Monday, June 17, 2019

Research and Rabbit Holes


By Yolanda Smith

Inspiration is running hot. Words are coming to you faster than you can capture them on the keyboard. Your main character, having heard an intruder in the kitchen, digs through the closet for her handgun. But it’s important to use specifics. What kind of gun does she have?

Google to the rescue. A quick search for “women and handguns” reveals women are choosing Glocks these days, dispelling myths that females need a smaller caliber, or prefer revolvers, or any number of other stereotypes. Wait. There are myths about women and guns? What’s that all about? You’ve got to know more.

You type “myths about women and guns” in the search bar, and your first thought is, “Holy mackerel, there are myths on both sides of the gun control issue.” And then you wonder how “holy mackerel” popped into your head, since it’s not a term you’re fond of using. Where did that phrase even originate?

The internet provides answers yet again. You learn it was probably a substitution for an unacceptable expletive, thereby making it less offensive. The website makes a comparison to the phrase jumping Jehosophat. Wait a minute. He’s a character in the Bible, right? And you thought his name was spelled differently. Wikipedia reveals his name as Jehoshaphat (yay, you were right) and says the phrase “Jumpin’ Geehosofat” is first recorded in the 1865-1866 novel The Headless Horseman by Thomas Mayne Reid.[1]

But you thought Washington Irving wrote that story. Another search reveals Irving’s work is a short story and bears the title The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You envision the cartoon version you watched as a kid and get the willies. Will nightmares plague you tonight?

Your eyes drift back to the computer screen—and—UGH!!! WHAT HAPPENED?

Dear friend, you fell down the rabbit hole.

For half an hour.

 It’s time for lunch, and your red-hot inspiration has burned to a pile of powdery ashes.
Please tell me I’m not the only writer who has experienced this. When I began the rough draft of my novel, I’d already conducted a ton of research. It never dawned on me that in the throes of scene-writing I would need further research on less-significant items. I fell down rabbit holes more than a few times before I realized something had to change. Otherwise, I’d never get my book written.

I devised a solution. Then I found out other, wiser writers employed similar methods. I only wish someone had told me about it before I got bruised, dirty, and lost. But now I’m telling you, in case you’re one of the three people in the world that didn’t already know.

These days, when I come to a spot of writing that needs research, I give myself a bracketed placeholder. Here are a couple of examples:

The flames licked the south side of the barn. Celia screamed for help before she grabbed the [bracket—what materials were buckets made of in the 1830s?] bucket and ran for the river.

The smell of fall was in the air, and the [bracket—ask hubby which trees change colors first] trees were showing the first hint of orange [bracket—or red or yellow] across the hills.

Why do I write the word bracket when I’ve placed actual brackets around the things I need to explore?  Later, when I follow up at the end of the scene, chapter, or even the entire manuscript, I use the Find function in Word, type in the word bracket, and my placeholders all show up at once. I’m able to address them when I’m in research mode, rather than losing momentum during a creative streak.

Research isn’t the only writing hole we tumble down, but it can be a big one. What other things tend to get you off track? What practical solutions would you offer for staying on task?

[1] Wikipedia contributors. "Jehoshaphat." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2019. Web. 14 Jun. 2019.

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



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Monday, June 10, 2019

Understanding Past Continuous and Past Perfect Verb Tenses


By Linda Yezak

For some reason, certain words have landed on someone's "hit list" and consequently have become taboo—to the detriment of clarity in our writing. I don't know who that "someone" is or why anyone should pay attention to his opinion, but editors who understand grammar wisely ignore him.

One of the words currently cloaked in shame is "was." To a certain extent, I understand this. Relying on it is a sign of laziness. But let's take a look at it. One of the two sentences below is a surefire example of lazy writing. Guess which:

  • A - As I watched, I realized he was strong as an ox.
  • B - When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally.

Gold star to whoever said A.

