On Writing: 7 Easy Tips to Find Your Niche

Today it is my pleasure and honor to present the words of Daniel D. Maurer. Dan is a fellow writer from Minnesota. He is passionate about spirituality, recovery, writing, and transformation, all of which is reflected in his work. Dan is also a speaker and his story is a powerful one. I have been blessed by his words, encouragements, and his life, in particular by seeing the way he and his family have walked through fire and come out stronger together. 

He is the author of the newly released Sobriety, a graphic novel, which recently got an excellent review in the Huffington Post. He also wrote Faraway: a suburban kid’s story as a victim of sex trafficking, which he co-wrote with that kid, now a man bravely sharing his story.

Warning: the following piece is a little longer than my general blog posts but well worth the read. For the lazy among us, I suppose it is okay to skip down to the 7 tips but I urge you not to. You’ll appreciate them so much more if you first soak up Dan’s style and perspective. Enjoy!

Before I went to college in 1990 I had a cool summer job. It was with the Minnesota Historical Society at one of the state’s historical sites, the Oliver H. Kelley Farm. Oliver H. Kelley (1826-1913) was a farmer and a labor organizer who lived in what then was the frontier of the United States. Mr. Kelley’s agricultural acumen was marginal at best, but what earned him a place in history books was his founding of the grange movement, a sort of farmer’s union. My job at the homestead was to play farmer and teach visitors about the technological achievements in farm machinery in the latter 19th-century and the importance of the farm-labor movement. I wore 1860s clothing in the oppressive midwest summer humidity and worked with oxen, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and cows. It was living history. Yeah, you know it … it’s where the experience is supposed to magically transport visitors through time back to that day.

What was great about our site is that we didn’t have to “get into character” and act as if we were people living in 1860s in frontier Minnesota. I’ve always thought that was a bit silly anyway, especially when a person can see jet contrails in the sky and hear road noise from the highway. Lucky for me, ours was third-person historical interpretation and that meant that I could still be Dan Maurer from 1990 and talk about the past as the past. Thing is, we still had to do the work, which at times was grueling. I remember hoeing a field of rutabagas to the beat of my pulse in my ear and sweat-soaked wool clothing tossing moisture into the air like a broken lawn sprinkler.

There was one idea that stuck with me from that experience: farmers living on the frontier needed to have exceptional ingenuity, a creative mind, and a tenacious grit and perseverance. Nearly every day we ran into problems trying to operate the farm with vintage farm implements and meet visitors all in between. One day the wooden hay rake’s tines are busted and we have to construct new ones; the next day we’re building a new wood housing for the ancient corn sheller which some school kid bumped and cracked; yet then another rainy day finds us shuffling wide-eyed, scurrying kindergarteners into the basement of the barn to witness a milking and I need to adjust my teaching to K-level without watering it down too much.

The job was stimulating for me, not only because we had a wide variety of activities, but also because the guests visiting the site were of all ages and backgrounds. I had to use both sides of my brain to communicate and teach simply without being overly simplistic, all while simultaneously striving to creatively interpret history. I was the conductor for a mystical train ride back in time. I loved every minute of it.

Twenty-five years later, I’m a freelance writer. What’s surprising is not much has changed.

Any writer can relate to what writing really is: it’s an almost god-like power to create from nothing. With writing there is an order and process, as well as rules. But at its core is a dreamy, wild—and sometimes frenetic desperation—to create, to communicate-by-telepathy the thoughts in a writer’s head to other heads out there. Writers are artists. Sometimes we’re like musicians, riffing and plucking emotions out of thin air. Sometimes we’re painters. However, writing is the only art where the canvas stands ready for the brush and paint in the mind of your reader.

With my own writing, I’m part freelancer, part non-fiction memoir author, part curriculum developer; I’ve even conducted a ragtag orchestra of artists, editors, letterers and wordsmiths to produce a graphic novel. Fiction is still my first love, and fantasy worlds are more often more real to me than the real McCoy.

I’ve assembled a list of things I’ve noticed about my own writing process. Even though I’m still relatively a beginner at this thing, I also take heed of Papa Hemingway’s words that, “[w]e are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

7 writing tips

1) The basics: Love words. Love reading and writing. Read lots of different things from lots of different authors. Read poetry, especially. There’s nothing like a poem to compress and mix emotion and meaning. Here’s a poem that in my opinion nears perfection. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read historical fiction. Explore genre. Science fiction, especially. It’s not just some story out in space, it’s something that gets you thinking differently! Read fantasy, horror, erotica. Short pieces and long ones too. Read lots of humor. The Onion is genius. So is Kurt Vonnegut. Read political essays. Explore the world of comics and dig up obscure graphic novels. But whatever you do, read! Good writing is forged on an anvil compressed of millions of words in infinite diversity. If you don’t read, you don’t write. This I know is the one unbreakable law.

