The Miserably Fabulous Craft of Writing

I have a confession to make. The only Stephen King book I have ever read is his fabulous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That said, if you can only read one book about writing, this might be it. Mining some of my favorite gems from this work, I hope to help you polish your own rough stones.


“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” I can only echo a hearty “Amen!” Whether I’m working on a term paper, a short article, a book proposal, or an actual book, I always sit down and enter my title, my name, and anything else I know, just to avoid that blank page. Perfection is the enemy of writing. If that’s your initial aim, you’ll procrastinate and you won’t write. You’ll likely never read anything you’ve written and smile to yourself, “Well, there is absolutely NOTHING I can do to improve this beauty!” Nope. Your editor will get a hold of it if you don’t. [Insert evil laugh here.] But when you begin a story, that’s not the time to labor over each word. Get it down. Start. You’ll have lots of time to labor over rewriting and editing later. “The definition of a writer is someone who writes,” declared a now-forgotten workshop leader at my first-ever seminar. Write already.

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” It’s quite possible that I am addicted to reading. I read at stoplights. I read on a float in the pool, in the bathtub, by the stove while I stir things, on my lunch break when teaching, while taking my mile walks, and the last thing before I turn in at night. Reading sparks ideas, allows you to admire fresh turns of phrase, and inspires you to work that same magic, carrying future readers to your setting, helping them to fall in love with your characters.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” I don’t remember where I read this, but one novelist wrote that he never writes until he’s inspired. “And I see to it,” he continued, “that I am inspired every morning at 9:00 a.m.” Writing is work. Writing is dedication. Writing is a miserably fabulous craft!

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” When my second book with Harvest House came out, I got the proofs and asked my amazing editor, Hope Lyda, what had happened to some of the quotes and paragraphs I had so lovingly delivered. She was gracious. “Ahem, those went to keep company with some other lonely words and paragraphs.” I see. She had kidnapped and killed my darlings. It was a better book for their absence.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Taped to the windowsill above my desk is this little gem by Dwight Swain:

Strive for:

The Vivid Noun

The Active Verb

The Colorful Phrase

The Intriguing Detail

The Clever Twist

The Deft Contrast

All of us have fallen asleep during a long paragraph in which the writer has gotten carried away by his own love of (too much) language. She ran her fingers through the water languidly, indolently, lethargically, lazily….All right already! Crisp. Clear. Concise.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Whether we favor Nooks or Kindles or the tactile experience of pages fluttering, bold ink making grand statements and words sweeping us away to other times, other people, other conflicts, when we take books with us, we carry time machines. We carry mini-encyclopedias of knowledge. We carry the life, loves, and losses of characters about whom we are made to care very much. When we write them–ahhh–we are making our own kind of magic.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates . . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” The process of writing is not often fun. But we do it anyway. Why? Because we know what books mean. We know they will never go out of fashion. And we are gluttons for punishment, because that book means magic, housed in the pages of something you have been honored to write; imprinted on the hearts of those who read it and won’t soon forget how your words made them feel. And when we write for God’s glory, we surpass even magic.

What are some writing truths you’ve learned?

The Hidden Benefits of Reading

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I read in order to avoid writing. There. I said it. I read at stoplights often enough that my children have to point and say, “Green. Green! GREEN!” in increasingly frantic tones, just before the rude non-reader honks come from the cars behind us.

I read while I wait for my children and while I brush my teeth. Just last week, I read on my daily walk. While passing my oldest daughter’s home, I understand that she pointed out the window in disbelief. “Nick!” she called to her husband, “Is that lady really reading while she’s walking?! Oh. It’s my mom. Why am I even surprised?” Once, I even read 43 pages while in the dentist’s chair.

As it turns out, my reading habit might be one of the best things I can do for my writing.

Read to Inspire

We all know there’s nothing like losing yourself in a book whose pages are so magical, they fairly turn themselves. We look up and are surprised to find it’s not raining – after all, it was pouring in the story.

