Monday, May 20, 2019

Poured Wide or Drilled Deep?


By Yolanda Smith

Have you ever had a question simmering in the recesses of your heart when suddenly God turns up the temperature, and you find the thing has approached a rolling boil? You know He’s trying to help you latch on to a new thought or challenge your modus operandi, and the question or idea will not let you be.

Here’s the question that keeps pouring, like a river, over the jagged rocks in my brain: are you spread too thin?

And the cry of my heart: Yes! But how do I fix it, Lord?

The answer comes—two simple words—and sets me on a journey to search it out: Go deep.

Skimming

At the moment, I seem to be running a three-legged race all by myself. While writing this post, I’ve been frantically scouring a recent read so I can share a poignant story from its pages with you. It’s ironic that the book is about slowing down, being intentional, and GOING DEEP. And while I’m skimming through chapter after chapter, the frenzy of activity is clashing with the words that leap from its paragraphs. Words like silence, intentionality, observe, contemplate, slow, depth, imagination.

Although I write notes when reading nonfiction, this time I failed to mark the single most mind-boggling tidbit that has stuck with me long after I closed the pages. Since I can’t find it, I’ll have to paraphrase the information, which, fair warning, will be underwhelming.

When one gallon of water is spread to its thinnest molecules, it can cover an area of nearly five square miles. It would be difficult to see, and beyond that it would be ineffectual for any real purposes. However, if the molecules of that same gallon of water were stacked end to end, it would form a straw that would reach all the way to the center of the earth. The same gallon has the ability to be spread thin, but it is also capable of reaching extreme depths.

This left me wondering, am I being poured wide, or drilled deep? Am I scattered too far to be effective?

The writing industry is a paradox. As writers we are to give away the deep wisdom and secrets others haven’t discovered or can’t articulate for themselves. But that requires us to be living a deeper life. How is this possible when we are expected to possess a working knowledge of all aspects of our discipline including craft, platform building, marketing, speaking, networking, and small business practices? All at once we’ve been stretched too thin, negating our ability to impart anything helpful or insightful.

All the Things

I have the type of personality that wants to do all the things. I’m desperate to read all the books, learn all the hobbies, play all the instruments, collect all the animals, and be friends with all the people. I’m the kind of gal who chases a full-on passion pursuit, which is why my life often looks more than a little lopsided.

How this translates to writing life:
  • read all the books on craft
  • listen to all the writing/marketing podcasts
  • subscribe to everyone’s newsletters
  • sign up for all the webinars and courses
  • hang out in all the Facebook writing groups
  • choose dozens of critique partners
  • stalk learn from all my favorite authors
  • attend all the critique groups, workshops, and conferences
  • apply for all the memberships

After listing all that, I’m tired.

It’s tempting to hop from one new and shiny thing to the next. But in a culture full of clutter (because we like to buy the next trendy thing, then pile it in a corner once it loses its shine), downsizing and minimalist living are becoming increasingly popular. And why not? Decluttering is therapeutic.

Downsizing

So, is it possible to downsize our writing lives? Declutter our inboxes (unsubscribe until it hurts)? Outsource our weaker skills? Cull our commitments?

  • What if you only attended one conference this year, but went home and actually reviewed all your notes, rewrote those notes, listened to audio recordings, and made application of one or two key ideas?

  • What if you found one or two favorite podcasts and listened to the entire chronology over and again until you could teach the information yourself?

  • Would it be possible to zero in on a couple of top-notch craft books and study them cover to cover, picking them apart like a textbook?


One of the teaching pastors at my church suggests finding a handful of books—outstanding, impactful ones—and rereading them every year to mine the deep riches one read-through will never uncover. This goes against my nature. I want to read the latest releases so I can keep up with current bookish conversations.

What does it mean to do one thing well, going deep, no skimming allowed? I’m not one hundred percent sure yet. I have a vague notion of what the destination should look like, and the journey involves a swim upstream. But really, I only know how to take the next step in front of me. It involves sitting still and being quiet.

Do you feel stretched too thin, or are you good at living the deeper life? What wisdom would you offer for those of us trying to sort through the differences?


