Every time I write a book, I learn something new about myself.
With He Remembers the Barren, I learned how a book finally gets written: one slow, laborious chapter at a time. With Pew Sisters, I learned that storytelling—whether applied to nonfiction or fiction—is bunk if it doesn’t serve my neighbor. With each installment of the Anthems of Zion series, I learned that my vocabulary is sorely limited and in need of constant replenishing through reading, listening, and conversing.
Writing books has taught me a good deal about my readers too. Every review, email, tweet, Facebook post, letter, chat, comment, Skype session, and conversation is a glorious peek into the inner workings of my reader’s heart, mind, soul, and—at the least—worldview. Whether she is my friend or foe, I often don’t know, but I welcome her thoughts all the same. There is much for me to learn in understanding her expectations of my books as well as how I’ve both succeeded and failed in meeting those expectations. It is a heady, humbling experience to be cheered (and booed) on to the end of a series, and I think I am the better for it.
Along the way, I’ve also learned a thing or two about the craft of writing itself. I find myself wishing I’d grasped a few of these lessons earlier in my career, but I suppose the most effective way to taste the bitterness and sweetness of a pill is to swallow it yourself. Still, in hopes that these tips might spare you some time and trouble in the chapters ahead, I happily share them with you:
Writing Tip 1: No one has time to write a book. The only way to get it done, like anything else in life, is to make time. Plan for it. Write it into your schedule. Get up earlier each morning or go to bed later each night. Open your laptop during your children’s nap time or during your lunch break at work. Find a quiet (Ha!) corner in an airport to write between flights. Just know that a book doesn’t write itself. You have to write it.
Writing Tip 2: Creativity is a known sprinter, and writing a novel is a marathon. Your creativity won’t get you very far without the help of some measured discipline. Do you have a great idea for a story? Wonderful! Now, get to work. Flesh out that great idea with subplots. Design a setting in which that great idea will be both nurtured and challenged. Create characters who are three-dimensional and plop them right in the middle of humorous or difficult situations that will give the reader opportunity to bond with them. Your great idea may get you to chapter 10, but discipline and hard work will get you to chapter 30.
Writing Tip 3: Are you a morning person or a night owl? Get ready, because writing a book will turn you into both. Your chapters and themes and characters, like children, will keep you up at night and wake you early in the morning. Thankfully, God has given us amazing coping tools like coffee, kombucha, chocolate chips, open windows, jumping jacks, and catnaps.
Writing Tip 4: Expect the writing process to be the agony and the ecstasy. And if you are writing about things that matter—about things that serve Christ and His Church—expect to be thwarted by the evil one. I and my family have never been so ill and burdened and foiled as when working on a book or a sermon or a hymn or anything that preaches Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners. Hear the Word preached regularly, partake of Christ’s Holy Supper, sing the devil away, and pray. Jesus is with you.
Writing Tip 5: Subjunctive mood is a real thing. So is close third person point of view. Also, sentence fragments. Yes, sentence fragments are really real. Study these things. Ask your editor to unlock the mysteries of their existence and use. Learn to apply them well, because your readers notice when you don’t.
Writing Tip 6: Don’t pay your bills at your desk. In fact, don’t do anything at your writing space other than write. Give your subconscious a chance to do its job by keeping the signals clear. If you distract and confuse it with checkbooks and Sunday School lesson plans, you just might lose the muse. And remember, that muse is a fickle guest. She never promises to stay for long, and she most definitely never promises to come back.
Writing Tip 7: Filter, filter, filter. Everything the Christian does should be in service to the neighbor, so write for the benefit of others, not just for yourself. Don’t force the reader to carry your own life’s baggage. This doesn’t mean that you can never share lessons you’ve learned from your own experiences. This just means that not everything you write should be a memoir or even in the first person narrative. Shy away from revealing too many details in public about your own situation. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but for the most part, those details rarely serve your neighbor. In fact, when it comes to nonfiction, those details often hurt your neighbor’s reputation.
Writing Tip 8: Hijack a book club. Or at least grab someone who will read your chapters out loud to you. I find this to be an indispensable tool as I get farther and farther along in my book. There are a lot of characters and plot threads to keep track of in writing a novel, and hearing my work read aloud helps me catch any inconsistencies in voicing, style, and continuity. It also helps me catch those typos that my eyes can no longer see on the page. The best part, though? Listening to someone else read my book allows me to see the story afresh through that person’s eyes. I can immediately tell by the reader’s reaction whether a joke is working or whether I’m hitting the right notes in my story. Just make sure your reader is trustworthy, or you might see your favorite plot twists being discussed on Facebook.
Writing Tip 9: The way to get your work published is scandalously simple: write something excellent that a publisher wants to publish. This requires two things of you: (1) writing well and (2) writing on target. They go together, though many writers sorely neglect target practice.
Writing Tip 10: Don’t review your own book. Your publish date is your review. Let others write reviews, and let those reviews stand. Whether they are positive or negative is not what matters. What matters is that someone read your book and felt so moved to respond to it. And when you are tempted (as we all are) to give your own book full marks on Goodreads or Amazon or any other kind of social media, don’t do it. Be patient, grasshopper, and sit on your hands. Your job isn’t to rate your own material. Your job is to write the best book you can and then work your tail off building relationships with your readers so that they know when your material is available for rating.
I hope these tips are helpful to you. When you get a chance, would you please share with me some tips of your own? I still have a lot to learn.