What Henry Ford Knew About Writing Books

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Henry Ford is one of the most well-known American innovators. He’s the guy who brought mass production to the “horseless carriages”–that is, cars–we zoom around in today.

So what does Ford have to do with writing?

There’s a famous quote that, while having an unclear origin, largely is attributed to Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.” The basic idea behind the quote is that, while customer input might be important, real innovation often means ignoring them, realizing a concept, and then seeing what the reaction of the public is.

Let’s think about this quote in relation to the traditional publishing industry. Generally speaking, publishers accept new books based on what they predict will sell well. But those predictions largely are based on past sales. So if, for instance, a publisher sees that they sold 5 percent more romances this year than last year, then they’ll assume readers want romances and buy more romance manuscripts.

But what if readers would go gaga for mysteries–or any other type of book–and they just don’t know it? What if they just need a chance, after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a year, to take a bite of ham and cheese?

The readers might think the ham and cheese is pretty da-n delicious, that’s what.

This, to me, is one of the main flaws within the traditional publishing industry. The assumption is that readers want only more of what they’ve been exposed to, and that’s not necessarily true. In fact, most readers I know are huge advocates of all kinds of stories. They are willing to give just about anything a shot, so long as it is engaging.

As writers, it’s important to recognize this flaw because, if you write the ham and cheese of the book world, you’re gonna have a bunch of people point to all the jars of peanut butter and jelly and tell you you’re nuts. And then it’s very easy to lose heart and stop querying your story in the mistaken belief that nobody would read it, let alone adore or recommend it to someone else.

The world doesn’t need more peanut butter and jelly to gag on. The world needs something to bring some zing. To get us out of the rut and help us discover who we are.

Will writers who follow a script about what’s selling make money? Maybe. The numbers publishers throw out aren’t made up, after all. But unless they innovate like Ford and deliver books the people didn’t even know they wanted, they’re not going to be remembered for being very original. And if I had to choose between being rich and being understood as having my own voice, I’ll take the latter every time.

6 Benefits of Always Having Multiple Writing Projects

With a Type A personality, I have to admit that there’s something beautiful in being laser-focused on just one thing for a while. You can get into a state of flow that enables you to produce a draft more quickly.

But I’m also a realist. I’ve learned that, in most cases, it’s better to have multiple writing projects going at once. The benefits include

  1. Pivoting to a different project that best suits your mood or attention level, which improves writing clarity, authenticity, and accuracy.
  2. Staying active and feeling more productive even as you wait to hear back from beta readers, editors, agents, etc.
  3. Setting work aside to work out kinks more naturally, rather than trying to force solutions in the moment.
  4. Being able to practice different types or styles of writing
  5. Improving time management through more serious task scheduling and prioritization
  6. Being less stressed and allowing yourself to quit what doesn’t work because you know all of your eggs aren’t in one basket

But this doesn’t mean you should overdo it. Ambition is great, but there are limits to how much you can bite off and chew. If you have some great ideas for articles, novellas, books, etc. but already have yourself scheduled, it’s okay to push those ideas out. Just jot them down with enough detail that you can pick them up later. Ask yourself which writing projects best fit your overall writing goals, and leave the ideas that aren’t ideal for those goals on the shelf.

As for how to pick your writing projects, ask yourself

  • Will this project bring in income?
  • How will the project influence my relationships?
  • Are any projects more timely, or are they evergreen?
  • Which projects do I keep coming back to or thinking about?
  • What type of commitment does the project involve in terms of time, expertise, and resources?

Personally, I’ve found that having two or three big projects (e.g., novels) and 5-10 articles a week is plenty of variety. You might find that you can handle less or more, but you absolutely need time when you are not writing. It’s during that time that your brain gets a chance to recover and you can experience all the amazing things that later can be fodder for the page. Be self-aware, find your rhythm, and then don’t quit.

5 Things Writers Never Should Say

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Writers are supposed to be great with words. But there are a few phrases I sometimes hear from those in the profession that, in total honesty, drive me up the wall. These are the ones I hope you scrape from your vocabulary.

1. I don’t know.

Come on now, people. We have Google. If you don’t know something, you can look it up. If you can’t look it up, you can ask someone, such as a mentor or your librarian. Remind yourself that good sources give authority and credibility to your writing, and then go research and find out. If someone won’t answer your questions, or if you discover there really is no data, then report that.

