Category Archives: Writing

What I really mean when I say I’m “working on a book.”

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I walked into the Hutchinson Starbucks, and there was Sarah. Oh! I know her! My first random connection in Kansas. We began to chat.

“Are you just about finished with your book by now?” she asked me.

“No, I’m just plodding along with it slowly,” I said. Because right now I’m only about 1/3 of the way through my first draft.

But then, after I got my tea and sat down to write, I realized that the “book” of her question was a completely different book than the “book” of my answer.

When I drove through Kansas in September, which was the last time I saw Sarah, I was working on Book A.

Book A was a middle grade novel. Fantasy, but with no actual magic in it. I was trying really hard to finish something, even if it turned out terrible.

But when I was in Ohio, I gave up on Book A. Something just was not working. I couldn’t place my figure on what. The plot, probably. Plots have never been my strong point.

I was determined to fix my plot issues. In Delaware, I used my Ohio library card to borrow an e-book called “No Plot? No Problem!” The book wasn’t remotely helpful, so I went to the Delaware library and borrowed real books and took notes.

Notes in hand, I spend my week-and-a-half in Washington DC working on Book B.

Book B was a project I’d first worked on in the summer of 2016. Unlike Book A, it had a strong plot idea, and seemed like a good candidate for plot practice. I didn’t even write more chapters, I just sat in coffee shops with a notebook and tried to trace the story arc and resolution for each character.

And it was good practice. But then I got busy and stopped working on it. Book B is a strange story–not really marketable–so probably not a good time investment right now.

In Florida I had no wifi and no library card and one afternoon I was bored. I opened my laptop to see if I had any books downloaded on my Kindle app. Oh! There was my copy of “No Plot? No Problem!” that I’d borrowed in Delaware. The lack of Internet had prevented it from automatically returning.

So I read it.

“No Plot? No Problem!” wasn’t a book about plots, it was a book about how to write a novel in a month. And as I read, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a novel in a month.

So I began Book C.

Book C came from a fun idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for years. Writing it was fun at first, but eventually I began to hate the book. I mean, I loathed that thing.

Something was not working, and it was more than just the plot.

I was driving down the 501 when it struck me. The Big Problem with Book C, and also, coincidentally, the Big Problem with Book A, and the Big Problem with most novels I’ve attempted in the last five or so years. It’s not the plot that trips me up. It’s the lack of humor.

I don’t enjoy reading books without humor, or reading poetry without humor, so why would I enjoy writing without humor? No wonder I started writing books and then ended up hating them!

In any case, I gave up on fiction for a bit, and instead started working on Book D. Book D is a memoir, the story of this year. Nonfiction feels easy after struggling along with fiction for so long. You don’t have to worry about plot. You just write down what happened. And humor nestles naturally into my nonfiction.

However, this was not the end of my fiction journey. There was, and by “was” I mean “is,” a Book E.

Book E happened because one day as I was walking along the streets of Lancaster, I came across a little free library, and found a book called Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar.

It was a book I knew I liked, and I knew I didn’t own a copy of it, so I took it home with me. And I began re-reading it carefully. And I began noticing things.

First, Sachar doesn’t really have a plot in the book, but rather writes individual stories based on different characters. The book is held together by repeating characters, incidents, and random elements paced throughout.

Second, the entire book is filled with humor. It’s a humor based on repetition and silliness, and it reminded me of an unfinished children’s book I’d started over ten years ago. I dug up my old manuscript, and started reading.

The first three chapters were written when I was seventeen, and they were fantastic. Very similar to Wayside School, full of silliness and repetition and fun times.

The last half-chapter was written when I was 25. It was awful. I was desperately trying to contrive a plot to tie the whole book together, and all the humor was gone.

I started working on Book E again, determined to channel the humor and silliness and repetition, heedless of plot, that somehow came naturally to me when I was seventeen.

Of course it’s taking a back seat to Book D, but right now, if you asked me, I’d say I’m working on two books.

