Last spring, my friend emailed to ask my secret to writing a novel. Flattered, I smiled as I read her questions and promptly responded, promising that I would divulge my “wisdom” in a blog post, per her request.
While washing dishes, folding laundry, or making supper, I considered how to approach the topic: Would I mention writing out the details for each of my central characters? Or would I note the book that really helped me get a firmer grasp on the process of understanding my characters’ motivations?
Oh, the range of possibilities was endless!
This guest post is by Jolina Petersheim . Petersheim is the bestselling author of THE DIVIDE, THE ALLIANCE, THE MIDWIFE, and THE OUTCAST, which Library Journal called “outstanding . . . fresh and inspirational” in a starred review and named one of the best books of 2013. That book also became an ECPA, CBA, and Amazon bestseller and was featured in Huffington Post’s Fall Picks, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, and the Tennessean. CBA Retailers + Resources called her second book, THE MIDWIFE, “an excellent read [that] will be hard to put down,” and Booklist selected THE ALLIANCE as one of their Top 10 Inspirational Fiction Titles for 2016. Jolina’s nonfiction writing has been featured in Reader’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, and Today’s Christian Woman. She and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but they now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughters.
Then, that Friday, I received a very kind but thorough email from my publisher, stating that my fourth novel, The Divide, needed extensive revisions.
I didn’t know what to do after I received that email. I stared at the computer a while, and then I went outside and sat on the outdoor couch, staring over the field as my husband and two young daughters—all three of them wearing brown leather boots—checked on the raspberry plants.
I got up, walked down the hill to my family, and told my husband about the email. We talked about it for a little, and then the four of us sprawled across the grass because, when it’s 70 degrees and sunny in April in Wisconsin, that’s exactly what you do.
We stared up at the clouds as the incessant, molting rooster crowed, and I thought to myself, I’d rather give birth than rewrite that novel.
Later that night, after our girls were in bed, I left the dishes in the sink, the laundry on the line, the floor unswept, and my husband and I sat on the couch and discussed the various ways I could approach the story, making the plot threads of The Divide as tight as its prequel, The Alliance.
The next morning, he watched our girls while I went to Amish greenhouses with a friend. I loaded the back of her truck with trays of fragrant perennials and annuals, and then came home, put on a floppy green hat, and tucked those plants in the dirt with my eldest daughter.
A few hours later, my husband and I went out on a date with two friends. As we sat outside, basking in the sunshine while eating pizza, we talked about our journeys and our lives, and I could suddenly see that—not only would I indeed be able to revise my novel—but this setback was an opportunity for creative growth.
That might sound strange, but it was a mercy, in a way, that the week I was about to dispense writing advice to my friend was the same week I was forced to face the fact that, even after five contracted novels, I didn’t have this whole writing gig figured out. Sometimes I still don’t, but here are a few tips that have helped me whenever I feel overwhelmed by a project:
1. Take a step back.
You know that adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” Well, sometimes, when you’re too personally invested in a novel (or have just received an email suggesting you rewrite it), you can’t see the story for its flaws.
2. Get outside.
The pressure of deadlines and maintaining a social media presence forces us to spend numerous hours each day staring at our computers and smart phones. Stepping away from the screens and breathing deeply is good for our minds and souls, causing us to feel refreshed enough to eventually come back to the computer and continue where we left off. I try to start my morning with a forty-minute hike (putting my cell phone on airplane mode), and I am always so much more peaceful and focused for the day when I return.
3. Plant something.
A few years ago, a health emergency caused our family to go through a very challenging winter. After the last frost, I started pulling out old shrubbery and weeds and planting perennials around our house. There is something restorative about planting new life and watching it grow. Try it sometime.
4. Talk to your spouse.
My husband is very left-brained, whereas I am—surprise, surprise—very right-brained. He balances me so well, which is why he always reads my manuscripts before I turn them in, taking special care to make sure none of my male characters are tiptoeing or screaming, like I had them doing in The Alliance. (My husband—a mountain-man—often acts out these gaffes, which makes me laugh too hard to be mad at him.)
5. Talk to a friend.
I have been part of a book club for the past eight years, though we’ve gotten so close that we’ve stopped officially talking about books and instead spend the few hours we have together each month talking about marriage, child-rearing, and our work, laughing so hard that we have to wipe tears from our eyes. On the way home from our recent gathering, my friend happy-sighed and said, “That was better than any therapy session,” and I agreed. Writers need community, which is why social media is such a pull for isolated writers, and yet nothing beats face-to-face interaction.
6. Get a change of scenery.
As a work-at-home mom to two little girls (and soon expecting a third!), I don’t often get to leave home twice in one day. But our family was busy the whole weekend after I received the news that I needed to rewrite my novel. This was crucial in keeping me from hunkering over the computer for hours upon hours, trying to fix what went wrong. So, take a walk, go out for coffee; the problems will still need fixing when you get back, but you will be in a better state of mind to fix them.
7. Take time to study your surroundings.
For better or for worse, I am an avid people-watcher. Sometimes, I get so caught up in an internal dialogue that I forget it’s rude to stare, and my husband will gently nudge me and whisper, “You’re doing it again.” However, the benefit of people-watching is that I’ve overheard some of the most interesting conversations, which spur me on creatively. Perhaps you should grab that cup of joe and just sit in the café, people-watching for a few hours, jotting down everything that could be put in a book.
8. Be grateful.
I signed my first book contract when my firstborn daughter was twelve weeks old. Now she is five. I’ve published four books over the past five years, moved three times (twice across the country), and soon will give birth to my third daughter. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, I sometimes forget that I get paid to write novels from home. This is a dream come true! When those hard moments come (and they surely will), it’s essential to recall the work it took to reach your dreams and the memorable moments along the way.
9. Look at setbacks as an opportunity for creative growth.
We’re going to have setbacks in this life, personally and professionally, and oftentimes one will affect the other. So, how do we creatives cope when faced with such a conundrum? Well, we can cry, yell, headbutt the computer keys, blame ourselves, blame our publisher, or we can get up, dust off our ego, go outside, and talk to someone we trust.
10. Don’t give up!
If you’ve recently experienced a setback, give yourself a few days, or at least a weekend, to regain your equilibrium. It will come back, I promise, and when it does, you’ll be ready to tackle this wondrous, challenging, creative process all over again. I will be working right there beside ya, or else I’ll be outside, digging in the dirt.
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