Writing Questions from Blog Readers!

Here a few questions blog readers asked me about writing:

What writing resource books you recommend?

emotional craft

Oh man, I have read so many great books about writing, both about the craft and the writing life. Here are some of my FAVORITES:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott *
The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass *
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
The Art of Slow Writing by Louise deSalvo
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

* my favorites of my favorites

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did you develop your skills during your earlier years (such as during high school)?

I’m not sure I made a conscious decision about being a writer; writing (like wands) feels like something that chooses you. That said, I have always loved telling stories. I first decided I wanted to write a book when I was in 2nd grade. I tried my hand at fiction in 3rd grade (oh man, it is sooooo funny and dramatic!). In junior high, I wrote a soap opera in a notebook that I passed around to my friends, and in high school and college, I focused on poetry.

There are two things that writers have to do to develop their skills, no matter what age or writing-level they are at:

  1. Read. Fiction, non-fiction, in your genre and outside of it, with a healthy dose of poetry. Read like it’s your job. No, read like it’s your air.
  2. Write. It sounds silly, but just like with anything, practice is how we improve. This is true in sports and art and public speaking, in how to be a good listener, how to perform illusions, and how to train for a marathon. You have to write, write, write– and you will likely have to write a lot of crappy stuff first. But do it. Expel it. Get that time in on your training-wheels first.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to develop one’s writing! Advice/critique/feedback/workshopping (whatever you want to call it) is critical. And you can learn about techniques like metaphor and what sounds are most satisfying to the human ear and how to manipulate your readers’ emotions (manipulate is such a harsh-sounding word, but most fiction readers go into a book hoping for this!). Two of the books I listed above– The Emotional Craft of Fiction and The Anatomy of Story– are craft books that get into the nitty-gritty details.

But at any (and every) stage? Read and write.

What do you do (or tell yourself) when you are unmotivated to write? Are you ever overwhelmed with how much work it takes to write a book?

First of all, YES, I often get overwhelmed with how much time and energy goes into writing a full-length work of fiction. In fact, in college, I focused on poetry partly because a poem can be so short, whereas fiction is such a big undertaking. But that’s why I have to take a novel one word at a time, one day at a time, and why I have to split it up into about one trillion smaller tasks or, as Anne Lamott would call them, “short assignments.” (I actually do call them short assignments on my to-do list!)

When I am unmotivated to write, I go back to my lists. I either choose one small assignment I am excited about or, sometimes, I might not even be excited about it, but I tell myself, “Just 20 minutes. See what happens in 20 minutes.” In both of these cases, my wheels usually get spinning and three hours later I am sad to put the manuscript away for the evening.

How much of writing is intuitive?

10000 hoursGosh, I don’t know. Sometimes the things that feel so intuitive to me are the things my writing group and editor hate the most. Sometimes, though, those things are a stroke of brilliance– and not even a brilliance I can attribute to myself. When ideas like that come from nowhere, it truly does not feel like I deserve credit. For someone like me, whose spiritual life encompasses all other parts of my life, I can see God at work in my writing. I think, if one has read a lot of great literature and one has put in hours upon hours of writing practice (Malcolm Gladwell says you need to practice 10,000 hours to gain expertise in any field), that intuition is going to be built in you. And if you add an outside influence into that? Mmm.

What’s the most important part(s) of preparing a book for querying?

Every part.

If we are talking fiction here, the manuscript must be as polished and perfect as it can be prior to querying. Along with that, you have to write a query letter that is intriguing, plays by the rules of the agent, and ends up in the right agent’s inbox.

Have any inspiration for young writers or those just getting started?

Yes! I love this:


Have other writing-related questions for me? Click here to ask me anything! 🙂

Resistance: The War of Art

war-of-art4I had in the past attempted to read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, but I’d been waylaid, I think due to the way he talks about mental illness in the book.

