Friday, December 30, 2011

Common Problems (Part 18 of 50)

In English, adjectives modify only nouns and pronouns. To get beyond that rule of grammar, we use the hyphen, which makes both words function as a single adjective.

  • He walked along the wrought-iron fences. Without the hyphen, it properly reads, He walked along wrought, iron fences. 
  • His oft-spoken words echoed through my head. 
  • He held his four-by-six-inch device. All four words modify device
  • He whispered a soft-but-fervent prayer. By hyphenating, all three words function as a single adjective to modify prayer

Serious writers make reading easier by 
remembering simple punctuation tips.

* * * * *

Cec's new book, Unleash the Writer Within, is now available.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Common Problems (Part 17 of 50)

Watch those dialog attributes. Creative writing teachers tend to urge their students to avoid using the boring word said. Professional writers, however, give exactly the opposite advice.

We do it for two reasons and the first is because said is invisible. So are asked, answered, and replied. Because they are so common, readers scarcely notice.

The second reason to avoid strong attributes is because they take the emphasis off what and put it on how.

  • "You will never take me alive!" he yelled.
  • "You must never do that again," Ellen remonstrated. 
  • "I want my money," he demanded. 

If we write dialog well, readers don't need an attribution to know how to interpret the words.

If you want to emphasize how someone speaks, you do need the right attribute: "I hate you," she purred.

Said is a good dialog attribute; 
it's good because it's invisible.

* * * * *

Cec's new book, Unleash the Writer Within, is now available. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Common Problems (Part 16 of 50)

Avoid name calling in dialogue #1. We rarely use others' names when we talk, especially when there are only two people.
  • "Honestly, Savannah, I’m having trouble believing it." 
  • "Mom, you realize we are officially in the middle of nowhere." 
  • "You know, Marion, that I go…" 
  • "But, Bill, do you think…?" 

As long as it's clear who is speaking and to whom, 
we don't need to add names in the dialog.

* * * * *
Cec's new book Unleash the Writer Within is now available. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Common Problems (Part 15 of 50)

Use the natural sound. During the past few years many writers have begun putting the verb (said, replied, answered) before the speaker. "What do you want?" asked Mary.

It's not wrong, but it's not a natural way of speaking. I enjoy children's stories because of the rhythm.

For example, the Little Red Hen asks who will help her bake the bread.

"Not I," barked the lazy dog.

"Not I," purred the sleepy cat.

"Not I," quacked the noisy yellow duck.

This works in the read-aloud story "The Little Red Hen" because it propels the story and listeners get caught up in the rhythm. But as the great theologian Paul wrote, "Now that I have become a man, I've put an end to childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11b CEB).

"What do you want?" Mary asked.

"I don't know," Kelly answered.

Sounds natural and it flows. Good writing is natural and keeps readers focused on the dialog and not on the writing style.
The more natural my writing, the easier it is for readers.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Common Problems (Part 14 of 50)

Distinguish between this and that. In recent years, writers have tended to use this in relating an account and should instead use that. Use this when you refer to the present or something physically near; use that when you refer to the past or something far away.

Here are examples of the misuse of this.

• Write a brief summary of the ways you could show this person's selfless love. (Unless the person was physically present, use that.)

• Nothing in our conversation prepared me for this question. (The context was past tense, as shown by prepared, so someone asked the question in the past.)

• On this particular day my intuition kept tugging at me to turn the car around. (That is probably better. If the author uses this to make it what we call present continuous tense, the sentence should read: On this particular day my intuition keeps tugging at me. . . Or she could have shifted it to the past tense: On that particular day, my intuition continued to. . .)

In each of these four examples, that is probably the better word choice.

Because I am a growing writer
I'm careful to distinguish between this and that.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Common Problems (Part 13 of 50)

Insert beats (actions or gestures) #3. Adding too many beats makes the writing tiresome and destroys emotional emphasis.

"You know I've always loved you." Carrie laid her hand on Bruce's arm. "If you leave me now, I don't know what I'll do." Her eyes moistened. "I've never known anyone who makes me feel the way you do." She stared into his pale brown eyes. "Don't send me away." The tears cascaded down her cheeks.

In this paragraph the constant insertion of gestures jars readers away from her words. I thought of the word overwrought. Carrie is moving so much the words bear no impact.

Too many beats destroy the emotional impact.
One beat to a paragraph is usually enough.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Common Problems (Part 12 of 50)

Insert beats (actions or gestures) #2. When we insert beats appropriately we make the dialog stronger or produce a dramatic effect. Too many sentences without a break give each of them the same emphasis.

Marcus said, "Everyone will die if we stay here. There is no place of safety. The enemy will surround us within the hour and shoot us without asking questions. None of you will have a chance unless I go alone to meet them."

Marcus says four things and there's nothing significant, but here it is again with a beat inserted.

"Everyone will die if we stay here. There is no place of safety," Marcus said. "The enemy will surround us within the hour and shoot us without asking questions. None of you will have a chance," he said, and took a deep breath, "unless I go alone to meet them."

By inserting Marcus said later in the paragraph and adding a beat, the end of the dialog gives readers a few seconds to absorb Marcus's words before the powerful final statement.

Carefully inserted beats
adds drama to my writing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Common Problems (Part 11 of 50)

Insert beats (actions or gestures) #1. Beats, when used well, make your dialog stronger and your prose more readable.

It also avoids what we call talking heads. That phrase means two or more people speak but we have no idea where they are, the time of day or year, or whether it's in the present or past.

Here's one piece of dialog from a student: "There’s no place to anchor a tent here and the slope is much too steep. And the snow will continue at least through the night. Too much danger of blowing away! We have to find Kregor and move on. If we don’t find something better, we’ll have to make a serious decision about pitching camp. In the meantime, seconds count." (This went on for four more sentences.)

Here it is again with beats added.

"There’s no place to anchor a tent here, and the slope is much too steep. And the snow will continue at least through the night." He brushed the snow off his face and shook his head wearily. "Too much danger of blowing away. We have to find Kregor and move on."

New paragraph: While the other four people stared at him, their bodies already trembling from the cold, Evan said, "If we don’t find something better, we’ll have to make a serious decision about pitching camp. In the meantime, seconds count."

The second version does two things. First, it gets us out of the talking heads. We now have a sense of the bitterness of the weather. Second, it breaks up the lengthy dialog. I call that breathing space. Readers feel as if they're in the scene by the insertion of brushing off snow, shaking his head, the others trembling from the cold.

When I insert beats into my writing
I add life and energy to my prose.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Common Problems (Part 10 of 50)

Don't filter #3. Don't filter by shifting to you. Some writers filter by switching to the second-person point of view. That's like a scene in a film where a man is ready to ring the doorbell to pick up his date. After he got to the door, before he could ring the bell:

Heather opened it and smiled. You know that warm, tender smile that makes a man know she was the woman he wanted to marry.

Shifting to you is like that ploy actors use when they're in the middle of a scene and turn, face the camera, and talk to the audience. It spoils the scene. It pulls us out of the mood and the action.

• When you live in California, you’re not quite sure which scenes are for real or which could be performances.

• If you have ever been to an Itzack Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him.

Are the sentences understandable? Yes, they are. But they're stronger if you stay in the POV that goes before it:

• Those of us who live in California are not. . .

• It's no small achievement for Itzack Perlman to. . .

Because I am a good writer,
I avoid shifting to you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Common Problems (Part 9 of 50)

Don't filter #2. To avoid filtering, we need to be aware of staying within the selected POV. When you are in the POV of one person, readers see/hear/sense only what that POV person does.

When you tell us what s/he saw (or heard or any of the other senses), you pull us outside his/her POV. Don't tell us you felt. Show it from inside.

Here are five examples to illustrate flitering. Each becomes a stronger sentence if we omit noticed, watched, feel, heard, and knew.)

1. Helen noticed he laid his strong hand on Eva's shoulder as he spoke. (He laid his strong hand on Eva's shoulder as he spoke. Helen is our POV person, so anything that happens in the scene comes through her senses.)

2. He watched her cautiously step back. (She cautiously stepped back.)

3. I could feel my surfboard begin to slip. (My surfboard began to slip.)

4. She heard the door swing open. (The door swung open.)

5. Dorion knew precious seconds were ticking away. (Precious seconds ticked away.)

Serious writers seek to become excellent writers.
They remain diligent to avoid filtering.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Common Problems (Part 8 of 50)

Don't filter #1. Of all the principles I teach in writing, this seems the most difficult to grasp. I have not seen this in any writing book, and it's too subtle for those who aren't serious about improving their skills.

