Category Archives: Keys to Success

Don’t Sit Down in the Woods

“Every writer who’s finished has taken the axe into the woods and carved out their path where there seemed to be none before. They broke through their blocked way swinging word after word after word.”

It’s 2018. Are you ready? If you’ve set yourself a goal to finish that book, above all, you’re going to need stamina. You’re going to meet several new characters, and all will have challenges for you.

But don’t stop. Not until you’ve finished the first draft.

You’ll doubt your map, of course. But you learn what you’re writing by writing. You learn how to write by writing. Clear writing is rewriting, but that’s not your concern yet. Everyone who sets out questions the wisdom of plowing ahead when you know so little of what’s coming. But don’t stop. And never back up to revise or allow yourself to be tempted into “just fixing the setup,” etc. Fix it later. Right now, there’s only forward.

You figure out what you have to say by writing. If you’re writing to an outline, as you should be, you’ll think of something you need to add to or cut from what you’ve already written. Fine. Jot a note to adjust the next draft, and proceed as though it’s done. Because it will get done. But only if you keep moving forward now.

If only you knew what a great hope can wash over you seeing the things you’ve dreamed begin to pop out and come into reality.

And if halfway through, you suddenly discover this book is really about Z, and not X or Y, congratulations! You’ve struck gold. But don’t stop. Write as though it’s been about Z all along. Because it will be. If you don’t stop.

And do not give in to the temptation to share your first draft with anyone, even sweet old Grannie. If you get feedback too early, it will trick you into second-guessing and you’ll get lost, which greatly improves your chances of becoming one of the millions who never finish their book(s).

Take this to heart: if you get feedback this early, you’ll only wonder why you didn’t see what they saw and maybe that means you don’t know what you’re doing and you’ll start to believe you can’t do it. Take it from a guy who knows a bit about letting an editor see it too soon: if you stop before you finish the first draft, for any reason, your fatigue will catch up to you and you’ll wonder why you should keep on.

The excuses a tired mind can give for stopping are myriad. You’ll suddenly remember all the times you’ve stalled out before and all the unfulfilled hopes strewn along the path behind you will prove your faint hope was futile, you really don’t know what you’re doing at all, and it’s not going to work this time either.

You hear the lie, don’t you?

But you’re here now and you can kill it.

Just keep on. Keep the words as they are for now, as they’ve come to you, and appreciate all the hard work and truth-sleuthing it took to write it. And then keep on.

Every day you push forward is another to celebrate finishing a chapter. Even a small clutch of words can be a huge step forward, not just in getting the book done and finally out, but in becoming and owning all you’ve captured.

There will be time for another draft when you’re done. And once you reach the end, it will be much clearer what needs to happen next.

FTHP,

mick

 

What to Do When You Suspect It’s Not Enough

“Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.”
- George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871

So you’re finally ready to get honest? You’re finally ready to admit that your writing is no good?

Congratulations. Welcome to the club! It’s time you knew the secret everyone else who writes already knows: it’s no good because you’re not good enough to write it.

And you’re not good enough for one, inescapable reason (and it isn’t a lack of trying). You’ve suspected it all along. It’s crept up on you time and time again as you waited for the words you knew wouldn’t be right:

You’re not enough.

You know. Everybody knows. It’s not really a secret at all. But here’s the thing–it’s not that big a deal. Trust me, plenty of people aren’t enough. It’s no reason to give up.

It should give you serious pause though. If more people realized this, there’d be far less junk published every year.

The best thing you can do now is take a moment to do yourself (and everyone else) a favor, and figure out what you’re going to do about it.

The vital question, of course, is what now?

1: Start with what IS working. Despite its shortcomings, your book is honest, insightful, revealing, and even inspiring. It achieved much of what you set out to do. It’s simply not what you should have set out to do. And that’s a tough pill to swallow–you’ll have to develop some discernment to sort out what exactly is good about it–but you’ve got time. And you’ve got the patience and skill to figure this out.

2. Go back to the vision. Reevaluate the origination of this book. What was the inception? What were you really after? If you’re like most of us, this is not natural or automatic. You don’t easily decide to change what or how you wrote simply because you need to. It’s hard to discover what you were really after (Teaching a lesson to prove a point? Affirmation or acclaim? Serving God better so he’d bless you?) 

Hey, welcome to the writer’s process!

Everyone who sets out to write a book finds it’s harder than they thought. Hopefully, you realize you’ve got to edit it, but also, you’ve got to let it be what it wants to be, not what you want it to be. Sadly, I don’t think that is ever easy. But less sadly, this is something your book will teach you if you can slow down and listen.

