My friend, Desi Lueras, asked how to segue from a natural illustration to a spiritual application. That also brings to mind a related question: how to make a spiritual point without sermonizing or sounding “preachy.”

To answer this dilemma, first let’s consider Jesus’s own example of turning a natural illustration into a spiritual application. For instance, in the parable of the sower, when the disciples question the meaning of his story, Jesus simply goes into the application without a segue. He says, “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means…”

Luke 15 opens with the parable of the lost sheep and then the lost coin. In both instances, to clarify His meaning He uses the phrase: “I tell you that in the same way…” as a segue.

The parable of the lost coin is followed by the famous parable of the prodigal son. In this story, Jesus uses a rather extended illustration to make His point—a point which He doesn’t explain nor does He offer an application at all. I think we’re to assume that the story makes the point without an explanation. And that, to me, as one who sees a lot of writing, both from newbies and from seasoned pros is the best kind of storytelling—whether we’re talking about a fictionalized story or non-fiction. Almost always, less is more. Amateurs insist on telling the reader the point right after they’ve used a good illustration that should simply stand alone, allowing the reader to “get it.” (In Jesus’s case, He was no amateur. The problem was that His listeners were often “dull of hearing”.)

An artist friend has told me the secret to great painting is not what the artist has chosen to paint, but what he or she has left out. As a writer and editor, I can see the application for authors. Subtly is more effective than overt explaining (most of the time). It’s closely related to the “show, don’t tell” principle wherein the writer learns, though scenes and effective dialogue to “show” something rather than just “tell” it.

So, my answer boils down to three points:

  1. Don’t get fancy with your segue, just say something simple like, “from this illustration, we can see a spiritual application by….”
  2. Be subtle when you can. Let your natural illustration make the point for you. If a listener or reader is hearing it in the context of your talk or book, they should be able to absorb the application easily enough. If they don’t, perhaps it’s not the best illustration.
  3. A third point not mentioned above is simply practice. As a writer (or speaker), your words, phrases, (and segues) come to you naturally as you grow as a writer or speaker. You learn to “feel” when a segue is needed and with that feeling comes the right wording, though it might take three or four attempts (drafts) to get it right.

As a final thought, watch for the ways good writers and speakers use segues. Copy their style, if necessary. Not just with segues, but with other noteworthy practices or usages. Writers usually develop their own style through absorbing the techniques of other good writers and learning to apply them in their own unique way.

As a boy, I was a Superman fan. The Incredible Hulk was a later Superhero whom I cared little about. So as I was thinking today about my role as a writer, I first envisioned myself as mild-mannered Clark Kent. But as I take my seat at my keyboard, I see myself morphing into Superman, my cape flaring behind me as I’m prepared to dodge bullets, stop locomotives, and “fight a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” No phone booth necessary.

But then I began to realize that the Incredible Hulk is a more apt Superhero for writers. Under stress, Dr. David Banner slowly morphs into the green hulk of a man prepared to right the wrong situation at hand.

Of course, as writers, it’s not stress (usually) that transforms us, it’s the creative urge striking once again. Often at the worst time and in the worst places. Honestly, I get some of my best ideas in the shower, while driving, or while drifting off to sleep. None of which are conducive to writing the Great American Book.

Why do I bring this analogy up? Because I believe as writers we must assume an Incredible Hulk persona when we write. Or Superman, if you will. (Or Supergirl, Wonder Woman…whatever). That is, we must become Superheroes and boldly take over the situation on the page in front of us. We must, with great authority (strength), right the wrongs in the world as we write. Whatever we’re writing, fiction or non-fiction, must reek with authority, credibility, and power. We cannot be namby-pamby Clark Kents when we write. If we don’t own the page, own the story, own the characters, the reader will know and be bored. Passive books don’t sell. And on our best writing days, when we do take our seat and start punching the keys, we very often do begin to turn green and see our muscular Hulkish self emerge in all its glory. We write with power and save the day!

Next time you sit down to work on your manuscript, make sure you’re the Incredible Hulk, not Dr. David Banner; Superman and not Clark Kent. And consider procrastination is your Kryptonite.

