Closing The Creative Gap Between What You Imagine and What You Write

The Gap Between What You Imagine and What You WriteTrying to play the piano can be humbling. You dream of executing a Bach fugue in perfect timing, but when you sit down it’s chopsticks or nothing. Writing is a lot like that, too. An amazing scene plays out in your mind, but after your critique group reviews your rendition, you wonder how you ever thought you could write.

Welcome to the imperfect world of creative artistry. Check your ego at the door. It can’t help and may hinder your efforts to bridge the gap between what you imagine and what you can create.

Let’s go back to that piano. Even when you love playing and have a natural affinity for music, to play well you’ll probably need lessons. In the same way, studying the craft is one of the surest ways to advance your writing skills.

But studying itself won’t teach you to write any more than watching the teacher play improves a musician’s abilities. Long, laborious, tedious practice is required. Yes, there are a (very) few musical and literary geniuses in the world, but for most of us practice is what it takes to become a master. Could that be why an art is called a discipline?

At times you’ll want to bang your head against the keyboard in frustration. It becomes easier to make excuses not to practice than to face that tell-tale gap between what you can imagine and what you actually write. Are these dues of time, money, effort, and disillusionment worth paying?

Only you can decide.

Thankfully, the gap narrows with time and effort, but it never completely goes away. Living with that reality is a cost every writer continues to pay. It is also a gift that helps keep us humble.

If you persevere you may reach a comfortable level of proficiency with the pain of your early efforts only an unpleasant memory. This may result in you having less patience with beginning writers and even a feeling of superiority. The temptation to skimp on improving your abilities will be stronger. If the gap will never close, why not save your time, money, and effort and settle for doing an adequate job?

Having a good work ethic can see you through those times when you lose your desire to write with excellence. Is it worth the trouble? That’s up to you to decide, too. However, in a crowded literary marketplace, it isn’t hard to be lost in the shuffle.

It helps to be clear on why and for whom you’re writing. Whether you’re writing to make your mark, to reach a particular audience, or to glorify God, close enough is never good enough.

Writing with excellence is a self-taught skill that, oddly enough, requires you to face and accept your imperfections.

Smokin’ Hot

fried eggsSometimes my day feels like a cracked egg, running all over the pan in a yellowy glob of goo. Time slides fast. Out of control. Joy skitters away in the wake of unmet expectations.

From this broken shell of a place, the Holy Spirit whispers in the midst of waning joy, “Rejoice in me, the one who breathes fresh life in you.”

“Are you kidding?”

Of course, he isn’t. I know the chapter and verse:

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” Philippians 4:4-5

His invitation rings warm. And in this hope-stirred moment, I unclench my fists, wondering, Is joy really a choice? By focusing on God’s truth, can I turn up the joy knob a notch? Watch this broken egg that’s staring back at me bubble up warm in its rawness?

I look up joy in Bible Gateway and find it singing and shouting everywhere, even in the broken places of defeat.

“Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” Isaiah 52:9

I’m not used to singing in the midst of chaos. It hasn’t quite become habit yet. But I know neuroscience shows it positively affects our brain chemistry. Healthy thoughts register deep in our dendrites.

I also know that it’s easier to sing when I know who I am: chosen, redeemed, clothed in God’s righteousness. The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in me. In me. This little writer who longs to make a big difference.

God-dreams tick louder than time bombs. Do you feel their press to keep moving forward? We have much to say, but sometimes we stare blankly at that empty egg pan.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

Thank you, God, for the gift of words. Crack me open for you. Pour me out raw. I want to flow in your joy and hope and all things good.

When life turns up the heat, we wait with confidence in his presence: hopeful, grateful, and open to the fact we’ll soon feel that first bubble. And one bubble will lead to another and another. And before we know it, whoa–we’re cooking, Baby! Smokin’ hot for Jesus. All we need to do is stay open in God’s great pan. Let him stir up our gifts and see what happens.

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives.” Psalm 37:23

Being a Yahtzee Writer

They say if you want to make money in the writing business you find a niche and go to that place again and again.

