Connecting Your Work to God’s Work

In Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work author and pastor Tim Keller overturns the commonly held idea of dualism (that some things are more spiritual than others, and that there is a divide between religious parts of life and the rest of it) and instead presses on toward a biblical view of work.

No matter what type of work you do (and yes, not that you need me to tell you this, but parenting is work too), the way you go about it betrays a lot about your ideas of God and the idols of your heart. Every Good Endeavor unpacks the concept of work and how our faith should influence it, including issues like:

  • Worldview (what you believe is wrong with the world and what would make it better)
  • Identity (where you ultimately take your sense of worth and success)
  • Service (every job can be done for the good of others or for yourself)
  • Idolatry (things you look to for ultimate significance)

After digging into the broader themes of work and discussing a general theology of work, Keller also looks at specific types of work and how Christianity can change the way you pursue them.  I got a lot out of the arts section, which includes writing, and the specific applications of how having good theology can impact the way we write and create stories. (If you write and are interested in that topic, check out this excellent free podcast on writing from a Christian worldview)

As with other books I’ve read by Tim Keller, I found Every Good Endeavor thought-provoking and challenging and it helped me to think more deeply about the way my work connects to God’s.  I’d recommend it no matter what your vocation.

Do you see a connection between your work and God’s work?  Or do you tend to think that some work is “spiritual” and other jobs are just to pay the bills or get things done?

 

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How to be a writer, even in the middle of the night

I’m not normally one for writing exercises. I like to read through them, but rarely try them. However, Brian Kiteley’s approach in The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction changed my mind (a little).  Kiteley believes that writing exercises (prompts to get you to write a short piece of fiction) can be done with your current set of characters/piece of fiction in mind, and can become a valuable part of that work.  With that mindset, I did try several of the exercises in the book and found them helpful.

What was even more helpful though were Kiteley’s observations about writing sprinkled amidst the exercises.  These observations, about people, relationships, and what works or doesn’t work in written narrative, made me think and at times served to illuminate difficulties I’ve had with my fiction projects.  Overall I found the book quite helpful, even though I didn’t do all of the exercises.

The 4 A.M. Breakthrough is Kiteley’s follow up book, and I have to say I didn’t find it nearly as helpful as I found the first one.  I’m not sure if it was the way the book was arranged (fewer topic areas) or the fact that I didn’t find as many of the exercises helpful, or the fact that I got pretty tired of the political commentary (I am sick of political opinion wielding in general, and really really prefer not to read it in books ostensibly about writing.), but I didn’t like it as well.

I did get a couple of good thoughts from the book, so it wasn’t a total loss.  One especially helpful perspective was Kiteley’s advice to write in inconvenient little pockets of time, rather than scheduling large blocks for writing.  He finds that the smaller, frantic bursts tend to be better writing.  That is good news, considering that I never have four hours to just write fiction, although I wish I did.

If you’re looking for a good book on fiction, and have read the basic great ones already, I think The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction would be worth your time, but would only recommend the sequel if you’re a diehard writing exercises fan.

Fiction writers: do you like writing exercises or avoid them?

 

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I Guess You Had To Be There

I did not love Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast. Overall, it made Hemingway seem like a self-important jerk and a misogynist.  In the book he recounts his memories of living in Paris with his first wife and his impressions of other famous writers he interacted with there.  Some of the recollections were interesting, and some of the descriptions were quite well done, but I’m afraid my distaste for the general tone and tenor of the book overcame me.

I did find one of Hemingway’s observations about writing to be incredibly helpful.  He writes of that moment when you don’t know what to write or why you’re writing and you find yourself immobilized, and says, “just write one true sentence.”  In this month of NaNoWriMo, when lots of people are churning out thousands of words, it might be worth considering whether each of the sentences you write are true–that is, are you writing the absolute soul of the idea, the unadorned kernel of the story, the really unique turn of phrase?

Hemingway’s description of F. Scott Fitzgerald made me laugh, “the mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more.”  Now THAT is a really unique and interesting description, isn’t it?

If you’re a Hemingway fan, or like post World War I literature in general, you might really enjoy this book, but if not, I might recommend skipping it in favor of something else.

