Why the Ninja? And Other Great Questions Your Writers’ Group Will Ask

NinjaWriters are a strange breed. We pretty much live inside our own heads, which isn’t a problem as far as we’re concerned. In fact, inside our heads is a pretty great place to be. Kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible, including eating a three course dinner in the form of chewing gum, or turning into a blueberry as punishment for being greedy (a little something we writers like to call poetic justice).

There is a downside, of course, which is that non-writers don’t always get our compulsive need to take ten minutes to compose a grammatically correct text while they’re standing in front of a wall of cereal boxes waiting to hear which one we’d like them to buy, or our propensity for bolting upright in bed at 3 a.m. and shouting “Yes! That’s how she did it!”
Which is why we writers need to seek out other writers–to convince ourselves that we’re not really crazy. Or, if we are, that there just may be a way to convert all that crazy into an actual career (yes, Dad, you can still call it a career if you don’t have regular hours, a place of work, or any viable income, per se).

A writers’ group is a fabulous place to find that support and encouragement. Connecting with people who have a mutual passion for wordsmithing and a mutual penchant for consuming copious cups of coffee daily–which is critical to maintaining both sanity and an ever-increasing word count.

One of the keys to an effective group is trust. Putting yourself out there as you share your work requires tremendous vulnerability, something we self-preserving writers aren’t that keen on. Remembering that other members only want to encourage you to make your work as good as it possibly can be is the secret to surviving (even embracing) the process.

Another key is honesty. Feedback such as “that’s the most amazing writing I have ever read; don’t change a single thing” is all well and good. Very well and very good, in fact. Only it’s not all that helpful. Something like, “I really enjoyed the dialogue between the butcher and the housewife over the meat counter at the grocery store, but I didn’t get why the Ninja darted out of the back room and grabbed a rump roast before back-flipping his way down the International Foods aisle” is much more useful. Now you can go back and read that scene over, realize that the Ninja, while really, really cool, is in fact unnecessary to the plot, and take him out.

Painful as it may be at times, a willingness to receive constructive criticism and honest feedback from people you trust (and who are always willing to make allowances for the fact that you live life on the outer fringes of reality, especially since they usually share the same postal code) inevitably leads to stronger, tighter, more excellent writing.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

Are you part of a writer’s group? Have you found it helpful?

Assets Versus Liabilities

photo by Shelley Hendrix

photo by Shelley Hendrix

After months of working my way through the maze of confusion regarding a giant leap of faith into the world of writing and public speaking, I confided this unexpected journey to a trusted friend and mentor. In addition to wise counsel and prayer, as well as encouragement to pursue this dream, Jim said that I needed to write a bio.

*Gulp*

I don’t know about you, but this project was the hardest writing project I think I had ever been given up to that point in my life. (Truth be told, I still don’t like to write my own bio.) For one thing, I hadn’t really done much of anything at that point. I was a shy, behind-the-scenes, let others decide, kind of gal until I went through what I call “God’s Merciful Unveiling” in my life: a season of deep pain, but tremendous spiritual renewal and personal growth. It was through that experience that I began to sense a call on my life to share truth with others that would set their hearts free, too.

I decided to research the bios of other authors and speakers to see what kind of information they included – kind of a template to help me start my own.

Big Mistake.  Or maybe not. It sure felt like one in 2004! The bios I found online were so impressive. These authors and speakers had done so much with their educations, lives, ministries, writing, and families that I began to question whether or not I had actually sensed God’s call on my own life correctly. Who am I to jump into this field when there are so many more qualified and capable people already doing this?

Who would want to hire a mostly-stay-at-home mother of three just because she believed God had called her to step out in faith to share grace and truth with others? I began to feel sick to my stomach as I spent several days wrestling with the seemingly small task of writing my bio. If I have trouble writing my own bio, how in the world am I going to write something people want to read?

I put a rough draft together and apprehensively showed it to a close friend for her honest feedback. I left a copy with her at her house and left before she had a chance to read it in front of me. I imagined her being too kind to tell me what she really thought, which would be, “Who in the world does she think she is?”

