August 12

What a laugh!

If you want to get your reader to pay attention to a comment you’ve written, to remember your point, try humor. It’s often the only way you can get anyone to take you seriously.

“Ah,” but you say, “I’m no comedian; I’m at a loss when it comes to making a witty comment.” The cure for that, my friend, is to learn to laugh at yourself. I love to use self-deprecating humor in my writing, because I never run out of material!

Perhaps you think that, as a Christian, life is too serious for levity. Are your shorts too tight? Lighten up, for crying out loud. Some of the best humor, especially self-deprecating humor, is a healthy response to pain, frustration, and humiliation—all very serious stuff. And it’s too serious not to see the irony in the situation.

Do you know what I did when I realized my sinfulness and need for Christ in my life? Once I surrendered myself to Christ and received His forgiveness, I laughed! (The people I was praying with thought I was a little kooky, I think.) I laughed because I realized what a silly fool I had been, hopelessly trying to make myself “good enough” for God, when all the time He just wanted me to give up and accept His gift of salvation, by faith. Is salvation by faith a serious business? You bet it is—too serious not to laugh at our own attempts to be accepted by God any other way.

In Psalm 2, the rulers of the world speak of overthrowing God’s authority and choosing their own way. Serious stuff, right? How does God respond? “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Psalm 2:4). Somehow how I don’t think they’ve got God very worried. And that’s the point! Get the joke? Stop that grinning—this is serious, remember?

Humor can be used to deflect opposition, as well. During a presidential campaign debate, Ronald Reagan was asked, as the oldest President in history, if his age affected his ability to perform in the office. His response? “I will not make age a factor in this campaign. I will not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s your and inexperience.” The audience burst into hysterics. Even his opponent, Walter Mondale, standing at the other podium on the stage, could not help laughing. And the question of Reagan’s age was barely mentioned throughout the rest of the campaign.

If you still think you may need a funny bone transplant, read some of the great authors of humor from the present and the past. That may help jump-start your humor machine.

May 4

Step 1: Engage Brain

While structuring and organizing a new business venture (which I will be posting about soon), I have re-discovered something about writing and thinking: in order to write well, you need to engage your brain.

OK, OK, so it’s not that profound; it’s not a “stop the presses!” moment. I never said it was. But it has struck me anew just how little we (I should say “I,” but I’m hoping you relate to this) really think deeply about the problems, possibilities and issues of our daily lives.

Part of the reason for this is surely that thinking—pondering, musing, analyzing—is hard work, and we (and here I really should say “I”) are mentally lazy. Deep down, we would really like to just have the words flow without thought, wouldn’t we? The problem is, words without thought tend to be shallow, hackneyed clichés that fail to communicate well. Remember what the poet Sheridan said: “Easy writing’s vile hard reading.”

Another reason we do less deep thinking today is our distraction-prone culture. Social media is often cited as the main culprit, but there are plenty of other factors that deserve blame: postmodernism’s muddling of fact and opinion; our love for sound bites and talking points over reasoned discourse; and the proliferation of more and more sources of information—and disinformation.

So how do we overcome distractions and our natural inclination to avoid the hard work of deep thinking? Ironically, I have made a second re-discovery about thinking and writing, the flip side of the first: a great way to engage your brain is to write!

A central principle of communication is that language (spoken and written) is inseparable from conceptual thought. We think in words far more than we may realize, and all our writing is a product of our thought processes. So when you decide to do deep thinking, have a notepad and pen handy, and write out your thoughts. (Yes, you could tap it out on a keyboard, but it makes you more vulnerable to some of those cultural distractions.)

Are the words that I write down while thinking deeply going to be read by anyone else? Maybe not, but write as if they are. When you work to make your written thoughts understandable to a stranger, you will find that it creates new patterns of thinking, and helps you avoid shallow reasoning and cliché-ridden mental habits.

As I’ve been thinking (and writing) deeply about my new business, I am seeing previously ignored details that I can now deal with and potential pitfalls that I can now avoid. Because I have written down my thoughts as if explaining them to a stranger, I have been able to use these notes as a source for promotional/marketing copy for my company. Nothing gets wasted.

I encourage you to make a regular habit of deep thinking, accompanied by careful writing; it will lead to freshness of thought and clarity of expression. And if the notes you make from your great and profound ideas result in publishable text, all the better!

December 19

Front Matter Does Matter

Image by Simon Howden/ freedigitalphotos.net

Most nonfiction book writers couldn’t care less about the chicken or the egg. When they ask which comes first, they’re probably talking about the foreword, the preface, the acknowledgments, and the introduction. And what’s the difference between them, anyway?

