5 Lessons from a Young Writer

5 Lessons from a Young Writer

By Hannah Howe

Note: Hannah Howe interned with me this spring during her final semester of college. She did a fine job and offers these lessons gleaned through her college and internship experiences. 

During the past several years, I’ve pursued a BA in writing and interned with both Breathe Christian Writers Conference and AB Writing Services. Here are some of the most valuable writing lessons I’ve learned in the process.

Show. Don’t Tell.

Writers are truth-tellers. Often the most truthful way to describe anything is to share observations (using all five senses) rather than trying to name what’s going on.

Instead of telling your readers that a person was regretful or a room looked messy, let the reader see what you see that leads you to make those judgments. Did the person sigh and look down when they mentioned something that happened in the past? Were there socks and office supplies strewn throughout the room in odd places? Did the socks smell like wet cheese? These kinds of clues engage your readers and draw them into the story you’re telling, whether fiction or nonfiction.

You’re not selling your soul if you don’t just write novels. 

I once heard someone say that more people make a living playing professional baseball than writing novels. There are lots of great novelists in the world, but the majority cannot rely on novel writing as a sole means of income.

People tend to make better art when they do not need to make money with it. If paying for housing and groceries depends on other people liking your art enough to buy it, more than likely your creativity will be stifled. But if you have another, more stable source of income, you are freer to take your creative writing in the direction you want and take risks!

So while you’re pursuing your creative writing dreams, don’t be afraid to use the things you’re good at to support yourself and/or your family. Plus, whenever you write anything, even if it’s for cereal boxes, you are learning and growing in your ability to arrange words well.

Be kind to other writers. It’s not a competition.

So often we as writers hesitate to give anyone else a leg up for fear that a win for them is a loss for us. Really, it’s the opposite. When we encourage, challenge, and learn from one another, we all grow. And when we help connect others with resources and opportunities, everyone’s network grows. Sometimes, though, we give and don’t receive anything in return. And that’s ok. It’s actually Christ-like.

I think this hesitation comes from a scarcity mentality—thinking there is not room for all of us to be successful writers. But we forget that each one of us has a unique voice and unique experiences that have shaped us. Even if we say similar things, each one of us says it a different way and connects with different readers.

It helps me to remember, also, that God is totally powerful and He loves me. I can rely on Him to let my voice be heard if I am seeking to be obedient to Him in all things and pressing into the opportunities He provides.

It’s good to be wise about what we share of our own creative projects and who we let see things that are precious to us. Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” But let’s be generous in our encouragement and support of our fellow writers.

Prepare yourself for feedback. 

Make your peace with what you’ve written beforehand so when someone edits or critiques your work, you are ready to receive their nuggets of gold. You may already have an idea what they will say, but you also may not.

You can only do what you can do; don’t beat yourself up for not knowing things. Do your research, work hard in the time you have, and then hold your work with loose fingers to those who know things you don’t yet.

Humility is easier when you don’t feel like you have to defend yourself. Remember that your worth is not tied to your writing. Remember that you can write. Remember that you want to become a better writer than you were yesterday.

Pay Your Estimated Tax

Last but not least, especially if you freelance, pay your estimated tax. It’s much more fun to get a check from the government at the end of the year than to have to send them one!

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The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

The Professional Writing Life by Intern 1 (Sarah Traill)

image1During my months with Ann, I’ve had time to see the professional writing life up close. Here are a few of her tips:

First, have a master plan. Make sure to write down all your tasks and deadlines. If you don’t write them down, you’re liable to forget!

Once you have everything written down, make a plan to accomplish it. Allow for more time than you think you’ll need. Those last-minute technological problems or tea spills over that critical document you needed are bound to appear if you’re working on a too-tight schedule. By having a weekly or monthly master plan, the daily struggles won’t be as stressful.

Secondly, be fluid in your plans. As a professional writer, your schedule changes on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. Accept these changes and allow both yourself and your plans to be flexible. If you’re unable to accomplish something on the day you wanted it done due to scheduling conflicts or some other issue, allow for that and get something else done instead.

