Shifting Focus

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to spend a little time being real in this post.

I’ve been having some problems lately with my blog. It’s not that I’ve had a problem writing it – I’ve loved it ūüôā But I’ve realized recently that what I’m writing here, while relevant and interesting, has been incomplete.

The thing is, I’m not just a writer. I’m a Christian writer. Specifically, I write about Christian themes and topics. All of my books have been directly related to my faith, and to the things that God has been working on in my own life. But in that regard, my blog has felt like it’s wandered farther and farther off from my reality. God is the center of my life, but He hasn’t been central to my writing here. In fact, the things I discuss here seem to have little to do with the themes that are constantly running through my heart and head …

So I’m just writing this post as a bit of a heads-up. The tone and focus of my future musings on this sight are going to be shifting. It’s not that I won’t be writing about writing or blogging or book production or publishing or anything like that. I certainly will be. But I’ll be mixing a lot more of the spiritual in with the practical, if that makes any sense.


What I’d forgotten about writing

Just a few weeks ago I came up with an exciting idea for a new book. I’d been playing around with a bunch of mildly-interesting but honestly not thrilling ideas for a few weeks, when suddenly it hit me and I realized I had my next project on my hands (yaay)!

Of course the first book I wrote was a passion project that I wasn’t even sure would ever see the light of day. I was writing, in other words, because I had something I wanted to write, and a book seemed the only way to put it out there. That being said, finishing the book was such an arduously long (read 2+ years) and difficult (2+ YEARS people) project, that when I finally published it last March I found myself in total writer-burnout-mode, and decided that what I really needed was some time OFF. That is, of course, the opposite of what writers are supposed to do. I did it anyway, and I’m glad I did. But now that I’m writing new material again for the first time in 3 years, I’m suddenly remembering so many things about my writing process that I’d somehow forgotten.

1. I need an outline, the more detailed the better. I know this seems so common-sense that it’s almost absurd to have to write it down. But I have this wonderful tendency to start with the barest of thumbnail sketches. Then I jump in with gleeful abandon, letting the writing take me where it will. That’s all well and good for a quick blog post or a stand-alone essay. ¬†It’s a lot more problematic when I have 50,000 words to get through and a point I’m trying to make at the end. Having an outline for every section of every chapter helps me determine if my writing for the day actually managed to move me forward, or if it’s pulled me off course.

2. Daily goals are motivating. They’re also empowering. I work a full time job and have several other commitments and extracurricular activities that make it very hard to find regular time for writing. My writing goals, therefore, are remarkably small: 1,000 words a day, 7,000 a week. Sometimes even those are hard to reach, so when I know I’m going to have a difficult or busy day I try to get some extra writing done earlier in the week to give myself a head start. But even though the goals are small and my progress is slow, the fact that I am accountable to myself to sit down and write every day keeps me focused. It also gives me an incredible sense of accomplishment to see those (admittedly small) goals met day after day, week after week. It puts the frustrations, difficulties, and problems in perspective when I can look at a word count and say with confidence “I’ve made progress today.”

3. Some days writing is just hard. And that’s ok. There are days when I stare at that blinking cursor on my screen as though it were my arch-nemesis. Some days I struggle to put words down on paper for what seems like an eternity, and marvel at the word count that refuses to budge despite my best efforts. Not every page is going to flow magically from my mind to the paper. Sometimes it will be an all-out struggle. But if I persevere, it will get written eventually. Every sentence counts. Every word moves the writing forward. And the only way to make no progress whatsoever is to stop trying.

4. Writing badly doesn’t make me a bad writer. I have to remember to give myself permission to write badly from time to time.¬†Sometimes it’s better to get it on paper, even if it looks and sounds terrible, than it is to let it sit in your head as you search for the perfect words to express your idea. I’ve found over time that I’m much better at going back and fixing these difficult and unruly passages than I am at saying them perfectly the first time around.

5. It’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon either. It’s the Tour de France. It’s long. It’s grueling. And every day you have to get up and go back out there and do it again. Good days, bad days, and every day in between, the main thing is to get out there and do it again. And when you’re done at the end of the day, celebrate the fact that you finished. Give yourself the right to feel the sense of accomplishment. And then go do something else for a while, because before you know it you’ll be back out there tomorrow, climbing another hill.

6. I “waste” a lot of time re-reading and editing as I go, but that’s not actually a waste of time. It’s part of my process. If I’m at the beginning of a chapter I’m fine with jumping in cold. But if I’ve been working on a section in the past, it’s important for me to read through what I’ve written already. That’s how I find my voice, my rhythm, and my flow. Without it, my writing becomes a series of starts and stops, fits and spurts. Nobody wants that. So even though the constant backtracking can take up more time than I’d like, it is what helps me move forward in an orderly and meaningful fashion.