In other words, if the crowd loved your trumpet solo don’t come back on stage with a guitar or xylophone.

It wasn't Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in "Hoosiers."

It wasn’t Oprah! but I got to shoot hoops in the Indiana gym used for Hickory High in “Hoosiers.”

Play that trumpet, baby!

I get that. And I don’t begrudge any writer who subscribes to that theory. To each his or her own.

But here’s to those who’ve gone the other way, who’ve followed their muses, wherever those muses have taken them, even if it’s seldom meant to the bank to deposit another hefty royalty check.

Here’s to those who’ve led with their hearts and not some can’t-lose formula.

Here’s to those who’ve written as if life were a Yahtzee game and part of the fun was seeing if you could score a few points in all 12 categories: perhaps writing a three-of-a kind spiritual trilogy, a full-house family memoir, and a small straight of mysteries.

Here’s to dabblers and chance-takers and you-never-know-unless-you-try writers whose platforms aren’t chiseled precisely in granite but whose success is built of great memories.

I can relate. I am a Yahtzee writer.

World War II biographies? Three. Sports and life books? Two. Children’s? On my second.

Nuggets of wisdom from my favorite movies? Check. Collections of newspaper columns? Check. Hiking the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail? Check.

The price I’ve paid? I’ve never gotten deep traction as an expert in any particular genre. The dividends I’ve received? Being true to who I am as a person.

I’m not touting the likes of Yahtzee writers for any sense of self-grandiosity; follow-their-muse types often find themselves being regularly humbled, my most recent example being a book event at a fire station to which three people showed up — one by accident — and firetruck sirens kept going off while I spoke.

No, this isn’t about chest-beating success. This is about the significance of the writing journey itself.

Too many writers drink the formulaic Kool-Aid suggesting you must trust a system and not your heart. And, turning 60 this week, I’ve been more contemplative than usual about how I’ve spent my life as a writer and whether going my own way has left me a failure.

My conclusion? I wouldn’t have missed the ride for the world.

By following my muse, I’ve gotten to write about the stuff that I’m passionate about — and best-suited to write about. To know an array of fascinating — and generally obscure — people. And to experience a bunch of stuff I never would have otherwise.

Because of my book research and promotion, I’ve put on a barbecue for a town of 600 people, shot hoops in the Indiana gym depicting Hickory High in the movie “Hoosiers,” spent a weekend at the Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, N.Y. and found myself in Normandy, France, on 9-11.

Along the way, I’ve met a few famous people but, ironically, the two most well known “stars” I’ve spent time with were also the only two books subjects I’ve parted ways with — because they were so unwilling to help.

Finding success in book writing is about perspective and appreciating the small victories you experience by being yourself.

About the grist of the journey, not the fruits of whatever material success you experience.

And about being true to your bent as a God-created human being. I think of a line from an old Amy Grant song: “All I ever have to be is what You’ve made me.”

So, sure, if you’re made that way, play another trumpet solo. But if you’re not, don’t be afraid to play Yahtzee.

Marketing Like Your Favorite Authors

I’d studied the writing blogs, so I knew when my novel released it was time to get busy. I lined up guest blogs, interviews and book reviews. I advertised on every social media site I could think of. My new website was up and running and I’d had a personal blog going for a few years. I spoke of the book to everyone I came across. I even hawked my book at a nearby fair. You want platform, I’d give you platform.

After a few months, I was exhausted. My introverted self felt raw after all of the exposure. And despite some great reviews of the book and a ton of five star comments on Amazon, the book hadn’t soared to the bestseller list. Actually, while it definitely had some fans, it hadn’t picked up a lot of notice at all.

I wondered why I’d signed up for a writing career in the first place. I had a busy life with a full time job and a family. Who had time for all of this marketing, which by the way, was definitely not my forte? Marketing had taken so much of my time, I’d forgotten about the joy of writing fiction. Because of course, I wasn’t writing fiction. I didn’t have the time.

