Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lessons in Beginnings for Writers

A swirl of books. How do you get into a story?
As a writer, have you ever heard the term "throat clearing"? Over the years I've heard this term used when I met with editors at writers conferences and also in workshops. For me, this usually applied to a short piece I was showing them, like an article or devotional, but the principle applies to longer pieces like books and chapters also. The editors were telling me that I didn't really get to the heart of my piece of writing for several sentences or even paragraphs. (Tweet that!) In longer pieces, you may find your real beginning pages later.

I was reminded of this term recently by an article in the Christian Communicator:
…great beginnings often don't appear in the first draft. Or, if they do, they often aren't at the beginning. That's why the editing process is so important.

Many times you will discover that the first couple pages of your writing are no more than "throat clearing," and you get to your point somewhere around page 3. In a short piece, like a devotional or article, those first lines you type may not be the best beginning and will probably need to be deleted and replaced with a sentence currently in your fourth paragraph. 
("Your First Impression" by Linda Taylor, March-April 2017 issue of Christian Communicator, page 15.)

From my own experience, I find this principle very true for my non-fiction writing. And as I pursue writing fiction I find the same holds true. However I've learned a lot about beginnings and how to get started from working in screenwriting and making short films. (Tweet that!)

How do we get into the Story?

One of the first short films I produced was "Air Guitar." This was actually a practice film. I was preparing to shoot the first short film I produced on my own and I wanted to run through the whole procedure once just to perform the process from start to finish — including filming, capturing sound, then the film editing. I also wanted to run through the whole process with my small film crew — camera man, sound person, actors, film editor. So one day I gathered my camera man, sound, casting and acting coach with a couple young actors and we did a run-through. I'd worked with the camera man on a short film the previous year, so we both had that experience. He would also be my film editor.

In order to have something to shoot and practice with, I wrote a one-page script. It was actually a joke I'd made up and then wrote it to play it out with actors. I opened the script in a kitchen with my actors cooking brownies for a birthday party. We set up to film in my kitchen.

Then my camera man hit me with a question: Yes, it's a story about a birthday party, but how do you want to open up the film? What's our first image? What do we show?

Until then I didn't even realized that I had never considered how to get into the story. How do we get started? (Tweet that!) How do we introduce this world we're in and our story's characters. Thankfully my camera man also had a suggestion: he did a close shot of just our hands passing out festive-colored plates and napkins. In the editing he put jazzy music under the scene. And, of course, he added the title and opening credits. That's how we got started.

Had I left it as I had it, we would have just jumped into cooking and dialog. No title. No opening credits. The audience would not have known it was a party. We would not have set the festive tone with the jazzy music. My script probably would have stumbled around with some meaningless dialog — "throat clearing" — trying to get into the story.

If you'd like to see the short film we made that day, it's here: "Air Guitar" short film

Since then I've tried to think much more about how to start my stories, articles, and books — both fiction and nonfiction — as well as each chapter. How is it best to get into them?

Establishing shots

In film, it used to be popular to show what is called an "establishing shot." I'm sure you've seen them, you just didn't know what they were called. An establishing shot is usually a camera shot showing a city skyline or the outside of a building or house — something that shows, and establishes, where we are. The tone is often also given: a storm is brewing, or a sunny day, or scary bad-guy music. But there is no dialog or anything that moves the story forward.

For the film I'm currently producing, a documentary of a true-life event, so far my best thought for opening the film is to show an establishing shot of a certain street intersection in the small city where I live. Then we'll widen the shot to show more of the city skyline and mountains beyond. I'm thinking I may even superimpose the city's name, state, and population. Of course the audience won't understand the importance of any of this information at the beginning, but it's all important and relevant. It will tell them where we are (city and state). Then through the story they will learn that this busy traffic intersection is actually where the event took place, in a city of sufficient size that it's very interesting that so many people are connected to what happened that night. This establishing shot will help me introduce and get into the story. (By the way, I also plan to come full circle and end the film here at this intersection … with one important change that has taken place since the event happened.)

Films and television shows don't use establishing shots as much as they used to. In writing, it may be good to have a character in this "establishing shot" or something that moves the story forward, but that is one way to get into the story. (Tweet that!)

Thesis Statements

In non-fiction writing, whether articles or a chapter in a book, it's good to focus the piece of writing with a focus statement or thesis statement. I wrote on this topic in a previous post so you can find more help with that here:

The thesis statement typically goes near the beginning of the piece and then the rest of the article or chapter supports that statement. So finding an introduction that introduces or "gets to" that thesis statement is needed, and is the path to a good beginning. (Tweet that!) However finding that path is still challenging.

"Throat Clearing" is Necessary to Find Your Beginning

You may need to do a lot of writing, allowing yourself to do a lot of "throat clearing," before you find the best path into your article, chapter, or story. That's okay. Do it. (Tweet that!) Just be sure to let it rest (days, weeks if you have the time), and then go back and edit. Let it rest. Edit. It will most likely take several rounds before you get to a great beginning.

What about you? Do you struggle with great beginnings? Do you need to do some "throat clearing" in writing before you can find your best starting place? (Tweet that!) It's not bad or wrong to write this "throat clearing." I actually think it's necessary in order to find the best starting place. We just can't leave it like that. We need to edit all the throat clearing out and find our best beginning before we turn in a project or let a prospective editor or publisher read it.

That doesn't mean we can't let anyone read it. We often need the help of another writer. A friend and fellow traveler on the writing journey, because they understand what a great beginning is. And they can spot "throat clearing" in our writing far better than we can see it in our own.

Take a look at the beginnings of your previously written stories or articles. Can you see any "throat clearing" going on? How would you now edit that beginning?