 

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When Balance…Isn’t (and Work/Shift Winner)

It was bound to happen.  After my oh-so-confident “Here’s how I do work-life balance” post last week, the whole thing kind of overflowed its boundaries.   A client rebranding/writing project turned out to be more time-consuming than it was originally scoped and required more work time than I anticipated, I wasn’t feeling well, insomnia struck, Jack unexpectedly had two doctors appointments, and the kids developed a mysterious allergy to mathematics.

What do you do when things get unbalanced?

When you work from home, or homeschool, or both, the fact is that balance often…isn’t.  The best-laid plans go awry.  Again, I don’t have this figured out by any means, but here are a few thing that help me when things get unbalanced:

  • Have a schedule, but don’t be a slave to it.  I love pre-planning our school weeks, but when we have a hard stretch of days, I remember that we can be flexible.  I had initially planned to finish our first quarter last week, but decided to give us all some grace and stretch it into this week.  And yet the sun still rose.
  • Accept the fact that I can’t do it all.   Even if I didn’t do any paid work or homeschool, and even if I only had one child or none at all, I still wouldn’t be able to do it all.  This weekend we had a fun outing planned, but a combination of soccer games, a pressing need to mow the lawn so our homeowner’s association wouldn’t take us to court, and my looming deadlines meant we had to skip it.  I was sad because it involved archery (yes, in addition to machine guns I have also been rather skilled with a recurved bow in my time) but adding another thing to the mix would have been WAY too much muchness.  There is always next year.
  • Ask for help.  The odd thing about husbands is that they don’t read minds.  I don’t know why this still surprises me.  Often when I get overwhelmed, it doesn’t occur to me to just ask my husband to do something.  And yet, when I do ask, he cheerfully and competently helps.  Of course he helps out generally without being asked, but in crunch times it really makes a difference to just say “could you play music with the kids for a bit so I can get through this section of my project?” or “Would you mind handling the kitchen cleanup tonight?”

And maybe balance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.  As Gretchen Rubin points out in Happier at Home (and Anne Bogel echoes in Work Shift), we don’t have to focus on balance, we can focus on filling our lives with things that matter to us.  At this stage of my life, my relationships with God and my family, educating my children, and becoming a better writer while honoring my commitments to my clients are more important to me than being a rockstar with a bow and arrow.

Part of being a working, homeschooling mom is giving myself grace to admit that while often everything works out, sometimes I can’t have it all.  And that’s just fine.

And now…back to Work Shift!

Remember Anne Bogel’s book that I reviewed and offered to give away?  The day is here!  Congratulations DEANNA, you won a copy of the book!  Email me your details and we’ll get your copy to you without delay!

Sad you didn’t win?  Fret not!  You can still order a copy of your very own directly from the author or through Amazon.

I’m curious, when your life gets unbalanced, what things help you keep your head on straight?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  Also, the author of Work Shift sent me a complimentary review copy and is providing the giveaway copy referenced in this post.

Defining “It All”

As a Type A, overachieving, recovering perfectionist who works and homeschools (and apparently I’m not the only one), I take great interest in the “Can women have it all?debates.

Of course, the answer to that depends on how you define “it all.”

My “having it all” is unique to me, and when I go after someone else’s version I always feel like a failure and like I’m missing something important.  I think it’s incredibly important to define for yourself what constitutes “it all” because you can’t create a balance that satisfies you until you know what goals and values you’re trying to achieve.  As a wise family friend once said, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll always hit it.”

But how do you define “having it all” for yourself, and, once you do, how do you achieve it?  For me it involved a lot of soul searching and trial-and-error, but here are some thoughts.