Third, complete small tasks on a daily basis. Make sure you’re finishing at least one small task on your project (or projects) every day. If you try to tackle all the huge tasks, you’ll burn yourself out, so try instead to take a certain amount of time or a certain number of small tasks to complete daily. Start with just half an hour to work on one project and move forward from there.

For example, send three emails, research for 15 minutes, make one phone call and write for half an hour. That’s maybe an hour of work, but you’ve made substantial progress on several on-going projects. If you do this a few times a day, every weekday your projects will quickly be completed.

Fourth, be open to new possibilities. Keep an open mind towards new ideas, new writing projects, and new connections. You’d be surprised how many new opportunities appear because you asked others for advice or information. Connections come where you least expect them!

Fifth, make time for your writing. Life can get busy, but make time to write during your day. If writing every day is too much, try three times a week for a set amount of time instead. Or write every day for two weeks and take a week off. To succeed as a professional writer, you must make sure you are making time for writing as often as you can.

Finally, Ann’s favorite tip: be nuts! To be a freelance writer, you have to be a little crazy. But that’s what makes it so much fun.

The Benefits of Retreat

The Benefits of Retreat

Last summer my writing group visited my parents’ cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We scattered around inside and out in the mornings to work on our writing projects; in the afternoon we went on an adventure. In the evenings we talked and laughed.

What a wonderful time away in a place that demands relaxation and retooling thanks to no television and limited cell service. And how fun to spend that time with dear friends.

img_1262Last week I was on a retreat in Florida, far from Michigan’s gloomy skies. Far from the obligations of house and pets and family.

Here’s what I’m discovering about retreat.

  1. Day 1: It takes time to unwind. My first day here I’m still thinking about answering emails and texts and sending pictures and deadlines. A story I covered several years ago for a major magazine is breaking news at home and around the publishing world, but I’m not writing the first stories. It’s OK. I’ll do stories when I get home, but now I’m on retreat and beginning to wind down.
  2. Day 2: Take some down time. Today was a slow start and that’s OK. It’s OK to read and stare at the ocean. I worked—this is a writing retreat after all—but I also went out to dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant.
  3. Day 3: Face the future. I could live like this for another two weeks, but it’s my last day and I’m starting to miss my family a little. I need to address the huge writing project that looms. Remember that line in “The Devil Wears Prada” when Miranda is on her way up to her office and Stanley Tucci’s character yells, “Gird your loins!” That’s how I feel about the next three months.
  4. Home: Reenter slowly. I was gone Wednesday to Sunday. I don’t count Wednesday and Sunday as part of the retreat because of travel. Taking time to rest, relax and prepare for the days ahead is necessary. No need to rush back in immediately! Take it slow and easy for a day or two, then get back into the crazy, hectic days of deadlines, writing and caring for those around you.

I’m posting this from home and remembering the warm and sunny days, the ocean breeze, the little community I entered for three days at my 1950s-era motel. What a wonderful time away and what a fine collection of memories.

Please consider a retreat of your own. The time away is relaxing, the unstructured time is remarkable, the mind space is revealing. Enjoy!

Lessons from Moving Office

Lessons from Moving Office

img_1135I recently inherited a bedroom left vacant by Kid 3, who took Kid 1’s bedroom when she moved into an apartment. This empty bedroom has become my new office. It was no easy task to move a decade’s worth of stuff from my small office on the main floor to this vast expanse on the second floor.

I learned a few lessons while on this month-long journey.

