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10 Things Every Writer Should Do

by Karen Ball

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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?

Writing That is Powerful, Not Preachy!

by Karen Ball

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Thanks to Shirley Buxton for asking in the comments of my blog on writing that sings, “Can someone help me understand how to show spirituality without being preachy?”

Why, yes, Shirley, I can. At least, I can tell you my perspective.

It’s the difference between telling people how they ought to live, and showing them. It’s not spouting Scripture when someone is hurt or struggling, but coming alongside them, sitting with them, holding them, asking how you can help. It’s entering into their struggle and being Christ to them, acting as he would.

Think about it. When Jesus shared spiritual truths with the crowds around him, how did he do it? He showed those truths through a story. He didn’t say, “You faithless fools, God tells us to use our talents for him, not withhold them!” No, he told a story… “A man was going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted his money to them…”

Whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, the way to communicate spiritual truths is to show it, not tell it.

Consider the following paragraph:

Forgiving in marriage is not an option. It’s a command, straight from Jesus. If your spouse had done or said something that hurt you, forgive them. If you’ve done or said something that hurt your spouse, ask to be forgiven. You don’t have a choice. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And a verse or so later, he says: ““If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” If you’re a Christian and you aren’t forgiving your spouse, you are in the wrong. And God won’t forgive you. It’s as simple as that.

Okay, feel beat over the head a bit? Yeah, me, too, and I wrote it! That paragraph is preaching. Telling you how you’re supposed to behave, and that you’ll regret it if you don’t. All of which may be true, but not many are drawn to right living by that kind of presentation of truth. Now, try this…

I’d only been married a few days when I made a shattering discovery: the man I married, the man I saw as a knight in shining armor, could do and say things that hurt me! It didn’t matter whether or not he’d intended to hurt me, all that mattered was he’d done so. And then I made an even more shattering discovery: Forgiving your spouse is hard. When I said I do, I knew he’d be there to shelter and protect me, to love me unconditionally. He wasn’t supposed to hurt me!

It’s hard, isn’t it, letting go of expectations, loving someone for who they are, warts and all? But here’s the thing. When we don’t forgive someone, we put them—and ourselves—in a kind of prison. I found that out all those years ago after nursing a hurt for days. I was miserable. Don was miserable. Even the poor dogs were miserable! Life at the Ball household was not much fun. Then, one evening, God tapped me on the shoulder and reminded that—ahem!—Don was not the only imperfect human in the marriage. And that love wasn’t about not hurting each other, it was about forgiving and surrendering my hurts to Him. When I finally did that, oh! the freedom that washed over me! My heart was light, our home was warm again, and I swore I could fly.

Friends, don’t let hurts in marriage fester. Don’t let them weigh you down and imprison you. Let them go. Forgive. And know the beauty of God’s freedom, not just in your marriage, but in your heart.

When you show truth in your writing, you draw people into the experience. They live it with you or with your characters, and they learn alongside you. In the process, they may even change.

So writing with power means you don’t hit people over the head with Scriptures, you don’t give a sermon, you don’t stick in a conversion scene unless it’s a natural outgrowth of the story. Writing with power means you show what’s right, through story or illustration, through your character’s journey.

So that’s my take. Now, how about you all? What do you think makes the difference between preachy writing and powerful writing?

The Core of Writing Well

by Karen Ball

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A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’m trying to learn how to make latte art. I’ve got the moves down…kinda. Hey, I’m a racquetball player—was, in fact, one of the top players in college—so I can do wrist action like a pro. But guess what I discovered? Having the moves doesn’t do you any good without the perfect foam. That’s the core of the beauty and creativity in latte art.

But foaming milk, my friends, isn’t just for creating those beautiful bits of art. According to The Milk Frothing Guide, the perfect foam “enhances and elevates the sensory experience of coffee, and espresso in particular.” Those beautiful bits of latte art aren’t the goal. Rather, the goal is to enhance and elevate.

I love that.

And it got me thinking

Having all the right moves as a writer—having the right look, knowing how to market or work social media, being at all the right places, and reading all the right books–without the perfect core, our works won’t accomplish the true goal: to enhance and elevate the hearts and minds of our readers.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but too often I hear writers say to me, “Just tell me what’s selling, and I’ll write it.” Rather than take that route, I encourage writers to share their passion. To stay true to what God is telling them to write. And to do that, you have to know your core.

And here’s the fascinating thing: my core is likely different from yours. What one thing sparks everything else? I’m going to trust that, for all of us, the heart of our writing is serving God. But what is it about your work, about your words on the page, that is at the core of who you are as a writer?

For me, it’s authenticity. Though I write fiction, I never want to craft a story that doesn’t resonate with both the beauty and the struggle of real life. So let me ask you: what is the core of your writing? And how are you ensuring you honor that core in what you write?

