Category Archives: Writing

Don’t Sit Down in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You hear the lie, don’t you?

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

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

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

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

FTHP,

mick

 

What to Do When You Suspect It’s Not Enough

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

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

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

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

You’re not enough.

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

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

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

The vital question, of course, is what now?

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

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

Hey, welcome to the writer’s process!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believed this was what made successful writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the higher purpose!

M

How Professional Writers Get Unstuck

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.”

Hilary Mantel

 

Before we go any further, let’s get rid of that pesky assumption buried in the title you’re afraid to fully claim as a “professional writer.”

“Professional writer” does NOT mean a writer who gets paid to write. A professional may get paid, or they may still be struggling to turn their work into a money-making endeavor. “Professional” simply means writing is your profession; it means you’ve professed that this is your primary pursuit. Do that, and you’re a professional.

So now, as a professional, you should know that the main trick, your primary skill in this profession is getting unstuck. The main thing that separates the professionals from the amateurs is this one difference. A professional, as pretty much every writing guru on my shelf has said (Lamott, King, McKee, Pressfield, Maass, Shapiro, Gardner, L’Engle, Koontz, et al), treats writing as their job.

Sometimes you’ll like it, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you won’t.

The way to become professional is to treat writing like the job you show up for, every day, with at least one day of rest. This trains you to take it as it comes. To “play it where it lies.” If that thought’s stuck in the weeds, well, you take your machete and your wedge and just try to get it back on playable ground.

The other thing about being professional no one ever told me is that when you get stuck–and that’s a when, not an if, especially if you’re writing every day–you’ll need to back off and assess the situation. If you’re prepared with this acrostic, you’ll have a much easier time:

Unplug. Notice. Slow down. Taste and see. Use your senses. Check fear. Kick judgment out. = Unstuck

U – Unplug from the internet, social media, entertainment, even the music. Seek quiet and don’t turn the devices back on until you’ve written.

N – Notice your world around you and pay attention to what’s influencing your heart and mind. There are always multiple factors involved in any moment of time, whether you’re perfectly balanced and thinking clearly, or unbalanced and need a coffee refill first.

S – Slowing down should be first, but I find it impossible to do before unplugging and noticing what I need to take stock of in my situation. The Christian life is all about getting beyond the circumstances influencing you to trade your salvation for a pot of stew, a pot of gold, a pot of raving acclaim. Slowing down needs to be every inspirational writer’s primary setting.

T – We’re all familiar with the scripture verse “taste and see that the Lord is good,” but when you notice what’s affecting you, do you also notice the beautiful leaves, the sound of the rain, the softness of the light? Or are you too unaware of all you have to be grateful for? A writer is someone who’s awake first. That’s how you wake others.

U – Use your senses, all six. If your coffee is strong as mine is, it’ll help. What is that color dripping from the leaves reflecting the soft light? How is the breeze warm and cool at once? But most importantly, the sixth sense, the inner sight: how does it move you to sense God in all he’s still creating for you to name, Image-bearer?

C – No one wants to leave the safe road, but caves don’t exist except in out-of-the-way places. And the cave you most fear to enter is the one that holds the treasure you seek. Did you think being a professional would mean anything less? If it was always easy and well-lit, everyone would be riding this roller coaster. Most get off.

K – “Kick” implies a little violence and it’s intentional here. Judgment will keep you safe and small your whole life if you let it. We Christ-followers have become masters at it: “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and definitely don’t even think about that.” You want to write? Quit with the rules. You’re gonna have to risk offending even yourself. Remember, forgiveness is a blank check you write yourself first. Don’t apologize; you’re a rebel with a cause here. You have infinite permission in the sacrifice you’ve received and agreed to promote with your life.

When you do all of that–Unplug. Notice. Slow down. Taste and see. Use your senses. Check fear. Kick judgment out–you’ll become a professional writer who knows how to get unstuck when, not if, it happens again.

The joy of this process is in the wisdom that it’s never any different. It’s always a choice to remember what you know and go forward into the places others fear to tread. Monsters be there, yes, but so do incredible riches. The riches of what this dusty old checkers game is really about.

Get in there and get your hands dirty, my friend. I promise you won’t regret it.

Happy Monday.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”

 

What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.

fern

Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 

Conventional.

Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.

DSC_0026

“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,

Mick

How Embracing Pain Can Prevent Jerkitude

I’m special. I know you’re wondering how I know. But I’ve always known, crazy as that sounds.

In fact, I suspect most people who haven’t experienced big, deep pain probably agree with this. And anyone who has experienced a massive life event that brought them deep pain, they’ll probably confirm it:

Not suffering pain makes you special. Since life inevitably brings giant hardships, having so far somehow escaped proves I’m special. All the myriad pains life could have brought, and maybe should have brought, I’ve managed to sidestep. That obviously makes me fortunate, right?

Or maybe it makes me pitiably common.

Having never experienced great pain, I often think I shouldn’t have to. I think I can avoid it through planning, cunning, skill, and plain inborn specialness–in other words, luck. And at least until something painful enough happens, I’m likely to go on believing in my good fortune and being special.

