Sunday, January 26, 2014

How To Become A Writer

I meant to post this as this past week's Friday FAQ, but I kept messing around with it and realized it was more than one post.

Because I have written and had a few books published without being a full-time writer, I get asked the question a fair amount - 'So, how do I get a book published?' Which, I hope is code for 'How do I become a writer?'

I suppose there are a lot of ways to do it. If I were twenty-two and unmarried with no kids, I would move to the beach for a year and write, write, write.

I'm none of the above so I have had to write (five books written or co-written so far, two ghost-written, and two projects in play at the moment) while holding down multiple other jobs. So, I'm not a good source of advice for the person who wants to chuck it all and write the Great American Novel. Or even the Sort-of-OK American Novel.

But I might be able to help if you want to write while doing something else to pay the rent and chasing kids around and Not. Having. Time. To. Write.

I'll do this in stages, but I'll start with three things today.

1. If you don't have time to write, you don't really want to write.
So, if time is your issue, I'm not going to be of much help. If you're not willing to get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later or watch less TV or miss a ball game or two, you just aren't going to be willing to go through the writing process which is, at times, agonizing. So do something else and prosper!

I think we'd all annoy each other less if we stipulated that we each have the exact same amount of hours in a day, we all have the option of skipping sleep if we have to, and that we make time for precisely those things we want to make time for. I'm no busier than you and you are no busier than me; we just have different priorities.

2. Read.
Read a lot, I mean an awful lot, before you even think about writing a word. You can't write well without reading widely.Read all kinds of stuff, including and especially the kind of stuff you don't want to write. Read fiction, non-fiction, classics, biographies, science fiction, history, theology, current events, book reviews, cookbooks. Read all the time, in whatever medium you can.   Read a little bit of stuff you just don't like, mostly to figure out what you do like. Then when you find the kinds of books that make your heart beat a little faster and your eyes tear up occasionally read them a lot.

3. Write.
Even if it's bad, and it will be bad at first. Just write. Even if it's one single solitary page a day. Probably better at first to write no more then 2-3 pages a day. Then rewrite them. Then burn them. OK, don't burn them. Keep them, because one day you will be so excited and grateful to see how far you've come.

Here's a secret I have figured out from reading other writers write about how to write.

When you first start writing you will be a bad version of your favorite writers.

Once you realize this you will be tempted to start a big bonfire with all of your typed pages and never write again. Don't do either because this is a necessary part of the writing process. It's a good and necessary part.

Pretty much everything I wrote for a long time was a bad version of Frederick Buechner.

Plenty of young writers of a certain type of spiritual commitment are writing bad Donald Miller.

Lots of bad Jonathan Franzen out there.

Fair amount of bad Annie Dillard and entirely too much bad Anne Lamott.

Increasing amounts of bad Shauna Niequist.

Tons of bad David Foster Wallace which is unfortunate, because he could be bad enough on his own.

Probably some bad 'Fifty Shades of Grey' stuff out there...(but I don't want to read that and if you are doing that, you should stop right now).

Here's what happens, though. Over time and through reading and writing bad versions of your favorite writers you start to develop your own voice. Suddenly you don't sound like a bad (fill in the name of your favorite writer), you sound like a mediocre version of you.

And this is very good because now you have a place from which to start. And you could not have short-changed one bit of the process that led you to this point.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Teaching Tuesday: Prepare Or Trust?

Among folks who look to the Bible for daily guidance there is a centuries-long, lively debate that can be boiled down to this:

Is our impact in life shaped by our efforts, or God's?

It's an important question, because of the extremes - on the one side, well-intentioned hard workers who write things like "The world is run by tired men" to maddeningly passive trust-ers who intone "Let go and let God".

So, what's the answer?

"The horse is prepared for the day of battle; but the victory belongs to the Lord" - Proverbs 21:31

There's a lot of rich history around horses going into battle. If you are taking a horse to a fight, you have to decide what kind of horse (typically lighter horses to get you to the battle were exchanged for heavy horses in the thick of the right); how to armor the horse (protect the horse, protect the rider, or both); whether to ride of drive the horse; whether to mount the horse or attach a chariot; how to feed, train, and groom the get the idea.

Volumes have been written on how to train and prepare a horse for battle and the answers given depend on the era, the relevant geography, and the current weaponry technology.

All of that to say, it's not an easy thing to prepare a horse for battle. There's a lot of thinking, working, strategizing, analyzing, trial and error to consider. Lots of hard work.

And then the battle comes.

Hopefully the horse is well prepared and hopefully the warrior has considered all of the contingencies and made all the right decisions.

But, at that point, it's out of the warrior's hands - victory belongs to the Lord.

Any warrior reading this proverb would have been bit uncomfortable - after all, they were highly trained in equine warfare, experienced in battle, dependent on their own knowledge and resources.

None of that is discounted.

The implication - live a considered, strenuous, self-disciplined life - giving it your best energy, preparation, thought, fitness level, strategy. The battle will be tough and you best be prepared.

But realize that in the end the result is God's, not yours.

Be hyper-prepared and hyper-trusting.

Both of them. All the time.

Are you better at being prepared or trusting? Chances are you excel at one or the other.

Thank God for the one in which you excel, and ask him where he wants to strengthen you in the other one. This should be a great conversation between you and him!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Getting From Grind To Great

Confession - when it comes to work, I am a grinder.

I love to work, feel a measure of significance from work, feel like work is never done.

This is a fascinating stretch of work for me, with seemingly endless variety and challenge and at least three distinct writing projects, at various stages of completion and with various levels of pressure being applied! I'm getting to work almost entirely in my 5% Intentional Difference and that is incredibly invigorating.

