Advice for Aspiring Writers


Got a call this week from a dear old friend from our Minnesota days. Wasn’t it just the other day our kids were small and we were taking turns hosting sleepovers?

It seems their offspring, like ours, had the chutzpah to grow up and plan productive lives of their own. (Kids can be so insensitive.) He was calling because one of his young-adult girls had recently expressed interest in becoming a writer. He was hoping I could share a few insights or practical words of wisdom to help her get started.

I actually get this question or some variation thereof quite a bit. A few times per month someone reaches out to me by phone, email or social media in search of advice. Some, like my friend’s daughter, want to pursue writing as a calling. Others believe they have a book in them that needs to get out. Some have experienced an extraordinary life event and have repeatedly been told by friends and loved ones, “You need to write a book about that.”

Of course, I’m always happy to dip a ladle into the exotic bouillabaisse that is my life experience and dole out a steaming, savory cup of crackpot sagacity for a hungry enquirer. However, I’m sure most of these askers are profoundly disappointed once they hear my advice. I can see it on their faces. That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?

I suspect my honest answer is far too simple to be satisfying.

How simple?  The essence of the advice I give aspiring writers can be found in the two-word reminder I once put on a Post-It Note and stuck on the front of the monochrome monitor of my IBM PC XT compatible (a whopping 640k RAM) 30 years ago when I hadn’t written anything longer than a 60-second radio commercial or a two-minute newscast.

The handwritten note said, “Writers write!”

designI’m not the first to have used that reminder as a motivational pointy stick for self-prodding. It’s a novelists’ proverb that has been passed around among aspiring writers since Jane Austen was in a training bra.

The meaning is that countless people think about writing. Multitudes speak frequently about their plans to write. But precious few ever sacrifice the time, push through the pain, and actually put words on paper (or screen).

Pain? Oh, yeah. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But just know that the first rule of Write Club is: “Don’t talk about Write Club. Just write.” You may be bad at it at first. (I was. Reading my early stuff now induces a grand mal cringing-wincing episode in me.) But you’ll get better. No one may pay you for what you write at first. But you’ll be banking experience and learning the craft.

Back in the Late Cretaceous Period when I first started writing, there were no blogs and no self-publishing opportunities on Amazon. There have never been more venues in which to write; and it’s never been easier to have your writing “discovered” by others than there are today. But the writing has to get done. Which brings me to this . . .

Writing is sometimes often almost always painful.

New Acquaintance: “Do you enjoy writing?”
Me: “Oh goodness, no.”
New Acquaintance: (shocked-confused face) “Really?”
Me: “No. I don’t like writing. But love having written. Do women enjoy childbirth?”

Writing is EasyWhich brings me to another of my favorite proverbs for writers: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare intently at a blank screen until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

In other words, if you wait to be infused with inspiration to start writing, you’ll likely never start. You just start slogging. Slog long and persistently enough and inspiration has a way of sneaking up on you.

So here it is. The secret sauce. The mysterious alchemic formula I’ve used to write 37 published books (most of them anonymously, as a ghostwriter), two of which became New York Times non-fiction bestsellers.

  1. Put rear in seat in front of keyboard.
  2. Lay one word down after another until you have a whole sentence.
  3. Keep creating sentences until you have a paragraph.
  4. Keep building paragraphs until you have a full page.
  5. Repeat.

I’m sorry. I truly wish it were sexier than that. It’s just not. Thus, the truths described above winnow out about 98% of all aspiring writers. They are also the reason I’ve been able to make a pretty good living writing other people’s books for them over the last 30 years.

Of course, if a person is willing to put in the time and hard work—has the “fire in the belly”—there are some practical things one can do to get better, faster. There are a few hacks, tips and tricks in the craft.

design-2One thing I’ve noticed over the years . . . Really good writers tend to be readers. In fact, I’ve never met a gifted, successful author who wasn’t a voracious devourer of books.

More specifically, it’s helpful to read good writing. Read over your head. Read above your pay grade. Read outside your usual interests and preferred genres. Read genius writing that’s so good it’s actually discouraging. (The discouragement will wear off, but the genius will rub off, and germinate in your soul.)

Here’s another pro-tip I wish I’d learned sooner . . .

Yes, “writers write.” But then they re-write. And then re-re-write. You never do your best writing on your first pass. The best, most productive writers create a rough draft—the operative word there being “rough.” They don’t try to perfect a sentence before moving on to the next one. Likewise, they don’t try to perfect a paragraph before moving on to the next.

write edit

They write quick and dirty, loose and ugly, just to get the basic ideas, concepts and thoughts down before they evaporate. The goal is flow, not perfection.

Your brain will fight you on this. Seriously. It will engage you in fierce, dirty, krav maga combat. To win, you have to continually reassure your brain that you’re going to go back over those sentences later. But that for now, it’s vital to just keep moving forward.

