Just Keep Writing: Resist the Shiny New Idea

“Just Keep Writing” is a series of pep talks I’m writing for myself in hopes that it will help you as well.

The Shiny New Idea

The idea of the shiny new idea comes up a lot in writing circles, though, admittedly, I don’t know where it originated. I do know that it is a new idea that distracts you from your work in progress.

The shiny new idea becomes the most tempting for me in the middle of a draft. Currently, I’m at 36,00 words of my novel re-write, and I keep thinking of other book ideas that would be better than the one I’m writing now.

This especially happens when I read a book that I love so much that I want to write something that is just as good. This happened to me recently when I read The Wingfeather Saga and wanted to write an epic young adult second-world fantasy with high, world-shattering stakes. Surely that would be more fun to write than the fantasy I was writing now.

But the book I’m working on now was once a shiny new idea. It glistened in every corner, inviting me to my journal where I scribbled the first few concepts.

I like to think of it like a meal. When you first sit down to eat your mom’s homemade pot roast (for instance), your stomach growls. You overfill your plate and can’t wait to dig into those perfectly roasted carrots. After a few minutes, though, your hunger wanes. The food is still just as good, but the initial satisfaction of flavors is gone. You might even start thinking about the pie waiting on the counter with all those new, different flavors. You’ve had enough meat and carrots. How about something sweet?

When you first start a book, the newness itself is exciting. You want to explore every angle and see how it catches the light. But after awhile–after word 20,000 or so–you start to feel full and disinterested. All those other ideas look new, different, and exciting.

Just because your book doesn’t give you that same hunger you had in the beginning doesn’t mean it’s gone bad. And just because other ideas look better doesn’t mean you won’t end up feeling the same way about them when you reach the dreaded middle.

Just Keep Writing

If I chase after every shiny new idea, I’ll never finish a book. Instead, I need to tuck those ideas away and let them simmer awhile. The shiny new idea may be exciting, but right now it lacks substance. Letting it simmer while I work on my current novel will give it time to take its shape.

In the meantime, I can diagnose why else my book may be losing flavor.

This usually means one of two things.

  1. Something is broken

I’ve recognized that there is a problem in the plot or in a character, and I’m too overwhelmed to sit down and address it. I start to worry that the entire story is broken and terrible and unfixable.

When this is the case, I need to write out the problem until I find a solution (but I’ll save this for another pep talk).

2. I’m not writing compelling scenes

I’ve heard it a million times: if I’m bored, my reader is bored. I need to find a way to make it interesting again. What does this scene need to be doing? What would make this someone’s favorite scene? Maybe I’m not being ambitious enough. If two characters are sitting down having a conversation, maybe I need to get them something to do. (But, again, this should be another pep talk)

Today, I commit to the book I started. I promise to finish it and make it as good as it can be.

Just keep writing, friends.

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The Wingfeather Saga: A Review for Writers

Hi writers!

We can learn so much from reading good writing, and The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson taught me several lessons about writing for young readers, particularly in the fantasy genre.

If you haven’t read the books, I try to keep spoilers to a minimum so that you can read this without worrying.

  1. The Supportive Parent

This book does something rare that many authors writing about kids avoid: the main characters have a living, intelligent, and supportive parent! Not only is she supportive, but she is a major character in the story.

The reason many authors avoid this is that it’s difficult to give the children in the story true stakes and autonomy when a parent is around. If your character is dealing with monsters, for instance, having a responsible parent may take the pressure off the kids, making them inactive in the story. So it’s easier to simply kill off the parents or make them so oblivious or terrible that they may as well not be there. Harry Potter, for instance, has dead parents, and his aunt and uncle are horrible human beings who, rather than taking over Harry’s problems, actually give him more obstacles to overcome.

Peterson doesn’t do this. While the children did lose their father, which is explained in the first chapter, their mother and grandfather are responsible, supportive, and active characters throughout the story.

So how does Peterson get away with this while still having an active protagonist?

He puts the kids on their own. The main character, Janner, is responsible enough to leave the house and watch over his brother and sister, so this gives them opportunities to experience agency in the story. Yes, sometimes the kids need to be rescued, but Peterson uses these moments to make the children think about what would have happened if they had been on their own. Then, when they are on their own, things are even more frightening.

Part of what makes this work, too, is that the kids have personal stakes in the books that are outside of their family or community. If the stakes were only for the community, the kids could watch as older, more capable adults handle the situation. Because they are being targeted, and because they have abilities that can be helpful, they can’t just hide away. They are forced into action.

Finally, Peterson allows the kids to grow in their skills. In the beginning, they can’t do much to stop what’s happening. But as they grow and learn, they gain more agency.

2. Kids are Kids, Not Adults

Even while Peterson has the kids grow, they are still kids with little power, and so adults are often necessary. But the actions of the adults don’t take away from the action of the kids because you are in the kids’ point of views. The kids are also making their own choices and coming up with ideas to help rather than only doing what the adults tell them to do.

The kids never have to work in place of the adults. This was a slight issue in Harry Potter where the adults were oblivious to what was happening, or Dumbledore was out of town for some reason. The Wingfeather Saga allows kids to join competent adults and find their own place in helping.

3. It’s Okay to Get Dark

I always wonder how dark is too dark for younger readers, and these books found a good balance. The children deal with grief, terror, slavery, violence, and unpleasant knowledge about the world they live in.

