Is Your Email Inbox Overflowing?

I recall when my husband and I first got dial-up internet with an email service. Now and then, an email would pop into our inbox. We’d cull through the few emails, respond as needed, and move on.

I also remember when I first established an email address for my writer website. Again, emails trickled in, and I was happy to read each and every word that came my way.

Those days are long gone.

Email inbox showing 179 unread messages

Photo credit: ©adimas

Perhaps they’ve passed for you too. When you start getting a bunch of email, it’s exciting because it means you’re reaching people. Isn’t that what you want your words to do? Don’t you want many readers?

Yes, but that increase in email also means you probably can’t read every word. Or at least you can’t respond personally and extensively to each and every email.

As a person involved in ministry, I feel terrible when someone pours out their heart and soul, telling me their personal story and asking for my help, and I simply can’t answer like I want to. This has been a difficult shift for me. Especially when I know how wonderful it can feel to get a personalized return email from someone you contacted.

But I also know that if I did answer each and every email with the care and attention it deserves, I wouldn’t be able to write more books or even blog posts. I’d spend day after day counseling people one by one through email.

And that’s not the mission God gave me.

Jesus dealt with this same press of needy people. Sometimes He stopped and interacted with them, but sometimes He stepped away so that He could stay focused and pursue His primary mission:

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake” (Matthew 8:18).

And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan” (Matthew 15:39, ESV).

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16).

Do you feel guilty about the emails sitting in your inbox? About the people who desire or demand your time when you just don’t have it to give?

Yes, we need to let God interrupt our work when He wants something done. But all those emails in our inbox aren’t necessarily God’s calling for us. He has given us a mission of writing, whether in fiction or nonfiction, and that is the primary way we reach people for Him.

When I remember my Lord’s calling above all, I can keep my eyes on where He wants me to work. And I can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead those in need to other resources, because I’m definitely not the only one who can help. We exist in a Body of Christ, and I am just a finger.

In the meantime, I send out canned responses to thank people for their emails, explain what my response policy is, and encourage them to seek local help if they need Christian counseling, mentoring, or pastoring. And then, I write more blog posts and more books, praying these resources will answer some of those questions and help the marriages I long to help.

How do you approach your overflowing email inbox? How do you stay on mission?

Why designing a website will make you a better writer

Would you like to have an editor on hand 24/7 for all your blog posts? Does the idea that you could make every post a writing gem (even those you compose at 2 am as you desperately try to meet a deadline) appeal to you?

No, I’m not launching myself as a post editor trying to drum up business, nor am I encouraging you to sign up for yet another writing workshop.

I have a different suggestion: teach yourself to build a website.

I don’t have time! I don’t know how! I’m a technology idiot!

I know that’s what you’re saying because that’s exactly what I said a month ago, before I finally knuckled down and did it: I taught myself how to build a website without learning any coding. Today, I’m no expert at it, but I do have a simple website that meets my needs. Most importantly, though, the experience of building it helped me do four things:

  1. finally understand and apply some of those elusive internet concepts (like SEO)
  2. fully utilize blog tools like tags and readability
  3. boost immediacy and responsiveness of my site through personal administration
  4. eliminate fees to another party to maintain/update my website
You are not alone

The best news about achieving these things is that I had free help. You don’t have to struggle through the learning part alone. Videos walking you through setting up a website abound on the internet. Since my old website was already WordPress, using WordPress was an easy choice for my new site. After sampling a few videos, I settled on this one, because it has a companion site with the whole set of instructions printed out! (No more panicking because I couldn’t keep up with the video! Yay!) Likewise, as I learned about plug-ins, I watched additional videos to guide me. Trust me, if you want to do something on your site, there’s a video for it.

24/7 blog editing

This is one of the coolest things I’ve learned to apply. Because I uploaded Yoast SEO plug-in, I get a readability analysis as I write blogs. This handy program tells me when my sentences are too long, when I need to break up paragraphs, and when my vocabulary is too difficult for most readers. It even reminds me to use active, instead of passive, voice, and encourages the use of transition words for smoother writing. By heeding the readability ratings, I improve my writing skills (no matter what time of the night/early morning it may be!). Who knew that cranking out blogs could actually make substantive changes in the way you write?

Granted, building your own website isn’t for everyone, and I won’t hold it against you if you prefer to pay someone to take on the headache of creating your internet storefront. If you’re willing to give it a try, though, I know you’ll find a new perspective on how you write and how your website works.

