Category Archives: The craft

Free Editing Help and the Secret to Great Writing

After I returned from the Northwestern Christian Writers conference in Minnesota, I was inspired and fired up to get back to my book and keep revising. That often happens after a writers conference. I’d taken a bit of a break when summer hit, but the great conversations and knowledgable speakers had me raring to go again. If you’re wondering about attending a conference near you, trust me, it works….

The class I taught at the conference is shared below, a distilled collection of key questions for all writers I called Manuscript CPR. It’s culled from my experience teaching writers how to do macro and micro edits, and it’s basically how to resuscitate a dying manuscript. :) It also just happens to contain the secret to great writing (great editing, duh!), and I believe it’ll help any writer. It did me.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to make significant progress on your meaningful and needed work this week, and all month long. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn to enjoy the process so you can continue writing for years to come.

Keep aiming for the higher purpose,

Mick

Manuscript CPR+

My Writing Process, Step 3: Read 3 Pieces Before You Start

Dear you,

With tons of help and borrowed insight, you’ve been recovering. That’s so good and hopeful. Don’t forget to celebrate! It’s involved relearning compassion for the small things, and it’s been life-changing, as well as a long time coming. Specifically, you now know you started life like so many men, crying. And like too many men, you could die denying it.

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Don’t.

These lessons naturally have required much thinking about your writing process. Which has also led to some deeper questions and considerations. But you’ve fought the nagging urge to rethink everything and undo the progress, and you haven’t tossed the management of the many details of life, which is the whole trick of getting through this better and healthier. Structure is the schedule that creates routines that work well, better, best.

But don’t forget these three simple steps in your process, especially step three.

Step one – to always go back to the start—motive. And regardless of any second thought, set out to return, submitting to what you do know: that you don’t really know where you’re going. Because you can’t.

Like everything, remembering will become easier with practice. But it’s doubtful you’ll ever outgrow the need to be reminded.

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Step two The theme you think you’re capturing isn’t what you’ll end up with. The theme will arise naturally, unhurried. Wait for it and write on.

Both of these steps are about letting go, and so is this one,

Step three – Start your writing day with three pieces of high-quality reading.

There’s no getting around this: if you’re trying to be original, you’ve got to give that up. Choose reading that’ll disabuse you of that too-common notion.

Practically speaking, this is crucial and also the easiest step. Because when you make your choices and you decide to take daily drinks from three life-giving wells, you also giving up being original in your work for the day. You read a bit and you get all kinds of new, useful food on the table to be savored.

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Here’s the thing: you’ll only become what you consume. And you can’t generate your own food. You can only share what’s borrowed because you’re not that smart. You only have what you’ve been given and all you do is make yourself able to receive it.

And in the words of John Wesley, “Oh, begin!”

(The whole quote is, “What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear, to this day, is lack of reading….And perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase…Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this….Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercise. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”)

You’ve heard this now so you’re responsible. You’ve also heard that you’re only as successful as your three best mentors, your three best friends? Well, this also applies to books. Each book is a friend to teach you, like each of these steps, with humility at the center. You come to the page empty, and then you need to be filled. You don’t write the story. It writes itself. You translate it.

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That’s no small task, but it’s a more manageable one than you started out with. Your process will always first be to let go of and unlearn all you think you have or bring. You have nothing. And when you’re empty of self, you’re ready to begin to refill with better food.

Of course, you won’t always want to! Especially when you’re feeling no good or you’re desperate to say something artful or profound. Fine. Put it in your journal. But before you get to work, get free of that. Trying to teach readers when you have so much to learn yourself (!) is like passing out free lemonade when your house is on fire.

And now I make a rule: never tell readers what they can surmise, but always tell them what they can’t. Obviously, this one takes some practice. For example, is it obvious? And if so, did you need to say that?

Writing is tricky, and if you’re doing it to serve readers, good. But set that aside. When you start, don’t try to say something smart. Go to the library. Get acquainted with the people who tried and failed and read them. When you find them, go easy on them, but now you can see what you’re to do.

Now you’re ready to begin.

You want your book to help. Good. If you didn’t, I’d think you forgot the whole point. But to get the church to move toward the oppressed and lost, and away from the corrosive effects of Christian consumer culture and churchianity, you’ve got to give up trying to convince them what you’ve got, and all that well-meaning ambitiousness. Stop selling and start buying the books that came before you. That’s where you’ll find one thing you simply must share.