The foreword, preface, acknowledgments, and introduction (along with the dedication and table of contents) are what publishers refer to as “front matter,” and although they are small parts of your book, they can be critical. These preliminary pages of your manuscript should set the pace for the rest of the book, drawing readers in and making them want to read on.

Since these are the first pages an editor looks at, you should make sure you get them right, and make a good first impression. Acquisition editors may not reject a book merely because of a pretentious, silly or maudlin preface, but it can color their view of the rest of the manuscript. Besides, if you demonstrate confusion over what a foreword, preface or introduction is, an editor is likely to wonder what else you may have wrong.

So what’s the difference between all these front parts of a book? Here they are, in the order in which they should appear in your manuscript, following the table of contents:

Foreword: This is a statement by someone other than the author, recommending the book.

Preface: This is the author’s own statement about the book — usually, the reasons he or she wrote it.

Acknowledgments: This is a place to recognize those who helped the author in some way with the book. The acknowledgments may also include a list of permissions granted for reprinted material. Sometimes the acknowledgments can be included in the preface, or even instead of the preface.

Introduction: This is the point at which you begin to introduce the subject of the book, setting the scene, identifying the problem, challenging the reader, etc. This is the real beginning of the text of the book.

Now that we understand what the preliminary parts of a book are, let’s look at some of the ways an author can run into trouble — and how to avoid it:

1. The foreword is an optional item. Unless the person writing it is so well-known that you want to include “With a foreword by So-and-so” on the cover, don’t bother with it — at least, not at the stage of presenting the manuscript to a publisher.

2. A preface has to have some real content to it, or you might as well not include it at all. There is no reason to talk about your childhood and how you always wanted to write, and so on, ad nauseam. If the book is an outgrowth of how God brought you victory in some area of your Christian life, and you can briefly — briefly — tell that story in an engaging way, then by all means, make that your preface. I find it interesting, however, to discover that very few of the better-selling authors have prefaces in their books. They usually just launch into the message of the book.

3. Some authors get the acknowledgments mixed up with the dedication (which should be placed before the table of contents, by the way). A dedication means the book was written in honor of someone, while the acknowledgments are to thank someone for their assistance in putting the book together.

4. I occasionally receive manuscripts which include in the front of the book what the author has labeled a “prologue.” This is really a misnomer. A prologue, according to the dictionary, is an introduction to a poem, a play or other work of literature. I think it can be assumed that the term “prologue” could be used in a novel, for example (I do so in my own novel), but in nonfiction it’s best to stick with the more mundane term, “introduction.” (Better yet, just call your introduction “Chapter 1.”)

Why all this concern about “front matter”? Many readers never even glance at the dedication, foreword, preface or acknowledgments, and some of them barely skim the introduction, so why make such a big deal about them? It is because your first reader of your book is the acquisition editor. The care that you put into these first words can make all the difference as to whether the editor looks at the rest of the manuscript. Remember, first impressions last — so get your front matter right!

December 9

In Defense of Editors

In a recent post, I mentioned that many of the clichés in my book were removed by the editor. One of my good friends commented that I should have left those clichés in, despite what my editor said. “Your clichés are uniquely you,” she said.  That was meant as a compliment, but . . . well . . .

My friend was not the only one to suggest that clichés are my “style” and should be kept in. But the editor is your first audience, and if you trust your editor, you have to accept that the editor sees blemishes in your writing that you are blind to.  And in the interest of full disclosure (it really hurts to admit this), I have to say that the number of clichés in my manuscript was really over the top! (The ironic use of the cliché “over the top”  in that last sentence was NOT deliberate; I only just now noticed it!)

Another friend made the point that a few clichés are inevitable, because you can’t make every sentence into a brilliant and original turn of a phrase, or it would be hard to read. I agree. It would be hard to write as well! Brilliant originality in every sentence? I don’t want to put any author under that kind of pressure! However, if a phrase is so “original” it is hard to read, then it’s probably badly written! If it’s a really good original thought, then it should be quite easy to read.

To give one example of an author who uses one original phrase after another, let me suggest A.W. Tozer.  His writing is not hard to read, in the sense of being hard to figure out what he’s saying. His writing tends to be slow reading, because what he says is so profound it causes the reader to pause and think about it. Hard to skim? Yes. Hard to read? Never! This is why Tozer is so often quoted.

