2020 Vision

The last day of 2019. Hard to believe, isn’t it? 

Most of us are probably taking some kind of inventory of the last year, reflecting on what we accomplished, where we failed, how we grew, what we learned. . . and hoping to do better in 2020, whether in our personal lives or in our writing careers.

Here at the Christian Freelance Writers Network, we’re looking forward to growing this blog and making new connections! We have some individual goals as well.

Joyce has shared three things she wants to focus on in the new year:
1. Submit more magazine articles for both adults and kids.
2. Complete a middle-grade book project she has started.
3. Devise a workable social media strategy she can be consistent with.

After years of neglect in her personal life and a foggy professional focus, Anita has been reinventing herself. She’s starting to feel whole again—and wholly dedicated to being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to landing a collaborative book deal, drumming up a magazine assignment at least once a month, and expanding a B2B client base. Her attitude? “Yahoo!”

Randy does a lot of different types of writing, including playwriting, and he’s been cooking up a couple of ideas in that genre.  One of his goals is to move forward with those. Sounds exciting!

Ann has chosen “NEW” as her word for 2020. Her goal is to create a book proposal for a new project. She’s also signed up for a Writer’s Digest class, something new she’s never done before. She’s also thinking about a second nonfiction book project, which she says would require some new actions on her part.

I (Ann-Margret) took a bit of a sabbatical from writing in the latter part of the year so that I could take time to read and reflect and let my well fill up, so to speak. My goal for 2020 is to pitch fresh queries to some of the publications I’ve written for in the past and approach a few new ones as well.

Have you set any writing goals for the new year? Do any of the targets mentioned above spark ideas? We’d love it if you shared them with us in the comments section below. Don’t forget to sign up to follow this blog, and visit us weekly for new articles and tips.

From all of us at CFWN, Happy New Year!

Ann-Margret Hovsepian

 

Keep X in X-mas

I see the title has offended you. Let me explain. You may still be offended, but for the right reasons.

First, a linguistic thing. You may already know that our letter X looks like the Greek letter chi, which is how the early Christians would start to spell Christos, Christ. So “Xmas” is not just a shortcut for lazy typesetters or a way for marketers to avoid a potentially divisive religious reference—it is both of those things, but not only those things. It has some ancient wordplay to it.

But I want to dig deeper into this abbreviation. In your high school algebra class, X was generally an unknown quantity. You needed to “solve for X.” You would turn equations this way and that until you could find the true value of this variable.

In a similar way, when the apostle Paul visited Athens, he found a big stone X in the marketplace. Well, not exactly. He saw a shrine “To an Unknown God.” In algebraic terms, this was the variable they were solving for. Paul declared, “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23 CEB).

We might see Christmas in our culture as one big shrine to an Unknown God. In this season, people mobilize around a lot of good themes—love for others, the joy of giving, peace on earth—which we can wholeheartedly affirm. But do they know the Christ of Christmas? Like Paul, we have an opportunity to reveal the God they worship unknowingly.

Knowledge that Grows

But we need to remember that Christ goes beyond our knowledge too. We are always learning more, “growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10 NIV). Paul prayed for the Philippian believers “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV). Our own knowledge of this X-factor, the Christ of Christmas, is always on the move.

So, to squeeze every drop out of this metaphor, let’s say we take our algebra exam, solving for X, and we hand it in. We’re likely to get it back from the teacher with a few red X’s on it. This symbol also acts as a corrective.

The Christ of Christmas acts that way too. When our growth is hindered by greed or pride or a lust for power, Jesus challenges us, just as he did throughout his earthly ministry. “You can’t serve God and money . . . Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” His words take a red marker to our lives, correcting our errors, but also training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Treasure

And if you’ve spent much time reading pirate stories, you know “X marks the spot,” especially on a treasure map. Jesus said God’s kingdom was like a man finding a treasure in a field. He sold everything he had to buy that field.

The Christ of Christmas is that treasure.

So whenever we see that marketing shorthand this holiday season, we’ll know that the X of Xmas marks the spot of the greatest treasure we know, a treasure worth selling everything for. That treasure may be buried under sales and decorations and traditions, but let’s dig it up and share it with those neighbors who desperately need to know this unknown X-factor.

