Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What I Wish I'd Known

Sometimes I'm asked what I wish I'd known before I reached where I am now. Here are three things I think of immediately.

1. I wish I had been able to accept rejections objectively. Like any serious author, I throw myself into everything I write. It hurt deeply when I received my early rejections.

2. There is no place to stop improving. I assumed that once I became a good, well-published writer I could relax. I work harder at the craft now than I did in my early days. And part of my joy is in learning how to write better, even in small ways.

3. I wish I hadn't compared myself with other writers. When I did, they always seemed better or more successful than I was.

Nowadays I say to myself, I'm the best Cec Murphey in the publishing business.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What Would I Have Done Differently?

Occasionally an interviewer will ask, "If you had known what you know now, what would you have done differently when writing your first book?"

I don't know that I would have done it much differently. That is, I gave myself to each project and tried my best. I wrote with all the passion and knowledge I had at that point.

Here's what many don't grasp: Writers improve by writing. Each time I receive the edited version of my book, I learn things. Furthermore, if I had known it all in the early days, being a fulltime, paid author wouldn't have been exciting. I would have known all the answers and faced few of the challenges.

Sure, I hate rejections, and I love acceptances. That means every time I write, I'm anticipating wonderful results. Sometimes I get them. When I receive a rejection, these days I remind myself, "The next one might be a big one!"

I wouldn't want that taken away from me.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A Trap for Writers

My best friend says he'll never be a writer "because I always think that some won't understand or they'll disagree."

It's a trap to try to figure out the personality of your readers. Most of us know the age group or the type of people for whom we write. To attempt to be "all things to all people" is paralyzing.

I know writers who think that way. They're so careful to be orthodox, culturally correct, and not offend anyone, and their writing doesn't come from deep within. This is especially true of Christian authors. They don't have to prove their faith; they have to show their faith by opening themselves. When they're honest, even people who don't agree can accept them.

As I keep saying in this blog, I write from my heart and throw it out into the world. Not everyone likes my writing or agrees with my worldview. And I get criticized sometimes.

Here's one of my maxims:

I'd rather be disliked for who I am than to be admired for who I'm not.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Professional Practices

I've received this question many times during interviews: What are the best professional practices you can recommend for those who want to improve their writing?

Here is my answer.

1. Challenge yourself to keep learning. Read books, articles, and blogs of all kinds. Stay curious. Look up words or phrases you don't know.

2. Note the writers you like and ask yourself why you like them. For me, it means they're writing in a style with which I resonate. The implication is that I can learn more about writing in my voice by reading that writer.

3. Copy sentences by those special writers and keep them in a folder or a document, which you read from time to time. (I've been doing that since 1996.)

4. Join an editing group, because that helps you de-sensitize yourself and learn not to take rejection personally.

5. Pass on everything about writing you learn. The universal principle is that the more you give, the more you receive. (And didn't Jesus say something about that?)

The best professional practice is to keep learning and not stopping.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Motivations (Part 4 of 4)

Some of us are more self-motivated, more energetic, and flexible. I have a lot of stamina, I'm fairly self-disciplined, and keep reading and recharging daily. All three of those work for me.

Perhaps the most significant thing is that I write even if I feel the words will sound like a third grader. When I was a college student, I had deadlines for my papers and I was never late.

One of my close friends in grad school never once turned in an assignment on time. His grades were always reduced, and he'd say, "If I had had more time, I could have done a better job." We call that rationalization. He had as much time as the rest of us.

When I taught public school for two years, I couldn't say, "I didn't feel motivated to prepare a good lesson plan this week." I just did it. Some weekly plans worked better than others, but I did what my job required.

Professionals write and meet deadlines. Regardless.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

How I Stay Motivated (Part 3 of 4)

I hesitate to write this because we're all different. I've rarely faced the blank screen. First, I read—daily. Not just the news, but I set aside a minimum of one hour to read and soak up the words and wisdom of other writers, even those who don't write in my field.

Second, I think about my writing project off and on while I'm doing other things. I ask myself, "What's going on that hinders me?"

Third, I believe in letting the unconscious work. This is probably the most practical thing I do. I focus on other things. Often I go to sleep and the answer pops up early the next morning. I don't always find the answer to what has been amiss, but I'm ready to write.

