Yes, stop it with the creativity….for a while anyway. Being creative doesn’t get you published. Many very creative people never make a go of their writing career.   Why?  Because they’re so busy being creative, they’re not taking the time to plan their career.   And many mediocre writers succeed because they’ve stopped being creative long enough to plan to succeed.

I’m going to put on my drill sergeant’s hat now (reluctantly of course) and have you take a little test. How many of the following statements are true of you?

1. You have more than half a dozen unfinished writing projects somewhere on your computer.

2. You resent the intrusion of having to write a book proposal, rather than just work on the book itself.

3. You write when you can with no specified writing time, often missing two or three (or more) days at a time.

4. You are a self-confessed procrastinator about your writing.

5. You’ve come up with acceptable reasons for not attending a writer’s conference this year.

6. You have no idea how different your writing career will be one year from now.

7. You do not impose deadlines on your projects.

8. You’ll skip writing to watch a mediocre television program or spend more time on Facebook.

9. Your writing future consists more of hopes than it does of plans.

10. You’re still bummed about your most recent rejection. (Get over it! Blame it on the editor if it helps you get past it 🙂  ).

If you answered yes to a few of the above, that’s okay. Welcome to the real world. None of us is perfect. But if more than half are true of you, you need to turn off the right side of your brain—the creative side—and engage the left side of your brain to set up a plan to succeed.  That plan can consist of several possible elements, not limited to these below.

1. Compose a mission statement for your writing. What is your goal as a writer?  Keep it brief. Just a couple of sentences should suffice.  A mission statement will help you stay focused.

2. Create a list of your writing projects prioritized by their importance. You can define importance in the way that works best for you.  For me, the list is prioritized by my passion combined with what I perceive as the marketability of the idea.  I’ve just winnowed my list down to 44 items.  If I live long enough to complete 5-10 of them, I’ll be happy.  We all know not all ideas are created equal. Some are true duds and can eventually be discarded. Some simply arrive before their time and must wait several notches down on the list until they “ripen.”

3. Take your top three projects and assign deadlines for some aspect of their progress. For instance, set a deadline for when you will have a completed proposal on number one on your prioritized list.  Set a deadline for a “one-sheet” description of book number two on your list.  And a deadline for a paragraph summary of book three. Other possible deadlines: securing an agent, sending a query, conducting an interview for your project, etc.  Most writing projects are unique enough to have several possible deadlines.  Be sure and write your deadlines and goals on your calendar.  Keep them in mind daily. Move toward the goal with anticipation of setting a new deadline when the present one is reached.

4. Set aside a specific time each day to write.  For those of us who are admitted procrastinators, the trick is to tell ourselves that this sacred time needs to be only five minutes.  Anyone can sit down and write for five minutes. But hopefully you’ll discover, as I have, that those first five minutes are the hardest. One you commit your backside to the chair and begin to write, the five minutes will turn into fifteen, then into half an hour and beyond.  Simply committing yourself to those five minutes is key.  And even if you do only write for five minutes and move on to something else, you’ve started a habit.  Now keep it up.

5. This will be the hardest for some of you.  Search out a good Christian writer’s conference near you and plan to attend.  I know the reason this is hard is often due to economic reasons.  If that’s the case, ask the conference director about scholarships. Or about working for your tuition. Back when I was just starting, I couldn’t afford to pay for a conference, so I volunteered driving conferees back and forth to the airport.  Another option is to see if your church will pay your way. After all, for most of us, writing is a ministry. Pray the money in. Just do what you can to be there.

Okay, there are just five steps to take to begin planning to succeed as a writer. Add more as necessary. When you set these five in motion, go get creative again.

If all this makes writing sound like a job….bingo! A pleasurable job to be sure, but a job and a calling nonetheless.

Taking off my drill sergeant’s hat now.

 

I’ve previously mentioned pantsers and plotters as two commonly known ways of writing a novel. Plotters are those who outline their novel ahead of time and pretty much stick to the outline (with some bunny trails and replotting allowed). Pantsers are those who write by the seat of their pants, abhorring the idea of knowing what comes next in their story. Like the reader, they want to be surprised at what happens when they turn the page.

