Writing Lessons from Dogs

Sometimes when I’m goofing with my two dogs, Baxter and Taffy, God will snap his fingers, hold his hand over my nose, and tell me to “Sit. Stay. Listen.” And when I do, I learn valuable lessons.

Almost every morning I have the same breakfast—two slices of peanut butter toast. I love peanut butter. At one point in my (much younger) life, I was going to marry peanut butter. My siblings still make fun of me for this—I do not care.

However, during the year I was working from home as a freelance editor, every morning Baxter and Taffy would come and sit attentively near the table, convinced I would either give them some toast or drop a bite accidentally. Their faith in my generosity (or sloppiness) never wavered.

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Taffy, the trusting one

  • Lesson 1: Faith looks a lot like perseverance. If I would sit at God’s feet every morning and believe He’s going to give me something good—even if he hasn’t for a while—then I’m right where I need to be just in case he does. This lesson also applies to prayer requests.

Eventually, the dogs’ faithful attentiveness prompted me—not out of guilt, but out of a desire to share with my faithful companions—to reward their faith with one bite of crust each from both pieces of toast. Every morning.

  • Lesson 2: God does not share his bounty with me (not defined as anything related to money) because I beg, but because I am his child and he loves me.

The first time I offered the dogs their pieces of crust, Taffy came to me immediately, without question, and took the bite from my hand. Baxter held back. He looked at what I offered, sniffed it, and finally took it from my hand, hesitantly, as if he expected me to take it back.

Let me be clear. I am a softhearted man. I have never given my dogs reason to fear me or to wonder if the good I give them will be taken away. We have had Baxter five years and Taffy eight. They know what to expect.

So, they are not reacting to me with trust or hesitation. It is their nature. It’s the way they were made. One trusts completely and has since Day 1. One holds back, assessing and analyzing, and has since Day 1.

Baxter, the hesitant one

Baxter, the hesitant one

(Insert photo of Baxter)

  • Lesson 3: If I immediately take up God’s blessings and run with them in joy—or if I hesitate to accept the good things he has for me, it is not a reflection on God. It is the way I am. The way I was created. My nature.

Yes, I can (with God’s help) change my nature somewhat. For instance, I can train myself not to lie. But my nature—my default position, if you will—is what it is. Without the sacrifice of Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, I would remain largely unchanged until the day I die.

“What do these lessons mean to me, as a writer?” I wondered one day as God held his hand over my nose.

  • My characters don’t have to show a strong, unwavering faith. Few people are gifted with that. But, when they face doubts and have questions, perseverance—moving forward from the last place they heard God—is a form of faith. Taking action based on what they know to be true of God is faith, even if he is silent.
  • Regardless of how much my characters pray for a certain outcome, God is under no obligation to provide it. I do not have to give my dogs crusts—I could give them carrots instead, or nothing. Our prayers do not obligate God; our prayers bring us into alignment with his will.

This one may be controversial, but I think it’s true.

  • My characters should not change by leaps and bounds, but by small incremental, sometimes nearly invisible, steps. Each one’s basic nature is their basic nature.

Can God do deathbed conversions of atheists? Of course. But the more likely outcome is that a lifelong, militant atheist will go to his or her death an atheist. Can an abusive husband experience a turnaround, repent, and abuse no more? Certainly, but the more likely—the more realistic—outcome is that he won’t. People who have been abused or know someone who has been abused recognize this truth.

Redemption is still redemption even in (and sometimes especially in) those smaller life changes that pull our characters not in a new direction, but just slightly off the course they were on. Even a tiny course correction, over time, will significantly alter a character’s destination.

Resist tying up all the loose ends and ending your books with everyone happy and in harmony with God. The Word tells us the world won’t end that way. Why should our books?

Your turn: What writing lessons have you learned from your pets?

Mike-9Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as the editor of CHEFS Mix Blog for CHEFS Catalog he is enjoying his playground. Previous playgrounds include being the Managing Editor of the magazine ACFW Journal and the ezine Afictionado for seven years. He also plays with words as a freelance editor and has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, worked in corporate communications, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Originally posted on Novel Rocket

Invisibility is good

shocked“The story in this book is fantastic!” Rowlf exploded. “I can’t put it down.”

