Seek out criticism

Feedback on your work is important, you already know this. But, it is too easy to dismiss exactly how much this matters for a writer. Honest feedback is the key ingredient to improving in anything you do, but especially in your writing.

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien knew the value of honest criticism, and sought it out. Once a week, and sometimes more, Lewis and Tolkien met with their friends and colleagues to read their work, hear others read theirs, and share criticism. This informal literary society was known as 'The Inklings,' and met like this for over fifteen years.

It was this group that first heard parts of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. C.S. Lewis also read his Narnia stories for the first time to this group of friends. It was not always easy for them. In fact, when Lewis first shared The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Tolkien, he did not get a positive reception. Tolkien thought the work was full of obvious allegories, and he did not like Lewis's mixing of characters and fantastic creatures from so many legends and myths. Lewis was disheartened by this, but he continued to work on it, and share it with his colleagues. In the end, the series became one of the best known, and most-loved, fantasy works of all time.

As a writer, I sympathize with Lewis in the moment he first shared the world of Narnia with the other Inklings. I can imagine how discouraging it must have felt to have such a good friend, who shares your taste, dislike your work. We can sympathize because, and let's be honest here, it's scary to take something that you worked hard on, something you are emotionally attached to, and give it to someone else. Especially when accompanied with the question, "Well, what do you think?" It is a vulnerable place, for an artist it might be the most vulnerable place.

It gets worse. Honest, well-motivated and well-informed criticism of your work is hard to come by. Finding the right person to trust with your unfinished work is daunting. How do you know who to trust? Are they well-read enough to appreciate the difference between good and bad writing? Do they respect the genre you're working in? Can they articulate how something can be improved in a way that you can use?

Yet, there is no other way forward. Your work will not improve in a vacuum, and it certainly will not move anyone if it never sees the light of day. As writers, we must find people we trust to help us grow.

In the last few weeks I sat down separately with two writer friends to hear their thoughts on a short story that I've struggled with for over a year. They both gave me excellent notes and thoughts. Some of them were not positive, some were. Some of them I didn't agree with. But most of them I did, overwhelmingly so. I now have a long list of things to think about, and a few things that I know I must change.

It was not easy to open up this piece of work to these guys, especially because I am not happy with the state it is in. But that is exactly why I did. They saw things I did not see, because I have been looking at it up close for so long. Their thoughts were valuable and helped me considerably, and the story will be better as a result.

Fellow writers, if you do not have someone who you share your work with consistently, I urge you to change that. We cannot create our best work alone. We need other people around us who support us and want us to succeed. We need a community of artists and people who love art supporting us in order to produce good work. It will be scary to seek this out and find it, but I promise, when you do find it, it will be worth it.


Three benefits I discovered in a morning routine

This year, I found a powerful ally in the battle to be productive. Routine. Last week I let my routine go, and the impact was not small.

I was quite sick, and it killed my morning routine. My wife can attest that I am a terrible patient. When I get sick it's as if the world is ending. I'm sluggish, cranky and very lethargic. It's not pretty, and I know it's a fault, but there it is. Last week I was particularly affected in the mornings. Usually by the afternoon I was able to focus on work and be somewhat normal. Before noon though? Forget about it.

The biggest casualty was my morning routine. Since the beginning of the year, I focused on building a consistent morning routine. For the last five weeks, on many more weekdays than not, my routine looked like this:
1. Get up
2. Turn on The Briefing podcast
2. Fix coffee
3. Make breakfast
4. Read the Bible
5. Write in my Day One journal
6. Work on one of my writing projects
7. Quick daily GTD review
8. Get ready for work

This all takes around two hours. If I am up between 5:30 - 6am, I can easily be done before work. While my adherence to an early wakeup time was not perfect, the results of the routine were very encouraging when I was. As a result, the lapse in my routine last week made its value even more clear.

I realized that my routine does three very important things for me, and I don't think I am unique. I bet a similar routine, based on your personal priorities, can bring you the same benefits.

1. Reinforced priorities

Every day, my priorities are: my relationship with God, my relationship with my wife, my writing and my work. While some are obvious (my time reading the Bible helps keep my relationship with God active), and others may not be (my GTD review ensures that any commitments I've made to my wife are on my radar first thing in the morning), every item on this list directly serves one or more of my priorities.

By starting the day with this routine, the rest of the day is already anchored in what matters most to me.

2. A clear and focused mind

The first week of the new routine was hard, but after several days I noticed that each day I executed the routine I was in a better mental position to start my day. With a good breakfast in my stomach, the Word of God bouncing around my head, and one more morning's worth of progress on a project that matters to me under my belt, the rest of the day almost seemed to be an easy coast downhill.

The value of a clear and focused mind cannot be overstated. We think and create best when our minds are free from distractions and worries. The effect this has on your productivity is essential.

3. Daily progress towards my goals

This is my main reason for establishing my morning routine. I realized that with everything I must accomplish, and the time and energy my daily commitments take, that sitting down in the evening to work on my writing was ineffective. If I could find the time and I was not too tired, my brain was usually stuffed full of baggage from the day and could not focus.

Making space for creativity first thing in the morning ensured two things. First, I would have the time to get the work done. Second, I would have a clear and rested mind to create from. This made all the difference in the world.

This week I will fight hard to get back into my routine as I get healthy again. While there is always a temptation for me to slide back into my old ways, the improvements I've seen over the last five weeks are more that enough motivation not to.

If you've never tried a consistent morning routine, you should consider it. I think you will be surprised by how much you like it.


Four things you can do to read more

A common refrain I hear from many of my friends is a desire to read more. I get it. I have a long list of unfinished books, and a longer list of those I want to read.

The fact is, that for any writer, aspiring or established, the importance of reading is paramount. A writer does not create out of nothing, but uses the material he knows as compost for growing new ideas. For this reason, I want to increase my reading time significantly. Over the last several months I have done so.

Do you feel the same way? Do you want to spend more time reading? If so, I think you can, with these four tips:

1. Pick your place(s) to read carefully, then stick to them

At home, I have a chair in the living room that I read my Bible in every morning. If I try to read it elsewhere it’s not the same. There is something about that chair in the quiet of the morning.

Find the places that work for you. For me, it’s that chair, my home office and my bed. In those locations my mind is used to reading, and this has a powerful reinforcing effect. Regardless of what makes a location great for you, find the few places that are, and read there consistently. Form a habit.

2. Reduce, or even better eliminate, distractions

If you see me at work, whether at home or in the office, I have my headphones in. I’m always listening to podcasts or music. To get anything done, I almost feel like I have to. But that doesn’t work for me when reading. It is too distracting.

Distractions go beyond sound, too. I now treat my reading time the same way I treat my writing. I reduce or eliminate as much input as I can. This means that when I sit down to read or write I do the following things:

  • Use a dedicated e-reader or the actual book. No tablets. The temptations and frequency of distraction is just too high
  • Turn off music and podcasts. If I need to block sound or I must listen to music, I only listen to music without words
  • Absolutely no TV
  • Put my phone on silent, or even the ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode
  • If I am in my home office, I will quit the email and social media apps on my computer that have audible alerts
  • Have a glass of water, or cup of tea/coffee close at hand

Your list is probably different. But, the key question to ask when you consider the inputs around you while reading is this: will it pull me out of the words on the page and interrupt my thoughts? If the answer is yes, then get rid of it.

3. Have multiple options

I keep generally three to five books going at any given time. This kind of variety allows me to pick an option to suit my mood, and when I can do that I am less likely to pick up the TV remote or waste time on the Internet. It’s important to have a number of books available that you want to read, spread across genres. For some people this may mean simply having a list of what you want to read so you can move right on to a new one when you are ready.

Also, life is too short for bad books. If you don’t like what you are reading, then stop. Move on to something else. You will read more books and learn more things if you don’t let boring books and other people’s opinions drive what you read.

4. Have a plan, and make it a priority

This is most important point. If you really want to spend more time reading, then you have to make it a priority. If it is the last thing on your list for the day, it will more than likely not happen.

Having a plan and setting your reading time aside as a priority can help prevent these times from slipping away from you. Every reader will be different, but my plan is simple. For me, the Bible is first thing I read in the morning, and I always carve out time each evening for a least one chapter of one of the other books. Find your own rhythm and plan, but make it conscious. Write it down, or curate a small stack of book by your bed or reading chair. Be intentional about what you are reading.

Reading is a very personal habit, so not all of the details may be right for you. But, I do believe having set locations to read, reducing distractions, and having multiple options will help you read more. And, if all else fails, make it a priority.


