A couple of resources for writers

course_badges_Starting_yesOnline courses are A Big Thing right now, which you’ve probably noticed, and I’m not sure how I feel about them. As with anything, there are great examples and also lackluster offerings. In general I don’t think they match my learning style as well as reading a book. But in some cases, for certain topics, I think courses really, really work. One case in point: Upstream Field Guide, and a new favorite, Christine Gilbert’s Starting Your Book.

I got the course as part of an incentive package Christine offered for pre-ordering her book, which made the price a great deal. I’m not sure I would have pulled the trigger at full price then, although having completed the course, I am convinced of the value.

As you might guess from the title, Starting Your Book takes you from your idea to a fully outlined book.  Although I think it’s structured more for a non-fiction book concept, it also works well for fiction projects. You learn about tools to help you collect your thoughts, organize your premise, and develop a well plotted, complete outline you can actually write from. I was skeptical of the idea, because I’ve tried to outline novels before, but this time? I actually accomplished it! It did take a lot of work, but I felt challenged, encouraged, and best of all, equipped to get the thing done.

If you need the course, Starting Your Book is an excellent choice. It worked well for me because it’s entirely online and it’s written down, which meant I could consume the content as I had time and mental space, but also at my own pace, versus the slooooow pace of a video or audio. Each day packs in a lot of material, with several assignments each day. At first I was thinking, “There is no way I am going to get this done in 30 days, there is no way.” But then, lo and behold, I actually did.

pressfield-book-coverAbout three weeks into the course, when I had a pretty well fleshed out outline of 30 chapters, I read Nobody Wants to Read Your S***. OK, I know, crass title, and people who can’t think of better titles than those involving words requiring asterisks are usually annoying, but the book turned out to be helpful. I got it as a free download so there was little risk involved. I think the book was helpful for me because I was neck deep in plotting a story, so I had very concrete ways to envision the advice. For the most part, it’s good advice. And it’s better than Pressfield’s other non-fiction books (The War of Art, Do the Work) although it covers lots of similar ground. Pressfield has a formula, and clearly it works (he’s a best-selling author) but you can take or leave what you like of that. I did think he had some interesting ideas about themes, particularly one about how American authors tend to (maybe subconsciously) write the American Dream–defined by Pressfield as the belief that if you do the right thing and play by the rules, you succeed–into their books.

I looked at my outline. OK, apparently I am not an American because I wrote the exact opposite. I guess you could say I sub-themed that the American Dream isn’t true?


But that’s honest, because I don’t believe it, if you go by Pressfield’s definition. I guess those four years I lived abroad while growing up had a bigger impact than I thought. Anyway, onward.

During the last week of the course, I started to have major panic. The daily content and assignments tapped into some insecurities I have about the outline and I started thinking I had wasted all of that time because the whole thing was a hopeless mess and irrevocably broken. So I almost missed out on THE MOST VALUABLE PART of the entire course.

Christine reviews your outline.

I very nearly didn’t send it in, but at the last minute I said what the heck and pressed send. And Christine reviewed the entire outline (it’s a 17 page single-spaced Word document, so this is not paltry) and sent back the most thoughtful, helpful, lovely response letter. I did not expect anything so encouraging.

I think the final review is an incredible value, because having another person–a person who doesn’t know you or your story and has no vested interest in your being a writer at all–look at your ideas and evaluate them is incredibly helpful.

So, how do you know if you need a course like Starting Your Book?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. I’m a fairly Type A person who gets things done. Couldn’t I just outline my book on my own without a 30-day course? Well, yes. Except I’ve been working on this idea for, oh, seven years or so, and still didn’t have a good outline. I’ve read all the books and listened to all the podcasts and written reams of scenes and partial ideas. I’ve even written an entire 80,000+ word draft! It was terrible. I wasn’t keeping at it in anything resembling a consistent fashion because I wasn’t sure if it was a good use of my time–in short, I have a serious case of Imposter Syndrome about writing, even though it’s what I do for a living. The course gave me a needed push to buckle down and really apply myself to combine ideas and sort everything out and get it done.

If you’re in a similar position–you write but drafts don’t shape up well, or you can’t seem to get over the mental hurdles to be diligent on the project, or you have an idea but aren’t sure where to go with it–I’d recommend Starting Your Book. It’s a bit of an investment, but might be just what you need.


Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are to my previous book reviews, but one is an Amazon affiliate link and I am also an affiliate for the We Create courses. Thanks for clicking through from A Spirited Mind!

