Tag Archives: commitment

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

Committing to Real Progress

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” 

– Philippians 3:12

I like to think of myself as one who does not accept second best.

But I do it all the time.

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Not from others but from myself. And not physically, but in commitment, in discipline to this vision I’ve carried for so long.

I often give up, I do.

I prefer the comfort of “good enough.”

Sheri and I drive to the mall in peace, insulated from the need and struggle all around us. We’re taking the opportunity of a free weekend night to hit a couple sales and see if there’s anything we like among all the things we don’t need.

It can be so easy to believe nothing is forcing me to push forward.

The girls are happy at home, reading and practicing music. Things are good here. Why risk messing that up with sticking my neck out for idyllic principles no one would understand?

The fears can whisper so comfortingly and convincingly, they sound like my own voice.

CafeJadeBut they’re not mine. They belong to the world shrouded in darkness.

We park and walk past all the retail stores overflowing with new items, the mall already advertising Christmas with garlands and canned music and a giant tree of lights. The other shoppers of all types and ages prove it’s safe to assume no one else here needs any of this either.

There are too many people here. Too many people accepting the convenient comforts and forgetting that progress and true satisfaction only comes from the opposite. From the inconvenient and the uncomfortable.

In this world of ease, doing the harder thing has become the right thing.

Why do I know this so firmly? I don’t own the insight; like all I know, it came to me. I didn’t even ask for it, but it was given to me, like everything I possess. I’m a steward of this and all I possess, and I prove myself a poor one time and again.

I’ve seen true need and it’s in many of these people’s eyes. I want to help them, speak to them. I want to use well all I’ve been given.

I know the gifts that came to me from parents, family, teachers and friends are to be shared and that requires commitment most of all. I know this. So why don’t I commit? What am I afraid of?

And it comes to me as I stand before the giant Christmas tree that the answer to this question is the secret to progressing in my vision and calling.

music-center-christmas-treeThe answer is simple: because it requires sacrifice.

I know all things truly worth having involve sacrifice. To be disciplined, we have to sacrifice. How many of us know it? How many of us will actually do it?

Those who can commit to practicing what they preach are the ones who will succeed at changing lives.

The alternative is wasted chances, stagnation, common imitation and apathy. Am I not pretending I don’t make this choice every day?

But hang on. For many years, like a typical Type-A, I’d hear this advice and think, “I have to try HARDER!”

We don’t need to try harder. We need to get smarter. Remember where the call came from. Remember who you serve.

Love. Love is our motivation. We forget to call on the source of our true strength in our weakness.

If I was braver, I’d stand in front of this bright tree and tell them all, “You are loved and you are called! But you’re loved and called as broken and fallible human beings. Don’t try to fill that need with things, with prestige. Your need isn’t for stylish things or favor, but for love and the purpose only love can bring. Then when you work or play, it’s truly productive, and sacrificing all of this doesn’t matter.”

That’s it. I need that reminder too. Without our Inspirer, we can’t help anyone. We’d only be giving them another distraction. We need patience to forget about immediate results, and let completion and perfection remain far off. But we can joy in the progress, even if it isn’t visible right away. We can commit to the longer journey, the promised fullness underway that’s only beginning.

And we can speak what we know as creatives, reminding ourselves and others that success is inevitable with enough time and commitment.

Maybe this is my first gift of Christmas this year. To commit to the best and discipline ourselves to sacrifice for what really matters—this is how we’ll help others with the resources and wisdom we’ve come to possess, our true possessions to offer through art that reveals its wonder and beauty.

I know I’m being crazy. It’s not like I think shopping is evil or everyone here is bad. And it’s not that I really want to speak to the strangers at the mall; I’m just being theatrical. But part of me really does want to.

But I’m starting with you. And maybe you’ll speak to your people, and together we can beat back some of that noise we too often mistake for ordinary comforts, this easy normal life here in the west.

The one that whispers to forget your dream, your calling. The one that undermines and snickers. The one that’s from a dead-end, defeated, dying world.

And you and I and all the rest of the people just walking around, we need to be reminded sometimes that we all belong to the light.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Writing for All the Wrong Reasons

Do most writers start writing because they want to teach readers something? I think I did.

Then when I realized writing is So Very Hard, I shifted to hoping I might merely bring some people hope.