Then take a look at your work(s) in progress. Have you found the best beginning yet? Or do you need to do some "throat clearing" to find a it? (Tweet that!)

When you look at your previously written projects and your current works in progress, what lessons in beginnings can you learn?

Related Article and Link:

    Wednesday, March 1, 2017

    Helping A Writer’s Muddled Mind - Part 2

    Last month I was lamenting the problem I was having getting going after the first of the year. I felt muddled during most of January and felt like I wasn’t making much progress with my writing projects. (Tweet this!) As a part of that muddle, I also couldn’t think of what to write about on this blog. When a friend suggested I write about that very topic — How to generate new writing ideas when we’re dry — and suggested others might be helped by my struggles, I gave it a go and, much to my surprise, ended up with such a lengthy blog post I’ve divided it into two!

    If you wish to read about the first three causes of my thinking and writing-muddle I identified last month: 
    • 1. Not Enough Ideas 
    • 2. Too Many Ideas 
    • 3. Distractions, 

    Here are the other three causes of a writer’s muddled mind that I was able to identify:

    4. Things I Don’t Want to Do (But Need to Do)

    It seems clear to me that whenever I get overloaded with tasks I don’t like doing or dread doing, everything slows and I can’t seem to get much done. (Tweet it!) I don’t think it matters if we’re creative people or business people or laborers or whatever, in every job I’ve ever held there have been tasks I enjoy doing and tasks I dislike or dread doing. It seems equally clear to me that we can all get ourselves to do those tasks we don’t like or dread. Because it’s part of the job.

    But when everything on our to-do lists is stuff we don’t want to do, it can stall us out completely. We need a little bit of sugar mixed in, don’t you think?

    I also think sometimes I don’t want to do things because there’s something else going on. It could be that I really don’t know how to do what I need to do. That’s my next point #5 below.

    But it can also be that I’m stalled out on doing something I normally don’t mind doing. Such as, you ask? Last month I described how dry I was on ideas for this blog. Normally I enjoy writing this blog. I love sharing with you something I’ve learned or something I know which I think will help you.

    Still, there are times when I intensely don’t want to write this blog. (Sorry. It’s true.) Why? Well that’s a very good question for me to stop and think about.

    The “why” behind why I didn’t want to write this blog last month, once I stopped and gave some thought to it, turned out to be because I didn’t have a great idea that I felt would help you. I couldn’t think of anything new to share that you might need. I could think of things to write about, but not that I thought sounded profitable for you.

    I was stuck. Stuck for a good idea. I needed to do it. But I didn’t want to do it because nothing sounded good to me.

    So what’s the solution? If possible either mix in some things you want to do, or figure out a way through what you don’t want to do, or both.

    If you’re stuck, ask for help. Ask your writer friends. Ask other friends. Ask a stranger if you must. Ask the person next to you the bus or the train or in the waiting room or standing in line.

    I recently read a statement from a successful author who said that early in her career an editor advised her to ask everyone (strangers included):
    “What book do you wish had been written for you to read?” 
    Wow. I never thought of doing that. This author said it had served her well and had sparked many of her books. (Tweet that!)

    So ask someone for help and see what you get.

    Furthermore, if you’re a believer, ask God for help. He may have a great idea for you. And He just might be wishing you would ask.

    5. Things I Don’t Know How to Do (But Must Do)

    Sometimes I mistake a task as #4 above — something I don’t want to do — when the real problem is that I don’t know how to do it. And so I’m stuck. No matter how much I prod myself to get going, I can’t move forward. Then I realize the real reason isn’t because I’m lazy or don’t feel like doing it, it’s because I don’t know how to get over the mountain that is standing before me.

    One such recent dilemma for me was this: My writing projects this spring include two film projects. I need to do a fundraiser for both of them.

    Not a writer's usual work. I’ve never done a fundraiser before. I have so many questions. I don't know how to do this. I’ve observed others and therefore thought I knew how to do it and I have many ideas of what I can do to hopefully make it a success. But I kept not starting the project.

    I had questions in my mind I didn’t know how to answer. Should I do this fundraiser? Should I not? I hate asking for money. What should I offer for incentives? I’m producing not one, but two, projects this spring — one with a larger crew, one with a small crew. I couldn’t see running two separate fundraisers and making them both successful, nor could I see how to run one and divide the proceeds fairly between the two. Help!

    Then I asked God to help me figure out how to do this fundraiser. Before I got to bed I had an idea that could work. The next morning I spent an hour writing down all my ideas.

    Incentives? Duh. I have books. And I have expertise. I can offer consultations, phone meetings with writers and filmmakers. Others on my film teams might be willing to offer the same in their area of expertise.

    Which film project? I could let the donor tell me by listing the same incentive three times:
    • Choose this one if you want your donation to go to the narrative film team. 
    • Choose this one if you want your donation to go to the documentary film. 
    • Choose this one if you don’t have a preference and I can use your donation wherever it is needed most.

    This fundraiser had me stopped for a long time because it was something I could not figure out how to do. But I kept seeking an answer and it came. (Tweet that!) Now I’m moving forward, excited about my FUN-Draiser!

    6. A Writer’s Worries

    Finally, as I was trying figure out why my writer’s mind was so muddled that I was having difficulty getting anything done, I discovered that the more difficulties I had getting going on projects and finding answers to my dilemmas, the harder it was to sleep at night. I didn’t want to worry about these things through the night but they wouldn’t let me sleep. That just added to my muddled thinking the next day.

    So what was my solution to this? One night I made a rule: No thinking about the project allowed between the hours of 9:00 PM and 7:00 AM. This is sleep time. I can’t do anything about any of it during those hours anyway. So why lay awake worrying?  (Tweet it!)

