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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!

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?

A good book is ultimately the result of a happy marriage between story and language. This is true both of fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction, we might sometimes need to substitute the word “information” for “story.” (But not always. Many non-fiction books are also stories).

When a manuscript is rejected, it’s often because the writer has failed on either the story level or the language level…or both.

The story level is simply a matter of: is this really a story? Does it have interesting characters, a good plot, a sympathetic theme, and an appropriate setting?

If we can think of the human body as a metaphor, the story is the skeleton on which the author must hang the flesh of language. Without a firm and reliable skeleton, even the best writing will amount to no more than page after page of words nicely strung together.

At the language level, we’re talking about the author’s ability to use exactly the right words to make the story come alive. Two writers might begin with the same great story idea and if one knows how to bring about a romance between the story and language and the other doesn’t, it will be the former who succeeds.

Two quotes come to mind here. First, it was Mark Twain who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Really fine writers are always trying to replace the “almost right word” with the exact “right word.” That’s why multiple drafts of any manuscript are so important. On your sixth and seventh drafts, you should still be finding words that need replacing. One way to find those words is to read your manuscript out loud. This step is a must for all good writers. They know the power of the ear to catch glitches that the eye misses in silent reading.

The other quote is one of my favorite writing quotes of all time—and that’s saying a lot, if you could see the massive collection of writing quotes I have. This quote is from the highly prolific writer, the late Isaac Asimov, who said, “It either sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.”

Profound, eh? And yet, that’s what good writing is all about. It simply must sound right (to the inner ear of the reader) in order to succeed. And the skilled writer will persist with a manuscript until he or she is convinced every word is the right word for this story.

If you sense the “language” part of writing is hard for you, you may need to read more. Avid readers develop a keen inner ear for when the author’s use of language is working (or not working) in a given story. As a writer, you need to develop this skill too.

Most of the time I spend editing a manuscript for publication is simply exchanging good words for better words. Near-miss words to direct-hit words. You can do that too. You might have a rejected manuscript you’ve given up on, but still believe in. Bring the thing out into the light again and read it aloud. Does it sound stilted now after being in storage for a while? If the answer is yes, then you need to know that the manuscript was just as stilted when it came fresh out of the printer. You just didn’t see it then. Perhaps because you were less attentive to language and more attentive to story. After all, coming up with your story is the relatively easy part. It’s the constant reworking of the language that marks the professional writer—the published writer.

As a follow-up to my recent I Hate It When That Happens blog, I now offer the promised balance to that rant.

1. I love it when I begin reading (with skepticism) a manuscript by an unknown author, only to discover a gem of a book and a very promising writer. Please make my day by being the next author to delight me in such a way.

2. I love it when one of the books I’ve written (or edited) results in a changed life and I find out about it. I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I was at a conference attended by a man who, without knowing who I was or where I worked, told me about a book that had truly changed his life. It was a book I had championed at Harvest House and edited. So very gratifying! I have a few cherished notes from readers of my own books that I feel like should be framed for their positive effect on me as a writer. I can’t think of anything more motivating for a writer than to hear that his or her book has changed a life.

3. I love it when an aspiring author understands that succeeding as a writer isn’t just about writing. It’s about fulfilling one’s destiny; it’s about being part of the family that is Christian publishing. It’s about knowing you’re on a team with fellow writers, editors, and agents; all working for the same thing and all suffering our share of setbacks and advances.

4. I love it when a truly good book gets the notice it deserves. That doesn’t happen often enough.

5. I love it when an out-of-the-box book (often one that few people believed in) becomes a game-changer in our industry. Such books in the past few decades include Love Comes Softly, This Present Darkness, At Home in Mitford, The Shack, and The Harbinger. (I’ll love it even more when a future game-changer is written by Nick Harrison). :-)

6. I love it when someone comes up with a book idea that’s so original and yet so obvious I slap my forehead and shout, “Now why didn’t I think of that?!”

7. I love it when I must heavily edit a manuscript and the author actually likes my changes.

8. I love it when I get a yes from the publishing committee. Sometimes authors don’t understand that a successful book must pass muster with not just an editor, but also with the folks in the sales and marketing departments. They bring an important consideration to the table when they weigh in on the pros and cons of the proposal I’m pitching from their point of view.