Today, I’d like to propose a third option. That third option is what I’ll call the flashers. (Don’t worry…I’m not going there). I bring this up because I’m somewhat of a flasher myself. A flasher is one who, after a reasonable time of brooding over his novel (read my blog on brooding here), begins to see flashes of his novel, not necessarily in chronological (or any) order.

As an example, for some time now I’ve been brooding about my men’s novel. I know the characters and generally where they’re going, but not specifically (in that way, I’m somewhat of a pantser). One of the men is the father of the main character. He’s about 70 and a lonely widower. Although this character is well known to me in my mind, he, as of now, is still nameless.

Well, last night I had a flash of this nameless character and in this flash (which I perceive as coming near the end of the book), the poor guy had a sudden unexpected heart attack. It struck me hard. I hadn’t thought that would happen….but now I know it must. I also saw in this flash what will happen in terms of his survival of this heart attack. I’m not telling that here, but suffice to say that knowing the outcome will give me some fodder for the ultimate outcome of the novel.

Oddly enough, only mere minutes after the heart attack flash, I had another flash about this same character. In this flash, he had signed up for an internet dating service and was matched up with a gregarious (too gregarious) woman named Dolly. The scene that flashed before me was humorous with our poor old man suffering through a date that he knew within five minutes would be their last date. Dolly, on the other hand, was charmed by our nameless character and chattered her head off for the three hours of their date.

Okay, so I got these two flashes. What now? Well, the important thing is to write these scenes as I saw them, without worrying where they’ll show up in the novel. As I continue to brood, get to know my characters, and experience more flashes, my hope is that the novel will gather enough momentum in my mind for me to begin to put it on paper. As I’m given to procrastination (as are many of you, I’m sure), I must be careful not to overbrood to the point of not beginning the thing. I’ve actually started a few times, but each time, deleted what I had. As you know by now, I’m absolutely obsessed with having the right opening page to novels. Sadly, none of my attempts at a beginning satisfied me. I suspect when I finally hit on that dynamite opening, I will begin the entire thing in earnest by assembling some of my flashes and see how they connect or how I can gently encourage them to connect.

How about you? Are you now or have you ever been a fellow flasher?

Last time I blogged on Five Rules about Writing I (Sorta) Disagree With. I concluded with a promise to discuss some rules of good writing I do agree with. It won’t surprise you that they’re pretty obvious. Let’s take a look at five such rules anyway.

1. The first rule is the one I referred to as Isaac Asimov’s principle: Either it sounds right or it doesn’t sound right. As a writer who wants to be read by others, you will need to write to the inner ear of the prospective reader. Some so-called “good” writing does not do this. The grammar may be correct, the words are in decent order, and the meaning may even be clear. But the reader puts the book down anyway. Why? Because the writing, as literally correct as it may be, doesn’t resonate with the reader’s inner ear. The best way to write to the inner ear of the reader is to have a strong narrative inner ear yourself. If you read with a good inner ear, it’s likely you’ll also write with a good inner ear.

2. Closely related to number 1 is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Some may dispute this rule—and in fact, one of my favorite novels was written by a man who is not a reader….at all. But in all my years of writing and editing, he is the only one I’ve met. I thus declare this to be an unbreakable rule, despite having met one exception.

Reading develops your inner ear as a writer. In fact, one of the exercises I recommend to writers as they begin their writing session (especially if they have trouble getting started) is to type word for word from the lines of one of their favorite books. They will soon pick up the rhythms of the writer and will (hopefully) continue writing in that desirable rhythm for the rest of their writing session.

Along the same line, the February issue of Christian Communicator has an article on author Dandi Daley Mackall in which she advises writers, “Read. Read like crazy. It gets the story form in your head.” Yes, that’s true. And reading also develops your inner ear.

