Do you define having achieved success with your writing as getting a book deal with a major publisher? As finishing a manuscript? As getting to share your writing with thousands of readers? As sharing it with just one person, or even just yourself?
When we think of successful writers we usually think of the big household names or number one bestsellers. We imagine contracts with big publishers, multi-book deals, and agents in New York City. And we have visions of hundreds of fans showing up for book signings.
The problem with this picture of success is that it doesn’t happen all that often. The reality is that very few people end up achieving this perfect image of a successful writer. It’s not that this version of success isn’t possible, it’s just that it’s extremely hard to attain and depends on many factors that have nothing to do with you and your writing. And if you are striving towards this because this is your only definition of success as a writer, you’re probably just going to end up disappointed in how things turn out.
Instead, think about how to define success for yourself, what it would mean to you to be successful. While success to some people might mean becoming a big time writer, to others success may be simply writing a little more than you did the day before. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what you achieve with your writing. Whether you end up with a contract from one of the big publishing houses or simply write 500 words one day, what matters is that you make a goal and work towards it.
Setting goals is so important when it comes to writing because writing is something you choose to do with yourself. No one is going to make sure you get your writing done—it’s all up to you. Writing is a lonely road most of the time, and without goals to guide you along the way, you’re probably going to end up lost.
I’ll be honest—I haven’t made any money yet off of my writing. But I have a college degree in creative writing, a published book, a wonderful marriage, and a pretty cute dog. I’m only 25 years old, I’m happy, and I’m going to keep working towards my next goal. And then I’ll work on the goal after that, until maybe one day I do get that book contract with a major publisher.
Last year I wrote about what I do instead of making traditional new year’s resolutions. I choose one word to guide me for the year, and I make an inspiration board that I can look at each day to remind me of my word. For my boards, I decorate a 12in by 12in piece of scrapbook paper with quotes, images, Bible verses, and song lyrics that relate to the word. I’ve done this for three years now, and my previous words have been Change, Grow, and Joy.
Only choosing one word seems like a small resolution, but I’ve noticed such a difference in my life by focusing on these words each year. Every day I see my word board next to my mirror and read something off of it, and then I feel ready for the day with my goals fresh in my mind. Last year especially, as I worked on Joy, I definitely learned to rely a lot more on God and find my joy in him. This is a great tool to increase your faith.
For 2018, I’ve felt God speaking one word on my heart for a while now: Focus.
I have a hard time focusing some of the time. I think part of that is because I work from home so I’m surrounded by distractions: my dog, housework, and all of the books I have out from the library. Another reason is because I have a tendency to feel overwhelmed, and when I see the long list of things that have to be done, I often end up sitting and staring at the list rather than doing something on the list.
But another big reason I have trouble focusing is that I always feel lost between book projects. Over the last six years I’ve written three manuscripts, usually spending one year working on it and one year staring at my computer, hating everything, and getting nothing done. 2017 was one of the off years, and I’ll be honest and say that I wrote almost nothing last year.
So that’s why Focus has become my word for 2018. But it isn’t just for my writing work. Throughout 2017 my husband and I became more and more involved in our church, and I definitely feel called by God to do even more. But I need to focus on him if I’m going to do anything important.
So this year I’m gong to Focus on my writing work, on my kingdom work, and on God. Here’s my board for 2018:
For December, I chose to feature The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book I fell in love with in college and which had an influence on my novel Somewhere Only We Know.
The House on Mango Street is a short novel made up of vignettes (short scenes) about Esperanza Cordero, a young girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. Esperanza has always wanted a house of her own where she could be free, but what she got was a small house on Mango Street. Despite her circumstances, Esperanza learns to write and hope for the future. The House on Mango Street is a beautiful story with poetic prose that features so many interesting characters and so much hope despite the pain in those character’s lives. Esperanza’s name even means “hope.”
The main reason I love this book is because of the language. It is incredible to read this book and see how Cisneros can take a page-long vignette and show you so much about a character. Cisneros’s language is spare and precise, and the lines feel like poems with how smooth they sound. One of my favorite paragraphs at the end of a vignette is this: “Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.” The fragments make the words seem like a song, and they are so beautiful.
This book will also hold a place in my heart like all of the books that influenced Somewhere Only We Know do. The House on Mango Street is one of the books Frankie reads in my novel. I included this book because I wanted Frankie to see how Esperanza was able to overcome her difficult situation and still find hope.
I hope you enjoyed reading my Favorite Book Features as much as I enjoyed rereading each of these great books! I plan on doing another post with short features on the books on my favorites shelf that I did not feature, so be looking out for that.