This is what my book taught me: I was after all those parenthetical things above. So going back to the vision to reevaluate was the only way to improve. The first draft wasn’t a waste–I needed to write it to get it out and see it clearly. But I also needed to accept refining (or redefining) the vision as simply the next step in the process.

Reevaluating the vision is what you do when your goal is the truth.

We’re not alone. And we’re not getting off with a “one-time-and-done” edit. This reevaluating will be consistent, ongoing, and require lots of commitment (motivation!) to see what’s really going on.

I know that’s what writing is, but that’s also what life is. We’re really trying to see things as they truly are.

Yeah, that’s a big, deep concept. And yeah, it was always that big. We just don’t like to see it too clearly–it’s scary.

So let this feel overwhelming for a while. It’s okay. Take it slow. And thank God now you can recommit to this deeper goal and finally stop seeing refinement as a barrier to success.

It isn’t. It never has been. Because the truth is exactly what you always wanted.

3. Recommit to the higher purpose. When I started this little blog experiment in 2004, I was working for a national ministry publisher and didn’t have a clue I’d still be editing 13 years later. I had one goal: keep my core motivation of honoring God. From my first post, the Monday Motivations and the “Higher Purpose” tagline was about establishing and evaluating what we’re really after in writing.

I believed this was what made successful writers.

Letting go of all selfish purposes, and deciding to love the journey. This was the one thing I knew I wanted.

Finding your higher purpose is always the real work because we’re fickle, distractable, chronically forgetful people. We are the Israelites. We forget God is working, we forget we’re following and not leading, and we forget the real point isn’t what we’re after but what he’s doing.

We’re always beholden to the work. And God is in it, if we’ll stop to notice and listen. So the real work is always slowing down to pay attention to what we’re really doing and saying, and why. Writing ultimately means leading readers to know what’s most important. But always first, we’ve got to find that ourselves.

If we’re going to be good guides and bring fresh air to many, we have to relax and be healed of our need to perform.

I was talking with another author who suffered unimaginable damage in her life. It’s taken years to acknowledge it was wrong and overcome it. It absolutely floored me that she’d done what I always have, diminishing the pain. “EVERYONE else’s pain was always worse,” she said.

What holds writers back isn’t the pain itself; it’s the struggle to believe it warrants attention.

That’s the unbelievable, secret truth, the debilitating LIE that a writing coach can’t fix. How can I express this strongly enough to convince you: this belief is the great evil in your way. People spend their lives afraid to allow what they suffered to matter, unable to allow the only thing that could break the bonds of that fear: accepting the truth.

We’ve been told over and over again, “No one cares. You don’t matter. Whatever you think happened, it was nothing compared to real struggle. You know nothing of what that’s like.”

Everyone thinks this. It’s designed to keep you safe. Day after day, month after month, how long has it held you silent?

You’re not going to make mountains out of molehills. It was bad enough. You won’t be throwing a pity party. You’re just going to acknowledge it happened and it hurt. You’ll never know real freedom until you call it what it was, and face this fake news playing in your head 24/7.

People care. It does matter. It was real. And it was wrong.

So many people need the freedom of that. And all it takes is your honest, vulnerable courage.

Face it. For justice, for peace, for righteousness and healing.

You were chosen to speak this. No more lies. It’s time to realize what you carry, Light-bringer. Share what you’ve been given, and see it transform out of the ashes of your past. It matters, and no one can change that. Nothing can overcome this–no more dodging.

“Don’t you know that a midnight hour comes when everyone has to take off his mask? Do you think life always lets itself be trifled with? Do you think you can sneak off a little before midnight to escape this?”
- Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843

For the higher purpose!

M

Why Writers Never Have to Worry about Failure

They always say write what you know.

And what I know best is not my few successes, but my endless failures.

Oh, I’m a failer. I fail! Over and over. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see it!

Or just wait a few seconds.

And I’ve been doing this editing thing for the better part of 20 years, managing book edits, and failing at it big time. All the time.

I miss things every day. I miss deadlines. I forget to call. I don’t follow up. I miss the point and end up frustrating people. Or worse, convincing them to try something that doesn’t work, overwhelm them, or even shut them down.

And worst of all, I miss the point. Again and again. For instance…

I’m not qualified. Honestly, I’ve never felt qualified for this. I just love books and especially writers, learning from them, and listening, asking them questions, and walking with them.

It’s what I love. I don’t love eliminating mistakes, correcting oversights, and condensing. I do it as best I can, but I fail at it.

And today I wonder if I accepted that failure more, if the work could become more, and maybe the books themselves too.

