Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Six Lessons for Writers to Learn from Casey Abrams

Who in the world is Casey Abrams, you might be wondering. If you watch American Idol, you know he is one of the contestants, arguably, the most talented musician/singer of the bunch.

And last week he was booted out by the American Idol viewers. The judges decided to use their one and only save on this talented guy. He still has hope if this experience taught him the lessons he needs to be successful, lessons writers also need to learn.

His failure proves that great talent does not necessarily equate success, and these are the reasons why:

  1. Casey’s physical appearance is said to “resemble a Fraggle” and “something a cat barfed up.” Harsh, I agree. Yet, like it or not, we are judged by our appearances. Casey needs to be better groomed; he needs to look like a professional. This also applies to writers, who mainly work “behind the scenes.” In our case, we need to look like professionals in all aspects of our professional lives. Our work should be well formatted. Our blogs should be attractive. Our dress should be neat and clean when we meet with editors and agents. It doesn’t mean we have to look strait-laced. It simply means we need to look like we care. Unkempt appearances might convey we are just as careless in our work ethic. Why take that chance? With a little effort, we can spiffy up.
  2. Casey does not have a target audience. Scotty has the country vote, James has the hard rockers, and Pia’s elegant beauty appeals to the guys—just to mention three of the other contestants. Who’s Casey’s target? A friend on Facebook used this as a status: Commitment to everything = Commitment to nothing. Someone responded: Or...in trying to make everyone happy, you make no one happy. Who is Casey trying to please? He needs to look within and figure out who he really is and then find his audience, find out what type of audience he wants to commit to. By trying to appeal to everyone, he is appealing to no one. And we as writers must also know who we’re performing for. And, that’s not to say to write for a specific audience. Writers should write the book within them. But, in the end, we must identify who that work is for. We may write brilliantly, but, if we have no audience, who will want to publish us?
  3. Casey is perceived by some as arrogant. He chose to perform a Nirvana song one week and some condemned him for it. Bravery is needed to take on challenging projects. However, some saw him as parodying the song. Talented people make bigger targets. This reminds me of when Jesus said to sit in the lowly seat. In other words, don’t get too big for your britches. We can know our true value without being arrogant. We need to carefully choose our words and actions, especially as Christian writers, to convey the correct attitude of respect.
  4. “Branding” is another area Casey needs to address. One of the judges told him he could do anything. Unfortunately, that’s not what audiences want. They want to “brand” you, label you, file you away in the recesses of their minds. If we do too many things, as Casey does--playing different instruments, singing songs in a variety of ways, we confuse people. Sometimes branding is a difficult process for writers. Fortunately, resources exist to help us determine our brand. With a little time and effort, we can develop an easily recognized persona.
  5. The judges also had a hand in Casey’s failure. The week before, this is what Casey was told:  by Steven Tyler--“I think you’re the perfect entertainer.”; by Jennifer Lopez --“You might be like ‘The Guy’ right now. You can really, really carve out a niche for yourself and be amazing.”; by Randy Jackson--“You are definitely a true original.” All great comments, right? Yet they did nothing to steer Casey in the right direction. It’s good to have “judges,” critiquers, but let’s find those who can help us grow, who are willing and brave enough to point out our mistakes. “Yes” men are never the answer. We need critique partners who will help our writing soar, even when the process may be painful.
  6. And the last mistake Casey made was in playing up his weirdness. People like the unusual, but they like it within the confines of normalcy. Have you noticed most popular movies have elements that are easily identifiable? One example is Indiana Jones. As many know, George Lucas based the format on serials, something many of us remember well. The idea of the whip came from Zorro. (according to: The Raider.Net) Making a movie like a serial, brought us something new, something we had never seen in movies before. Yet Lucas started with the familiar. Writers, too, must have a foot in the normal as they branch out into the quirky. Otherwise, the jolt may overwhelm.

