Write Your Heart Out

 

write-your-heart-outOutside my window a bird is singing. So long and loud for a tiny bit of feathers. The song is varied and the notes rise and fall, fluid and melodic. Truly he is singing his heart out. Simple and beautiful. The night is gone and the sun is rising. As he sings, I type.

How naturally the notes come to him. Can I claim that innocent posture? Can I let my words fly out, wild and reckless, like he releases his song? Can I claim the natural beauty of his rhythm and cadence in my flow of words and phrases? Can I write as he sings – exuberant, thankful, not concerned with the cares of the fate of the song? Of who will hear it? Of where it will go? Or even of its value?

Now he is silent. The song is finished and he has moved on from the tree outside my window. Perhaps the song is forgotten, released into the world and abandoned. He has moved on to live his life, gathering berries and seeds, feeding his young, feathering his nest. Soon I’ll do the same with my day. Many tasks are waiting.

Tomorrow there will be another morning and another song, and I must trust that there will be more words to type, to release and surrender. The songs must be sung. Words must be written. Simple and beautiful.

Write your heart out.

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers WritingSisters.com

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice. . . Psalm 5:3

the-songs-must-be-sung

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A Writing and Publishing Journey

So John, tell me about the writing of your book. How long did it take? What did you learn about publishing? What was the most enjoyable and most the difficult part of the process?

Pastor John Merritt, Discover. The Writing Journey

I’ve been asked questions like these numerous times in recent months. And since my first book, Don’t Blink, ready to be released in November (EBook is already available)—I thought I’d share what I loved and what I did not love about becoming an author (things you may consider if you have thoughts of becoming an author yourself).

What I loved: The actual writing of the book that took place during a six month sabbatical. I’ve always enjoyed writing, telling a story and making biblical application out of real life experiences. What I didn’t know was that writing the book was the easy part—let me tell you about the hard part.

Don’t Blink is for procrastinators, dreamers, and would-be adventurers who wish to grab hold of life this day, knowing there are no guarantees about someday. From Alaska to Argentina to the Amazon―in situations ranging from dangerous to humorous―John Merritt takes you on a daring pilgrimage revealing what living in the moment looks like. John demolishes the notion that once you become a Christian your freedoms are gone and your fun is done. Life is an extraordinary adventure elevated to audacious heights when God is leading the charge.

Don’t Blink is for procrastinators, dreamers, and would-be adventurers who wish to grab hold of life this day, knowing there are no guarantees about someday. From Alaska to Argentina to the Amazon―in situations ranging from dangerous to humorous―John Merritt takes you on a daring pilgrimage revealing what living in the moment looks like. John demolishes the notion that once you become a Christian your freedoms are gone and your fun is done. Life is an extraordinary adventure elevated to audacious heights when God is leading the charge.

What I didn’t love: The first thing I didn’t love was when I was advised to hire a professional editor who proceeded to get out her electronic red pen and essentially let me know how unaccomplished my writing was. In the end I was thankful for her coaching because the result was her finally telling me, “John, you’ve found your writers voice.” But that required many tedious rewrites that took longer than the initial draft.

A second thing I didn’t love was the realization that unless I was able to find an agent willing to represent my project I had no chance of getting a publishing house to even consider my work. Finding Alice Crider (then with WordServe, now with Cook) was a God-send and was not easy. (Note: Because of the difficulty in getting an agent to represent you, self-publishing is sometimes your best option.)

A third thing I didn’t love is the months it took for my agent to find a publisher who was interested in my book (took an entire year). There are many reasons why a publisher says no to a writer but the main one is market share. Publishers are in the business of selling books, and if you are not able to prove that you have a large audience who will buy lots of books, it really doesn’t matter how good your content is.

A final thing I don’t love is all the marketing of the book I must personally do because no one else is going to do it (not even most publishers these days). Because I’m not good at social media I’ve employed a person who I’m greatly indebted to (Leah Apineru with Impact Author Services, Colorado Springs) who built and maintains my website and posts my blogs. But I’ve always hated self-promotion and leaning on my friends to get the word out—sorry!

Why I wrote it: Given that being a published author is much more difficult than I ever imagined, why did I hang in there and spend lots of my own dollars in order to get my book out there? Simply because I think it will help Christians like yourself discover that God has an adventure designed just for you that will elevate your life each day. And what elevates the purpose of the book for me is if people like yourself find the book to be a good one to pass along to your non-Christian friends who could use a different perspective of the Christian life. If the publishing of “Don’t Blink” results in spiritual explorers becoming followers of Jesus then all that I didn’t love about publishing will be worth it!

