New Possibilities for a New Year

Empty road to upcoming 2017 at sunrise

The sunrise of a new year.

  1. Your future is not limited by the past. While past successes and experiences can inspire the future, as I wrote about in my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, the future does not need to be limited by the past. New scientific discoveries can build on past knowledge, but they also can disrupt old paradigms. For example, the microprocessor made computing available to nearly everyone, with a modern laptop more powerful that a computer that once took up an entire room. Thanks to this invention, most writers prepare their manuscripts using convenient word processors instead of typewriters, and keep their contact list of agents, editors, and publishers on their smartphone in place of their Rolodex. In the not-so-distant future, writers might conference with editors and other writers in virtual reality, skipping the long lines at airports and time spent traveling. As a writer, your next fresh idea can define the future. Your past projects may influence your future goals, but feel free to try something new and even disruptive. Progress happens when people dream new dreams. Let the start of the New Year serve as your excuse to pursue a great new project.
  2. New friendships are waiting to be discovered by you. Writers quickly learn the value of relationships in their profession. After all, writing is all about communicating and collaborating. Even when writers spent quiet hours alone putting their thoughts on the page, the needs and interests of their readers shape their work. The audience of readers is always present when a writer expresses ideas with words. By the time a book reaches the shelves of a bookstore or the warehouse of an online retailer, the writer has collaborated with many people – literary agents, editors, illustrators, cover designers, copy editors, reviewers, publicists, and marketing directors. These colleagues as well as radio interviewers, blog readers, online reviewers, customers, and conference coordinators become new friends in the life of a writer. Resolve to maintain the friendships you have formed as a writer in years past, while staying open to the possibilities of accepting the input, advice, and encouragement of new friendships in the year to come.
  3. To accomplish your goal, break it down into discrete, doable steps. Whether you are planning to write a blog post in one evening or a book in six months, if you have a plan divided into measurable and actionable steps, you are well on your way to getting the job done. Fit your plan into your lifestyle and your current schedule to keep it realistic and achievable. Can you envision setting aside two hours every evening to complete a new manuscript? Should you schedule a vacation in a secluded and beautiful setting surrounded by nature in order to disconnect from everything and make your writing deadline? Having a plan that matches your working habits and the needs of your family and other responsibilities increases the likelihood of reaching your goal. Great new projects need to-do lists and new friendships need time set aside to develop the relationships. Make a plan that fits your life so your dreams can come to fruition in the New Year.

What do you plan to do to prepare for the new possibilities awaiting you in the New Year?

Take Heed!

This month marks the eighth anniversary of my writer’s blog: A Writer’s Way of Seeing. At this time last year, I offered writers advice for the coming year. I was going to offer a new list for 2016, but in reading what I wrote last year, I really think the same advice applies. Also, now that I’m an agent with WordServe Literary, I’ve picked up numerous new readers. So for new readers, and as a refresher for my regular readers, here’s a slightly edited version of last year’s blog called “Take Charge!” Maybe for this year the title should be “Take Heed!” because we’re all a year closer to our real deadline when we no longer will be writing.

new-years-eve-1036513_960_720

As we’re in the opening weeks of 2016 I want to offer my yearly exhortation for the new year. We’re all getting older and time’s a’ wasting, folks. If we want to succeed as writers, we need to take charge of our writing career. In fact, that will be my rally cry for you in 2016: “Take charge of your writing career!”

Here are seven suggestions on how to do that.

