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.

Irony

Irony is what happens when you get a brilliant idea for a book on how to get started with plans that God’s given you, you’ve gone through your prep, finished doing your research, and created your outline, but suddenly find that you can’t seem to start writing the actual thing.

This post could also be called “Learning by Doing” “Practice What You Preach” or “Why Am I Surprised?”

So here’s a question for all you people in blogger-land. What do YOU do to get past writer’s block?

Setting Goals

Setting goals – it’s one of those things that we all think we understand, and of course it’s especially popular at the beginning of every new year. We set these goals with all sorts of good intentions, but it normally doesn’t take us long to abandon them altogether.

Why is that?

One reason, I think, is that while we are generally determined to do better, we are often less enthusiastic about being better. Of course we want to achieve that level of success, finish that book, lose that weight, etc. We just aren’t as thrilled about having to do the work it takes to get there.

The other reason, I think, involves a simple lack of clarity. It amazes me how often people set goals that are either outrageously unattainable (I’m going to write a book a month for the next 12 months!) or so vague that they can’t be measured (I’m going to save money this year!)

So how do we fix these problems?  How do we change our patterns so that the goals that we make become achievable as opposed to forgettable?  How do we help ensure that we’re setting ourselves up for success instead of failure? What can we do differently today that will change our outcome tomorrow?

Well, everyone’s different – what works for me might not work for you. But here are a few general guidelines that have helped me along the way:

1. Get Specific. This is one of the simplest things that you can do to help make your goal achievable. If you’re serious about a goal, then you should be able to specifically define what qualifies as success in your mind. Do you want to save money? Great – how much? Do you want to get healthier? Do you want to write more? Well, that’s wonderful, but what does that ACTUALLY mean in your mind? If you can’t tell me that, then you don’t have a goal, you have an idea. Ideas are nice and all, but you can’t achieve ideas. You can’t work toward ideas.

2. Try setting goals that you can meet all on your own. In other words, don’t put your success into someone else’s hands. This can be a hard one to face up to, because so many of our goals involve approval or acceptance by other people. But when our goals involve decisions that we aren’t empowered to make, we can end up feeling like failures just because of other people’s choices. So if you want a better job – don’t make “getting hired”  your goal. That’s not in your hands. But set goals that will make you a stronger candidate for the job you want, and set goals for how and when you will go out there and apply. Do you want to sign with an agent? Well that’s not a great goal, because at the end of the day it’s not up to you. But you can start SUBMITTING to agents – and that’s the type of thing that you can control and plan.

3. Set goals for habitual change, not end results. This isn’t an absolute must, but if you’re the type of person who forgets about your goals 60 or 30 (or let’s be real, 10) days in, it will help to keep you on track. Instead of setting the goal of loosing 20 pounds, try setting goals to change what you eat or increase you exercise. Instead of saying you’re going to finish your book by the end of the year, why not set a daily writing goal – one that’s manageable – and try sticking with it for a month or two? You’ll be surprised how those small daily successes will keep you motivated, and at how quickly they will lead you to real results

4. Build gradual increases into your goals. I love those people who decide every January that they’re going to run 5 miles every day and stick to a strict raw-vegan diet from now on. I love them, but I don’t believe them, because most of the time those types of extreme changes aren’t sustainable. What is sustainable, however, is change that comes in gradual increases. So rather than deciding that you’re going to write 5,000 words a day every day, why not go for gradual change? Set a low goal for January, one that’s easy to achieve – maybe you’ll decide to write 200 words a day or 1000 words a week. And then decide that on February 1st you’ll change it to something more challenging. And then do it again in March. These kind of gradual changes give you time to adjust your life to fit the goals that are important to you.

5. Only set goals that you want to meet. There is no bigger setup for failure than the goal that you don’t actually want to achieve. We set these goals out of a sense of obligation or guilt, but deep down inside we don’t care if they never happen. News flash – those goals are not only pointless (because let’s face it, you’ll never actually do them) but they’re also incredibly harmful to the goals that you actually want to reach. They clutter your plate, so to speak. They weigh you down unnecessarily. They stifle your momentum and steal your focus. None of those things will help you to reach the goals that are important to you. So this year why not do something radical and get rid of the goals that you don’t actually care about.