9. I love it when an author I’ve had to reject lets me know he or she has just landed a contract with another publisher—one that is obviously a better fit for their book than Harvest House was. I well remember the two times I was present when an author I rejected won an award. I was as excited as they were. Their award, after all, validated my judgment.

10. I love it when, after several rejections, a good author will self-publish his or her book and then get out and promote it. I love it that self-publishing has come as far as it has and that it’s now an open door for anyone brave enough to step through. Quite frankly, there are many advantages to self-publishing. One advantage is the timing. An author can have a self-published book out in a very short time. But the books I take to the publishing committee now won’t be published until 2015. That’s a long time to wait. (Caveat: it’s one thing to believe in your work, but get some feedback from folks who will tell you the truth about your book before you make the self-publishing decision. If your self-published book is poorly written or if you won’t promote it, you will be stacking those boxes of books in your garage or extra bedroom for years to come).

Well, that felt good! No grousing this time. Instead of a rant, this was meant to be a hymn of praise to all that is good and lovely in our industry. And that is much indeed.

A few people have asked what genre I was referring to in my most recent blog (“Which Is It: A or B?”) when I was told by a well-respected agent in NYC that a genre I wanted to publish in was dead.

I love old movies. TCM is one TV channel I cannot do without. I don’t, however, care much for contemporary movies. I’m not sure I can remember the last movie I saw in a theater. I suppose we go maybe once or twice a year.

Part of my fascination with old movies extends to the history of movie-making in what many call Hollywood’s Golden Age: mostly the 1930s, 40s and 50s. So, on my bucket list for some time now has been the hope of helping a movie star from that era tell his or her story. Preferably a person whose story has a strong faith element.

Some of you know that I had a great shot at this a few years ago. I worked for a year with a well-known actress from that era on her autobiography. It was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. She not only had a fantastic story, but an inspirational angle that the market I write for would find rewarding. But alas, we couldn’t find a publisher and eventually the actress called off the project and paid me a “kill fee.”

I’ve not given up on the idea though. I have several other people in mind who have stories I think are worth telling. But this time, before I invest in all that work, I want to find an agent who is confident we’ll find a publisher for the book.

The agent I mentioned in my previous blog told me in his response to my query that I was wasting my time. He said, “My advice is to drop the golden age star book project ideas. The whole category has been killed off by the internet, and the proliferation of fan sites on any and every personality and phenomenon. One of my clients is one of the leading music and film star biographers in the business, and I’ve watched his sales decline from millions of copies (literally) to tens of thousands.”

But despite this agent’s advice, I remain hopeful. I still have my short-list of possibilities and will see what happens as I move forward, well aware of the risks of continued failure—and as I said previously, not putting all my eggs in this one basket. I have many projects in several genres that I’d like to write. I’m not dependent on any one genre.

Some of you are probably asking, “But Nick, don’t agents and publishers want to ‘brand’ you as a writer? How does writing in several genres help brand you?”

That’s a great question. Here’s my answer. Because I have varied interests, I’m pursuing the doors that open for me and if that results in branding, it will be because God has opened the right doors for that branding to happen. In fact, I think I may be finally finding out the “branding” that God may want to occur in my writing. My new book (coming out in January), Power in the Promises is very much in keeping with my previous well-acclaimed books Magnificent Prayer and His Victorious Indwelling. And I just turned in a draft of a proposal to my agent that’s also in keeping with this “brand” and she loves it. Maybe this, then, is my brand. If pressed, I would describe it as helping Christians return to some of the deep truths of the faith by writing in a way that makes those truths more accessible to the modern reader.

Maybe nothing will ever happen with my desire to help someone write their story. And, by the way, although I’ve mentioned the Hollywood thing, please note that my desire to work in this genre extends beyond Hollywood. There are any number of people I’d enjoy helping write their story. Or even work on a bio of a past person—hopefully a hero of the faith. I would love to have written Bonhoeffer, but that nice assignment from God went to Eric Metaxas.

