What We Read

For many writers what we do not read when we are writing can be as important as what we do read.


What I absolutely do not read when starting something new is anything even remotely related to whatever I am working on. If there are things I need to research before I write about a particular subject matter, I try to do the research long before I begin to write.


Reading the latest best-selling book on prayer while trying to write a book about prayer is not easy for me. Writing poetry while reading Rilke will undoubtedly end with my making no poetry at all. If I ever take a chance on writing the two novels I have been carrying around in my head for years, I anticipate a five-year hiatus from Le Carré and Greene and O’Brian will be necessary.


Day in and day out, at least for this writer, approaching original proves difficult. It is hard enough to keep piling one sentence on another without the added burden of feeling as though I must measure up to a passage clearly superior to what I am trying to make.


I think I agree with the critic Clive Barnes: “The job’s impossible, and one must pray that one will be only moderately incompetent.”


Reading work that constantly reminds me I will never measure up discourages me when I am trying to make something new.


Reading great work in the field in which I am working can end up skewing the sound of my voice, twisting it ever so slightly into what sounds like a poor echo of the voice of someone whose work I admire. Reading such work at the wrong time can make it hard for me to make work of my own.


To be a writer and not be under the influence of other writers is impossible. But I recommend you go carefully. Pay attention to who you read when you are writing. Pay attention to how the light in the hallway falls upon them and how it falls upon you.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”


Good writers practice and study and practice some more. They may not call it practice-they may simply keep writing, day after day-but in fact they are practicing every time they write. Good writers figure out what they need to do to develop their raw gifts into sentences and paragraphs that will move readers.


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

What’s the Difference Between Marketing and Publicity?

– by Jana Burson


Curious about the difference between marketing and publicity? One of the earliest explanations I remember hearing, maybe even as far back as college, was this: Marketing is bought and paid for; publicity is sought and prayed for.

To dissect that a little further, marketing is placement that is paid for on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, etc. This placement can be an ad, advertorial, promotion, a blog tour or more. Another easy way to think about marketing is that it is guaranteed placement.

Publicity, on the other hand, is not purchased placement. It’s obtained when a publicist pitches your book to TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, websites, podcasts, etc. for coverage or review. Coverage depends on several things, including a publicist’s relationships, the quality of the content being pitched, and timing.

Don’t think though that publicity is FREE. The actual space or coverage might not have a price attached to it, but it often comes to fruition following tireless hours of pitching, follow-up and relationship building along the way. A good publicist is always worth their fee.

In the publishing industry, the publicity department often sits under the overall umbrella of marketing. Thus, when the marketing representative at your respective publisher refers to the marketing budget, they are including publicity.

A well-rounded launch campaign for a book will have components of both marketing and publicity. If both are done well, they should complement each other and in turn bolster the sales of a book.

For more on publicity, see my interview with a publicist here.

Charm Them – by Mary Karr

However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page.  A lot of great writers rebuke charm, and I don’t mean the word to conjure a snake charmer pulling off a trick with a poor dumb animal whose fangs have been torn out. Too many writers relate to their readers that way, which results in some dull, hermetic books written just to satisfy the artist’s preening ego. Charm is from the Latin carmen: to sing. By “charm,” I mean sing well enough to hold the reader in thrall. Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page. What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention.


Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off the whiff of bullshit. People may like you because you’re worm, but you can also be quick to anger or too intense. Your gift for charm and confidence hides a gift for scheming and deceit. You’re withdrawn and deep but also slightly scornful of others. A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else – nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.


– Mary Karr, “The Art of Memoir”

When Preparation meets Relationships meets Opportunity

I remember one client, Jerry DeWitt, who had been a Pentecostal minister for twenty-eight years. After reading the work of and meeting Richard Dawkins he eventually became an atheist and, as a result, lost everything and was ostracized by his family and friends. He wrote a deeply moving and inspiring book called “Hope After Faith” documenting his experience. As we struggled to come up with ways to get attention for the book – as well as for his important ideas – Jerry threw out the idea of one day hosting a “church service” for atheists. We ultimately encouraged him to host that service in the Deep South during the week of the book’s launch. As it was being coordinated, I happened to have lunch with a friend in New Orleans who occasionally freelanced for the New York Times. I mentioned what was happening. The next day he emailed me: Please, could he attend and would we mind if he wrote about it for the Times? CNN made the same request.


That’s what happens when preparation meets relationships meets opportunity. Asking a reporter in New York City simply to write about some book that was coming out (or the rising trend of atheism) would likely not have worked. But when something as provocative and unusual as hosting an atheist church service in the Bible Belt? The most important outlets in the world ask if they can write about you.  They ask your permission.


– Ryan Holiday, “The Perennial Seller”

How I Feed My Writing – by Robert Benson

I have very specific ways I read to feed my writing.


I consider a day without working the crossword in the New York Times has been lived considerably less than to the fullest. I can live for a day without sunshine, or orange juice for that matter, but a day without a shot at bringing famed puzzle master Will Shortz to his knees is hardly worth living.


I find it better to read autobiography or memoir by day and fiction or history by night. The daytime reading helps me to focus, to concentrate, to do the writer’s work before me on any given day.


On discouraging days Herr Rilke will remind me why I write. The Reverend Buechner will point out that a small episode in my life that I am journaling may well reveal something important if I keep scribbling.


Ms. Dillard will kick me in the pants. “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio,” she says, quoting Michelangelo. “Draw and do not waste time.” I can hear the rest of her admonition even though she has never spoken to me—“Write, Robert, write. Write and do not waste time.”