I began to study some of my favorite novelists and surveyed what they’d done as far as platform, and the answer was surprising. Almost nothing.

They all had websites of course. Lisa Samson started a blog, but stopped, saying the blog was stealing the creativity and time she needed to write. Dale Cramer and Athol Dickson blogged, but were invariably inconsistent, sometimes going a ctypewriterouple of months without a post. Davis Bunn’s blog posts were regular, but were strictly announcements about his book events and reader praise. Penelope Wilcock writes hers like a diary, simply telling about searching for a lost cat or going to the dentist.

Sure, most writers did interviews and some guest pieces when a book came out. They did a few bookstore signings around the release and perhaps a speaking engagement or two in between. But they focused their time on what they were best at: writing amazing novels.

Because they were single-minded and purposeful about their fiction, they had output. They improved their craft. They built a readership.

No press in the world will help you if you’re not writing new material, right? And yes, getting noticed is a bit random. Fantastic writers sometimes stay near the bottom of the midlist while so-so writers are household names.

But I’ve decided to follow my writer role models, best sellers or midlist. Yes, I’ll do occasional blogging and other marketing. I’ve got my social media set up and will make some posts and connect to readers who contact me.

But in the end, I’m not a social media expert or a blogger or a speaker. I create story worlds and characters. I play with words. I edit what I’ve written until it’s the book I’d want to read. It’s what I’m good at and it’s what I love. It’s also what makes me a writer.

So this is the best marketing advice I’ve got, as backwards as it might seem: write more, write better.

A Time for Every Purpose

MP900289709-300x197Many times, people come up to me and say they want to write a book but can’t find the time. Aspiring writers, people who are making an effort to write, often say the same thing.

Both groups cite full time jobs, church obligations, family responsibilities and activities that prevent or hinder them from pursuing their desire to write. These are all legitimate undertakings that must be accomplished if we’re to support ourselves, raise God-centered children and contribute to our faith communities and neighborhoods.

I want to share one insight I’ve gained over the last ten years of pursuing this writing dream: You’ll never find the time to write. You make the time to write.

When I whined to my mentor, DiAnn Mills, that I couldn’t find the time to write, her simple, straight-forward advice: GET UP EARLIER. Not what I wanted to hear but it took root in my heart and God nurtured it. Okay, he nagged me. I started getting up at 4:00 a.m. to write. This gave me one-and-a-half hours of solid, productive writing time every morning before I went to my day job.

Jerry B. Jenkins wrote between 9:00 p.m. and Midnight so as not to take time away from his family.

One of my close writing buddies negotiated with her children (she has 6) and husband for a certain amount of undisturbed writing time each week.

A soccer-mom friend uses soccer practice to write.

Need to make time to write? Take a couple of weeks and track your time. Make a simple MP900385402-214x300chart that blocks out the hours of the day and then note what you’re doing during those hours. After two weeks, you’ll be able to identify at least five hours in your present schedule for writing without having to get up earlier or stay up later. Start with your television and internet time and go from there. Set a schedule, negotiate with your family, find a writing spot and do it.

And pray. If writing is the desire of your heart, God will give you the insight into how to make the time to live out His call, His plan, for you.

Want to Write a Book? The Next Patch of Light

file6041243276582I was privileged to attend my former advanced memoir workshop a few weeks ago to share my publishing journey, both with my first memoir that came out in August of 2013, and the news about recently signing a book deal for a second memoir. As I talked through the six years it took to publish my first book, as my fellow writers threw questions at me left and right, “How did you find an agent?, what did you do to build a platform?, how do you plan to structure your current project?, how do you even go about writing a book?, a thought occurred to me.

If you want to write a book…If you really want to do this…

Step into the next patch of light.

That, my friends, is the best writing advice I have to date.

I’ll let you in on an author secret. We all started at the beginning. And I think most of us make this life up as we go along. Even New York Times best-selling authors, at one point, stared at the cursor on a blank page.

Still afraid?

Step into the next patch of light.

