Before You Release Your Words Into the World…

If you’re writing a book you hope to see published, your words must serve the reader.

  • Maybe it’s a memoir.
  • Maybe it’s self-help book.
  • Maybe it’s the story of a remarkable relationship.
  • Maybe it’s tips about gardening.

No matter what you are writing, it has to have value for the reader.

So before you send your proposal or manuscript to an agent or editor (or before you send it to me to review!) imagine that the agent/editor/publisher will be reading your words with one question in her heart: What’s in it for the reader?

Questions I want you to ask, of your proposal/manuscript, before you release your words into the wild…

  • What is the value, for the reader, in this book?
  • When she finishes the first chapter, does she want to keep reading?
  • When she’s really tired, is there a reason for her to keep turning pages?
  • Does every sentence, every page, every chapter serve the reader?
  • When she finishes, can she articulate the single important takeaway of the book?
  • When the reader sets this book down, has she gained something from it that she wants to share with a friend over coffee?
  • Does she want to buy a copy for her sister because the book had so much value?
  • ls she able to apply what she’s learned to her own life?

If the answer to some of these questions is either “no” or “I don’t know,” I want you to return to your word-baby and review it one more time through the spectacles of an agent or editor. Name the value–write it out–that the reader gleans from each chapter.

If you can’t identify the takeaway value for the reader–the “payoff” for purchasing your book–then work at it until you can.

Ultimately, “your” book is not about you. It’s about the reader.

Serve the reader.

This post first appeared on Margot’s blog, Wordmelon

Advertisements

Promises for the Writing Process

WordSwag/KarenJordanAs I worked on my first book project, I struggled with all kinds of self-doubt and fear. I wondered why I had even bothered with writing a book proposal.

I had faced several rejections in the past. And I had been unable to follow through on other book projects earlier for a myriad of reasons.

Yet I couldn’t seem to let go of my desire to share the spiritual lessons I had learned, applying God’s principles and promises to my life.

Peace. I had been praying about finding spiritual rest and peace. And I had struggled with the thought of compiling the truths I had discovered while helping others in their struggle with fear—especially with worry, anxiety, and depression.

Prayer. I had voiced a question to God as I wrestled with fear, doubt, and unbelief concerning direction for my book: How can I write a book about finding spiritual rest, when I’m still one of the most anxious people I know?

Promises. I discovered powerful promises in the Bible as I sought God’s direction and moved forward with my book. I hope they will encourage you as you work on your next writing project.

  • God will complete the work that He began in me. “[Being] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion . . . ” (Phil. 4:6 NLT).
  • The Holy Spirit will teach me all things and remind me of everything that the Lord has taught me. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit—the Father will send Him in My name—will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26 HCSB).
  • Christ promises to give me the strength I need. “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13 NLT).

What promises from scripture have meant the most to you while you labored over your writing projects?

 

Facing Distractions and Discouragement

How do you respond to distractions and discouragement when you’re seeking direction?

Writing my first book initiated one of the most intense spiritual battles of my life. I worried about my family—especially my seven grandchildren.

I had not been available for their needs with all my blogging, speaking, and writing. Guilty thoughts saturated me like a heavy rainstorm. And worry encompassed me like a dark thundercloud overhead.

Then, a Word broke through the storm clouds like a ray of sunshine: “[T]here is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1 NLT).

My husband, Dan, had scheduled his retirement date just weeks before the deadline to turn in my book manuscript. So my direction faltered, and my thoughts were like a honeybee, flitting flower to flower. Lord, how will I ever finish this book in time?

I completed my book, but not without spiritual battles. Ephesians 6 offers us this truth:

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life.
God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. (Eph. 6:13–17 The Message)

What scriptures have helped you during the spiritual battles of your writing life?

That Time When I Plagiarized… Accidentally.

I was riding on the wings of a book launch, when energy and excitement are high, and the invitations for radio interviews, podcasts, and guest blog posts filled the pages of my calendar.  I was delighted to have one of the most coveted (can Christians say coveted?) invitations, a guest post on a blog that’s read worldwide. I pulled an excerpt from a chapter in my book, a piece about having confidence in the sovereignty of God, even when you feel overlooked.  I submitted to the editors, I got the stamp of approval, and I waited for the day it would go live. These were exciting times, my friends. Exciting times, indeed.

The morning after the post went into the world, I got an email from an author I’ve long loved, one whose writing I have studied and learned fromI was delighted to hear from her, as I’ve long read her words and tucked them into my heart.  I found her work years ago, shortly after my husband died, when I was searching everywhere for guidance and any ounce of hope.  This author had experienced her own dark valley of grief, and I read her words voraciously, letting her light my path through the valley. She had been a lighthouse for me. She had read my guest post and she wanted to reach out to me… but not for reasons I had hoped.

She said,

Tricia: I know what it’s like to find someone else’s words that sound so much like your own thoughts and to use them so much they begin to feel like your own. I know I’ve used other people’s words in this way, so I’m not throwing stones. But your beautiful blog post today had some very familiar-sounding words, and I wonder if you might want to either rewrite them to make them your own or attribute them as a quote?