God knows my writing desires. And I have no reason to complain with the doors He’s both opened and closed. But until I know for sure that helping a person whose story I resonate with is never going to happen, I’m going to keep knocking on those doors.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this topic discussed before in our industry….so let’s give it a try.

The topic is: Writing as an obsession…is it good or bad? What does it mean to be obsessed with one’s writing? Is an obsession God’s way of maximizing one’s talent or is it man’s way of clutching a God-given talent too tightly?

What prompts this discussion is that I’ve had several encounters with the topic from various places in the past few days. Frankly, I don’t think I know any writers who are obsessed with their writing, but maybe they’re just not telling me if they are.

First, let me address the response I know you all have to this question. YES, I understand that Christian writers are to be focused fully on Christ (I won’t use the word obsession. It doesn’t seem quite right). God is to have our full attention whether we’re writers or not, right? So, with that point of agreement, let me move on.

Some of you may know I’m a big fan of music from the 1960s. I’ve always enjoyed the music of the Beach Boys and right now I’m reading Wouldn’t it Be Nice? Brian Wilson’s autobiography. It’s not a pleasant read at all. Brian’s dad was a horrible father. He physically and mentally abused Brian and his brothers on a routine basis. Perhaps that’s what led Brian into his obsession with music and the resulting mega-success the Beach Boys have enjoyed the past fifty years. By age twenty, Brian was consumed by his music—and his sheer drive to be the best songwriter/record producer in the industry. He HAD to be one number. He even admits to the word “obsessed.” Music was his life around the clock. He even slept next to his keyboard.

And, of course, it paid off, big time. Brian Wilson is one of the legends of rock music. But had Brian not been obsessed with his music, he would never have been the legend he is today. Was it worth it? Would you pay that price to succeed?

On my “to be read” pile is a book about Michelangelo. I’m hazarding a guess that he was obsessed with his art. I read somewhere that Alexander Cruden was obsessed about compiling his concordance to the Bible. (One would just about HAVE to be obsessed to list every usage of every word in the Bible. 🙂 But in his case, surely it was a God-given obsession….or was it?)

Another quote I came across was from the very prolific late writer Isaac Asimov. He once said, “I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.”

Can any of us say that? Is saying that even healthy? Is that making an idol out of our writing?

Asimov also said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” He also claimed that his experience with writer’s block was the worst ten minutes of his life. I strongly suspect that an obsession with writing does tend to eliminate writer’s block.

Okay, a few more quotes:

“I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.” Barbara Tuchman

“A writer is someone who write, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal

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

“When I’m near the end of the book, I sleep in the same room with it. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep next to it.” Joan Didion

I could go on—I love quotes by writers and have several books of them—but you get the idea. I will, however, mention one more anecdote that bears on being obsessive. This comes from the late chess champion Bobby Fischer. When he was asked why he was able to defeat Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky, he replied, “Boris has said that, to him, the game of chess is like life. To me, chess IS life.”

The difference was one of obsession.

So, what do you think?

Is obsession about one’s writing healthy or unhealthy?

Are you obsessed?

And if so, are you obsessed with writing itself or with becoming a published writer? There’s a huge difference.

Do you think an obesessed writer is more likely to succeed?

I’m tempted to write more about this. It’s a fascinating aspect of our craft and one I don’t see discussed in Christian writing circles.

What say you?

Today I have two small bits of advice for writers, but first I want to answer Barb’s question about a writer’s voice. Barb writes, “I feel like it’s easy to engage with my class members when I teach and with friends when I write, but as soon as I start writing a book, I clam up. How can I take my teaching style and voice and transfer it to a non-fiction book?”

I’m not sure the process is any different for non-fiction than fiction, but here’s my take on it. First, I’d say that in writing a book, the most important thing is to just get it written. Don’t worry about voice right now. Don’t allow yourself to clam up. If you’ve got something to say in print (and obviously you do or you wouldn’t be writing a book), then just spit it out. This is why there’s such a thing as first drafts. Just get the thing written.

