Tag Archives: critique groups

The Writer’s Cross: Why Writers Need Community

It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.

It can get into your skin.

imgres-2

So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.

Have you noticed?

Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.

Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.

This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.

But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.

And things start to get dark.

Waking Up Dead

Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.

8382_1_miscellaneous_digital_art_epic

They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.

Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.

How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.

Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.

So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?

How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?

The Persistent Question

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.

Like Gallagher.

gallagher

When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.

And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.

It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.

But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.

And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.

And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.

It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.

And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.

 

Carriers of Our Cross

We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.

People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.

People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Samwise knew.

There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.

And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.

They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write. 

We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?

Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.

The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.

Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.

But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.

Have you thanked your community today?

 

God Doesn’t Want Your Book (Yet)

Is a book only as good as the feedback it receives? I've made this claim in my "benefits of membership" at my site, but I think this is one of those questions that’s really hard to answer definitively.

Can a book be written without receiving direct feedback? Of course. But will it be as good a book as it could be?

Doesn't it need the shaping of outside opinion in order to really shine?

I don’t know if it’s possible to live in a vacuum. I’ve never done it. And I’ve never seen a book without at least some outside influence. But I’ve seen plenty without enough. And they’re usually not very well presented. They lack perspective. The author simply doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And so he writes the best he can and thinks he’s done. And then maybe he publishes it and people read it.

And it doesn’t sell much. And that's because it doesn't do much.

Sure, some people may like the story and even be influenced by it. Maybe some even say they really connected with it and like how personal it felt and it helped them see their lives more clearly.

That's the rare book that can do that without any help.

Publishing a book without having a long acknowledgments page is premature. When you have a full acknowledgements page, then you're ready to publish. We all need a lot of help—both before and after the writing—if for no other reason than that if it was up to us, we'd always sell the vision short.

And largely because we can't see it. That likely isn't our fault. We don't realize how important our stories truly are. We can’t see how much the vision is worth. Or how drastically it could change us in the process if we allowed it to be influenced and shaped by other trustworthy mentors and confidants.

How many people are told that they are the primary reason God gave them the vision for the book in the first place? I believe some writers never hear that, the truth that could make all the difference in their work and lives, because they didn't seek trustworthy opinions about the vision. And that's what I'd give my entire collection of books on writing to put a stop to, once and for all.

The truth is, despite all the misinformation and well-meaning speculation, God gives endless inspiration to those who will receive it, and it's always first and foremost for the recipient (Exhibit A: 1 Samuel 3). And maybe sometimes it’s not for others at all! But so many well-intentioned people have this notion that God only loves us for what we do, and if we’re writers or we're in creative work, then that must mean we'll be more loved if we "submit" to sharing it.

And that is simply garbage.

Is it time you took out the garbage? What vision have you received? Do you believe that message is for you? Hold that thought. Don't do anything with it yet. Don't even think about sharing that vision until you've let it clean you up a bit. It's taken me 10 years of writing my novel for me to realize this: love is not dependent on anything but our bold, guilt-free acceptance.

Forget what may or may not happen later. God doesn’t want your book (yet).

He wants all of your heart.

And for no other reason than because that's all you really have to give.* 

 

*Oh, and he also gave you that heart. Hold that thought too.

Progressive Publishing Program, Part 1: Finish Your Book (for Free) with a Writing Coach

Some offers are just hard to believe, aren't they? 

The day I came up with the idea for a "progressive publishing program," I didn't believe it either.   Images-3

But here's a confession: I’ve always been something of a skeptic. As a small(er) babbler, I remember seeing the commercial for the Tootsie Roll pop and I determined to prove them wrong. I stuck with that thing until I licked the stick clean. I probably have some undiagnosed OCD, and coupled with a near-religious devotion to Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers during my newly-verbal years, my ability to persevere through difficult tasks that I enjoyed was virtually assured.

Of course, my mom would tell you, I was one headstrong little snot. I stomped my defiant foot into the deep shag carpet more than once. And as corporal punishment was something of a Christian duty in the 70s, I learned to withstand much pain. 

At school, I followed my own beat stubbornly, even learning to use my spankings to make my punishers cry. But something stuck. I learned self-discipline. And today I use it every day, to edit, write, and not coincidentally, to help authors edit and write.

Research shows that for those who want to write a book, finishing is the #1 barrier. Estimates put it that over 80% of American adults want to write a book, but it turns out life can get in the way. And I could use competition, the TV-addicted childhood, California slacker thing, or my Gen X label as excuses.

Or I could write myself a different story. Images-1

There are plenty of stories for all of us to choose from. But eventually we all need to recognize it's our choice to chose the one most worth fighting for.

Commitment isn’t all we need. But it's like, 9/10s. It may be true that obsessing gets you nothing but ulcers, but devotion is the main defense against the enemy of all great books, this enticing fruit of distraction. Greedy salesmen and barking self-publishers purport to want to help you, but do they care how good your book is? What's in it for them to help you not just publish, but sell well? The vision you initially had for your book when you imagined it finished, is that what you have? Or are you in danger of straying from your path? Opportunists have sprouted up everywhere, even in Christian corners, to prey on your flagging devotion. And they're very convincing.

"Congratulations! You finished writing! Now it's time to publish! Trust us, we're professionals."

Maybe you've noticed the decline in book quality. Or typos. Or simply what Stephen King calls "fast-food books" that bypass anything nourishing and go straight to the bowels. I think they're going straight to authors' heads, making their brains fat and slow, convincing them they can publish bestsellers as quickly and easily as, well, passing some fast food.

My theory, and it's just a theory, is that the major problem is undisciplined authors. They may not tell the lies, but they give them power by believing them. And they sell out their vision before a better book is given a chance to be born. Either too distracted, untrained, or afriad of never reaching the shelves, the majority miss their chance of connecting and selling well.

A glut of entitled sell-outs is dragging down the art and literature of publishing.

And why? Because they believe the hype. A brainless machine can publish your book. The real value is in the wisdom to know what's required to publish a best-seller. Are best-selling books always great books? No. And no one can predict success. But there are common characteristics in the authors who write well and sell well. The easiest way to make money in publishing is in selling false hope. And it costs far less to give people what they want than to commit to high quality work (what they really want, trust me).

If you've got a different kind of story, maybe it needs to be published as a great book. Maybe you are one who should choose a better way.

ImagesYou can do that and make a stand. But you'll also need others around you who believe in that goal really, really stubbornly.

Look at how best-selling authors do it. My newsflash for you after having worked with many successful authors over the past decade is that the good ones committed to the idea that valuable work costs much. They sacrificed for it. They sought out professionals to ensure the highest quality and before they published, they decided they really, really wanted to learn to write and edit well. They learned to tell a story. Armed with this, they managed to wait, to learn to edit, to research the market and others' books, and put themselves through the paces to pull together a refined vision, instead of selling it for scrap.

Choosing a different story than the self-publishers' hype is a new first step to becoming a great author. And only those with the determination to finish well will ever sell a great book.

Stay tuned…part 2 tomorrow.

(Oh, and in case you're wondering how many licks it really takes, I'll tell you over in the forum at the new site…)