  1. Define what you’re good at and what you can get paid to do.  If you’re like me, there are lots of things you could do, but fewer that you would want to do.  List them all; it’s just paper, not a lifetime commitment.
  2. List your other callings and goals. If you have kids, how much time do you really want to spend with them (for some people, two hours a day is perfect; for others that wouldn’t be nearly enough)?  Do you want to homeschool?  Write a novel?  Teach classes?  Run a marathon?  Have a side business?  Manage a charity?  Again, nothing says you have to do this all at once just because you write it down.  Brainstorm.
  3. Put it together.  What job will let you be the kind of parent you want to be?  What kind of parent would you have to be to take the job you want and how do you feel about that?  Are there goals and work ideas that work better with your season of life and current priorities than others?  I try to look for things that overlap and complement each other, and resist the urge toward all-or-nothing thinking.  Be creative and see how things can fit.
  4. Keep a time log.  The most frequent question I get when people find out I work and homeschool and write fiction and read two books a week is how I find the time.  We all have 168 hours a week and I find it tremendously helpful to track my time every few weeks to identify extra pockets and make sure my time is really going toward my priorities.
  5. Guess and check.  No matter what you decide to do, it’s important to keep evaluating.  Life circumstances change, and often things that worked well for a time stop working after a while, especially if you have kids.  It’s good to take a step back periodically and ask yourself if things are working, what you’re missing, and what you can do to make things better.  Even small tweaks can make a huge difference.

What does this look like in real life?

According to my time logs, I spend 25-30 hours a week working.  I divide the time between three paying gigs and one project that may pay off someday:

  • Copywriting and Editing: I get paid well to write and edit marketing, policy, and strategy materials for companies.  The work is very flexible: I get to work from home but still have frequent meetings and interaction with lots of different people.  I also enjoy the variety of learning about new industries all the time and the challenge of developing messages, writing quickly and well, and meeting deadlines.
  • Teaching: I teach in our homeschool group, which requires preparation time but does pay enough to cover my own children’s tuition for the group.  I enjoy it and it’s a fun challenge to come up with ways to teach things like Latin and science and geography to small kids.
  • Blogging: Believe it or not, I do make a small amount from the blog (huge thank you to readers who buy from Amazon through my links!) although when I work out the hourly rate it’s fairly pitiful.  🙂  Still, it’s personally rewarding and could lay a foundation for future work.
  • Fiction: Yes, I’m still working on a novel.  Don’t laugh.  I hope to publish someday, but in the meantime I see fiction as a good way to improve my writing overall (writing across genres is supposed to be very helpful) and as a long-range project that hopefully will pay out  eventually.

How do I work 30 hours, homeschool 30 hours, exercise, read, cook, clean, and spend time with my family every week?  A few thoughts:

  1. Put the big rocks in first. You’ve heard the idea: if you fill a jar with sand, then small rocks, then try to get a big rock in, you can’t do it.  But if you start with the big rocks, fill in the smaller rocks, then add the sand, it works.  That’s how I try to plan my days: I do my Biblestudy and prayer time while I make and eat my breakfast, then I exercise and hopefully shower before the kids get up.  We do school in the morning before everyone gets frustrated.  We always have quiet time every day, even if the kids don’t need naps.  We all need a break from each other, the kids learn to play by themselves, and I get work done.  Other stuff fills in after that.
  2. Mesh work and life whenever possible.  For example, I love to read.  It fuels my blog, it counts as professional development, it keeps my brain moving, and it’s relaxing.  When I read out loud to the kids, it’s also school and family time.  Exercise can be family time too.  You see what I mean: find ways that work can be life and school can be life and things can fill multiple priorities at once.
  3. Let go of things that aren’t priorities.  Let me admit to you that housework is not a priority for me.  General neatness is important, because as Gretchen Rubin says, “outer order contributes to inner calm,” but I’m ok with taking the hours I could spend vacuuming mini blinds and washing windows and spending them writing or reading instead.  Your calculus may differ.  It’s ok to find your own way and admit to not caring much about some things other people care a lot about.  You can’t do everything under the sun, but you can do everything that is most important to you.
  4. Live your own life. I’ve wasted a lot of time worrying over whether other people think I’m meeting my potential, whether I’m missing out on something better, whether I’m disappointing people, and things like that.  I’m constantly tempted to compare my life to what others are doing, but I try to remind myself to live my own life.  I’m most fulfilled when I’m doing the things that I’m gifted in, that I’m called to, and that work best for my particular family.  You’ll probably find that your circumstances are different and that is not only OK, it’s marvelous!

