an amateur writer’s advice for amateur writing

I hesitate to call myself a writer, and I often even hesitate to call myself an aspiring one. “Amateur” even seems too grand a term for me because I feel like other “amateurs” have a better grasp of this whole thing than I do and are way ahead of me.

When my friends call me a writer, I flinch.

It’s a great honor to be considered so by people who know and love you, but it also feels daunting and big, like there are high expectations to meet and big clown shoes to fill, and I only have size 7 feet.

In my head, I feel that I haven’t earned the privilege to be categorized among people like Toni Morrison, Joseph Conrad, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ray Bradbury, JRR Tolkien, Sandra Cisneros, etc., etc., etc. In my heart, I know they all sat where I’m sitting, agonizing over blank notebooks with a pen weighing heavy on their hand, needing to put to paper what makes sense in their own minds but may not translate properly outside of it. In my heart, I know they risked being misunderstood, I know they had moments where they didn’t know if they would make it, I know they had bad first drafts and more than their share of rejections and criticisms—fair or otherwise. The heart may be more deceitful than all else, but sometimes your head’s just as bad.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking of all the things that I assume writers do that I’m doing wrong and learning to accept that none of it matters. We don’t write for others so much as we write for ourselves, and we don’t write for the finish line so much as we write to discover the adventure that lies on the path to it—whether “it” (the finish line) even exists at all. There are a lot of weird things that I do as an aspiring storyteller that I highly doubt anyone else does (though I’m sure I would be surprised. We are an odd bunch after all), and there are things others do that don’t work for my brain. Whatever the process, what matters is that we do what we must.

So here is a list of amateur advice from a fellow amateur that has been marinating and baking in my brain:

1) Don’t let anyone tell you how or what to write.

I was at lunch with a group of writers and aspiring writers who were all just meeting each other (it was introvert hell, let me be upfront). One of the guys had always written mystery, but he decided he would write romance this time around since there’s money in it. Perhaps he will find his groove and produce a wonderfully written romance novel. But if it were me, and I was writing to sell novels, it would read like a dry and boring piece that I wrote in order to sell novels. It doesn’t help that romance is not a genre I’m actually interested in. It doesn’t excite me or make me feel alive or accomplished. It makes me feel gross actually. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a little romance within the big narrative, but I don’t fancy it as the big narrative. For me, I feel alive and accomplished after going on an epic quest, slaying beasts and conquering foes. And it’s likely going to be other adventurers like myself who will enjoy the things I want to write about, so long as I’m honest with my words and myself.

But that being said…

2) Write outside of your comfort zone.

While you know best what you enjoy writing about, don’t be afraid to write about things you don’t know or understand (bonus points if you explore something you don’t agree with). If we all only wrote about comfortable subjects and things we totally get, we wouldn’t have books that touch our souls and make us sing and weep and grow. Stay within your moral boundaries and be true to yourself, but don’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects or situations either. It’s a delicate thing to balance, I know. But writing is about growth and discovery after all. Be forewarned, however, that your characters may not share your moral grounds, and you’ll need to be prepared for that tension and decide which is more important: your beliefs or theirs, your behaviors or theirs. One of you will lose the argument, and both options could have dramatic effects on your story. Whose voice is needed in what you’re doing? I understand it is not easy to walk the line, so give yourself a little grace, and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Baby steps are how we all learned anything after all.

Along the same vein…

3) Find your people.

Your people. Your tribe. Your crew. The ones who may “get” you and your quirks, but definitely the ones who appreciate it. This could be fellow writers or the people you want to take on your adventure (which I guess could also be fellow writers… we were all readers and adventurers first after all). Recently, I’ve been realizing how “compromising” some of my Google search history can look because I’m trying to write about something I don’t know that may be outside my comfort zone. If you judged me based off that alone, your conclusion would likely be that I am a pregnant serial killer who is deeply involved in a cult. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m actually just an office worker with lofty dreams of writing fantasy stories (and I’m most definitely not pregnant). In talking to other researchers, I feel at ease that it is not just me that the CIA/FBI/Interpol have their eyes on, and if we’re ever imprisoned together, we can rest assured we will never be bored. It would suck, yes. But we would be with our people. And we will always understand the struggle. 😉

4) Find/do what you need, no matter how ridiculous or small or crazy it is.