But this time I pressed through, and I really enjoyed it! I listened to the audio book on a long trip for work, and it only took about three hours from beginning to end. I probably could have read it even faster with the book in my hand.

The War of Art is about Resistance. It’s about anything that stops us from getting our creative work done– and about how to overcome it. Pressfield makes an extensive list of things that play into resistance: procrastination, of course, but also sex, trouble, drama, victimhood, self-doubt, fear, criticism, love, stardom. He’s not afraid to add things to the list that you and I would rather keep off it. This was pretty eye-opening for me.


In the second part of the book, he talks about “becoming a pro”– how to overcome Resistance. To be a professional, we need to show up, be prepared, be patient, ask for help, accept no excuses, among other things.

A quick excerpt:

In my younger days dodging the draft, I somehow wound up in the Marine Corps. There’s a myth that Marine training turns baby-faced recruits into bloodthirsty killers. Trust me, the Marine Crops is not that efficient. What it does teach, however, is a lot more useful.

The Marine Corps teaches you how to be miserable.

This is invaluable for an artist.

Wow. Pressfield goes on to say:

The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.

Tell us how you really feel, Steven. 😉

But, honestly, this resonated with me. Writing is a mix of joy and misery; publication too. But what am I supposed to do? Ignore my calling? No. I need to become a pro.


In the last part of his book, Pressfield talks about muses and angels– he takes the book to a whole other plane, reflecting on how the artist isn’t really in charge anyway. I’m sure he loses a lot of readers here, but not this girl. As a person of faith, I already believe something similar.

All told, this was a fast read and well worth it. In the days since finishing it, I’ve been able to recognize areas of Resistance in my life and to deal with them accordingly. Great, thoughtful book.

Advice for Aspiring Young Writers [from an Aspiring Young Writer]


Show up.

I’m convinced that’s about 80% of writing a book right there. Show up to write, day after day, and put in the work. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration will be abundantly there when you show up. Inspiration will learn your routine and meet you there.

Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by fear of failure; I am telling you right now: you will fail.  But keep showing up. Write a bad first draft, the worst one in the world. But then show up and write a better second draft. Show up again and write a better third draft. Repeat until you’re satisfied with your work. Meanwhile, the people who never showed up might not have a first draft at all. They’re still on the starting line, scared to put down a wrong word.

Think about Story more than grammar. Read great books and then take the time to think about what you liked about them, what made them “work” for you. Copy that technique. Put your own spin on it.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

In other words: show up, show up, show up.

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

In other words: show up.

Stephen King wrote, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.

He’s right: you’ve got to show up.

Writing is hard. So hard. One of the hardest things I’ve ever committed to in my life. But also one of the most rewarding things. And when my first novel comes out, if you enjoy it, please remember that it took 33 months of showing up– almost daily– to get to where it is. And those 33 months came after 48 months of showing up to another novel that never even saw the light of day. And before that? Three years of college writing courses. Along with a whole childhood packed full of stories from the moment I could first write.

My book is less the result of talent than it is of  hours and months and years of showing up to do hard work.



Second Draft Manifesto

second draft manifestoJackie, be kind to yourself. Writing is a long, arduous, difficult, but rewarding process, and almost nothing comes to you easily. You have to fight for it all, and you do that by showing up, day after day, sitting down, and doing hard work. You eat an elephant one bite at a time, and to be honest, it’s probably irrelevant where you start: toes, ears, tail. Bring salt.

But really, salt is prayer, friends, and courage that looks an awful lot like fear. It’s easy to confuse the two, but courage is fear that keeps showing up to work.

You can do that. It will look different on different days, and that is perfectly fine.

Please remember that you love this. The writing life is a mysterious amalgam of your choosing it and its choosing you. That feels almost holy.

This process necessitates many steps backward. It’s an inherent part of the journey, and that means that even steps backward are steps forward. And that fits with your worldview too, you know: all things working for good.

Keep your hands and heart and mind open to grace, which is more abundant than you ever seem to realize.

