I am taking a brief sabbatical for the holidays, and will be back on January 1st.
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I am taking a brief sabbatical for the holidays, and will be back on January 1st.
I am going to start this particular post with a horror story.
Young or squeamish writers, please hide your eyes.
Unsuspecting writer, chatting comfortably with an older relative, friend from high school, or new acquaintance.
“Well, between work and writing, I don’t have a lot of time—”
Excited gasp. (Or possibly judgmental sniff.)
“Oh, that’s right! You’re writing a book. Can I read it?”
Cue instant terror.
Writers, sharing your work is hard. Our stories are little bits of our heart and soul, and offering them up for the world to read, judge, and possibly reject, is incredibly hard. It takes practice, a thick skin, and a lot of courage. Writing in itself is hard enough, and once you add imposter syndrome, harsh critiques, and well-meaning questions like, when are you going to get a real job, it gets a thousand times harder. Sometimes, it really would be easier to hide beneath your desk with a blanket, a jar of chocolate chips, and a fancy pen while you do all your writing in secret. Who really needs to know, after all?
I admit, that would be the easiest way out. In my seven years as a writer, I have run the gauntlet of reactions to my writing. Thankfully, most of the people that have read my writing have loved it. But—things happen.
And, honestly, the ones that sting are the ones that you remember.
So, yes, sharing your writing, even with the most select people, is hard. It’s scary. Because what if they hate it? What if they skim through, laugh, point out a typo, and change the subject? (This has actually happened to me.) What if, after begging for a copy for weeks, they just . . . never read it? (Also something that has happened to me.)
What if they actually have constructive criticism that helps make your book a thousand times better and yet still stings like needles when you hear it?
It’s natural to be afraid of sharing your work, but living according to your fears is always—always—a mistake. So when you are afraid, please remember this:
1) You CAN be selective.
It is okay to say no.
I’m giving you permission. Right now. You can tell your great aunt, or that one friend, or anyone at all, that you can’t send them your book. They can buy a copy when it comes out. Until it’s sitting on the shelf in Barnes and Noble, you do not have to let anyone and everyone read it. Never, never feel guilty about telling someone no. Do it kindly, but do it firmly. No explanation is necessary. You do not have to have a legitimate excuse. Feel completely free to tell them that it isn’t finished yet, and they are welcome to buy it when it is. Or, if it’s easier, laugh and tell them you’ll send them a signed copy when it gets released.
You don’t owe anyone advanced copies of your work.
2) It’s okay to start small.
After seven years of writing (and sharing my writing), I have completely and totally conquered my fear. I’m not scared of people reading what I write anymore.
Okay, that’s a lie. I lied. I’m sorry.
The point is, practice helps. Let someone who you trust read what you’ve written. Maybe someone who already likes the kinds of stories you write. Or write a short story, and share it on your social media. Have a blog. Offering something that’s not quite so near and dear to your heart is a good way to try out a bit of author vulnerability without the jarring reality of your entire book being at someone’s mercy. Do it a bit at a time, and you’ll learn not to be so terrified of it.
3) It’s not a bad thing to be afraid.
Panic. Breathe into a paper bag. Cry a little, if you really need to. It’s okay to freak out, and it’s okay to be afraid.
It is not okay to hide forever.
You’re a writer. A communicator. You have a story to tell, and somewhere out there is a reader who needs your story. Make it the best that it can be, write with your heart and your soul and every single bit of passion you can possibly muster, and then release it. Let it go. Let it be read and critiqued and loved and hated. Let it be free.
If you need chocolate or wine, I know where you can get both.
The point is, you can be as afraid as you like, but take the plunge anyway. You will never grow as a writer or a person if you don’t walk through fear at least occasionally.
4) Your story is not set in stone.
No, you definitely should not be changing your book based on the whim of every reader who has an opinion about it. Never, never do that. Please. That is a terrible, awful idea that will scramble your book and erase everything that is uniquely you about it.
Feedback is immensely important as a writer. Without it, we grow stagnant. Our stories become stale. We stop learning. So listen. Consider the comments, however much they sting. Set some of them aside. Apply others. Use your own judgment, because this is your book and you are the author. They are not writing it. You are.
And you know what? It’s okay to change things. It’s also okay to thank them for their thoughts and leave things the way they were.