Peace, friends!

One last note: in my research to create the perfect foam, I found an utterly delightful—and often hysterical—website, which I mentioned above: The Milk Frothing Guide. I’m pretty sure this author’s core is “Make ‘em laugh!” So if you’re in the mood for a fun read—LOVE the bit about milking a buffalo!—or if you’d just like to see how writing humor is done well, check out the pages at  http://coffeegeek.com/guides/frothingguide.

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!

Open Your Eyes! There is Creativity Everywhere

by Karen Ball

If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll have seen my recent pictures of the flowers that have been blooming like crazy in my yard. It happened so fast! One day the ground seemed dead and unyielding, the next green shoots popped up, and then…

WHAM!

Flowers and flowering shrubs and trees burst forth with colors and buds and blossoms. Among the first to appear were the jonquils. Then came the daffodils and tulips. But this year we had a remarkable variety of daffodils. Check these out…

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As I watched all this happening, it occurred to me that something else was coming back to life: my creativity. It was as though watching spring’s explosion of beauty and color fanned my own spark of creativity–which, I admit, had gone a bit dormant over the long, cold winter–into full flame. I wanted to write! To sing! To garden! To calligraph (yes, that’s a word) a poem! To CREATE! And you know what?

It felt great. It felt like I was waking from a deep sleep that had captured me. Like all my senses were refreshed and refueled. All of which reminded me how vital it is for those of us who make our living being creative to keep our eyes open for the inspiration God has placed all around us. And to celebrate it. Even revel in it.

Today, purpose to look around. If spring has visited you, let the color and shapes and beauty sink deep into your spirit. If you’re still caught in the depths of winter, find beauty and creativity in other things…a child’s smile, a piece of music playing, the fragrance of fresh-baked bread or a perfect cappuccino, a beloved one’s laughter… Wherever you are, I guarantee there’s something beautiful, something creative going on. Because God is a Master of creativity. Open your senses, and your spirit, and see what He has for you today that will restore you.

To share a bit of said creativity with you, here is a video I came across a few days ago as I was exploring another creative outlet of mine: latte art. If you know me, you know I’m passionate about coffee. And one of the things I’ve always wanted to learn is how to create latte art. So here, for those of you who want to do the same, or for those who just need a creative boost, is a touch of beauty in a coffee cup.

Enjoy!

Two Important Ingredients for Success

by Karen Ball

happy businessman holding success text  and jumping on the green field

I’ll never forget the day, just after church, when a friend pulled me aside and said, “My son can’t find a job and he needs to make some money fast. So he’s going to write a book. Any advice for him?”

Yeah, well, the advice I had wasn’t for him, it was for her: “Don’t ever say anything like that to me again.”

Whatever gave people the impression that writing was a get-rich quick scheme? Or that there was anything quick about it? Those of us who’ve been working at this for more than a few days know that very little happens quickly in publishing. So let me point out two things you have to have if you hope to succeed at this writing game: patience and perseverance.

But then, those two gems are necessary for success in most fields. So for those who are growing weary, who feel it’s taking too long, who wonder why they ever jumped into this pool to begin with, let me encourage you with a few stories of success that finally came—but only after substantial patience and perseverance:

  1. Emily Dickinson: One of the best-loved writers of all times, Dickinson crafted 1800 pieces of literary beauty. And, while she lived, guess how many were published? Less than 1 percent. And many of those dozen or so pieces were altered big-time to fit contemporary poetic rules. (Rotten editors!) Her first book of poems was published in 1890, 4 years after her death, by a group of friends. The first complete collection of her poems wasn’t published until 1955. Today? She’s read worldwide and considered by many to be one of the most important American poets ever.
  2. Vincent Van Gogh: One of his paintings recently sold for $149.5 million. And yet, while he lived, he sold…wait for it…one painting. One. To a friend. For the equivalent of pennies. So what did he do in the face of no sales? He kept painting. In fact, he created over 800 works. That, my friends, is perseverance.
  3. Dr. Seuss: Oh yes, Theodor Seuss Giesel was not an overnight success. In fact, his first book was rejected by 27 publishers. But thank heaven he kept trying, and ultimately we all benefited from The Cat in the Hat and the discovery that we do, indeed, like Green Eggs and Ham!
  4. Harland David Sanders: I’m especially fond of this one because Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame actually helped send me to college. No lie. He grew up in the same denomination I did, and gave scholarships to children of pastors and missionaries in that denomination. So not only did I receive one of those scholarships, the Colonel, decked out in his white suit and hat, came to my college once a year to say hello. And guess what the food service folks served him every single time. Yup, fried chicken.
             While KFC is, today, a clear success, Sanders had a hard time selling his chicken at first. In fact, his famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it. Now that’s finger-lickin’ perseverance!
  5. Jack London: Speaking of rejection slips, this author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild received six hundred rejections for his works. Six. Hundred. Nuff said.
  6. Oprah Winfrey: Arguably one of the most recognizable people in the world, right? Revolutionized talk TV. Launched numerous writers’ careers with her book club. And, like many who are now successful, took hit after hit before she hit it big. In fact, she was fired from her job as a TV reporter because—ready for this?—they declared her “unfit for television.” Yeah, okay. Good thing she didn’t believe them.
  7. Thomas Edison: Okay, so today we equate this name with invention and brilliance. But when he was a kid, Edison’s teachers were less than encouraging. Said he was too stupid to learn anything. So, adulthood was better, right? Yeah, not so much. He was fired from his first two jobs. Enter his inventor years, during which he invented the light bulb…after 1,000 failed attempts! Perseverance, thy name is Edison!
  8. Abraham Lincoln: We all know Lincoln as one of the most successful and revered presidents in history. But that didn’t happen until he’d been demoted from captain to private while in the military, he’d started any number of businesses that failed, and he ran for public office—and was defeated. Over and over. So glad he kept at it!