Casey Abrams serves as an example of things writers need to keep in mind. Writers need 1. to look professional, 2. have a target audience, 3. learn humility, 4. know our brand, 5. seek out knowledgeable critiquers, and 6. keep one foot in reality as we explore our quirkiness. Casey has the talent. We may have the talent. Yet all the talent in the world will not garner us the success we seek until we learn these six lessons.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Give the Lady a Ride by Linda Yezak

A review by Sheila Hollinghead

A sophisticated young woman, Patricia Talbert, unexpectedly inherits a ranch from an aunt and uncle she barely knew. Because of a misunderstanding years ago, a rift developed between her now-senator father and his Texas-rancher brother. Yet now her uncle has bequeathed his ranch to his niece.

Patricia must make a decision, to sell the ranch and disrupt lives, as she planned before her arrival, or to work out a solution with the people at the ranch, people of the land, strongly rooted in the word of God. Has her time away from her roots, working for her father, the senator, destroyed her sense of integrity? Will she allow her superficial belief in God to grow or will she remain disillusioned and distrusting?

As she struggles with her conscience, she asks the attractive foreman, Talon, to teach her bull riding, a strange way for her to work through her faith. Yet the challenge allows her to see life in a new way, from atop the swirling power of a bull. And allows her to see even difficult challenges may lead to great fulfillment.

Give the Lady a Ride is peppered with characters learning from each other--learning more than how to ride a bull, learning more than love comes at unexpected times in unexpected places, but also learning to rely on the guiding hand of God.

Put on your chaps, clamp that cowboy hat down, hold on tight. Get ready for a Ride.

Give the Lady a Ride
by Linda Yezak
Available now!

The book is available at 777 Peppermint Place—Linda’s website.
And here: Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What’s J.K. Rowling’s Secret to Success?

Why are the Harry Potter books so wildly successful? To quote myself: Story trumps all. If you don’t have a compelling story, no one will want to read what you write. But, if you do not have compelling characters, no one is going to remember what you write. (from Life-changing Books -- Writing) But what makes this story different?

J.K. Rowling’s great imagination spawned a great story, a compelling story. And then she peopled the story with compelling characters. The one that springs to mind for me is Dolores Umbridge, the sadist with a penchant for frolicking kittens and tweed outfits. Even the minor characters are richly drawn, such as, Luna Lovegood, the flakiest of the flaky, Colin Creevey, Harry’s fawning fan, and Hagrid, the half-giant with a giant heart. 009
But, as I said before, story trumps all. Yet the characters are the underpinings of the story. To quote myself:

Movies, TV series and books dealing with the great Biblical themes of characters enduring hardships, learning to love, and willing to lay down one’s life for others will always draw people to them. People are hungering and thirsting to be spiritually satisfied but often do not know what they are hungering for. (from I Once Was "Lost")

God endows us with the desire for bravery. Yet we often feel inadequate for the tasks that lie before us, just as Harry does. Yet Harry, a skinny, average kid transcends his own puny abilities. Rowling gives him the means to test his bravery against a much more powerful foe and we devour the books to discover his fate. Harry is the underdog and most people root for the underdog.

We have seen this in other great movies and books such as Star Wars, Rocky, and Lord of the Rings, all with main characters who are underdogs, yet are able to triumph. Notice also that the hero in these stories always has a mentor. In Harry’s case, it’s Dumbledore, whom I believe symbolizes God. (see Harry Potter--Christian Books?)

And in each of these, the heroes have friends to lean on, Ron and Hermione in Harry’s case, and they usually face disastrous results when trying to go it alone.

In examing these stories we find they follow similar story lines from the Bible. One example: David, a lowly shepherd, is pitted against King Saul just as Harry is pitted against Voldemort. Yet he has guidance from Samuel and friendship with Jonathan.

We even see parallels in the greatest story, the story of God's son. Although Jesus is the son of God, he's an underdog, a lowly carpenter, pitted against the Jewish leaders and the great Roman Empire. He seeks guidance from his mentor (God) and has friends, his disciples, to help him in his work.

I think readers recognize this resemblance to Biblical stories intuitively, whether they are able to give voice to it or not. And people have longings to be like these characters. They may not want to admit they long for a father-like figure, such as Dumbledore, or the ultimate father, God. They may not want to admit they long for steadfast friends, such as Hermione and Ron, or David’s friend, Jonathan. They may not want to admit they long to be brave, even in the face of their puny abilities, as David was when facing Goliath. (They may not want to admit their abilities are puny.) 
They may not want to admit they long to be part of something larger than themselves. They may not want to admit that evil exists in the world and they long to help destroy it. Yet these longings are universal, whether people admit to them or not.
God endows us with all of these longings. When a book, or in this case a series, comes along that speaks to these longings, it becomes a classic.