Anybody want to share your own website designing experience?

What Writers Want

Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt

Photo Credit: YesMovies

In December 2000, Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt starred in the movie What Women Want. Like many women, I appreciated the sensitivity displayed by Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, when he finally connected with the  female lead’s innermost desires. Reflecting on this chick flick, I think we writers share similar longings — in our relationships with readers.

For instance, most of the non-fiction writers I know want the following:Henry Van Dyke

  • To be heard. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are not only listening to what we are saying through the written word, but are finding our content valuable enough to actually apply to their lives.
  • To be accepted and understood. Non-fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for answers, support, and encouragement.
  • To be desired. Non-fiction writers want readers to want our books, our messages, and the unique way we express ourselves.
  • To make a difference. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are influenced to spread their words so that more people are impacted in positive ways.

But fiction authors want these same things in their own right: A Reader Finishes Books

  • To be heard. Fiction writers want to know readers are drawn into our worlds, where conflict, setting, dialogue, intrigue, and resolution come from the depth of our imaginations and transform into a tale we tell.
  • To be accepted and understood. Fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for escape, entertainment, and thought-provoking plots.
  • To be desired. Fiction writers want readers who fall in love with our characters, our creative environments, and our page-turning stories.
  • To make a difference. Fiction writers want to know readers are influenced by the nuances of our novels, allowing educational tidbits to seep organically into their brains as they devour each page of our prose.

But regardless of our preferred writing genre, we writers must guard ourselves against wanting so much that we allow the joy of our chosen craft to be stolen away. In a single word, we must protect ourselves against dissatisfaction.

Any of us can fall into the trap of feeling dissatisfied, no matter what we’ve achieved.

  • There are authors who make bestseller lists who feel disappointed and frustrated because they don’t receive literary prizes.
  • Some achieve great commercial success, only to pine over a lack of respect from professional critics and other publishing insiders.
  • While others are appreciated all around the country, but not in their own home communities.
  • Most feel as if what they’ve written is never quite good enough.

Forget All the RulesNo matter what we accomplish, many in the writing profession cannot help hoping for more. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting more — within reason. But if we aren’t careful, we will miss out on the best of our own experiences if we focus solely on what we don’t have, versus celebrating what we do.

I imagine any writer would agree that our ultimate desire is not only to achieve, but as we walk the writing path, to milk every ounce of pleasure from the journey. If we allow ourselves, we might even dance in celebration. That’s what I want.

How do you exercise intentional appreciation for your writing successes?

 

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What authors need to know: a view from the reviewer’s desk

© Royalty-Free/Corbis

I’ve recently been reviewing books on Netgalley. To my surprise, it’s been an educational experience for me as an author; by putting myself on the reader’s/critic’s side of the equation, I’ve learned a few truths that every author should know about 1) writing books, and 2) receiving book reviews.

Truth #1: Not every book is for every person. No matter how important your message or story, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I keep thinking of the key question every writer gets when pitching a book for publication: who will want to read this book? Many of us (myself included when I began writing) believe that EVERYONE should read our books, that there is value in our work for every reader. But the truth is that people have different interests, and not everyone will want to read your book; that’s why the precise identification of those readers most likely to read your book is so critical to publishing your work. Authors MUST know their specific audience.

As a reviewer, I can choose from a multitude of topics, which means there are many excellent books I don’t choose to review for the simple reason that I’m not interested in the topic. Don’t take it personally when reviewers don’t rave about your book – it may be that your topic just didn’t hit a home run with that individual. Remember always that reading and reviewing is subjective, so while authors want and need reviews, you’re at the mercy of individual preference.

Truth #2: Not every writing style will appeal to every reader. Part of the joy of writing is to find your own voice, and when it resonates with your readers, it’s like winning the lottery. From a reviewer’s perspective, however, some writing styles are irritating, which then often result in poor reviews. (Case in point: as a former teacher of English composition, I can’t get through a book filled with incomplete sentences. When I find that in a book I want to review, I return the book rather than penalize the writer for her own voice. I’ve made that my rule based on my experience of receiving a poor review for one of my books wherein the reviewer said he didn’t read the book because he didn’t like my style in the first chapter! Again, it’s subjective, so don’t panic when you receive a review like that; if you know your audience, you can let that bad review roll off your shoulders, because you know something your reviewer doesn’t: your audience likes your style.)