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But I started to realize no one without hope really reads books. So eventually, I think maybe I was only writing for myself, as a natural response to the world around me. Not to teach, or even bring hope, but to live receptive to the work.

Had I finally grown up enough to write for the right reasons?

It’s not that I’d become selfish–I think I started out that way and became less so I continued. But I think one can write for himself and still be aiming to inspire, educate and bring hope. It’s the wanting to do all that that seems to have made it, well, sort of agenda-driven.

Many books have an agenda, no doubt and sometimes I suppose that’s fine. But I get so tired of it. And it takes time to get real and drop the act, the false beliefs that tell us life can be simplified and boiled down into its basic parts. Anyone can write something and ship it out without taking the time it needs to be refined into the subtle, balanced flavors it needs to represent real life and stand up to the questions and valid arguments against its acceptance.

(Of course, those who need to hear that most are too busy publishing junk to listen…but never mind.)

DSC_0013Flannery O’Connor said that to expect too much from our writing is sentimentality, and such softness eventually leads to bitterness. I tend to think she was right. Optimism about teaching readers something or about people’s warm embrace of our refined work will not lead to warm cheeriness. Nevertheless, despite the garbage some readers and writers prefer to gulp down whole, O’Connor’s realism helped her accept that it’s hard, and with one eye squinted she said she was able to take it as a blessing.

That sounds a bit Ecclesiastical to me: “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11)

Embracing that we can’t do a darn thing about much of reality may seem like pessimism on the surface. But it’s true and the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it (O’Connor again). What’s more, people won’t start reading the books they should simply by believing they should or by some Pollyanna positivity.

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Only if we look at our work honestly and give it the time it needs to mature can we embrace reality, and have an influence in changing it.

So toward that end, I offer some inspiring thoughts for you to take into your work week and mull over. These are from my own grappling with reality, clutching onto many things, and eventually letting them go again…

When I reveal what a reader needs to figure out himself, it ruins the mystery and cheapens my story.

Of course editing is subjective. But until I     consider  the many ways to say one thing, I don’t know the best way to say just what I mean.

Every writer has the right, the privilege, the duty not to explain everything. It is a writer’s core value that identifies which things are which.

This dedication to the refined truth, the veiled beauty, the carefully obscured mysteries to be discovered, it’s what keeps me writing. I wonder if maybe it’s what keeps us all writing, after all. And removing all that stands in its way, and committing all we have and are to remaining attuned to the Inspirer, isn’t this the great, all-important reason to write after all?

If I can only dedicate to the “lifestyle of invitation” in all of my life, to receive like the trees and the plants that turn their leaves up to prepare for the sun, waiting in that posture regardless of rain, clouds or storms…

If only I can be ready for the searching, for the waiting, to capture all the blessing that’s given… Isn’t that balance worth a lifetime of service? Wouldn’t that be the passion matured that I want in all things I love, open and prepared to speak the beauty, the truth, the justice to life, and to right the wrongs with the words….

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” ― Flannery O’Connor

Why We’ve Got to Learn to Say No

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Below, The Living Novel: A Symposium, 1957

I think no matter who you are, no matter how you grew up, every Christian writer struggles to say no to others.

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Some may learn to say “no” readily. But many writers start out avoiding saying no to people at any cost. We’re avoiders and pleasers. We may say “yes” initially only to avoid the inevitable confrontation, then say “no” later by avoiding the situation.

I’ve done it regularly. Habitually. And I’ve seen it done for years.

But everyone who writes has a unique call and so must rise above this.

And in my experience with Christians, we rarely, if ever, acknowledge the essential importance of saying no.

Oh, we say no to sin. And to anything deemed “questionable” or unsafe. But to other Christians? To the church or (God forbid) the leadership? That might not reflect well on our presumed holiness.

Churches don’t give out gold stars for saying no.

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People who don’t go to church can get away with it. Some may have first found permission by leaving. Yet how many are saying no to the wrong things or in unloving ways?

The point is, we need to learn how to say “no” well, and our model human opposed both the typical Christian and the disengaged and hardened folks alike.

He said a lot of loving no’s to people. And often.

He said no—in love—to strangers, friends, crowds, the disciples and Pharisees—in other words, to everyone.

Why is this so important? Because unless you can say no in love, even well-meaning Christians can create barriers between you and God’s will.