And then she wrote the text from the blog post, and I gasped aloud and spilled my coffee across the dining room table. Those words were definitely hers. I was very accidentally, but very definitely, guilty of plagiarizing. And I was horrified.  As embarrassing as it is, let me tell you what happened so I can perhaps spare you from breaking the Number One Rule of writing.  Here’s what happened.

As I devoured her books so many years ago, I had quoted her in my journals, prayed her prayers in my own voice. In my silent hours of crying out to God, I had copied her passages and doodled her quotes, weaving them into my own.  After all, she had given me words when I was too sad to find my own. But in my stream of consciousness journaling, I didn’t quote my sources. (Because who footnotes in the privacy of their own journals?)  Years later, when it came time to write this new book, I revisited those journals that had chronicled the stages of my journey.  I rediscovered words and prayers and ideas and themes, all in my handwriting.  And I simply pulled from my journals, and I wrote them into a new manuscript.

Yes, she had found her words in a blog post that could be easily fixed, but the greater concern is that the blog post was an excerpt from a book. And that book was now out in the world. Such things are not as quickly fixed.

I called my agent, Greg, immediately.  It happened to be on his birthday. First, I told him happy birthday, then I told him I had accidentally broken the law in a book that was out in the world.  I prepared myself to be sued, to lose my credibility, and worst of all, to never write again.  It felt unprofessional, and unprofessional is never something I want to be known for. I didn’t want to draw anyone’s integrity into question, certainly not mine, and definitely not my publishers’.

Greg talked me off the ledge, explained that this was an honest mistake that happens sometimes, particularly among pastors who become authors.  They gather their resources from all over, they write a sermon, and then their sermons are transcribed to become book chapters, and the original sources get lost in translation. He walked me through a plan: we would write a correction on the blog post, we would make changes in future reprints of the book, and we would make changes in ebooks immediately.  This mistake was not, in fact, the very end of the world or even of my career.

We offered our solution to this acclaimed author, and she was gracious in her reply.  She said:

Please don’t sweat this.  I know I’ve done this.  In fact, I think we would both be horrified to see how much I’ve done it without realizing it because I too have been sloppy in noting where I got things.  So please don’t beat yourself up. You are forgiven and free, my dear.  And may the Lord give me grace to respond as graciously as you have when an error like this is pointed out to me, as I’m sure they one day will be.

She was the epitome of gentleness, forgiveness, and professional compassion.  She showed me how we, a community of Christian authors, can support one another’s work and hold each other accountable. I’ve learned some hard lessons about plagiarism, gentle confrontation, grace, and footnoting everything – even in the sacred privacy of my journals.

Take it from me, my fellow writers. Even on cocktail napkins, journal pages, and fleeting scraps of paper, note your sources so you can quote your sources.

Sifting and Winnowing

Photo/KatenJordanMy heart pounded as I braved my re-entry into my writing space. I simply did not want to work on another uninspired blog post. Why, I didn’t know. But I knew I needed to identify the source of my resistance to what I’m passionate about—writing.

From my office chair, I scribbled a few forced phrases—those anticipated first and necessary words. The ones I demanded myself to write. It was a painful hour.

Even though they were interesting, they weren’t satisfying. And I grieved once again for inspiration that would give me life—meaningful thoughts flowing from a grateful heart. But the words I produced were stale and stodgy. Would anyone be blessed by reading them? I thought not.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of blank pages. So I confessed to my husband, Dan, “I’m really struggling with the blog posts I should have already written.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I routinely commit to writing about things others have requested, and I never get to work on things that really matter to me.”

“Like what? Give me an example,” he asked.

Dan listened carefully as I voiced a litany of excuses. Then, he responded, “Maybe you need to do some ‘winnowing.’”

“Tell me what you mean.” I knew what the word “winnowing” meant, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

“Have you ever seen an illustration of someone threshing wheat?” He shared several photos after searching the Internet.

“You mean, like sifting?” I knew Dan was right, but I hadn’t figured out how to climb out of my writing rut.

He said, “All words are not equal. And like grain, where the husks have to be separated and discarded. To produce the best dialogue and story, the worthless ideas must be winnowed out.”

Sifting. I listened to the Daily Audio Bible during my morning walk. From the book of Judges, I listened how God gave Gideon instructions for choosing warriors to fight with him.

You have too many warriors for Me to allow you to defeat the Midianites. As it is now, the people of Israel would just deny Me the credit and claim they had won the victory on their own. So go out and tell your army, “Any of you who are afraid and trembling are free to leave Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:2-3 VOICE)

The scripture reminded me of my earlier conversation with Dan.

After Gideon reduced his army, the Lord told him. “You still have too many warriors. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you. When I say, ‘This one will fight for you,’ he will go with you; but when I say, ‘This one will not fight for you,’ then he will not go’” (Judges 7:4 VOICE).

As I listened to the passage being read, the word “sift” took on new meaning for me. I knew the Lord was teaching me about “winnowing” and “sifting.” I also recognized I could take my notebook “down to the water” and ask the Lord to help me “sift” through all of my writing and speaking commitments. The neighborhood lake was the perfect place for solitude.

