Great Little Tool for Self-Editing

In college, I took a class where we had to write a paper each week. We were allowed one “free” typo; after that, our grade would drop. I quickly learned that if I wanted an “A,” I had to have someone else edit it. I simply couldn’t catch all of my own typos, because I tended to see what I meant to write. I’m sure you can relate.

I still absolutely believe in the importance of having other people edit my work, but what about all those times I just want to send an email, update my Facebook status, or write a quick blog post?

I don’t always have the luxury of having someone else read my material first. I’m not sure about you, but there’ve been several times I’ve opted not to write a blog post (like this one) because it wasn’t worth the trouble.

I’ve discovered an app that is helping me in situations just like that: NaturalReader.  After downloading the software, I can simply click “Add New,” copy and paste my material, and have it read back to me (I can even slow down the reading speed). I find myself catching so many more typos than ever before.

NaturalReader

I’m not saying this is a fool-proof system; I probably let a typo or two slip into this post. But it does take my errors from “bonehead” to merely “tolerable.” This in turn has increased my willingness to write new blog posts (again, like this one).

Give it a try and tell me what you think!

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Writing Lessons from “The Hunger Games”

On our trip across the US, I had the joy and privilege of mentoring several aspiring authors. I’ve come to believe that’s part of my calling, so I’ve decided to begin freelancing as a writer’s coach. Click here if you’d like more info. I’m also going to post writing-related articles in hopes of helping other authors.

HungerGames_Updated_CCCall me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert the background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, without spending a chapter on Katniss’ story or what the Hunger Games are – “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien could begin with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

MinersDist12Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one good one, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader.

The second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see. That is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.” Biography.com

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?

Heresy Hunter or Heresy Healer? About my recent guest post…

Many of my posts begin as a word picture, such as God becoming a bum,designed to evocatively and memorably describe some truth (such as the Incarnation). The more evocative, the better. I then write the post around that image.

In the case of this post that Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal posted, the image was that of a refugee trying to warm himself with a feces-smeared blanket. My hope was to evocatively associate heresy with filth and my half-done response to derelict of duty.

I wanted to share that with both because it’s fun to give some background and also to encourage you in your writing/speaking/preaching to use evocative images. Don’t waste those powerful images that have sprung to your mind – find a way to milk the most out of them.

The post can be found at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2015/february-online-only/heresy-hunter-or-heresy-healer.html

Feel free to read it and comment!

To the glory of God and the joy of the saints!

Josh

How My Lack of Platform Helped Me Get Published

(This post originally appeared on Chip MacGregor’s blog. BTW: If you are interested in learning more about writing and publishing, I strongly encourage you to follow his blog!)

It was every hopeful author’s dream. I had just finished pitching my book idea in front of seven other hopeful authors and (more to the point) an acquisitions editor. As we all stood up to leave, he discreetly handed me his card and said “Let’s talk.” Long story short, I am now a published author.

I have, in fact, shortened the story so much as to be deceptive. When he and I talked at lunch the next day, he didn’t even look at the proposal I had spent three months perfecting. First, he wanted me to address several issues. Six grueling months later, I sent him the revised proposal. To my delight, he loved it. But he wanted me to completely rework my sample chapters, which took another five months. Finally he believed it was ready to be presented to the publication committee.

As you may know, publishers are looking for three things in a proposal: 1) a great concept, 2) great writing, and 3) a great platform. But, as my editor said, they’re willing to over look one of those three if the other two make up for it. I had no platform, so my editor kept pushing me to refine and improve my concept and writing.

There were many points in the process that I wanted to give up. Two years is a long time to spend on three chapters. But because I didn’t have a platform to fall back on, I didn’t have a choice. And now, having seen too many mediocre books from well-known personalities, I’m glad I didn’t have a platform to lean on. I know myself – if I could have gotten away with less effort, I would have.

By the way, I’ve also seen a lot of authors fall back on “I can always self-publish.” I’m NOT saying that self-publishing is necessarily an easy way out. It’s probably the harder path because you’re the only one holding yourself to a higher standard. I’m simply saying that if you view self-publishing as a back-up plan, your quality will likely suffer.

