“I Want to Write a Book…”

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Occasionally I’ll connect with someone who’s itchy to write. Maybe he wants to start a blog. Maybe she wants to write a book. And this potential writer is itchy to take the right next-steps to do this.

Maybe you’re that potential writer.

Without yet knowing you or your story, here’s what’s in my heart for you and other eager potential writers…

Write

Start. Begin. String words together. Gather your sentences into a meaningful whole.

It’s estimated that 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them and should write it. I don’t know the stat for people who go on to actually write them. I feel fairly confident guessing it’s not 81%.

So by sitting down at your laptop and writing, you’re well on your way.

The thing that makes any legit is…writing.

Work at Your Craft

The best writers work at their craft. There are a number of good ways to do that:

  • Attend a writer’s conference.Writer’s conferences offer great workshops to help you improve your writing. And they often offer opps to network with writers, editors, publishers, and agents. (Here’s a good listing of Christian writer’s conferences, if that’s your bag.) I’m not a conference junkie, but I do believe that there are a host of rich resources available at most writers’ conferences.
  • Join a writer’s group. Gather with writers in your area. Meet face to face to share and critique one another’s work. Or, find an online critique group. Others’ feedback—noticing strengths and offering areas for improvement—is extremely valuable in growing as a writer.

 Before You Publish…Publish

If you’re anything like me, you may secretly hope and believe that the first draft of the book that’s in your heart will become a New York Times bestseller.

Psychological professionals call this “magical thinking.”

If you’re serious about writing, begin to develop an audience.

  • Guest post on a friend’s blog.
  • Start your own blog.
  • Pitch articles to online magazines.
  • Enter a contest.

Though it can be tempting to want to dazzle audiences with that first book, either traditionally published or self-published, there’s a lot to be learned on the journey. Good writing is worth the wait.

Don’t rush.

But do start.

Words: Show … Don’t Tell

sun-and-sky-and-cloudThe Jew, Max, was imprisoned in a basement, or so the plot in the movie The Book Thief goes. The setting was Germany. It was the beginning of the Second World War. As a woman who has only heard about World War II, I was fascinated as I sat on my couch and watched the story unfold.

But as a writer, I was mesmerized as I heard the words of a 12-year-old girl named Liesel who was Max’s connection to the outside world. She spoke living words that transposed me to a time and place long ago.

But isn’t that what writers should do? Write “living words”? Ones that when woven together do more than tell their readers facts and truths and stories.  Words that show.

How did the writer of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, do this? I had to know. And so I purchased the book so I could read his words.

One scene showed an interaction between Liesel and Max when he was hiding in her home, confined like a trapped animal. Unable to see the light of day, he listened intently as the girl told him about making a soccer goal. (This scene begins on page 249 of the book.)

“You told me all about the goal, but I don’t know what sort of day it is up there. I don’t know if you scored it in the sun, or if the clouds have covered everything,” Max said. Then he asked Liesel to go outside and tell him what the weather looked like.

After she returned to the basement, she said: “The sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole …”

Knowing that only a child could have given him a weather report like that, Max used the basement wall as a canvas and “painted a long, tightly knotted rope with a dripping yellow sun at the end of it, as if you could drive right into it.”

Show three-dimensional lives

As a writer I wonder if I will ever tire of reading those “weather” descriptions over and over again. And I also ask myself a question: Could I ever write so vividly?

Liesel’s and Max’s words about the sun and sky remind me to show and not tell. To transpose readers into worlds with colors and sounds and smells. To introduce them to the souls of people (both fictional and real) and not leave these people as “cardboard” characters. To help readers experience three-dimensional lives that dream and struggle. That succeed and fail.

What happened to Max? you wonder? You’ll have to read The Book Thief for yourself, or watch the movie, or listen to the audio book (I’m doing that now). And if you love to write as I do, I think you, too, will be spellbound by Markus Zusak’s words.

Remembering favorite words

As I read books and articles and hear people speak, I try to jot down the words that I love the most. I do this on a little notebook that I tuck into my purse or as a “note” in my iPhone.

You might want to have a “word notebook” yourself – either paper or electronic. If you do this, then when the writing gets hard and the right words just won’t come, don’t give up. Instead turn to the masters. Go to your notebook. Read the words that once captivated your heart. Take a walk. Breathe the fresh air.

Then pick up your pen, or go back to your laptop, and try to get the rights words, again … and again.

Use Less Scripture in Your Manuscript (And…I love Jesus.)

bible-1031288_960_720One of my pet peeves—as an editor, as a writer, as a reader—is when authors use long passages of Scripture in their manuscripts, or pepper it with too many verses.

