Focusing on the Monumental

Part 2 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

Having earned some money and having attended to the day’s correspondence, I would then focus on something monumental. I would stay focused on one writing project and move it as far forward as possible. If I was working on a short story, I’d stay at it for two hours. If it was a novel, I’d concentrate on a single chapter. If it was an interview assignment, I’d transcribe my tapes and start working on the first draft of the profile. To the best of my ability, I would not let anything interrupt me until time for lunch. I’d then be ready for a physical and mental break. Writing is draining, folks.

After a modest lunch, I’d stay away from the office for a couple of hours. I’d go to the basement and exercise on the treadmill or stationary bike and then shower and shave.

Perhaps I would do some pleasure reading. I might make phone calls, maybe watch a little bit of TV, or do yard work. Around 3:45 p.m. my two kids would come home, and I’d help them with homework, run them to the library or sports practices, and we’d all have dinner together.

Later in the evening, I would go back to my office for another three hours. Why, you may ask, did I break the day into two parts? Well, first, because I was brain-fried after four hours of office work. Second, I had to attend to other functions and responsibilities in life. And third, I needed distance from what I’d done that morning.

Once back in the office at night, I would start to edit the work I’d written that morning. I’d read it aloud. I’d copy-edit it. I’d double-check facts and name spellings and statistics and quotations. If fiction, I’d act out scenes, checking the stage movements and listening to the dialogue. Sometimes my work was so brilliant, I’d produce seven pages of print-ready material. Other times it was so horrific, I’d scrap almost all of it. But even the pitched material got me closer to the end product. To sell words, you have to churn words. Continually.

Next week, “Dealing with Grunt Work”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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The Freelance Writer’s Checklist to Success

Part 1 in the series, “Making Work Less Tedious When It’s Time to Churn Words

I have a muse. It’s called terror. It was especially motivating when I was a full-time freelancer for fifteen years with a family to support. I’d get up on Monday and say, “The mortgage is due Friday. Churn words.” I’d get up on Tuesday and say, “The kids need new shoes for Easter. Churn words.” I’d get up on Wednesday and say, “We need groceries. Churn words.” I’d get up on Thursday and say, “The heck with this. I’m tired of churning words,” and my wife would say, “Quit clowning around. Go churn words.” So, I would.

But, just how does one go about churning words? For me, it began with prep work. Long before Dr. Atul Gawande wrote his best seller The Checklist Manifesto (Henry Holt, 2009), I had a checklist system that was every bit as rigorous as an airline captain’s. I would go to my office and make sure that I was prepared to work that day: phone answering machine turned on for no disturbances, computer on standby, adequate paper in printer, wastebasket emptied, pencils sharpened, pads of paper on desk, drapes drawn to block out distractions, reference materials at ready reach, mug of coffee handy, and to-do list current and prioritized.

There was a psychological value in “going to work,” even if it was a home office. After going through this checklist, I was ready for takeoff.

Next, I strove for closure on something small. I’d take the first hour to write two short devotions and send them to a publication, or I’d complete my Saturday column for the local newspaper, or I’d write a book review. I needed this, personally. These were small assignments, but they paid something, and starting my day by making money as a writer (any amount) gave my family cash flow and verified that I was a working professional. It also got my mind in gear, warming up for more taxing assignments.

After that, I’d take what I called a “working break.” I’d get a second cup of coffee and spend an hour going through the mail. I’d take each new magazine and rip out the articles I felt would be useful and interesting, and I’d throw the rest away. I’d read a couple of articles, with a highlighter in hand to draw attention to key information, and then I’d either toss each article or file it in a cabinet for future reference. I’d then stack any incoming bills in one pile so my wife could pay them. Any payment checks that might have arrived that day would go with that pile for her to deposit into our bank account. I’d then review rejected manuscripts or accepted queries, assign each a project date and deadline, and place them atop a bookcase in order of pending priority work.

Next week: “Focusing on the Monumental”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Powerful Delivery for Maximum Impact

Conclusion of the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Once the speech is written, it must be rehearsed. Great orators are performers. I audio-record my practice sessions, listening for where I need to slow down, pause for effect, increase volume, and enunciate clearly. If I discover words that slur or echo one another or hit the ear awkwardly, I rewrite those passages. I practice in front of the mirror, testing hand gestures, head tilts, eyebrow lifts, shoulder hunches, sidesteps, and quizzical reactions. Body language speaks as loudly as do actual words.

One particular trick I use is to begin by speaking much too loudly for the first minute. I overpower the audience, and by domination, force everyone into subjection. It becomes obvious that only one person in the room is now the center of attention, and it isn’t anyone in the audience. Once control has been gained, I decrease volume and rely more on tempo, gesticulation, and articulation to hold everyone’s attention. But starting strong is a key factor in successful speechmaking.

Today, when authors are expected to address writers conferences, appear on radio and TV talk shows, and record webinars and audio-blog entries on the Internet , becoming a skilled orator is a professional requirement. Get your start by speaking before attendees of clubs, conventions, retreats, churches, or schools.

What you say, who you say it to, and how you say it determine how effective your platform will be. So, write it like you say it, then say it as though you mean it.

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech

Part 2 in the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Even introverted writers can create memorable speeches by following these three steps:

  1. It has to have a central theme illustrated by a vibrant metaphor or a graphic story. For example, in my speech titled “Submarine People,” the central theme is that some people sink to depths of despair and failure in life, like a submarine with too much ballast. However, other people can jettison the ballast, rise to the surface, and move forward toward a worthy destination. Throughout that speech I return to the image of the submarine—sinking, resting on the bottom, blowing ballast, rising, cresting the surface, moving forward atop the waves. Listeners can envision the scene. They can relate to the metaphor. They can accept the challenge to get rid of the dead weight in their own lives and to rise to new levels. The image is not abstract; it’s visual.
  2. Great speeches must have one or two phenomenal catchphrases. You remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s line was, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Julius Caesar said, “I came; I saw; I conquered.” John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The challenge is to write a line so pithy, so succinct, so gripping, that it summarizes the entire point of the speech in a memorable, powerful, quotable In one of my speeches back in 1996, I used the apostle Peter as an example of faith, and I said, “If you plan to walk on water, you first have to get out of the boat!” It was a simple statement, but I remember how the audience loved the challenge so much, everyone broke into applause right in the middle of my speech. A few years later, John Ortberg came out with his popular book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
  3. Create a detailed outline. The audience needs to feel that the orator knows exactly where he or she is going with the talk. That means you have to start with a gripping story or statement or challenge (not some lame joke or a quote you borrowed from someone else). You have to have key points that flow systematically, logically, and fluidly, supported by clever anecdotes or insightful illustrations. You have to provide takeaway value so that the listeners don’t dare go out for coffee refills lest they miss vital, crucial insights. Your transitions should be smooth, natural, and well-timed, perhaps by numbers (“…and secondly”) or counterpoint words (“on the other hand…”) or time triggers (“…yet even before this occurred….”). And you must have an ending that is not only conclusive but also clever and motivating. I close my submarine speech with this challenge: “This is your time. You’re breaking free of the heavy waters. You’re at the top. All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” (The audience always loves it.)

Next week, “Powerful Delivery for Maximum Impact”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Professional Speechwriting for Yourself and Others

Part 1 in the series, “Speechwriting with Pizzazz

Right before I went on stage to deliver the keynote address at the 2013 Writing for the Soul conference in Colorado Springs, Jerry B. Jenkins stepped to the lectern to introduce me. Jerry smiled, then said, “I’m pleased to welcome my long-time friend, Doc Hensley, to the platform. If you’ve never heard this man speak before, let me give you a word of caution: fasten your seatbelts!” He then stepped back and waved me forward.

That humorous introduction pleased me, for it implied that whenever I give a speech, my listeners can be assured I’ll be fast-paced, content-heavy, and entertaining. Too often, many orators today are one of these three, but not all of the three.

Denzel Washington, quoted in Success magazine (“Ties That Bind” by Mike Zimmerman, Oct. 8, 2012), said, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” What he meant was, he couldn’t be a great performer unless he first had a good script to work from. That’s true. Stand-up comics can be entertaining for an hour, but no one leaves their shows pondering heavy philosophical thoughts or meditating on ways to improve themselves or the world. A good speech must have a message that will impact listeners.

Crafting an impacting speech is a process.

Next week, “3 Steps to Creating a Dynamic Speech”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

 

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When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?

Conclusion of the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

There are times when avoiding violence in a scene just doesn’t ring true. Even Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers and gave a vitriolic tongue-lashing to those found in the “den of thieves.” The challenge is to make such scenes align with the nature of the person taking the action and believable within the context of the scene being presented.

A brilliant example of this is found in the 1956 movie Friendly Persuasion. A Quaker farmer in southern Indiana (Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell) is trying to stay neutral during the Civil War and thus keep himself and his sons from having to engage in violence of any kind. However, while Jess Birdwell is out on his land one day, a Confederate soldier shoots at him, and the bullet grazes the farmer’s forehead, knocking him down. He pretends to be dead, hoping the soldier will go away. Instead, the Reb advances on Birdwell to finish him off.

In an act of self-preservation, Birdwell jumps up. Catching the soldier off guard, he grabs the man’s rifle and pins him against a tree with it. The two men lock in mortal combat until Birdwell succeeds in wresting the rifle away from the soldier. He points the barrel directly at the Confederate trooper. The soldier is horrified, thinking surely he will be shot at pointblank range by this civilian he has tried to kill.

For a moment we see the rage in Birdwell’s eyes. The soldier has already shot him in the head and fought him hand to hand. Birdwell has every right, in self-defense, to kill the man. However, Birdwell’s Quaker beliefs slowly begin to resurface, and we see a narrowing of his eyes and the forming of a grim expression. He jerks the barrel of the weapon in sideways motions, signaling for the soldier to go away, to get off his land. The man is dumbfounded, but he staggers away. Then, in a moment of outrage, Birdwell grabs the rifle by the barrel and swings it viciously against the trunk of the tree, over and over, until the weapon cracks, breaks, and shatters.

This scene works. The fistfight is believable, even though it involves a Quaker. The threat with the gun is believable, even though done by a Quaker. And the release of pent-up anger and rage as evidenced by the savage smashing of the rifle against the tree is totally believable because—Quaker or not—Birdwell is a normal human being with fight-or-flight preservation instincts. Personally, if a scene can be labeled “tasteful, appropriate violence,” this scene, in my opinion, certainly qualifies.

What we are left with then is an understanding that although violence is offensive to most readers, they nevertheless understand that all people have the potential to unleash it if sufficiently provoked. And therein lies the secret of making it work in fiction. If a scene of violence makes the reader say, “I can see myself doing that under those circumstances,” then it is not only realistic, but it is also acceptable, honest, and justifiable.

Just don’t go overboard with violence, because if you do, your editor will have to put the ear back on the victim—as Jesus did after Peter went on a sword-slashing spree—and ask for a rewrite. Keep it in bounds.

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Fill in the Blanks

Part 2 in the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

Yes, off-stage violence often can be a better approach in fiction. I don’t actually want to watch Oedipus gouge out his eyes. I don’t need to observe the surgeons amputate Lt. Dan’s legs after Forrest Gump rescues him. And I’d rather not watch as Hannibal Lecter removes the facial skin of a police guard. For a fact, these off-stage scenes act as pivots to what then become major new directions for the plots. Oedipus appears in two more plays as a blind man, Lt. Dan becomes ten times more compelling as a disabled civilian than he was as an army officer, and Lecter on the loose becomes far more terrifying than Lecter in prison.

Sidney Sheldon used to say that the sexiest scenes in his novels were the ones in which he gave the readers the set-up and then let them fill in the blanks. In fact, he sometimes received criticism for being too lewd and graphic, when, in reality, he had only made allusions and inferences and had let the readers take things as far as they chose. Likewise, I think the same can be said for violence. The shower scene in Psycho never shows a blade touch skin, yet it is more chilling than most of the blood-and-gore scenes in modern slasher movies.

Violence has a place in drama. To avoid it entirely is idealizing and ridiculous. When my son was young, I used to watch G.I. Joe cartoons with him. The Joes would fire a million laser rounds at the Cobra enemy army, yet never hit anyone. Similarly, the Cobra army would return a million shots against the Joes, yet they never shot a single man. These were supposed to be the two most elite fighting forces on the planet, yet they were the worst shots in history. It was ludicrous. And don’t even get me started on how The A-Team spent five seasons blowing up cars, trucks, airplanes, warehouses, and bad-guy hideouts, yet every villain always got up, dusted himself off, and walked away. (The movie version of the TV show was more realistic . . . at least in this one respect.)

But sometimes, keeping violence off-stage isn’t the best alternative.

Next week: “When Is Violence Justifiable in a Story?”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Off-Stage Violence in Classic Literature

Part 1 in the series, “The Parameters of Violence in Fiction

While doing the required reading to earn MA and PhD degrees in English, I was amazed at how often in classic literature scenes of violence occurred “off stage.” Hamlet contains the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Yeah, sure, we know Hamlet has set them up, but we are never allowed to witness their actual assassinations. We are just told that the boys are goners. It’s rather anticlimactic after so much foreshadowing.

An even more bizarre off-stage incident occurs in Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Poor, dear Clarissa frets for hundreds of pages that she will be cornered and raped by a male adversary. In letter after letter she bemoans the fact that she is utterly vulnerable. Then, in one letter, she writes to a friend, “The deed is done.” That’s the whole rape scene. Now, I’m not a sadist, but, come on, after two hundred fifty pages of build up, I had expected some face clawing, piercing screams, and flailing of arms and legs. Instead, we get, “The deed is done.” Huh?

There are times when off-stage violence can be more tasteful than eyewitness observation.

Next week, “Fill in the Blanks”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Finding Material for First-Person Articles

Conclusion of the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Ideas for first-person articles can come from any number of personal experiences (going camping, visiting a nursing home, witnessing a robbery). Make a list of events and adventures in your life this past year, then ask if any topic is something you would want to help the reader avoid, help the reader cope with, help the reader learn about, or help the reader experience with you.

As you work on your first draft, do not use the inverted pyramid journalistic approach. That technique presents all the key facts very early in the story and then just tapers off with ancillary information. Instead, incorporate fiction-writing techniques.

For example, make sure you have a gripping lead. The opening for my Vietnam story was, “I have only seen my father cry twice. Once was at his mother’s funeral. The other was the day I left for Vietnam.” This obviously sets the tone as being serious, and it immediately lets the reader know that I will be telling my own personal story.

Remember this: What’s special about the first-person narrative is that it cannot be assigned by an editor. Your real-life experiences are unique. Additionally, the narrative will be told in the distinct voice of the writer, not merely some standardized 5-Ws verbiage. You’ll need to establish a flow to your narrative, create a chronology of events that will each engage the reader’s imagination, and build toward a boffo ending.

Although the first-person article is, in effect, your proclamation of “been there, done that,” it won’t impress readers until you can add “and now you can come, too, and you’ll be glad you did!”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Bring the Reader Along

Part 2 in the series, “Seeing I to I: Writing the First Person Article”

Begin writing your first-person narrative with the goal of revealing something of importance to the reader. It can be presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but it still has to make the reader say when finishing the piece, “Aha, so that’s what that is like.”

In essence, you will be taking the reader along with you, hearing what you hear, seeing what you see, feeling what you feel. The reader, however, will be at a safe distance and will be able to laugh at you, cry with you, or discover along with you without actually having to fight in Vietnam, plan a funeral, or engage in whatever other episode you may wish to write about.

A word of caution: first-person narratives are not letters to the editor or complaints to the Chamber of Commerce. If you have an ax to grind, you’ll lose readers immediately. Readers want anecdotes and stories, dialogue and scenes, a grabber opening and a fulfilling conclusion. If you mount a soapbox, you’ll be there alone.

It is vital to show, not merely tell. You have get the reader directly involved in what is going on. In my Vietnam piece, I used dialogue and description to let the readers sit in with me during my military enlistment, when having conversations with my army buddies during deployment, and later when talking with family members after coming back to America.

Readers witnessed events first hand. They weren’t presented a list of statistics, facts, and data; they were given a saga with strong narrative drive that dealt with genuine human emotions and serious moral issues. Like it or not, they found themselves wondering, “What would I have done in a situation like that?”

Beginning writers worry that using the word “I” so many times will alienate readers. There is some truth in that. After all, suicide notes are written in first person. But what I’ve discovered is that if I make myself the fall-guy in the narrative—I’m naïve and learning as I go along—readers will actually start pulling for me. They’ll empathize with me, identify with me, and hope that I will survive the ordeal ultimately and be the better man for it. That’s because by then, they are seeing themselves in the same circumstances.

Next week, “Finding Material for First-Person Articles”

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DrDennisEHensley2015Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and an annual judge for the Evangelical Press Association Awards and the Christy Fiction Awards. His five dozen books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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