Category Archives: The craft

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

A Word on Writing Progress: Loving and Leaving the Fear Box

So there’s an image I’ve wanted to explore for a while.

(It’s not this one, though I like it…)

 

I call the image “the fear box.” (Not that picture. The mental image I have. Clear on that?)

It’s made of a type of protective, soft material, but very strong. We’re all raised in this sort of cage, and it’s a God-designed, natural, humble place where we recognize our limitations. We all like the feeling of comfort that the thick, restrictive walls give us. The boundaries of the box are so certain and sure and we instinctively know the fear box is good and needed.

For newborns, there’s nowhere safer than the fear box.

As we grow a bit, the boundaries begin to feel like restrictions. Our limitations aren’t as limiting anymore, though we know we still need the box…just maybe not so much or so tight as before. If we’re given help modifying and expanding the box, we’re able to grow and not get in too much trouble.

The many people who promote the benefits of the fear box—its safety, its certainty, its traditional trustworthiness—say you can know that you know the box is for your good.

And it is. You know it. You’ve lived in it your whole life.

But if those box-benefit extollers might also say that people who’ve left their boxes are called “outsiders,” and in a voice that conveys their true feelings, tell you how wrong the outsiders are and how much they need to be made right, you’ll feel a sliver of hesitation. But you’ll agree, of course. The lost need to be found. They need to know the wonderful safety and security you’ve known.

But there’s a love growing in you, a light that can’t be contained. And that sliver of doubt will let some of that light out. And eventually, whether the next day or after several years of fighting with yourself, you know you must leave the fear box.

And what will be more important than any other reassurance as you muster your courage to finally leave, is not how much you need safety and security and traditions, but how love is what’s in you saying no to the fear box. And if you can let that love out now and learn not to restrict it or temper it, it will guide you to your new home.

If love is there, nowhere is unsafe.

***

Another week has passed and very little writing on the novel was completed. The usual work and distractions kept me busy, but again, I could have made time, reserved some for it.

A major hang-up, maybe a main hang-up for me has been imagining the response by well-meaning, lovely church people, people I respect.

Some might say I should respect them less, get irreverent about everything that isn’t God. I don’t disagree. I’ve worked through many barriers and claimed the courage and empowerment to go where I need to and speak what needs words.

But I need to say Christianity isn’t perfect perfectly, winsomely, with the fragrance of Jesus. And this has kept me locked in fear.

Christians hold many things precious—churches, pastors, leaders, teachers and teachings, worship, the Bible, The Church, Jesus, God, Holy Spirit, doctrine, creeds, Christianity itself, and even Christian culture. All the resistance I know I’ll face, constantly reminded by a lifetime of experience, has kept me endlessly revising instead of printing.

It’s fear, obviously. And what works best on fear is not frustration, condemnation, shame, or any of my usual responses. But only love.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

***

Comfort comes swiftly to the loved.

It rushes in to prove yet again no pain or fear can break trust.

That trust is life itself.

The bigger, stronger, higher love will always help,

wipe the tears, and receive the feelings as precious,

wordless truth from the heart, the love box,

from which flow the springs of life.

Fear and pain don’t change reality, only love does.

Love is what’s true,

the ever-present reality to take all cares and keep them.

Love secures, always, always holds safe.

Come what may.

“Oh, love, never let me go…”

***

Must we be willing to break with the old to allow for the new?

Does progress require a sort of irreverence for tradition?

Life is built on an inherited box of foundations and advances. Respect them all. But also risk disrespect and “rebellion” to build what’s needed now.

Every author before you has felt this fear. Whatever this book will add to life, you’ve got to trust that love goes with you. It strengthens and empowers whoever is willing to receive it.

We can face everything that may come.

We can venture out.

Safe is where love is.

 

Praying you’ll know you’re held safe as you seek 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

The 8th Question Expanded–Believability

The exceptionally observant reader may have noticed that last week, in my big post, 8 Reader Questions – 8 Parts of Speech, the question of “Really?” is set apart and above the others.

That’s because if there’s one cardinal rule for storytellers, it probably has something to do with this–make sure it’s believable.

And while there are several key elements to focus on for that, all of them taken as a whole are what make the story work, and convince the reader this could have–or really did–happen.

A lot of beginning writers don’t seem to want to go to all that trouble. Ensuring every element–character, plot, and description–are working to answer the readers’ question, “Really?” It’s hard work! And yet, isn’t this one of the most important, if not the most important, part of telling any story? Who can deny? This deserves some care and time.

Bestselling novelist of over 100 books, Dean Koontz, says even the wildest plots can be made believable through good character motivation. Love, jealousy, self-preservation, revenge, etc. Most of us sense this is true. I can’t think of one thing we nutty humans wouldn’t do for the right reason, and many times for even the wrong one.

But characterization is the key to believable motivation, and that’s why believability really comes down to your first reader question: who? Character. If I believe the reasons this character feels as he does, I’ll go to hecktown and back to see him get what he wants.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than believing he has reasons to feel as he does. But this is arguably the most important place to start. Listen to your reader asking “Really?” and try to answer that doubt with as much proof of this hero’s reasons for feeling that way. And as you already know, you’ll want to show it, not just tell it.

The thing I see most frequently with new writers, and the thing I’ve even done myself as an inexperienced novelist, is trying to get readers to believe our characters really, really want something just because we told readers he does. That’s not good enough. That’s not believable proof. Like I did, I think most writers sense something isn’t working, but they aren’t sure what it is. Typically, it’s this. We know characters have to want something badly. But we forget to show the reasons for that wanting.

And this is the reason for the prolog or the flashback after getting to know the character and see them being heroic or compassionate in the opening scene. After convincing readers they’re likable, it’s important to see and experience why their motivation is believable. Readers need to feel it and experience it themselves, so we’ll flashback to the car accident that stole his wife, or we’ll find out that’s what the crazy prolog was about–someone had stolen her whatever, so she’d given up until now.

Some will say do not do prologs. Others will say never do flashbacks. I say, if you can figure out how to show readers your characters’ motivation not using those, then go for it. Most beginning writers are going to need to use one or the other. Just keep them short, dramatic, and to the point.

Major believability issues can arise from characters who aren’t flawed in some way or who don’t show reasonable fear or doubt. We’ve got to believe they’re like us, but they push through it. So show us. Too convenient plot points, and inaccurate details are other obvious biggies. Don’t protect your characters with too many convenient necessities, and don’t neglect your research. I’ll never forget my roommate in college watching Dances with Wolves and being incensed: “There are no mountains in Oklahoma!”

Sometimes you’re going to take creative license and knowingly strain that famous “suspension of disbelief.” But plenty of authors, including Koontz, have made all sorts of crazy seem believable. And if you believe millions of sales of their stories, people have found their characters believable.

I know you want to share this–please feel free. Also, the ebook “The Best Monday Motivations for Writers” is coming soon. If you have questions or comments, I’m always happy to hear–email me through the form below. And meanwhile, remember your motivation, and write… 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

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