It’s also also okay to change it, but not quite the way they told you to.
You are the author. You know your story. Allow it room to grow, but don’t hand it off to every single person with an opinion.
There is a balance here, I promise. Find it.
5) You have not failed if someone doesn’t like what you’ve written.
Time for some perspective, dearest writer.
One comment is one comment. It’s not the end of your career, or of the world. It stings for now, but it will be okay.
You’re learning. You’re growing. You had the courage and the audacity to share a tiny piece of your soul, and that alone is a feat worth bragging about. All of the hard work that you have poured into your art is not wasted, and you are stronger because of your vulnerability.
You cannot fail as a writer until you have given up on yourself. Every stumbling block, every bit of reckless, wild courage, every deleted word and rejected chapter has something to teach you. You are learning.
And a writer who is willing to learn is a writer who is in very little danger of ever failing.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.
The house had a basketball hoop in the driveway.
I remember that most of all. That day, the day we had a house, is too fragmented to remember perfectly. But I remember a few things. The real estate agent’s dusty car. The cracked pavement. The weeds. The peeling paint on the front door. And the basketball hoop.
I’ll get you a ball, you promised us, and I knew you would. You’d promised us a house too, and we had that now, although grandpa said we’d never keep it. You’ll be back begging at our doorstep in a week, he told you before we left, and I didn’t tell him goodbye.
I don’t think you did either.
The real estate agent had you sign some papers before he left. I remember how your hands were shaking. I was too small to read what they said, but whatever it was, it made you cry when he left. We all cried together, on the floor in that empty house. I think it was a happy kind of crying.
You made me a nest that night. I had a whole room to myself in that big, empty house, and I felt like a princess in my palace. You tucked my blanket and my sheet together on the floor and told me stories about the mice who made nests just like mine. I’ll get you a bed soon, you told me, and I knew you would. You tucked me in tight, and I used my teddy as a pillow.
We had a picnics in the kitchen. I remember that too. You spread out a sheet on the floor, and we had breakfast and lunch and dinner there. We used to pretend that we were eating breakfast at the beach, and lunch in the mountains. Cade used to complain that there were ants in his food, so we’d think the picnic was real. You always laughed when he said it.
The first thing you bought us was a basketball. I remember when you brought it home. We didn’t have a table, or beds in our rooms, or pictures for the walls, or even a couch to sit on, but we had a basketball. I remember you sitting on the front steps after dinner, watching Cade teach me how to play. I couldn’t reach the hoop, even when he lowered it all the way down, and he’d lift me up so I could score. You clapped for us. I don’t remember who won, but we played until the fireflies came out and the moon was peeping in to watch through that old oak in the front yard.
Don’t worry, you told me when we inside that night. You’ll grow into it.
I knew I would.
We didn’t go back to grandpa’s that week. Or the next one. You said we never would, and I knew you were right. We had a house now, and a picnic blanket, and a basketball.
We didn’t need anything else.
When school started, you made Cade and I go. You’d walk us to the bus stop every morning, and when we left, you’d walk to work. You said you didn’t need a car, that walking made you happy. I knew it did.
You were never home when school was over, but we played basketball every night until you came. You were right. I did grow into that hoop, and so did Cade. He grew into it so much that he could raise it right to the top and still score, and I had to learn to jump high enough to block him. I still don’t remember who won those games, just that we played them.
We all used to do our homework together. Cade and I used to laugh about Mama having homework too, and you’d just laugh with us and keep right on working. I think you got better grades than we did. I know you stayed up later than we did. I remember you shooing us to bed, but the light never switched off before I went to sleep in my nest.
You graduated the same day Cade did. You bought us a table, and Cade came home wearing a uniform that made him look ten feet tall. You cried, but it was a happy kind of cry, and you sat on the steps to watch us play basketball before he left.
I played basketball by myself after that, and rode the school bus alone. You brought work home with you, and we sat at our table while I did my homework and you graded papers. I didn’t tell you I was proud of you, but I thought it every night. I was proud of you for your new job, and for the homework you did after I fell asleep, and for the house you didn’t lose. I was proud you didn’t have to go begging to grandpa anymore, and that you had a car, even if you still liked walking.
