Honing Our Lives

knife sharpeningAs iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

While every writer knows that in today’s marketplace, interacting with others on a regular basis is a necessity for selling books, the real heart of writing – sitting down and putting words on a paper or screen – is a lonely job.

For me, however, “lonely” is not the word I would choose to describe my experience of writing. “Lonely” carries a negative connotation, the idea of being “cut off” from others, or “without” the company of others. In contrast, when I write, I feel a freedom to explore my own ideas and the joy-filled opportunity to connect with the Spirit within me. Writing is my “alone” time, not my “lonely” time. It is a personal retreat that renews me because I get to luxuriate in the word-smithing gifts that God has given me.

And yet I can’t deny the truth of Proverbs 27:17; without the other writers, marketing experts, and loving friends in my life, I wouldn’t be able to make the most of those same God-given word-smithing gifts. That’s not to say I’ve always felt this way – when I was new to my craft, praised by my writing teachers in high school and college, I had no use for the comments or criticisms of my peers. If my teachers liked my work, why should I listen to other students who struggled to compose even simple essays? It took me decades to understand the importance of my readers as opposed to the praises of my teachers. Here’s the difference:

The praise of others encourages you (and that’s a great thing!), but it’s honest criticism that will help you improve your craft.

It wasn’t until I began writing as a freelance magazine contributor that I first received truly effective editorial direction. Editors know their audience and work to appeal to them, so they have to play to the crowd. Teachers, on the other hand (I can say this because I’ve been a writing teacher myself), are the final audience of one person, and once a student has mastered what that teacher wants, there is no room to grow. And since all of us like to be praised, it’s tough to walk away from all that positive reinforcement to seek criticism!

As with so many endeavors in life, though, we have to push the boundaries to become the best God intends us to be. In the writing life, that means giving up the comfort of praise in order to find the challenge of improvement: we have to ask many people how we can do better, listen carefully to their comments, and use them to grow our craft.

One of my favorite sayings about Christianity is that “no one is a Christian alone.” Jesus Christ came to shape us into a community of believers, so we might draw on each other’s faith and gifts to grow His kingdom. That applies to our writing careers as well.

We need to be iron for each other.

To whom do you turn to be iron for you? For whom are you iron?

Conferences and Friends


writingWith the beginning of the ACFW conference barely a week away, you’ll see many posts outlining the reasons you should attend a writers conference, what to expect, how to approach editors and agents, and basic conference survival guides.

I’d like to tell you about my first conference (albeit not ACFW, but RWA) in San Francisco. The day prior to the start of the conference was the Faith, Hope, and Love chapter meeting, which was RWA’s chapter for inspirational writers. There I met three special, very gifted writers, Debra Clopton, Linda Goodnight, and Janet Tronstad.

We had hooked up briefly in a pre-conference chat room and decided to take in a few of the San Francisco sights together. It was an afternoon of laughter and fun, especially when we ended up on the wrong street car and found ourselves in the Painted Ladies section of town rather than at Fisherman’s Wharf. Long story short, we finally made it to our destination, but what impressed me most was not the sights of the beautiful Oceanside city, but how these women took me in. Me–a green newbie writer. The encouragement I received from them that day has fueled my writing efforts for years.

I have since met other wonderful woman, such as the dozen who formed the group called the My Book Therapy Ponderers. A God-ordained story that I’ll save for another post, but just as impactful in my writing career.

The key to a successful conference is making connections. Surround yourself with as many writer friends as you can to encourage you, pray you through the journey, and help you along the way. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this. Get their business cards or write their names and emails down on a piece of paper. Then afterwards send them an email, or perhaps invite them to do a guest post on your blog. The key is to make new friends. It will be one of your best takeaways from a conference and an invaluable resource to the future of your writing career.

Your turn: What have you found to be the most valuable takeaway from a conference?

Inspiring After-Effects

“[Moses] persevered because he saw Him who is invisible.”
Hebrews 11:27 (NIV)

Have you ever been exasperated and felt ready to quit? That’s how Moses felt when he found out the Israelites had been worshiping a golden calf while he was on a mountain, talking with God. The legendary leader was so angry, he threw the stone tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments, smashing them to pieces at the base of Mount Sinai.

Moses was exhausted and frustrated by the burden of leading God’s people and he was hungry for a deeper understanding of God’s power and goodness. In Exodus 33:18, Moses boldly asked the Lord, “Now show me your glory.” In other words, Moses desired to know God more fully. He wanted to experience more of God’s presence than he had ever encountered before. God graciously granted His passionate servant’s request. He said,

”There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back, but my face must not been seen” (Exodus 33:21-23).