3. A strong beginning to whatever you write—novel, article, or non-fiction book—is essential. You may have to wrestle for days to get it just right—but do it. Find those magical first lines that not only effectively invite the reader into the world of your manuscript, but keeps them there. Magical opening lines are important to you, too, not just the reader. Finding the perfect opening lines is like finding the exact loose thread in a ball of yarn that when you pull it, all the rest of the yarn (hey, that’s a pun!) follows along. In my workshops I offer up some examples of great opening lines. Below are just a few. As you read, notice how you as a reader will almost certainly go on from this line to the next…and then the next…and so on until you reach the last page. In almost every case below, you reach the end of the sentence with a “why?” or “what happens next?” on your mind. Also notice that by “magical” I’m not referring to something other worldly. For the most part, these opening lines are quite simple and uncomplicated. The point is that they arouse interest in the reader.

Author: Benchley, Peter
Title: Jaws
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.

Author: Bronte, Charlotte
Title: Jane Eyre
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Author: du Maurier, Daphne
Title: Rebecca
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.

Author: Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Author: Tolkien, J.R.R.
Title: The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Author: Tyler, Anne
Title: Breathing Lessons
Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.

True, some first lines that grab me may not grab you, but the idea is to create a strong enough opening that you will capture enough readers that will follow you to the end of the book…and into your next one as well.

4. There is much debate about whether it’s better to be a “plotter” or a “pantser.” The plotters are those who plot out their book (usually a novel) well in advance and pretty much stick to the plot as they write. A pantser is so-named because he writes by the seat of his pants, seldom knowing that comes next. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser really doesn’t matter. Do what works for you. But what I do want you to commit to is to write your crummy first draft in its entirety before you go back to edit.

This rule, like some of the others, is controversial. Many successful writers feel they must get every line perfect before moving on to the next line. That may be well and good if you’re an experienced writer, but I’m supposing most of you are in the early or mid-stage of your writing career. For that reason—especially if you tend toward procrastination, as do many writers—you really need to get the story down on paper in its entirely, then go back and do as many subsequent drafts as necessary. I think Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests six or seven drafts. Do not send a first or even second draft of your work to an editor or agent you’re trying to impress! If possible, let the manuscript sit for a couple of weeks or more after that first draft, then go back and do the next draft.

5. Like many writers, I collect good quotes about writing. One of my favorite relating to the writing of fiction comes from author Sinclair Lewis. He said, “People read fiction for emotion, not information.” If you write fiction, please remember that you’re not just telling a story or passing along information. Your goal is to emotionally move your reader. Preferably to tears. Doesn’t matter if they’re tears of sadness or tears of joy. Just make sure they’re not tears of boredom. The best way to satisfy a reader is touch their emotions in an unforgettable way. Do this and you’ll have a ready buyer for your next book. Of course, non-fiction can also move the reader, depending on the genre. A memoir certainly should move us, but not a how-to book. Know what will move your target reader and aim your entire story toward that point or points where you know you can have them reaching for the Kleenex.

Although I’ve limited my unbreakable “rules” to five for the purposes of this blog, there are certainly many more. The best rules, though, are the ones that work for you. When you find such a rule, add it to your list of unbreakable rules.

The late novelist Somerset Maugham famously said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” And yet the pundits (including me, sometimes) continually offer up the “rules” to good writing. Some of these rules are valid–such as “show, don’t tell;” though even that rule is flexible. Telling is sometimes the best way to move the story along.

But there are other rules that I think are dubious at best and, when understood properly, can be broken. Let’s consider five of them.

1. “Write what you know.” How many times have we heard this one? Of course, writing what we know can be powerful, but so can writing what we don’t know. Many of us, in fact, write in order to find out things we don’t know. Not just factual things, but experiential things. I have never experienced the loss of a spouse through death (thank you, Lord), but that won’t keep me from imagining what it feels like as I write my novel. Here’s a great exercise in writing what you don’t know: Invent a character entirely your opposite and, by using your imagination, make yourself understand what motivates this person. What outlandish thing would this character do that you would never do? Can you get inside that person’s skin and experience their motivation for this action?

If Eudora Welty, one of my favorite writers, wrote only what she knew, she would not have won the Pulitzer Prize. As she once noted, “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” So all writers who have lived sheltered lives, don’t despair! Turn within and imagine what you don’t know.