I give my inner wisdom an opportunity to help me.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Motivation Is an Inside Job (Part 2 of 4)

It's not easy to stay motivated, but you can learn. When I hit that invisible barrier that stops me from writing, I don't fight it. I trust that my inner wisdom/God/providence is giving me a message and I need to listen. Carefully.

Here's the question I ask: "What is going on that stops me?" I don't ask why—because that solves nothing. If I pause long enough and search my soul deeply, I usually figure it out.

Here are a few answers I've discovered when I've hit the big bumps:

* I'm not ready to write. Perhaps I need more research. Or a deeper understanding of the topic.

* I'm not passionate about the topic.

* I'm trying to write in a voice that's not mine.

* I'm too physically or emotionally drained.

I don't try to tell anyone how to get motivated, because it's an inside job. But I need to be in harmony with myself. The more I understand myself, the better I write.

True motivation comes from self-understanding.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

How Do I Get Motivated? (Part 1 of 4)

"How do I stay motivated?" That question comes up regularly on writers loops. When it does, loopers respond with a wide variety of answers. I find few of them satisfying.

Most of them focus on outward activities—doing things such as forcing yourself to write. Set a timer and stay at your computer until you write 300 words. Get an accountability partner to whom you have to confess if you don't meet your goals.

Do they work? Probably. But they don't solve the problem. Lack of motivation is an inside job. You can circumvent the trouble by performing or doing things, but you don't diffuse the problem. It will recur.

I can force myself to write or 
I can look inward for solutions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Interview Tips

Don Otis is a well-known media publicist. This is excerpted from his monthly blog, MediaWise. See www.veritasincorporated.com for more info.

* * * * *

What I share here ought to be common sense but often isn’t. If it is for you, forgive me in advance. We refer to something as prima facie, which means self-evident or apparent. Some of these reminders fit this definition. Others may be fresh or simple reminders about the interview process.
  1. Stay on topic. If an interviewer asks you a question that is off topic, bring the interview back around to the topic. Avoid being pulled into opinion or ideas that are not part of your area of expertise. 
  2. Listen for bumper music. If you hear music playing, this means the host is going to a break. Wrap up your comments as quickly as possible and make a smooth transition. 
  3. Enthusiasm motivates. People are inspired to listen to you or purchase your book if they know you are excited about the topic. Be upbeat. Be engaged. Be inspiring. Over-spiritualizing turns listeners or viewers off. Avoid coming across as preachy. Try to limit how much you quote the Bible. 
  4. Stories matter. Tell them. Keep telling them. Tell on yourself. Use them to accentuate the main points you want to make. 
  5. Humor works. It makes a host and the audiences think you are relaxed even if you don’t feel that way. 
  6. Distractions distract. Trains, planes, and automobiles. Dogs, kids, jack hammers, phones. You get the picture. Eliminate them before you go on an interview. 
  7. Short answers die. If you are doing a ten-minute interview, short answers are fine. If you are thirty minutes or longer, don’t hesitate to talk until a host interjects or you run out of words. 
  8. Be ready. If you were running a 10K race, wouldn’t you do some preparation before you stood at the starting line? Do the same with interviews. Learn about the host, the coverage, the audience, the focus of the show. 
  9. Don’t overthink the interview. This means that when you have done everything you can to be ready, trust God for the results and give the best interview you can. Remember, you are the expert. 
As one radio host said to me, “The idea is to get people to buy your book, and for that to happen, they have to like you.” Be likable.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Ultimate Purpose of a Book Title

The following post was written by Rob Eagar of WildFire Marketing and is used with his permission.
* * * * *

Below are title options for two different books. Which option do you find the most appealing?

Book 1

Option A: Conscious Couplehood

Option B: Getting the Love You Want

Book 2

Option A: What Happens When a Cheez-Its and Chocolate Girl Gets Healthy

Option B: Made to Crave

The answer is obvious. In both cases, Option B is the more appealing title. In fact, both of those titles wound up becoming runaway New York Times bestsellers. However, in each situation, the authors originally wanted to use Option A. Imagine the apathetic reaction if readers had seen Option A. Neither of those titles make sense.