And find the joy in this journey. Please. There is so much there, and sometimes you let fears and doubts scream so loudly that you can’t hear the laughter. Listen for it.

Be gentle with yourself. You’re not alone. Not ever.

Image credit: I think the image of the giant elephant in the sea is from the cover of an Explosions in the Sky album. It was so perfect that I had to use it.

The Art of NOT Writing: Breaks, Blocks, & Boredom

A lot of blog readers have asked– in some form or another– how I deal with writer’s block, and also what I do when I simply don’t feel like writing.

First of all, I must admit to you that I wrote almost every single day from spring 2008 to winter 2013. In January of this year, my wunderkind writing guru Judy Hougen gave me permission to not write, and I started to take some much-needed breaks.

Secondly, you should know that I did not write from fall 2003 to fall 2006. I had just graduated from a creative writing program which had required me to put my heart through a meat grinder, and I was exhausted.

With those disclaimers out in the open, let’s dive in.

not writing2


I think there’s a time and place for taking a break from writing. I have never regretted my three-year hiatus after finishing undergrad, but then again, it was still a creatively productive time. I used those three years to read like a maniac. Of course, I had read a lot of incredible work for my English major, but it was so good to start reading for pleasure again and not for homework. I devoured books during those three years, and I did it with purpose. I always felt like a writer during those three years; I merely viewed the time as a season where I was cultivating my creative soil for future planting and growth. And that’s exactly what it was.

These days, I take a purposeful writing sabbatical on Mondays: no writing allowed, and the time is devoted to reading. It’s been a good experience so far. As I said above, I have only recently (this year) allowed myself breaks from writing, and for me, it’s essentially a spiritual practice of trust. For so long, I was worried that if I took a break, I would “lose everything.” But that’s not true: taking purposeful breaks allows me to trust God that my gifts won’t fly out the window the moment I open my fist.

Middle-range breaks (staying away from my manuscript for 2-6 weeks) can be a little hard for me to bounce back from, but I’m learning it’s less about the talent disappearing and more about fear showing up.

All that to say, is it okay to take breaks from writing? Yes. For me, it’s best when they are purposeful and still used to intentionally foster creativity.


I have to be honest here: I don’t get the traditional writer’s block anymore– you know, where you sit down to write but nothing comes. I can remember that, though, from high school and even in college, and it’s a horrible feeling. These days, I have built such a strong writing routine that it’s quite rare for me to experience writer’s block the way many people think of it.

Of course, I still get stuck while I’m writing, but it’s different. At least, it feels different to me.

Regardless, the following are things that I do when I get stuck/blocked.

1. Pray/brainstorm. For me, this is sort of one thing. Parts of my prayer journal could easily be mistaken for a writer’s processing notebook. This all happens by hand (basically the only writing I do away from the computer anymore) and in my bed, and often involves scrawling HELP!!! in giant, frantic letters across my journal. Then God and I brainstorm. It’s honestly one of the most amazing and satisfying parts of my writing life because, well, I am imbued supernaturally with ideas. Truest’s byline really should read

written by God Almighty

with Jackie Lea Sommers

because it’s such a team effort, and he has the best ideas.

2. Freewrite. I take whatever topic/area is stumping me and I make myself write about it for ten minutes. Natalie Goldberg and her “Ten minutes. Go.” have given me a perpetual exercise in beating back blocks. In freewriting, I have to type and type and type without stopping for ten minutes. There’s almost always one or two gems that find their way onto the page when this happens.

(Freewrites are also what I do when I’m out of sync with writing and need to loosen up that writing muscle again. They work. They really do.)

3. Have conversations. I hope you’re as lucky as I am to have such selfless friends who are willing to have long, drawn-out conversations about fictional people and situations and choices. When I get stuck, I will ask my friends to dialogue with me about whatever is stumping me. These conversations help me push through barriers and also help me know and understand my friends more deeply. (I’m so grateful.)