It wasn’t too long before she called me. In fact, she called me on my cell phone before I had gotten back home. She told me that soon after I left, her mom called. Her sweet mother was struggling with an unwanted divorce and the painful ripple effects of her former husband’s decision to move into a new relationship after 30+ years of marriage.

My friend said she told her mom that God wasn’t done with her just because a man was. And then she shared my bio with her! My unimpressive, rough draft of a bio. I was perplexed; it seemed like an odd thing to do in such a situation. And she said she told her mother, “Mom, if God can give Shelley new dreams to pursue after what she’s been through, I know God has new dreams for you as well.”

Jaw. Drop. 

I was nearly in tears. She told me this and we chatted briefly and then we hung up. I sat in my car completely overwhelmed with the idea that God could use even my feeble attempt at writing a bio to encourage and strengthen someone else. I thought about Paul’s words in Philippians when he wrote:

“But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” Philippians 3:7-8

And, then, in ways only the Holy Spirit can do, I realized:

If I give God and others my absolute best qualities and go after it with all my gusto and all my energy, those very assets can turn into my greatest liabilities. But, if I entrust God with everything–and especially what I see as liabilities (like a lack of experience, for example) — and allow Him to live His life through me, He will use them in such a way as to turn them into my greatest assets for Kingdom work. 

I can say now, after over a decade of writing and speaking that I have seen Him do just that – so many, many times!

Like Donald Miller says, “We impress with strength, but we connect at weakness.” It’s almost always those things we view as weaknesses, or liabilities, that God’s light beautifully shines through to brighten another person’s life.

What about you?

What has been the greatest obstacle you’ve faced in your career/calling as a writer?

What helps you overcome insecurities in your calling to be a writer?

How can you help others overcome their fears by sharing your story?

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?

Writing With Style

All writers want to write with style. However, your publisher thinks of style less in terms of crafting words with fashion and flair and more in terms of communicating with good grammar and consistency. iStock_000003403361MediumHere are a few resources you will need as you polish your prose for publication:

1. Manual of Style:
A manual of style (MOS or MoS) is a comprehensive guide to editorial style and publishing practices. These thick books cover industry-wide or profession-wide guidelines for writing. If you are writing a book for general readership, you probably need to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. For both UK and US usage, you can turn to the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing articles for newspapers or magazines, you may need The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are writing for a scientific or medical audience, you will need to use the AMA Manual of Style. Other academic fields and professions have specific manuals of style. I keep several manuals of style handy on a bookshelf near my writing desk. All of these reference books provide guidelines for grammar, citing sources and use of terms specific to that writing style. They also help you better understand the publishing process and the final layout you can expect for the piece you are writing.

2. Publisher’s Style Guide

The publishing house for your book may have its own style guide that serves as a supplement to an industry-wide manual of style. InterVarsity Press, the publisher of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, provided me with an editorial style guide that addressed how they format parts of a book and answered specific questions about grammar, punctuation, word usage and appropriate choice of abbreviations. Remember that your publisher’s style guide can overrule a more general manual of style, so always follow your publisher’s editorial direction.

3. Style Sheet

While writing a book or an article, you might find that certain words or phrases could be spelled, capitalized, punctuated, abbreviated or used in more than one way. To keep your writing consistent, create a style sheet that tracks your own or your editor’s rules for these words and phrases. This style sheet will take precedence over the more general publisher’s style guide and the industry-wide manual of style. Make a simple template with two columns: one that lists each word or rule and one that defines the style. Fill in the template as you write or receive comments from your editor.

A style sheet also can help you achieve consistency across a series of articles for the same magazine or for each book in a trilogy. It can save you time when editing your final draft by eliminating the need to look up a given rule in a larger reference work or trying to locate a particular email from your editor. With style sheets, guides and manuals helping you handle the mechanics of writing, you will have creative energy left over for the fun part of writing, such as choosing great literary devices and playing with the rhythm of a sentence. Within the constraints of proper style, your own writing voice will emerge.

Which resources have you found most helpful for keeping your writing in style?

How to Write a Nonfiction Book that Sells — Part 1

Nonfiction Readers Want in a BookYou can have the greatest book idea in the world, but if it won’t sell, what’s the point in writing it? Unless you simply want to leave a legacy for your family and friends with no concern for sharing the message with anyone else.