And, of course, now that it’s out there, I feel like I need to defend myself. So let the record show:

  1. I love Jesus.
  2. I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and has the power to transform lives.
  3. I earned a Master’s of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. (Sorry if that makes me seem like a show-off. It had to be said.)

Also:

  1. I don’t want to see too much Scripture in the manuscript you’ve sent me to edit.

I’m actually delighted to announce this grumpy thing publicly, for the first time, because I finally figured out why it gets under my skin:

Cutting and pasting large portions of Scripture into your manuscript, or peppering way too many verses into it, DOES NOT SERVE READERS.

Overusing Scripture is problematic for two reasons: it’s either too much or too little.

1. It’s too Much: Avoid Including Lengthy Scripture Passages

Problem: When readers—and I mean Christian readers—encounter long passages of Scripture in a manuscript, they tend to skim over them. From the cursory glance at keywords—“Moses,” “praise,” “sanctify,” “Jesus”—the reader determines that she’s already read this before and keeps reading (if you’re lucky) beyond the Scripture-brick to discover what he or she does not yet know.

Solution: Use a shorter passage of Scripture. When you crop the text down to the most salient verse or verses, the reader can better glean what you most want to communicate.

Example: In lieu of including the entire text of Psalm 119, which has 176 verses, give the reader a bite and tell them enough to make them hungry for more…

Every verse of Psalm 119 describes the good way God’s designed us to live. In verses 9-12, notice the words the Psalmist uses to point the reader to the good way:

How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:9-12)

Path, commands, word and decrees all point reader toward the good way God’s designed. And If you read all of Psalm 119, you’ll find lots of other synonyms for this path that leads to life.

2. It’s too Little: Avoid Including Too Many Scripture Passages

Problem: When you pepper too many verses of Scripture into a manuscript, you might assume that lots of Scripture is benefiting the reader. But there actually might be more value in including less! Too many verses of Scripture can feel like being pelted by a rapid-fire Nerf gun. If the reader can’t make a meaningful connection to each passage, the verses will bounce off the reader and fall to the floor.

Solution: When you do weave Scripture into your manuscript, it’s your job to help the reader find fresh spiritual nourishment from the passage by demonstrating the connection to your message. Here are a few ways to help the reader glean as much as possible from the biblical text:

  • Provide historical context, noting time, place, speaker, culture, audience, etc.
  • Provide literary context, helping reader understand why what comes before or after this passage illumines its meaning
  • Offer practical application, demonstrating how this passage was vivified in your life of someone else’s
  • Strengthen the connection between the passage and the reason you’ve shared it

Example: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14)…

When Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” he’s making a radical claim! Did you know that, in the ancient near east, a nation’s king was said to be the “light” who reigned on behalf of a deity?! Jesus is saying something pretty bold, then, about the kingdom of God and about your role in it by announcing that you are the light of the world.

Finally, Scripture was never intended to become a quantity to be used, cropped, leveraged or wielded. I know that and you probably do, too. Being thoughtful about presenting Scripture in a way that it can be tasted and digested, to offer real nourishment, is a gift to your reader.

 

 

10 Tips For Writing Well

10 writing tips

Some types of communication require writers to string a lot of words together as quickly as possible. (Maybe you have a day job that requires this!) When I’m writing in this way, I don’t pause to weave beautiful phrases or engage the reader with well-crafted sentences. But there are other writing projects in which I want to gift readers with words that shine. For these projects, there are some rules of writing that guide me as I purpose to be as artful and effective as possible.

 1. Be specific.

Use precise language. Not “tool,” but lathe.  Not “hot,” but fiery. Not “fruit,” but mango.

2. Appeal to a reader’s senses.

Appeal to the reader’s senses by including sights, smells, tastes, sounds and textures.

3. Avoid flowery speech.

Overusing adjectives and adverbs makes your speech too flowery. Mary DeMuth exhorts, “Use a better noun instead of a weak one that needs an adjective. Use a stronger verb instead of one that leans on an adjective or adverb for help.”

4. Use active voice.

Employ active voice, rather than passive, to create interest and keep readers engaged.

5. Avoid fancy words.

Don’t use a splendiferous fancy word when a plain one will do.

 6. Eliminate unnecessary words.

If any words or sentences can be removed without changing a text’s meaning, your writing will be stronger if you scrap ‘em.

7. Vary sentence length and structure.

Use simple, short sentences. Also use longer and more complex ones.