What makes this work is that Peterson is writing from a place of hope. He lets the characters go through bad things, but he gets them through it with even more hope and strength than they had before. This creates a catharsis both in the characters and the readers as we watch them overcome each trial. I believe this is tremendously helpful for younger readers who are still learning how to handle difficulties. These stories allow them to vicariously move from loss to hope and learn how to cope.

These stories continually show that hope is just beyond the corner even when everything seems dark. This is something I strive for in my own writing, and you can’t get there unless you are willing to put your characters through peril.

4. Putting Kids in Peril

Like I said, these characters go through a lot. I am often hesitant to do this in fear that the story will get too dark or I won’t know how to pull my characters out of the trial. But these books were a reminder that the more difficulties your characters go through the more satisfying their triumph will be. This is especially true in the second book when Janner is placed in a difficult situation. The stakes were high and the way out was slim. This not only made it hard to put the book down, but it also created the prefect “stand up and cheer” moment.

Sometimes peril comes from the characters themselves, which can be even stronger. Rather than it seeming like the whole world is against them and they have no responsibility for what happens, their own choices can affect the story and make things worse for themselves and others. When this happens, it often takes their own character growth to make things better, so that when the trial is over, they have not only overcome it but have grown in character. We should be trying to pull of these two things at once, and this is a great way to do it.

5. Blending humor with seriousness

Humor is an important part of these books. While I personally struggle with writing humor, it seems natural to Peterson. Often, humor can take me out of books. If the book–and especially the narrator–is too silly, I have trouble believing the stakes. The humor in The Wingfeather Saga, however, didn’t do this at all. It merely brightened the world and made the books more fun to read.

I think this works because of the expectations set up in the first chapter. Woven with the humor are very real problems the characters are facing, such as the loss of their father, the ever-present threat of the Fangs of Dang, and the black carriage that takes away children. Immediately we know that this book will be a blend of humor and seriousness.

This is the best kind of blend, and you can see it in Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and in much of Brandon Sanderson’s writing. Humor adds to the reality of the stories. No single person has one emotion all the time. This would be a burden to the character and to the reader. Instead, we often shift from feelings of sadness or fear or hope or joy or humor.

Not all of the humor comes from the characters’ own perspectives, though. Much of it comes from the world itself, which the characters do take seriously. It’s an aesthetic choice to make the world a little silly, but the characters themselves don’t have to become cartoonish. While some characters are funny and have strange quirks, they are still multi-dimensional and take themselves quite seriously.

All this to say, I’m trying to incorporate more lightheartedness into my writing even as I also try to raise the stakes. While a book of just humor may be too light for me, and a book of all seriousness would be too heavy, I think the blend is just right. The balance is making sure the characters aren’t lighthearted about their situation, and that they are able to have multiple emotions.

This is all I have for now, though I’m sure there are others! Let me know if you read the book and picked up other lessons!

The Wingfeather Saga: A Review for Readers

*This post has been corrected. In the original post, I defined these books YA, but they are actually categorized as MG.

When I picked up this series, I knew only that I loved Andrew Peterson’s music and that he had written children’s books that had stunning covers. I expected to read an exciting tale with Christian themes. I didn’t expect to be swept away, or for my heart to ache with grief and longing and hope at the same time.

The Wingfeather Saga is a four-book series (plus Wingfeather Tales*) that is comparable to The Chronicles of Narnia in its beauty and glimpses of the Christian faith. Unlike Narnia, the three children who star in The Wingfeather Saga are not taken from our world to another but live in the world of Aerwiar, where dragons swim in the sea and Fangs–evil, humanoid lizards–have taken over under the rule of Gnag the Nameless.

These books are humorous, frightening, deeply sad, and relentlessly hopeful. Be prepared to get emotional reading these, particularly the third and fourth books. While they are laugh-out-loud funny at times, there are other times when I couldn’t believe that Peterson “went there,” but then I was glad he did because the victories were greater after the failures, and the hope was greater after grief. He has achieved what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe”–the climax that seems so bleak that you can’t imagine a way out, but then, when all seems lost, everything is redeemed. This is the Christian hope that resounds throughout the book.

The series starts with a humorous tone that is carried throughout even as they dive into more serious themes. I would compare it to the steadily increasing seriousness of the Harry Potter books. The first book alone introduces things like toothy cows, Pete the Sock Man, a librarian who quotes almost every sentence he says, and a grumpy but soft-hearted ex-pirate grandfather who collects “thwaps” (rabbit-like creatures) and dumps them in his neighbor’s yard in vengeance over a decades-old grudge. The map in the beginning of the book contains the title, “A Somewhat Accurate Map of the Glipwood Township and Its Environs (not to scale obviously).” Occasional footnotes will go into more detail about the history or environment of Aewiar, for instance when we learn that “handyball” is “a delightful sport in which each team tries to get the ball into a goal without using their feet in any capacity, even to move” (34). Peterson’s narrations spin beautifully from silliness to poetry. Even when things eventually become dark, there is a thread of hope and joy that lifts the weight just enough to pull you–and the characters–through.

As these books progress and the story grows bleaker, the storytelling also strengthens. The characters grow more real and lovable, the stakes get higher, and even the writing becomes more artful as Peterson, who wrote this series as a beginning writer, becomes an expert storyteller. The story moves beyond the small cast of characters and becomes a sweeping epic that only a skilled writer could weave together.