As a Christian author, I’m driven to offer lasting hope to those who might read my words. So it’s important I wisely choose the subjects, the titles, the content, the marketing plan, and the future books listed in my proposals. There’s a lot I still don’t know about this process, why some titles are purchased while others languish, but I’ve certainly picked up a few secrets. Some of them, I wish I’d known earlier. Maybe what I’ve learned will help someone else in the place I was a short time in the past.

  • The first and most important thing is choose your subject(s) wisely. But with so many books in existence, and a plethora of authors scrambling for attention, how do you find a fresh subject to write about? Here’s one of my secrets. I listen to others, but I also listen to myself. Both of my initial book titles came about that way. With First Hired, Last Fired, someone said to me, “Anyone can be replaced.” I automatically replied, “Is that really true?” Voila, the subtitle, How to Become Irreplaceable in Any Job Market was born as Greg’s variation from my first take on the idea of being irreplaceable at work. My second title happened when I heard myself say to someone, “You know, there are things in life we learn to get through, but no matter what anyone says, we just won’t get over.” A little tweaking and tightening later, Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over became a book that a lot of people say they or someone else needs to read.Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book Cover

Listen to your own conversations. What scares us? What are we complaining about? What confuses us? What aha moments do we encounter and why? What works and what doesn’t? How have we discovered hope and healing? For Christian authors, what does the Bible say that’s relevant to 21st century issues, in the here and now?

  • The second most important thing is titling. I’d say the process you use to choose a topic works as well for picking a title. What grabs you? Can you turn a cliché upside down? Is there a pithy quote you can tweak to make your own and spread the message in your topic? What do you hear yourself and others say?

For subtitling, follow the advice of Alice Crider, my former coach and agent with WordServe, “Make a promise you can keep to the readers in every subtitle.” Anytime someone offers us a solution to a big problem, we’re interested. Right?

  • For this segment, I’d conclude with the power of valuable content. Slapping a few words together will not provide opportunities to grow your career as a professional author. Do your homework by reading books on writing well. Hone your craft constantly. Connect with other professionals and barter for editing/critiquing services; look for that rare mix of honesty and encouragement. Karen Barnes Jordan deserves credit for every book of mine that’s sold. You can have the best concept in the world, but if you can’t communicate it clearly, it’s lost on potential readers and they will tune you out.

In part two, I’ll share insights about marketing and future books. No proposal worth its words will sell without showing you have great message promotions in the hopper. There’s a basic formula to writing a non-fiction book that sells, the key is in following it all the way through.

What obstacles are you hitting in your efforts to sell your projects?

Let’s Get Serious About Serials

The WordServe Water Cooler is pleased to host guest blogger Becky Doughty.

Welcome, Becky!

When I finally decided to “get serious” about my writing, I quickly discovered I had to have a platform. As so many new authors learn, platforms are hard to build, especially with fiction.

I created a website and started a blog. I found a small circle of authors who opened their ranks and let me squeeze in. We traded guest posts and gained a few more followers from each other. I blogged about my family, about my writing. I blogged about my past sins—you know, the good stuff, like witchcraft and broken marriages. That should have brought them flocking, right? I blogged about gardening and chickens and making bread and home schooling and prayer and whether or not one should blog….

EC-Collection-Cover1I created a Facebook Author page and set up my blog to automatically post there. I linked everything to Twitter, too, and created Pinterest pages with images of what my characters might look and dress like, where they might live and work.

But because I had no books published at that point, I was essentially inviting people to my fancy new restaurant and handing them menus of what they could expect to order on some ambiguous day in the future…. Then I wondered why they didn’t come back every time I announced a new dish being added to the menu.

I needed a way for my visitors to actually “sample” my wares. A serial novel.

For one year, around the 10th of each month, I blogged a 10,000 word episode of my serial novel, Elderberry Croft. Readers could “taste” my fiction for free, with a promise of more to come every time they visited.

Well, Elderberry Croft has turned out to be more than just a sampler platter on my website. It has remained one of my bestselling series and books (it now comes in a complete collection and there’s a holiday sequel, Elderberry Days) since I began publishing the episodes. It’s been my most productive method to building an eager and faithful readership.