2. “Go through your manuscript and take out all the adverbs.” Have you heard that one? I suppose no one would really suggest removing all the adverbs from a manuscript, but the impression one gets is that adverbs are weak, inferior. Sure, they can be….sometimes. But adverbs have a purpose. I would rewrite this rule as “use adverbs to their best advantage.”

3. “Write even if you know you’ll never be published.” I may be in the minority, but I hate this advice. Apparently the idea is that a writer writes because he has to (which I agree with) and that writing is somehow its own reward (which I disagree with). I don’t know about you, but I’m writing to be published. I’m glad I don’t know whether or not I will have more books published in the future because if I knew my writing would never see the light of day, I’d probably be tempted to quit. I write to be read by others. For me, writing for the express purpose of being published is a great incentive to be a better writer. To write for oneself is to write for far too small an audience.

4. George Orwell took one “rule” to the extreme when he issued the decree “Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active [voice].” Yes, the active voice is usually better, but this is a rule like “show, don’t tell” that can be broken in certain circumstances. Orwell was wrong to use the word “never.” The trick is knowing when the passive voice is the best choice. And to make that call, I rely on one rule that I truly do adhere to—-and that’s Isaac Asimov’s rule “Either it sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.” Sometimes the passive voice wins out. It just sounds better than the active voice. Employing Asimov’s rule comes from having a good “ear” for the story in question. I’d say developing your inner ear is one of the most crucial lessons aspiring writers must learn. As I edit manuscripts for publication, many of the changes I make are in accordance with the Asimov rule. Sometimes I wonder why the writer didn’t “hear” the more excellent way of casting a particular sentence.

5. The final “rule” has to do with submitting your manuscript. There are apparently many do’s and don’ts involved with having your manuscript read by an editor or an agent. Mostly they’re right…but as I added the word “sorta” to the title of this blog, I was deliberately qualifying some of my disagreement with the rules. This rule usually says that your manuscript must look absolutely spotless and “professional” and be submitted by an agent or through some other “gatekeeper.” And while that’s certainly a good recommendation, let’s be honest and acknowledge that the most professional looking submission-—or agented submission—-won’t save a crummy manuscript. If the writing is mediocre or downright bad, I don’t give a hoot how professional it looks or which agent sent it to me. On the other hand, if your manuscript comes in over the transom (again, a breaking of one of the “rules” of submission) and has a few typos and a smudge on the first page…but is an excellent story, I’m going to sit up and take notice. Other editors and agents may disagree and turn up their noses at the less than perfectly submitted manuscript, but that’s okay. Truthfully, I have found a few gems among the unwashed and unscrubbed submissions that have come my way. Please note: this is NOT an invitation to submit shoddy looking manuscripts in an unprofessional manner. Do a good job of presentation. Just know that good writing trumps all else. I’ve written about ten published books now and my very first book was published because I bent a rule of submission. Any good editor worth their salt would recommend against what I did….but it worked for me. Just don’t be an obnoxious rule bender. 

Your take-away from this is that when you hear about certain “rules” of good writing, do take them to heart….but always ask yourself “under what circumstances might this rule not apply?” Or “is there a way to gently bend this rule to accomplish my goal?”

Next time I’ll blog about the few rules of writing that I do agree with. You already know one of them: Isaac Asimov’s first rule of writing. That’s a keeper!

In my previous blog, I tried my best to discourage you as a writer. If I succeeded, you’re probably not reading this. You’ve probably taken up skydiving or alligator wrestling–something far safer than writing.

But if you are still with me, let’s start the year off right with some encouragement for writers. As I did last time, I’ll call on some famous writers of the past to help us out. We’ll start with perhaps the noblest observation about writing I could find. William Faulkner said, “It is the writer’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and price and compassion and pity and sacrifice which has been the glory of his past.”

Alas, most writers had a different take on writing, usually more metaphysical. One that rings true to me is the desire to live through the lives of characters on the page. The great novelist Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I want more than one life. I insist on a wider selection.” Sherwood Anderson (one of my favorite writers) concurs. “I think the whole glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” Of course, there’s always the other side of the story as playwright Henrik Ibsen noted: “It’s just as well that it came to an end. The endless cohabitation with these imaginary people had begun to make me not a little nervous.” Being a fiction writer is, after all, a little like getting paid for being schizophrenic.