If you have kids and are considering reading these to them, know that, while the on-screen violence is pretty light, there are many sad, frightening, and disturbing events that the poor children have to overcome, including death, grief, and war. But that doesn’t mean that these stories are dark. Peterson shines a light into every dark corner of the book so that, even while you are weeping over the pages, you are filled with hope that everything will be all right.

These books are certainly for adults as much as they are for children. I am 27, and I loved them, the stories bringing me back to my love of children’s fantasy. If you loved reading those books as a kid, these can give you a nostalgia for those while offering something completely new. They contain enough of the fantasy tropes to appease the genre, but these are not like any story you have read.

I want to say more, but I can’t without spoilers. You’ll just have to read them for yourself. The new covers are beautiful, and there is an audio book coming soon!

If you are a writer and are interested in what these books can teach you about writing young adult fantasy, see my upcoming review just for writers!

Enjoy your journey to Aewiar!

*NOTE: I am on the launch team for the new edition of Wingfeather Tales and will be reviewing these soon! I am not paid to do this. I simply love the books!

Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Tales: Preorder to Join a Free Webinar!

Dear Fantasy Fans,

I’m on the launch team for Andrew Peterson’s collection of stories from his bestselling Wingfeather Saga!*

I absolutely love these books and highly recommend them if you are grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and are looking for something that will make you feel like a kid discovering fantasy again. Or, if you have kids, these are beautiful stories about love and grief and courage and faith. I wish I had them when I as a kid!
I also just learned that anyone who pre-orders the short stories (which you can read without having read the rest of the books) gets to join a free webinar with Andrew Peterson on writing fantasy! I have already signed up. See more details here: “Fantasy Writing Workshop with Andrew Peterson

I will be writing a review of The Wingfeather Saga soon, as well as a separate review for the Wingfeather Tales, so stay tuned!


*I am not being paid to do this. I simply love the books and want to help support them.

What Makes Frodo a Great Hero?

Frodo Baggins is one of the most iconic and beloved heroes in literature. But what actually makes him such a great hero? Why do we love him?

If you compare Frodo to his uncle, Bilbo had many more skills worthy of a hero. He was intelligent, able to think and talk himself and his companions through scrapes with spiders, trolls, gollums, and dragons. And he was sneaky, gaining himself the title of “burglar.”

In contrast, Frodo doesn’t seem to have any particular skills, especially in the shadows of the taller half of his eight companions. Frodo has no fighting abilities, and the only thing that keeps him alive is his dwarven chainmail and elven magic.

But there are two main attributes that Frodo does have that make him a great hero.

First, Frodo has the unshaken ability to keep saying yes.

When Gandalf sends him away with the ring, Frodo says yes.

When someone is needed to take the ring to Mordor, Frodo says yes.

When Frodo realizes he needs to go alone, to follow and trust Gollum, or to accept that he will either go mad or die in the end, Frodo says yes.

Every hero must say yes at some point, but if Frodo had all of the abilities that Aragorn or Legolas or the others had, his yes would mean much less. It was his weakness that made his willingness so powerful. He knew the risks. He knew he wasn’t powerful. But he also knew that he had to do it to save the people he loved.

The second attribute that makes Frodo a fantastic hero is his compassion.

Frodo loves his friends and companions deeply, and when he meets Gollum, he loves him, too, despite his madness. Frodo sees himself in Gollum, and this makes him empathetic towards him.

It’s Frodo’s compassion that makes him say yes. He sacrifices himself to help others, knowing that it may destroy him.

As writers, I think it’s important to remember that our heroes don’t always have to be flashy and strong and perfect. Tolkien wrote some pretty great heroes in The Lord of the Rings, but they were not the ones who defeated Sauron. It was the small, insignificant hobbit who destroyed the ring (and let’s not forget Sam). The beauty of The Lord of the Rings is that the hero needed others to help him. No one can win a battle on their own. It takes a whole army.

So our characters don’t have to do everything on their own. They don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be better than everyone else. All they have to do is keep saying yes, even when the stakes are high. All they have to do is keep moving forward in love and compassion, with a willingness to sacrifice everything for others.

Researching Literary Agents

I’ve been researching agents for several weeks now that I’m in the final revision stage of my book (for now). It’s harder than it sounds to find agents who might like your specific project. I thought I would share some things that I’m doing to narrow down my list, and how I use what I’ve researched in my proposal.

Why not submit directly to editors?

Some people choose to submit to editors and then find an agent if they are selected by an editor. Others even choose not to have an agent at all. But in “Agents. Do You Need One,” the Writing Excuses Podcasters (my favorite podcasters) argue that agents are essential in helping you read contracts, make better deals with publishers, and even connect you to other people (foreign rights agents, for instance) who can help you in your career.

I want an agent before I submit to editors because most agents I’m looking at are full service, which means they will help your book become the best it can be before you submit. Having an agent also means the publishers might take you more seriously, especially if they have a personal relationship with the agent. So while it’s possible to submit to editors directly (if they don’t require an agent), I would rather start off with a better chance than submit to my top 5 and lose the ability to submit again.

How to find agents working in your genre

I don’t want to waste my or others’ time by submitting to agents who won’t be interested in my novel, so I’m narrowing my list by looking at their manuscript wishlists, twitters, and blogs to see what they like (and what they’re like). Agents want to be found, so fortunately they have made it quite simple. Here are some sites where agents can be found.