You never told me how scared you were, but I remember that too. You never told me you were brave, but I knew you were.
Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year.
It’s time for Christmas lights, peppermint-flavored everything, Christmas carols, fudge, peanut brittle, and mistletoe. This season can be a hectic one, and my favorite way to counter that craziness is to keep my evenings to myself.
It’s so easy to commit to caroling, numberless Christmas parties at work, and shopping trips with friends, but I prefer wiggle out if I can manage it. Instead, I keep my evenings for quiet moments. Wrapping presents (or making them), baking cookies, or—best of all—reading.
My favorite nights are the ones when I light candles and spend the evening curled up with a cup of peppermint hot chocolate, a fire in my wood stove, and a good book. My kitty will come read with me too, and is there anything better on a cold winter night than a cat purring in your lap?
Choosing books that fit perfectly with a night like this one isn’t easy, but some of my favorites to pair with a roaring fire and a cup of good cocoa are:
This charming classic has been adapted into plays, a million different movies, and episodes of every cartoon you can think of, but have you ever read the original story by Charles Dickens? I hadn’t—at least, not until a few years ago. Then, I was utterly blown away by a story for the ages—and one that fully deserves the notary that it has obtained over the years.
Little House in the Big Woods
Family and Christmas go hand in hand, and I can’t think of a better story than Little House in the Big Woods for both. This sweet book encompasses an entire year of Laura Ingalls life as a very young girl—including Christmas in the big woods. Her descriptions of life in the 1800s and of their Christmas together as a family are vivid and beautiful, a definite addition to any Christmas evening.
Comfort books are a must for me during the craziness of the Christmas season, and Little Women is high on that list. The book spans a large number of years in the lives of the March sisters, and their Christmas seasons are simple, heartfelt, and filled with a richness that illustrates the depth of their regard for each other and the community around them.
The Tailor of Gloucester
Beatrix Potter weaves magic with her illustrated stories, and The Tailor of Gloucester is—in my opinion—one of her finest books. This Christmas tale has charm, compassion, a naughty cat, and a lovely, inspiring ending. Her pictures are vivid and heartwarming, and it’s a book I will be reading aloud and to myself for many years to come.
Christmas is a season for wonder and thankfulness, for pausing to reflect, and for appreciating the quiet moments. These books carry a thousand memories of years past, and I will continue to enjoy them for many years to come.
My grandmother kept prayers in her knitting basket.
To me, it seemed an odd place to keep them. Prayers are meant to be kept in a Bible on the parlor shelf, or stuffed away in a church, gathering dust with the rest of the relics. At the very least, they’re supposed to be kept somewhere that’s just a little reverent. Somewhere solemn and quiet, like a graveyard or a room you don’t visit every day.
But my grandmother keeps them with her knitting, and sometimes they get tangled up in her yarn.
She knits in her sitting room, in her rocking chair beside the fire. It’s bright and sunny, with a rag rug on the wood floor and flowers on the windowsill. I come to sit with her sometimes when my mother is working and the house is empty. She’ll send me after fresh daisies from the field outside and a pitcher of well water for the two of us, and I’ll lie on the floor and color while she talks to me and to God.
I don’t think the preacher would like the way she prays much. He uses fancy words when he prays, thees and thous, and he always spreads his hands out wide as if he’s trying to push the prayers right into heaven.
When she prays, I have to glance up to make sure God isn’t sitting right there next to her. Some days, I don’t think she’s praying at all. At least, not the sort of praying that I know. She talks to Him the way she talks to just about anybody. She tells Him about my new haircut, or the families who’ve been coming to live with us from the cities, or about mama’s new job in the factory. If I don’t look up every now and then, I’ll forget that He isn’t sitting in the rocking chair across from her and maybe whittling or something.
She’s knitting socks today. The sky is gray, and it’s snowing hard enough that I should have started for home an hour ago. But she used up a whole tea ration for just the two of us, and I’d rather not wait in a cold house until six o’clock. So I watch the fire crackling and the cardinal pecking at the snow outside the window and listen to her talking to God about the snow in Russia and the man who’s going to be wearing the socks she’s making. Her prayers get caught up in her needles, and by the time she’s finished the gray wool is just a little silver too.