Let's start with the principle. When you are in the point of view (POV) of one person, you need to stay there, whether you write fiction or nonfiction. The tendency is to move outside the POV and become the observer of the action instead of the actor.

This shows when we use words such as saw, heard, observed, or noticed. Here's a simple example and the POV is first-person singular: I heard Allison sigh with contentment.

You have moved out of first person and have become the observer of the action. To remain in the POV, you would write: Allison sighed with contentment.

You couldn't hear the sigh unless you heard the sigh. If you tell readers you heard, you're no longer in the first person POV.

Here's a sentence in third-person POV: Anna could feel the floor shake as the opera chorus assembled on stage.

The writer jumped outside the female POV person and told us what Anna experienced. Better: The floor shook as the opera chorus assembled on stage. By describing what took place, readers are aware that Anna felt it.

Because I want to become an excellent writer,
I will avoid filtering.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Common Problems (Part 7 of 50)

Avoid the progressive tense unless you want to emphasize the concept of "in the process of." A good rule is to use the simple past (fewer words) unless you want to emphasize the process. This may help: Prefer the simple past unless it doesn't work.

Last week on a writers' loop, a panelist announced, "Next month I'll be teaching at. . ." It would have been stronger if he had used the simple future tense and written, "I'll teach at. . . "

Here are a few from my students:

• Emily was making eye contact for the first time. (Was that an ongoing procedure? The author probably meant, "Emily made...")

• That day she was sitting at her desk, nervously shifting papers. (True, she stayed there, but doesn't it make sense to say simply, "she sat...?" The emphasis isn't on the ongoing activity of sitting but what she did while seated.)

• Josiah was seeing it for the first time. (He must have stared at it.)

• Gary was screaming at me to call. (My assumption is that Gary yelled one time.)

• Eli was whispering to a lean man. (This depends on the meaning the author wants to convey. In the context, the writer simply wanted to mention that Eli whispered something and moved on.)

• The goat was wandering free, dragging its rope. (What is the action the writer wants to emphasize? Dragging the rope seems obvious. Thus it's stronger to do it this way: The goat wandered free, dragging its rope.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Common Problems (Part 5A of 50)

Barbara emailed that she had trouble putting some of the sentences I used as examples into the active voice.

First, it’s not an evil thing to use the passive voice. So please remember the rule is avoid.

Second, we don’t have to rigidly follow the original sentence. Strive for clarity.

1. After my arraignment, I was transferred to . . .
After my arraignment, they transferred me to . . .

2. All my basic needs were taken care of.
They took care of my basic needs. (“All” isn’t needed.)

3. It can only be explained from the realm of the supernatural.
I can only it explain it from . . .

4. Secret knocks were given and tested.
They/we gave and tested secret knocks.

5. Her hours were filled with the usual phone calls.
She filled her hours . . .

6. The conflict arose because invisible boundaries were crossed.
The conflict arose because she/he/they crossed . . .

Friday, November 18, 2011

Common Problems (Part 6 of 50)

More on the active voice vs. the passive voice. Some writers get so caught up in avoiding the passive voice that they refuse to use state-of-being verbs such as is and was. In a large writers conference, one prominent writer yelled, "I hate to be verbs."

She misunderstood to-be verbs and assumed they were only helping verbs (copula) in the passive voice.

State-of-being verbs are not the passive voice, although they are weak. I can think of no more natural way to write the following sentence: Even though it was October, the grass was green. (Yes, I used two state-of-being verbs). I could have written, Even though October had arrived. . . That's where personal preference comes into writing. But "grass was green" causes no problems to understand. It's brief and describes the status of a lawn.

I sometimes use state-of-being verbs,
but I'm aware of their purpose.
I distinguish them from the passive voice.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Common Problems (Part 5 of 50)

Prefer the active voice. I use prefer because at times the passive voice works when we don't want to identify who did the action.

I've previously blogged about using the active and passive voices, but it's a constant problem with writers. This is the principle: Prefer the active voice; avoid the passive. The active voice uses fewer words and the writing is stronger.

Read the partial sentences below. The passive voice shows itself by the use of what we commonly call the helping verb (is, was) and usually written in the past tense.

• After my arraignment, I was transferred to

• All my basic needs were taken care of.

• It can only be explained from the realm of the supernatural.

• Secret knocks are given and tested.

• Her hours were filled with the usual phone calls.

• The conflict arose because invisible boundaries were crossed.

Because I want my writing to be strong,
I choose the active voice.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Common Problems (Part 4 of 50)

Kill the clichés. They're those tired, overworked phrases that we hear and read constantly. It's easy to write with hackneyed expressions because we don't have to work hard. A major difference between mediocre authors and excellent ones is that the former use the current expressions of the day instead of trying to say it in their own words.

The cliché can be a simple word (utilize instead of use), or a phrase (at the end of the day, at this point in time, or do the math).

Here are a few, and I have several hundred of them. (Or I could use the hackneyed clause, I have literally hundreds of them.)

• The searing pain returned in full blast

• With each passing second

• The last thing I wanted was

• It was marvelous to behold

• To take the edge off

• I was frozen for what seemed like an eternity

• More than I cared to know

• I'll defend it tooth and nail

• Spoiling for a fight

• The defining moment of my life

Clichés work for easy writing;
Clichés also make for boring reading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Common Problems (Part 3 of 50)

The second purple-prose punctuation problem is the exclamation mark. If you consider the exclamation mark noisy and loud, you'll probably get rid of it. I often tell students, "The most obvious mark of insecure writers is the use of the exclamation mark. They shout a lot because they don't trust their ability to communicate effectively."

(And yes, in my early writing days, I seasoned my manuscripts with exclamation marks.) Here are a few examples from my students.

• It came from below them!

• Jean shivered!

• Of course he would not give it back!

• How luxurious the life of a bride would be!

Don't use the exclamation mark—
unless nothing else works.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Extra Post--Common Problems 1A

Linda emailed a response to Common Problems (Part 1 of 50). She wrote, "But everyone tells you not to use the state-of-being verbs! The writers in my Word Weavers group continually complain about having to overwrite and add sentences to compensate for not using is, are, was and words ending in 'ly.'"

Everyone doesn’t. I don’t say such things and I am a real person. The apostle Paul spoke about zeal that wasn’t according to knowledge. That is the case here. Good writing is natural writing.

The purpose of writing isn’t to be clever or to avoid certain words. The purpose is to say something clearly so that readers understand without having to figure out what you mean.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve put state-of-being verbs in italics. Did you have any problems understanding my meaning?

If I were writing for publication, I’d say it better.

Did you notice I used were in the previous sentence? That’s how we show the subjunctive mood. That is, something contrary to fact or uncertain. How else would you write that sentence without were and retain the meaning?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Common Problems (Part 2 of 50)

Avoid purple prose punctuation. This shows up in two ways. First is the pause (. . .) which means slow, deliberate thinking. Purple-prose punctuation occurs when writers

• don’t trust their writing

• don’t trust readers to interpret

• make an attempt to be dramatic—and fail

• write the words as they hear them inside their heads, including the pauses between the phrases.

The pause is properly called an ellipsis (. . .). When used as an obvious pause, it's effective. "I was thinking. . . maybe. . . "

Too many writers use it as a dramatic pause. It rarely works. Trust readers to get the point without going melodramatic.

• She hopes against all hope that Ben isn’t dead. . . that he’ll soon return. . . that she’ll finally be able to tell him the truth. . .

• Scenes of my own arrest flashed rapidly. . . my disgrace. . . my loss of innocence. . .

If I write clearly,
readers will grasp my meaning.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Common Problems (Part 1 of 50)

For six years I taught mentoring clinics. I varied their length, but at first they lasted from three days and finally down to one full day, so I could work individually with writers. I found the same problems occurring in many manuscripts.

Eventually I developed a list of common problems. These are the weaknesses that I saw repeatedly. As I deal with them in this series, some will include items I've mentioned in previous blogs, because I still see the same weaknesses.

Avoid purple prose writing. This is a long-used term that refers to extravagant overwriting. It usually refers to descriptions that call attention to themselves. I see this in the writings of insecure writers who are afraid to use simple state-of-being verbs like is, are, and were. So they try to paint pictures with excessive expressions.

