Look Around and Imagine

Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.

Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home

The Tools of the Game

by Rachel Dawn Hayes

When my husband and I made the decision for me to leave my corporate job (and corporate salary) and start freelancing, I know he harbored skepticism. He has confessed that he thought I was angling for early retirement. Within a few weeks, however, he had a turnaround. What changed his mind? He’ll tell you himself that it was how I approached my writing like a real business. I set up accounting and time management systems and practiced a lot of self-discipline. To this day, he has actually never come home early to find me watching soap operas and eating bon-bons—not even as a part of my “creative process.”

Despite what we’ve learned from Jessica Fletcher, Carrie Bradshaw, and other writers from the screen, making a go of freelance writing as a full-time job leaves little time for solving mysteries, attending fashion shows, or sauntering into coffee shops mid-morning to shoot the breeze with the barista. The beauty of working for yourself is that you do have the flexibility for those things, but if you actually want to keep eating and pay your bills, you have to set yourself up as a business and behave like a professional.

There are a few practices I adopted and tools I utilized along the way that helped me. I’ll share a few in the areas of bookkeeping, time management, and business development.

Bookkeeping

Business Checking—For the cost of whatever your financial institution’s minimum deposit is (mine was $100) you can have an entirely separate account (and debit card) for all of your freelance-related expenses. While it’s nice to keep your writing income in one place, the best reason for doing this is keeping up with your expenses for tax preparation. If this account is tied to the bookkeeping app you use—all the better.

Bookkeeping Software—I use QuickBooks and have had a good experience. However, other free or lower-cost options include FreshBooks and Sage. Find one that fits your budget and make sure it can:

  • Produce and track professional invoices
  • Sync with bank account(s) and track expenses
  • Create and export reports such as Profit & Loss

Time Management

Time Tracking Apps—At first, I was tracking the time I spent on different projects in a Word document. Yes, Excel would have been the better option, but…writer. Then I discovered Toggl—a free time tracking app. Its intuitive and visually simple design makes quick work of setting up new projects and the built-in timer allows me to easily track my time and generate reports for projects I bill by the hour. I also use it to keep track of the time I spend on flat-fee projects, business development, and pet (read: unpaid) projects like my short-lived food and wine blog. So Toggl is my pick, but here’s a list of some paid versions with more bells and whistles, if you’re into that.

Schedule—I’m a morning person, and while I don’t understand you night owls AT ALL, to each his own. Make a schedule that works for your life and makes the most of your productive time. As long as coffee is involved, I prefer to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until noon. That’s when I’m at my best. After lunch I’m less brilliant, and by evening my 3-year-old could write better copy. Therefore, I’ve always had a schedule that was morning-loaded. The schedule you keep is not the thing—the thing is that you keep a schedule.

Business Development

The Query Hour—As client lists and workloads grow, business development is the area that is most often neglected, but it is so important to the continued flourishing of your freelance business. “I’m so busy! It doesn’t make sense to look for new work right now.” You don’t do business development because you need work now, you do it because you need work next month. I do my best—I’m certainly not perfect—to spend a fixed amount of time on business development every week. For me, that looks like brainstorming story ideas, researching publications and editors, writing and sending pitches, and sometimes working on my website. Whatever it is for you, make regular time for it and stick to it.

Join a Group—If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already a member of the Evangelical Press Association. Great job! In addition to the national organizations, local groups are great because when we’re not in a pandemic you can often meet in person for great educational programming and networking opportunities. Join committees and show off your expertise a little—it often turns into paid work.

And of course, there’s a group for everything on Facebook and it’s a great place to get almost instantaneous feedback and connection. In your PJs. 

How You Come to Writing

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed. . . You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

Stephen King, On Writing

Filtering Feedback

by Randy Petersen

About a year ago I attended the reading of a new play. It was a rather small affair—just three actors, three other friends, and the playwright.

I was the playwright.

While I hoped for affirmation, I needed information. Does the piece hold their interest for its full ninety minutes? Does it lag? Have I unreeled the plot in a pleasant way, providing the right amount of detail when it’s needed? Do they seem to care about the characters? Do they laugh at the jokes? Do they gasp at the surprises? Is there suspense?

A playwriting professor of mine once said that, during play readings, he watches people’s butts—not in a perverse way, but to see if they’re restless, squirming. This tells him what parts of his play need editing. People will always say they like your play, but their butts don’t lie.

Talkback

Yet there’s always a conversation after a play reading, whether there are seven in the room or seventy. The questions and comments in that time can be very helpful. Or not. The best comments are “I statements.” The worst are along the lines of “Here’s how you should fix your play.”

For instance, one of the actors in my play reading felt her character didn’t have enough reason to go to the place where the climactic scene occurred. She was worried about her husband’s safety, but why? In the script, I hadn’t given her enough reason to worry, and so it seemed contrived. I found it enormously helpful to know that the actor didn’t have what she needed for that big scene.

