Sifting and Winnowing

Photo/KatenJordanMy heart pounded as I braved my re-entry into my writing space. I simply did not want to work on another uninspired blog post. Why, I didn’t know. But I knew I needed to identify the source of my resistance to what I’m passionate about—writing.

From my office chair, I scribbled a few forced phrases—those anticipated first and necessary words. The ones I demanded myself to write. It was a painful hour.

Even though they were interesting, they weren’t satisfying. And I grieved once again for inspiration that would give me life—meaningful thoughts flowing from a grateful heart. But the words I produced were stale and stodgy. Would anyone be blessed by reading them? I thought not.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of blank pages. So I confessed to my husband, Dan, “I’m really struggling with the blog posts I should have already written.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I routinely commit to writing about things others have requested, and I never get to work on things that really matter to me.”

“Like what? Give me an example,” he asked.

Dan listened carefully as I voiced a litany of excuses. Then, he responded, “Maybe you need to do some ‘winnowing.’”

“Tell me what you mean.” I knew what the word “winnowing” meant, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

“Have you ever seen an illustration of someone threshing wheat?” He shared several photos after searching the Internet.

“You mean, like sifting?” I knew Dan was right, but I hadn’t figured out how to climb out of my writing rut.

He said, “All words are not equal. And like grain, where the husks have to be separated and discarded. To produce the best dialogue and story, the worthless ideas must be winnowed out.”

Sifting. I listened to the Daily Audio Bible during my morning walk. From the book of Judges, I listened how God gave Gideon instructions for choosing warriors to fight with him.

You have too many warriors for Me to allow you to defeat the Midianites. As it is now, the people of Israel would just deny Me the credit and claim they had won the victory on their own. So go out and tell your army, “Any of you who are afraid and trembling are free to leave Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:2-3 VOICE)

The scripture reminded me of my earlier conversation with Dan.

After Gideon reduced his army, the Lord told him. “You still have too many warriors. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you. When I say, ‘This one will fight for you,’ he will go with you; but when I say, ‘This one will not fight for you,’ then he will not go’” (Judges 7:4 VOICE).

As I listened to the passage being read, the word “sift” took on new meaning for me. I knew the Lord was teaching me about “winnowing” and “sifting.” I also recognized I could take my notebook “down to the water” and ask the Lord to help me “sift” through all of my writing and speaking commitments. The neighborhood lake was the perfect place for solitude.

Winnowing. After lunch, I took a brisk walk to Lake Cortez with my pen and paper, with my heart prepared for “winnowing” my writing options, sifting and discarding those that didn’t seem right for me.

One-by-one, I reviewed my current writing commitments, praying what was most important would emerge as my next writing effort.

Recently, I read this encouraging word from the book of James:

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.

The key is that your request be anchored by your single-minded commitment to God. Those who depend only on their own judgment are like those lost on the seas, carried away by any wave or picked up by any wind. (James 1:5-6 VOICE)

I’m so grateful when God gives me his guidance and help. Some days I make decisions and commitments without even considering Him. But as I listed all of my plans that day, it became clear which projects and events I needed to abandon and pursue.

I instinctively knew which stories mattered most. And I also understood what genre of writing I wanted to pursue. So, I had the courage to resign from writing about things and issues that undermine my creativity and leave out elements of my faith.

I’m not sure what I will write next. But for now, I will continue to ask the Lord to help me sift through all of my projects and plans and allow him to impress my soul about what choices to make.

How do you “winnow” through your life and work? What sifters do you use when choosing what matters most to you and is worthy of your time and energy?

Scripture taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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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What authors need to know: a view from the reviewer’s desk

© Royalty-Free/Corbis

I’ve recently been reviewing books on Netgalley. To my surprise, it’s been an educational experience for me as an author; by putting myself on the reader’s/critic’s side of the equation, I’ve learned a few truths that every author should know about 1) writing books, and 2) receiving book reviews.

Truth #1: Not every book is for every person. No matter how important your message or story, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I keep thinking of the key question every writer gets when pitching a book for publication: who will want to read this book? Many of us (myself included when I began writing) believe that EVERYONE should read our books, that there is value in our work for every reader. But the truth is that people have different interests, and not everyone will want to read your book; that’s why the precise identification of those readers most likely to read your book is so critical to publishing your work. Authors MUST know their specific audience.

As a reviewer, I can choose from a multitude of topics, which means there are many excellent books I don’t choose to review for the simple reason that I’m not interested in the topic. Don’t take it personally when reviewers don’t rave about your book – it may be that your topic just didn’t hit a home run with that individual. Remember always that reading and reviewing is subjective, so while authors want and need reviews, you’re at the mercy of individual preference.

Truth #2: Not every writing style will appeal to every reader. Part of the joy of writing is to find your own voice, and when it resonates with your readers, it’s like winning the lottery. From a reviewer’s perspective, however, some writing styles are irritating, which then often result in poor reviews. (Case in point: as a former teacher of English composition, I can’t get through a book filled with incomplete sentences. When I find that in a book I want to review, I return the book rather than penalize the writer for her own voice. I’ve made that my rule based on my experience of receiving a poor review for one of my books wherein the reviewer said he didn’t read the book because he didn’t like my style in the first chapter! Again, it’s subjective, so don’t panic when you receive a review like that; if you know your audience, you can let that bad review roll off your shoulders, because you know something your reviewer doesn’t: your audience likes your style.)

