The Priority Maze

I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but I’m so glad you’re here. Yes, you! A blog without readers is . . . well, it’s more like a journal entry. And now, on to today’s topic.

Priorities List for Business plans or Life GoalsPriorities . . . we all have them. Our To Do list hints at just what they are. And our actions, what we choose to focus our energies on each day, are even more telling.

For the sake of this post I’m going to assume writing is high on your list of priorities. Though you may place the following items in a slightly different order, it’s best to include them all when it comes to writing.


I realize this is self-evident, but you’d be surprised at how many writing-related endeavors (and non-writing-related ones) can crowd out time spent actually writing.


It doesn’t matter how much you know about the ins and outs of writing, there is always more to learn. And the industry is always changing, so what you once thought a writing absolute may no longer be relevant. It is crucial that you stay current in your chosen genre or writing style.


Many skills development books include exercises. It’s best not to skip these. And even if they don’t, you can create your own exercises and write a short piece applying what you’re learning. Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better.


Read what you write (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, etc.). Read what you’d like to write. Read what you can never imagine yourself writing. Read classical works. Read contemporary works. Read blog posts. I’m not suggesting you read something that offends your sensibilities, but do try to stretch yourself.


Hopefully something you’ve read recently will challenge/inspire you to write something you’ve never tried your hand at before. Remember you never have to share this with anyone else, but you may be surprised. You might find you truly enjoy this new writing style.


It doesn’t matter what you write, inspiration is all around. Sometimes, however, life gets so busy that we forget to keep an eye out . . . or an ear. Snap nature pictures that inspire you. (Be cautious about taking photos of people or property without express permission; written permission is best.) Record snippets of conversations or visuals that stir your creativity. (This is one important reason writers should always carry a notebook and pen—or download a note-taking app for their smartphone.)


The more you have on hand, the less likely writer’s block will ever get the better of you.


When a piece is as good as you can make it—for now, ask for an honest evaluation of your writing. If you have been working on a specific skill (i.e. writing believable dialogue), ask that your reader focus on that area. Your reader need not be a writer, but it can help.


The more you learn and the more people read your work and make suggestions (though not all of them will be helpful), the more you must be willing to rewrite. Although what constitutes “perfect writing”—if there is such a thing—is subjective, making your work the best it can be is something that will require rewriting—often.

And as the shampoo bottle says . . .


Wash away those nagging voices that say your work will never be good enough to share with the world and be willing to repeat the above steps time and time again.

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, and Critique Specialist

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When Is It Okay to Play Hooky?

Lets Play Hooky written on blackboardYou may have noticed that the previous blog post was up for two weeks rather than one. You didn’t? Oh, well, now you know.

Have you ever had those times when the tsunami of undone tasks threatened to crash over you? It’s at those times that something has to give. Much as we don’t want to, sometimes we have to admit to ourselves—and others—that we just can’t fulfill a particular responsibility; we must play hooky. (That’s what happened to me last week.)

As you may know, I seek writing inspiration pretty much anywhere. So, let’s use this reality to prompt our writing this week.


Well, I’m glad you asked.

Here are seven ways to use life’s craziness and our humanity as fodder for our writing:

  1. Write a poem about your hectic schedule.
  2. Allow your character to “play hooky” for a scene and thus, take the story in a slightly different direction. It’s a good way to add a twist if your readers are expecting the character to respond in a certain way. Just be careful; readers won’t be happy if there isn’t a plausible reason for the unexpected change.
  3. Write a blog post on the topic of playing hooky and when it’s acceptable—and perhaps, when it isn’t.
  4. Write a creative nonfiction piece about a time you actually played hooky. If you never did, imagine doing so and write a fiction piece that sounds like it could be true.
  5. Do you feel guilty if you have to let something slide, if you think you’ve let someone down? Write about it as a journal entry.
  6. Write a list of all the things you would like to accomplish in the next week. Go over the list and rank them in order of importance. Include specifics if this will help you decide (i.e. why this is important/why it can wait). Choose at least two things from the bottom of the list that you can put off at least for now, if not indefinitely. If there isn’t time for your writing, you may want to shuffle some things around.

This next one may not include writing exactly, but it could provide lots of inspiration for your endeavors in the future.

  1. Plan a party. I know. I know. How is that going to free up any time? It’s a Let’s Play Hooky party. No, I’m not suggesting you ditch school or call into work sick. But an evening out with a few friends can be energizing. It may just give you the lift you need to “get back at it.”

When have you played hooky? Did it turn out to be a good thing? We’d love to hear about it.

Stephanie Nickel, CES editor, coach, and critique specialist

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Energized by Deadlines

Clocks with work and deadline round writingAt the first writers’ group of 2015, one of our members said, “Writers work to deadline.”