  1. Take it step by step. Anne Lamott’s lesson from “Bird by Bird” applies to paint and decor. Her advice to move through your writing one step at a time, step after step, makes the same sense as I removed cowboy decorations, spackled, primed, taped and painted the walls. The process couldn’t move ahead without accomplishing the previous steps. Same in your writing life. Take the next step, then the next.
  2. Know your plan and work that plan. I wanted gray walls so found accessories with that in mind. Gray lamp from Ikea, off-white chair with gray writing from Wayfair, gray and white curtains from Home Goods all worked with my plan. That lesson works for writing too. Know the plan for your novel, so you stay within it with research. Outlining your nonfiction book keeps you from rabbit trails. In writing and decorating, a plan is a wonderful thing.
  3. Move outside the box. While having a plan is good, experimenting can be good too. My office isn’t all gray. There are coral-framed bulletin boards, a coral shelf, a light red wagon bed holding miscellany. I also hung a huge vintage painting of downtown Grand Rapids (after painting the hideous frame the dark gray of one wall.). Your writing, too, can use a little outside-the-box thinking. Plot twists, new genres, new markets, new styles. Never hurts to try something different and a little crazy.
  4. Throw stuff away. You’ll not believe the pounds of paper I tossed. Papers, notebooks, old files, brochures, business cards, notes: into the trash it all went. I didn’t need 25 reporter notebooks with notes from stories I wrote 15 years ago. It’s a great feeling to get rid of stuff you can’t possible use ever again. Same with your writing life. Toss the stuff that doesn’t work, physically and psychologically. This could be a characters, others’ expectations, a genre you’re just not good at, bad advice, or a critique partner whose passive-aggressiveness is diabolical. Lighten your life, space and mind.
  5. Recycle. I have boxes of books to bring to my two favorite used bookstores to sell. Boxes of stuff headed to Goodwill. I’ve given away a few things, too. Some things deserve a new home and I’m happy to give it to them. Same with writing. I recently interviewed a local author and will use that interview in two publications. Sometimes I’ve sold one interview three times. Use extra research for your novel in another novel, a short story, or a novella. Don’t waste anything good. Find a home for it if you can.
  6. Get help. Moving my file cabinets up the stairs took four of us: two kids pulling on the rope wrapped around it, and one kid and me pushing from the bottom. It took effort to move those things—and they were empty! I also paid a kid to paint the walls for me; it helped that he needed cash. Good help is a good thing in decorating and writing. Find a good critique partner; hire an editor; find a tutor for social media. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  7. Enjoy the results. I love my office. I sit in my chair and stare at the walls and decorations and  curtains a lot. I smile, too. It was worth all the work. So is that first clip, first box of your books, byline, or media interview. Enjoy every minute of the good stuff that comes from being a writer, no matter how small or large. It’s the life we chose and the life we’ll keep.
2016: Books I’m Glad I Read

2016: Books I’m Glad I Read

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I keep track of the books I read each year. There’s no particular reason except that I like to look back and see what I read. I read 37 books in 2003, the year I had 3- and 5-year old boys and 11- and 13-year-old girls. In 2013 I read 57. In 2016, 60. About half are books I read for review, and a small percentage of those I wish I hadn’t spent time on.

A few of the books this past year—both work and pleasure—I’m glad I had the privilege of reading. Maybe you’ll enjoy them too.

Miriam by Mesu Andrews. What an imaginative, sensory retelling of the Old Testament story of Miriam. I learned much about the Israelite culture, loved Andrews’ details and fictional license, and was enchanted by her writing.

Wolf’s Mouth by John Smolens. Michigan author Smolens offers a piece of Upper Peninsula history and the part this far-flung locale played in World War II. This is a fascinating story of what identity and home look like.

The Wedding Chapel by Rachel Hauck. Hauck is the consummate storyteller. I was riveted (and pleasantly surprised) by her tale of lost love, home place and new love.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Every woman should read this book by businesswoman Sandberg, who juggled her top job at Facebook with family. Her real message is that women too often lean back, opt for less-than, defer to others. A strong message I needed to hear.

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber was the final speaker at the 2016 Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing. Plenary speakers aren’t always spot on at the FFW, but Nadia was. She challenged us, made us laugh and cry, and urged me to rethink what it means to be a Jesus follower. And made me want to get another tattoo.

The Lost Heiress, The Reluctant Duchess and A Lady Unrivaled by Roseanna M. White. I’m usually ambivalent about Christian historical fiction, but the Ladies of the Manor series had a little twisty bite to it: excellent writing, unique twists, and strong women who did unusual things.

The Undoing of Saint Silvanus by Beth Moore. I’ve done Moore’s Bible studies before and watched her on DVD. Her first novel sounds just like her and, despite some flaws, kept me interested and involved in the cast of characters.

Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin. Austin’s historical fiction set in nearby Holland, Michigan, taught me much about my husband’s Dutch heritage and the way to tell a great story.