Randy Petersen

5 Tips to Enrich Your Pitch

Freelance writers face a strategic challenge as we seek to develop our business. Consultants and marketing gurus tell us to specialize. Get known for one thing you do well. Sell that service. Let everyone know that if they want that thing—you’re the one to hire.

The problem is that, as a matter of survival, we have always had to take on varied projects. Our diversification allows us to take on many different jobs. Should we ignore our ability to write devotionals, Bible studies, culture reviews, or youth pieces in order to focus on, say, interviews?

Another factor: Many of us are genuinely interested in those many things. Our brains are wired for multi-tasking. In some cases, that’s why we’re freelancers. If we had to do only one type of writing, we’d get bored fast.

But could the consultants be right? Is our breadth keeping us from finding a successful niche? Is our desire to be everything to everyone keeping us from being anything to anyone?

I’d suggest a “both-and” approach.

  1. Whittle down to your best thing.

What type of writing do you enjoy most? What subjects do you know the most about? What readers do you connect with? What assignments have you received the most compliments on?

Many freelancers would have a list of ten different subjects/styles/audiences in answer to those questions. It might help to think in terms of samples. If you were asked to provide one published piece to prove your skill as a writer, what would it be? Could this help you zero in on a specialty?

If you have a list of ten possible specialties, begin the painful process of cutting it to three. Console yourself with this thought: You’re not abandoning the others; you’re just choosing your headline. You’re a shopkeeper selecting the merchandise to display in the front window. You can still sell the other stuff, but you want to present a captivating display around one theme.

  1. Study the market. Fill the gaps.

Do online searches. Talk to editors. Read some of your target publications. You’re looking for demand and supply. What types of writing and subject matter do publishers want? And what writers are currently filling those needs?

Perk up when an editor says, “What we really need is this.” And, frankly, if you see a subpar piece in a target publication, it may indicate a gap in the supply. Perhaps you could provide an upgrade in their capacity for that type of writing.

  1. Find a quality you specialize in, in addition to a genre.

What do editors want? If you don’t know this already, ask them. They want clean copy they can edit quickly. They want clear prose with a little imagination but not too much. They want deadline-meeters.

It’s possible you could sell your services completely on these terms: “I can write whatever you need. Clearly. Quickly. Correctly.” But it’s still helpful if you can create a link in editor’s minds between a particular subject and your name.

  1. Group your specialties. Broaden your pitch.

If you’re the world expert on Habakkuk, good luck. You might want to broaden your focus a bit. Old Testament prophets? Go broader. How about “applying biblical insights to modern issues”?

If your top three subjects are church history, missions, and pastoral leadership, you could possibly combine them into “the growth of the Christian faith around the world, in history and today.” Creative combination may help you hit several sweet spots and still craft a unique identity. When it stops making sense, you’ve stretched too far.

  1. Rethink your website strategy.

Many of us, myself included, have websites that are all about us. And why not? We are asking people to hire us to write for them. Shouldn’t we try to impress them with who we are? Essentially these websites are elaborate business cards, and they’re effective in making introductions.

But marketing experts are now telling us to turn the focus on our customers. What do they want that we can offer? Oh, eventually we get to trumpet our own value, but we start by identifying our clients’ need and then pitching the ways we can meet it. To do that, we need a site that doesn’t just introduce us; it markets us.

And to market ourselves well, we need to zoom in on the one thing we do better than anyone else. Establish that link in an editor’s mind, and you will get work. Later in the conversation—perhaps deeper into your website—you can add the et cetera. “Oh, yes, I also do this, this, and this. Check out my samples.” But streamline your pitch to your specialty.

A Story

A year ago, when I was an editor, I asked a writer what sorts of things he wrote. This writer—I’ll call him “Michael Foust” because, well, that’s his name—went through a litany of the subjects that we all share. But there was one specialty I heard and remembered—he did movie reviews. A few months later, our blog needed articles on some new films being released. I thought of Michael, and he delivered some great pieces. Somewhere in that process, he sent us an email pitching some other subjects he could tackle, and we signed him up for at least one of those, too.

In his case, it helped to specialize, but it didn’t mean abandoning the other things he liked to write. Maybe that can work for the rest of us, too.

Randy Petersen

Rearrange the Rules

Capote quote

“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

Truman Capote

contributed by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Do you have favourite quotes about writing or tips that have helped you? Please send them to us and we will consider them for future inclusion on our blog. Write to christianfwn@gmail.com.

