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.

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 Much Wrong Teaching is Too Much?

There is an ongoing debate in Christian circles about whether non-fiction or fiction books are best. Proponents of each, particularly those firmly planted in their perspective camp, tend to be slightly (sometimes more than slightly) disdainful of the other. I have always maintained, however, that this is not an either/or proposition. As every good preacher (including Jesus) will tell you, it’s vitally important to spend time expounding on the Word, but when you launch into a story to illustrate that Word, that’s when everyone suddenly straightens in their seats and becomes even more engaged. Both are needed. The same is true with fiction. In my opinion, if classified as Christian, a story must be firmly rooted in good theology if it is going to have a powerful, lasting impact on the reader.

But is my opinion the right one? If not, it wouldn’t be the first time. And lately I have had ample opportunity to consider how strongly I feel about the stand I have chosen to take on this.

Not for the first time, a massively best-selling book and subsequent movie, classified as Christian, has generated much discussion–even, sadly, heated, public debate–among the body of Christ. One review, posted by a pastor, casually mentioned that, yes, some of the teaching might be, strictly (and biblically) speaking, wrong, but that overall the message was so powerful that it wasn’t really enough to worry about.

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That got me thinking. If a book calls itself Christian, how much wrong teaching is acceptable, and how much is too much? Now, I’m not talking about passages of the Bible open to interpretation, or the differences in beliefs between various denominations. I am talking about teaching that is clear in Scripture and that has been affirmed by two thousand years of church doctrine, teaching that in many, if not all, cases, is actually a salvation issue. Wrong teaching, then, for the purposes of this post, is defined as teaching that can be shown in Scripture to be misleading, inaccurate, or just plain not true. Is there room for a small amount of that in a book that calls itself Christian, if the story is good? Can the story ever be good enough or powerful enough to overcome it? Or is a small amount of bad teaching more like what the Bible describes as “a little leaven that leavens the entire loaf?”

In three of the gospels, Jesus tells his followers to “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 6:6) Now, the teaching of the religious leaders of the day sounded good. It certainly sounded like it came from Scripture, and in fact had its roots in Scripture. But somewhere along the way, truths had been twisted to suit the ends of the teachers. In the case of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that end was to control and oppress the people and to maintain their own elevated status in society.

Jesus didn’t have a whole lot of good to say about that. In fact, he was far harder on those who professed to follow God, yet whose teachings had veered away from the clear truths of Scripture, than he was on thieves and drunkards, prostitutes and adulterers. Can we then conclude that Jesus took wrong teaching, even—or especially—by those calling themselves his followers, fairly seriously? Possibly to the point that any good and right teaching they did present was undermined or even negated?

If you are an author of Christian fiction, how important is it to you to weave good, solid biblical theology throughout your writing? As readers, are you willing to overlook some wrong teaching if the prevailing message of the story is strong enough to overshadow it?

Why I’m Not Posting to this Blog Today

Okay. Here I go. Computer is booted up and ready to go and I am finally going to write that blog post I have committed to sending off at some point today. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute. But I’ve got it together now. I am ready to put words to paper and come up with something brilliant.

social mediaRight after I check my Facebook page to see if anyone has tried to contact me. Hey, new marketing advice from someone I’ve never heard of. Might be the missing piece I’ve been looking for to send my book sales soaring. Yes, I will subscribe to your newsletter. Sign me up.

Okay, back to work. Feeling a little sleepy though. Maybe I should go outside for a few minutes; a little fresh air might clear my head. I should probably take a quick look at the weather site to see what I should expect if and when I get out there. Looks pretty good. Okay, I’ll log out right…  Wait, that headline is interesting. Just going to click on that to see what the article is about. A bear roaming the streets in a town a thousand miles from here? Fascinating. How did they…? Stop. Focus. I’m supposed to be writing that post.

And I will. Right after I check the sports page to read the write-up on the game last night. Yes, I watched the game (what else did I have to do?) and know exactly what happened. Still…

Oh yeah. I need to register for NaNoWriMo and see who else has signed up that I can be buddies with. Preparing to write that novel is consuming far more of my time and thoughts these days than actually sitting down to write the thing would. Which reminds me, I need to do that too. I have a book contract, a looming deadline, another commitment. I have to write the third and final book in a trilogy. I’m going to get started on that soon. Maybe I’ll go back and read the last few chapters of book two in the series to get me in the zone again.

As soon as I send out a quick tweet so my readers know I’m still around and haven’t fallen off the face of the planet. There. Done. My 140-character contribution to the global conversation. Now back to that post.

