What Are You Afraid to Write?

Fear-Woman

I stumbled into the creative writing class fresh out of cancer treatment, a 48-year-old woman uncertain of her future. I had vague ideas about writing, but I was not even sure who I was anymore.

Cancer had taken all my sentences and scrambled my story.

I didn’t introduce myself as a pastor’s wife. I was Lynne (with an e) on a level playing field with the other college students.

I soon discovered that wearing jeans and a t-shirt like everyone else in the room couldn’t quite cover my wounds. The students wrote of true love and vampires and distant galaxies far, far away and I stared at blank pages. They were 18 and 19. All passion and future.

I was scars. Battle-fatigued. Dried up. Old.

The college professor—a reader of dark stories—disliked pat phrases, cliches, and the status quo. As he stood in front of the class one day, he said:

“The purpose of writing is to put on paper what people cannot say… or are afraid to say.”

Suddenly I discovered I had words. There were lots of things I was afraid to say.

Would the cancer come back? Would I live to see my children grow up? What is the purpose of it all anyway? Where is God?

Maybe that is why I didn’t introduce myself as the pastor’s wife, a careful woman, who would never admit the tumult of doubt, pain, and questions.

So many questions.

I soon realized other students were busy writing too. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with things she was afraid to say.

After writing for ten minutes, we were invited to share what was on our pages.

A heavy-set young man offered to go first and shared about his heroin addiction. A young woman shared about a sexual assault. Another shared about a miscarriage. Another the death of her brother. Another his parents’ divorce.

The readers stepped cautiously into the full noonday sun, all squinty-eyed, with scrunched up faces, unsure, after living in silence for so long, of the reception in the light of day.

As we each emerged, we discovered something unexpected: we were no longer alone. 

Writing is not about life in the suburbs and two perfect children and happily ever after. Ho hum. Pass the butter.

Writing—even from a Christian perspective—is about scars. Questions. Pain. Fear. Redemption is there, but not without struggle.

What are you afraid to write?

Lynne Hartke has a memoir coming out with Revell in 2017. She writes about courage, beauty and belonging at http://www.lynnehartke.com.

7 Ways Writers Can Find an Exclusive Voice

It’s one of the best compliments I receive from readers. “I loved your book. I could hear you encouraging me as I read. It felt like we were talking over lunch.”

Unique. Transparent. Courageous. Authentic. Fresh. Today’s most popular writing voices are often identified by these descriptors. But how do you tap into the exclusive inflections that showcase your authentic self on the page?Grandpa and Granddaughter

Recently, while watching my nine-month-old granddaughter amuse herself by practicing her newly discovered babble, I thought about a writer’s struggle to speak on paper. In the infancy of our career, we could learn a lot from babies about speaking in an identifiable way. And if we relax and learn to amuse ourselves in the process, we’ll likely find our voice faster.

Most of us need help understanding our voice. But if you follow the seven steps listed below, I can assure you, very soon, you’ll relax into the thrill of conversational-style writing.

  1. Karen Jordan author of Words That Change EverythingWrite to your best friend, parent, sibling, spouse, or child. Someone you wouldn’t hold back with. Last month, I rode to and from the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association Conference, (AWSA), and Christian Booksellers Association, (CBA/ICRS), expo with my author friend, Karen Jordan. One of the things I love about her new book, Words That Change Everything, is her transparent way of writing. Like me, she often envisions a specific person when writing her words.
  2. Imagine your ideal reader. Then, write to them, and only them. Writing expert Jeff Goins says, “My ideal reader is smart. He has a sense of humor, a short attention span, and is pretty savvy when it comes to technology and pop culture. He’s sarcastic and fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. And he loves pizza.”
  3. Ask yourself, What do I like to read? Spend some time looking closely at the books, articles, and blogs you are drawn to. What are their similarities and differences? What is the personality of the writer?
  4. Review your recent writing, and ask yourself, Is this how I talk?
  5. Interview some of your readers. Ask them, “What does my writing voice sound like to you?” List the answers you receive, and ask yourself, Are they hearing the real me through my words?
  6. Don’t start your project/page/chapter by thinking about writing for publication; at first, simply write it for yourself. Free-write without pressure or hindrance — you can always trash it later. But for now, allow your mind to run unfettered and your fingers to type unbound. The gems that shine through your free expression may surprise you, and will lend to freshness in your voice.
  7. Ask yourself, If I knew I had thirty days to live, is the message I’m sharing coming through in its purest state? Is this what I would want to say to the world through my last breaths, and how I would want to express it?