Are you already a writer, a person who has honed her craft and has literary muscles? Have you always been interested in memoir and look!, your uncle gave you a book on writing memoir for Christmas? Were you walking down the street when you stepped in a mud puddle, and while stopping to shake off the mud you happen to notice an ad on the flag pole in front of you for a writing class in your neighborhood?

Any of those instances may be your next patch of light.

You have to start somewhere, so look around and see where you stand. Stephen King said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

If you hope to publish a book, than do what’s in front of you today. Don’t worry about a two-year plan complete with a detailed description of how you’ll construct your book while you also build your platform and research literary agents. (If you are naturally a person like that, email me, OK? I may need a little help.)

No, do what is in front of you right now. And when it’s time (and you’ll know it is time because you’ll itch for something else, or get bored, or curious), look ahead for the next little patch of light. Pay attention to your surroundings: follow authors on Twitter, look out for workshops, read blog posts for fun, pick up a book at your local independent book store on a Saturday afternoon that might apply to your writing journey. Any of these things could be your next patch of light. And before you know it, (and trust me, if you follow the patches of light, you will move in this direction and it is crazy and cool at the same time) you will be writing a book.

But for today, resolve yourself to take it one step at a time, and pay attention to the writer light in your life.

A Matter of Time (Part 2)

La Ronde's Le Boomerang Roller CoasterLast week, we looked at how content benefits from timing. This week, we’ll explore timing within writing – the art of pacing narrative.

Pacing is what keeps your reader reading. In suspense/mystery/thrillers, pacing is easy to identify: what starts out as a problem grows steadily (and generally, rapidly) worse. When I write my humorous mysteries, I use humor to relieve some of that growing tension in my mysteries, and my uphill roller coaster ride is one of short climbs and plateaus; thriller writers often choose steeper climbs with no reprieves before the final sheer drop. As the writer, you need to choose what effect you want to create in your reader, and then manipulate your scenes and character development accordingly. For an excellent overview of pacing in fiction, read this post by K.M. Weiland.

Note, however, that I didn’t say ‘narrative of story’ in my opening paragraph. That’s because nonfiction benefits just as much from effective pacing as does fiction. Think for a moment about the biographies, how-tos, memoirs, travel pieces, or any other nonfiction you’ve read recently. Did they keep your attention? Did the author tease you with promises of solutions or details and then slowly reveal them, building momentum so that you couldn’t put it down? Or did you plod through pages of dry facts and lose interest to the point of feeling like the reading was a chore?

That’s the tipping point for me as a writer, whether I’m penning fiction or non-fiction: losing interest. Even when I’m the one doing the writing, I try to think like my reader.

Am I getting bored with a litany of facts? Then break it up. Focus on one fact and bring it to life with a concrete, preferably colorful, example, then note the other facts briskly. For instance, in my forthcoming memoir, I list items not to do with a new puppy. I got bored with listing the list, so I described how I totally did the wrong thing with our dog concerning the first point, then simply noted the remaining ones. Making a list personal will engage your reader and create momentum to continue reading.

Use dialogue. Even if it’s imaginary, it can help your reader place themselves in the same situation.

Use a metaphor or simile to make your explanation more understandable. Details enrich writing of every kind.

Keep focus. Confine paragraphs to one point, then move on – visual cues like breaking up text help your reader follow your organization and your pace of developing thought. You don’t want your reader lost in the middle of a page-long paragraph, because they might decide it’s not worth finding their way out.

In fact, write your nonfiction like you’re telling a story with its own beginning, middle, and end, and you might hear that awesome compliment: “It was such a good book, I couldn’t put it down, even though it was nonfiction.”

Timing really is everything.

Are You a Story Crafter or a Storyteller?

Are You a Story Crafter or StorytellerIn many ways, the world of book publishing parallels that of musical performance. Both are beautiful, exhilarating, and demanding. And both can sap creativity. Where the ultimate product is art, inevitable conflicts between the needs of business and creative expression exert themselves. When it comes to breaking in those with technical brilliance have an advantage, but to rise to the top, something else is needed.