The writers want to sound powerful and dramatic, but the sentences become melodramatic and over-the-top prose. Here are a few examples from my students:

• He struggled to tame the pounding wave of thoughts that threatened to blur his focus.

• His throat tightened as fear swept over his brother's face like the shadow they chased across the field behind their house when an airplane flew over.

• The light of day kept my loneliness in the shadows of my mind, but as soon as the lights were out, my thoughts went to that despair.

•The air kept the stillness captive as men held their breath in anticipation.

• Rapidly firing her digital camera, she captured the dress rehearsal fever staining the cheeks of several antsy actors.

• Lib placed a hand over the traitorous butterflies coasting in her belly.

• Rand stood, mouth agape. He snapped his mouth shut. Jaw and neck muscles bulged as he stormed out.

The best writing is the most easily understood.
The meaning is obvious and the words are simple.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 17 of 17)

Here are my concluding words of advice about POV.

1. Use first person if you want the entire book to have a limited, personal, and individual perspective.

2. If you want high reader identification with your character, first person is a good choice. Or go with limited third person.

3. If you want to describe your character from the outside, where you tell us "she thought" or "he said," limited third person works well.

4. If you want to experiment and can justify it, choose second person as a modified first person.

5. If you want perspective so readers can glimpse the attitude and feelings of several characters and grasp the plot from different outlooks or perceptions, the omniscient or unlimited third person might work for you.

If you're unsure, write a page or two in each POV. As you look at them and compare what you want to accomplish, ask yourself, "Which of these POVs would be the most satisfying to me?"

You have to decide the POV that works best for you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 16 of 17)

No rule exists that says you must stay in a single point of view. You can mix them from scene to scene. You might alternate from the hero's POV in one scene and the heroine's in the next.

Or write a chapter using third person and shift to first in the next. Rosellen Brown wrote a novel about a young man who molested and murdered his girlfriend in Before and After. She arranged the book in four sections, with different viewpoints. The reviews on Amazon were mixed and mostly negative. (Part of the mixed reactions may have been because of the theme.)

In which genre are you writing? Examine books by authors who write in the same field. Familiarize yourself with their POVs.

It's easier to sell books written
in the usual POVs.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 15 of 17)

Recently a few authors have tried and gotten away with the totally omniscient POV. For emerging writers, we suggest avoiding this POV because:

1. Switching POV within a scene jars careful readers. It shatters reality because none of us is omniscient.

2. Such pauses in the narrative flow tend to tell readers what they need to show them.

3. The POV continually shifts. The writing tends to become more impersonal because readers don't identify with and focus primarily on one character.

4. Readers aren't always sure who is the major character. Recently I read A Grain of Wheat, written in 1967, which is considered a modern African classic by Ngui wa Thionog'o. The back of the book reads, "Set in 1963, A Grain of Wheat tells the story of Kenya on the verge of . . . independence. The novel focuses on Mugo. . . "

Mugo? I liked the novel immensely, but another character, Gikonyo, seemed as much the focus of the book until I read the last 30 pages. I also liked Gikonyo much better than Mugo. I could argue that the author would have been wiser to go with shifting third-person limited POVs, but it was his choice.

4. The omniscient is difficult to pull off and keep readers with you. When well written, readers can enjoy all perspectives, but it's risky.

Avoid the omniscient POV
unless there's a compelling reason and
you're positive you can do it well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 14 of 17)

In the third-person omniscient POV, the author takes a panoramic view of the characters and events. The story doesn't unfold through the eyes of a single person, but we become part of an invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator. This is also called the God view. It means you can know anything. This point of view works best in a story with a complicated plot and multiple characters.

In the omniscient POV, the author "drops in" on any of the characters. You can write from the hero’s perspective in one scene, from the heroine’s POV in the next, and then to the villain’s. You may vary viewpoints as often as you choose.

In the nineteenth century, those now called the classic authors often wrote from an omniscient viewpoint. They skipped from head to head of their characters within a scene. Often they stopped the action to comment on the people, and some would even pause to say, “And now, gentle reader” or “Pity him, dear reader, who thinks of such evil.”

Years ago I read this someplace (and forgot to keep the reference, for which I apologize):

Humpty Dumpty didn’t realize it, but soon he would have a great
fall, and the king’s horses and all the king’s men would not be
able to put him together again.

(Humpty didn’t realize what was happening, so we’re not in his POV. We’re godlike because we know what’s going to happen even though the poor fellow didn't.)

Omniscient POV is a long-established style of writing;
However, most writers stayed within a limited POV.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 13 of 17)

One variation on the limited third-person POV is to close a scene and open the next one from a different third-person perspective. This is becoming a popular way for writers to express a wider range of emotions, character development, and scope.

For example, Rachel is our POV and this is the end of the scene.

"I love you and I'll always love you," Rachel said. Tears filled her eyes and she looked away from Cary.

You insert a double return (as we called it in typewriter days) or you can use asterisks or something fancy like this: §. This shows the break in a scene.

We now pick up the story and we shift POV to Cary.

His body tensed and he started to embrace her. If I forgive her this time, he thought, it will be the same story again. She fails me and makes me feel sorry for her. "Your words mean nothing to me this time," he said.

I like this variation in fiction. I can identify with more than one person. I can "become" both Cary and Rachel.

The third-person variation allows writers to provide
a wider scope to the plot and to character development.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 12 of 17)

We speak of third-person POV in two ways. The most popular writing is done in what we call the limited third person. I'll also explain the other third person, sometimes called omniscient, universal, or unlimited third-person POV.

Third-person limited POV shows readers only what happens around that person—usually the protagonist or heroic figure. If you start that way, you stay that way. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, you can switch to first person if you start a new scene. That's not common, but it's acceptable.)

You are always inside the perspective and emotions of one person. For most modern writing, you don't jump into another person's head within the scene. Everything that happens comes from that singular POV. There are usually frequent uses of "he thought," or "he said," from the narrator's POV.

I want to stress that readers see, think, and feel only what the main character experiences. There are no shifts to another character’s thoughts or emotions.

Limited third-person POV is easy to read
and the most widely accepted POV.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 11 of 17)

Here are a few concluding thoughts on using the second-person POV.

1. You is the same as I.

Second: "As you approach the house, you see that someone has broken the lock. You push the door open and the noxious odor floods your nostrils."

First: "I approach the house. Someone has broken the lock, so I push the door open and the noxious odor floods my nostrils."

2. You write the narrative just as if the POV character is first person. You have to keep the "you" character's experience limited to what "you" can know.

3. You can write physical description easily and it comes with a confident tone: "You stare approvingly at your suntanned skin. You flex your muscles and pose as if you've just won the Mr. Universe title."

If you write from a second-person POV
it can be jarring,
so you need a good reason to use that approach.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Important Announcement from Twila

Do you have an angel story? Cec and I have a contract for a compilation book. Check out for guidelines and submission details.

Do you have an angel story to tell but can't write it yourself? Email the details to If we believe the story has potential for the book, we will contact you for more information and will write it for you.

Deadline for story submissions is November 12.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 10 of 17)

Authors usually write second person in the present tense. Ordinary observations seem stronger when you shift to second person.

Here's a comparison:

First person: I peer into my husband’s musty study. The neatness tells me that no one has been there. I smile. They haven't found the incriminating document.

Second person: You peer into your murdered husband’s musty study. The neatness tells you that no one has been there since his death. You smile. They haven't found the document.

The experts insist that the second sounds more ominous. By injecting murdered and death, they say it sounds more natural.

They may be correct, but it doesn't feel right to me.

You need to be comfortable in whatever POV you choose.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 9 of 17)

If you write in the second person, you are addressing the readers directly, as in "You walk into the room and there she is, tall and blonde and looking like trouble." This is difficult to maintain for a full book and few writers can do it well.

You can intersperse first person and second person. I often do first person and mix it with second person. (I also switch from first-person singular and first-person plural.)

My soon-to-be published book called Unleashing the Writer Within is such a mixture on purpose. I tell my experience from my perspective, do a break, and switch to second person. Here's an example:

In these examples I've presented two needy, negative-impact individuals. Their inner privation shows in what they write.

But then, all of us express our neediness in what we write. I used those two examples because they seem obvious.


Think about your different strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with the premise that the two terms are opposite sides of the same issue. Your power is also your drawback.

