Six Parts of Writing a Book that Aren’t Actually Writing

There is so much more to writing a book than just writing a book. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately and thought I’d write up a few thoughts about it. Note that this is my experience; every writer has his or her own methods!


When I was younger, I thought, “I’ll never write historical novels; that way, I won’t have to do research.” HA. I think any well-thought-out piece of writing requires so much research, and not always the kind you might imagine. I’ve spent countless hours researching things that my characters are interested in, just so that I can have my characters talk about them with convincing acuity. When those things are above my head (i.e. the quantum mechanics in Yes Novel), I have to still find a way to write just enough to convince the audience I know more. (Then I had to have my physics Ph.D friend read those scenes to make sure I didn’t say anything absolutely wrong.)

Speaking of bringing in friends, I do this all the time. My Facebook friends usually assume that any random question that comes from left field is usually book research. Sometimes I will spend hours just finding the name of a color or how to build a table or how to translate one sentence of Portuguese. I remember taking so long just to find the name for the “blanket” used during X-rays: a lead apron. That sentence wasn’t about X-rays either; it was about how depression presses weighs on a person. I spent all night researching boats for a paragraph in Salt Novel. And if I get the details right, the reader probably won’t notice– it will flow smoothly instead of tripping someone up!


For me, this usually looks like conversations, either prayer or otherwise. I get out either my prayer journal or my process journal and start asking questions, thinking, waiting for answers. Sometimes I tell my friends, “I have a problem to solve. I need this square peg to fit into a round hole,” and we go back and forth until we make it work. Sometimes this takes a long time and means headaches and tears. But I don’t do it alone.


I’m not sure if that’s entirely the right word. But with the exception of when I’m sleeping (although not always– sometimes I think about my novel while I dream!), I am always on alert for ideas, solutions, objections. My co-worker said, “Can I still rent a vehicle if I’m not 25 yet?” and my first thought wasn’t how to help her but, “Oh crap, I have a 19-year-old renting a car in my manuscript. FIX.” Anything funny or beautiful or interesting– all my experiences, in fact– pass through the novel-sieve: is this something I can use for the story?


I spent the entire evening earlier this week nailing down the timeline of my story. For me, I find it easiest to use an actual calendar and to fill in the days with the names of scenes. Timeline matters especially if there is a “time bomb” in the novel or if there is some process (pregnancy, an academic year, etc.) that has to follow certain general guidelines. It also keeps me from bypassing important holidays. And the weather has to be right for that time of year (see above: research). And if there is a love story, I want to make sure that it’s reasonable. I don’t want my characters falling in love in just three days.


This is something I am learning. With my first novel (Lights All Around, unpublished), I had no strategy. I barely even considered the most basic constructs of a novel: action, climax, resolution, and the like, let alone thought strategically about how the characters were changing from beginning to end. I did that so much more with Truest, and now it’s becoming a built-in part of my writing life. I find myself thinking things like, “If I want M to relax and C to become more assertive, then I should have a scene where C takes control and M follows suit.” That probably seems like a no-brainer, but for this writer, it took about three decades to get there. Now I think, “If I want X to be especially impactful, then I need to set it up by making Y more extreme. How can I do that?” (See above: brainstorming.)


When I am writing, I like to stay deep in the waters of great fiction. I have re-read a handful of books that inspire Salt Novel over and over again. I enjoy the story, but I also examine it. Why did that work? How did the author make me feel that way? Why did I change my mind about that character? If I am trying to create a river, it helps to stand in one. 

There are other things too, like outlining, marketing (eventually), and finding connections between themes (my favorite!). It’s a lot of work, but soooo rewarding! How blessed am I to get to do this with my life?

Off to write now– actually write!

via Six Parts of Writing a Book that Aren’t Actually Writing

VOICES: Cautious Hope

I am so excited to host today a woman who has changed my life and worldview. I have written before about my friend Whitney, a former coworker at my university, who spent several years slowly chipping away at the crust of my heart just by being exactly who she is and doing so unapologetically and with enthusiasm and passion.

Whitney has since followed her calling to do trauma-based education with refugees in Europe. If what follows stirs your heart, consider donating to the International Association for Refugees by clicking here and choosing “Gerdes” from the drop-down menu.