4. Make a plan. What do I need to do before I can dive back into my project? Maybe I’ve realized that I don’t know enough about the history of my characters to write an honest scene about their friendship. I’ll put a sub-project onto my list: “Create history for X and Y.” Then I’ll take a time-out from the manuscript to write up a whole separate history for my characters, much of which will never make it into the novel but which needs to exist before I can move forward.


What if I just don’t feel like writing?

Well, you’re going to have to assess the situation. Are you in need of an intentional break (#1) or are you just being lazy?

Writers write.

When I get in these moods, I do the following:

1. Freewrite. See above. This is the answer to so many writing questions, I believe.

2. Research. And when I say “research,” I mean spend time learning about things that are fascinating to you. I will click the “random article” button on Wikipedia until I land on something that gnaws on my brain. I will read through incredible quotations. I’ll spend hours on the internet finding something that clobbers me and drives the boredom out of my life because it’s just so amazing that I have to know more and want to write about it. Ideas wake me up.

3. Get away. Get out of your house or apartment and hole up in a coffeeshop or the back corner of Panera. Sometimes I’m not bored by writing, but I’m distracted by everything else. If I can change my setting and eliminate distractions, it will help me get back into the zone.

4. Read. Something so incredible and delicious that the excitement (and envy) starts building in my gut. Something where the characters make me laugh and cry and fill me with questions of How can I do that in my own style

5. Switch projects. Not entirely. I just might need to set aside the novel for a while and do some blogging instead. Or maybe work on a poem or something completely different. Although, who am I to say? For some people, this might mean abandoning a project entirely. If it’s not keeping your attention, there’s a good chance it won’t keep others’.

But mostly …

6. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Sometimes I just need to put on my big-girl pants and fake it till I make it.

Image credit: Unsplash, modified by me

This blog post first appeared August 19, 2014.

16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If you start a website, don’t waste time thinking of a clever blog title.  Just use your name.  
With WordPress and $18 a year, you can even buy your own domain so that you can just have www. [yourname] .com.  Trust me.  It’s going to be better for branding yourself as a writer someday. 

6. Learn blog etiquette.
Make a commitment to post on your blog at least once a week.  Also, don’t solicit readers by posting links to your content as a comment.  The best way to get readers is to read other blogs and leave thoughtful comments.  They’ll be much more likely to visit yours that way than if you use their comments section as your own personal ad space.

7. Join a writing group– or at least collect some beta readers.  Preferably both.  And take their advice.
Make sure they actually know what good literature is.  They should be good writers themselves or at least good readers.  And do take their advice or at the very least try it out.  No one said you have to keep your revisions.  Take their feedback, make revisions, and then decide whether to take it or leave it.  It goes without saying (I hope) that all this should be done without putting up a fuss.  You need feedback to make your writing sparkle.  Well, at least most writers do.

8. Genres have word count guidelines.
Debut authors should be especially aware of this.  Many literary agents won’t even bother with a manuscript that falls outside the genre word count guidelines.  (Not that it has never happened– but it’s the exception, not the rule).  There are detailed posts about this at Literary Rejections and Writer’s Digest.

9. Set aside some money to devote to your craft.
You can use this money to take a class, attend a workshop, or hire a professional editor.  Yes, a professional editor in addition to your writing group and beta readers.  The more [qualified, capable] eyes on your novel, the better!

10. Join Twitter.
I can hear some of you groaning.  I did too.  Who needs one more social media avenue?  You do.  It’s a great way to connect with other writers (amateur and professional!).  You can also start following literary agents and editors to learn more about the industry.

11.  You’ll need an agent.
I didn’t know this.  To be honest, I’d always thought that you sent off your completed manuscript directly to publishers.  But there’s a whole chain of command.  You’ll need to write a query letter (in some ways, this is harder than writing the novel itself!) that you’ll send to literary agents.  Once a lit agent signs you, it’s your agent’s job to sell your manuscript to an editor.  Novelists should wait to have a completed manuscript before beginning the querying process.

