Reading Recs + a Writing Exercise

There are tons of things you can do in order to learn to write a novel, but two are paramount:

1. Write. (Duh.)

2. Read.

Last week I had two requests for new reads from friends in different situations—one for a church book club, and the other about to travel for a month for work. Some of my suggestions overlapped. I thought since we’re approaching a gift-giving time of year, I might share my full list of recommended reads.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows—Lovely, a quick read, lots of characters to fall in love with, and would be wonderful for discussion on books, friendship, finding one’s calling, and WWII—from a region you don’t hear much about in history class.


The Help by Kathryn Stockett—A young white woman, who feels at odds with the society she was brought up in, secretly writes about the black women her friends and the rest of her community employ as the “help.” The movie adaptation was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I LOVE THIS BOOK.


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—I do love The Help, but this is my favorite book of all time. An elderly Christian minister knows he is close to death, and so writes all he can about life—his life in particular, turns out—for his son to know as he grows up. It’s not exactly a letter; there are only line breaks, no chapters. It is beautiful. The author is a woman, but the male minister’s voice is so entrenched in his time, writing simply and insightful about such ordinary things as laughter and water. As he writes, he reveals more and more about something he needs to deal with before his life comes to an end, and it’s the best thing on forgiveness I’ve ever read. Again, my FAVORITE book of all time.


Matched (and then Reached, and then Crossed) by Ally Condie—I became obsessed with this YA trilogy a few months ago and flew through them. Smart, good romance, and a well-established world. Yum.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve heard good things. I adored Paper Towns, but admittedly had trouble getting into Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Might not have been the right time for that one (mid-move).


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender—What if you could experience other people’s emotions, simply by eating food they’d prepared? Would it be a blessing or a curse? A dear friend and fellow writer recommended this book (the author is one of her favorites), and it was a great read—it moved well and gave me just enough to think about while on vacation a few years back.


The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs—Something in this book subliminally convinced me to take up knitting. This book has everything I love about chick lit—excuse me, contemporary women’s fiction—drama, humor, and something to be kind of obsessive about. Unfortunately, I found the sequel less impressive.


And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini—I only read the first chapter in a bookstore, but I’m looking forward to diving into this at some point when I have a couple days to just get lost in a book. What a masterful writer.


BONUS: What’s on my Christmas list this year? The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth—The first volume of the memoir that inspired the BBC show Call the Midwife. (Anna Karenina might move over for this one, if I get some quiet time over the holidays!)


WRITING EXERCISE BONUS: Consider your favorite books and try to describe them in one line. This can be tough to do about your own project, so why not practice on someone else’s? Drop your recs and one-line descriptions in the Comments!


The Editors God Gave You

Another post on gratitude, as Thanksgiving approaches!


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I am blessed to have a family that is very encouraging in my writing. They help me make quiet time to work, they read my pages, they pray for my success. And sometimes, they even help me figure out what happens next.


When I got my last round of feedback from my agent, I was determined to answer all her questions as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. In order to do that, I enlisted two of the people who know me best in the world—my mom and my husband.


Sometimes getting family and friends involved with writing is a bad idea, but these two are gold. They aren’t afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work, and they are great at offering practical advice on how to resolve problems in the text. I think it’s because they know me so well that they can point out when an edit I suggest isn’t going to read the way I intend it to.


I recently sat them both down to talk about my upcoming revision. We made a pot of tea and broke out a box of cookies. I read the feedback I’d received aloud and then mostly took notes while they offered suggestions for how to fill in the holes and up the stakes in my story’s arc.


They had so many good ideas. I am grateful for them, but did start to think that they were writing the story better than I could. Was I still the writer here?


Yet when our session came to an end, they were both grateful that I was the one who was going to input all the changes. The brainstorming was the easy part, they said; making it happen on the page was the real task.


Thankfully, I feel the opposite way! The writing itself is a task I’m excited to complete. I’m learning that if a story is meant to be read by a wide audience, then having more than one mind on a manuscript is not a bad thing. After all, no matter what is suggested, it’s ultimately the author’s decision as to what lands on the page. And with my own private think tank to urge me on, those are decisions I’m happy to make.

How You Know You’re a Writer

Thanksgiving is next week, so this week’s posts are on gratitude for the people who help make my writing possible.


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The other day, I was taking a walk with my three-year-old son. We were on the route we take to pick up my husband from the train station at the end of the day. Because this conversation is what he associates with that space, Jacob asked me how my day had gone.


“It went well,” I told him. “How was your day?”


“I didn’t get all my work done,” he said. “I have one more chapter, and then my writing’s done.”


“Really?” I said, a little stunned.


“Yeah,” he answered. “And I had writers’ group last night.”


“Oh?” I replied, trying not to laugh at how seriously he was speaking.




The introvert in me loves how solitary writing can be. But it’s still important for me to have other people hold me accountable in getting my work done. I am encouraged when those who are aware of what I’m trying to accomplish check in, because it is always with a positive spirit. Their concern makes me feel my work is worthwhile—especially when it’s from such a special little guy.