I've consulted with both of these bestselling authors and heard their stories. They were so close to using a terrible title for their books. Fortunately, they decided to go back to the drawing board and develop new options. Today, they're glad they changed their mind and went with Option B.

But how did these authors make the original mistake of believing Option A was a good idea? Why was their thinking incorrect? The answer is that they didn't know the ultimate purpose for creating a book title:

The ultimate purpose of a book title is to tease, not teach.

I've met too many authors, especially non-fiction writers, who believe their book title is supposed to teach, educate, or inform the reader. This problem typically affects academic, religious, or business authors who get enamored with their methodology or curriculum. They struggle to get out of their own head and view their book from the perspective of an apathetic reader. I've also seen the same problem affect fiction writers who create boring titles for their novels.

Never forget that when people see your book title, they are skeptical, cynical, and distracted. They don't care about your methodology. They don't care about your seven steps for success. They don't care about your proven plan. They don't care about your fiction story. They don't care about your sacred insights. They just want to know if your book is worth reading.

The purpose of a title is to tease the reader to want more, not teach the reader what you know. When you overcome the desire to teach and learn how to tease readers, you just might turn an otherwise boring book into a bestseller.

Did I tease your interest to improve your next book title?

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

How Do You Define Success? (Part 3 of 3)

If you read the two previous blog entries, you could scoff, "You've made it, so you can talk that way."

Yes, I am a successful author, and I've now made a living from it for more than thirty years. But that's still not how I define success. To people like my unnamed friend, success shows itself in the external world—accomplishing certain things.

I know several authors who earn a living—and some gross far more than I ever will—but they're no more contented than I am. And some lead miserable lives, constantly trying to bump their sales record or hit the New York Times' best-seller list with each project.

I'd like to sell more books and bring in more money. I see nothing wrong with that. But for me, the sales figures are byproducts of a healthy relationship with myself and my Creator. My contentment rests on my firmly held faith that God is ultimately in control and my role is to be content wherever I find myself.

I'm contented but not lazy. I still work as hard at the craft as I always have, but my emotions aren't fixed to the results.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How Do You Define Success? (Part 2 of 3)

"I'm angry at God," my writer-friend said over lunch. "I want to be a best-selling author and God won't let me."

In shock, I stared at him. "You told me you'd published nine novels and countless articles. How many authors do you know who've sold that many books?"

"But I'm not a best-selling author."

Although that conversation happened several years ago, I think of it often. I told him that many authors would envy his record.

"But I can't make a living from my writing."

Then I understood. He needed to have books on the best-seller lists and earn enough to support himself from book sales. I don't know him that well, but my guess is that even if he achieves his goal, he'd still feel unsuccessful.

His dreams of hitting the top of the charts is a fine idea. And it may happen. But even if he does, will he feel like a winner?

Success is an inside job.
It's who we are and not what we produce.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

How Do You Define Success? (Part 1 of 3)

"I want to be like you when I grow up." I've heard that comment from writers of all ages. And I understand.

"You're my role model," is another way I've heard it.

Both comments mean they've defined me as successful. And yes, I am, but it's because I've decided I'm a success.

My definition has shifted through the decades. When I began publishing articles, and before moving into books, I envisioned halos of success around those who had published a book—a real book through a royalty-paying publisher. In my mind, that author had arrived.

Then I sold my first book, followed by a second and a third. My concept of achievement changed to think anyone who had published more books than I had or produced bigger sales figures was successful. Thus, for me, professional triumph was a moving target.

At this stage of my development, I admit that I'm successful—but not for the reasons I once understood. At the end of my email signature each month, I write one of my maxims. Here's what I wrote one month: The greatest privilege I have in this life is to be exactly who I am.

Almost every morning I awaken and thank God for what I call my joyful contentment. I truly like my life and relish being who I am. Others may be (and are) more successful with larger sales, more published books, or any other measurement. And if I focused on external measures to judge whether I was a star, I'd probably say, "Not quite."

I'd always find reasons I wasn't successful.

And so will you.

But if you and I measure internally, it means we don't have to be famous, make millions, or publish 400 books during our lifetimes. If we like ourselves, embrace our work, and live with integrity intact, we're successful.

Each day I thank God for my talents. I didn't give them to myself. So what reason do I have to boast? My task is to be faithful in using my gifts.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Why It's Okay to Lose a Contest (Part 2 of 2)

Tamela Hancock Murray, an agent with The Steve Laube Agency, wrote this article, which is a continuation of last week's post. It's used with her permission.

* * * * *

3.) Contest wins don’t always lead to more money. While the author’s prestige grows with each success and a sticker on a cover may help a reader gravitate to a book, an award may or may not translate into sales. If you doubt this, consider the many books, television shows, and movies that bomb despite raves from critics.

4.) Contest wins for unpublished authors don’t always lead to a book contract. Judges review submissions from the pool they receive and choose a winner. They may be looking at your entry versus three, six, or ten. Since most competitions for unpublished authors are wide open, authors with varying levels of skill may enter. By contrast, a busy editor may receive three, six, ten, or many more submissions in a single day. Literary agents rigorously vetted most of those proposals, so competition is likely to be much more stiff on an editor’s desk than in a contest. So while a contest win may urge an editor to take a closer look, that rivalry may mean your story doesn’t rise to the top of a publisher’s stack.

If you enter a contest and don’t final or win, don’t despair. At the very least, the contest gives you a chance to see where your work ranks among other current authors’. And you may gain valuable written feedback. Please note that many, if not most, works that eventually are published by a traditional publisher never win a contest for unpublished authors. Most books, including many bestsellers, never win an award.

My advice? Keep entering contests, but also keep the results in perspective.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Why It's Okay to Lose a Contest (Part 1 of 2)

Tamela Hancock Murray, an agent with The Steve Laube Agency, wrote this article. It's used with her permission.

* * * * *

Any author who’s entered contests knows that they are difficult to win. The competition is more fierce than ever. For example, I just judged an ACFW competition and would have been happy to represent most of the authors whose work I reviewed. Entries get better every year. This is good news for readers while encouraging authors to fine tune their work. In the case of prestigious contests such as those sponsored by ACFW, there are no losers. I had the privilege of attending the Christy Award dinner on several occasions. Again, there are no losers in any group of Christy finalists.

There are other reasons not to be depressed if you lose a contest:

1.) Judges have subjective opinions. Their views are valuable, and feedback — even if it’s just a perfect score — is worthwhile. But as with any other sentiments, it’s up to the author to decide which comments to take to heart.

2.) Not all contests are created equal. Some coordinators have a pool of more appropriate judges than others. I’ve been asked to judge contests where my credentials made sense. I’ve also been asked to rank submissions where the poor coordinator plainly reached out to me in desperation. What does this mean for authors? Consider all opinions, but don’t stress.

(We’ll cover two more reasons in next week’s post.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Markets Are Different Than You Think (Part 2 of 2)

This post is by Dan Balow, an agent with The Steve Laube Agency, and is used with his permission.

* * * * *

Years ago, I heard the worst church sermon ever. Instead of illuminating a passage of Scripture, the speaker seemed to assert:
  • All Christians vote Republican 
  • All Christians were disgusted at “liberal” social gospel teachers. 
  • All Christians were repulsed by television preachers. 
  • All Christians should distrust the media. 
  • All teenagers were irresponsible. 
  • Every male should be a great financial provider for their family of multiple children and their stay-at-home wife and mother. 
  • Public schools are all evil, liberal strongholds of negative influence and should be fought or avoided. 
Agree or disagree with the statements, placing every believer under the same umbrella felt wildly simplistic.

Certainly, it is easier to treat people as homogeneous “markets” where everyone looks, acts and thinks alike, but unfortunately, it is much more complex than that. The market for Christian books is made up of people struggling with all sorts of things and often seeking comfort in everything but their faith.

That’s the world to which you write, one which is not what you think, or would like to think.

Metaphorically speaking, there is no such thing as preaching to the choir.

People are complicated, almost immune from categorization and require authors to rely heavily on immutable Biblical principles, which they know still apply, despite changes in culture.

You are not writing a book for married women. You are writing a book for a woman who is struggling every day to find stability amidst shifting sands, seeking to love God above all else and love their neighbor in spite of her circumstances. And by the way, her husband won’t go to church and her son is making terrible life choices.