Other writers have a slightly different take on it. I love Maya Angelou’s observation: “In all my work what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.” Nadine Gordimer is on the same track when she says, “Writing is making sense of life.” I think most good writers write in order to find out what they themselves believe about life, God, and the great issues of life. In that way, writing—whether fiction or non-fiction—is like an adventure in self-discovery.

Why do you write what you write? Is it to make money? To change lives? To discover who you are? All answers are valid, but probably the best answer is that, despite the drawbacks, the discouragements, and the rejections, you write because you really must. To not write isn’t an option. Encouragement is fine, we all need that. But encouragement from others can only take us so far. Writing is by its nature a solitary profession. (Except for your fictional friends who try to take you to task over the next plot point you’d planned).

One thing I discovered in doing these back-to-back blogs about the miseries and the joys of writing is that I found far more quotes from writers who found writing to be either hard or even torturous. That really didn’t surprise me. In the end, I suppose Gustave Flaubert summed it up with “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.”

On a much lighter note, as for me, I’m with H.L. Mencken who observed, “I write to attain that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved, which a cow enjoys on giving milk.” Not a very glamorous explanation, but if you’ve had that feeling, you know it’s true. Crude, but true.

It’s a slow day in Bloggerville. That is to say I’ve had a hard time deciding what to blog about. I finally decided to get in the holiday mood by discouraging a few writers if I can. Of course, the secret is that if what I say discourages you to the point of giving up your writing, you were never cut out to be a writer in the first place. If you really want to succeed, you won’t give up, no matter how discouraged you get. And rest assured (as most of you already know), you WILL find ample opportunities to be discouraged as you plod your way to success. If you bear with me through today’s blog, I promise to balance it with an encouraging blog next time.

The best way I know to discourage you is to let the pros do it. So here are observations by some writers who paid the price for their success. They knew discouragement even more intimately than you do. Following that, I’ll close with the most discouraging quotes about writing I could find. I make no apologies for using authors of the past (all now dead) as examples. I think we learn best from those who devoted their lives to becoming great writers. 

First up, let’s consider the very prolific Taylor Caldwell. She has been gone for quite a few years now, but she wrote some real blockbusters in her day (Testimony of Two Men, Dear and Glorious Physician, Great Lion of God, etc). After an exhausting childhood and early adulthood, Taylor Caldwell, at age twenty, started writing seriously in hopes of becoming successful. It was 18 years later her first novel was published. During those 18 years, she wrote six unpublished novels, collecting rejection slip after rejection slip. “I spent every penny I could save out of a tiny salary to send my novels to publishers,” she said. “There was rarely any evidence my submitted manuscripts had been read, and frequently the precious stamps I enclosed for return postage for the manuscripts were confiscated by someone in the publishing house and the manuscript returned to me, collect.”

Would you persevere for 18 years, enduring such rejection?

Next, let’s consider the late Louis L’Amour. He says, “If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write; write whenever, wherever, however, but write. Don’t wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn on the faucet before the water starts to flow.” About his work habits, he says, “I work never less than five hours a day at the typewriter, that is, occasionally as much as fourteen….I have no hobbies. Hobbies are for idle time and I have none. All my activities: hiking, shooting, tracking, learning about plants and animals are geared to my work…..As to discipline, my wife says I’m the most disciplined person she knows….my schedule might seem very rough to some, but to me it is the essence of living.”

How about you? Are you disciplined about your writing? Have you arranged your “hobbies” so that they all fit into the greater pursuit of writing?

In speaking about his writing, the late John Macdonald recounted several paragraphs of the agony he went through during his apprenticeship as a writer. Then he writes, “It is the memory of the amount of work it took to learn my trade that often makes me less than tolerant with the stranger who says earnestly, as though we share something special, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write.” When my mood is especially stringent, I answer, “Really! I’ve always wanted to be a brain surgeon.”