2. I never read…because…

Ever heard the saying that the best defense is a good offense? Well, you can’t refute what you don’t even know. And the more familiar you are with what’s out there, the more you can pinpoint what you personally want to avoid, what works, and what inspires you most. Educate yourself and explore so you can have a real, justified, and experienced opinion.

3. The editor/publisher/agent just has it out for me/doesn’t know good writing!

Most editors, publishers, and agents have spent years in the field and learned from seasoned professionals in the industry. They also have a fiduciary interest in helping you, because without you, their jobs go poof. So even though it never hurts to get a second or even third or fourth opinion, trust that they know what they’re talking about and be open to the fact you have the opportunity to learn something.

4. Writing is easy.

Writing might come naturally to you, but it also requires tons of hard work and dedication. Don’t dismiss that, or others are more likely to dismiss what you do as fluff stuff not worth real support. Always tell people what the experience is really like, warts and all.

5. I want to be like [Some Writer]!

It’s fine to aspire and appreciate what someone else has accomplished as an author. But your path is uniquely your own. Strive for your own voice and way of accomplishing, because the odds are you’ll never have the exact resources or opportunities another writer has had. If there’s someone you look up to, pinpoint the traits they have that you value and find practical ways to develop them in yourself. Always define success on your own terms, not someone else’s.

Why I No Longer Believe in Writer’s Block

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You know how it goes. You sit down at your laptop or with a notebook, ready to write.

Only you don’t. The page stays blank. Nothing happens.

For most of my writing career, I’ve called this writer’s block. But lately, I’ve wondered if there even is such a thing.

The term writer’s block implies that there are hurdles to your creativity, and that to keep working, you have to smash through or jump over them. But nine times out of ten, if I just step away from the keyboard, the creativity flows. It’s just in different ways. For example, maybe you find a cool way to arrange your dishes, or you sing a random song in the shower.

So what’s the deal? How come when you go to write, nothing comes?

Creativity is not entirely just letting your subconscious run wild. It involves some analysis and choice, too. But I’ve started to be more mindful as I try to create my drafts. And I’ve found that, when I encounter a blank page that’s dangerously still white, I’m usually tossing the creativity out the window entirely and letting everything become critical thinking. I start worrying and feeling the pressure of “I have to”. Is this worded right? How do I fix this? Is option A, B, or C better? That’s problem-solving and mitigating risk, not just letting the words flow.

And let’s face it. Sometimes, you just might be in a yucky mood. If you’re mad, you probably could spew to a friend about how you want to incinerate the Earth and become best friends with an alien named Hermies who would eat marshmallow pops as a primary form of sustenance. That’s quite a creative vision!

Or you might have something else that your brain is prioritizing. For example, last weekend, I found it really hard to write a draft because I kept thinking about the flowers I had to put into my garden. I put the draft aside, but when I went to tend the flowers, I still put them in an artistic arrangement. I was creative, just not with words.

So it’s not that your creativity is blocked. It’s still there. It’s just that you’re shifting your focus. The real issue thus is just how to ensure your focus is on your draft when you are at the keyboard.

I don’t think this even would be a problem if we took a more when-it-strikes approach to writing. Instead, we’re always trying to squeeze it into neat little convenient boxes to fit everything else in our lives and have some guarantee of a finish. Those desires/needs make sense, but the system of things isn’t very good for ensuring you’ll sit down to write when your brain and heart can give you the best result.

So next time you feel like you have writer’s block, look around at the other things you’re doing. You’re probably still creative in tons of ways through the rest of your day. Try to be more flexible with yourself so you can work on your drafts in a more stream-of-consciousness, flitting way if need be. The words will come when your brain pings back to the project, and you’ll get your other stuff done/problems solved along the way, too.

How to Write an Amazing Concluding Paragraph Using SAC

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In my previous post, I covered how to nail introductory paragraphs, particularly for articles. Today, let’s cover how to wrap it all up with a fantastic conclusion.

The SAC format

Most conclusions can follow the Summary, Action, and Clincher (SAC) format. It works well for essays, articles, and blogs, for instance.

The summary reviews your key assertion or thesis and ties all your main points together.

The action encourages your reader to do something based on the thesis/article points. It can be a mental action (e.g., “Consider…”), but task-oriented statements (e.g., “Clean up your computer files”) arguably are more powerful. It really just depends on the nature of the thesis.

The clincher is an attention-getter or final thought that makes it clear to the reader that you’re all done.