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book CoverRemoving our writing masks takes intentional effort. When I wrote Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over, I left puddles of emotional blood on many pages. However, I knew readers needed me to do it — our creative endeavors depend on reaching into our souls to thrust our true selves onto the page. When we do, readers feel like they know us personally, and want to draw nearer. Loyal fans are engaged when they can recognize our projects, without seeing our names.

Can you hear my writing voice in this article? How have you learned to write from your authentic writing voice?

10 Tips For Writing an Effective Query Letter…

10 query tips again

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a book proposal, your query letter—or your cover letter—needs to convince a publisher to keep reading. As you’re writing, remember that the reader will be tempted to check out and check Facebook. It’s your job to grab and keep a reader’s attention!

1. An effective query letter is concise.

Demonstrate you’re an effective communicator with the efficient use of words. (1 page!)

2. An effective query letter states your intention.

Be clear, up front, whether you’re pitching an article or looking for a publisher.

3. An effective query letter is personal.

Address your letter to a particular person. Has he or she represented or published something similar to your project? Make a meaningful connection with the recipient.

4. An effective query letter clearly identifies your premise.

What is the one thing this book or article aims to do? Clearly identify the singular unifying thesis.

5. An effective query letter identifies a reader’s felt need.

Why should this be published? What need does it meet? Who has this need? How will reader be helped?

6. An effective query letter captures and holds a reader’s attention.

Hook reader’s attention with colorful anecdote. Then, work to keep it.

7. An effective query letter communicates your competence.

Highlight the elements of your bio or resume most relevant to this project.

8. An effective query letter pulses with your passion.

Demonstrate your enthusiasm for this project.

9. An effective query letter balances confidence with humility.

Thank the reader for her/his time and offer your availability to discuss project further. Demonstrate humility and teachability.

10. An effective query letter is error-free.

It’s one page. Be fastidious.

Cheering you on,
Margot

Surviving the Valley

You hear a lot on the writing journey that it’s filled with highs and lows—probably more so in publishing because it’s rapidly changing and I personally wouldn’t consider any part of the industry stable or predictable.

valley-of-fire-1390258_1920The problem is the valley is hard. What exactly do you do? Do you give up writing? How do you readjust to keep your writing career moving forward when seemingly no one wants the words you’re putting on the page?

My writing valley (really—the deep dark hole of despair) started after my first trilogy was published. I worked really hard marketing those books, had great reviews, and two out of three of the books were each nominated for multiple awards. I was even told by my publisher that I was (at one point) their second-bestselling fiction author.

I thought there was no way my next proposal wouldn’t be picked up—by somebody. Well, it wasn’t and to be honest it put me in a psychological funk. I was pretty convinced that my envisioned bestselling author status dreams were rapidly crumbling in front of my eyes.

I’ve come through my first major valley (I’m sure one of many to come) and I thought I’d share what I did to survive it without throwing my writing career in the trash and lighting it on fire.

  1. Grieve. It’s okay to be sad about it. The writing life is unpredictable—even that’s a pretty generous understatement. Your writing life didn’t go as planned and it’s hard to readjust dreams sometime—but do readjust.
  2. Help other authors. Help them promote their books. Read books for endorsement. Review novels. Keep your name in the reader’s mind by having your name on their books.
  3. Stay active on social media. Even if you’re not publishing, keep engaging with your readers and other authors.
  4. Keep writing and learning the writing craft. Above all else—don’t stop writing. Journal. Blog. Write a new book proposal. Use this time to brush up on the areas of your writing that aren’t strong. Read those numerous writing craft books that have been piling up beside your bed (come on, I know you have them!) Learn those pesky computer things you’ve been putting off. Scrivner. Newsletter distribution sites. Take an on-line writing course. Even James Patterson has one now that’s very reasonably priced.
  5. Write outside your genre. During my valley, an editor from Guideposts reached out to me and asked me to audition for a cozy mystery series they were putting together. Hmm. Cozy mystery? I write thrillers. Straight up thrillers. I honestly didn’t think I could write gentle enough for a cozy mystery, but what else was I really doing? So I tried it. My first submission, well, you could probably predict the feedback I received. Too dark. The heroine’s not cheery enough. By the way, this surprised no one that knew me. But I resubmitted—and they loved it! And then the series didn’t move forward. I auditioned for a different Guideposts series and washed out again. Maybe cozy mystery wasn’t for me, but it did prove I could write something other than thrillers and I built bridges to editors at Guideposts even if they didn’t take me on for those projects.
  6. Fractured MemoryListen to God’s nudgings. Looking back with perfect vision, I felt that God used the Guideposts experience to get me to write outside my comfort zone. During this process, I started thinking about a contest called Blurb to Book that Love Inspired was hosting. Never did I imagine I would write for them. I didn’t think I was a good fit, but I found myself obsessing about this contest to the point where I couldn’t sleep. So I entered, and I ended up winning a contract for Fractured Memory, my novel releasing this month from Love Inspired Suspense. Suddenly, I was clawing my way out of that dark writing well.
  7. Go indie. In this writing age, there is literally no reason to not have content out for readers. Don’t quit your day job and scrap and save every penny you can to hire a good editor, proofreader, and book cover designer. I do say this with some caution—be sure you put out a good book! Don’t sabotage yourself into another pit.