Although I've written in the previous chapter about the reasons for writing, I still come back to one significant fact. If it's not part of your commitment and your divinely given talent, you won't pursue it: Write to find out who you are.

When I wrote in the first-person singular, my purpose was to tell them something about Cec Murphey and his experience. I shifted to first-person plural when I wanted to wrap my arms around writers and say, "This is how all or most of us feel."

When I want to instruct, I shift to "you" and it feels right to me.

Before you choose POV,
make certain you understand your purpose.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 8 of 17)

It's all right to use second-person POV in certain kinds of nonfiction. I recommend it when the article or book is instructional and I'm an instructor giving you information or explaining how to make something. You talk directly to the readers (as this sentence does to you).

Most of my posts for this blog are written in second person. Perhaps it sounds boastful of me, but my reason is simple. I've been writing and selling professionally since 1971 and have published in almost every genre. Thus I feel I have the experience and credentials (my published work) to back up whatever I put it my blog. (Notice I wrote "experience and credentials," which doesn't mean I know everything. I share with you what I've learned.)

You don't need years of experience to write in second person. But be aware that you're coming across as the authority—the one who knows—and you're writing to someone who is ignorant or knows less about the topic than you do.

Be careful that you don't come across as patronizing—and I know a few writers who do that unintentionally. You don't want to sound like the condescending authoritarian who says, "There is only one way for you to accomplish this. You must do it my way to be successful."

When you write instructions or how-to material,
and you're sure of your material,
second person is a good choice.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 7 of 17)

Second-person POV

"You open the door and immediately you see the face you hate." That's second-person POV.

Writers rarely use this POV in fiction because (1) it's difficult to write well; (2) it sounds affected; and (3) it's not a natural way to tell a story.

Using second person is a type of first-person POV. It's as if the narrators talk to themselves. You can’t inject your own comments or observations—the story belongs entirely to the second-person narrator.

This POV is a nice gimmick for a short piece, but for an entire novel, it becomes wearing. Jay McInerney did it well in Bright Lights, Big City, but that's rare.

Here’s the beginning of “The Beautiful Uncut Hair of Graves” a short story in David Morrell's collection, Black Evening (1999, Warner, p.321): "Despite the rain, you’ve been to the cemetery yet again, ignoring the cold wind blowing against your pant legs and shoes."

A few pages later, Morrell has his character driving along the Pacific Coast Highway and it reads: “Preoccupied, you barely notice the dramatic scenery: the windblown pine trees, the rugged cliffs, the whitecaps hitting the shore. You ask yourself why you didn’t merely phone the authorities at Redwood Point . . . " (p. 330)

Although the descriptive style is the same as it is in first person, you do have a little more freedom. Here's a made-up example to express what I mean:

You're wearing your size five dress that shows you at your best. Avalon Foundation hides the creases near your eyes when you smile. He stares at you and you know you've hooked him.

Think of second person as slightly removed from first person.
Don't use second person in fiction unless nothing else works.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 6 of 17)

Here are a few things you need to consider if you tackle first-person POV.

1. Your readers can know only what your protagonist knows. You can’t have any scenes in which the central character isn't involved. (A few writers, such as James Patterson have developed a first-person/third-person style. Alex Cross speaks in first person; the antagonist, in alternating chapters, appears in third person.)

2. In older works, such as The Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham himself acts as narrator and tells the story of Larry Darrell and his spiritual journey. That approach has gone out of style. Today, your lead character tells the story. You stay totally inside that head all the way through.

3. One drawback is the awkwardness when the protagonist speaks of himself or herself. In third-person POV, the lead can be objective, but it's difficult to pull that off in first person.

4. Another weakness involves showing the inner workings of characters other than the hero. The narrator can’t delve into the minds of others or show what others think or feel.

5. The biggest weakness I see is that readers see all characters and events through the eyes of the protagonist, which means that even though the person may be perceptive, the other characters are superficial.

Think carefully before you use the first-person POV.
Is it the best way to tell your story?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 5 of 17)

I used to hear people advise writers to turn their autobiographies into novels. In my opinion it rarely works, and especially when it's written in first-person POV.

If you attempt to write that way, you create problems because you, the story's narrator, are not the first person. You create a character and see life and events through that person, but you're writing fiction, not nonfiction.

If you try it, the tendency will be to stay close to the facts and thus limit the scope of the book. The book tends to have a kind of wooden tone because you operate only with facts.

As one agent said, "You're too close to the scene of the crime and you have no perspective." She meant that trying to make your experience into fiction tends to take away the spontaneity and imaginative flow.

The worst defense you can offer for trying first-person fiction based on reality is, "But it really happened." So what?

It's not whether it happened, but whether it's believable. As the adage goes, "Truth is stranger than fiction." When you chose fiction, you cut away the lines that kept you tied to literal truth. Your responsibility is to provide a good read—an entertaining, imaginative story.

The worst defense for a bad novel is
"But it really happened."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 4 of 17)

"Beginners love using first person," an agent said many years ago. She pointed out that, when written well, the writing gives immediacy to the story.

When I ghostwrite an autobiography, first-person POV is the only option I consider and for that very reason. Gifted Hands that I wrote for Dr. Ben Carson begins like this:

"And your daddy isn't going to live with us anymore."

"Why not?" I asked again, choking back the tears. . .

In 90 Minutes in Heaven, first person made sense because the entire book revolves around Don Piper and what he experienced.

I've written a total of four books for Don Piper. The other books carry Don's name and mine, which makes me the co-writer. Our editor insisted on staying with the first person and I had no problem with that. Chapter 66, for example, from our second book, Daily Devotions Inspired by 90 Minutes in Heaven, begins:

I survived because of prayer.

I survived because one man felt God impress on him to pray for me, even though the EMTs said I was dead. He prayed anyway.

First-person narrator is an observer
and also a character or participant.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 3 of 17)

Point of View (POV) can be difficult to grasp; it often takes writers a long time to understand. I'll explain each of the four points of view.

First-person POV

First person means you write the story from the “I” viewpoint. When constructed well, this brings about a personal connection with the narrator. Many detective and private-eye novels thrust the narrator into the middle of the action. Readers can identify with and become the "I" who solves the problem.

Gothic novels are no longer popular, but they focused on the first person's perception. (Gothics began with Jane Eyre and include Rebecca as the most outstanding modern version. The "I" narrator is an insecure, sensitive heroine in a castle or mansion, often isolated, and her life is frequently threatened.)

The power of first-person accounts is that they foreshadow events, often evil or catastrophe, and do them through the foreboding or troubled heart of the protagonist.

In the older gothics, they often used the If-only-I-had-known technique to create suspense. Readers experienced doubt, fear, and insecurity along with the narrator. Because readers are the narrator, they learn only when the narrator does and can create suspense.

First-person POV works for specific reasons.
Before you try it, be sure it works for you.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 2 of 17)

POV is the perspective from which you tell a story or anecdote and it applies to fiction and nonfiction. Some say it's the single, most important choice you have to make. I wouldn't go that far, but POV influences how readers perceive the story.

POV answers:

• Who is my main character?

• Which character do I want readers to empathize with or understand?

• How do I want readers to view the setting?

If you chose your POV well, your writing flows. One expert said, "POV is the glue that holds the story together. It also dictates what kind of description we use and which characters get to do the describing."

Suppose the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers was written in the POV of Gad? Could he have seen the wickedness of his own heart? (See Genesis chapters 37 to 50.)

Could the 10 brothers have known what went on in Joseph's life after they sold him into slavery? Or if it had been written in Joseph's POV (first person), he couldn't have known the plotting of his brothers or their feelings afterward. By making it third person, we get a rounder picture of the entire story, but we don't have the warm, private picture of Joseph.

Different perspectives bring out
different aspects of a story.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Four Viewpoints (Part 1 of 17)

Point of View (POV) refers to what goes on inside the head of one person during a scene or a book. The modern rule is to stay in one POV. I could also say that you become that person and readers know how the POV individual sees life.

Newer writers tend to jump from head to head within a scene, and often they're not aware of what they're doing. (That style of writing isn't wrong but it takes great skill. Often called omniscient POV, I'll discuss it later.)

Let's say you've chosen first-person POV. You cannot possibly know how another character feels or thinks. Suppose you're in first person and you look at Jamie. "His angry countenance frightened me." How do you know he's angry? You can assume such an attitude, but maybe it's only indigestion or he's thinking of his loss in a bad business deal.