Maybe not—maybe writers don’t want such realness and honesty. Maybe they only want to see I’m extremely skilled and competent. It’s just extremely humbling how often I’m anything but. And when I inevitably mess up, I think there may be a higher purpose in that…maybe even a useful one.

Wendell Berry says it may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. Practically speaking, if editing is my real work maybe it’s a good sign I don’t actually know how to do it.

But I think maybe my real work is being a good failer and demonstrating that very humbling reality as best I can.

Some part of me loves this idea–could be the lazy me. Or it’s the idea of rejecting that perfectionistic standard people have about professional editors. (Do I need to mention I was a pastor’s kid?)

Excellence is an important goal. But only grace can comfort us.

Can we really love people well without showing grace?

Ask your average writer what book they first loved. I’ve mentioned mine before: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved the passion of Meg Murray. She was a misfit, but that made her special, and her keen observation set her apart. I couldn’t have expressed it when I first read it as an 11-year-old, but it gave me hope knowing that the very thing that made her feel like a fool, like a failure, like a misunderstood misfit, was what made her the chosen hero.

She just had to let it out. Let it show.

We like to think of our heroes, even Jesus, as strong and capable and standing victorious on the mountaintop with the wind blowing in their hair. Why do we think that’s what a hero is when all the stories we’ve ever loved show that’s not a hero at all?

In their failure, they made us feel known, seen, heard, understood, comforted. Loved.

Everyone wants to be chosen. Isn’t it in our weakness, in our wounds and our struggles, that we most need to feel that?

I even fail at this. Which means I can probably trust this is what every writer needs, what every person needs: someone to listen and ask them the simple questions that draw them out and make them feel comfortable and accepted. And I do this every day, and it brings me something too, the very thing I’m looking for. It begins manifesting in my own life, this comfort and acceptance. This assurance of grace.

I don’t know why I got so lucky, and a lot of people think they have the greatest job in the world. And maybe they do. Maybe if they get to do this and embrace their failure for a higher purpose too, I can believe it.

Oh, and I still fail to do it, or even want to daily. I just know every day brings the choice: will you fill your own needs today or fill others? And who among us doesn’t realize which is the best choice?

Yeah, still that horrible fear of not having our specialness seen, loved, chosen, it makes us all choose the selfish way sometimes.

But don’t we also find hope knowing that the failure that makes us feel unworthy is actually irrelevant?

Is this another way to show what sacrificial love means?

We’re afraid and incompetent and selfish and lost–and still worthy of deep, real love!

We can fail to write well. We can fail to write for others. And yet success is what every finished book eventually reveals, even as they’re written and edited by total failures.

Maybe what we need most is also what everyone needs most: grace.

Maybe it’s even okay we forget this over and over. Maybe we’re always going to fail to remember it and maybe that’s why we have to read it and reread it and fail at writing it so many times before we can truly live this way consistently.

I don’t know. Maybe we all just need people willing to risk failing us, willing to risk us failing them.

The struggling, disillusioned, the weary and weak, we all need to see that failure doesn’t matter. Grace is irrespective of failure. I want to start showing that more so my writers can write freer, and maybe (hopefully) start living freer, to show others how to be freer too.

It could be only in finding failure no longer matters that we find our greatest success.

And if so, maybe we don’t even have to worry about failing to remember that.

For the higher purpose,
Mick

How to Finally Get Free of Fear and Just Write

Writers can treat their mental illnesses 
every day.
- KURT VONNEGUT

How do you hold onto your inspiration in the midst of all you face, and learn to be an inspiration every day to others?

It’s what we all want down deep, maybe more than anything else. But nothing else seems more difficult.

Everyone wants to live from their deepest purpose. But life seems to continually get in the way.

As I was writing, a bird banged into one of my big windows. Ignore it, keep going. It’s just a bird, not a person. What could I do anyway? Such a small thing in the grand scheme.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 

I go back to writing. All of us carry grief. We suffer greatly. Tragedy strikes again and again and we think, Ignore it and keep going. It doesn’t change anything. What can I do anyway?

We continually try to make the biggest hurts into small things.

Life barrels forward, full of big problems, big issues. We want to do what’s right, and it seems more important to stay focused, undistracted from the goal. In the face of pain and struggle, pressing on is a sign of strength, a com-fort (literally, “with strength”). It helps others carry on. Keeping on is how we make our lives matter most.

But even as I write those words, I sense the problem. How can anyone be an effective channel of inspiration if he won’t slow down and pause for what seems small? It may not be a distraction at all.

The world is too big, the problems too widespread. And my words are paltry, but at least I’m doing something….