8. Choose original combinations of words.

Reach beyond clichés and stereotypes to discover fresh expression. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” (Orwell’s 6 rules of writing in “Politics and the English Language,” 1946)

9. Write to one person.

I’ve heard my wise friend Jonathan Merritt say, “If you try to write a book to everybody, you’ll end up writing a book to nobody. If you try to write a book to somebody, you’ll end up writing a book for anybody.” Identify your target reader—sister? neighbor?—and write to that one person.

10. Show, don’t tell.

Allow readers to discover what you have by painting colorful moments, conversations, conflicts, etc. Writing that “tells” simply informs, like recipe ingredients. Writing that “shows” offers reader a taste of yummy cake.

Cheering you on,

Margot

Excelling at the Craft of Writing… A New Book!

Here at the Water Cooler, writers are dedicated to helping each other grow in their craft. The community that has grown over the past five-plus years is both practical and essential: it enables writers to make connections with others on similar writing journeys; it encourages creativity, collaboration, and growth; and, perhaps most significantly, it pushes each of you to become better writers.

Who couldn’t do with a little more of that?

Excelling-at-the-Craft-of-Writing-Cover

In order to bring the ideas and content of the Water Cooler to the widest audience, we’ve embarked upon an exciting project: a three-part series of published books, The Best of the WordServe Water Cooler. We’re thrilled to announce that the first book, Excelling at the Craft of Writing: 101 Ways to Move Your Prose to the Next Level, is now available in print and ebook! This collection of 101 easy-to-read, engaging essays covers a range of topics that include organizing and outlining your work; creating vivid characters and dialogue; and fine-tuning your language, style, and voice. With proven advice from more than thirty WordServe authors, Excelling at the Craft of Writing moves from the first seeds of starting your writing project up to the last steps of creating a proposal and pitching your work to agents. It’s going to be a must-have resource for writers at every stage!

Many of you are already familiar with this book, having generously allowed us to include one or more of your posts in the manuscript; many more of you will be contacted for inclusion in the upcoming two books, on marketing and the writer’s life respectively. We hope that you’ll all want to participate in helping to promote the books, which should bring the work of the Water Cooler—and all of you—to a wider audience.

That’s why we’re offering a special promotion for Water Cooler readers. If you’re willing to promote Excelling at the Craft of Writing by advertising it on your site with a widget or dedicated post; tweeting it out to your followers; or posting on Facebook, we’ll send you a FREE digital version of the book to read on your e-reader device.

If you’re willing to help promote, please contact keely@wordserveliterary.com to tell us how and to receive your free book.

We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank all of the writers who allowed us to include their work in Excelling at the Craft of Writing, as well as all of you who have written and continue to write for the Water Cooler each month. We couldn’t do it without the dedicated involvement of so many great writers, and the blog’s success is a testament to your thoughtful, incisive, and intelligent posts each week. Thank you for being a part of this community!

–The WordServe Team

Fitting the Words to the Occasion

Global business strategy

Solving globe puzzle by finding the correct puzzle pieces

In elementary school, I discovered the joys and complexities of writing. Through a summer creative writing class, I learned how the right word choice can make a poem memorable, dialogue meaningful, and a setting realistic. As a graduate student at Harvard University writing scientific research papers and a doctoral thesis, I revisited the importance of precision in writing. Medical and scientific writing employs a special vocabulary of scientific terms, abbreviations known only to others within the field, and a careful, well-organized tone.

Whether you are a professional writer creating highly technical and specialized documents, a journalist, an academic researcher writing for a scholarly audience, a novelist, or an author of a non-fiction book, you need to select the correct words to create clear and effective communication. Here are some ideas that have helped me fit the words to the occasion:

