“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.

Why the Ninja? And Other Great Questions Your Writers’ Group Will Ask

NinjaWriters are a strange breed. We pretty much live inside our own heads, which isn’t a problem as far as we’re concerned. In fact, inside our heads is a pretty great place to be. Kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible, including eating a three course dinner in the form of chewing gum, or turning into a blueberry as punishment for being greedy (a little something we writers like to call poetic justice).

There is a downside, of course, which is that non-writers don’t always get our compulsive need to take ten minutes to compose a grammatically correct text while they’re standing in front of a wall of cereal boxes waiting to hear which one we’d like them to buy, or our propensity for bolting upright in bed at 3 a.m. and shouting “Yes! That’s how she did it!”
Which is why we writers need to seek out other writers–to convince ourselves that we’re not really crazy. Or, if we are, that there just may be a way to convert all that crazy into an actual career (yes, Dad, you can still call it a career if you don’t have regular hours, a place of work, or any viable income, per se).

A writers’ group is a fabulous place to find that support and encouragement. Connecting with people who have a mutual passion for wordsmithing and a mutual penchant for consuming copious cups of coffee daily–which is critical to maintaining both sanity and an ever-increasing word count.

One of the keys to an effective group is trust. Putting yourself out there as you share your work requires tremendous vulnerability, something we self-preserving writers aren’t that keen on. Remembering that other members only want to encourage you to make your work as good as it possibly can be is the secret to surviving (even embracing) the process.

Another key is honesty. Feedback such as “that’s the most amazing writing I have ever read; don’t change a single thing” is all well and good. Very well and very good, in fact. Only it’s not all that helpful. Something like, “I really enjoyed the dialogue between the butcher and the housewife over the meat counter at the grocery store, but I didn’t get why the Ninja darted out of the back room and grabbed a rump roast before back-flipping his way down the International Foods aisle” is much more useful. Now you can go back and read that scene over, realize that the Ninja, while really, really cool, is in fact unnecessary to the plot, and take him out.

Painful as it may be at times, a willingness to receive constructive criticism and honest feedback from people you trust (and who are always willing to make allowances for the fact that you live life on the outer fringes of reality, especially since they usually share the same postal code) inevitably leads to stronger, tighter, more excellent writing.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

Are you part of a writer’s group? Have you found it helpful?

Stranglers or Wranglers? The Super Power of Encouragement

One of my all time favorite books, one that influenced both my writing style and my outlook on life, is A Touch of Wonder by Arthur Gordon. Gordon’s stellar writing peppered “Guidepost Magazine” with inspiration for decades. I remember happening upon the book in a seaside store, then finding a perfect spot on the beach to relax where, over the next two days, I read it from cover to cover. As the ocean waves rolled in the distance, I felt uplifted by true story after story filled with humor, struggle, love, and courage.

In one memorable chapter, Mr. Gordon told a story that created such an “Ah-ha of the Heart” for me that it helped form my basic writing philosophy. He wrote of a friend who belonged to a club at the University of Wisconsin many years ago. It was composed of several talented writers, all brilliant young men. They would each read their prose aloud, then take turns dissecting and criticizing each others’ writing so fiercely, they dubbed their writing group “The Stranglers.”

On the same campus, a group of women formed a writing group, calling themselves “The Wranglers.” But instead of dousing one another with criticism, they spent most of their time encouraging one another. They all left the meetings feeling inspired in their writing journey.

Twenty years after these two groups met, some interesting results were found. For all the brilliance of the writers who made up “The Stranglers,” not one member achieved any kind of literary reputation. “The Wranglers,” on the other hand, produced a half-dozen successful writers, including the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling, Marjorie K. Rawlings.

From this story I drew two convictions:

1. When choosing a writers’ group (or any support group for that matter), make sure that they lead with a positive spirit. Sure, you want honest feedback, but this can be done with grace in an atmosphere of encouragement. If the group has spiraled into nit-picking negativity, get thee to another group. That is, if you value your future as a writer.

2. Secondly, when you edit someone else’s writing, it is often automatic to skip the good writing and correct what is wrong, like the proverbial teacher with a red pen.  Because I accept this is how my editing brain works, I usually go through a writer’s chapter or manuscript or a proposal twice. The first time I highlight what needs to be changed to make it better. And then, I go back through and put smiley faces on the parts I like the best. You would not believe how writers love those smiley faces and how they make any critique go down easier.

In a little post-script to this story, I searched and found an address for Arthur Gordon, who was at the time quite up in years (he died in 2002 at 89), then wrote him a fan letter. He wrote me back on an old manual typewriter, saying how much he appreciated the bucket of encouragement, that this sort of reader feedback was fuel for his writing soul. I realized in that moment that no matter how old or accomplished a writer is, inside we’re all a little insecure and in need of positive feedback. A part of us is forever the child, giddy over a star or a sticker from the teacher.

So it behooves us to be positive and kind to each other in our critique. Not only does it make the writing life more fun, but in the long run, it also makes it more prolific and profitable.

What sorts of critique groups have you experienced? How did they make you feel? What kind of critique encourages you to excellence without throwing you into a depressing writer’s block?

Linking Arms

Talk about lousy timing! After accepting the position of president for my local writer’s group, HIS Writers, I was shocked when the Lord asked me to stop pursuing book publication. “Why are you asking me to work for writers if you won’t let me write?” I whined.

His answer was tender, “This is for you–a gift.”

And so it was. As chaos swirled in my life friends in HIS Writers linked arms with me and kept me sane. Though multiple family crises didn’t allow much writing time, staying involved kept me learning, growing, and networking as a writer. As the difficult season drew to a close, HIS Writers cheered as I received my first book contract.

There are many practical reasons to get involved in a writing group. Below are some reasons to connect–and also things to look for as you choose where to belong.

Networking

HIS Writers in 2010

There’s great value in finding support among your peers, but there’s also the business aspect of networking. Because of networking in HIS Writers, I received my first free-lance editing job. I’ve also been in the position to sub-contract part of my free-lance writing, and I looked to the people in my group when it came time to hire. It was a joy to offer a first publishing opportunity to some gifted writers. My first fiction book contract came about through a friend in the group. Never underestimate the power of peer relationships.

In many vibrant writing groups, you don’t only network with peers. Through HIS Writers I’ve met people from across the publishing world–authors, editors, even a publisher! Two agents from WordServe Literary spoke to our group. I also networked with the store manager where we meet. He’s promised me a prime spot during the next holiday season for a book signing!

Education

Good writing groups offer you a chance to develop professionally. Advanced writers and speakers teach craft. Critique groups help members develop. Strong groups also educate  about the business of writing.

HIS Writers board with the speaker of our first Novel Crafters Seminar of the Rockies. Left to right: Donna Schlachter, Susan May Warren, Paula Moldenhauer, Linda Abels, and Jill Hups

Cheerleaders

We’ve all watched eyes glaze over when non-writer family and friends are no longer tracking with us. As excited as our loved ones get as they watch us succeed, they often don’t understand the journey. We need cheerleaders who’ve felt the sting of rejection and know how to get up and try again. We need wise counsel from people who’ve been there.

A Chance to Give Back

As Christian writers we’re on the same team, working toward eternal impact. There are many ways to serve in a writing group. While getting involved with a local leadership team is rewarding, giving back can be as simple as cheering on the person seated next to you.

I recently accepted the position of Colorado Coordinator for the American Christian Fiction Writers. My passion is to see others benefit as I have from strong local chapters. How about you? Have writing groups helped you? How have you given back? What do you wish your local group had to offer?