    My new rule works. Mostly. I still break it occasionally but I’m better for the rule and with practice it’s getting easier to enforce it. It’s about setting boundaries around our work and our projects. It’s about keeping good boundaries so we can have a life beyond our work.

    What about you? What muddles your writer’s mind? What stops you from making progress on your writing projects? Can you identify different problems than what I did? What suggestions do you have to deal with the problem so you can get going again?

    Related Article: 

    • Helping A Writer’s Muddled Mind - Part 1 

    Wednesday, February 1, 2017

    Helping A Writer’s Muddled Mind - Part 1

    Is anyone else having trouble getting moving on writing projects this New Year? Since I slowed down for the holidays, I can’t seem to get moving again. I keep trying, but I just can’t seem to even make myself do what needs to be done. (Tweet it!)

    Well wait a minute maybe that’s not quite true. When I stop and think about it, I realize I have been doing a lot. But then I’ve also been piddling around a lot.

    I thought maybe I’d stop and evaluate what’s going on and why. As with anything, the first step to solving a problems is to accurately identify what the problem is. (Tweet it!)

    When I did stop and evaluate, I could see that I have been working on various projects — and making significant headway in them. I can also see some of the snags that have been holding me up.

    Surprisingly to me, I found six areas that have been muddling my mind and my progress. I have so many thoughts and ideas about these six that it’s too much for one blog post! We’ll cover three causes of muddle in a writer’s mind this month and another three in the March 1 post.

    1. Not Enough Ideas

    I know one reason why I’ve been stymied since the first of the year. I don’t have enough ideas. More specifically, I don’t have enough ideas for this blog. I have some ideas stashed, but when I reviewed them, I went down the entire list saying, “No. No. No. Not that one. Nope…” 

    Why? For one thing, not many of the ideas excited me. They were ideas brainstormed during a past time when I was dry on ideas. I’ve used the ideas that excited me, leaving only the ideas that now feel old or overdone.

    The ideas that might excite me I wasn’t sure would excite you. I mean, just because I’m into screenwriting right now and have a ton to say about that doesn’t mean that’s what the audience of this blog wants. Through my evaluation I got to thinking this blog started out being for writers of magazine articles and books, and the most popular blog posts are the ones where I’m sharing something I’ve learned with people who want or need to know that information. I’m not sure screenwriting topics fit in to that.

    So that left me without a great idea for this month’s blog post and I just wasn’t coming up with something new to share. I mean, I’ve already shared a lot of what I know that I can think of which others might want to know or want help with. What else can I share? I’m dry on ideas. (Right now are you screaming at your screen what you need and wish I would blog about? Let me know in a comment!)

    The end of January was looming and I didn’t have a single idea that excited me for this February 1 post. So I asked for help. 

    I had the privilege of chatting with some writer friends and I told them my problem. Someone suggested that I write about how to get new ideas. I asked her if she realized she was asking me to write about the very thing I was struggling with and that I had no solutions for?! She said sometimes others are struggling with the same things we are and how we solve it can help them. Ah well. She had a point. So here I am, trying to figure it out and hoping I’m helping you as well as myself.

    This morning I set a timer for an hour and am typing as fast as I can on this blog post. Whaddya know? It’s coming. My timer just went off and I’ve got a bunch of notes written. I just reset the timer for another hour. (Tweet it!)

    And now guess what? I’ve found so much to write about I have enough for two posts!

    If you’re still stuck, check out this article. It’s for screenwriters, but it might help spark something no matter what you’re working on: “5 Tips to Turn Your Script Into a High Concept Idea.” 

    2. Too Many Ideas

    Ironically, another dilemma that muddles my writer’s mind is the exact opposite of #1 above. When I start listing all the projects I would like to write, it can be overwhelming. 

    I have a large white-board where, at the beginning of the year, I list my goals including the projects I want to write. I don’t always get them all done. But the past few years I’ve done pretty well at picking a few to accomplish that year and getting them completed — written, polished, submitted somewhere.

    But I have to choose which ones I will do. I can’t do them all. I have too many ideas. So I pick one or two major projects and get to work on them. (Tweet it!)

    This also means there are many projects I cannot work on. I have projects sitting in the wings waiting for my attention. It’s hard to let them sit there. Some of them really excite me. But it’s not their turn yet. (Tweet it!)

    Sometimes it is best to let them sit. One of my projects I started writing back in 1999. I still believe in that project. And I still believe it was good then, even though some things happened at the time that put it on the shelf. But now, because I’m also a screenwriter now, I can envision this project on the big or small screen (movie or TV). I couldn’t have even dreamed that possibility back in 1999. 

    Furthermore, the world has changed. This project will be intensely more meaningful now — with parts of it amazingly prophetic, if I may say so, given things happening in the world now. The time for this project is coming. It’s getting closer all the time. And I am far more prepared to make it great than I was seventeen years ago.

    I’m still not ready to re-write it and complete it, but I can see it on the horizon! It’s moving closer. And I’m excited!

    But I need to let it sit for a while longer, because if I pull it down off the shelf now when I already have so many projects working, it will just add to the muddle in my mind.
    Make a plan. Then work your plan.

    A Note About Brainstorming

    Interestingly, I think brainstorming can create problems instead of fixing them. (Tweet it!)

    I think writers love to brainstorm new ideas. It’s fun! Then some of those ideas rise to the top as really good ideas and we can’t wait to work on them. But if we brainstorm too often or too much, it can be a procrastination tool. Brainstorming can be the fun thing we do instead of working the projects we already have that need to be finished.