I’ve lost count of how many socks she’s sent out. She keeps them in a basket, and when she’s got ten or twelve pairs she sends them off. We never find out what happens to them, or to the prayers she’s knitted in with the wool, but she always tells me that God keeps track of those things.
I hope he does. I haven’t heard that knitted prayers keep a man’s feet warm, but I’d bet they’re good for something.
This morning, I woke up to find that my bank account was maxed out.
Not the best news to find out on a Monday morning, especially when every penny I’ve made in the last several months has gone toward absolute essentials. Bills. Groceries. That’s about it.
This is humiliating for me to admit, honestly. I’m the kind of person who likes to be on top of things. I like my bills to be paid a week in advance. When I go out to dinner or coffee with someone, I like to pay. When I get support letters from friends on the mission field about this need or that one, I like to be able to respond immediately with a check.
But, the reality is that I’m an author.
And right now, I don’t get paid.
For almost anything.
I’ve been a full-time author for about seven years. I’ve written eight books in that time, amounting to more than a million words in drafts, blog posts, and other various projects. Two of my books are published and available on Amazon. One—a biography I was commissioned for—is in the final stages of revision. Four others are in varying stages of revision and editing.
One is, at this very moment, in the hands of an actual real-life publisher, being reviewed for possible publication.
None of these books, as of yet, are ready to translate into anything resembling income.
Seven years is a long time. It’s a long time to work on a project without a great amount of hope or encouragement. It’s a long time to make no money and to support hundreds of hours work with several other jobs.
If I look at the last seven years from the perspective of retirement, bank accounts, and income, I have utterly failed.
Seven years down the drain. Time to pull the plug, because this idea was obviously a dud from the beginning.
Except it hasn’t been.
It hasn’t been, because of the girl who messaged me to say that something I wrote made her feel that a part of herself was beautiful, rather than strange or weird.
Or the seven-year-old who—when reading one of my books through for the second time—declared that it absolutely deserved five stars.
Or the man who commissioned the biography I wrote telling me that it was like reading through his life and that he couldn’t help tearing up when he read it.
There is magic in what I do. In the lives I touch. In the moments when people have paused to read something I’ve written, and immediately felt the need to message me and say that I made them cry. Fortunately for my career, I have never—and will never—look at what I do in terms of cash earned, money saved, or bills paid. Because being an author is more than that.
In fact, in my very humble opinion, being a person is more than that.
As many times as I have faltered in the last seven years, I have never once questioned whether writing was really what I was supposed to be doing. It’s too much a part of me, too much a part of the way I love and think and live, to abandon. I may not be making a livable wage on it right now—in fact, I may never make one—but I’ve come too far and seen too clearly how deeply impacting my words can be to quit.
To me, that’s worth a lot more than getting a check on time every month.
Although the check would be nice.
Do you want to know the strangest thing?
I have the hardest time reviewing my most absolute favorite books.
Is that weird? They should be the ones I rave about right? The ones I yell about in the mall and the library and shove in people’s mailboxes so that they’ll read them.
But, with my favorite books, I have a hard time talking about them.
Strange, right? In some ways, I’m afraid that I won’t do them justice. They’ve meant so much to me over the years that it seems impossible to tell people just how important they are. They’re a part of my childhood, my teen years, and even now I continue to treasure them, and it’s hard to come up with a way to explain to you or anyone else how much these stories have meant to me.
Ranger’s Apprentice, The Ruins Of Gorlan, is one of those books for me.
I started reading this series when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I wasn’t the only one. At least five of my siblings became obsessed with the books at the same time I did. If you’ve never lived in the same home with multiple readers, you will never understand the struggle of taking turns with a book that just arrived in the mail.
It was rough.
But, at the same time, it was also wonderful. Having people to share the magic of an ongoing book series with is a very special thing, and helps to conquer some of the impatience of waiting for the next book to be released.
And, with The Ranger’s Apprentice, that couldn’t happen fast enough for us.
The Ruins Of Gorlan, Flanagan’s first book in his dynamic series, introduces us to Will, an orphan under the guardianship of Baron Arald. But, at fifteen, he’s now too old to be a ward any longer, and he is set to be apprenticed to one of the fief’s Craftmasters.
That is, if any of them are willing to take him.