When you write, don’t think about writing to people living lives you think they should live. Write to real people. They are all seeking to grow in their faith amidst all the list of influences I mentioned above.

The ground is shifting and if the foundation is not strong, the building will crumble.

In conclusion, if writing comes easy for you, you probably aren’t thinking about an audience of readers as you should. You think you know them, but they are unreal caricatures.

This is why it is important for writers of non-fiction to have a speaking ministry as part of their life work. It connects them to actual people as they interact.

You should sit in humble silence before you dare put anything on paper.

When you truly know your audience, writing from your faith should be hard, as you ponder how imperfect the world is and how deep is the love of God.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Markets Are Different Than You Think (Part 1 of 2)

This article is by Dan Balow, an agent with the Steve Laube Agency. It's used with his permission.

* * * * *

Let’s discuss the culture in the United States and the Christian writer. Here are some unavoidable things to keep in mind as you write:
  • Ours is an “entertainment culture” where all forms of diversion are more important than just about anything.
  • Ours is a “drinking culture” where alcohol in all forms could be characterized as socially and economically important to more people than ever before.
  • Ours is a “sexualized culture” where certain behavior is assumed and even encouraged.
  • Homosexuality is a widely accepted lifestyle.
  • Most people generally hold a mix of political views, making them difficult to label.
  • Divorce is prevalent and long-term co-habitation is common.
  • Fewer and fewer children have a mother and father who live with them.
  • People do not work at the same company their entire lives, then retire. Pensions are something for public employees only and probably not forever. Retirement will come later and later. 
With the above I am addressing the culture as a whole, churchgoers and non-churchgoers. In addition, Christians have this going for them:
  • Most have a mix of theological views, many which have little or nothing to do with Scripture. They struggle to reconcile the list above with the Bible.
  • Church attendance is either shrinking or growing depending on who you talk to, but it is more commonly described as sporadic and unpredictable. 
As Christian writers go about the process of developing their work, they write to a less-than-ideal world where things are not at all like some Christian Norman Rockwell image might suggest.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Book Hook Hall of Fame (Part 2 of 2)

This post comes from marketing consultant Rob Eagar’s blog, “Wildfire Marketing.” It's used with his permission. (Cec)

* * * * *

As a book marketing consultant, I like to help my author clients develop book hooks using the "what if I told you" technique. For fiction authors, I remind them that a good hook should present a heroic quest and the implied conflict that the protagonist will experience.

Every great book hook has this quality in common: you want to know how the story, the history, or the non-fiction advice will play out.

Sometimes it's easier to create a hook for your book when you see effective examples displayed. Below are 10 excellent samples:

1. What if a suicidal man had an angel show him how his town would turn out if he'd never lived?

2. What if I told you four Jamaicans decided to enter the Winter Olympics as a bobsled team...and had never seen snow?

3. What if you could be debt-free in 12 months, no matter how much you owe?

4. What if you can actually train your brain to win?

5. What if two people who hate each other start anonymously writing each other online and fall in love?

6. What if I told you the amount of rainforest equal to 31 million football fields disappears each year?

7. What if you can learn when to say and how to say no without feeling guilty?

8. What if you discovered your entire life was just a computer-generated illusion?

9. What if the first man to walk on Mars suddenly realizes he'll be the first to die there?

10. What if I told you everyone speaks, but not everyone is heard?

Notice how these "what if" questions naturally make you want to know more. That's the purpose of a book hook. Make people curious. Make them wonder. Make them want to purchase and read what happens next.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Book Hook Hall of Fame (Part 1 of 2)

As I finished creating my 10-part series on writing aphorisms, I read marketing consultant Rob Eagar’s blog, “Wildfire Marketing.” The next two posts are reprinted with his permission. (Cec)

* * * * *

What if you could convince people to buy your book with just one sentence?

Would you want to learn how? Of course, every author would be curious to know the answer.

That's the power of a hook. And it just worked on you. (Ha!)

A book hook is a statement or question designed to generate immediate curiosity and make the reader desire to know more.

Why are hooks so important? Language is the power of the book sale. You're not selling books to machines. You're selling books to human beings. A book hook is powerful language that naturally makes people notice and want more.

How do you create a great book hook? Use this simple technique to get started. Imagine that your book is about to become a movie. Think like a screenwriter instead of an author.