Toward flourishing

I find my core callings deeply contradictory. Faith, marriage, motherhood, homeschooling, writing, and my paid work are not easy for me in every respect. I am fascinated but exhausted, comforted but confused, fulfilled but frustrated. The things I value most are, by and large, difficult. I say that the past year has been hard and it has. But even in the best of times I tend to do life in a fairly intense fashion.

Some of my intense life is circumstantial, but much of it is choice. So I don’t want to waste my story in rush and resentment. I want to savor hard days and difficult phases and flourish in the midst of it all. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I want to live deeply and joyfully instead of getting mired in discouragement and burnout, I need to keep my vision refreshed.

I have a feeling sleep might also help, but I will have to get back to you on that once I don’t have a baby and chronic insomnia.

irrational seasonCertain writers are my go-to mentors when I need to reconnect with the bigger picture. Madeleine L’Engle is one. I recently read The Irrational Season and was once again inspired by L’Engle’s refreshing viewpoints on faith, creativity, love, and motherhood–this time in the context of her thinking through the seasons of the liturgical year. Weaving in thoughts on language and mystery and memory, L’Engle writes with simplicity and profound insight about the way that the rhythm of temporal time enhances our understanding of depth, truth, and the unknowable greatness of God.

I don’t always agree with L’Engle, but I never fail to find food for thought and encouragement to think, write, and live with more clarity and honesty. I’d recommend all of her non-fiction, but I’ve addedThe Irrational Season to my favorites along with Walking on Water and A Circle of Quiet.

mission motherhoodSally Clarkson more recently joined my shelf of visionaries. In the past I think I misunderstood her platform and thought she was in the motherhood-is-woman’s-only-calling camp so I didn’t really connect with her. However, what I have found after several months of reading Sally’s books and listening to her podcasts is more of a vision for wholehearted living–of being all in as a mother even if you also do other things (she started and ran a business, wrote books, and homeschooled, for example). I love Sally’s vision for flourishing even in trying circumstances, and her encouragement toward excellence without making an idol out of motherhood.  There is a way to be wholehearted in parenting while also nourishing your soul and mind and creativity and I think Sally’s books The Mission of Motherhood and The Ministry of Motherhood are excellent resources.

ministry motherhoodIn both books, I appreciated Sally’s ability to cast a thoughtful vision and give practical ideas while acknowledging that families and children and life stages are different and so methods may differ even as principles stay the same.

All three of these books are the sort I wind up purchasing so I can re-read them–and I fill them with sticky tabs and take reams of notes (I got nine single-spaced typed pages of notes fromThe Mission of Motherhood alone!). I have intense kids, I homeschool, and I work and write in the margins. If you have naturally calm kids and send them to a brick-and-mortar school and work full-time as a chemical engineer your take-aways may be different than mine. However, no matter what your circumstances, if you’re the sort of person who leans in to your life and longs to flourish in the midst of it, I don’t think you could go too far wrong with any of these volumes.

What books have most refreshed and inspired you lately?


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Big Magic

Big-Magic-CoverI will warn you in advance that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a good book that gets off to a weird start. So when you start reading and find a bunch of flouffy whatnot about how ideas are sentient beings floating around in the ether and getting transferred from person to person or gushing through people’s ears (I know. I know), just skim and bear with it because she IS getting to a good part.

And the good part is worth getting to.

Gilbert talks about what stands in the way of our being creative, and reading all of the excuses I give myself for not taking action on my ideas had a funny way of making them seem ridiculous that, in itself, was pretty motivating. I liked her exhortation to stop being so precious about your creativity and how important it is and how you need to wait until you have more time to put your plans into effect, and just DO SOMETHING.

We don’t need to be big and famous and awesome and save the world with our creativity.  We just need to be creative because it’s who we are and it brings us (and others) joy.

Gilbert comes at this from a different perspective than I do, but I agreed with her assessment. She points out that in modern times, when we divorced the concept of the divine from creativity, we put a lot of undue pressure on the creative person.  Instead of being a person GIVEN a creative gift, he or she now IS creative.  It makes the person responsible, rather than a receiver, and it makes the whole thing into a very fraught enormous deal.

Instead, if we can view our creativity and our ideas as gifts (I would say gifts from God, Gilbert has a vaguer viewpoint) we are released from a lot of that pressure, and we can just create.