Overall, take the valley as a place that can provide rest, rejuvenation, and growth. Perhaps you will need to go back to a paying job or postpone the plans that you had of quitting or reducing your hours. Just know that the valley is survivable and it doesn’t have to mean the demise of your writing career.

Tell me, how have you survived low points in your writing career?

 

 

Don’t ride . . . DRIVE the train!

trainAbout fifteen years ago, while taking a graduate course in Spirituality and Leadership, I had a professor who presented me with one of the most motivational sayings I’ve ever encountered: “Don’t just ride the train, be the engineer!”

Okay, maybe not the most theological statement I heard in the course of my graduate program, but it lit up my brain in ways I’d rarely experienced since finishing my undergrad degree decades earlier. Knowing myself to be an introvert and nonconfrontational, I’d always preferred to have someone else take the lead in projects at work; the only role in which I felt confident enough to be in charge was as a mother to my children. (Looking back, I can only say that ignorance was truly bliss, but that’s another post or two or a thousand.)

But the moment my professor uttered that directive, I had an epiphany that any writing career I wanted to pursue was going to demand that I drive the train, and not just ride along on whatever might come my way. As a result, I began to view writing as a vehicle I would steer, and, when necessary, refuel with energy and hard work. I also accepted that no one else cared as much as I did whether that train finally arrived; not even the support of spouse, family and friends (as important as that is!) would bring that train into the station if I didn’t commit myself to being the engineer.

I share this story with you because every writer needs to know that writing requires you to make that train your own: if you want to be successfully published, you have to learn the business, and these days, that means EVERY aspect of the business: writing craft, understanding your audience, marketing, platform building, travel requirements, publishing trends. Gone are the days when your publisher says, “Thanks for writing this swell book. We’ll take it from here.” Even your agent – if you’re fortunate enough to land an agent – can’t hold your hand through every stage of book development, because she or he is swamped just trying to navigate a path to publishers through all the layers of the industry – layers which can shoot down a book proposal for reasons of marketing or audience or numbers of your social followers, which may have nothing to do with the actual value of the book you’re creating.

You have to take ownership of your career. You have to drive the train to where you want it to go.

And that may be the biggest plus of being the engineer – you can CHOOSE where you want your career to go. It will take hard work and learning from the experience itself, but if you find you’re being called to write romance instead of devotionals, or humor instead of profiles, or politics instead of fiction, you can steer that train of your writing career onto different tracks, and see where it takes you. Maybe it will only be a short detour and you’ll end up at your original destination. That’s great! Then again, it may be a whole new journey on the writing rails.

Are you ready to drive the train?

How to make your readers SUPERfans!

supermanWhen you have a book published – be it in print or ebook – you want to get as much publicity as possible to sell copies, right?

Right!

Do your fans know this?

Well, yes, I think they do.

You THINK they do?

Here’s my suggestion: tell them you need their help to generate that publicity. You need their word-of-mouth to help your book get launched amidst the thousands of books that are available.

You need to give them the 3 Rs of superfans: Read, Review, and maybe most importantly, Rave!

With the launch of my newest suspense novel, Heaven’s Gate, I put together a launch team of thirty readers who agreed to read and post a review on amazon.com and whatever other social networks they had, along with any word-of-mouth recommendations they might be able to give. Like many writers, I’m not especially fond of online marketing because it takes a lot of my time, but the fact is, writers in the 21st century need to cultivate their presence on it. (I, personally, have had varying success with different networks, but I continue to learn and work at it because I’ve seen its value at different times. Let’s face it, if there’s a gathering of readers anywhere – even online – don’t you think an author would be remiss to ignore it?) What I’ve discovered since my book debuted last month, however, has added another piece to my formula of reading and reviewing: you need readers to RAVE about a book to influence others to buy.