Yucca Life

I’d like to suggest that God’s phrasing actually illustrates the way we see His active presence manifested today. We don’t see God’s glorious presence revealed before He acts. Just as Moses only was allowed to see God’s back, we only see the after-effects of His glory.

You don’t see Him thundering down from heaven before you get the cancer diagnosis. You see the after-effects of His glory when you come through the treatments and hear the words “cancer free.” You don’t see the light of His presence shining in your daughter’s dorm room as you fearfully pray for God to somehow supply the funds for her college education. You see the after-effects of His glory as she walks across a stage sporting her cap and gown and receives her diploma.

God’s involvement in your writing journey may not be evident to you for years. There may be times your efforts seem fruitless. But you recognize the after-effects of God’s active presence, guiding you and stretching you and providing for you, as you open a box filled with the author copies of your first published book. You don’t see God’s active presence heading in your direction; you see “His back,” the after-effects of our Lord’s extraordinary glory.

When you feel frustrated and want to quit, ask God to show you His glory, as Moses did. Ask Him to make His active presence more real to you. Then be sure to share the after-effects of His glory with fellow followers of Christ. It is glimpses of His awe-inspiring glory that enable us to persevere as Moses did and fulfill our God-given purposes during our time on this earth.

Let’s encourage one another to persevere through whatever struggles we are facing today. What after-effects of our Lord’s active presence are evident in your life?

Adapted from Mindy Ferguson’s new study: Eyewitness to Glory: Moses, Discerning God’s Active Presence (Chattanooga, TN; AMG Publishers, 2014),129.

The Summer of Success: Michael Ehret

Facing a crossroads at the moment—what step to take next and all that. I’m not all angsty over it, but I have been thinking a lot about the late Donna Summer, as a result.

DonnaSummerDonna Summer? The Queen of Disco?

First of all, thinking about Donna Summer is not new for me. I’ve had a long time interest in her career and in the singer, herself. I’ve even been known to be a defender of Summer (she’s so much more than disco), because I think her talent was far overshadowed by her persona and by the Super Storm known as Disco that came in and tried, unsuccessfully, to obliterate the Rock and Roll shoreline.

Variety defined her career

Still, I’m more interested in Summer’s genre-hopping than in her music, per se. For instance, did you know she was nominated for 17 Grammy Awards in eight different categories (sort of like fiction genres)? Further, did you know she won five times in four different categories—twice in Inspirational? That’s right, Inspirational. The singer of 1975’s 17-minute+ disco moan-fest, “Love To Love You, Baby,” won two Grammy Awards for Best Inspirational song (1984 and 1985).

Conventional wisdom is to not genre hop in the publishing world. There’s greater freedom in music (Linda Ronstadt also played the field, musically). But in publishing, writers are often advised that if they start in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense) then they should stay in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense).

But, I must have a little Donna Summer in me because I don’t want to be constrained in that way. Before we get all crazy, let’s remember that no one is knocking down my door for my next book—or, for that matter, my first book.

But—again—we can look to the diva for guidance. Because “conventional wisdom” isn’t called “conventional-sort-of-good-advice,” you know?

Summer made her mark in one genre—disco. It was the red-hot genre of the time and she rode that horse for all it was worth.

But when the horse started to get hobbled, she made the smart move of wrapping up that era with a Greatest Hits collection, changing record labels, and then came roaring back in 1980 with a rock-pop disc without even a whiff of disco, The Wanderer. And a song from that project earned her one of her Grammy nominations.

DiscoBallWhat are the lessons for a writer?

  1. Do your homework. Summer worked in Germany and Europe in various touring companies of shows like “Hair” and “Godspell” before connecting with Giorgio Moroder for her first major album, Love To Love You Baby.
  2. Establish yourself as an excellent writer of (choose one: romance, historical, suspense, other) and then, like Summer, work your butt off to make your mark. She released seven disco albums from 1975 to 1979—that’s four years. Three of them in a row were blockbuster double albums.
  3. Keep your nose to the ground and your face forward. If you pay attention to the market and publishing trends, you’ll know when it’s time to change genres. If you’re a big enough success, you’ll get your opportunity. When you do, show the same quality, perseverance, and dedication to craft that got you where you are.