Wow, that coffee smells good. I’ll just grab a cup to fortify myself so I can really be productive today. Oops. We’re out of cream. Better text a shopping list to my husband. If I take the time to go to the store, this post will never get written.

Okay, I’m back, fortifying cup of coffee in hand. Wait. What’s that notice in the bottom corner of my screen? My anti-virus coverage is about to expire? That can’t be good. I better renew that. Should I stay with the same company? As far as I know, I haven’t had a virus, so they must be all right. I’ll just e-mail my writer’s group and ask who everyone uses for protection. Really don’t want to lose all this great stuff I’ve written—or thought about writing, anyway—just because I didn’t go with the right company. There, I’ve put the question out there. I’ll go back on in a few minutes to see if anyone has responded.

My phone’s buzzing. My husband, responding to my text. Oh yeah. I forgot he has to work late tonight. I guess I better go to the store then.

No problem. I got quite a bit done this morning. Pretty sure there wasn’t anything else too pressing. If there was, it will still be here waiting for me tomorrow, I’m sure.

For some reason, it always is.

The Heart of the Matter

Nothing is scarier for a writer than to feel that they are out of words. It happens to me, alarmingly often, and from what I hear I’m far from the only one. The condition is akin to a fireman turning his hose onto a blazing fire only to realize there’s no water. Except, of course, that would matter.

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It is the lot of writers, I believe, to constantly question themselves and their ability to produce anything anyone will ever want to read. And that’s what’s at the heart of what I feel on those melancholy occasions when I start to think I can’t produce such a thing. Does it even matter? If I never write another word in my life, would anyone care?

Two different questions, actually. I’m not entirely sure anyone would care, but I am fairly certain that it would matter. The reason for that is, while there is very little that my finite mind can comprehend about a holy, infinite God, I have come to realize something as I have written my novels. He is the giver of the stories. He is the creative source. I don’t think anyone who writes, or paints, or creates or plays music, can deny that there is a power outside of himself providing the inspiration.

And we are created in his image. Which means that we are creators too. Genesis contains no record of Adam and Eve writing or drawing or sculpting, but I’m sure they exhibited their creativity in many ways. Certainly they were the first witnesses to our wildly creative God in the plants and trees around them, and the endless parade of animals and birds and sea creatures passing before them to be named.

Thankfully, creativity continued to flow after the fall, a kind of compensation maybe, a gift from the Creator. So that yes, there would be pain and suffering and sickness and disease in the world now, but there would also be music. And the music would lift us, if only for a while, out of the pain and sorrow and give us the strength to go on.

And there would be ugliness, and destruction, and the gradual disintegration of the planet, but there would be beauty too, in paintings and sculptures and stained glass and architecture. And that beauty would remind us that the God who painted the sunsets and sculpted the mountains and formed the stars is near to us even when he feels far away.

And work would be hard and we would struggle to survive and there would be war and conflict and death, but when we needed to escape the harsh reality of the world around us, we could pick up a book and get lost in a story, or be swept away by words of poetry, and remember that there is another world, and that we are only temporary sojourners in this one, and that, even here, we are never alone.

So it matters. It matters that we accept the gift from the creative God who calls some of us to paint, or to play an instrument, or to write. And if I feel like I don’t have any words of my own, it’s because I don’t. But I can trust the keeper of the words to give them to me when they are needed–to bring joy or offer comfort or provide hope.

And that is all that really matters.

Great Expectations. Or Not.

Every part of the novel-writing journey is painful interesting, but the most interesting of all has to be the last few days leading up to a release. Under no other circumstances in my life do I experience such an intense combination of excitement and abject terror.

I have a new romantic suspense book coming out soon. Today, to be exact. (By way of a shameless plug, it’s The End Begins, Book 1 of The Seven Trilogy, a love story between a Christian woman and the army captain sent to keep the believers in line when martial law is declared after a terrorist attack.)

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The idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—painfully akin to being stripped naked and critiqued by perfect strangers—has, at times, overwhelmed me to the point of barely being able to draw in a breath and seriously considering calling the whole thing off. Minutes later, the idea that my work is about to go out there for everyone to read—thereby bringing the circle that is the writing process to completion and fulfillment—can fill me with inexpressible joy and anticipation.

My thoughts swing wildly from one end of the expectation spectrum to the other as I wait for the big moment to arrive.

