A few months ago, a pastor/author I’d never heard of contacted me and asked if I’d consider reviewing a book he’d written before it hit the market.
The book’s topic about owning your Christian faith sounded interesting enough, so I said sure, and maybe he could reciprocate some time. No problem, he responded, and a virtual handshake deal was done.
A few days later the book arrived, and I carved out some time to give it a thorough read. Just into page two, this paragraph screamed:
“I have long been compelled to write this book because I have discovered solidarity with my fellow second-generation Christians as we search for authentic faith. Children of the church live in a paradox between the biblical knowledge in our heads and the wanderlust in our hearts. Ours is a misunderstood struggle, unknown to those who have been dramatically rescued from enslavement to the world, their faith still fresh.” emphasis mine.
Let’s bypass the passive voice, and save that for another post.
This man is a previously published author, represented by a fairly prominent agent.
I read the paragraph several times fighting for comprehension that never came. I read on, hopeful it was an anomaly, only to find it was just the beginning of a literary disaster – in my opinion – which is exactly what he’d requested.
I struggled with a response. Who was I, in particular, to judge this man’s work? I wanted to rip the text apart, and offer an honest reply that it was among the most convoluted things I’d read. My editor would have had a field day with it.
So with respect, realizing he was previously published, and represented by an agent of some regard, this is what I said:
“Dear XXX: Thank you for your contact and book review inquiry. Because I cannot give your book a favorable review, I’d prefer to pass this time. I believe your editor, and your agency have done you a serious injustice, allowing text into a book that’s not yet ready for publication. If you’d like to know my concerns more specifically, please feel free to contact me via email.”
The author did contact me, and I pointed to countless areas in his book where prepositional phrases were rampant. It’s not that prepositions are bad things. They’re just not the best of things, and overuse points to seriously amateur work.
Every writer does it. It’s a terrible trap, and one I work hard to avoid (see there) – and it does take work. But to make our writing its best, we should avoid prepositional phrases like the plague.:)
It’s a subliminal thing. When a reader pours through copy permeated with prepositional phases, he/she may not know exactly what is bothering them, but they know something is bothering them. It may not be enough to compel them to toss your work aside, but it may well be distraction enough that they never get a clear picture of what you really mean.
Incorrect: The opinion of the manager.
Correct: The manager’s opinion.
Incorrect: The obvious effect of such a range of reference is to assure the audience of the author’s range of learning and intellect.
Correct: The wide-ranging references in this talk assure the audience the author is intelligent and well-read.
See the difference?
Sentences and paragraphs with too many prepositional phrases, simply lose their point. It’s in there somewhere. The reader just can’t find it, and he can’t pull it from your brain, or what you meant.
Take a look at your own work and see how many prepositional phrases you can eliminate. Then go back and judge for yourself if your work’s not clearer, more concise and more to the point of what you want your reader to know.
What tips do you have for using, or not using prepositional phrases, or better writing in general?
LEAD (OR LEDE) –
A lead paragraph in literature refers to the opening paragraph of an article, essay, news story or book chapter. Often called just “the lead,” it usually occurs together with the headline or title. It precedes the main body of the article, and it gives the reader the main idea of the story. In the journalism industry, particularly in the United States the term is sometimes spelled lede. “Lede” refers to one or two sentences, not multiple paragraphs. Journalistic leads emphasize grabbing the attention of the reader. In journalism, the failure to mention the most important, interesting or attention-grabbing elements of a story in the first paragraph is sometimes called “burying the lead.”
It’s a product of having come from the “old school” world of journalism, I suppose.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism, I was required to take an entire 18-week course on writing leads.
A beautifully crafted lead is a work of art. A substandard lead tarnishes every word that follows. Your lead is a “make or break” deal. Readers make an unconscious decision whether he will read on, or click off, after the first 30 words.
Here, I’ve written six leads that will lose me in a second. Some were published on WordPress today.
1. “Hello people! Haven’t blogged in awhile because I’ve been busy up to my neck. I finally started working on Friday and it has been “fun” if I can call it that. My boss is absolutely the nicest man ever, my colleagues are equally awesome, there’s free wifi! What more can a sister ask for? Well along with the job came more work.” (Well hello right back at you!!!!! I’ve been wondering where you were!!! You’ve been busy? Really!!! That’s awesome. I have no idea what this post is trying to say.)