And like most who’ve been spared, I believe a bunch of crazy things about why. One of my favorite, almost sacred beliefs is that my life should continue this way and progress without much struggle, effort, or especially pain. The longer I go without it, the scarier it becomes, and it embarrasses me to admit this, but I don’t necessarily believe it because I think it’s true, but because I don’t want to admit that it’s false.

Oh, but I know pain is coming whether I accept it or not….

After my freshman year of high-school, I went for a run one summer’s day. Remembering what the football coaches called “hell week” was coming up, I thought I’d try to get in shape. I hoped taking a few weeks to work up to the physical demands would help me avoid some of the hellishness I’d endured last season.

Somewhere around the third week of training, I rounded the corner where I usually turned up the juice to sprint for home, and there was nothing in the tank. I’d increased the distance little by little, but today my noodly legs burned and I was drowning.

If I slowed, I’d never make my goal. I could try again tomorrow, but I only had so many days left, and I’d missed several already. I hadn’t pushed like I should have. I’d never get this chance back, but as my momentum began slowing, I hit the mental wall.

The combo of physical exhaustion and the psychological exertion amplified it into something I’d never felt. That stab of new awareness remains with me to this day, awakening and clearing off everything but the flash of inspiration:

Embracing this level of pain is what everything most worth having in life will require. This is what commitment means.

I have no idea why it broke through my foggy stupor in that moment, or why it was so indelible. And unfortunately, it was a mere blip in my well-ingrained system of pain-avoidance and denial. It’d be several years before I realized rejecting this wisdom was the source of every jerk. But I’ve never regretted experiencing it when life has brought a new, exquisite anguish my way.

I’ve read countless stories of people fighting back after accidents, a fire, a child’s death. Such disasters convince me it’s no big loss I can’t run anymore. My feet can’t take running, but I still push myself to face the discipline it takes to grow. I know every great advance of civilization has required great pain. Why should my life be any different?

But part of me still believes wholeheartedly it should be, because I’m special. And if only everyone could be spared like I have, well, life would be one big 1980s party all the time, just like it’s supposed to be.

Obviously, this dangerous, unexamined belief can’t continue. It has already caused me untold problems. If I took but a moment to notice the fatigue of fighting not to see it, I’d realize this.

Am I truly unaware of how damaging it is? Is there a better definition of a jerk than one who believes he’s escaped pain because of his specialness?

If I could only see all the extra pain this false “specialness” causes–to myself and others. If I could see all the missed, prevented growth because of this evil belief. …

“It is only in the heat of pain and suffering, both mental and physical, that real human character is forged. One does not develop courage without facing danger, patience without trials, wisdom without heart-and brain-racking puzzles, endurance without suffering, or temperance and honesty without temptations. These are the very things we treasure most about people. Ask yourself if you would be willing to be devoid of all these virtues. If your answer is no, then don’t scorn the means of obtaining them.” – Dallas Willard,  The Allure of Gentleness

Do I habitually scorn pain? I may like to sound borderline masochist, but I shun just about every type of suffering, which ultimately only causes more. Is this one reason I seek out safe, imagined pain in stories and entertainment–because choosing purposeful pain is what I need most?

Maybe, in this culture of shallow pursuits and unrelenting selfishness, some people need stories to remind them of the need to choose purposeful pain? Should it be any wonder so many apathetic, depressed, and medicated people suffer for the lack of meaningful pain, the kind that brings growth and must be chosen?

“All we need to do is make an honest and thorough effort to discover what is right and wrong, good and bad, and, when we are convinced on these points, then simply go out and face life for what it is worth.” (Allure of Gentleness)

Why would I think I can escape this difficult fact of life? Should I try to write, live, or do anything without realizing my greatest task is first to understand what every hero must accept about this life and this impulse to flee all pain?

The plain fact is, the pain isn’t the problem so often as running from it is.

There is pain we can choose to face, and there is pain that is chosen for us. Neither comes by random luck. And no pain is improved by not facing it and accepting it as an opportunity to grow. I can’t continue living until I learn this. I have to get this simple, seemingly-impossible lesson between my ears before anything else.

I believe in God, the Almighty Creator of all heaven and earth. I believe he is pure, sacrificial, unconditional Love. Therefore, what challenges me most is always for my good. What causes me to struggle most is always what I need most.

It’s not about seeking out pain, or even welcoming it. But neither can I continue to hate it if I truly want to understand its higher purpose. Like exercise, it’s never completely pleasant, but the day will come where the incredible struggle will seem to fall away, and what’s left will be the exhilarating feeling and the knowledge that pain is not the fearsome enemy I feared.

Facing this is how we grow. That’s certain. How else would we recognize its true value? What else but pain is so important to us, so convincing, so unavoidably, regrettably, intractably interwoven with our existence? What else but God gives life such meaning, weight, and purpose?

Is there a greater, more motivating force in our lives than pain?

And is there any more important decision than to learn to face it well?

For the higher purpose,

Mick