For example, if you write fiction, picture your novel as an upcoming major motion picture, such as a thriller, a romantic comedy, or a horror film. How would you grab the reader's attention in one sentence?

If you've written a memoir, imagine your book as a dramatic tale on the silver screen. How would you make people curious about your story using one question or statement? If your genre is non-fiction history, education, religion, or self-help, imagine your book as a feature documentary.

Another effective technique for a great book hook is related to the way ESPN promotes their popular sports documentaries on TV called "30 for 30." They market every film using a narrator who asks the question, "What if I told you ____?" For each documentary, they fill in the blank to that question with a provocative statement.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 10 of 10)

When we sell manuscripts to publishers, they retain the right for the title. In my early days, I had no choice when editors insisted on changing mine. For example, one of my early books carried the title Put on a Happy Faith, and sold 40,000 the first year. My follow-up book I titled Have a Faith Lift. An editor said, “You’ve made an inroad with the cutesy title, and now we want to reach out of the more sedate readers.”

I had no voice in the matter and it came out as How to Live a Christian Life. It sold a total of 6,000 copies.

These days, however, publishing houses usually confer with their authors. Most of my books have kept the original title with sometimes a minor tweaking. My title was 90 Minutes in Heaven: A Story of Life and Death. Revell editors reversed the subtitle to A Story of Death and Life. I think they were correct.

On the other hand, another book I wrote for Don Piper carried the title of Departing Instructions for the Life Ahead: A Study of John 13 to 17.

Sad to say, the New York house didn’t seem to understand our audience, and they called it Getting to Heaven, with the subtitle Departing Instructors for Your Life Now. I still think it was a dreadful mistake on their part. (That publisher has since closed its Christian book division.)

Think about your title. Play with it in such a way that attracts readers. The use of aphorisms can work there. One of my titles was Making Sense When Life Doesn’t. The book didn’t have outstanding sales, but I still believe it was a good title. It also was a terse summary of my book.

The more faithfully I write aphorisms, 
the more I see many practical uses for them. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 9 of 10)

Once we get used to writing aphorisms, we discover they do more than make clever statements. They’re also useful in writing articles and books.

The concept of several of my books began with a single thought. My personal favorite, Knowing God, Knowing Myself, found its genesis in a comment by St. Teresa of Avila: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” That stayed with me for weeks while ideas tumbled through my mind. Then I wrote the book.

My awareness that learning to write aphorisms could lead to creative articles happened in the mid-1990s when Lin Johnson, editor of The Christian Communicator, asked me to write an article on how to get a literary agent. (Christian agents first came on the scene around 1990, and I was one of those early ones to sign with one.)

In writers magazines, I’d read articles on how to get an agent and had fairly well digested the material. As I pondered the piece Lin wanted, out of seemingly nowhere I thought, Why would an agent want me for a client?

I used that as my starting place and kept the focus on the literary agent instead of myself. The material was the same, but I used a different approach. (And, as I recall, I had five requests for reprinting the article.)

I realized that once I distilled the dozens of ideas and concepts, I was ready to write. And the major factor in the distillation process was one simple maxim.

We can learn brevity that leads to creative ways to express ourselves.

Once we learn to write maxims,
they become guides in creatively writing for publication.



Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 8 of 10)

Think of the times you’ve read an article or a book and afterward thought, Yes, it was all right. Nothing special. Or you might think, It reinforced what I believed, but didn’t shed light or give me a deeper understanding.

Or I can look at this from the position of a public speaker. At a writers conference years ago, each speaker was told to introduce their classes in one minute. Three of them gave almost their entire message—in at least five minutes. As I listened to the third one drone on, here’s an aphorism that popped into my head:
Those who have the least to say
take the longest to say it.
In another conference, as a joke as much as anything else, I defined two types of bad writers:
Fat writers like and enjoy writing lengthy sentences, with parenthetical phrases, set off by commas, (or sometimes in parenthesis), and occasionally inserting the em dash—an attention getter—and always writing many words that go on endlessly and redundantly.

Skinny: Writes nouns, verbs, one adjective.
§

I decided to write about aphorisms on this blog because they do one special thing for me: they force me to think clearly and to make sentences meaningful. They remind me of a dictum from a long-time pastor who offered me advice on how to be effective: “Stand up, speak up, shut up.”

