4 Myths about Writing Fiction

old books isolated on whiteMyth #1: You won’t have to research. 

Ha. Ha ha ha. HA. Once upon a time, I thought that only non-fiction writers and historical novelists had to do research for their books. If someone wrote contemporary fiction, well, she would already know how life works … and anything else she could make up, right? Gosh, that was so short-sighted, it’s comical to me now. Of course, we often hear the phrase “Write what you know” (sidenote: I much prefer my writing mentor Judy’s “Write till you know”), but for most of us, that’s about one book’s worth of content. After that, guess what, you have to write another one. And it has to be different. Full of things you might not know. And even that first book … look, you’re still gonna have to research. I have read books about Greek mythology, philosophy, string theory, antiques. I’ve watched YouTube videos to learn about carpentry. I ask questions every single day to my wide network of friends, am super involved on Quora, and spend hours researching the finest details– details that, if done right, the reader will not even notice.

Myth #2: You must plot.

Nah. Sure, many writers do. But many don’t. Each writer has his or her own proclivity toward planning or “pantsing” (writing by the seat of one’s pants). You may have seen J.K. Rowling’s hand-drawn outline for Order of the Phoenix. Then again, Ray Bradbury said:

When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

pantser (1).jpg

There are tremendously successful books on both sides– and some that employed a combination of tactics. With my WIP, I pantsed the first 6-12 months, then– after I knew my characters better– ploted it out before revisions.


Myth #3: You must know what you’re doing. 

You just need to not give up until you get there. This can take years and years … are you willing to invest that time? Do you feel called to it?

That said …

Myth #4: Anyone can do it. 

Here I defer to Ann Patchett, who shares this story in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (it’s sooooo good … I briefly reviewed it here):

…my husband had told her I was a novelist. Regrettably, I admitted this was the case. That was when she told me that everyone had at least one great novel in them.

I have learned the hard way not to tell strangers what I do for a living. Frequently, no matter how often I ask him not to, my husband does it for me. Ordinarily, in a circumstance like this one, in the Masonic Lodge in Preston, Mississippi, I would have just agreed with this woman and sidled off (One great novel, yes, of course, absolutely everyone), but I was tired and bored and there was nowhere to sidle to except the field. We happened to be standing next to the name-tag table. On that table was a towering assortment of wildflowers stuck into a clear glass vase. “Does everyone have one great floral arrangement in them?” I asked her.

“No,” she said.

I remember that her gray hair was thick and cropped short and that she looked at me directly, not glancing over at the flowers.

“One algebraic proof?”

She shook her head.

“One Hail Mary pass? One five-minute mile?”

“One great novel,” she said.

“But why a novel?” I asked, having lost for the moment the good sense to let it go. “Why a great one?”

“Because we each have the story of our life to tell,” she said. It was her trump card, her indisputable piece of evidence. She took my silence as confirmation of victory, and so I was able to excuse myself.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman, not later that same day, not five years later. Was it possible that, in everybody’s lymph system, a nascent novel is knocking around? A few errant cells that, if given the proper encouragement, cigarettes and gin, the requisite number of bad affairs, could turn into something serious? Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper.


Hi folks, so I’ve been keeping up with my creative goal to read a book a week! Thought I’d better catch you up on the wonderful things I’ve been reading.

caravalCaraval by Stephanie Garber | Scarlett’s grandmother has told her and her sister Tella stories about Caraval since they were young– an audience-participation game that is like a magical carnival. Scarlett has always longed to go, but getting tickets now— less than two weeks before her marriage to a mysterious count she has never met– is not the ideal timing. At Caraval, Tella goes missing, and the game revolves around the sisters. Julian, the young sailor who brought the girls to Caraval, is shrouded in mystery too, and Scarlett can’t tell who is friend or foe, or whether the game is really just a game.

It’s intense, has gorgeous imagery, and keeps you guessing the entire time. I am happy to say that I did not figure the ending out ahead of time!! This is a must read, folks.

cursed-childHarry Potter & the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany | I think I went into this screenplay with reasonable expectations. I waited quite a while to read it because I knew that it was not going to be like “the 8th Harry Potter book,” as some stores touted. First, it’s a screenplay, not a novel; I knew I couldn’t expect the same thing. Because I went into it with realistic expectations, I loved it!

