Tag Archives: story

The #1 Writing Problem I See–and How to Fix It

Of course, there are too many writing problems to count…

IMG_6750It’d be foolishness to think we could narrow it down to one. Or would it? For the benefit of everyone–including your future readers–I’m going to try.

As I sat down at my writing chair last night to consider what I haven’t shared yet over the years of writing these little thoughts, first as an acquisitions editor and now as a coach-for-hire, I had a thought: What’s the best advice I could offer? I’ve edited hundreds of writers and all kinds of books, and I think I’ve run into every possible writing problem there is.

A lot of people don’t really know how to tell a story. And that’s sad. Any child can tell a story–my girls were barely talking before they started telling great stories. Well, they probably were not great. But they were good. All they needed was a character, preferably a nice, cute animal, who wanted something a whole lot and finally got the something in the end. A lollipop. A swim party. A woodland friend. Somehow they knew you couldn’t just suddenly start talking about something else unrelated to the story. You couldn’t have the main character die or start a soliloquy during a tense moment. You needed mystery and it had to be believable and maybe a little funny too.

IMG_6721Most kids are natural storytellers because telling stories is how their brains make sense of the world. But if all it took to write excellent stories was storytelling talent, most pastors or speakers would be great writers. And anyone can tell you they are not. If you want to know how much of a speaker’s effectiveness comes from their voice, style, inflection, body language, status, position and being up front, read their transcript. There’s a huge difference between the power of presence on the stage, and the power of language on a page.

In a book, there’s no automatic esteem to fall back on. You can’t “pound the pulpit” to make a weak point stronger. There’s no imploring or entreating with emotional appeals. And yet I can’t tell you how many pastors and professional speakers I’ve had to retrain to tell a simple story. Writing and speaking do not correlate.

And the number one problem I see with most writers is simply that they haven’t considered what a written story requires. And until someone tells them, they remain blind to it–no one knows what they don’t know.

So how to fix it? More than likely, the story sucks because they haven’t found the heart of the story.

Finding the Heart of the Story

I want to give you the answer right up front: the heart of the story is in the inception. IMG_6751And depending on the inception–i.e. where you initially came up with your story–that’s where you’ll find the heart.

You might want to refer to last week’s post for the “2 of 3 things rule” everyone writing a story must know (i.e. the “second golden rule”: 1. advance plot, 2. reveal character, 3. describe setting). Some people tend to start with the plot (men, though some women, too). You have an outline in mind or at least an idea of what’s going to happen, even before you’ve thought much about the character or setting. The idea is the thing motivating them. That’s most writers. Other writers start with a character and the plot gets built on what happens to that character (or characters). Some people are inner focused, and some are outer focused. And sometimes the inception is different depending on the story.

Sometimes, rarely, a story is conceived from a setting—a big house, a geographical area, an interesting era of history, a context. Then the writer populates it with the people and events. But whichever of those 3 essential story elements you start with, what’s important is that eventually, all 3–character, plot, and setting–must work together to define and shape the story you’re telling.

And often, they need to be working simultaneously to be as interesting, believable and effective as possible. (Again, see “The Second Golden Rule” if you missed that. No worries. It’s quick.)

The big point is: The heart of the story is where it starts.

And bringing out the heart of the story is your job.

IMG_6740My girls seemed to intuitively know that when telling a story, the appeal comes from whatever the inception was (now whether they learn to do this on the page, we’ll see). And the same is true for us. For the writing not to suck, you’ve got to know where it started for you. Were you excited about the external story (“what happens?”) or the internal one (“what it’s about?”). The internal and external storylines are parallel–they happen at the same time, and they influence each other. Your goal needs to become thinking about conveying both in clear and specific ways. It may be obvious, but many authors don’t think about the fact that in written stories, there’s an inner and an outer drama, and both depend on feeling what the reader needs to understand the experience of both.

Interestingly, my male authors tend to forget about conveying the character’s feelings, and female authors often struggle with grounding the story in a specific time and place. Men like events, women like feelings. But much like Jesus taught, if we can unlearn what we’ve picked up through life’s struggles and cultural trappings, our stories can appeal in that natural childlike way again.

Can a story work without specifically knowing your inception point? Of course! The internal and external storylines can come out intuitively. That’s the goal. But if your story sucks a little bit, consider the inception and whether you may need to balance that storyline with its complement, its cohort. The relationship between exterior and interior is where the plot, the idea and the character derives the excitement.

And you can do it if you’re willing to consider the heart of the story.

For the Higher Purpose,


Be Brave. Get Dirty.

i used to hate getting dirty.

