The Miserably Fabulous Craft of Writing

I have a confession to make. The only Stephen King book I have ever read is his fabulous book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. That said, if you can only read one book about writing, this might be it. Mining some of my favorite gems from this work, I hope to help you polish your own rough stones.

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“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” I can only echo a hearty “Amen!” Whether I’m working on a term paper, a short article, a book proposal, or an actual book, I always sit down and enter my title, my name, and anything else I know, just to avoid that blank page. Perfection is the enemy of writing. If that’s your initial aim, you’ll procrastinate and you won’t write. You’ll likely never read anything you’ve written and smile to yourself, “Well, there is absolutely NOTHING I can do to improve this beauty!” Nope. Your editor will get a hold of it if you don’t. [Insert evil laugh here.] But when you begin a story, that’s not the time to labor over each word. Get it down. Start. You’ll have lots of time to labor over rewriting and editing later. “The definition of a writer is someone who writes,” declared a now-forgotten workshop leader at my first-ever seminar. Write already.

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” It’s quite possible that I am addicted to reading. I read at stoplights. I read on a float in the pool, in the bathtub, by the stove while I stir things, on my lunch break when teaching, while taking my mile walks, and the last thing before I turn in at night. Reading sparks ideas, allows you to admire fresh turns of phrase, and inspires you to work that same magic, carrying future readers to your setting, helping them to fall in love with your characters.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” I don’t remember where I read this, but one novelist wrote that he never writes until he’s inspired. “And I see to it,” he continued, “that I am inspired every morning at 9:00 a.m.” Writing is work. Writing is dedication. Writing is a miserably fabulous craft!

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” When my second book with Harvest House came out, I got the proofs and asked my amazing editor, Hope Lyda, what had happened to some of the quotes and paragraphs I had so lovingly delivered. She was gracious. “Ahem, those went to keep company with some other lonely words and paragraphs.” I see. She had kidnapped and killed my darlings. It was a better book for their absence.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Taped to the windowsill above my desk is this little gem by Dwight Swain:

Strive for:

The Vivid Noun

The Active Verb

The Colorful Phrase

The Intriguing Detail

The Clever Twist

The Deft Contrast

All of us have fallen asleep during a long paragraph in which the writer has gotten carried away by his own love of (too much) language. She ran her fingers through the water languidly, indolently, lethargically, lazily….All right already! Crisp. Clear. Concise.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Whether we favor Nooks or Kindles or the tactile experience of pages fluttering, bold ink making grand statements and words sweeping us away to other times, other people, other conflicts, when we take books with us, we carry time machines. We carry mini-encyclopedias of knowledge. We carry the life, loves, and losses of characters about whom we are made to care very much. When we write them–ahhh–we are making our own kind of magic.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates . . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” The process of writing is not often fun. But we do it anyway. Why? Because we know what books mean. We know they will never go out of fashion. And we are gluttons for punishment, because that book means magic, housed in the pages of something you have been honored to write; imprinted on the hearts of those who read it and won’t soon forget how your words made them feel. And when we write for God’s glory, we surpass even magic.

What are some writing truths you’ve learned?

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Just Look at Me: Encouragement for the Highly Distractible Writer

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When my sons were toddlers, they were so easily distracted (look: a squirrel!) that I often knelt down and gently placed my hands on their cheeks to help them listen.

“Look at me,” I’d say, waiting until their eyes met mine. Then I asked them, “What did Mommy say?”

Lately, I’ve felt God kneeling down, kindly pressing His hands to my cheeks. “Look at me,” He says. It’s not only a call to attention, but to single-minded devotion.

“Yes, Lord, ” I reply, taking my eyes off Facebook, Pinterest–even the Wordserve Water Cooler–and focusing on Him.

I feel Him kneeling down when I get jealous about other writers’ accomplishments; when I spend too much time clicking and too little time praying; when my tendency to compare Facebook “likes” and Twitter followers distracts me from the reasons I write.

Last week, I let Satan discourage me. Look at that author, he said. She’s your age and has written twice as many books as you have. Plus, she has a radio show, and her speaking resume is much better than yours. 

I started to get insecure, until I remembered the Lord’s hands on my cheeks. “What did I say?” He asks.

“Just look at me,” I respond.

I get it, Lord, I really do.

However, it’s hard to keep my focus when I am required to use social media for my part-time editing job. Plus, our post-recession world of high technology and low discretionary income means that book publishers’ marketing budgets are shrinking, while editors’ expectations are rising.

Sigh. This business is not always good for a highly distractible author…and yes, the apple does NOT fall far from the tree. (Look: a new webinar on building your tribe!)

I know I’m not the only author who struggles with this. Or at least I hope I’m not. So, let’s lean in and focus on our Parent’s eyes for a second.

“Do you hear what I’m saying?” God says.

When we spend time with Him, and hear His perspective on this crazy profession He’s called us to, we realize that He has uniquely called each of us to a highly specialized path.

I don’t have to be like anyone else. Although God calls me to work diligently at my craft and creatively tell people about my books (not for my glory, but His), I shouldn’t obsess about numbers, lists, or honors. All that leads to a place called “Crazy-ville.” And trust me, I can get there on my own.

My fellow scribes, God is calling me–and you–to be faithful and obedient:  “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

Just look at me, He says, and write what I’ve told you to write. Write out of the overflow of our relationship, and trust me for everything else.

As a friend says, “God’s got this.” We can trust Him. After all, those heavenly hands on our cheeks are nail-scarred…from His scandalous, all-consuming love for us.

The Craft of Writing

The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.

I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.

Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.

To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.

If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.

The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?

Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”

From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.

It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!

PS – For some other writers’ views see :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss