Category Archives: Some writing reality checks

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 Writing Means Abiding

Of course, I’d heard the word for years.

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Discipline.

But as a lifelong rebel, I’ve always associated it with restriction and not getting what I wanted.

I gave my mom the hardest time trying to train me. It’s a good thing I turned out so awesome so I can prove how hard she worked.

Discipline is like editing. Mom was my first editor.

I was making—ahem—garbage every day and she cleaned me up.

The reason for discipline is simple. There’s no other way to create what’s good.

There’s no big difference between behaving well and writing every day. The reason we have to write every day is because it’s the only way to start producing what’s good, to be disciplined by the work. And without writing every day, we forget what it feels like to really live in the work.

I know this truth in my bones. I want to do it. But I often don’t.

It’s hard. I forget how important it is for what I really want. And I’m awfully lazy.

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Try this: hold your hands over your eyes for one minute, then open them. What happens? They need to adjust before you can use them again, right? They get used to the darkness.

Writing is like that. When you haven’t used your eyes in a while it takes time to remember how to see.

It takes time to remember how to write when you don’t do it at least a little every day.

There’s always this gap between what we want to say and what we know how to say. And practicing every day is absolutely the only way to close that gap. It was true with walking and with learning to speak and play a sport or learn piano. It was true with everything hard Mom had to teach us to do.

You miss two days of writing and it’s like missing 2 days of exercise. You have to climb that much harder to get back into it.

We know this.

Yes, take Sundays off. But never skip a weekday or Saturday.

That’s what we need first. Not conferences. Not gurus or books. Not editors or a computer or even a good idea yet. Find your answers. Then write what you found.

You are what you eat. If you stop eating or all you eat is utilitarian casserole, then what you’re missing out on is taste.

Sure you can live that way, maybe for longer than you think. But you’re in real danger of forgetting what flavor is.

Bite into life. And write it.

a woman and her chicken
Consider the devotion of a woman and her chicken…

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the keeper of the vineyard. My Father examines every branch in Me and cuts away those who do not bear fruit. He leaves those bearing fruit and carefully prunes them so that they will bear more fruit; already you are clean because you have heard My voice. Abide in Me, and I will abide in you. A branch cannot bear fruit if it is disconnected from the vine…”

–John 15

There’s a key word in this famous chapter between the “love” and the “fruit.” It’s an unusual word. You’re given love, you want to bear fruit. And nine times each, Jesus uses the words and connects them with the word, the one word he uses 11 times:

Abide.

Some translate it “remain,” Peterson called it “making yourself at home.” But the word entails action, and it’s really about the activity required of all of us: discipline.

Discipline. It isn’t restriction; it is freedom. It is how we get what we really want.

We stay.

That’s the work. 

And as we stay, disciplining ourselves to abide, to remain, he prunes us. He edits those he loves. It’s so simple. Why do we make it hard?

We get tired. We forget. We have to get back into it.

Don’t let discipline scare you. It’s for you.

You can trust me. My mom taught me this.

Doubts and Distresses be Damned

The difficulty of consistency in writing is greatly exacerbated by authors fearing that the situations and characters in their heads aren’t quite unique enough or imaginative enough. And this angst can effectively kill an author’s enjoyment of the daily work.

The mountain of their vision seems too high to climb.

Yet let them close their eyes to the hill and simply take in the next step–the single situation before them to be captured–and I would be willing to say there is no longer a problem.

No situation an author faces is any more difficult than this. And no scene is trite in itself, just as no author or story is uninteresting; there are only dull, unimaginative, and uncommitted authors.

No dilemma an author can write could possibly leave readers unmoved if it is fully and imaginatively presented.

And if an author has delighted readers once, she can do it again, doubts and distresses be damned. 

– adapted from Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande.

 

Do You Need an Editor? The *Definitive* Post

There’s a misconception I’d like to put to rest.

Freelance editors are not expendable. Freelance content editors are the unsung heroes of publishing.

Though it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, I’m not. And this idea may not make me popular among my industry friends and colleagues. Yet as publishing continues to change, I see too many good writers, mid-listers and professional authors being sold a steaming heap of monkey giblets about how to sell more books. And I think it’s high time we jumped this collection of clunkers with confidence.

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Wheeeeee!!! Craaaap!!!!