One of the hardest (yet necessary) things that must happen in the life of a writer is for him or her to fully embrace their identity as a writer. They may think of themselves as an “aspiring writer,” especially if they’re yet unpublished; but that won’t do, in my opinion. It’s like a person saying they’ve become an “aspiring Christian.” They’re not one yet, but they want to be. We know, of course, that one becomes a Christian as they are born again spiritually and become new creations in Christ. They have a new identity and they will grow faster as they embrace and begin to live out that new identity.

The same is true for writers. You are not an aspiring writer. You are a writer. That is who you are and that is what you do. Embracing that identity will help you through writer’s block, rejection, and the distractions writers face. By accepting your identity as a writer, you WILL plow on. You will write. You will succeed at whatever level God has for you. You will no more give up your writer identity than you would surrender your Christian identity. Writing, for a Christian, is a calling. It’s a destiny. Knowing that—and embracing that—means you know you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. You know you will have serious setbacks…but you will persist because it’s in your writer DNA.

If you refuse or procrastinate in accepting your identity as a writer—perhaps you weren’t meant to be a writer after all.

I’m a bit behind in writing my New Year’s post, but that’s my life right now.  I’m busy–as are you–but let’s not forget the importance writing has in our life.  Just as we can procrastinate the disciplines of our spiritual life (prayer, Bible study, worship, fellowship), so too can we put off our writing time.  Let’s not do that in 2017.  In fact, can I suggest a few late resolutions we can make for the rest of the year?

  1. Do not procrastinate with your writing. Move it up several notches on your to-do list.
  2. Find ways to improve your writing ability. Take an adult class in novel or non-fiction writing, join or start a local critique group, read some of the great books on the craft of writing. Do what you can to become a better writer this year than you were last year.
  3. Identify the writer’s conference you will attend this year.  Block out the time, save your money, and be there!
  4. Read more. It’s almost impossible to be a good writer without being a well-read reader.
  5. Ask God to give you a word for your writing in 2017. For me, the Lord impressed the word “urgency” on my heart recently. I don’t take that to mean “write faster” but “write faithfully in light of the times in which we’re living.” I think most of you understand.
  6. Finally–and this is the hardest one of all–let’s write deeper in 2017. To be honest, as a reader, editor, and agent, I’m becoming disappointed in how light-weight the books being published are. Will any of them still be in print 100 years from now–in short, a classic? How about 20 years from now? 10? With God as our talent-giver, can’t we expect more out of what we write? It’s true that deeper writing may be harder to sell, but let’s write it and see what God does with it. I’m convinced He wants something deeper out of His writers than what we’re presently delivering.  Are you with me? (And that applies to both fiction and non-fiction writers).

I’ll be checking in with you from time to time to see how you’re doing.  Stay faithful to your calling!

 

I recently remarked on Facebook that I was thinking of going back to writing fiction. I had just received a nice Amazon reader review for a novel I wrote 25 years ago and it reminded me that I’ve always wanted to write more fiction at some point in my career. I even had a title I liked. That’s a good start—a title, but no story to go with it.

Then yesterday I met with a writing colleague over coffee and the conversation eventually led to my mulling over a return to fiction. I told her I had a title but that was all. One thing led to another and about twenty minutes later as a result of our conversation, I had my characters, a brief understanding of the plot, and the setting—rural Ohio, early 20th century. I’ve had this sort of thing happen before. You probably have too. To me, that’s one function of a good writer’s group. In addition to the critique function of the group, the cross fertilization of creative minds is a powerful thing. If you can’t get past a bump in your book, you may need someone to talk it out with.

That’s not the end of my story, however, After I left my colleague, I had a wonderful serendipitous event that even further propelled my interest in returning to fiction. On the way home I dropped in at one of my favorite local thrift stores to look at their used books. There I found a copy of a 1901 book on the pioneer people of Fairfield County, Ohio. That will aid in my research immeasurably. This sequence of events is something you’ve probably experienced too. Sometimes that’s the way God directs our writing. In my case, it went something like this:

Title idea –> Unexpected Amazon reader review –> Fruitful conversation with colleague –> Useful research book falls into my hands.