Is this true of you? Do deadlines give you that extra motivation you need to stop procrastinating?

I joined Camp NaNoWriMo this month and set a substantial word count goal. In the fall, participants in National Novel Writing Month are expected to write at least 50,000 words in a single project—ideally, a novel. Camp is easier. Participants set their own word count and can include several projects toward the total. And that is why, for the first time ever, I’ve hit my goal halfway through the month. Well, almost . . . I hit the 30,000-word mark on April 16.

While we must work to deadline if an agent, editor, or publisher is waiting for our piece, setting goals for ourselves and putting them on paper (or the computer) can keep us writing even when there are no external deadlines.

The same type of goal-setting won’t work for everyone. But here are some ideas you may want to try:

  1. Show up and write for the same 15/30/60 minutes every day. (It doesn’t have to be great writing. Just write.)
  2. Set a word count goal for the day. Begin small and increase the goal slowly. And don’t feel bad if you have to drop it down again if you find it too challenging.
  3. Set a time or word count goal for the week. That way if you miss a day or two, you can still hit your goal. If you can’t get around to writing on Monday, you don’t want to feel like giving up for the week from the get-go.
  4. Look at the project you’re working on—or want to start. How long do you think it will take to get your first draft written? So, where do you have to be by the end of the month, the week, the day to hit your self-imposed deadline? Working backward can be helpful.
  5. And when you get stuck, open a new window or turn to a clean page and just freewrite for 10 or 15 minutes. Write about anything or nothing in particular. You may get your mojo back for the project at hand or you may come up with an idea for something completely different. (Just remember to get back to the work at hand and finish it, if for no other reason than the discipline of seeing a writing project through to the end—at least of the first draft.)
  6. Set similar goals when it comes to rewriting. (I find this the more challenging commitment. “But I don’t wanna go through it again. I’m tired of it. I wanna move onto the next project.”)
  7. Join an online writing challenge.
  8. Partner up with another writer and check in with one another every week or two to see how it’s going.
  9. Verbalize a goal for the month at your writers’ group and report on how you did the next time you get together.

What keeps you going? We’d love to hear your ideas.

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor/Coach/Critique Specialist

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April Showers

cat sailing in an umbrella and singing in the rainWriting is real work. Plus, there’s no denying it, writing is creative work. Creativity often involves our emotions. And emotions can be susceptible to the dramatic changes at this time of year.

In my part of the world, I don’t know what I’ll see when I look out the window—blue skies, torrential rains, or—horrors—the fluffy white stuff. And today the winds are whipping past my windows, making a great atmosphere for fiction writing. (Hmm, maybe I should carve out some time for just that.)

With the changes that come at this time of the year, we as writers must take control of the emotional rollercoaster that can result.

Let’s look ahead to the May flowers that are surely in our future and be inspired.

Here are a half dozen suggestions to inspire you to “sing in the rain” rather than pull the covers over your head.

  1. Join or begin a writers’ group. There is nothing like getting together with other creatives to spur you on. Now that the roads are nice and clean, my writers’ group, Women Writing for Christ (WWC) will be meeting again. I can’t wait.
  2. Grab an umbrella and go for a walk in the rain. Oh, why not? Try dancing and singing in the rain too. Fresh air and exercise are great ways to clear your mind and find inspiration for your writing.
  3. Take a trip to the bookstore. I know, I know . . . this is a shot in the arm for pretty much any writer any day. But with a new season upon us, it seems to me to be a great time to nab a new book: skills development, research material, even that novel you’ve been wanting to read.
  4. Go on a treasure hunt. Type “writing contest” into your favorite search engine and explore some of the plethora of possibilities. Choose one that grabs your attention and craft an entry—or two or three.
  5. Find a writing partner. I previously mentioned getting involved in a writers’ group. Whether you’re able to do so or not, connecting with a writing partner with whom to share your work as well as words of encouragement can be as motivating as finding an accountability partner when you’re seeking to improve your fitness level.
  6. Begin a new project. New season. New project. It makes perfect sense to me. And as I mentioned earlier, maybe I will start a new work of fiction on this windy spring day.

What inspiration do you find come springtime? And if you’re not in a part of the world that is experiencing spring, what inspiration do you find right outside your window?

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist

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Where Do You Find Motivation?

IdeasNaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) occurs in the fall and participants commit to writing the first 50,000 words of a novel in a single month. I have never participated—though I’ve often thought of it.