Publishers Marketplace has quite an extensive list of agents, editors, etc. and what they publish, as well as links to their sites where you can find more information. Often, it will also include books they have agented, so you can see if they have worked on anything similar to your project.

Manuscript Wish List allows you to search for agents and editors based on what they are looking for. It also has search guides, such as how you can search for agents on Twitter by looking up #MWL with another hashtag to match you genre (#fantasy, #YA, etc.).

Not all agents post their MWL, but if an agent who has doesn’t quite fit, I sometimes look at the agency they work for to see if someone there does! I’ve found several agents I want to submit to by doing this. It’s much more effective than Googling agencies.

My Wishlist is a similar site, but it focuses just on twitter posts by agents and editors, so you can search there even if you don’t have a Twitter.

If you want to get deeper in your digging, most agents also tweet a lot about their interests, or have personal blogs or websites where you can learn more about them. The reason I look at these is to make sure they really fit my book. If they write about how they just want a fun, laugh-out-loud read, for instance, I’m probably not the writer for them. Or, frankly, if they seem unprofessional or otherwise unlikable, I probably won’t submit to them.

Agent Qualifications

Some agents have incredible qualifications and have worked on books I loved. Others have worked on very few projects, and others haven’t work on any. As I search, I like to see agents who have had success, but I’m not going to let that stop me from submitting to new, junior agents. This is because, not only have I found many junior agents who might like my book, but these agents also usually work under or with other agents with more experience. So if they are new to the field, I look at who they are working with. Who is the president of the agency? Who are the senior agents? If they have good qualifications, I will absolutely submit to a junior agent building their resume if they seem like a good fit for my work.

Two agents from the same agency?

Sometimes I find two agents from one agency who would fit my project. In most cases, the agency requests that you only send to one at a time. Some even say that a rejection by one agent is a rejection by all of them. This is because they would share it with another agent if they thought it was a good fit. Because of this, I try not to worry about choosing the “right” agent from the agency. By submitting to one, I am, in a way, submitting to all of them.

Look at the submission guidelines to see what the agencies require. Some might say you can submit to another agent if one rejects your proposal. It’s going to depend on how they work.

Using what you research in your proposal

From what I’ve read and heard, particularly on the Writing Excuses Podcast, I’ve learned that agents like it when authors have done their research and have submitted to them intentionally. You can show that you’ve done this in your proposal by mentioning why you chose that agent.

For instance, you might write something like, “I’ve chosen to submit to you because of your interested in______” Or, “because you liked_____, you might also like my novel, which also has_______”.

In the end, the agent is going to be looking at your writing more than anything, so I’m not suggesting using tricks to get their attention. However, this can show that you take this seriously, and it can force you to really consider whether or not this agent will be interested in you work before you submit.

While I’m still learning, I hope I can save you some time in your own search.

Have you found other ways to find agents or have any other suggestions for submitting?

Does Meaningless Art Still Matter?

“If children can build sand castles without getting sandcastle block, and if ministers can pray over the sick without getting holiness block, the writer who enjoys his work and takes measured pride in it should never be troubled by writer’s block” – John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 137

The past few weeks, I have struggled with understanding why I make art through writing. Writing is hard for me for this reason. I am still trying to understand it, but if you are struggling yourself with wondering why you do this, I have been digging deep into this question for better understanding.

What is art, and why is it hard?

Writing is easy. You sit down–or stand, whatever you like–and you type one word at a time until you have a lot of words. It is simple, fun, and free-flowing.

You will rarely hear the sentence above without a hint of sarcasm. Because we all know that writing is hard. But look at the sentence again. It sounds easy, right? What makes it so hard?

By “hard,” I don’t just mean difficult. We do difficult things all the time without it making us want to bury our heads and cry. Writing well is difficult, at least for most people, in that it takes time, knowledge, practice, practice–and plenty of neck strain. But writing is hard because of all of the things that writers do when not writing–the things that often keep us from writing. Things like “writer’s block,” a.k.a self-doubt. So–maybe it’s not writing, but being a writer, that’s so hard.

When you say that you are something, then you must do it. But to do it, you have to believe in it, trust it, and trust yourself. Writers don’t give their eight hours a day and get a paycheck. We don’t know if that’s ever coming. So we have to make it worth our time even if we don’t get paid. And lots of writers will say that there is so much value in writing for the sake of writing, and that should be enough, but I think most writers want to believe there is more to it. Not just at a monetary level, either. Our society is in love with monetization, and I can’t exclude myself from that. The first thing I thought when I learned how to crochet was, “How can I make money doing this?” In other words, “How can I make this ‘worth’ my time? How can I justify all these hours that I want to spend crocheting?”

Many artists have some way of doing this. Giving art as gifts is a big and honorable one. Hanging it up on the wall as decoration or sharing it on social media are others. As a writer, I want to make my writing “worth” it. That doesn’t mean I don’t love writing–I do. I can’t escape it. I finished my first book as an adult two weeks ago, and I’m already missing that sweet time at the computer where I can let go of my concerns for a little while. But the amount of time that I gave to this novel was almost equivalent to a part-time job, and the thought that I might be “wasting” my time is a massive drawback.

What really makes writing hard for me, then, is not that I don’t love it or that it is too difficult. When I’m writing, I’m loving it. When I’m not writing–I’m doubtful, angry, confused, frustrated. I feel selfish. I feel worthless.

