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?

The Secret Tool That Will Put Your Writing Over The Top

I’ve never taken a writing class so I’m not sure when I learned this trick. Somehow I picked it up over the past decade.

I don’t even know if it’s important to other authors, or if writing instructors teach it.

So maybe this is elementary, but here’s my secret tool:

The way to make your writing interesting is to use details.

Yesterday I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I got excited when I found her encouraging writers to use detail.

She says, “Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.” She adds, “Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.”

Typical Greece

 

The paragraph below is an example of her writing. Notice how rich it is. Instead of saying, “My friend and I spent some time writing in Greece,” she wrote this:

I am on a Greek island right now: the Aegean Sea, cheap rooms on the beach, nude swimming, little tavernas where you sit under dried bamboo sipping ouzo, taste octopus, watch the great sun set. I am thirty-six and my friend who is with me is thirty-nine. It is the first time either of us has been to Europe. We take in everything, but only halfway because we are busy always, always talking. I tell her about my dance recital when I was six years old in a pink tutu; how my father, who sat in the front row, broke down weeping when he saw me. She tells me how her husband in Catholic school in Nebraska came late for a play that he was the star of and how the nuns had all the school children on their knees praying that he would appear.

 

Just for fun, I read a few lines from my book Renewed: Finding Your Inner Happy in an Overwhelmed World to find a paragraph where I had given detail. This is from my chapter on The Benefits of Solitude:

Right now I am alone. Snow is falling silently outside, and the only sound I hear comes from water trickling in my office fountain. Right now I can do whatever I want. I can slurp my split pea soup while taking intermittent bites of a chocolate bar.  I can sit on my chair with one leg tucked under in ladylike fashion. I can take a break to let the dog out, and I can sing badly while doing all of the above. These little freedoms are not to be underestimated.

 

Now that I’ve read Goldberg’s book, I see where I could have been even more detailed.

It’s much more fun to write when you’re giving details.

Take a minute to practice: Write about a favorite meal you had. Make sure you describe the setting, season, and the people you were with.

 

 

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.

Is Multi-Genre Writing Right For You?

to do list (2)One of the ongoing debates in the writing world is about the wisdom of writing in more than one genre. The reality, I think, is that most writers want to write in several genres and, in fact, may be quite good at it. My first projects were poetry, and then I moved on to magazine articles. Think pieces followed, as did newspaper humor columns. My first published book was a small volume about practical Christian spirituality, but then I found my stride in humorous murder mysteries (#6 is out in September, with #7 currently taking shape on my laptop).

Last but not least, a few months ago, my first memoir was published.

So, for me, the big debate about writing in multiple genres is a no-brainer, because I already do.

My experience of doing so, however, has made me recast the debate from a writing perspective to a publishing perspective, and, as a writer who wants to build a career as a published author, I offer my own pluses and minuses of working in a multi-genre career.

  1. Minus: If you think it’s demanding to build one platform, try building several at once. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my experience, it can’t happen simultaneously (unless you have clones of yourself ready to go – and in that case, please drop me a note at my website, because I could use a couple of clones these days). To launch a book, you have to be single-minded to make the best of marketing opportunities: appearances, talks, media, book clubs, etc. Your new book/baby needs attention 24/7, and if you leave it for a day or two to nurse along another genre, you find yourself playing catch-up when you get back to the newborn. I’m guessing it’s like having twins-one person can’t really hold two babies equally well, so there’s always some juggling going on. Same thing with two genres: you end up feeling like you haven’t been as successful as you could have been with just one book. At the very least, you don’t sleep much, because you’re trying to do the work of two marketing departments in one body.
  2. Plus: Working in two genres is exhilarating! You get to double the people you meet and the interests you cultivate. Your horizons expand and life is so rich with new experiences, it takes your breath away. It’s wonderful to be a writer!
  3. Minus: Publishers are very hesitant to take a chance on you in a new genre. The more you’ve established yourself in one genre, the less a publisher wants to take the risk of launching you in a different direction. Publishing is a business, and publishers have to respect the bottom line.
  4. Plus: If your genres share something in common (mine share humor and a love of nature), your fans of one genre are more likely to follow you into new territory, giving you a base readership on which to build and a headstart on creating a new platform.