Then, in subsequent drafts, as you line edit, I think you’ll find yourself editing through your “voice” in your head. At that point, the voice will tell you how to revise sentences and paragraphs to match your voice. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about the necessity to write several pretty bad drafts before she’s ready to let anyone see her work in progress. I think that one of the problems she likely finds in those early drafts is that it isn’t fully her voice yet. Editing a manuscript into shape involves, in part, making it sound more like you. Each draft should bring you closer to perfecting your voice on paper.

I hope that helps. Others may chime in in the comments section.

Now let me mention my two bits of advice. The first tidbit harkens back to my previous entry about “beauty and depth” in writing. Sometimes authors hoard their good stuff. They think, Oh I don’t want to use that now. It’s too good. I’ll save that for later. That may be true on the rare occasion (and if that’s the case, jot it down in your writer’s notebook), but good writers realize that you should use the good stuff now and trust that the well will soon fill up again. Draw deeply and write deeply. The water is plentiful. The springs that feed the well are flowing steadily.

The second item has to do with a submission I received yesterday. The first sentence in the cover letter said the manuscript was “unique.” I know the author thinks that’s a plus, but often it’s a negative factor. The truth is that “unique” doesn’t often sell. Readers tend to enjoy favorite and time-tested genres or styles of writing. For instance, most of you fiction writers know that Amish fiction is still very strong in our market. That means that publishers are, for the most part, still looking for well-written Amish fiction. But well-written Amish fiction is no longer “unique.” As an editor, I’d much rather read that the manuscript you’re sending me will “appeal to readers who love Amish fiction” or “is in the tradition of Janette Oke.” Very few “unique” books make it to print and very few of those sell well.

Next time I want to answer some more questions. Michael Reynolds has five great questions (see them in the comments in my “Various and Sundry” entry). I’m going to save those for a more lengthy blog (so hang on Mike!) and move to Dana’s great question wherein she asks about “the worst mistakes in writing and how to avoid them; querying 101 and beyond.” I’ll try to get to Tami’s question too. And then a few others. I do appreciate the questions. They let me know what you’re most interested in. If you’ve asked a question and I’ve not answered it, ask again. I’m sometimes a bit absent-minded about these things.

Last week on Facebook I promised to reveal the one great secret to writing success. The reason I’ve delayed is that my website has undergone a facelift. I hope you like the new look and find it easier to read. There are also some new features on the sidebar to the right, including a way to subscribe.

So now let’s talk about the “secret,” which, though easily stated, can be fodder for several more blog entries. At least that’s my expectation.

So what exactly is this great secret? First, let’s talk about it as it relates to non-fiction, then we’ll look at how it relates to fiction.

Simply put, great writing is writing that evokes in the reader a desired reaction. It causes the non-fiction reader to pause and inwardly gasp, At last, here’s someone who understands! All this time I thought I was the only one who thought this way!

Then, as the reader reads on, he or she comes across another passage that evokes a sigh that here, in this book, with this author, they have found a kindred spirit. The best-known quote I can think of to illustrate this is C.S. Lewis’s great line: “We read to know we’re not alone.” A writer’s job, then—your job—is to find that place deep inside yourself that also exists deep inside your reader and that will open up a bond between you and your reader. To show that reader he or she is not alone.

Although this “secret” has been in the back of my mind for some time now, it was brought to the forefront as I was reading One Thousand Gifts. Author Ann Voskamp is a master at going deep within herself and using what she finds there to connect with readers. I was going to offer up a couple of examples, but I think I’ll let you discover what I mean for yourself as you read her book. Ann writes—as you must—out of the depths, not out of the shallows.

Let’s take a look at how this secret works with fiction. Essentially it’s the same principle, but accomplished in a fictional setting. Like the non-fiction author, you want to touch an emotional chord in the reader. To do this effectively, the writer must create a fictional world that’s welcoming to the reader and then populate that world with believable characters, at least one of whom must be a sympathetic character. This fictional world you’re creating must be one in which the reader is pleased to dwell for the length of the book (and hopefully anxious for you to write a sequel as quickly as possible). The characters must be ones about whom the reader will say, “I understand him!” or “I’m like she is!” Or, to quote Anne of Green Gables, “A kindred spirit!”