2. “If your (sic) wondering where I’ve been lately, life’s just been to (sic) busy to be on the blog.” (With two fundamental grammatical errors, and ending with a string of three consecutive prepositional phrases, I pass on this one quickly.)
3. “Here’s a collection of musings, rants and ramblings from the last week.” (I don’t have time for ramblings; if you’re going to rant, please do it without telling me so, because I’ll be much more inclined to read; and I have no idea what a ‘musing’ is.)
4. “The hubs and I had the most awesome lunch today!” (I’m thrilled you and ‘the hubs’ enjoyed your fare and that you were so compelled to end with a slammer, but I refer you to the author of this book, whose sentiments I could not share more.)
5. “Needless to say, I was scared to death, but when reality set in, I knew we’d make the best of it.” (Congratulations on setting the world record for most cliche’s in a single sentence.)
6. “Another week of me being semi-lazy…” (I actually found this one in my reader today. Oh, how it compels me to read more…)
Want more readers?
Write good leads.
At the outset of writing my first book, I decided to take an unconventional approach to drafting the manuscript.
Before the first keystroke was typed, I sold an editor on the book’s topic and was fortunate he agreed to edit my work in progress, rather than as a finished draft. The benefit was learning how to correct my mistakes early on rather than repeating them endlessly through a 40,000-word body of work.
Early on, Brad’s typewritten editor’s notes introduced me to a fictional reader. Brad called him Boris. Occasionally, Brad gives me an account of Boris’s reaction to my work.
Boris is a multi-faceted reader. He’s a Christian-atheist-agnostic – a citizen of the world, skeptical, cynical with a short attention span. He’s intellectual, not easily impressed, and frequently puts my book aside for a scotch rocks. Sometimes, he’ll come back to the book. Other times, he’ll toss it aside.
The point is, Boris is every reader.
By our very nature, our upbringing, our limited life experiences, and the culture in which we live, as writers we have shortcomings, blind sides and a plethora of limitations.
I’m a 46-year-old Christian, who’s lived his entire life in the South with limited exposure to the vastness of the world. The very nature of who I am intuitively causes me to write for people who are well – just like me. Boris helps me break outside the mold.
Today, with many lessons learned, I’d submit most Christian writers’ significant limitation is that they are, in fact, Christian. We see the world through our profound belief for what’s right, good and pure. And that’s all well and good but…
What good is a “Christian” book that appeals to Christians only? People just like us?
Is not the world our mission field?
The best Christian book may just be the one that appeals to a Buddhist, a Hindu or an atheist. Is my love so strong for my own beliefs that it should be shared only with others who think just like me? What purpose would that serve for the greater good?
Boris is every reader. Today, not a single sentence is written without consideration to Boris’s reaction. If my words turn him off and he never picks up the book again, I’ve lost him. The better approach is to push him just far enough to think. Right to the edge of his comfort zone so that he might put the book in his lap for a moment, ponder, and return for more intrigue.
It’s a fine line, and a slippery slope.
Each of us as Christian writers have a certain set of values – a belief system. It’s not our job to impose our beliefs on others.
It is our job to maintain our integrity, speak truth in love and push all readers, both Christians and non-Christians to the edge of their comfort zone. To raise questions in their own mind, and go beyond our work to seek out their own truth.
The Christian life is not designed to make us comfortable. It’s a life of never-ending questions, discomfort and the realization of this truth:
The most dangerous of us all is the one who believes he grasps God‘s truth, gets it fully, and is completely comfortable in his own faith.
Thank goodness Boris came into my life. I’m a better writer because he reads.
For related posts on writing and editing please see: How to Write Copy that Kills: Part 5: Pursue @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-nX This post includes links to a series of writing-related topics.
(Bloggers Note: This is the second in a three-part series about why I’m taking a break from the blog. It’s pitiful I love the blog so much, I had to say goodbye in three parts. Oh, the humanity. While on break, I’ll be wrapping up the manuscript to my first non-fiction work, Light Wins.)
A long time ago, I was a fair high-school athlete, especially on the basketball court.
Leave me undefended on the left wing from about 25 feet and there was a good chance the ball would find all net.
No matter the noise volume in the gym I could always hear two voices clearly – my coach and my dad. Dad was a big fan. It took me a few years to realize each Tuesday and Friday night, he was re-living his youth through me.
I now have the pleasure of doing the same. My 10-year old Sophie, is a strong swimmer. She’s competitive and hates to lose.