Defining “it all” is not an easy task, or it wouldn’t have taken me 1200 words to write this post.  It’s obviously simplistic to reduce the process to a couple of bullet points, but sometimes the hardest part is getting that big picture view, so that you can do the hard work of wrestling with your individual issues of competing goals and priorities.  I don’t have this locked down by any stretch of the imagination.  I probably won’t ever have it figured out.  But I do think it’s a worthwhile exercise to really think about your life and your goals and where your time goes.  When you take the time to do that, I think you really can have it all.

How do you define “it all” and do you think you have it?

Image credit: FreeDigitalPhotos

 

Mystery and Manners

I’m not sure how I’ve been writing all this time and haven’t ever read Flannery O’Connor’s book on writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  It was excellent; I’d recommend it to all writers, but particularly to writers who are also people of faith.

In the book, O’Connor devotes a lot of space to the importance of using honest regional settings (she calls this the “manners” of the place) and figuring out your own region and your place within it.  “To know oneself,” O’Connor writes, “is to know one’s region.  It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.”  She also writes extensively about characters and the importance of having a vision for what is really going on in your era.

All of those themes are well-presented and worthwhile, but for me the real strength of the book and what sets is apart from other books on writing is O’Connor’s discussion of what distinguishes a Christian writer from any other, and how to be a really good literary author while also being a Christian.  O’Connor writes a lot about being Catholic, since that was her faith tradition, but her points apply equally to protestants in the creative arts.  This question of how faith is woven in to writing is the “mystery” part of the title.

First, O’Connor makes clear that if you want to be a good writer you probably aren’t going to be able to be an explicitly Christian writer.  That is, you probably aren’t going to be writing stuff they sell at the Christian bookstore.  I’m sure there is a place for that sort of fiction, but I don’t prefer it myself and don’t have an interest in writing it, so it was nice to hear O’Connor’s perspective on how a Christian can communicate and witness MORE effectively by honest literary writing than by only writing to a Christian audience.

I was struck by O’Connor’s points about how a Christian writer will see the world and write about it differently, even if characters aren’t Christian or much evil is present.  For example, she points out that the Christian sees evil in the culture that most people have grown comfortable seeing, and has the task of showing it as evil.  She writes, “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

O’Connor also points out that the Christian writer will see moments of redemption and grace in life that others might overlook, and will express the Christian idea that redemption has a cost.  To show that worldview is to point to the Gospel, even if (and probably only if) you don’t have a character saying so explicitly.

I was also particularly intrigued with O’Connor’s thoughts about writing as a Christian in the South.  She felt it was an ideal setting, because although “the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted” so she felt she had the freedom to include more Christian themes than she might have had with other settings.  That was interesting to consider, and I think she is right, but I think there are probably unique ways that any setting at all would lend itself to stories of redemption and grace in the face of evil.  The challenge to the Christian author, then, is to figure out what they are for his own unique setting.

Really, Mystery and Manners is an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it to Christians who are writers or otherwise involved in artistic pursuits.  There is a lot of food for thought here, and I’d be very interested in your comments if you’ve read it!

 

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The Making of a Story

If you write fiction or creative nonfiction, or if you enjoy reading short stories and want to know more about how to understand the literature you read, you would probably get a lot out of Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing.

I found that the book covered issues and techniques I’ve read about before in other books about writing, but I appreciated that every section included short stories illustrative of the points made in that section.

For someone who supposedly doesn’t like short stories, I’ve been reading an awful lot of them lately, and I have to say they are growing on me.

In any case, the book is well suited to reading in short bursts, in between reading other things.  This is good considering that it is 642 pages long.  I read it over the course of several months, and then went back and took notes on my tabs, which always helps me to solidify what I’ve read.