I delicately describe this first draft exercise as, “throwing up on paper.” The more artful saying among experienced wordsmiths is “Write in haste. Edit at leisure.”

Finally, there are some books on the art and science of writing that have helped me a lot. Some of these I dust off and re-read every few years. I’d recommend starting with The Elements of Style. It’s indispensable. You really do need a firm grasp of the “rules” of good writing—even if you ultimately end up breaking them. It’s okay to break the rules but it’s not okay to not know when you’re breaking them. Or why you’re doing so.

Once you’ve internalized those principles, I’d move on to the “sequel” so to speak, Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing.

The quickest way to start getting paid to write words is to become skilled at marketing and direct response writing. To learn this craft I’d start with the ancient but still-relevant books of John Caples, the original Don Draper. See here and here. I also recommend Robert Bly.

For aspiring novelists and screenwriters, I recommend Robert McKee’s, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The fact is, all effective writing—no matter what the genre—involves story telling. It seems the human mind is wired to take in, remember and be impacted by information presented in story form.

Do you have a good story to tell? Are you prepared to tell it well? I’ll pull up a chair. Others will too.

A Quantum of Winter Solace

ShackletonWell, here at Pine Thicket Palace we’re pre-hunkering down for the brief wave of late-winter weather that the Weather Channel hype-machine has dubbed “Winter Storm Quantum.”

The naming of winter storms was an inevitable development, I suppose. Television news and information ratings are driven by hype and hysteria-inducement. I await the Weather Channel’s dire warnings about Mild Warm Front Armagezzmo at some future date.

Mrs. Blather ran to the grocery store to pick up a few soup making supplies and found it a scene out of an apocalyptic B-movie. All the grocery carts were in use by the horde of shoppers frantically clearing the shelves. She’s not sure but a fight over the last jar of gherkins may have broken out on Aisle 3.

For me, it’s all a grand excuse perfectly rational argument for putting off a lot of work in the yard.

If we’re trapped inside for a day or two, I’ll make good use of the time. I need to prepare outlines for a couple of new Bible study series I plan to teach in March and April. (Stand by for news.) Plus, Mrs. Blather and I will be leading a marriage and family encounter weekend at a great church up on Wisconsin in April as well.

No, the only worry I have regarding “Quantum” is for all the new buds, blooms and blossoms that emerged over the last couple of weeks.  Same thing happened last February. We were about to get a riot of spring color and a long, hard freeze literally nipped everything in the bud.

Stupid nature.






On the First Signs of Spring

Holland Camellia

Spring arrives relatively early here in northern Texas—several weeks earlier that what I experienced growing up in Oklahoma. And about 12-to-14 weeks earlier than when we lived in Minneapolis.

Technically the first signs of Spring’s impending arrival here are . . . weeds. In fact, I’ve been in engaged in a pitched battle against dandelion and henbit for several weeks now and believe I’m getting the upper hand. And last weekend I launched a fierce preemptive strike against crabgrass and dallis grass—having lost nearly half of one side of my front lawn to the unholy invaders last summer.

The price of liberty and weedless lawns is eternal vigilence.

By the way, did you know that the dandelion plant was introduced to North America by the first European colonists . . . as a food source. It’s true. You can prepare and eat dandelion leaves as you would collard greens or “poke salad.” Tuck that away in your memory in the event there’s a complete breakdown of social order and we find ourselves in some sort of post-apocolyptic crisis. You can survive on dandelions in a pinch.

While enjoying Valentine’s Day coffee with Mrs. Blather on the patio this glorious morning (we’re expecting sunshine and 78 today), we noticed the two blossoms pictured above on one of our two Camellia trees. Many more will follow over the next few weeks. And then they’ll be done for the year–first in, first out.

The azaleas are up next, along with the Redbud and ornamental Cherry we planted a year ago last winter. Then the dianthus, the other perennials, and finally the roses.

Summer’s heat will arrive soon enough and refuse to leave until October. Until then, we’ll savor the first splashes of color. And offer up genuine thanks for the little pleasures we find here on Pine Thicket Lane.


On the President at the National Prayer Breakfast

As we have seen many times, there is no moment so grave that our current president will not to use it to get up on his high horse, take a shot at Western civilization, and emphasize his own moral superiority.

That’s the opening line of David Galernter’s important and devastating piece posted over at National Review Online.  I encourage you to read the whole thing. 

On “A Fierce Exchange of Tracts”

For no particular reason I was reading the Wikipedia entry for the “Plymouth Brethren.” I still can’t stop laughing about one particular passage concerning an 1845 theological dispute between Brethren sect co-founders John Darby and Wills Newton:

Two years later, Darby attacked Newton over notes taken by hearers of a lecture Newton had given on the 6th Psalm. A fierce exchange of tracts followed and although Newton retracted some of his statements, he eventually left Plymouth and established another chapel in London.

