Starting Fresh

It’s the beginning of a new year, and like so many others, I am looking into the next 12 months with a sense of determination and promise. I’ve never placed much stock in “resolution” per se. I’ve always thought they were too easy to walk away from once February hit. But I can’t help but see the start of a new year as the perfect opportunity to start changing things.

One of the things I want to change this year is this website – specifically the content of my blog. For a long time I wasn’t sure what I wanted this site to be, or what I wanted to say. It was just a place to jot down the things I wanted to share with the world about my personal experiences in writing and publishing.

But I’ve decided that it’s time to change that. So now that we’re walking into 2016, I’m going to change the focus of my writing here. Instead of writing about writing, I’d like to focus more on sharing the little things that God is showing me in His word – the details I’d never noticed before, the passages that He’s using to encourage me, or the things He’s showing me that don’t necessarily tie in to the books I’m working on (and yes, I am working on a few books right now).

I’m not saying that I’ll never have anything to say about writing ever again. I’m sure as publication dates approach and the pressure builds I’ll have plenty to vent. But for the most part, I’m planning to change my focus here. It’s time for a fresh start.

The Non-Fiction Writer’s Voice

A few weeks ago I was talking to a young lady at my church. We got on the topic of dreams and goals, and she started telling me how she never really had any aspirations for herself when she was growing up. She never wanted or expected to BE anything. This, of course, led to a conversation about God-given dreams, and allowing ourselves to expand our dreams until they look like God’s dreams for us. Basically, it was a real-life discussion of one of the major themes in Dream Chasers. So before the conversation was over, I ran to my bookshelf and found a copy to give her.

A few days ago we had a second conversation and she said something that I simply wasn’t expecting. She said, “My favorite thing about reading your book is that I can hear your voice when I read it. It sounds just like you!”

Yup, her favorite thing about the book (so far … I hope) was that the writer’s voice was a familiar one. She could recognize my turn of phrase, my speech patterns, my personal style. And that got me thinking about an author’s voice, and how absolutely vital it is to find and cultivate a voice that stays true to who you are, especially when you write non-fiction.

You see even though we’re writing non-fiction, we still have a responsibility to be compelling. Whether we’re telling a story, making an argument, or explaining a process, we want our readers to remain engaged. Maybe someone will pick up your book because they’re interested in your topic, but if your voice doesn’t capture their imagination, they won’t read on to the end. And they certainly won’t pick up your next book. But if a reader likes the WAY you write, if they like the voice you use, they’ll pick up your next book even if they don’t care about the topic, just because they want to read what you’re writing.

How do I know this? Because I love reading non-fiction! But I don’t love specific categories or topics. I love individual authors. I’ll pick up a book if the title or the topic catches my interest, but I can normally tell within the first chapter whether I’ll be able to read through to the end (because I like the author’s voice) or if I’m going to be putting it down and never picking it up again.

In fact, it just happened to me a few months ago. I was delayed at an airport, browsing through the bookstore, and found a book on an aspect of the Revolutionary War that I thought just HAD to be gripping.  Nope. Not even close. There was nothing wrong with the book, but I was so put off by the writer’s narrative style that I closed the book after 12 pages. It’s on my bookshelf now, but I know I’ll probably never open it again.

On the other hand, there are authors who I enjoy so much that I’ll read anything they write, even when it’s not a topic I care about. Why? Because I’m confident that they can make me care about it. Their writing is so compelling, so entertaining, so engaging that I feel safe in their hands. Regardless of what they’re going to say, I know I’m going to enjoy how they say it.

THAT is the kind of writer we all want to be. But how do we get there. How do we get all our readers thinking (or at least subconsciously recognizing) that you sound like you?

Well, first its important to breathe a little life into your writing from time to time. Remember that nonfiction doesn’t mean dull and lifeless. If you read your work out loud and you sound like a professor reading out of a textbook, something’s wrong. You should sound like the professor that teaches the textbook material in a way that the students understand and enjoy!

Secondly, you should take the time to figure out what makes you unique as a writer. What are your strengths? Are you funny? Are you a good storyteller? Are you sarcastic? Are you persuasive? Can you paint images with your words? Can you present tons of details in a way that illuminates the bigger picture? Whatever those strengths are, embrace them! Use them! They’re what make you sound like YOU, and your readers will come to want and expect those things.