The most helpful portion for me occurred towards the end of the book, in the chapter on writing drafts.  As you may recall if you’ve been reading here long (and I do mean long, like since July 2010) I finished a draft of a novel, and since then I have messed about with other drafts, changing things, starting over a zillion times, leaving it alone for long stretches but still thinking about it, and felt like maybe I should drop it.  Reading the chapter on drafts gave me hope about the project, because LaPlante subscribes to the idea that drafts are healthy and normal and necessary in good writing.  At the end of the chapter, she includes three drafts of a short story by Jan Ellison.  The first version is a very short take, about 1000 words, just the germ of the story.  It contains the initial idea, and I liked it.  Then you read a later draft, which the author had expanded, taken a few different directions, and ended differently.  Finally, LaPlante includes Ellison’s final story “The Company of Men,” which was published in the New England Review.  It’s really good, and contains only a few things from the first draft, but gets at the real root of those things.  I really enjoyed reading the versions and seeing how revisions don’t mean failure, but rather growth.

I’d recommend The Making of a Story to writers, and to readers who enjoy understanding the process behind good writing.

 

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The Hazards and Rewards of Writing Autobiographically

Josh and I went to a house concert for Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken (they are incredible live if you ever get the chance to see them).  The smaller venue of someone’s living room made the song intros feel like a conversation.  At one point, when talking about a song he wrote years before he met his wife, Derek said,

“The thing about being a professional autobiographer is that sometimes you realize later that what you said wasn’t true.  It happens.  Unless you aren’t saying anything of worth at all.”

Derek went on to say that although he wrote the song for some other girl who turned out not to be the one for him, the feeling of wanting to be loved by someone was true, and he now thinks of the song as one he wrote for his wife – he just didn’t know he was writing it about her at the time.

It strikes me that this is true of any type of autobiographical writing, whether you write song lyrics, blog posts, diary entries, letters, or emails.  What seems absolutely the best advice or perspective can turn out to be incorrect.  You often have to eat your words.  You realize later that what seemed black and white is actually shades of grey, or vice versa.  If you’re an opinionated person, it can make you consider erasing your archives.

Sometimes, it seems, it would be easier to just close up shop.  After all, lots of people don’t write blogs.  So when those blog-less people come to find out that cloth diapering is actually kind of horrible sometimes, or that the curriculum that rocked in September is not working out at all in March, when the diet doesn’t work, and the book had a dreadful flaw, and quitting that job was a mistake, they can shrug and not look like idiots.

On the other hand, knowing I have a blog to answer for forces me to think more deeply about my choices and to examine how and why my views on things have changed over time.  It reminds me that I can’t please everyone, and that pleasing everyone is a fruitless goal anyway.

Best of all, writing autobiographically reminds me that there is truth at the root of my changes.  If we ever have another baby, I won’t be cloth diapering.  But I cloth diapered before out of love for my family and conviction that economizing that way was serving them.  I probably won’t ever make bread on a regular basis again, but I proved that I could, learned a new skill, and gained some valuable insight into my personality by baking for a few years.  I know now how to be a good mom who fights to keep growing intellectually when I’m only working a little bit here and there from home, and how to be a good mom by negotiating a  full-time schedule that works with my family’s needs.  The desires at the root of these seeming contradictions – to thrive spiritually, intellectually, and physically, and to see my family do the same – have not changed, even as my understanding of how to best work them out in my life has shifted.  That’s a valuable insight for me when I am too close to my situation to see how the narrative thread of my life is working out.

For me, writing autobiographically serves as reminder of who I am and an impetus to keep thinking deeply about life as I strive to live it better.  I don’t always love the permanent record of my various follies, but I value being able to see the progression of my life in what I’m reading and considering.

Do you write autobiographically?  If so, do you ever find yourself changing your positions or reaching new conclusions on things you wrote stridently about before?  Do you find that process of change helpful, or embarrassing?

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

After reading Story Engineering earlier this week I was really intrigued by the premise of Donald Miller’s memoir A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  When he started working with screenwriters to adapt his previous book Blue Like Jazz, Miller realized that the components of great storytelling have parallels in living a worthwhile story in real life.  In seeking to live a better story, Miller reflected on how our stories are part of a bigger Story, and made deep observations about life while also being funny and inspiring.

