Monday, May 31, 2010

Staying on Track with a Devotion

Last week we talked about how to stay on track when writing an article. This week we’ll talk about how that focus pertains to writing devotions. Unless you’re writing flash fiction or poetry, a devotion will be one of the shortest pieces you’ll ever write.

A devotion is a piece that illustrates a truth through a story. Almost always, the truth being illustrated is a Scripture from the Bible. Occasionally you’ll run into other truths illustrated in a similar fashion, but these are generally referred to as meditations.

Because devotions are so short, they’re somewhat easier to keep focused. But be sure that every sentence refers back to the Scripture lesson you’re trying to illustrate. In something so brief, side trips—no matter how enlightening, are strictly forbidden.

Terminology Note: Most people outside the industry interchange the words devotion and devotional. Contrary to popular belief they are NOT synonyms. A devotional is a collection of devotions.

Most devotions range from 100 to 700 words in length, with the average being around 250 words. There are certain conventions you should be aware of when you pen a devotion, but few hard and fast rules.

Here are some of the guidelines commonly followed
  • There’s always one single lesson per devotion (this is a hard and fast rule)
  • There’s a tie into a single Scripture—usually no more than 1-2 verses
  • They’re short—generally 150 to 400 words
These are the aspects that can change
  • The placement of the Scripture—it’s common to have it before or after the body of the devotion
  • Thought for the day—some devotions include them and others don’t
  • Prayer—again, some have them, some don’t
  • Challenge or question—this is another aspect that is up to the publication or author
There are many places that accept devotion submissions. Some offer payment, others only clips. Personally, I love to write devotions and I love to read them. One of my favorite sites is . If you’ve never written devotions before, they're an excellent resource to learn how and they accept submissions. Their policy now is to offer clips, but no payment. Their site gets a lot of hits so it’s a good place for a beginning writer to start.

What devotion sites do you like to read? Where have you submitted devotions? Share your tips and remember –
Don’t forget to join the conversation!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Staying on Track with an Article

I just returned from teaching at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference last week and while I was there I had the opportunity to meet with lots of new writers. I love talking to those just starting out—they are so enthusiastic it’s contagious.

But with that enthusiasm sometimes comes a lack of focus. Newer writers tend to want to cover everything, in every piece they write. So today I’m going to give you some hints to help you stay on track.

The ability to keep focused on your subject matter is important whether you write fiction or non-fiction. But this column will deal with short writing—specifically with articles. In the next few weeks we’ll tackle other forms of writing.

It's critical to keep your reader engaged when you’re writing an article. Today’s readers have shorter attention spans than ever before and very few will tolerate rabbit trails to nowhere. Here are some specific ways to keep your articles on track.
  • Pinpoint Focus – make your subject matter as specific as possible. Don’t just write about babysitting, that’s way too broad a subject. Pick a slant, like babysitting certification for teenagers.
  • Theme Sentence – I always have a single sentence that sums up the point of my article. If I can’t say it in one sentence, I know I haven't narrowed my topic sufficiently. I write that sentence on a sticky note and keep it visible while I do my research and write my article. It helps me cull out information I don’t need and keep me focused.
  • Self Editing – I always take time to go back though my article and check to see that every single sentence relates to my focus. It may be a beautifully crafted sentence, but if it doesn’t relate it’s useless to me and especially to my reader.
What tips have helped you to stay focused on your subject? I'd love know, so don't hesitate to share them with us.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tag, You're It!

Today I want to spend some time on dialogue. Writing effective dialogue takes skill and a little bit of a knowledge base. This is one place where high school or basic college English won’t help you out.

  • All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
  • Speaker tags are considered part of the sentence and are not capitalized.
“What do you want”? She asked.

"What do you want?” she asked.

Unless you’re asking a question, the words in quotes end in a comma, IF you use a speaker tag. (I’ll explain the difference between a speaker tag and a speaker beat in a moment.)

“I can’t believe you did that.” She said.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she said.

Tags and Beats
A speaker tag is a description of how the words were spoken and who spoke them, like said and asked.

“I can’t believe you did that,” said Susan.

It’s important to keep speaker tags simple. Don’t pull out your thesaurus to find synonyms for said. Said, or asked, is almost invisible and the reader just skims over it, uninterrupted. There are two major problems when you use other words instead of said.
  • First—it’s distracting. The reader hesitates, needing time to apply the correct definition of the tag you used.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he prevaricated.

