Seven Essential Tips Every Successful Writer Must Apply

Fresh StartsI think every published author wishes they could go back in time to whisper in their younger self’s ear. Doing so would certainly save volumes of time and energy. I’m sure five years from now, I’d wish for the opportunity to tell today’s me something I need to know right now.

These are the thoughts rolling through my mind this new year, clean with the possibility of fresh starts. I think it’s important to slow down sometimes.

We need to reflect on the past in order to improve on the future. So I’m reminding myself of the tips I’d give my younger self, knowing I’ve let some slack, and resolving to begin again. I believe the seven following tips are essential, things every writer must know.

  1. Ray BradburyRead as much as you can. Phrases such as, “Great writers are great readers,” hold a wealth of truth. The more we study, the more prepared we are to succeed. Reading teaches us the subliminal art of sentence flow, heart tugs, and scene staging. It also shows us what to avoid, as we learn from the mistakes of others. It’s the best motivator I know.
  2. Eavesdrop. Most of my best dialogue came from listening in on someone else’s conversation in restaurants, conferences, stores, airplanes, etc. I write non-fiction, and I tell true stories or compilations based on real people, but even if I wrote fiction, I would use this technique for writing believable and fascinating statements.
  3. Listen to outsiders. The more detached someone is from you, the more objective their writing feedback is going to be. Family and friends tend to fall into two camps: they either gush over everything you write, even your sloppy first drafts, or they nitpick, make digs, or outright blast anything you pen. Make it your mission to interact with people on social media, critique groups, or professional advance readers who are willing to respond honestly.
  4. Pull on your thick skin. You might want to consider whale shark skin for this one, (estimated at 6″ thick). Just like “there’s no crying in baseball,” professional writers soon learn, no one’s handing out Kleenex around here either. When rejection stings, stiffen your spine, and pitch again.
  5. Douse distractions. It’s going to happen. Ten people want five different things from you at once. You’re working on one project, when the siren call of another beckons. But professionals know the power of tenacity — grinding your behind into the seat, tuning out the voices trying to break your focus, and writing through to the finish line.
  6. motivational quotesSet time-stamped writing goals. I’ve really let this one slip lately, and my work is showing it. But my One Word is Reset, so I am resetting my goals. The difference between a dream and a goal is a measurement. So my refreshed writing goals include a minimum of 5,000 words per week. This reasonable number allows for flexibility, while pushing me beyond a normal comfort zone. It’s doable.
  7. Touch your own heart. If I’m not passionate about what I’m writing on, why would anyone else be interested? If I’m bored, my readers will feel boredom. If I’m thrilled, my readers will feel a flutter of excitement driving them to turn the page.

The more I write, the more I question myself at times, and yet, when I go back to the basics, I find the truth, the way, and a successful writer’s life. Which brings me to a bonus secret.

Pages in a Thousand BooksI can write until my fingers are numb. I can start writing at dawn’s break, pushing until the wee hours of the next morn, but if I am not inspired, it’s all for nothing. My personal inspiration come from prayer, provision, and praise for my Maker. He’s the one who gifted and called me. This is my most powerful secret.

What inspires you to write? Do you have any tips you would whisper to your younger self?

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12 Do’s and Don’ts for a Successful Long-Term Writing Career

1. Do have something in the hopper to pitch at all times. While you’re querying your next book or series, keep your creative mind active by brainstorming, jotting down notes, and organizing research.

Share Your Gifts2. Don’t try to write like someone else. No one else thinks like you, has your life experiences, your collective information, your communication style, or your voice. Copying someone else’s approach means your unique offering is lost—and the world misses out.

3. Do share yourself authentically with the public. Masks don’t work. Allow the truth of who you are to resonate with readers and listeners as you speak from the page and the stage.

4. Don’t let someone else’s negative opinion of your writing stop you. No published piece is loved by everyone. Editors, agents, and readers will often view your work differently. Accept positive encouragement when it’s helpful and honest, but don’t disregard unbiased criticism—it will make you a better writer.

5. Do get out and live life on a regular basis—otherwise you’ll have nothing fresh to write about.

6. Don’t let resentment over another writer’s success distract you from your own work. Instead, celebrate their achievements with them. Not only will you feel better, but human beings are drawn to help positive people, not those who are jealous, jaded, or jerks.

7. Do focus on improving your writing—constantly. Read and re-read books on honing your craft until you develop a master’s degree worth of knowledge on writing well.

Round Hole Square Peg8. Don’t be afraid to let a word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even an entire project go. Sometimes, a piece doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t waste time and energy trying to force a square concept into a round career. Allow yourself to move on if you feel like you’re pulling splinters to make things fit.

9. Do take care of the people who support, encourage, and follow you. We are all in this world together, and readers are more than people we get something from, (sales), they are people who need the same things from us that they give—support, encouragement, and attention.