“Oh really?” Cyndy interrogated. “I found it annoying to read because of all of the oddball speaker attributions.”

“That’s because you have no vision,” Rowlf interjected. “This writer is being experimental.”

I’m proofediting a book right now for a publisher that is full of attributions just like these. It also has no discernible POV, switching within scenes to whatever character is most convenient at the time (head hopping)—or even to omniscient.

So why do I like the book? And what lessons can you learn from it? See my post today at Seriously Write, one of my favorite writer’s blogs.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Quote It! Writing and Editing

maugham460“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”

–Somerset Maugham, 1874-1965, British playwright, novelist (Of Human Bondage) and short story writer.

Cherryh_CJ“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”

–C.J. Cherryh, a United States science fiction and fantasy author who has written more than 60 books since the mid-1970s, including the Hugo Award winning novels Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988).

This is one of the things I love the most about writing and editing–the complementary nature of the two skills. As an editor, I never think, How can I change this piece of writing?

No, it’s more a question of How can I polish the gems already here to help them sparkle as brightly as they can? As a team, writers and editors don’t work for each other, they work for the reader–without whom, the best writing and editing is for naught.

Your turn: How do you prefer to work with an editor?

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Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Writers on Editing: Gina Holmes

GinaholmesGina Holmes is the founder of Novel Rocket and a PR professional. Her bestselling novels Crossing Oceans and Dry as Rain were both Christy finalists and won various literary awards. Her latest novel, Wings of Glass, released February 2013 and has earned a starred review from Library Journal, a Romantic Times Top Pick, and a Southern Indie Bookseller’s Okra Pick. Holmes holds degrees in science and nursing and currently resides with her family in southern Virginia. She works too hard, laughs too loud, and longs to see others heal from the past and discover their God-given purpose. To learn more about her, visit http://www.ginaholmes.com.

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Your third novel, Wings of Glass, has just released. Tell us a little about it.

I think this is my favorite book so far. Wings of Glass tells the story of Penny Taylor, a young wife who feels trapped and alone in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. Besides her low self-esteem, she feels her Christian faith doesn’t allow for divorce. It’s not until she meets two women—one a southern socialite and the other a Sudanese cleaning woman—that her eyes are opened to the truth of her situation and she begins her journey to healing and redemption.

What made you take on the tough subject of domestic abuse?

wingsofglassAs a little girl, I watched my mother being physically abused by her husband and then later, two of my sisters enter abusive relationship after abusive relationship and I thought that would never be me—until the day my boyfriend hit me for the first time and I began to make excuses for him. I know the mindset of someone who gets into and stays in an abusive relationship, because I’ve been there myself. It’s taken me years, and a lot of reading, praying, and talking to get to the heart of what brought me and kept me in toxic relationships and I want to pass on some of what I learned that helped me find boundaries and recovery from a co-dependent mindset and most of all healing.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

It’s my hope and prayer that those who are in abusive relationships will begin to see that the problem lies with them as much as with the abuser. That’s something I railed against when friends suggested it. I wasn’t the one with the problem! I was no doormat who enabled abuse or addiction—or was I?

I also hope that those who have never understood the mindset of victims would better comprehend the intricacies of co-dependency and be better able to minister to these women and men. And of course I’d love it if young women would read this before they ever enter their first romantic relationship to have their eyes open to how abuse almost always progresses and be able to see the red flags early.

Since this is a blog about editing, I have to ask: What are your favorite and least favorite parts about being edited?

Favorite: My favorite part is that the book is always better for it. My editor, Kathy Olson, is fantastic. She sees the forest for the trees. I’m also edited by Karen Watson who is more on the macro side of things. The two challenge me immensely. They call out every lazy section, every plot hole, problem and if the big picture isn’t showing what I had envisioned, they’re not shy about telling me. I love the end result of all that work!