7. Sometime a little affirmation goes a long long way. I started writing this book without any input from anyone. In fact, I didn’t even tell a single person that I as considering writing it until I was halfway through the second chapter. When I did, one of the first people I told was my very best friend on the planet. She was unwaveringly supportive of my writing the first time around, even though the topic of my first book really wasn’t the type of thing that she was naturally drawn to. This time, however, her first reaction was “I want to read that!” and just reading those five simple words motivated me in ways that I can’t even explain. So yes, writing is a solitary endeavor, and yes I have learned not to depend on other people’s participation in my pursuit of progress. But getting a little jolt of “yes” in the right moment was absolutely wonderful!

It’s Not All About the Money

Just writing that title sent me into a bit of a spin … I can just imagine how much of a hornet’s nest I could potentially be shaking up with a statement like this. After all, most people who write and publish books do them with the intent to sell. And because of that, much of what is out there regarding success in publishing very often IS about the money. And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with publishing for money, and sales figures are a wonderful (and easy) marker of success.

But I think it’s important from time to time to remember that money isn’t the only reason a book (even a good book) can be published. It’s important to understand this, because if you aren’t publishing a piece specifically to make money off of it, that means sales figures are no longer the only (or even the most valid) measure of that book’s success, and that’s really the type of thing that you should really know ahead of time.

So here are just a few other reasons you might have for considering publishing:

Exposure: I’ve been reading a lot this week about passive marketing and something that stuck with me was the idea that one of the most effective ways to market your work is to produce more work. Having a backlist of books, even ones that are less commercially successful, can expose you to audiences that your “commercial” books might not otherwise reach.

A Gift: Imagine you have a ton of faithful readers, a growing blog following, or a sold core of super-fans. Sometimes the best way to say “thank you” to those supporters is to give them something special (in this case, an extra taste of your writing). Creating something special just for them may not be about commercial success at all. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth your while.

A Message: Sometimes there are things that you just need to say, books that seem to beg to be written. Writing those books and publishing may not always be about sales figures. Sometimes they’re just about reaching as large an audience as you can manage. And while sales are always a part of that, they may not be the driving force behind it. You may, for instance, decide that you don’t want to sell this kind of book at all – finding that you reach larger numbers of people setting your ebook to “free” on a permanent basis.

Fun: Let’s be real here – writing can be fun, and so can seeing that writing in print. There is nothing wrong with deciding that you want to publish something just “because”. Now this isn’t permission to publish junk. If you put it in print (and especially if you charge money for it) your work should be of the highest possible quality. But there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the self-publishing market to create and publish something that may have no commercial audience whatsoever. It’s ok to publish just for fun.

Keep in mind that none of these reasons for publishing will disqualify you from making money. It’s always possible to find commercial success with a book, even if that wasn’t your original aim. The point of the post isn’t to say that money is bad. Rather, it’s to remind my fellow writers that it’s ok to give yourself permission to write and publish for reasons that aren’t financially driven.

7 Tips for Non-Fiction Writers

There are thousands of blogs out there with thousands of posts filled with advice about how to write fiction. Plotting, character development, world building, timelines – heck, I’ve even read blog posts on how to give a character an accent. It seems like there’s no end to the detailed and (one would hope) informed nuggets of writerly wisdom.

But what about those of us who don’t write fiction? Our writing universe is, in many ways, vastly different than the world of fiction writers. Much of what we struggle with and many of the problems we face are unique to our genre. So where are our nuggets of wisdom? Where are our helpful hints and sage suggestions? Advise from those who’ve done what we do seems to be a little thinner on the ground. So in the interest of filling in a bit of the void, here are a few tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way. Maybe they’ll help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1. Do your research. This might seem obvious, but it’s not. If you choose to write nonfiction, it’s often because you already know something about the subject. As a result, nonfiction writers often have a lot to say that requires no research whatsoever. But go out and take a look anyway. See what’s out there relating to your topic. You might be surprised at the insights you can gain that will help to inspire, focus, or even broaden your topic of discussion.

That being said, you don’t want to fall into the research black hole (the one where you get so absorbed in your topic that you emerge 6 months later with stacks of data and not a single word written). So pace yourself and remember that you don’t need to complete all the research before you start to write. You’ll be better equipped to go looking for specific information once you hone down the specific needs of your book.

