Why you should (and should not) write a memoir

blog memoir

You should write a book!

Have you ever thought of publishing your story?

Wow, other people should really hear what you’ve been through.

Have you heard these words? Perhaps you’ve survived cancer, divorce, or the death of a child. Or maybe you’ve stepped out of poverty into prosperity. Out of depression into a life of happiness. If so, then someone has likely insisted that you write a book.

But should you? Should you really?

Yes.

And no.

Allow us to offer some advice from established authors who know a thing or two about the world of publishing:

1. Don’t write because you think it is the only way to tell your story

Christian author Nancy Guthrie offers this counsel in her post People say I should write a book. Should I?

I think the biggest question is this: Is writing a book the only, the best, or the most natural way for you to be a good steward of this experience so that God might use it in the lives of others?   It is for a few people. For others, there are other ways that are a far better fit with their personality, their strengths, and the opportunities presented to them.

2. Don’t write your story if the rejection will deepen your pain

Again we look to Ms. Guthrie:

When the book is about loved ones who have died, we want to extend their lives and give meaning to their deaths by seeing their story in print, so when a publisher isn’t interested, it can feel like another death, and certainly another deep disappointment, a sense that we have failed in extending their impact.

3. Do write your story once you are a proficient memoir writer

Simply having a story to tell does not mean that you are equipped to tell it through the written word. Writing is a gift and talent that is separate from your life-changing experience. Only those who have become proficient as memoir writers should attempt to get their story published.

Literary agent Rachel Gardner offers this advice in her post Telling Your Personal Story:

Create a reading plan for yourself. Set a goal for the next year or so of reading at least 20 good memoirs and 5 books about writing memoir.

Begin to craft your book. After you’ve spent months (or years) writing down the stories of your life and learning about the craft of memoir, you’ll be ready to start putting those stories together and creating a cohesive manuscript — your memoir. That may take many more months. You’ll want to get feedback on it from some readers, perhaps join a critique group, and do as many revisions as necessary to make your memoir shine.

4. Do write your story once you are in a healthy place

While it may be cathartic to write a memoir as a form of therapy, doing so will not produce the caliber of writing needed to get published.

Ange de Lumiere, who works as a book coach, advises:

When I wrote the book about my father dying, I did expect to be taken back to the emotions that I felt when he was given one month to live. But I was grateful that I had done a lot of work on myself so that it was not too painful.

I wasn’t writing for the sake of sharing my pain; I had a message to share, which is that death is not the end. My book’s purpose is to show that there is another way to see death and to start a revolution in the way we approach it. So it is very important to be clear about the purpose of your memoir and to allow yourself to be vulnerable and authentic.

The truth is that there is much more to writing a memoir than many would imagine. At Certa Publishing, we endeavor to prepare our authors to navigate the unique struggles of each genre. If you are considering putting your story on paper, we would be happy to come alongside you in the process. Contact us today.

5 creative (and slightly ridiculous) ways to deal with writer’s block

Blog writer's block

Writer’s block happens to the best of writers. While there are plenty of traditional ways to deal with it, we thought we’d focus on a few you might not have thought of. In fact, we were inspired by Dennis Upper, a psychologist from the 1970’s, who managed his writer’s block by submitting a practically empty academic paper to the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, who then published it, if only for its comedic value. We appreciated the reviewer comments in the footnote, which read:

I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. I suggest it be published without revision. Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen.

Who knew that even learned psychologists suffered from writer’s block (or that academic publication editors had such a sense of humor?)

While we don’t advise that you submit an empty manuscript to your publisher, we have brought together a few ideas that might help.

1. Do something mindless

Paint a room. Mow the yard. Take a shower. Weed the garden. Pick any task that you can do without much mental focus. You’ll be amazed at how well your thoughts flow during this time. In fact, this is why “Shower Thoughts” has an entire subreddit, where members can post the epiphanies they have while bathing.

But there is one condition. This task mustn’t involve screens of any kind. Your brain needs the space to wander without the “blinging” of notifications or temptation to check the score of the game.

2. Read someone else’s writing

Stop writing and start reading. (Hey, that sounds a lot like the title of our recent blog post!) Yes, a great way to get past writer’s block is to stop writing and read someone else’s work. Which authors do you most want to emulate? Pick up a copy of their work. Read just enough that you are reminded of their style, syntax, flow, and timing. This exercise will inspire you and perhaps remind you of what you are working towards.

3. Call your mom

When you were first inspired to write your book, who did you tell? Was it your mom, a co-worker or best friend? Who did you sit down with and gush out your story idea to? Who did you first confide in that you were going to embark on this crazy journey of writing? Call that person. Ask them to remind you of what you said in those moments.

Ask:

  • Why did I want to write this book?
  • Who did I think it would help or delight?
  • What made me take the first step?
  • What was my inspiration?

Hearing your own words and thoughts from someone else can be very enlightening. You’ll be surprised how much the work of writing has caused you to forget the why of writing.

4. Read your own writing

Dig up your old journals. Find those ancient blog posts. Re-read emails you’ve sent (well, the long, letter-type ones). As you do this, pay attention to what you like about your writing. Perhaps it is your conversational style. Or maybe you’re witty in just the right places, or you have a way with a story.