I’ve seen the way people outline their novels, and I am so jealous. It looks so… structured and simple, and it works for them. They have a pattern established, a formula to fill in, and everything just falls into place and clicks for them in their heads.

I can’t do it.

Instead, I write in the most roundabout and convoluted way that would elicit the criticism of being inefficient, and that criticism wouldn’t be wrong.

But you know what?

Who cares.

I’ll share my crazy method so that you can feel better about yours because I’m fairly confident that no one else is this inefficient in their plotting.

I like to interview my characters. Yes, I know there are character profile forms out there that I can fill out with their hobbies and favorite songs, but it’s just not enough to know them on paper or to only know about them. I want to know them. Who they are, how they’ll react to spiders, what happens after they eat spicy food. I’ll ask mundane questions to get to know their personality and mannerisms, and I’ll interview multiple characters together sometimes to see how they interact. But I don’t leave it at just this. I have my protagonist tell me the entire story from beginning to end, and ride along whatever rabbit trail or detour they want to take me on (and sometimes that I take myself on because I do not write from beginning to end. I’ll write the scene I want to write at the time I am sitting down to write because that excitement will translate into the scene itself). And I’ll ask supporting characters to tell me about certain big or small events that I find important within that grand story from their perspective. One thing I am not so great at yet is doing this with my antagonist and actually wanting to do this with my antagonist. I want to hate them so bad sometimes that being in the same room with them is unnerving. But their story is important, too. It also has a place in the larger narrative.

And once I’m satisfied I’ve covered all my bases and have looked at it from enough angles, I’ll get started.

I can’t tell you how successful this is or isn’t because this is one of the first instances where I’m spending so much time and effort, but I can tell you that throughout this process, everything that I’ve attempted so far has clicked in my head, and I feel like I can fill in the details and do the story justice once I really get it going.

Fair warning, though, you can very easily get sick and tired of your characters and story with this because of how much time you spend together. Which is largely why I’m fairly confident no one else is this crazy. 😛

Oh. And I also need to do everything with pen and paper first. My brain thinks differently with a pen than it does with a keyboard. This one I know other people run into, so at least in this, I’m not alone. Tack this onto “inefficient” as well, though. Like I’d just mentioned, I don’t write in order; I write what I feel like writing when I sit down to do it. I’d get lost having to scroll through a Word document and hoping that I’ve put it out of the way enough from the previous scene I wrote or that I pasted it back in the right place. My notebooks have notes all over that a certain scene “continues on page XX” or “continued from page AA,” etc. And THEN I can piece it together easily when I type it out and feel confident that I have things in the right places.

Speaking of pen and paper, here’s another ridiculous quirk I have that I’m convinced is important: I cannot use completely blank notebooks. I find blank pages to be totally intimidating, and I struggle to start and put something on it. It feels judgmental and sterile. Too clean. Untrustworthy.

But it’s more complicated than that. It’s not enough to just have a picture or something in the corner, and it’s most certainly not good enough to just have the same pattern or design on every page.

You can imagine how complicated and difficult it is for me to find a proper notebook! It’s hard to explain what kind of notebook I like, but the best I’ve got is “stained” or watercolored. I usually have a pretty good run with Ellie Claire journals, but even those don’t have everything I want (they have most things, though, so I like them).

My ideal journal:

  • Has stained pages that are unique to each page (MOST important – see image)
  • Is a thin hardcover
  • Lays flat (I will settle for a spiral bound, but I like the ones with a flat binding just a bit more)

I think that’s about it as far as what the non-negotiables of the perfect notebook are for me. But little details change here and there as I discover more notebooks and whatnot.

See? Don’t you feel better that your Type A brain is not as ridiculous as mine? And don’t you feel better knowing your plotting methods are probably not as complicated as mine? But you know what? This all works for me. And if this is what it takes to get me writing and moving forward, then it’s a good method, no matter what it may look like from the outside. I am completely unapologetic about any of this. Don’t ever apologize for being who you are. You do you, friend. No one else can do it better. 🙂

Finally…

5) Get out of your own way.