This book could sell thousands of copies and make me a best-selling author.
No one will ever hear about, let alone read, this book.
What I’ve written could actually change the world.
The general reaction among readers will be “Meh.”
The legacy of this novel will endure long after I have gone to the grave.
This novel will sit on my parents’ shelf, gathering dust, until it is eventually bagged up and carted off to a thrift store.

The process is crazy-making; there is no doubt about it.

Thankfully, there is an out to the temptation to work myself into a near-catatonic state of over-anxiety and unrealistic expectations. I can remind myself that it doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit. The story came from God. I have no doubt of that. I am deeply aware, as I am writing, that the words are not coming from me but from a source outside of and greater than myself. And since God doesn’t do anything without a purpose, it follows that he has a plan for my novel.

That plan may be for millions of people to read it. For what is contained between the covers of my book to change the world forever. Or for the impact to echo down through generations like a shout hurled into the vast depths of the Grand Canyon. Or it may be for ten people to take a look at it, nine of whom will toss it aside, unmoved, and forget about it immediately.

If that one last person is meant to read it and somehow be changed or impacted by it and that is what happens, then in God’s economy the novel will have been a resounding success.

And as a believer, it must then be a resounding success in my mind as well.

Which takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the events of this day (did I mention The End Begins is being released, even as you peruse this post?)

Order a copy and read it immediately. Or don’t. But if you think of it, do say a prayer that God will use it for whatever purpose he has in mind.

Which is the greatest expectation for my work that I can have.

I Want You to be Honest. Honest.

When the phone rang, I grabbed it with eager anticipation. A good friend had just finished reading the manuscripts of my two-book romantic suspense series. She claimed to love them both and wanted to discuss them further.

business-19148_1280Nothing thrills me more than discussing my work with someone who admits to loving it, so I looked forward to the conversation.

She didn’t let me down. At first. She gave me thirty seconds to revel (read: let my guard down) as she gushed about how much she loved the story-lines, the characters, the dialogue, the suspense and the romance.

There was a slight pause when she finished. I don’t think she actually said the word “but” out loud, but she might as well have. It crackled along the wire separating us like an electric current, raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

Here it comes.

It actually occurred to me to start breaking up my words like I was traveling in and out of long tunnels and was losing the connection. I could tell her we’d have to continue the conversation sometime in the future. Like after the books had become massive best-sellers and her criticisms had become moot.

Problem was, she’d called me at home.

Short of lighting a match under the smoke detector (and don’t think I didn’t consider it), I was stuck.

For what seemed like hours, she pointed out every little hole in the plot, every weak storyline, and the periodic stretching of credulity.

As a rule, I avoid clichés like the plague. Still, during that conversation I went through a roller-coaster of emotions.

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The initial euphoria wore off alarmingly fast. Trepidation rose to take its place, soon supplanted by an actual, physical pain in my chest (which frightened me even as I grasped hold of the slim hope that I might be having a heart attack and would have to end the call so I could dial 911). Once I managed to get over myself, however, I sloughed off the self-pity and straightened in my chair.

Actually, this was pretty good stuff.

I reached for a pen and paper. Several scribbled pages later (both sides, single-spaced and running up and down in the margins), my friend ran out of suggestions. Or possibly oxygen. Either way, I admit to a sense of relief, coupled with a growing excitement.

She’d made some great points. Even addressed some issues that, deep down, I’d known were problematic, but had really, really hoped no one else would notice. The changes she suggested would definitely make the story stronger, more believable, more suspenseful and maybe even a little more romantic, never a bad thing.

The relief and excitement were soon overtaken by another emotion: gratitude.

Giving her honest opinion of my work hadn’t been easy for my friend. Several times throughout the conversation she had apologized, and gone out of her way to assure me that she really did love the books. Still, she cared enough about the stories—and me—to want them to be even better if possible (and trust me, it’s always possible).

I returned to the top of the first page of notes I’d taken, firmly scratched out Note to self: slash her tires, and settled in to contemplate her recommendations.

When I finished with the edits, I was ecstatic. If I’d ignored my friend’s advice, or set my own house on fire in an effort to avoid it, the books might still have been okay. Now, though, the humiliation humbleness with which I received her constructive criticism and applied it to my manuscripts had borne fruit.

(Brutally) honest feedback on our work is difficult—to take and to give. But if it comes from a genuine desire to help make that work more excellent, and if it is received with a thick skin and an open mind (a powerful combination for a writer to cultivate), it is also a priceless gift.

*This post originally appeared at http://wordalivepress.ca/blogs.