Truth #3:  Your writing will improve by reading and reviewing other books. As a writer, every learning opportunity you take – even reviewing others’ books – will contribute to your store of ideas, craft, and understanding. Besides reminding me of the importance of audience, reviewing has reassured me that there is room in the publishing and reading world for many voices and many topics. As long as you continue to polish your craft and write engaging books, there’s room for you, too!

Seven Steps to Guaranteed Success as a Writer

Every author seems to have a different idea of what “success” in their field means to him or her. For some, selling at least five thousand (in Canada) or ten thousand (in the States) books, thereby qualifying them to claim the lofty title of “Bestselling Author” is the goal on which they set their sights. For others, maybe it’s a hundred thousand copies, or a million.

For some, it isn’t about the numbers, but about awards. But which award is the one that will make them feel as though they have finally arrived? Is it the Carol? The Christie? The Pulitzer? I’ve noticed several big-name authors who have won awards in the past entering the contests again, so maybe one award isn’t enough. What, then, is the magic number?

Or maybe it’s a certain amount of positive feedback, a sufficient number of glowing reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, recognition at conferences or even on the streets, enough followers on social media.

You see the problem. Success is a wildly ambiguous and deeply personal concept. Chasing that elusive label can be and, I suspect, is in most cases, a discouraging, disheartening, and depressing endeavor. The intended audience for our work can be mind-numbingly uncooperative when it comes to providing us with the accolades, reviews, purchases, and general awestruck-ness in our presence that would finally push us up to that mountain peak we are continually scrambling to reach. So too, for that matter, can agents, publishers, editors, and judges of contests.

Success1

A month ago I posted on this site about my love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. I have to admit I am coming down a little harder on the side of love these days as my books are currently finalists for five awards. Am I encouraged? Definitely. Am I grateful, honored, and excited? Absolutely. Am I able to bring myself to claim that I am now a successful author as a result of these affirmations? Not even close.

So what is the solution? To continue to blindly stumble along, attempting to achieve some random number of readers or books sold or reviews in order to feel that I am now a success? Or is it possible that I, as a Christian author, need to look at the whole success thing from an entirely different perspective? If so, the perspective that is inevitably the best one to try to view things from is that of Jesus. During his time on earth, Jesus said some radical, countercultural things about success. He suggested that “making it to the top” in the eyes of the world was not only a poor measure of success, but could, in fact, be considered spiritually detrimental because it is those who are the least in the eyes of the world who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Not that we should refuse to work hard or strive for excellence. Quite the contrary. Working diligently and doing our best honors God. The difference is in the motivation. The Bible teachers that everything we do should be done as to the Lord, and not unto man. By that standard, our success cannot truly be measured by sales, awards, or accolades bestowed on us by other human beings.

For an author who believes, then, success can only be defined by whether or not our work accomplishes the purpose God has for it. So here, in my humble opinion, are seven steps to follow in order to be guaranteed success in your writing:

1)      Listen for and receive the words God has for you to write

2)      Study the craft so that you can write those words in a way that honors the one who gave them to you

3)      Humbly accept feedback and editing that makes the work better and stronger

4)      Pray about the best platform for your work to appear on

5)      When the story or teaching God has given you does come out in written form and become available to others, seek His guidance as to the best way to use the resources of time, money, and connections he has gifted you with in order to market and promote that work

6)      Pray that God’s will may be done through the words you have written

7)      Leave the results to him

If I follow the above steps and don’t find success in the eyes of the world—however I or other people may define that—I can still trust that the plans God has for my work have been or will be fulfilled, whether or not he ever reveals those plans to me. And I can let go of all my strivings, and rest in the sure and certain knowledge that my work is a resounding success.

How To Recover After a Big Event

bigevent

As authors we all have deadlines that loom over our heads, filling our brains and our calendars with all the details. For lack of a better term, I am going to lump all those deadlines under the title of a Big Event. How do you recover after a Big Event? I  don’t know about you, but I tend to minimize my need for rest and move onto the next Big Thing.

How To Recover After a Big Event:

Perhaps you are like me. When the Big Event looms in your horizon, you push everything else aside, saying, “I’ll save that for after the Big Event, because everyone knows l will have more time after the Big Event.” 

Well, after the Big Event has arrived. That sucking sound you hear? It’s my calendar about to implode. 

My Big Event was a trifecta: a fundraising event I chaired for the American Cancer Society and Relay for Life, our youngest son’s college graduation, and the release of my first book, Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty, and Faith in the Hardest Places. All three events occurred in a ten-day window–because, you know, all major events for 2017 needed to happen in the beginning of May.