I once represented my college as the soprano member of a vocal quartet in an honors choir made up of students from colleges throughout the western United States. We prepared on our own, and then met for three long days of intense rehearsal. Yes, there was glitz and glory in our single performance, but it wasn’t that I remember most about the experience but something thathappened during one of the rehearsals.

I don’t even remember which musical passage we were struggling with at the time, but our accomplished director refused to let us get away with good enough. He pushed us, irritatingly so, until in a moment of delirious harmony, glorious sound filled the rehearsal chamber. In the awestruck silence that followed tears pricked my eyes.

Our director thumped his chest. “Ever feel that?” He paced before us, meeting eyes. “You all have a lot going for you, but no matter how technically brilliant you become, the ability to feel the music is what will help you most. Never lose that.”

I have never forgotten his words. In my studies I knew students who could execute a passage of music to perfection but who lacked the passion to bring it alive. By contrast, I have seen a graying grandmother with a quavering pitch move an entire congregation to tears with her simple song. I say this not to invalidate the quest for excellence but to illustrate that feeling the music always trumps craft.

In writing, there is storytelling and story crafting. Yes, we must strive to perfect our craft and even consider our market’s wishes, but it’s even more important to tell a story that resonates on a deep level. If we lose our passion for story, we will also lose readers. It’s not enough to hone our craft until it shines. Producing a story that sings should cost in terms of creativity, drawn as it is from our very soul. It is this that separates artists from artisans.   

Because writing does not exist as art alone, however, I will add some technical tips for engaging reader’s emotions. I almost hesitate to do so, in case anyone latches onto these techniques as the way through. They illuminate the story path but are not the path itself.

Tap a universal experience.  A mother’s arms, teenage acne, and rejection in love are but a few commonalities to which we all can relate. Writing about universal experiences in an evocative way breathes life into writing.

Write to the senses.  Use taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound to bring a fictional world to life. The more vividly you imagine your story’s scenes, the easier this becomes.  

Show rather than tell. Create fully-realized scenes readers can step into. Narrative has its place to help in pacing as it skips us past unnecessary details, but most often passages of telling would be better if written as scenes. I got tired of hearing this advice given by rote with no explanation of how to do this, so I filmed the video 5 Ways to Show Not Tell in Fiction Writing for my Live Write Breathe site for writers.

Create a sympathetic situation for your main character. The reader wants to identify with and care about the main character. Provide a gripping opening scene to meet your reader more than halfway. Be careful here, though. There’s a difference between engaging a reader’s emotions and manipulating them. Being faithful to your true story will guide you. 

Have someone react. Not allowing room for reaction is a common failing, but this technique is so powerful it should never be ignored. As an example (spoiler alert), in the movie The Hunger Games, when Rue dies, the heroine grieves for her. If she didn’t, we wouldn’t feel the loss as deeply as we do. The riots that break out are also a reaction that stirs our anger at the injustice of the games.

Watch this part of the movie, and then imagine the scene with minimal reaction and you’ll see what I mean.

Hone your craft. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than clumsy storytelling, so do study craft. But remember that craft is no substitute for inspired storytelling.

There will always be tension between the business and art of writing, but that doesn’t have to be bad, not when you consider that the best fiction marries fine storytelling with excellent story crafting. It is even possible to thrive in the tension between business and art.  

WayFarer Tales of Faeraven 2 by Janalyn VoigtToday, January 3rd, marks the release of WayFarer, book two of my epic fantasy trilogy, Tales of Faeraven. In celebration, for today only my publisher is offering a discount of 50% on purchase of WayFarer from the Pelican Books site. 

When I first started writing this trilogy without agency representation or a publishing contract, fantasy was a hard sell, but this was the story I felt. It’s been a rough journey to publication, but well worth it.

What about you? What story sings within you? 

The World of Our Story

View of Earth From SpaceIn his book, The Writer’s Journey(third edition), Christopher Vogler writes, “The Ordinary World in one sense is the place you came from last. In life we pass through a succession of Special Worlds which slowly become ordinary as we get used to them.”