    Brainstorming more ideas can add to the #2 problem we: Too many ideas or projects which can muddle the mind.

    Are you using the fun work of brainstorming more ideas and projects to avoid doing the hard work of finishing the project you have before you? I have this Bible verse printed out and tacked on my wall in my office:
    “Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.” 2 Corinthians 8:11, NIV

    3. Distractions

    I’ll admit it. I’m a news and political junkie. It’s not just that I like to be informed, although I do. Staying informed on what’s going on in the world also informs my writing. I write on current events whether I’m blogging on Bible prophecy in the news or am writing my fiction. 

    With all that’s been going on the past few months with the U.S. presidential election, with all that’s going on now that we have a new president, and honestly with all that’s been going on the past year with the campaign…and even years before that with our former president and his decisions matched with other world events… I want to listen in and stay up on it all. I often have the radio on in the background and I’m listening to talk radio and news.

    Eh-hem. We cannot concentrate on two things at once.  Yes, I know “multi-tasking” is big and many people think they are good at doing two things at once, but our minds cannot concentrate on two things at the same time. (Tweet it!We can do mindless work with our hands (filing for example). But we cannot think on two things at the same time, like listening to a conversation in the background and thinking on a writing project in front of us. Nope. Doesn’t work. 

    It may be obvious to you, but I had to be reminded that I’m not getting much done when I have talk that I want to listen to going on in the background. Either I’m listening to it or I’m not writing anything because I’m distracted by what I might be missing.

    Distractions muddle our minds. The obvious solution? Turn it off. Whether your favorite distraction is the same as mine or Facebook, other social media, surfing the web, music, or other, turn it off and see if your muddled mind doesn’t focus in.

    But then there’s the enjoying life factor. We do these “distractions” because we enjoy them and we don’t want to miss out. It’s one of the reasons we work from home as a writer, so we can do these things! Okay. Find a reasonable compromise. Schedule when you go online, respond to Facebook, do social media, listen to the radio, email, or do anything online, etc. Make sure it’s not during your most creative time. Protect that time and do your creative work — and only your creative work — then.

    This article may help: “May I Have Another Cup of Creativity, Please?” 

    Control the time you put into those things that distract you and control the time you devote to your writing project. You’re in the driver’s seat. (Tweet it!)

    I hope that help you get started with your writing again. It has me. Come back next month and we’ll talk about three more things I’ve identified which have had my writer’s mind so muddled that I’m having trouble getting my work done. These three are: 

    • Things I Don’t Want to Do (But Need to Do)
    • Things I Don’t Know How to Do (But Must Do), and 
    • A Writer’s Worries

    Until next month, I hope your writer’s mind gets un-muddled and you get lots done.

    Sunday, January 1, 2017

    The Fear of Writing

    © Maxim Golubchikov
    Dreamstime Stock Photos
    It was one of those email newsletters from authors for authors. I had just signed up for it and got my first edition on the first of the month. I opened it. But the lead article stopped me in my tracks.

    The feature article was by a well known author. I like her writing and I've even met her in person. But the title of the article screamed that I dared not write if I was "behind-the-times." If I wrote, and if I wasn't up-to-date in my understanding of how things are done today, I might as well not write or else I'll become a laughingstock!

    I tried reading the article. I really tried. But the first few lines told me I was doing it all wrong. (Tweet that!)

    You're Doing It All Wrong!

    My punctuation. My point-of-view. All wrong.

    If I'm doing that wrong, what else am I doing wrong that I don't know about? And where do I go to find out?

    The idea of having to figure out how to research in order to find out all the things I'm doing wrong and learn the current "right" way to do it seemed like such a huge, mountainous learning curve. I was overwhelmed.

    Then I Felt Angry

    Then I felt angry. Who was this author to tell me I'm doing it all wrong? (Tweet that!) I've been writing for publication since the late 80s. It angered me to have someone telling me I don't know what I'm doing. I've fallen behind. Get out of the way and let the younger people do it right.

    What about the novel I wanted to start writing? The one I've wanted to write for years. The novel of my heart. Is it going to be a waste of time? Because I'm so old-fashioned and out of date and times have changed so much that I'm doing it all wrong? Good grief. Why even start?

    I don't have a chance.

    I Don't Have a chance?

    For heaven's sake I don't want to write the novel of my heart and then find out it has made me a laughing stock. Nobody wants to be a laughingstock, right?

    Can someone please tell me where does an author go to learn the so-called "right" way of writing?

    The fear of doing it all wrong stopped me. I was dead in the water. I feared writing a single word. (Tweet that!)

    Never thought that would happen to me.

    But I'm a Good Writer

    But wait a minute. I'm a good writer. I know I am. I've been off on other adventures the past few years: screenwriting and filmmaking and all kinds of exciting things. Now that I want to come back to write one of the novels I've always wanted to write, I'm told I'll never make it because I'm "behind the times"?! (Tweet that!)

    Have you ever felt like that? (I hope not.) But have you ever feared writing? (Tweet that!) Maybe you've experienced it for a different reason. Like fearing what people will think of your story. Or fearing putting yourself out there. Or fearing something else.

    Fortunately I have a friend who calmed me down and offered to help. "Just write your story the way you want to," she said. "Forget all that stuff. Write it and show it to me and I'll show you how to fix whatever is needed. I'll help you."

    I melted. What a relief. What a great friend.

    After she talked me down off the ledge, I could see that I'm not that behind-the-times. The few things that are different from twenty years ago are easy to change. I can make the transition. I'm going to be okay!

    When the Fear of Writing Strikes, What Can We Do?