The story picks up about nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts took place; Harry’s youngest son Albus is headed to Hogwarts for the first time, and it is hard living in your father’s shadow, especially when your father is Harry Potter. Albus isn’t like his dad, and they butt heads, which leads Albus and his friend Scorpius Malfoy (Draco’s son!) on an adventure that gets worse and worse and worse … until it all comes together in J.K. Rowling fashion. I loved getting to revisit the characters. The important thing, I think, is not to treat it as the 8th book but as what it is: the script for a play that takes you back to the wizarding world for one more adventure.

poem-she-didnt-writeThe Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems by Olena Kalytiak Davis | This one was staggering. I absolutely adored it. It was like e.e. cummings had become a female spoken word artist. The rhythms were impossible to miss, even without hearing them, and I was exposed to a new vocabulary. I thought it the poem topics were really brave, and there were quite a few that she approached from such a stunningly unique perspective. The title poem, in particular, was mind-blowing. I will be purchasing her other books.

chinoiserieChinoiserie by Karen Rigby | This was the 2011 winner of the Sawtooth Poetry Award– and well deserved. Beautiful writing, rich imagery, the poems took me to other places, something I always love. I was happy to let this collection sink into my bones.

8 Things That Surprised Me about Publishing My First Book

publishing surprises.jpg1. How long it would be before I’d sign the actual contract

I figured once the offer had been made, the business side of things would speed along so that we all made everything official. But I didn’t even see the contract till four months after my book deal.

2. That I’d be allowed to announce it to the public before signing the contract

I come from a place where you don’t share something until it’s set in stone. But I was able to talk about my book deal immediately, and it was even reported in Publisher’s Weekly months before I signed the contract.

3. That I’d need to learn to navigate my partnership with my editor

Thus far in my life, I had had two critique relationship experiences: in college, where if my professor suggested something, it was in my best interest to make those changes; and with my writing group of peers, where I collected ideas and feedback, but it was fully my decision whether to implement them or not. Working with my editor at HarperCollins was different– she was not my professor, though she did have more experience with writing and with story than I did; and she was not my peer, though she treated me with respect and genuine warmth. It was just a new scenario. We were partners in this project, and I had no idea what that was supposed to look like.

Ultimately, I learned to try everything she suggested. Usually I ended up loving it. If I didn’t, I would talk to her about why it wasn’t working, and we’d scrap it. There were very few things that we completely disagreed on, and in those 2-3 things, she let me win.

4. How much the book would change from the time of the book deal until the time it was published.

I swear HarperCollins purchased my book based on its potential. My editor’s first request was to rewrite the entire ending, beef up a handful of characters, and completely change the chronology of the book. In six weeks. 🙂

5. How fun release day would be!

I’d gotten so used to reading authors tell stories about how “it was just another day”– I knew I didn’t want that. It was a time to celebrate. I took the day off and drove around to local bookstores to capture my novel in the wild and sign copies; that evening, I had a giant book release party where I read passages, had door prizes, answered questions, and sold and signed books. It was a BLAST. Seriously one of the most fun days of my life. Definitely not “just another day.” Thank you to everyone who joined in on the fun!

6. How soon after publication the book would be declared a success or failure

Honestly, this was the hardest surprise. Not even a month in, people at Harper were already saying, “There, there. You’ll get ’em with book two.” Just a reminder about how important pre-orders and those first couple weeks of sales are!!

7. How much I would talk about OCD at book events … and how much it would resonate with audience members

When you’re a debut novelist like me, most of the people at your events haven’t read your book yet. So you’re talking more about yourself, your writing process, etc. than about the actual novel. I end up talking about OCD at nearly every event– and that’s because it’s such a huge part of my story. How can I talk about myself without mentioning one of my greatest challenges and greatest victories?

This has actually really helped me connect with audiences. A lot.

8. How special it is to hear from readers … and how important it is to generally avoid reviews

Some writers read all their reviews. I only read the good ones. There’s usually little actual constructive feedback to take from a negative review, and so often a reader doesn’t like your book simply because it’s just not their kind of book, you know? If someone loves vampire erotica, it’s very unlikely they will love Truest. But that doesn’t mean I need to go write vampire erotica. So, I read the good reviews. Usually if someone tags you on Twitter or Instagram, it’s because they liked your book and want you to read what they said about it.

It’s hard to explain just how special it is to hear words of praise about your book. To hear that you’ve made someone rethink things or that your book changed their life or became a new favorite or that they connected with a character or that it gave them hope during a particularly hard experience … it makes it all worthwhile. Please tell authors when you love their work. It’s like fuel. I have an Instagram comment that has lived in my heart for over a year now, ringing like a little bell.

