Category Archives: Monday Motivations

The Best Way Writers Let Go & Get to Work

“…life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
From your work, you will be able one day to gather yourself.”

– Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), trans. Robert Bly

And what is our work?

The great Spanish writer and poet Unamuno said “sowing yourself.”

“Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,” he says, “don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death.” In other words, pay attention, “and do not let the past weigh down your motion.”

***

The rain finally arrived last night. It had threatened all yesterday but skirted around us until it finally fell. Like it thought about it and finally decided there was nothing for it and let go.

I’ve always liked that phrase, “nothing for it.” With some things, there’s simply no remedy.

Sometimes, you just have to accept and let go.

The storm will soon pass and be nothing like the southeast the last couple weeks. But all gratitude to God, it’ll help with the fires.

And like the rain, our work is to let go and get on with sowing ourselves into others’ lives.

Forget the past. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Rather than pointing fingers, or trying to figure out who’s deserving, or how best to rebalance others’ perspectives, we have to simply get to work. There’s no one inferior or superior. Everyone is in need.

The superior way is letting go of your perspective and taking someone else’s.

That’s what writers are: apprentices forever trying to master that skill. Get out of your own limited, inferior point of view and into another’s. That’s the essence of good storytelling. Even before Jesus told stories to teach lessons, stories’ lessons taught him. Stories are how humans make meaning of life. Imagine yourself in another situation and body and your perspective is changed.

Spiritual mastery is a heart humbled by a broadened perspective.

The inferior life is the unenlightened heart. It isn’t joyful because it isn’t at its true work of letting go and sowing into others. It believes lies about its own superiority, typically based in external circumstances.

Imagine if compulsory blood tests revealed the truth of all lineage through DNA’s undeniable story. When truth was known, there’d be no basis for the lie of supremacy.

***

As fall arrives, we begin making changes. We break out the warmer sheets and fans and air conditioners are replaced with space heaters. Nature forces us all to change. We have little choice; the weather chooses for us. No one escapes it, the inevitable. Our only choice is to prepare. The superior choice isn’t resisting but preparing well.

Truth is unchanging. All we can do is respond to it well, allow it, even welcome it. For writers, allowing life, receiving and not getting bent out of shape by life is part of the work of sowing. Forced to change, respond, prepare, if we’ll accept and focus on preparing well, we’ll see we’re also given more life to capture. And our chance to write will come if we can choose to be patient, let go, and let it rain.

One day, you will be able to gather yourself.

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

All Writers Be Crazy: Some Thoughts on Why

To write is to struggle. You know this, or at least, you sense it, though to write you have to ignore it often.

The struggle is endemic, so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, people who don’t write have no idea, no frame or context for this. And so we often wonder why it’s so hard and if it’s only us, and we don’t admit our deep unrest.

Madeline L’Engle famously said, “If you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” It’s good advice–you need to be in conversation, in relationship, with your work and your process, and that does need to become a personal, private, and protected connection for you. I think this is easy to understand for Christians who already know the source of inspiration, and the struggle to remain connected with Him.

Like talking about an invisible savior who lives and interacts with us in our hearts and minds, it can sound mmm, a bit “cra-cray.” Writing is an invisible friend of the seemingly crazy and capricious variety, like Bing-Bong in Inside Out.

 

Maybe this is a reason so many people love Bing-Bong (and Jesus): we all know deep down our lives depend on friends we have to use our imagination to see and get to know. 

Of course, no one wants to make too big a deal about this. After all, there’s the very real, corporeal world we have to contend with as adults, and everyone has to grow up and let their imaginary friend die at some point. Right?

Well, writer, Christian writer, what can I tell you? You’re special. 

People aren’t going to respect the fact that you keep a little notebook to write down all the crazy you hear between the lines of conversation at the grocery store. Normal people–let’s call them “muggles,” even though most are harmless and not like the Dursleys…

They don’t care so much about yours; they just have other jobs and callings. And it’s a very good thing too, since we have to live and get our plumbing fixed and find exterminators and things.

In my experience, writers all seem to get this difference fairly intuitively, maybe because this relationship with invisible people started a long time ago for them. We all met a character in a book at some point who was so real, it couldn’t just be the creation of a writer. But it was. And writers beget writers this way all the time.

Until we realize that it isn’t writing that makes us cranky and crazy, or even the muggles, but our own internalized perfectionism and that voice of fear we all hear, we’re prone to the debasing dismissals we tend to get from “the real world:” What have you published? Aren’t you finished yet? Why would you write that? 

Again, they don’t know what they’re doing and don’t mean anything by it (you’re not actually doing anything useful, after all). But they can inadvertently stoke the flames of those hellish fears we all have. But while we’re still breathing, we have to learn to sidestep and dismiss these distracting, irrelevant, unhelpful “real-life” concerns.