  1. Stay prayed up. Presumably by now you’ve confirmed in your own mind that God has called you to be a writer. Part of that calling is, of course, to write. But for a Christian, that’s only half the calling. The other half is knowing what to write. Mostly we find that out through prayer and discerning the needs of readers and our ability to write to those needs. As you pray, ask God to guide you in your writing pursuits. Make that a year-long (life-long, actually) commitment to yourself. If you stay prayed up about your writing, you’ll stay pumped up too.
  2. Improve your craft. Each year I urge all of us who write to find a way to keep improving our craft. Take classes, read magazines such as The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and The Christian Communicator.  Join a critique group. Read the blogs of other successful writers, agents, and editors. Write, write, write. Commit to writing at least three (and probably more) drafts of each project, with each draft an improvement from the preceding draft.  Always have a good writing book on hand. I recommend any of James Scott Bell’s books on the writing craft, particularly How to Make a Living As a Writer.
  3. writerWrite out specific goals for each month. Make each goal realistic, but then stick to them. Daily, weekly, and monthly goals are good, but also write out in some detail what you hope to have accomplished by December 31. To stay on track, consider finding a writing accountability partner. Share your writing goals with each other and meet in person or by internet every week or two to encourage one another.
  4. If possible, have two or three projects/proposals/manuscripts in some stage of progress. Perhaps you’re working on just a one-sheet for Project A, while on Project B, you’re at the full proposal stage. Project C might be your work-in-progress—the actual manuscript you’re working on. For a successful writing career, you must always be thinking ahead.
  5. Pick one or two writer’s conferences and plan to attend. If money is a problem start saving now. Come up with creative fund-raising ideas. Perhaps ask your church to chip in with the fees. Most conferences have some scholarship money. See if you qualify or if you can do some conference work in exchange for part of your tuition.
  6. Stay up to date with the publishing world—including self-publishing. Know what the bestsellers are. Know which authors are writing successfully in the same genre in which you write. Read Publisher’s Weekly or Publisher’s Marketplace online. More and more writers are finding their entry into publishing through self-publishing. Sadly, many are making very serious mistakes. Although I encourage self-publishing as an option, I do not recommend it if you’re going to do a poor job of it. Last year at one writer’s conference I picked up a self-published book and found three major errors on the first page, including the misspelling of the name of a famous world leader. Who would buy such a book? Not me.
  7. Work on your platform. I know very few authors who like platform-building. I don’t like it either. I’d much rather just write. But a platform is important. Starting small is fine. Just do what small thing you can do now and build from there. Eat the elephant one bite at a time.

The crucial thing in all this is to keep your commitment red-hot. Rest assured, there will be discouragements, distractions, and even rejections in 2016. That’s life. It’s also another reason to plan ahead and to indeed “take charge of your writing career” in 2016. Start planning now!

40-Day Challenge: Telling the Stories That Matter Most

Photo/KarenJordanIn your busy life, how do you determine which things matter most?

A close examination of our priorities helps a lot. But often in the process of prioritizing, we realize that we’ve neglected some of our greatest concerns—like our health, marriage, children, or faith.

Priorities. As a writer, I have dropped the ball on some of my most important projects. I rationalize my failure to follow through with lame excuses. But I sometimes struggle staying focused on my main objective—telling the stories that matter most.

My daughter Tara phoned me with a similar complaint about her home life. “I can’t seem to get to the things that matter most to me.”

As Tara voiced her frustration, I understood her dilemma. Day after day, she faces the impossible task of meeting her family’s needs, having four small children in her home.

Prayer. The same issues haunt me, even though we have an empty nest. And I know that I must choose prayer as my first step to address any problem or decision.

James 1:5-6 promises, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help … Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought” (MSG).

Like Tara, I frequently ask advice from someone who will give me honest input. My husband Dan offers ideas about my organizational problems. But I also consult other reputable resources, like online links, book, or professionals.

40-Day Challenge. Do you need to reboot your writing life, too? I challenge you to accept this 40-day challenge to tell the stories that matter most to you. I’m working through this process myself.

  • Identify the “real meaning” of your work—your purpose, your audience, and the context for your stories. This evaluation process includes answering several vital questions. Why do I do what I do? Who will be reading or hearing my stories? What do I plan to do with my stories? Will I submit them for publication? If so, where?
  • Define some SMART goals and write them down. Goals help guide our decision-making. Without goals, we often neglect to do the things that matter most.

    • S – Specific (or Significant)
    • M – Measurable (or Meaningful)
    • A – Attainable (or Action-Oriented)
    • R – Relevant (or Rewarding)
    • T – Time-bound (or Trackable)
  • Set up tasks for attaining your goals. Write down several reasonable and do-able steps for achieving your goals to help you plan and focus on the right things.
  • Compose a “to do” list, prioritizing all of your tasks. Schedule time on your calendar to work on your goals. This will help you stay on track with your deadlines and defend your time boundaries. It also helps communicate your goals to the people who matter most to you.

I hope that you will join me on this 40-day challenge because when we begin to tell the stories that matter most, lives change and hearts heal.

What goal-setting techniques help you tell the stories that matter most to you?

Living on Easy Street

Photo/TaraRossBut easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live there make their bellies their gods; belches are their praise; all they can think of is their appetites. (Phil. 3:19 MSG)

I used to think that I wanted to live on Easy Street. You know, where you could have anything you want, anytime you want it.

Thankfully, the Lord knows what I need, and it’s not always the way I want.

In fact, I’ve noticed many people who seem to enjoy all the material possessions that they want, but they lack what they really need. They may even boast that they “have it all.” But a closer inspection might expose the truth about their situation. Many of them pay a big price for riches, fame, and beauty.

Dead-end street. I’ve discovered that there is much more to life than focusing on myself. Talk about a dead-end street!

What if I could attain all the world has to offer? Can I take riches and fame with me when I die?