Whatever it is that you like about your own writing, try it out in your current work. Look for ways to be more conversational or witty or narrative. Let your own strengths pull their weight.

5. Do some mind mapping

Sounds a bit painful, doesn’t it? Well, never fear. This one is simple. So simple that it works. Just take a piece of paper and write your topic in the center (the topic that you are struggling to write about). Then as fast as you can, surround that topic with everything you can think of about it, no matter how mundane or ridiculous.

For example, if the topic is childhood sleep habits, your surrounding words might include:

  • bed
  • bedtimes
  • stuffed animal
  • dark room
  • night terrors
  • bedwetting
  • bedtime stories
  • schedule
  • consistency
  • health concerns
  • REM
  • Circadian rhythm
  • Diet

Now that you have these sub-topics on the paper, you can begin surrounding each of them with their own associations, and so on and so forth.

While you may not write about everything you put on your mind map, it is a great way of quickly getting scattered ideas out of your head and onto paper.

Of course there are apps that do this as well. The Sweet Setup recently posted about several apps that might be helpful and they also have a great example on their page.

At Certa Publishing, we understand that writers get stuck. We love to talk on the phone, grab coffee, or Skype to help get your pen flowing or your keyboard clicking away again. Contact us today to see how we can help.

 

Opening the door on the hard parts of your story

opening the door

Which of these sentences impacts you more?

Children who witness domestic abuse suffer for years with anxiety.

Even 20 years later, my heart races when I recall the sound of his heavy footsteps in the hall, his hurled insults slurred by alcohol and my mother’s pleading for him to please, please leave her alone.

Both sentences carry the same theme. But the second carries the weight.

What is the difference? Vulnerability.

All writers must make this choice. Will you be brutally honest and open with your reader, allowing your own experience to become a character in the book? Or will you write from a distance, holding the reader at arm’s length?

We believe that your ability to be vulnerable with your readers is one of the key indicators of the success and impact of your book.

What holds you back?

1. People will judge me

You’re right. They will. People who have never met you in person will read your book and make certain assumptions about you, which you will likely never have the chance to correct.

However, we believe this is a risk worth taking if it means that your story offers a message of hope and healing to those who would otherwise not hear it.

In his post for Reader’s Digest, Chuck Sambuchino wrote,

I think as writers sometimes we’re afraid to let people know that we feel as deeply as we do. We’re tempted to write half-truths in the fear of being judged.

In fact, Mr. Sambuchino advises that the fear you feel in your gut is actually a good thing:

When what you’re writing scares you, it’s usually a sign that you’re being real. When you start to worry about what others will think, that is the writing that will affect people the most. The only way to achieve that is by going to your most vulnerable places.

2.  My story will be too difficult or downbeat

The complete Gospel story is good news. This can lead us to think that all of our writing should be cheerful, peppy, and bright. However, the Gospel story is full of shadows, tragedy, and momentary defeats. We would cheapen it if we left out the hard parts like the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, or the burial of our Lord. It is these hard parts that set the stage for the redemptive power of Christ. Thank goodness the New Testament writers didn’t whitewash the story of Jesus’ life!

In the same way, your story contains hard parts. To gloss over or minimize them is to rob the reader of the true sense of what God has done for you. Your reader is not reading your book for the glossy, shiny moments. They want to know how you walked through the valleys, navigated the obstacles, and stayed the course amid the crashing waves.

In his article The Key to Whole-Hearted Writing: Embrace Vulnerability, Grant Faulkner says,

Life is so mysterious, nuanced, ineffable—equally disturbing as it is beautiful—so I decided it was my duty as a writer to be brave enough to risk ridicule in order to bring my truths to light. Why write a sanitized version of life?

The ultimate example

Few writers have bared their soul like one of the writers of the book of Psalms, David. Whether he was being chased by King Saul, in anguish over the death of his son, or wallowing in the shame of his sin, David left it all on the page.

Consider this excerpt from Psalm 44 as David addresses God:

But now you have rejected and humbled us;
    you no longer go out with our armies. 

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
    and have scattered us among the nations.

You sold your people for a pittance,
    gaining nothing from their sale.

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.

Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We like the way The Message paraphrases the last two sections:

Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day?
    Wake up! Don’t you care what happens to us?

Why do you bury your face in the pillow?
    Why pretend things are just fine with us?

Clearly, David’s writing is as open and honest as it can be and yet the Bible tells us that God considered him a “man after God’s own heart.”

Here at Certa Publishing, we encourage you to follow in the footsteps of the Psalmist. Be honest. Be open. Tell the hard parts. And watch the Lord use your story to provide hope, healing, and encouragement to a hurting world.

Are your worried that your manuscript tells too little, or perhaps too much? We would love to look it over for you. Contact us today.

How to write a book: Ten steps from a 5-time bestseller

how to write a book

Sometimes we make things harder than they are. We see a messy house, get overwhelmed and spend more time procrastinating than it actually takes to clean it. The same happens with bigger tasks like making a will, planning a family reunion or writing a sermon series. In his recent blog post, 10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book, five-time bestseller Jeff Goins explains how to break down the ultimate of big tasks—writing a book—into ten manageable steps.  Here is an excerpt:

As the bestselling author of five books, I can tell you without hesitation that the hardest part of a writer’s job is sitting down to do the work. Books don’t just write themselves, after all. You have to invest everything you are into creating an important piece of work.