Picture Book Writer—In Process

“If you want to write children’s books, begin by reading 100 children’s books.” I heard that advice at a writing conference more than 45 years ago, at the beginning of my career, and I took it to heart—sort of.

Our children were moving through stages—cuddling on my lap while I read to them, reading by themselves, and even reading to each other. So I became well acquainted with numerous picture books, but 100? I certainly didn’t keep track. And can we take multiple credits for those books we read eleventy-eight times in one night? With kids at home and kids I was teaching at church, story ideas whirled in my mind. So I devoured books and articles about writing for children. And many of those stories made their way into Sunday school take-home papers, magazines, and books.

Over time, this writer-mom branched out, writing and editing for both kids and adults while mentoring and teaching writers. Still, I kept reading and learning, taking workshops, college classes, and seminars. One of my deepest desires was to publish a picture book that might bring as much delight to others as picture books did to our family.

Decades later, apparently God decided the time was right. And the publication of The Fabulous World That God Made—as well as ideas for sequels and new projects—motivated an even deeper study of the craft and the market.

About that time, highly respected picture book author Ann Whitford Paul released an updated edition of Writing Picture Books. Although I had perused the original book years earlier, I treated the new version like the text of a university independent-study course. Some of my self-imposed course requirements came from recommendations in her text; others were my own.

Here are some strategies you may find helpful:

  1. As you read Ann Whitford Paul’s book, Writing Picture Books, highlight the titles of all picture books cited as examples. (There’s a list in the back of the book, but highlighting them as they appear in the chapters facilitates finding them in context.) Buy the ebook format, too, if you can, to easily search for topics and examples you want to study further.
  2. Check out as many of the mentioned picture books as you can locate through your local library or interlibrary loan. I used a sturdy grocery-store box with handles to corral the books as they came in. Read the books—out loud, multiple times if possible—to hear the rhythm and to analyze the way the story or concept unfolds.
  3. Make an Excel file for picture book analysis. Include for each book, the title, author, illustrator, publisher, date published, page count (very important), and other significant elements. I also noted the way the text and illustrations are presented, such as number of single-page illustrations, two-page spreads, and pages without any text.
  4. Type other authors’ picture book texts into your computer. Yes, I meant to say that! Ann Whitford Paul suggests doing this for books you like and for those that fall short, in your opinion. This helps you get a feel for such elements as themes, word choice, sounds, rhythm, and rhyme. (Even published books don’t always handle rhythm and rhyme well.)
    Typing in the text also allows you to easily ascertain the word count. Picture books are getting shorter and shorter these days, so paying attention to word count is important. Be sure to indicate, at the beginning of each of your copied text files, information such as title, publisher, author/copyright holder and date so you don’t run across one of these files, years from now, and think you wrote it!
    I found this copying exercise interesting because our youngest child often “did her writing,” as she called it, while I did mine. She copied her favorite chapter books, word for word, into a notebook. Her siblings teased her, but I believe this practice gave her a good sense of spelling, sentence structure, and flow, which has helped her throughout her schooling and career.
    As long as we don’t plagiarize other people’s books, slipping even parts of their work into our own without credit, this method of examining good and bad examples can teach us much.
  5. On Goodreads, keep track of the picture books you’re reading, and write reviews for as many as you can. If you follow me on Goodreads you can see my efforts regarding this assignment. Other people’s reviews can provide ideas of the types of information to include in your own.
  6. As you’re reading picture books, make a list of titles you can’t wait to own. Watch for less expensive, used copies online, and shop at Goodwill, second-hand bookstores, and library sales.
  7. Buy more bookshelves to host your new favorites as you read them often for instruction, inspiration, and—most of all—sheer enjoyment.

Through these exercises and in other ways, I’ve committed to continued growth in my craft. This summer, attending a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference provided more learning opportunities and encouragement: breakout sessions, peer critiques, feedback from agents, writing intensives, and even a social media consult.

My fast-growing Excel file indicates that over the summer I far surpassed the requirement of reading a minimum of 100 picture books—laughing and learning all the while. I even returned all those books without library fines.

It’s time to fill up the grocery-store box again.

Joyce K. Ellis