Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Amateur to Pro

"At what point in your career did you feel you'd shifted from amateur to professional status?"

When asked, I tell them I don't know the answer, and I assume it's different for each of us. I started my career the old-fashioned way: I wrote articles—many—and learned the craft before I attempted a book. Not only was it excellent training, but the pieces were short. I could write them by devoting myself to one hour during the day and sneak in a little time on Saturday afternoons.

When I started to publish, I was a pastor in the Atlanta area and loved the combination of writing for print on the side. After my twelfth year of being a pastor, I had to decide if I was a preacher who wrote or a writer who preached. It took me more than a year to make that decision and, during my fourteenth year, I opted to become a fulltime writer. By then I had published several books.

Even then I didn't consider myself a professional. Here's why I've given all this lead-up material. The move from amateur to professional is an inside job—something we have to believe about ourselves. Some braggarts call themselves professionals as if they hope it's true, but that's not what I mean.

Call it lack of self-confidence or being focused on feelings of not being quite good enough as a writer. I vividly remember the first time I said, "I'm a professional writer," and that was after someone asked me what I did for a living.

I gulped as I said those words, but, for the first time in my life, I knew they were true.

How do you move from beginner or amateur to the professional status?

Here's my answer. First, you need some kind of proof of your professional status, that is, a record of accomplishment. Second, you have to feel you've moved to the professional status.

Only I can decide when I am a professional.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Shortly after I began publishing books, someone advised me to brand myself. (We didn't use the word brand back then.) She said that those who write in only one area build a reading audience and are more likely to achieve success. It was good advice.

At the time I was writing a number of articles on marriage (and had already sold one book on the topic). I could have made that my focus. But I asked myself, "How much can I say about marriage?"

The problem with branding is that, once established, it's difficult to move out of your little corner of the publishing world. As you build audiences, they choose to read you and stay with you—but they don't move into new genres with you. For example, fiction readers rarely shift when their favorite novelist writes nonfiction. They simply find a new favorite who writes in the areas they like to read.

I understood that, and I took a big risk because I decided that I was going to write whatever touched me, regardless of the results. I'm an anomaly, and I recommend others to take the advice I rejected.

I fell into ghostwriting because an editor read something I wrote and asked me to ghost for his publishing house. (I did 35 books for them.) In one sense, I branded myself, but I also wrote on a variety of topics because I ghosted everything from autobiographies to diet books to business.

I've written fiction (including three cozy mysteries), and even in nonfiction I've moved into a wide variety of genres. Yet my own work hasn't sold as well as books I've done for other people. Years ago I assumed that would be the way, and I was correct.

I write this because some beginning writers think they'll impress agents or editors by saying, "I have a romance, a YA novel, and a self-help for housewives who need easy ways to simplify their lives."

They don't grasp the concept of building a consistent following. Think of any celebrity in any field. A few years ago I was in New York City and got tickets to see Chicago with George Hamilton. He had a nice suntan, but I doubt that he'll ever make it as a singer.

Get the idea? Your fans like what you write because you write what they want to read. It's that simple. My advice, brand yourself. Find your area—the genre—where you write with the greatest passion.

Maybe it's possible to move to a new genre once you're established, but . . . for now, mark your spot in the publishing world, and write the best you can.

You might want to move on later. And that's the significant word: later. Focus on the word now.

I seek to find my genre
and then become the best I can in my chosen area.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nicely Done?

In 2014, I saw a film called Whiplash. Despite the extremely vulgar language, I resonated with the sadistic tyrant instructor, Fletcher. Here's a two sentence summary of the film: Andrew, a promising young drummer, enrolls at a music conservatory with dreams of greatness. The professor, Fletcher, insults, humiliates, and intimidates him. (The title refers to a piece of music.)

Only at the end does Fletcher explain. He saw immense talent in Andrew, but that greatness would never come out if he had said, "That was nicely done." He felt he had to drive the talented ones; only the great ones survive his relentlessness.

I hope I don't become sadistic in my treatment, but when I work with newer writers, I warn them that I'm tough. For me, good enough is never good enough. As in the film, the gifted ones keep at it, despite rejection and echoes of failure. They not only keep at it, but their writing soars.

And like Fletcher, there's only one way I can recognize the outstanding ones: They keep at it.

I'm committed to remain a writer who is always learning—
and growing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

How many WIPs Do You Have Going?

From texting, I learned that WIP means work in progress. We all write differently, so I'll tell you my answer first. And this is a common question I receive.

Until this year (I'm intentionally slowing down), I've had anywhere from one to four books going at any time. I earn most of my living as a ghostwriter or collaborator. For me, that's important because each book is in a different stage of development.

Let's say I've just finished the proposal for a book and my agent sends it to her "hit list" of editors. What do I do then? The responses usually take weeks, sometimes as long as three months, to get a contract offered and negotiated. I don't wait but work on something else.

After I finish one full draft of another book, I send it to the author and that person may take anywhere from a week to two months to return it. On my own book projects, I try to let my full manuscripts rest for a month before I go back for a final polish.

That gives you an idea of how I work, so that I haven't allowed much empty space between projects. Not everyone works that way.