*The book mentioned above is The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski


(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net, winnond, and Stuart Miles.)


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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The View from the Pew


By Denise Loock

Suppose you had a choice between listening to a lecture from a stodgy, arrogant professor and chatting with an amiable, supportive friend at a coffee shop. Easy decision, right?

Readers make that choice when they choose Christian nonfiction. No one likes to be lectured. Therefore, authors who adopt a conversational, sympathetic tone when they write generally have more impact than those who choose a didactic tone. Effective nonfiction writers step down from the pulpit and sit in the pew with their readers.

As Merriam-Webster notes, gracious words are “marked by kindness and courtesy” and “markedly considerate of another’s feelings.”[1] That doesn’t mean gracious words are flattering or wishy-washy. In fact, the Bible condemns such speech (Psalm 12:2–3; James 1:8). Grace-laced language conveys the “truth in love” in a respectful, honest manner (Ephesians 4:15).

Here are six principles to keep in mind as you write:

1. The goal of Christian nonfiction is to edify, to build up. The best way for authors to do that is to adopt a gentle, encouraging tone. Avoid second-person commands: you should, you ought to, you need to. Use first-person plural inclusive phrases: we often neglect, we sometimes think, we assume. Use first person singular for negative statements: I sometimes treat God like a vending machine, making demands and expecting him to respond immediately. Using first person puts the author, not the reader, in the squirm seat. Use questions to pull the reader into the conversation: Do you ever have trouble believing God cares about your problems?

2. Use simple language. You’re probably not a biblical scholar or a seminary professor, so don’t pretend to be one. Avoid religious jargon (Christianese) that presumes every reader’s spiritual background is similar to yours.

3. Check for statements that suggest a know-it-all or been-there-done-that attitude: “I know exactly how you feel.” No, you don’t. “I’ve learned to always pray before I leave the house.” Every time? “I don’t doubt God’s goodness anymore.” Never?

4. Convey that you’re still learning, still growing. After all, none of us will ever achieve a perfect relationship with God or with other people this side of heaven. God doesn’t airbrush the vileness of sin or the failures of his followers. The Bible contains the high and low points in people’s lives. Moses was not only a valiant leader but also a cold-blooded murderer. David was not only the sweet psalmist of Israel but also an adulterer. These examples remind us that we need to admit our shortcomings and failures so readers don’t get the idea that authors have achieved some level of holiness unavailable to the rest of us.

5. Add personal experiences to help readers apply scriptural truth to their lives, but keep the spotlight on the Word of God. Personal experience can’t be used as the test of truth. Focus instead on promises that God guarantees.

6. Be inventive and insightful. Have you attended church most of your life? Did you go to Sunday school when you were a child? If so, you may have heard dozens of sermons on trusting God and loving your neighbor. But even if you aren’t a lifelong churchgoer, Scripture passages such as Psalm 23 and John 3:16 may be familiar to you. When you think of forgiveness, Joseph comes to mind. When you think of faith, you see Peter walking on water. If that happens to you, it will happen to readers too. So present fresh insights about familiar stories and introduce practical applications for unfamiliar passages.

Sit in the pew with your reader. You’ll both learn more that way, and if you’re not standing in the pulpit, the reader will be more likely to get a clear view of God.





[1] “Gracious,” Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, online version. Accessed 19 April 9019, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/gracious.

(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net, Stuart Miles, and Phil_Bird.)


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Denise Loock is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is the editor for The Journey Christian Newspaper, which reaches over 60,000 online and print readers. As an assistant editor, she helps Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas produce high quality, engaging inspirational books. She accepts freelance editing projects too. Contact her at denise@journeychristiannews.com or info@digdeeperdevotions.com


Monday, May 6, 2019

Heaven's Library


By Andrea Merrell

I’ve just returned from PENCON, a wonderful conference for editors and proofreaders. This conference is a division of the Christian Editor Network and was held in Nashville. What a great time of fellowship and learning.


