The trick is not easy. But it’s easily understood.
How do you know what to reveal when?
Writers who know that, and can do it consistently, are unstoppable.
And one of the earliest ways we do this is simply getting into the scene.
Feel the emotions and desires of your characters and the weight of the situation.And watch when certain connections and meaningful things begin popping out.
Maybe the best way to notice and feel what’s most important in your story is to ensure there’s some good intensity in the scene. Write scenes that involve “high stakes”–i.e. lots riding on what’s happening for the characters. If there’s not enough at stake, you won’t feel it and you won’t know what really matters.
And neither will your readers.
If what to reveal when is our best goal, then really feeling the do-or-die stakes you’ve built (and augmented and rebuilt and fortified!) into your story is job one.
Job two, as Sol Stein taught me, is getting out of your own way.
Everyone’s got heroes. Mine are all bookish types. Here’s another: Steve Pinker. His new book, The Sense of Style, currently soaring up the bestseller list, defines “the curse of knowledge:”
This, the Harvard professor of psychology says, is the source of bad writing, “the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose.”
Taken as such, it’s easy to see why I’m always saying writers need to pay more attention to their reader.
Readers don’t know half as much as you think they do. So slow down.
You may have already entered the scene and understood the action that will happen. Good for you. But you don’t know the first thing of what should be revealed and concealed because you don’t know what your reader knows.
With very little exception, this will solve a lot of your initial problems. But there’s also a trick to knowing what to withhold from readers. For the most part, you don’t decide what’s important to readers in your scene. So the trick is not merely getting cozier with what readers don’t know, but focusing on both revealing and concealing.
What to say when means this, specifically: revealing the necessary emotions, thoughts and actions that define character and plot, and concealing the secret emotions, desires and actions that create the mystery and drama.
Remember who knows which is which? That’s right: the one who gets in readers’ skin best. Pinker says this is why much advice on writing sounds like moral advice, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Though there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, certainly working out what your readers think and feel is at least as essential as getting into your characters’ shoes.
Bottom line: if every story is at the heart a mystery and a romance, that drama is fueled by how artfully and slowly you revealthe secrets being kept.
And knowing what is secret to readers, and what’s secret between the characters will guide how you know what to say when.
In writing your story, you’ll come across so many distractions online, from self-publishing blogs to highly-rated writing courses, and 2-for-1 “essential” ebooks for writing with passion. But forget all that. All you need is what’s already inside you: that true passion you feel for your story. Passion is simply your greatest essential for starting a fire in someone else.
One of Sheri’s and my favorite stand-up comedians, Brian Regan has a bit where he jokes about an airline company that lost his luggage. When he went to the lost baggage counter, the employee says, “Don’t worry,” and reaches beneath the desk to pull out a little plastic case that reads “Essentials Kit.”
“Oh,” he says sarcastically. “So these are the essentials! I overpacked.”
Many writers I meet seem to have this similar dazed and confused look when they arrive at our appointment. I know they’re thinking, Did I bring everything I needed?
Just once I’d like to say, “So, did you bring your qualifications for speaking with me today?” Of course I would never do it!
You have to be careful teasing writers. We’re fragile as it is. Most of us just want to know if we’re doing it right.
And usually, we overpack.
What I really want is to hand them the Essentials Kit. Then they wouldn’t need to bother with all the how-tos and writing instruction and conferences and blogs. Whittling this writing thing down to the bare bones, the bottom-line basics, has been my quest ever since I struck out on my own. And now, one of the very few items in my kit is this question, the one I start an interview with:
“What’s your passion?”
Who doesn’t love talking about their passion? And reading about people’s passions can be just as fun. Take a subject you couldn’t care less about and if someone shares their passion for it, it can be endlessly fascinating.
Strangely, we’re attracted to what others are willing to suffer for.
I’m really asking, What are you willing to suffer for?
Something in us knows that whatever we do, whether we pursue love or money or the 7th sword of Grindol or whatever, it’s going to require some suffering. Even if it’s only getting to sit at home and watch sports all day, we know this dream of ours is going to take some doing to make that happen.