For years, I dreamed of being a professional writer. I believed I had important things to say that the world needed to hear. But as I look back on what it really takes to become an author, I realize how different the process was from my expectations.

To begin with, you don’t just sit down to write a book. That’s not how writing works. You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if you’re lucky, an entire chapter. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. It’s a process.

The way you get the work done is not complicated. You take one step at a time, then another and another. As I look back on the books I’ve written, I can see how the way they were made was not as glamorous as I once thought.

How to really write a book

In this post, I’ll teach you the fundamental steps you need to write a book. I’ve worked hard to make this easy to digest and super practical, so you can start making progress.

But first, let’s look at the big picture. What does it take to write a book? It happens in three phases:

  • Beginning: You have to start writing. This sounds obvious, but it may be the most overlooked step in the process. You write a book by deciding first what you’re going to write and how you’re going to write it.
  • Staying motivated: Once you start writing, you will face self-doubt and overwhelm and a hundred other adversaries. Planning ahead for those obstacles ensures you won’t quit when they come.
  • Finishing: Nobody cares about the book that you almost wrote. We want to read the one you actually finished, which means no matter what, the thing that makes you a writer is your ability not to start a project, but to complete one.

Below are 10 ridiculously simple tips that fall under each of these three major phases. I hope they help you tackle and finish the book you dream of writing.

Phase 1: Getting started

We all have to start somewhere. With writing a book, the first phase is made up of four parts:

1. Decide what the book is about

Good writing is always about something. Write the argument of your book in a sentence, then stretch that out to a paragraph, and then to a one-page outline. After that, write a table of contents to help guide you as you write, then break each chapter into a few sections. Think of your book in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Anything more complicated will get you lost.

2. Set a daily word count goal

John Grisham began his writing career as a lawyer and new dad — in other words, he was really busy. Nonetheless, he got up an hour or two early every morning and wrote a page a day. After a couple of years, he had a novel. A page a day is only about 300 words. You don’t need to write a lot. You just need to write often. Setting a daily goal will give you something to aim for. Make it small and attainable so that you can hit your goal each day and start building momentum.

3. Set a time to work on your book every day

Consistency makes creativity easier. You need a daily deadline to do your work — that’s how you’ll finish writing a book. Feel free to take a day off, if you want, but schedule that ahead of time. Never let a deadline pass; don’t let yourself off the hook so easily. Setting a daily deadline and regular writing time will ensure that you don’t have to think about when you will write. When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

4. Write in the same place every time

It doesn’t matter if it’s a desk or a restaurant or the kitchen table. It just needs to be different from where you do other activities. Make your writing location a special space, so that when you enter it, you’re ready to work. It should remind you of your commitment to finish this book. Again, the goal here is to not think and just start writing.

Phase 2: Doing the work

Now, it’s time to get down to business. Here, we are going to focus on the next three tips to help you get the book done:

5. Set a total word count

Begin with the end in mind. Once you’ve started writing, you need a total word count for your book. Think in terms of 10-thousand work increments and break each chapter into roughly equal lengths. Here are some general guiding principles:

  • 10,000 words = a pamphlet or business white paper. Read time = 30-60 minutes.
  • 20,000 words = short eBook or manifesto. The Communist Manifesto is an example of this, at about 18,000 words. Read time = 1-2 hours.
  • 40,000–60,000 words = standard nonfiction book / novella. The Great Gatsby is an example of this. Read time = three to four hours.
  • 60,000–80,000 words = long nonfiction book / standard-length novel. Most Malcolm Gladwell books fit in this range. Read time = four to six hours.
  • 80,000 words–100,000 words = very long nonfiction book / long novel. The Four-Hour Work Week falls in this range.
  • 100,000+ words = epic-length novel / academic book / biography. Read time = six to eight hours. The Steve Jobs biography would fit this category.

6. Give yourself weekly deadlines

You need a weekly goal. Make it a word count to keep things objective. Celebrate the progress you’ve made while still being honest about how much work is left to do. You need to have something to aim for and a way to measure yourself. This is the only way I ever get any work done: with a deadline.

7. Get early feedback

Nothing stings worse than writing a book and then having to rewrite it, because you didn’t let anyone look at it. Have a few trusted advisers to help you discern what’s worth writing. These can be friends, editors, family. Just try to find someone who will give you honest feedback early on to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Phase 3: Finishing

How do you know when you’re done? Short answer: you don’t. Not really. So here’s what you do to end this book-writing process well:

8. Commit to shipping

No matter what, finish the book. Set a deadline or have one set for you. Then release it to the world. Send it to the publisher, release it on Amazon, do whatever you need to do to get it in front of people. Just don’t put it in your drawer. The worst thing would be for you to quit once this thing is written. That won’t make you do your best work and it won’t allow you to share your ideas with the world.

9. Embrace failure

As you approach the end of this project, know that this will be hard and you will most certainly mess up. Just be okay with failing, and give yourself grace. That’s what will sustain you — the determination to continue, not your elusive standards of perfection.

10. Write another book

Most authors are embarrassed by their first book. I certainly was. But without that first book, you will never learn the lessons you might otherwise miss out on. So, put your work out there, fail early, and try again. This is the only way you get better. You have to practice, which means you have to keep writing.

