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! 🙂

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been tagged for this blog hop by Sandra Waugh, whose debut book Lark Rising will be published by Random House this September. Lark Rising is a high fantasy novel, and you can read a description of it here. Check out Sandra’s website and follow her on Twitter!

lifeguard chair1. What am I working on?
Right now, I am revising my debut novel Truest, a contemporary YA novel about Westlin Beck, a pastor’s daughter in a small town whose relationship with the new boy is complicated by his twin sister’s mental disorder. I am dreaming about my next novel (yet untitled), another contemporary YA story about childhood enemies reunited six years later on the small island where they grew up. I’m terrifically excited about both these novels and desperately hope that my characters, who mean so much to me, will matter to the world.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Since there is so much amazing contemporary YA out there right now (Melina Marchetta and Jandy Nelson are two favorites), I actually hope that my writing is similar. I do tend to lean heavily into philosophy and ideas more than many others!

3. Why do I write what I do?
There is this quote by George R.R. Martin that I completely and utterly disagree with:

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

I am sorry that Mr. Martin’s reality is so dreary. I believe that reality has its own magic. That is why I write contemporary realism– to show the beauty and charm of the real world.

4. How does my writing process work?
I start with characters. I create characters that fascinate me, characters who are complicated, ones I know that I can spend the next two years or so with and still not have them completely figured out, ones whose company I will still covet after all that time. After that, I toss them into a room together and see what happens.

I write my stories in layers, each draft focusing in on a specific area: first, characters/dialogue; next, plot; then, setting/description; and finally, language (refining it, adding in imagery, choosing better words for what I mean to say). This does not mean that I write four drafts and am done (that idea makes me smile), but after I have a solid draft, I have to seek critical feedback in order to improve.

And now, I tag Elyse and Mary! Your turn to answer these questions, my dears!


Image credit: unknown

Landing on a Dime

Recently, I was over at my friend Kristin’s Minnesota house (she spends most of the year at her Kenya house), discussing writing and Christian art.

Kristin is lovely and brilliant and so terribly wise– and she gets me, gets my heart.  She knows how the desperate cry of my heart is to honor God in my writing through creating a book that is excellent and thought-provoking while avoiding mawkish sentimentality and all cliches, Christian or otherwise.

It’s so hard.

dime“I feel like I’m parachuting,” I told her, “and trying to land on a spot the size of dime.”

That is how precise my goal seems.  I want my stories to be just offensive enough to disturb someone’s thoughts– but not so offensive that they’ll put down the book.  I want them to be full of mystery– but with enough clues to find the answer.  I want them to reflect the trials, confusions, and joys of my deepest heart– but in a way that no one will find cheesy or trite.

Again: the size of a dime.

I’m not sure that I am a good enough writer to hit such a bullseye (in fact I feel quite confident that I am not).  So, what then?  Do I stop writing?

Of course not.  Not when that’s the goal of my life and the best worship I can offer.

I tell myself, You’re 31.  Keep writing and you’ll be better at 32 … 33 … 34.  But I am a perfectionist, an achiever, a go-getter, and terribly impatient.  I get frustrated with myself (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) and get so down and low, or else frantic and scared.  But the best I can do is to keep writing, continue praying, practice grace, revel in creation, and gauge my faithfulness.

And my faithfulness looks like persistence, like fidelity to Christ, to his gifts, and to showing up.

my writing process

Having recently plowed through all three of Kristin Cashore’s books, I ventured over to her blog and found this fascinating post on her writing process.  I thought maybe I’d share the details of my own with whoever might be interested (all three of you, haha).

In general, I need the following things in order to write: time, a distraction-free zone, and my laptop.

Time: I am not one of those writers who is able to write for five minutes at the drop of a hat.  I need to have at least an hour of open time yawning in front of me … better yet, five or six hours.

No distractions: I can listen to music but sometimes only without lyrics.  I can write with friends, but only if they have their own projects.  I cannot write while there is a movie on.  It just isn’t going to happen.  This does not, somehow, apply to the internet.

Laptop: I can’t write freehand anymore.  My thoughts are too fast, and I edit so furiously that I would shred the paper with my pen.  Plus, the idea of having to transcribe it into the computer seems like a terrible waste of my limited time.  I like to keep everything in its place.  (I don’t even like to edit a copy on my work laptop during my lunch break because then I have to make sure to copy and paste it into the right document on my personal laptop.)  Such a hassle.  I just need to have my laptop.  If I am without it, I will journal thoughts here and there on pieces of scratch paper, but I won’t tackle actual novel work.

I have to have access to the internet.  I go absolutely insane without it.  I can have Facebook and Gmail and Words with Friends all open, and it just blends into my whole writing program.  I do a lot of in-the-moment research, so I need to have access to the web (for example, I will just NEED TO KNOW in that EXACT moment what that heavy bib is that you wear during an X-ray … lead apron.  Okay, lead apron.  Moving on.).

I start with characters.  In fact, I like to start with names.  And then I find a picture of that person.  (Sure, it’s some random picture from Google images, but I find a picture that matches the name and the image in my head.)  And then I write down a few thoughts about that person.  I keep this document with me the whole duration of the writing and refer to it often (mostly since I am terrible at descriptions and need to use the photos for inspiration).

With this last novel, I gave myself six months to write a first draft– and didn’t allow myself to rag on myself while I did so.  The first draft is just the bones (and probably weak ones) of the story– I still don’t know my characters super well until the first draft is done.  Only then can I go back and know them well enough to see how they really would react to the situations that took place.  (I know that seems backward … but it’s not.)