Least favorite: I don’t always write the way editors would like me to. I’m a seat-of-the-pantser and I know it can be frustrating for them to get an outline that says I’m taking the story one way when the finished product hardly resembles that early vision. It’s tough sometimes for creatives and editorial types to not frustrate the other but the whole iron sharpening iron deal is definitely true of the author-editor dance.

Also, since you’ve done a lot of editing yourself: What has editing the work of other writers taught you about seeing your writing through the eyes of an editor?

It’s amazing how not being close to a project (as in I wasn’t the one who wrote it), makes everything so much clearer. What stands out the most is the cardboard-ness of rule worship.

It’s important to follow writing rules when you’re new but equally important to know when to break them purposefully when it serves the story better. I see so many manuscripts that are cookie cutter. The writing is perfect in a way. There are no mistakes or few, but it’s so dry and unappealing. If something bothers you as a writer, if it bores the writer to tears, it’s going to do the same to the editor and later the reader. Trust your gut.

Which of the characters in Wings of Glass is most like you and why?

Each of the characters has a little of me in them or vice versa. I think years ago I was more like Penny, though tougher in many regards, at least I thought so. I’d like to think now I’m a little more Callie Mae. Because I’ve lived through what I have and have found healing, I can see in others the path that will lead to healing and the one that will lead to destruction. The difficult part once you’ve found healing is remembering that you can’t do it for others. You can offer advice, but you can’t make anyone take it. Each person has to learn in their own time, in their own way.

Who is your favorite character?

I absolutely love Fatimah. She had such a great sense of humor and didn’t care what anyone thought except those who really mattered. She was really quite self-actualized. She was so much fun to write and I actually
find myself missing her presence.

You had written four novels before your debut, Crossing Oceans was published. Do you think those books will ever get dusted off and reworked?

crossingoceansNever say never, but I doubt it. I had considered reworking some but having gone back and re-read them, I realized they weren’t published for good reason. They just didn’t work. Now, there is one story I’m resurrecting characters from for a story I should be writing next, but the plotline is completely different. I started out writing suspense, but as my reading tastes changed, so did my writing tastes. I don’t see myself doing suspense again any time soon.

DryAsRainHonestly, I’m a pretty quirky person. The older I get, the more I embrace those quirks. I think everyone is quirky really. As a student of human nature, I pick up on those and like to exaggerate them in my fiction. I also like to surround myself with quirky people. My husband is quirky, my kids are quirky, and so are my friends. Often in life, especially when we’re young, we hate about ourselves what makes us different, when really those are the things we should be embracing. Different is interesting. Different is beautiful.

If you could write anything–regardless of genre, marketing, and reader expectations–what would you write?

Speaking of quirky. I read a book a few years back that was so different that it made me want to try something like that. The book was a big-time bestseller, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. What turned me on about that book were the characters. They were quirky to an extreme. In contemporary women’s fiction, I can get away with a certain amount of quirk, but I’m always having to play it down because it’s so over the top. In a fantasy, you can be as over the top as you dare. I’d love to play around with something like that one day and just let my freak flag fly!

Will I? Probably not, unless I use a pen name. I realize readers have certain expectations and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel mislead. We’ll see. There’s a lot in life I want to do but since I only get a hundred or so years (if I’m lucky), time won’t allow for every rabbit hole.

What advice would you have for writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

My advice would be not to follow too closely in anyone’s footsteps. Yes, there is a certain path all writers find themselves on. There are certain things that we must all do like learning to write well, figuring out platform, going to writers conferences to meet the gatekeepers and figure out the way things have to be formatted and submitted and all that sort of thing. But it’s okay to veer off the path too and forge your own. There are those who have self-published who have found great success.

There are those who have written about subjects that they were told no one wanted to read about and found success. It’s smart to figure out what others have done before you to make them successful, but alter the formula to suit your needs and passions. It’s okay to be different, in fact, I think great success, and maybe even happiness, depends upon it. And by all means, read Novel Rocket.com and leave comments. It helps not only encourage those authors who have taken the time out of their day to teach us, but it also connects you to the writing community. Community is important.