Another fictional character—Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye—also helps make my point when he says, “What really knocks me out is when a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.”

Bingo!

The creating of such a fictional world is not an easy feat. Stock characters and a predictable plot in a generic setting just won’t cut it. At least not for memorable, excellent, emotion-inducing writing. And as novelist Sinclair Lewis noted, “People read fiction for emotion, not information.” Evoking emotion—and the right emotion is crucial to good fiction. It’s what bonds you to the reader—and sells your next book to that reader.

This is why I’m so critical about the opening pages of the novel manuscripts I review. The one vital role of the opening pages is to usher your reader so effectively into your fictional world, they’ll want to stay there for the next 250+ pages. Some writers who have attended my workshops know that I’m put off by a beginning that offers up a weather report or a geography lesson. I find it hard to want to read on when all I see is a description of clouds or the landscape. I want a character!

Well, there it is in brief. The secret: write so as to cause readers to know they’re not alone. Write to cause them to gasp with delight that they’ve found someone who understands. Write so as to make the reader wish you were a terrific friend of theirs.

I hope this makes sense to you. It would ironic to write about the secret of great writing and not have it easily understood. As I said earlier, there’s much fodder here for more discussion. Next time, I want to write about how a writer can implement this secret of evoking pleasing emotions in the reader.

Now, if the above has been helpful, please forward the link to your writing friends. And be sure and take advantage of the new subscription feature on my blog. I enjoy writing about writing and the more readers the merrier!

Two quick commercials before the good news. First, please take a look at my homepage and consider giving one of my books as a Christmas present to someone on your list this year. Promises to Keep: Daily Devotions for Men Seeking Integrity is great for any son, father, husband, brother, uncle or any other male on your list. My other books are also likely appropriate for someone you know. You can order from me, from Amazon, or from the publisher.

The second commercial is primarily for fiction writers. Please read Brandilyn Collins’ excellent article here. Very, very useful information.

Now, let’s talk about 2011. The present year is history. For both fiction and non-fiction writers, it’s time to look to the next twelve months—and PLAN!

Here’s what I want you to do. Print out the list below and use it (with any necessary adaptations and additions) and post it somewhere near your writing place. Every so often, take a look at it and see if you’re on track. When necessary, recast the list to match your progress.

Okay, here we go…

1. I want you to commit to finishing one book next year if you’re writing fiction. If you’re writing non-fiction, I want you to have three complete proposals with three sample chapters each. It might be helpful for you to do a short one-paragraph summary of those books and keep it with this list.

2. By January 31, prepare three one-sheets for other possible books you want to write.

3. Identify three specific things you will do in 2011 to build your platform for promoting your book. Begin implementing them.

4. If you do not yet have an agent, make it your goal to secure an agent in 2011. Research the agents’ websites and try to find an agent who is selling what you write.

5. Identify at least one writer’s conference you will attend next year.

6. Purpose to read at least three (hopefully more) books on writing in 2011.

7. By April 30, have at least one solid book proposal (with three sample chapters) ready to submit to an appropriate publisher (either by your agent or through your chosen publisher’s guidelines–usually posted on their website).

8. Follow through. Submit the proposal! (And then begin your next project while waiting for an answer).

9. Pray daily for your writing. Seek God’s direction and His open (and closed doors).

10. Start a fresh writer’s notebook on January 1. In this notebook, you’ll jot down notes, ideas, and surprising insights that you cannot trust to your memory. (Take this notebook to church with you. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll hear something said in church that will be useful in your writing life).

To recap, by December 31, 2011, I want you to have:

* an agent

* attended a writer’s conference

* one complete book manuscript (if you’re writing fiction) or three complete proposals (if you’re writing non-fiction).

* three one-sheets for additional books

* several rejections (it’s part of what we do as writers—collect rejections)

* read three books on writing.

* clarity from God on what to do in 2012.