Gilbert quotes Rebecca Solnit:

“So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

I read an article just this afternoon in which I was exhorted to be working on my creative goal three to four hours per day if I was really serious about it.  I’m signed up for an email series on creativity (and it’s great, don’t get me wrong) that lays down a challenge to be working on my project two hours per day lest I be labeled someone who isn’t really all in.  This sort of thing can be discouraging when I track my time, don’t watch TV, only check Facebook twice a week (New Years resolution for 2016–surprisingly easy and effective so far), and have what amounts to two jobs. So I guess I shouldn’t write fiction or essays at this stage of my life, right?

Well, no, Gilbert would say. I should do my creative writing when I can and that’s ok. It’s not less serious or less enjoyable or less potentially good if I can’t sling 20 hours a week at it.

Somehow, I needed that permission. So last Sunday, on my Screen Free Sabbath (another new resolution, surprisingly restorative) I spent about an hour writing a scene for one of my novel ideas long hand into a notebook.  I loved it.  Who knows if I will finish this novel at some point, or if it will just be a good piece of avocational writing that makes me happy.  Either way, it’s worth it.

If you self-identify as a creative, like to be creative, feel like you’d like to be more creative, or have a secret creative side bubbling up in you somewhere, I think you’d get something out of Big Magic.  Maybe you won’t agree with all of Gilbert’s philosophies (I didn’t), but I think you’d find something to inspire you to create.


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Exceptional Books About Writing

before we get startedAs someone who writes professionally, I find that different types of writing feed each other–for me at least, the strategic and marketing writing I do for pay both helps and is helped by the creative non-fiction writing of book reviews and essays, and the work of creating short stories and longer fiction. That’s why I was delighted and challenged by Bret Lott’s two exceptional books about writing:
Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. As a successful author who also teaches in MFA programs, and as a Christian who does not write in the Christian publishing industry, Lott has a perspective on writing that shares similarities with other books on craft and vision, but also brings a refreshingly different twist on familiar topics.

Lott examines long fiction, short stories, and narrative non-fiction to get at the root of what each genre is and why and how we write it.  Further, he explores how our understanding of fundamental principles informs our writing even–and especially–when we are simply writing honest stories.

letters & lifeBoth books are also personal memoirs of Lott’s development as a writer and major events in his family relationships.  I found those sections interesting as memoirs, but also instructive as narrative non-fiction and the roles that writing, words, and thinking about creativity and art play in a writer’s life.

What made the books stand out as exceptional to me was their mix of vision and practical application, as well as Lott’s perspective as a Christian who is a writer ( and not a writer for Christians).  Lott’s insight helped me to to see how my work with words can be seen as a calling, which is sometimes hard for me to see or communicate since some people see corporate writing as a lesser way to write or selling out or something like that, and also how important it is to remove myself from the equation entirely and pursue the work whether or not I make a successful attempt at publication for my other–currently just personal–writing efforts.

If you’re a writer in any form, or if you are another type of creative or artist, and especially if you’re a Christian creative, I’d recommend both of Lott’s books on writing.  You’ll find a lot to think about, and will come away inspired and challenged.


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The Art of Slow Writing

the-art-of-slow-writing-bookThe Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity thoughtfully combines relevant information on life management with inspiration for creative callings.

This is not a how-to book in the sense of structuring plots and assigning writing exercises, but it is a call to work slowly, meditatively, and deeply to create work of lasting value and higher impact.  It is also not a time management book in the vein of establishing schedules in 15 minute increments and checking things off of a to do list, but it is a reminder of how to shape your life to make space for your priorities, especially if one of your priorities is in a creative field that can’t easily fit into established patterns of productivity.

I found this book encouraging on many levels, both as someone who enjoys writing books and someone who reads a lot in the productivity genre.  DeSalvo’s applications of one to the other were helpful and inspiring, clearly the result of careful thought not just recycling the same old ideas.  If you like either genre, but especially if you like both, I’d recommend you read The Art of Slow Writing for insight and inspiration.


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The Writing Life

writing lifeThe Writing Life is a short but inspiring book about finding the motivation and follow-through for your writing.  It’s not about craft, but I think after a certain point you’ve probably read all of the craft how-tos you need.

I love Dillard’s intensity.  She writes with fierce observation.  Apparently she finds writing wildly dreadful, and yet does it anyway because that’s what she does.  Even if you’re not the sort who writes every sentence in sweat, blood, and tears, you can probably still find her experience instructive in some way.