Try it this way: "The look on his face frightened me. Jamie had a right to be angry . . ."

Choose one POV and stay with it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 8 of 8)

Don't underestimate the importance of place and time. I call them the grounding factors. Two questions we don't want readers to need to ask are (1) Where is this taking place? (2) What's the time period?

Suppose I have a story in which a young woman wants to make a favorable impression on a sailor on leave whom she invited for dinner. She picks tomatoes and carrots from her victory garden before she stares at her ration book to see if she has enough points for a roast.

I haven't specifically given you time or place, but you've probably sensed this is World War II (victory garden and ration book). The other implication is that it's in a city or a town.

Good writing implies more about setting than it tells.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 7 of 8)

Don't be afraid of using ordinary settings. A family farm near Anadarko, Oklahoma, or the city square in Marietta, Georgia? By setting your book in non-exotic places you write about the kind of people and occupations readers easily understand. We submerge readers into reality so we can take them into suspenseful happenings.

When we have ordinary people doing ordinary things,
we provide a sense of reality
and prepare them to accept the extraordinary turn of the story.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 6 of 8)

If we choose the right background, the setting itself can become an element of suspense. What if she is to meet someone at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. after dark? What about being the only person waiting for a MARTA train in Atlanta and a man comes down the escalator? He stares, right hand in a coat pocket, and steps toward her.

The background itself can add suspense.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 5 of 8)

Background information doesn't intrude. Unskilled writers feel they have to give a litany of details to show their scenes are authentic. We make scenes believable by a sentence or two at a time.

Years ago I wrote a novel set in Kenya in 1950 and the major characters drive from Nairobi toward Lake Victoria. The heroine avoids talking to the hero and stares out the window. I inserted one sentence to enable readers to sense the authentic setting: "Kikuyu women toiled up steep, red paths, bending forward under the heavy loads of firewood strapped on to their backs."

That's all. A few pages later, I slipped in a one-sentence description of a tea plantation, which she pointed out to him to cut off personal conversation.

Good writers don't stop the action to provide background.
The setting becomes part of the story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 4 of 8)

On Amazon, I read a review of a famous literary novel that said the author must have been reading a roadmap when he wrote one particular chapter. For 20 pages the author details the places he stopped to eat breakfast, have morning coffee, and so on. None of it, apparently, was germane to the plot.

Some writers become enamored with travel information and seem to think it's important. Here's the question they need to ask: Will readers care? Or another question someone suggested is this: If you delete the information, would readers miss it?

A writer friend said, "I don't give any background unless it has some direct bearing on the story. Otherwise readers might ask, 'Why did she put that in the book?'"

Don't clog your prose
with long passages about background or travel.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 3 of 8)

If we make our story take place in a famous place such as Zurich or Athens, we want to be accurate. We also want to give details that most readers won't know. For instance, we might have the hero racing down Station Road in London, trying to elude his abductors. He rushes into the Betford Betting Shop. (I looked up the name and location on the Web.) One or two sentences will give readers not only a sense of place, but many of them haven't heard of a betting shop. That adds to your story.

We don't need vast details about famous cities.
If we insert little-known information, we add value to our story.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 2 of 8)

"I had planned to set the novel in Venice because I've been there," she said, "but it seems that every fifth novelist sets stories there."

To which I answered, "So what?"

Just because hundreds of others have used New York City or Paris doesn't mean we can't feature those locations. We need to get the facts straight first. Beyond that, we invoke our special perceptions. If I wrote about Paris, I'd certainly mention the beautifully planted rows of plane trees (what we Americans call sycamores) and I'd certainly want to include Chartres Cathedral. My particular insight would make the location "mine" because of my voice and style.

Don't be afraid to use geographic settings
because many other writers use that locale.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Setting and Background in Fiction (Part 1 of 8)

Background is important, especially in fiction. It gives the sense of readers being there. But we need to be careful.

My friend Julie Garmon, who writes for Guideposts, said the editors hate stories that begin with a weather report. I'd go so far as to say that most readers don't want a weather report anywhere in the article or book unless it pertains to what's happening.

Here's lesson number one: Don't fake the background. I read a novel in which a man took a direct flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis. One of my friends informed him, "You can't get a direct flight."

Minor detail? Perhaps, but there are always readers who know. By contrast, an editor wrote my agent, "I've never been to Africa, but Murphey makes the setting real." (He didn't offer a contract, but I appreciated his comment.)

I read a bio in which a man, in 1934, chewed Bazooka Bubble Gum. Bazooka was a World War II weapon and the gum came out of that era. The author meant Fleers. It was a minor detail but it caused me to distrust the writer's integrity on important facts.

If readers can't trust us on minor things,
how can they know we're correct on important things?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What an Acquisitions Editor Seeks

(By Nick Harrison, acquisitions editor at Harvest House)

I enjoy writing about writing—and talking about it. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writer’s conferences. They’re a great way to fellowship with other writers.

One often overlooked aspect of a conference is the networking benefit. I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Once I know authors—usually those I’ve met at a conference—I feel more at home in evaluating their book proposals.

Sometimes I’ll meet aspiring authors at a conference, and despite their present lack of ability or focus, if I find myself meeting with a kindred spirit, I’m more likely to want to help them than if the aspiring writers are cold or unwelcoming. It’s just human nature.

Sometimes I’ll pursue the moodier writers if the writing is really good, and sometimes I’ll tell kindred-spirited authors that there’s no way I can help them, but not often.

The best author/editor combination is when editors “get” what authors are trying to accomplish with their writing and when the authors understand the importance of finding not just any editor, but the right editor.

In a recent issue of Publisher’s Weekly, they printed lengthy tributes to two deceased members of the publishing industry—one a well-respected editor and the other a noted agent. In both cases, I was struck by the tributes from those writers who worked with them.

They spoke endearingly of the deep friendship they shared, and, of course, gratitude for the help those friendships had in advancing their careers.

Almost all of the writers I edit, I also count as friends.

So in reality I’m not just out to acquire books, I’m also out to acquire writing friends. Friends who love to talk about writing and who hunger for the same kind of success I hunger for.

Really, such relationships are rare, but worth the search. I should know; one of those friendships for me has turned out to be Cec Murphey whom I met years ago at Mount Hermon.

All that to say that you really do need to attend at least one writer’s conference a year if you want to succeed. That’s the way you’ll eventually meet that rare editor who will light up with recognition when he or she meets you—a kindred spirit!

--Nick Harrison, Harvest House

Friday, July 29, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 16 of 16)

Final Thoughts on Writer's Resistance

We ask what's going on inside us. We listen. And we listen patiently and lovingly. If we accept that the resistance is a gift—a loving gift from our protective, wiser self, we won't demand an answer or berate ourselves for not getting it immediately.

If the ability to write well is a gift (and I believe that), it means the talent isn't ours to manipulate or misuse. I believe God gave me the ability to write. If I falter or discover I can’t figure out the next words to type, I stop. I talk calmly to myself and explore what's going on inside me.

I'm grateful to God for the gift to communicate through writing.
I listen carefully to my inner self when the gift falters.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 15 of 16)

So What Do We Do about Writer's Resistance?

The first thing is to face it. "I'm blocked." I read various writers who tell us to leave our writing, go for a walk, or watch TV. I have no objections to those suggestions but I think they miss the point of writer's block.

We're blocked for a reason. We can move ahead if we start by admitting it, and then we ask the next question: What is going on inside me? (See part 1.) This is not a capricious or evil emotion. This comes from inside and wants to help us and not hold us back.

It's not enough to ask the question;
we have to listen for the answer.
We overcome writer's resistance by asking the right question
and waiting for the answer.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 14 of 16)

The Joy of Writing

It may seem strange to write about joy in the midst of writer's resistance, but I think the secret of being a productive, serious, and committed writer is that it brings joy. It's fun. I'm often emotionally drained at the end of the day, but I've had fun. I've created words that become sentences that grow into paragraphs.

Maybe one way to say it is that the pleasure we find in writing is the positive sign that it's our gift, our calling, our destiny. Good writing doesn't come out of rigid self-discipline. (Notice, I said rigid.) We need discipline to write, especially in the early days. But if we feel we have to force ourselves to write or grumble because we don't have enough time to write, we might do well to leave the craft alone.