Now, here is the good news. I’m going to open one door for you. Look at number two above. During the month of January, I’m going to invite you to submit up to three of your one-sheets to me for consideration at Harvest House. If I like one or more of your ideas, I’ll invite you to send a full proposal. If I like the proposal, I’ll take it to the committee. (Although we won’t accept a novel for publication until we’ve seen the entire manuscript, if I like your one-sheet, I’ll then invite you to send three sample chapters and I’ll either encourage you to finish it and submit it to me, or I’ll reject it if I don’t think it’s a good fit for Harvest House).

Two stipulations: BE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR. Visit our website if you’re unfamiliar with our books. Get to know ANY publisher for whom you wish to write. It really annoys me when I meet a “writer” at a conference and they start the conversation with, “So tell me, what kinds of books does Harvest House publish?” The other stipulation is that you understand that if I say no, I won’t be able to offer a critique of why I’m saying no. I won’t have time in most cases. If I do see something promising, but not a good fit for Harvest House, I may offer some advice, but please don’t feel bad if I simply say no.

During the month of January only, you can send these one-sheets to me at Manuscripts@harvesthousepublishers.com

Okay, here’s even MORE help. I’ll even give you some ideas of what I’m looking for. For fiction, I’d REALLY love to find someone who can write fiction with quilting as a backdrop. Amish quilting is good, but not mandatory. Historical is probably better than contemporary, but I’m not opposed to a contemporary quilting novel. Our fiction really must have a warm and fuzzy angle to it. Romance too. If you can come up with a warm and fuzzy fiction concept, I’m open.

It’s harder for me to identify the kind of non-fiction I’m looking for. Especially if you don’t already have a platform from which to promote your book. Just keep in mind that our books sell really well in the rack market. Books that address felt needs in large number of readers work best for us.

I’ll look forward to your one-sheets….in January.

May 2011 bring more momentum to your writing career than you dared hope for!

I’m sure I touched on dealing with setbacks and discouragement in my earlier series on How to Succeed as a Christian Writer, but today I want to revisit it for a minute. Not surprisingly, this is due to a bout with discouragement I had earlier this week. Yes, even after eight or so books, I still face discouragement. Not as often as I used to, praise the Lord, but every so often I still hear the inner voice that says, Pack it in, Nick. You’ve done all the writing God has for you. You’re at the end of your road. Enjoy life. You don’t need any more rejection. Maybe the voices in your head say slightly different things, but the result is the same: dejection and a sense that maybe you should take up bungee-jumping or macramé or something else that will prove more productive and less stressful (bungee-jumping certainly qualifies there).

Well, thankfully, my melancholy mood passed rather quickly and I’m now able to once again face the blank computer screen with hope. Some of you, though, are likely to be in the midst of a bout with the writing blues. I know some of you wish you were on your way to ACFW…but aren’t. Others of you recently got word of a rejection. Still others are facing writer’s block or some other writing-based trauma that’s causing you to consider chucking it all.

Below are three suggestions on how to handle discouragement that have worked for me. Earlier this week, it was idea number one that got me through.

1. Just hang on and wait it out. Time heals this wound rather quickly. In the midst of my dejection earlier this week, I told myself, Nick, just get a grip. Sure you feel like throwing your computer out the window right now….but give it a day or two. Then you can do the window thing if you still feel this way. Sure enough, the mood did eventually lift. My computer is safe and the window remains intact.

2. Browse at a local bookstore. Read the opening pages of a few books in the genre in which you want to write. For me, being around books is therapeutic, no matter what my problem. A trip to Barnes and Noble is cheaper than an hour on a psychiatrist’s couch. Get a nice mocha while you’re there and just browse and relax and don’t worry about your latest failure.

3. Commiserate with a good writing buddy. I have to laugh as I write this one. During my misery this week, I emailed one of my closest writing friends and basically cried on his shoulder, knowing he’d sympathize. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back saying that he hasn’t faced discouragement as a writer since he was a beginner. (Okay, window, get ready. Computer comin’ through!).

Other ideas include listening to a specific genre of music, walking through a cemetery (I’m sure you’ll want to hear more about that in another blog), or just getting some exercise at a gym or taking a long, long walk.

Those are some things that work for me, what works for you?