What if I could have a dramatic makeover and become the most beautiful woman in the world? Could I maintain that beauty forever as my body ages?

What if I wrote a best-selling book? Would that be enough?

Would any of those successes last for eternity?

Priorities. What do I need to focus on in my life? If I knew I had only a short time to live, how could I determine my priorities?

No one really wants to consider these provocative questions. But often, I need a reality check, so I can bring my head out of the clouds to focus on the right things.

So, I’ve decided not to dream about Easy Street any longer, because the most important things in life are not just about me.

Wisdom. Every stage in life brings new challenges, changes, and blessings. But not everyone gains wisdom with age. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you (Jms. 1:5 NIV).

Do you need wisdom as you face the unfolding challenges of your life? Are you struggling to define your priorities and set goals? Would a new directive for your life help?

I’ve chosen to stop desiring Easy Street and focus on a new vision with an eternal purpose.

… there’s far more to life for us. We’re citizens of high heaven! We’re waiting the arrival of the Savior, the Master, Jesus Christ, who will transform our earthy bodies into glorious bodies like his own. He’ll make us beautiful and whole with the same powerful skill by which he is putting everything as it should be, under and around him (Phil. 3:20-21 MSG).

How did you determine your priorities this year? How has your focus changed over the years?

Photo/TaraRoss

Are Your Margins Too Thin?

sad businesswomanA curious thing happened as I was trolling Facebook one day–a fellow author had posted about what she wasn’t doing for Christmas. “I’m not baking the seven different types of cookies that I normally do and I’m giving you permission to do the same. What is it you would like to give up this Christmas so you can spend more time with family?”

Whenever the first of the year rolls around it’s always time for the dreaded excitement of planning your (cue the music) New Year’s Resolutions. Often, these resolutions and goal setting add more to our plate rather than simplify our lives.

We should absolutely make goals–I’m a big believer in them. But how can we make them reasonable, doable, and achievable?

You might have heard about margins. Leave one inch margins around your written page. This used to be so there would be room for others to make comments. It’s morphed into leaving room in your life for the important things. You might have also heard people call this work/life balance.

But how do you know if your margins are too thin? What might some of the symptoms be?

1. You can’t say no. This means you don’t have boundaries. It’s really not healthy to be the go-to person for everything. You can’t always be at another person’s beck and call. I think volunteer work is important but pick ONE thing you’re passionate about and make sure the hours are reasonable.

2. You’re always running late. This can be symptomatic of two conditions. One, it’s just the kind of person you are. You’ve always been late and continue to be late. But if you used to be on time for everything and now you’re always just a few minutes (or more) late, then you’re probably over-scheduled. Why is it you can’t make it on time? Too many appointments or it’s something you don’t want to do? You’ve lost passion for your job, perhaps? Maybe never had any? Can you change that?

3. Your children/family/significant other don’t recognize you anymore. I remember when my girls were infants that I’d bring them into the bathroom while I was taking a bath and set them on the floor with some toys so I could keep an eye on them. The first time their eyes witnessed me dunk my head and come up with my hair slicked back, their quivering lips indicated that they thought I was not their mom anymore. I spoke to them and reassured them it was okay. If your family is coming in dead last then definitely some re-prioritizing needs to happen. What can you change about your current schedule that would make more room?

NewYearDaySince it is the first of the year, I do still think that it’s a good time to analyze and focus, but maybe with these tenets in mind. The goal has to be reasonable to make it fun and achievable; otherwise it’s doomed to fail from the start.

So, instead of the goal being I’m going to write THREE great American novels when you’ve never attempted one, attend a local writers conference to see if writing is suited for you.

Instead of losing ALL the weight you need to lose in the first three weeks of the year, shoot for a small piece of the whole. I want to lose 2 pounds in January. Once you’ve done that, set the next goal.

Goals are about focus, but they need to be achievable. You’ll still need to live your life. Keep those personal relationships strong. That’s what ultimately sustains you.

What are your reasonable and achievable goals for 2014? Will they maintain your life/work balance?

What Are You Putting on Hold?

dont do it!I have worked out with a personal trainer for a number of years. No, this doesn’t mean I’m wealthy or a single digit size (though I still would like to be!). One day as I concluded my training session and was attempting to pull myself up off the floor, I overheard a woman talking to one of the other trainers. She said, “I’d really like to start training with you but I need to get in shape first.” Which caused my own trainer to stroke out and he shouted across the room. “That’s exactly why you should start now!”

And it struck me how much this thought pattern applies to other areas of our lives.

We shouldn’t have children until we’re financially set.

I can’t start my novel because I don’t have enough time . . . (insert variety of other excuses here).