If you’re wondering why I stopped putting humor into my fiction, well, you tell me and  we’ll both know. Was it a result of the the humorless literary fiction of my writing classes? Was I focusing so much on plots that I forgot all about humor? Was I putting myself under too much pressure to reach a word count, leaving myself no time to contrive good jokes?

As to the haphazard way I keep starting books but not finishing them, I’ve ceased to let this bother me. When I was young I thought my unfinished books were all going to waste. But now, I’m always taking that old manuscript from four years ago and finding the perfect new twist to keep it going. And if it dies, well, perhaps I’ll revive it again in another four years.

But Book D, the memoir about this year, is in very little danger of being abandoned. And that’s what I mean, right now, when I say I’m working on a book.

Note: I now have a Patreon page, where you can get bonus blog posts by subscribing for $1 or more a month. My latest post is titled, “How Mennonites Set Women Up to Reject the Head Covering.

 

July Life Update

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Today I’m writing from the train. I decided to take a short trip to Seattle. My actual reason for doing so is a wee bit complicated, so I’ll save it for a later post. But in the meantime I thought I’d pop on here and write a bit of a life update.

Topic 1: My Crazy Idea

I had a pretty fantastic response to my crazy idea. A nice healthy mix of strangers, family, and old friends welcomed me to their home areas.

I came away from the experience with a new hypothesis: I think southerners tend to be more hospitable/chill with inviting strangers into their homes. Of course I had a small sample size. Do you think this is accurate, based on your own experiences?

I had more offers than I needed, but some of the places offered were pretty close to each other, so I think I should be able to at least spend a little time in most of the places. A few days ago I sat down and made a pretty solid plan for where I’d like to go when. So yeah, if you invited me to your area, I’ll try to get back to you soon about what I’m thinking.

Topic 2: The Problem With Interesting Blog Posts

I promised, a month or so ago, that some interesting blog posts were coming. That was because…

  • I was planning a bunch of interesting trips
  • I was planning to post about my crazy idea
  • I filmed a fun video with Jenny

Some of those interesting blog posts materialized. Some of them didn’t. I missed one of my trips due to illness, and the next one was fun but not that interesting for a blog post. I haven’t found the time to edit the video with Jenny.

Here’s the problem with interesting blog posts: they take so much time.

I used to be extremely careless with blogging. I’d just type up whatever I was thinking, “post!” and done. But ever since my year-long hiatus, I’ve been much more careful.

I just had such a blogging panic that year. I don’t think I ever actually admitted this on my blog, but I actually got into legal trouble for something I posted online. (Everything turned out fine, it was just traumatic.)

Then, later that year, I went to Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute (SMBI). I’d gone to SMBI four years previously and loved it, which made me kind-of hype it up in my head. I thought that after all these years of college, I was finally going to a place where people understood me. And then I had a bit of a culture shock because I’d forgotten how Mennonite Mennonites can be, LOL.

But roughly 10% of the students admitted that they knew who I was from my blog. And that made me panic a little. Here I was, missing all these random Mennonite nuances and doing the wrong thing, and people here know who I was. I wasn’t just getting things wrong, I was disappointing people by not being the kind of person they thought I was.

(To be fair, it was my own panic/culture shock that made me feel like I wasn’t good enough, not them.)

After these two experiences, I wasn’t sure I’d ever blog again. I only did because I began to feel that God really wanted me to do it.

But it just completely changed my attitude about blogging. I used to just really like the feeling of people reading my stuff and thinking I was interesting or whatever. After the hiatus it became much more about blessing people. So I put a lot more effort into my posts.

Also, I was just way more aware of how I was coming across. I had this new fear of people misunderstanding me, of being too vulnerable, etc. I know that sounds bad. I know all the whoevers that know things about things say you need to be vulnerable. But for me, I had to learn the opposite lesson. I had to learn that I don’t owe the online crowd anything, and I don’t have to share more than I want to share.

The consequence of this is that blog posts take a really long time. I write and re-write them because I want them to be the best they can be, so that they’ll be a blessing, but at the same time I only want to say the things I want to say.

