Tag Archives: writing

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

Writer Pitfalls: When You’re Too Ambishish to Fishish

The hardest part about writing a novel is to fishish. 

– Ernest Hemmingway

I began this novel when our oldest daughter was 1. I’m still not done. In a month, she’s headed to high-school. 

When she was done eating, she’d wave her hands and say, “Fishished!” She wasn’t, of course, but that didn’t matter. She had important things to do. And only a monster could say no to that face.

I wish I could tell God I’m fishished with the book today. I’ve got way too much on my plate and I can’t see how I’ll ever get to it.

Sometimes, maybe many times, I have this automatic response: I don’t want to get all burdened with it again today.

And then of course, immediately comes the guilt.

If I don’t show up to write, if I avoid it and let other more immediately gratifying things take its place, aren’t I abandoning my readers? What else would you call that? Sometimes, most times, I don’t realize that’s what I’m doing. I simply don’t want to get pulled into the vortex of unsolvable problems again, this twisted, complex puzzle of thinking through all my characters’ struggles and concerns, and how to form them into a cohesive, engaging story.

So much about writing is so hard. The truth about the characters and their best way forward is hidden beneath so much good but common stuff. Choosing what to share is hard—what even is the criteria?—and also how to keep it all straight and keep from getting frustrated with the paltry progress. We’re all on our own in figuring this out and deciding what’s most important (and most interesting) to share. It’s a chore just to keep looking, keep showing up day after day.

Margaret Atwood said, “a word after a word after a word is power.” And Neil Gaiman said, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” I like best what Steinbeck said, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” He wrote that to himself in his own writing journal for The Grapes of Wrath, which went on to win a Pulitzer, of course.

I learned this lesson at the kitchen table in junior high when I had 8 classes and homework in each one. My mom moved the stack of books off to where I couldn’t see them, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about all I hadn’t done yet.

That was how I finished.

We’ll never know what we could have found if we’d only kept going. New revelations always come. We know this but we get overwhelmed. The solutions will come, and they’ll come in the familiar but also from the wholly new as well. A completely different bush will flower in the wilderness. But we won’t see it until we’ve worked to get right up next to it.

We’ve got to just focus on what we can do in a day or we’ll never find the way out. The scope of the vision and the work yet to do is always too overwhelming.

And Hemmingway could have been a bit more encouraging. Rick Riordian seems to have realized this when he said, “the best part about writing a book is finishing it.” That, I can believe. I just don’t know how I’ll finish yet.

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to contain everything—where would I put it anyway? What’s truer than all the books that say “you’re already enough” is, what we already have is enough to get what else we need. We’ve got to know the truth, have faith, that all we need is stamina, the great, irreplaceable persistence—and what we don’t have yet, we will get it when we need it. Or we don’t need it.

Maybe the problem is related to perfectionism. Perfection is a mirage I’ll keep falling for until I accept I’m going to end up with a book that’s an oversimplification and doesn’t live up to all my hopes and dreams. It will be less than that and different than I expected, but that will be good enough regardless of what I or anyone else wanted. I’ve got to release expectations and appease myself with achieving merely a caricature of reality.

A book is always less than real life, and that’s a big part of its appeal and value: its very limitations. Refinement means reduction.

 Can I accept that and give up trying to fit every idea in just because I like it?

Maybe every writer has to work to the point of failing to manage all they’ve dreamed in order to know which elements / storyline / theme is the one absolute necessity. Maybe at the very end of our abilities is the balance between what’s new and what’s conventional. Accepting limitation is part of the journey, like the end of a favorite story of mine, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Let go the bright dream of perfection. Happiness and your very survival will demand it. You can’t have everything. Some won’t get pinned down this time or maybe ever. It’ll get away from you; that’s okay. Let it go. Decide to be okay never gaining what you hoped and maybe you’ll finally learn to receive something better.

And who knows? It could be that’s the only way a writer ever knows they’re fishished.

