Writer's Notebook

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Writing & Family

Posted on April 7, 2018 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (14)

This post started in 2015, at around our 6 month aniversary. It was originally titled, "Husbands Are the Best." And while Seth is still the best, our family and my writing career have both expanded, and so I would like to share with you a little bit more of what I have learned in balancing creative work and our crazy life. 

In college, Seth helped out a lot with my creative products. Best brainstorming buddy ever! I had to write a poem (several poems, actually) for my intro to creative writing class. A villanelle, which is fourteen lines of rhymes upon rhymes upon non-rhymes. A little confusing for a eighteen year-old fresh out of high school who has only written a few poems before. So, we decided that I should write an ars poetica, or a poem about poetry. We had so much fun coming up with rhymes for "villanelle," and putting together a coherent poem about how awful they are to write. I can't share the poem here (or else I will not be able to publish it in a journal or magazine), but I can tell you that poetry-writing sessions can make for some fantastic dates  :)! 

Seth is seriously the best. When we graduated, he gave me an entire year to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to make writing a career, and so I set about trying to figure out how to make my work pay. And I ended that experiment with a very small, unstable income from my writing. But it was something. 

We reconvened and decided that making writing my career was best for our family, as it fit well into the lifestyle we had built for ourselves post-graduation. We live in a camper and travel for Seth's work, and so me being able to work remotely is a huge plus. Also, I get to set my own hours, so I can help Seth out with events when he needs me. 

Seth and I in high school.

Yep, I got to marry my high school sweetheart,

so I am pretty lucky!

And, because we travel full-time, I have decided to self-publish my works (for the foreseeable future, at least). I am in a unique position to do book tours, minus travel expenses, as long as I book poetry readings and book signings near where Seth is already doing events. I did my first poetry reading in October 2017, and absolutely loved it.

I self-published my first chapbook, Aesthetic Blindness, in summer 2017, and so far I have sold 150 copies. Which doesn't seem like much, but for self-published poetry by an unknown writer, that is a really good number! I learned a lot from self-publishing, and am working on getting my thoughts and tips in order to share with you, so be on the lookout for some posts in that vein! 

From our engagement shoot in December 2014.

Through out it all, Seth has been very encouraging. I really wouldn't be able to make writing a full-time career without his support, and the support of our family. Creative pursuits don't happen in a void, they happen in real life, and having a support system is key if you want to make your creative endeavors successful!

So, how do I make writing a full-time job? Right now, it feels like I am putting in all the work of a full-time job, without the pay or benefits. But I know that everything I am doing now is building for the future. I have a goal of making so much a month, and that figure covers a "salary" for me, as well as work-related expenses. Right now, I am  at 2% of my goal. I will give you my writing tips first, and then my business plan, so you can see how the two work together. 

Over 2017, I filled a composition notebook with poetry. I had the goal of writing a poem a day, and I ended up writing less than that, but more by far than what I wrote in college, so it was still a step in the right direction. So, my advice to you is to set big goals with easy implementation. This year, my goal is to write a few pages every "business day." That is just to help make creativity a more disciplined pursuit, and I know it can be done, since I was able to go from having no poetry ready for publication May 2017 to having a full-length chapbook ready for peer editing by April 2018! 

I told a friend to do this too. Try to write a page or so a day, and keep that same notebook with you in your purse or backpack (or use your phone, I know that is what published author Jeff Zentner does!) and pull it out in odd moments. Maybe you hear an odd conversation, and you have time to write it down with a brief backstory. I was able to write a novel outline that I plan on pulling out and finishing in 2019 because I did just that! Fill as many notebooks as you can. The constant practice will give you lots of creative ideas to explore, as well as better your craft. 

For The One, I started it in January of 2015, and let it sit as a glorified outline until Fall 2017. I was planning on publishing it in December of 2018. Trust me, I understand fully how life can get in between us and our well-laid plans.

Photo of us with the getaway car

right after the ceremony!

Baby number one is almost one! We had been busy planning for her arrival, and I have to admit, writing slipped off the face of the earth from November 2017 (mid-NaNoWriMo when we found out we were expecting) to February 2018. I had absolutely no desire to write, and was a little bummed out at that. And I completely ghosted from August 2018, until now, mid July 2019. Writing as a career is hard to balance with family life as a stay-at-home mom. Especially when your home moves every few weeks.