I trust my writing group and other creative friends to catch the glaring imperfections for me.  You’d be shocked at what things seem clearly obvious to the plot that would have never been included if a friend hadn’t said, Um, this needs to happen here.

I can write from my couch, but it’s better if I am at a coffeeshop or Barnes & Noble.  There’s no laundry waiting to be done there.  If I am particularly inspired, though, I can sit at my kitchen table for 10-15 hours.  I am not joking.

I am terrified of losing any edits I make, so I email myself my draft after every writing session, and if I am not at home, I email it to myself before I leave the coffeeshop, etc., just in case I get into a car accident or my laptop (or car my laptop is in) is stolen by bandits or the laptop has a total meltdown.  My latest draft is always safe and labelled in the right folder in my Gmail account.  I have been working on my current story for a year, and there are 176 emails in that folder.

When I decide to cut something that I kinda liked, I save it in a separate document called “extries.”  Over the months, this file grows ridiculously large itself.  Also, if I am completely re-doing a scene, I have to edit the scene in the extries file and then copy/paste it into the actual document file.  This seems to go against what I said earlier about keeping things in one place, but it doesn’t: same laptop counts.

I am always thinking about my story, particular scenes that are giving me trouble, my characters I don’t know how to help.  I pray when I get stuck.  I cry.  I ask close friends to discuss problems with me so that they can help me muddle my way through.  Whenever I get an idea and I’m not around my laptop, it goes into my phone.  Later, I dump all of those ideas into the extries file and work through them.  The ones I write down at 3 am sometimes make no sense.

I also keep a fake calendar of the time the story takes place and list out events on the calendar to make sure I’m keeping track of time right.  (There can’t be 6 weeks in June.)

And the whole time I am riding the world’s longest rollercoaster … I love what I wrote tonight! … I am a terrible writer who will never be published … people like this story … it’s not good enough.  The lows are hard, but the highs are fantastic.  And I love the process.  I love the act of creation.  LOVE IT.  My characters and I feel each other out, and they make some of the decisions, but I usually get the final say.  Usually.

Writing a book is kind of like volunteering to be crazy.  Not just to spent time in the loonybin … but to legitimately be crazy.  But then again, maybe that’s already a given if you’re a writer and writing a book is just your way of acknowledging it.

Gah, no laptop!!

Gah, no laptop!!


the writing journey

I’m reading a novel right now, and one of the characters featured is the author H.G. Wells.  Since it is fiction, I don’t know if the following is true, but the book said that H.G. Wells was a writer who hated writing but who liked to have written.

I was thinking how sad that is.  But I suppose people do that sort of thing all the time, an exercise in delayed gratification.  I know a ton of people who hate exercise but liked to have exercised.  Actually, I am the same way with travel.  I don’t particularly love it, but I liked to have done it.

But writing.

I love it.  I love sitting down and opening up my document.  I love thinking of an objective and then stategizing the best way to achieve it.  I love landing on that perfect “lightning” word.

Don’t get me wrong.  It is hard.  Writing is an arduous process, difficult, sometimes painful.  It is not always exciting.  The rush and thrill of freewriting last perhaps a few months before you find yourself settling into the nitpicking task of editing.  It comes with criticism, difficult to swallow and frustrating as hell.  Your characters take on lives of their own, and they become as impossible to steer as headstrong toddlers.  You write yourself into a dark corner and have no idea how to find the way out of it.  You cry.  Sometimes you write brilliant, lyrical prose that everyone in your writing group hates and makes you cut.  You have to “kill your darlings” left and right.  It hurts your heart.

But I love it.  I love that whole process, painful and heartbreaking as it may be.  There is such true joy in the act of creation.  It is an adventure, a battle of wills against your characters (and sometimes yourself), and there is nothing I enjoy so much as returning night after night to my manuscript, trying to shape something lovely out of blank pages.

I love the process just as much as the product.  The journey is a joy.

trusting the creative process

Trusting the whatta?

The creative process.  I don’t know anyone (except for maybe Addie Zierman) who writes lovely first drafts, and that is just fine.  Freewrite, feedback, re-write, repeat: for me at least, this is the model of the creative process.  And every time I get to the “repeat” part, the draft is better.  If you can boil writing into a formula, that’s what mine looks like.  And then one magical day, the “feedback” part says, “Um, I like it as is,” and you’re done (until some agent tells you otherwise).

It’s bizarre.  Writing– this strange, mystical, spiritual experience– is somehow, for me, whittled into show up and write and then do it again.  After enough times, this clunky, staggering, unrealistic, forced, ridiculous draft turns into a piece of art.  I’m amazed by it.

I have not been writing fiction for long.  Fewer than five years actually.  So I am still in the dating stage with the creative process, still a little unsure that it will really work, uncertain that this formula really does add up.  I’ve spent the last four and half years watching it work (consistently!), and yet I still find myself doubting it.

Then I write another draft, and it is that much better than the last one, and I think in wonder, “It really is working!”

Just like any other relationship, I am learning to trust the creative process.  Show up, put in the effort, don’t get too attached, receive criticism, edit, edit, edit, edit, edit … and it will work.

I am posting this reminder TO MYSELF:

Jackie, KEEP GOING.  Write and keep an open dialogue with those who care about your project.  It will come together.  If it has come this far in 8 months, think of where it will be a year from now!  The creative process WORKS.  It can handle your doubt as long as you keep showing up.

Will you please leave me an encouraging comment?  I could sure use one right now.