13 “Tells” of a Novice Writer

In the poker-playing world, professional card sharks have a term for a novice player who inadvertently gives away the cards he’s holding through some sort of gesture or tick of which he is unaware. The pros call it a “tell.”

pokerIn the publishing world, professional editors and agents look for the “tells” of a novice writer whenever they scan a manuscript. With practice, we can almost always pick out the amateur from the pro from reading just a page or two. Here’s a list of 13 Common “Tells” of an Amateur Writer that may give you an inside advantage at the publishing table.

  1. Too many clichés. If you find yourself using a common cliché–try changing it up for humor or effect. Instead of saying, “He marches to a different drum,” you might say, “She rhumbas to a different drum-ba.” You want to avoid cliches but they can also be springboards to creative alternatives.
  1. Too much telling, not enough showing. Use scene-setting, dialogue, metaphors and gestures to show your reader an emotion. Instead of, “She felt deep sorrow,” try instead, “She sat down, sighed heavily, staring out the window at nothing at all.  A slow trickle of tears turned to a river as her dam of resolve gave way to reality.”
  1. Too much preaching/didactic tone. Go through any non-fiction manuscript and take out words like “must” and “should” and any other words that feel like a finger-wagging nursery teacher who is scolding the reader.
  1. Sentences don’t vary in length and style.
  1. Manuscript is is too text dense.  Just looking at the page exhausts the eye because there are too many sentences crammed into one long paragraph, followed by another just as long.
  1. Page looks boring. There are not enough “reader treats” to keep today’s reader alert.   Especially in our current hyper-speed world, you want to make liberal use of shorter paragraphs and anything that breaks up and adds interest to the page.  Pull quotes, dialogue, lists, bullet points and stand-alone sentences here and there are some ways to keep the reader engaged.
  1. Dialogue is stiff and unnatural. The writer has not learned the art of professionally written dialogue. One sign of a pro is that they know to use a gesture to indicate the next speaker rather than over-using “he said” or “she said.” For example, rather than writing, “Joy said, ‘I love that crazy squirrel,’” a pro might write, “Joy laughed as she leaned toward the screen door. ‘I love that crazy squirrel.’”
  1. Main character is too unlikable or too perfect. Readers want to root for the protagonist so be careful not to make him appear either beyond redemption or too saintly. Make them flawed, human, and lovable.
  1. Too “Christianeze.” Christians are often blind to the phrases they’ve grown up using in church. Try sharing old religious phrases in fresh ways.  Instead of, “I’ve been redeemed,”  you might say, “I knew that God had taken the mess of my life and given me, in exchange, His love.”
  1. No transitions or weak transitions. This may be the #1 “tell” of a novice. You know what you are saying and where you are going, but your reader needs a very clear bridge from your former thought to the next or they will be confused and frustrated.
  1. Old-fashioned style. We see this in some classically trained, older writers who have not stayed current on how to grab the attention of today’s internet-savvy, fast-paced reader. Read popular blogs and note the style of writing that is reaching today’s generation of readers.
  1. Doesn’t use the art of “hooking the reader.” You don’t have long to grab the reader’s attention, so you want your first two sentences to be irresistibly compelling.
  1. Doesn’t end well. Pay attention to writers who end chapters or articles especially well. There is an art to tying up a chapter or a book. In fiction and non-fiction books alike, write a sentence at the end of the chapter that propels the reader forward, making it hard for them to put your book down. I often refer to the first paragraph when summarizing an article. (See example below where I will refer back to the “poker analogy” that started this post.)

By avoiding these common novice “tells” you will soon come across as a seasoned pro, and your chances in the game of publishing will improve considerably.

What other “tells” have you noticed that indicate an inexperienced writer?

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part III)

(Continued from Part I and Part II)

What made me think I could write a book? I mean, really. Book writing is for experts… for people who know things. Important things. My friend’s critical feedback on the early chapters of my manuscript only served to confirm what I already believed to be true: Who would care what I had to say, or if I even had the right to say it?

The wind had been knocked from my sails and I saw no point in continuing my brief writing career.

Yet in the midst of the doldrums, I couldn’t shake the memory of that moment with God many months before. “Write a book about the gifts you were given,” I heard him say in my office. If that was really God, maybe He knew something about me that I didn’t. Maybe He had a reason… a plan.