Whenever I feel that way, the question that really bugs me–that makes my head feel like it’s stuffed with cotton and makes me want to quit–is why. Why make art at all?

But to get to the bottom of why art, I have to first understand what is art?

Some say art is purely expression, which means it is art if it came from someone’s consciousness. This definition is not determined by how difficult this process was, only that it expresses the individual. Another definition would be that art is a skill. Art takes years of training, time, effort, and, often, a measure of “natural” talent.

Both of these definitions are based on the creator more than the result. Expression comes from an individual, and the art, without that individual, may not be communicated. Other definitions rely on the art itself. A book, for instance, is judged by its contents rather than what the author intended to express or communicate. Art is judged by its effectiveness in doing what that particular “genre” of art is meant to do. But then we have many types of art that are completely different in their function. A protest song is art, but so is a hotel painting of a vase of flowers. A literary novel about racism in the 1940s is art, but so is an intricately crafted coffee mug.

And then you have something called animal art, which is when an elephant or a monkey tosses paint on a canvas. Or baby art. You have functional art, too, like architecture, vs. nonfunctional art, like films. But not all functional things are art, and not all non-functional things are art.

I’m writing this without really knowing any definite answers, and I’m positive I’ve left out some major definitions. Merriam Webster dictionary describes art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects,” or the “works so produced.”

With all of these subjective definitions, there is only one thing I can find in common:

Art is something that has been created with an intent other than pure function. 

Note that this definition assumes that something functional can or cannot be art depending on its nonfunctional value. A salad, for instance, can be healthy and well-crafted without being art. But when a chef creates that salad in such a way that its purpose is not only to be functional as a healthy salad but also tastefully surprising and beautifully arranged, that chef has created art.

Does nonfunctional art matter?

But, like a child, I can’t help myself from asking, Why?

In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes, “No motive is too low for art” (135). No matter what reason an artist wants to create, Gardner thinks it is enough.

I was skeptical about this. But something interesting happens if you reverse that phrase. It becomes, “No art is too low for your motives.”

Art is worth it.

Why?

The questions become more and more existential, don’t they? No wonder I feel debilitated as an artist–I can’t do anything without questioning my own existence! As a Christian, I grew up believing that everything I did must have extraordinary purpose. One must do everything “for God,” or “for evangelism.” Maybe this is why the purpose of art is so difficult for me grasp. Where is the evangelism in fantasy?

One could talk about C. S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia include a retelling of the Christ story, but even Lewis has said that these Christian elements came up not before his invention of Narnia but “pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” On Other Worlds, 57). It was not evangelism. It was creation at its purest. Yet, look at the title of Lewis’s article. Lewis recounts his realization that fantasy helped him “steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of [his] religion in childhood” (58). When feeling a certain way about God was a requirement, he could not do it. “But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping the of their stained-glass Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could” (58-59).

I still don’t think he would call this “evangelism.” Rather, this art was a means to an emotion about God for the existing believer. Lewis emphasizes how writing a good story was not even about “commenting on life,” but about how “good stories…are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience” (“On Science Fiction,” Of Other Worlds, 111).

Isn’t this what a painter at her purest is doing? Yes, many paintings comment on life, and some are even made for evangelical purposes, but other paintings, instead, add to life. They help you see something in a way you haven’t seen it before, or create an emotion you can’t even explain. They don’t have a communicative purpose, but an aesthetic or emotional one. And no one says to the painter that she wasted her time because she didn’t “say” anything with her art.

But why do we have this desire in us at all?

Why do I have this desire in me to make a story out of nothing, to shape words into mushroomed woodlands, or thoughts into a moss-covered woman who misses a child she’s given away? Why would I not only imagine this but want to spend a year inside of it, wrestling with it, feeding myself to it?

Why make any art at all?

In my search, few things resound with me so perfectly as Tolkien’s words in his essay On Fairy Stories:

“Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

For Tolkien, creating Secondary Worlds was an act of sub-creation–a mimicking of the Creator. It could be said that the drive to make any art has been instilled in us because we are made to be like our creator, and therefore we create.

Equally interesting is how Tolkien felt about art in light of the Christian story, which he compares to a fairy story. Through the narrative of redemption, he writes, “Art has been verified” (15). What man longs for in art–a kind of redemption–has been made complete. That the Christian story is so complete and joyous and perfect does not mean more stories should not be told. Instead, it compels us to create. “So great is the bounty with which [man] has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (15).

Tolkien, like Lewis, believes art, or sub-creation, adds to life. From the outflow of God’s goodness, we bubble up more goodness and beauty. We, as Adam and Eve were first commanded to do, tend to the garden. We nurture it. We make it beautiful.

It was after the Fall that our work became hard. Not difficult, for surely tending to the garden and animals was difficult. But now it is a burden. To make art–to give ones’ time to something so seemingly meaningless and non-functional–is to go back to the garden. It is to remember that work serves life and not the other way around. We work to live, and art is a part of living. That is not to say that art is the most important “work,” but that it is one of the things we work for, or work towards.

C. S. Lewis, when describing how the life of Heaven will differ from Earth, writes that what is frivolous here, in a world where we are “cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties,” is actually the closest we can come to understanding the “Ends of the ends” of a “better country” (Letters to Malcom, 124-125). He ends with this: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven” (125). In Heaven, dance and play are all an essential part of being. Here, we only get tastes of that. That is okay. Even Lewis understands that it would be a “truancy” if we only danced and played all day, because that is not what we are here to do. But that does not mean we should look down upon dancing and playing while we are here.