This is just a short list of folks who have had to overcome adversity, opposition, rejection, and failure to reach the heights of success. And I believe they made it because of those two special ingredients: patience and perseverance. They didn’t let failure derail them. And they didn’t expect success NOW. They just kept at it, doing what they knew to do, believing in themselves and their calling.

Let’s follow their lead and stay the course.

Onward!

What Will You Give Up for Lent?

by Karen Ball

Lent

Believe it or not, Easter is just around the corner. Which means something else is almost upon us:

Lent.

I love the idea of a 40-day preparation for Easter, of refocusing our hearts and minds to spend more time in prayer and contemplation of what Christ has done for us. And I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of “giving up” something for those 40 days. Even more intriguing—and sometimes amusing–is what people choose to surrender. For example:

Watching TV
Playing computer games
Chocolate (now there’s a sacrifice!)
Going online
Sugar
Caffeine (just shoot me now!)
Wearing shoes

And on and on it goes. (In fact, check out the websites at the end of this blog that share the multitudes of things folks give up for this season.) But I want to suggest something a bit different for those of us who make our living in publishing. How about giving up something really tough? How about giving up something like:

Spring is Here!

by Karen Ball

[caption id="attachment_7939" align="aligncenter" width="456"]2014 spring flower A picture of a beautiful flower I took this morning in our garden.[/caption]

It started two weeks ago. Little green sprouts poking up through the frozen, barren ground. Ground that, thanks to a winter of record-breaking cold, was so hard just a month ago that not even my shovel made a dent in it. So you can imagine my delight when I spotted those bits of green pushing their way through that same, dead earth. I checked them every day, watching and waiting. Because I knew what was coming. And sure enough, last week those hardy green shoots boasted buds. With unseasonable frosts in the forecast, I worried they wouldn’t make it. But hallelujah! Not only did they survive, but this week they exploded in beautiful blossoms. Now, instead of empty ground, crocuses and miniature irises paint my yard with purple and yellow. And today, the daffodils and jonquils joined in, bringing a smile to my face and heart with the news:

Spring is here!

Why I Read Romance Novels

by Karen Ball

Valentine’s Day is on its way, and that got me to thinking about that four-letter word we all use with impunity:

LOVE.

What a powerful word, one so full of meaning I could write a dozen blogs about it and still not exhaust the depth and breadth of all it entails. I’m grateful for love. For God’s love. For my hubby’s love. For my family’s love. For my doggies’ love. Love has blessed me more than I could ever deserve. But then, isn’t that the very nature of love—that it comes to us regardless of our so-called “worth.” And one area where I most enjoy the blessing of love is in writing. Whether poetry or novels, nonfiction or essays, I’m not afraid to admit that I love reading about love. And I especially enjoy–get ready for it–romance novels!

Still Wanted: Writing that Sings!

by Karen Ball

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Anyone who has jumped into the waters of agenting knows they’ll be asked one question, over and over and over:  “What are you looking for?” Well, now that I’ve got a couple of years of this amazing work under my belt, let me build on what I said when I started. Back then, I said I was looking, first and foremost, for books that glorify God, then for writing that sings, that speaks to the heart and spirit, that uplifts and challenges. Well, that’s all the same! But there are a few clarifications I want to make.  First, here’s the not so good news:

What I’m Not Looking For

Children’s & Middle Grade Books: As much as I enjoy reading these books (that’s one of the only perks to never having had children—I get all the kid’s books!), I am not representing them. It’s not that I don’t see the need. It’s simply that I’m not experienced with these kinds of books. My work lo, these many years in publishing, has been with adult books. Now, I have worked with Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, but I already have some great clients in that category and am not, at present, looking for more.

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