Reflections on 2014, Hopes for 2015


Oh you incredible, horrible, overwhelming, rewarding year.

I could sum it up as The Year of Revisions.

I’d never experienced such an intense, prolonged critique journey. It incited panic in me and pushed me back into therapy. But MY GOSH, PEOPLE, I am so proud of Truest. I’ve said before– and I’ll say it again now– that my editor at HarperCollins is a genius and she pushed me beyond my own talent into a whole new level. I am so, so grateful for her. Jill, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU. I’m so honored to have worked with you on Truest, and I feel so blessed to get to partner with you again for the next story.

2014 was also The Year of Asking for Help. Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at acknowledging my own shortcomings and issues and needs and then reaching out for help. And not being ashamed to do it either.


The year I debut as a novelist!

I’m so excited– and nervous– to share my novel with everyone. Certain things are starting to occur to me, like WHOA, MY BOOK WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER and WHOA, MY BOOK WILL BE ON SHELVES and WHOA, MY BOOK WILL BE REVIEWED ON BLOGS. I about had a heart attack when I saw Truest appear on a list of books this blogger is looking forward to.

SO much to look forward to:

The big cover reveal! (I love it so much and cannot wait for you all to see it! Teaser: it has bright, beautiful blues and greens and a hand-painted title!)

A book release party!

Writing and revising my next book!

(Hopefully) hearing from kind people who enjoy Truest!

2013 was The Year of the Book Deal. 2015 will be The Year of the Book Release. 2014, as you can imagine, was a bridge. Or maybe a tunnel.

It’s so exciting to see the light.

tunnel end light


OCD & Fiction

Will I ever write a book about OCD?

I have … and I think I will again. Someday.

I spent four years working on a novel about a young woman with OCD. The story picked up after she’d already been diagnosed but before she’d found the right treatment. It was the first novel I ever wrote, and it’s quite obvious that I was figuring out how to write fiction as I went.  (Interestingly, I was figuring out OCD treatment as I went too … I started the book before I went through ERP and finished the story after ERP was over.  Needless to say, it dramatically changed the story.)  I’ve set that story aside for now, though I have been known to send it to people in the OCD community who ask nicely. 🙂

I’ve wondered if there will come a time where I will want to go back to that first novel and revise it for publication.  Maybe.  Not yet.

Meanwhile, two characters have been stirring to life in my mind: an adventurous young woman named Rowen, and her best friend Jess, a young man who is a mathematics prodigy … and who has OCD.  It will be a while till I will get to write their story, but that’s okay, I think.

For now, they are just waking up inside of me, yawning, stretching out like satisfied kittens, blithely unaware of what tortures lie ahead.


(But to have a book at all requires conflict. The poor, sweet lambs! I have been known to cry over the situations I get my characters into.)

Meanwhile, Truest.  My final edits are due SOON. (Note: final developmental edits … there will still be copyediting ahead.)

OCD and fiction

Image credit: Anselm23

Idea Factory: Where My Ideas Come From

I feel like people always ask writers: Where do you get your ideas?

More often than not, the answer is everywhere.

It’s the same for me.

where do you get your ideasI get ideas from song lyrics, conversations, the radio, dreams, daydreams, Wikipedia, real-life events, funny things my co-workers say, freewriting, scents and smells, prompts, answers to the (many) questions I ask on Facebook, people I meet, Pinterest, memories from high school, websites I visit on accident, websites I visit on purpose, Tumblr, photographs and images, pretty dresses, cute things my favorite kiddos say, Quora, novels, memoirs, poems, books of quotations, books of symbols, books of trivia, books of anecdotes, books of mythology, instruction manuals, online journals, art, antiques, trees, weather, arguments, and on and on and on.

I usually start with an idea and a handful of characters. Truest started because of a Wikipedia article I stumbled upon years ago about a topic that continued to fascinate and haunt me until I decided to write about it. The next novel that I’m working on was sparked by a tiny entry in the Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were. The novel after that? Inspired by a website I love and the what if thought that popped into my head one day while visiting it.

Of course, the characters make the story, so once I have an idea– even just the tiniest wisp of one– I have to start assembling the cast.  I start actually by looking for pictures– I scour Pinterest, Tumblr, & We Heart It until a picture hits me and I know that’s my character.  I know a lot of authors despise character surveys and think they’re a waste of time– and I actually can agree that’s true for most surveys (this is not the time to worry about my character’s favorite color)– but I have two that I just love and always, always use.  The first set of questions comes from Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  The second set are from this Yingle Yangle post. When I finish answering those questions about my main characters, I am usually brimming with ideas and feel like I know tons more about them.