The numbers she leads with can feel staggering, but please keep reading to hear the heartbreaking story of one man. And if you have questions, please post them in the comments.

Okay, enough of me. Here’s Whitney:


Cautious Hope
written by Whitney Gerdes

refugee childThe term refugee has become a bit of a buzzword these days. Mentioning “refugees” in certain contexts can even create a visceral response or a more-than-you-bargained-for debate! While, the last 3 years has brought the desperation of refugees to the forefront of media there have been refugees way before there was Twitter. For the sake of this discussion we need to clarify a few terms.

A refugee is a subset of a larger category of people called forcibly displaced people (FDP). Currently, there are 65.6 million people that have been forced to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict and/or human rights violations. This is the highest number recorded since WW II. That number is only increasing with 10.3 million people uprooted from their homes in 2016, which means that 20,000 plus people have to flee for their lives every minute. Of these FDP’s 40.3 million are consider internally displaced (IDP), which means while they had to leave their home, they there able to find temporary safety and shelter in their country of origin. That leaves 22.5 million that are considered refugees who have had to leave everything familiar and throw themselves on the mercy of a foreign government and people for safety and an opportunity at a better life.

These numbers are ridiculous, and certainly overwhelm me so let’s zoom in and hear a story.

I met Justin in a refugee camp in Italy. He had just arrived by boat a week earlier. He actually came on a coast guard ship after being rescued from the Mediterranean sea. That is because he was on a rubber boat that was overfilled with over 100 people, and was not able to withstand the waves. His boat capsized, and he was one of 7 survivors from that boat of over 100 people. This story alone was enough to destroy me, but Justin’s treacherous journey began two months earlier when he left his home and family in Nigeria with the hope of being able to get a job in Europe and provide for his family who were starving and had no other visible option.

So, he traveled by car, bus, and by foot on his way to Libya. He gained three other travel companions, whom he spoke of fondly. However, all three were shot during a car jacking in Niger. He then was imprisoned multiple times in Libya for being dark skinned before he made enough money to pay a smuggler to get him on one of the rafts to Italy. Justin’s face as he told me his story was almost apathetic, but he wanted me to know what he had gone through. He told me about his dreams and goals for the future that centered around providing for his mom and siblings back in Nigeria, and a wife and children of his own one day. Of course he told me these plans with cautious hope because he knew his chances were slim. He knew that most likely he would not be granted asylum the first, or second time he applied, but he still hoped that he would get it.

I timidly asked him the question that was burning in my head, “After all that you went through, do you still think you made the right decision leaving home? Was it worth it?” He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I don’t know yet, but I do know that the hope of what could be here in Europe is already better than the reality I knew back home.” How valuable and powerful is this hope, this perseverance, this resilience and faith that Justin and so many others like him have had to develop?

You see, people don’t choose to be refugees, they don’t choose to risk their lives– because there wasn’t a choice. You would only leave everything behind with your children because the threat of death and anhilation is chasing you out.

I don’t know if Justin has been granted asylum yet, but many have both here in Europe and America. While, receiving that positive confirmation is cause for great celebration, the re-building of a life takes some time. This usually means learning a new language, new culture, new climate, new educational system, new job skills, and a new way of life. While organization such as Preemptive Love Coalition, UNHCR, the Red Cross, and Samaritan’s Purse are doing the front lines work, organizations like the one I work with, the International Association for Refugees picks up where they leave off.

Once FDP have settled to some degree, the emergency services stop and the needs change. Relationships, connection, and empowerment is what they need. There is great power in inviting refugee families into your world, and then in turn being invited into theirs. All of the trauma that so many people have seen and experienced can cripple a gifted mind and strong work-ethic. While professional counseling is most often needed there is great healing power in having your humanity seen and heard through relationship.

To learn more:
IAFR Toolbox
Preemptive Love Coalition
Humans of New York’s Refugee Series

Healed Not Cured: OCD Remission & Relapses

It’s been almost A DECADE of freedom now. I am still in awe.


I got an email this past weekend from a lovely blog reader who has found victory over obsessive-compulsive disorder through exposure therapy. It’s such a joy any time someone shares a story of freedom, and it does my heart so much good. It reminds me of the reason I preach the benefits of ERP therapy. It reminds me of when I first went into OCD remission back in 2008.