Thirdly, remember to remain consistent. Even if you switch between wildly different topics, structures, or genres, your readers should recognize that you’re the one writing it. Your writing will, of course, change and mature as you go. But if you’re staying true to your voice, it will show.

Forth, own it! Your writing is yours. It might not sound like anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing. You don’t want to be an imitation of your favorite authors. You want to be your readers’ new favorite author. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the things you like about other people’s writing. But if you try to put on a voice that isn’t your own, it will just end up sounding fake and hollow in the end.

Fifth, let your voice flow over into your marketing. If you have a thriving blog, it’s probably because your readers like reading what you write. And trust me – it’s not because you’re always coming up with unique or fascinating topics. It’s because people enjoy you! The same is true for the books you write. So make sure that when you’re tweeting a fan, composing FB posts, or putting together your website that you are representing yourself the way your readers expect.

Sixth, remember that the more your writing voice actually sounds like you, the more naturally you will be able to transition into other writer-related things (blogging, for instance, giving interviews, or speaking at events). Your fans will be able to connect to you so much easier if the you they meet in person or see on TV (we wish, right?) sounds like the you they’ve come to know and love on paper.

So to recap, find your voice – not someone else’s, but yours – and own it. Let your personality and your tone seep into every writing project you come across. it will help to define your brand and ultimately it will win over your readers!

So what do you guys think? How do you define a writer’s voice? Have you ever tried to define your own? How important do you think your voice is to your writing success? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Getting Started

When I finally finished and published my last book, Dream Chasers, at the end of 2014 the first thing that ran through my head is “What should I write next?” It wasn’t long before I’d found an idea that I liked – one that fit nicely as a companion piece to the one I’d just written, but could also stand alone as a useful tool/guide on its own. I decided I wanted to write a book on beginnings – on how to actually start moving forward with the things that God has asked you to do or laid on your heart.

So I did what I’ve found works well for me: I started writing down thoughts about how the book would be laid out. I built a structure that I thought would work for the book I was writing, picked my examples from the Bible, figured out what points I was making, etc. I was excited about the topic for about a week, and then suddenly all of the air went out from it. I lost my drive to write the thing.

Has that ever happened to you? Well it seems to be a running theme in my world. I get excited about a writing project, right up until I actually have to write it. Then suddenly it feels like the driest topic imaginable, and getting the first few hundred words on paper feels a lot like pulling teeth.

What do we as writers do when this happens? I think it depends. I certainly don’t believe there’s one correct answer. In this particular example, I ran off and started writing other things. I think at least part of my apathy came from the burnout of having just finished a similar book. I just didn’t have it in me to come up with a fresh take on such a similar subject. So to give myself a little bit of a break, I worked on completely unrelated projects in completely unrelated areas. I wrote skits and plays. I wrote guest articles for blogs. I wrote whatever I felt like writing as I felt like writing it … and I did that for six months.

Do you know what happened as a result? One day I woke up and thought “Hey, I should get back to that book I’ve been ignoring.” and when I went back to my notes to look at what I had, I no longer dreaded the idea of writing it. It wasn’t an easy transition. It took a while to get back in the flow. But now, less than a week later, I have my first chapter done, and I’m over the 5,000 word mark (which is the minimum word count I need to hit before I can claim that I’ve gotten started).

So what works for you? How do you get started when you have a huge project in front of you? Do you wait for inspiration? Do you just slog through until it sticks? Knowing how you get started is a great tool in your arsenal. It will make you that much more effective and efficient in the future!

Something Fun

I’m so sorry I haven’t been as diligent about maintaining this blog as I would like. There have been so many changes in my life over the last few months, none of them epic, but all of them good. Unfortunately, they’ve upturned my routine in a major way, and it’s taken some time to adjust and rediscover my balance.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been meaning to write about for a while (but never have) is how important for us as writers to take chances and remain flexible in our writing. It can be so easy to hem ourselves in by our own successes, to put limits on what we think we can write. But that’s a mistake. Writing is a skill, and like any other skill, it has multiple potential applications, all of which add to our overall ability. A piano player might have spent years learning the intricacies of classical pieces, but that doesn’t mean they can’t (or shouldn’t) try their hand at playing Jazz.