6. Keep track of your progress. This is so important for anyone who has a goal that’s going to take a while to reach. If you don’t have a plan to reach your goal, you won’t meet it. But just as importantly, if you don’t STICK to your plan, you’ll fall short in the long run. So revisit your goal on a regular basis. Look at how you’re progressing, and celebrate your incremental victories. It’ll keep you focused and motivated throughout the year.

7. Make adjustments. Listen, life is going to throw you curveballs this year, the same way it does every year. That’s just how it works. Some of the goals you set now will happen more quickly and easily than you expect. Others might suddenly become impossible as a result of unforeseen circumstances. That’s all fine. Don’t throw in the towel when things don’t work out. Don’t stop pushing just because you’ve already done better than you’d expected. Make adjustments to your goals throughout the year if you need to. It’s ok to redefine success as you move ahead. That’s part of life, part of growth. If we all stuck to our original goals the world would be full of princesses, ballerinas, fire fighters, and doctors. That wouldn’t be such a bad world, but you get the idea …

I hope these tips helped! Comment below and let me know what you thought. What kind of goals are you setting for 2015? What tips or tricks have worked for you? What important piece of advice did I leave off of my list? Let me know!

Embracing the Unexpected

This may very well be my last blog entry in 2014, and so before anything else I want to wish everyone who reads this a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

But before the year ends I want to tell you a little bit about the whirlwind of a week that just happened to me. I help to run the theater program at my church – we perform skits as a part of our weekly church services. We also put on a few full-length productions every year, normally around the holidays. We’d spent the past few weeks working on a silly, funny Christmas play based loosely on A Christmas Carol, and I was kind of excited about it. But then last Sunday I got what seemed like terrible news – we weren’t going to be able to do that particular show. Without going into too much detail, it became clear rather quickly that we were going to have to scrap the play entirely and start over with something new.

I had a full cast of actors (many of whom had made special arrangements to be in the show) who were excited to perform, a whole bunch of families who were planning on coming, exactly 2 weeks until the show date, and NO SHOW. Given the position I found myself in, you might not be surprised to hear that my first thought was “Where can I get my hands on a new script?” You might also be able to imagine the horror I felt when my pastors suggested that I might want to try writing a show of my own.

Write a show? I had two weeks! The way I saw it, I barely had enough time for the actors to learn their lines, and they wanted me to WRITE them first? Didn’t they know that I wrote nonfiction? Didn’t they know how badly I struggled with things like plot and dialogue? I didn’t even have an idea – I mean, literally, not even an hint of a spark of an original idea for a Christmas play. The whole thing just seemed impossible …

Except that behind the panic (and believe me, I was in a panic) I could see the hand of God pushing me to do this. I knew it wasn’t just my pastors asking me to do something. I knew that this was too perfectly orchestrated to be an accident. I also knew, from personal experience, that just about every time I’ve ever agreed to go along on these crazy leaps of faith I’ve ended up on my feet.

And so on Monday morning when I got to work I got a coffee and locked myself away in my office with a few mindless projects so that I could focus on brainstorming. And only a few hours (and several spreadsheets) later, I suddenly had one! Paula Casill, the girl who’s never had a particularly inspiring idea for a fiction piece in her entire life, suddenly had an idea that she found exciting, one that was big enough for a full-length play, and one that she wanted to write! Was it even possible?

Apparently so! Over the next few days I spent every free moment glued to my computer typing like a madwoman. Some scenes were so easy I wrote them off in one go. Others took thought and time and conversations with actors and re-writes in order to get them sounding natural. There was very little time for things like sleeping, grocery shopping, or communication with the outside world. But by Thursday night it was done – a completed script.

The show isn’t until Sunday, so I can’t say for sure how well we’re going to pull it off, but all early signs point to it being just as good as (if not better than) our first production. Our actors are all on board, and rather than being frustrated with all of the work they “wasted” working on the old show, they’re excited at the prospect of being involved in something original.

But here’s the most amazing part – the play uses a standard “storyteller” dramatic device to make it easier to transition between scenes and the storyteller’s narration was written in a classic children’s poetry style. When the script was finished I looked at it and realized that it is perfectly suited to be adapted into a book. So that’s the new plan! As soon as the show is finished I’m going to start working on the book! Just like that, without even realizing what I was doing, I ended up writing something awesome in a completely new genre!