Here’s a quick example:

All great articles need a powerful conclusion. The best way to do that is to use SAC formatting, which includes a summary, action, and clincher.  (summary) Prepare your thesis and body carefully when you write so that pulling your thesis and main points together with this template is easy. (action) After all, the more organized your writing is, the more enjoyable it likely will be for your reader, and that’s the ultimate author’s goal. (clincher)

 

Instead of rehashing, SAC ties it all together and directs people forward with a clear why

The main consideration when you use SAC is that you don’t want to sound like you’re just repeating yourself. Don’t just pull your thesis and main point sentences down to the bottom, and don’t add more details, because by the time you reach your conclusion, you already should have laid those out in the body.

Instead, find a way to rephrase those concepts in an interesting way that pulls everything together. The reader should get the sense, based on how you do this, that you’re wrapping up and are about to give them that clincher.

So think about that final sentence. Ask yourself what impression you want the reader to take away and how you can lead into that. The more you can think about a broad perspective or big picture, the simpler this job will be.

How to Write a Solid Article Introduction Using AMAP

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Web and magazine articles are some of the most consumed content in the modern age. But what happens if your intro paragraph stinks? Because of the sheer quantity of pieces out there, if your introduction is subpar, readers will ditch you fast. To rise above the noise, for most articles, you need to hook people right away with attention-getter, motivator, assertion, and preview sentences (AMAP).

The four parts of the intro, defined

Your attention-getter is your introduction’s hook. It can take a lot of forms. Stats, sayings/quotes, facts, or descriptions all work, so think about your audience and how they tend to think or work.

Your motivator explains the attention-getter or gives the reader a reason to listen. It can identify the source of a quote to offer authority, for example, or it can provide a curiosity gap. The best motivators show direct relevance between the hook and the reader’s needs, wants, or interests.

The assertion is your thesis. This is where you make the claim or overall point for the article.

The preview summarizes what you’re going to cover in the article to support the thesis. The trick is to do this in a way that leaves some room for a little header variety. Otherwise, you just sound like you’re repeating yourself.

The example right in front of you

If you go back and look at the introduction for this post, it follows the AMAP strategy. I start with a fact, build a little curiosity with a question, assert that readers will leave without a good intro, and then outline AMAP.

Storytelling and other uses

Unless you’ve been under a rock, then you know that the best writing emphasizes great storytelling. People want to connect and empathize as they read. That’s what pulls them in. Although AMAP is meant more for straightforward pieces, such as how-tos or explainers, you still can use it with great artistry. Here’s a sample I whipped up:

When the dry season came, the water ran out. I tried not to show fear, but my mind could not help think about whether the drought would devour us. Unless we walked to the camp more than 100 miles away, we would not make it. What water was left in the river was too dirty, there was no way to grow food for our bellies, and the sky was an endless blaze of light.

So don’t think for a minute that you can’t apply this format to a great short story or even a novel. You can. With a little tweaking, it even can get you started on a query or promotional blurb/excerpt (e.g., When the dry season came to Yanta’s village…can they overcome the dirty river, food shortage, and blazing sky to reach the camp 100 miles away?). Because remember, you’re just catching the reader’s attention, making your point, and summarizing.

When to leave AMAP behind

AMAP doesn’t apply as well to more journalistic/news pieces, which jump right into the events/facts. It also isn’t the best choice if you’re directly transcribing an interview–that just needs a single sentence saying what the transcription covers, who was involved, and when the discussion happened.

Another consideration is editorial preference/style. Some publications or sites always want their pieces to follow a specific feel or format. They might say, for example, to use quotes only in the main body of the article, or they might favor a format where there are only one or two sentences to begin. Always review pieces that already are up or in print to decide if AMAP will work.

Variety is valuable, but for a quick start, AMAP has incredible strength

AMAP is a specific method for approaching introductory paragraphs. It’s ideal for articles, but it’s applicable to other purposes, too. Even though I don’t recommend using it every single time because of the value of variety, it’s a powerful technique to have in your writing arsenal. Pull it out when you need to get started on pieces quickly and a little templating makes sense to get yourself moving.

The Danger of Scripts in Writing and Related Content

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Lately, I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts. Although they cover a host of different topics, they almost all start the same way if there’s a guest:

“Thanks for being on the show.”

“Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.”

Now, if I hadn’t listened to so many episodes, perhaps I might not have noticed this. And I understand that this way of starting a show is culturally accepted as normal. But as it is, it strikes me now as almost a nervous tick. It’s become like Popeye eating spinach, and because of that, I can’t stand it.