10. Don’t expect publication to heal all your hurts and provide lasting happiness. The real you will always hide behind the public persona. Learn to like him/her, then no matter what happens with your writing, you will be okay.

Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Endorsement11. Do understand the power of influence. The greater the number of people who like your book(s) and are willing to say so publicly, the more other people will like what you write.

12. Don’t nit-pick, condescend, attack, grumble, or fight with others on social media forums. Followers don’t forget, and often their memory shapes future decisions to support you or not. Breaking the Golden Rule can become a deal-breaker for some of our readers.

Which of these twelve points are the most difficult for you? The easiest? 

 

Devotional Essentials, Part 2

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Devotionals come in many shapes and sizes. By “devotional,” we might mean a single piece of writing, somewhere in the range of 200 to 1,000 words. Or we might mean an entire collection of such readings, perhaps in 30-, 40-, 60-, 90-, or 365-day packages. These details vary, but I suggest that the “devotional essentials” fall within the TEST described in my last blog post. Today, we’ll discuss the Topic and Example of an effective devotional; next time, we’ll wrap up with the Segue and Takeaway.

Topic: There are two ways to arrive at your topic: choose it yourself or have someone else choose it for you. That may not seem profound, but it is reality.
If you want to contribute entries to anyone else’s devotional project, you’ll write to their topic—or if not a specific topic, to the general themes and style of the organization. Maybe a book publisher is planning a devotional for mothers of special needs children. Maybe a church denomination wants adventure-themed devotions for its men’s magazine. Maybe your pastor is looking for devotions to go with his preaching series on family finance. If you’re chosen to submit entries in a case like this, part of your work is already done.

If you’re writing your own devotional, you have limitless opportunities for topics—though not necessarily limitless opportunities for readership. Sure, you could write devotionals that draw their points from thrash metal music, but you probably won’t find a huge audience. Whether you publish traditionally, self-publish, or distribute your readings in other venues, you can address whatever topic is near and dear to your heart or whatever topic will help and encourage large numbers of readers. Ideally, both.

I have personally written full books of devotions on baseball (180 readings) and the Star Wars films (40 readings). I’ve also contributed to collections about movies in general, football, literature, the outdoors, fatherhood, and memorable Bible verses. Please note the focus of these collections—each book is centered on a clearly identifiable theme. If you’re shopping a devotional book proposal, you’ll probably get farther with a narrower theme (for example, running) than a collection addressing all your varied loves of running, coin collecting, Seinfeld, cats, and grandparenting. Sometimes “all things to all people” is tough to market.

What do you most like to read, watch, create, collect, or do? Do you ever find your mind connecting aspects of your favorite activity with portions of scripture? Maybe that’s your topic knocking.

Example: This is a micro version of your Topic, where you narrow the larger galaxy down to some individual stars. Say, for example, the Death Star.

In my Star Wars-themed devotional book The Real Force, I drew upon the Empire’s fearsome space station for an entry about pride. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars film, you know that this metallic menace, in spite of its awesome size and power, did have a small vulnerability—a “thermal exhaust port” the rebels exploited to blow the whole thing out of the sky. The Death Star exemplifies a dangerous human tendency to shrug off temptation and the “little sins” that can blow our lives sky high (see Song of Solomon 2:15 and Proverbs 16:18).

Or take the larger galaxy of baseball, and narrow it down to some individual “stars”—like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, the original “Home Run Kings.” Here’s an example of success and achievement, and the human desire to be recognized as important . . . perhaps a king (or queen) of your chosen field. But no matter how far we rise, we’re wise to remember One who is always and much higher, the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

It would seem, if your Topic is broad enough, that a little thought should yield plenty of Examples—ideally, with some related Scriptures (as noted above). Now, you need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and actually start writing. Once you have a clear, concise, and compelling description of your particular example, the challenge becomes the Segue (transitioning from the example to the Scripture) and Takeaway (what you ultimately want your reader to learn/remember/do).

We’ll talk about those next time. Until then, think about your favorite Topic and see what Examples (and Scriptures!) may come to mind.

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!)

10 Tips for Great Research Interviews

10 Tips for Great Research Interviews  

You may have heard the advice “Write what you know.” But what if you want to write about something you don’t know anything about? Find someone who knows. We’ve interviewed modern day shepherds, airline pilots, engineers, trauma physicians, people from other cultures. Each interview is different and can be valuable in providing the authenticity and detail for your writing. Here are a few tips we’ve learned.