I love this time of year. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than Christmas lights, and I love all of the decorations. My husband even put my engagement ring under the Christmas tree in his apartment when he proposed to me. I just love that we get to celebrate Jesus’ birth each year with all of the beautiful decorations, Christmas cookies, and family. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
Some of my favorite decorations are the houses that make up my mom’s ceramic Christmas village. Every year we set it up under their tree, and I love all of the beautiful lights. I don’t have a ceramic village myself, but I do have my Lego Christmas village.
I love to bake, so making Christmas cookies is always a lot of fun. My family have always made these butter cookies that we call Silver Bells, and they’re delicious.
But my favorite of all of our Christmas traditions is what my family does on Christmas Eve. We go to see a movie in the afternoon, eat Chinese and chicken for dinner, and then open presents while watching A Christmas Story. Then my dad always reads The Night Before Christmas before we go to bed. Sadly my husband and I will have to miss the movie this year because we won’t be able to make it over to Columbus in time after church (it’s okay though, we’ll have already seen Star Wars twice by then), but I can’t wait to do everything else with my family and celebrate with his family on Christmas day.
What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?
This week I’d like to introduce an independent author—Rebecca Fellrath. Rebecca is actually a friend of mine from middle school. We were in an indoor drumline together, but then lost touch when she went back to being home-schooled and my family eventually moved away. Twelve years later, we both ended up in the Dayton area with published novels. Rebecca and I recently reconnected and I got to read her debut novel, a Christian romance called A Lily at Dawn. I asked Rebecca to do an interview so she could share about her book and publication process.
Could you tell us what A Lily at Dawn is about?
The story follows a young woman who finds herself, God, and romance in the midst of unimaginable tragedy. As she walks through her healing process and interacts with other hurting people, she experiences how God weaves stories together and works all things out for good.
I don’t usually like to write in or mark up my books, but I just had to highlight a line from early on in your novel: “‘I know it hurts, son, but you have to let go of your need to see Matt saved and start letting Jesus save you instead.’” Could you talk more about this theme of letting go of past hurts and focusing on Jesus?
When Jesus taught us to pray, he said, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The act of receiving God’s grace and forgiveness is almost always coupled with forgiving others and extending grace outwardly. I think this is a crucial story to tell because our ability to forgive and heal always starts with what Jesus did for us. How can we forgive others if we have not fully accepted Jesus’ forgiveness? And, likewise, how can we accept Jesus’ forgiveness if we are refusing to forgive others?
We forget that we are just as broken and needy as those who have hurt us. I’m not saying that we don’t need to establish good boundaries, or that we shouldn’t protect ourselves from other people’s abusive behaviors, but that we need to see forgiveness as an act of grace.
Without this act of grace, past hurts can become a miniature god that we worship in our hearts. Just like some of the characters in A Lily at Dawn, we can even allow those hurts to dictate our careers, love life, and view of God. The situation becomes even more complicated when those hurts come from people professing to know Christ. Regardless of the who, when, and how these hurts enter our lives, the answer will always be found in Jesus’ forgiveness and the way it moves us to forgive.
What inspired you to write this book?
The idea for the book came when I was twelve years old. Believe it or not, I still played pretend and even used Barbies. My Barbies didn’t go shopping though, they were getting into car accidents and questioning God’s existence. After playing through the story with my Barbies, I thought it would make a good book. Most of my early writing and short stories started by playing pretend and testing ideas out on dolls. I ended up typing the whole first draft of A Lily at Dawn when I was twelve, but then I accidentally deleted the whole thing!
Years later, I was involved in a serious car accident. It reminded me of the story I had written long ago, and it gave me a new perspective on how God uses tragedy to tell His love stories. The extended recovery process provided me with enough time to write the story again.
You deal with some pretty heavy topics in A Lily at Dawn, from the death of a loved one and theft to abortion and drug use. Why do you think it’s important to write about such difficult topics?
I think it’s easy to look at difficult situations and pretend that they are rare and unfamiliar. The reality is that evil isn’t only on episodes of C.S.I. The damage caused by abuse, theft, drug use, abortion and deception are all around us, even within the walls of church. No one will get the help they need as long as we are silent about sin. As a writer, I feel compelled and privileged to write the truth. I want to open up honest conversations about who we are and be vulnerable about the brokenness that humanity shares.
What was your writing process like?
I’m a natural extrovert, so my process usually begins by talking about my ideas. I suppose it’s the adult version of “playing the story out” with dolls. I like to brainstorm out loud and bounce ideas around. I really enjoy coming up with story ideas and beginning the writing process. Finishing what I started, however, is the challenge. The ideas are easy, but disciplining myself to do the work is tough. That being the case, I wrote an outline for the entire book and broke it up into chapters. Each day I would take the next step in the outline and write out what I planned for that chapter. Sometimes I would even tell myself, “Just glue your butt to the chair and get it done!”
How did you go about publishing this book?