I don’t know the next arrow…or if there will be one. And, frankly, I don’t even know if this book idea will go anywhere. The point is that I have a LOT of ideas and it’s fun to watch and see how God opens and closes doors on our projects. I’ll just have to wait and see how this idea fares in the long run.

If your WIP is troubling you and you don’t know where to go next, I suggest a nice conversation over coffee with a writing colleague. It can work wonders.

“Talent isn’t enough. You need motivation—and persistence, too. What Steinbeck called a blend of faith and arrogance. When you’re young, plain old poverty can be enough, along with an insatiable hunger for recognition. You have to have that feeling of “I’ll show them.” If you don’t have it, don’t become a writer. It’s part of the animal, it’s primitive, but if you don’t want to rise above the crowd, forget it.”  Leon Uris (1924-2003)

I’ve been hitting my favorite thrift stores again. This time I picked up a copy of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Good Writing.

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This is a compilation of articles from Writer’s Digest magazine dating back to the 1920s. The book includes some wonderful articles, but I was most interested in a section in the middle of the book called “How I Write.” In this section, several prominent authors, past and present, offer up a paragraph or two of writing advice. The quote above is from the late Leon Uris, author of Exodus, Trinity, Topaz, and many other novels from the late 20th century.

His quote grabbed my attention because it touches on an ingredient of writing success I don’t often hear about. And that ingredient is: YOU REALLY HAVE TO WANT IT!

Okay, excuse my shouting in all caps, but you get the point. We always hear about craft, voice, characterization, plot development, and all the rest, but rarely are we reminded that successful writers are most often writers desperately hungry for success. Hungry enough to overcome the evil influences of procrastination, self-doubt, fear of failure, impatience, writer’s block, and all the other land mines we writers face daily.

Do you really want to succeed as a writer? Have you ever once in the face of repeated rejection said to yourself, “I’ll show them! I’ll write a book that’ll make them rue the day they rejected me!” I hope you have. I hope you’ve said those words mentally or aloud with images of all your doubting friends and relatives in mind. Yes, even your sixth grade teacher who laughed aloud when you said you wanted to be a writer. Or maybe your spouse who begrudges your love affair with the keyboard. Or maybe even one of the members of your writing group who always finds something picky to complain about in your manuscript.

This “I’ll show them” attitude is useful as one of several motivators, but it can become dangerous if not properly channeled. Anger can’t be your only motivation, but when added to a regular writing routine, persistence, revision, patience, and prayer, it can give you that extra push to success.

I give you permission to get angry at your detractors. And especially angry at the sender of that most rejection. Go ahead, you show ‘em!  Get hungry to succeed!

“I’ve got a folder full of rejection slips that I keep. Know why? Because those same editors are now calling my agent hoping I’ll write a book or novella for them. Things change. A rejection slip today might mean a frantic call to your agent in six months.” – MaryJanice Davidson (1969-      ).

From time to time I try to blog about the essence of great writing which, to me, is the ability to capture what Henry James called “felt life.” More recently, I found a description of this mysterious quality in Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. (The movie based on this book is just being released). In quoting the great editor of authors such as Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Berg writes of a time when Perkins had to explain to Fitzgerald why some of his short stories had been rejected by Scribner’s magazine, but would surely be published elsewhere. He wrote, “The great beauty of them is that they are alive. Ninety percent of the stories that appear are derived from life through the rarefying medium of literature. Yours are direct from life it seems to me.”

This uncanny but utterly artistic ability to produce “felt life” or stories that are “alive” in (primarily fiction) stories is both hard to explain and even harder to teach someone how to do. I’ve puzzled over this for many years now. When I see writing that is flat (but probably publishable), how do I instruct the writer to go back (or start over) and write “direct from life?” How do I tell the author their story is not “alive.”  Truthfully, I have no idea, even after many rejections of stories that lacked this quality.

But as the years go by, I think I understand more about the kinds of writers who accomplish this task without training. In fact, since I doubt it can be trained at all, perhaps this gift is simply the writer’s equivalent of capturing what the talented portrait artist captures on canvas. (Note the operative word is “talented.” I’m sure many portrait artists may be technically adept at their craft, yet still lack the ability to impute life into their work).