As a counseling couple I love says, in life you choose your pain. It’s suffering either way.
So if we know this, how do we employ it?
Passion. It comes from the Latin verb patī meaning “to suffer.”
I can talk a good game, but for me, suffering is right up there with sales meetings. I know it teaches me, and God uses it and can redeem it. But only a fool wouldn’t take an easier way if it was offered. Right?
What makes someone choose the harder way? That’s the question.
And every reader is looking for one thing: Was it worth it?Did you get out of it what I want and need?
Writing and rewriting is signing up to suffer. People lose more than their luggage. They lose their shirts, their health, their sanity. Who wouldn’t want a shortcut?
If you want to succeed, you’ve got to find the one secret: you’ve got to be so passionate about what you’re sharing that you know it’s going to change readers’ lives.
I’ve been privileged to work with a few of these rare authors, and I’m always amazed at how light they travel. They’ve figured out the secret. Their “Essentials Kit” is tiny because they’ve reduced and refined to this one thing.
What it’s really all about.
If you’re writing, learn this and you can save yourself much headache trying to pack in all the tools and tips and writing courses: continually reconnect with your passion at the core of your story. Remember all the love and excitement and drama you naturally feel for it, and the words that come out of you will convince me.
I’ll tell you what I’d say if I was sitting across from you, what I’m often reminding myself: Don’t worry, release all fear. This is your God-given gift for strong feeling. Use it. This suffering you endure is for your noblest cause. Turn up the passion.
That’s your freedom. You have complete permission now and forever to fan those flames, and never look back.
For when you do, you’ll be proving why our stories are worth suffering for.
As a coach and consultant to writers, I get asked one question constantly:
“Do I have what it takes?”
For over 13 years, I’ve spoken at writers conferences, always repeating the same refrain no matter what the class was called:
“Yes, you do have what it takes.”
Writers, being their nibbly-anxious selves, always wonder if their words are good enough, skilled enough, smart enough. It’s only human to wonder, after all. We all suffer from the “not-good-enoughs.”
And most of us know that’s a trap, at least on our good days.
But I still get asked this question all too often, and by very accomplished and recognizable people. Whether it’s voiced straight out at the beginning of a coaching relationship, or well into 2 or 3 books together, when you’d expect that question had been well-answered by now.
And it doesn’t make me question my ability to communicate anymore. At least, not as often.
But here’s what I’m thinking we need to do whenever this question comes up, whether it’s from outside of us or in our own minds.
Take it captive.
You know what I’m saying.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5
We can–indeed, we must–just decide to do this for ourselves, but for the others who don’t yet believe they have the power of the truth on their side.
“Hey, psst. You might not be who you think you are.” Take that right by the throat. Look it in the face. Then break it’s little neck.
Not a violent person? Don’t worry–just imagine it being infused with the truth from your eyes, the light that shines out from with you, the reality that can’t be contained that you are a child of such immense worth and power and infinite capability because you are filled with the limitless gifts of your Maker.
And you are enough because you can do anything you choose. That is the unfathomable freedom you’ve been given to be completely yourself in any circumstance and in all situations.
Practical work for Christians is greatly overemphasized today, and the saints who are “bringing every thought [and project] into captivity” are criticized and told that they are not determined, and that they lack zeal for God or zeal for the souls of others. But true determination and zeal are found in obeying God, not in the inclination to serve Him that arises from our own undisciplined human nature.
We have a responsibility to the truth and love we’ve been given. Either you recognize that as your “enough” or you do not. This is not a condemning comment but one intended to convey the miraculous freedom you’ve been given:
You have the unrestricted free choice to determine to discipline your mind–and that is what makes you enough. That gift you possess in total abundance.
Your success is not determined by whether you have what it takes. You have it.
Freelance editors are not expendable. Freelance content editors are the unsung heroes of publishing.
Though it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn, I’m not. And this idea may not make me popular among my industry friends and colleagues. Yet as publishing continues to change, I see too many good writers, mid-listers and professional authors being sold a steaming heap of monkey giblets about how to sell more books. And I think it’s high time we jumped this collection of clunkers with confidence.