We’ve all heard it. “You’re your own worst critic.” It may sound cliché and trite, but you know what, it’s true. You really are the one that is and will be most critical of yourself and your work. There are days I feel like I don’t want to or legitimately can’t write. Whether I’m too full or too empty, some days I just don’t have the energy to transfer thought to paper. I’ve been told to write anyway because if you wait till you feel like it, you’ll never write.

I’m learning to take that advice with a grain of salt.

There is a lot of truth to that statement, but you also know yourself. If you need to discipline yourself to write in order to build good habits, then do it. Just remember that no one needs to see it if you don’t like it, and also remember that you’re writing to develop a discipline. You’re not going to fart rainbows. Allow yourself to have crappy writing because all first drafts suck (sometimes second and third drafts, too), and the sooner we accept it, the better off we’ll be. And don’t be overly critical of yourself or beat yourself up for not wanting to write or for needing to force yourself to write. I don’t want to get out of bed some days, and I don’t feel bad for needing to force myself to do so in order to get to work and make a paycheck to pay for all my complicated notebooks and pretty fountain pens, and I’m not sure if you’ve realized it, but traveling to new and exciting lands can be expensive (BUY ALL THE BOOKS!).

This is in no way a comprehensive list of things to do or not do, or to be or not be (that is, indeed, the question 😉 ) in order to be a good writer, but these are things to keep in mind in order to love what you’re doing and not let anyone convince you otherwise. Writing is for you before it is for anyone else. It doesn’t always “feel good,” but it is rewarding in its own way.

In writing, there is a vulnerability that most don’t realize exists. It’s not safe. It’s not quiet. You are not in control. It is a raging storm, threatening to overthrow your mental stability and challenge everything you’ve been taught and everything you believe to be good and right and true. Writing is an entire ocean trapped within a single, solitary tear. The writer is both slave and master to her words. She can give genesis to them in her mind, but they will do as they please once she does, and she will be as bound to them as they to her.

The road from amateur to writer is fraught with adversity and frustration, and you’re going to want to quit more times than you can count and certainly more times than you’ll care to admit.

But if this is what makes your heart sing and your soul breathe, hold onto it with all your might and then some.

Some days, I need to write more than I want to write. Some days, I have to remind myself that this is the dream that God put in my heart. Some days, I have to remember that writing is how I must worship because it is how I will best worship. When our passion and our talent brings us closer to God than anything else, then this is a gift that He has given us in order to bless and love us that we may, in turn, bless and love Him and work to His glory, and it is a waste to not experience what makes us feel so alive.

I don’t feel like a real writer yet, and maybe I never will. Maybe we never really do. Maybe the journey to becoming one is the whole point.

So, my fellow amateurs, novices, and friends, let’s keep our pens moving and put to page the story that is trying to escape from our hearts through every pore in our body. Let’s write and write and write as though our very breath depends upon each word, each letter that graces the page. Let’s build worlds that will welcome us home with warm tea and a fresh pie when we just need a little me time. Let’s allow the beating of our hearts to be heard through the words and imageries that are coursing and singing through our veins.

Write, writers, and see how we can change the world.

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live life in music

I often hear sermons and talks, or read some uplifting article that compares life to music. In particular, they discuss major and minor keys; major, being the one that sounds happier and more vibrant and open, and is therefore the favorable one. Minor key sounds a little more somber and ominous, so choosing to stay in the minor is not ideal. Without fail, each message tends to push people to choose to live their life in major key.

I hate this illustration.

As it turns out, I happen to love music in the minor key. I find it gorgeous, powerful, and so deeply emotional. Most of my favorite songs and orchestral pieces are in minor.

And not all songs in major are particularly wholesome—they just tell a different story. Sure, some songs I like are also in major. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional pep, but really poppy and bright and exciting music can be exhausting after a while (at least for me… I’m sure deeply emotive music is exhausting for others).

So I don’t think that it’s fair to urge people toward a major key just because it sounds more uplifting. This is a very base judgment, and it paints minor key music in a negative light. Plus, it’s just not realistic. You don’t always get to choose to “live in” a major key. Minor key times—serious and sometimes solemn times—come. You can’t just force it to become major so that you can bury and ignore it. That’s not a healthy reaction.