Self-doubt is poison to your system.  It’s universal and all authors, even famous, multi-published writers feel it. But the successfully productive ones also deal with it and have learned how to sidestep and disarm it. You don’t get to complete your mission until you learn how to do this.

Step one is to value your process and understand it’s a vulnerable relationship, just like every other meaningful relationship in your life. This is a primary relationship you have to show up to cultivate every day, no matter what other considerations or responsibilities you have.

Step two is to feel what you feel, but deal honestly with it and don’t let it derail you. Express it to a fellow writer or group of writers and don’t try to go it alone. Writing friends are essential.  Know it’s normal, and you aren’t strange for having an invisible, intangible, ephemeral “friend” who helps you and inspires your life.

And step three is to keep showing up every day. Just do what you can manage right now and let it be enough. A great book can start with 5 minutes a day and grow from there. But only a writer who knew it took dedicated time, and learning to say “no” to many other worthy pursuits is able to make the practice of a process their priority. 

Pomodoros can make you more productive. And strategy and planning can keep you producing, because this is all about doing it and not just talking or thinking about it. But in the end, knowing you’re not alone in your imaginary world can calm the voices of fear and that’s what can convince you it’s worth the time and sacrifices to commit.

In fact, everyone has an imagination, so everyone knows what it’s like to hear these voices. Writers are just those who’ve made it their business to face them and choose the right ones to listen to.

And that’s a specific understanding and skill you can enjoy for a lifetime. :)

8 Reader Questions–8 Parts of Speech

“The new writer found she wrote best thinking of her readers’ questions–and how!”

 

This sentence contains all you need to know about writing a story. You may want to commit it to memory.

I recently discovered something I think may help new writers remember everything they need to write amazing stories quickly.

Usually, beginning writers simply write what speaks to them and never consider what readers may want from them. Instead, I teach writers they’ve got to love their readers, so we must consider what our readers, not we ourselves, need to know. 

Now, sure, the goal of editing is considering what readers need, but to writer better and faster, you’ve got to learn to consider those questions while you write, as part of your process.

That’s the goal. So what I’ve needed is a method for explaining that.

Because if you’ve ever written or edited anything, you know it’s incredibly difficult–there are so many things to think about. You’ve got to break it down into steps so you can avoid breaking down yourself.

Anyway, that’s what I want to do in this post.

So look back at the opening sentence. It’s got the 8 parts of speech–noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection. No big whoop about that, right?

Well, prepare to have your mind blown, my friend, because it’s my contention that there are also 8 correlating “big reader questions”: Who, what, how, where, when, why, really, and who cares.

I believe you can answer all your readers’ questions and learn to quickly craft satisfying stories by remembering these simple 8 things. These are the only things that matter to your readers (and if you’re an aspiring writer, you can hereby skip all the beginner tools and tips).

If you can simply remember the parts of speech, you can remember what you need to do to write a great story:

Nouns – Subject (“Who”)

Verbs – Action (“What”)

Adjectives/Adverbs – Descriptions (“How”)

Pronouns – Point of View (This is “the question asker”–more on this below)

Prepositions/Conjunctions – Context (“Where” & “When”)

Interjections – Drama (“Why” & all-important “Who cares?”)

The first words here are easy. Subject-verb. You remember those from English class. Technically they’re all you need to write a sentence–and all you need for a story is a character doing something. The subject and their action answer your reader’s first questions: What and Who. 

“What’s this story about?” “What’s going on?” “Who is he?” 

Obviously, your hero and the central action are the most important tools to draw readers in, so if you’ve got someone interesting and you’ve got interesting things happening, great! You’re on your way. But to keep readers reading, you’ll need a little more than that.

The real secret is in making readers care. And that’s done by considering a deeper question: “How?”

“How” is more specific: How does my character feel? How is her deep fear best revealed? How have I matched her deep desire with a strong opposition to give her a compelling plight?

Think of those how questions as the adjectives and adverbs in a sentence. They answer readers’ questions with specific details. In your story, you need particular, unique details to add color to your scenes, and not by using adjectives and adverbs, but by involving the senses. Grounding readers in a specific time and place requires being able to smell the coffee or the grass, or feel the humidity of the South from your characters’ childhood days. You’ve got to make details sensory by showing, instead of telling.

Any writer worth her calling knows to kill your adverbs and adjectives wherever possible. But what they do in a sentence can remind you to answer the question of how: How does it feel in this scene?, i.e. How is she affected by his rejection?, or How does the office culture contribute to his discontent?, etc.

Now it’s better to use a stronger verb than an adverb, and it’s better to show what your character does instead of describing how he feels. Just remember that adverbs and adjectives remind us we need select, specific sensory details to express the emotions and feeling of scenes.

Pronouns (he, she, it, they) represent point of view, who is experiencing the story. This is important to consider and beginning writers struggle with this, but your point of view character is the readers’ filter and question-asker, so have her ask good questions. And if it’s your first book, use third person limited, not omniscient. You can branch out next time. And remember to always finish the scene before switching characters.