There’s lots of research involved.  I end up requesting a boatload of books from my public library and from the university libraries in the Twin Cities. I read like a maniac– both on paper and online– about all the various elements that I think are going to matter to my book (some of those things will not survive the cut, of course, but knowledge is knowledge and I love learning!).

Research and drafting will mostly happen simultaneously, and the entire time, I will keep getting ideas from everything in my world, jotting them down, and turning them into scenes.

Inspiration and ideas are all around us, and if you have your eyes and ears– and heart– open, you can’t help but marvel.

Related Posts:
All In: Ideas & Writing
My Writing Process
Fiction: How I Start
Weird Little Beast

Image credit: Andres Nieto Porras



Schrödinger’s Book

neil gaiman maybe


I think this might be from a Neil Gaiman book.  In any case, it’s funny.  To me.

On the other hand, it would send my character Laurel (from Truest) into a manic spiral.  The many-worlds interpretation does not sit so well with her.

Semi-related posts:
Solipsism Syndrome, Anyone?
More Thoughts on Solipsism Syndrome

That Time Anne Lamott Responded to Me

Let’s be honest: this week has been hard.  Really hard.


I am writing a first draft, and it’s going horribly (as writing a first draft is wont to go), and I’m stumbling into evening after evening of soul-shaking, identity-questioning doubts about my writing abilities.

I’m a fraud.
I don’t know how to write a book.
I don’t have a second book in me.
My agent and editor and everyone else will discover that I’m just a one-book girl.

Goodreads hosted an event “Ask Anne Lamott” this past week, and just now, I have found the time to sift through her responses.  You need to know that Anne Lamott always seems to be speaking directly to my heart– we are both writers, Christians, and women who wildly, desperately need help– and so all of her responses to various reader-posed questions felt like balm.  This one, in fact, felt like validation:

Anne Lamott

“You have to be pretty lost and crazy” in writing fiction.  Yes, okay, I reassure myself.  This is just the way of things; this is The Way It Goes.

But then, there it was– an actual response to me.  Me!  Jackie Lea Sommers!

Anne Lamott to Me

“Short assignments, shitty first drafts, and just do it.”  Yes, thank you.  That is how my next novel will get written: day after day writing something bad, then making it less bad, then making it good, then making it great.  I’m in the bad stage right now, and that’s okay.

“You get to ask people for help.”  Yes, thank you.  I actually stopped in to my beloved writing professor’s office just yesterday to vocalize my fears, and she said that if I needed encouragement in the zen of writing or someone to commiserate with, I could just ask.  I will definitely be asking.  And then, last night, I met with [some, but not all, of] my writing group, women who let me vent about Penn and Maggie, my newest characters, and about their problems.  My group members listened and encouraged and offered suggestions, and it was lovely.  And I’m so terribly grateful for my beta readers too!

“And read a lot more poetry.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I think I’ll start with some Mary Oliver tonight.  I haven’t yet had a chance to crack open her latest, A Thousand Mornings.  Then Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing.  It sounds like respite.

OCD: Unwelcome but not Unexpected

How many times do I have to say that OCD is a joy-thief before I should realize: Oh.  Hmm.  You’re pretty happy right now.  OCD will be along shortly to steal that away?

I should learn to brace myself.

On Friday, November 22, I announced on Facebook and on my blog that Harper Collins offered me a two-book deal.  Shortly thereafter, amidst all the “likes” and congratulatory comments and joyful sharing, OCD came calling.

I spent the majority of the evening obsessing over future revisions.  

not you again

I practiced ERP, walking myself through that lovely mantra of “it’s POSSIBLE, but it’s not LIKELY,” then discussing with a friend (asking for no reassurance), and also spending time in prayer.

Life, as I continue to learn, is risky, and the more I learn to embrace risk and uncertainty, the happier I am.

Which is why I flat-out refuse to flat-out refuse any revision suggestions.  I will consider everything my wonderful editor suggests, knowing that God is in control and that Jill loves my characters too.

In this sense, I’m growing as an obsessive-compulsive in remission, an author, and as a person.

Jackie 1

Related posts:
Uncertainty is the Key
Taking Risks