2) Have a natural curiosity & the ability to wonder. Writers are noticers. The great thing about our job is that we’re always working. Really. I mean that. Need to pick up your friend at the Greyhound station and don’t have a book? Strike up a conversation and listen. Notice. Too much the introvert to do that? Well, then just look and notice. Make up fantastical histories for people. Make yourself laugh at the plotlines you create. Look at the building and feel the walls. Notice smells. Describe them. Are the smells too unique to describe? Too bad, that’s your job. You have to write it or readers don’t get to read it. Look up etymologies of words online. Ever wonder why “lb.” stands for “pound?” I did. Curiosity is the mother of time-wasters and frivolous dreamers. In other words, writers. The biggest part of planning a book is “wandering around” and sticking our noses in places where others haven’t. For me, it’s also the most enjoyable.

3) At nearly every class, writing conference, or lecture I hear the advice many successful writers give to beginners: just write. My response the first time I heard it is the same as when I hear it now: well, duh. Thing is, it’s helpful to hear. I make all sorts of excuses why I can’t write—there’s not enough time; I can’t write on an empty stomach; I have gardening to do; I’d rather read this book; I’d rather Facebook and Twitter (surely the path to a most painful perdition), and; I’m scared I’ll create crap (by far my favorite). If I listened to any of these excuses at any length. . .well, it wouldn’t be good. Things can’t always be perfect. Just write.

4) Motivation and Editing: My motivation is the purpose and meaning I find in telling stories for their own sake. Yours might be different. Just don’t let it be fame and fortune. That road leads to depression and emptiness, I guarantee it. If you get to be famous you can deal with fame then. Dealing with rejection is the gift that keeps on giving. Know that editors will be editors, and criticism is their tool. If a helpful little phrasing critique (or a giant, chapter slash) is akin to a hammer, please know that the only thing an editor hammers are loose nails in your flimsy frame of a manuscript. Get over yourself and write on. After all, even The Great Gatsby had versions. For every F. Scott there is a Maxwell A. Perkins making him a better writer. Editors are your friends.

5) Use tricks to stimulate creativity and urge yourself to write – be creative with what works. When I wrote Sobriety: A Graphic Novel, I often listened to particular songs to get into the mood I wanted to convey. For example, in one chapter I was writing instructions for our illustrator. The chapter had a gay man of African descent who grew up in south London. He had a hard life growing up. For some reason, Terry Callier’s song You’re Goin’ Miss Your Candyman got me into the scene and let me feel what life was like for Alex (the character). I listened to the song on repeat for several afternoons and went into a trance while I wrote. It was flow. Everyone can’t do this, I know, but I’m not the first to listen to music while I write. For me, it’s part of my process. Find what works for you and do it.

5) Editor & Creator Hats: We’ve got two hats when we write—one is the creator, the other the (self) editor. You can’t wear one too tightly or the other one falls off. Find your balance!

6) Beta Readers: I generally find it unhelpful to show my nonfiction work to too many people before it’s published. This is especially so for some of my theological reflections and devotions I’ve written. For fiction, beta readers are helpful in that they can keep you focused and on task, a sort of accountability factor—when I tell someone I’m working on something, I feel it necessary to follow up with my promise. I suppose a corollary to these folks are other readers in general, either pre- or post publication. I found there are three basic types of readers: editors, critics, and cheerleaders. Personally, I need all three to function. Especially good cheerleaders. If I feel no one is listening, I don’t even want to start. Find the mix that works for you, but that doesn’t feed your ego too much. Humility is part of writing too.

7) Lastly, mix it up! I work best when I take on lots of projects. Other writers need to focus on one project at a time. Me, though, I like the postproduction marketing and hobnobbing almost as much as writing itself. I’m a bit of a weirdo in writers’ circles though, since I’m such an extrovert. Find what works for you and do it. I’ve taken on two rather unique and really interesting projects that have been enormously fulfilling. My freelance work and curriculum development with Sparkhouse and Amicus keep me grounded with a very different type of writing (and they bring home a little bacon). Enjoy writing and good luck!

Daniel D. Maurer used to be an ordained Lutheran minister living in North Dakota. Now, he’s a freelance writer openly living in recovery and writing stuff. Daniel attended a class with Rachel at the Loft Literary Center and enjoys reading her work. He lives with his family in Saint Paul, Minnesota. For more information, see www.danthestoryman.com.

Purchase Sobriety here.

Read more about Faraway here.

*image via Pixabay