John Merritt's Don't Blink TribeToward that end, I’m looking for friends who share that same passion and will help me by reading the book and then sharing it with your friends and family members. Currently Don’t Blink is available in EBook form through Amazon, Kindle, iBookstore and Barnes & Noble Nook. The paperback is due to be released November 10 and you can pre-order a book now. If you would like to learn more about joining the tribe, email: impactauthor@comcast.net.

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Thanks everyone!
John

 

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (conclusion)

(Continued from Part I, Part II and Part III) Image, pink binder

I will never forget the feeling that day when I collated thirty chapters, punched holes, and neatly stacked all 330 pages of my first draft into a pink, soft-cover binder. I wasn’t Rocky at the stop of the stairs with pumped fists, but rather felt a peaceful satisfaction unlike any I’d ever experienced. It was a book in my hands, and I’d written it.

At the prescribed time, I emailed a digital copy to Jim Lund, the editor who had agreed to help me. His feedback arrived about three weeks later.

Jim’s comments were mostly about structural issues. The timeline was chaotic and he had trouble following what happened when. We shuffled chapters and paragraphs, and “trimmed” unnecessary copy. For example, when describing the time Annie broke into our upstairs bedroom, I’d “squirreled” a three-page tangent about the bats that flew into our house throughout that entire summer. “Kind of interesting,” Jim said, “in a creepy sort of way. I’d trim this.” “Trim” being the kind word for “chuck it.”

Over a period of months, I integrated Jim’s recommendations into a cleaner draft. I read and re-read that manuscript dozens of times, sometimes aloud, and fine-tuned the cadence and the prose into a finished product that sounded like me. It was then ready for beta readers.

I paid Office Max $110 to print eleven copies of the manuscript. I then assembled the pages into inexpensive binders and began to share my work with friends and family. Copies went to my brother, Paul; to Annie, of course; my son, Jeff; a couple of dear friends; my pastor’s wife, Kari; plus my therapist and the four women in our long-standing support group. My husband, Pete, continued to show little interest in reading, remaining insistent that it took me 330 pages to say what he likely would have said in 11.

I can’t remember a time when I ever felt so vulnerable… and I was terrified.

It’s a huge commitment to read someone’s work, especially 330 pages of it, and comments began to trickle in over a period of weeks. “This is good, Barb. This is really, really good. I read tons of books and frankly could not put this down.”

Yeah… that’s what friends are supposed to say.

I continued to edit and trim, ultimately heeding the advice of others and slashed/reworked/condensed the first few chapters. I couldn’t read a paragraph without reworking it, and wondered if I’d ever know when the book was done.

In the meantime, I bought hundreds of dollars worth of books on self-publishing. Jim taught me that only famous people received publishing deals these days, or people who had developed strong national platforms. He thought my story was powerful, but I was unknown. Completely unfamous.

Nevertheless, after two years of hard writing, I thought it would be fun to query some agents and see how the process worked. Maybe I’d get some helpful feedback. I’d already drafted a query letter in a “How to get your book published” class up at our community college. Next I needed to write a proposal, and Jim provided some templates.

Writing the proposal was miserable. While my business background proved helpful, I found this part of the process a chore. The manuscript was written first-person past tense, yet Jim instructed me to write the proposal in third-person present tense. So each of the thirty plus chapters needed to be condensed and translated into a different form of speech. It was a grind, and I shelved the book for months. This just wasn’t going to happen.

Until… until, I felt the nudge again. “It’s time,” said the voice within my own.

Two days later I sent a query letter to two agents, and both responded within a week. Requests for the proposal followed, and the manuscript followed after that. My brain could scarcely take in the enormity of what was happening.

One of the agents was the wonderful Alice Crider and she signed me with WordServe Literary. Within a few weeks, Alice had secured two publishing offers.

grunge image of a field

The rest is history, as they say. I’m not a famous author by any means, but I am an author nonetheless. It was four years after I received that first nudge from God to “write a book about the gifts you were given,” that Zondervan released A Very Fine House: A Mother’s Story of Love, Faith and Crystal Meth. They even retained my working title.

Miracles can and do happen. First was my daughter’s return from the abyss of drug addiction. Then a book followed about the gifts, the lessons learned. Whew. Both experiences have strengthened a simple faith, and changed me forever.

Cutting Out the Frivolous Stuff

song sparrow singingLast week, during a series of presentations on writing-related discoveries, which I always make first-year composition students do at the end of the year, one student said, “I learned that writing shorter is harder than writing longer.”

