Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refreshing read for the discouraged creative soul, Big Magic is essentially a long, written pep talk encouraging you to stop quivering in fear about your creative projects and go out and make stuff already, for no reason other than:

a. It’s fun.
b. That’s what humans have always done.

I copied down quote after quote from Big Magic’s pages, on everything from trusting and surrendering to the process, to pushing past fear and perfectionism and refusing to accept that creative living is an inherently miserable way of life.

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My little siblings might be my new muses

Over vacation, I read my kid siblings the beginning of my chapter book for kids.

My 9-year-old sis said to tell her when I was done so she could order it from the library. I told her I’d have her read it before it was published.

A day later, I explained the concept of publishing to my 7-year-old brother.

In the meantime, my 11-year-old sister read me the first chapter of her superhero book and (unquestionably) out-wrote me all week — she was finishing chapter five when I left. I only added a 69-word paragraph to my story.

It was cool. Not just their interest, but seeing my baby sister embrace the writing process. She had two notebooks: one for her book, the other for doodles with a single page where she wrote down “the plot” (her words). It felt familiar — seeing her curled silently over her spiral bound notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling away the blank rows. It was almost like I was watching my younger self at work. And now, I’m home and that’s what I want to do. Put words together. Map out stories and then quit sitting on them, actually write, from beginning to middle to end.

8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Megacrap
Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.

Examples:

  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Five ways journaling has improved my life

When I’m writing, I’m actively engaged with life. When I’m not writing, I’m just going through the motions.

Since the 29-day writing challenge I did in February (successfully writing from every daily prompt), I’ve felt

  1. more myself
  2. more at peace with life
  3. more excited about life, and
  4. more interested in the world around me.

Those daily prompts dipped me into words in a way that reminded me why I decided to be a writer in the first place. That led me back to journaling, and journaling has been huge in rehumanizing the Internet-addicted person I had become since moving back to Indiana.

First, journaling showed me how boring constantly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter makes me. Constantly ingesting other people’s thoughts, ideas, or stupid videos bereaves me of original thought. Those things in moderation, okay. But when I’m scrolling and I feel my brain go numb, I’ve been there too long. Get off and actually do something.

Second, journaling awakened me to how isolated I’d allowed myself to become. Journaling about me, me, me all the time is utterly insufferable — and not just for whoever might peek into my journals (don’t do that). It’s insufferable for me. No wonder I’d stopped doing it, outside of devotional notes, since returning to the place where I once had friends galore (thanks to college) and now have basically none (thanks to adulthood/graduations).

This spring, through journaling, I’ve admitted to myself that I am isolated, I have no solid friendships where I am, and that’s not okay. I need friends, so I need to do something about that.

Third, journaling got me thinking about more than my job and my career. It brought me back to thinking about my craft as a writer and different projects I want to work on.

Fourth, journaling has tuned me back into what I like, what I’m interested in, and reminded me that there is no life script I must live by (outside, of course, loving God and loving people). Since my senior year of college, I’ve felt this pressure to either get it together as a career woman (i.e. get your dream job, already!) or scrap the dreams and find a husband — something I’ve never considered a priority. Why either of those attitudes are wrong is another post entirely, but the point is, under that pressure, I lost sight of what excites me about living and learning and creating.

My interests are all over the place and though brand experts say choose a specialty, that just doesn’t fit who I am. That’s not a mold I was made for, and I’m not going to contort myself to fit into it (the same way I will not wear heels or makeup to live up to some arbitrary standard of female professional appearance — again, another blog post).

Journaling has tuned me back into my own interests and passions, and it’s helped me process (or start to process) a lot of thoughts about life, dreams, and the patience that both require. Which leads me to the fifth and final piece (for now):

Journaling has reminded me that I need room to breathe, not just physically, but creatively. If I pile all this pressure on myself to write like crazy, hustle, hustle, hustle, when I’m not taking time to recharge my batteries and reboot my mental hard drive, I’m going to hurt myself in my attempts to reach “success”.

