Author: Karley Conklin Page 1 of 2

bird by bird

Bird By Bird: A Timeless Writing Resource

“‘So why does our writing matter again?’ they ask. Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.” –Anne Lamott, pp. 237

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott should be on every writer’s shelf. Her advice offers encouragement through an honest discussion of what writing is like. Lamott sits her reader down and shares her experience as though she were chatting over a cup of coffee. As she shares, she addresses the feelings of anxiety, discouragement, and even jealousy that almost all writers face at some point. In doing so, she reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles. We all hit the wall on occasion, and it’s possible to keep going despite those setbacks.

Throughout the book, Lamott gives insight on ways to improve our writing. She offers advice on how to write better dialogue, how to stay motivated, and how to find a writing group. But mostly what she provides is inspiration to persevere. Every piece of insight resounds with encouragement (even while Lamott acknowledges the hardships of being a writer). And that prompting to persist, paired with her pithy advice, makes the book well-worth reading.

So here I want to share three of my favorite tid-bits of advice from the book:

1. “Dialogue is the way to nail character” (pp. 67).

In both her chapter on characters and her chapter on dialogue, Anne Lamott emphasizes the connection between the two. She argues that creating one line of strong dialogue that rings true captures your character better than a whole page of description (47). What a character says, or doesn’t say, or how he says it tells the reader how he thinks and what he cares about. Dialogue gives us insight into the personality of the people we read about and brings them to life. And therefore getting to know our characters is vital to creating good dialogue.

(*If you’d like to learn more about how to create strong characters and great dialogue, you should consider checking out Write2Ignite’s Master Class in September!)

2. “The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty” (pp. 178).

Lamott’s chapter on writer’s block focuses on the truth that all writers experience dry periods. Sometimes we get burnt out and our creativity stops flowing the way it usually does. Lamott says that the best thing to do when we reach these moments is to accept the block, the empty reality, so we can fill up again (pp.178). Her advice is practical: “Do your three hundred words, and then go for a walk” (182). Write a little each day to keep up the habit but then focus on activities that nourish you. Replenish your creativity rather than trying to eke out ink from a dry pen.

3. “You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be a writing” (pp. 202-203).

Bird by Bird includes an entire chapter dedicated to writing as giving. Our works-in-progress, she says, “teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else” (203-204). In order to write well, we have to pour everything we have into our writing. And in doing so, we have a chance to act as hosts for our readers, to welcome them in and offer them a feeling of connection (204).

This is especially important for us as Christians. If writing is our calling, then we should be willing to give it all we’ve got. Our words should be for God and for others, not simply for ourselves.

Final Review:

I could go on a while longer, pulling out clever quotes from Lamott’s book. But instead, I’ll simply recommend you pick up a copy for yourself.

Bird by Bird isn’t an earth-shattering text holding the key to the inner sanctum of writing. Instead, this book offers solid advice to steadily improve. It offers relatable accounts of the difficulties of writing and an honest assessment of what it’s like to be published. Lamott encourages us that while writing probably won’t bring us fame or fortune, it does carry with it its own rewards. Her whole book, start to finish, reverberates with the cry, “Just keep going.”

I give her book 4 1/2 out of 5 stars, if you’re looking for a rating.

What books have been encouraging you lately?

 

*******

Karley Conklin is a part-time librarian, part-time writer, and full-time bookworm. On her blog http://litwyrm.com/, she discusses all sorts of literature, from poetry to picture books. Her goal is to use the power of stories to remind others of hope and joy in a world that all too often forgets both.

writing goals

3 Tips for Restoring Broken Writing Goals

“I ask again, ‘What are your Writing Goals?’ Now sit down and write them out and put them where you can see them every day,”  (Lynette Hall Hampton, Writer to Writer, pp. 9)

In the sum of the writing resources I’ve read, the importance of setting writing goals is a common theme. Advice for would-be authors often includes a call to set your goals, make a plan to achieve them, and to stick with that plan. But what do we do with the plans we don’t stick to? How do we deal with the goals we’ve neglected so often that they’ve fallen to the wayside and shattered? What do we do with our broken writing goals?

My Problem Child

After reading the third chapter of Writer to Writer, I sat down to make my list of goals, like I’ve done so many times in the past few years. As is my habit, I started to write, “Finish editing Clouded Skies,” and I stopped before the pen hit the paper. In that moment, I knew this list would be meaningless for me.