Ooooh, the dreaded fierce exchange of tracts. You hate to see a dispute devolve into that. Nothing uglier.


The God of Gradually

treeringsThis may sting a little. At least at first. But stay with me. There is much good news and no small bit of comfort here.

There is a rousing, thrilling sermon I’ve heard preached several times and in varying forms over the years. It always seems to be a crowd pleaser.

The message is built around several of the many “suddenly” scriptures in the Bible. Walls suddenly fall down, bringing victory. Seas suddenly part, providing a pathway to deliverance. “Suddenly” a sound like a mighty rushing wind fills a room and everyone inside is filled with God Himself.

It’s an appealing, exciting thought—especially to those of us living in the age of drive-through everything and same-day delivery from Amazon.

The basic theme of these messages is that God is a “God of Suddenlies.” And He is. Sometimes. But is He always?

Is it really the case that when God’s redemptive power, glory or presence inserts itself into this material realm, it invariably does so with startling, precipitous rapidity—in other words, “suddenly?”

Here’s a sobering exercise. Search “suddenly” and “sudden” in your favorite English translation of the Bible and you’ll find that all but a few of the suddenlies recorded there are calamities.

Sudden destruction. Sudden catastrophe. Sudden attack. Sudden collapse. Such a review of scripture suggests that it is this fallen creation, and the outlaw spiritual enemy prowling upon it like a roaring lion, that are the ones who specialize in suddenlies.

There is a reason for this. In this entropic, fallen world, destroying is easy. Building takes time. The twin towers of the World Trade Center complex took eight years to plan and build. Blind, demonic hate took them down in a day.

Brush fires are sudden things. Generous, fruit-laden apple trees take their sweet time—a full generation. Sometimes two.

The fact is, much of God’s work in our lives—as with the unfolding of His kingdom on earth—is progressive. Incremental. Gradual. This makes it easy to miss. Or take for granted.

This truth is seen repeatedly in the imagery the Bible’s Author uses to describe His work in this world.

Tiny mustard seeds grow to be the biggest plant in the garden. A little pinch of yeast spreads and multiplies until the entire loaf of bread comes under its influence. “The path of the justified is like the dawn—growing brighter and brighter until the full day appears. (Prov. 4:18)

In the second chapter of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream features a statue with feet of iron mixed with clay (symbolizing the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus). In the king’s dream a stone comes out of heaven and smashes the statue’s feet to smithereens. Then that stone grows into a mountain. And then that mountain keeps growing until it fills the entire earth.

That stone’s name was Jesus.

Growth. Progress. Expansion. This is the way of God.

It seems that everything God does has three aspects and phases. Each act of God is:

  1. Definitive (judicially/legally established)
  2. Progressive (gradually enacted or enforced)
  3. Consummative (fully and ultimately completed)

First God establishes a thing as rightful and legal in the court of Heaven for He has built the Cosmos on a judicial framework. Then He—in concert with His human agents—incrementally establishes that thing through progressive enforcement. This continues until the full and perfect manifestation of that thing has come.

In the fall of 1967 I was saved (my salvation was judically/legally established). Since then I am being saved incrementally and progressively. And a day will come—as mortality gives way to immortality—when that salvation will be consummated and complete.

What’s true for me is also true of this broken world. And God is unimaginably patient. Even if we aren’t.

This is not to say that God is not willing and able to work in the suddenly. He clearly is. Or to suggest that we shouldn’t hunger to see miraculous breakthroughs of His power and glory into the natural realm in ways that make broken things whole in an instant. We should.

But often those sudden breakthroughs are only the visible manifestations of unseen spiritual activity that has been taking place for months, years and even across generations.

You see, the under-appreciated truth is that the foundation for God’s suddenlies is almost always laid in his graduallies.

The visible miraculous, instantaneous healing often springs from someone’s (not necessarily the sick person’s) weeks, months or even years of praying, standing, and dwelling in God’s presence. The move of God that “suddenly” breaks out is usually preceded by a lot of unseen, progressive, incremental taking of ground (enforcement) by people of prayer.

A mountain avalanche seems like the most sudden of things. But that roaring tsunami of white was surely preceded by hundreds of quiet snowfalls. Progressively, incrementally—gradually—the snow accumulates on the mountainside. Then one day a twig snaps and the whole thing breaks loose, changing the landscape completely.

So, do twig snaps cause avalanches? Not usually.

I love God’s suddenlies. They’re thrilling. But I’m learning that I see more of them when I wholeheartedly embrace His gradual-ities in my life.

In other words, I understand I’ve been adopted by the patient, methodical God of Gradually.

Apple Tree