“Why’s that, do you think?” I asked.

He thought before answering.White-crowned-Sparrow

“Because to make something shorter, you have to make all these decisions. Like, what’s important and what to get rid of. And then, after you take stuff out, you have to change other stuff to make it sound right.”

“You mean, you have to revise—like, you know, re-see it,” another student chimed in.

“Yeah. It is like that,” he said. “Like seeing that it could be a different way and still be what I wanted to say. Maybe even better. I never thought of that. I always used to think revision was just fixing stuff.” The two students grinned with that mixture of embarrassment and pride students always have when using the language of the course.White-Throated_Sparrow

That night I led a professional development session for graduate faculty on the subject of assessing final projects.

“Everything students hand in is a draft,” I remarked in passing, “and drafts are hard to grade. If you want your students to revise, you have to trick them into it.”

Field_Sparrow“How?” one professor asked.

“Lots of ways,” I said, “but the most successful way for me is to give maximum word limits on assignments rather than minimum word limits.”

“How does that make them revise?” she persisted.

I knew that being made to write short did force students to revise, but it took me a second to come up with a reason why on the spot. “I guess it’s like when you fill out an online application and have to answer a question in a little box that limits you to only so many characters, including spaces,” I told them. “What you write is always way too long. So you have to keep paring it down, getting rid of unnecessary stuff, often the parts you’re Harris's Sparrowproudest of, so you can get down to what’s essential. And, in the end, it’s not only shorter but better. Or, anyway, I always think it is. In my experience, the same thing happens with students when I give them word limits. I get all these emails, begging me to let them go longer. But I never do. Not one word. So they have to revise. And what they turn in is lots better than what they turn in when they’re just trying to fill pages.”

Everyone wrote that down—the most useful grading takeaway, even though it wouldn’t be relevant until they started building assignments the next semester.

The next day, at an end-of-year luncheon of honors English students, my department chair asked those about to graduate to share the moment they realized they wanted to study English, and two women talked about learning to write short.

lark sparrow“Being forced to cut made my writing so much better,” one said. “I knew how to improve my writing after learning that.”

“I had this revelation that every sentence matters,” said another. “That was the moment for me.”

Finally, yesterday, my novel workshop students were talking about their revision strategies for the three chapters I’d be grading at the end of the semester.

“I’m cutting out a lot of frivolous stuff,” one said. “That’s the main thing I learned in this class: You don’t need half the stuff you write.”Chipping_Sparrow

As always, whenever I have one of these clumps of similar messages, I figured it wasn’t just coincidence—or the more obvious reality that people were saying back to me what I’d been preaching all semester—but the Holy Spirit weighing in on the ssavannah sparrowubject. It seemed strange, though, that the Holy Spirit was interested in revision.

Then it occurred to me that I’m the one who needed the cutting message I’d been preaching. My own novel is a frivolous (and practically unpublishable for a first novel) 130,000 words.

There’s no getting around it, I told myself. You need to cut another 30,000 words.

That doesn’t begin to answer the question—if you’re still wondering—of why cutting words from my pages might interest the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that, as I like to tell my students, revision is a key part of the creative process, and God has always been into that. Separating light from dark, water from land. Fiddling with it, examining it, considering, until it’s good, or very good.

Or maybe God’s interested in revision for the same reason he pays attention to sparrows: namely, all of his creation—birds, us, our minds, words, our little improvement plans—fascinates and delights him.

(PS: To whatever fellow birdlovers are out there, I saw all the sparrows pictured this morning: song, white-crowned, white-throated, field, Harris’s, lark, chipping, and savannah. I feel so blessed!)

Crafting a Business Plan

Only a couple weeks ago, I closed the chapter on a significant season in my life – the completion of my first three-book series. I feel as if the last three years of my life have passed in a blur of deadlines, beautiful character adventures, and growing pains. As I celebrate the ending of this season and the potential of the next, I also need to reevaluate what I want this writing gig to look like going forward.

But that’s the thing. It’s more than a writing gig. It’s a business, a ministry. As with all businesses, it requires strategy, planning, and much prayer. When I first began this adventure, I wish someone had told me to look ahead, to dream but to do so in detail. As I reflect on all God has done, I am hitting “pause”–as I pray about contracts and direction and stories–to craft a business plan, one that gives me direction for the years (I hope) that loom with possibility before me.

Kariss Lynch Shakespeare quote

Creating Your Own Business Plan:

1) Craft a mission statement.