That’s the way to build a Hall of Fame career (Summer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013) and do all the things you want to do.

Summer died May 17, 2012, at age 63. At her death (from cancer) she was working on two albums simultaneously—a collection of standards and a new dance music collection.

For the record, Summer’s Grammy wins were for:

  1. Best R&B Female Performance, 1979, for “Last Dance.”
  2. Best Rock Female Performance, 1980, for “Hot Stuff.”
  3. Best Inspirational Performance, 1984, for “He’s A Rebel.”
  4. Best Inspirational Performance, 1985, for “Forgive Me.”
  5. Best Dance Music Performance, 1998, for “Carry On.”

Additionally, she was nominated four times for Best Pop Vocal, twice for Best R&B Vocal, twice for best Rock Vocal, once for Album of the Year, once for Best Disco Vocal, once for Best Inspirational, and once for Best Dance Music.

Not a bad career.

Your turn: So, do you have a little Donna Summer in you?
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MichaelMichael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the former ACFW Journal Magazine and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star. You can connect with Michael via his website, Facebook and Twitter.

Encouraging Aspiring Writers

Photo/CCWCAs a freelance writer and writing instructor, I’m often asked to edit the work of my peers and of aspiring writers. And I love to encourage others to tell the stories that matter most.

Grammar cops. I also appreciate the editing skills of my writing peers, as they wield their red pens and hack on my “shoddy” first drafts. But at times, I observe grammar cops attack insecure, fragile writers, who approach them for encouragement as they tiptoe into the waters of writing for publication.

Now, I’ve been known to whip out my red pen from time to time, when someone asks me to do that kind of editing. But I try to use a little discernment and discretion when a novice writer approaches me with their work.

Aspiring writers. Sensitive, aspiring writers need our empathy, since they trust us with some of their most intimate tales. These newer writers pour out their hearts and souls into their first pieces; we need to handle them with care.

I’ve seen writers spanning from late teens to senior citizens. And I’ve noticed many of them choose topics dealing with difficult life struggles—the death of loved ones, flashbacks of war experiences, or simply leaving home and beginning their own journey as adults. I’m able to empathize with their pain, confusion, doubts, and fears. I recognize their need to tell their stories, trying to make sense out of the rumblings of their minds and troubled hearts.

Levels of edit. I believe it’s vital to discern the needs of a writer, not always assuming they need a grammar cop to attack their work with a red pen. My unsolicited grammar cop comments tend to cause more harm than good. I find it helpful to ask writers to clarify their needs and their expectations of me as an editor. What level of editing do they want?

I also think it’s important to examine one aspect of editing at a time, since I don’t do well at multi-tasking. And although many professional editors may have different terms to describe their levels of editing, my editing checklist for my own work includes three—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints. But sometimes, I consider one more level editing, especially with writers who need encouragement—like students, wannabe writers, or hobby writers (i.e. not professional writers).

Peer responses. Some professional writers may not even consider the peer response a valid level of editing, but it can serve as an important phase of the writing process. For instance, this approach might be helpful for some critique groups.

In the classroom, I required my students to participate in peer groups where they would listen and respond to each other’s work. I preferred small groups, where students seemed to be a little less intimidated. I wanted to encourage their writing, not scare them off.

I provided every student several copies of a peer response form. Then, as each writer read their essay out loud, their peers would listen, read along, and record their responses. After each reading, the group would discuss the responses.

One of my favorite writing professors, Dr. Sally Crisp, encouraged me as she taught aspiring writing teachers the value of emphasizing meaning.

I believe that we write to communicate and connect with others, often others we don’t know and may never know. In responding to writers, I like to let them know how their message got through to me. In other words, whether I ‘got it’ or I didn’t. I teach the same principle when I teach collaboration. The right kind of collaboration can be an excellent means of fostering in writers a keen sense of audience.

Dr. Crisp also composed a list of peer response questions and comments that you might find helpful, too.

Peer Responses

  1. How has the writer introduced the essay?
  2. What is the main theme of the essay?
  3. Is there any information that you are wondering about? What might be added to develop the main point more fully?
  4. How did the author conclude the essay?
  5. What part of the essay do you find the most effective? Why?
  6. Suggest two or three things that would make the paper even better.

Who has encouraged you as a writer? 

When the Bad Reviews Come {And They Will}

 

bad book reviews

“She needs to have more respect for the process . . . trying to claim that everyone should heal like her.”

The words pierced my heart.