  • Second—you can easily fall into the trap of telling your story through the tags instead of the dialogue, especially if you add an adverb into the line. You want to make sure that the important things happen inside the quotes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.

A speaker beat is a description of what the character is doing or saying. It’s contained in the same paragraph as the words that are spoken and this is how the reader knows who’s talking.

I can’t believe you did that.” Susan crossed her arms and frowned.

A beat or a tag can come before or after the spoken lines. Just be sure it makes sense where you put the beat. Some words are spoken as a reaction to an action, so in that case it wouldn’t make sense for them to precede the action.

Susan jumped and placed her hand on her chest. “You scared me. I didn’t know you were there.”

A speaker beat can also show us what he character’s feeling, unlike a tag, which just tells us.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.

Simon looked down and dug the toe of his shoe into the dirt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Another Common Mistake
Beginning writers sometimes get confused about whether a short phrase is a speaker beat or a speaker tag. One I see over and over again is she smiled. She smiled is a beat, not a tag. The easiest way to tell the difference is to ask yourself if the can smile(or laugh or whatever) the words. You can’t smile words so you know to punctuate it as a separate sentence.

“I like you,” Angela smiled.

“I like you.” Angela smiled.

I hope this clears up some of the questions you may have had about dialogue.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thursday Review - Revision and Self Editing

Revision & Self-Editing
by James Scott Bell

This week the Thursday Review is done by fellow writer, Mary Denman.

No author today has published a novel without an editing. Behind every great story is a great editor. But how do you get your manuscript in front of a busy editor to polish it if it has problems in tension, or dialogue or story line? Well, you have to become your own editor. How, you might ask? By reading James Scott Bell’s book, Revision and Self-Editing.

An accomplished novelist in his own right, Jim distills the lessons he’s learned into a fantastic book that teaches you what problems to look for in your own novel. Dialogue not right? He covers that. Struggling with POV or descriptions? Want to understand showing vs. telling? He covers that and more in the Self-Editing section. He also provides concrete examples and exercises throughout the book to teach you what he’s talking about.

But how do you revise the entire manuscript you’ve produced? Read the second half of his book. He includes the Ultimate Revision Checklist which is worth its weight in gold. He takes you step by step through the process and you’ll have a stronger novel for it.

So how do I know how great this book is? Because my copy is pink and green from highlighters. And it’s written in from cover to cover. Literally. Jim Bell inspired me to tackle the project of self-editing. And I’m glad he did.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Getting Ready for a Writers Conference

I know a lot of you are going to be attending writers conferences this year. I want to share some of the things you may want to prepare before you go. I've written about reasons to attend a conference on this blog previously and I'll address what you'll need for two of those.

Networking is the easiest to prepare for. If you're just going to meet other writers and professionals the main thing you need is a good business card. Please take note, I said, good, NOT expensive.

These are the things a good writers business card includes:
  • Your picture - I know, I hate to have my picture taken and I always hate how it looks. But, in this business you need to be remembered and recognized and your picture is the best and easiest way to do that. If someone has a card with your picture on it, they'll remember who you are months longer than if it's just got your name. Also, it's harder to throw away a card with a picture on it than a card with just text on it.
  • The name you use when you write - if you use a psuedonym, be sure it's on the card. Here's an example (I just made up the names - they're not representative of a real person): Susie Stone, writing as Catherine Milo.
  • Your email address - this is going to be the main way others will contact you.
  • Your website or blog address - never pass up the opportunity to encourage new visitors to your sites. Also, many people will follow up on what you've told them and this will be a way for them to get to know you better.
  • Cell phone number - this isn't absolutely necessary, but it helps if your email goes down and someone has a hot lead for you.
Please take note of what is NOT included on a business card now. You do not need your physical address on the card. Actually, it's a liability. It can be dangerous to give out your home address, so if you feel you must include an address, invest in a PO Box.

It is possible to make your own business cards, using Avery brand sheets that go through your ink jet printer. The trick to successfully printing your own cards is to keep them simple! Another inexpensive way to go is by using VistaPrint. This online company is very reputable and I personally know a lot of writers who get their cards through them.

Bring some writing samples:
These are good to have simply because you'll probably find yourself in a group, or at a table, where everyone is sharing something they've written. It might not happen, but chances are, if you don't have anything to show, you'll be disappointed.