A dream, an ambition, should not be a burden. It should be a motivator, something — like a good song — that excites you to get out of bed in the morning. If they’re burdens, they’re probably idols, because you think you can’t live without them.

So journal. Because it’s good. Because it’s healthy. Because it helps you examine and ponder pieces of life that would otherwise go unchecked. And because journaling is a way of showing yourself, I’m here and I’m good.

Inside the Shadow City with Kirsten Miller, an interview

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of the Kiki Strike series (among other books), for my then-magazine Messenger Girl. All questions and answers were made via email. I was 16. At the end is my original review of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

Me: Where did you get the idea for the Shadow City?
Kirsten: Believe it or not, there really are tunnels (built by real criminals) underneath parts of New York! The whole city is hollow, and they’re constantly digging up something new. In fact, the first scene in Kiki Strike is based on a real incident. A hole opened up one night in downtown Manhattan, and at the bottom police discovered a 150-year-old, perfectly preserved room — with no door. So while the Shadow City is mostly fiction, it was also inspired by fact.

Me: Why didn’t you decide to tell the story from Kiki’s point of view?
Kirsten: Kiki’s true identity is the book’s biggest mystery, and it would have been hard to tell the story in her words without giving everything away. That’s why I made Ananke the narrator. She may not be as cool or dangerous as Kiki Strike, but she ends up being the real hero of Kiki Strike.

Me: Did you do “profiles” of your characters before writing or did you let them develop themselves?
Kirsten: I did write profiles for each of the characters. In fact, there’s a lot of juicy information that I know about them that hasn’t made it into any of the books (yet). But when you’re writing a book, your characters don’t really come to life until they start interacting (and fighting) with each other. So I learned a great deal about them as I was writing. By the time I was done, I almost felt like they were friends of mine.

Me: How did you come up with Kiki’s haunting appearance? Did you plan it ahead of time or did it just sort of come to you?
Kirsten: I knew what Kiki looked like long before I ever started writing the book. I wanted her to be the sort of person who wouldn’t usually be taken very seriously. She’s extremely small, rather sickly looking, and of course she’s a girl. She’s proof you can’t judge a person by her appearance. (And if you do, Kiki’s happy to kick your butt when you least expect it.)

Me: How long did it take you to write Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City?
Kirsten: About two years, but I had another job at the time, so it was harder than it might have been otherwise. The second book, The Empress’s Tomb, took about nine months to write.

Me: What’s your favorite part of this book?
Kirsten: I love it when Kiki takes Ananka to all the Girl Scout meetings, and Ananka encounters the other Irregulars for the first time. But I also love the scene when Ananka follows Kiki into Central Park during a blizzard and watches as Kiki mysteriously vanishes. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote, and it still captures my imagination.

Me: The dedication reads, “For the wonderfully irregular Caroline McDonalds, who first discovered the secret of Kiki Strike but didn’t live to share it.” What’s behind this dedication?
Kirsten: Caroline was a good friend of mine — and the first person to read Kiki Strike. She encouraged me to let other people read it, and without her I’m not sure if it would have been published. Tragically, Caroline died a few years ago. I dedicated the book to her as a way of saying thanks and letting her family know how important she had been to me.

Me: What’s your opinion of rats?
Kirsten: Ha! Great question. I lived in New York for years and never saw any rats. Then one day, my eyes were opened and I began to see them everywhere. I find them very interesting, and I love watching them in the subway. But I’d rather not get too close. All of the rat facts in Kiki Strike are true, so they’re definitely not a species I’d care to mess around with!

Me: Is there really a NYCmap, like the one in the book?
Kirsten: Yes, there is a real NYCmap, and it’s almost exactly as it’s described in the book! (All of the strangest things in the book are real — including Bannerman’s Castle.)