The unassailable history proves that word of mouth is what sells books over the long term. And despite publisher and traditional bookseller practices, long-term sales are what authors need in order to survive.

Check. (Thanks, Google.)

But what generates consistent and long-lasting word-of-mouth? Is it promotions, interviews, contests or other savvy marketing? Maybe killer content? Meaningful and enriching stories? Most professionals will mark “a good read at a good price” as the way to sell books best over the long-term–and little else besides.

Okay. So the question eventually comes down to: how do authors develop the most scintillating, wide-reaching material?

Now we’re ready, ladles and gent-lemons. The one way to writing good books (and my nomination for word of the year):

Refinement. 

Show me a “professional” who doesn’t take many drafts to develop their material and I’ll show you an amateur who isn’t creating their most widely-accessible work. (Duck and cover, people! I warned you.) And even after initial rewriting, refinement always requires some outside help, objective opinion, and more specifically, experienced, balanced objective opinion(s).

So is it hyperbole to say that finding these helpers may mean the difference between success and failure for every author?

I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.
I do this for the money, prestige and power. Said no writer ever.

There are many stages in an author’s development, but freelance editing is one I see too often overlooked. In fact, questions and misunderstandings seem to be increasing.

What do they really do? Won’t they ruin my story? Wouldn’t they change my voice? Why would I want someone to mess with my vision and challenge what I’ve worked so hard on?

Real, valid concerns. Actually, if writers weren’t asking questions like this, I’d be worried. There are no guarantees editing will help you (and any editor who offers that is playing you). Step back and recall how many badly written books have made it to the bestseller list without any apparent assistance from an editor’s red pen. Do books really need editing to sell well?

Literary-snobs shut your eyes: “Not really.” (support) (proof)

So if quality control isn’t a valid reason, what’s the point of hiring an editor? And who needs editing beforehand anyway, especially if you’ll be going through the editing during the publication process?

Freelance editors are a dime a dozen and the wrong one could be disastrous. To top it off, they’re crazy expensive. Let’s just get straight-up honest, here:

Do you really need a freelance editor?

First, there are critique groups. Good writers all use them. Beta readers. They can be hugely helpful, harsh and honest, professional friends.

Agents. The good ones do still content-edit quite a bit besides crafting astounding, profitable ideas out of thin air. They are often the first and only line of defense and author advocate before the infamous …

In-house editors. Despite rumors to the contrary, they do still edit. And they do a bang-up job of it too, if not as singularly as editors who aren’t required to handle multiple concurrent book-production schedules, new acquisitions, pub-board presentations, sales conferences, departmental requests for early materials and publicity pieces, and the thousands of other insipid and infuriating things in-house editors are literally bombarded with every day. And if you’re independently published, you’ll have your…

Publishing package editors. And in some cases, they’ll actually fix some words you missed. Just don’t expect them to do much content shaping, let alone character or plot analysis or smoothing. But, then, sometimes you may even have your…

Ghostwriters. These are the most evolved industry folks around. No way any “word shenanigans” are getting past these bad boys and girls of publishing.

So freelance editors. What’s really left for them to do with all these competent folks around?

I can’t speak for all my freelance editor friends, of course. But as an independent business, my goal is not to achieve “high quality,” or improve the story, or even to fulfill the author’s hopes of a completed project. My one purpose is to sell books. To do this, the author must see how they’re authentically surprising and delighting readers. That isn’t crass or unbiblical, it’s simply ambitious: it’s how the most influential authors are publishing today.

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I’m a seasoned editor and some say I’m rather good. So let me challenge you to consider who will help you gain the best perspective on your book. Is it:

Someone who knows you and may be tempted to put friendship first?

Someone with a lot of experience and even objectivity, but 25-100 clients they’re carrying simultaneously?

Someone you’ve been assigned and needs you “processed” as quickly as possible?

Or someone who is free to invest weeks of professional evaluation into suggesting improvements for readability and mass appeal?

Freelance editors exist because they love books. And yes, they love successful books, because time and again they find the core of their author’s message and bring it out more fully to compel readers to proselytize about their books.

A freelance editor is your greatest chance to extend your reach and expand your writing career. With the right freelance editor, you will find a fulfilling sense of empowerment from an insightful supporter who gets you and respects your process. And at the very least, you will find new angles and depths you missed in your own work, which, in the end, will provide more compelling angles to sell your work.