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ginaumbrella1From the best-selling author of Crossing Oceans comes a heartrending yet uplifting story of friendship and redemption. On the cusp of adulthood, 18-year-old Penny Carson is swept off her feet by a handsome farm hand with a confident swagger. Though Trent Taylor seems like Prince Charming and offers an escape from her one-stop-sign town, Penny’s happily-ever-after lasts no longer than their breakneck courtship. Before the ink even dries on their marriage certificate, he hits her for the first time. It isn’t the last, yet the bruises that can’t be seen are the most painful of all.

When Trent is injured in a welding accident and his paycheck stops, he has no choice but to finally allow Penny to take a job cleaning houses. Here she meets two women from very different worlds who will teach her to live and laugh again, and lend her their backbones just long enough for her to find her own.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Winner of “Firefly” DVDs and writing books!

Firefly_front_coverWe had great participation yesterday. People shared fabulous stories about being edited and about what they hope to learn when they are edited. When you need editing services, I hope you’ll feel more confident in hiring an editor.

I numbered the people who commented and then went to Random.org and generated a random number: 3. The person whose name was on line 3 is Cheri Swalwell! Cheri, send me your mailing address and I’ll get the prizes out to you.

wingsofglassThanks to all who participated!

Coming next: On March 5, Gina Holmes will be here to talk about her editing experiences–as well as about her latest release, Wings of Glass. Hope you’ll join us then.

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Mike-9Michael loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Writers on Editing: Ronie Kendig

Ronie_KendigTo launch this new occasional feature of Writing On The Fine Line, my guest, Ronie Kendig, has donated a fantastic prize: The four-DVD set of the entire “Firefly” television show. It includes all 14 episodes, plus three unaired episodes—and more. If you haven’t seen this, it will … Change. Your. Life. Or, at least entertain you.

But, let’s make it even better: I’ll throw in the best self-editing book on the market, Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, as well as How To Write A Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen.

The winner gets it all! To enter, leave a short comment about an unforgettable editing experience you had. If it was a good experience, you can mention the editor’s name. But, if it was a bad experience, discretion is advised.

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Each writer has self-editing checks they always make with their manuscripts. What are yours?

Beyond normal plot checks, I watch for echoes of words. I also watch for “was” “–ing” pairings. I’m not a “was” Nazi, but I do pay attention to them. If I can find a better and natural way of rewriting that sentence, then I change it. If the change draws attention to the sentence, then I leave it. I also make sure each sentence ends strong, especially the last sentence of paragraphs.

When you receive edits back from an editor, whether freelance or with your publisher, what is your first reaction?

I gotta admit—I’m a jellyfish (no rhino skin on this gal), so it’s hard for me to open a document and see the editor has bled all over my baby. I’m aware of how hard this is on me, so I take my time. I read through the changes and the requested revisions, leave it for a day or two (if I can), then come back to it. I get it done and pray myself through it.

How much editing do you get back? How much do you have to “fix”?

TalonThe best example is probably to compare the two books I’ve turned in most recently: Talon: Combat Tracking Team and Beowulf: Explosives Detection Dog. In Talon, I was blessed to have only minor content/macro changes. That story poured out of me as if I’d had an IV attached. Beowulf, on the other hand, had quite a few threads to straighten or fix, and I even went in and wrote an entirely new thread to answer some questions my amazing editor had about the story.

BeowulfI admit I was discouraged that I hadn’t turned in a perfect manuscript (can you say unrealistic expectations?), but I attribute the state of that manuscript to having only 2.5 months to write because of other writing commitments, a major move across the U.S. with my family, and a conference. That edit was a bit rough.

Do the edits make you feel like you’ve failed or that you’ve been empowered? Or, do you just sigh and make them?

Initially, they always make me feel like a failure. In fact, the very first edit on my debut novel was a bloodbath—because the editor ran out of time and had to combine her macro edit with her line edit. I totally crashed and burned when I saw that.

