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.

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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.

Writing roadblocks: Fear & Funk

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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

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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?

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?

It’s an Honour Not to be Nominated

I have a love-hate relationship with Christian writing awards. On the one hand, I can definitely see the value, particularly for newer writers attempting to become more well-known. Winning an award, even being a finalist, offers great exposure for the author and no doubt increases sales. Finding your name on a shortlist can also provide much-needed encouragement to keep pressing on in a business that is notoriously discouraging, even soul-crushing at times, for those trying to break in.

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But there’s a flip side, as always. What about authors who enter contests year after year without ever seeing their names on a shortlist? That can only add to the soul crushing I mentioned earlier, perhaps even drive a new writer to give up entirely and seek another career. I know that personally I have often contemplated the merits of quitting writing and taking up burger flipping or cab driving, or any job, really, that doesn’t involve putting myself out there and subjecting myself on a daily basis to criticism and rejection.

I wonder, too, about the big-name authors, the ones who appear to have “made it” in the business, whose books are well-known and widely read and whose sales and fan base is firmly established, who continue to enter these contests. Not being in this position myself (yet smiley-163510__340) I wonder what it is that motivates them. At what point do awards stop losing their meaning? Do they ever? If you no longer need the exposure or the affirmation that your work is good and has an audience, what do you get from winning an award, especially when it means a lesser-known author will miss out on the honour? I’m a little afraid to ask any of them, in case the answer is that you never get over the feeling that your work isn’t good enough, that even if fans have been loyal so far, you may lose them on your next book, that your agent may drop you, or your publisher fail to offer you another contract, as they seek out newer authors and you get left behind. Is there ever a point where, despite what others think, you yourself feel that you have “made it” and that your position in the publishing world is now secure?

I suspect that, for most writers, the answer is no. And so continuing to win awards must ease that trepidation a little, at least for another year.

As I write this, we are in the throes of another awards season for Christian writing. I love that the names of friends and colleagues, not to mention well-known authors whose work I admire (and even mine, occasionally) are showing up on shortlists and that many are going on to win awards. I hate that so many others are, right now, feeling more discouraged than ever about their efforts. It is difficult, some days, not to envy those whose work is being affirmed with numerous public accolades. In this season, it is more important than ever for us to remember that, in the world of Christian writing, we are not in competition with each other. We have all been gifted and called to write by God, and he has a plan and purpose for each of us and our work. Whether or not that involves human recognition in the form of awards is, from a divine, eternal perspective, not really all that important.

As long as we are obedient to the call to write (or flip burgers, or drive a cab, or whatever work is put in front of us to do), and we do it with all our hearts, as unto the Lord and not unto man, we can look forward to receiving the greatest and most meaningful award of all one day, in the form of the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

How to Refill Your Writing Tank

Feeling empty after finishing a manuscript or spending weeks marketing your books? Has burn-out become your default mode?

Then it’s past time for you to indulge in some writerly self-care. Here’s how I refill my tank:

  1. Eat ice cream. Lots of ice cream. It freezes all the synapses in your brain so you can’t think about writing, even if you wanted to. The idea is to give your brain a break, and ice cream does it every time for me.
  2. Read a lousy book. In fact, read two. It will remind you that anyone can write a book, but YOU can write a GOOD book. Pat yourself on the back. (Gratuitous self-praise is one of a writer’s most potent secret weapons when it comes to longevity in the writing business.)
  3. Go cliff-diving. (No, wait. That’s too much like writing – throwing yourself into a project not knowing where you’ll land. I guess that’s why I’ve never gone cliff-diving in real life since I do it all the time with writing. True confession: I just included it in the list to catch your attention…)
  4. 4. Take up a new hobby. Not cliff-diving (see #3 above). I’ve recently started weeding the yard, lopping off dead branches and building rustic furniture. Physical activity is good for the body, soul, and brain. (Hmmm… I just realized that my new hobbies all involve aggressive behavior: I get a visceral thrill from yanking out weeds, cutting off limbs and I absolutely LOVE drilling and pounding in nails. Let’s move right along…)
  5. Make something from Pinterest. Admit it, you’ve wasted time on Pinterest along with the rest of the world, oohing and aahing over charming hand-crafted items or exotic destinations or delightful food presentations. I took the plunge and here’s my result:(Hey, I didn’t promise it’s always pretty to refill my tank. I just offered to tell you what works for me. Sometimes, the most motivating thing I can do is fail miserably at something else and tell myself “Well, I can always write…”)
  6. Be a language vigilante. I love this one. I’ll make a point of reading every sign I see in a day and point out to anyone who’s within hearing the grammar/spelling mistakes. Big favorites are the ever-present “Your” instead of “You’re” as in “Your our most valuable customer” or “Thanks for you’re support!” I have to make a conscious effort not to carry a big fat red magic marker with me everywhere and circle the errors. By the end of the day, I once again feel like I have a firm grip on the English language, and it’s my duty to enlighten others how to properly use the written word.
  7. Thank God for writing. It’s a lot more fun than standing all day with a stop/slow sign directing traffic in a one-lane construction zone. Truly, I am blessed!
  8. Laugh! After all, God made you a writer, of all things! Talk about a great (make that OMNIPOTENT) sense of humor…

Writer’s Block? Consider a Template

You sit down to write your blog post or speech, and your mind goes blank.

What do you do? Panic? Make a fresh cup of coffee? Take a walk outside? Or tie yourself to your desk chair, vowing not to get up until it’s finished?

We’ve all had these moments of frustration when the words refuse to come. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one.

Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then start on the first one.”

One way to do that is to use a template. Michael Hyatt suggests, “I create a template for any task I find myself doing repeatedly. So instead of reinventing the wheel every time, I do it once, save it as a template, and then reuse it.”

If you’ve every written a book proposal, you understand the value of a template. And you compose it in chunks, right? In fact, just typing the cover page is a helpful way to start; then, you go on to the next page.

I use templates as I compose teaching or speaking notes, as well as for some of my hard-to-write blog posts.

I start with an overall look at the topic.

  • Audience. I start by examining who I’m writing for, or who will be attending the event.
  • Felt need or problem. I examine not only what problem I’m addressing, but also what I want the audience to know and to do.
  • Main thought. For me, it’s often hard to reduce my message into one or two words. So, I attempt to summarize my message in one sentence to get my focus.
  • Scripture or reference. Since I write on nonfiction, Christian topics, I write out the main scripture or promise I want to share, or the authoritative source.

The next part of my template includes spaces for each section planned.

  • Opening statement or story. Here’s where I try to capture the attention of my audience with a quotation or an intriguing story.
  • My story. I connect with the topic, using an illustration from my own experiences.
  • Our story. I consider borrowing from other people or source that expresses how many reader will relate to the subject.
  • Resource. What does my primary resource say about this topic? This could be Bible reference or another authoritative source.
  • Your story. Now, I try to lead the reader to connect the topic with one of her own life stories.
  • Application. I encourage the audience to adopt some practical way to apply the message that might change their life.
  • Conclusion. What is the take-away? Write something the audience can remember—a clever quote, a power statement, or repeat what you just said in the post in a memorable way. I propose a premise, then reinforce it with strong, concluding words.

How do you handle those times when the words won’t come for your project?

I hope you will consider developing a template for those tasks you find yourself doing routinely, like blog posts or speaking notes.

And if all else fails, just take a walk or do anything to get your mind off your writing, and allow yourself to refocus on something pleasant or beautiful.

Then, go back to your desk, sit down, and just write!

Have templates helped you in your writing? If so, share a few examples with us.