When Will is placed with Halt, a member of the elusive Ranger Corps, he isn’t sure what to expect. Rangers are renowned as black magicians and sorcerers, men who guard the kingdom and keep law and order within the fiefs, but not people to cross or mingle with.
As Halt’s apprentice, Will finds a very different reality than he expected. Soon he is embroiled in a world that fascinates and entrances him, a world where he finds himself far more accepted than he ever was as a ward in the Baron’s castle. But war is brewing in the kingdom, and as an apprentice Ranger, Will has a far greater role in the impending conflict than he ever would have expected.
“People will think what they want to,” he said quietly. “Never take too much notice of it.”
Have you ever sat down to write, managed a sentence, or a page, or a blog post, and then thought, this sounds familiar? And then realized it is familiar, because it’s the same idea you had three weeks ago?
And I am absolutely certain that I cannot be the only one who does this.
You guys have done this at one time or another, haven’t you?
As writers, it’s far, far too easy to get stuck in a rut. We find a niche that works for us, a storyline we like, and suddenly—we’re stuck. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and people seem to like it, so why branch out, right?
Actually, I am a great believer in having a signature style and embracing your niche. Sometimes, the jack-of-all-trades really is the master of none. There is something special about the depth and richness a writer who knows their craft lends to a story. People tend to write what they are passionate about, and passion, above everything else, is what drives a great story.
But sometimes, the passion is replaced by a template, and we sit down to write stories that we’ve written before and ideas that no longer excite us.
The trouble with being in a rut as a writer is that we’re not choosing to be there. We don’t just stop coming up with fresh, exciting story ideas simply because we don’t care anymore. If we did, it would be a good time to question if it was time to set the pen down and find a new path. We love our stories. We love the adventure, the thrill of creating something that sends chills down our spine and wakes us up. We’re after that elusive heart-stopping story that makes us want to cry and laugh and stay up until midnight because we’ve forgotten we’re working.
But sometimes, ideas like that are hard to come by, and so we continue to write what used to excite us, hoping that we’ll catch that feeling again on the next page.
Or the next one.
Or the next.
As a writer, I have found myself in a rut many times. My stories feel stale, and I find myself reading old chapters in hopes of remembering just what it was that excited me about them. When that happens, I know it’s time to make some changes and find a fresh approach.
Here are five ways that I do that:
1) Don’t try to pour from an empty pitcher.
Pumping out hundreds—or thousands—of words while you’re stuck in a rut and hating what you write is not going to help dig you out. Give yourself permission to pause, to slack off for a little while, and to rest. Very often, being stuck in a rut can be a sign of writer’s burnout, which needs, more than anything, a break and time to recover.
Nothing good comes of forcing creativity. If it is time to stop, then stop.
Come up with a plan before wasting any more time staring at a blank page or a story you don’t like.
2) Change your habits.
Sometimes our writing gets stuck in a rut because we’ve been operating in a rut. Day to day, our routines are the same as they’ve been for months, or even years. Our stories may just be one indication of the way we feel in our own lives.
It may be time for a few changes.
Now, most of us are not going to change jobs, shave our heads, or move across the country in hopes of shaking things up in our lives. If that’s you, more power to you. If that’s not you, maybe try something less drastic.
Have coffee at a new coffee shop.
Find a book or TV show that you wouldn’t normally read or watch.
Take a walk instead of watching TV in the evening.
Take a MasterClass you’ve been eyeing for a while, or find a new hobby that you wouldn’t normally spend time on.
Take a day trip to the mountains, or the beach. Linger. Sit beside a waterfall, or gather seashells. Smell the pines.
Go to a zoo or an aquarium. Don’t rush. Watch the ducks or the snakes in the reptile house. Sit on the steps near the shark tank, or beside the penguins. Be still. Admire.
Moments like these are story fodder, and without them, our stories dry up and become dusty.
3) Try something new.
New is hard. New is terrifying.
New is also the best way to shake yourself out of a rut.
Write a poem or short story. Write a story from a completely different point of view than you usually do or a genre that you’ve never tried before. Romance, or SciFi, or contemporary.
If you don’t have ideas, search for writing prompts on Pinterest. Pick one that doesn’t jump out at you, and give it a shot. You don’t have to show anyone the attempt, but trying may make all the difference.