Popular author Mary Stewart, when asked if the writing of her first book was easy, replied, “No. It was not easy, and no writer worth his salt every found it easy or ever will….writing is very hard work, and perhaps for that reason, can be very rewarding.”

James Michener says of his novels, “I write all my books slowly with two fingers on an old typewriter and the actual task of getting the words on paper is difficult. Nothing I write is good enough to be used in the first draft, not even important personal letters, so I am required to write everything at least twice. Important work, like a novel, must be written over and over, up to six or seven times. For example, my novel Hawaii went very slowly and needed constant revision. Since the final version contained about 500,000 words, and since I wrote it all many times, I had to type, in my painstaking fashion, about 3,000,000 words.” He goes on to recount his research time before he even began writing the novel. He consulted “several thousand” books in his research and says “there were about 500 that I kept in my office.” He also conducted about 200 interviews, each lasting two to three hours. Now that’s research….and part of the writing process.

Discouraged yet? Maybe these quotes will finish you off…

William Styron: “[If you’re a writer] loneliness is your companion for life. If you don’t want to be lonely, get into TV.”

Georges Simenon: “Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”

Rebecca West: “It’s a nauseous process.”

Jessamyn West: “Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

John Steinbeck: “A good writer always works at the impossible.”

Andre Gide: “If a young person can refrain from writing, he shouldn’t hesitate to do so.”

No matter your age, Gide’s words still hold true. Only write if you find it’s impossible that you not write.

If you’re still with me next week, I’ll offer some encouraging words.

I’m an admitted piddler. I’m also very good at it (due to much practice). I suppose every writing session of mine includes a certain amount of piddling. I think every writer should be, to some degree, a good piddler. The challenge is to not over-piddle and thus waste time that could be spent writing.

I’m reminded of the importance of piddling from having recently read an old interview with the late Irving Stone. If you’re not acquainted with Stone, you can see his many books on Amazon. Mostly he wrote biographical novels.

Asked about his writing routine, this is what Stone said:

“The fact that I go sit down at my desk doesn’t mean that I begin work. Sometimes I can go sit down and am absolutely obtuse. I’m dense, I’m confused. I feel lousy, I wish I had another job, and for a half-hour, hour and a half, while I piddle, I read a little bit out of a book, I read the morning paper, you know, just like every writer But at least I’m there, and when my mind clears, which hopefully it does every day, I can get some work done.”

Of course, those of us who don’t have the luxury of writing full time must allow less piddling time. Unlike Stone, we cannot afford to piddle for an hour and a half. Thirty minutes is tops. You have to earn the right to piddle for 90 minutes.

My piddling is not reading the newspaper, but I do read short stuff from other books (as apparently did Stone). I may stand and look out the window. I might go through my e-mails and delete a bunch of old ones. I might rearrange the stuff on the top of my desk. There are many useful ways to piddle. My favorite way to piddle is to work at the Starbucks café in Barnes and Noble and go browse the shelves every few minutes. Even at home, I find browsing the shelves of my personal library is a useful form of piddling.

For those of us who do piddle, we find that piddling is a useful form of procrastination. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but if you’re a writer who piddles first, you know how important piddling can be to the creative process. It gets you ready. It allows your mind to clear, just as it did for Stone. Agatha Christie used to say that washing the dinner dishes was an excellent way to plot a novel. I consider that her form of piddling (though not mine!). If I sat down and was required to launch in to my work-in-progress within seconds of opening the manuscript file, I’d likely produce nonsense. Of course, there are no real rules to piddling. There ARE days when I might very well dispense with piddling and launch into the work. Piddling is simply an option we need to be aware of, profit from, reign in when it gets out of hand, and not feel guilty about.

How do you piddle?

I had a good laugh with this. I wrote it, posted it, and then discovered I’d blogged on this same topic in October. Ditzy! Oh well. After removing it, I decided to repost it. Maybe someone needs to hear it twice. Here ’tis…

It’s December. You know what that means, writers. Before the Christmas rush is fully upon us and then the new year, it’s time to plan for 2014.

Every year at this time, we writers need to set some goals for the next twelve months and plan how we’re going to meet those goals. Maybe I can help by offering a few suggestions. Or, if you’re like me and you work best when someone actually expects something from you, consider this a homework assignment from me. If you don’t complete the assignment, I’ll come by your desk and rap your knuckles with a ruler!

