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10 Things Every Writer Should Do

by Karen Ball

 computer dog

I’m a list person. In part, that’s because said lists serve to bump my memory when it gets…um…lost. But I also just love lists—especially lists of things you should (or shouldn’t) do. So here, for your perusal, are my top ten things every writer should do every day:

  1. Stretch your word muscles. Learn a new word. Read a new writer. Do a crossword puzzle. Flip through the dictionary. Do the Reader’s Digest Word Power test. Something to test and strengthen your word skills.
  2. Spend at least 15 minutes in silence. No words, no music. Just…be still. It’s hard to hear the Master’s voice in all the chaos that fills our days. Purpose to spend at least a little bit of time—other than when you’re asleep—in silence.
  3. Read Scripture. Now, I’m not talking about your devotions. I’m talking reading them as a writer. See how the stories are told. Savor the beauty of the songs. Study the heroes and villains. There’s a wealth of gold to be gleaned in them thar pages.
  4. Learn something new about writing. Okay, how many books on writing do you have? And how many of them have you read? If you’re like I am, the percentage is woefully low. So purpose, every day, to read from a book on the craft of writing. Doesn’t have to be a lot. Even if you only read one page, you’re making headway. Of course, if you’ve read all of the craft books you have, CONGRATS. Now, go back and read them again. Just a little each day.
  5. Keep a Beautiful Words journal.  Whether you hand write these or use a computer document, keep a journal of the phrases in books that capture or delight you. Bits of writing that you find wonderful.  Add something new every day. Be sure to credit where it came from.
  6. At least once a week, add something from your writing to the Beautiful Writing journal.  It’s there, whether you believe it or not. A perfect word or sentence, a bit of dialogue. Add that to your Beautiful Words journal. Then, when you’re feeling discouraged you can go back and read them to remind yourself you’re not a hack.
  7.  Just DON’T do it! C’mon now, you know what I mean. Playing Angry Birds, wandering on Facebook, browsing sales…all those things we do instead of writing. If we spent half of the time we waste writing, we’d finish our books in record time. So stop it. Now.
  8. Step Away from the keyboard. I get that sometimes we’re on deadline and so we’re chained to the keyboard. But even on those days—maybe especially on those days—you need to take a break. Even if it’s only for 5 minutes. Set a timer for the time you will allow yourself, and walk away. Go outside. Play with the dog. Hug your child. Garden. Make a bouquet of flowers. Shoot at cans. Change the oil in your car. Whatever. Just give your mind a break. Every. Day. Trust me, your writing will benefit.
  9. Learn to release tension. We’re so good at tensing up, at letting deadlines and word quotas and plot issues and edits and staying on top of social media and blah blah blah get to us.  Happens to me all the time. Happened as I was getting ready for one of my trips last week. I was editing and wham! Anxiety over how much I had to do just slammed into me. So here is one tip for dealing with this kind of thing.
    1. Stop. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking. Just stop.
    2. If you’re standing, sit down.
    3. Close your eyes.
    4. Put your hands in your lap and your feet flat on the floor.
    5. Recite your favorite Scripture to yourself. As you do so…
    6. Breath in, through the nose, nice and slow. Fill your lungs. Hold it for a second. And then
    7. Breath out, through your mouth, nice and slow.
    8. Repeat. At least five times.
    9. Remind Yourself Who is in control. Do you best at every aspect of this task, but remember, you’re not in control. Your job is obedience. The outcome is up to Someone far wiser. Remind yourself of that every day. Don’t let yourself forget it.

Okay, your turn. What do you consider one Must-Do for every writer?

Chapters: How Long is Too Long?

by Karen Ball

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I’ve had a number of people ask me lately how long their chapters should be. My answer has been: “As long as they need to be.”

Now, it would be nice if I could give folks the “industry-standard” answer: “Chapters should be no less than xx and no longer than xxx,” but the truth is there isn’t a real standard in the industry. And frankly, I think that’s a good thing. I’ve never been one to count words on chapters, but then, I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. The measuring stick, so to speak, that I use–as a writer, an editor, and an agent–to determine if chapter length is what it needs to be is whether the chapter flows well. If I either find my eyes glazing over halfway through or if I reach the end so fast I’m left wondering what in the bald-headed dog snot just happened, there’s a problem. (Thanks, by the way, to my dad for that “bald-headed” phrase. <grin>).