Of course, Lewis isn’t just talking about dancing and playing. He is talking about widening our view of God and our lives. This is what art can do. It can slow us down and remind us who we really are–children made in the image of a Creator.

In an older post about why I write, I concluded that I create in order to be created. I write because it shapes me. I write because there are images and emotions in my head that are bubbling up.

Yes, I write because I want to be read. Who would paint a picture and hide it in their closet? And yes, if I could get paid to write, that would be nice, since writing is art as well as work. More and more I am learning that artists do not have to starve in today’s world. But today I needed the reminder that I could create without guilt or feeling that I am wasting my time.

When I create, I want to add beauty to the world while partaking in an act that I can only think of as spiritual. Like Tolkien and Lewis, I want to write stories that offer new experiences and wonder and hope. I want readers to feel their viewpoints broadening and their courage expanding.

As I write this now, I know this is a long post, and I know that few will read it. But that’s okay. Today, I’m writing this because writing is hard, but it’s caught me, and there’s no escaping. All I can do is wrestle with these doubts until I remember why.

Poetry Lessons for Fiction Writers

Many avid readers who could pick up a book and read for hours have never sat down to read a book of poetry. I blame this on the way poetry is taught. We read two or three poems from one poet, mostly to discuss the poet’s biography, then move to the next. Or we learn about poetry only as some strange cryptic message that we must interpret (Billy Collins writes about this beautifully in this poem). It wasn’t until I took classes on reading and writing poetry in college that I finally realized that I not only enjoyed reading and writing poetry, but the art could also add music and depth to my fiction writing.

If you have never read a book of poetry, I encourage you to pick one up. Read a collection by a single author all the way through in one sitting to get a feel for an author’s voice and message. I recommend anything by Mary Oliver, Late Wife by Claudia Emerson, or Wild Iris by Louise Gluck. Or read a journal of selected poems such as Tin House, The Georgia Review, or Glimmer Train. (You could also read this issue of the Adirondack Review, which includes some poems by me!).

But this post is about fiction writing. Why should we apply the lessons from poetry to our fiction writing, and how?

Poetry covers as wide a range of genres as fiction, but I want to focus on a few elements of poetry that are fairly consistent. As I do, I’ll provide examples as well as exercises that I’ll do along with you.

I’ll start by sharing the first paragraph of a story I wrote several years ago (so that I’m not attached to it). Then I’ll revise the paragraph based on these elements. This paragraph comes towards the end of the story when the character, Joe, has made a mistake in the middle of a dance recital.

“Joe danced mechanically. She wanted the dance to be over but was still being forced to finish, to trace the pattern around the stage drawn out in her mind. Then it was over. There was an applause just as usual. She was back stage again, then behind the curtain, lost. She found a chair and almost stumbled into it, her knees shaking. She watched the other girls, the ripples of red fluttering about. Then they were dispersing, like leaves in the wind, and others were taking their place, green-suited tap dancers with shiny hats.”

Word Choice and Intentionality

Because poems are so short, every word must be precise and intentional. Poets choose words that match the tone and mood of the poem. For instance, the word “puffball” would probably sound wrong in a tragic poem but fit well in a humorous poem. Sentence clutter is cut. Vague or abstract words are replaced with rich, grounded words. Explanations are replaced with actions. Every word must be vivid–think of words you can taste, hear, feel, or smell. Words can even be used to surprise a reader through a unique description.

Example: In the Station at the Metro by Ezra Pound

This poem is called an imagist poem. It focuses just on images using simple, precise language.

Exercise: Take a paragraph or two that you have written and cut it down to its barest parts.

Here’s mine:

“Joe danced mechanically. She wanted to run off stage, but she had to finish–to trace the practiced patterns around the stage. Then it was over. The crowd applauded as usual. Then she was back stage again, behind the curtain, lost. She found a chair and almost stumbled into it, her knees shaking. She watched the other girls, the ripples of red fluttering about. Then they dispersed, like leaves in the wind, and others took their place–green-suited tap dancers with shiny hats. “

Pacing and Resonance

Poets can pace their sentences by using syntax and enjambment (where lines and stanzas end and start). They can prolong “reveals” or end with an emotional punch by placing the most impactful words at the end.

Example: “Song for Autumn” by Mary Oliver

Look especially at the surprising way she reveals that the “wind wags / its many tails.”

Exercise: Take the same paragraph from above and end it with emotional resonance by moving words or adding breaks in paragraphs.

Mine:

“Joe danced mechanically. She wanted to run off stage, but she had to finish–to trace the practiced patterns around the stage.

Then it was over. The crowd applauded as usual. Then she was back stage again, behind the curtain, lost.

She found a chair and almost stumbled into it, her knees shaking. She watched the other girls, the fluttering ripples of red. Then they dispersed, like leaves in the wind. More girls took their place–green-suited tap dancers with shiny hats.”

Ambiguity

Extended metaphors can be powerful in poetry and fiction, but we don’t always allow for them to be ambiguous. Fiction writers, I feel, like to give away what they are saying more often than poets do. Poets let the reader mull over their words through re-reads. The reader has to do some work to understand the full meaning.