Just this weekend, she and three other girls set a conference record in the 100m freestyle relay. There’s no greater thrill than watching Sophie power through the water. She’s my girl.
And while I’m a huge fan of Sophie’s swim team, I’m also a loyal follower to many of you in the blogosphere. I’ve seen several bloggers go to “rockstar” status in the last few months.
Each of you is movin’ on up to the east side, and it’s been my great thrill to watch.
Cristian Mihai – Launches his latest work, Jazz, tomorrow. I’m a fan of Cristian’s and he offers great insight into the world of writing and promotion. View his work at: http://wp.me/283PT
Truth and Cake – Rian rocked the wordpress world making Freshly Pressed twice in three months. If there were an award for blogging style, she might be number one. View her work at: http://wp.me/2h9ol
Catherine Howard recently published More Mousetrapped, her sequel to Mousetrapped. Aside from her books, Catherine may have the best information in the blogosphere when it comes to self publishing. View her work at: http://wp.me/K3Dz
Lesley Carter’s Bucket List Publications is approaching 6,000,000 hits. That’s SIX MILLION. She’s inspired people, including me, to live out their adventuresome dreams. View her work at: http://wp.me/1Mebw
And there are so many more who have given me inspiration through their work here on wordpress.
I want to thank you all for allowing me to live vicariously through you.
I don’t care if I get “rockstar” status, but it’s time to finish a work I started nine months ago. As I take break from the blog for this unknown quantity of time, I’ll continue to follow you guys and cheer you on in your victories.
Maybe I’ll see you on the east side one day soon.
(Blogger‘s Note: This is the first in a three-part series, “vaya con dios for now” about my decision to put the blog aside for a time. It may be a week, a month or several. There’s no map to follow. I’ll continue reading the posts of my many friends and admiring your great work because you inspire me. In the meantime, I’ll be glad to host guest posts while on sabbatical. Feel free to submit your idea any time along the way. ~ steve)
Not too many years ago, I was consumed with weight loss and running.
The short version of the story is that I woke up one day, stepped on the scales and weighed an unbelievable 248 pounds. And as my personality tends to do at certain points in life, I said, “That’s enough.”
It began with a strict diet, and a few weeks later I walked to the mailbox down the street. Next thing I knew I’d made it 3 miles in 30 minutes and the pounds melted away.
A few months later, when I hit the 10-mile mark, a new goal emerged and I realized the elusive 26.2 marathon (with a LOT more training) was doable.
It’s the curse of an obsessive-compulsive-self-competitive personality. You choose to do something until it nearly kills you.
And even though a new goal was born out of the effort to lose weight, the first goal was achieved. Obsessive-compulsiveness took me from 248 to 165 in about nine months.
Now, it’s one thing to run 10 miles. It’s an entirely different thing to tackle the 26-mile marathon. It’s the equivalent of walking around the block and then thinking to one’s self: “I think I’ll climb Mt. Everest.”
My best estimate is that I trained just more than 6,000 miles in running three marathons over an 18-month period.
I read a lot of books about different ways to train, and one of the techniques I adopted was visualization.
When a runner has trained up to 10 miles, the 26 seems insurmountable, so she must learn to visualize herself crossing that finish line. If you can teach your mind to see it, you can do it because the mind and the soul can overcome that to which the body says “no.”
On every morning’s training run, my mind would actually see my feet crossing the finish line. I could see what I was wearing, think about how it would feel (in theory) and visualize my family and friends congratulating me at the end with a medal around my neck.
Over the course of a 26-mile race the mind has lots of time to think, and in my first marathon (the St. Jude Memphis Marathon) there was a point somewhere around mile 20 where my heart began to ask my body a lot of questions.
- What in the world were you thinking?
- What are you trying to prove, and to whom are you trying to prove it?
- Don’t ever do this again.
It’s a good thing really. The questions a first-time marathoner has for himself around mile 20 are a good mental distraction at the point where the body experiences total depletion and continues on with heart when the body has nothing left.
So you just keep running.
Miles 20 to mile 25 of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon were an excruciating experience, but at 25 the pain went away and all I wanted to do was finish.
Nine months ago, I began writing a book, and the manuscript’s now about 75 percent complete. I think it’s a good work with some value in the marketplace. Things were going along well for a few months, and then I became distracted.
During the study of how to publish a book successfully, I came across this notion many have that an unknown author (that would be me) must have a successful social media platform to even have a chance of breaking through the publishing fog.