It was just about this same time another friend of mine traveled to Israel on vacation. She invited me to write a prayer on a slip of paper for her to place between the ancient stones in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I’ve always wanted to do this myself, but sending my prayer with her… a praise, really… was the next best thing to being there. In my note, I thanked God for the time he met me in my garage, and ultimately delivered my daughter, Annie, from the bondage of meth addiction. He had restored our family, and I still could scarcely wrap my mind around it.

Image, Jordan RiverMy friend also asked if there was a souvenir I might like from the Holy Land.

“So, um… yeah,” I replied. “Could you please bring me some of the Jordan River? Just a cup or so will do.”

Within a month, precious holy water and a few tiny river rocks had a new home on my
desk, right next to the computer screen. I transferred the water into a small Manzanita olive jar and labeled it “Jordan River” in black felt tip marker.

It was as if God’s presence had returned to my office, and I again found myself back in the business of writing. I needed feedback though. Professional feedback this time. I knew no writing professionals per se, and no one in publishing, yet my new neighbor, John Vawter, had self-published a book… about addiction no less. His book, Hit By a Ton of Bricks, had been in my reading arsenal when Annie was on the streets! John had a friend-of-a-friend with an editing business here in Bend, a fellow by the name of James Lund. He’d once worked for Multnomah Publishing in Sisters, Oregon, and became a freelancer when Random House acquired the company and moved it to New York City.

“Am I delusional to think I can do this?” I asked James Lund when we first spoke early that March. “I mean, is what I’ve written any good, or am I completely wasting my time?”

Jim was working on a project with a tight deadline but said he could give me a couple of hours in about two months.

Two hours in two months? He already sounded too important for a novice like me.

But I did hear from Jim two months later, at which time I sent him my story’s table of contents, two chapters, and a check for his time. A week later, his feedback stunned me. “You’re not wasting your time… keep writing. And I don’t think you’re going to need much help from me.”

Initially, my inner Woody Allen lamented that this James Lund person must not be very good at what he does. However, I secretly delighted in the apparent vindication from my friend’s critical review. I confess to skipping through the house chanting, “neener, neener, neener.”

Jim and I agreed to reconnect in five months, at which time I was to have an entire first Image, self editing bookdraft ready for his review. Jim also had a few tips for me. He suggested I read Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

It will help equip you with some fundamentals that will improve your writing,” he said. “Try inserting ‘beats’ in your dialogue to make it more interesting. You also want break up some of the narrative by creating ‘scenes.’ Have you ever heard the term ‘show don’t tell’?”

“Jim… what’s a ‘scene’?”

(Please stay tuned for the conclusion in Part IV, when I go from clueless to published.)

Honesty is the Best Policy

SavedbyGracieReaders often thank me for sharing my personal story of battling an anxiety disorder in my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God.

“You’re so brave to have written this,” they say. “I’d be embarrassed to share something so personal.”

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was being brave in recounting my experience with anxiety. I lost all my privacy boundaries when I gave birth to my third child in a room crowded with medical personnel. Once you’ve had an audience of strangers watch you push a child down the birth canal, there’s not much left that can embarrass you.

Another reason it surprises me to be described as “brave” is that all I’ve done is tell a true story about the ways my head, body, and spirit responded to taking a shelter dog into our home. It’s also true that I didn’t want the dog, but when I realized how the dog was helping me change my life for the better, I immediately wanted to tell that good news to other women who might be suffering with anxiety as I had.

First and foremost, I wanted to share my story to help others. I’d learned something new and valuable, and even though the therapeutic value of animals has been a popular research topic in recent years, I wanted to frame that information in a fresh way that would encourage readers to make that information work for them, too. Basically, I used myself as the proof in the research pudding.

And here’s where a true story encounters craft: it is the writer’s challenge to make the story simultaneously personal AND universal .

We all have experiences that are common to the human condition, yet people relate most deeply to the universal when it becomes intensely personal. Over the years of my writing career, I’ve learned that it’s the writer’s intimate voice and transparency (I’m talking about total honesty here!) that are key to combining the universal and personal. For example, if you tell me you’ve had a traumatic experience, I can nod and say “so have I,” but unless you give me the details of how it personally impacted you, I won’t be looking for similarities in our stories. That means you, as a writer, have to seek out and name the personal aspects of the universal that will engage your readers. You have to dig up the reality – expose the heart and soul – of the experience you want to share.