Whether it’s an inborn gift or (doubtfully) a craft that can be learned, I think I see that the writer of “live” fiction possesses. It’s this: This writer sees his or her characters and stories as true in ways other writers do not, and cannot, view their characters and their stories.

When a journalist is writing a story about a newsworthy event he or she is reporting on, that journalist is writing something that has really happened to real people. The good journalist then captures that real event on paper, a journalistic feat that should be fairly common among good journalists.

A novelist, on the other hand, is challenged by the knowledge that the story he or she is writing didn’t really happen….or did it? An author capturing the “felt life” of a story must subconsciously believe it truly is happening as the story is unfolding on the computer screen. Consciously, he or she knows it is not happening, but on the deeper creative level, there’s a reality that bursts forth on the page that will surprise even the author. Again I repeat: how this really happens, I have no idea. I just know that it does happen and mostly to great writers.

I’m actually rather shocked that Perkins said that ninety percent of the stories he saw weren’t direct from life. Wow. That means one story in ten did have that quality. I wish I could say that’s my experience…but it isn’t. I find it a challenge even in my own writing to bring forth “felt life.”

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of the degree of imagination a great writer has. He or she can imagine the story as a reality in ways a less imaginative writer cannot. Perhaps it starts in childhood with something as common as having imaginary friends. As an only child, I certainly had at least a couple of imaginary friends with whom I could devise some great mischief (aka known as “plots”). Without siblings to play and fight with, I had to entertain myself—and that can become boring real fast….unless I invent someone to play with who is real to me. Real on that deeper level that happens to coincide with the well of creativity developing in me as a child.

I hope this makes sense. I hope you’ve experienced “felt life” as a reader. Even more, if you’re a writer, I hope you have the gift of producing felt life in your work.

To be sure, I will revisit this topic again as I continue to unravel the mystery of “felt life.”

In my previous post I warned against taking the advice of writers/editors/agents who suggest you turn a non-fiction memoir into a novel.

Today I met with a writer friend and a related topic came up. This author was working on novel that she could write as “prairie” fiction. That was what she wanted to do. But she was told that prairie fiction doesn’t sell right now, so she should try to recast it in another more saleable direction.

I understand the reasoning behind that suggestion, but let me offer a couple of reminders before she goes to all that work. First, it may be true that prairie fiction is not selling as well now as it once did, but that can change. By the time she finishes the book and a publisher is secured, prairie fiction may once again be all the rage.

Fiction genres are cyclically popular. One year biblical fiction is hot, the next year it’s cooled off. Amish fiction has been around for a while now and still sells pretty well. I can remember, though, when Amish fiction was non-existent (except for Joseph Yoder’s Rosanna of the Amish which I carried in my Christian bookstores). Can you imagine if someone had told Beverly Lewis to forget about her desire to write Amish fiction and focus on something more marketable? What about Jan Karon? What if someone had read the synopsis for At Home in Mitford and talked her out of writing it? What about The Shack? Or Left Behind? Or This Present Darkness?

Even Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly, the breakthrough prairie romance, was a gamble for Bethany House. At that time, in most Christian bookstores, Grace Livingston Hill was still the most popular fiction author on the shelf…and that was decades after her death.

A second consideration is the actual writing of the book. As the saying goes, “No tears in the author, no tears in the reader.” I believe a writer writes best when they’re writing in a genre they love and are comfortable with. When that also happens to be a popular genre, so much the better. But if it’s not popular, just keep writing. By the time you finish, it may be that your genre is climbing the bestseller lists.

One caveat. Yes, there are some genres that are always going to be harder to sell than others. That’s a factor too. But if you love your preferred genre, just remember that all of the titles I mentioned above were breakthrough novels in their genre. Someone had to go first. Maybe you will have to pioneer your genre. You will have to write very, very well, but writing to your passion is, in my opinion, the most important factor in deciding how to write a novel.

Frankly, I have to believe if an author writes a stellar prairie novel, I can sell it to a publisher. I’d rather try to sell a stellar prairie novel than a mediocre contemporary romance.

And remember, never rewrite a proposal or manuscript based on one professional’s opinion. Ask three or four trusted colleagues to weigh in before you go to all that trouble.

