Any writer would have a difficult time counting all the things that affect his or her work. Places, different environments, other writers. Lots of things.
People inevitably affect the way we write, some from a technical, craft kind of standpoint, others from a place of voice and how we see the world, and tell the story.
These are ten people who’ve shaped the way my mind develops a story, and conveys it in black and white.
My Mom: After an unhappy first freshman semester at the University of Central Arkansas where I majored in public administration, I decided transfer to Arkansas State University with no idea about my life’s future. “Why don’t you talk to the people in the journalism department,” said said. And that’s where it began.
My Dad: Pat Conroy once said: “My father’s violence is the central fact of my art and life.” I didn’t live with a father who displayed violence anywhere near that of the Great Santini, but he was rough and tough enough. It was my father who evoked the strongest emotions I’ve known in a lifetime. Fear. Embarrassment. Gut rage anger. The strongest desire to do anything that would make him proud. It’s a strange thing to say, but my life is richer for my father’s rigid ways and a lifestyle more about his next beer than anything that had much to do with me. The stories born from my childhood and adolescence are a storyteller’s paradise.
Arkansas State University’s Journalism Department Triumvirate (Dr. Joel Gambill, Dr. Gilbert Fowler, and Dr. Marlin Shipman) : These three men were the foundation of ASU Department of Journalism for a good two decades. The foundational skills they passed on to me are are invaluable, and their great friendship was an uncommon encouragement.
Jesus: It’s pretty simple actually. Jesus was the greatest storyteller of them all. He was a master. Jesus used common, everyday, slice-of-life stories to teach the masses about God’s Kingdom. His parables have been a model for my work from the beginning. For me, no story is greater, no image more amazing, than the prodigal son’s father running toward him upon his return.
J.L. Kimbrell (representing so many others): J.L. Kimbrell was an average, ordinary man from my hometown of Monette, AR. He was a farmer, a war veteran, loved his wife, told great stories of his own, and he was kind to everyone he met. He was like so many men in my hometown who, over the years, I had the chance to observe as they gathered at the local gin, or the implement company, or the duck blind. Watching their mannerisms and their language, even the way they crossed their legs was an extraordinary education. There are too many to name here. But I loved those men.
Fernand Brault: My French-Canadian friend told me an incredible story one day about his solo adventure from Montreal, Canada to the Bahamas on a vessel called Windseeker. To that point in our relationship, he’d never shared with me a story so captivating. As he shared the emotions he encountered when it came time to turn around and sail home, I was speechless. Fern’s tale was a great reminder that we all have a story. There is really no boring life.
Vegan Jake: That’s not his true name, but the name I used for the villain in Pilgrim Strong. Jake was a midwestern, number-crunching, vegan, atheist, extreme liberal of Polish decent, who believed it a sin to use things like washing machines, or lawn mowers, or even drink a Coke. As we spent time together on the Way of St. James, it seemed he expressed his disdain for my ways at nearly every turn. One day I surprised him. “You can act as though I disgust you, but deep down inside you like me,” I offered. “You’re likable enough, High Roller,” he countered. He was a two-week lesson in conflict.
Jeannick Guerin: Another pilgrim with whom I spent considerable time on the Way. As we stopped one morning for second breakfast and Jeannick explained his reason for walking, it was clear that a terminal illness had brought him from Australia to his homeland in France so that he might say “goodbye.” I never asked another question about it. Some things are more important than the story.
Bradley Harris: My first editor. Upon our agreement to work together back in 2013, Brad was pretty straightforward about his toughness. He asked me to picture a dial 1-10 and give him a number representing just how much I could stand without having a meltdown. I think I offered a nine. Brad taught me so much. Mostly that every story that gets told can no longer be about me. It’s all about the person reading the words.
I’ve never met Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, but his work has guided me for years. His recent book, Building a Story Brand outlines a simple, three-pronged idea for how stories can best hold readers’ attention. The writer first addresses a problem, then a solution, then explains how life is better because of that solution. Simple really. It’s a theme in many stories I write.
(Coming Wednesday: The Honesty Box)
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?
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.
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)
Of the six-part series, this is probably the toughest to communicate.
Today’s writer/publisher must live a double life. That of writer, and that of businessperson.
So there’s the art of writing and the science of business.
Because this particular series is focused on writing, we’ll leave the science of business alone today. There are many great bloggers out there today who help you with the science of publishing. A couple of great ones are:
Now the art of writing is a difficult thing to communicate. There’s really no way one artist can tell another how to do his/her work. It’s impossible because:
THERE ARE NO RULES
We’re all inspired/motivated in different ways. We write at different times of the day. Some of us write a thousand words a day on the way to our goal. Others go with the binge style http://wp.me/p2bjEC-6T and write tens of thousands of words at one sitting and may go for weeks without writing another word.
So what advice can we share about how to plan the artistic endeavor of writing killer copy for a book?