I thought that once I quit my job to become a “real writer,” I’d post more on my blog, because I’d have so much more time to write. And I do have much more time to write. But I’ve run into a new problem, which is that writing is my job, and blogging doesn’t earn any money. So it’s hard to allocate enough time for it.

Topic 3: Writing

I’ve been far more disciplined with writing, and gotten far more writing done, than I thought possible for someone as naturally undisciplined as myself. Because this: If I don’t make it work, I will have no money.

Right now, my biggest issue is precisely what I assumed it would be: Staying at home all day puts me in a weird head space. I mean I do my fair share of social activities, but I miss that feeling of getting up every morning and going to school or work.

Any and all ideas to alleviate this problem are welcome.

Topic 4: Summer

Summer is such a strange time in Oregon, and I wonder if it’s this way in other places too: Our boring little community suddenly gets this huge influx of new people to drive combine or work on the “hay crews” (actually straw crews) or sack seed or whatever. But you never meet these people because no one has a social life. Everyone is working 24/6.

If you’re not traveling over the weekend you might see someone new in church on Sunday, and say “hi,” and play a bit of Mennonite game. And then never see them again because harvest is so short and intense.

Topic 5: Writing On Trains

I am a huge fan of writing on trains.

I realize this turned more into a “random thoughts” than a “life update.”

Oh well.

 

 

 

 

Things that Lurk in Google Drive

My friend Janane was looking over my shoulder and laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“Your google drive! Mine is full of random pictures, and yours is full of random documents.”

This makes sense when you consider that she is a photographer and I am a writer. In any case, this inspired me to poke through some of the random things I’ve written and stored in google drive. Like this bit:

Stand on a stool.

Try standing on your tiptoes.

I’m sorry, I was in a meeting.

I’ll try to answer my phone next time.

Don’t worry, your arms will grow.

Try calling back when I’m not so busy.

Um, context please, Emily of the past? I don’t even remember writing this, and I have no clue what it’s supposed to mean. I think I just wrote down my exact thoughts, sans context, just for fun.

Here’s another:

I want to go somewhere else for a while:a foggy place where I can look sideways into the misty breeze, and read ancient hardback romances, and drink tea from sophisticated glass tea cups. No one will tell me what to do, or even make hints, and I will only write the things I want to write. If I get tired of having no responsibilities, I may get a very small cat. That is all.

And, a little weirder:

Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night I think things that don’t make a lick of sense, and it makes me happy because it means I am inches from falling asleep. But this afternoon I scrolled through Twitter and thought, “I am grape.” That didn’t make any sense, obviously, but I’m not falling asleep, so what does that mean? That I’m inches from crazy?

LOL, I remember writing that one. I wasn’t falling asleep but I was experiencing a crazy amount of daytime fatigue at that point in my life.

Here’s another.

I thought that in his life everything must happen in the summer, all the colors muted, and the whole town diving into the creek, and people loving each other. I wanted to go back in time and photoshop myself in, so I could have the same memories.

And another.

“I’ll admit it,” he said. “I’m intimidated by women who make more money than me.”

I don’t know what her opinion of him was, then. She was a feminist, but not an angry one. I tiptoed through the conversation, smoothing down the corners.

And a bit of fiction for good measure.

“You see that thing that looks like a really bright star?” Roberta said. We were lying on the trampoline, snuggled into our sleeping bags, and her arm pointed up across my slice of sky like the dial on a speedometer.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it a star?”

“No,” she said. “That’s Mars. That’s where I’m gonna live some day.”

“You’re not gonna live there!” said Cliff. “You can’t live on Mars. There’s no atmosphere.”

“I’ll wear a space suit,” said Roberta.

I tried to imagine a grown-up Roberta, wearing a long, floral skirt over her puffy space-suit pants, a prayer veiling pinned up under her helmet.

I guess I imagined her going, but not really leaving.

In the course of my poking around, I also found part of a book proposal that I’d forgotten I’d started, my graduation speech from 2008, a two page “About Me” section I wrote for this blog and then didn’t use because it sounded pretentious, the hastily-designed program for the Christmas Play I directed, and a transcribed interview with my grandpa.

