviving old childhood fears and fascinations, and remembering recent beauties and horrors. When he was stuck, he always found something in the list to get him writing.

8)      Focus on the page, not the novel. A page per day makes for a 365-page novel in a year, but breaking the task down makes it less frightening.

9)      Remember the joy. Writer’s block, obstacles in the writing, marketing, the difficulty in getting published, or finding time to write can all make writing a burden. Remember what brought you here in the first place – the love of words, dreaming up stories, bringing healing to the world, or whatever it is. Stick with that and forget the rest.

10)   Read and read some more. “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment,” Hart Crane said. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And you’ll be so saturated with words and ideas, you’ll have the material to work with. Even better, start your writing day by reading a page of someone else’s breathtaking writing.

There are probably dozens of other ideas where those came from. Ask other writers. But most importantly, ask yourself. What gives you the courage to write?