I loved the writing style in this book, and I enjoyed the ways Miller drew parallels between writing and life.  For example, in a story the main thing is character arc: your character needs to change as a result of what happens to him, and THAT is the meat of the story, not the car chases and getting the girl and whatnot.  The action is important because “a character is what he does.”  The same is true in life, if you think about it.  Difficult situations call on us to act in ways that reveal our characters and change us. The sections of the book that explore that concept had a remarkably fresh and real perspective.

For example, Miller relates the story of how he set himself a goal to climb the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, even though he was a couch potato before.  It was incredibly difficult, but he found that although it’s possible to take an easy touristy way to Machu Picchu, the effort of the Inca Trail makes it more powerful “..because you can take a bus to Machu Picchu; you can take a train and then a bus, and you can hike a mile to the Sun Gate.  But the people who took the bus didn’t experience the city as we experienced the city.  The pain made the city more beautiful.  The story made us different characters than we would have been if we had skipped the story and showed up at the ending an easier way.”

Another section deals with the writing concept of inciting incidents – things that happen that start the ball rolling and put the character on a path to change.  Miller tried adding inciting incidents to his life and learned quite a bit.  He talks about how he watched a movie and tried to figure out what made it so great, only to realize that you could stop any scene and point out what every major character wanted.  “No character had a vague ambition.  It made me wonder if the reasons our lives seem so muddled is because we keep walking into scenes in which we, along with the people around us, have no clear idea what we want.”  It’s an interesting thing to think about.  You can coast along in life playing it safe, or you can take on big audacious goals that push you and change you. Good stories are made from big ambitions and characters who are willing to accept risk and change, and so are good lives.  Miller says, “The ambitions we have will become the stories we live.  If you want to know what a person’s story is about, just ask them what they want.  If we don’t want anything, we are living boring stories, and if we want a Roomba vacuum cleaner, we are living stupid stories.  If it won’t work in a story, it won’t work in life.”

I think what I liked best about the book was that it’s not a strictly writing book, and it’s not a strictly Christian book – rather it’s a story that’s infused with the writer’s drive to understand God and understand his calling to write. Miller has great observations and ways of seeing things, and I think you’d get a lot out of the book even if you’re not a writer (but if you’re a writer, you’d probably enjoy it even more).  I highly recommend A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and think it would be great for a book club, a writing group.  If you read the book on your own, drop me a comment and let me know what you thought!

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

 

Story Engineering

Sometimes you just have to buy the book.

As you can see from my plethora of tabs, I got a LOT out of Larry Brooks’ excellent book on story architecture, Story Engineering.  I read a lot, and feel like I know a great story when I see one, and yet when I was working on my novel draft I still had very little idea what I was doing.  When I got the edits back I knew I needed to do some serious structural work, but I didn’t know how to begin.  I really didn’t want to sit around rewriting draft after draft, making the same mistakes over and over again.

And now I won’t.

Story Engineering breaks down the critical elements of any story, how they work together, when you need to put them in, and how to set up an effective architecture for your story.  As with building architecture, if your story does not follow certain principles it will collapse, no matter how pretty it is.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, but always in a perfect amount of detail.  As I read, I kept thinking of parts of my story that didn’t work before and saying, “Aha!  I can use that, and here’s how!”  Topics include:

  • Concept
  • Theme
  • Developing characters and conflict
  • Character arcs
  • Structural milestones, plot points, pinch points, etc
  • Scenes

There are quite a few other topics, but what really struck me was how all of the above terms were familiar to me before, but I didn’t always know exactly what they were, or how to achieve them.  Moreover, I didn’t understand how they all worked together within the structure of a novel.

A lot of writers deplore structure, calling it formulaic.  What I realized in reading Story Engineering though, is that good structure in a novel is like a skeleton. You have to have one to be effective, but who you are and what you look like is unique.

If you’re a writer, I would highly, highly recommend this book to you.  Even if you’re already an expert, I can’t imagine that you’d be able to read through it without taking something useful away, unless perhaps you’re Peter Carey or Jhumpa Lahiri or Stephen King or Dan Brown or something, in which case how flattered am I that you read my blog???  But really, you need to check this book out.  I’m planning to note it as a top book for 2011.

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