Have you had any experience in multi-genre writing? Any insights to share?

Concrete Tips on Book Writing: It’s Like Working a Puzzle

Jigsaw 3 bits out

Just how does one go about writing a book?

Have you ever had that thought?

I am a published author and most days, I still struggle with that question. There’s so much involved in writing a book: craft, connections, moxie, perseverance.

And then there’s this, too: writing is vulnerable. Edna St. Vincent Millay said “a person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”

But what else can we do? We must write. And sometimes our efforts turn into a book.

I am in the process of writing my second book, which has pretty much eclipsed everything else in my life. With my first book, I took years writing the whole manuscript before finding an agent and a publishing house. This time, my agent sold the book on proposal with a deadline. I was given eleven months to write and submit it. Yikes.

But how do you actually do it?

I’ve decided that, either way, whether you are on deadline or on your own agenda, writing a book is like doing a puzzle.

I write creative nonfiction. My puzzle pieces are anecdotes and stories from my life. I lurch around in the darkness of my writing cove, type words, peel back memories and scenes from the past, and try to find something salvageable to get down on paper. I try pieces in different places, and attempt to trust that the piece has a place, and that at some point the puzzle will be complete.

Yeah, but, can you answer the question?

Oh, right, I’m supposed to give you a few concrete tips on writing a book.

Let’s assume you are a writer. Here are skills you already possess: you read a lot, you write, you have taken classes or participated in a writing workshop that critiqued your work. Let’s assume you are ready to write a book, and you are looking for a few quick, concrete tips regarding the process.

OK, I can help with that.

-I prepare. I read a chapter from a book I love. I pray about my writing. I block common distractions (i.e. if the kids are home, it is off to the coffee shop I go). I look at my calendar on Google and plan writing time. It is as official as doctor appointments and school functions.

-I write. I can’t tell you how many people have talked to me about writing. “How much of the story do you have down?” I ask. “Oh, I haven’t started writing yet. It’s all up here.” (points to head). Yeah, no, that’s not going to work. I try to find several hours to write. I shoot for 1000 words or two hours editing. I spend time looking off into space, though, too.

-I realize that it takes a lot of work. It took me years to write the first draft of Sun Shine Down. And just so you know, nobody writes wonderful first drafts (if they do, I am going to avoid them and refuse to read their work on principle). Rewriting is key. I hired a professional editor, printed out her suggestions, sat down to the blank page, and re-typed the whole thing.

-I look for tools that will help. I purchased Scrivener, a word processing program specifically for writers. I can pop in and out of chapters easily and I love the cork board feature that helps me see the big picture of my book. I also found an app in Google Chrome based on the Pomodoro Technique. It blocks social media for 25 minutes and then gives me 5 minutes to check email or get up before returning to work. Keep your eye out for tips and tools that will help you and then go a step farther, and utilize them.

-I try to ignore negativity. Beware. Throughout the process you will assume you can’t do it. After, God willing, your book publishes, you still won’t believe you did it or that you could do it again. One of the best ways I know to ignore negativity is to keep writing. I also talk to other writers and attend a monthly writing group.

The second half of Millay’s quote is “If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

So, here’s to good books! Here’s to puzzle pieces in place, and here’s to us in our writing pursuits!

Struggling with Surrender?

I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. – John 17:4

Property of Shelley Hendrix

Property of Shelley Hendrix

Recently, while on a trip out west, (I’m a Southern Girl), my husband shared his experience with “surrendering to the ministry.” We didn’t realize when he shared this phrase that it was unusual to ministry friends in another part of the country. They jokingly said things like, “You surrendered?!” and put their arms up above their heads–revealing the idea that this made being a minister sound like the death of the good life. How awful, right?

We all got a good laugh. I mean, they were right. We had just never thought about it that way before.

Stephen and I still laugh about it. The friends who kidded us are some of the most trusted, sacred, and wonderful people we’ve ever known. It reminded us, though, that our words matter. We often become so accustomed to certain phrases, slang, and lingo that we forget how these same words or phrases land with others. We had heard “surrender to the ministry” our whole lives in the walls of our churches, so it sounded totally normal to us.