I grapple with words, constantly trying to say them better. I’ve sometimes said to beginning writers, “I enjoy rewriting more than I do the writing.”

My first draft flows out of passion, believing I have something to justify killing another tree. I toil over the second draft to refine my thinking. If I expend high-level energy in my writing, readers will find it easy to stay with me.

I labor with my prose 
so readers won’t have to.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 7 of 10)

Memorable sayings need to have a twist—a surprise. Knowing or informing doesn’t grab us because we read nothing unexpected—that is, it holds no surprise. A good aphorism moves in one direction and abruptly challenges the first statement.

These sayings often contain a smidgen of humor.

Here’s an example I wrote recently:
I refuse to judge other Christians—
even when I see them doing something wrong.
How does this one by Ashleigh Brilliant grab you? “I wish somebody would expose me for what I really am, so that I would know.”

One of my all-time favorites comes from the witty Oscar Wilde, who said, “I can resist anything, except temptation.”

Here’s another of mine, borne out of my own experience:
God, today help me to be kind and compassionate to everyone—
especially to myself.
Maxims charm us;
they also surprise us.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 6 of 10)

I once read that the adages we quote lead us one of two ways. The first is directive. That is, they subtly nudge us to change our behavior by pointing out a better way to live.

Those dictums come as reflections on our own issues and struggles—as they did with me. I wrote this one after being ashamed and immobilized by something I had done long ago. Here’s the result:
Nothing I can do alters the past;
everything I do reshapes the future.
The second way aphorisms lead is by challenging our thinking. Aphorisms are outlaws—they don’t tell us what to do, but by focusing on life as it is, they take us to a deeper level.

Here are two of mine:
God heals the sins of our past, but the scars remain.
If I say, "You made me angry,"
I'm holding onto my expectations of your behavior.
These are the kind that, once we read them, we say, “Yes, I hadn’t thought of that way.”

Why not write your own?

I share my experiences in pithy statements
to nudge and encourage others.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 5 of 10)

Insight is a major quality of good maxims. They’re not phrased in a conventional way and don’t try to say, “Do this.” Instead the purpose is to penetrate our thinking and make us say, “Yes! That’s how I want to live.”

“A lifetime is one long now.” Olivia Dresher wrote that and when I read it, it took me a few seconds before I could grasp her meaning. Then I smiled and nodded.

Thomas Farber penned this one: “Not comfortable sharing, low need for affiliation. An only child, he became an only adult.”

Here’s one I wrote after spending an afternoon with a group with whom I realized I had little in common:
Standing by myself,
if I’m contented, I call that solitude;
if I’m uncomfortable, I call it loneliness.
Try your hand at writing one. If you’d like, you may send it to me personally at cec.murp@comcast.net.

In this series, I’ll give you axioms that seem original to me. On a few occasions, I’ve written one, only later to learn that it’s remarkably similar to what someone else said 500 years ago.

Aphorisms make me smile before I say,
“I never thought of it that way.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 4 of 10)

Succinct statements flow from those who have experienced life and pass on their wisdom. The best examples are simple, practical, and often playful. They preserve traditional values and offer glimpses about often ignored behavior or as a guide to change.

These dictums have a way of expressing my feelings in such a way that I can learn to think differently. I enjoy reading pithy statements and saying, “I wish I’d written that.”

If we write aphorisms, we not only write short, crisp sentences, we also make those statements meaningful to readers. I’m frequently asked (and delighted to comply) when people ask to copy one of my maxims.

Another form is the epigram, which is usually a short poem, often with a witty ending.
Fleas: Adam had ‘em.
Here’s one I call a poem that I worked on and refined over a period of four weeks. Although it doesn’t rhyme, it’s among my favorites because of the rhythm—the poetic flow. Each word in the second maintains the cadence of those in the first.
I am passionately involved in the process;
I am emotionally detached from the result.

The best maxims flow from life experiences, 
and are stated in such a way that they connect with others.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 3 of 10)

Aphorisms flow from ancient writings. For example, we read them in the book of Proverbs and hear them quoted by public speakers. The ancients focused on graffiti-length tidbits. Their readers were poorly educated, so to help them remember, they wrote succinctly.