This obviously can’t be overdone in fiction–you would slow down the pacing and maybe lose your reader to confusion. But, occasionally, ambiguity can allow your reader to fill in the blanks. But, unlike poetry, you need it to be possible for them to understand if they are close readers.

Example: “Reunion” by Charles Wright
Exercise: Describe a setting or an object that reflects how your character is feeling, but don’t explain it. Let the reader figure it out.

Mine:

“In the dressing room, Joe shed off the red dress and let it crumple on the floor.”

Repetition

Repetition of words, phrases, and even syntax can put emphasis on certain ideas or emotions.

Example: “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost
Exercise: Write a paragraph where several words or phrases are repeated for emphasis.

“In the dressing room, Joe shed off the red dress and let it crumple on the floor. She shed the red earrings, the red headband, the red shoes.

She shed tears, and crumpled to the floor.”

Final Thoughts

I’m sure there are many more lessons that fiction writers can learn from poets. The best way to learn is to read and write more poetry. Write it without worrying about publishing it. Play around. And then revise, revise, revise, just to practice re-writing small pieces of text until they sound and feel just right.

What else have you learned from poetry? Did you try any of these exercises? Let me know in the comments!

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I have just finished one of the best books I have ever read. If you haven’t read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I won’t spoil anything here. Instead, I will explore what Hosseini has done to create such a beautiful, inspiring work to help us as writers learn from one of the best.

Sample writing

To begin, let me share the first few paragraphs of the novel with you. Then, I will break them up to analyze what’s going so well here.

“Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.

It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariam remembered that she had been restless and preoccupied that day, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day Jalil visited her at the kolba. To pass the time until the moment that she would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in the clearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and taken down her mother’s Chinese tea set. The tea set was the sole relic that Mariam’s mother, Nana, had of her own mother, who had died when Nana was two. Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot’s spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam’s fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered.

When Nana saw the bowl, her face flushed red and her upper lip shivered, and her eyes, both the lazy one and the good, settled on Mariam in a flat, unblinking way. Nana looked so mad that Mariam feared the jinn would enter her mother’s body again. But the jinn didn’t come, not that time. Instead, Nana grabbed Mariam by the wrists, pulled her close, and, through gritted teeth, said, “You are a clumsy little harami. This is my reward for everything I’ve endured. An heriloom-breaking, clumsy little harami.”

At the time, Mariam did not understand. She did not know what this word harami–bastard–meant. Nor was she old enough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is not the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born. Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathsome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches Nana was always cursing and sweeping out of the kolba.”

First-page brilliance

From these first paragraphs, the reader already knows a lot about the setting, the characters, and the plot. Yet we are not being told about these but shown through carefully-placed details. We are not bored because we have already been given many things to wonder about, such as what a harami is or why the girl only sees her father on Thursdays. We are also given the promise that we are going to be brought into a scene, which we are given with concrete details we can see and feel and touch.

More than that, we are taken, throughout these paragraphs, on an emotional journey that sets up the rest of the novel. We sense that the word harami is a negative word because of the attention placed on it. The detail about her father comes simply through the author’s decision that it was a Thursday, allowing Hosseini to mention this detail early in the chapter to show that the girl’s father and mother are not together. We know that Mariam wants to be with her father but that her relationship with her mother is tense. Even though Mariam doesn’t know the word, she has an emotional reaction from it, and the reader is introduced to one of her central conflicts. Through all of this, we know what the tone of this novel will be. We are promised a book with complex characters and emotions.

World building

It may seem strange to discuss world building in a realistic novel, but the setting of the book is one of the most important aspects. Hosseini brings us into the world through narrative, never taking long-winded breaks to tell us about the world.

From the first few paragraphs, we know that Mariam and her mother live in a humble home where cockroaches must be swept. But, rather than telling us the house has cockroaches, Hosseini has Mariam compare herself to a cockroach, so he achieves his description while creating an emotional resonance at the same time. The floorboards are described in the same way through the action of Mariam dropping the sugar bowl.

We also know this is a place where heirlooms have value and depictions of dragons are believed to have supernatural powers. The people, then, are likely superstitious. This is further shown when Mariam worries about her mother’s jinn, which comes from an Arabian myth about a spirit who possesses people. We soon suspect that her mother has seizures, though they are blamed on this spirit.

Many other examples throughout the book show descriptions of food, pop culture, history, religion, clothing, and others. They are not described arbitrarily but are part of the story itself. The details, rather than being distracting, enrich the story and make it come alive, adding to the emotional journey of the characters.

Prose

Hosseini’s writing is poetic, with a style that exceeds the “literary” genre in its deliberateness. But what does it mean to have “poetic” style? We often use this description, but how can we define it in a way that allows us to emulate it?

Reading Hosseini, a few specific words come to mind: intentional, detailed, and rhythmic.

Look again at these two sentences:

“Nana cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot’s spout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, the dragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.

“It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam’s fingers, that fell to the wooden floorboards of the kolba and shattered.”

A great poet learns how to cut the unnecessary, to chip away the rough edges until only a clean, precise image is left. The details above are vivid but simple and intentional. Hosseini is telling us about Nana’s sentiments and tastes while also showing what this world looks like. Because of this intent, he didn’t need to describe the entire tea set. He only needed those four main details to create quick images that the reader completes in their minds.