One of the guest speakers was Robert Hudson, author of the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style. His keynotes and workshops were amazing, but one statement he made stood out to me. It was about the library of heaven and all the books that were waiting to be written.

As writers, sometimes we struggle to come up with stories that will encourage and entertain our readers. Many times we feel as if it’s all been said, so what could we possibly contribute that would be fresh and new? Even the Bible says there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NKJV).

Think about a classroom of children who are given the assignment to draw a certain object. It might be their house, an animal, or the school playground. What you might expect would at least be some similarities between the drawings, but that is never the case. Each one shows the child’s unique way of expressing himself. As you study each one, you see the subtle nuances—and sometimes the significant ones—that make each drawing special.

Writing is the same. While several of us may tell a similar story, we tell it in our own unique way. Our words are colored by our personality, perspective, background, experiences, beliefs, and even our likes and dislikes. In other words, there is room for all of us as writers.

God doesn’t just love, He is love. He not only creates, He is creativity. Look at the variety of beautiful landscapes and brilliant colors, not to mention people. The good news is He has formed us in His image and placed that creativity within us.

Consider for a moment the library of heaven and all those books waiting to be written. One or more of those volumes has your name on it. It’s a story that only you can tell. It may not sit on the shelf of a bookstore or even be sold on Amazon. It might be a poem, a devotion, a blog post, or article. Perhaps it’s a prayer or letter of encouragement to a friend. Whether it’s an in-depth Bible study or thank-you note, God has a purpose for whatever He puts on your heart. For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NLT).

John 21:25 says, There are so many other things Jesus did. If they were all written down, each of them, one by one, I can’t imagine a world big enough to hold such a library of books (MSG). Most of us view the Bible as exhaustive and thorough, but there is evidently so much more that could have been written about Jesus.

And there is so much more for us to write. God is waiting for each of us to do our part. Are you ready?

(Photos courtesy of Blogpiks.com and Stuart Miles.)

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For more information on PENCON or the Christian PEN, visit ChristianEditorNetwork.com.




Monday, April 29, 2019

If Writers Write the Way Drivers Drive

by Alycia W. Morales     @AlyciaMorales

Everyone knows we have stereotypical ideas about the drivers who live in the states surrounding our own residences. Right? It's okay. Admit it.

Well, what if we wrote like we drove?

Forgive me, but I'm going to use the states I've grown up in or currently live near as examples. I apologize in advance if you don't like the preconceived notion of the drivers in your state. And I admit up front that NOT EVERYONE DRIVES LIKE THE STEREOTYPICAL DRIVER in your home state. So please don't hate me... ;)

New York
Drivers in New York are rushed. Because that's the pace of the area. Hurried. Not afraid to cut you off, requiring an abrupt application of the brakes while you pray you stop before you rear end them. Because insurance companies love rear-end accidents, where you are blamed for the accident, rather than the lovely driver in front who cut you off.

Writers, it's important to avoid rushing your work. Don't be like a NY driver. When we hurry our work and try to put it out into the world too soon, it can cost us. Like the driver who ends up rear ending another, we can find ourselves losing our shirts over sloppy or unfinished writing, because it won't be accepted for publication as it is. That editor's eye, agent's approval, or contract may pass us by if we don't take the time to polish our work. Or, we may end up spending the money to self-publish a book no one wants to read when they notice all our spelling errors or that we're telling the story rather than showing it. Or the character arc is missing or she falls flat.

Slow down. It's better to take your time and have a book that's refined and ready to be presented to the world than to rush it and miss out.

These drivers also like to take the parking spot you've patiently waited for while the person using it prior to you took their time putting their groceries in the car, putting their seatbelt on, shifting into reverse, and pulling out of the spot.

Writer, be careful not to think you're entitled to that spot in the magazine or that book contract or any other dream you are pursuing. We don't have to have the first spot. Our work may not be ready. We may not be ready.

When the door closes on the spot you were certain you were qualified for, take it with grace. There are other spots in the parking lot of the writing world. Some are closer to Barnes and Noble. Others are a little farther away.

One day, the right spot for you will open, and it will be an answer to all your prayers. Take courage, and keep seeking the one designed specifically for you.