Thus, they tried to pack wisdom into terse statements and make a sharp point—something we need to keep in mind for contemporary readers.

Brevity also works today but for different reasons. We’re better educated, and somewhere I read that we have an 85 percent world literary rate. Despite that, our need for insights is as urgent as ever. We’re too busy, too pre-occupied, and too tired to read five paragraphs to extract a single sentence.

More than 100 years ago, T.S. Eliot said that we’re “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

We have so much information available that the meaning seems flattened into mere information. Internet experts have shrunken cultural achievement as deep thought, original insight, or facility with language into the single word: content.

Consequently, we skim rather than absorb. Pushed for time, we settle for shallow. Or as the high school kids say, “Read the CliffsNotes.”

As difficult as it seems, we can learn to write with flair, rhythm, and create simple, memorable sentences. The one factor to remember is that aphorisms must have a twist—an element of surprise. Strong aphorisms seduce and surprise us.

Whether we’re aware, we quote aphorisms regularly and (sadly) many become cliched, tired sentences: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Boring today, but in the beginning, those few words held significant meaning.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Work as if you were to live 100 years, pray as if you were to die tomorrow.”

Write your own, and cut extra words. Keep your sentences simple.

We remember short sentences;
we skim long ones.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 2 of 10)

I heard a man say, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” That now-overworked dictum fits my definition of the term. It’s simple and obvious in meaning—his statement of truth (even if not original) spoken in a witty way. To qualify as an aphorism, a statement contains a truth in a terse manner.

Aphoristic statements are quoted in writings as well as in daily speech. The fact that they contain truth gives them universal acceptance. Scores of philosophers, politicians, writers, artists, athletes, and other individuals are remembered for their famous aphoristic words.

You can teach yourself to write philosophical or moral truths. You focus on human experiences and help readers relate your brief words to their own lives.

Just recently someone said this in a political speech—and I don’t know if it was original, but it grabbed me: “Not strong morals, but weak stomachs, keep us from being vultures.”

I Peter 3:15 exhorts us to always give a reason for our hope. How about writing a simple statement that’s memorable, brief, and states your theological position? “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19) is a memorable biblical example.

Just as I finished writing the above paragraph, I thought of my own answer.

What I couldn’t do for myself
Jesus’ love accomplished for me.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Aphorisms (Part 1 of 10)

These days with Twitter and texting, we’re learning to write shorter sentences and paragraphs. In pre-computer days we urged shorter sentences and referred to it as the “economy of words.” That meant we tried to eliminate words that carried little weight.

Here are a few examples:
  • He drank some coffee. We can nearly always cut some and make a good clear statement.
  • She managed to leave the house: She left the house.
  • Jess wasn’t hungry at all. Jeff wasn’t hungry.
In learning to write tight (or tightly for the purists), I stumbled on aphorisms. Most of these blog entries end with them. My prodigious use of them began years ago when a publisher pulled statements out of various chapters and boxed them—we call them call outs (or callouts)— short texts that illustrate or make a strong point.

I enjoy writing aphorisms. If that’s not a common word for you, think of adage, proverb, moral, or principle. They’re brief observations that contain a general truth. Their pithiness makes the text easily remembered and quotable.

Try these:
  • Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old age regret.—Benjamin Disraeli 
  • Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.—Benjamin Franklin 
  • Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream.—Khalil Gibran
This series is to encourage you to sum up your understandings in brief statements. It’s like the elevator pitch, which refers to the possibility of your getting on the elevator with an agent or editor and you say, “May I tell you about my book?”

“Sure,” the person says. “I’m getting off at the third floor.”

That means you must sum up everything in a few sentences.

Although no publisher has ever asked, when I write a book proposal I insert my elevator pitch immediately following the title page. It’s my summary of the book—usually one brief paragraph. That brief statement saves editors time by helping them see whether it’s something they want to pursue or to delete it from their hard drive.

Try doing this with your articles, stories—anything you write. It also helps you focus on what’s important.

I’ve been doing them so long, most of the time they flow out of my writing.

Here’s an aphorism for what I’ve written above:

I write summary statements to clarify 
and to keep my thoughts focused.