I've been writing and publishing for nearly 40 years. I began to write shortly after I finished seminary and had entered a doctoral program. I discovered so much pure joy in writing that I lost interest in earning a PhD. I've never regretted that decision.

Feeling joy and pleasure in writing
are excellent antidotes to writer's resistance.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 13 of 16)

How Do We Overcome Writer’s Block or Resistance?

The problem begins when we consider internal resistance as bad or evil. What if we saw it as a positive effect? What if we viewed our resistance to write as a gift from our inner self?

Here's how I say it: "The inability to write is a sign that our unconscious self is fighting with our conscious self." Sometimes we get excited about a project or a topic and want to write about it. And it's a good topic. It may not be for us or it may not be for us now, and we flounder and can't seem to push ourselves. Some resort to a lot of caffeine. I suspect that's why some famous writers became alcoholics.

Instead of fighting ourselves, what if we paused and listened to our inner voices? As a serious Christian I also pray for God to speak and help me see the positive reason for my inability to write. I haven't had much trouble because I've nearly always been aware of something inside me that tells me I don't want to do a project.

What would happen if we saw writer's resistance
as a positive sign to examine ourselves?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 12 of 16)

More on Writer's Resistance: Our Values

Writing against our values is the way I say it. Some people have laughed, but I'm convinced that we do that. Sometimes good writers take on a project because the publisher wants them to do it. I've almost gotten caught up in that. I felt flattered when the senior editor of a publishing house came to me with a writing project. "I know you can do it and do an excellent job."

I loved hearing those words and I agreed. But something didn't feel quite right. For the next two days I struggled over that decision. I finally called the editor, told him how much I wanted to work with him, but I couldn’t do the book. "It goes contrary to my values."

He wisely listened and said, "I understand."

By contrast, one of my friends received a large advance for a book that he couldn’t write. He finally broke the contract and his relationship with the publisher. He told me, "I was writing something I did not feel, did not believe, did not care about, and I avoided writing what I did care about."

When we try to write against our personal value system,
our wise inner critic tries to block us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 11 of 16)

Writer’s Resistance: Fear of Finishing

I met Vern at a writer's conference and he attended every year. He had an excellent nonfiction book, but he had never written the final chapter. Editors had read portions and wanted the book, and so did several agents. But Vern never finished.

He knew what he wanted in the final chapter and he told the editors and agents, but he couldn't write that final chapter. At the time, I thought Vern was unique; he wasn't. I hear this regularly from people who get thumbs up from editors or agents and never finish.

Vern finally told me why he couldn't finish—why he resisted. "I was depressed before I began to write. That depression went away while I worked on the book. I'm afraid that if I finish the book the depression will return."

I started to reason with him and stopped, because I sensed that anything I said wouldn't help. He'd probably heard all the arguments and suggestions before. I reminded myself that Vern had to make up his mind if he would allow his fear of returning depression to stop his finishing the book.

I have another talented friend who has started 15 books (and possibly more). He has never finished one. His reason isn't the same as Vern's but the result is.

Some writers are afraid to finish a writing project.
They allow their fear to block their creativity.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 10 of 16)

I remember only his last name as Mills, but he joined a writer's group called the Scriptiques that I ran for nearly four years. Mills was fairly talented and he might have become a well-known writer. But he couldn't take criticism.

He read our comments on his manuscripts and listened when we spoke, but he didn't change anything when he brought his manuscripts back. He finally stopped writing. He had a number of excuses about how busy he was and his wife didn't like his spending so much time on writing.

Maybe those facts were true. But I think he was incapable of bursting past writer's resistance because he couldn't take criticism. The more our group pointed out his weaknesses, the less he wrote.

A few years ago I formed an online writer’s group, and one woman was talented—her gift was evident, even though her skills weren't that advanced.

Each time I edited her material I pointed out her weaknesses (and they were many) but also reminded her that she could learn the rules of writing. Each time I mentioned how much I admired her talent.

After five months, she dropped out. "You never have anything good to say about my writing. All you do is criticize. I can't take any more of your negativity." I never heard from her or about her again.

Some people can't handle criticism
so they give up and give in to writer's block.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 9 of 16)

I often see a resistance that shows itself in two different ways. The first is fear of failing. "What if I can't pull off my ideas? What if I fail to say it right?” By contrast, there are those who fear success. "Suppose I write a book—a really good book? Then I have to do it again. I don't know if I could do it again."

We've all known of people who have written one wildly successful book and never wrote again. To Kill a Mockingbird is one example.

My response is, "So what? What's wrong with having one great success? Isn't it better to have one big success than ten failures?" Even though I speak those words, they rarely impact the ones who’ve given into a fear of being successful. Until they figure out how to get beyond that barricade of resistance, they probably won't write.

Fear of failure; fear of success.
Either can paralyze gifted writers.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 8 of 16)

Writer's resistance hits some in the form of repression. They have things to say, but they just can't put them out for the public to read. Twenty years ago I contracted to write a book with a man. He had marvelous insights and I enjoyed working with him.

A month before I turned in the book, he called me and asked me to take his name off the book. The reason came down to this: “I believe this now, but later I may change my thinking. If it's already out there in print, I can't unwrite it."

I tried to reason with him and point out that all serious writers change. That is, they grow. If they grow, they may not believe exactly as they did before or may change their position on something. I also pointed out that most people probably wouldn't remember anyway. It didn't matter. He was firm, so I removed his name.

Serious writers are growing writers.
We change our thinking, we mature, we learn as we live.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 7 of 16)

"I don't have anything to say," a would-be writer told me at a conference. "I want to write, but there's nothing there." That certainly made her different from the hundreds of people who truly have nothing to say but want to tell the whole world.

After she admitted she came to the conference to learn to open up, I said, "Obviously you must have something or you wouldn't waste your time and money."

"I feel paralyzed when I try to write," she said. She went on to say, "I'm 42 years old, married with two children, and I never went to college and have no credentials. Who wants to read anything I have to say?"

We talked for several minutes and I don't know if I helped, but I told her that she had lived 42 years. Life experiences count—in fact, in many cases, they count more than the diplomas we hang on our walls.

Writer's block in the form of fear tells us that we have nothing to say. If we stand up to that false charge, we can become writers.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 6 of 16)

All of us have a censorious voice in our heads. It's a form of self-protection and warns us when we're ready to do something foolish or against our values. But sometimes that censoring nag is too finely tuned and prevents us from being open with people.

That voice whispers, "If anyone else knows you think such thoughts, they'd shun you forever." Or the voice I fight says, "This is so simplistic. Everybody knows that. You're insulting them."

I've learned not to listen to that inner critic, but many do.

The protective voice inside your head
may be too protective.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 5 of 16)

One of the most serious causes of writer's block is fear. And it comes to us in a myriad of forms. I want to point out a few of those forms I've observed.

Perhaps the most obvious is the fear that the writing isn't any good. We may not tell anyone and may defend our writing, but deep, deep inside, we sense our writing isn't good. The worse we feel our writing level, the more difficult it is for us to create words on the screen.

"If I writing something and people read it," my friend Rog Barnes once
said, "everyone will realize how bad I am."

"Or they might discover how good you are," I said, "and you are."

That happened in the late 1980s. To my knowledge, Rog has never published. He has surrendered to an irrational fear.

Serious writers face their fears.
Even if they think they're not good, they continue to write.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 4 of 16)

I'm not a perfectionist, but those who are seem to struggle with their writing. They simply can't let it go and keep trying to make their writing better.

Fairly early in my career, I saw that tendency to hold on and to continue to rewrite even though I couldn't see anything that would improve my writing. In a month or a year I could probably do this better, I reasoned, but not now. That's when I made a commitment to myself. When I worked on a manuscript (and in those days was part of an editing group) and couldn't find anything more to change, I sent it out. I had to say to myself, repeatedly in the early days, "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development."

Even if my manuscript isn't perfect,
when it's the best I can do, I know it's ready to send out.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 3 of 16)

I've spoken with others about their struggles with writer's block, especially after they've been able to move on. Sometimes the best cure is to relax and not write. They're under stress and being under stress means feelings of anxiety and perhaps fear.

I write books and that's how I make my living. I've learned that I can hit the pedal and hold it on top speed for several months. But I also know that I can't sustain that indefinitely—and I don't want to try. In 2010, for example, I produced six books and had them done before the beginning of November. I stopped working and scheduled almost no speaking engagements until February. That may seem like a long time, but I felt emotionally depleted and wanted to rethink what I was doing and where I wanted to go. That is, I avoided writer's block by pushing it aside for a period so I could read, think, and look at life with renewed vision.