You too? I mean, all kids love playing in mud and will put all sorts of disgusting in their mouths. I had that too. But a larger part of me hated messes.

A comedian suggested our self-protective society boils down to our drive for bacon. I think for more people it's about Lysol wipes. Life's messy. Clean it up.
Could society boil down to this? The world is messy and we like it clean.

I always thought cleaning up was the best part of play time. In kindergarten, while the other kids squished finger paints and mashed their hands (and faces and each other) in multicolored smears (can you believe the patience of elementary school teachers?), my version of finger painting employed two index fingers held as far from me as possible on the paper. The length of time required for this “art instruction” was always too long and I’d watch the clock to know when the barbarism would end and we could go wash it off.

Then, in second grade, a mild phobia kicked in when Billy Huffman poured 3 snails down the back of my shirt and chased me around, slapping them into slimy stains.

Since then, it’s been fairly easy to identify with those driven by a distaste for getting messy.

Unfortunately, the scariest messes are inside and invisible.

“Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible,” Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Bret Lott says that was him before he wrote A Song I Knew By Heart. Raised in a Christian home, I can trace the disposition for such propaganda to my early writings. Such earnest little fantasy worlds I created.

“The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” (Mystery and Manners)

I could never truly appreciate backpacking for all the dirt my body tends to acquire. I spent many years fretting about this, trying to convince others they needed to change and be cleaner and civilized and more conscientious with their finger painting. I wanted to believe we could all write with integrity and depth and see the world as it really was like Jesus did–with true compassion and piercing insight–but just in a safe, clean, civilized kind of way. In a bookish kind of way. In a churchy kind of way. Maybe also in a big corporate ministry office kind of way.

Surely that was good enough for God, wasn’t it?

The trouble came when I tried imagining Jesus turning his nose up in disgust at the people he gave up everything to hear and see.

The world is messy. And for a writer to tell the truth about it he has to gain a deeper appreciation of the mess inside him that says, others are messier, my mess is fine.

To really love the reader as yourself, you have to see how God loved you enough to accept as dirty as you could get. Even while you were still a mess, he held your face, looked into your eyes and took the cross.

He sees the world more clearly than anyone ever will. What does he see in you?

Only he can provide what we need to be cleaned up. And if he doesn’t hesitate to get dirty with people to do it, should we?

The clubs we belong to cloud our vision, make us think our smudged windows are clean, or cleaner than others’. Jesus is the one who breaks up up our corrupt ideas, systems and prejudices. He breaks our laws. It may offend us, but he has the right because he knows the light. He has the clear insight.

Grace is dirty and that will always be scandalous.

Do you want to be well?

The “how” of writing is the skill of economy: to learn what is essential. Excellent writing is nothing more than rendering the best representation of reality from the clearest perception of it. And that clarity is only through adopting Jesus’ eyes, being brave, and getting dirty.

A certain Samaritan, despised and lowly, went down from Jerusalem away from his safe haven… He wasn’t necessarily looking to get dirty or break the rules. But he wasn’t trying to stay clean and safe. He opened his eyes to reality and took it, took it all in, and he was filled with compassion because he saw himself in a stranger’s eyes.

And he did not look away.

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

It may come as a shock, but I’m easily distractible.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Especially knowing how much my work depends on writers showing up and keeping up despite the battering hurricane of demands and requests that fly in through every open window.

It can grow dark quickly underneath the pile of debris atop the little flame of a writer’s voice.

To be seen and heard is always a fight.

Yet maybe being seen and heard doesn’t have to be the goal. Maybe sharing what’s been given you that day in the 5 minutes you have to share it, the flame will shine a little more, and the light will reach out into the dark it’s intended to reach.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

I know from painful experience how selfish and pointless it can seem to spend much time in a private place that brings you and only you such joy. Especially if so many people depend on you. The responsibility and duty of “real life” can sap the love and light right from you and leave you dark and cold.

But if God’s love for us burns white hot, wouldn’t he want us to forget all else but the true “real life?”

That’s the premise of the novel I’ve been writing over 10 years about a young man who sells his soul for a chance to change his past. It’s been growing in me and growing with me for ages, waiting as I figured out what to do with it and how to write it. It’s grown and shaped me unlike any book ever has, and it’s still not done. But I’m going ahead and opening up about my process now because I can’t wait to share some of the jaw-dropping lessons it’s taught me as I’ve strived to show up between school, raising 2 kids and full-time editing books for publishers.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

Some days it’s felt so pointless. But 5 minutes a day adds up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book this way. And maybe it isn’t–no one said it was good–but for years now, I’ve gotten up and for 5 minutes (which sometimes turned to 10 and 15), I’ve forgotten everything else and reveled in my dream world. It’s changed me, and it’s continuing to as I pull the disparate pieces together and learn to slowly fight back against the crush of too-great demands and urgent life, giving it the best I have, which often isn’t enough, but it doesn’t matter.

God is in it.

Unlike anything else, my book has shown God’s love to me. And I know it’s true because it’s been simple even when it could have and should have been mind-numbingly complex. In the end, I’ve believed the premise, that he wants me to forget everything else but that knowledge of his love. And in 5 minutes a day, I’ve found writing a book can teach you plenty about that.

Every day, I’m hopeful for what it’ll reveal next. If you know what I mean, give me a witness….

For the Higher Purpose,


How to Edit Out FEAR–for Good

It’s still early.

That’s true. A true sentence.

scary bridge
Don’t look down.

Regardless of how little there is left of the day, it’s still early. There’s time yet to write the daily clutch of words.

Despite the fact that my brain is doing its usual whirring with all the things to get done, the manuscripts needing edits, consult calls to make, talks and articles to write, courses to plan, a boulder to shoulder up the hill…

I know the fear is out there. And it’s strong. It’s still strangling so many great works, the words of writers yet to be written. How can I not fight to destroy this most fundamental of barriers?

This post is my Great Rebellion.

I’ve been meaning to write it for weeks, this culmination of thought I’ve listened to and spoken to myself for longer than I can remember…

I believe, despite everything else that’s pressing, there’s nothing else I’m supposed to do but this.

So with that reassurance, I’m ready to face the question:

How do we edit out fear for good?

fear quote
Roosevelt said that. I think.

1. Just write one true sentence.

Fr. Ernie had one unbeatable word of advice for himself I’ve begun repeating often:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

If writing is the only way for you to be truly happy, what choice do I have but to stop procrastinating and write that one true sentence?

To write the one thing I’ve been waiting so long to speak, how good would that feel? To forget all the many excellent reasons I shouldn’t? To finally deny ALL the distractions and do what I was put here to do today, as I draw this breath into my statistically impossible existence from this terrifyingly perfect blue-green spheball?

I’ve got to stop overthinking it. Just start with what I know.

2. Do Input/Output Every Day

There’s a depressing truth I’ve learned: no one, I repeat, NO ONE is born a writer but reading has made them that way. Just starting out or years into it, writing well takes reading–to find good INPUT, to make good OUTPUT. So I’m resigned that the writer I want to be is not much more than a good scavenger. When I’ve processed enough garbage, I’ll know what makes good material, and what doesn’t.

And by reading, I’ll learn to respond by doing it every day.

Fiction. News. Poems. Memoirs. Then I write and let it be what it is. My job is only to use what I have to its fullest today.

And then tomorrow, I’ll find more manna. I have to let go of any other expectation.

When I get afraid, I’m usually thinking my writing won’t be good enough. But writing isn’t about getting fancy. It’s about writing.

And you can quote me on that.

cowardly lion

3.  Stop, Then Go

I’ve been writing long enough to know it often feels stupid. It starts to seem selfish. I’ll start hearing voices. My limbs will develop phantom pains and I’ll need to, absolutely need to google “misplaced attention.”

I’m getting used to it. This is my tricky brain acting up. It’s perfectly normal. At least for writers it is. So first I have to…

Stop. Sit still and listen. Yes, I’m talking about “mindfulness,” but it’s really just cultivating awareness of the deeper reality behind reality. One Thousand Gifts is a perfect guide for this. When I slow down, I find humble gratitude and the inspiration and permission in the love God freely gives through Jesus and his endless reminders in my daily life.

And when I’m still and silent for a while, I get antsy. After I stop, it’s time to go. Pomodoros are a must to schedule focused work and breaks. But out and about, I carry a notebook and give myself permission to be the weirdo who pauses to capture fireflies.

Life is a series of trades and I’m trading everything else I could do for writing. That’s who I am. So I write to control my time and attention, or it will control me.

This stopping and going thing is based on my hunch that writing doesn’t come from a desire to express so much as from a desire to listen. To me, higher writing is prayer. It’s not asking for something so much as feeding and being fed by a relationship. It’s finding a thread of a thought that seems important to The Inspirer, and following it down the hole, across the bridge, and through the meadow.

When writing becomes no more than God-directed thought, then when I write I am praying without ceasing.

So every day I need to schedule time to practice writing the words down, time to shape them, and before that, time to read. And life happens in between that.