You see, I finished writing my first book, Clouded Skies, five years ago. Then I went to college, and my goal of editing the book ended up on the shelf. It sat there, collecting dust, despite the many, many to-do lists with “edit Clouded Skies” written across the top. Finishing my first book was scribbled on every set of New Year’s resolutions and every list of plans for the summer. I set myself multiple deadlines of when I’d have it done, all of which passed without notice. Until recently, I never got past editing chapter four.

And because the book sat on the shelf for so long, the goal of finishing it came to feel less and less achievable.

My Realization

I realized this week that our goals are promises we make to ourselves, and when we break those promises, we break our own trust. In neglecting my goals, I began to doubt my abilities and commitment as a writer because I’d created a pattern of ignoring what I claimed was important.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one. When life’s busy seasons hit full-force, it can become easy to believe that our goals belong on the back-burner. If we give into that temptation, we chip away at our confidence in our calling. Broken writing goals can damage our relationship with our writing voice, and like in any relationship, that damaged trust has to be rebuilt little by little.

So how do we restore our broken writing goals?

1. Put down the list—

If you’re like me and you’re dealing with goals you’ve neglected, stop writing them down. Stop talking about them. Even stop picturing them as goals. As counter-intuitive as it seems, I found that talking about my neglected project made it feel like an item on my bucket list. Finishing my book became a nebulous idea rather than a goal of substance–an idea trapped in the realm of “someday”.

So rather than viewing your project as a goal, view it as a priority. Let it become a normalized part of your life, like cooking dinner or doing laundry. Stop talking about your goal as a dream; instead, treat it as a reality.

2. Embrace imperfection—

Another issue that kept me procrastinating was my belief that my book had to be perfect. The fear that my book would never be as good as I believed it could be was crippling . . . until I made the decision that it’s worth the risk.

In writing, just like in life, sometimes being present is far more important than being perfect. Showing up, shaping the words, and sending them out guarantees growth if nothing else. So allow yourself room to make mistakes and go get started.

3. Take action—

Start small. Maybe it’s setting an appointment with yourself to write five minutes a day. Perhaps it’s entering one contest. Even if you aren’t ready to start marching toward that one big goal, take small steps to complete other goals that lead up to it. Making progress on other writing-related activities proves to yourself that you are serious about this dream. It shouts that you are ready to commit and be proactive.

Bonus Tip:  Make a Plan. Stick to it–

When we’ve neglected a goal for a while, it might take some time to get back into a good rhythm. We might need to shift our approach to get the ball rolling again, but there’s no magic formula for keeping momentum once we’ve started. At the end of the day, we still have to decide to persevere. We still have to persistently move forward, choosing daily, weekly, monthly to keep striving toward the goals we feel called to reach.

But here’s the good news: a broken goal isn’t beyond repair. Even if you’re doubting yourself, the fact that the goal remains on your list is proof that you haven’t given up. You haven’t let it go.

And if you are truly called to write, then I believe that God won’t let you give up. I believe He’ll keep tugging at your heart, nudging you to follow the path He’s set before you.

What’s one way you’re striving to meet your goals today?

 


Karley Conklin is a part-time librarian, part-time writer, and full-time bookworm. On her blog http://litwyrm.com/, she discusses all sorts of literature, from poetry to picture books. Her goal is to use the power of stories to remind others of hope and joy in a world that all too often forgets both.

hope and honesty

Barking with The Big Dogs: Hope and Honesty for Children

“It is necessary to be hopeful to write successfully for children, yes, because children themselves are generically hopeful, but the quality of hopefulness is not an immature quality.” -Natalie Babbitt ( pp 42)

Natalie Babbitt’s book Barking with the Big Dogs is a collection of her essays and speeches written over several years. In all the various topics she focuses on, from types of fantasies to critical thinking to childhood itself, there are two major themes that pop up repeatedly: hope and honesty.

Hope is woven into the very nature of children’s books. Babbitt kicks off with an essay on happy endings and explains that children’s literature contains a quality of joy adult fiction lacks. In fantasy for kids, the belief that the world can and will be better is proven true. What is a happy ending if not a proof of hope? The villain can be defeated, the ordinary child can be a hero, and the world can be saved. Hope and optimism reign in children’s literature.

Does this mean that children’s books must present utopias?

Absolutely not. Natalie Babbitt claims that when authors try to write perfect worlds, they instead create worlds that are, “patently artificial, a placebo, lacking. . . consistency with the author’s philosophy” (37). In order to escape the one-dimensional depictions of life, Babbitt explains that authors need to write with “as much honesty and skill as we can muster,” (40).

She argues that we need to write stories that have flawed characters and flawed worlds, because flaws are part of human nature. But she also writes that we need to write authentically within our worldview. If we try to write what we don’t believe, we rob our stories of depth.

Herein lies the important message for Christian authors. For Christians, a huge part of writing truthfully is writing hopefully. Hope and honesty go hand in hand for us.

Natalie Babbitt misses this connection between the two. She writes, “it seems a peculiarly contradictory thing for the Bible to say in one place that truth is liberating when in another place it puts hope on a level with faith and charity. . . For hope and truth don’t always go together” (108).

However, hope and honesty are inseparable.

As Christians, the truth we cling to is our hope. God overcomes our greatest fears with His power and promises. The hope of eternity stands in defiance to death, the promise of God’s provision quiets our daily worries, and prayer itself brings us to God’s throne when we face trials.

Babbitt views as a contradiction something she doesn’t understand. She doesn’t recognize a solid hope. Her hope seems to be simply defined as the belief in possibility. She writes, “Life is infinitely more interesting when we can believe in the possibility of something wonderful just over the next hill” (110).

For Christians, hope is so much deeper. We know that something wonderful lies over the next hill. We know that the God of the universe is sustaining His creation. The son of God came to bring us life, and He’s coming again soon. His resurrection is the promise that everything broken will be renewed. A new heaven, a new earth, and a life forever with Him. What greater hope could we ask for?

Therefore, since we have such hope, the only honest way we can write is with that same joy. Hope and honesty should define Christian fiction.

Perhaps more than any other authors, we have the ability to write happy endings authentically. We believe in the greatest happy ending the world will ever know. The ultimate defeat of evil, ordinary people chosen by God for great tasks, and the world forever saved.

As we enter Easter week, may we reflect on the incredible hope that Jesus has brought to the world. May our hope and honesty in our writing be a light in the darkness.

Book Review:

What about the book itself? Natalie Babbitt’s essay collection wasn’t what I expected. While the essays usually focus on discussions around children’s literature, they also tap into Babbitt’s philosophy on life. Her words are instructional at times, but are more personal at others. If you choose to read this book, pick it up as an opportunity to hear the perspective of a fellow author. You’ll learn far more from her words if you view it as a conversation rather than as a lesson.

Overall, I give her book 3  1/2 out of  5 stars. She makes some strong points, but there are still lulls in the book, as well as points that seem out of place or repetitive.

Learning to Think In Pictures

Picture-Driven Stories: Learning to Think in Pictures

“A picture book illustrator needs to tell a story with pictures. A picture book author needs to show the same story with words.”Jean Matthew Hall 

When I attended last year’s Write2Ignite conference, I went to Jean Matthew Hall’s discussion, What is a Picture Book. One of her main points was that a true picture book tells the story through both the illustrations and the words. Without either, the story would be incomplete.

When the illustrations build the story, rather than merely reflecting the words, it adds a layer of magic and delight to the book. But while it’s easy to recognize that pictures and words work together to make great stories, it’s sometimes hard to write a book designed to be accompanied by images (especially if you aren’t an illustrator). In order for pictures to help tell the story, the words have to leave enough unsaid.

As a beginning picture book writer, I struggle to leave details unsaid. My brain wants to describe everything, leaving no creative space for a future illustrator. The words feel like the heavy-lifters, so I don’t want to leave too much work for the pictures to do. I struggle with deciding what to show with my words, and what to leave for the pictures to tell.

What has helped me to look at my story drafts differently is reading picture-driven stories.

Picture-driven stories remind me that the words don’t have to do all the work. The illustrations are capable of taking on a larger role than I give them credit for.

One great example of this is Watersong by Tim McCanna. In this beautifully illustrated book, the words are entirely onomatopoeia. They are poetry, providing the sound track to the story told in the images. A fox runs through a storm, and though not a word is said about the fox, the reader is engaged by his experience.  The overall tone is heartwarming and satisfying. This is a story that had to be told in pictures; words simply could not have produced the same effect. Reading it reminded me that sometimes, simplicity in words creates the perfect atmosphere for imagination.