Surrender? 

When I was growing up, one of my biggest pet peeves came to me courtesy of my own mom. Anytime I wanted to know what any word meant, she refused to tell me. She always said the same thing: “Look it up.” I don’t know why I asked her after the third or fourth time she answered me in this same way. What I once resented, I now genuinely appreciate: a love of words and their deepest meanings. (I also appreciate the convenience of carrying a dictionary with me wherever I go, thanks to today’s technology!)

With this in mind, I looked up the word “surrender” for us.

Surrender, according to Dictionary.com, means:

1. to yield (something) to the possession or power of another; deliver up possession on demand or under duress.
2. to give (oneself) up, as to the police.
3. to give (oneself) up to some influence, course, emotion, etc.: He surrendered himself to a life of hardship.
4. to give up, abandon, or relinquish (comfort, hope, etc.).
5. to yield or resign (an office, privilege, etc.) in favor of another.
6. to give oneself up, as into the power of another; submit or yield.

The choice to surrender continues to be a part of my own journey. I’ve learned as a follower of Jesus that surrender is not a one-time-call-it-done experience.

Surrender is only a “bad” thing when I forget (or don’t understand) its purpose within the context of relationship to God.

Sometimes I think I need to know WHAT I’m surrendering to: the ministry, my vocation, financial status, size of platform as a writer, role in the body of Christ, etc. But the truth is, I only need to know to WHOM I surrender. When I get this right, everything else falls peacefully into place. I can then live with purpose, and without all the pressure!

You are reading this, most likely, because words matter to you, too. I want to encourage you to pause today, and perhaps from time to time throughout the week, to write down and reflect upon the attributes of the One to whom you have chosen to surrender. Rather than focusing on our platforms, or even the next project, let’s take time to engage fully with the One to whom we choose, once again, to surrender.

The Story of My Life

whisperingOne of my favorite parts of speaking to audiences is telling them the true stories behind the stories.

When I talk about my murder mysteries, I talk about the incidents in my own life that inspire plot lines and settings. While I haven’t personally murdered anyone (nor do I plan to), my fictional characters’ motives and subterfuges stem from simple human traits we all share. Who hasn’t experienced confusion, envy, jealousy, greed, the desire for revenge? Just because the extent of my envy might be a girlfriend’s new hair cut doesn’t mean I can’t extrapolate that feeling into the murderous intent of a killer, right?

Okay, that might be quite a bit of extrapolation, but you get my drift.

Where the real fun comes in, however, is sharing with readers the snippets of my experience that I insert right into my novels. For instance, in my third Birder Murder Mystery, my protagonist goes on a weekend birding trip to Fillmore County in Minnesota, which is based on an actual birding trip I took to that county many years ago. Spending time with other birders not only gave me a chance to add to my own life list of birds, but it provided some snappy, funny conversation that I then used in my book. I’ve found more than once that real life makes for the best fiction.

Another example: in my fourth Birder Murder, my characters are in Flagstaff, Arizona on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The setting was inspired by a trip I took with my middle daughter to tour the NAU campus when she was making college plans; the hair-raising flight into the city, the conversation with an old hippie cab driver, and the fact that NAU is surrounded on three sides by graveyards, all come directly from my trip. As a mystery writer, how could I NOT set a murder mystery where everyone KNOWS where the bodies are buried?

The most transparent example of how my writing chronicles my own life is, of course, my new memoir about how my dog helped me overcome anxiety, including a fear of dogs. Yet even since the book was published in April, I continue to find nuggets of meaning in my own story that I didn’t recognize while I was writing it: we adopted Gracie on the day before Easter – the eve of Resurrection. So now I tell audiences that my dog not only helped me experience my own spiritual and physical renewal, but the book about her is also changing my career in unimagined ways. Too bad I didn’t know that part already, because it would have been a nice epilogue…gee, maybe that’s the next book.

When I share my real stories with groups, I realize that the writing advice I first heard as a child is true: write what you know. I just didn’t understand how I could make my own experiences book-worthy…until I threw in the imagination to make my own stories part of someone else’s.

In what ways does your writing chronicle your life?