Six Suggestions for Serious Serialists:

  1. A serial novel is not simply a novel broken up into parts. That often frustrates readers. A serial novel should be written like television episodes, each episode essentially a short story with a beginning and an end, but linked to the other episodes by a foundational storyline told over the duration of the serial, one that culminates in the final episode.
  2. Your serial novel should be the same genre in which you primarily write. It’s an excellent way to gain readers, but if you usually write historical romance and your serial novel is a dystopian sci-fi thriller, you’re going to have some disgruntled readers who come looking for more Katniss and only find Sir Liam Drake and the White Rose of Kilarney County.
  3. Write ahead. I did not always do this. Translate: There were many months I lost sleep and suffered great anguish over how I was going to pull it off.
  4. Create memorable characters and storylines, especially the main characters whose stories link the episodes. If your readers don’t care about the foundational story, one “off” episode will send them running.
  5. Post a few “extras” in between episodes to keep readers happy. In Elderberry Croft, Willow Goodhope has a thing for elderberries (imagine that!). I posted elderberry recipes and home remedies, elderberry body care products, crafts, and elderberry lore.
  6. Listen to your readers’ comments. I’m of the mindset that authors should steer clear of reviews. Reviews typically tell us more about the reader than they do about the author’s work. However, in the case of serial novels, this is a perfect opportunity to get to know what your readers like, what they want to read about, and then adjust your story accordingly!

This is a great way to publish a book. When you’ve written the final episode, gather them all up and release them in one complete collection. Voila! You have a full-length novel!

And don’t forget to take a break from “serious” now and then, and simply enjoy the journey!

What are your thoughts on serial novels? Have you ever tried to write one?

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becky-doughty-author1 Becky Doughty is the author of the best-selling Elderberry Croft series, the controversial Waters Fall, and the voice behind BraveHeart Audiobooks. Raised on the mission field among the indigenous tribes of West Papua, Indonesia, Becky’s ministry is through the written word. Her heart is for people living on the edge–that fine line where grace becomes truly amazing. Married to her champion of more than 25 years, they have three children, two of whom are starting families of their own, and they all live within a few miles of each other in Southern California. You can connect with Becky via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

 

Writing Off The Leash

11021249_10205885141785471_6207685168227967330_nToday was the first day above 32 degrees Indiana has seen in forever, so I went gallivanting with my gaggle of golden retrievers. They haven’t had a real walk since the extreme cold came around, so they were giddy. The oldest one (the darkest brown) literally skipped down the street and back. They held their noses high and curled their tails and could hardly keep from tearing themselves from their leashes and running free.

Prior to the walk I’d been at my women’s Bible Study where we talked about 1 Thessalonians 2 and how Paul, Silas and Timothy had to press on with their mission and message despite often overwhelming suffering and odds. In verse 2:2 Paul writes, “Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.”

While not necessarily a Paul-worthy struggle, writing novels does not come easy to me. I write, delete, and rewrite several times over before I get a scene–let alone a plot–to come out right. I question my calling, my ability, my gumption. I call my agent and freak out. I call my husband and freak out. I freak out to my friends on Facebook. But the longer I write, the more I realize that often what hinders me are my own doubts and hang-ups and attempts to write something perfect instead of just…

…writing.

Ray Bradbury, in his book, Zen and the Art of Writing, says as writers, “What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

Truth is hard to find. We have to dig for it in the places of our hearts which would rather be left alone. We have to hack through icy corridors of our soul which would rather remain frozen shut. We have to distance, if not remove ourselves, from a world which begs us to tidy up, straighten up, and shut up. Because we can’t release truth into our writing unless we allow ourselves the permission to write poorly, the wisdom to write something wrong, the unencumbered freedom to write the worst thing the world has ever seen.

Beautiful writing, like truth, only emerges when we allow words to roam unhindered across our screens, when we throw off the baggage of perfection and tune out the voices which tell us we are not capable of the task before us.

If you’re called to write, you probably already know the process is a battle, and that you have to be prepared to stay the course despite the worst of odds, the cynicism of the marketplace, and the opposition–whether self-inflicted doubt or another rejection.

My challenge to you is to write off the leash.

Don’t give up.

Spring is coming.

And the words will, too.