As writers, we often talk about creating story worlds. In reality, we create two. There is our hero’s ordinary story world, the world she lives in before the inciting incident launches her into her story. Once launched, she enters the Special World of the story we are writing.

Interestingly, in many novels, the worlds may be exactly the same in terms of geography, time, economics, politics, and a myriad of other details. The world moves from Ordinary to England 1Special when our hero decides to embark on the journey to solve the story problem or answer the story question.

Then, even if she continues to live in the same house, work the same job, go to the same church, her world becomes Special. She is now on an adventure to resolve the story problem. And that story problem transforms her world from Ordinary to Special, whether it’s solving a murder, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or losing her spouse.

town 4Think of the world of our lives. Everything is going along fine and then something happens. We lose a job or we get a promotion to a more challenging position, a loved one dies or a prodigal returns home, a car accident, a medical problem, a windfall. We win the lottery or we spend all our pay on lottery tickets and miss by one number.

Whatever it is, our Ordinary world becomes Special while we live through the changes until the Special World becomes Ordinary once again.

Can you think of a time when your own Ordinary World became Special? How can you use that experience to write a Special World for your characters?

Writing Effective Blog Posts

freeelance-bloggingI consider myself a Missionary Writer.

I began writing in 2004 with a blog titled, “The Southern Scribe.” Even though I was an early adopter in the Christian blogging world, as time went on, I doubted that blogging was here to stay. Due to my time constraints, I gave up blogging. On occasion I would blog about something that interested me or blog about an issue that excited me or annoyed me. I can stand before you today and say I was wrong, in a big way. Blogs in many circles are just as pertinent as print and network and cable news outlets when it comes to breaking news or editorials.

Anyone can get an account on Blogger or setup a WordPress blog, but how do we write posts that are effective in delivering a message?

1. MAKE YOUR WRITING NEED BASED.
When preparing to write, always start with the key need. Then move to the key thought or concept that has to do with that need. Be sure to research and then exegete your sources and prepare notes on your findings. Examine supplemental writings and books where necessary. A Missionary Writer does not write to be cool or famous; we write to lead people to changed lives. As I research, study, and prepare, I ask God for wisdom and direction.

2. EMPHASIZE SHOWING VERSUS TELLING.
We should use current events and stories to illustrate the point we are trying to make. Remember, showing versus telling can get marred if we are not careful, as we want to tell people “how to” instead of showing them. The only way people really learn and are motivated to change is being shown how to go from point A to point B. People can only get to the next level by having someone who has accomplished what they seek to accomplish show them how.

Make sure you address the WHY behind the WHAT – why do people need to know this? How does it matter to their lives?

3. PROVIDE CLEAR ACTION STEPS.
Effective writing lead to specific applications. In preparation of my writing, I always ask, “What do I want people to DO as a result of reading this?” In many cases, (calling for people to give their shoes off their feet), the action step may be bold. But in other cases, it could be simple (begin reading the Bible this week or go on a date with your spouse).

Just like meetings that do not include action steps tend to waste people’s time, so does writing that does not call people to action. It’s like running back a kickoff and stopping at the 10-yard line.

4. WRITE WITH PASSION AND AUTHENTICITY.
Passionate and authentic writing begins from understanding one’s personality and style. Writers that attempt to write like someone else will never connect as well.

In the 21st century, humor is a common language that conveys authenticity. People appreciate writers who do not look down on them, but engage them. Humor lowers people’s defenses. Funny stories and statements can pepper your writing with spice and make it memorable.

5. BE SIMPLE.
We often write about difficult subjects in an effort to answer people’s questions, but do we use too many words without saying anything? Simple answers are often shorter answers. The attention span of our society is getting collectively shorter. This means that I must develop the skill to match the will.

Great writing should have one memorable point or statement that is repeated several times throughout the piece. There should be one driving idea, a “twitterable” big idea.