  1. Choose precise words. Resist the temptation to embellish your writing with multiple adjectives and adverbs. Choose “sprinted” over “quickly ran” and “coral” over “deep orangish pink”. Concise, clear writing makes it easier for your reader to follow your message. When you do insert an adjective, make sure it enhances the thought you want to convey. Even in a novel or memoir where you must describe the setting of your story to capture your reader’s interest, edit out superfluous sentences that do not advance the plot.
  2. Listen to the rhythm and flow of your sentences. Writing poetry teaches you to pay attention not only to the meaning of words, but also to the sound of words. Some lessons from poetry can improve prose. If you are deciding between two words that both carry a similar meaning, choose the one whose syllables improve the rhythm of your sentence. To draw your reader into a scene where characters experience fast-paced action, keep your sentences short. To transport readers to a bucolic setting in an historical novel, indulge in writing an opening paragraph of long sentences with descriptive clauses.
  3. Create a consistent tone. Scholarly writing has a consistent tone with logically structured paragraphs and a detached viewpoint creating a sense of objectivity. A “How To” book reads quickly, dispensing friendly advice on a given topic. A chapter in a novel or memoir describing a difficult time in a person’s life usually carries a somber, reflective tone. Pay attention to the connotations of words to create the right tone for your article or book chapter. When writing dialogue for a character, choose words that let the personality of the character shine through. As the character develops and grows throughout the book, allow his or her word choice to reflect those changes. In a non-fiction book with an overall formal tone, you can intersperse illustrations that carry a lighter, informal tone to break up the reading difficulty and keep your reader engaged. Think about what tone is appropriate for your writing in the early stages of your project as you are developing your outline.

What techniques do you use to fit the words to the occasion?

10 Tips For Memoir

10 memoir tips

You have a unique story that only you can tell. And the way you tell it matters. Even the world’s best story—winning the World Cup, walking on the moon, dipping into death and returning to life—needs to be told well. Here are a few ideas to help you write your story in the most compelling way.

1. Show, don’t tell.

Allow reader to discover what you have by painting colorful moments, conversations, conflicts, etc.

2. Ignore your internal critic.

Silence the inner voice that says you’re doing it wrong or should probably just stop and make a sandwich. Write now; edit later.

3. Tell the truth.

Notice your own resistance to truth-telling. Being bullied by an instinct to protect yourself or others deprives readers—and you!—of the surprising gifts truth brings forth.

4. Develop a clear theme.

Are you after adventure? Hunting for healing? Identifying your fundamental theme, or “red thread,” allows you to skim off extraneous material in the editing stage.

5. Exercise chronological creativity.

Sometimes telling your story from conception to the present moment works. Be open, though, to the ways a reordered narrative might serve the story.

6. Employ dialogue.

Dialogue lubricates the flow of the narrative. It gives the reader critical insight into characters without telling the reader about them.

7. Record inspirations.

Keep a small notebook in your pocket or car or purse to jot down ideas, insights and details. The best ones come at the most inconvenient times.

8. Create intrigue.

“Dangling a carrot” keeps the reader reading! When you allude to something ahead, a curious reader keeps reading. Useful at end of chapters. Employ sparingly.

9. Avoid painting yourself as the victim or the hero.

Abigail Thomas writes, “Memoir should never be self-serving, even accidentally.” Avoid “poor little me” and “good little me.” Jeanette Wall’s Glass Castle does this beautifully.

10. Read memoir. But be you.

Notice when memoir makes your heart soar (or sore) and when you want to set the book down to take out the trash. Don’t try to sound like Anne Lamott. Be you. It’s better that way.

Cheering you on,

Margot

 

Six Keys to Writing a Story with Spiritual Content

 

1. Hook the reader. Every good story neceltic crosseds a hook, including the spiritual story. Set up the spiritual story with an intriguing question and a clear goal. In The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, we are first introduced to Father Emilio as a man who narrowly missed sainthood. He now lies in a hospital bed, sullen, uncommunicative and suspected of a terrible crime. The reader is left wondering how a godly man came to be in such a place and what his future holds now.

2. Lay the foundation for the spiritual resolution. Miracles and sudden moments of salvation may happen in real life, but will feel contrived in fiction. Not only that, but they can also be hurtful to those with unanswered prayers or who have had to work through long, hard years of healing. Build the steps toward a satisfying spiritual conclusion into the structure of the novel at every turn. The story has to earn its ending, so that when it comes, the reader will feel as if it couldn’t have worked out any other way.

3. Dig for deeper themes. As important as it is to show characters accepting the gospel or to ask where God is when it hurts, those themes are common. Most likely, your novel is preaching largely to the choir, so you need to find themes that speak to the deeper struggles and goals Christians are working on as well. What does it mean to live in the light of eternity? How does prayer shape us? How do you love your enemy? How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does a character look like who has lived out the gospel daily? And so on. When you get those rare non-Christian readers, those themes might just speak more deeply to them about the gospel than the message they’ve likely heard before.

4. Be fair and truthful. I once heard a theologian say that we needed to compare the best of Christianity with the best of other religions, and if you’re going to look at the worst of, say, Islam or atheism, you need to be willing to look at the worst of Christianity. In the movie God’s Not Dead, when the atheist professor breaks down and admits that he’s a bitter atheist because God let his mother die, it didn’t ring true. The fact is, there are many atheists who have arrived at their worldview based on careful thought, however misguided we may believe them to be. They may also happen to make decent citizens and neighbors. And we’ve all found our share of gossips and control freaks in church. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you dig deeply, the light of Christ will show through all the more clearly because you’ve been honest.