Until then, I had enjoyed a couple good months of positive feedback, those heartwarming days after the release of my debut nonfiction book, When A Woman Finds Her Voice. The book hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases charts and then walked the Amazon {paid} bestseller list {in its genre} for a couple weeks in the top five. It also won some literary awards. But more importantly, my words were reaching the hearts of readers as comments like “inspiring,” “introspective,” “encouraging,” and even “life-changing” peppered online reviews.

That sort of feedback overwhelms a girl with God’s goodness, giving value to this shy writer’s words. To think He had somehow exchanged these primitive ramblings of one who simply longed to spread hope and had used them as encouragement for others, that’s humbling.

I’d finally felt the freedom to say it above a whisper: I am an author.

But then that two-star review hit my screen, attacking my sense of worth. It shouldn’t have, I know. Mentors warned me it was coming; they’d suggested I not even read it.

I didn’t listen.

I determined to mentally counter the negativity and then quickly return to my illusory sense of fulfillment. After all, I welcomed reviews—good or bad. Perpetual student that I am, I’m known to {relentlessly} solicit constructive criticism as an opportunity to learn. And here it sat, this chance for free education, this two-star review therapy.

But in a review-driven culture where we allow others to determine what we read, watch, eat, and even where we spend the night, how can we not be impacted when someone misunderstands our heart?

The judgement sliced soul deep, challenging insecurities I’d long ago buried.

This is the sort of vulnerability we open ourselves up to when we cast our words, our heart, into a public arena that holds potential for not just admiration and esteem but also misunderstanding.

You see, there’s nothing I’m more compassionate about than reaching the heart of a wounded woman and leading her to the restoring, redemptive feet of Jesus. But this particular reader didn’t know that, didn’t know me.

So how do we filter through these words when they come?

  1. We anchor. It’s crucial to anchor any negativity with perspective. We can’t allow disapproval to overtake our thoughts. For the one poor criticism, I had 49 positive reviews from folks who had been uplifted by my words. I worked hard to focus on those. {Very hard.}
  2. Bounce back. To feel defensive at first is natural, but if you find yourself wanting to respond negatively {as in hunt the person down on social media to blast them back}, walk away from the screen and refocus. Immediately.
  3. Consider truth. Ask yourself, “Is this true? Is the criticism valid? Did I somehow fall short?” If so, use this information in a positive manner and seek to write with excellence. However, if the negatives aren’t well-rounded and constructive, the point baseless, you simply have to let it go.

As word-weavers, this should become our default: in the face of bad reviews, let’s practice our ABCs to rebuild our confidence. Anchor. Bounce. Consider.

Okay, I’m curious now: How do you handle criticism?

7 Writing Tips We Learned From Our Dogs

samson-at-computer

We have always loved dogs. Over the course of our lives together we have owned over 27 dogs. It is not surprising that some were our best teachers. Here’s what our four-legged friends have taught us about writing:

1. Sit and Stay. These are the two most important commands for writers! If you don’t sit down and begin, you will never get started. Staying is important, too. No, you don’t need another snack.

2. Dig!  Sometimes the facts that we need are buried deep, like a good old bone. The best writing requires some digging–in the library, on the internet, in your heart. Sniff it out. Then dig. If you don’t find it, dig another hole.

3. Know your territory. Writing takes good boundaries and good boundaries mean saying no. One important lesson for both of us was to protect and guard our writing time. We put the time on our schedule and then we protect it. Remember: Growl, don’t bite!

4. Expect treats. It is hope that keeps us going. Hope of touching a reader. Hope of one day holding your book in your hands. Excitement and anticipation is an important part of writing. Sit down to write expecting something good to happen.

5. Be kind to the postman. It’s not his fault. Rejection is an important part of the writing process. Keep it in perspective. Shake it off and start again.

6. Stay in the moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself and start worrying about the future.  Don’t stay stuck in the past. Worry is not your friend.

7. Play! Some of the best ideas come to us away from the desk. Stop work to chase a few ideas. Dogs love any distraction from a tennis ball to a squirrel. The work will still be waiting when you come back.

Has your pet taught you anything about writing?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers  www.WritingSisters.com

 

Bio: The Writing Sisters, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers were born into a writing family, and began critiquing manuscripts at an early age for their mother, Newbery winner Betsy Byars.  They went on to become authors of more than thirty-five children’s novels. Their first book for adults is  The Shepherd’s Song,  Howard Books, March 2014.