Recently I was at a conference where I met with a writer who was working on a non-fiction memoir. It needed work, but it was viable, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when we met again and he told me he had been advised by two others (faculty members at this conference) to write it as a novel, not as a non-fiction book. He scrapped the memoir and began his fact-based novel.

I think he was given bad advice. I’m assuming the other two faculty members believe that if you can write non-fiction, you can write fiction just as well.

I disagree. Fiction and non-fiction are not the same and, in my opinion, take a different set of talents. Yes, there’s some overlapping. Some fiction techniques are useful in writing non-fiction and vice versa. But few authors succeed at both fiction and non-fiction.

The stumbling block as I see it is that turning a true-life experience into a novel is handicapped by the reality of what actually happened. Fiction is a made-up story. When you try to pour non-fiction realities into a made-up story, you’re no longer free to tailor the story according to your creative imagination.

In my days as an editor, I rejected many novels based on “my grandmother’s life” or “my uncle’s experience in World War II.” Most of the time when I suggested a plot problem or an unbelievable scenario, the reply was, “but it really happened that way.” In fiction, we don’t care if it really happened that way. We want it to be believable and compelling. Non-fiction writers trying to turn a true story into fiction rarely succeed at either.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s fine to write both fiction and non-fiction. I do that myself. But for every book we want to write, we need to ask ourselves and ask the story itself, Is this a novel or is this a non-fiction book? And when we receive the answer, the next question is Do I have the capability of writing it that way?

Not all writers can write both fiction and non-fiction. One of our tasks as writers is to know our strengths and weaknesses and then major on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. You may want to try writing a true story as a fiction piece as an exercise to see if you can do it well….but please don’t write it for publication without getting some input from several editors/agents/other writers you respect.

Write the story as it’s meant to be told—whether fiction or non-fiction. And then only if you have the skills to write it that way.

It’s been while since I blogged about writing. As many of you know, I retired from my position as a senior editor at Harvest House Publishers and have embarked on a new career as a literary agent. From time to time I’d like to let you in on what I’m discovering from this new vantage point. I’ll just mention two discoveries today.

First, I’m finding that it’s better to not have published at all, than to have self-published and had low sales. Other agents and editors may disagree, but at least if you’re unpublished and have a great book idea with solid writing and are working on a good platform, you’ve got something going for you.

But if you have a great book idea, solid writing, and have self-published to poor sales, that last factor is going to carry a lot of weight with any perspective royalty publisher I pitch the book to. That is literally the first question they ask: “How has the self-published edition sold?”

I may give the answer and then follow up with all the accolades about how great I personally think the book is, but that will mean nothing if the sales were poor. It will take an exceptional book for a publisher to say yes to after having been told of poor sales. This is not an admonition from me to not self-publish. It just means if you’re going to self-publish, you must have a great marketing plan in order to see the book sell. And you’re going to want that even if you have no plans to eventually try to find a royalty publisher for your book.

The second thing I’ve noticed is really something I already knew from my years as an editor—and even before that, my years as a bookseller in a retail store. That is that, sad to say, quality writing often goes unpublished. Or is published and does not sell. I bet every editor I know can tell of great books they pitched to their publishers, only to see them shot down at the committee level. Right now I’m thinking about an author who not only deserves publication, but deserves strong sales. His book is urgently needed. It’s aimed at youth and it’s far different from the standard youth fare CBA publishers take on. The irony is that this author knows how to connect with youth on the written page and I honestly wonder if that’s somehow off putting to some publishers. He doesn’t write in Christianese. Why, he actually uses the word “butt” in his book. Gasp. His books are funny, wise, and extremely relevant. He spoke at a conference I attended and not only did his books sell out, he had to have more books shipped in next-day-air. Yes, he is published, but by a smaller publisher (turned down by larger ones). He deserves to be an A-list author. I hope someday he is.

Not only can editors recount experiences like this, but so can agents. You take on a book proposal as a labor of love, all the while suspecting that no publisher will take it. I’ve honestly thought about some books, This is too good. It’ll never get past the committee. That’s not always true, but it’s true often enough to make me scratch my head.

In the coming weeks I’ll try to let you know some other discoveries I’m making as an agent. Stay tuned.