So far, maybe this seems evident to you, but this next comment might catch your attention: I learned that you need to tell your readers what to write. I don’t mean give them a script – you  want their honest reaction. But what you need to do is empower your readers to write raving reviews, which result from two things: an awesome reading experience (which you have crafted with your book!) and a vocabulary that will reinforce what you want them to say.

Simply suggest key words you’d like your reviewers to use.

At first, I felt odd suggesting words to my readers to use in constructing their reviews. Then I realized that key words are…well…key. Keys, actually, to triggering the all-important call-to-action that every author needs to make to potential readers: You Need To Buy This Book Now. And guess what? Your reviewers are often very grateful to have your suggestions, because they want to write a strong review for you, but are often lacking in promotional experience and don’t know how to best help you with their review. I asked my reviewers to use the words suspense, supernatural, Archangels series, faith and science, String theory, fast ride, and thriller. They did, and as a result, the reviews for Heaven’s Gate present a consistent rave of being a book you can’t put down, which has cued new readers to order the book.ebook

Remember, your fans want you to succeed. Making it easier for them to help you is the least you can do!

 

What Actors and Authors Have in Common

Writing is a Personal JourneyI was watching Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show when it struck me. Jimmy greeted the actor with a cheek-to-cheek kiss, before ushering her to the comfy studio couch so they could share a cup and a chat.

After some banter about a recent encounter they’d had at the party of a mutual friend, they discussed some morsels about their personal lives, focusing on commonalities they shared. Then they got to the real reason for the staged visit.

Fallon gushed, as he introduced the new movie title. “Gosh, it’s so, so good. I just love it. I mean when you… Oops. I almost spoiled it, but it’s just that good.”

Listen So Others SpeakThe actor giggled. “Thanks, Jimmy. I was honored to play this role, I know I’m supposed to say I love it too, but I really mean it. This is probably my favorite project so far. I only hope the people who watch it are touched as much as I was making the film.” She raised her hands in the global prayer pose symbolizing humility.

As I watched their interchange, I reflected on other shows I’d seen her on, and her other movies. It seemed every year she was cast in a new release, some blockbusters, some with a cooler audience embrace. That’s when it hit me — how similar a successful author’s experience is to that of an actor.

My third published book just released, and as I promote it, pursue the next big project, while juggling my personal life in the process, I realize the importance of strategic planning. I wish I had the resources, connections, and energy of a Hollywood public relations machine behind me, but even without, I can learn from their methods.

7 Common Factors Between Actors and Authors:

  • Getting Through What You Can't Get OverThe actors are the face of the movie, so no matter what anyone else does behind the scenes, it is the actor who must make public appearances and visit shows on the interview circuit. An actor’s passionate voice, joined with an intriguing movie trailer, is what drives audiences to theaters and streaming sites. For authors, it’s no different. We are the face of our books. Our passionate voice about our message, mingled with intrigue about our book’s content, is what drives readers to want to know more.
  • Each actor brings their own distinct personality to promotion. Some outgoing and bubbly, some serious and reflective. Both work, they will simply attract those of similar taste. Be who you are as an author, and allow natural attraction to draw people.
  • A fresh movie release shifts the actor’s focus to a new message. As authors, I think hearing the branding mantra sometimes makes us sound stale and boring — think broken record. Personally, I believe it’s not only acceptable, but interesting, if we moderately mix up our messages, while staying true to who we are.
  • Getting Through What You Can't Get Over EndorsementA good actor hunts for new scripts and contracts — sometimes preparing for years before they can make a movie they are excited about. Successful authors should do no less. Keep your ears open for hot topics, and drop ideas, research information, quotes, and more for future books into a program like Scrivener — Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over started this way.
  • Most actors would prefer to spend more time on their craft than on marketing, and many authors feel the same. However, actors and authors both know that without solid marketing, we won’t get the opportunity to do another new project.
  • No matter how many shows an actor guests on, if the movie is lousy, sales will spiral. The same is true of our books. We can’t get around it. Good content is, and always will be, the marketing king.
  • Actors cannot produce inspiring art alone. They require support people like agents, fellow actors, experts in PR, producers, directors, etc. Authors also need a group like this to expand their message reach.

The more I reflect on what it takes to release a successful movie, the more I see the connection to releasing successful books. The Hollywood model has worked for decades, which tells me that as much as things are changing, some things stay the same.

What commonalities between actors and authors do you see that I failed to mention?