Where I found hope in the death of my grandmother

Last Friday I gave the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral. My grandmother, Mary Downey, was an incredible woman of faith and love. She was diagnosed with cancer that advanced very quickly, just two months ago. She passed away last week. The speed and circumstances were surprising and difficult.

I lost my Grandpa Downey in January 2011 and my Grandpa Lundin later that spring. That year forced me to really think about death in very personal terms for the first time in a long time. Contemplating these things that year drew me closer to Jesus.

My grandmother had strong faith in Jesus, her savior, and our family does as well. This means that while we said goodbye, we knew it is not final. We find our hope in the gospel.

Last Friday I stood in the pulpit of the church I grew up in and shared my memories of my grandmother. Then, I closed by sharing the hope I found in her death. While you, dear readers of this site, did not know my grandmother, In memory of her, I want to share that same hope with you:

I find great comfort knowing that we have a Lord that understands our grief, just as my grandmother found comfort in Him three years ago after her husband’s death.

As the author of Hebrews points out, Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. He has suffered all the trials that life on earth has to offer.

I’ve often thought about Jesus and the death of his friend Lazarus in the past few weeks. When Jesus meets Lazarus’s sister and she took him to where his friend is buried, the Bible tells us that Jesus wept.

When I was younger, and had not often experienced the death of loved ones, I did not understand Jesus’s reaction.

Because, in just a few minutes, Jesus was going to bring Lazarus back to life. He had both the power to do this, and the knowledge that it would happen. So, why did he weep for Lazarus? Why did he weep with those who were hurting?

The apostle Paul shows us the truth behind Jesus’s grief when he tells us that believers in Christ should not grieve as those without hope do. Paul does not tell us not to grieve, instead he tells us to grieve with hope.

As in all things for believers, Jesus is the model for us. When faced with the death of his friend, he grieved. He did not look at those around him and ask why they were weeping. He did not ask them why they doubted his power. Instead He cried with them. He comforted them. He wept.

And then, Jesus showed us where we find our hope. He demonstrated his power and love by bringing Lazarus back to life. He displayed his power over both death and life. He gave His followers hope that death would be defeated, and then later, on the cross, He achieved that victory himself.

Mary Downey’s life was marked by her faith in that victory. And now, in her death, my grandmother’s faith has become sight. She is in the presence of our Lord, of her precious Jesus, and she is praising Him for all he has done.

For believers, we share in her hope. We know that one day, our faith will be made sight as well. One day we will see Mary again, in front of the throne of our Lord.


Writers: Beware of the ephemeral web

The internet has been a boon for writers, particularly in terms of exposure. But, there are many downsides—just ask print journalists. In my mind, one of the biggest questions we face as writers is a new framing of an old question: How can we preserve our work?

Over the last few weeks I kicked off a GTD reboot[ref]Getting Things Done is a great productivity system created by David Allen that's not really a system. It's more a way of thinking that drives your own system. I love it and it's the only thing that works for me, but my lack of discipline in pretty much all things means that I have to reboot my system a couple of times a year. Despite this, I HIGHLY recommend it.[/ref]. I usually do this a few times a year, but this one was especially needed as both work and personal projects were out of control. I wanted to tweak my system, so I went digging around on the web.

After a while I ended up on 43folders.com, the now mothballed productivity site from the inestimable Merlin Mann, checking out his classics. A lot of the really good content on the site is old, downright ancient in web terms, and dates back to 2004-2008. Half the links I seemed to click seemed to go 404 on me. Then, one more link led me to a site where I saw this:

I didn't know Ms. Harpold or her work, but this notice stopped me in my tracks. She apparently died in 2006, and now her website, her work, is gone. It may have been her wishes, it may not have been, but for my purposes that was not the question. After 30 minutes of following dead links and googling for long-gone articles, the ephemerality of the internet became very, very real.

In some sense, all of our writing that stays in bits and bytes and never makes it to paper is living in a future black hole. Sure, books go out of print, and many, many of the world's writings have been lost, but there is something undeniable about the pure physicality of a book. The internet may haunt some people forever, but it seems that for many writers it doesn't hang around long enough.

So, fellow wordsmiths, here is my advice. Don't forgo the physical. Write on paper, make offline backups of your blog, try to publish on paper. Save your work. Because the internet won't do it for you.