Oh, and contrary to Janane’s claim, I did have some random photos as well.

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I can’t be the only one. What are some of the strangest things lurking in your Google Drive?

 

How to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about

So I was reading this bit of historical fiction. The author had obviously done a lot of research into the time period she was writing about. She included all the details. But I still found it almost impossible to suspend my disbelief. I had this nearly overwhelming feeling that the author didn’t know what she was talking about.

Then today I was reading this fun chatty blog post written by my cousin-in-law’s sister-in-law, who wrote about her recent wedding, saying, “Not that the months leading up to our wedding didn’t come with their fair share of trials and difficulties.. they surely did with a few things out of left field that left us baffled and bewildered.”

Neither I nor any of my siblings has ever gotten married, and it occurred to me that if I were to write a story about a wedding, everyone reading it would be able to tell that I have never experienced one, because I have no clue what sorts of things come out of left field that leave people baffled and bewildered.

I could find a copy of The Ultimate Wedding Planner and Organizer, and carefully study it. I could make my character pick out flowers, and a wedding dress, and a cake. But no matter how many details I threw in, if something didn’t go wrong, it would show my readers quite clearly that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

That got my mind churning. I have, a couple times, asked people about their jobs because I wanted to know some details for a story I was writing. From now on, I think I’ll start off with the question, “where you work, what kinds of things are likely to go wrong?”

Actually that might just be an interesting question to ask in general.

How to Criticize People Kindly and Effectively

Unlike most college classes, where you’re expected to do your best on your own and hope for a good grade, fiction writing classes thrive on peer criticism. It’s called “workshopping.” You write a story and give it to your classmates, and the next class session they all sit around and talk about what worked well in the story, and how it could be better.

The first fiction writing class I ever took was at LBCC in 2012. When it came time to workshop it, everyone took turns saying things about my story, and they all said nice things. No one criticized a single thing. I was elated. I had done it. My story was good. 

Now, of course, I chuckle a bit at my past self and her fixed rather than growth mindset. It shouldn’t have been about being a good enough writer, or being a better writer than my classmates, it should have been about being the best writer I could be. And for that to happen, I needed criticism.

I’m in my fourth fiction writing class, now, and I’ve changed my tune. I submitted my story last Tuesday knowing that it felt a bit skeletal–like I should add something to it–but with only the vaguest idea of what I should add. And today, it got workshopped.

My classmates began, as is the custom, by saying what they liked about the story. They liked the characters. They loved the dialogue, which made me happy, because I love writing dialogue but didn’t actually know if it worked well in the story. They firmly established that my story was good, that it had potential, that I had writing talent.

And then they switched gears. By the time you reach a 400 level fiction writing class, saying only good things is no longer an option. It’s not fair to the author. It’s not true. Every rough draft in the universe could be improved in some manner.

I didn’t have enough of my character’s family in the story. “This scene here, on page 7, where the parents are lonely,” said Sarah. “That’s so good, but we don’t know why they’re lonely. You should put them in earlier scenes, so we understand this better.”

“I would have liked more description,” said Justin. “Like on page 9, where you wrote, ‘we sat on the porch and watched the horizon.’ I want to know what that looked like.”

Just like the first time I had a story workshopped, I left the room feeling elated. But I felt elated for different reasons. Not because I thought my story was awesome, but because I thought my story was full of possibility, and I had a very clear idea of how to make it awesome.

Tonight as I was weeding the hedge in the muggy twilight, I thought about how in my opinion, real-life criticism works best when it’s done like workshopping criticism.

First of all, we should limit our criticism to those who have “signed up for it” in some sense–such as family members, friends, and those whom we’ve invested in. Not randos on the internet we happen to dislike. (In fact, I don’t know if it’s ever appropriate to offer personal criticisms over the internet. That may be up for debate, but I definitely recommend face-to-face if possible.)

Second, we should begin with establishing why they’re great people in general, and what they’re doing well. This not only makes the criticism “sit” better, but it also is helpful too, the same way it was helpful to know that my dialogue was working well in my story.