Every writer started somewhere, and most of them started by squeezing their writing into the cracks of their daily lives. That’s how I began, and it may be where you begin, as well. The ones who make it are the ones who show up day after day. You can do the same.

Did you notice his emphasis on deadlines and a steady work schedule? One of the best ways to implement these is through partner publishing with a company like Certa. We can come alongside you to develop a workable timeline and provide the accountability needed to accomplish this important endeavor. Contact us today!

Author to Author: Advice from experienced writers

authors to authors

As a writer, you should be voraciously gleaning advice from all the experienced authors you can find. They are a perfect resource as you embark, or continue, on this writing journey. The book of Proverbs tells us that without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22)

The internet is full of writing advice, so we’ve curated some of our favorite advice for authors, from authors:

1. Listen for the ping

Christian author Margaret Feinberg tells us to slow down and tune in:

Long before I wrote [The Sacred Echo] or developed the title phrase, I discovered the importance of listening for what I called, “the ping.” You hear the ping whenever you encounter the same decibel of an idea or concept in multiple situations.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been journeying with a friend enduring a painful divorce marked by betrayal. She decided to change her name—not just return to her maiden name but change her first name, too. Earlier this week she shared the meaning of her new name and how healing it has been for her.

This morning I spent time with another friend who does rescues Bichons. She explained that whenever they adopt a new dog they change the dog’s name. Why? Because an abused dog will often connect their abuse with their name. A new name helps the dog with a fresh start. I thought of my friend walking through the divorce.

Then, Revelation 2:17 came to mind:

“To the one who is victorious, I will give… that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”

The power of a new name.

I’m beginning to hear the ping. One day I will write more on this, but for now, I’m listening to expand the concept’s depth and search for fresh meaning.

If you live your life where you hit “publish” on every story and idea the day it happens, you’ll miss the hearing the ping. But if you listen for the ping your writing will become more savory and full-bodied.

2. Treat writing like the work that it is

Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan shares how she cultivated a writing routine:

…writing is a magical, fickle, infuriating creature that rarely seems to belong to me. And, yes, it is perhaps, for many of us, the most pure, simple alchemy we will ever come across.

But it is also work. It needs to be treated with respect. An idea isn’t a book. The distance between the two can be a long, solitary tundra that is only crossed by actual writing.

Everyone has their routine. For me, it’s 30 minutes a day, no more, no less. Sometimes I write those 30 minutes on the subway, sometimes at my desk, sometimes on my phone, but it’s always 30 minutes. If I miss a day, I forgive myself, but I make it up the next day. I’ve learned that writing is like going to the gym, like building any muscle. It needs consistency and, for many of us, ritual.

3. Get personal

Don’t be afraid to get personal with your reader, or as some might say, give the last 10 percent. Bestselling author Max Lucado encourages us with this advice:

Writing is a powerful medium because it’s personal. It often reaches people at a vulnerable time in their lives. If somebody comes to a church to hear me speak, he may be there because he wants to be, or he may be there because someone talked him into coming. But if an individual reads a book of mine, he has gone through the necessary steps to purchase or borrow the book. He has paid a price for this kind of communication. I am at my best in print—the effect of a book does not depend on the author’s mood; it depends on the reader’s openness to encouragement or teaching.

We challenge you this week to seek out some experienced authors, whether in person or online, to extract all the writing advice you can. Of course, at Certa Publishing, we’ve seen it all in the publishing business and we would love to offer you any resources, tools or advice you need. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Or feel free to contact us today.

Just get to the point

justgetto the point

Recently we wrote about readability. Did you run your writing through the Flesch-Kincaid test to find out the reading grade level of your work? If so, it’s likely that you found out that you were inadvertently writing above the head of the average reader. This causes readers to tune out too soon or not fully grasp your content.

So what’s the fix? Make all the longer words shorter? Of course, it’s more complex than that, but completely doable. Here are 3 readability trouble spots and how to course correct:

1. Short story long

The problem: We all have one friend, family member, or co-worker, who starts to tell a story and you think, oh boy, here we go. They can make a 2-minute story into a 20-minute rambling, bunny-trail-filled narrative that leaves the listener both bored and befuddled. Well, friend, writers can fall into the same trap. See, we don’t have the benefit of watching the reader in real-time as they trudge their way through our overly verbose writing. We can’t see them sigh, get distracted, or give up altogether. Yet we must keep this common temptation at the forefront of our mind.

The fix: In her recent post, Be Specific! How to Get to the Point in Everything You Write, Grammarly writer Joanna Cutrara offers these tips:

Use appropriate sentence length – Resist the urge to jam too many ideas or details into the same sentence. If your sentence is so long that its meaning isn’t clear or you’ve switched topics partway through, consider breaking it into two new sentences.

Avoid filler words – Cutting out filler words can make your sentences shorter and easier to understand. If your sentence works without it, you just don’t need this word.

Be precise with your words – Make your writing strong and vivid by using specific phrases, instead of ambiguous words like: thing, stuff, good, bad, pretty, and ugly. Also, avoid redundant phrases such as “unexpected surprise” or “very unique.”