These, then, are the reasons J. K. Rowling succeeded:

She crafted a compelling story.

She peopled the story with compelling characters.

She explored great themes, themes we see in the story of David and other great Bible stories. Here are a few ways Harry and David are similar:
  • Harry and David both had mentors; Dumbledore for Harry and Samuel for David.
  • Harry has close friends to support and encourage him just as David has Jonathan.
  • Harry is an unlikely hero, an average boy who faces someone vastly stronger than himself. David is a teenage shepherd boy when he faced Goliath. And later David faces the wrath of King Saul. 
  • Harry and David are both ridiculed by their families. (See 1 Samuel 17:28 to see David's brother's opinion of him.) 
  • They both have times of great popularity and times when people turn against them.
  • They both show great courage and give their all for the sake of others
Great Biblical themes pull people into the story, whether readers recognize these themes or not, because we long to be like these characters.

Readers are looking for stories about average people, underdogs, who are facing overwhelming challenges. They are looking for stories of friendship, stories with characters of integrity, stories where people may be consumed with fear, yet still have the courage of their convictions.

J.K. Rowling has an understanding of human character, as well as an understanding of great  themes, coupled with imagination that enabled her to craft a phenomenal story. And this did not spring fully formed from her brain. Much study was needed to bring the story to fruition. We can see by her body of work that she is a conscientious and diligent writer.

As Christian writers, we seek to understand the human condition. We seek to explore the great biblical themes. Most of all we seek to glorify God. How much are we willing to work to accomplish this? J.K. Rowling worked hard to learn story, theme, and character development and implemented what she learned.

The secret to her success.

We would do well to emulate her.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Psalm 121

Before I left for the ACFW Conference last year, I jotted some notes on the back of a sheet of paper. I stuck it in one of the zippered compartments of the bag we received and completely forgot about it.

Monday, I pulled the bag out of storage to cart supplies to my new writing place. This morning my helpful hubby stuck my junk drives into that zippered compartment before I left for “work.” When I pulled them out, I found the slip of paper I haven't seen since last September.

The notes are written on a scrap of paper that has Psalm 121 printed on it.

Did I do that on purpose? Did I print out Psalm 121 to encourage me while I was at the conference. I don’t remember.

These are the words I read:

A coincidental thing happened that makes this more meaningful. After I returned from the conference and began revising my manuscript, I decided to add a scripture to the title of each chapter.

One of the verses I used was Psalm 121:5: The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at you right hand--never remembering this was a scripture I took with me to the conference.

This is one reason I love to write. The Lord reaffirms his love, his care for me as I pound out the words.

This is the first post in the resurrection of my previous blog, Clearing Skies. I plan to focus on writing but will also post my reactions to events, places, things—whatever catches my fancy.

My Prayer:

Dear God,

You who created the vastness of the universe have everything under control. My life is in ruins when I take it upon myself to “fix” things as I have been doing. Give me the wisdom and the strength to rely on you, to trust you to guide my path. Give me the wisdom and strength to trust others on their own paths. I know you are with them and will guide them.

Great is your faithfulness. Thank you for allowing me to rediscover Psalm 121 this morning. Thank you for keeping watch over me and shielding me from all harm.

Help me to always seek to reveal you in my writing—as “foggy” as that image may be. Please clear my mind and clear my writing, and most importantly, clear me, make me transparent so that you may shine through me.

Thank you, God, for the SHINE this morning. I needed it.

In Jesus name,

QUESTION: How has God reaffirmed himself to you? Do you have a story you wish to share?

(Note: I'm keeping my posts on writing from my old blog--if you're wondering where those posts came from!)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Finding Voice

Writer’s voice is defined as the literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice was generally considered to be a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can be thought of in terms of the uniqueness of a vocal voice machine. As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba or a violin has a different voice than a cello, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writer’s_voice)

So, in other words, it’s everything thrown in, including the kitchen sink. Some writers are “good” writers in that they use correct grammar, have clear, concise writing, and, possibly, even write of interesting things, yet their voices can be interchanged with thousands of other voices.