The opportunity pictures provide for imagination is even better seen in wordless picture books. I didn’t realize this genre existed until I began working at a library where patrons asked for help finding them. One fun example I found is Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman. (I was on a rainy-day kick this week). In this book, a young boy all alone in a big house finds a key, which leads him to explore and to find unexpected friends. Told in colorful images, the story guides the reader through the action and curiosity but leaves space for us to imagine as well. What is the boy feeling, thinking, saying? All that is left to our interpretation.

As a writer focused on words, reading a story without a single sentence in it lets me exercise a muscle I don’t usually use.

The advantage of reading books where the story is told mostly or entirely in images is that it trains my brain to think differently. They teach me to think in pictures. Suddenly, I’m not hearing my story being told; I’m seeing it. My narrative becomes a Pixar short film in my mind rather than a podcast.

Without steeping myself in the power of illustrations, it’s hard to let go of my pet narrations and descriptions. Cutting away the unnecessary details becomes easier when I’m reminded of the beauty of discovering the story visually. Wordless picture books like Rainstorm and picture-driven stories like Watersong help me to experience the capabilities of pictures. They teach me to be a better writer by showing me what I don’t need to write.

What are some of your favorite picture books? Do you think their stories are more word-driven or picture-driven?

 

writing

Writing Resources: Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams

“This book is for you–the person who wants to be published or grow in your writing craft  . . . My desire is for your writing to thrive and move into a higher gear after you read these pages.” (W. Terry Whalin, pp. 20)

Writing for publication is a skill that must be learned, and one of the best ways to learn is to go to the experts. Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams by W. Terry Whalin offers solid advice in clear, easy-to-digest sections which motivate you to work toward your goals.  At the end of each chapter, Whalin includes Dig Deeper lists of additional resources that elaborate on the subjects he discusses. He also offers questions for reflection and challenges you to take action based on what you’ve learned. Whalin aims throughout the book to help you define and achieve your goals as a writer, and in doing so, he creates an informative, encouraging text that you’ll want to keep ready at hand. 

Here’s a sneak peek of what Whalin has to say:

Fittingly enough for a book focused on achieving dreams, Whalin spends chapter two discussing the importance of making a plan for your writing. This chapter grabbed my attention the first time I read it because it makes two very convicting points.

First,

Whalin asks us to consider what our Time Wasters are, listing among them emails, family interruptions, and even writing opportunities. He explains, “Whether you have several hours a day or a full day to accomplish your writing goals, it is easy to fill those hours with ‘good things’ that do not help you move toward the fulfillment of those goals” (pp. 32). As an expert procrastinator, this line stung me a little. Whenever I sit down to write, there are a million other to-dos floating through the back of my mind. All of them seem more important, or at least equally important to the task at hand. But at the end of the day, time set aside for writing needs to be set aside for writing. If we want to accomplish our goals, we have to be willing to make them a priority. And that means sometimes, it’s okay to say no to other opportunities, even good opportunities. Our writing is worth devoting our full attention to, even if it requires a little sacrifice.

Second,

Whalin reminds us to make consistent short-term goals. Big-hairy goals, as a professor of mine used to call them, are great. Necessary, even. Dreaming big inspires our writing, helping us to believe in the possibilities. Short-term goals, however, make those big-hairy dreams achievable. Whalin explains that the key to being productive is to continually set smaller goals and follow through with them. Every small milestone brings you a step closer to your destination. While writing a 500 page novel can be daunting to consider, writing 5 pages a day is a manageable plan. And over time, the consistent effort of 5 pages a day will create the finished novel that was so intimidating at the beginning.

These tidbits of wisdom barley scratch the surface of all you’ll find in this book. Every chapter brings with it more applicable information, getting deeper as you go through.

So How Would I Rate This?

I give Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams 5 out of 5 jumping goldfish. 

This book is designed to be put into practice. Whalin’s conversational tone, real-life examples, and calls to action make the book engaging, and the advice is easy to understand and apply.  Reading each chapter left me with the same feeling I get when I leave a writer’s conference: I just can’t wait to get started. I hope you’ll add a copy to your shelf, and if you do, I hope you learn as much from this book as I did. 

One final question before you go. What is one short-term goal you have for your writing, or that you’d like to set for your writing today?

 

Whalin, W. Terry. Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams: Insider Secrets to Skyrocket Your Success. WTW Press, 2009.

 

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