I have, however, signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo three times so far. In fact, that’s where I am now—bunking down in a virtual cabin, devoting myself to achieving the word count I set for myself. So far, I’m doing well. (It doesn’t hurt that blog posts such as this one count toward the goal.) Entering my daily word count on the Camp’s website is a real motivator for me to keep at it.

In October, I sign up for OctPoWriMo (October Poetry Writing Month). My first blog was called Free2Soar and I wrote a poem on the topic of flight every day. After I left that site behind, I got away from writing poems on a regular basis. Participating in this challenge every year gets me back into it, and I love it.

And then there’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). During the month of November, both children’s book writers and illustrators commit to coming up with 30 fresh ideas. Ideas . . . that’s it. We can flesh them out as much as we want or simply come up with a list we will, ideally, pare down to the most promising concepts and work on them over the following 12 months. Ideas are no problem for me. Follow-through, on the other hand . . . that’s something I still need to work on.

And springtime is one of my favorite seasons but not because the snow finally disappears in my neck of the woods—though that is nice. Come April, my writers’ group has its first meeting of the year. I can hardly wait. We share our writing, learn new things, do 5-10 minute free-writing based on various prompts, etc. Our meetings are definitely one of the highlights of my month, from April through November.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but attending the annual Write Canada conference and participating in The Word Guild and InScribe Christian Writers’ Fellowship motivate me more than words can fully express. There is nothing quite like being in the presence—whether in person or online—with dozens of other writers. It’s as if the motivation to write becomes more intense through osmosis.

As you can see, my extrovert self is shining through. One of the simplest tests I’ve heard to help one determine if they’re an extrovert or an introvert is to ask, “Do my batteries get charged when I’m on my own or with others?” I see it this way: Consider the icon on your cell phone or digital camera. As you drain the power, the line goes down. For an introvert, the more time they spend with people—even people whose company they enjoy—the more depleted their battery. On the other hand, even if an extrovert is exhausted and really doesn’t want to go out of the house, they may very well be the last one to leave a social function. Spending time with others replenishes their dying battery. Yeah, that’s me!

So, perhaps you need the accountability and/or the social aspect of joining a writing challenge.

Or maybe you need to carve out some quiet time and devote it to reading a skills development book or letting your fingers fly across the keyboard to give release to all those ideas that have been building up.

This week, consider when you are most motivated to write and see what you can do to make it happen.

Happy Writing, all!

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The most wonderful time of the year . . .

This phrase has been used to describe Christmas. And more recently, the advertising industry has used it to describe the beginning of the school year.

However, I believe this is the most wonderful time of the year, the time we marvel anew at what Jesus did for us on the cross—and the precious truth that He conquered death by rising from the dead.

As I was preparing devotionals for HopeStreamRadio, I was struck again by one of Jesus’ final acts. I called it “Love’s Provision.” Here is an excerpt:

John 19:25-27 tell us of one of Jesus’ last selfless acts. These verses read like this: “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

I am not an expert on what the body and mind went through when being crucified, but I have heard the detailed explanations—and the experience was horrific. From the excruciating pain of nails being driven through one’s hands and feet to the humiliation of hanging naked for all to see, from the unbelievably painful necessity of pushing up on the nails to fill one’s lungs with air to the torment of hateful accusations being hurled in one’s direction.

And while many of those who were crucified were criminals, Jesus Christ was 100 percent sin free . . . except that He did become sin on our behalf that He might secure our eternal home with Him in heaven.

Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, a member of the Trinity and equal to His heavenly Father. He was 100 percent human as well. It would have been completely understandable if He did nothing but focus on just making it through those final hours of His life on Earth. But that didn’t happen . . .

And though Jesus had said in passages like Matthew 12:48-49, “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers,’” that didn’t mean He didn’t have a deep love for the woman who had brought Him into the world and stuck by Him even when she didn’t fully understand everything that was to take place.

love is, the inscription on a typewriterWe know from the passage that we read today that He loved her deeply for He declared the disciple whom He loved, believed to be John, to be her son and Mary to be his mother. The understanding was that, from that point on, John would care for her. She wouldn’t be alone in the world . . .

As He died on the cross, He was performing the most selfless act of all time. And yet, He still cared about the practical needs of the woman who had raised Him, the woman who was enduring the unimaginable agony of watching the son she loved so deeply die in what is likely the cruelest way ever devised.

In Matthew 25 we read about expressing our love for Jesus by expressing our love for others. (This passage is well worth a detailed examination, which we won’t get into today.) However, it is enough to know that Jesus said whatever we do for the least of them, we have done for Him. And what was He talking about? Visiting the sick. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. All very practical endeavors . . .

From the wonder of what the Savior did for all who would believe to the reminder of how much He loved His mother to the realization of how these truths applies to my life . . . these are all reasons I consider this the most wonderful time of the year.