And then, finally, voice our criticisms. But not a vague, “you’re annoying sometimes.” A very specific, “you tend to talk with your mouth full at the dinner table when you get really excited,” or “during Bible study, you dominate the conversation.” Things that are legitimately fixable.

Hopefully, this will leave people excited about what they can become, rather than feeling shamed about who they are.

I’m very curious about your thoughts on the matter. What has your experience of offering/receiving criticism been like?

How To Write an Opinion That People Will Listen To

Two weeks ago I wrote an opinionated blog post titled “When Even a Mug is Too Much.” Using that post as a model, I’m going to tell you everything I’ve learned, after 12 years of blogging, about writing opinions that people will listen to.

Step 1: Form an opinion

Form an opinion. Don’t just copy one you saw on the internet.

Step 2: Connect your opinion to a story about your life

Let’s say you have a strong opinion about pit bulls. Humans are storytellers. We want to know why you have that opinion. Did you rescue a pit bull that everyone else was scared to adopt, only to have it be the most wonderful pet you could have imagined? Was your niece almost mauled by a pit bull? The story will serve as the heart of your opinion.

In my mug post, I connected my opinion on sustainability to an incident in which my very liberal teacher brought a disposable coffee cup to class every day, and yet thought it was odd that I brought a reusable mug.

Step 3: Write the rough draft

The post should have two parts: the story section, and the opinion section. First, briefly write down the story. Then start ranting about your opinion. Write everything you’ve always wanted to say on the subject.

I usually feel particularly rant-y right before bed. When I wrote my mug post, I couldn’t sleep because I was ranting in my head, so I vented to my blog. Then I saved it as a draft, to refine later.

The story portion was 262 words long. The opinion portion was 459 words.

Step 4: Delete the majority of your rant

People get so fired up about their opinions that they end up saying the same things over and over. This bogs the reader down. You want your opinion to be as sharp and concise as possible.

As an example of this, in my mug post, I came up with an analogy that I thought was so perfect. My rough draft read as follows, misspellings and all. (Remember, I was trying to type on my phone.)

A democrat and a republican were walking one day, when they came to a bridge. It was the only bridge in two miles. Peering closely at the bridge, the democrat said, “I don’t think that bridge is safe to cross.”
“Whatever,” said the Republican.
“No, I’m serious,” said the Democrat. “Look, the wood is rotten. Some of the support posts are buckeling. This bridge needs serious help. If it doesn’t break beneith us, we’ll weaken it so badly that the next people to walk across will fall through.”
“I don’t believe you,” said the Republican. “I’ve walked across this bridge before and it was fine.”
The Democrat was so frustrated. “It’s so obvious!” she said. And she pulled out some civil engeneering reports to show him, aranging the data into some easy-to-comprehend flowcharts.”
The republican schrugged. “I still don’t buy it,” she said.
Exhausted from trying to convince the republican, the democrat gave up. “Fine,” she said. “But when that bridge collapses, we’ll know who was right.” And in her heart she knew that morally, she believed the right thing.

With this settled, they both walked over the bridge. (Obviously. The next bridge was two miles out of the way)

In my edit, I thought, “what is the essence of what I am trying to say here?” and, “how can I say that in as few words as possible?”

I deleted sentence after sentence, and my final draft read as follows:

Democrats and Republicans, I’ve decided, are like two people who passionately argue about whether a bridge is structurally sound, and then both proceed to cross it anyway, because going downstream to the next bridge is too much bother.

Say exactly what you are trying to say, and no more. Delete, delete, delete. I went from a 459 word opinion section to a 248 word opinion section.

Step 5: Refine your story

In the story portion, focus on telling the story well. What parts should you tell first? What parts are irrelevant to your opinion? What details will draw your reader in?

In my mug post, I originally began my story this way:

Some teachers hide their political affiliation well. He didn’t. “I don’t know who you’re voting for,” he said, clutching his paper Allen Brothers coffee cup, “but, I mean, I hope it’s really obvious who you’re voting for.”