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This can sound like wasting time. It’s not. Inspiration isn’t yours; you don’t claim it. The sooner you get that, the better.

No one has written your book yet or ever could. But if you think any of this is new, you’re not ready. Reestablish the right motive. Restore your faith. And recover the old lines.

God is not about the new. He’s about recovery work.

You were left to cry, and you know now this is at the core of it all–separation and restoration. It’s too late to go home again, but the search is home. The longing is you. Let that be and don’t fight.

But don’t forget it.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

 

 

My Writing Process – Step 2: “Let the Theme Rise Organically”

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”

God, save me from the productivity that would sacrifice everything you’re doing in me to chase an image of “supposed to.”

So naturally, after step 1 comes step 2. “Step 1: Set Out to Return” posits that submitting to what God is calling you to, where he’s sending, is job 1 for the writer. I see this as a journey that starts and finishes with knowing it will involve, nay, require, a return to the  beginning. Because writing is like life and art is all about recovery of ourselves. (If that seems super deep, that’s because it is.)

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Step 1 was fun to write, so I’m continuing with step 2 this week.

The second step in my writing process, which I’ve never put into words before but has gotten me thinking, follows the theme of submission and adds to it discipline. There’s the obvious discipline of showing up to write 6 days a week for as long as I have that day, but in my daily writing process, after considering the true starting place and establishing the goal to return to it eventually, there’s a specific action I have to take. And it still isn’t writing.

Sidenote: we’d prevent so much wasted time by simply not writing too soon. Many writers don’t know or don’t care about this, and maybe they simply can’t help themselves, but even if you only learn it as you write, if you want people to read your stuff, and I do, and if you want an editor to edit it (and yes, you do), then I believe the theme has to rise naturally from the story, from the character’s true plight. And that means slowing down and thinking before you dive in. *Note on the sidenote: this is also true for anything resembling memoir or personal narrative.

Which means step 2 is that you have to discover your theme, so you don’t write trying to illustrate it. If you set out thinking you already know what big truth you’re going to reveal with your story, you’ll fail. Sure, there are pro writers who can do it, but like figuring out your true identity (“Identity is received, not achieved,” as my friend Chase taught me), the theme must be discovered. The journey must be allowed to define the story and the telling of it. Otherwise the theme will be artificial, added as an afterthought.

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Theme–what your story’s about–starts as unintended but soon becomes intended. And when that happens is all about how well a writer has learned to humble themselves, silence their need to teach, and pay attention to what the story is revealing. And in the beginning, often, this takes a trustworthy outside editor or close-reader. If you have one, you know they’re gold.

As I said, it may be possible for seasoned writers to “hide the strings” with good editing, but often, a tip-off of amateur writing is that the theme wasn’t discovered so much as intended from the beginning. And often, it seems it wasn’t executed well because there was no learning process captured, no fire in that journey.

Now, go back to that prayer at the top, because this could also become a “supposed to.” But a story is supposed to teach the writer its lesson(s) first. Imagine going through something as life-altering as becoming a parent for the first time and not learning anything from it. Yet people do it all the time. We think we have to be strong leaders, use our stories to teach. But stories aren’t widgets to plug holes in people. And when you think of them this way, you’re limiting its potential for something you can start selling before the necessary ink has been spilled.

Too many of us simply don’t yet have the presence of mind to pay attention to what a story is really saying. And it’s a travesty, but it’s for some fairly obvious reasons. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to establish this.

Goodness, life is distracting. And we want to think we know what we want, but we don’t. And others want different things, and compounding complexity causes destruction. How tragic when someone simply continues pushing for their initial goal even after they realize it means others will suffer. The Bible says such poor folks are cursed (Heavy, I know, but I think of “quenching the spirit” and “woe to them” and “causing others to stumble.”) And again, happens all the time. Maybe we all do it to some degree if we justify such “winning discipline” to remain dedicated to our vision.

Is remaining undistracted and “productive” really the key to success?

Anyone could be a hardnose and prevent what could ultimately free us and countless others. What if instead we’re supposed to let go and let ourselves see beneath what we thought we knew? (Hear the deeper theme of submission here again.)