But I also find it important to mention that while the person with OCD has experienced healing, it does not mean that they are cured. In the vast majority of cases, OCD is never cured; it is treated and maintained. What does this mean?

First of all, it’s definitely something to celebrate. I revel in my remission, and in fact, after eight years of this freedom, sometimes I even find myself taking it for granted. It’s a victory to…

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Writing & Careers

Had a good chat with a college senior about all this today, so I decided to re-blog. 🙂


It’s true that creative degrees usually get picked on, at least in my experience both as someone who studied creative writing AND as a college recruiter who interacts daily with college-bound students and their parents.

Creative writing– what are you gonna do with that?
You’re a theatre major? So, like, a future homeless person?
You study art … because you want to starve?

It’s annoying at best. At its worst, it usually looks like a parent insisting their artistic student choose a “safer” major– like business.

writing and careers.jpg

I have so many thoughts here.

Many jobs simply require that a candidate has a bachelor’s degree, doesn’t matter what it’s in. Honestly, humanities-type majors help students learn how to think critically, which is something every employer wants. Many of the arts degrees teach students how to become incredible communicators– again, a highly regarded skill.

Some jobs (like mine!) don’t even align with a…

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post, and pages it links to, contains information about human trafficking and rape, which may be triggering to survivors.




For women’s history month, I wanted to feature the voices of other women who have impacted my life tremendously, speaking about topics that are close to our hearts. Some of the topics are really, really difficult, like this one: human trafficking. Minnesota operates with a Safe Harbor Law; in other words, youth who engage in prostitution are not considered criminals, but rather victims and survivors of sexual exploitation.

Let me be very clear: while the article you are about to read is not graphic, it is horrifying– but so terribly important to know.

“Sofie,” the author of this post, works as an advocate for women and girls who have been trafficked, and has been privileged to work with survivors, advocates, leaders, and law enforcement from around the country on prevention, demand operations, and recovery work with survivors.

I’ve known Sofie over five years now, and she inspires me daily. This is a woman who loves not only with words but with action. She makes my heart so proud it could burst.

“How Much?”
written by Sofie

How much for half an hour?  

Send me a picture of your tits.

I want to rip you wide open.

These are the first three texts I receive in response to a fake ad posted on a website infamous for its facilitation of prostitution ads. I cannot give you the details of our operation – in fact, I cannot even tell you my name – but stings to capture the tricks/johns are sometimes done via fake online advertisements on popular websites.

When I began, I had intended to write an article exposing some common myths; that human trafficking and prostitution are two sides of the same coin, that women don’t choose this life, that this isn’t the movie Taken and no one is getting kidnapped at gunpoint, that coercion and manipulation and exploited vulnerabilities are more useful to traffickers, that prostitution is not a damn choice.

I could.

I could tell you about all the women I know trying to leave this life; about the barriers they face. I could tell you about the kids I know; manipulated by someone who tells them they’ll be a model or a movie star or even just a girlfriend.

But in the middle of the demand stings in the weeks prior to the Super Bowl something changed. Demand for trafficked women and girls surges, and law enforcement agencies converge on the host city to conduct their sting operations. We posted this fake ad offering a girl, advertised merely as “young,” and within two minutes the phone began to buzz and did not stop for fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes.

Hundreds of men.

Trying to rent a teenage girl.

Can I describe how it felt to hold that phone in my hand; to know that at the other end were hundreds of men imagining violence and power and pleasure at the expense of a kid?

I want to rip you wide open.

They haunt me; the men we don’t succeed in capturing. The men too smart to get caught. The men who have done this so many times; the men who have rented girl after girl after girl. The ones who bought a different girl that ugly Friday night in February.

And I want you to know: these men? They belong to you. They live in your suburbs. They work in your office. They go to your church.

According to statistics obtained by a local offenders program, about 70% of the men who try to rent trafficked women and girls are white, married men. Half of all the men who had been through this offenders program had their own daughters.

I’m a little young, we’d type.

How much?

Not how young? or oh my god no I’m not here to have sex with a kid.

Just that: how much?