I can’t go to church because my life is too screwed up from (insert various life trouble, sexual indiscretion, alcohol or drug addiction, general pride, greediness, etc . . . here).

I can’t pray because I don’t know the right words to say.

I think when we have thoughts like this, what we’re avoiding is the one thing we probably should be doing. Getting with a personal trainer might help us achieve our fitness goals faster or, at the very least, keep us from further gaining weight to the point where we think the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is skinny. Writing that novel might be a perfect outlet for the reasons we’re avoiding church. Church can be the place where we find a group of fellow travelers who are struggling just as we are and are learning how God won’t solve the consequences of our choices but will help us manage them when we come into relationship with Him.

I know many who have issue with *The Church*. And perhaps they have reason to. I’ll be the first to say that, as a result of our human failings, even we in the church try and put up a front that our lives, home, and church are better than they are. What I’ve boiled it down to is that no church is going to be perfect and if it’s not for you, try another one.

This is just another excuse and you don’t need a destination brick-and-mortar structure to work out, write your book, or discover how meaningful a relationship with God can be.

I’m a say-it-like-it-is kind of girl, which my husband claims is my best and worst quality, but I’m going to torture you with it for a moment. Let’s analyze ourselves.

Tell me–what are you putting on hold, why are you putting it on hold, and what will you do to finally get started?

May you be blessed this coming year.

Ambition, Aspirations, and Obsession: Part Two

Last time I posted to the Water Cooler, I discussed some of the ways that having dreams and aspirations can affect you in a positive way.

CliffWSThis post I’d like to look at some possible dangers of having ambition.

Dangers of Aspirations:

1. Assuming it’s God’s will.

I’ve had authors so single focused, so full of energy and passion, that they interpret this to mean “It’s God’s will that I write for publication.” I’m not the end-all expert on God’s will, but I don’t believe it is simply feeling passionate about something. Yes, feeling passionate about a cause or a new adventure makes you feel alive, but so does war. The men from Band of Brothers who have written books say, “Never have I felt so alive as when I was in battle.” An activity may get your heart moving and leave you with an adrenaline high, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily God’s will.

2. Overly ambitious writers won’t always listen to counsel.

So many authors have come my way and said, “God told me to write this.” Or, “This will sell millions of copies because these are God’s words.” Too many to count. The danger in this approach is that writers begin to feel their manuscript is so divinely inspired that it would be almost a sin for an agent or editor to suggest changes to it.

Having aspirations without seeking and listening to wise counsel will often lead to a big waste of weeks, months, even years. So if you’re a writer, you must temper your aspirations with the reality of counsel. If everyone who isn’t a family member says your baby is ugly, it likely is.

The best writers are the ones who seek out critique groups, writing partners, and then when they strike gold (they finally get a professional writer or agent to look at their work) they listen. And when they hit the mother lode by finding a publisher, they should realize how much God can use these professional partners to make their work even better.

3. Overwhelm those not sharing the train you are on, going in your direction.

People with writing aspirations can be overwhelming in their single-mindedness. They feel they somehow need this to accomplish something of value. If you’re one who says, “I have to write. I cannot NOT write,” be careful of those around you. They don’t understand. (Unless they are writers, too!)

Aspirations that lead to the neglect of people you love most (for more than a few weeks when you’re on a deadline) are probably not from God. They are more likely from your own need to find significance in having published something with your name on it.

I became an agent because I was faced with a choice. I had written 15 books, had a big platform in youth ministry, and came to a crossroads: Do I write and speak and try to be more famous? Or do I stay involved in the process of books (which I loved) and be able to hang out with my own two young sons instead of other people’s kids? I made the right choice and never looked back.

If aspirations aren’t in balance with your family goals, then I’d question if they are God’s will for you.

To keep ambitions and aspirations from turning into obsessions, they need to be:

• Tempered with counsel, prayer, balance.
• Put up against the harvest of fruit.

If something you’re pursuing doesn’t seem to be yielding the desired results, then there is a good chance that this aspiration may be a stepping stone to a bigger aspiration God has in mind for you. I’ve discovered that most of our lives have a building block-like history to them that makes sense as you reach the middle or near the end of your story.

My biggest revelation on aspirations is that they must be tied to a soul, especially the souls of those you love.

Aspire to feed your family. Writing for money isn’t a bad thing. If publishers hadn’t paid C.S. Lewis to write Chronicles of Narnia, who knows if he would have written it.

Aspire to make a dent for God’s Kingdom. Great. We all want to live our lives for something that will outlast us.

But make sure your ambitions and aspirations are always tied closely to the souls of those whom God has put into your life. In other words, how is your calling to write also blessing those nearest to you?

What about you? What have you done to keep your aspirations from becoming an obsession?