The same thing is true for us as writers. You may write primarily in a specific genre or on a specific subject, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s good for your brand, it’s good for your name-recognition, and it’s great for your reader-potential. But just because you’ve found something that works doesn’t mean you shouldn’t branch out from time to time to stretch your creative muscles.

I’ve been doing a lot of that this year – writing in genres and forms that I’m less familiar with. I’ve been writing skits for my church, articles for a few blogs, children’s stories, and even a ghostwritten manuscript. It’s mean that other writing projects (like this blog, for instance) haven’t been given my full attention. My word count for the book I’m supposed to be writing this year is pitifully low. But you know what? I’m having fun. It’s been great to stretch myself outside of my comfort zone and see what I can come up with when I dive into a completely different creative field.

In fact, just a few weeks ago I got an email from my BFF/SNOO (Best Friend Forever/Support Network Of One), with a request. She wanted me to help her write a screenplay for an announcement video. Her concept was awesome, and I found myself instantly full of ideas. It took us less than a day to write up a final draft of the script, and she finally posted the video to youtube today! It actually turned out better than I’d imagined!

Want to see it? Check this out:

Christian Message Writing: or Why I’m Uncomfortable With Marketing My Books

If it’s ok with you, I’m going to get a little bit introspective. Today’s post isn’t really a matter of advice or a how-to style explanation. It isn’t a list of 5 (or 7 or 9) steps you can take to do anything. It’s more of a question. How does a Christian nonfiction writer with a “message” book approach the problem of marketing?

Now at first, this seems like a bit of a silly question. I mean, it’s not like we can’t successfully market our books the same way everyone else does. We can go out there and do book promotions, blog tours, book signings, and event tie-ins. We could write press releases and try to get interviewed by local radio and newspaper outlets. But while that might work with a lot of writing (even a lot of Christian writing) it never really felt right when I tried to do any of those things for my own books. For a while I wasn’t really able to put my finger on why. But every time anyone (read: my BFF/SNOO) pushed me to develop a specific and actionable marketing plan, I found myself slamming on the brakes.

So after a year or two of doing virtually NO marketing for ANY of my books, I sat down and asked God what the deal was. Why was I so reluctant to do this? Was it just that I had an aversion to marketing in general? Was it something that I needed to get over?

The more I prayed about this subject, the clearer it became to me. I was avoiding marketing because I was inherently uncomfortable with the idea of “selling” the message of my books. I didn’t write these books because I wanted to become a published author. I mean, let’s be real – I absolutely wanted to become an author. I’ve wanted that since I was 8 or 9  years old. But that want never led me to write a book. And if success as an author was my main goal, I really should have picked a friendlier and more popular genre.

No, I wrote these books because I had a message on my heart for the people of God, and I wanted to share it with them. At the risk of sounding insanely self-important and pretentious, I’ll admit that I really believe the messages in these books are ones that God placed in my heart. I didn’t come up with them on my own. They aren’t my ideas. And because of that these books have become (in my heart, at least) much more a matter of ministry than business. I see them more as God’s work than my own.

No wonder I’ve struggled with the traditional marketing schemes that focus on “selling” the books as a product. They aren’t really my product to sell! In fact, even the idea of letting my friends and acquaintances buy these books from me has always bothered me. I’ve come to realize that while selling books is the easiest and most far-reaching way to spread these messages, it’s never really been about sales for me. It’s always been about getting the word out there to as many people as I can.

Now I know that this may sound a little crazy to most of you. But I have a feeling that for at least a few other Christian authors, this is going to ring true. So the next question that we have to ask ourselves is this: what do we do about it? How to we adapt our approach to marketing in order to adjust for our different perspective. How do we reach a broader audience without focusing on getting people to buy a product?

The answer (for me at any rate) is simple, Biblical, and effective. Start sowing seeds. 

What that means will be different for each of us, and that’s ok. This isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a new way to look at marketing from a Biblical and ministerial perspective. All you have to do is look at your books as seeds that you are planting into people’s lives and ministries. The harvest that you hope to reap is a widespread understanding of the message that God has given you.