Start noticing which phrases delight you. Stop a moment and think about why they do. Chances are, it’s because this book unpacked a suitcase of fresh word choices, analogies, and dialogues. The clichés have left the building and we’re thrilled!

Read to Motivate

When I read about Stephen King being able to paper his bathroom with rejection slips, I am motivated. When I recall that both Stephen King and John Grisham had wives who believed in them (the infamous Carrie was fished out of a trash can by King’s wife; Grisham and his wife self-published his first novel when he couldn’t find a publisher. They sold it out of the trunk of their car; today, they are laughing their way to the bank), I count myself blessed to have a spouse who is my biggest fan.

Knowing that 80-something publishers rejected The Wizard of Oz and that Nicholas Sparks was a drug rep, putting out juice and donuts for yet another hospital sales pitch when he got the call regarding his mega-deal for The Notebook, I am reminded that there’s something to be said for both perseverance and the chance for a modern day fairytale. Hey – it’s a book! Anything can happen.

Read to Learn

I’ve been 40 for 7 years now and I still don’t know all there is to know about anything, much less everything.  So, when I embarked upon writing my first novel (after seven non-fiction books), I began to read even more fiction. I gulped down dialogue kings and drama queens. I devoured women’s fiction, swallowed romantic suspense, snatched up crime novels marinated in mystery, snacked on current secular best sellers and wolfed down articles, chapters, blogs, and books on the art of writing itself.

I’m currently serving myself a buffet of historical fiction; my master’s degree is in American history. As a full-time high school teacher and the mother of four blessings who also love to read, I’d love to write historical novels someday. As a writer, I take note of what works and what doesn’t. As a history lover, I treasure authors whose research renders their prose not just lovely, but accurate. As a police chief, my husband does the same for authors who justly portray the world of law enforcement.

Read for Fun

Make sure reading doesn’t become just another chore. Don’t be a book snob – read because you love that author, that genre, that time period, that gift for dialogue. Curl up on the porch swing, in the hammock, by the fireplace, or at the stop light, and savor.

And remember, since books foster dreams, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming someday it will be YOUR book someone is reading just for fun!

10 Ideas for Tension Filled Writing

It was 10:30 at night. Not just any night, but the night before school started. Not just any night-before-school, but my first day of my first year back teaching high school full-time after a decade spent home being a full-time mother to my four precious blessings.

StressedOutWomanI was supposed to be in bed, but instead, I was on the front porch, armed with Rid spray, Rid gel, Rid comb and Rid shampoo angrily picking nits out of my second-born’s hair. She was sobbing. I was sobbing, too. Tears ran down my face making my nose itch. Even my kneecaps (recently shaved, I might add) itched at the mere thought of those hideous creatures.

Arriving home late from a city council meeting, my police chief husband discovered us thusly sobbing, picking and spraying. Without saying a word, he went inside, changed and took over the flashlight holding as we shampooed, checked and double checked until the wee hours of the morning. I flopped into bed exhausted and angry. Why hadn’t my daughter’s friend noticed this illegal immigration into her hair while on a mission trip sooner? Why had my daughter had a sleepover two nights prior, thus accidentally inviting them into our home? How could any of this work out for the best? Surely I would never last an entire school day on four hours of sleep!

That same week, both bathrooms sprung leaks causing a waterfall in my office and falling drywall in the laundry room. I attended Open House with my skirt caught in the back of my belt. My husband kept later-than-usual hours with murder suspects, stabbing suspects and hit-and-run accidents. Wasps made their home under our porch and the upstairs air-conditioning went out. I was hot, tired, cranky and spent my days in fearful waiting for the next plague to strike.

What does this have to do with writing? Nothing. And everything. For it gave me ideas for those times when the ill-timed equivalent of lice arrive on your scene!

1. Remember that the best plots involve conflict, action and drama. If everything in life went according to plan, it would make a boring book. Nobody would read past page two.

2. When life falls apart around you it often provides a forced clarity. Priorities become real. We are reminded that God is as necessary as breath. We invite Him into our lives and into our writing.