I have worked in the anti-trafficking world for a number of years; been aware of the realities of that world for longer. I have heard the heart-wrenching stories of the women and girls we recover; seen face-to-face some of the buyers and the traffickers arrested for this horrendous crime. But I will be honest: the week that led up to the Super Bowl nearly destroyed me.

I could give you the Sex Trafficking 101 speech I’ve given to countless groups of volunteers, churches, etc. I could tell you the myths and the truths. I could talk about the girls and women: badass and vulnerable and hard and angry and tired and kind and resilient and alone.

But that week – those men who texted the phone I held in my outstretched hand – left me with this, and this is what I leave with you: this city is full of men who want to rent your daughters.

What are you going to do about it?


If you want to learn more about sex trafficking in the twin cities, check out Breaking Free’s website. If you’re looking to get involved and are a person of faith, Trafficking Justice can connect you to information, training, and volunteer opportunities. Beautiful & Loved also serves women leaving the industry, with a special focus on survivors who were once in the strip clubs. Agape International Mission is a wonderful organization fighting this problem on a more international level. Finally, Nefarious is a documentary that gives a broad and important overview of sex trafficking all over the world. If you are interested, here are some of the articles that have already tackled some common myths.

Dear Diary: 10 Random Things

I don’t have the bandwidth to format this post, so just enjoy this list of random thoughts.

1. I found out I have psoriatic arthritis. How wild it is that after over a decade of wrist/hand/arm pain, chiropractors, doctors, hand specialists, ergonomics, stretches, and gallons of Biofreeze … it would be a dermatologist who would finally figure it out? Well, the dermatologist in partnership with a rheumatologist. Most of the time psoriasis first presents itself as a rash and later can get into the joints. For me, it was joints first, so we never knew. Till now.

2. This lotion is the best ever. It works fast, isn’t greasy at all (I can even use it on my face), and smells like some heavenly mixture of clean air and warm light and a drop of vanilla and lemon. It’s not a “fragrance” or “scent.” Just an incredible product that happens to smell delicious.

3. One of my favorite people got married yesterday. I wrote a poem for her and her new hubby and read it in the ceremony. I loooooovvvved my dress. And shoes.

Bria and Justin, you are a #kilonova … love you x 100000000.

A post shared by Jackie Lea Sommers (@jackieleasommers) on

4. I’ve been doing the online dating thing for 14 months now. My friend’s wedding was such a great reminder to me that it’s imperative I don’t relax my standards. I truly want to be best friends with the man I marry someday.

5. I think I will have new news in my writing life soon. Send prayers, good thoughts, etc.!

6. Feeling very blessed to work at the University of Northwestern. What a joy it is to work with high school students and then see them succeed in college and beyond. And at a school as small as ours, we really do get to watch them grow. They make my heart so proud; they really do.


7. I like being a woman who isn’t scared to wear bold lipstick. This is Nyx Butter Gloss in Chocolate Crepe. I hope it show up right on your screen. (It does on my phone, but not my comp! If it’s not a bright orangey-red, you’re missing the full effect.) 😉

8. Creativity takes courage. In Tribe of Mentors, I read “Courage is more important than confidence.”

9. It also said, “You won’t take a bullet for pleasure or power, but you will for meaning.” I need to think about that.


10. I just finished reading Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman (review

strange the dreamer

to come soon! spoiler: loved it!). What should I read next? The Becoming of Noah Shaw? The Sun is Also a Star? Strange the Dreamer?

I think I just answered my own question. Laini Taylor, here I come!

Oh, That Interim!

I have started and paused on three different posts!

This week has marked change or upheaval in nearly all areas of my life– admissions, writing, health, dating– and I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about any of it yet, save to say I went on a date yesterday with a man who seems truly sweet.

*resists posting self-deprecating joke about how I will screw it up*

So, in this weird little interim, entertain me? Give me your best one- or two-sentence pep talk in the comments!!

Rockstars. All of you.


my life

is so weird.

sometimes i legit feel like i’m living inside a ya novel.

good inspiration for your stories, you may say.

listen: i have plenty of ideas.

i’m a grown woman who wants a grown man who wants a real relationship.

remember “ben” from the ghosting post? he resurfaced.

i am writing in lowercase because i feel very trepidatious.

being a woman is a glorious and sacred thing.

it is also complicated.

i am a web.

i capture even myself.