The unassailable history proves that word of mouth is what sells books over the long term. And despite publisher and traditional bookseller practices, long-term sales are what authors need in order to survive.
But what generates consistent and long-lasting word-of-mouth? Is it promotions, interviews, contests or other savvy marketing? Maybe killer content? Meaningful and enriching stories? Most professionals will mark “a good read at a good price” as the way to sell books best over the long-term–and little else besides.
Okay. So the question eventually comes down to: how do authors develop the most scintillating, wide-reaching material?
Now we’re ready, ladles and gent-lemons. The one way to writing good books (and my nomination for word of the year):
Show me a “professional” who doesn’t take many drafts to develop their material and I’ll show you an amateur who isn’t creating their most widely-accessible work. (Duck and cover, people! I warned you.) And even after initial rewriting, refinement always requires some outside help, objective opinion, and more specifically, experienced, balanced objective opinion(s).
So is it hyperbole to say that finding these helpers may mean the difference between success and failure for every author?
There are many stages in an author’s development, but freelance editing is one I see too often overlooked. In fact, questions and misunderstandings seem to be increasing.
What do they really do? Won’t they ruin my story? Wouldn’t they change my voice? Why would I want someone to mess with my vision and challenge what I’ve worked so hard on?
Real, valid concerns. Actually, if writers weren’t asking questions like this, I’d be worried. There are no guarantees editing will help you (and any editor who offers that is playing you). Step back and recall how many badly written books have made it to the bestseller list without any apparent assistance from an editor’s red pen. Do books really need editing to sell well?
Literary-snobs shut your eyes: “Not really.” (support) (proof)
So if quality control isn’t a valid reason, what’s the point of hiring an editor? And who needs editing beforehand anyway, especially if you’ll be going through the editing during the publication process?
Freelance editors are a dime a dozen and the wrong one could be disastrous. To top it off, they’re crazy expensive. Let’s just get straight-up honest, here:
Do you really need a freelance editor?
First, there are critique groups. Good writers all use them. Beta readers. They can be hugely helpful, harsh and honest, professional friends.
Agents. The good ones do still content-edit quite a bit besides crafting astounding, profitable ideas out of thin air. They are often the first and only line of defense and author advocate before the infamous …
In-house editors. Despite rumors to the contrary, they do still edit. And they do a bang-up job of it too, if not as singularly as editors who aren’t required to handle multiple concurrent book-production schedules, new acquisitions, pub-board presentations, sales conferences, departmental requests for early materials and publicity pieces, and the thousands of other insipid and infuriating things in-house editors are literally bombarded with every day. And if you’re independently published, you’ll have your…
Publishing package editors. And in some cases, they’ll actually fix some words you missed. Just don’t expect them to do much content shaping, let alone character or plot analysis or smoothing. But, then, sometimes you may even have your…
Ghostwriters.These are the most evolved industry folks around. No way any “word shenanigans” are getting past these bad boys and girls of publishing.
So freelance editors. What’s really left for them to do with all these competent folks around?
I can’t speak for all my freelance editor friends, of course. But as an independent business, my goal is not to achieve “high quality,” or improve the story, or even to fulfill the author’s hopes of a completed project. My one purpose is to sell books. To do this, the author must see how they’re authentically surprising and delighting readers. That isn’t crass or unbiblical, it’s simply ambitious: it’s how the most influential authors are publishing today.
I’m a seasoned editor and some say I’m rather good. So let me challenge you to consider who will help you gain the best perspective on your book. Is it:
Someone who knows you and may be tempted to put friendship first?
Someone with a lot of experience and even objectivity, but 25-100 clients they’re carrying simultaneously?
Someone you’ve been assigned and needs you “processed” as quickly as possible?
Or someone who is free to invest weeks of professional evaluation into suggesting improvements for readability and mass appeal?
Freelance editors exist because they love books. And yes, they love successful books, because time and again they find the core of their author’s message and bring it out more fully to compel readers to proselytize about their books.
A freelance editor is your greatest chance to extend your reach and expand your writing career. With the right freelance editor, you will find a fulfilling sense of empowerment from an insightful supporter who gets you and respects your process. And at the very least, you will find new angles and depths you missed in your own work, which, in the end, will provide more compelling angles to sell your work.
So before you decide your next step, do one thing: run a simple search for experienced freelance editors. Ask them your questions and take a look at how hard they are working to balance author’s visions with reader appeal. And consider carefully the true value of investing in this powerful tool of education and insight you’re endeavoring to begin.
Could you use an unbiased coach and personal trainer in your corner?
Maybe the question isn’t, “Do you need a freelance editor?” Maybe it’s time the savvy authors recognized the better question is,
What does it take to find true inner freedom from fear?
I’ve read a lot of authors, a lot of books, heard countless stories, biographies, memoirs, novels. Countless sermons, Bible stories, tv shows, movies. Roughly estimating from the time I was a kid watching Sesame Street to now 39 years later, I’ve probably heard, watched, read and lived well-near a million stories.
And in all of them, the thing that makes them all work? It isn’t heroism or empathy or humility or perseverance. It isn’t even love. It’s all of these things, but none of them on their own.
In a word, I think you’ve got to have one more thing: fear.
What gives victory it’s power is fear, or more accurately, the conquering of it. I once thought pain was the all-important ingredient to raise the stakes. But pain seems like the child of fear, the physical manifestation of it. The father of pain is Fear and he lives in secret, I think, convincing us all that we are alone and empty and hopeless. And the thing about fear is that it doesn’t just make stories meaningful, it’s the presence of it and the depth and strength of it that makes freedom from it so incredibly meaningful in the end. The greater the fear, the greater the escape, the more worthwhile the effort seems in the end.
Fear is fearsome and powerful and there’s no getting around it. Everyone knows real, heart-pounding fear. And writers will feel it clenching around the throat as they struggle to form words out of nothing but memory. The thin shards of experience. The fear that we won’t remember it right or say it right. Fear that we’ll be found out as a fraud, a phony, a faker. And if we’re humble and God-fearing, we can add the fear that someone will be led astray, misunderstand and be lost because of our insufficient words.
Fear alone can’t make life meaningful. Living with fear is common and suffering its pains may eventually be what it takes to find joy in freedom–but there must be a catalyst to break fear’s grip. Without it, how would we ever know freedom?
Defeating the bully, the contagious virus of fear requires feeling it and facing it. First, accepting what it’s like living on the outside while everyone else looks happy and secure inside.
A friend of mine on YWG (where we talk about this stuff constantly), Tina, just posted a thought from a Ben Harper song, “living within our fear limits us to be only what our fear allows.”
It’s true. Fear’s been my jailer for years as well. I’ve feared being shunned, cast out by my conservative Christian community. Even now, I can hear people making the case for remaining in fear…
Another member, Elizabeth, said fear had been a taskmaster. In The War of Art, Pressfield personifies it as “Resistance.” Brene Brown teaches permission to be vulnerable with fellow broken humans, a secret to breaking fear’s strangling grip. And Julia Cameron has helped countless people realize “art is a spiritual transaction” through “The Artist’s Way,” on “Recovering Your Creative Self.”
My own journey out of fear has involved editing books that called me out of hiding as I read them slowly, and worked through them with the authors.
Today I see God gifting writers with words as tools of his creative work to say, “Come out. Your story matters. You don’t have to live blocked anymore. Live fully alive.”
There’s this unfolding going on with us all. And if only we’d face the fact that we’re all in this together and going around and around on this big ball with the same fears that must be shed before we can be free, maybe we’d realize the opportunity before us all and be a bit more honored and excited for all God’s promised to bring when we come to him open handed.
Rilke: “But you take pleasure in the faces
Of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
Who grip you for survival…”
You, too, can write your response. You can make fear your launching pad today. You can take whatever you were given and fashion that into the bright wings to carry you soaring out over the glassy sea. And if it’s not your time to sail high and far, if it’s your destiny to plunge down yet again, then flap and just reach and feel the wind rushing, smell the air warming and the sharp chill of the water. And rock on the unfailing waves that will embrace you in foamy arms to shore.