The night reading helps me to rest and to wonder and to wander and, perhaps, to dream. I believe I sleep better after sailing the seas with Captain Jack and Dr. Maturin and Mr. O’Brian, after staring down Karla with Smiley and Le Carré, or after wondering with Mr. Foote at the courage of those who charged across a Pennsylvania field on a hot July day at the behest of General Pickett.


Reading these writers gives me time away from the places and things and people I am writing about. The rolling seas, the streets of Berlin, the battlefields of our own sweet land keep me from staying too hunkered down in the work I must tend to on my board tomorrow morning.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

“Selfie” Writing

– by Leona Choy


I’ve never taken a “selfie” picture with my smart phone camera. One of my grandsons showed me how easily it’s done, but it just isn’t my thing. I’m self-conscious by nature.

Writing and publishing one’s memoir or autobiography, however, is a selfie on paper with indelible ink with which I agree. It isn’t conceited or prideful to write one’s own story, to deliberately turn up the kleig lights on the stage where you are performing your life drama. After all, what is one of the first actions of a president vacating the White House? He writes his memoirs. He wants to have some control over his legacy before it slips out of his hands into the hands of someone else who may think otherwise about him and his accomplishments during his time in office.

One doesn’t have to be a celebrity with name or face recognition. So if I dare to write my memoirs, do I think that I am somebody? Of course I am. Every person is somebody special and important to God and to one’s family and friends and to the larger orbit of his influence. Since God gave me life and invested decades in my learning experiences and polishing my rough edges, wouldn’t He expect me to be a good steward by passing on to others an account of my life? I too want to have some control over my legacy.

I got my start in publishing by ghostwriting selfies for prominent people who were not writers. That led to writing biographies, both historical and current. Then followed a number of “with” and “as told to” biographies. In my capacity as an editor I walked about a dozen non-writers through the arduous task of turning their dreams into their published life story. I wrote my late husband’s biography. I taught workshops on the how-to of writing one’s story. I published a book based on those workshops titled This is Your Life—Write It! Leave Legacy Footprints which has gone through several printings.

While doing all the above, I still didn’t get around to write my own autobiography until I turned 77!

I thought that might be my final book, given my age and the fact that I already had over thirty books in print. Perhaps it was time to retire. It turned out that my auto-bio, Czeching My Roots: A Heritage Saga, was only a launching pad for much more writing ahead. A lot more was still to happen: cancer, widowhood, more world travel for research, adventure and ministry. Little did I know that I would write and publish more than a dozen books yet. These included a couple of auto-bio sequels, the most recent of them, Writing for the Supreme Editor: My Wordsmithing Life, just off the press. Having been blessed and surprised with longevity, I keep living out the sayings, The Best is Yet to Come and It’s Always Too Soon to Quit.

I invest my time currently coaching emerging writers, whether they are youthful wanna-bes or seasoned seniors, aspiring or expert. I affirm them in their dream to write to publish, to try their wings by writing a selfie in some form. They know themselves better than anyone.

Whether or not a memoir is destined for wide publication is not the primary reason to write one’s life. The writer of a selfie stands to benefit the most from the exercise.  While sharpening his writing skills, he gains perspective on his own life. He creates an extension of himself that has some permanency. He exposes his real self, imperfect as he is, to his family first of all—if they ever get around to reading his book. Jesus stated it realistically: a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. As writers, let’s face it—we might not receive our loudest applause from family.

A selfie gives the writer the opportunity to express what might otherwise be difficult face to face before those closest to us. It is a legacy thing. My descendants generations removed won’t be able to know me in person, but by reading my selfie they will understand my dreams, hopes, feelings, needs, loves, hurts, struggles and joys and compare them with theirs. We need to own our shortcomings while not dwelling on them. If we have acquired wisdom and enjoyed successes, we don’t profit our readers by down-playing them with false modesty.

Writing a selfie is like looking at our lives in the rear view mirror from whatever season of life we find ourselves. We have a chance to trace with gratitude the loving hand of God even in the ups and downs of our life journey. Writing a memoir is a fascinating scenic drive to look all the way back to the foothills of our childhood and even underground to the history of our forefathers.

Voice Equals Psyche

Unfortunately, nobody tells a writer how hard cobbling together a voice is. Look under “voice” in a writing textbook, and they talk about things that seem mechanical – tone, diction, syntax. Doh, the writer says with a forehead smack. Diction is merely word choice, what variety of vocabulary you favor. Syntax is whether sentences are long or short, how they’re shaped, with or without dependent clauses, etc. Some sentences meander, others fire off like machine-gun runs. Tone is the emotional tenor of the sentences; it’s how the narrator feels about the subject. Robert Frost said anytime he heard wordless voices through a wall, tone told him what was angry, who bemused, who about to cry. For me psyche equals voice, so your own psyche – how you think and see and wonder and scudge and suffer – also determines such factors as pacing and what you write about when. Since all literary decisions for a memoirist are offshoots of character, I often find that any bafflement I face on the page about these factors is instantly answered once I fund the right voice.


– May Karr, “The Art of Memoir”

Discovery is Half the Fun

There will always be mystery in the creative process, and we would be disappointed if it became a science we could sketch out in detail. Discovery is half the fun. But you can learn a lot about how the process works for you-and then work with it.


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press

To Recall and Relive

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” writes William Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads essentially the opening sentence in Romantic literature. He goes on to say that a poet does not see or hear or feel things that others do not see or hear or feel. What makes a person a poet is the ability to recall what she has felt and seen and heard. And to relive it and describe it in such a way that others can then see and feel and hear again what they have already seen and felt and heard and may have missed.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

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