I’ll just offer a few short bullet points that work for me.
- It’s a given that you should read, but in all honesty, I struggle with this, too. I love to read and I love to stay informed about the news of the day, but here’s one thing I noticed recently. On a 10-day trip outside the states during May of this year, I never saw television or a daily newspaper. And during that time I never even realized those things were absent from my life. My mind was free of worldly clutter and I’ve never thought so creatively clear. So for me, there’s a fine balance between staying informed and keeping the junk out for the sake of good writing. But when you do read, read with diversity. It helps most when I read with variety.
- To the degree that you can, be intentional about your calendar. Every three months or so, schedule a writing retreat for yourself. I do three-day getaways, where I’m isolated from society, and it’s when I do my best work. Schedule your retreats 90 days out and let your family and friends know well in advance that you’ll be out of human contact during that time. Beyond that, be intentional with time that you don’t write. I schedule times that are strictly for fun. No writing on the agenda, but inevitably during those times, I have ideas to bring back to the keyboard.
- From time to time, use your blog with test-and-measure intention. Every few months I’ll throw out a partial chapter of my book just to see how readers react. One example is here: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-fO a post where I recently tested the prologue to my current work. It’s helped guide and re-shape some of the things I do. Now, if a book tease doesn’t necessarily fit with the theme of your blog, consider adding a sister- or cousin-blog that is independent of your primary blog. I maintain three blogs and I’ll write later about the benefits of hosting multiple blogsites.
- Study metaphors. Many of us write metaphorically and don’t even know it. When my editor pointed out the metaphorical nature of my writing he suggested I study the intentional use of metaphors to strengthen my work. It helped immensely because I now have more self-awareness of my own style. This book really helped me.
- About “writer’s block.” I’d submit there really is no such thing. Yes, I may go weeks without writing a single word for my book, but the blog is always there to turn to. I do not subscribe to the notion that you must blog every day – quite the contrary. But there is a void in my day if I haven’t written or published something. Use your blog as an outlet. My primary blog serves that purpose. It allows me to write about whatever I choose: news, sports, faith, travel, whatever. The blog helps fill the empty spaces when I’m stuck on bigger things.
- About outlines. Necessary or not? Just depends on your style. I usually draft broad outlines. If I can see the bigger points I want to make on paper, the details usually take care of themselves.
- Go easy on yourself. The art of writing is a creative process. (How’s that for stating the obvious?) It takes time. It will not be rushed. Do whatever you can to go easy on yourself for a period. Then when the blood starts pumping, focus like a laser beam.
Most of all just remember:
THERE ARE NO RULES
Next Post: Part 4: Write.
First, I have lived in the magazine and newspaper publishing industry for quite a few years, but have yet to enter the world of book publishing, which I hope to claim this summer. I am not yet, a book author.
Second, this valuable lesson was shared with me in my first visit with an agent a few weeks ago, and it’s working for me. It is not, however, an original idea.
I had an idea for a book, one that I thought was quite good. Because of the true stories and the nature of the book’s focus I, of course, thought I had a best-seller on the way. When the agent shared this story with me, over a two-hour conversation, it changed my thinking and created a focus that has helped the words almost write themselves.
The story comes from Ezekiel 37, and you may know it as the story of the “dry bones.”
The context surrounds God‘s disappointment with His beloved Israel, its fall and His commands to Ezekiel to restore it to its former greatness. We can divide the story of Chapter 37 into three distinct parts that any writer may apply to the process of completing a great manuscript.
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again He said to me,” prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ This says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the Lord.'”
Ezekiel knew full well that God wanted him to make this project fly. And his instruction, which was three-fold, applies to each of us as writers.
GATHER THE BONES:
Before we begin with anything, we must assemble a skeleton, a framework, a context that establishes a relational foundation for all that follows. To publish a great book, we must first break it down to the bones. We may have great things in mind, but we’re going to have to have something on which to hang them.
PUT THE FLESH ON THE BONES:
Now, let’s cover the bones in a relational way. Stories. That simple. How will what you write ring true with the reader so that he or she may say, “That’s me. I get that. I’ve been there, done that.” Watch the great public speakers who every so often through a presentation take a break to simply tell a story … and watch how the dynamics of the audience reaction changes. Because God created us to be relational, we love relationships and the understanding of relationships.
BREATHE LIFE INTO THE BONES:
Think of it in this way as it relates to the reader. So what does all this mean? What is the takeaway? What is the lesson here? What is it about this book that will cause the reader never, ever to look, or think about it the same way again?
Maybe like you, I always thought if I had a great story, or a great lesson, or some highly unusual circumstance, I could write it well enough to make a great book. I now realize I was wrong. Each element must come together, the bones, the flesh and the breath.
It makes sense to me, and I wanted to share it with those of you who share the same dream.
Execute – and be excellent.