I find that to be what’s beautiful about the minor key. It weeps with you, drives you forward, and, yes, it can even rejoice with you. It’s the quiet, awkward kid in the room that likes to collect bugs and lectures people on the importance of the Oxford Comma. But once you get to know her, you find layers of complexity and feelings that can’t always be expressed properly, causing her to be misunderstood and avoided.

Major key music is a little more straightforward. Sure, there are also layers, but at least to me, major key feels like that friend that doesn’t get too close, or the extrovert that meets you in a new group but doesn’t connect with you very deeply. They get you in the door; the kid with the bug collection keeps you coming back.

Major and minor keys serve different purposes. (Like Imperial March conveys a vastly different message when performed major.) Our lives will be filled with both. Major key may be “happier” and more “attractive,” but rather than advising people to strive for the major and avoid the minor, isn’t it wonderful that you can make beautiful music in minor key? These layers are carefully constructed to show all the wonderful moments of your life, including the more serious and melancholy ones. The victory fanfares that come at the end of a long phrase in minor is pretty epic, too, but they would feel less so attached to a major phrase.

Much of my life has been in the minor by most speakers’ portrayal of the minor key. Yet I find that beauty can rise above the ashes. I never want to repeat any of those times, nor do I wish them on anyone, but I sure do appreciate the lessons I learned and the ways I grew because of them.

Maybe this is why I love the minor key so much.

status update

I’m considering using this blog as a place to post status updates and general things happening in my brain while I’m writing. I’d definitely like to keep this still going, even if it’s not so frequent.

To start, there are lots of things I have to research in order to be able to write, and this gives me an awkward Google search history. If you look at my search terms when I’m researching, you’ll probably assume I’m a serial killer, in a cult, or pregnant. Or all of the above.

Other research requires more than a simple search, so I’m currently in a self-defense class (I’m primarily in the class because I’m a very small woman, and I’ve always wanted to learn, but the research is great, too). I’m also making a case to learn how to use a sword because that’s definitely necessary as an aspiring fantasy writer.

These reasons are totally valid, right?

Or maybe it’s like I said in my previous entry, and I’m experiencing quarter-life crisis.

Either way, it’s going to involve swords.

stand by me

Hello to my handful(?) of faithful followers.

I wanted to say thank you for walking with me through my blogging journey thus far. As you may have noticed, my regular posting has declined in recent years, and I have made several promises on my Facebook page for more posts, and I haven’t followed through.

There was a long, dry season where I felt as though I was going through the motions. I didn’t write because I didn’t have anything to say. I did not pray very much during this time because I was struggling with shame and probably depression (though I was not diagnosed). It was difficult for me to get out of bed and do anything because I just felt like I would screw up the rest of my day the moment my feet hit the floor. I felt like the biggest screwup on this side of eternity, and I saw no way of God ever wanting me. Yes, I knew that I’d walked this path many a time, and He has always taken me back, but there’s always that one little voice that says, “What if that was it? What if you’ve exhausted God’s grace, and He’s tired of cleaning up the same messes over and over? What if God has no purpose for you anymore? What if you never hear His voice again?”

I leaned into all of those thoughts and did not look to God for answers (which just perpetuated the shame and sent me deeper into the spiral).

Then one day, I bought a used Playstation and Final Fantasy XV off a seminary student.

Not where you thought I was going, was it? But bear with me for a bit.

I started playing this game and seeing how well-written the characters were. Rather than feeling like a game that I was trying to beat, it felt like I was among friends, exploring a vast and gorgeous world (albeit a little daemon-infested). I started piecing hints within the game together and seeing how the world works, seeing the stories within the story, and putting all of that together to assemble the overall narrative and the history of their world.

Around this same time, I was also waiting to hear if I got accepted to seminary myself. There was a time in my life where I was very interested in seminary, if not for the money. I got one of my BAs in Bible/Theology, and I’ve pretty much always enjoyed exegesis and inductive Bible study. I love seeing the way things fit together and how perfectly they connect. I love finding out the cultural context for why God did things a certain way. I also loved seeing the meanings of words and the message they convey. Funny enough, this sounds like all the reasons I loved FFXV.