Prepositions (of, about, with, in, etc.) and conjunctions represent all the connections and relationships between your character and his world. Think of them as representative of the context of the story, specifically where and when. Like the frame around the artwork, they remind us to consider everything relative to the character and his situation. “Where are we?” “When did this happen?” and, “Where have I shown the internal and external stories connecting?” This fabulous question will greatly enhance the significance of your story. The connections you draw out are what make your story mean something, which leads to the last question:

Interjections answer the question why does this matter?, i.e. Who cares? Interjections (“–and how!”) represent the emotional drama you always want to increase. It can be big and loud, or quiet and intense, but it’s got to get readers engaged! High emotional stakes make the story matter more, so interjections remind you to ramp up the impact.

And there you have it. How to answer readers’ eight big questions by remembering the eight parts of speech.

Of course, to give readers the best emotional experience, you’ve got to learn to answer only the questions readers need answered. Which is to say you’ve got to balance this and get out of the way of readers discovering what they must answer–which is why you should never say “it felt like…” or “it was [this or that].” No! Bad writer! No cookie!

The last question, “Really?” is, What makes this story believable? Your specific sensory details make the story life-like and unique. But realize it’s also in the work you do to suggest and hint at many answers you let the reader figure out themselves.

A follow-up post on that will probably be needed. But with patient practice I believe you’ll start feeling the balance that works best and be churning out killer stories quicker and that connect better.

Just keep showing up to play….

(If you found this helpful, let me know. I’m currently compiling my first ebook of the “Best of Monday Motivations for Writers” If you have any thoughts or follow-up questions, email me through the form below. And in the meantime, get writing.) 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

The Head vs. Heart Debate

The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices new experiences.

– Henry Ward Beecher

 

An author friend of mine told me last week that when her kids were in their early teens, they were in horrible competition with each other and they argued all the time. She said she had to figure out how to make them work it out. So she made them roommates for six months.

And it worked.

Suddenly, inspiration struck me—this is just like being a writer.

My own struggle to write is like an internal competition between my head and my heart. Both think they have the best solution, but both need to get beyond the fighting to see the value of their own disabilities. What I’ve needed is to figure out how to embrace both sides of my personality as loved and needed.

If head and heart are naturally at odds with each other, it stands to reason that learning to write well would absolutely require figuring out how to become a patient parent to both sides of your demanding self.

In that moment of inspiration, I imagined my brain as an older brother named Wisdom, who’s constantly telling his little sister Grace, the heart, what to do. He’s smarter, maybe wiser too, and he keeps Grace safe. She’s impulsive and needs Wisdom’s help, but he often needs to back off and give her some space. Grace may not know exactly where she’s going but Wisdom’s going to have to learn to let her lead at times so she can learn how to get them where they’re really going.

My problem has been that Wisdom doesn’t know where the story needs to go, but Grace doesn’t want to listen. Sometimes Wisdom imagines leaving her behind and writing the book himself, and sometimes Grace fantasizes about overpowering him and making him eat dirt. Both their frustrations are valid, but without both of them, they won’t get anywhere.

Grace is ignorant. And the first problem is the squabbling. Those who’ve made their war past-tense somehow figured this out—and felt it out—the way to becoming a patient parent.

And in that flash of inspiration I knew if I want to finish this novel, I need both Wisdom and Grace to sign a treaty. Both of them will have to send their best selves up to the head office and get down to the heart of the matter.

I thought of Pixar’s genius film, Inside Out, those emotional characters at the controls. They needed to learn to be rational. And I’ve got to be reasonable and empathetic, logical and loving.

Basically, Grace and Wisdom will have to marry.

(Wisdom is suggesting I abandon the brother/sister metaphor at this point. Grace is feeling a little uncomfortable too.)

I need them to fight together as they go up against the dragons. They need each other. Their love must go beyond reason, beyond feelings. They’ve got to battle it out and find a connection that goes beyond romantic affection or mutual appreciation. They’ve got to find an unbreakable fusion.

Maybe that’s what amazes us about a well-put-together person or a well-put-together book. They represent a fully embodied humanity—they fit together, their head and heart complement each other. They’re balanced.

They’ve worked through the self-doubt and self-consciousness to become self-aware, and finally, self-possessed. Their internal role-wrangling has been ironed out, and their head and heart play nice.

Maybe at some point, they realized they had a passion and particular gifts, but the heart needed some coaxing by big brother brain to put her faith into action. Maybe she also needed some discipline to stay on the tracks and not get distracted.

But now they can co-lead. And both can feel in charge. And both can believe God is with them and they’ve got this. 

(Thanks to my fabulous memoirist friend, Lyneta Smith, for the inspiration.)

For the higher purpose,

Mick