The cure for stress is to stop.
One way to stop writer's block is to see it as stress—
and stop.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 2 of 16)

Here are two important things I want to say about this condition.

1. Writer's block isn't laziness. It's not procrastination. In fact, I think of it as writer's resistance, which makes it an opportunity to take action.

2. Writer's block sometimes means we're striving for impossible or unrealistic goals. If we focus on our manuscripts not being good enough, that alone can prevent our moving forward.

We don't have to accept writer's block
as a terminal illness.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writer’s Block (Part 1 of 16)

Don’t accept writer’s block.

My definition of writer's block is the temporary or chronic inability to produce new work. It's common and it's not a passive condition. For some, it's a temporary problem and they soon move past it. For others, writer's block is extreme and they're unable to write for years and some abandon any attempts. They view their "new" writing as inferior, which may not be true.

Some brilliant person said that writer's block is a loud scream from the unconscious that tells us something is wrong. I often tell people that I once had writer's block and it was the most awful, terrible, horrible hour of my life. My point is that we don't have to suffer from writer's block. We can stop it.

Here's a question to ask ourselves:
What is going on inside me that prevents me from writing?

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Study Magazine Article Markets Online

(By Susan Titus Osborn)

As a magazine editor for eight years, I rejected articles for two main reasons.

1. They were not targeted to my publication.

2. They didn’t follow the guidelines.

Here are helpful ways to break into the online magazine market (or ezines). sells magazines as well as books. It lists 121 Christian magazines. I’m not suggesting that you purchase the magazines, but use the site as a starting point. Make a list of the magazines that would be appropriate to the article you are writing and then look at the individual websites.

Another excellent site is This site also lists general-interest magazines and lumps many religions into the “religion magazine” category. It also divides the magazines according to denomination.

The Lookout ( is a 16-page, weekly and online magazine with a circulation of 52,000. It uses 40 percent unsolicited, freelance material, and they assign the rest. It's nondenominational, conservative, and non-charismatic. Two-thirds of the readers are women, and 90 percent of the readership is over 50 years old. It publishes according to a theme list, which you may obtain by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). The editor also wants manuscripts sent through the mail with an SASE.

Although they are print magazines, Sunday school take-home papers are often the easiest to sell because they publish 52 issues a year for adults and for children. Many are freelance written, so they always need material. They often use theme lists, as do many magazines, so study the website for each publication to which you desire to send an article or story.

Many publications will want your manuscripts sent electronically. Study your markets carefully and follow their guidelines precisely. There are also a number of online magazines. Some pay, some don’t, but they are an excellent way to build your publishing credits.

Do your research, study your markets, and carefully polish your articles. These are the ingredients to becoming a successful freelance writer.

Susan Titus Osborn, author or co-author of 30 books, is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. Contact her at or

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What to Expect When You're Expecting an Offer

(By Deidre Knight, The Knight Agency)

An agent provides many services and benefits when an author is on the verge of receiving their first publishing offer, everything from the proverbial hand-holding, to sorting out offers from multiple houses to reviewing and finalizing the contract. Since there’s frequent debate these days about the necessity of having an agent versus self-publishing, I thought it would be helpful if we went “back to basics” and took a look at what a first-time author can expect from the submission and sale process.

First, the agent signs on the new client, and there’s much high-fiving over the shiny, pretty manuscript that both of you love. Then you buckle up and, most likely, get down to work—i.e. the agent outlines any edits she might want to suggest for making the manuscript stronger. In this tough economy, it’s more important than ever that a manuscript from a debut author be as outstanding as possible.

Once the manuscript is in final shape, the agent makes a submission list and
sends out the project (aka “shopping” in agentspeak). This is where the author can expect one thing: to feel a little crazy. It’s a strange feeling, realizing that perfect strangers, editors who work with authors you admire, are reading your work. But be forewarned: That feeling will likely wear off because the submission stage often takes a few months. Sometimes it’s faster—much faster.

At our agency we’ve sold books within twenty-four hours of submission on quite a few occasions. I’ve also sold a book two years after I submitted it, and placed another project six years after making the initial submission. So, the time frame from submission to receiving an offer can vary widely. To be on the safe side, prepare and expect to wait months, not days.

Naturally, if multiple houses step forward with interest, that heightens the stakes and your agent will need to manage an auction. But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s picture a scenario where just the one house decides to bid. The agent receives an email or call from the publisher saying they’d like to discuss the project, Most Marvelous First Novel Ever by Debbie Debut. Is it still available? Your agent will let the editor know that, yes, the project is still up for grabs and then the editor makes an opening offer.

You can expect a good deal of back-and-forth in negotiations for Most Marvelous, because a good agent knows that an editor won’t make the very best offer right out of the gate. Sometimes the agent can haggle a fair amount; however, if the publisher thinks the book still needs a lot of work, for instance, the offer may not improve as much as you and your agent would like.

Some of the offer’s aspects that are negotiated include: subsidiary rights (audio, foreign rights, e-books, book club, film), royalty rate, format (will it be hard cover, mass market, trade paper, or perhaps even digital first?), advance amount, payout of the advance (some publishers try to apportion money to publication, some don’t, but clearly the author wants to be paid sooner, not later), number of author copies, which rights the author will keep and which the publisher will get.

Especially in an auction situation, there are bonuses that might be added to sweeten the offer—some of these include bonuses for appearing on the New York Times, for selling X number of copies in the first year or for earning out the advance in a set time frame. There are a variety of potential bonuses that publishers may add in order to make the offer more attractive.

Once the offer is finalized and accepted, you can expect…to wait some more. Publishers routinely take up to sixty or even ninety days to send a contract. Occasionally it might even be longer than that.

But once your agent receives the contract, they will go over it carefully, asking for any changes that are required. They may ask for contract revisions for several reasons-- because the document doesn’t reflect the deal terms that were agreed to originally, or because the publisher has changed their standard contract boilerplate language. Or maybe because there are new points of debate (for instance, right now our agency is eager to ensure that publishers don’t hold reserves against digital royalties, which obviously can’t be returned.)

And then, finally, once the agent has gone over the contract carefully, asked for changes and received the final copy you can expect to…sign on the dotted line. And maybe pop a bottle of bubbly with your significant other that night, to celebrate your new venture as a published author.

Deidre Knight established The Knight Agency (TKA) in 1996 after working in the entertainment industry. As president of TKA, she has built a dynamic, bestselling client list, placing titles in a broad range of categories, including romance, women's fiction, general fiction, young adult, business, popular culture, self-help, religion, health, and parenting. Deidre’s most well-known clients include New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter and 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN co-authors Don Piper and Cecil Murphey. Last year, The Knight Agency had 15 NYT bestsellers and was one of the foremost agencies in the field of romance publishing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Studying the Magazine Market

(Several people have asked questions about how to study the markets, so I asked Sally Stuart to write a blog post. We'll follow up later with another guest blogger.)

How do you study the markets before submitting to magazines?

When you reach the point of asking this question, I assume you have identified the topics you can or want to write about.

You can then use the Christian Writers’ Market Guide and look up your selected topic(s) in the “Topical Listings for Periodicals” section. After reading the provided listing for each of those periodicals, plus checking out their Website, you may delete some immediately because of a difference in slant or theology.

For those that remain, download their guidelines from their Website (or send an SASE to request them if not available online). You’ll also want to send for sample copies if they don't provide enough samples of their articles online.

Read the guidelines carefully, highlighting any statements that fit your article’s topic or slant in one color, and those that are in opposition to it in another color. After that, rereading both the positive and the negative statements should help you decide if this might be a good fit for what you have to offer. Read the articles they provide on line, or the sample copies, to get a better feel for the magazine.

It’s also important to clearly identify the target audience for each publication.

That should be defined in the guidelines and obvious in the sample articles, but you can also get additional insight into who the readers are by reading letters to the editor. Are the readers conservative or more liberal? What topics get a reaction from them?

Study any advertisements in the sample copies. Whom do those ads target? Your articles need to target their reading audience. Targeting that audience means your topic, as well as your anecdotes and illustrations, must be of interest to those readers.

Complete the above steps for each topic you want to address, and start making a list of potential markets for each topic.