So don’t feel sorry for me because I was asked to change a few clichés. It gave me a chance to get a little creative. And I wouldn’t have seen them because I was blind to the mistakes. (Besides, she let me keep a few of my favorite clichés!)

It’s always good to have another pair of eyes to look at your manuscript. My editor even found a few sentences in my manuscript (a manuscript I had gone over and over) that didn’t make sense to her.  I looked at those sentences and said “Wow, how did I miss that?” And I wrote something much better.

So give your editor a fair chance. He or she is committed to making you look good!

November 28

Brick or Stone?

Do you plan out your writing or just start putting words down on paper, hoping to “discover” the structure in the brick-stoneprocess?

While a certain amount of writing out your thoughts without any concern for structure (sometimes called free-writing) is a perfectly acceptable practice, you’ll never get to a publishable piece if you don’t do some organization, if at least after the fact.

Some people seem to think that writing, especially fiction or nonfiction, has to be so much “discovery” that any kind of planning and organization is anathema to them. Behind this attitude appears to be a fear of the writing becoming too formulaic, as if structure rather than lack of originality is the culprit. In their mind, a well-structured piece of writing would be compared to a brick wall, where every element in the wall is virtually identical — it fits together well, but it is dull and repetitive.

Not so, however. A well-structured piece of writing is more like a stone wall, with each piece of stone a unique size and shape, and with all the pieces fitting together at various angles and positions. A good stonemason needs to choose carefully where each piece of stone fits, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Only after the wall is complete does the stonemason step back and say, “It’s perfect — every stone in the right place.”

November 25

Clichés and original thought

Okay, I confess. I love clichés! Although my editor struck most of them from Concept to Contract, she allowed me to keep a couple of my favoritecliche2s — which made me happy as a clam!

And if I had been editing a manuscript of some other author who used those same clichés, I would have struck them, too. A cliché is a sign of a lack of original thought (ouch, it hurts to make that confession!). So the only way to replace a cliché is to come up with something original — some kind of statement that conveys what you are trying to say in a fresh way.

The problem is, we tend to be blind to our own mistakes — probably that’s why we keep making the same ones over and over again! So you’ll never find your clichés unless you deliberately look for them.

Read through your manuscript and take note of particular phrases that sound vaguely familiar. Then do a global search for them in the entire manuscript. Some phrases, such as “on the other hand” or “in a little while” are not exactly clichés, but are often overused. If such phrases turn up more than three or four times, remove most of them. If a phrase is a bona fide cliché, strike it out! (My editor is laughing at me over that advice, I’m sure.)

Once you find a cliché, how do you fix it? One simple way is to create a new one, like “. . . hungry as a horse supermodel on a diet.” Or merge them so they play off each other, like “When you’re over the hill, you start picking up speed.” But you can’t do that with every one of them. You may need to rethink what you are trying to say. Maybe it’s as frayed, faded and tired as the cliché you are using.  Maybe you need to improve the content of your material.  Maybe you need to express it in a fresh way, looking for a whole new aspect of the issue.

Let me show you a couple of clichés my editor found (crossed out) and the replaced wording (in red).

Sometimes an idea seems to just write itself. Other times you have to plug away at it feel like your creativity is trying to run with a sprained ankle.

But sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse trying to capitalize on an idea with an inherent flaw, and instead of capitalizing, you should be euthanizing!

As you can see, the solution to a cliché may sometimes be to add more information. A cliché can often be a spot in your manuscript where you lose the reader, because the tired phrase contains assumed information — you’ve stopped talking to your reader and you’re talking to yourself. (You know, they put people away for things like that!)

November 23

I Dare You!

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to challenge you to try something daring. Try writing about something that doesn’t put you in a good light. Maybe it would be a confession of some sin or failure. Maybe you could relate a story of something you did when you were young and foolish — or maybe when you were not so young, but still foolish.

Or perhaps you could write about something you are afraid your family and friends would laugh at. I’ve written some fiction that was a source of unintended glee for my wife and kids.

You could even write about something that you secretly suspect you are unqualified to discuss. Write something that — in a more sane and proper moment — you would not dare to write.

If you have the courage to do it, you may discover that by forging through an unworn path, you can add a fresh perspective and a new depth to your writing. Sylvia Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.” Plath, by the way, ended up committing suicide, sadly enough. Perhaps she would have done so sooner if she didn’t have the outlet of writing to release her soul pain. Perhaps if she had written more, she would have exorcised her personal demons.

I shouldn’t pretend to be able to psychoanalyze Plath, but her story does remind me of a comment by another writer, William Styron: “The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.”