New Year’s Status Check

Somehow starting the New Year with a ten-day-old baby inspired me to set ambitious goals for 2013. Call it postpartum adrenaline, I guess.


The pace of the year always picks up during the last two months, so now is as good a time as any to take stock of my progress in 2013.



1. Run a 5K. – Check! And in an acceptable time, too, 31:22.

2. Knit through my yarn stash. – Kind of check. I knit a lot of what I had into a sweater, but it came out shaped kind of strangely, so I’m ripping it out and trying other projects. Does that count?

3. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. – Done! No caveats!

4. Read Anna Karenina. – Currently on page two! That’s progress, right?


And the one you actually care about . . .

5. Sell my novel.


It would be great if all this was building up to tell you my manuscript had found a publisher, but unfortunately—fortunately?—it’s not. There’s one more revision to be done, and though that’s somewhat disappointing, I know the book is getting stronger every time I go back to it. My agent has brilliant editorial sense, and the prudence to be sure that when we do send it out, we send it out in its best possible form.


So I’m not going to sell my novel this year. And that’s okay, because I am doing the work to give it its best shot in 2014.

The Chicken or the Egg . . . or the Chicken?

Most writers have asked themselves the same question at some point: To outline or not to outline?


I’d say, “Yes.”


Outlining–whether before writing a first draft or after the seventh full-length revision–can give insight as to how well tension is paced and whether a character’s emotional trajectory is realistic. Plotting out the order in which events occur can give the author a more objective view of what the reader will see and what assumptions he will make.


On the other hand, there’s something frighteningly wonderful about letting your characters guide you once you’ve set them on the page. Whether it’s something that will turn into a chapter of your novel or a writing exercise meant only to help you get to know your characters, the act of free writing can open up doors in an author’s imagination that would otherwise remain shut.


I don’t know that one technique has to come before the other. Alternating between using an outline and letting one’s imagination roam is not efficient, but what about novel writing is? It is both craft and science, and the balance is key. Building a person, building a community, building a world takes time. The more often different sides of the author’s imagination are thoughtfully layered into the text, the more satisfying the result will become.

Outline Update

I’ve launched into my new outline technique, and so far, I think it’s working. It’s organized, it’s intentional, and it’s productive. I have a place to write down anything I think of throughout the day, and I’m not afraid it’s going to get lost or misplaced somewhere in my computer. I’m sure I’m not the first person to write notes on index cards and use them as a visual means of organizing a yet-to-be-written plotline. Still, I didn’t consciously steal the idea from anywhere else, so for now, I’m calling it my own.

I’m organizing my notes as I write them, with a card heading (character name, plot point, literary device) in the top right corner. Even when I don’t do a good job of this, there’s only so much information on each card, so I can reorder them easily and as often as I’d like. I punched a hole in each of a hundred index cards and connected them with a metal ring, so I can take this baby anywhere with me. Fun, too, that it’s about the size of a mass market novel!

I like that I can see any combination of bits of information without scrolling up and down and CTRL + F searching random documents for my scattered notes. I’m also not grabbing a machine every time I want to make a note, which makes it easier to do around little ones fascinated by electronics.

Because I’m not outlining in front of a computer, I’m also not tempted to skip this whole step and get right to writing, which didn’t work out as well as I would have liked last time.

I’ve always been one for retro pastimes (in high school, you could find me sewing hippie pants with a friend, a cup of tea by my side, on a Friday night), so perhaps this new approach is more natural for me than it seemed on first glance. Whatever decade I’m in, I’m just glad to have found a technique that is letting my creative juices flow.


This weekend, for the first time in . . . a really long time, I went to the movies. With two small children, this is a rare treat. My husband picked the movie—Gravity—and I was happy to go in with almost no knowledge of what the film was. Apart from it starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney almost exclusively, and the suggestion that it made commentary on some big-picture questions on life, true happiness, etc., I had no idea what I was getting into.


For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. The idea of space kind of freaks me out, and I thought my husband knew this (oops, he forgot!). But once I let myself fall into the film, I found my mind spinning as to what was going on and how readily I could relate. The experience was arresting and one I’d highly recommend—especially for storytellers.


What struck me most was how little I knew about Bullock’s character, and yet how engaged I was with her. I kept waiting for a flashback, for a scene to visually depict the snippets I was getting and fill in some of the blanks. As time went on, I realized I didn’t need a lot of those spaces filled in. The suggestions were strong enough, and my imagination did the rest. The screenwriters did an excellent job of including only what was most important and most relevant, and leaving the rest out.


It won’t surprise you that I have never been to space, and yet, I had such an intimate reaction to this story. This, I think, is one of the most effective secrets to good storytelling: for a story to be universal and timeless, it must be thoroughly entrenched in its own time and space. The more specific it is—without becoming irrelevantly technical—the more real the created world feels.


The classics we read in high school, the movies we watch over and over again, even the picture books we read to our children are not great because they’re trying to be something to everyone. Rather, they tell their own specific stories with particulars, and the strongest themes find their way to light through that.


In every good story, there’s a lesson for the storyteller. What stories have you learned from lately, readers?