Generally speaking, many writings tend to aim for 2500 to 3000 words per chapter. But there are so many variables. Such as:

Genre:

Fiction–suspense fiction is all about keeping the reader on the edge of their seats, which lends itself to short chapters. Whereas chapters in literary fiction sometimes are longer.

Nonfiction—likewise, popular self-help fiction seems to favor shorter chapters whereas memoirs, not unlike literary fiction, take a bit more time (and page length) to say what they have to say.

So the kind of book you’re writing will have an impact on chapter length.

Your Voice
Some authors have a wonderful, lyrical tone that just kind of ambles on out, like sitting on the porch in the South, sipping tea and leaning your head back to savor a summer day. Others deliver their words in an almost machine-gun patter, hitting readers with one truth after another such that readers race through the pages. As you consider the length of your chapters, be sure you honor your author voice. Your readers can tell when you’re cutting yourself short, or when you’re trying to draw something out for word count. It’s letting your voice come through that matters most, not word count.

Reader Expectations
That being said (the bit above about voice), do keep in mind that readers have a certain expectation of the books they read. If you’ve developed a certain pattern and pace in your books, don’t change that up unless you have a solid reason for doing so. Readers love to “feel at home” with their favorite authors, and though they may not be cognizant of things like chapter length, they will notice the difference in how a book
feels when they read it.   

Publisher Production Costs
Some books are written to a specific format, and as such word length for chapters matters a great deal. Holding to the set format makes the costs predictable and standard. Make sure you know what your publisher is looking for, or you—and your editor—could end up with some very unhappy surprises when you turn your books in.

So if you’ve been wondering about chapter length, my best counsel is to:

  1. Check with your publisher to be sure there isn’t a set format for chapter length
  2. Take the kind of book you’re writing into account. Check out similar books that are on the market to see if there seems to be any consensus on chapter length.
  3. Just write the book. End the chapters where they need to end, but as you go, use readers to tell you if it comes across the way you want it to. 

Happy Writing!

How Much Back Story?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

escape

Sometimes in my review of a novel, I find that the story doesn’t pick up soon enough. I’m not sure what I’ll be reading about and my interest may lag, though I can still eye great writing.

“But I wanted my readers to know about my characters,” the author may protest.

Understandable, indeed.

However, I believe it’s important to lay out the basic conflicts for the reader early on so she’ll know what she’ll be exploring with you and will be eager to keep diving in. Before I learn that the hero had a difficult childhood and the heroine struggles with lingering effects of poverty, I want to know their immediate obstacles to their current goals. Those goals may be (whether they know it or not) their ultimate romance. Or they may be involved in a quest. Or perhaps solving a mystery. In any event, the reader wants to know what type of book he’ll be reading and will want to learn what obstacles he’ll be overcoming with the characters right away. Then, once the reader is interested in the characters’ journey, their back story will be all the more fascinating and relevant.

The Right (Size) Stuff

by Dan Balow

Tools. Measure tape on white background

One hundred and fifty years ago this fall, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on the site of the battle that turned the tide of the American Civil War.  It was 270 words and took two minutes to deliver.

Not as memorable was the 13,600-word oratory by American statesman Edward Everett that lasted for two hours prior to Lincoln’s epic speech. In fact, the program for that November 19, 1863 event consisted of eight elements…four songs, two prayers, Everett’s speech and a few words from the President.

History elevated those two minutes by the President to some of the greatest words ever spoken. The rest of the program is all but forgotten.

Recently I was in an airport terminal waiting to board a flight and the well-intentioned airline employee picked up the really bad microphone and began explaining the boarding procedure for my flight in tremendous detail.

Fifteen minutes later (I am not kidding, I timed it) the announcement was finished.

Your Writing Team: Freelance Editors

by Karen Ball

Hand writing in a modern office on a clipboard

You’ve heard the old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees”? In other words, you can see each tree, take note of the beautiful leaves and strong branches, but because you’re focused on them you don’t see the whole forest. The big picture. And that, my friends, is where it helps to have freelance editors on your team.

Yes, for some, the editor role is filled by an in-house editor. But if that’s not the case for you, then I encourage you to consider bringing a freelance editor onto your team. You’ll be amazed at the benefits.

Good editors are a mix of coach and cheerleader. They look at your work front to back with an eye not only to the details you see, but to the big picture we often can’t see in our own work. I’m constantly amazed, and grateful, for the insights my editor brings to me as a writer. The way she can cut through the story that I’m so immersed in and pinpoint exactly what I’m doing wrong (coach mode)—and right (cheerleader mode).