2. Leave a little to the imagination

The problem: We want to be completely in control of the story, or more importantly, how the story is perceived by the reader. This leads us to write down every single thought and concept we’ve collected on our subject. It’s the equivalent of handing our toddler a coloring page that we’ve completely colored in. Yes, it may be beautiful, but we’ve robbed the child of the opportunity to participate in the project.

The fix: As writers, we must not forget that the beauty of reading is not in the words themselves, but in the place they take us in our minds. Be respectful of your readers’ imaginations by giving them a starting off point, not a boxed-in, completely detailed narrative.

A recent Freelance Writing post offered this insight:

The critical aim of writing for your readers is not to inform exhaustively, but to suggest; not to thrust upon the reader’s own vision of truth and beauty in detailed completeness, but to awaken the reader’s spirit to help him see a vision of his own. To this end we must stand steadfastly, ready to omit, to compress, to sacrifice.

3. Who are you trying to impress?

The problem: Sure, those flowery sentences or academic terms may impress your writing peers or colleagues, but your average reader may be put off by them. Unless you are writing for a highly-educated niche audience, we suggest that you tone down the professor-speak and switch to a more conversational tone.

The fix: Find someone who is a complete non-expert in the subject you write about. Ask them to read a portion of your manuscript and then summarize it for you. Were they able to truly grasp the concepts, or does it seem that most went over their head? If the latter is true, then you are writing to impress, instead of writing to inform.

In each of these scenarios, there is one person who would be an invaluable asset: an editor. At Certa we offer professional editing services. Our editors are chosen for their experience and professional standards. Their attention to detail ensures that errors are not overlooked, and adds a final polish to your book without changing your unique writing style. An editor will look through your manuscript upon submission and prepare a manuscript evaluation. They will provide you with a suggested editing level, and the rationale for the suggested level. The manuscript evaluation will also list the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript with any comments the editor has regarding it. This evaluation is free of obligation for our authors! Contact us today to take advantage of this offer.

 

The craft of storytelling

storytelling

It’s Sunday morning. Two churchgoers sit in two different services. They sing many of the same songs and here a very similar offering appeal. Even the sermon theme is the same—the story of Esther. Yet one churchgoer leaves ready for a nap and the other exits the sanctuary with his head full of thoughts, questions and new insights, eager to read the story for himself. What is the difference? The craft of storytelling.

Is storytelling really so vital?

Why does my non-fiction book need to include storytelling?

As writers, we can make the mistake of believing that our message alone is enough to attract an audience and keep their interest. Yet without the craft of storytelling, even the most researched, theologically-sound, perfectly-edited book can sit unread on the nightstand, or worse, un-purchased in the first place.

Still not convinced that storytelling is a crucial skill to acquire as a non-fiction writer? Think of the person who carried the most life-changing non-fiction message to have ever existed… Jesus. And yet, even He used stories—”parables”—to communicate this message to the masses.

How do I incorporate storytelling into non-fiction?

The next time you listen to a TED talk or sermon, pay closer attention to what grabs your attention. We’ll bet that there is one oratory tool that universally makes the audience pay attention: the personal story. When the speaker says, “Let me give you an example,” or “Let me tell you a story,” everyone in the audience perks up. In fact, when the talk is over, we’ll bet that what you remember most about it are the personal stories you heard.

This is absolutely the same for your writing. Facts, research and exposition are great, but using a story to apply that information will instantly breathe life into your message. The author who employs this technique with expert skill is Max Lucado. Consider this example from his book God Came Near:

Wide awake is Mary. My, how young she looks! Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph’s saddle. The pain has been eclipsed by wonder. She looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His Majesty. At this point in history, the human being who best understands who God is and what he is doing is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. She can’t take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she is holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel,
“His kingdom will never end.”

Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.

She touches the face of the infant-God. How long was your journey!

Mr. Lucado could have simply stated the facts: Mary gave birth to a baby in a stable. Instead, he uses his incredible storytelling ability to transport the reader and illustrate the scene as vividly as if it were a movie.

The basics of storytelling

Most of us are not born with Max Lucado’s gift for storytelling, however, like any skill, it can be learned. Let’s begin with the basics of a good story:

A story arc

If you look closely, all engaging stories follow a story arc, even the animated ones that parents and grandparents may find on repeat in their homes. Recently Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared her 22 rules of storytelling on Twitter. Rule number four stood out to us:

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Whether your entire work is a story, or you are just including a one-paragraph testimony, take the time to follow the above story arc. Doing so helps your story flow from beginning to end, keeping the audience captive all along.

Essentials of a good story

Now that you’ve established a story arc, you can begin to improve the story through these simple adjustments:

Pay attention to setting. Just as in the Christmas story example above, the reader needs context for your narrative. Even though your focus may be on the spiritual side of a topic, don’t neglect providing a setting for your message. Consider these two examples of writing about volunteering in end-of-life care:

I sat and prayed with Mrs. Glendale, knowing that she was in her final days. I read her favorite Psalms and played the hymn playlist that I’d made for her on my Spotify account.

or

As I entered Mrs. Glendale’s room for my daily visit, I couldn’t help but notice all the photos set around—some more than 50 years old and others from just this year. Grandsons in baseball photos, a niece at her flute recital, and a gorgeous family reunion photo with four generations included. I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Did they not know that their beloved Gigi was living her last days? Why should I, a practical stranger, be the one to read her favorite Psalms? Wouldn’t she rather hear her niece play her favorite hymns on the flute, than listen to them through Spotify on my phone?