My son, John Mark, helped me see the principle when he was quite young. One dinnertime I watched as he ate one item at a time on his plate and didn't touch the next one until he had finished.

I ate a little of the salad, a few bites of corn, and maybe picked up the bread. "It all ends up the same place," I said.

He has never changed, and why should he? That's his chosen way to eat.

The principle is true with writers. Some can't focus on anything except what they're currently writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. They push aside any new ideas or they jot them down to consider later. "I don't want to be distracted," one writer said.

So whose way is better? That's easy to answer: Your way. Whichever is the most natural, follow that pattern.

Be the best YOU that you can.
Follow what works for you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How Do I Write Faster?

I'm a fast writer, and occasionally I receive emails like this: "I wish I were a fast writer like you. I tend to write slowly and to keep pouring over my words as I shape my work. I have many writing projects which I need to complete, so I desire more speed, yet keeping the same quality. Any suggestions?"

To this one I responded, "There are no secrets to writing faster. It's who I am. I walk, talk, and think quickly; I'm also a fast typist. And I have a lot of stamina—sometimes joyfully writing 10 to 12 hours a day. Why wouldn't it be the same way with my writing?"

I never thought much about speed until I lived in Kenya, East Africa. As I learned, the nationals watched those of us with colorless faces and tagged us according to our actions and way of relating to others. They gave me two names. The first was Omore. Literally it means a person who has joy within himself, or we'd say, a happy person. The second name was Haraka, which means quick or fast.

Until then I hadn't thought much about either quality, and I was surprised at being called Haraka. I've always been quick at everything, so it didn't seem like anything usual. But they helped me see that's who I was, and I'm grateful for that.

I tell writers, "You are who you are. I'm sure there are things you can do to discipline your mind to focus more quickly or to stay focused, but I doubt that you'll change much." I ended my email with a question: What's wrong with being exactly who you are?

I am who I am,
and my writing reflects me.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Writing Descriptively (Part 7 of 7)

When I create an illustration or story inside my head, it's always wonderful and oozing with emotion and action. When I put it on the page, it's never as powerful as it was in my imagination.

That's probably true of all writers.

However, some writers carry those images, write a few words, and they feel they've created a picture with which readers resonate.

"My crystal ball refuses to function," I told one writer. "I can't see inside your head, no matter how wonderful your prose." It took her several weeks of struggle before she was able to move the images to her computer screen.

My assumption is that introverted and introspective authors have the biggest struggles in this area. Because they have what I call a rich interior life, they have to learn how to translate those mental pictures to the page. It may be difficult, but they can learn.

Inside my head, my words are always wonderful;
I seek to match that with the words on the screen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Writing Descriptively (Part 6 of 7)

You work hard and learn to write descriptively. What are the payoffs for you? The first and most obvious answer is that you feel you've written something worthwhile—that's the intrinsic reward.

You also create the illusion of reality. You subtly invite readers to keep reading. As one of my friends said, "It's the proof that supports and sustains the story."

When done well, the sensory details penetrate layers of consciousness by grabbing readers both intellectually and emotionally.

Descriptive writing establishes characters and settings quickly and efficiently. Well-placed phrases move your prose along and act as a transitional device by linking scenes or changing of time and place.

I'm an artist 
and my words create pictures for readers.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Writing Descriptively (Part 5 of 7)

When writing descriptively, don't hesitate to use figurative language—if it fits. The first two below are my own.
Having planted seed in my curiosity patch, Mark will watch to see if it sprouts in my actions.

Darkness dwells within the best of us; in the worst of us, darkness not only dwells but reigns.

Love was a sacred garment, woven of a fabric so thin that it could not be seen, yet so strong that even mighty death could not tear it, a garment that could not be frayed by use, that brought warmth into what would otherwise be an intolerably cold world—but at times love could also be as heavy as a chain mail.—Dean Koontz, False Memories, p.71.
Metaphors, if well written, enliven our writing. But don't use them unless they flow from you. Here are two negative examples.

* His writing was like brilliant comets that streaked across the sky, drenching readers with a blizzard of insight.

* In the meeting thorny problems bobbed, which we tried to sweep under the rug, bobbed up several times. 

The above examples are bad because they used mixed metaphors (i.e., comparisons that aren't consistent). In the second, thorny problems starts the sentence and we get it. Do thorns bob, and we sweep thorns under the rug?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Writing Descriptively (Part 4 of 7)

What makes description effective?

You first know the correct names and terms that catch the emotion or the image. Good description goes beyond accuracy and precision to include the musical qualities of language. The sounds of your words and the cadences of your sentences reinforce the content of your description.

Think of good description as the use of the senses. Your readers need to see things. Here's descriptive writing that makes me feel I'm right in the middle of the dust bowl in 1934 Oklahoma:

Dust coated the dials on the radio, the plates on the table, and the dishes in the cupboards. Evelyn rinsed the lenses of his spectacles, and a few minutes later, she had to do it again.

Are you there? Notice the use of spectacles—which was the common word in those days. That single detail lends authenticity to those two sentences and pulls us into that kitchen.

Good description employs specific, concrete detail
for readers to visualize or experience the scene through their senses.