So I took a break from book writing and became a student of the platform.
And I found I loved the platform building as much, or more, than the book writing.
It’s a terrible thing to have an obsessive-compulsive-easily-distracted-move-on-to-the-next challenge type of personality. But that’s my problem, and hopefully not yours.
I love the blogosphere and everything about it. I truly do love it. Nothing thrills me more to see I’ve had a reader in a country I didn’t even know existed. It’s an honor to be read by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
But oh, the distraction of immediate self-gratification vs. the long-term project that awaits in an 8-inch thick folder in my office, and in the jump drive’s tiny confines.
The last few weeks of blogging have been great fun. Ideas for posts seem to come from everywhere I look. Readers seem to have enjoyed certain pieces, and my ego’s been bolstered.
But this could go on forever.
The first book in my Light series is at mile 25. For a time, the writing depleted me and I asked myself all kinds of questions. I wrote a good bit, but allowed myself (not without reward) to become blog distracted. It’s time to refocus and visualize crossing the finish line for Light Wins.
I can feel the final push. The finish line’s just a mile away.
(Next Post: Thanks for Letting Me Live Vicariously Through You.)
Around the first of March each year, a good buddy of mine immerses himself in the study of what he calls “bracketology.”
I can’t say for sure that he coined the phrase, but he’s a sharp guy, so I’ll give him the credit until I know better.
Bracketology is the artistic and scientific study of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. Each spring hundreds of thousands of college basketball enthusiasts make their selections in the 68-team tournament. It’s one of the most exciting events in all of sports, better known to the purists as The Big Dance.
My friend’s study has inspired me to take on a new personal area of research in the world of writing. I call it Trilology.
And until someone else claims it, I’m taking the credit for the establishment of that new science.
TRILOGY: a set of three works of art that are connected, and can be seen either as a single work, or as three individual works.
Trilogies date back as far as 458 B.C., to the ancient Greek plays in the Festival in Athens. The Oresteia is one of the few surviving trilogies of that early era.
Some reputable trilogies we all know:
- Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather films.
- Star Wars (actually two trilogies – the original and the prequel.
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
I’ve been fully engaged in the book-writing process for five months now, and if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s about patience. It’s a tough, but valuable lesson for someone with my personality.
But the lessons learned have been nothing short of mini-epiphanies.
The tedious trek of writing and marketing a book is slow, and it forces you to think. And it brings on new ideas a writer may otherwise never have envisioned.
On reflection, the single-best move I made in the book-writing process was hiring a seasoned editor before a single manuscripted word was written. I pitched the idea to Brad Harris during a four-hour breakfast last March, and it was my good fortune he signed on to the task.
Brad is more than an editor. He’s a teacher. I thought I was a decent writer before my relationship with Brad. Not so much, I now see. But he’s made me a decent writer through the process. For the best advice Brad’s given me, see this post: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-nE
Just one of the benefits of our relationship is Brad’s guidance in helping me see the bigger picture.
Some 10,000 words into the initial draft of Light Wins, Brad identified the sequel – an anti-thesis to the original work we’d title Dark’s Dominion.
At the time, I couldn’t remotely conceive the anti-thesis of the original premise in a new body of work, but over the slow process of writing, and thinking, the idea took root. So now, the sequel is being written in my head as the first manuscript is being completed. It’s a very cool process, and it came only through patience.
Excited about the process of a follow-up book, my mind really started churning.
When I understood just how the Dark’s Dominion anti-thesis would flesh out, I could see a third work as complimentary to the first two, and the idea for Hope’s Horizon was born around 1:30 this morning.
And now, thanks to the 24-hour customer support of my friends at godaddy.com the domains are securely tucked away.
Just looking at that thrills me.
But now, there’s a whole new set of questions and ideas to ponder, especially when it comes to the business of marketing a trilogy.
- Do you write one book, release it, then begin work on the second?
- Do you complete one book, get half-way through the second, release the first, then come out with the sequel soon thereafter?
- Do you write all three books together, and release them in drip fashion or all at once?
If anyone has any experience or advice on this, I’d surely welcome your thoughts.
Patience has been a good thing, but I’m still on the high-end of the learning curve.
(Bloggers Note: You may view additional posts from my series, How to Write Copy that Kills @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-nX)
- What It Takes to Write Copy That Kills: Part 2: Thinking (stevenwwatkins.wordpress.com)
- The Hunger Games trilogy (igeekoutoverclouds.com)