This is when you attend a conference because you have something you want to sell to a publisher or if you want to get an agent. The things below that you'll need are specifically for those wishing to sell a fiction or non-fiction book.

It's important to keep in mind that everything you prepare for the conference to pitch a project is incremental in nature.
  • Your tag line or hook should make the editor or agent ask to hear more about your project (this is the time for the elevator pitch).
  • The elevator pitch should lead them to ask for your one sheet.
  • Your one sheet or pitch sheet should lead them to ask you to send them a proposal when you get home.
  • Your proposal should lead them to ask you to send them your entire manuscript.
  • Your entire manuscript should lead them to offer you a contract.
These are the generic steps in publishing. God can step in at any time in the process and something completely different can, and often does, happen. But, until that happens, I try to take it one step at a time.

Now Let's look at what's involved in each one of these components.
  • tag line or hook - this is one sentence, preferably 15 words or less. It should NOT be a synopsis of your book, but rather it's to intrigue the editor/agent and make them want to know more.
  • elevator pitch - this should be short, around 45 seconds. It will sound a lot like back cover copy or what is on your one sheet. Again, it's to make the editor/agent ask to see more.
  • one sheet or pitch sheet - this gives the blurb about your book, information about yourself (bio) and general info, like genre and audience for your project. If it's fiction, it states that the project is finished. If it's non-fiction it gives a completion date if the project is unfinished
You won't need a full proposal or manuscript for the conference. If an editor or agent is interested they'll ask you to email or snail mail them one when you get home.

Again, as with networking, you'll need to bring some samples of your writing.

This is just a general overview of what is needed. If you have specific questions, feel free to use the contact form at the bottom of the blog and send me your question. You can also post your question in the comments section. In the next few weeks I'll address each of these components individually or in groups and give you some examples to see exactly what others have used successfully.

Don't forget to join the conversation!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Weekend Worship - Cross Roads

Are you at a Cross road in your life? Has God brought you to a point where you don’t know which way to go on your journey with Him? Well, don’t feel like you’re alone. These moments come to all of us. I have so many things I can spend my time on—necessary things—all of them good things. As a matter of fact the only thing I know is that there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything! I can usually decide between good and evil, that’s a no brainer, but good and good, that’s much tougher.

This hits me constantly in my writing life. I have so many things I can spend my time on—how do I know what to chose? I’ve found there’s one choice that’s right every time. I’ve learned to chose God.

I know, it sounds like a Sunday school answer, one of those situation when the teacher asks a question and the answer is always God. I’m not talking about that kind of flip, hip answer. I’m talking about choosing a constant, consistent relationship with God, so that when those Cross roads appear, we’re ready. I’ve found that when we’re are walking closely with God, His leading is almost automatic. We get so tuned into His Spirit and His will for our lives, that we don't have to stop and think about our response.

On the other hand, when we’re walking in the flesh, in step with the world, our logic will usually lead us in the opposite direction from God. My logic, in and of itself, always seems to contain self justification and realization. I always know that I am out of step with Him when I have to stop and pray about every little thing, looking for God because I seem to have lost Him. I have wandered from His side and am once again seeking my own way. Of course there are times when I am walking with Him, and I am still unsure about what to do, but I find this doesn't happen as often.

So I encourage you to get in step with God. Build that relationship and let Him prepare you for the Cross roads ahead. Remember—He already know what you need to make the right decision.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!

Photo taken and owned by John Melson

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thursday Review - Online Writers Groups & Resources

If you're reading this blog, I'm confident you've already discovered numersous writing blogs that are worth their weight in gold, so I'm going to concentrate on online groups. These online resources ae ones that I’ve found to be invaluable. These groups have helped me move from wanna-be to professional writer. They’ve provided support, education and fellowship in the this sometimes isolating world of writing.

One quick caveat, spend your time with online groups wisely. If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself using your writing time visiting with online groups instead of writing. If you make good choices and limit the number of groups you’re active in and these can be a huge boon to your career.