Make no mistake – digging in your life can be painful for you and those around you. With luck, though, it will be ultimately illuminating and healing, too.

And when you do that with your own story, you give your readers the permission, and hopefully, the courage, they might need to be honest with themselves in their lives. Honesty really is the best policy for a writer, because it’s the key to connecting compellingly with your audience as you make the universal very personal.

How do you approach the universal in your writing?

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part II)

(Continued from Part I) I began writing my memoir by starting near the end. That first night, while sitting in front of a blank computer screen, I tapped out the images closest to memory, and likely closest to my heart. It was the account of a remarkable day… the day I delivered my daughter, Annie, to a drug treatment center in California.

 “It wasn’t at all the institutional setting I’d expected for detox… At that late hour, the street was quiet and still. A woman emerged from the far side of the darkened house, brushing by a wall of hydrangeas that cast an eerie glow of amethyst and silver in partial moonlight. Her hushed tones made it seem a clandestine transfer as she took hold of the pull handle on Annie’s bag and turned to escort her inside… Just before both disappeared into the darkness of an open gate, Annie turned around to me and mouthed the words, ‘Thanks Mom.’ I thought I might burst. “

Within a week, I had one, full chapter completed. “Not bad,” my college-aged son reported after a quick read. He showed all the enthusiasm of dry cement. My husband refused to read it at all.Image, post-its and pens My brother, Paul, on the other hand, provided terrific support for my intentions with the book. He had been the smart one, the accomplished student. While I was sunbathing and reading Cliff Notes during our college years, Paul studied Comparative Literature as a graduate fellow at a top university. “So Goose,” he asked (yes, he calls me Goose), “are you going to write this sequentially or thematically? You also need to pay close attention to your voice. My what? I struggled with how to continue. What was a “voice” and where could I get one? Was I really capable of writing a book? What initially had seemed nothing more than a quick chronicle of a story I already knew, the magnitude of the task ahead started to overwhelm me.

Image, Book binder

I decided equipment would help. A lover of bins and boxes and anything organizational, I ventured into Office Max and filled my cart with a large black binder, numbered dividers, a year’s supply of yellow sticky notes, white 3×5 cards, and multi-colored mechanical pencils. Once home, I affixed a sticker to the spine of the binder with the word “Book” written on it in blue felt tip marker. I placed my new materials throughout the house: at my desk, on the coffee table in the great room, at my bedside table, near the bathroom sink, and in both cars. Ultimately finding it perilous to jot notes while driving, I purchased a small recording device. “Don’t forget to tell them what happened in the garage,” I recorded into the mic. Each night before I sat to write, I filed the day’s sticky note inspirations onto the dividers throughout the binder. Then I prayed. “This was your idea, God. Help, please!” Six months later I had an outline and about six chapters written. This feat coincided with the weekend visit of a close friend, and one of the smartest people I know. Bright, articulate, and extremely well read, my friend-who-shares-the-same-name-as-me, demanded to read what I’d written. She in fact seemed hurt that I hadn’t yet asked for her input and advice. I knew better than to share my work so early in the process, and especially with someone who tends to be critical, but I yielded to her insistence. I really hoped for some encouragement. You see it coming, don’t you? My friend emerged from our guest room the next morning, with the “Book” binder in hand, avoiding eye contact as she headed to the coffee pot. Oh boy, I thought. “So Barb,” she finally said, once settled in at the breakfast bar, “I, uh, think, uh, this is an important story for, uh, people to read. It’s not, uhhhhh, gonna be a best seller or anything, but it’s, uh, good.” She then looked up at me and added enthusiastically, “You sure have a great memory!” I laughed. Kind of. “Memory isn’t exactly what I was going for. But I guess that’s something. Thanks for reading.” Unable to leave well enough alone, she added, “You sure didn’t use many big words, did you?” At that point my heart went “thunk”… and I stopped writing. (Stay tuned for Part III when I share how the Jordan River helped me start writing again….)

I’m a Glutton for Information!