Why am I telling you this story? Well, for two reasons (and no, neither of them involve patting myself on the back).

The first is this – because I think that there are a lot of people out there who reject and despair at the uncomfortable, out-of-the box situations that happen in their life. They see them as impossible challenges (or at least, that’s how I saw THIS) and that often leads to giving up, running away, or some other form of surrender. But when we can learn to trust GOD more than we trust in our own abilities, these impossible challenges suddenly become POSSIBLE.

The second reason is that I have been reminded first-hand how often God will use our challenges and adversities to expand and bless us. I didn’t come into this December looking to write a children’s book. In fact, I’ve NEVER wanted to write a children’s book. It just didn’t seem like something in my wheelhouse.  But God had plans of His own, and He knew exactly how to use my current circumstances to accomplish His will.

So when the unexpected challenge or the impossible mountain suddenly appear in your life, let this story be an encouragement to you. Don’t run away. Don’t give in to fear. Stand up, square your shoulders, and plow ahead. You never know where that kind of persistence and determination can bring you. I can’t tell you what’s waiting for you on the other side of your mountain, but I can say this much – it’s worth fighting for!

Write the Book – Tips and Tricks

In my last post (Write The Book – Here’s Why) I let you all in on two very specific secrets that everyone who’s ever written a book learned along the way. The first secret was that writing a book is hard – it’s much harder than you think, and certainly harder than it looks. Even the ways in which it’s hard won’t be what you’re expecting. It is a process that uncovers your greatest insecurities and exposes your biggest weaknesses. It’s not a “fun” thing to do.

But the second secret was that all of that difficulty, all of the struggle that comes with writing your first book is absolutely and totally WORTH it. Why? Because the process of writing a book is the most effective way to turn yourself into a writer. It will teach you what you cannot be taught in any other way. It will test you and refine you. It will make you better and force you to grow. And most importantly, it will make every single thing that you ever write in your future (books included) THAT MUCH easier, stronger, and more definitively YOU.

Believe me – I’m speaking from experience here. The process of writing my first book was insanely difficult – it took me three years and probably 15 drafts to finish it. It was a miserable experience. But it left me with an indescribable sense of fulfillment when I finished. What’s more – the lessons I learned writing my first book made the second one so easy that it almost felt like I’d managed to cheat somehow!

But how do you actually get through the process of writing that first book – especially since it IS so difficult? It’s a good question, one that I’ve been asking myself for the last week or so. I wanted to be able to give my friend (remember Kelly – the one who’s just started writing her first book?) some tips that would serve as more than just generalized encouragement. I wanted to tell her something that would actually help her find success. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Find a writing buddy – You’ll need the encouragement and help of someone who’s done this before (or someone who’s willing to do it with you). Friends and family are great at being supportive, but you’ll want to be in contact with at least one person who understands the specifics of what you’re dealing with every day.

2. Create a plan – One of the best things you can do for yourself is plan what you’re going to write before you write it. The level of detail you go into will depend on the type of person/writer you are. But don’t make the mistake of going into your first writing project with only a vague sense of what you’re going to do.

3. Write every day – (or 4 days a week, or whatever works for you) The point it – you have to make it mandatory. You’ll have good writing days and bad writing days. Some days you’ll write entire chapters, and others you’ll struggle through a few sentences. That’s all fine (and it should be expected). But you have to make writing a habit, or you’ll never get through it.

4. Make yourself accountable – Again, how this happens will vary depending on who you are. Are you the type who won’t be able to sleep if you haven’t met your daily writing goal? Or do you need the pressure of external deadlines (like someone asking to see pages every week) to keep yourself on track? Figure that out – and then set up a system that works for you.

5. First write, then refine – If you’re busy freaking out over your chapter length before you’ve written your first 500 words, you’ll never get anywhere. You have to start by writing. Until you’ve written something down, there’s no way to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Don’t paralyze yourself with fears and worries before you get the words out. Just write.