Writers want to write books that matter, which means revealing what others miss. But what if they can’t until they realize what they’ve missed? For me, step 2 involves, nay, requires, embracing the struggle for a greater discipline: accepting that no one gets to say they intended where they ended up when they set out. I think useful, timeless, inspired books aren’t intended or earned so much as discovered through sacrifice.

So the question is,

Will you commit to listening to your life?

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Commit to struggling, flailing, uncertainty, mystery, and some very unromantic trials? I believe from all I’ve read, all I’ve written, this is the only way to ultimately offer the truth. Because the primary truth any story conveys is always about struggle–and it should be.

I get it. I want things to be easier too. We all do. It’s just that you can’t see the reason the story needed telling just like you can’t see the real reason the journey needed taking until you take it. And unless you listen to your own plight, your own deep desire and greatest struggle, you’ll never know what simple thematic statement is beneath it. And that’s how your story will ultimately speak about everyone’s plight.

Don’t we all somehow know this already? It’s one of the greatest confirmations, that “Oh-wow-me-too” response. We can’t intend that; it’s a gift. If you let go of personal intentions (for your life, for your work) you’re freed to finally see and reveal universal, biblical truth.

I believe there’s no other way. (“Narrow road,” “die to self,” “walk humbly,” etc.)

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It could be that we’re made writers far more than we intend to be. But you were given a story to share and you can trust that. And when you do, you won’t have to prove it anymore. You can let it say what it wants to. You can intend to have your intentions changed and set out to find your theme, even when you think you’re supposed to know it already. It’s worth letting go of supposed to’s.

The distractions are strong, but these 2 steps–setting out to return, and listening for theme–are nearly all I needed to write. There’s just one more step I use consistently before writing and it’s a practical one about filling up before pouring out.

And I’ll share that next week.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

 

 

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

 

Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,

Mick

A Tip for Finishing

Having worked with many writers over the years, I’ve noticed that no matter what most motives us to write–personal, professional, spiritual, or emotional reasons–all writers have difficulty getting free of concerns about how their work will be received.

Some of this is justified and positive, of course. It keeps us from publishing work that isn’t up to our high standards. But standards differ, obviously, even amongst reputable publishers, so this isn’t merely about fixing errors and ensuring the sentences all flow.

The bigger concern that can be debilitating if you don’t learn to manage it, is will this prove I’m inferior and unworthy? This is self-doubt and it’s a universal for every writer, at least those who aren’t in denial. We know we’re inferior to many, many people, even writers already writing in our category, or at least we should know that. People who don’t know that end up embarrassing themselves. 

This is why I posted a question at the Higher Purpose Writers Facebook page: if no one would ever know you’d written this, would you still write it?

Sometimes the only way a writer can get their story out is to write it as fiction or to withhold their name. For more confident writers, the only way to give the story the care it deserves is to consider whether you’d still write this if no one would ever know it was yours.

The higher purpose is a matter of becoming as clear a channel for the story as possible. In other words, getting out of the way of the work. Of course, it needs your voice and your particular view and style. But you have to remove yourself first to know if writing it is necessary.

I know this will be controversial. Inevitably, some writers feel judged and resist taking writing this seriously. They feel this as pressure, as a “rule” to control their free enjoyment of writing. And if that’s you, by all means disregard this advice. But it may also be you’re in the more confident camp and need to consider refining more than the result of your work and start with the initial motivation.

Writing well is not merely about using the right words, the right sentences, considering the proper length, and so on. It’s not just about overcoming the many obstacles–physical, emotional, educational, situation, social. It’s not even about what your parents, siblings, spouse, kids, or friends did or didn’t do. All of them have failed to support your potential in specific, unforgivable ways.

But the real point here is you must not skip over any of these considerations. As you keep showing up to practice, you’ll come to the truth that you’re responsible for the outcome, and so you deserve the most grief for any failure or success. That statement will definitely be controversial. But this is why removing yourself from any shame or acclaim that may follow writing this is so necessary.

Beneath all the lesser purposes and considerations for writing is the real higher purpose. Don’t stop writing just because you don’t know what that is yet. The point is to tell your story regardless of the result or reception. It happened and it mattered, and so it exists and deserves the honor of your speaking it. Don’t let the blankness win.

Whatever you have to do to remove yourself from the picture, to get out of its way, resolve to speak the story, however poorly. You know if I’m saying this for you right now. So you’ll know it’s what you have to do. It’s for love, for freedom…

For the higher purpose,

Mick