But it's always been hard for me to shut it down, even at night. If there's something to be done, I struggle to be fully present with those I love.

This is - quite simply - a very real character flaw. Nothing good can come from it, ultimately.

I am well aware of this, and well aware that this is and probably will continue to be an ongoing battle.

So I have to be thankful for small skirmishes won. Usually won by my wife.

I was working at home today, no appointments, just me and blank pages to fill, content to create, emails to respond to, deadlines to hit. It could have been 3 degrees or 103 degrees outside, I wouldn't have known the difference.

(Again, not good).

In Charlotte today, it was beautiful - cool and sunny. The last day before a cold snap that will probably spare us the snow getting ready to be dumped on points northward on the East Coast, but will still make it cold in these parts.

Miranda texts and calls me from elsewhere in the house.

(Again, not good that I have to be called from within my own house).

"Let's go outside, in the backyard."

This was an affront to me because, after all, the fate of nations depends on my work because I am so dang important, you know?

So we went outside, to the yard and the swing and the slide.

And took this picture with #4 and #5:

Here's the deal. The writing I did today, the correspondence I engaged in, the phone calls I returned, the emails I pounded week this time I'll be hard pressed to remember any of it.

But we'll be looking at this picture for years.

The grind has meaning and purpose.

But it is other things that are great.

Are you missing something great because of your grind, whatever that grind is for you?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuesday Teaching: Hold or Held?

I like to hold on tightly to things.

Can you relate?

I like to control my commitments, make sure that the people I care about are safe, insure that I am just as vulnerable as I need to be to make people feel that I am vulnerable while still making sure to protect myself. When I go on a trip I have a navigation system in the rental car, the Waze app fired up on my cell phone, and - if all else fails - a Mapquest print-out on the passenger seat. I don't need a lot of friends but I would sooner lose a finger than a friend I have invested decades in.

I like to know where I am going to be every moment for the next two weeks. Google Calendar is not quite holy writ, but close.

I actually say around our house "a place for everything and everything in its place".

Holding on to things has its benefits.

You generally know where the lemon zester you use once every eighteen months is residing at this moment.

But it can be an exhausting way to live. My fellow holder-on-ers know what I mean.

We're not apt to enjoy spontaneity, surprises, changes in plans, or last minute invitations. And those things can be really wonderful and fun.

Speaking of fun, no one ever calls us the life of the party! We come through in the clutch, but we're not good partiers. We're great in a crisis, but kind of a drag when our friends want to take a last minute road trip.

The real issue is that when it comes to our relationship with God, holding on and being in control can be downright deadly.

Which is probably why God seems very concerned in the Bible with reminding us that he is holding on to us, even in our trying to hold on to everything else.

That's the Big Idea: It's better to be held than to hold on.

"Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don't let go" - Jesus (John 6:37)

There's a wealth of good stuff there, fellow holders-on.

First, Jesus regards you as a gift. Stunning, if you think about it.

You're not a bother, an obligation, a candidate for approval, a project.

No, you are a gift. One he values and treasures.

One he wants to hold on to.

And hold on he does.

He went through betrayal, poverty, deprivation, misunderstanding, arrest, torture, a false trial, and execution - all to hold on to you.

You're worth holding on to.

And once he has you he doesn't let go.

Through your failings and slips and shortcomings, in spite of your indifference and callousness and poor choices..he just keeps holding on.

So why do we try to hold on so hard?

You're walking on a pier at the beach with your dad. Your ice cream cone is melted down to a nub in the hot sun. He tries to pry its sticky remnants from your sticky, clutching fingers. But you won't let go.

That ice cream cone is so valuable. So precious. You can't lose it. So you hold on tight and kick and scream and protest and look for an opening to get away from your father who only wants to take your ice cream and hurt you because he hates you and...

What he wants to do is through the nub of what used to be an ice cream cone away, toss it in the trash, clean your grubby hands, and walk you to the end of the pier. To the ice cream shop at the end of the pier.

And put into your hands a new, frozen waffle cone of not-yet-dripping cookies and cream goodness.

He takes away the stuff you don't need, holds your hand gently in his (even if you're not the hand-holding type, somehow when you get it you don't mind his hand) and leads you to the much better stuff you wanted all along, even if you didn't know it.

What are you holding onto that you really can let go?

Where can you dare to allow yourself to be held, and led, and loved?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Great Public Speaking Tips

I've had a post on public speaking sitting in my draft file for a while. But my friend and colleague Trevor Bron - one of the most accomplished public speakers I have ever known - tweeted out three tips on public speaking that were so good I decided to just rip him off. They are below.

Tip #2 is often overlooked but really important. The masters never even glance at or quote from their PowerPoint or KeyNote decks - the hacks read from them verbatim (and if you are a hack, I say that with all due affection because it's something you can change immediately!). A related piece of advice is that slides should have very spare content. Seth Godin advocates no more than one word or image per slide. While that may be extreme, it's better than a slide so dense with words your viewers need their reading glasses.

You should follow Trevor on Twitter at @TrevorBron and you should take his advice to heart no matter how often you have to speak and no matter the size or nature of your audience!

Tip #1: Learn everything you can about your audience in advance. Their average age, ethnicity, education, how they will be dressed.

Tip #2: Only use PowerPoint or KeyNote slides you never have to read, refer, or look at. They should be a visual aid, not a distraction.

Tip #3: Seek to know everything about your environment before you speak, including room size, brightness, microphone type, loudness.

image credit: suzannegaudetbenefit