There is also rhythm to these sentences. The first is a long list of images, but the variations in the length of each “item” on the list creates a natural flow. The second sentence is shorter, but it is also organized to create an emotional effect. First, we see the bowl slip through Mariam’s fingers, and then we see it shatter.

Finally, he uses syntax to create resonance by ending sentences with the words that create the strongest response. “…ward off evil” leaves us with curiosity. “…shattered” leaves us broken, wondering what Nana will do.

Takeaways
  1. Start your first pages with an emotional thread. What do you want the reader to feel as they enter into your book? This is a promise to your reader about what to expect from the rest of the book.
  2. Let descriptions of setting become part of the characterization or storytelling rather than arbitrary details.
  3. Give just enough details that the reader can complete the image in their minds.
  4. Vary sentence length
  5. Use syntax to create emotional resonance

Creating to Be Created

Note. I wrote this not long after I was accepted into graduate school in 2017. It reflects what I was going through at that time. I hope this can relate to you.

Why do we create? What motivates us to surround ourselves with beauty? Why plant a flower garden or weave a tapestry or paint a mural? Why make even the most functional objects into works of art?

I have seen some success as a writer recently, so you’d think I would be past this question and moving on to more technical questions. But the “why” in any pursuit is never fully answered, and it has been nagging me more lately than it ever has.

Last month, I was accepted into an MFA program that I will attend in the fall, and three of my poems were selected for publication by a literary journal. Besides being rejected by other schools and journals, I have had some of the confirmation that many writers crave, and I am incredibly grateful for this. I am finally seeing a path emerging before me, and, while I can’t see the full road, there are some landmarks materializing ahead that I can see and know, and these landmarks tell me that I will be a writer.

But I don’t always feel like a writer. Since graduating in May 2016, I’ve had weeks of inspiration and habitual writing that plummet into periods of self-doubt and “breaks” away from the computer. I’m currently in one of those “breaks” and feeling that I’ve lost sight of any vision of my future that involves me being successful at writing. So I asked myself the other day why I am doing this at all.

Below is the result of a discovery process I went through by simply sitting at my computer and trying to answer the  question, “Why do I write?” If you are an artistic person of any kind, I encourage you to try writing or meditating on what motivates you. Everyone is motivated by different things, but maybe you’ll find something from my ramblings that resonates with you as well.

***

When I was around nine, I was introduced to The Lord of the Rings. I saw the movies. I owned the action figures. I read the books. I was drawn to this story like no other narrative I’d heard or seen up until that point. My imagination was thrilled by the adventure and near-death moments; the elves and dragons and hobbits and wizards and dwarves; the moss on the trees and rocks, the cities built on cliffs, and the homes built into holes. I thought these elements alone made a good story, so I tried to write my own. My 120 page novel had kings, monsters, ships, magic, and cliff hangers. This made up a good story, I thought, but something was missing. It was only later that I realized what made The Lord of the Rings so powerful. It was more than the elements of fantasy and adventure. I had seen films try to recreate this and fail, not sure why the stories did not affect me in the same way.

The Lord of the Rings is not successful because it inspires people to dress in medieval clothes, live in hobbit holes, and play video games where killing orcs is the main objective. J.R.R. Tolkien had a brilliant imagination, but he had an even more brilliant understanding of human nature, of good and evil, of love, of truth, and of bravery. In one story, love makes warriors out of gardeners, mortals out of elves, martyrs out of princes, and kings out of rangers. In the end, evil cannot touch the whole world, and there is still a sunrise above the clouds. I didn’t love the story because of the dragons. I loved the story because it gave me hope.

Why do I write?

I write because there is always hope. I write because I know nothing, and writing is an unburying–a divulging. It is a search for understanding, for uncovering truths buried behind both lies and facts. It is an adventure through dark places, a journey that takes you there and back again and leaves you transformed, finding beauty where you least expected it to thrive. Writing is a trespass into someone else’s world, to live and breathe and smell and taste and feel a place and a culture and an experience that, once other, becomes familiar and, over time, a part of oneself. To write is to create beauty—not for ego’s sake or for pride or recognition—but for the sake of creation, for the very joy of becoming more like the one who created me by in turn becoming co-creator and telling parables like He did.

To write is an act of worship. It is meditation and love. It tells lies to find truths. It takes secrets and makes them known. It re-forms truths so that they are questioned. It dismantles prejudice, painting faces onto facts and breathing life into them. I create, but not out of nothing as my Creator did. I create with what He has given, molding and reshaping what exists so that it may be seen in a new way.  I imitate my Creator and draw beauty from tragedy, life from death, and hope from despair.

Yes, I write to be read. But what if I am the only one who reads? Will I gain from this transforming? Will I love creating enough to do it just for me? If writing is an act of worship—if it is a discovery and a journey—then writing is also for me.

I write—I create—in order to be created.

Maybe this is why artists of all kinds create. Art itself inspires beauty and hope and joy, but what about the process? The process can be painful and taxing on both the mind and the body. It takes time and care and sacrifice. But through that process–whether we are laying bricks and building strength or drawing landscapes that transport us or walking alongside characters from our own imaginations–we are the ones being created. We are drawing upon the experiences of others, pouring out our time and energy for the sake of beauty, and learning not only about ourselves but about our world and our God and our beliefs. Tapestries and novels and paintings and buildings can be finished. The creation process ends, and they are considered “good.” But we, the creators, are never finished, and so we keep creating.

Creator, as I create, create me, that I may be more like You.

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