North Carolina
North Carolina drivers are cautious drivers. They rarely drive over the speed limit. Case in point: I am driving a Yukon XL pulling a 12-foot U-Haul trailer on my second move to South Carolina. I'm on a major highway just north of Charlotte, and traffic is moving and is bumper to bumper. The left lane is traveling at a few miles per hour over the speed limit, as most law-enforcement officers will allow. The right lane is moving just as quickly or maybe slightly slower. Like, the speed limit. Where most North Carolinians I've found myself behind like to travel. There's nothing wrong with that. If the driver is in the right lane, where most go the speed limit. But this guy was in the left lane. And he Refused. To. Move. And I'd been on the road for twelve hours and had another hour-and-a-half to go. I wanted to be driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit. And every chance I had to get around him, he sped up.

Maybe God was keeping me from an accident. But this guy was bringing out the NY in this transported southerner. I wanted to get around him so I could get where I needed to be. Home.

Writer, there's nothing wrong with being cautious and taking your time and obeying all the rules to get where you dream of being. It's safe. It's secure. It's well-planned and honed. It's practiced.

But sometimes, it's okay to break the rules, when you know how and what's allowed.

And sometimes we need to step out of our perfectionist tendencies and take a risk or two. To step out of our comfort zones. To live a little and take a chance with our writing.

South Carolina
There's a little wand on the left side of our steering wheels that makes a little lights on the fronts and backs of our cars blink. This notifies other drivers that we are planning on turning shortly. It warns those behind us that we are going to be slowing down. It gives those around us time to plan ahead, instead of potentially causing another of those rear-end accidents where the person who isn't to blame will pay the cost.

Writer, no one wants to be utterly surprised because they didn't see something coming. Not everyone likes a surprise party. In our writing, we need to be sure to foreshadow, to let the reader in on what's to come. Yes, we want to keep them guessing, but we want to give them hints along the way. Not write a bunch of mumbo jumbo to distract them and then suddenly slam on the brakes and set off a chain reaction. Don't be the one who didn't use their turn signal.

Let the reader in on the secrets. Make sure they know what's coming. And then give them a satisfying surprise that they may be able to guess but contains a plot twist. They'll thank you for it. And they'll keep reading your books.

Alabama
I'll never forget the first time I was driving in Alabama, shortly after we'd moved there for a construction project my husband was hired to work on, and I ventured out to do some shopping. This section of road was interesting. Shopping lined up on each side of the street, and a median running down the middle of it. It was like a mini highway, with entrances and exits for stores and shopping plazas. And it could be busy. Like, impossible to enter the road busy.

Alabama drivers have a slower pace than New Yorkers. But they drive at a steady pace, just slightly above the speed limit. And they recognize the use of turning signals

In Alabama, when I used my turning signal, the car to the side of me slowed their pace enough for me to move over into the lane I needed to be in. No horn honking. No road rage. No speeding up so I couldn't merge. They invited me into the traffic pattern and allowed me the opportunity to get where I needed to go.

Writers, we need to invite others in. We need other writers in our lives who are ahead of us in their craft so we can learn from them. We need other writers who are willing to slow down enough to let us into their world so we can be lifted up and encouraged. We need other writers who have been where we are headed so we aren't blindsided when something comes from behind and tries to take us out.

Don't isolate yourself, dear writer. Find someone to make the trip with you. Find someone to share their wisdom and show you another direction to go. 

What state do you live in? Is there a stereotypical driver? We'd love to hear your comparison of driving and writing in your state. Share your brief story and how it applies to writing in the comments below.

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If writers write the way drivers drive ... what would writing be like in your state? @AlyciaMorales takes a look at the states she's lived in or traveled through & shares some #writing tips. {Click to Tweet}


Monday, April 22, 2019

Stop Me If I’ve Told You This Before


By Yolanda Smith

Ever feel like a broken record? Ever feel like a broken record? Okay. I admit that’s a lame opening sentence. Nobody under the age of thirty-five will have had an occasion to hear a scratched record. If you’ve had the aggravation joy of owning LPs at some point in your history, you’ve experienced the infernal rush to lift the needle and stop the irksome clip of repetition charging through your brain.