What overused podcast introductions have to do with your writing

Writers often repurpose their content. They can turn an article concept into a podcast episode, for example, and good podcasters usually have a basic outline for an episode instead of just winging it.

But it got me thinking about the potential for writers to get stuck in scripts regardless of medium. Maybe you don’t start your stories all with “Once upon a time…”, for example. But maybe you keep using certain phrases you constantly see in your genre. Or maybe you template your articles so much that, even though the content technically changes, readers see your structure to such an extent that they’re distracted or feel like you’re not trying hard enough.

The point is, there’s a balance between the norms and having your own voice.

 

via GIPHY

If you’re going to do a podcast, for example, then you still need to introduce your guest. But you can say something  like “I’m really grateful you’re with us today because you…” or “First, let me just express my appreciation for taking the time to be with us…” It doesn’t have to be so obnoxiously cookie-cutter.

Three ways to break free from scripts for good

How do you get out of the script and stay spontaneous and authentic? For me, it starts with thinking in terms of purpose. What do you need to achieve? What has to happen? There are lots of different paths you can take to reach an objective, but what’s the goal in the first place? Think about that, rather than the specific words you’ll write or say.

Secondly, look back at what you’ve already done. If you’re going after the same goal, challenge yourself not to copy the path you took the last time. You can’t break a habit you’re not aware of, after all.

Third, read as much as you can all over the map. The more writers and genres you expose yourself to, the more ways you’ll see to approach what you have to accomplish.

So check your writing. There’s something to be said for planning to a certain level for efficiency’s sake. But if you feel like you’re repeating yourself or taking an approach just because you “need” to for acceptance, step back. There’s always a new, fresh way. You just have to be brave enough to use it.

Rethinking the Traditional Protagonist and Antagonist

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In traditional writing, there’s almost always a clear protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything good and right. The antagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything bad and wrong. The story is, at the core, not about the characters at all, but whether good will triumph over evil. We anticipate that good will win out, but we still pay attention because we want to see the novel path that the author chooses to get good to the finish line.

In an article for Electric Literature, Elyse Martin points out that there’s been a surge toward trying to blur the lines with characters, particularly when it comes to female villains. The concept, Martin argues, is that writers and producers have been relying on the idea of female virtue to “rehabilitate” female villains–that is, they’re trying to give the villains a “cause” or reason for being bad, under the pretext that the villains really are inherently good, “were it not for x”. And in Martin’s view, that’s a mistake. We should just allow the villains to be bad, just because they’re bad.

Martin’s article stands as evidence of how people are playing with the protagonist/antagonist idea and how people are responding to it. I take Martin’s point in that, sometimes, there really is no underlying reason for being bad. Sometimes, a person has no deep trauma or backstory–they just really enjoy being an arsehole. That’s it. And the predictability of them being a jerk–and the protagonist later squashing them like a bug–is oddly comforting and enjoyable.

But I’m not so sure that, as writers, we have to draw a strict line all the time. Part of what makes life so challenging–and interesting–is that people aren’t 100 percent consistent. Great people can make horrid mistakes, like the loving family man choosing to cover for his boss’ lies. People who always have looked out for #1 can decide to do the right thing, like a death row inmate who donates his organs and gives others a second chance at life. Emotions can disrupt the usual logic, and reason can become clear. A million caveats can change decisions. A great example is in Star Wars, when Darth Vader–a main antagonist–becomes a hero by saving his son, Luke Skywalker, from another antagonist, the Emperor.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gfba09z2uc[/embedyt]

 

In my view, blurry boundaries between antagonists and protagonists can make a book better. We can be on the edge of our seats because we aren’t sure which side they’re on, what they’re going to do, or who to really root for. This lack of clean lines creates intense anticipation and curiosity.

The key, I think, is knowing your audience and setting. If you’re writing for little kids who don’t have a ton of life experience and who can’t think as abstractly, for example, then black and white roles can be more favorable. But if you’re writing for adults, then they’re going to be able to understand far more nuances that color the characters in different ways. And in the same way, if you’re going for a more modern book with a realistic setting, then having a person who does only bad or good all the time can seem too fake.

So think about what your reader is going to need, as well as whether positioning your characters as antagonists or protagonists is going to make sense for the circumstances and plot line. If black and white works in one book and not another, then that’s OK. Let the books be what they must, and just have fun.

 

 

Bored as a Writer? This Is Probably Why

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You know the feeling. You stare at your computer screen (or your pad of paper) and just think, “Meh.”