It’s similar to American Idol. Every year I get somewhat upset because the judges pick the top twelve contestants with generic voices, voices interchangeable with hundreds of other voices. I believe with the number of people who try out, twelve unique voices should be easy to find. Many chosen by the judges may be labeled “good” singers, yet their voices are not unique.

But, perhaps I’m wrong and it is difficult to find a singer with a unique voice, even among thousands. Just as it is difficult to find a writer with a unique voice.

Why is it difficult to find unique voices among writers?

Let’s look at an analogy. Caterpillars are quite ugly creatures when they hatch out. Tiny at first, they munch leaves and grow bloated. They eat whatever they find in front of them, and when they’ve grown to a sufficient size, they enter the pupa stage. Inside the cocoon, something fascinating (and disgusting) happens. The caterpillar excretes enzymes that eat away much of the bloated body. The few remaining cells then regenerate into a butterfly. It emerges from the cocoon as a beautiful, soaring creature.

So, too, we writers munch on all the advice given to us. We grow bloated with information and misinformation. And that’s a good thing. Without the nourishment, the caterpillar would never become the butterfly. But when we have studied and learned our craft and grown as much as possible, we need to enter into a pupa stage, a stage during which we examine ourselves, our writing, and destroy the bloat, destroy that which is not essentially ours. And that takes courage. Courage to try new things. Courage to trod a different path. Courage to soar.

Soaring is scary. We’re putting ourselves out there, flying high, flaunting our colors, and it’s easy for people to target us.

Caterpillars are camouflaged with their “feet” on the ground, surrounded by many more caterpillars exactly like them. They don’t have far to fall.

But which would you rather be?

If we are brave enough, and spend enough time really examining, we will excrete those juices that will destroy the bloat (and yes, destroying our “body” will be painful). However, if we do it correctly, we will also leave a kernel of cells able to generate a much greater beauty.

And then we have to be brave enough to find a place of quiet, to allow that kernel to grow. Brave enough to prioritize our writing.

But our greatest bravery is needed when we emerge from the cocoon, unfurl our colorful wings, and fly.

  • Have you munched enough leaves? Have you studied the craft? Have you learned from mentors and critiquers?
  • Have you destroyed the bad? Have you learned to cut unncessary words? Have you learned focus? Is every sentence, every word, meaningful? Have you destroyed the "bloat"?
  • Have you taken time to examine yourself and your writing? Have you practiced the "basics," so that now you can add your own special touches? Have you taken the time to really think about your writing style and to let the cells grow into beauty?
If so, unfurl your wings and fly.


Do you believe you have found your unique voice? Any insights on how you accomplished it?

Worlds Shaken

Worlds Shaken

by Sheila Odom Hollinghead

The world shook, their world,
And mine.

Waves washed over lives, their lives,
And mine.

Smiles faded from faces, their faces,
And mine.

Cores melted deep within, their cores,
And mine.

Hands lifted in surrender, their hands,
And mine.

The world broke in minutes, their world,
And mine.

Their cores melt still.

Arms forever unmovable,

Raised in surrender.

Bodies forever broken,

Washed to the shore.

Their world shakes still.

My waves wash over me;

I throw my arms up in surrender

To he who mends broken lives.

The unshakable solidifies

my faith; my core

steadies and

hands clasp, to steady theirs.

Finding Voice, Part 2

(Continuation of last Wednesday’s post, Finding Voice As a Writer.)

At ChristianWriters.com we delved a little further into finding voice.

Over there I asked this question:

Do you think voice can be taught? I think it's like our singing voice--we can have voice trainers, coaches, critiquers, books on the craft--but when it comes down to it, we are the ones who have to discover just what our voice is capable of.

A great response came from Scott Fields. He had this to say:

You make an excellent point here. Obviously we can be taught the fundamentals of the language as well as the elements of style. Someone can show us what "works" and what doesn't. But it can't be taught in the same sense that mathematics or chemistry can be taught. It's not so exact a science.