For the higher purpose,

Mick

All Writers Be Crazy: Some Thoughts on Why

To write is to struggle. You know this, or at least, you sense it, though to write you have to ignore it often.

The struggle is endemic, so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. And yet, people who don’t write have no idea, no frame or context for this. And so we often wonder why it’s so hard and if it’s only us, and we don’t admit our deep unrest.

Madeline L’Engle famously said, “If you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” It’s good advice–you need to be in conversation, in relationship, with your work and your process, and that does need to become a personal, private, and protected connection for you. I think this is easy to understand for Christians who already know the source of inspiration, and the struggle to remain connected with Him.

Like talking about an invisible savior who lives and interacts with us in our hearts and minds, it can sound mmm, a bit “cra-cray.” Writing is an invisible friend of the seemingly crazy and capricious variety, like Bing-Bong in Inside Out.

 

Maybe this is a reason so many people love Bing-Bong (and Jesus): we all know deep down our lives depend on friends we have to use our imagination to see and get to know. 

Of course, no one wants to make too big a deal about this. After all, there’s the very real, corporeal world we have to contend with as adults, and everyone has to grow up and let their imaginary friend die at some point. Right?

Well, writer, Christian writer, what can I tell you? You’re special. 

People aren’t going to respect the fact that you keep a little notebook to write down all the crazy you hear between the lines of conversation at the grocery store. Normal people–let’s call them “muggles,” even though most are harmless and not like the Dursleys…

They don’t care so much about yours; they just have other jobs and callings. And it’s a very good thing too, since we have to live and get our plumbing fixed and find exterminators and things.

In my experience, writers all seem to get this difference fairly intuitively, maybe because this relationship with invisible people started a long time ago for them. We all met a character in a book at some point who was so real, it couldn’t just be the creation of a writer. But it was. And writers beget writers this way all the time.

Until we realize that it isn’t writing that makes us cranky and crazy, or even the muggles, but our own internalized perfectionism and that voice of fear we all hear, we’re prone to the debasing dismissals we tend to get from “the real world:” What have you published? Aren’t you finished yet? Why would you write that? 

Again, they don’t know what they’re doing and don’t mean anything by it (you’re not actually doing anything useful, after all). But they can inadvertently stoke the flames of those hellish fears we all have. But while we’re still breathing, we have to learn to sidestep and dismiss these distracting, irrelevant, unhelpful “real-life” concerns.

Self-doubt is poison to your system.  It’s universal and all authors, even famous, multi-published writers feel it. But the successfully productive ones also deal with it and have learned how to sidestep and disarm it. You don’t get to complete your mission until you learn how to do this.

Step one is to value your process and understand it’s a vulnerable relationship, just like every other meaningful relationship in your life. This is a primary relationship you have to show up to cultivate every day, no matter what other considerations or responsibilities you have.

Step two is to feel what you feel, but deal honestly with it and don’t let it derail you. Express it to a fellow writer or group of writers and don’t try to go it alone. Writing friends are essential.  Know it’s normal, and you aren’t strange for having an invisible, intangible, ephemeral “friend” who helps you and inspires your life.

And step three is to keep showing up every day. Just do what you can manage right now and let it be enough. A great book can start with 5 minutes a day and grow from there. But only a writer who knew it took dedicated time, and learning to say “no” to many other worthy pursuits is able to make the practice of a process their priority. 

Pomodoros can make you more productive. And strategy and planning can keep you producing, because this is all about doing it and not just talking or thinking about it. But in the end, knowing you’re not alone in your imaginary world can calm the voices of fear and that’s what can convince you it’s worth the time and sacrifices to commit.

In fact, everyone has an imagination, so everyone knows what it’s like to hear these voices. Writers are just those who’ve made it their business to face them and choose the right ones to listen to.

And that’s a specific understanding and skill you can enjoy for a lifetime. :)

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