3. Every irritating situation has its flip side. Look for the humor and use it to make an unusual tweak in a character or an unique twist in your story line.

4. Listen to real life dialogue and take notes in your head (as if you’re not doing this already!) Sometimes what is being said in response makes a great jumping point for dialogue in your novel or a superb illustration in your non-fiction work.

5. Most likely, you didn’t expire from the stress of these multiple irritations, and your character won’t either. Rather, they can grow, change and develop. It can be a point of humor or a highlight of your character’s movement toward your desired ending.

6. What scriptures, friends, or soothing rituals helped you to cope? Might your characters borrow some of them for their problem pages?

7. Taking a walk or a laughter break can help alleviate stress. Send your character on an imaginary walk, or take note cards outside with you on a real walk and see what happens. Let your characters talk to you about what’s going on in their lives. What tickles your characters’ funny bones?

8. Was there a nemesis involved in your frustrating situation? Maybe this can be a starting point for a quirky or irritating companion to your main character. What did people say about your week/day of crisis that got on your last nerve? Serve it up on the page and make it fit your story.

9. A clump of events or disaster in your character’s life can likewise point him or her to a God who is very real and present. Recall the touch points in your frustrations that made you reach out to Him almost in spite of your determination to be angry or bitter.

10. If you’re stuck in a louse-y situation just now, either in your personal life or in your life between the pages– remember, just as chapters end, this too shall pass. If you’ll likely laugh about it later, try to laugh now. Almost everything, sooner or later, makes its way into the writing craft!

Before the Lord

Hezekiah is helpless. His nights have been sleepless; his days worried and stressed. And now this—an ugly letter full of threats and taunts from Sennacherib, King of Assyria. He has nowhere to turn, except to the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the One who can do something about it.

He walks up to the temple, spreads the pages out before the Lord and bends low, hands spread out in petition.

“Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it.

Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD.

And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: ‘O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God…deliver us from his [Sennacherib’s] hand so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O LORD, are God.’” II Kings 18:14,15,19

The powerful example of this story affected me profoundly. I have since followed King Hezekiah’s example with various things that overwhelm me. Things I know I cannot possibly handle on my own: the endlessly large parade of medical bills following my husband’s recent kidney transplant; a painful letter from someone; a letter from a reader who is hurting, sharing with me, and who wants my prayers and advice.

And for the past seven years, I’ve also applied this to my writing as well. I have prayed over rejection letters and hopeful queries. Before I submit a piece, a proposal, or publishable material – paper pieces of my heart – I spread the pages out (or place my hand on the computer screen) and petition God to guide these pages into the right hands.

I ask Him for the right eyes to read this work.

For my agent to have wisdom and discernment on where my writing would be best sent.

For both my agent and me to have diligence and determination without undue discouragement.

For readers’ hearts to be touched.

For me to write to His glory alone, every word committed to Him.

For me to honor God with my every written word, my every action, my every thought. After all, what I want more than anything is for my writing to help “all kingdoms on earth to know that He alone is God.”

And then, I hit send, or carefully slide the manuscript into an envelope and seal it, trusting God for the outcome.

How do you commit your writing to God?

Making His Name Famous

Making His Name Famous

By: Cindy Sigler Dagnan

 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

Romans 12:15

      I was on my way to speak to a writing group about crafting pieces for the Christian market, still unsure about my opener. Once in the parking lot, I dug in my purse past gum wrappers, receipts, dry Cheerios and unidentified melted goop, pulling out an envelope from the day’s mail. Aha.

Going inside, I unfolded the letter and held it aloft in front of the group. Grinning, I explained. “This is my 29th rejection slip from this particular publication. Notice at the bottom the handwritten line – ‘By the way, I really enjoyed your book.’”

Groans and laughs rushed up to meet mine. A community of writers gets used to this. There are so many ways to be rejected these days: e-mail, snail mail, text message, forward from your agent.

Sometimes the rejections come with encouraging words.