Although this book is about writing, it’s really about life.  In fact, I think if you enjoy reading you’d like it, even if you don’t write as one of your callings.  One of Dillard’s strong metaphors is built on the most effective way to chop wood.  You can, apparently, hack away at the piece of wood, missing and splintering all over the place, or you can aim through the wood at the center of the chopping block.  This is helpful for writing, but even more so for life.  Dillard points out that focusing on momentary happiness is not the way to build a good life:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

Another universally applicable concept from writing is Dillard’s admonition to give your best now rather than hoarding it.  You can pour your best effort and material into your writing, your parenting, your job, and so forth, and trust that the well will not run dry.

While not a long book, The Writing Life is full of thoughtful insights and I’d recommend it–whether to inspire your writing or your day-to-day life.


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On Being a Writer

writerOn Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts explores the concept of writing in a refreshingly inclusive fashion, and offers ideas and tips for building and strengthening helpful writing habits.

As someone who writes daily, but who spends more time on corporate writing than on fiction, I appreciated that the authors of this book took a wide view of what it means to be a writer.  Often I get the feeling from writing books that only novelists need apply, although my experience has been that the writing I do in different genres only serves to improve my writing in other formats. On Being a Writer invites the reader to explore what a writing identity means to him or her, and the ideas found throughout the book could be usefully applied to fiction, nonfiction, blogging, or any other sort of writing you do.

On Being a Writer is not a book on writing craft, but rather a manual for building the sort of habits that foster a strong writing life.  The habits covered in the book will serve you well if you’re just beginning to build a writing life or if you’ve been a writer for a long time.  No matter what sort of writing you do, if you identify yourself as a writer, I’d recommend this book.


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Walking on Water: Writing, Faith, Art, and More Madeleine L’Engle

If you’re a Christian and an artist of any kind, especially if you’re a writer, you really and truly need to read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.  The book is remarkable–thought-provoking and challenging in the very best ways.

L’Engle discusses what makes good art, what distinguishes Christian art from non-Christian (and isn’t afraid to say that bad art is bad religion no matter how many times you said something Jesus-y in it), the artist’s struggle with giving up control, and the need to allow ourselves time to just be.

This last piece is something I see as necessary but very difficult to put into practice.  L’Engle writes that our spiritual health and our creativity require a break from busyness and making time to just be, and suggests that we need to stop feeling guilty for taking that time.  I find personally that when I’m getting really stressed and frantic, I feel the need to find thinking time more and more acutely.  And the longer I go without down time to think deeply about things, the more fuzzy-headed I get.

As a result of reading this book, I’ve tried to think up some ways to make time for thinking and being (if you want to be more business-like about it, you could call this “strategic thinking time”). For example, I’m making notes of things I want to consider, printing out notes and articles I want to think about more deeply, and putting them into a folder.  So far, that’s as far as I’ve gotten, but my idea is to set aside 15 minutes to half an hour of my work time each day to go through something in that folder.  I will let you know if it helps, should I actually get to the point of allowing myself to open the folder!

In any case, I highly, highly recommend Walking on Water.

Because I’m now such a huge Madeleine L’Engle fan, I checked out Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life.  However, once I got it home from the library I realized it was not another book by L’Engle, but rather a compilation of quotes taken from her other works.  This was a disappointment to me, because while I enjoy quotes, and took a vast number of pages of them down while reading other L’Engle books, I prefer to read her essays in their entirety.  When you just get a quote that someone else thought was important, you miss the whole development of the argument, and the quote often loses much of its weight.

That said, because some of the quotes were from books I had already read but others were taken from transcriptions of lectures or writing seminars L’Engle gave, I decided to keep reading.  Because I did so, I did gather some good points that made the reading worthwhile.  However, if you’re not also a L’Engle fan or aren’t really into writing, you could probably skip this book.

Having read so much of her non-fiction, I decided to re-read some of L’Engle’s novels.  I remember reading the Wrinkle in Time series as a kid and wondered if it would be a good thing to recommend for Hannah.