If you write devotionals or would like to do so, take the time to really dig into God’s Word. Even familiar passages hold endless storehouses of treasure.

Have a most blessed Resurrection Celebration!

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist

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Devotional Writing

Devotional LetterpressOne of the greatest privileges I currently have is writing and recording daily devotionals for HopeStreamRadio

I thought I would share with you some of the insights I’ve picked up along the way.

Approach the project prayerfully and with reverence.

As James 3:1 says, not many of us should become teachers. There is great responsibility on our shoulders as we seek to help others understand God’s Word. I believe this is true even if the devotionals we share are of an anecdotal nature.

Select a book of the Bible or a topic that will provide inspiration for several devotionals.

One of our previous pastors introduced me to the concept of expository preaching. He worked his way through an entire book of the Bible and even addressed “the difficult passages.” Our current associate pastor, who has played many roles in our midst over the years, is famous for saying, “Context. Context. Context.” It’s easier to be true to the context when working through a book from beginning to end.

Read the selected passages over several times to see what “jumps off the page.”

The gospel of John is my favorite gospel and I have read it many times. However, I have found it absolutely amazing how many “hidden gems” I’ve found while working through this book for the series of devotionals I refer to as “If You Love Me” (based on John 14:15).

Ensure, to the best of your ability, that the insights you share do not take liberties with the passage(s) you’re using.

Be certain you understand the verse(s) in context. This is also important for supplementary verses you include. There is always more to learn and we must be faithful to continue to do so—especially if we’re seeking to share our insights with others.

When appropriate, include personal anecdotes.

This may not necessarily be applicable if your work is of an expository nature, but even in that case, there is a place for personal application and insight. After all, the Scriptures are living and every bit as relevant today as they were when they were first written.

Consider your audience.

This, of course, is of prime importance no matter what you’re writing and is at least as important when writing devotionals. Is your series of devotionals for those of your denomination? In this case, you may be inclined to address theological issues from your specific perspective. However, if you’re looking to engage a broader readership, you may want to steer clear of some of the more divisive issues. Are your devotionals for a specific age group? If so, make sure you use language and illustrations this group can relate to. (And remember, a 50-year-old can write for teens, but he or she should spend a great deal of time with them and learn what issues they’re facing. The world is a different place than it was in the 70s.)

Enlist beta readers 1) from your target audience and 2) with spiritual training.

Readers don’t have to fall into both categories, but it’s good if they fall into at least one. You want to know if those from your target audience can benefit from the devotionals. Plus, you want to make sure you’re not steering them wrong biblically-speaking.

God bless each of you as you seek to encourage and exhort your readers.

 Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist, Photographer

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Why I Want to Go Screen-Free . . . At Least Now and Then

woman reading news on smart phone multimedia flying iconsAs Ammon Shea, the author of Bad English, says, “A language that doesn’t evolve is a dead language.”

I have learned in my 50+ years that this is definitely true. And “screen-free” is one of those new words, one I need to put into practice.

The desktop computer (and the tablet and the cell phone) are fantastic for so many reasons. And yet . . . there is a time to click the off button and leave it that way for extended periods, at least to disconnect from the Internet.

The following are realities in my life—and possibly in yours as well:

  1. If I’m constantly wondering what emails and status updates I may be missing, my mind is not solely on the task at hand.
  2. And if I allow myself to become distracted, I must reign in my thoughts repeatedly in order to do the best possible job I can for others.
  3. If others are constantly texting and surfing the Net in my presence, I feel as if what I have to say matters very little to them. I don’t want to make others feel this way.
  4. When I allow my brain to overload, the ever-increasing stress and tension—both physical and mental—is palpable. (Just ask the burning in my shoulder.)
  5. The vast amount of information at my fingertips overwhelms me. Just how will I find the most gripping, the most accurate data to share with my readers? How will I have time to even scratch the surface?
  6. I develop the mistaken impression that what’s “out there” is somehow more important—at least more interesting—that what’s “right here.”
  7. I neglect the physical resources I have on hand (physical books rather than e-books and online info, for example)—and flesh and blood people with whom I share my life space not just my virtual reality.
  8. I have what I call the Butterfly Syndrome. I flit from one thing to the next to the next. And with all the additional possibilities opened up with the Internet . . . Let’s just say, there are too many “beautiful distractions” for this butterfly to take in.
  9. And because there are so many things to see, I feel as if I never truly complete anything. There are always more things to learn and see and do, always more inspiration to find.

All that said, I am thankful every day that I live in the cyber age. There are so many advantages. However, I am in the process of learning to balance the time I spend online and the time I go screen-free.