Me: Were the how-to blurbs at the end of the chapters an idea you had when you wrote the first draft?
Kirsten: The “How-To” tips were always part of the book. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to give readers information they could take away with them and use in their everyday lives. In my opinion, everyone should know how to foil a kidnapping or disguise her appearance! And believe me, researching the “How-To” tips was quite educational. I’m far more dangerous than I ever was before.

Me: Do you own a Swiss Army Knife?
Kirsten: Of course! I’m quite handy with it, too. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of forgetting to take my SAKs out of my handbag before getting on airplanes. I’ve had two or three confiscated.

Me: Did you have fun writing Kiki Strike? What was the best part of writing this book?
Kirsten: I had an absolute blast writing Kiki Strike, but I gotta admit it was hard work, too. The best part has been hearing from people who loved the book. There’s nothing better than knowing that I’ve inspired young people to learn how to pick locks or lift fingerprints. Soon, we’ll all take over the world! (Evil laughter.)

Me: How many books do you intend to have in the Kiki Strike series?
Kirsten: I would love to write a book for each of the Irregulars. Right now, I’m working on #3, which focuses a bit more on Betty Bent. It’s going to be AMAZING! It’s filled with danger, intrigue, secret societies, and escargot.

Review: Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City
Life starts getting exciting for Ananka when she meets Kiki, a girl who’s as strong as she is secretive. After stumbling upon an underground room, Ananka becomes more curious about the city she’s lived in her entire life. Soon, she’s on an adventure with Kiki and four ex-Girl Scouts. An adventure to save New York and accomplish something else at the same time — something only Kiki knows about. Is Kiki really the “good guy” in this story? Or has Ananka fallen in with the wrong crowd? Find out by reading this fast-paced, original adventure story by Kirsten Miller.

Read my recent review of Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers.

29-day writing challenge: an exercise in beginnings

Last week, I participated in a short story challenge where participants received a three-part prompt (genre, basic character, object) and had to write a story of 2,500 words or less over the course of eight days.

This week on the spur of the moment (a cliche which is actually really clever when you think about it), I signed up for daily writing prompts from Figment, an online writing community I haven’t been involved in since high school. Figment is hosting a daily writing challenge through the month of February and — though I’m not posting my writing on the site — I’m participating on my own with a GoogleDoc that will contain each day’s paragraphs.

Today is day three.

So far it feels good. There’s a freedom that comes with being confident that most of what will result will be, if not totally worthless, certainly not perfect because a day is simply not enough time to write an award-winning short story or piece of flash fiction from a prompt you’ve never seen before.

And because it’s a daily goal, I don’t have enough time to overthink every aspect of every sentence. The goal is to do it — to write. And that’s all I have time for, so thus far that’s what I’ve done.

It’s an exercise in beginnings.

I’m not sure about the rest of the writer population, but for me the hardest step is always, without fail, the first. It doesn’t matter whether I’m applying for jobs, pursuing a nonfiction story, or planning to work out. It’s always that first step — putting my resume together, reaching out to potential subjects, walking or driving from my office to the gym — that takes the most effort and discipline.

But once the first step is taken, I’m on my way. The hard work is done. The fun has begun. And every seemingly hard step that follows is nothing in light of the first.

So for the next 26 days (because LEAP YEAR), I will be practicing that first step — and, hopefully, taking other steps in directions that are only scary when, by inaction, you let them remain unknown.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin 

Motivational quotes, because writing is hard

My sophomore year of college, I started keeping a journal dedicated entirely to writing and all the pain and frustration that comes with it. Today, I share with you motivational quotes from its pages. Read, contemplate, and then get to work!

Just as aliens abduct only people who believe in alien abductions, writers block strikes only people who believe in it. ~ Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. ~ Richard Bach

Great minds have purposes, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above it. ~ Washington Irving, Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book

The successful person has the habit of doing things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose. ~ E. M. Gray, The Common Denominator of Success

If you’re not failing all the time, you’re not creating a situation where you can get super lucky. ~ Ira Glass

Stories written with blood are sometimes better. ~ my little brother Joseph at 12 years old, December 20, 2011

Everything takes time