Saying yes means nothing unless you can also say no. Only “no” can correct and refocus people when they’ve gotten off track. Only “no” can move the attention away from its wrong focus. And only a loving heart can use no to affirm the goodness and love inside the opposition.

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Unfortunately, “no” seems so ignored among Christians today that most can’t handle the slightest hint or whisper of it. Now we have to treat adults as children and instead of “no,” offer a firm “thank you for understanding why I can’t serve at that event,” or “God bless your commitment. I’m already giving elsewhere. I appreciate your graciousness.”

If only that was acceptable.

Years ago, I set out to help Christian writers say “no” to the forces that opposed their higher purpose. I thought I’d be fighting the godless consumer culture. Instead, I’ve found the greatest opposition can come not from culture but from the church.

If you’ve had trouble saying no, you’re not alone. And you need to get alone to yourself for at least 30 minutes. Take a notebook and pen and go imagine your future 10 years from now if you can commit to the vision God put in your heart for you to write. Write down what you see.

Imagine it and then believe that one day soon, that will be you, successful.

That is who you are going to be.

Circumstances do not dictate this. People do not dictate you.

God is vision-caster, the Great Imaginer, and when He gives his called artists a vision, He’s saying that one day, it will be your day. But if you never commit to it, and especially to saying “no” to the ungodly demands, expectations, unspoken rules and implicit requirements placed on you by a restrictive church or family or culture, it will never be your day.

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We can’t sacrifice our God-given vision for a person or an image or a church. We must use our gifts for the Person and His image and the Church at large.

If you’ve failed to say no in the past, repent and move forward. Claim your gifted strength and know that every failure along the way is one less you have to make now.

Mistakes are necessary; they’re how we learn to value what we eventually gain.

But we’ll never get to where He’s called us to go without imagination and belief.

If you will go and write the vision, you will see where you will be. And you will know you can not quit.

You have to go get it.

So decide to believe. And He goes with you. And there is no fear because fear is not real. Fear is choosing to respect doubts as greater than the future reality. It’s believing things that are not or may never be true are true. That’s insanity. Fear is a choice; we can chose not to fear.

You can simply choose instead to believe the real vision. Choose it and own it.

As Tozer said, there is blessedness in possessing nothing. Yet a vision is a pure gift, and possibly for artists, our primary possession. You can have this vision if you have focus. And you will have it if you don’t quit.

But the first step before anyone else will believe this vision is you believing it.

So all that matters is, can you say “no” to say “yes” to your vision?

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If you’re ready to jump, the 30-Day Story Course starts Friday. Four lessons, four evaluations by me. $500 $99

The Quality of Your Thoughts

It’s often spouted as conventional wisdom that anyone can have a great idea. What makes a great book–like a great company or invention or system–is the work. The commitment and unique persistence applied to making that idea fly.

It sounds so true it has to be true, right?

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that some people have greater ideas, and more of them too. And what’s most astonishing about that is that it’s for the very same reason they achieve great work.

Why do some people consistently have greater ideas?

First, because they’ve worked hard. They put in the time others didn’t. When the questions came up of whether they were wasting their time and throwing money and relationships and hobbies away for this, they blew right by them. They might have considered those things, but they didn’t stop. That made them keep learning while others didn’t. First foundation for success.

But a very close second, and the one you don’t hear touted nearly as often, is that in the process of blowing by all those questions because they were too busy actually working, was that the quality of their ideas naturally grew progressively and empirically better. Their thoughts moved beyond the standard ones. The basic ones. The early-work considerations. They left all that behind and started thinking of questions that led to ideas most people never get to.

Why? Because they kept going when others asked, Why should I work so hard without any assurance of pay off?

It’s no shame to start there and ask that question. But what you have to know is, it’s a beginner question. Once you accept that and keep going, you’ll see it’s a ruse, a clever deceit that keeps most people small and uncontributing. Under control.

Want to contribute? Risk wasting your time on what you love. You’ll stand out by your commitment. But even better, you’ll begin having better ideas more often.

And then you might develop a habit of an unsurpassed quality of thought. You might inspire others to push on because you’ll have shown this truth and embodied it. You’ll have contributed to raising someone else’s quality of thought, not to mention their quality of life as well.

Books are written from books. Lives are made by other lives. Thoughts are improved by other improved thoughts.

If you want to write, never question your investment in books. Instead, maybe question whether you’re investing enough. What other investment could have such an unbeatable return?