French bulldogSelling books and signing them is a happy experience for any author, but if I had to name my favorite part of the writing process that leads to publication, it would be doing the research that goes into my books.

I love doing research. In high school and college, I was the student who jumped for joy when the instructor assigned a research paper. I couldn’t wait to dig through the library for books, or hunt down obscure magazine articles. These days, research is even more expansive (unending, even!) thanks to the internet, but I love it, along with the hands-on research I encounter in the course of writing manuscripts. I’m just a glutton for information, I guess.

In celebration of that nerdy writerly trait, here are a few of my favorite research moments.

  1. I got a personal, private tour of a donut shop. Need I say more?
  2. I spent hours in the dark one night with some good friends checking nets for owls to band. We never got one, but I did get to wear a really cool headlamp while we strung up nets in the woods and told funny stories to pass the time.
  3. I took a firearms safety course and learned how to shoot a gun. I put 19 of 20 shots into the center of the target, so you can call me Eagle Eye from now on!
  4. I puckered up for a kiss from a French bulldog at a Pet Expo and posed with rabbits running an obstacle course. (Yup, that’s me and the bulldog above.)
  5. I spent a week in January at one of the world’s premier birdwatching areas in southern Texas. It was sub-zero and snowing back home in Minnesota at the time, which taught me the critical importance of timing when it comes to planning research trips.
  6. I took my husband on a very special summer date night to watch 300+ Chimney Swifts go to roost in an old chimney stack at dusk. It was a breathtaking aerial display and possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event as the populations of these birds dramatically decline.
  7. I met a World War II veteran who worked as an ordnance officer, which led to learning about camouflaging British air bases to hide them from Nazi bombing raids.
  8. I got to sit in the mixing booth of Prince’s Paisley Park Studio while interviewing a pre-eminent Christian composer as he completed mixing his musical tracks for a new CD.

Do you count your research as one of the best parts of your writing pursuit? What is your favorite research moment?

Three Lessons From The Abyss

We hear people say that true faith stands regardless of circumstances. It’s easy to love God when life is going well, but what about sustained faith when life is hard? Really hard. What does faith look like when our child is out of control, a parent is dying, we receive a difficult medical diagnosis, or experience betrayal by someone we trust? How do we move forward?

When my daughter fell into active drug addiction, and lived on the streets of our community as a meth addict, I was furious with God. Everything I held dear, and had come to believe in, came into question. The daily uncertainty, not to mention gigantic hole in my heart, were almost more than I could bear.

It was a painful time, and this journey of suffering taught me more than I ever wanted to learn. I’d like to share three key discoveries that helped me cope: Image, woman on beach

1. Seeking God

Even though I was angry with God, I knew I was hopeless without him. James tells us to “draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you.” (James 4:8) My drawing nigh became angry, desperate wails in the garage. I all but dared God to account for himself! But I soon discovered he could take it… so I kept wailing.

In desperate times we often think, when is God gonna show up and handle this? We wait for this to happen. But maybe he’s already here and just waiting for us? I discovered that drawing nigh was about me showing up… wails and all.

It was in my garage, at the end of myself and at the point of true surrender, when it became clear to me that God was already there. He spoke into my spirit and said, “Give her to me.” I frankly had to think about that for a while. I found surrender to God’s will a terrifying prospect. Yet it was freeing at the same time. Turning my daughter over to the will of God meant the outcome would not be up to me. But the truth of the matter is, it never was up to me.

2. Choosing joy

Joy is something we often think of as happening to us. You know, a passive event, some blissful occurrence or special blessing. We also sometimes think of joy, or happiness, as something we can attain when “x” happens. I’ll be happy when my child gets her act together, when my spouse shows me more attention, when the front door gets painted or that leaky faucet is fixed… when my book sales soar. I’ll be happy when.

In the darkest time of my life, I discovered I could actually choose joy. Joy came when I took my focus off of problems, off trying to change my daughter, and I set my sights on blessings. It came when I realized my life was so much bigger than any one problem in it. There is a Power, and a purpose, at work in the world that is greater than I am. It’s bigger than my pain, and bigger than my own wants and needs.

I may experience loss, grief, I may even experience suffering. But I always have God, which means I always have hope. For that I can choose joy.