6. Don’t give up – You’ll have plenty of opportunities. You’ll have days when you want to throw it all away. Don’t let those days get to you. Just keep moving forward. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of this journey, and when you do, you’ll have something to show for it all. You’ll have a book, and a wealth of experience and knowledge that you wouldn’t trade for the world. You’ll have that secret little smile that creeps on your face when someone tells you how they’ve always wanted to write a book – and you’ll have plenty of words of encouragement and sage advice to give them – because you’ll know exactly what they’re facing, and  you’ll still be able to assure them that it’s well worth the effort.

 

Write the Book – Here’s Why

I have a friend (let’s call her Kelly) who recently began the long and arduous journey of writing a book. I found out a few weeks ago when she posted something on facebook about becoming an author. I reached out to offer her my congratulations, and discovered that by “becoming an author” she meant “beginning to write a book.”

“Oh!” I said in my least disappointed voice. “Well … that’s just wonderful!” She explained that she’d written the first few pages of the first chapter. We went on from there to talk about her ideas for this book, and for the next. It was easy, in that context, to be encouraging and genuinely excited. But as I walked away from the conversation, I couldn’t help but say a quick prayer that this book that she’d announced to the world would actually happen.

Because there’s a little secret about book-writing that I’ve learned over the past few years, one that I am very careful about sharing. The secret is this: Writing your first book is incredibly hard. As you can imagine, that’s not the kind of secret that I’m eager to share with the people in my life who are considering taking the plunge into the writing world. I’m not looking to discourage anyone. But it’s kind of hard to see someone who I know and love starting along on this journey without the first clue what they’re facing.

Sure enough – the next time I saw Kelly (a week or so later) and asked her how the writing was going, we had a completely different conversation. This time she seemed deflated, overwhelmed, and ready to give up on the project entirely. Suddenly she didn’t think her writing was any good. She was afraid of the mountain of work that was waiting in front of her. She felt stuck.

I remember that feeling so well – the feeling that everything you’re trying to do is pointless and the finished product of your hours and hours of work will barely produce enough words for a picture-book and will be universally hated by anyone who ever sees it. I spent plenty of time in that place – and I’m pretty sure every other person with a book under their belt has felt the same way too.

But here’s the other secret that I’ve learned along the way – and this one is worth sharing: It’s worth it. The whole process of taking an idea out of your head and cultivating it on (virtual) paper until it is shaped into the story or argument that you’d imagined – the whole long, difficult, frustrating process is totally worth it. It’s worth it even if that book never goes to print. It’s worth it even if it isn’t a huge commercial success. Even if it’s absolute garbage and sits in a drawer and never sees the light of day, that first book you write is totally worth the time and effort it takes to write it.

Why? Because there is no way to learn how to write a book except to go out there and write one. You can read and study and get advice and do all the research you want, but nothing can properly prepare you for the process of sitting down at a computer, starting, continuing, and ultimately finishing a book of your own. Because the truth is that writing is a uniquely personal process. Your approach and technique will not look like anyone else’s. You have a  unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Your style, your voice – they belong only to you – and these are all things that you have to sort out for yourself.

So if you’re toying with the idea of writing a book – if that’s one of the dreams that’s in your heart, then go and do it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t wait for a “good” time. Don’t put it off. Just sit down and write the book. It’ll be hard. It might very well be one of the hardest things you do. But when you’re done you will emerge as a different (hopefully better) person – one with a set of skills, a unique voice, and incredible sense of accomplishment that you cannot develop in any other way.

ABCs of the Dream-Chaser’s Mindset

Hey everyone, happy belated Thanksgiving (to all of my American readers, of course)!

One of the things that I’m especially thankful for this year is the incredible reception that Dream Chasers has been given over the past few weeks.  I had scheduled a free promotional period on Amazon for the end of last week – and not only did it climb to the top 5 in each of it’s categories, but it broke into the top 100 in Christian Books & Bibles! I’m seriously astounded at what God has done – I even took screen shots so I could prove to myself down the road that it really happened 🙂

So as a way to say thanks to everyone who’s been so supportive and encouraging I’m going to give you all a little sneak peek at something I’ve been working on:

This is going to be an actual ABCs series – so I’ll be releasing a video every Monday for the next 26 weeks. I’ll be starting on this upcoming Monday, December 1st, but I wanted to give you all a chance to watch it first.

The information in these videos aren’t taken directly from the book – they’re brand-spanking-new bonus material that anyone can enjoy, whether they’ve read the book or not. So let me know what you think!

Thank you all!