1. Resolve to come up with at least three new book ideas during the year and write a full proposal for each one. But before you go to the agonizing trouble of putting together a full proposal, it wouldn’t hurt to simply query a good editor or fellow writer and see what they think about the ideas. No sense going to all that work if the idea is a non-starter.

2. If you write fiction, resolve to write one complete first draft of a new novel…one you’ve not yet started.

3. If your writing career is stalled, ask yourself why. List the reasons and the solutions. Are you bored by your writing? Discouraged? Distracted? For each reason for your stall, I want you to come up with three viable things you can do to remove whatever obstacle is holding you back. Don’t just think about this part of the assignment, write out your answer.

4. Decide which writer’s conference you’ll attend in 2014. Not IF you’ll attend a conference, but which one. It should go without saying that you really must make attendance at a conference a high priority. If finances are an obstacle, please know that several of the major conferences offer partial scholarships. Hold a bake sale if you have to. Or ask your church to support this as part of your writing ministry. I’ve known a few writers whose churches have paid their way to a good conference.

5. Decide exactly what you’re going to do to improve your craft. Take a class? Read a good book on writing every month? Take an online course? (Christian Writer’s Guild is a great option).

6. Do you have a good agent? If he or she doing a reasonable job? If not, consider moving on after talking with the agent as to why the relationship isn’t working. (Maybe it’s your fault, not the agent’s). If you don’t have an agent yet, is it time to find one?

7. Evaluate how your writing space is working out. Do you have a space dedicated to writing or are you still using the kitchen table? Maybe it’s time to set aside a place and a time for your writing and stick to it.

8. Do you have the tools you need? If you’re a fiction writer, do you have (or need) Scrivener or some other software program? How about a new computer?

9. What will you read next year? You really MUST be an avid reader to be a better writer. Read, read, read!

10. How will you pray differently for your writing next year? Has God given you a Word about your writing you need to heed? If not, ask God what He wants you to do. Who knows, maybe He’ll tell you He’d really rather see you take up Rhumba lessons. Not everyone is meant to write. But if you are meant to be a writer, planning ahead will help.

11. What will do you to increase your ability to market your writing? Yes, I know. You want to write, you don’t like all that marketing stuff. I don’t either….but it’s part of the process of becoming a successful writer. My advice is to start small and take it one step at a time. It all adds up eventually.

12. Stay focused. See yourself as a writer and act accordingly. Having goals helps. Go for it in 2014. No more procrastinating! (Or I’ll rap your knuckles again!)

If any of you are already planning, feel free to add to my list. What did I leave out?

Do you ever get confused by the sometimes contradictory advice you hear from successful writers? Some may say “write every day!” while others say “write when you have something to say!” Or you may hear “Write the whole thing before you edit. Just get it on paper.” Then you’ll read about a bestselling author who labors over every page before moving to the next one. And we’ve all heard about “pantsers versus plotters.” Pantsers write as they go without knowing exactly what comes next in their story. Plotters outline and then follow their outline with only minor variations.

So what’s a writer to do? I think the best way to look at it is to consider the various “rules” about writing as tools in a toolbox. Every time you learn a new “trick” to writing that has worked well for someone else, go ahead and toss it in your writer’s toolbox. And then remember that not every tool is used in a building project. Some, like hammers and saws, are used frequently. What carpenter wouldn’t have a hammer and saw in his toolbox? The carpenter will also have a crescent wrench in his toolbox, but may use it far less than his hammer and saw. Some carpenters will have both a flathead and a Phillips screwdriver, though they may use only one, depending on the occasion.

So, too, as a writer, it’s wise to keep a full toolbox of the tools you hear about. But don’t feel you have to use both the flathead and the Phillips screwdrivers. Don’t think you have to always be a pantser. Maybe this new project will require you to be a plotter. So take out the plotter tool from the toolbox and go for it.