    Looking back on my time of fear, I can see three things that can help in our time of panic when we feel afraid to write. (Tweet that!) I hope these will help you when you need it:

    1.) Find a Friend

    Writing is a lonely business. Writers spend hours at a stretch alone with our stories. When we finally come up for air, we can discover others don't "get" what we're doing. Or they don't "get" our story. Or they think they have better ideas.

    Critiquing is good. It's a good way to grow and learn and help each other. But we also need a friend who isn't going to rip our writing apart. We need a writing friend who can help us.

    My friend and I meet regularly -- at least twice a month. (Tweet that!) We talk about what we're working on, what difficulties we're having, and what we want to accomplish before the next time we meet. We help each other. I've been helped over stumbling blocks. I've been encouraged to try big things. I've offered her ideas which I hope help her. More than anything, I'm not in this alone. Someone is there with me, struggling along beside me. And on the rare occasion when I really need it, she talks me down on off the ledge.

    2.) Write it Your Way

    This takes courage. It takes daring. But I dare you! Do it. Go for it. Try it. (Tweet that!)

    I learned a great lesson last fall when I had a new and exciting adventure. A film crew was filming a feature movie in a town about 30 miles from me. I applied to work as an extra on the film and was hired to work two days. What a great opportunity!

    The film was based on a novel titled Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Of course I had to find out more about this book and how it became a movie. In my research I discovered some interesting information.

    The author was actually born in the city I live in now. He lived in Colorado and wrote several novels about a fictional Colorado town.

    He also wrote without quotation marks.
    "No quotation marks – ever. He said he liked the way it looked on the page,” according to an interview with the author's wife in The Mountain Mail (Salida, Colorado).
    His wife did his editing before it went to his publisher, Vintage / Penguin Random House. I thought that meant she would put in the quotation marks. But when I ran over to Barnes & Nobel to get the book I discovered no, she did not put in any quotation marks. Nor did the publisher. There isn't a set of quotation marks in the book.

    To spoof a line from the movie Back to the Future: "Rules? Where we're going, we don't need rules!"

    This is what I mean when I say "write it your way." Ditch the so-called rules.

    3.) Don't Let It Stop You!

    The other thing I learned when I researched Our Souls at Night is that when the author wrote the book, he was dying. (Tweet that!) Kent Haruf learned it was terminal in February. Previously it had taken him six years to write a book. But he decided to write another story. He didn't tell his publisher.

    By August 1 he had a draft. By September 15th he was ready to send it to his editor at the publishing house, as a surprise. In late November the publisher sent back a surprise: a mock-up of the book so Kent could see it. He died the following day, on November 30, 2014. His wife finished the final edits the next day.

    You can read more about this story in the article, "'Our Souls at Night': Interview with Cathy Haruf reveals insight into author's work," The Mountain Mail, August 31, 2016.

    This author knew he was dying and yet he wrote another book. And now his book is being made into a Netflix movie, Netflix's first theatrical release, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

    Now that's a writer who didn't let anything stop him.

    Thursday, December 1, 2016

    Have You Ever Wanted to Write for Kids? Try Tara Lazar's Picture Book Challenge in January

    The former PiBoIdMo has its new name!
    As of December 27, 2016, it is now "Storystorm,"
    taking place in January!
    You know NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). But did you discover PiBoIdMo? It took place in November up until 2016 when it was bumped to January 2017. (Tweet that!) Organizers promise this event will be given a new name, but as of this writing, that new name has not been announced yet. (Once announced, I just might edit this post and add a new image...whenever that info is released. But I want to post this info in December so you'll have it if you want to participate come January.

    I discovered PiBoIdMo last year. (That's Pie-Bo-IDE-Mo.) It's short for Picture Book Idea Month.

    If you've ever had an interest in writing picture books for children or writing other books for kids, or if you're looking for something new and interesting to put your creative energy into, or if you just need a brain-break, you might look into participating in this challenge. (Tweet that!It's free to participate, of course.

    I learned about PiBoIdMo last year, in 2015, when my author friend, Karen Whiting, mentioned it in an email loop for writers. I participated on a whim and had a great time with it. I had many projects going and wanted a break. Plus, secretly, I've had a number of children's books in mind to write for a long time. I hoped it would help me make headway on them. (Tweet that!)

    Creator Tara Lazar says, "Tired of watching novelists have all the fun in November with NaNoWriMo, I created PiBoIdMo as a 30-day challenge for picture book writers."

    Previously held in November alongside NaNoWriMo,
    starting in 2017 Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo has moved to
    January and will have a new name -- unknown 
    at the time of this post!
    The original idea for PiBoIdMo was for writers and illustrators to simply jot down one concept for a picture book each day.  (Tweet that!) Thirty days later participants would have "30 bright & shiny new ideas" to spur them to create new books for kids. To "win," participants end the month with at least 30 new picture book ideas and sign the PiBo-Pledge confirming they completed the challenge.

    The founder, Tara Lazar, posts daily during the event with guest posts from successful children's authors, illustrators, and editors. I found these guest bloggers very helpful and inspiring. I learned a lot about the children's book industry through them. Tara Lazar also offers give-away prizes.

    What does it mean to "win"? This if from the FAQs:

    Simply end the month of November with at least 30 new picture book ideas! Then you can sign the PiBo-Pledge... confirming you have completed the challenge. Those who register AND sign the pledge are eligible for prizes, including a consultation with a literary agent, a professional picture book critique, original signed art, plus much more!

    PiBoIdMo Participant, Author Karen Whiting:

    I mentioned above that I learned about PiBoIdMo from my author friend Karen Whiting. I thought it would be fun to do a quick interview with her about her experiences with the challenge:
    Karen's new Christmas book!