In the end, the publication committee caught my editor’s vision and decided to take a chance on an unknown author. But my point isn’t that anyone can be published if they work hard enough. There are no guarantees (even a great platform isn’t a guarantee). My point is that a lack of platform can be a blessing. It can drive us to write at the highest level we’re capable of. And that should be our goal, shouldn’t it?

What do you think? Is your lack of a platform a blessing or a curse? Is self-publishing an easy way out?

How My Lack of Platform Helped Me Get Published

It was every hopeful author’s dream. I had just finished pitching my book idea in front of seven other hopeful authors and (more to the point) an acquisitions editor. As we all stood up to leave, he discreetly handed me his card and said “Let’s talk.” Long story short, I am now a published author.

I have, in fact, shortened the story so much as to be deceptive. When he and I talked at lunch the next day, he didn’t even look at the proposal I had spent three months perfecting. First, he wanted me to address several issues. Six grueling months later, I sent him the revised proposal. To my delight, he loved it. But he wanted me to completely rework my sample chapters, which took another five months. Finally he believed it was ready to be presented to the publication committee.

As you may know, publishers are looking for three things in a proposal: 1) a great concept, 2) great writing, and 3) a great platform. But, as my editor said, they’re willing to over look one of those three if the other two make up for it. I had no platform, so my editor kept pushing me to refine and improve my concept and writing.

Red ink equals love

There were many points in the process that I wanted to give up. Two years is a long time to spend on three chapters. But because I didn’t have a platform to fall back on, I didn’t have a choice. And now, having seen too many mediocre books from well-known personalities, I’m glad I didn’t have a platform to lean on. I know myself; if I could have gotten away with less effort, I would have.

By the way, I’ve also seen a lot of authors fall back on “I can always self-publish.” I’m NOT saying that self-publishing is necessarily an easy way out. It’s probably the harder path because you’re the only one holding yourself to a higher standard. I’m simply saying that if you view self-publishing as back-up plan, your quality will likely suffer.

In the end, the publication committee caught my editor’s vision and decided to take a chance on an unknown author. Now, almost a year and half later, my book is on the shelves and now I’m doing the hard work of promoting it.

My point here isn’t that anyone can be published if they work hard enough. There are no guarantees (even a great platform isn’t a guarantee). My point is that a lack of platform can be a blessing. It can drive us to write at the highest level we’re capable of. And that should be our goal, shouldn’t it?

What do you think? Is your lack of a platform a blessing or a curse? Is self-publishing an easy way out?

Sometimes It’s Good to Use a Little Crack

I once read that Amazon’s Author Central is like crack for authors. In case you’re not familiar with it, Author Central tracks your book’s sales and ranking. It’s updated every hour, which means you can return for a fresh hit every 60 minutes.

Author Central

One hit will send you soaring higher than a kite (“I’m at #45,354 and heading up – #1, here I come!) and the next will drive you to the depths of despair (“Now I’m #230,211 I’m utterly worthless.”) You know you shouldn’t keep checking it, but you can’t help yourself.

I know better but keep returning for my hit, muttering “Time for my crack” as I click the well-worn link on my favorites bar. Last night’s hit had me sulking but this morning’s put me in a better mood. Tracking my sales becomes an obsession that affects me far too much.

But unlike real crack, Author Central can have a positive benefit: It regularly reminds me that I need to take an active role in marketing my book. Ignoring my sales can lead to apathy, which is death to promotion, as Amanda Luedeke points out in this great little post.

But understand, promotion isn’t about sales for me, but getting an important message out. I believe that millions of Christians feel guilty because they don’t think they’re radical enough and I hope my message can free them. But first they have to find my book. So somehow I have to find the balance between caring too much and too little. If I ever figure it out, I’ll let you know.

What about you – have you ever struggled to find the balance between apathy and obsession? How can we care deeply about anything (from politics to theology) without making it our identity?