“Well written, just not for us.”

“Liked your piece, however it doesn’t fit with our current theme/we ran out of room.”

“Try again. Seriously.”

“Use this letter for the cat litter box.”

Like most of you, I’ve been told not to take it personally. And yet, how do we not? It’s part of us. Our souls on paper. A glimpse of our hearts in a sentence. Our thoughts assembled in structured paragraphs and our flights of fancy in story.

As Christian writers, that rejection can be magnified, for if we are doing this right, our goal is to make His name famous. His alone.

Yes, we need a platform. Sure, we have to market. So how then can we approach this goal?

1) Be Vulnerable.  For all our talk of agents, writing getaways, conferences, deadlines, plotlines and proposals, the truth is, writing exposes us. We want to play our worries close to our chests. But we need to get real and stay real. Share your struggles, for when you do, your writing community can identify, empathize, and later, rejoice with you.

2) Be Accountable. Challenge yourself to create a 1-2 sentence mission statement that clearly captures the ultimate goal for your writing. I’m not talking about a word count, but clear direction that focuses on God. A mission statement is best if simply stated. For example, the theme park Silver Dollar City has this as its mission statement: “To create memories worth repeating.”

Have a writing partner who will hold you to that higher purpose and keep you from straying from that ultimate goal.

3) Be Teachable. Having a humble, teachable spirit means two things: having a right perspective – we don’t know it all now, and we never will. There is always something we can learn. Secondly, it means giving credit to the proper place. If we have been blessed with talent, it is God’s doing. To Him alone be the glory. All accolades should be humbly & sincerely reflected back to Him.

“Now, Lord…enable your servants to speak your word with boldness.” Acts 4:29

The Greatest story ever written happens to be in the Greatest handbook for writers, God’s Word. Creativity comes from His hand. We learn to write boldly, but with grace and truth. Success comes from our hard work and His blessing. May we be bold. May we be reflections of His glory. If we are, then we can be genuinely happy when we embrace a colleague and say with joy, “Congratulations on that contract! I am thrilled for you. May you make His name famous.”

A Mean Delivery

I’ve spent the past few weeks doing the unthinkable: scrubbing unwanted birthmarks, surgically altering dangling participles and mutated paragraphs off my newborn. Manuscript, that is. But it feels every bit as painful as though it were one of my children that is running circles around me, hanging out underneath my elbows even as I type.

An occasional deep sigh runs out of me like flipping the pancake syrup bottle over too quickly. This is my baby.

Its inception was 7 years ago as I spoke at a conference and heard so many stories about this issue. I wanted to reach them with fiction.

Its conception began a year later. But starting actual labor was harder; I much preferred the slow incubation and the relative safety of my baby being hidden from other eyes. I tolerated the creeping pace of false of labor and welcomed the wussy labor pains, preferring to box the baby back up and allow it to grow some more until the mood struck/it was convenient to write/I was having a good hair day.

And then my book club/accountability girls decided it was time for Pitocin. “Let’s speed this thing up,” they chorused. “You’ve written other books and had them published. Get on it!”

“But those were non-fiction,” I protested. “I don’t know if I can share this one.”

Ignoring me, they chose my novel as the November book, thereby forcing me to have it completed by October 30th.

They loved it. It was inexpressibly joyful to have actual readers discussing opinions and for me to be able to explain my thoughts. “That surprised me, too!” And it did. Sometimes my characters took over.

Then my baby went to the NICU with Sarah Joy Freese. She was so gracious in her admiration. No plot problems or character problems, a rarity in a first-born. BUT…there were changes to tweak, tighten and thrill. Some things had to go the land of the unwritten for the sake of pacing.

That’s a lot of pressure for someone who’s not yet been out of the isolette! But I’m learning this process of birthing a different sort of baby. When the changes are completed, it will go from the nurturing NICU into the hands of the ruthless publishers.

And instead of a decent score on the Apgar scale, I’d settle for naming it “Published.” The last name could be, “Best Seller.”

How is your baby doing?

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