I like your illustration of a singing voice. If you have it, it can be improved, but you're the one who has to make the effort to see it improve. But there's a deeper aspect along that line: often times you're not the best judge of whether you're improving appreciably or not. You need other ears to listen to you and tell you when you hit an off-note, or when you need more strength in your tone, or when your voice just doesn't fit a certain song. The problem is that our voice resides and resounds inside the same space as our ears, which can interfere with our ability to objectively analyze how we sound. (Anyone who has ever watched American Idol knows this to be true. ~ Sheila)

The same is true for writers. What with our ideas residing and resounding in our own heads, we're not always the best people to see whether they work once they're on the page. We need other eyes and ears to tell us how we're doing--and we need to be willing to listen to constructive criticism offered by those who see what we're not always able to detect as clearly in our own work. In the end, that's really the only way we can be taught.

And I agreed 100% with his assessment. We do need critiquers to keep us on track. This is especially true at the beginning of our writing career. We need especially to listen to the masters, read the classics and understand why they are classics.
I went on to say this:

Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We absolutely need our fellow Christians to teach, support, and encourage us, but ultimately it's up to us to work out our own salvation.

In the same way, writers need teachers and mentors along the way, but ultimately it's up to each writer to work out his/her voice. If we listen too long or too intently to others, we may wind up losing our voice.

I remember reading a story when I was a child. The teacher explained step by step how to fashion a cow from clay. One child made "adjustments" along the way. At the end, all the cows made by the students looked the same except the one belonging to the brave child who listened to his inner voice. And he shaped a much better-looking cow in the end.

But his cow would not have been the best unless somewhere along the line he learned what was needed to build the "basic" cow.

Each person is unique. Some of us require decades of study. Some learn as a child. But each must learn to build the "basic" cow and then we can add our own touches to make it our unique voice.

The voice of a writer is developed by outer forces as well as the uniqueness our creator endowed us with. It only makes sense to take advantage of the many opportunities around us to learn our craft and practice it. Somewhere along the way our unique voice will find its way into our writing. And “better cows” will be made.

Can you believe this was a story in one of our reading books? What were the teachers thinking? Oh, right—that we needed to grow up to be independent thinkers!

Making Changes in Writing Routine

Finding a proper writing workplace, proper goals, and, most important, a proper attitude can be a challenge. Some people can write in the midst of a bustling family life. Some people eke out fifteen minutes throughout the day to write while stuck in traffic or while the baby naps—whenever they find the time.
Some people have the drive necessary to keep going, no matter the obstacles.

Unlike me.

I need a place of solitude in which I can hear my own thoughts. A place I can organize my days, weeks, and months.

I’ve decided home is not the best place for me to do these things. There’s a place only five minutes from my home where I am free from all distractions, including the internet. I have a table where I can spread out all my material. I have electricity and a roof over my head.

Everything I need. Writers don’t need much to write.

Sometimes I wish we did. Like an artist with his array of brushes, canvases, and other supplies. I like the idea of having a case to open, sort of like a treasure chest. And from it withdraw the tools needed to create.

All we need nowadays is a computer and our fingers.

Of course, we can gather up materials if we want to create a story board or a collage. But actually our needs are simple.

And a simpler technology is to use pen and paper. I used to think I was more creative with pen and paper, but now I’ve gotten used to pounding out words on the keyboard. And it saves the trouble of of transcribing my horrible writing. Cuts out the middle man. Saves time. Saves paper. Saves me from writer’s cramp. (Now I just have to worry about carpal tunnel syndrome.)

Needing only a laptop gives us the freedom to seek out the new places.

I’m giving this place a try:

Day One--I managed to write seven hundred words in an hour and a half. I did have to do a little research—looked up some scriptures in the Bible. I plan to work for six hours. I think it’s possible I could write five hundred words an hour; three thousand words a day. That would be sixty thousand words a month. Possible and I have accomplished that during National Novel Writing Month. But I think I will set a goal of two thousand words a day; ten thousand words a week; forty thousand words a month. I like to accomplish my goals and I don’t want to set myself up for failure.

Day Two I spent working out kinks in Microsoft Word 2007. I still managed to get quite a bit accomplished—much more than I would have at home.

Time for me to roll up my sleeves for Day Three and “dig my wells.”

What changes have you made in your routine? How have the changes helped you? Have you found a quiet place to write, free from distractions?