Winnowing. After lunch, I took a brisk walk to Lake Cortez with my pen and paper, with my heart prepared for “winnowing” my writing options, sifting and discarding those that didn’t seem right for me.

One-by-one, I reviewed my current writing commitments, praying what was most important would emerge as my next writing effort.

Recently, I read this encouraging word from the book of James:

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.

The key is that your request be anchored by your single-minded commitment to God. Those who depend only on their own judgment are like those lost on the seas, carried away by any wave or picked up by any wind. (James 1:5-6 VOICE)

I’m so grateful when God gives me his guidance and help. Some days I make decisions and commitments without even considering Him. But as I listed all of my plans that day, it became clear which projects and events I needed to abandon and pursue.

I instinctively knew which stories mattered most. And I also understood what genre of writing I wanted to pursue. So, I had the courage to resign from writing about things and issues that undermine my creativity and leave out elements of my faith.

I’m not sure what I will write next. But for now, I will continue to ask the Lord to help me sift through all of my projects and plans and allow him to impress my soul about what choices to make.

How do you “winnow” through your life and work? What sifters do you use when choosing what matters most to you and is worthy of your time and energy?

Scripture taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Writing roadblocks: Fear & Funk

StockSnap_EFNUBBALXU

In my experience, there are two roadblocks that cause a stall out when one is writing a memoir: fear and feeling stuck (or both!).

Fear:

What if I can’t do this? 

You know what? Nobody can actually write memoirs worthy of publishing right away. It takes time, work, passion, and the desire to grow in the craft. But the only way you truly can’t do it is if you don’t do it.

I don’t have a clue where to start. 

Again, few of us do. But the point is to get words down on paper (or laptop). Start at the beginning of your story. The starting place will probably change, but write something. Write a scene. An essay. Some musing. Summary. Thoughts, even if the thoughts are I don’t have a clue where to start. Once you write, you’ve started.

I’m too busy to add this to my life​. 

This is 100% true for some. It’s OK. Life will change at some point and you may be able to weave writing into your life. But a lot of times, this comment has to do with fear. If you really want to write, find time. Fifteen minutes in the morning. A half hour at night in exchange for a reality TV show (I’m obsessed with them!). Jotting down thoughts and ideas on a note pad as you wait for your kid’s soccer practice to let out. You don’t have to set aside chunks of time, but write. Find a little time. Write!

Funk:

Some authors think that writer’s block is a myth. I disagree. I think it is a real thing, but I also think that we can do a few things to attempt to loosen up our tangled creativity.

Put in the time anyway.

Set aside time for your writing. Remember Anne Lamott’s ‘butt in the chair’ admonishment from Bird by Bird? You may not actually write. You may stare off into space without one thought about your project. Just don’t give up. In order to build your writing muscles, you have to write.

Don’t let discouragement stop you cold.

​Or it will. You’re going to think your work is terrible. You’ll decide that your four-year-old can write better than you. You’ll want to give up. You might fear that someone will hear about you writing and think you are a fraud. Don’t let these things stop you. One writer said that as soon as you write, even if it is a grocery list (for the purpose of writing, not strictly to shop), you are a writer. Use your discouragement as a challenge to get better. 

Look for inspiration. 

​Read a memoir or a novel. Pick up a book on craft and read a chapter before you sit down to work. Purchase a writing course. Listen to podcasts about writing (my favorite is Between the Covers. Catchy title, right?). Look for a writing group in your town or online. Read blogs (ahem). Talk to others who write or love all things literary. ​ 

These ideas usually help me get out of my fear and funk. See what they do for you. You might just pick up your pen. 

 

Using Family Photos to Write Your Family Stories

Photo/KarenJordan

Whenever we put together our own stories and either tell them or write them for posterity, we are preserving the most central element of our own identity and value system. Who are we, apart from the people and the events about which we tell our own stories? (Donald Davis, Telling Your Arkansas Stories)

Have you ever discovered an old family picture and wished that you knew the story behind it?

The following questions might help you discover an important family story that you can share with the next generation!

People. Can you identify the people within the shot? If not, do you know anyone who can? Can you write a description of that person? Who else might have been around when the shot was taken?

Places. Do you know where the picture as taken? Can you describe the place or the area at that time? Do you know anything about the history of the area? What do you know about that area now?

Photo/Karen JordanTime. When was the shot taken? What time period? What was going on in the world at that time? What changes have taken place since that time?

Events. Do you know what event was taking place when the photo was taken? Can you tell what season of the year it was taken? What events might have been happening around that time?

Story. Does the picture remind you of a story? What came to mind as you thought about the people, places, or event that might have been taking place when the photo was taken?

Questions. You might think of even more questions that you need to ask yourself about the photo that would help you capture an important family story.

Brainstorm. Take a moment and write down your thoughts about your picture. You could even include the picture when you preserve your story—in a scrapbook, on your computer, on a blog, in a notebook … the possibilities are endless!

Legacy Stories. Don’t miss your opportunity to preserve your family history by composing a written legacy of your family stories, as you identify the details and stories represented by your family photos.

Did either of these photos remind you of a person, place, or event from your own family history?