    BAW: Were any of  your published children's books inspired during PiBoIdMo? 

    Karen: The One Year My Princess Devotions was inspired at that time quite a few years ago. It released in 2013,

    BAW: Any struggles to participating in PiBoIdMo?

    Karen: Wile doing the PiBoIdMo I received a few contacts different years, including Christmas is Coming, Waiting is Hard!, which released September 2016. That cut short my completing the challenge as I needed to get writing.

    BAW: Do you recommend eating more pie during PiBoIdMo?

    Karen: I would avoid pie at that time because it’s so close to all the holidays -- in fact for me doing it helps keep me away from food! A good diet plan is to focus on creating new ideas and chatting with friends about their ideas.

    BAW: What inspires you? Any inspirational tools you'd like to share?

    Karen: What inspires me? I like to look at calendar dates at Brownielocks (any month) like Elephant Day in September and others. I just look at random days on their calendar. Those spark my imagination. (Tweet that!)

    And the SCBWI group in Maryland where I lived until this spring has a celebration outing at the end of the month that adds to the fun as we get together and laugh about lame titles and encourage one another on the fresh ideas.

    BAW: Thank you, Karen, for sharing your inspirations!

    More PiBoIdMo Info:

    • Is there a registration?
    In previous years registration in on Tara Lazar's site beginning late in the month previous to the event and continuing a few days into the event month. Watch her site for dates and instructions.
    • Any prizes?
    Those who register are eligible for prizes.
    • Must participants tell their title ideas to win?
    No. It's on the honor system. If you say you have thirty new ideas, they believe you.

    Look for them on Facebook here:

    For me, sometimes I just need a brain-break. So I'm thinking I'll participate again next month, which will my second time.  (Tweet that!)

    I'm planning to schedule time at the bookstore perusing picture books for inspiration.

    And I want to make a goal to read thirty picture books during January. That's one per day. I have some here at home which I haven't read yet. The rest I'll get from a library so I don't go broke. (Tweet that!)

    What about you? Do you plan to take part in PiMoBiMo ... or whatever it's going to be called now?

    Related Resources: 

    Tuesday, November 1, 2016

    How to Pitch Conference Directors on Teaching a Workshop

    Dianne teaching a workshop for writers at the
    Colorado Christian Writers Conference
    Estes Park, Colorado, May 2011
    I'm often asked how I got started teaching at writers conferences. Usually the one asking  is doing so because he or she would like to be on faculty at a conference. I'll answer the question of how it happened for me. Then I'll give you tips on how you might ask a conference director to put you on staff.

    I'm betting my answer to the question, how I first got on faculty at a conference, is fairly unique. The first time for me, I did not ask to teach. I wasn't comfortable standing in front of a classroom teaching -- public speaking made me nervous. So instead I told God, "If you want me to teach, then instead of me asking the conference director, I'd like you to have the conference director ask me. If that happens, I will know it's from you and I'll say yes."

    Now, I had attended this particular conference for at least fifteen years and had never been on faculty. So imagine my surprise when only a few weeks later the conference director contacted me and asked me to teach a workshop.

    What could I do? I had to say yes, didn't I? Well, hey.  If God was asking me to teach a workshop, then he would just have to help me do it, too, don't you think?

    Since then I've taught lots of workshops at several conferences. The more I do it, the less nervous I am.

    If you're nervous about public speaking, I highly recommend you check out Toastmasters International and find (or start) a club near you. (Tweet that!) This group helped me immensely.

    But what if God doesn't open a door for you? How do you ask to get on faculty to teach workshops at a writer's conference? (Tweet that!) If I had to do it knowing what I know now, here's what I'd do:

    Find out when to pitch your workshop ideas

    Send a polite email to the conference director asking when would be the best time to send some workshop ideas. (Tweet that!) I'm on faculty about every other year at the conference I first taught at, the Colorado Christian Writer's Conference, held in May. From what I can tell, now is the time to pitch that director. I know she'll start putting the spring conference together before Christmas, so I want to pitch her before that so she'll have my info in mind when she's thinking about her conference.

    The same director also gives a conference in August, the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference. I know to give the director time after a conference to rest, clean up, finish the book work, etc. (Tweet that!) So I think it's best not to pitch right after you get home. Give the director some time to breathe.

    If it's a conference you are attending (it's a really good idea to attend the conference you want to teach at!), then you might ask the director while you're there when she would want you to send her workshop ideas.

    Prepare several pitches:

    Meanwhile, brainstorm and prepare your workshop ideas. (Tweet this!) Don't just send one idea. Giving conference directors three or four options to choose from helps them shape the conference they want and gives you a better chance of success. They might even want you to teach more than one workshop (which saves them on costs for bringing in more faculty).

    Here are some tips to think about when you are picking your possible workshop topics or brainstorming your ideas:

    Make it useful.

    I've heard some pretty boring pitches. I've also heard some pitches to teach information that is so basic probably most people there already know that much. You have something useful and unique that others need. What is that?

    Check your motives. You don't want to be the person who seems to just want to be at the front of the room speaking. It's not about you. It's about:
    1. your workshop attendees and serving them (Check out my article about serving others through your writing: "Writing for Publication and ...Servanthood.");
    2. your conference director and serving her overall goals for her conference.

    Make it unique. 

    Why should the director pick your workshop? (Tweet that!) Remember that a lot of other people are wanting to be on the faculty too. Your pitch is competing for a limited number of workshop slots in the conference. So what do you have to offer that isn't already being offered routinely?

    Alternatively, what "holes" do you see in your knowledge base or in the usual conference offerings? If there is something you need to know but nobody is teaching on, maybe you can research that topic, find helpful answers, and offer that information in a workshop. In your pitch, let the director know you've needed this information so other writers probably do too.