What is the purpose of your writing ministry? We all want to reach and impact readers. Be more specific. What unique calling/gifting/direction do you bring to the table?

2) Identify your audience.

If you have worked with publishers or are working to break into the field, you are aware that you must define your audience for your proposals. Be more specific than the age range. Do you write for those who have lost hope? Are your stories for the courageous at heart who want to change the world?

3) Set long-term and short-term goals.

This is where I am crafting financial, spiritual, physical, intellectual, family, social, and career goals. If every area of my life feeds my writing, and I believe it does, then it is important I take all of this into account. I’ve noticed I write better in deadline season when I am taking time to eat healthy and exercise. On the nights I don’t sleep much in favor of finishing a project, my health routine gives me energy to keep pushing. When I don’t set time aside to invest in family and friends or have fun, I write from a drained tank. If I don’t attend at least one conference a year, I miss out on building relationships and gaining valuable training. Goals help me account for these moments, and tackle them with more gusto.

4) Formulate a guideline for the unknown.

I have lingering questions that I want to answer that will help me as this career hopefully grows. Do I want to limit myself to my current genre or do I have other story styles burning on my heart? If so, what do I need to do to incorporate those stories? How do I respond to speaking opportunities? How am I going to interact with readers? How do I answer those who ask my advice on writing? How will I handle endorsements and judging writing competitions? I am working on answers to all these questions. I believe having an idea in place will help me to respond well when these situations arise.

5) Share your vision.

I have a small group of people in my life who will gather to give me feedback on my business plan. They will respond as readers, but they will also respond from a place of knowing my heart. They will be my encouragers in the months and years ahead, my accountability if I get off track, and the ones with wisdom to help me reevaluate this business plan when the need arises. They are the ones who challenged me to identify my direction in the first place.

I am still working to finalize this business plan and would love to hear from you! What goals have you set for your writing career? Do you have a business plan that helps keep you on track, or do you use another method?

Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.

Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?

You probably wouldn’t drive across the country without a map.

You probably wouldn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner without recipes.

Would you write a book without an outline?

The practice of outlining a book in detail takes an enormous amount of discipline. Focusing on the infrastructure of the story is a whole different ball game than writing in free form and letting things evolve as they may. My first book was a result of rambling writing sessions, often resulting in superfluous content which ended up being taken out of the story. Although it was fun to just write and see what happened, it seemed there had to be a more effective method out there, one that would result in a greater yield with less exertion. Most writers have other jobs, and when it comes to writing time, every moment is precious.

Some writing coaches suggest that creating a detailed outline is the most important part of book writing, and the part where most authors struggle. Writers may spend weeks or even months on the outline alone, to provide some frame of reference for how detailed the outline can be. Writing a book is a project, not unlike building a house. There is the foundation, there are the walls, the flooring, the roof, etc. Only when the skeleton of the house is in place can homeowners enjoy working on some of the more aesthetic features of the home – picking out colors, the yard, creating curb appeal, you name it.

A project manager friend who has been intrigued by the writing process asked how my latest book was coming along. Our casual conversation at a wedding evolved into something else when I mentioned being stuck halfway through the book. The project manager asked if she could help me in going back to the drawing board and getting serious about planning it all the way to the end. I started sending her samples of my content and images of people that remind me of my characters. She would go through what I had written so far against our burgeoning outline and provide feedback: “I don’t think the character would say that on page 73,” or “When are the characters ever going to make it to Barcelona? You said that they have been saving up their mileage points for the trip,” etc.

At first I wondered if it had been a little premature to share my work with someone else. She had questions that were not always easy to answer, such as why I chose one title over another. Each time I had to explain an aspect of the story, it helped me figure out how to convey metaphors and messages with much greater clarity. After a few short weeks of this exchange, we finalized the outline. It’s all been downhill from there. Writing to an outline hasn’t seemed restrictive at all. It’s been like driving with a navigational system in the car, so you can better focus on the traffic, the scenery and the passengers.

Compass and Bible
Writing can be a very solitary profession, but creating an outline is a great opportunity to collaborate with others, should you desire to do so. It’s a lot easier to get someone to read an outline than to read a manuscript of 120,000 words or so. If you can have the feedback given to you in a postive way by someone who can deliver it in a manner that makes you comfortable, then your writing will become that much better for having another pair of eyes review it. Having to discuss and explain your work, your ideas, and your story line can be pretty awkward in the beginning. However, writers have to do it eventually anyway, so why not start from the get go?

Writers, do you sit down and just write, or do you use a more formal approach?