12. There are great resources out there for how to write a query letter and what agents are specifically looking for.
If you spend two hours on Rachelle Gardner’s blog, you’ll have the basics of querying down.  Best places to find what agents are looking for include Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, the author acknowledgements in the backs of your favorite books, and querytracker.net, especially the “backward” search that allows to look up an author and find out who reps him or her.  From time to time, literary agents on Twitter will hashtag things #mswl (manuscript wishlist), and this is super helpful and often gives you more specific, up-to-date information than their websites.  Remember that money you set aside (#9)?  Use it to attend a conference or workshop where literary agents will be in attendance.  Sometimes you can meet them and deliver your pitch in person.  (I’m not talking about stalking and cornering here; there are actual times and locations and events set up for this to occur!)

13. Rejection is inevitable, and it hurts.
I’m not sure if knowing this ahead of time helps things or not.

14. Read like crazy.
Everything [good] you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre.  And add a healthy dose of poetry for good measure.  Also: blogs, especially those of authors and literary agents and others in publishing, but also book blogs to keep your finger on the pulse of what is trending in your genre and what readers are looking for.  That said …

15. Write what you’re passionate about, not what’s trendy.
By the time you finish your novel about [insert trendy, current topic here], the topic will probably no longer be trendy or current.

16. The most important thing is that you write a great book. 
Ignore whatever you want on this list, but write an amazing book.  A writer who follows all the rules but writes a sub-par book probably has less of a chance at publication than one who bucked all the rules but wrote a masterpiece.

[I searched online, but could not figure out whom to credit for the original image of the white frame on the green wall.  If you know or find its original owner, let me know.]

Writing Resources

writing resources2I’m no expert, but I do get questions of this sort enough to warrant a post.  I hope this will be helpful!

How do I become a better writer?
If you want to write well, the very best thing that you can do is read great books.  A lot of them.  In lots of genres, but especially in your own.  I highly, highly recommend also incorporating a strong dose of poetry into your life.

What books should I read about the writing life?
I suggest these.

How can I learn about professional writing?
I love thewritelife.com.

Check out these posts:
25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy
How to Create Your First Invoice as a Freelancer
9 Online Gold Mines for Finding Paid Freelance Writing Jobs

Do I need a degree in English?
Depends on the person.  It sure does help!!  I learned so much about writing from my undergraduate experience.

How do I find a literary agent?
I recommend tracking down a copy of Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents.  I scoured this book to find agencies that represented young adult authors.  After that, I went to each agency’s website to find which agent seemed like the best fit with me and my book.  I made a list of 100 agents to query– thankfully, Steven Chudney was one of my top choices!

I also check the author acknowledgements in the backs of my favorite books.  Usually the author will give a shout-out to his or her agent, and then I’d go dig deeper online for more information.

Querytracker.net may also help you, especially the “backward” search that allows to look up an author and find out who reps him or her.

How do I write a query letter?
First, carve out a couple hours to spend on Rachelle Gardner’s blog.  Start with her post “How to Write a Query Letter” and then spend the rest of the time in her “Queries, Proposals, and Pitches” category.

Next, read some good query letters in Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Query Letters.  There are some great examples in there of successful queries!

Then, head over to Query Shark to read a literary agent’s take on various queries.  (It’s quite fascinating, and you might end up spending a lot of time here.)

A few hours of perusing and you’re going to have a good launching pad.

How important is a writing group?
It’s critical to have some form of constructive feedback in your writing life, whether that’s one critique partner or an entire writing group.  Be choosy: not all feedback is created equal, and you don’t want to be bombarded with advice from someone who has no talent in writing or criticism.

I wrote about the value of my writing group here and here.

There’s much more to be said– about platforms and proposals and revisions and more.  As I said, I’m definitely not an expert, but I often have good resources I can point you to.  What else are you wondering about?