Both paragraphs give the same facts, yet the second draws you into the room, feeling what the author is feeling, and understanding the undercurrent to the situation.

Be transparent. No one wants to read a story about a flawless subject. People without imperfection come off as either intimidating or inauthentic. Show us all sides of your characters, whether they be real or fictional. The above example gives us a peek into the author’s struggle: I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Your writing doesn’t have to condone or glorify the character’s flaws, but it shouldn’t ignore them either. Being transparent allows your reader to identify with your writing and see themselves within the pages.

By creating a story arc and incorporating setting and character transparency, you will be on your way to becoming a better storyteller. At Certa Publishing, we appreciate the power of storytelling and are here to help you grow in this skill. Contact us today to see how we can partner with you.

 

4 Ways to Organize Your Writing

4 Ways to OrganizeYour Writing

Your head is full of ideas for your book or blog post. But wait! Take a deep breath and read this first. Karen Hertzberg of the Grammarly Blog shows us how attention to the organization of our writing will keep the reader’s attention and allow our message to be delivered:

No matter how well you write, no matter how carefully you proofread, your article or story can’t live up to its potential if it’s not well organized.

We all know someone who can’t tell a joke without doubling back to include some missing element that’s critical to the punchline. This happens to the best of us, but it happens less when we take a moment to organize a story in our heads before telling it.

If organizing your thoughts is essential to being known as a superb raconteur, it’s as important in written communication.

Why is organization important in writing?

When you’re preparing longform text, your goal is to make that text as easy for your reader to absorb as possible. If the reader has to double back to make sense of your article, or if it’s presented in a babbling stream of consciousness from which the reader must fish for your main points, your article will have less impact.

Fifty-five percent of visitors will read an article for 15 seconds or less before moving on. Obvious organization will make your post more skimmable, and that’s a good thing! A reader is more likely to stick around when a quick scan reveals that the information in your article is relevant.

Headings with relevant keywords can also help Google recognize critical topics in longer posts, which is better for SEO. That’s especially important if you’re writing a blog post or any other piece of content that relies on search engine traffic.

Four Great Ways to Organize Your Article

Before you begin writing, think about how you’ll structure your article or post.  What’s the clearest way to present your information? Think of yourself as a sherpa—it’s your job to guide your reader through the content. Here are four excellent ways to organize.

1. Chronologically

Developing news stories, features, human interest pieces, and anything with a historical angle can benefit from being written in chronological order, where your story moves from the earliest historical event forward. Chronological organization is also useful when you want to show the evolution of something, like the progress your company has made over the past five years or the way music has changed over the past century.

2. In Order of Importance

Journalists use the inverted pyramid technique, which puts the most critical elements of a story first and then adds supporting facts and details in order of importance. The article begins with the most newsworthy information (who, what, when, where, why, and how), builds on that with essential details, and concludes with general or background info. It works well when you’re writing a press release or presenting news.

3. Problem/Solution

Often, we go in search of an article because we’re trying to solve a problem. If the purpose of your writing is to answer specific questions for your reader, consider briefly describing each problem and then presenting your solution.

4. Numbered List

Often known as a “listicle,” numbered lists are a popular type of content. (Check out this section’s header and structure—voila!) Our brains love lists, and media outlets like BuzzFeed and its contemporaries have capitalized on their tendency to draw us in and hold our attention. If it works for your article, using a numbered list can make for easy, skimmable structure.

Organization Tips

Aside from making your article more readable, organization can make it more attractive. When a reader comes to your page and finds a visually appealing post, she’s more likely to stick around and read what you have to say about your subject.

Section headers will likely be the first things your visitor will read, so make them descriptive. Don’t forget to include relevant keywords for better SEO impact.

Easy-reading elements like bulleted or numbered lists will also send a message to the visitor that your content is easy to digest. Like it or not, our online attention spans are short, and a quick and easy bulleted list can win out over densely packed paragraphs. Summarize in digestible bites whenever that format works for your article.

Don’t forget to include things like images, pull quotes, and other supporting media. These elements bring an article to life and prevent it from looking like a wall of text.

That said, know your audience. Short and sweet isn’t always the way to go. Longform writing is gaining popularity, and things like personal essays work well with this format. But whatever approach you choose, pick a structure that makes logical sense and connects with your reader.

Do you need help structuring your writing? At Certa Publishing, we love to help authors distill their message into an organized, readable format. We are more than happy to step in, no matter where you are in the process. Contact us today!

Don’t let fear steal your message

don't let fear

What if you wrote your entire book without saying that thing you really wanted to say… because of fear? Fear of being too “edgy,” fear of being theologically inaccurate, or fear of offending the reader?

In his article How to Stop Fear From Kicking Your Butt and Killing Your Writing, Frank McKinley gets in our face and admonishes us to write courageously. Enjoy this excerpt:

I used to want my writing to be perfect.

I wanted every word to go perfectly with every other word. My sentences had to sparkle. My wisdom had to astound and inspire. And my prose had to captivate people and take them to new heights of motivational ecstasy.

That’s a standard higher than Mount Everest.

I couldn’t reach it, so I gave up and traded my goal for something even better.

Effectiveness.

The Trouble With Perfection

Perfection is difficult to define.

In fact, it’s impossible.

Perfect compared to what?

Who says what is perfect and what isn’t?

Since you can’t please everyone, who should you please?

Focus, focus.

You can’t help everyone. But you can help some. Why not hone in with laser-like focus and apply your talent to a particular problem for which you have a fantastically effective solution?

Fear is Kicking Your Butt

The problem is you’re afraid.

You’re afraid your work won’t be perfect, so you edit each sentence as you write it.

You don’t do that?

Thank God.

Maybe you spend more time editing than writing, thinking you can capture perfection then.

Perfection is a wily devil, isn’t it?

When you spend too much time at the editing table, you’re like I was as an artist. When I worked on a portrait, I would fill, smudge, and erase. I’d work at it with the precision of a master craftsman.

The problem is paper is made of wood.

If you were a sculptor, you’d know you can only carve off so much. There is definitely a point where you can go too far – and totally ruin an otherwise excellent piece of art.

Mess with paper too long and it starts to deteriorate.

How do you know you’ve edited your writing too much?

All the edgy stuff is so smooth, it is sleep-inducing.

You’re so afraid you’ll ruffle someone’s feathers, you hold back the very thing that will stop a reader in her tracks – your audacity.

When that happens, fear has won.

It’s time to start kicking fear’s butt.

Are you ready?

Here are five ways you can write stuff that can change the world.

Write Your Headline First

What better way to develop laser-like focus than to use your headline as a writing prompt?

If you’re going to work really hard on one sentence, make it your headline.

Make it touch a pain point people feel.

Promise a ray of hope that will make people stand up and pay attention.

Take the headline for this article: How to Keep Fear From Kicking Your Butt and Killing Your Writing

Do you want fear to kick your butt?

Of course you don’t.

Do you want your writing to [be terrible]?

No way.

“How to Keep” promises you there’s a better way.

It also hints that your way isn’t working.

If you want the pain to go away, you’ll read the whole post to find out how to do it, won’t you?

That’s effective writing.

Write a Vomit Draft

Novelists know this term.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’m not asking you to do something gross.

A vomit draft is what you write when you send your inner critic out for a nap. You let the words flow uninhibited. No stops. No backtracking. Just happy, carefree, rant-filled writing.

Don’t stop until you’ve got it all out.

Squash every attempt to change something until every possible word that comes to mind hits the page.

When you’re exhausted, you’re done.

Edit After a Break

If you want to write stuff that makes people stand up and cheer, you need to separate writing and editing.

And I don’t mean take a five minute break.

Take a nap and forget about it.

Go to lunch.

Maybe even climb a mountain.

Separate yourself from your work long enough that your fears don’t have their way with you.

Chances are if you really let yourself go, you’ve got some meaty stuff to work with.

Clean up the prose so it sings. Your voice is unique, special, and melodious. Let your reader hear it in all its glory.

Cut the typos, awkward sentences, and needless repetition.

Then let it go.

Set a Time Limit for Everything

Have you ever had to cram for a test?

You came up with some pretty creative ways to master the material, didn’t you?

Maybe you drew pictures because you’re a visual learner.

Perhaps you set your notes to music because you know you never forget the words to your favorite song.

Or maybe you created a story that covered all the important points you needed to remember.

Whatever you did, you dug deep into your well of creativity – because if you didn’t, you were sunk.

What if you could use that same creativity to bring your writing and editing to a higher level?

All it takes is a kitchen timer.

If you write 1000 words, edit for an hour, then stop.

When you know you have a time limit, you force yourself to do what matters. That’s the key to doing your best work day after day.

If you’re in the middle of something when the time runs out, give yourself 5 minutes – after a break – to finish it.

Then you’re done.

When in Doubt, Publish Anyway

One of the best lessons I ever learned came to me at church.

It was Saturday morning. I was with 100 other men at a seminar called Born Free.

The speaker was talking about the prison our fears build for us.

Then he said a sentence that changed my life forever.

“If you ever find yourself saying, ‘I’m not sure I should have said that,’ then that’s exactly what you need to say.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

If you know you shouldn’t say something, that’s one thing.

If you’re not sure, that’s where your genius might be hiding.

Go ahead and let it out.

That edgy statement could change someone’s future.

Do you want to risk missing out on such an opportunity to make a difference?

So what if your work’s not perfect?

Publish anyway.

So what if what you wrote scares you to death?

Share it with the world.

Some will cheer. Others may gripe. Either way, you’ve done something that matters!

Unleash Your Inner Genius

You’ve just learned five powerful ways to make your writing unforgettable.

If you’ll use these techniques, you’ll have more impact, change more lives, and find more open doors for your message.

And when you feel like a fraud, you’ll have written proof that you aren’t.

There’s no better reward for any writer who’s willing to take big risks to do great work.

At Certa Publishing, we never want fear to get in the way of an author’s message. If you need someone to bounce your courageous ideas off of, we are here for that! Contact us today.

Writers, let’s not be overly romantic

Writers,Let's not be overly romantic

It seems the world of writing is full of myths. In fact, it is so common that we’ve addressed it not just once, but twice on our blog. But we see this issue arise so often that we’ve excerpted one of Michael Hyatt’s articles on the topic that we think you will find both challenging and encouraging:

At this point in my career, I’ve sold a lot of books. But I was hardly an overnight success. First came work in publishing and agenting. I learned how book sales worked—and didn’t work—well before I published a word of my own.