    In other words, instead of thinking about what you want to teach, think about what this audience needs or wants. Then match that with what you can offer.

    Make it short 

    Write a one-paragraph (a short one!) description of the workshop you envision. Give a solid overview of your idea as well as some of the topics you'll cover. This is your pitch that you'll send with your business-letter type email to the conference director.

    Then also write and send a one-sentence description to go in the conference brochure.

    Make sure you have the credentials.

    If you haven't yet sold a book to a publisher, don't pitch a workshop on how to get multiple book contracts. Duh, right?

    Also, if you've only done it once, think twice. There may be some topics where if you've succeeded once it's a major accomplishment that you can talk about. Other topics, though, need the experience and success of more than a one-hit wonder. In other words, getting a book contract from a large, respected publish is a great accomplishment. However it may take doing that more than once to know if it was your concepts which other people can employ that made it happen and will work for them.

    Think about what you have experienced. What have you learned? What knowledge do you have to share that will help or interest others? Is there enough info there to teach a 45 minute (or two-hour) workshop?

    Under Promise / Over Deliver

    Whatever you promise the conference director in your pitch, make sure you can and will deliver what you promise...and more.

    You may be asked for...

    Recently I heard a writer ask another conference director what she wanted from people who pitched her workshop ideas to teach at her conference. She said she wanted to hear you teaching. She asked for a CD or an MP3 recording. You might want to be prepared in case a director asks you for a recording of you teaching a workshop.

    Many of the conferences where I've taught record workshops and give the presenter a free copy. If yours doesn't give a free one, ask politely if that can be included.

    Of course if you haven't taught a workshop anywhere yet, this is a problem. Perhaps you could ask to teach to a local writer's group or club and record that.

    When You're Invited...

    You'll need a photo for the web site and brochure. You'll probably receive a contract to sign. You may be asked for a bio to put on the web site. You will probably be asked for a lot of activity. Be sure to respond promptly with quality items.

    Add Value for Your Audience

    As you prepare your outlines for the workshops you might teach, think about adding value for those in your class.

    At the very least create handouts - something for your attendees to take home. Perhaps you can give away other products of value to your students (that doesn't cost you a lot): maybe a checklist to help them implement your strategies when they get home, or a list of resources.

    You'll be giving far more than your workshop presentation. People will want to hang out with you, ask you questions, eat a meal with you, talk, tell you about their projects, etc. The conference you're speaking at may schedule you to meet with conferees one on one during hours when you're not teaching. You may be asked to critique manuscripts attendees bring or send in advance. Some conferences expect you to do these things when you're on faculty and it's all included in what you're being paid. Other items you may get paid an additional fee for doing some items, like critiques.

    Add Value for Yourself

    Think about what you would like your students to do when they get home. Would you like them to buy your books on Amazon? Visit your blog? Then put your Amazon page (short URL), web site, blog URL, etc., on all your handouts. (Tweet that!)

    During your class, circulate a sign-up sheet for your newsletter. You can input their email addresses yourself when you get home and your newsletter app will send them a confirmation to opt in.

    Think ahead about what could benefit you, and then create sign-up sheets or whatever you need for that. But of course always remember the purpose of the workshop is for the benefit the people attending, not you!

    If you don't have books published, make other products to sell on the faculty tables or bookstore. More than a dozen years ago I created five helpful pamphlets for writers with my teachings on several topics. These continue to sell well at conferences where I teach, adding to my income, and I've since made some of them into e-books so more writers can benefit from them. All because I wanted to offer something of value at conferences.

    Avoid these Turn-offs 

    I've experienced:

    • Workshop leaders walking in late.
    • Coming completely unprepared.
    • Talking about nothing but themselves.

    I still have a bad taste in my mouth and am reluctant to purchase those authors' books.

    When you're asked to be on faculty at a conference, this is a time to give, not to take. Give to your conference director and give to your workshop attendees. (Tweet that!) Give to others at the conference. I'm betting you'll end up receiving more than you give in the long run.  And chances are good you might get invited back.

    Saturday, October 1, 2016

    May I Have Another Cup of Creativity, Please?

    Are you still learning about yourself? I tend to think I know me and then I'm astounded (or confounded) when I discover something new. Actually it's not something new. It's something that has been there all along but I'm just now identifying it. Such was the case recently.

    I have a hunch this is not just about me. My hunch is that it probably applies to all creative-type people. But you can let me know if I'm right on that. And if you're educated in this area or have read up on it, you may already know this. To me, it was a revelation.

    What I've finally figured out is:  I seem to have a limited amount of creativity in me per week.   Tweet that here:Tweet: I've finally figured out I seem to have a limited amount of creativity in me per week. #AmWriting 
    Once I've used this week's creativity, it's gone. That's it. That's all there is. No more. Until next week.

    It took me a long time to grasp onto what was happening with me. It started when I noticed that every Wednesday seemed to be a "down" day for me. I don't mean down in the dumps; I mean I just couldn't seem to get anything done. I'd go great guns on Monday and Tuesday, accomplish a lot, and then came Wednesday and I couldn't seem to get anything done at all. Thursday would pick back up again and Friday could be a good day of solid work. And if I don't have any obligations for Saturday, I work that day too and so my Friday - Saturday can be as productive as my Monday - Tuesday.

    But what about those Wednesdays?  What's happening there?