In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or whether both alike will be good (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

Start looking for opportunities to sow the seed of your message into people’s lives. Maybe that means giving away free copies of the book to local pastors and ministers who you think may benefit from reading it. Maybe it means taking advantage of Amazon’s KDP Select program so that you can “sell” your ebook for free for several days each quarter. Maybe it means carrying hard copies of your book around with you so that you are ready to give them to people who might benefit from reading them.

What do you guys think? How can you stop selling and start sowing? Leave a comment below🙂

Own Your Voice: Tips and Tricks

So in my last post, Own Your Voice: Here’s Why, I talked a little bit about how important it is for us as authors to acknowledge the value of our unique voices. We all have authors who inspire us, who make us want to be better writers. But there’s a huge difference between being influenced by someone else’s writing and attempting to copy it.

In fact, I believe that this is one of the biggest sources of frustration that new authors face. When you try to write “like” someone else, it can feel forced, inauthentic, canned, or shallow. If your writing doesn’t have the depth or the spark that you want, the solution may be as easy as letting your unique voice shine through.

So how do you go about “owning” your voice as a writer? Here’s a few tips that might help.

1. Know Yourself: It is impossible for you to write in a way that is authentically your own  unless you know a little bit about yourself – about the way you speak, think, and write. The specifics of what you’ll need to know vary depending on what kind of writing you do, so this type of self-analysis will be very different for each individual. But the fundamental question is the same: What are my natural tenancies and strengths in this area?

Remember that this is not about the kind of writer you want to be. This is about acknowledging the way that your mind naturally flows, the well-worn paths that your thoughts tend to take. For instance, I’m a non-fiction writer and my books tend to be either informative (teaching a lesson) or persuasive (making an argument). So in order to know myself better, I should ask – how do I explain things to people? How do I try to convince people that I’m right?

In my case, I tend to explain from the big to the small. I like to understand the big picture before I get into the minutia of the smaller details. I find it easier to understand them when I can place them into a larger whole. So when I’m teaching I tend to present things the way that works for me. I’ve also found that I like to tell illustrative stories and anecdotes in my explanations or arguments.

Knowing this about myself in advance has helped me tremendously when planning out new books. Instead of building a structure and then trying to fit my personality and preferences into it, I have learned to build my book around my natural tenancies. That, in turn, has made it easier for my voice to shine through.

2. Write What You Know. Or more accurately “Write What You Understand.” This is applicable regardless of what kind of writing you’re doing. If you can’t wrap your head around a concept or if you don’t “get” your characters enough to not only understand their motivations, but sympathize with them (at least a little bit) your writing won’t work – at least, it won’t work from the perspective of your voice.

Jane Austin is famous for saying that she would never write a scene between two men without a woman present. She knew that men spoke and related to one another differently when they were alone, and she didn’t trust herself to write those scenes with any authenticity. Now I’m not saying that’s a rule you have to live by. By all means, use your imagination to take your writing places you’ve never gone and to explore concepts you haven’t experienced. But don’t let that exploration take you so far that you lose what’s grounding you in reality. Make sure that whatever you’re working on starts from a place of personal truth – it’s the best way to keep your voice, your point of view, your flavor shining through.

3. Read Your Writing Out Loud. And as you do, ask yourself one question: “Does this sound like me?” Now I’m not saying that every character you ever write will have to speak exactly like you do. Of course you’re creating someone fictional, and so their speech and thought patterns will all be different. That being said, while your characters or exposition might not mirror your speech, you should always be able to recognize your own voice in the overall tone of the piece.

If, while reading out loud, you find yourself stumbling over phrases, getting lost in your own sentences, or struggling to find the flow of your writing – you’ve found a problem. The problem might be a matter of structure. Maybe you just need to polish a few things out. But you might also be struggling because the tone of what you’ve written no longer rings true to your authentic voice.

So if you find yourself stuck, unable to easily read your own writing out loud, ask yourself another question “How would I say this?” Don’t ask how you would write it differently. Force yourself to say it out loud. You might be surprised at what you come up with. At the very least, it will bring  you closer to your authentic voice.

4. Let Someone Else Read It. This is one of those tips that seems so pointless, but has actually worked wonders for me. Find someone who knows you well, someone you trust, and ask them to read your work. They don’t have to be a literary professional – this is one of those situations where your bookworm mom or best friend who majored in English will be completely fine. You don’t need them to edit or proofread what you’ve written. Their only job is to tell you if the writing sounds like you.

Now this can be a frustrating process – so make sure you’re prepared before you go in. The idea of what a book “sounds” like can be difficult to pin down, and the feedback you get may not always be  helpful. But if you’re hunting for the authenticity of your voice as a writer, these are the people you want to listen to. They’re the ones who will tell you if the words on your page sound the way you think they sound.

My mother did this for me after I’d finished my first draft of Dream Chasers. One afternoon she sat in my living room, skimming through the book and reading out loud the passages that were so formal, dry, and clinical that they sounded like someone else entirely. Mind you, they didn’t sound that way in my head. When I wrote them, they were filled with tone, nuance, and wit – I promise. But one glance from a perspective other than my own showed me what those words sounded like to other people’s ears. She was able to demonstrate very quickly and concisely just how far I’d wandered away from my authentic voice.

Own Your Voice: Here’s Why

Over the years my church has developed a series of topic-specific Bible Study courses that they call “Bible Institute.” I’ve been very privileged to have the opportunity to teach a few of those classes. There’s one particular course that’s always been my favorite, and it also happens to be the one that I get to teach most often.

At the end of 2014 my pastors asked me to teach it again – but this time I’m sharing that responsibility with my BFFFC (Best Friend Forever From Church … a different person than my BFF/SNOO). We’ve been taking turns, teaching alternating weeks, and helping each other out along the way. It’s been a lot of fun, and one of my favorite aspects of the experience has been getting to sit back and listen to her unique perspective. Hearing her teach the material has been exciting. It’s given me a fresh outlook, a shift in focus. Even though I know what she’s going to be teaching, hearing her explaining it has opened my eyes to things I’ve never noticed, connections I’d never made. I LEARN in her classes. It’s awesome.

But two weeks ago when we were discussing our schedule, she suddenly sighed and said (in the most self-defeated tone imaginable,) “Maybe you should just teach the class from now on. You’re such a better teacher than I am!”

Um … what?!

First of all this woman is a teacher by PROFESSION. She teaches for a living. And secondly, she’s GREAT at it! She makes her topics come alive in a personal and instantly-applicable way that I could never do. Her stories are funny and self deprecating. She has a wonderful flow between covering the source material and explaining it in her own words. She’s awesome, and I love listening to her teach. In fact, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion wishing that I had her perspective and her voice – wishing I could teach like her. It never occurred to me that she was sitting in my classes wishing she could teach like me!

It turns out we were each suffering from a certain degree of voice-envy. We both wished we sounded like someone else (each other, in this case.) But isn’t that silly? We were both able to benefit from and enjoy each others voices, and that’s a great thing. But it doesn’t mean that we should try (or even want) to change our own.

In thinking about this, I’ve realized what a common trap voice-envy actually is. As a reader and a writer, it’s one that I find myself struggling against all the time, and I think that it’s one that plagues too many writers and would-be writers in this world. After all, we all have favorite authors of our own, men and women whose words come alive to us on the page, people who inspire us to try our own hand at writing. And far too often we start our writing journeys by wishing above all else that we could write like ___________ (fill in the blank with as many other writers as you’d like).

But writing is an art form. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something completely abstract and experimental. The words that you put on the page paint a picture. They tell a story. And the picture that you are painting is as much a product of your interpretation (your artistic voice) as the subject you’re conveying.

Could you imagine if Van Gogh had tried to paint like everyone else, or if Jane Austin had tried to write like a man? What would have happened if William Shakespeare or Earnest Hemingway had abandoned the originality of their voices in order to sound like someone else?

I’m not saying that we’re all destined to be the next Shakespeare. But what I am saying is this: the world doesn’t need another copycat. The world needs artists with original voices, people who are willing to write from their own perspective, to tell stories their own way. That doesn’t have to mean that we throw out all convention and toss the rules to the wind. We all want to write well. But if you’re serious about the endeavor of writing, then you need to be willing to own your voice.

By all means, read. Read as much as you can as often as you can. Glean what you can from the masters. Learn what good writing sounds like. Let other authors inspire and influence you. But don’t ever lose your voice. It’s what makes you special. Without it you will never produce anything that can teach or inspire others.