4) Don’t limit yourself.
You are a writer. You have the tools, you have the passion. Just because you’ve been writing one kind of story, or even been doing one kind of writing since the beginning doesn’t mean you can’t branch out.
Novelists can write articles.
Bloggers can write poetry or short stories.
Journalists can write novels.
You are not confined to one style of writing or one genre. Allow yourself to branch out, and to learn a new style.
5) Stop chasing.
Ideas are not limited. There is not a certain number that each writer is allotted. You cannot run out, and you are not washed up if you’ve run dry.
Instead, I firmly believe that ideas are like butterflies.
If you spend all your time chasing after them, they will appear and disappear before you can blink, and you will end up frustrated.
Instead, the best way to catch them is to go where they gather. Wander in parks, or zoos, or linger in coffee shops. Be patient. Wait for them. Focus on other things, instead of racking your brains.
Before you know it, you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with, and if you’re willing to take the plunge and risk trying something outside of your comfort zone, you may just be surprised by what you can come up with.
Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.
He throws me out after the fifth beer. My mother will follow me in an hour or so. She offends him less, I think, because she doesn’t answer back when he swears at her. She’s everything I’m not and wish I could have been. Soft and gentle, kinder than one of God’s angels, with mouse-brown hair and blue eyes that have the patience of the heavens in them.
I was born with his slate-gray eyes and his wild temper. One more thing I intend to hold against him until the skies burn.
Dusk is falling in the orchard when I leave the house and follow the lane toward the wheat fields. The wind is up, and I can see clouds rolling in from the west, dark as soot and building into a summer storm. Lightning cracks in the distance, followed by a rumble of thunder, and I leave the lane and wade into the waist-high wheat.
This early in the year, it’s still green, and the wind ripples through it. I went to the seaside once, when I was so young that the wheat towered over my head and my father still called me his son. I still remember how the waves looked, tossed about by the wind and capped with white foam. The wheat fields remind me of it on days like this. They sway and ruffle, catching the last of the light and throwing silver glints at the sky.
I’m never at peace on this farm, except when I’m here.
The clouds are overhead and the wind smells of rain before I reach the far edge of the field. The gypsy tents are pitched beneath the trees there, as far from the house as they can get and still be on our land. Their men help with the harvest in the fall, and if they pass through before then, my father always has work for them. But he doesn’t want them nearby. If he can see their tents or wagons, or if he can smell the smoke from their fires, he’ll kick them out. This is the only place that he never comes.
So, of course, this is always where I end up when he kicks me out.
Their fires are burning, and the smell of the stew bubble over the flames reminds me that he threw me out before I could eat. Two of their children, bare-footed and black-eyed, see me coming, and they run to greet me, babbling incoherently in that lilting, graceful tongue that never seems to need space for a breath. I swing one of them onto my shoulders, and he grabs handfuls of my hair and tugs, still shouting. Mama Kazia comes out of the tent, scolding, and kisses my cheeks, pushing me down on one of the cushions scattered around the fire. She’s got poppies braided into her black hair, and bare feet like her children. They’ve been here six weeks already, a long time for people who love the horizon, and we’ve managed to get past the language barrier. They chatter at me, and I talk to them, and if neither of us quite understands the words, we catch the meaning.
She’s clucking over my bruised face now, and one of her children brings me a puppy from underneath the wagon while I tell her about our latest fight, about my mother’s silence, the baseball games in town, the money I have stashed under my mattress from the odd jobs I’ve been working, and the train headed west next spring. She listens sympathetically, clicking her tongue every once in a while and dishing out stew to the children that come crowding around. She pushes a bowl into my hands too, and I eat with one of her toddlers in my lap.
The rain is pattering against the canvas awning when their papa returns. The older children hear him whistling, and they run to meet him and come back splattered in mud and laughing. He’s carrying them, two on his back and one on each hand, swinging like pendulums. The first few times I came here, I slipped off when I heard him coming. He caught me the third time, and we spent three hours talking about fishing and what bait is the best for trout.
He likes practicing his broken English, I think. I explain baseball to him, and he tells me where to find the best holes for brook trout in the spring or how to hunt down a blackbird’s nest.
A fool waste of time. That’s what my father would call it. But I’m never at peace on this farm, except when I’m here.