Edits are still rough on me because I am very sensitive. But being sensitive does not equate to not succeeding. You’ve heard the phrase, “If you’re going to make it in this business, you must have a rhino skin,” right? Well, I don’t believe that. What you do need to succeed is determination. And I’m a thick-headed Irish girl, so I have that by the boatloads. For the most part, I just get the edits done. Then go eat a dozen glazed donuts.

What have you learned, as a writer, from having your books edited?

That each editor has his or her own quirks, just as writers do—and I think it’s imperative a writer is paired with the right editor. The most empowering thing that has ever been said to me is, “it’s your story,” meaning when an editor and I disagree, that’s okay. It is perfectly fine to ask the editor to leave something as you wrote it. So, when I feel strongly about things, then I do push back. But I’ve also learned that it’s important not to “waste capital” on piddly things. The relationship with your editor is so important. She or he is not against you. They want your book to be the best. You want the same thing.

When you write a series of books, do you have the same editor throughout the whole series? What’s your normal editorial process?

For my first three books, I had three different editors (and was published at two different houses). Halfway through the Discarded Heroes series, a highly respected editor and I agreed we wanted to work together. So, I put in the request to work with this amazing woman—and she has edited all my books since. She gets me. She gets what I’m writing. I’ve now done five books with this editor and it’s my prayer that I never write a book without her again.

Since I write for a smaller publisher, my books sometimes do not get a massive content edit separate from the rest of the book. The process for a single book begins with me turning in the manuscript. From there, it goes to my editor who will read for content and continuity of the characters, the main plot, the subplots, etc., and then she sends it back to me so I can address her questions and concerns. But, contained within that edit is a line edit as well.

Once I’ve made all the changes I feel are necessary, I return it to the editor. She cleans up the document and processes what I’ve changed. She might have a question or two more, and then she returns it to my publisher. The next time I see my book it’s in galley form. This is where I do a read-thru of the manuscript to catch any last-minute typos and other changes that have affected the manuscript.

What would you say to unpublished writers about freelance editing of their manuscripts?

The most critical thing is to be sure you’re getting what you’re looking for. If an editor is only going to hunt down passives or the like, make sure that’s what you want. If you’re looking for story content and flow, make sure the editor is doing that. Paired with that, make sure this editor is someone who finds the kind of stuff you’re looking for.

I’ve hired an editor before that I thought was perfect. I was wrong—but it was also partly my fault. Not until I got the edit back did I realize my mistake. Slapping a couple hundred bucks on the table for an edit does not a perfect manuscript guarantee.

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RonieKendigAn Army brat, Ronie Kendig grew up in the classic military family, with her father often TDY and her mother holding down the proverbial fort. Their family moved often, which left Ronie attending six schools by the time she’d entered fourth grade. Her only respite and “friends” during this time were the characters she created.

It was no surprise when she married a military veteran—Brian, her real-life hero—in June 1990. They have four children and live with three dogs in Dallas TX.

Since her first publication in 2010, Ronie and her books have been gained critical acclaim and national attention, including a Christy Award for contemporary romance in 2012 for Wolfsbane. Visit her online.

Read more about Ronie in this article by Diana Prusik in the ACFW Journal. Share your unforgettable editing experience to enter!

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Spring Cleaning? 10 Tips for Writers

I know it’s only February, but in my office that’s when I start thinking about Spring Cleaning. Why so early? Because I hate the process, even though it is vital to the smooth operation of my freelance editing business. If I don’t start early to think and plan for it, procrastination will win the day. So, maybe you’re like me? Here are 10 tips to clean out the cobwebs in your writing:

10. Keep it Simple You have many ongoing writing projects. Prioritize and be realistic.

9. Break it Down Do you need to brainstorm a new story? Have you left a protagonist dangling? Do you have a percolating editing project? Break your tasks into chunks. One week, brainstorm. The next week, rescue your protag. Then edit.

See the other eight tips at Novel Rocket!

Michael Ehret, for Writing on the Fine Line

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor here at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.