I’ve launched an email newsletterand monthly giveawayto shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).
Food, shelter, purpose, companionship, and books: essentials of a happy, meaningful life. They don’t always have to be in perfect balance, but they are a package deal. #lifetip #writetip #FindYourPurpose
Published author Jessica McCann spoke online with high school students about her writing and research process. The students were awesome and asked several great questions. In the coming weeks, this blog will feature video segments from the class. In this first post, McCann talks about how technological advances during her career has made book research much easier; yet, she stresses how also getting offline and away from technology can improve your writing in different ways.
Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).
I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.
So, I opened the box and opened the first book….
Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.
Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)
I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.
Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Shortly after I was married, my husband's grandmother gave me her original Crock-Pot, which she'd had since the 1970s. I think of her every time I make a meal in it. I only hope my novels will have the same longevity as this beloved Crock-Pot, passed down for generations.
Slow-cookers have always amazed me. A hodge-podge of meat, vegetables and whatnot gets tossed in the Crock-Pot in the morning. The ingredients simmer together all day. Their flavors blend. Their aromas comingle and fill the house with the tang of possibility. Come dinner time, the medley has been transformed into a savory meal that brings the whole family to the table with anticipation. I love cooking this way.
My novel writing is also slow-cooked. A hodge-podge of ideas, research, themes and characters get thrown into the pot in the beginning. Then they simmer together, for a very long time, before they are transformed into the rich, savory story I want them to become. Slow-cooking a novel isn't nearly as easy as slow-cooking chili, stew or gumbo. Yet, if the mix of ingredients is right, the result can be just as fulfilling.
Not all my writing lends itself to this slow-cooking technique. In fact, most everything else I write comes together far more quickly. As a full-time freelance writer, I've written everything from annual reports, white papers and magazine articles to creative nonfiction, personal essays and short stories. Each is challenging in its own right. Each takes time and thought and effort. None seem to require the slow simmer that my novels do to reach their full potential.
Different types of writing require different processes. Even the type of novel you are writing can have an impact on how you approach the work.
In his book of essays Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, author Bruce Holland Rogers addresses the differences between writing commercial novels and literary novels (and he has written both, so he holds no biases for one or the other). In a nutshell, the more a book is action-adventure or plot-driven, the better it lends itself to what he calls the pressure-cooker approach to writing — that is the nose to the grindstone, get the draft down on paper, write fast approach. The more literary or character-driven the book, the slower it must be cooked up. He describes his own "slow-cooking technique" for writing a literary first draft as somewhat nebulous.
"Not everything I'm doing at this stage looks even remotely like work. I'm walking and thinking about my novel, listening to music while I daydream about the novel," he writes. "The trick lies in knowing when to shift gears and produce scenes, when to stop and noodle some more."
I believe the trick also lies in gaining an appreciation for and acceptance of the process that works best for you, no matter what you write.
Some days I truly lament my agonizingly-slow process of novel writing. Part of me enjoys, even thrives on, the pressure-cooker process I utilize to write most of my freelance writing assignments. If only I could write my novels that quickly and efficiently.
Other days, I relish the slow-cooker pace of my novel writing. I'm grateful for the time it takes for the ideas to gel and for the unexpected revelations to come. It's generally worth the wait.
Certain things in life cannot be rushed. If I were to offer up my Crock-Pot meal for lunch instead of dinner, the meat might be tough, the vegetables crunchy, the broth bland. And if I were to offer up my novel-in-progress too quickly, the characters might be flat, the plot predictable, the imagery dull. Far better to let it all simmer, to ensure a rich gumbo of well-blended words and ideas that will bring the reader to the page with anticipation.
This post originally appeared on the Arizona State University Piper Writers Studio blog in 2014.
Even though many people feel awkward or embarrassed accepting thanks face to face, everyone likes to be appreciated. In addition, a great deal of research shows that expressing gratitude has both physical and psychological benefits (see links below). That’s why I love mailing handwritten thank you notes. I feel good sending them, and those being thanked feel good receiving them.
Handwritten notes take a bit of time and thought to create. That’s a good exercise in gratitude for me. It helps me slow down and focus on the positive things in my life, if only for a few minutes. When a note arrives unexpectedly in your mailbox, you get a pleasant little endorphin boost and you can bask in the appreciation without feeling self-conscious about your response.
Oh sure, Jessica, you may be thinking. That’s easy for you to say. You’re a writer.
It’s true, I have a fondness for putting words to paper, but that is not a requirement for writing a thank-you note. In fact, a thank-you note from someone who hates writing is likely to be valued even higher by the recipient, for the extra effort it required to create.
Give it a try. Send a thank you for that birthday gift. Express your gratitude to the doctor who squeezed you into her busy day when your baby had a fever. Thank the co-worker who stepped in to assist with a difficult client or customer. Write a note to the person who cleans your house, or delivers your mail, or mows your lawn.
Here are a few tips that will help make the task easy and rewarding:
Don’t stress over your handwriting. Many people worry about this, and they send an email or online message to say thanks. Electronic thank yous are fine for many situations; but, when it really matters, handwritten notes show you made an extra effort to express your gratitude. That effort trumps less-than-perfect penmanship. Always.
Keep it short. You don’t need to write a novel. Three or four sentences are plenty, and keeping it short will help you fend of procrastination of the task.
Be specific. For example, if writing a note to your child’s teacher at the end of the school year, say thanks for something unique the teacher did. Rather than writing, “Thank you for making third grade a great year for Sally,” write, “Thank you for the allowing Sally extra time in the library to pick out books. Your patience this year enabled her interest in reading to blossom.”
Close with an opening. End your note with an invitation. “Let’s make an effort to meet for coffee or lunch sometime soon. I’ll give you a call next week.” Or, close with a sentence that addresses the future. “Best wishes to you and Jane for a fun-filled summer.” “I’m looking forward to seeing you at church Sunday.”
Memoirs have always been in my reading repertoire, and Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club is among my favorites. She grew up in a small, poor Texas town in a family rife with alcoholism, violence and mental illness; through it all, despite it all, she maintained a fierce love for and gained a keen understanding of her family. Karrs’ latest book, The Art of Memoir, is technically a how-to writing book, though it also feels part-memoir. She shares many insights about how she wrote and revised her other work — the internal struggles she faced in realizing the truth, coming to terms with it and sharing it with the world. There is much we can learn from great memoirists.
Karr explains many elements of memoir writing – what works, what does not, and why. As a reader, it explained a lot to me about why I have been deeply touched by some memoirs and have been turned off by others. As a writer, it confirmed my notions that many elements of strong writing cross all genres.
This author has a sassy, smartass writing style, which I love. Karr pulls no punches with the reader, nor with herself. She is honest and real, flawed and relatable. It takes great courage to bare your life and soul in a public way, with the hope for personal healing and the belief that it may help others heal as well. Karr not only rises to this challenge personally, she also highlights and applauds many other writers who’ve done the same in this risky and demanding genre that she loves. Her analysis of their works is enlightening.
I have no desire to write a memoir (pause for collective sigh of relief from family and friends), but this is a book I will keep and reread. If you are a writer and/or enjoy reading memoirs, I highly recommend this insightful tome. I added several titles to my to-read pile, thanks to her recommendations. Her insights also got me thinking about some of the memoirs that have moved me. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):