I go out to search for the bird.

I look around the garden, thinking about the post I’m writing and trying not to get distracted or lose the thread. I’m trying to write against the pull to help a little bird.

But there’s something else here to find. Something I’ve been afraid of.

I finally find it under a bush. Just a little thing, broken and still. Life is completely a confusing tangle. And my fragile plans are largely defenseless in the onslaught.

White feathers and thin legs, upside-down in the dirt. I go back in to get a bag. I’ve always been a bit of a mess. Of course, I know, and that hasn’t kept me from writing, or from agreeing to teach others how to do it.

Maybe more often than protecting my fragile schedule from the “small” distractions and pricks of pain, I’m protecting my fragile heart.

I scoop it up and take it inside. It hardly weighs a thing. Its loudest, biggest moment, it’s greatest impact on anyone may have been at impact with my bedroom office window.

I’ve collected journals my whole life, filled over 30 now with scribblings, from 1984 to the present. As life has pressed in, and words have come out. The need to respond, to get things out, to catch it all and try to understand it, express it, just not out loud–this has been my major occupation. I help others write about things they haven’t resolved yet, long-past and recent, searching for clarity. And meanwhile, I’ve always struggled not to think it’s just a self-focused preoccupation.

It is and it isn’t. Both are true. And there’s a tension here, a higher purpose, and a pretty low one.

I set the bird on the counter and snap a few photos. So perfectly made. Look at the precision. Such a greater creation than my pile of journals, but the same question: How much has all of this mattered? Where’s the meaning in it? 

Everything remains unresolved. And this seems exactly what my writing is all about: how to hold things together while everything is tangled up and time is unraveling.

I’ve written searching for answers to life, to my emotional issues, to resolve competing ideas and get free of barriers. I never expected it to produce good stories or reveal meaning.

Maybe just a little meaning.

DId I miss a step somewhere? I’ve kept the pile on my desk to remind me to come back and decide what’s to be done with all this.

Everything I’d collected, all the words I tried to use to make time stand still. They never let me catch up, or finally understand my life. But it’s guided me to broken places that needed healing. Like this bird, it’s jolted me out of distraction and reconnected me to the more important thing.

I never understood how someone could live without writing–how could they manage all this themselves? All this feeling?

Did this bird have to die for me to discover greater life?

I’ve failed over and over to write what’s real. I’ve lived constantly overwhelmed by the intensity of feeling, and every moment could be the pinnacle of everything if we could just see it clearly, and capture it before the clarity fades again like a wavering mirage.

Summer is fading into fall outside the window.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st…

I can’t do this myself. I know this. Who but God can help me sort this out and take the next step?

The old journals, full of the fleeting thoughts of my unbecoming becoming, they’ve been prayers. Slowing and pausing to reflect is the work. And I’ve shirked the work often. And I live with the emptiness of that. Ignore your life and you miss the most important thing. Shirk the work and you forfeit the only way the puzzle pieces can ever complete the whole picture.

Someday you’ll be able to step back from it and see it all in its proper light. If you aren’t afraid to feel where you still fear, and seek it out with the power of God’s truth and love.

Fear (awe) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

This is the crucial point. The whole thing is one giant journey of discovery. And finding the next bit of treasure, the next reward of the next step, only comes from open-handed living.

I can’t let the rush to move on make me miss it.  If I don’t seek God in my writing time, I reject my life as unimportant, disconnected–just some events, some concepts, some people. So much loss. So much silencing of the voice of God in my life.

I don’t want to miss my next step. Paying attention is hard, and diminishing the diminutive has been my habit. I’ll never know real life if I don’t accept my responsibility to stay on the hunt. Much as I want to believe I’m untethered to this, unaffected by it and all the messy relationships everything has with everything else, much as I fear this will only make me crazier, I know this is only fear’s shadow passing.

There’s a bigger world yet to come….!

I wrap up the bird and take it back to the garden, return it for the girls or Sheri to find.

And I say a prayer for God to be with me, here in my fear. The temptation to pass it all by is so strong. I know now that ignoring it is ultimately only seeking death. Face your fears. And the reward of the effort is greater understanding.

Above all, gain understanding…If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

I go back inside and thank God for the bird, for saving me yet again. I pray for help to take this next step and I write out the words, trusting they won’t complicate it but simplify, and somehow reveal a beautiful design not my own.

I pray to keep on, seeking to find all the words he’s placed for me.

And I can do this. I can write and I can care because I’ve been cared for.

Far more than birds.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

I Got Your Writing Formula Right Here, Pal.