  • If you write books, you’ll find that every genre now has an online group. There are groups for writers of mystery, science fiction and romance, just to name a few. The best way to find these groups is to do a search online. Also ask for referrals from other writers you may know.
  • There are also groups for children’s writers, the largest of these is SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). For those who write Christian fiction ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) may be the place for you.
  • There are also groups for those that do business writing, copy writing, grant writing and journalism.
  • There are also groups for those of us who are editors, as well as writers. I particularly like The Christian Pen editing group.
  • There are also more general groups. One of my personal favorites is a Yahoo group, The Christian Writers View 1 and 2. TWV 1 is for professional writers and TWV2 is for beginning and intermediate writers. These groups are well moderated and the information provided is stellar!

Most of these groups offer at least a regular newsletter, to help their members grow as professionals. Some even offer full online magazines (e-zines) that are available whether you’re a member or not. One of these is Afictionado, the e-zine for ACFW.

Many of the bigger organizations also offer online courses at a free or reduced cost.

Some of these groups can require steep, yearly dues. You also have to watch out for groups that aren't well moderated. These can open you up to spam. They can also be full of incorrect information and angry poster. And, as I mentioned before, they can be time suckers if you don’t watch out.

I’ve limited myself to three groups.
  • ACFW
  • The Christian Writers View 1
  • The Christian Pen
What groups have you found useful in your writing career?

Don't forget to join the conversation!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Paralyzing Fear

Paralyzing fear, also known to those of us who scribble as a living as writer’s block. Most writers have experienced this at some point in their career. Traditionally, we define it as a time when the well runs dry in the middle of a project.

I have a different opinion. I’ve talked with (okay, occasionally ambushed) many writers over the years and find the conversation might go something like this.

Me: “Have you ever had to deal with writer’s block?”

Anonymous Writer: “No, never. Once I start a project I just keep going, no matter what I’m feeling.”

Me: “What about before you begin a project? Have you ever postponed it because you doubt your ability to do it justice? Or maybe you needed to think about it some more - just work out the details in your head?"

At this point the person I’m speaking with usually takes a step back and begins to hem and haw. Most writers don’t include being afraid to start a project, as writer’s block. I would beg to differ – anything that keeps you paralyzed and unable to write is, by definition, writer’s block.

Funny thing is that the people who suffer most from writer’s block are writers who’ve had a modicum of success. Maybe they’ve won a contest or two, or written regularly. Far more often I find that they’re afraid they can’t live up to what’s gone before. I also find it crops up when a writer is trying a new genre. They might be going from fiction to non-fiction, or from writing devotions to writing a column or even romance to science fiction. Let’s face it, trying something new is always a daunting prospect.

Now that we’ve defined it, how do we combat it?
  • First, quit putting it off. Make a commitment to spend a certain amount of time in front of the computer – writing – and do it. Sound hard? Of course it is, otherwise everyone would be a writer.
  • Begin by writing what you’re afraid of. Fear of failure? Write why it matters. Fear of inadequacy? Define it. You’ll find that it looks small and a little silly when you actually write it down.
  • Next, remember how you got here. Recognition in the writing world comes (99.9% of the time) from putting in time. It comes from being willing to let others see your work and getting back at it after rejection. Give yourself some credit – you’re obviously not a wimp, or you wouldn’t be trying to become a writer.
  • Finally, give yourself permission to try and fail. Just because this one project doesn’t work out doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. I would say the contrary is true. If everything you’ve tried, succeeded, maybe you’re not trying much.
So get out there, quit procrastinating under the guise of ‘I have to think this through before I start.’ Blow a raspberry at writer’s block and hit those keys!

Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to join the conversation!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Weekend Worship - Waiting on God

I don’t know about you, but waiting patiently isn’t in my top ten of favorite things to do. I hate being patient, whatever it is—I want it, and I want it now. I would like to think I’m a product of my times and environment. After all, we live in a world of the ‘instant now’. How nice it would be to put the blame somewhere other than my immaturity.

This has been particularly true when it comes to my writing life. I want that answer, that contract, that opportunity—NOW. I don’t want to wait for my experience level to match my ambitions. But, time has taught me that God really does know what He’s doing. I can honestly say I’m glad God has delayed and given me time to become a better writer.

God has shown me that’s all impatience is, immaturity with a mask. So many times in my life, if God had given me the answer the moment I asked, I would have missed out on so much. I would have missed the sweet prayer time, the fellowship with others who shared in my journey, and the ultimate joy of something anticipated and achieved. I would have also missed out on being used by God to teach and comfort others as they saw Him work in my life.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes. Ps 37:7 (NIV)

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