May 2

It’s Conference Time Again!

ElkIt’s that time of year again, when we odd-duck Christian writers take to the highways, airways, and railways to gather for conferences. I can’t think of anything that can supercharge your writing career more than attending a good conference. Here are a few that I’ll be at. Check them out, and if you see me there, say hello!

  • Colorado Christian Writers’ Conference, May 13-16, Estes Park, CO. It’s a great gathering in a beautiful location—although I have to admit, it’s a little unsettling to have those big elk strolling by on the campus of the retreat center! http://colorado.writehisanswer.com/
  • St. Davids Christian Writers’ Conference, June 24-28 at Grove City College, Grove City, PA. Conference director Jim Watkins has a great lineup of editors, agents and veteran authors. Each day is divided into sessions on writing mechanics, with continuing morning sessions, marketing with seminars in the afternoon, and ministry during evening and Sunday morning. http://stdavidswriters.com/conference/
  • Greater Philly Christian Writers’ Conference, July 29-August 1 at Cairn University, Langhorne, PA. I’ve been to this conference every year for 20+ years. And yet, I learn something new every year. It’s one of the largest Christian writers’ conferences in the country, and a great place to build your web of contacts. http://philadelphia.writehisanswer.com/
March 8

Using Articles to Promote Your Book

I really admire my good friend Karen Whiting for her very deliberate and organized approach to marketing of her books. She shared recently how she uses articles to get the word out about a new book release. Here’s her system:

  1. I brainstorm ideas for articles and blog posts as I write the proposal. I also ask the target audience what they’d like to read to get more ideas.
  2. As I write the book, I place excess material that doesn’t fit or ideas from related research in a folder to use for articles.
  3. Once I turn in the book I start sending queries and start writing the articles,   naturegirlcoversmall150trying to have them placed about the time of the release and for a number of months afterwards. Her’s one example: Last year, the month my book Nature Girl: A Guide to Caring for God’s Creation released, I had articles in a teen’s girl magazine the month or the release and used other material for several guest blog posts. I also wrote ten pages for the 40-page American Heritage Girl leader’s magazine as they chose their environment badge to be the main focus of the magazine the month of the book’s release and included a review of the book. That led to my speaking at their leader’s conference. I had another article in a homeschooling magazine the following month.
  4. I do another round of brainstorming after the release while I’m doing radio and TV interviews. The questions asked and responses/reviews I start receiving help me hone in on what topics related to the book trigger the most responses. Then I know what are the most popular related topics.

When I have a new book every six months and deadlines for books I don’t always keep up, but I eventually get the ideas into articles.

 

Karen Whiting (www.karenwhiting.com) is an international speaker, former KarenWhiting612television host, and award-winning author of 19 books. She writes for women, families, children, and the military. Best sellers include God’s Girls, Stories of Faith & Courage from the Home Front, and My Princess Devotions.

She has lived in many states, almost always near the water. She likes adventure and has ridden a camel in the Canary Islands, white water rafted in Australia, ridden horseback in the ocean in Jamaica, and enjoyed scuba diving off the coast of Bermuda. She is a widow, the mother of five, including two rocket scientists (yes, for real) and a grandmother.

 

February 25

Me Tarzan, You Jane

1-IMG_4645It absolutely astounds me just how badly some otherwise educated people write. I was reading a post today about a technical issue, and it was mostly gibberish—not because the technical information was beyond me (even though, admittedly, it probably was), but because of sentences like the following: “Want stay in the web business might start learning how to bake and ship cupcakes.” Me Tarzan, you Jane.

It may be that he was trying to say, “Those who want to stay in the web business . . .” but who knows for sure? And trust me, there were other sentences with syntax that was even more tortured.

I chose this particular sentence because I think I know what the author was trying to say (though I’m not entirely sure). I did not cite other sentences that made no sense at all, because I am sure the author would say I could not understand them simply because I am not technically astute enough (as if bad grammar and syntax were irrelevant).

I suspect that the failure to communicate here was simply the result of publishing a first draft rather than reviewing the material. Posting is too easy, isn’t it? That “Publish” button sits there on the page, begging you to click on it. But before you succumb to that temptation, take a few minutes to READ (not skim) what you have written. Is it going to be understandable to those of us who do not live inside your brain? If you don’t take the time to double-check what you’ve written, you may fail to communicate. And no matter how technically smart you are, your credibility will suffer if you end up with sentences that make you sound like George of the Jungle.