I totally enjoyed re-reading these books from an adult perspective.  I do think that thematically they might be better for Hannah when she’s older. In case you’ve forgotten, the Time Quintet includes:

  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • A Wind in the Door
  • A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  • Many Waters (I liked the concept of this book so much when I first read it as a child, and have often thought of it since.  I liked it just as much as an adult.)
  • An Acceptable Time (I don’t remember if I hated this book as a kid, but I found it annoying as an adult–the main character is Polly, the child of Meg and Calvin from the earlier books in the series.  Chronologically this book comes after the O’Keefe series below.)
I also read the O’Keefe series of books, which follow the children of Meg and Calvin from the first four books of the time quintet.  These are less about time but still about science and ethics.  They are more like mysteries.  I really enjoyed the first two but basically couldn’t stand the last one because of how annoying the character of Polly becomes.  The series includes:
  • The Arm of the Starfish
  • Dragons in the Waters
  • A House Like a Lotus – Really, I would not recommend this book for children or even teenagers, unless you’re ready to read it with them and discuss it.  While it handles some issues very well I was frankly appalled by how casually a relationship between an older man (mid to late 20s) and a 16 year old girl was handled.  For one thing that the character’s parents allowed her to go out with an adult man, for another that the “love” scene was portrayed as no big deal when it was actually predatory and exploitative, to say nothing of illegal.  If my child was reading about it, I would want to be sure he or she understood that a situation like that would NOT be normal, healthy, legal, or moral.  It seems out of character for L’Engle to have written it, and the book itself is not as well written as her other books.  I really think you could, and probably should, just skip it entirely.
If you haven’t ever read them, I’d recommend most of the books, and if you read them as a child I think you’d still enjoy them as an adult.  I’m not someone who generally enjoys YA, but L’Engle’s approach was to write a good story, rather than setting out to write books for a particular age of audience, and I think that might be why I liked them.
Two questions for you:
1)  What books do you remember reading and loving as a child?
2) Do you make time for thinking or to just be?  If so, how do you do that?


A Circle of Quiet

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle is my new favorite book about life, balancing motherhood with other vocations, literature, and writing.

I’m so glad I saw the recommendation on Modern Mrs. Darcy, as I can see myself wanting to read this book again and again.

Although the book was written decades ago, the insights still seem fresh.  L’Engle wrote about life in a way that informs writing and writing in a way that informs life, and all with a thoughtful and spiritual approach.  While she was up front about her doubts and crises of faith, she held a high standard of truth, and the short description of what ultimately drew her back to the church was powerful.

At many points in the book L’Engle’s opinions and insights made her seem like a kindred spirit–she may be the only other person who shares my conviction that gray and grey are completely different colors–and I found myself wanting to write her a letter.  In looking up her website I found that she died in 2007 and I really felt bereft.

I took pages and pages of notes, and plan to buy my own copy at some point.  I also decided to check out L’Engle’s other non-fiction books, because I enjoyed her thoughts so much.

I’d highly recommend A Circle of Quiet to anyone who writes, balances parenting with other callings, or enjoys reading insights about human nature, literature, and faith.


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Writing Advice That Transcends Genre

I consider reading books on writing to be part of my professional development, since I write for my job in addition to writing this blog and dabbling in fiction on the side.  The writing I do for work comes in different forms but usually covers marketing, industries, business, and strategy.  So you might think that writing a search engine optimized website, or an internal strategy document, or a whimsical narrative building a brand doesn’t have much to do with writing a book review on a blog, or writing a novel.

But the interesting thing about writing, I find, is that writing in different genres strengthens your writing across the board.  In Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, Jack Hart offers writing advice specifically for the sort of narrative non-fiction pieces you read in newspapers and magazines, but his insights are so incredibly helpful that you could easily apply them to any genre you’re writing in.

Hart uses his background in journalism to describe how narrative works, and how to make it more effective.  Instead of offering dry advice, he illustrates his points with fascinating descriptions of news pieces he coached reporters through, describing how he and his team figured out they had a story, found points of view for the best telling, tracked down information, and wrote up the (usually prize winning) results.  He also includes a very helpful section on ethics.

If you’re not a writer, or not a journalist, you might still find a lot to like about Storycraft because of the interesting background on news stories.  If nothing else, having this kind of inside knowledge will change the way you read longer news articles and magazine features (in a good way, not in an “oh, so that’s how they make sausage” way).

And if you are a writer in one way or another?  In that case I particularly recommend Storycraft as a book that will help you to sharpen your skills.  While not much will be totally ground-breaking if you already read books to help your writing, often I find that reading information from a different perspective will help me to absorb and apply it differently.

Writers: Do you read books to help you improve in your craft?  If so, do you only read books intended for the genre in which you work, or do you read writing books for other styles and genres too?


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