5. Show the Sacrifice. From A Tale of Two Cities to Titanic, audiences have always stuck by a story that involves a heartfelt sacrifice. But it’s the core of a Christian story. Whether it’s an act of utter courage such as Hadassah going willingly to the Roman arena in Voice in the Wind or something more ordinary like Will laying down his pride to admit the ways he wronged his Amish relatives in Levi’s Will, it’s the sacrifice that makes the story work.

6. Show the Beauty. Sometimes writers take for granted that the resolution is what the readers want. Don’t forget to show them why they want it. Davis Bunn shows how a prayer that has been prayed for over two thousand years comes alive when his modern character prays it in Book of Dreams, as if the leaves overhead were chanting the prayer with the character. Stephen Lawhead describes an old saint lit from the inside out with God’s love in Merlin. These little moments that show the beauty of God’s ways clarify the spiritual goal all the way through the book.

The World of Our Story

View of Earth From SpaceIn his book, The Writer’s Journey(third edition), Christopher Vogler writes, “The Ordinary World in one sense is the place you came from last. In life we pass through a succession of Special Worlds which slowly become ordinary as we get used to them.”

As writers, we often talk about creating story worlds. In reality, we create two. There is our hero’s ordinary story world, the world she lives in before the inciting incident launches her into her story. Once launched, she enters the Special World of the story we are writing.

Interestingly, in many novels, the worlds may be exactly the same in terms of geography, time, economics, politics, and a myriad of other details. The world moves from Ordinary to England 1Special when our hero decides to embark on the journey to solve the story problem or answer the story question.

Then, even if she continues to live in the same house, work the same job, go to the same church, her world becomes Special. She is now on an adventure to resolve the story problem. And that story problem transforms her world from Ordinary to Special, whether it’s solving a murder, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or losing her spouse.

town 4Think of the world of our lives. Everything is going along fine and then something happens. We lose a job or we get a promotion to a more challenging position, a loved one dies or a prodigal returns home, a car accident, a medical problem, a windfall. We win the lottery or we spend all our pay on lottery tickets and miss by one number.

Whatever it is, our Ordinary world becomes Special while we live through the changes until the Special World becomes Ordinary once again.

Can you think of a time when your own Ordinary World became Special? How can you use that experience to write a Special World for your characters?

Creating Plots

I recently attended an intensive writing retreat given by Steven James and Robert Dugoni.

Happy PeopleHere are some of the highlights from the session on creating plots.

One way to look at plot is to ask: What’s a story? It’s the protagonist’s journey. There has to be movement on some level—we don’t want to confine the character. The journey can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Or all three. As long as we keep the protagonist moving.

What motivates the character to start the journey? The motivation can be simple: love, justice, hate, revenge, power, greed, fear, or adventure.

Here’s a five-question exercise for brainstorming a story, given by Robert Dugoni:

  • Who is my protagonist?
  • What is my protagonist? (accountant, police detective, stayquestion marks man in circle-at-home mom, lawyer, etc.)
  • Where is my protagonist? The setting for the story.
  • What does my protagonist want?
  • What stands in the way of achieving it?

Also, when you’ve answered all these questions, you have the basics of your elevator pitch.

The basic elements of plot are the beginning, the middle, and the end.

In the beginning we establish the tone and the genre. And we introduce who we are going to be traveling with on the story journey—the protagonist.

Also, at the start of the story, we want to create empathy for our hero. One way we can do this is to give the character a wound we all share and a goal we can identify with.

We also want to hook the reader by asking a question or introducing a problem that launches the protagonist into the story.

In the middle, the story continues to develop as we take the protagonist deeper into the story question or problem. And we add twists and surprises.

StrivingWe also add escalating obstacles that make the situation worse. These obstacles must serve one of two purposes: they must move the story forward by raising the tension, or they must further develop a character trait, or both. If they do neither, they need to be cut. Otherwise, the dreaded sagging middle will occur.

The obstacles lead us to the climax where the protagonist either achieves his quest or doesn’t.

The end of the story answers the story questions. It must be satisfying to the reader and it needs to show the protagonist changed by what he experienced in the story.

Here are two excellent resources for plotting. There are many others but I find these very helpful:

  • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
  • Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke.