How to write a GREAT book

What makes a book a great read?

If someone asked me to name the best books I read in 2017, four immediately come to mind: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore, Be Strong in the Lord: Praying for the Armor of God for Your Children by Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.

But if you asked me why they were the best books of the year for me, I would have specific reasons for each. I choose Walker’s book because it literally changed my behavior in two ways: I now try to get more sleep to improve my health, and I refuse to drive a car if I’m in the least bit tired (yes, he scared the heck out of me with statistics!). Moore’s book impressed me deeply with its story of women who suffered terribly, yet fought industry to make it responsible for employees’ health on the job. Be Strong in the Lord deepened my faith for both my children and myself, and Picoult’s novel gave me new eyes and a new heart to confront racism in America.

These books changed my behavior and attitudes in specific, concrete ways. I am a different person because I read them.

And that is ultimately what makes a book a great read: it meets the reader where she lives, and changes her.

Book design, reviews, buzz, brilliant writing, thorough research, perfect plotting – authors dream that all those things will come together in their books to make it a bestseller, but the key to every book’s success, I believe, is in how the author connects to the reader about something important to that same reader. This means, naturally, that there exists a myriad of topics a writer can address (and they do!), which also means many – actually, probably MOST – books will never appeal to every reader, and because of that, every author needs to be mindful of the particular audience for whom they write. To best serve that audience, however, the successful author has to dig deep into his own wants and desires, unearth the most compelling, most universal, needs he can share with his readers, and then translate that into the written word.

The words “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone” are attributed to Ronald Reagan. Likewise, every book can’t be a great read for every reader, but for some reader, some book can be a great read. As you set forth on your writing journey in 2018, I hope you write that great book for some reader.

Who knows? You might even change my life.

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New Year’s resolutions…or not

Well, this is embarrassing. I thought I’d write a post about writing resolutions for a new year by reviewing my resolutions for 2017 and noting how I did.

But I can’t find my list of resolutions.

Anywhere.

So I either 1) put it somewhere I wouldn’t forget, and I’ll find it in another six months or so, or 2) the dog ate it, along with several grocery lists and the instructions for assembling my husband’s new bike, or 3) I never made a list in the first place.

I have a suspicion it’s door #3: I never made resolutions for 2017.

And here’s why:

  1. Years ago, I realized I didn’t have to wait for a new year to begin new habits or improve on old ones. Making resolutions is really procrastination, waiting for the right moment to begin a new project or make a change. Every writer I know has learned the truth – there is no ‘right’ moment to start writing. A new year is not going to magically make it happen. You just have to sit down and write. Now.
  2. Resolutions sugarcoat tough realities. Of course, a writer resolves to write a book every year. Some years, that actually happens. Yippee! Other years, that ambitious resolution gets buried by the nuts-and-bolts of marketing the last book you wrote, preventing you from even picking a topic or plot for the new book you wanted to write this year. Or you have a family crisis that demands all your attention and energy. Experienced writers know that life happens…and when it does, writing resolutions go out the window…until those same writers are ready to process what they’ve experienced and incorporate it into their next book, which may not be the next book they thought they’d be writing.
  3. Resolutions are limiting. Again, life is full of surprises, and when a writer feels tugged in a new direction, an old resolution can be inhibiting. Why keep hammering away on that novel you’ve worked over for years, when an unexpected opportunity to write (or co-write) a self-improvement book presents itself and you find yourself drawn to it? Good writers know they need to welcome growth opportunities, sometimes even before they finish old projects.

So you won’t find me writing resolutions for 2018 in the next week. Instead, I’m going to rejoice in all the satisfying things my writing life brought me in 2017: learning how to build my own website, hearing from a growing number of readers how much they enjoy my books, an unexpected nomination for a Christy Award from my publisher, invitations to speak to groups, returning to writing a blog, sharing my faith with published devotionals, and mentoring new writers.

Wait a minute. I am going to write one resolution after all. And here it is: Thank God every day for the gift of writing.

I know I can remember that. And I’ll never have to worry about the dog eating it, either…

Happy New Year, writers!

How about you? Do you make resolutions?

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?

 

4 Strategies to Examine Your Life and Work Priorities

At times, I get exhausted chasing all of my writing ideas and plans.

I’m tempted to give up when I look at my “to do” list. But after examining the lessons I learned about rearranging furniture, I realized I needed to reposition a few things in my writing life, too.

This process included examining my priorities, resolving some internal and external conflicts, developing a strategy, and asking for help.

1.  Examine your priorities. Right now, I’m overwhelmed with many of the projects I face. So, I decided to visit my priorities again in all of my writing, blogging, and speaking commitments.

I also know that I need to be willing to make changes. Last week’s priority may not even be in the top ten on my “to do” list today. But often it takes a conflict or a stumble to get my attention.

2. Resolve internal and external conflicts. I often take on more commitments than I can handle. Do you? And this causes me humiliation and embarrassment as I’m faced with making choices that others won’t understand.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I traveled out of town to speak at two separate events, leaving only one day to prepare for my next event. Although I had prepared most of my materials, I became overwhelmed as I sorted through the last minute details.

Then, the day after I returned home, I drove a couple of hours to spend a few days at my daughter’s home. She needed a little moral support, preparing to send her four young children back to school and tackling some household projects.

When I returned home again, not only did I need some rest, I needed to sort a few things in my own house, including my writing life.

3.  Develop a strategy. I asked myself, What should I do to meet my writing needs right now? 

I knew I needed to develop a new strategy. Writing down all of my commitments helped me examine them, so I could get a more objective view of my writing decisions.

So, as I reviewed my calendar and my “to do” list, I also asked myself some hard questions. Why did I commit to this endeavor? Am I passionate about this?

Often, I can’t see my own life objectively until I examine it on paper. And sometimes, that process doesn’t even work. So, that’s when I call in the troops.

4.  Recruit a friend for help. I’m grateful for a few family members and writing friends who will be honest with me when I ask for their input about my schedule.

Sometimes the looks on their faces say it all, “What were you thinking?”

At other times, they encourage me, “Don’t give up! You can do this thing!”

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:12 NIV)

If you’re overwhelmed in your life—whether you’re a writer or not—don’t give up!

I encourage you to examine your priorities, resolve those internal and external conflicts, develop a strategy, and maybe even call in the troops for some help.

What strategies have helped you as you examine your life and work priorities?

Why designing a website will make you a better writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24/7 blog editing

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

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

Anybody want to share your own website designing experience?

What Writers Want

Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt

Photo Credit: YesMovies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you exercise intentional appreciation for your writing successes?

 

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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…