2. Find a way to add interest.¬†Remember that it never hurts to find a structure and a voice that will make your topic surprising or engaging for your audience. Yes your topic is probably widely fascinating all on its own, and your readers will pick up your book because they’re interested in what you have to say. But if you think back to some of the best nonfiction you’ve ever read you’ll probably realize that what made it special was the fact that it gave you more than you’d anticipated.

Please understand, this isn’t about tricks and gimmicks. It’s about finding ways to add layers of meaning, depth, or texture to your perspective. If you’re writing about large social issues, can you create a structure that makes it more personal? If you’re telling someone’s story, can you place it in a larger historical context? Can you ground you abstract ideas into something concrete and practical? Do you want to fill your how-to manual with silly or embarrassing anecdotes? Remember that non-fiction shouldn’t equal dull!

3. Build a structure. I’ve written entire blog posts about the importance of creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing before you start to write. You can read them here¬†and here. Remember that unless you’re telling a chronological story (in fact, even IF you’re telling a chronological story), you are going to have to make decisions on how to order and organize your material. Every book needs a narrative flow, a pattern that the reader can follow as the book progresses. ¬†Deciding how you’re going to address that for YOUR book is something you should do before you start writing.

This is essentially the nonfiction version of world building. Yes, you can make these things up as you go along, but chances are good that the end result will feel like … well, like you made it up as you went along. Decide on your book’s world now. What are the rules of this book? What patterns exist in the writing? What overarching themes are you addressing? Grounding yourself in these things at the beginning will give you a solid foundation that you can build on.

4. Plan ahead! ¬†When I was in college writing research papers, I would write all of the data that I wanted to use (stats, quotes, etc) on individual index cards. Then I would structure my paper around my data. I’d decide ahead of time which references I was going to use in each section, and I’d clump my cards together accordingly. That not only helped me include all of my relevant data in each section, but it also instantly alerted me to the places where I needed to go back to do more research (See #1 above).

Now I’m not saying you have to use index cards, or even that you should write around your data – by all means do what works for you. But you do need a game plan. Maybe you’ll use some awesome computer software to track these thing (I don’t – but I’ve heard there’s great stuff out there). Or maybe you’ll use color coded post-its on a huge cork board over your desk (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think). But the point is that you have to do something. After all, you are writing a full-length book, which means you have a lot more to keep track of then I did back in college. Besides, if you’ve already done your research (see #1) and created a viable structure (see #3), it should be relatively easy at this stage to take what you want to say and fit it into the appropriate slots. Doing this before you start to write will tell you a) whether the structure you’ve chosen is working for you and b) where you have too much or too little to say.

5. Own your artistic voice. This tip isn’t necessarily exclusive to nonfiction writers, but it is especially important for us to remember. Your book may not be a work of fiction, but it is still a creative endeavor. You are an artist who uses a keyboard to paint a picture of the world for your readers. Don’t be afraid of embracing that title.

So many nonfiction writers, even those who’ve written successfully in other venues, seem to have trouble keeping their creativity flowing once they sit down to tackle a book. It’s almost as if the weight of the thousands of words ahead of them somehow muffle their natural voices. But the buttoned up formality of a voice that isn’t yours will never produce great writing. So make a point to own your voice. Write with confidence. Write from a place of truth. Write what you know – and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

6. Don’t be afraid to keep it short. You’re not writing a novel. You are not required to produce 75-100 thousand words in order for your book to be consider a satisfying length. Some non-fiction books are long by necessity, and that’s fine. But if you finish what you have to say in 40 thousand words, don’t be afraid to stop. There’s no reason for you to feel the need to pad out your manuscript with useless fluff or unnecessary extras. You are better off keeping your work short, focused, and to the point. Remember – what makes a book good is powerful writing. That’s what’s going to satisfy your audience.

7. Engage your audience. Non-fiction writers have a distinct advantage over fiction writers when it comes to audience-interaction. Because your potential readers are normally specifically interested in your topic, and because you are talking about something real (what with it being nonfiction and all…) you have the unique opportunity to build your brand by interacting directly with your readers ABOUT the topic of your book.

So make sure that you take advantage of this opportunity. Get out there and find your readers, and once you find them, engage with them in a meaningful and intelligent way! Build your website, of course. Get yourself on twitter or facebook or whatever you want to get onto – and then USE that platform to talk about what you know. Share excerpts from the book, insights that didn’t make it in, research that you didn’t use, or knowledge of related subjects. Don’t let your nonfiction status go to waste. You have the opportunity of a lifetime to find readers, to retain them, and to keep them constantly coming back for more!

What about you? What tips or tricks have helped you with your non-fiction writing? Leave me a comment and let me know!