The real secret to success as a magazine writer is in building a reputation as someone who writes well on a particular topic (marriage, family, women’s issues, or prayer)—or who does a particular type of writing (feature articles, how-to, or Bible studies).

Get published regularly, and when you become an “expert” in your topic/type, editors will seek you out with assignments.

Sally E Stuart has been putting out the Christan Writers' Market Guide for the last 26 years, and has been writing for more than 40 years. She is a marketing columnist in several writers' publications and teaches regularly at writers' conferences. Visit or for more information.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 10 of 10)

10. We behave professionally.

Professionals are people on whom editors depend. We don't just make our deadlines, we beat them. We're dependable. Many years I received opportunities to ghostwrite for a publisher—and did a total of 35 for them. Although I didn't know the reason for at least a decade, a woman had written many books for them and she was excellent. She had failed to meet every deadline. They got tired of working with her.

Another thing about professionals is that we take criticism well. We know we have things to learn. Even if we don’t agree with what an editor says, we seriously ponder it instead of responding with anger. A once-famous writer called an editor on the phone and berated her. The story I heard (from someone who sat there) was that the writer yelled and screamed for nearly five hours. Maybe that's a reason she's no longer a famous writer.

I could list other characteristics, but professionals seem to have an innate sense of the correct thing to do at the right time. Perhaps I could sum it up by saying that professionals try to be sensitive to others, especially in the way they treat people who are a few rungs lower on the ladder than they are.

I am a professional and I behave professionally.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 9 of 10)

9. We reach out to other writers.

Thirty years ago, Suzanne refused to help another writer because "she'll become my competition." I didn't agree then; I strongly disagree today.

I believe in the principle of giving ourselves freely, and sharing what we know. I don't think of others as my competition. I think of them as other writers who are trying to sell what they write. I want to help.

Here's my favorite verse that's not from the Bible: Yea, the Lord shoveleth it in; I shoveleth it out; and behold, the Lord hath a larger shovel (Jubilations 4:4).

To the fearful and insecure, it may sound outrageous to give away what we've worked hard to learn. But it really works the other way. I'm a giver and I like to give. As I examine my writing career, every upward step I've taken has come about because someone else opened the door. My first book publisher and my first agent came because someone else opened the door. In both instances, the help was from individuals I had helped but never expected any return.

Professionals know that. They enjoy sharing what they know and giving to others. That puts them in a position to receive from others.

We receive by giving; we grow by sharing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 8b of 10)

8b. We study the markets.

If you don't study the markets, you lower your chances of selling anything because you don't know what publishers want. If you send in something that's outdated or no longer of interest, you frustrate editors. Do it often enough and you create a negative reputation among editors (and they do talk with each other).

As you study what's out there, you can ask yourself, "To what does that lead?" You can learn to anticipate what the public will read next. For example, I've been suggesting for five years that books for retiring baby boomers will be a big thing. So far I haven't seen many books on the topic, but they're definitely on the way.

Studying the markets is more than selling; it's staying abreast about what goes on in the world. We figure out the felt-needs of people, sometimes before they're aware.

We study the markets because we're professionals.
Professionals are always on the learning curve.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 8a of 10)

8a. We study the markets.

One way to define success is that we sell what we write. Professionals don't rely solely on agents, but they know what's going on in the world around them. They're aware of writing trends. The best professionals spot trends before they become trends.

In 1989, I wrote a book for caregivers of loved ones who suffered from Alzheimer's. I wrote two other books for caregivers. They didn't do well because I was too far ahead of the loop. In 2004 I did another series of caregiving books with only slightly better results. The trend had begun and I lectured often on caregiving.

In 2009, I started a series of gift books for caregivers and they've done quite well. I'll continue to write in that field, but it's no longer my focus because there are already so many people out speaking and teaching.

That's what I mean by studying the markets. I co-wrote Don Piper's 90 Minutes in Heaven and it's now in its fifth year on the New York Times' best-seller list. Since then, other books have come out about heaven. In the fall of 2010, two books, both about a child who went to heaven, appeared.

In the summer of 2010, I released my book When a Man You Love Was Abused. So far as I know, it was the first book on the topic aimed at the Christian market by a royalty-paying publisher. The book has done well and I know of two other books on the topic that have gotten a thumbs up because of my book's success.

By contrast, memoirs and autobiographies aren't doing well, unless the subject is a celebrity, and some of them haven't shown strong results, such as Kitty Kelley's bio of Oprah.

Awareness of the market doesn't guarantee sales,
but it does increase your chances of selling.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 7 of 10)

7. We write what we know and what we yearn to know.

Each of us leads a unique life. We are products of our past experiences and no one has a background exactly like ours. Draw from that background. Reflect on what you already know and write it either as fiction, autobiography, how-to, or any other genre you like. Use your already accumulated knowledge and wisdom (and we all have more than we think we do).

But don't stop with what you know. Move into what you'd like to know. Research by reading and asking questions, and learn about topics that grab your interest. For instance, in 1990 and 1995 I co-wrote two books about Antarctica, even though I never went there until 2003. I read widely because of the two books, the first of which was published by a company that specializes in true adventure, and they called it With Byrd at the Bottom of the World. It's the story of Norman Vaughan who was then the last surviving member of Richard Byrd's historic flight over the South Pole. (He went on a ship, disembarked on the icy continent, and a team of men with dog sleds went 400 miles inland. Norman was in charge of the dogs.)

I didn't know much about Antarctica, but I read widely and felt as if I had been there long before I boarded a ship. That's one of the marks of a professional—we're curious people. We want to know more. We don't settle for surface information.

Good writers write what they know;
Good writers explore new areas to increase their knowledge.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 6 of 10)

6. We mimic the best.

I can't say this enough: Imitate the writers you admire. Would-be basketball heroes copy the moves of the players they admire.

For example, when I was 15 years old I first read William Saroyan's The Human Comedy. I didn't know much about writing, but I knew I wanted to write and that I wanted to write with his warmth. Saroyan's writing gave me permission to express my heart on paper. That's one kind of imitation.

The other is to copy their words. When you read something that makes you pause and say, "I wish I had written that," copy the words. File them. Read them occasionally. As you copy and ponder the prose, you're absorbing their style.

Don't just copy best-selling writers. I can think of several top-grossing writers. It's not their mastery of the craft that makes them sell, but it's their plots or the material they cover.

I started with two writers I like, and neither of them was in my field. That didn't matter and may have been a positive factor. I couldn't steal or copy their prose, but I could learn syntax and phrasing that equaled theirs.

I find superior writers;
I imitate them so that I can become better than they are.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 5 of 10)

5. We Grow Professionally.

Learn—and keep learning—the craft. We strive to become the best writers we’re capable of becoming.

Growing professionally means an unrelenting search for excellence. We're never satisfied. We smile when we've constructed a good paragraph and say to ourselves, I'll continue to improve.

Here's something else we can do for ourselves: Connect with other writers, those who will help us push ourselves. We don't want to connect just to get someone to stay at us until we finish an article or book. I urge writers to covenant with another to push you to make your manuscript the best writing you can do at this stage of your development.

Professionals are never pleased with their writing
because they know they can improve.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Secrets from Professional Writers (Part 4 of 10)

4. We Read. A Lot. Often. Constantly.

As serious writers, we read, and we do so in a variety of areas, always seeking to know more about writing and about our world. We read in our genre, but we read outside our field.

Too often I meet want-to-be writers who don't read—people who don't like to read—and yet they feel they must write. That doesn't make sense to me. Someone said it's like hating horses while raising herds of them, and lecturing around the country on how to love your horse. It's not only hypocritical; it won't work.

Professional writers don't like to read---they're compulsive and must read. They snatch minutes whenever possible to fill their eyes and minds with words and new thoughts.

Words are our tools and we examine their meanings. We feel them and we learn to distinguish between when to use small or little, tiny, miniscule, or minute. We read and pick up nuances of meaning, marvel at the expressive efforts of others, or groan at the lack of skill in our own manuscripts.

We absorb techniques and ideas when we read, mostly unconsciously. We find ourselves absorbed and challenged by writers who are better than we are. And there are always writers who are superior.

We read for pleasure but even then we read to learn and to grow. Every article or book we read becomes a teacher. As we read, we ask questions. Why did she start the story there? What does that word mean? Why did he use the subjunctive mood?

Professional writers are compulsive readers.