Past Continuous
"He was strong as an ox" is telling, and adding the simile—especially a cliché—doesn't help. That sentence is a sign of lazy writing. "As I watched, he hefted a one-ton Ford pickup with his bare hands" illustrates how strong he is and doesn't contain a single "was."

Example B, however, uses the past continuous (or past progressive) verb tense. It illustrates ongoing action. To use simple past tense in this sentence changes the meaning: "When I saw him, he sat by Sally" means the main character watched him assume the seat beside Sally. "When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally" means he had already assumed the seat and was still there when the main character saw him.

Okay, granted, that seems like a fine line. The site edufind.com describes it better: "The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past."

It is used:
  • often to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly."
  • to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."

Does that help clarify?

Past continuous is a valid verb tense and can't help it if "was" is part of its makeup. Be discriminating about the "was" verbs you're trying to obliterate from your work.

Past Perfect
Authors frequently write in past tense, but when they want to illustrate something that is further past in their story's history than simple "past," they should use the "past perfect" tense—which, unfortunately, is also on the hit list. This is another one I can understand to a certain extent. Reading that a character "had" done this and "had" done that through several paragraphs can be cumbersome, but leaving it out entirely can confuse the timeline in the reader's mind.

If you're doing a brief history, a brief backstory, use past perfect: When she first got there, she had expected five-star treatment since she was a movie star.  Instead, she'd been treated as if she were no one special. Now, she realized they had given her special treatment—they’d treated her as if she were family.

As short as this is, the past perfect tense isn't bothersome, and it helps to use contractions to cut down on the "hads." To stretch this into several paragraphs of backstory, however, the past perfect tense would be a pain.

The secret is to ground your reader in the backstory by using past perfect in the first several lines and revert to past tense until the last several lines. Toward the end of the backstory, use past perfect again to cue the reader that you're ending the backstory and preparing to re-enter "story present" (which, of course, is told in past tense. Can we get any more confusing?).

But the best thing to do with long backstory passages is to determine whether the reader really needs to know what you're about to dump on her and whether there is a better way to present it—a topic better left to another post.

Don't deprive yourself of the various verb tenses, which are some of the tools we authors have to present our stories, just because some nameless someone has declared war on certain words. "Had" and "was," used in combination with other verbs, help to provide clarity in your work, and shouldn't be shunned indiscriminately.

Two sites that can help tremendously with verbs are conjugation.com and edufind.com. Make the most of 'em!

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

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Linda W. Yezak lives with her husband and their funky feline, PB, in a forest in deep East Texas, where tall tales abound and exaggeration is an art form. She has a deep and abiding love for her Lord, her family, and salted caramel. And coffee—with a caramel creamer. Author of award-winning books and short stories, she didn't begin writing professionally until she turned fifty. Taking on a new career every half century is a good thing.




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Monday, June 3, 2019

Writer, Are You Willing to Pay the Price


By Andrea Merrell

Writer, what are your goals? Do you know where you’re going?

Statistics say that 50 percent of the population has no idea where they’re going in life. Of the remaining 50 percent, only 10 percent know where they’d like to go, but fewer than half are willing and prepared to pay the price to get there.

Goals are important but so is the tenacity to stick in there. To learn. To grow. To be flexible. To pay the price. But the most important aspect of our writing journey is letting God mold and shape us as we move forward.

One writer says, “While you are working on your goals, your goals are working on you. And the reward you get for reaching them isn’t nearly as important as what you become in your pursuit of them.”

In Philippians 3:13-14, Paul states, “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

Yes, goals are important. Write them down. Make them clear and concise. Be ready to persevere to reach them. But as you set your eyes on the prize, make sure it’s the right one. The prize is not just a contract, an agent, a paycheck, or being well-known—it’s who you become in the process. It’s enjoying the journey and blessing others as God leads you down the road He has prepared for you. There will be bumps in the road and maybe a few detours, but you can trust Him to see you safely and victoriously to your destination.

Are you willing to pay the price?


(Photo courtesy of www.BlogPiks.com/Stuart Miles.)

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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