On the other hand, a couple of others suggested adding a new scene that would clearly show how crazy another character was. I thanked them and jotted down the idea, but I have no intention of doing it. I don’t want that character to come across as “clearly crazy.” In fact, their suggestion pushed me in the opposite direction. It let me know I needed to shore up the reasonable ambiguity of that character.

I’ve attended other readings where the questioners just wanted to display their own brilliance. This happens rather often. I remember one such feedback session where a college kid was going on and on about how the playwright should have told the story—a nationally produced playwright, by the way, whose meekness in that moment was earning some kind of eternal reward. Everyone in the room recognized that this kid was just trying to impress his date, who sat cringing beside him.

What We Need

And that brings me to the point of this musing. All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed. Ignore the ones who just want to seem smart. Look for those who understand what you’re trying to do and will help you do that. You might even need to train them a bit—don’t rewrite it for me; do tell me how it affected you; don’t be nice at the expense of honesty; do tell me what parts of the piece didn’t make sense.

If you’re dealing with friends or relatives, you’ll probably need to give them explicit permission to be critical—and then respond graciously to their criticism.

What do you need most from the feedback you seek? Affirmation or information? If it’s info you need, then get it and use it—as you see fit. You don’t need to please others by taking their suggestions. Learn what you can from their responses, but then recraft the piece you want to write.

All writers need feedback. But we also need to be wise in choosing which responders to heed.

Compete with Yourself, Not Others

Compete with yourself, not others. Invariably, when we compare ourselves to others, we rarely measure up. So change up this equation and compete with yourself. Define a personal best and see if you can surpass it. Early in my career as a staff writer for a daily newspaper, I needed to learn how to write and report as fast as possible. By competing with myself, I found that I could achieve a rate of one thousand words of original content in sixty minutes—a personal best. I impressed myself!

Tim Morgan, The Joy of Working at Home

The Power of Parables

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

A lion used to prowl about a field in which four oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them.

At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

This is one of the many short but thought-provoking fables by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop I read as a child. It is also the source of the oft-quoted, but rarely attributed, phrase: “United we stand, divided we fall.” The fable is only 90 words long, but it sure packs a punch!

Everybody loves a good story. From the brief to the epic, fictional or true-to-life, historical or modern, there is something compelling about a well-told tale, especially if we can identify a moral in the story that we can apply to our lives. We are drawn to fables, fairy tales, legends, and parables because we’re all searching for answers to life’s questions and dilemmas, but we generally don’t want those answers given to us in the form of a sermon or lecture. Like medicine going down more easily with a spoonful of sugar, life lessons seem more palatable when they’re in the form of a story.

The Bible is not only an historical account dating back to pre-creation, but it is also a treasure trove of stories and parables that still serve a purpose. Parables, we should note, are not the same as anecdotes—they are fictional examples and not true accounts. Unlike fables, which generally feature non-human characters, they are always about hypothetical but realistic human situations. When Jesus, a master storyteller, used parables to teach spiritual lessons, he usually began with phrases such as, “There was a man…,” “A certain ruler…,” or “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

Sometimes his point came across clearly. At other times, it seemed he wanted to provoke his disciples to ask questions and dig deeper. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t the first person in the Bible to use parables. For example, in 1 Samuel 12, when King David committed a series of grievous sins, God sent the prophet Nathan to him, and Nathan used a parable—a story about a rich man who stole and killed a poor man’s lamb—to bring the king to repentance. About 120 words (in the Contemporary English Version) is all it took to get David to confess, because those words became a mirror in front of his face.

That is the power of a good story. Not only does it get the message across in a simple and relatable way, but it also makes the point stick because stories are easy to remember, especially if they stir up emotions.

Despite the vastly different genres of stories that exist today, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, the most effective ones share three key elements: characters, conflict, and resolution. From the account of Daniel in the lion’s den, to the 10th-century fairy tale about Little Red Riding Hood, to the latest episode of our favorite television show, we pay attention because we empathize with the characters and we want to see them have a happy ending.

The more we know and understand Scripture, the better we can tap into the power of story. This is true when we’re sharing our testimony of faith or explaining Scripture to others, and it’s also true when we’re writing a feature article or book.

Language and Story

by Randy Petersen

A story lurks in every sentence.

See what I did there? You probably have a dramatic image flashing in your mind right now—the story crouching under the staircase, ready to pounce.

I’ve been reading a book that is alternately confounding me, challenging me, and dazzling me. It’s deep stuff, rooted in the study of language, its nature, and its origins. I can make sense of every third sentence, which I then have to read three times—and then it blows my mind.

The book suggests that human language is built on story—more specifically, what it calls parable. We find and express meaning as we throw one observation alongside a separate context. Our brains do this so naturally, we don’t even recognize it. When I write, for instance, that “language is built on story,” I’m throwing that philological principle alongside a tale of construction. Somewhere inside my brain, and yours, there are hardhats and backhoes and cement trucks with their spinning payload pouring a story-foundation for everything else we say.