The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success by James Scott Bell. Every writer should read Bell’s no-nonsense guide to becoming the best writer possible. He was the keynote at Breathe Christian Writers Conference, so what’s not to love?

You’re the Cream in My Coffee by Jennifer Lamont Leo. Jenny’s my client, and this book reminds me why I became a literary agent. It’s well-written, well-told, and a fun read. And who doesn’t love stories about the old Marshall Field’s in Chicago?

The Whistler by John Grisham. Another of Grisham’s grand tales of legal misconduct, this time focusing on a judge in bed with the casinos in Florida’s Panhandle. Love his sarcasm and storytelling.

The Mark of the King by Jocelyn Green. A brand new book out this month that I read in December. Jocelyn is a great storyteller and this is a great book about the early settlement of Louisiana by the French. Fascinating history and wonderful story.

Would love to hear your favorite books from 2016!

A Writer’s Give-Thanks List

A Writer’s Give-Thanks List

cwmg-front-no-apThis Thanksgiving weekend is a fine time to give thanks for the good things in a writer’s life. You may not have a published book or even a byline yet, but there are still a fair number of writerly things for which to be thankful.

  1. Reference Materials. Maybe a good thesaurus isn’t at the top of your list—until you need to find that exactly perfect word to liven up your sentence. We have great reference materials available that make our writing lives easier and more accurate.
  • The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition.
  • The Christian Writer’s Market Guide. See the new edition pictured here.
  • The Writers’ Market Guide.
  • Dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, etc.
  • Bible dictionaries, atlases, feast guides, etc.
  1. Learning Tools. From books to audio and video classes; from magazines to online courses—there is absolutely no reason to let your writing education lag. A couple of websites to visit and books to read:
  1. Top-Level Conferences. Christian writers conferences abound, leaving you no excuse not to attend at least one conference a year. A range of price points, lengths, and locations mean you’ll find one perfect for you. Check these out:
  1. Fellow Travelers. Every writer needs writer friends, whether online buddies or in-person BFFs, so you’ll have at least one person who:
  • Doesn’t look at you strangely when you talk about your characters as real people.
  • Understands that writing is your calling, not something you fit in when you can.
  • Knows that your house isn’t clean but your sentences are sound.chaos-627218__340
  • Understands that you aren’t at your family’s beck and call every minute of the day just because you’re writing at home.
  • Gets your need for strong coffee/dark chocolate/gold fish crackers/mint tea/etc.
  • Will happily go with you to literary movies or shows such as “Jane Eyre: The Musical.”
  • Won’t harangue you for buying one more writing book.
  • Will room with you at conferences and weekend writing retreats.
  1.  Editors. On the whole, editors make your work better. Those of you saying, “But my work is already great,” clearly need an editor. Whether a magazine or book editor, let pencil-1692530__340 them do their work and trust them to make your work smoother, less wordy, less confusing and more interesting. That said, if an editor makes a mistake mention it nicely and ask he or she, respectfully, to fix it. Side notes on editors:
  • Once you are done with your novel and your self-editing, hire a professional editor to look it over and make suggestions.
  • Editing isn’t the same as proofreading, though they overlap. Proofreaders (or copyeditors) look at your post-edited manuscript for typos and other small mistakes.
  • A good editor is worth every penny. Listen to what they say!
  1. A good and fast computer is the best thing ever. The Internet is a great way to research anything from a Civil War battle to who stars in the movie you want to see. A smart phone can hold your schedule, all your email, surf the Internet in the line at the bank, text your kids and friends, monitor your heartbeat, and actually call people too. Love technology; use it wisely.

What are you writers thankful for this holiday weekend? We all want to know!

 

 

The Q&A: Lynn Austin

The Q&A: Lynn Austin

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Lynn Austin’s writing space. Love the old typewriter on the shelf.

One of the best parts of my job as a freelance writer and literary agent is meeting writers and talking to them about their books and writing lives. I’m delighted to share that information with you as an occasional feature on this blog. I offer you this discussion with esteemed novelist Lynn Austin (www.lynnaustin.org) as the first edition of The Q&A.

lynnaustin_hi_08Lynn is author of a dozen standalone novels and one nonfiction book, Pilgrimage, as well as three series: Refiner’s Fire, Chronicles of the King, The Restoration Chronicles. She has been inducted into the Christy Award Hall of Fame. Her newest book, Waves of Mercy, came out earlier this month and is set in Holland, Mich.

