7 Writing Tips We Learned From Our Dogs

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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

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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?

 

5 Ways to Tell if You’re a Writer

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Can you name this author?

Writers are strange animals. They’re solitary mammals, prone to long stretches of hibernation unrelated to weather conditions. Generally, they’re pale, usually require glasses, and for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, tend to wear flamboyant hats. What’s up with that?

If you suspect there’s a writer gene in your DNA, here’s a surefire test that doesn’t require a blood draw or even a swab of the inside of your mouth. See if you relate to any of the following. . .

1. You kill off your imaginary playmates.

Authors invent people. You craft words to connect readers to your characters, pulling at their heartstrings, making them best buddies. Then all for the sake of story, you take those imaginary friends and ramp up the catastrophes. Bam. Bam. Bam. All leading to a horrific climax…

“Meet Susan. She’s blonde, friendly, the girl next door with good dental hygiene. Her freckles are endearing and she helps little old ladies across the street. Everyone loves Susan. Whoopsidoodle! A Mack truck just hit Susan. Her dog died. And now there’s a one-armed stalker with an eye patch that wants to drink her blood. Poor, poor Susan.”

2. Your skill at lying is only exceeded by those in Washington.

Writers get paid to tell whoppers, kind of like attorneys, only without the debt of law school. It’s an author’s job to convince others of the plausibility of their story, to pull the reader into a whole new world—one they can taste, touch, and smell. Remember Susan? Yeah. Enough said.

3. You’re an uber-frustrated control freak.

You sit around all day, controlling what your characters say and wear, manipulating how they act and feel. You are a god of your fictional realm. Nothing happens unless you make it so. Enjoy the feeling, minion, because when you surface from Storyland, you don’t get to control reviews, contracts, publisher advances, or book placement, and you’re at the complete mercy of the Amazon recommendation algorithm.

4. You long for a raging bout of tinnitus just to shut up the voices in your head for a while.

When you’re asked about where you get your story ideas, you respond with, “What…you mean you don’t have mega-plex screens playing inside your head?” At least that’s how you answer the first time. After you’ve been scarred by the horrified face twisting that answer receives, you learn to reply, “Oh, here and there.” But that does nothing to clamp the lips of the story sirens in your mind, tempting you to listen to quite possibly the best plot idea ever in the history of mankind. And don’t bother buying the sound canceling earbuds. They don’t work.

5. You fly your freak flag high.

Hey, if being nutty-nuts was good enough for Tolstoy, Hemmingway, and Poe, you’re all for it. Besides which, you know you’re not batty, bonkers, or berserk. You identify yourself as simply being eccentric.

Any one of these five gonging a bell in your head and heart? If so, guess what? Yep. You’re a writer. Don’t worry, though. In this day of political correctness, no one will dare label you a nut job for fear of a lawsuit.

But that wasn’t always the case…(cue shameless teaser). In  A HEART DECEIVED, the topic of insanity is explored in historical detail…

A-Heart-Deceived-front-coverMiri Brayden teeters on a razor’s edge between placating and enraging her brother, whom she depends upon for support. Yet if his anger is unleashed, so is his madness. Miri must keep his descent into lunacy a secret, or he’ll be committed to an asylum—and she’ll be sent to the poorhouse.

Ethan Goodwin has been on the run all of his life—from family, from the law … from God. After a heart-changing encounter with the gritty Reverend John Newton, Ethan would like nothing more than to become a man of integrity—an impossible feat for an opium addict charged with murder.

When Ethan shows up on Miri’s doorstep, her balancing act falls to pieces. Both Ethan and Miri are caught in a web of lies and deceit—fallacies that land Ethan in prison and Miri in the asylum with her brother. Only the truth will set them free.

So when you need a break from your story world, pick up A HEART DECEIVED, available by David C. Cook and at AmazonBarnes & Noble, and ChristianBook.

Six Subtle Ways to Increase Tension in Your Writing

If tug of waryou’ve studied the craft of writing for long, you know about tension. I’m assuming you’ve got adequate conflict in your story, that your characters have inner and outer stakes that are deeply personal, and that your story keeps the resolution out of reach until the last chapter.

But there are more subtle ways to keep tension in your work as well. Sometimes all it takes is an added word or a deleted sentence.  

What to Put into Your Story:

1) Increase the volume. This is a term from agent and writer Donald Maass. With a single motion, word, or metaphor, you can make your scene more dramatic. Even a mundane task like packing becomes more important when the character does it with a slow hand or a furtive glance out the window. The reader experiences the character’s conflict over leaving right along with her. Linda Nichols in At the Scent of Water describes her character’s old grief as a wild animal prowling in its cage. That one metaphor revises ordinary grief into perilous grief.

2) Break a victory into several steps. Suzanne Collins is a master at this. Katniss in The Hunger Games doesn’t destroy the careers’ food stash in one quick movement. She works out that it must be done, she distracts the guards from the food, she puzzles out how to destroy it, and then does it not with one arrow, but with three separate shots. The reader is left breathless as she tries to solve the dilemma with Katniss and as the dangerous action is drawn out, page by page, step by step.

3) Write a scene that underscores the character’s arc. After you’ve written your first draft and have done some editing, you now have a richer understanding of what drives your character and what holds him back. Write a fresh scene that encapsulates this as no other scene has. It may just be one of your most powerful scenes, because it will demonstrate your deeper understanding of the tension between your stakes and your conflict.

What to Leave out of Your Story:

1) Don’t use inner dialogue that hints at what your character will do next. My critique partner, Christine Lindsay, in her upcoming novel Veiled at Midnight, wrote a scene in which her character realizes that what happens next is up to her and God alone, so when she changes course it’s no surprise to the reader. When Christine rewrote it, she dropped the inner dialogue. The character without any preamble looks at the man pointing a rifle at the stranger, places her hand on the gun, and lowers it. Because all of the drama is concentrated in the action, it’s startling to the reader and the scene has more impact.

2) Don’t repeat yourself. It’s so tempting. You want the reader to understand your character’s predicament, so you put clues into their dialogue, their actions, their inner thoughts, maybe even in other characters’ thoughts about them. Don’t do it. It slows the story down and reduces the tension. Trust your reader to get it the first time.  

3) Don’t always have characters say what they mean. Have your characters intentionally misdirect dialogue, respond to an unspoken question rather than the spoken one, or let physical cues do the talking for them. It’s called subtexting. When the reader sees that the character has something to hide or that something deeper is going on than the actual words convey, their attention perks up.