I knew I would be tired.  I was unprepared for the absolute exhaustion I would experience when it was over. 

Perhaps your Big Event was a wedding, a job change, a book proposal, a personal milestone, a remodeling project, a completed manuscript, a writing class or a long-anticipated vacation. The Big Event consumed your calendar, your energy, your emotion, your time. You busted your butt, obsessed over it and spent every free waking minute focused on it and now it is OVER.

The Big Event is over and you find yourself depleted, out of gas, and struggling to make it through a normal day.

So, what happens after an experience like this? You’re exhausted and depleted. You need a period of recovery. Achievers forget this so easily. You are groomed to be industrious and effective, but not to allow for recovery or transition between projects. – Sharon Teitelbaum.

Yeah, that pretty much describes me. You too?

Now what? How do you handle it? How do you recover?

1. Look Back

We live in a culture that tends to look forward. Achievers, especially, find purpose in the next big project, yet taking time to reminisce and celebrate what you have accomplished is important. Process the event with others and keep a visible reminder of your achievement – a photo by your computer, a shell from the family vacation, a framed certificate over your desk.

Last week I spent time loading photos from the cancer event and graduation and enjoyed reading reviews from the book release.

2. Look Inward

Recognize that you might be feeling a variety of emotions after a Big Event, including highs and lows, exhaustion and elation.

“It’s natural, too, to feel sad, disappointed, even depressed at the end of a big project, even one that’s a resounding success. The things we do define us as people, and the biggest things we do are the biggest part of us; losing them, even by choice and design, is hard.” – Dustin Was

Be kind to yourself. Rest when you need it. Go to bed early. Do something therapeutic whether it is baking, gardening, watching endless shows on Netflix or getting a pedicure.

3. Look Forward

After you have had time to rest and transition, it is time to focus on the next event and plan some new goals.

Take a little time to reflect on your finished project. See how you might build on the success you’ve already achieved. Then get ready for the next big thing.

What about you? How do you recover from a Big Event?

Lynne Hartke’s first book, Under a Desert Sky, was released in May with Baker/Revell Publishers. When she is not writing or blogging, she is out hiking desert trails and pastoring with her husband in Chandler, AZ.

What to Write When You Don’t Know What to Write

Writing blocks rarely hit me because I don’t know what to say. For me, they are usually derived from a mind swarming with ideas. So much so, that I can feel overwhelmed with questions like these:

  • Should I focus on idea A or B today?
  • Just because I’m interested in a topic doesn’t mean anyone else is, right?
  • Is my thinking on this matter completely delusional?
  • I can’t write about __________; people will think __________ about me. Won’t they?

Ah, the battles of insecurity a writer must fight. So how do we wage war against our own fears, those with the power to debilitate us if we aren’t careful?Writing Rules

For me, I’ve had to gulp, choosing to write afraid.

I love what Stephen King said on the matter. “The only requirement to be a writer is to remember every scar.”

The secret to great writing is daring to risk in order to reap greater rewards. 

  • When you aren’t sure whether idea A or B is better, choose one and decide to embrace your own decision.
  • Odds are, if you are interested in a topic, so are other people. If you doubt it, do a quick friend/family and social media poll to test the waters.
  • What sometimes feels delusional to us can feel like “outside the box” thinking to others. Research to see if you can substantiate your premise. Try to imagine how this might come across to someone foreign to the concept. Tell your readers you understand this may sound strange or that they might agree to disagree with you. And don’t forget to ask God what He wants you to say — He is the king of fresh ideas.
  • As Stephen King’s quote reminds us, the inner scars, the deep thoughts, and the vulnerable spaces in our lives are often the ones other people connect with the most. If we hold our tender areas captive, we can’t free someone else who needs permission to release their own fears.

I think most writers struggle with what to write when you don’t know what to write. But you can’t go wrong when your words originate from your soul. Don’t doubt yourself to the point of mental paralysis. Your unique take is as important as your unique voice in expressing your thoughts.

Dare to believe in what you have to say.
Dare to share your innermost thoughts. Dare to trust God with a message he wants you to offer.

What Are You Doing for OthersSo what if every person on the planet doesn’t share your perspective? Some of the greatest minds in history were scoffed at in the beginning. Do your due diligence, then dare to risk so you and your readers reap a greater reward.

What topics could you write afraid? What are you holding back that could help others?