3. Taking care of myself

My pastor’s wife shared not long ago in our women’s Bible study, that she has a wooden plaque in her kitchen which says, “I am here to serve with joy.” I jokingly screeched, “Get rid of that thing!”

Like I said earlier, I’m all for joy. And we are indeed called to serve. But what is often left out of the equation is self-care.

Women, especially Christian women, are notorious for poor self-care. And that was certainly true for me. We are the chief “fixer,” organizer and problem solver, prayer warrior, food preparer, and angel-to-others. Yet we often lose ourselves in the process. Therapist’s offices are filled with well-intentioned women like us who are simply overwhelmed trying to hold up the world.

Most mothers are codependent to at least some extent, and I was no exception. I was motivated by the belief that if I could just try hard enough, I could control everything and everyone, force outcomes, and then life would be ship-shape. I sometimes became so enmeshed in other people’s problems, and in “doing,” that I nearly lost myself.

I learned that self-care begins with solid boundaries, asking for help when needed, and allowing others to be responsible for their own stuff. It means saying “yes” when I want to, and probably saying “no” more often. It means my life is as important as the ones I serve.

Please share how you seek God, choose joy, and care for yourself during tough times.

Four Lessons From the Speaking Circuit

Behind the back copy

For 20 years now I’ve dragged a suitcase of books from speaking event to speaking event, telling stories, signing books, listening to people in line innocently yammering on while someone else is waiting impatiently to get an autograph.

I’ve spoken from the Statehouse in Boston to a rain-tattered canopy outside a firehall while firefighters let children blast the siren, from hotel ballrooms with nearly 500 people to three people in an assisted-living home, two of whom seemed comatose by the time I’d finished my intro.

Here, then, are four bits of advice about using your speaking engagements to sell books, 19 of which I’ve written, a few of which have actually sold:

Go where you’re wanted.

I’ve spent far too much of my life trying to convince people that they should believe in me and far too little time appreciating those who do. In the last few years, though, I’ve wised up.

Push on the doors, sure. Push hard. But if they don’t open, stop pushing and go find another door that might. Don’t let your pride get in the way. It’s far more fun doing a small-time gig where people appreciate your being there than beating your head on the door of some larger or more prestigious organization or event that never will.

Partner with one person who believes in you in the community where you’re going to speak.

It was a blustery, rainy Friday night, and I had a speaking gig “up river” in a small community. I honestly wondered if anyone other than the woman who’d organized the talk would come.

After the event, I walked out to my car with more than $500 in book sales, a stomach full of homemade pie and an evening of memories with a bunch of warm, wonderful people.

Why? Because that one woman was an “influencer,” someone people along the river respected. An organizer, someone who can bring an event together. An ally, someone who believed in me.

Someone like that can do more to help your event be a success than hundreds of tweets.

Take time to get to know the place where you’re speaking or the organization you’re speaking to.

Whether you’re selling books afterward or not, this is simply the right thing to do. Why do concert crowds go nuts when some well-known performer mentions something about their town? Because people take pride in where they live and appreciate it when others do, too.

It shows respect. It shows you care. It shows that you’re not just “mailing it in.”

In one of my books, 52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life, I devote a chapter to a simple remark that one of the heavenly angels says to Clarence Odbody before the “Angel Second Class” is sent to earth to help a desperate George Bailey: “If you’re going to help a man, you want to know something about him, don’t you?”

Take the time to know something about your audience. Don’t just do a couple of Google searches. Talk to your host. Make a few calls. Do some reporting.

Finally, be interesting.

Never have people had so many options with which to spend their time, so many excuses for not leaving their home.

So, if they’re giving up an evening for you, forget the “first, do no harm” edict inaccurately linked to the Hippocratic Oath. (By me in one book!) No, first, do not put people to sleep. Say something that people haven’t heard before. Or say it in a way they haven’t heard before. Tell jokes. Dispense information. Inspire life-changing action.

But, above all, be interesting. I recently went to an author’s event just to see what other writers do. The guy spent the entire evening reading from his book.

Yawn.

That’s the reader’s job. As writers, we should spend our time offering audiences insight that our books do not. Our stories might be the impetus that draws people to our events, but give them something more than a rehash of our book or books.

Besides, if you’re interesting, people are more apt to believe your books will be, too. And there’s no better way to be asked back.