Some tools, to be sure, are like the trusty hammer and saw. Tools like “show, don’t tell” and “active, not passive sentences” are always in vogue. You will want to reach for them frequently (though even with those tools, you won’t need them all the time. You CAN write an occasional sentence that tells, not shows. You CAN write a passive sentence when that’s what’s called for).

So, really, becoming a better writer is, like carpentry, a learned trade. You learn which tools in the toolbox are needed for the WIP (work-in-progress). Therefore, when you hear a piece of advice that seems to conflict with what you assume to be true, just stick it in the toolbox and pull it out if and when you need it. If you never seem to need it, just let it sit there. Your toolbox is big enough to hold even the seldom used tools.

The fun part is when you throw a tool in the toolbox that is your own tool—no one gave it to you through a magazine article or a workshop….you found it on your own. It’s yours to share with other writers so they can put it in their toolbox.

Like a skilled carpenter, I’m betting your success as a writer will depend on your ability to discover and artfully wield your favorite tools in your toolbox. And that, my friend, takes practice…and a few bent nails.

I love blogging, I really do. But as I recently told my Facebook friends, sometimes I get blogger’s block. In response, Facebook friend Caitlin Muir suggested a great topic: “Write about advice you wish someone would have given you.”

So, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and I’ll offer up five examples of what I wish I knew during the early years of my writing career.

1. We’ll start with college. Though this won’t apply to most of you who are in your post-college years, still it’s worth noting. I majored in English and minored in journalism. The English major was almost by default. The truth was, I didn’t have specific plans for a career, although, of course, I hoped to incorporate writing into whatever I eventually did for a living. The advice I wish I had been given is: Major in journalism. Since that’s not an option for most of you, can I suggest instead that you find some good books on the art of journalism and study them. Incorporate good journalistic techniques into your writing. Those techniques include: tight writing, word choice, asking probing questions, and writing for the market you intend to reach. This advice applies to both fiction and non-fiction writers.

2. The second bit of advice will be useful to most aspiring writers. Be patient. I know very few writers who were successful during the first year or two. I recently asked one new writer if she would keep on writing if she knew it would be five years before she was published. Would you keep writing?

3. Twenty years ago I wrote two novels. I remember when I finished the first one, I made a mental note: I did it! I wrote a novel. I must never allow myself to think I can’t do this. If I did it once, I can do it again! I must keep writing!

Well, I did keep writing, but I didn’t attempt a third novel. Oh, I did a couple of proposals with sample chapters, but when they were rejected, I returned to non-fiction. I certainly don’t regret the non-fiction I’ve written, but I do regret dropping the ball with my fiction writing. The advice I wish I’d had? Don’t let up on fiction writing. Keep at it. (Let me hasten to add that on my list of 50+ projects I’d like to write, there are still several novels. I haven’t totally abandoned fiction, I’ve just put it on the back burner…and I wish I hadn’t).

4. The fourth piece of advice has to do with the spiritual life of the writer. The advice would be: trust more, pray more, and listen more carefully to what God is saying. If God is in our writing, He will prosper what He puts on our heart, not necessarily our own ideas of what we should write.

5. The final piece of advice is perhaps the most painful for me personally. I learned the hard way. In both fiction and non-fiction pay attention to voice. Several years ago I wrote a devotional based on the messages a popular singer had given during his concerts. When I was finished, his widow told me I had captured his voice perfectly. And I had. I was able to instinctively pick up the rhythms of the man’s voice. But then fast forward to about three years ago when I had a chance to help a famous actress write her autobiography. After several in-depth interviews and much research, I wrote my sample chapters. But somehow in all my enthusiasm for the project, I forget to pay attention to the voice of the author—in this case, the actress whose first person story I was telling. The book went unpublished. It was my biggest failure as a writer. (But also my greatest adventure…so far!).

How does that apply to you? Just this: no matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, your work-in-progress should have a voice. A distinct and true voice. Voiceless writing puts the reader to sleep. Some of the book proposals I review (and reject) are tedious because there’s no voice for any of the characters (fiction) nor for the narrator (non-fiction). They read like term papers.

So there you have the top five pieces of advice I wish someone had given me early on. How about you? What do you wish someone had told you as you began your writing career?