  1. Start with relationship. Spend some time connecting with your interviewee. Get to know him or her as a person.1965017_816271478388718_612352803_n
  2. Keep questions open ended. Yes and no questions don’t get you the details you need. Ponder ahead of time what will be the best questions to encourage the interviewee to talk.
  3. Be respectful of boundaries. Let your interviewee determine how much they are comfortable sharing about their personal lives. Don’t push, but be ready to go there with them.
  4. Be prepared. Do your homework; learn as much as you can in advance. Search the Internet or read books about the person. We find that the interviews are more productive if we have already written a first draft of the story or chapter. Then we know what blanks to fill in with our expert.IMG_0374
  5. Don’t be too structured. Some of the most interesting things we’ve learned were not from questions on the list. Sometimes, you don’t know what to ask.
  6.  Don’t send advance questions. For an informal interview it’s best to explore the subject together. Sending advance questions makes the interviewee focus on your questions rather than the subject.
  7. Listen. Sounds obvious but too often we focus on ourselves and what we are going to say or ask next. Stay focused on what your interviewee is revealing.
  8. Record the session. (We use our cell phones.) Take the focus off of note taking and trying to remember every detail. You’ll be thankful later when you listen to the tape. We’ve been amazed to find information on the tape that neither of us remembers the interviewee saying.1965075_10203555232787948_961820612_n
  9. Respect time. Set an amount of time in advance for the interview and let the person know.
  10. Express thanks. Follow up with a note or email of thanks. You can also bring along a book as a thank you, email a few photos you took, or send a copy of the article or book later when it comes out.

 

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers   www.WritingSisters.com

Shepherd Song

7 Surprising Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block

file0001849487704 The words stop flowing and we can become desperate. There could be a deadline looming or just our own daily goals. Writer’s Block – fearful words. How can we overcome it and move forward? Try these tips from the pros:

1. Take a walk.  For me, a long five or six mile walk helps. . .  I find that then thoughts begin to come to me in their quiet way.  — Brenda Ueland

2. Consider a media fast.  I had a half-dozen half-finished manuscripts on my computer, but I couldn’t seem to finish a book . . .  I decided to do a forty-day media fast out of desperation. . . In the process, I found that my writing became a form of praying.  I don’t type on a keyboard; I pray on it.  And by the time I was done, I had completed my first self-published book.  –Mark Batterson

3. Lower your expectations.  I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent—and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. Malcolm Gladwell

4. Don’t wait to have it all worked out.  If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. –Margaret Atwood 

5. Pray. The first thing I do when I am stuck is pray. . .I get on my knees and remind God that this was not my idea, it was His…Then I ask God to show me if there is something He wants to say to prepare me for what He wants me to communicate to our congregation.  I surrender my ideas, my outline and my topic.  Then I just stay in that quiet place until God quiets my heart…Many times I will have a breakthrough thought or idea that brings clarity to my message. — Andy Stanley

6: Chunk it. The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one. — Mark Twain

7. Change course.  If you’ve got a writer’s block, you can cure it this evening by stopping whatever you’re writing and doing something else. You picked the wrong subject. — Ray Bradbury

Great ideas from some great writers.  What do you do when you are blocked?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers   www.WritingSisters.com

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Shepherd Song

7 Writing Tips We Learned From Our Dogs

samson-at-computer

We have always loved dogs. Over the course of our lives together we have owned over 27 dogs. It is not surprising that some were our best teachers. Here’s what our four-legged friends have taught us about writing:

1. Sit and Stay. These are the two most important commands for writers! If you don’t sit down and begin, you will never get started. Staying is important, too. No, you don’t need another snack.

2. Dig!  Sometimes the facts that we need are buried deep, like a good old bone. The best writing requires some digging–in the library, on the internet, in your heart. Sniff it out. Then dig. If you don’t find it, dig another hole.

3. Know your territory. Writing takes good boundaries and good boundaries mean saying no. One important lesson for both of us was to protect and guard our writing time. We put the time on our schedule and then we protect it. Remember: Growl, don’t bite!

4. Expect treats. It is hope that keeps us going. Hope of touching a reader. Hope of one day holding your book in your hands. Excitement and anticipation is an important part of writing. Sit down to write expecting something good to happen.

5. Be kind to the postman. It’s not his fault. Rejection is an important part of the writing process. Keep it in perspective. Shake it off and start again.

6. Stay in the moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself and start worrying about the future.  Don’t stay stuck in the past. Worry is not your friend.

7. Play! Some of the best ideas come to us away from the desk. Stop work to chase a few ideas. Dogs love any distraction from a tennis ball to a squirrel. The work will still be waiting when you come back.

Has your pet taught you anything about writing?

Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers  www.WritingSisters.com

 

Bio: The Writing Sisters, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers were born into a writing family, and began critiquing manuscripts at an early age for their mother, Newbery winner Betsy Byars.  They went on to become authors of more than thirty-five children’s novels. Their first book for adults is  The Shepherd’s Song,  Howard Books, March 2014.