Q: What inspired you to write Waves of Mercy?

A: I grew up in the area of New York State that was originally owned and settled by the Dutch, and I visited Holland, Mich., for the first time when I attended Hope College. I was immediately impressed by how proud the community was of their faith and Dutch heritage. My husband grew up in Holland, so when we decided to move back here two years ago from the Chicago area, I began researching Holland’s history to see if it would make a good novel.

Q: Are the characters based on actual people?

A: The only “real” person is Reverend (Dominie) Van Raalte, who led the Dutch immigrants to America in 1846. When researching the book, I read a collection of memoirs written by the first settlers, so I combined a lot of their stories when creating my characters.

Q: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

A: In a way, this was a fairly easy book to write because I live in the community where it takes place. I could easily walk to the site where the Hotel Ottawa once stood if I needed inspiration. Everything I needed to research Holland’s history was readily available. But there was so much information—including an entire Van Raalte Research Center at Hope College—that it was difficult to do a thorough job and not be overwhelmed. I knew I was leaving out a lot of good information but I had a story to tell, first and foremost. I hate reading novels with too much history tossed in. Keeping the history and the story in balance was challenging at times.

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: I begin a new book by reading everything I can find on the topic, going down rabbit trails, gathering information, visiting the book’s setting if possible. Pretty soon, I begin to envision characters in that setting and historical era and they start “talking” to me. Next, I develop their personalities, collecting pictures, writing “resumes” for them until I know them thoroughly. Then I start writing, making up the plot as I go along. I write every day, five days a week when possible, and aim for a goal of five pages a day.

Q: How did you start writing?

A: I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids and I loved to read, but I got tired of reading books that offered no hope. So I sat down one day when my kids were napping and decided to try to write the kind of book I loved to read. Writing turned out to be so much fun for me—creating characters, making up plots—that I’ve been doing it ever since.

Q: What have been some challenging aspects of being a writer? What are the most rewarding?

A: Being a writer involves a lot of self-discipline. I have to make the very best use of my time and energy so that I can get the job done on time, and to the very best of my ability. I takes me a year to write each book, and during that time I have very little feedback. I’m essentially working alone. That’s hard at times. And lonely. The most rewarding part is when I hear from readers, telling me how my book has influenced their lives. That makes it all worthwhile!

Q: Do you have any writing must haves?

A: I must have my daily quiet time for prayer and Bible reading—or else I don’t get anywhere at all with my writing.

Q: What is the least favorite phase of the publishing process?

A: The part I hate the most is getting the first editorial review of my finished manuscript. I just want to be done with the book (and of course I’m convinced it’s perfect) but my editor always has a few suggested changes.

Q: Do you have a favorite author?

A: I have quite a few, including Maeve Binchy, Chaim Potok, and Rosamunde Pilcher.

Q: Do you partner with other authors?

A: I have never partnered with anyone to write a book, but I would never have gotten where I am today without the faithful women from my writers’ critique group: Jane Rubietta and Cleo Lampos. They are also two of my favorite authors.

Q: What words of encouragement can you give to aspiring authors?

A: Don’t quit. Yes, it’s a hard road to publication, but it’s not impossible. If you’ve been called by God to write, then write—and trust Him for the outcome. A successful writer isn’t the person who is published—it’s the person who keeps writing.

Q: How do you recharge your batteries?

A: I go out and play! I love to ride my bike, walk in the woods, and play with my granddaughter. My husband is a professional musician so going to his concerts recharges me, too.

Q: What about your current work in progress?

A: It’s about two wealthy sisters who live in Chicago in the late 1800s. They love to travel the world and seek adventure.

Would love to see pictures of your writing space! I’m in the long process of moving into a new office, and am posting periodic pictures on Instagram of my progress. So far I’ve bought a new chair that is sitting in my bedroom for the moment. Lynn Austin’s writing space is pictured above; send along your pictures and we’ll all compare notes.