When Trump won he came to class looking a bit shell-shocked, as though the world wasn’t anything like he’d supposed it to be, all these years. His daily dose of caffeine was in his hand, perhaps the only thing keeping him functional.
One day he asked me about my mug.

Why did I begin my story with my professor’s political affiliation? That wasn’t the most interesting part. I switched things up, and began with the actual incident.

My writing professor walked into the classroom, set his paper Allan Brothers coffee cup on his desk, and hung his leather messenger bag over the back of his chair. His eyes swept around the circle of our desks, and came to rest on me. Looking both bewildered and bemused, he said, “can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I said.

“How does that work, you bringing a mug to class?”

Opinions should be stated in as few words as possible, but sometimes we need space to craft our stories well. The story section of my mug post was 262 words long in the rough draft, but I expanded it to 358 words in my final published post.

Other things to think about: Should I keep my story at the very beginning, or would it work better later on in the blog post? Should I use multiple stories to get my point across? Play with different options.

Step 6: Proofread your post, trying to see from the eyes of your audience

When you write an opinion, someone will misunderstand you. That is a sad reality of life.

Still, try to keep the misunderstandings to a minimum. Imagine your grandma reading it. Imagine your liberal neighbor reading it. Imagine your friend from elementary school clicking the link on Facebook and thinking about you again for the first time in years. What would be confusing to them? Re-word it. What would needlessly offend them? Consider adding a disclaimer.

Disclaimers are sticky subjects though, as too many will bog down your argument and make you seem a bit wishy-washy. I added a small disclaimer in my mug post, because I realized that I was painting liberal college students with a really broad brush. I wrote:

Granted, some people live very consistently with their values, and I respect that a lot.

Step 7: Publish!

Publish your opinion. Refresh your computer screen until you get your first comment. Edit your opinion post to clarify the thing they misunderstood. Go eat a cookie. Come back and find that three people think you’re amazing and one person thinks you’re judgmental. Panic. Draft three responses to their comment before deciding to just let it go.

Congratulations, you have published an opinion that people listen to.

This has been day 22 of the April Blogging Challenge. On day 20, mom posted about parenting teenage girls, and on day 21 Jenny wrote about things she wishes she could tell her younger self.

MOP April 13: Vindication

I was pretty bad at academic writing when I started college, which was hard on my ego. I mean, I’d published a book and stuff, how dare my teachers make notes in the margins of my papers telling me to take a writing class?

Humph.

Still, being of a practical frame of mind, I signed up for an entry-level writing class the next term.

Our first paper was supposed to be an essay about “the worst job I’ve ever had.” I wrote something clever and funny, and brought the rough draft to class to get critiqued. I think the idea was to get into small groups and critique each others’ papers, but as the teacher wandered from group to group giving helpful hints he decided to grab my paper and read the first paragraph out loud.

Oh no. My paper was not funny and interesting as I had previously thought. It was, instead, vague and confusing. At least, the first paragraph was. That’s all he read before flippantly dismissing it, and I went home with my writer ego a squashed mess.

I ranted to my mom about it over a cup of tea.

“I once had a writing teacher who absolutely tore my work to shreds in front of the whole class,” she said. “Then when I became a successful writer I saw him again, and he praised my work up and down, and I felt vindicated.”

After I got over the sting of criticism, I re-wrote the first paragraph to be less vague and confusing. The next class session, my teacher immediately came up to me. “Emily! I’m so sorry last class ended before I had a chance to critique your paper!”

“Um, yeah, well I guess the beginning was kinda confusing so I changed it,” I said, tentatively handing my paper to him.

He began reading it. “Yeah, this is great. This makes so much more sense.”

My writer ego scabbed over nicely.

Today, five years and several colleges later, I was finished with class and walking back to my car when someone yelled at me from across the street. “Hey, it’s the girl in the red rubber boots!”

I laughed as my former writing teacher crossed the street and came up to me, shaking my hands as if I were the celebrity and he was a fan. “I love your blog!” he said.

Mwa ha ha ha ha, vindication at last.