 

Fine. I admit it. I get frustrated by all the charlatans willing to take advantage of writers searching for a formula for writing well. There’s no law against it, of course, and I suppose there’s an argument that it’s dishonorable not to take stupid people’s money.

But come on, people. Even if someone could simply hand you a map to the land of “Successful Published Writer,” you really think it would last?

I want to say, “I got your writing formula right here, bud.” (And then when they looked, I’d throw some sand in their face while I ran away because I hate confrontations.)

But truth be told, I’ve searched for a formula too. I didn’t believe any such formula could actually exist–not one that didn’t make the bad-book problem worse, anyway. But I wanted one, and somehow I continued to believe it might exist.

Maybe all writers, if they’re honest, would say they’re looking for that perfect book recipe. A pinch of this, handful of that, bake at 450 and presto! Perfect reviews, major awards, and people begging to give you money to tour your office. 

Maybe you don’t think there’s a “paint-by-numbers” formula, or a blueprint for writing a novel in 30 days, because obviously a unique voice and style takes years to develop (and you know years is the only way, despite what you want to make-believe). But still, haven’t you long wondered, could such a recipe exist?

Thousands of enterprising writers and “industry professionals” would like to tell you it does, and they have it! But think about the impulse such “instruction” seeks to capitalize on: “If I could just find the map, the key, the shortcut to success…” 

That’s not why so many people want to publish books, is it? The easy road to success and acclaim?

Maybe it is. Recently, over 200 comments on a blog post by agent Rachelle Gardner provided a telling (if depressing) overview. We all want to stand out, prove ourselves, be seen, fulfill a call, or make people pay attention to something. We don’t all want to be seen maybe, but we pursue writing anyway (ahem), and some just know they were given a gift and they’re to share it.

It’s tempting to believe there may be a secret we just haven’t found yet. But writing well is about making the right decisions and every decision a writer makes is dictated by one simple rule: know what to share when. Figure that out–what to spell out, what not to, and when to explain or reveal, and when not to–do that and you can be assured readers will enjoy every new book you write.

That’s the formula, the essential knowledge to possess for success. There’s a longer version, of course, but basically, your trouble isn’t so much what to write as it is how.

And you’ve got to find your formula by deciding you’re going to write until you figure this out–for you and for this book. And you’ve got to decide to believe the whole point is to enjoy learning your way through it as you show up every day.

I’m sorry if you got conned into thinking it was easier. But oh well. Just keep asking the Inspirer to lead you so you can lead your readers to follow you on this treasure hunt.

Yes, the foundational principle is “show, don’t tell.” You know readers like to be shown as much as possible. But sometimes it’s better to tell something to move things along, or because it’d be impossible (or at least very difficult and/or distracting) for readers to figure that out. But which things? What criteria should you use to determine this?

Depending on your book and your purpose–you know, entertainment or enlightenment, for instance–you’ll eventually figure out what particular detail(s) and insights you can help readers imagine, intuit, or otherwise perceive for themselves using the best sparse, subtle, and/or perceptive detail(s) you’ve chosen out of all the others you could have said but didn’t.

You just keep asking yourself, Can readers sense or experience this without what I’ve written? 

And if they can, you don’t need it. Cut cut cut.

You want to believe there’s an easier way. I know. There’s no other way. You’re actually glad because it means you get to go on a treasure hunt. You’re actually glad because this post just gave you permission to look for your formula in your own work and never stop until you’ve found it.

The next thing you do is bookmark this as a reminder or write out that part just above for yourself and put it in a prominent place so you can mix it into your batter until dissolved.

Seriously, you will look back on this and remember it was when you decided to train yourself to start looking for how much your favorite authors leave out, how much they’re not spelling out for you but just trusting you to get it. And you’ll learn just what to convey with just the right detail and all the condensed insight you’ve only alluded to beneath, without overloading the reader with ingredients.

And remember, just because you saw it on the spice rack and can totally imagine that flavor in there doesn’t mean you should add it. Less is more. They want to taste what you put in there–too much and they can’t.

Don’t worry, just keep going. You’ll know more come the 2nd, 3rd, 4th draft. Just remember your job is not to spell everything out but to think through all you might get away with not saying and still convey the feeling and the meaning. And the book will be both entertaining and educational because that’s what you get when you refine and reduce to the essence.

You can do this. Remember, restraint is wisdom. Self-control is your success. Reduced, refined work will always be publishable, saleable, and delightful.

And if you find your formula, keep it and don’t share it with anyone, even another struggling writer. They have to find their own. That’s how it works. Don’t stop showing up. You’ve got this because you know who’s got you.

It’s all for the higher purpose,
Mick