How about you? What are some challenges you find with the ready availability of the World Wide Web?

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist, Photographer

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Focused and Flexible

book and scales of justice over white backgroundFocused and flexible. These two words are becoming very important in every area of my life.

I am eclectically-interested and have lots on my To Do list. I’m sure it’s the same with you. If I’m always looking ahead to the next thing on the list (or popping over to my email and Facebook accounts), I cannot give the task at hand adequate attention. It won’t be the best it can be.

This is one reason I love my lists. I don’t have to worry about forgetting something important. Plus, if I arrange my list in order of priority, I can work from the top to the bottom, knowing, if I don’t get everything done, at least those things that were most pressing are the first things to get scratched off the list.

When my mind is at rest, I can dive into the responsibility I’m pursuing right this minute.

And yet . . .

An important text may come through. A phone call I shouldn’t ignore. Or an unforeseeable but unavoidable change in plans. That’s when the flexibility kicks in.

One day last week, for example, I looked forward to working in a quiet house to make a huge dent in my list. And then . . . first thing in the morning, I got 1) a request for transportation and 2) an invitation for lunch. I could have said no, but spending time with this young friend was good for both of us. (And lunch was tasty too.)

Not everything that comes along should derail or postpone our plans, but there are times we need to be flexible as well as focused.

When you set aside time for your writing, how can you tell if you should forge ahead or allow a request to alter your plans?

Here is a series of questions to ask before making a decision:

  1. Can you fulfill the request at a later time? If so, keep to your writing schedule.
  2. Can someone else do what has been asked of you? If so, give them the opportunity to do so.
  3. Is it a matter of conditioning to answer the doorbell, the telephone, the buzz on your cell phone that indicates you have a new email? If so, it may take time, but it’s good to view these distractions as “the urgent” that impinges upon “the important,” as Stephen Covey puts it.
  4. Are you simply following the White Rabbit down yet another rabbit hole? Sometimes it’s best to steer clear of fuzzy distractions.
  5. Is it a genuine emergency? If so, then, of course, walk away from your writing.
  6. Is a family member or friend facing a crisis? If so and there is something you can do—even lend a listening ear—do so without hesitation.
  7. Has an even more exciting writing opportunity presented itself? If so, you may want to designate the time to a different project.
  8. Is your daughter turning 25 the next day and you have to choose between writing and making her favorite dessert? If so, crack those eggs and beat that cake batter. (Wait! That would be me. My “baby” hit the quarter century mark this past Saturday.)

How do you achieve the balance between focus and flexibility?

Stephanie Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist

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Giving Dimension to Your Fiction Characters

四季Please note that I live in the Great White North. The seasons and their corresponding emotions are reflective of life along the 49th parallel. The emotions, however, can be applied to your characters no matter where you place them, geographically speaking. If the cause of their mood is related to the season, be sure they are in a location that experiences that particular season at the specified time of the year. (Your protagonist may be depressed during Christmas in Australia, for instance, but it will not be because of mounds of snow.)

And speaking of snow . . .

How does the cold weather affect your state of mind? Do you find yourself thinking too much, over-analyzing your life? Do you jump aboard the emotional rollercoaster?

This time of year can lead to everything from low grade depression to full-blown S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Does the cold weather affect your protagonist? Would it add a new dimension to the story if it did?

Signs of Spring

And as March approaches, so does the promise of spring—my hubby’s favorite season. He loves to watch the trees come to life and keeps me posted as the buds become more prominent and finally burst into leaves. I admit spring never caught my attention until he pointed this out. And I do love it when tulips and crocuses push through the last of the snow.

Maybe one of your characters feels the same.

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

As summer approaches, many people’s minds turn to rest and relaxation, kicking back at the beach, and going on vacation. Personally, I’m not a fan of sweltering hot days, but that’s just me.

How does your antagonist feel about summer? If it’s relevant to the story, be sure to let readers know—by showing rather than telling, of course.

An Explosion of Color

Can you tell which season is my favorite? I love the smells, the sounds, and the sights of autumn. The nip in the air. The promise of new beginnings. The call to grab my camera and go for a photo walk. It likely goes back to my childhood, but it’s hard to remember back that far (grin).

Maybe that pile of leaves in the neighbor’s yard beckons your character to revisit their childhood. Do they succumb? If so, what comes of it?

These and many other possibilities present themselves to give your story a whole new dimension—and maybe even take you along a storyline you hadn’t imagined. And, if nothing else, you will know your characters better and that will shine through your writing.

Enjoy the journey, my writing friends!

Steph Nickel, CES Editor, Coach, Critique Specialist

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