    When I first started noticing my "down Wednesdays," I went through what I'm guessing is probably a fairly normal cycle. I scolded myself. I pushed myself. I determined to do better. I promised myself I wouldn't dilly-dally. I swore I wouldn't mess around and waste time. I bribed myself ... I would treat myself if I accomplished a certain list of things on Wednesday. Nothing worked.  (Tweet it: Tweet: I couldn't make myself #write. I scolded myself. I determined to do better. I bribed myself. Nothing worked. )

    The next Wednesday would come and same thing: No matter what I told myself or tried to trick myself into, I just couldn't manage to get much done.

    I have a new theory. 

    It's not that I'm being lazy or goofing off. My new theory is that we can only do so much creative work (or possibly other types of work too) before we run out of ... whatever you want to call it. Creativity? Energy? Gumption?  Tweet it: Tweet: My new theory: we can only do so much creative work before we run out of creativity. What do you think, #writers?

    I kept asking the creativity / energy / gumption gods:

    May I have another cup of Creativity, please?

    The answer was clear:

    No.  You may not.
    You may not have more creativity. Sorry.

    So I stopped scolding myself. It's a real thing. I can give myself a break. It's okay! Once I spend my creativity on something, that's it. It's gone. There is no more.

    Wait until next week. Then I'll get another dose.

    I meet with another writer-friend a couple times a month. Recently when we met at Starbucks I lamented, "I only get so much creativity per week. I can't force myself to conjure up any more. If I spend it all on the blog, I have nothing left."  (Tweet that!)

    She nodded. She not only understood, she agreed.

    So, now that I recognize the reality that I only get so much creativity per week, what can I do with that bit of information? Here are some thoughts:

    Take care about where you spend your creativity.

    I think sometimes we spend our best creative juice on the wrong things.  (Tweet that!)

    For example, many times we work for other people. Whether it's helping out a friend with a free critique or blog post, or doing social media or other tasks for pay to make ends meet, we're spending our week's worth of creativity. Then when it's time to work on our own project -- that magazine article, book chapter, or screenplay -- we can't seem to get going on it.  (Tweet that!)

    That's because we've spent our creative energy on somebody else's project. If we spend it all doing work for others, there's nothing left for us.

    If this is where you are, this post may be of more help: "When Writing Makes You Feel Tired, Anxious, or Stressed."

    Or we may work on our own projects that aren't the most important. I tend to do this when I think I'll do all those "other things" first, clearing the way to spend large amounts of time on my current big, fun priority project. But by the time I finished all those "other things," I've got nothing left.

    Another place where I'm good at spending my creative capital is on worthy projects that require my regular attention. For example my Bible prophecy blog. I love blogging on that topic. And in these days we're living in, there's a never-ending supply of topics to write on. Each week I thought I'd quickly write the week's three posts and then move on to my priority writing project. But it hardly ever seemed to work that way. Those three posts would always take longer than I'd want them to. And when I was done, I couldn't get going on my priority project.

    So I'd switch it up and work on my priority project first and then at the end of the week I'd be in an anxious panic because I needed blog posts and didn't have any prepared ... and had no energy or time to get some done.

    At the first of the year I put that blog on hold. What a relief! I've learned I only have so much creativity in me and when it's gone, it's gone. Although I hated to put my prophecy blog on hold, it has been a time of rest for me since I did. And I've been able to get more writing done on my priority projects.

    So, my writer friend, I encourage you to think about this. How are you spending your creativity?

    Spend it wisely. It's like an allowance. That's all you get. Once you spend it, you don't get any more until next week.  (Tweet that!)

    Be creative about what you do with your down days.

    So if it's true that we are going to have some days when we can't get anything creative accomplished, or at least very little, what can we do with that?

    For me, I'm able to do other tasks that don't require as much creativity. There are so many other things that we must do as professional writers besides writing or brainstorming or creating. We can give our creativity a rest by doing other "business" tasks.

    Here are some examples of what I might spend that "down" day on:  Tweet it: Tweet: #Writers: When you're having a creatively  
    • Catching up on emails.
    • "Mindless" tasks, such as cleaning my office or needed filing.
    • Reading emailed newsletters and the linked articles that sounded so interesting. These are usually writing-related, so I'm growing and learning as a writer.
    • Researching those points I need to know when I go back to writing.
    • Creating marketing items that don't take much creative capital but are fun (and needed), such as making a new book trailer at or a new marketing image of a book cover at
    • Creating "share squares" to use on social media, such as a great quote from one of my books on a beautiful photo background using or
    • Creating a new header for Facebook or Twitter.
    • Loading some posts to go live in the future on my Facebook Page or on Hootsuite for Twitter.
    • Updating a web site, blog bio, or Amazon author page bio.
    • Going to Starbuck's and having a passion iced tea. (Just kidding.)

    Anything that is more automatic or business-related rather than having to create, as in putting words on paper / screen, is much easier for me to do on my down days. The creative projects listed above are fun, not hard creative work.

    There are so many other things a writer needs to do besides write, the list of non- or less-creative items we can be working on is truly endless.

    What would be on your list of things you need to do when you're having a creatively down day? Why not go ahead and make a list? Why not allow yourself to work on these on your down day? Be sure to include some fun things. Our work on down days should not be drudgery or we'll not want to take a day when we really need to.

    Get more done on your creative days.

    I truly believe I'm getting more done creatively since I've discovered my new theory on a limited amount of creativity each week. And I'm not scolding myself when I'm not able to make progress on a priority project. I give myself a break and know I'll be able to do more the next day.

    Does your creative energy ebb and flow?

    Which days do you have the most creative energy? 

    Which hours of the day are your best for creating words on paper / screen?

    How can you use this information to boost your creative output (while giving yourself a break)?

    "May I have another cup of creativity, please?" 
    To Tweet this, click the birdie:Tweet: May I have another cup of creativity, please? #Writers: