Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Successful Writers Have Discernment

This last week I read an interesting passage in I Kings 22. At the time, the evil Ahab was king of Israel and Jehoshaphat, who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, ruled Judah. Ahab asked Jehoshaphat to help him attack Ramoth Gilead. Jehoshaphat said he would help if Ahab first sought the counsel of the Lord.

Ahab asked his four hundred prophets Jehoshaphat's question and received a resounding, "Yes. Go, for the Lord will give it into your hands."

Jehoshaphat asked, "Is there a prophet of the Lord we can ask?"

At this point, Jehoshaphat demonstrated a sense of discernment. He considered the given advice and recognize a possible problem. Later in this event, we learn the Lord did not want them to attack, thus validating Jehoshaphat's concerns.

1.  To perceive by sight or some other sense or by the intellect; see, recognize, or apprehend: They discerned a sail on the horizon.
2.  To distinguish mentally; recognize as distinct or different; discriminate: He is incapable of discerning right from wrong.

The ability to discern requires experience, time, practice, desire, motivation, and etc. Consider a child who is given a plate of cookies and a plate of spinach. Will the child be able to make a nutritional choice? While the child may pick up a spinach leaf, his choice will not be based on nutritional value.

Developing an ability to discern is important to any career. Today we'll focus on the writing career. What does an aspiring writer need to do to gain a discerning eye.

1. A successful writer is able to discern which comments, criticisms, or compliments are beneficial. When receiving a crit from a partner or judge, the writer must remember the human component involved. This partner/judge may know writing techniques, but she may not like the story. To discern a crit:  Susan May Warren suggests the writer should look at the average score or comment made by the partner/judge. From there, look for what ranked higher and lower. Those are the components worthy of addressing. The leader of an ACFW critique loop said, "If two or more people point out the same issue, take heed. If only one, mostly let it be." 

2. A successful writer is able to discern the quality of his own work, by reading it out loud and listening to the sound of the words. Is it clunky to read? Are there boring, long narratives, or choppy pages and pages of dialogue? Backstory infesting beginning pages, grammar issues, and etc. Even successful writers will find these issues in their manuscripts and quickly weed them out.

3. A successful writer is able to discern whether a story line will sell and support a whole book. If you are not sure, share your book idea with someone. Verbalizing the idea out loud helps our own ears recognize issues and opens the doors for questions from the person we share our idea with. Can the questions be answered? If not, reformat the idea. Practice doing this for each book you write until mastered. 

4. A successful writer is able to discern if the chosen subplots match the overall story, deepen the overall story, sprout new story sequels, and dominate or steal from the overall story. Three of these four are good.

5. A successful writer is able to discern if the research is applicable to the story, is complete, proves or disproves the story. It will do me no good to research life in 1829 if my story is about the stock market crash.

6. A successful writer is able to discern if they are ready to start writing a story. Even SOTP writers need to start with something. Stepping onto a frozen lake without testing the ice maybe foolish. You could fall in.

7. A successful writer is able to discern if the main plot has deep enough roots to provide a satisfying story. Many tall trees have been toppled by a gentle breeze. Do you have characters who are struggling, heroes who may not be perfect, lies, truths, tragedies, triumphs, resolutions, satisfying endings?

8. A successful writer is able to discern when to push forward and when to rest from their work. The Ecclesiastes experience needs to be mastered: a time to eat, a time to rest, a time to work, a time to...

9.  A successful writer is able to discern a proper order. Not all stories need to follow a timeline, although most do. Are the subplot segments threaded through the story at the best time to cause the greatest impact?  A radio segment discussed a hot dog eating contest. The winner consumed thirty something hot dogs in ten minutes. Following the discussion the same station aired a commercial: what to do if someone is considering suicide. Yeah. This is not what I mean by best time to cause the greatest impact.

Why can successful writers like Tracie Peterson, Terri Blackstock, etc crank out great books year after year? 

What is their secret? 

What are they able to discern? 

What should number 10 be?

photo courtesy of

This blog post is by Mary Vee

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes contemporary and romance Christian fiction and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter


Susan Francino said...

Oooh #6 is a really good point! Totally true.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Oh Mary! This was such a good post. Discernment is not always easy, even at my advanced age!!! I think being discerning about my own work is really hard. Sometimes I am too invested to see clearly, you know? That's when asking others for THEIR discernment is best! ;)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Yeah, Susan,
I think I have been guilty of # 6 two times. BUT, since I wasn't a successful writer at the time, I guess I counted the loss a learning experience.
So if you fail at #6 you can still be a winner. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I think discernment is difficult at any age. I'm trying to think back to a time when I just had the gift...can't figure one out...I could be a Charlie Brown candidate.

I think you found a perfect #10...A successful writer is able to discern when they are too invested to see clearly and ask for help from others.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Mary, all of your points are spot on. Such a well written post! I think the hardest one for me is number 3—figuring out/discerning if the story I'm writing is one that will sell.

Coming up with unique stories is a skill I need a lot of work on. :)

LOVED this!!

Jill Weatherholt said...

Wonderful post, Mary! Oh boy, number 8 was written for me!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Wow, Mary. This is what I am struggling with right now. Discerning what steps to take to fix my ms. Discerning if it should be one long book or two separate stories. Discerning where to begin the story. Sigh.

Discernment on our own work is SO hard. I find I get bogged down by how I think the story should be and can't expand my thinking to see how it could be better.

Clarity is what I need! I will pray for discernment.

Any tips how to learn these things? LOL.


Mary Vee Writer said...

After I had written #3 I saw Beth Vogt's class at MBT this last Monday. It seems doing a great job of threading in great subplots and layering the book can gain the strength it needs to support the book. As for salability...I haven't mastered the art of marketing yet. Of course I think the undone idea is good also. Which of the ideas that have popped in your head recently haven't been done for a time. Or can you change the scenario of the story to make it something new. For example: change setting, characters, etc. I am currently reading a story which is a redo of an old movie I once saw...EXCEPT the MC is reversed. It changed the story so much that this one I am reading is exciting to read.
Sorry for the long ramble.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Are you in need of motivation to push forward or the help with figuring out how to rest?

Mary Vee Writer said...

I have a suggestion. To me your first question would best be answered by a non writer. Sit down with a friend and tell them the story. Ask them if they would like the book better in the two pieces you described or as one book. Seriously, our friends can give fantastic beta advice.

For you second one, I strongly suggest running that by a crit partner. A crit partner is so different from a critique group. I find the group is not so interested in rehashing and remolding until perfection is achieved. I am so jealous of C.S.Lewis and J.R. Tolkien. They had this partnership and we've seen the fruit of their work.

Hm, Clarity. This sounds like another post to me. I'll work on that one.

Jill Weatherholt said...

I'm in need of both, Mary! When I have time to write I clean like a crazy person. And when I have time to rest, I'll clean some more. The house stays clean, but the writing isn't getting done.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Ah hah, Jill.
So what advice would you give someone else with the same problem?
Usually we are great at giving someone else advice for the very problem we have.
When you decide what you would say to the other person, do the same.
The awesome part to that is, no one knows but you :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Not a ramble, Mary. I loved what you said. :)

Jill Weatherholt said...

I suppose I would tell them to ignore the dust bunnies and just write! Thanks, Mary! I'll give it a try this weekend. :)

Susan Anne Mason said...

Thanks for the advice, Mary!