Stop, then go.

Yoda wisdom
The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

One true sentence. Input/output. Stop, then go.

These are the distilled lessons I’ve set for myself. Certainly there’s more to them than this. But these 3 keep me on the path, stepping forward, and away from the guardrails.

Remembering is how I overcome the fear. And reminding each other is our simple focus at Your Writers Group. It’s a thrilling surprise that with their continual encouragement and support, I’m facing my fears a little easier every day.

Regardless of how long it’s taken me to get here, I believe it’s still early.

[Getting excited to expand on these basics for storywriters in the 30-day YWG Story Course coming up in 2 weeks! Check the event page for details.]

What helps you face your fears as a writer? Would love to hear your secret…

Editor to Author: Letter to a Memoir Writer

Dearest Author,

I've been thinking about worth lately.

What's your story worth?

At a recent writers conference I taught a workshop on how I saw publishing changing. Modern publishing, the only time in history when we've had separate "markets" for books, has begun to fracture and redistribute. I've shared several times about how The Shack has shifted things. It isn't just a book, of course, it's a bridge. And those bridges are inevitable because it isn't only spiritual people or Christians who recognize God as creator.  

Blue Like Jazz came well before it and created connections between the Christian and secular markets. Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God made some connection points before that, similar to how Eat, Pray, Love did more recently, from the other side of the spiritual divide. Several spiritual/worldly, secular/sacred books have become best-sellers as bridges in the long history of such books since the beginning of print, and some people have traced this line back to the best-selling book of all time: The Bible.

The Secret. The Purpose-Driven Life. The Alchemist. The Celestine Prophesy. The Late Great Planet Earth. Pilgrim's Progress. Books you've never heard of have sold over 30 million copies: Steps to Christ by Ellen White, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, late-19th century Congregational minister and advocate of the ever-intriguing idea of "Christian socialism." Even Nikolai Tesla wrote about his life a true spiritual man and world-renouned scientist in My Inventions. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy by Dante, written in 1304, has "sold" more than anyone knows and we have no idea how it or any of these books have changed readers and the history of spiritual thought, becoming seeds for the trees of countless theologies.

But of course, we know this is what books are–seeds. And this is what they do: define life and defy death.

"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So this story that's a part of you, that is you, that defines your work and all of your effort and sacrifices to share it completely (or as completely as possible) for others to use–what's it really worth?

Don't answer. You can't. Simply try to see the fullness of the question clearly. Continue on…

Do you know where your worth is really found?

Yes, in God's ownership of the life and love he's created you to embody (1 John 4:7-12). His ownership, creating, protecting, guiding and infusing of his great, unchanging spirit into us. He dies that we might live (parents always understand this principle). And we die that others might live through our sacrifices. This is the daily work of writing.

Do you know what that is really worth?

Intimately known and held, seen and heard and helped in every way, this knowledge is invaluable, isn't it? We can talk of worth and value, and shift our understanding of that from copies sold to readers influenced, but it's the knowledge a reader will have by the end of your story that makes what you're doing truly valuable. And this understanding of how God fills us and dies for us is the greatest wisdom, the most valuable in the world. And if you are practicing that, that makes what you're doing invaluable.

I want to give you, as a witness of your discovery of that unchanging love, my invaluable opinion on it, my affirmation that you've been seen and heard and that what you've written down is completely worthy. And with your assurance that it's been well established and others will see it and respond, you can continue, knowing it's incredible and invaluable. 

So do you see what your story is really worth?

Because there's no true price tag you can put on it. There's no proper estimating the value of my work, my seeing it, or others' receiving it either. It's in-valuable. We have to simply trust together that whatever comes of it is just a small piece of its fullest value as a seed for God to use, and not at all connected to the worth of what you've written, or what I've done to help. I know you've sacrificed and given for your story, and I've been brought into the processing of it, but regardless of how it will be published and the realities of our modern marketplace, you must know:

What's your story really worth?

I remain your solid co-laborer in the process of delivering these invaluable words. Never assign its worth to money, public perception, publication, or anything else. Your heart is here, and that's established and it's something you have written definitively, and just as we have agreed together at the outset here, others will when they read it.

We don't know how it will all play out. But I'm on your side and not looking for specific outcomes big or small. Don't think in terms of what's "fair," but decide you will pay with your life what's necessary to give to this project. What you give is directly proportional to what that seed will be able to produce in readers. And in terms of return and profit, I believe Cohelo is right: the universe will conspire in our favor.

So what's your story really worth?


Your Loving Editor,