So June comes around, and I get word that I’d been accepted, and we’d figure out the deposits and such in the next week or so. At this time, now that it was real, and there was a deadline, I started asking if this was what I truly wanted to do. I was going to be able to do this at a discount, but did I want to spend years and money on a degree I didn’t know what to do with? One I wasn’t sure I still wanted? I went back to leaning on my logic (which has failed me every time in decision-making when what’s logical doesn’t line up with what I actually want), and I thought that I should do this. It seemed wrong to not want to study the Bible and theology when this opportunity was open for me. And I needed to do something different to get me out of my funk.

That weekend, I took a drive to see a former English student of mine graduate from university. Heading home, I was stuck in two hours of traffic, so I had lots of time to contemplate the meaning of life and what I was doing with it (hint: it wasn’t much). Since I had time, I called a friend (hands-free, of course, because I’m safe like that) and kind of verbally vomited on him, discussing my conflict between seminary and suddenly feeling pulled back toward storytelling. All those times leading up to this conversation when I was talking about the depth of the story of FFXV were times I was most alive. You could hear the excitement in my voice inflections, and I could not stop talking about it. My friend suggested I take a few days to pray about it and decide what it is I really want to do, and I realized I didn’t need a few days; I knew I wanted to create worlds that people will want to visit, characters that people will fall in love with, and stories that will make people cry tears of joy and sorrow. We realized that seminary was not the right environment for what I wanted to do, and I withdrew my application and acceptance.

I’ve said that fiction has a way of getting past people’s defenses to teach them lessons they were too stubborn to learn head on. It seems God agrees and used the same tactic on me. Don’t ever tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humor when He is the same God that used a video game to set me back on the path of writing. Writing has been the way I connect most to God, and it is the way I worship Him best. I spoke to another friend after getting home from that long drive, and he asked me the same question. What is it you really want to do? I answered a little more confidently this time, just an hour or so later. He then asked me if I thought pursuing this would hinder my relationship with God, to which I answered that I think it would be the exact opposite. He replied that he figured this was the case, and when it is, when our passion and our talent brings us closer to God than anything else, then this is a God-given gift, and we need to use it to worship Him because this gives Him our best worship. It becomes less of “I want to write” and more of “I need to write,” and I definitely feel this when pen meets paper, and I fill several pages with ink and story.

Since then, I’ve been trying my best to write regularly. I’ve been going through an online novel workshop, taking a few hours to put pen to paper, and occasionally meeting up with a friend to do some work. I am also trying to find a mentor to walk this journey with me, as I am not a very skilled storyteller. I’m not sure I’m really even a novice—novices seem to be ahead of me in this area—but this is what feeds my soul and makes my heart sing.

yes, i’m a grown woman, and i like video games.

Writing has also propelled me into other interests. I picked up sewing because I wanted to have a bag for my notebooks and pens, and I couldn’t find anything that was the right size and feel. I don’t usually like carrying bags, so I figured if this was the best way, I’d carry a bag that I liked, and since I couldn’t find that, I decided to make it. It actually didn’t turn out half bad, and it fits everything perfectly. I have more fabric to try so I can have more writing satchels, and I’m pretty excited about creating things. I’ve also turned a few old t-shirts into totes.

reversible tote, ftw!

Aside from sewing, I’ve also acquired an interest in hiking. I suppose with how epic things have been in my brain, I feel that real life should be a little more epic, too. Or I’m going through a quarter-life crisis and just want to try all the things (I also want to learn how to ride a motorcycle and am currently learning self-defense). Either way, I get out of bed a little easier these days.

All this to say, I think my season of regular blogging has run its course. I hope to still post irregularly (as I have been) when I have something to say or ponder, but I am going to be focusing on a new writing adventure. I’ve been thinking I’d create a weekly episodic blog with connected short stories every week or bi-week (like a podcast for readers). This may well happen once I build my world and work out the rest of my outlines and character sketches, and I will announce it here once it does. I am most definitely not a good novelist presently, but I may do all right in short bursts, and the practice can’t hurt.

Anyhow, I just wanted to close with another thank you to all of you who have stuck with me to this point, and also to those of you who will walk with me in this next season of writing. I can’t do this without you.

Walk tall, my friends.