It’s “boredom” in all its ugly glory. But does this feeling really mean you’re not interested in putting words to the page anymore? Should you stop prioritizing your writing because of it and move on to something else?

The usefulness of boredom–and the trouble with writing

Boredom is a useful emotion that signals us that, for whatever reason, the task we’re doing isn’t worth our time. Put another way, it’s about perception and reward. Applied to writing, if we don’t feel like the writing is going to yield anything good, if we can’t see that there’s an achievable benefit, then we can feel like the job is ho-hum and lose motivation.

The issue is that, unlike some other jobs, reaching goals like finding an agent or landing a book contract can be ridiculously difficult. We can go days, weeks, or even months without a sale. Rejections can be so plentiful that we start taking the suggestion to use all the “no” letters as wallpaper seriously. Beta readers might have great insights you take to heart, but positive feedback doesn’t come as consistently as it might from coworkers or a boss.

It all starts to seem like there’s no point.

It’s normal to need some wins to stay motivated

If you step back a bit, you might realize that the feeling of boredom you have really is simply that you’re antsy to have something happen. You’re still in love with the craft. It’s just that people naturally want to do things that other people acknowledge. It gives us a sense of belonging and identity. We’re always looking for that. You just need some confirmation that, if you keep putting in the work, then people will admit that it’s part of you and actually useful.

2 tips for eliminating “meh” and getting excited about your writing again

I explored the need for you to have a support group in a previous post. The better your support group is, the less likely it is that you’ll probably get bored with your writing. If you don’t have a great support group yet, though, then it’s incredibly important to reward yourself for the writing you finish. Give yourself something to look forward to related to the page, even if it’s just a drive-thru coffee you normally wouldn’t splurge on, so you can make positive associations with the work.

It also can help to put your work away. Looking at the same drafts over and over again can start to seem monotonous really fast, which can contribute to boredom. Setting your work aside for a little while and then coming back to it can help you see it with fresh eyes and keep it feeling novel (pun intended).

You’re still meant to put words to the page, so do it

The bottom line is, don’t let a feeling of boredom convince you that writing isn’t what you’re meant to do. Instead, make sure that you’re getting rewarded for it, whether by others or on your own. Be able to rotate out what you’re working on so it doesn’t seem like you’re stuck in a rut so much. By building in variety and giving yourself positive confirmations of value, you’ll stay happy and motivated to write.

Current Writing Markets Are Polarized. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t Be

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In a previous blog post, I lamented the fact that genre labels can be limiting for writers, both creatively and when it comes to publishing. But as I’ve thought more about the issue, I’ve also realized that there’s a related problem–clear larger market distinctions.

The book I’m currently querying stands as an example. It has strong themes of faith, but also of violence. So who do I send it to? The secular market will take the violence but not the faith, and the Christian market seems to want the faith but not the violence. Because multiple agents have told me they like the story, praised the proposal and told me it has a lovely feel for its historical period, I do not question my writing. Instead, I suspect an uncertainty about which market to classify it in as the problem. I cannot “fix” that without fundamentally changing the story.

So, should I? Should I conform to fit a specific market, similar to how I might try to hit all the tropes of a specific genre, just to be more sellable?

If I really want to be true to my own voice as a writer, then I have to say no.

The reality is, life is messy. Stories can be, too. They are, in many ways, a reflection of real people and experiences, even if they contain fantastic, imaginative elements. And just like there are many people who are in the center on the political spectrum, there are stories that don’t sit right or left. They can contain gray moral ground, complex beliefs and caveats.

So why? Why assume that this middle ground does not exist, that there are not people who can see both sides of the coin or who are able to see the world in nuance instead of black and white?

My argument here is less for the elimination of poles, which have their place, and more for the acknowledgment of the center of the curve. Books that could be marketed in either direction, in my view, can get ignored, simply because they do not meet all the requirements of one side or the other. Again, it’s not unlike the situation Republicans face right now–many are leaving the party and want to form a new political group that’s more in line with what they believe. They’re not saying eliminate the GOP, but rather that they want to have their own party that reflects who they really are and that offers an alternative to so-called Trumpism.

People by nature want to categorize and label. It helps them feel more in control and make some sense of the world so they’re not overwhelmed and anxious all the time. I totally get that. And I understand the practical efficiency of classification. But sometimes there is no neat box to put something in and it’s impossible to take sides. Acknowledging this bigger picture will let the writing industry bring a much larger number of great authors and diversity of content to readers and ultimately, make money. So let’s see the whole spectrum. We all deserve a choice about where we want to sit on it and read.