I want to use my experience here to puncture a thought bubble I encounter when talking with would-be writers and other creatives. I call it the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s not only dead wrong; if you fall for it, it will sabotage your success.

Wrong but Romantic

There are four main false assumptions in the Romantic View of Creativity. Here they are:

  1. The creative life is easy, if not effortless. It beats “real work,” in other words.
  2. People will seek you out. Your creative fires will just burn that bright.
  3. People will love you for your art. They will be happy to have such a rare individual in their midst.
  4. You’ll easily make a living at this. And you might even get rich!

I am not exaggerating here. I have encountered creatives and other entrepreneurs who believe one, two, or all of these things. When these assumptions prove false, they often get discouraged and stuck. Some throw in the towel and quit before they’ve accomplished anything significant.

It’s a real shame—and also unnecessary.

What Creatives Need to Hear

The opposite of the four points above is closer to the truth. This will not be easy, and there are no guarantees of success. But you shouldn’t let that stop you, because there is good news here as well. Here are four truths you need to climb the mountain.

1. REAL CREATIVITY INVOLVES SIGNIFICANT WORK

Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University who did the research behind the “10,000 Hour Rule,” as it was slightly misreported in the popular press.

In his book Peak, Ericsson urged readers to forget the 10,000 figure and focus on the now well-documented fact that mastery in almost any field or art form is the result of practicing a specific task for a long time, often thousands of hours.

Whether you want to be a great author, musician, painter, or comedian, it takes practice. You can’t just show up and expect most people to appreciate your unrefined talent. You must put in the hard work to intentionally practice and invest in your craft.

With respect to writing books—a field I know quite well—doing the work requires you to:

  • Come up with a great idea
  • Develop a proposal
  • Find an agent
  • Shop the proposal
  • Secure a publishing contract
  • Write the book
  • Rewrite the book
  • Submit it to outside editors
  • Process their edits
  • Finalize the manuscript

It’s not easy. This all requires significant effort. Successful writers have to be incredibly disciplined to pull it off. And you’re only just getting started at this point.

2. REAL CREATIVITY REQUIRES SIGNIFICANT PROMOTION

Many years ago, an author told me, “Look, my job is to write the books. Your job is to promote them.” He was simply out of touch with reality.

Successful publishing requires that the author both write the book and assist in its promotion. I understand why many authors are uncomfortable promoting their own work, but this inclination is misguided. If you have invested the hours creating the work and really believe in it, why wouldn’t you want to get the work out to as many people as possible?

It is more important than ever to have a platform. When evaluating potential projects, the first question we asked when I was Thomas Nelson’s CEO was about the book’s content. The second question was about the author’s reach. It was rare for us to offer a contract to a new author who didn’t have a built-in audience that might buy the book.

3. REAL CREATIVITY INVITES CRITICISM

From a distance, fame looks very attractive. Famous people are endlessly praised and adored, right? Wrong. Any time your head rises above the crowd, someone is liable to take a shot at you.

It’s easy to lose perspective when folks hurl those criticisms. I can receive one hundred positive comments, yet one negative barb will throw me for a loop. I suddenly think that everyone hates me, and I am ready to quit.

So take it from a fellow criticism sufferer that what you need is not an absence of criticism but perspective. It helps to sort the criticisms as they come in into three different camps: friends, critics, and trolls.

  • Friends love you and are willing to share with you the truth, even if it hurts a little bit.
  • Critics don’t have anything personal against you; they simply disagree with you.
  • Trolls are spoiling for a fight. They attack you because something is wrong with their heart. My best advice is to ignore them. If you engage them, it only strengthens their resolve.

4. REAL CREATIVITY CAN BE PROFITABLE, WITH DELIBERATE ACTION

For some reason, artists (and even some entrepreneurs) often have an uneasy relationship with money. They undervalue their work. They sell from their heels. This prevents them from taking the steps to make it pay enough to survive and prosper.

This makes little sense. Even the Bible implies that we should not feel guilty about charging for our work. As the Apostle Paul says, “A laborer is worthy of his hire.” If it’s any good, creative work is real labor.

When you put a price on something, you create value. Art that is offered freely without charge is often disregarded. In other words, if you, as the artist, don’t think it is worth anything, why should I? This is why I don’t think giving your work away for free is good for you or for the recipient.

If you truly believe in your work, charge for it and find a way to raise your rates as your skills improve.

Don’t Be Scared

I hope that none of these truths scare off creatives who want to make a living from their talents. As truths go, these are not even that hard to swallow.

What I’m saying is don’t fall for the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s going to take practice, promotion, a thicker skin, and an eye for the bottom line. Some of these things may come easier to you than others but they ought to all be possible, if you set out to master them and keep at it.

You may not be good at these disciplines to start with, but think of it this way: How long did it take you to color in the lines, draw that bow string without squeaking, or craft the perfect opening sentence? Keep at it and you may be surprised what you achieve.

At Certa Publishing, we recognize that our authors have both strengths and weaknesses. It’s our job to come alongside you, offer resources, encouragement and the tools you need to publish your message. Contact us today to get started!