One More Choice

I’ve had Facebook for the last 3 elections, and I have never seen things get as personal as this one. Discussions were not being had; people were being talked at. If someone voiced a different opinion, they were not welcomed into the discussion, but belittled and attacked.

And this happened among friends.

The damage has been done, the words have been said, and the wounds have been inflicted. We are tired. We are all tired of hearing one thing or another, and being made to fit into one box or another. We are numb and weak from fighting back.

But I’m asking that we all make one more choice.

Decide if it’s more important for you to be right, or if it’s more important for you to be in right relationship with those in your community and your circle of friends.

These are the people who will go to your kids’ soccer games, run the booster club with you, or sit with you for coffee or a meal. The politicians will continue to be faces in the crowd and our TVs, and they will be perched on a mountaintop we cannot scale. They will never love us back, nor will they feed and clothe us when we are broken.

But we, the people, will be in each other’s lives, day in and day out. We, the people, must be each other’s community, and we must hope for a successful term, whether we voted him in or not.

Because what he does in these next 4 years does not affect only those who voted for him, but it affects all of us and even the world, and the generations that follow. If the captain doesn’t know what he is doing, the ship will sink with all aboard.

So pray for our neighbors, pray for our leaders—both locally and federally. Decide if a relationship is worth it, and say what you need to say in order to mend it or move on from it. Think before you speak and act. Listen before you pass judgment. Learn what it means to truly love, sacrificially and unconditionally, to the point where it is uncomfortable and asks us to give everything we have.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is not a nice sentiment. It is a command. Love your neighbor. Love your African American neighbor. Love your Mexican neighbor. Love your Asian neighbor. Love your gay neighbor. Love your hypocritical neighbor. Love your white neighbor. Love your Muslim neighbor. Love your racist neighbor.

Love like Christ loved the church and gave all for her.

Looking Glass

How does a goat become a sheep?

The girl sat alone, peering at the woman who stared out toward her seated on her own seat. Eyes locked, the two held each other’s gaze as the girl struggled for recognition of the face gazing back at her with mournful eyes that have seen far too much.

The woman looked quite familiar. Straight, natural black hair – disheveled in some places but all-around healthy-looking. Pink lips were cracked and healing. Her cheeks were hollow, as though she had been starved for quite some time. Dark shadows clung to her eyes, haunting her with every blink, aging her significantly.

And those root beer-brown eyes. They gazed at the girl with a life that was fading, one that had near given up. There was no spark, no flash, no vibrancy. There was only guilt, hurt, and trauma. These eyes had long ago subjected themselves to things they desired, lusted after. They sought those things out and ravished themselves in the arms of what they so desperately believed they needed.

Guilt crashed against pleasure until it became nearly impossible to tell the two apart. These eyes had taken the fruit, and now they saw too much. Now their innocence was shattered. Now their desires had poisoned her heart.

There was something hauntingly beautiful about this woman, the girl thought. While it was plain to see that she had done much that she was ashamed of and indulged far too much on her addictions, somewhere buried deep within her heartaches and guilt was a small twinkle of light that fought to survive and sowed the seeds of hope. Watered by grace, the seed died and then began to sprout, and its roots plunged deep into her core, cutting through the pain, the terror, the shame.

Grace cultivated hope until it brought forth leaves and soon after blossoms and finally fruit. As hope grew, the woman’s face seemed to come to life. Her cheeks filled in, her hair cascaded around her face like silk adorning a princess. The shadows that once hugged her eyes now gripped on for dear life, but soon even they had been replaced by a fullness that gave even more life to those eyes. Hope bloomed and soon consumed the entire fields, requiring the weeds to be pulled one by one quickly.

The woman seemed alive and much more like her age. A smile grew and slowly stretched outward toward the woman’s ears, kissed by the sparkle in her eyes. As the girl continued to look at the woman, recognition finally came as she touched her face, finding a smile that had bloomed to her ears, kissed by the sparkle in her eyes.

The girl and the young woman took one last look at each other wearing smiles fed by hope, placed their hands on their tables and pushed away from each other and toward a new day.

How does a goat become a sheep? Give me grace, give me healing. Let my fleece glow like freshly fallen snow. Cut off my horns, and make me beautiful. And let me graze in Your fields and with Your fold forever.