When I recognized how difficult it would be to get published by a traditional publisher, I pursued getting self-published. I didn’t have much knowledge or experience with the process, so I self-published through Westbow Press. As a mom, I knew I wasn’t going to have much time to market the book, so it seemed like the best option at the time. In hindsight I wish I would have done a little more research and examined more options. I am thankful, though, that Westbow Press did provide the help I needed to “get my book out there.”
Do you have any writing advice you’d like to pass on?
Write for you. It sounds cliché, but it’s been the most helpful advice for me. It’s easy to be distracted by working to get published or by trying to craft something that will be meaningful to your readers. If you write what is meaningful for you, the authenticity will speak for itself. You will enjoy the process and actually reach the readers that need your story most.
And here’s a passage from A Lily at Dawn:
Zuriel was nervous. Her own heart was realizing that she may have spent her life believing the wrong things and living for the wrong reasons. She didn’t understand God, she didn’t even like all the things she had heard about him, but she just knew she needed him. Zuriel felt angry with herself as she sat there, staring out the large living room window. God was bad, wasn’t he? Hadn’t he made her childhood difficult and allowed her mother to leave her as a baby? Hadn’t he made high school a living hell? Hadn’t he left her alone when Suzy went crazy with her drugs? Yet despite all these things, Zuriel couldn’t escape the feeling that God was more than that. She couldn’t ignore her desire to be loved in the way that Suzy had described God’s love to her. She wondered if it was actually God who had made her life miserable after all. Was it God, or was it a mixture of her own mistakes and the mistakes of others? She wasn’t sure, but she almost didn’t care.
You can find A Lily at Dawn here and find Rebecca at her website here.
In addition to making jewelry and coloring, one of my favorite things to do when I’m not writing is watch musicals. One of my first memories is when my mom took me to see my very first musical—a community theater production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Seeing this show when I was little launched a lifetime love of musicals.
I love musicals because I love music, and getting to see stories presented in other formats has always been fascinating to me as a book lover/writer. Using music is such an interesting way to tell a story. Plus it makes the stories easier to remember because songs are pretty easy to commit to memory. I can (badly) sing almost the entirety of Joseph and Les Misérables.
I also think that watching musicals can be helpful to writers. Along with watching movies and television, reading comics and poetry, and even acting, seeing stories presented in different formats than fiction writing can be beneficial.
Other forms of stories can infuse your fiction writing and make it richer. For example, I, like many teenagers, couldn’t understand a word Shakespeare wrote until I was cast in a high school play that modernized scenes from various Shakespeare plays. Getting the chance to act out what I was reading allowed me to truly understand it. I can still remember some of my lines from that play, and now I can read Shakespeare with ease. I love his poetry and some of his themes have an influence on my work.
My favorite musicals are Les Mis, Joseph, Cinderella, Shrek, and Phantom of the Opera. My new obsessions are Wicked and Newsies, which I’ve both recently seen for the first time. I’ve gotten to see all of these live except for Shrek and Newsies, but I hope to see them someday. There is nothing quite as powerful as seeing these amazing stories acted out live.
Sometimes I read a book for the first time and it instantly makes its way to my favorites shelf. That happened this month with The Reader by Traci Chee. I usually don’t read fantasy, but I picked up this book because I had read that it was about a world without a written language, so I thought it would help inspire me with my WIP. I came into this book expecting to get a few new ideas on how a world would function without a written language, but I was instantly blown away by this amazing, thrilling, and diverse story about magic, pirates, and a book that contains everything that’s happened and everything that will be.
Sefia has been on the run every since her father was brutally murdered. She survived in the wild with her aunt Nin, but after Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is on her own with the mysterious object her parents had her protect: a book. Sefia teaches herself to read and sets out to rescue her aunt, and along the way she befriends a mute boy, is helped by pirates, and discovers a magic she didn’t know existed.
This book instantly became one of my favorites for several reasons. First of all, I love how diverse The Reader is. The story is populated by people of every age and color, and men and women are complete equals in the fantasy world of Kelanna. I like that Chee doesn’t draw much attention to it—that’s just the way things are in Kelanna. It’s refreshing to read a story in which this is the norm.
I also love this book because of one of its main themes, which is how stories give life meaning. Several of the characters struggle with the idea of not being remembered. Captain Reed in particular worries that his life won’t mean anything if people don’t remember the stories of all the adventures he’s been on. He even tattoos his body with images of everything he’s done. By addressing this theme, Chee highlights just how important stories are.
But the main reason I love this book is because it’s clear that the author loves words. Her love and respect of language infuses every word of The Reader. Chee writes with such authority, and had me laughing, crying, and devouring the pages. Words have magic in the story, and I love this analogy. Stories are powerful, and it is fascinating to see how that works out in a fantasy setting.