Truth #3:  Your writing will improve by reading and reviewing other books. As a writer, every learning opportunity you take – even reviewing others’ books – will contribute to your store of ideas, craft, and understanding. Besides reminding me of the importance of audience, reviewing has reassured me that there is room in the publishing and reading world for many voices and many topics. As long as you continue to polish your craft and write engaging books, there’s room for you, too!

7 Slippery-Slope Reasons Writers Shouldn’t Blog

 

Yes, I know. I am a writer and this is a blog post about not writing blogs. Irony is everywhere. Embrace it. But this topic still matters because many publishers urge authors to start and maintain a blog. Should you? Start the slope with me, then decide for yourself:

  1. Blogging can create a dopamine addiction, a Pavlovian instant-feedback dependence. Especially when you’re working on manuscripts that take a year or three; it’s a long silent drive with no one in the car. That immediate rush of reader response can derail the long obedience of writing (riding) patiently to a distant destination. And clearly, then…
  2. It also steals precious time away from long form writing and from writing articles with larger readerships and influence. Even if you only post once a week (as I do), even that can take the entire day, which means one workday out of five is gone. Not to mention the time taken to respond to every comment, which you absolutely should do.
  3. Because of this, and because you never have enough time to write, and because you know #1 and #2 are true, you will then decide to write your blog as efficiently as possible, which then means hasty pasty work that can degrade your artistry and your own standards of excellence. You blog to create a “brand,” but maybe your blogging “brand” tarnishes your book brand? But…
  4. It won’t matter and you won’t care because now advertisers are at your gate and you’re soon selling so much merchandise you realize you could do this full time with a few small adjustments to your editorial content and your wardrobe and your housewares, which you now feature because you’ve become such a commodity you spend most of your time taking photos and signing contracts rather than crafting paragraphs. Or…
  5. Just as easily, You become a political crankcase. Though you never plan this, the immediacy of blogging, the outrageousness of current politics and the catharsis you imagine awaits you after verbal tirades and blood-letting on your blog can oh-so-siren-song you into becoming a self-righteous rant-er in your beloved space which you once intended for the literary care and feeding of others. It will happen so gradually you won’t even notice until eventually…
  6. You will see yourself as a social/medical/educational/historical/everything commentator as knowledgeable about every current hot issue as the next guy and, armed with opinions you no longer want to waste, you deputize yourself and spend your energy preventing the demise of the free world or whatever your current passion has become now that you’re a Truth-warrior and Word-slinger rather than a writer. But also, you could slide the other way and…
  7. Care so much about your readers who are themselves tired of the sensationalized fake-newsy rants of the blogosphere that you spend your time devising outlandishly clever posts that occasionally include YouTubes about goats to prod your weary readers into liking and sharing your freakish brilliance. In other words, you’re writing simply for their attention rather than writing about what you really care about which doesn’t work at all, Or it does work and because you now have 50,000 followers, you decide to run for political office or move to L.A. to try stand-up comedy. Failing in both, you move back in with your parents and get a job designing slipper socks. You forgot you ever wanted to write.

You could end up here OR, you could slide another way and discover that life is strangely riddled with holiness and your weekly posts press you to find the divine you might otherwise miss. And around those words a collection of strangers begins to gather into neighbors you soon love who join you in this weekly act of holy listening. And before you know it seven years have gone by and you know many by their names and this wondrous crazy life now belongs in some way to all of you. And you may sell more books or you may not, you don’t keep track because you’re too busy writing and writing and all you know is you never want to stop.

Should you blog? You decide.

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…

Writing About Suffering

One recent evening, a friend told me about her stepmother’s stage 4 cancer, asking for advice on ways to help her. The next morning, I received word another friend was killed in a car wreck. That evening, a different friend’s granddaughter’s baby was admitted to the hospital in an unresponsive state following a seizure. It was an emotional 24 hours. But one reason these friends talked to me about their issues is that they’ve walked with me through my own.

Lessons Learned

Have you ever noticed that when you’re about to write or teach a spiritual lesson, you walk through circumstances that make you confront your own handling of said spiritual lesson? It happens to me almost every week. I teach a weekly Bible study class and I promise you, whatever the lesson is about, I faced it during the previous week!

There is a good reason for this. It’s called authenticity. Nobody wants to listen to a Pollyanna who has never gone through tough circumstances preach about how to handle them. We all know this, but still it can be so easy to spout platitudes or quote Scriptures that seem to say everything will turn out okay.

The Right Approach

What is the right way to approach writing about suffering? Telling your personal story is a good place to start. Every one of us has faced some level of trauma or grief or physical suffering at some point in our lives. When we dare to talk about our deep hurts, it opens our readers’ hearts to hear the rest of our message because they feel a connection to us. We become real when we become vulnerable.

Reward

Therein lies the rub, as they say. It is terrifying to bare your soul to strangers. I submit to you that it may be the most difficult thing you ever do. It may also be the most rewarding thing you ever do. When I share my struggles with those I teach, an inner tension releases that I previously didn’t even know existed. And the connections I make with my class members are priceless. A bond is created that allows for more receptivity on their part.

Respect

I need to add a caveat here. Some things cannot be shared in a public forum. When there are other people involved who might be hurt or embarrassed, we must keep the situation private. We might be able to refer to it in generic terms, but we can in no way include anything that would identify them. The only exception would be if prior permission is granted.

Transparent Honesty

Readers don’t sit in a classroom with us each week and we’ll never know or hear about most of them. But they will listen to us when they read our message and learn the truth we’ve shared when they know we aren’t just spouting words–that we have lived the truth of what we say.

Do you have a message to share that involves difficulty or suffering? How ready are you to be transparent with your readers?

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