Repetition has its place, and folks have called it the key to learning. But it is not the key to good writing. I’ve listed some repeat offenders (wink, wink) to be aware of when self-editing your work.

Repeating Words
One of the easiest offenses to commit is word repeats. The good news is it’s also one of the simplest to recognize and remedy. See if you can spot the culprits in the following paragraph:

Nora’s juice trickled across the floor. She held her breath and glanced from the floor to Mama. She waited to see what Mama would do. The floor had just been mopped this morning, and a sticky floor was at the top of Mama’s list of aggravations. The last time Nora had spilled juice on the floor Mama had made her scrub the floor once with a rag, and again with a toothbrush.

This paragraph has additional structural issues, but we are focusing on the repeats. Check out the rewrite and see how this issue has been resolved:

Nora’s juice tumbled off the table. She held her breath and glanced from the mess to her mother. She waited for what would surely follow. The floor had just been mopped this morning, and sticky tile was at the top of Mama’s list of aggravations. The last time Nora had caused this catastrophe Mama had made her scrub the surface once with a rag, and again with a toothbrush.

One of the simplest fixes for word echoes is to search the synonym list in the thesaurus. Still, this doesn’t always solve the problem. Some words don’t have a large synonym bank from which to draw. Here, writers get to be creative in rearranging phrases and sentences to eliminate the word or find other ways to convey the meaning.

Repeating Phrases
When phrases are repeated, even at larger intervals, they catch our eye faster than single word infractions:

If Melvin hadn’t been precariously perched under the stairs that day, he would never have known who his real grandmother was. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, and it would never have happened if Clyde hadn’t lost the bronze amulet between the worn treads. In fact, this was the time of day Melvin would have been precariously perched on the roof instead.

It’s easy to smell a pet phrase from a mile down the road. The longer or more unique a particular phrase is, the less a writer can get away with reusing it.

Repeating Ideas
A subtler reiteration has to do with the rephrasing of ideas. Here’s a sample:

Anxiety is something we all deal with at some point in our lives. It is not an isolated emotion that attacks a relative few. Worry is not specific to gender, age, or socioeconomic status. Concern does not discriminate between people of faith and nonbelievers. Apprehension hounds everyone.

This five-sentence paragraph might have been reduced to the first sentence alone, but would have, at a minimum, benefitted from culling the second and fifth sentences.

Repeating Actions
This writing faux pas makes an appearance more often in fiction than nonfiction. Characters who are forever nodding, smiling, standing, or sitting make for dull story companions.

It is important to give characters a wide variety of actions, as well as individual traits that distinguish them from one another. However, none of their unique actions should resurface across every scene. We are creatures of habit in real life, but habits on the page will bore the reader unless these inclinations are sprinkled selectively throughout the manuscript.

Repeating Sentence Starts/Repeating Paragraph Starts
This is another easy-to-spot, easy-to-fix blunder.

Janelle held the gun in shaking fingers. She couldn’t believe she’d pulled the trigger and felled the invader. She had no idea who he was, but Daddy had taught her to shoot first and ask questions later. She nudged him with her toe to make sure he was dead.

What tools could we use to repair this sample? The possibilities for improvements are limitless. Change statements to questions, combine short sentences or divide long ones, or experiment with word order. Paragraph starts are harder to watch out for, but a glance through each scene or chapter with a laser focus on opening words will reveal any missteps.

Repetition for Emphasis
Occasionally writers need to repeat a word for emphasis. Occasionally. These instances need close examination and should be spread thinner than a skimpy paycheck.

If you struggle to find repeats in your manuscript, help can often come in the form of a read-aloud session. This is especially effective if someone else reads your work to you.

Repetition is not my friend. My teenagers have a compulsion for saying, “Mom, you’ve told us this already.” I don’t want my readers doing the same, and I’m guessing neither do you.

Let me hear from you. Which of these infractions do you struggle with most? What are your best remedies for weeding repeat offenders?

(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles.)

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