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So before you decide your next step, do one thing: run a simple search for experienced freelance editors. Ask them your questions and take a look at how hard they are working to balance author’s visions with reader appeal. And consider carefully the true value of investing in this powerful tool of education and insight you’re endeavoring to begin.

Could you use an unbiased coach and personal trainer in your corner?

Maybe the question isn’t, “Do you need a freelance editor?” Maybe it’s time the savvy authors recognized the better question is,

“Do you want to sell books?”

Editor to Author: Letter to a Memoir Writer

Dearest Author,

I've been thinking about worth lately.

What's your story worth?

At a recent writers conference I taught a workshop on how I saw publishing changing. Modern publishing, the only time in history when we've had separate "markets" for books, has begun to fracture and redistribute. I've shared several times about how The Shack has shifted things. It isn't just a book, of course, it's a bridge. And those bridges are inevitable because it isn't only spiritual people or Christians who recognize God as creator.  

Blue Like Jazz came well before it and created connections between the Christian and secular markets. Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God made some connection points before that, similar to how Eat, Pray, Love did more recently, from the other side of the spiritual divide. Several spiritual/worldly, secular/sacred books have become best-sellers as bridges in the long history of such books since the beginning of print, and some people have traced this line back to the best-selling book of all time: The Bible.

The Secret. The Purpose-Driven Life. The Alchemist. The Celestine Prophesy. The Late Great Planet Earth. Pilgrim's Progress. Books you've never heard of have sold over 30 million copies: Steps to Christ by Ellen White, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, late-19th century Congregational minister and advocate of the ever-intriguing idea of "Christian socialism." Even Nikolai Tesla wrote about his life a true spiritual man and world-renouned scientist in My Inventions. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy by Dante, written in 1304, has "sold" more than anyone knows and we have no idea how it or any of these books have changed readers and the history of spiritual thought, becoming seeds for the trees of countless theologies.

But of course, we know this is what books are–seeds. And this is what they do: define life and defy death.

"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So this story that's a part of you, that is you, that defines your work and all of your effort and sacrifices to share it completely (or as completely as possible) for others to use–what's it really worth?

Don't answer. You can't. Simply try to see the fullness of the question clearly. Continue on…

Do you know where your worth is really found?

Yes, in God's ownership of the life and love he's created you to embody (1 John 4:7-12). His ownership, creating, protecting, guiding and infusing of his great, unchanging spirit into us. He dies that we might live (parents always understand this principle). And we die that others might live through our sacrifices. This is the daily work of writing.

Do you know what that is really worth?

Intimately known and held, seen and heard and helped in every way, this knowledge is invaluable, isn't it? We can talk of worth and value, and shift our understanding of that from copies sold to readers influenced, but it's the knowledge a reader will have by the end of your story that makes what you're doing truly valuable. And this understanding of how God fills us and dies for us is the greatest wisdom, the most valuable in the world. And if you are practicing that, that makes what you're doing invaluable.

I want to give you, as a witness of your discovery of that unchanging love, my invaluable opinion on it, my affirmation that you've been seen and heard and that what you've written down is completely worthy. And with your assurance that it's been well established and others will see it and respond, you can continue, knowing it's incredible and invaluable. 

So do you see what your story is really worth?

Because there's no true price tag you can put on it. There's no proper estimating the value of my work, my seeing it, or others' receiving it either. It's in-valuable. We have to simply trust together that whatever comes of it is just a small piece of its fullest value as a seed for God to use, and not at all connected to the worth of what you've written, or what I've done to help. I know you've sacrificed and given for your story, and I've been brought into the processing of it, but regardless of how it will be published and the realities of our modern marketplace, you must know:

What's your story really worth?

I remain your solid co-laborer in the process of delivering these invaluable words. Never assign its worth to money, public perception, publication, or anything else. Your heart is here, and that's established and it's something you have written definitively, and just as we have agreed together at the outset here, others will when they read it.

We don't know how it will all play out. But I'm on your side and not looking for specific outcomes big or small. Don't think in terms of what's "fair," but decide you will pay with your life what's necessary to give to this project. What you give is directly proportional to what that seed will be able to produce in readers. And in terms of return and profit, I believe Cohelo is right: the universe will conspire in our favor.

So what's your story really worth?

 

Your Loving Editor,

Mick