You Are Essential

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Business people applauding

On Sunday our pastor’s sermon was on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Although in this passage, St. Paul writes about how each person is a special part of the body of Christ, with a comparison to how all the parts of the human body work together, I couldn’t help but think of how essential we all are to the publishing process:

Writers: Without authors’ creativity and courage, no one would have a book to publish or to read.

Agents: Yes, it is possible to be published without an agent. But because of the nature of publishing, few have the broad range of contacts and experience that an agent has to understand the nuances of the marketplace, each individual publishing house, the complex nature of contracts, the intricacies of the editorial process, and where each writer’s work will best fit.

Acquisitions Editors: From the many submissions editors receive, they are responsible for deciding which books are best suited for their houses to bring to the reading public.

Sales and Marketing Teams: They agree early in the process that they can sell an author’s book, and will present it it to book buyers. The marketing team works on getting the word out about the book.

Editing the Bible

by Dan Balow

Jesus  removes sin

I always thought it was interesting that Christian publishers employed Bible editors.  Of course, they are not there to edit the Bible text, but to work on the extra-Bible notes and additional material that might end up in a study or devotional Bible.

It got me thinking that there is a lot of stuff in the Bible that is just downright disturbing if you want to maintain a simplistic easy-to-accept view of God.  So, if I set out to edit the Bible text, what material could I personally do without?  Here are some things I would rather not have in the Bible: (There are others, but these just come to mind)

  • Cain killing Abel episode in Genesis 4
  • Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19
  • Numbers 14:26-33 – Moses and Aaron are not allowed to enter the promised land.
  • Isaiah 55:8 – My thoughts are not your thoughts…
  • Matthew 6:12, Matthew 6:14-15 – If you don’t forgive others, then I won’t forgive you.
  • Matthew 7 – Judge not
  • Luke 12: 49-53 – Jesus causes division.
  • Acts 5 – Ananias and Sapphira
  • If you do all things well, but not love, the truth is not in you (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
  • And the toughest passage in the Bible…”I never knew you” in Matthew 7:23

Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek, but I have always felt that one of the facts that validate the authenticity of Scripture is that it contains real life.  Let’s face it, most of Scripture is the story of sinful people doing sinful things and God responding, with the ultimate response (so far) in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Preach it! (or Not)

by Tamela Hancock Murray

Elderly man reprimnading

Last summer my family and I flew to South Korea and back so we needed to fill several hours with entertainment. Korean Air provides a selection of movies, so I decided to view “Gentleman’s Agreement” since I’d never seen this classic film.

I knew the story addressed the evils of anti-semitism. Of course, I am opposed to anti-semitism so I have no problem with a story coming from this viewpoint. But as for the film itself — though I’m sure some will disagree with me — I found it disappointing. I felt the story portrayed the message in such a heavy-handed way that the lesson overpowered the drama. I fell asleep mid-way through the film.

E is for Editor

by Steve Laube

open-book banner

Your editor can be your best friend in the industry (besides your agent, of course). Or your editor can be your worst enemy.

Bad Side First

An editor who doesn’t reply to your email inquiries or return your phone calls is either ignoring you on purpose or is so busy with other pressing matters they can’t get to yours. If you have this problem make sure you didn’t create it in the first place by incessantly poking your editor with minor questions. It is likely many of your questions can be answered by your agent, unless they are related to the specific editing of your manuscript.

Everyone is a Critic

by Steve Laube

chef

One of the burdens an artist must bear is the scrutiny of public opinion. It can either be exhilarating or devastating. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue let’s look at some of the categories that define this topic.

Opinion
Everyone has an opinion. The problem for the author is to determine how much weight to give to those opinions. One mistake a writer will make is to ask someone or group of someones, “What do you think of this?” with “this” being your work or the cover of their latest book.

Think of it this way, if someone is asking for your opinion and genuinely says they want to hear your thoughts, you will give that opinion…and it is often critical. It is as if we don’t feel like we have been “honest” unless we find something wrong or something we don’t like. We can become overly nitpicky and focus on things that are not vital to the design or the composition of the project. And this is where it becomes dangerous for the author. The tendency is to place too much credence on these type of opinions given by those who may not have the experience or know-how to truly be of service. That is not to say their opinions are wrong or misinformed, merely that discernment must be used when filtering these comments.

The gathering of too many opinions can clutter a sure vision or shake your confidence. It can become like the cynical definition of a committee: “A body that keeps minutes but wastes hours.”

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