There are two directions I want to go with this. (And you may already be recognizing a story of travel in those words—perhaps I’m stopped at a traffic light with the GPS saying “turn right” and my friend in the passenger seat pointing left. Travel is a common story-thread in language. How often have you written a piece that “doesn’t go anywhere” or “ends up” where you didn’t expect?)

You might already be traveling in my first direction. I say foundation and parable, and you’re thinking about Jesus’ mini-story of houses built on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24-27). A life built on the firm foundation of Jesus’ teaching will withstand storms. So . . . how did Jesus teach? Often with stories. So if human language is built on a foundation of story (as my mind-blowing book asserts), and Jesus asks me to build my life on his own story-based teaching, can I build my writing on that foundation? Is there some way the divine story can inhabit my vocabulary, my syntax, my subject matter?

I’m not just saying, “Use nice words.” And I’m not suggesting that we ensure our writing aligns with theological principles. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that there are action-stories at the heart of our faith, and at the foundation of our lives. As language merchants, we can import the action of those stories—in all their vagaries, scandals, and contradictions—into our modern communication.

 Not sure exactly how to do that, though.

My second point is simply a writing tip. Find the stories in your sentences. Language wants to be active, dramatic. Treat ideas like people. Don’t just say what they are. Find out what they do. The resulting metaphors and mini-parables will energize your writing at a granular level.

I wasn’t going to tell you the name of the book, because then you’d buy it and blame me when it baffled you. But if you have the patience, it’s The Literary Mind by Mark Turner. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Reach Further

by Joyce K. Ellis

Ima Writer couldn’t wait to get to her former college roommate’s fortieth birthday party. She placed her gift in a white box, added sparkly tissue paper inside, then wrapped the box in a flowery gift wrap she knew Hope would love. When she got to the party, many of their friends had already arrived, and a dozen gifts piled high on the table next to the black-frosted “Over-the-Hill” cake. Ima slipped her gift among them.

Later, laughter erupted as Hope opened gag gifts, such as Metamucil, denture cleaner, and Depends. But lovely gifts, such as jewelry, framed mementos, and a favorite movie soundtrack CD drew oohs and ahs.

Hope saved Ima’s gift for last. Pawing through the sparkly paper, she stared. Silence. Then she managed, “Um…a magazine?…Uh…thanks.” More of a question than a statement.

“Hope,” Ima hurried to explain, “remember I told you I finally got published? Look, my article is on page 40. Ironic, eh?”

“Great.” Hope’s cheerfulness sounded forced. “When you told me on the phone you finally got published, I thought you meant a…a…book. But this is…um…nice.”

Truly, in our society, people may not respect you as a writer unless you have written a book—even if you’ve written hundreds of articles. And writers who produce magazine articles may feel they haven’t arrived until they see their names on a dust jacket.

Comparisons

Far from being inferior, article writing can actually maximize our ministry potential, extending our reach more than we could ever imagine. Compare:

Average sales of first book: fewer than 5,000 copies, likely out of print in a year or less.

Now consider the circulation numbers of this sampling of Christian magazines.[1] And remember, many copies are read by more than one person.

Did you hurry past those numbers? Read them again. Staggering!

The magazine market has shrunk considerably in recent years, and many print magazines have vanished or gone online. Still, a plethora of editors are still looking for a plethora (I do love that word) of good material. From freelancers. From freelancers who “get” that particular magazine’s style and audience. From freelancers who can bring a fresh voice while fitting in.

That’s why, in nonpandemic times, so many already-swamped editors take time away from work to serve as writers conference faculty. Even during COVID, they prioritize time for virtual appearances. They’re looking for dependable, skillful writers who have something worthwhile to say. The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide includes almost a hundred pages of magazines looking for our work.

As a bonus, for writers tired of the word platform, article writing can stretch both time and dollars, often shortening the time between project completion and paycheck.

In addition to print and online magazines, of course, who can calculate the potential outreach of blogs and other online posts?

Bullet or Stalactite

Books and articles are both important, but I like to compare them this way: A book is like a bullet, a one-shot ministry opportunity. But articles are like stalactites—a steady dripping of hope into the hearts and minds of our target audience. And if we develop a good working relationship with an editor, we can often keep “dripping” into that audience for a long time.

Every article we publish is a precious, heart-to-heart present we can give to the Master we serve and to the readers we reach.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, italics mine).


[1] Sources: The 2020 Christian Writers Market Guide, The 2020 Evangelical Press Association Membership Directory, and the Guideposts website.

Writers Need Community

Don’t use your introversion as an excuse.

Yes, you may prefer to hide out in your creative cave, dreading learning to network and talk to people you don’t know. If you get out and starting practicing now, then your path will be that much smoother.

Start by joining the writers groups and getting to know others in the community.

It may be terrifying at first but it will get easier, and you’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have, the friends you’ll make.

Debbie Ohi, children’s author (source)