But now we are starting to get settled into a routine. Routines are crucial for balancing family and work!  In fact, I have experienced a fresh burst of productivity, and I think a big part of that is knowing that my writing will have to start paying a larger share of the bills in order for me to be a TAHM (travel at home mom!). So, even with deadlines and goals, be flexable. 

If I had rigidly stuck to the poem a day challenge, I probably would not have a finished manuscript. Why? I would have been so overwhelmed at the ammount of days I missed that I would have just given up. I've learned to differenciate between types of goals. There are "aspiring goals" which is like writing every day. Something you aspire to do, but might not ever fully realize. And that's okay, because each time you try, you get closer to being there. And then there are "hard goals." Goals with deadlines and actual, actionable steps besides "try harder." Goals like a publication date, and then working back to come up with big and little steps needed to be ready for that publication date. Both goals matter, but don't give "aspiring goals" the same weight. That is probably the biggest peice of advice/reassurance I can give you!

In this last year, I have experimented with a few different income streams: selling print copies of Aesthetic Blindness both in person and online through Square, selling the eBook version on Kindle (I haven't sold a single eBook yet! ugg), and selling custom poetry on Etsy. Most successful so far? Print books in person. Most successful day? October 7, 2017 (25 of the 150 copies)! You know what that tells me? My web/social media presence needs work! I hear about all of these writers who sell exclusively eBooks, and make thousands a month. I'm not there yet. You know what else that tells me? Book readings are so crucial for self-published authors! With our lifestyle, we get the opportunity to make a lot of connections, but Seth and I could both be better at follow-up. I'm starting to see my email list and social media as relationship building resources. Ultimately, people will buy your writing if they have a relationship with you.

I've given you a lot of information, so what are the biggest take-aways I want to leave you with?

1. Support System: In order to balance writing (or any creative pursuit) and family life, you have to have a family that is on board with what you do. I am so lucky to be married to Seth, and he is so supportive of my writing. It would be really hard to keep plugging away at a writing career if I knew that he wasn't 100% on board with the idea. Who are the people in your life who encourage you to be creative? Keep them close! Let them know when you've hit a wall or want to give up. Writing happens in community, so if you aren't plugged in to a writing community, find one!

2. Work in Season: Not every season of life will lend itself well to a balancing act. Sometimes, you  have to prioratize, and different parts of your normal life will be pushed to the backburner. And that is okay. When it was just Seth and I, I had a lot of time I could carve out of my day to write. Even though baby slept a lot right after birth, I was exhausted! I only had energy to eat, feed the baby, and then nap myself. Now that She is one, I can start to carve out a few hours every day to work, but I know that one day, I'll be able to be back to 5-8 hours of writing, editing, and marketing my work. I could be disappointed that I can only write for an hour here or there and do nothing, but then I know I'll look back on these years and feel like I wasted time. If I can only devote a few hours, I know that in a year, they'll add up to something. This kind of lifestyle is less of a balance and more of a rhythm.

3. Different Goals: There are attainable goals and there are goals that aren't. The sooner you learn to tell the difference, the less stressed you'll be. In 2020, I will again be giving myself the goal of writing a poem every day. Will I actually? Probably not. But by pushing myself, I'll write more than I would otherwise. Don't give this type of goal the same weight as a hard and fast deadline, like a date to have a synopsis by, or a date to have your edits done so you can send your work off to either an editor or an editing team.



Why NaNoWriMo?

Posted on September 8, 2017 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

I thought I would let you know why I am planning on participating in NaNoWriMo, and let you tell me why you are (or aren't). 

It seems the writing community is a little divided on the issue, with lots of writers praising the contest, and an almost equal ammount snubbing their noses at it. It does make sense. All first drafts are terrible. And so, NaNoWriMo will turn out a LOT of novel manuscripts that are nowhere near being ready for publication, although quite a few contestents will want to publish them right away. 

I love NaNoWriMo because it gives writers (myself included) a great chance to stop planning and start doing. There can be accountability, with other writers especially, but even with friends and acquaintances. By saying, "I'm going to write a novel in a month," you can give yourself the room to actually do it. That being said, it does take some planning to get to NaNoWriMo and be successful. My first attempt was not. I got 20,000 words in and my efforts petered out. 

But here is why: I had a novel idea that was spinning around for a few years, slowly gaining traction. When I heard about NaNoWriMo, I decided I was going to go for it. I showed up November 1st and started writing like mad. But I didn't finish it. I got about halfway through and realized that there were questions of theological importance that I needed to answer before I could continue. 

Here is what I wish I had done. I wish I had taken the time to outline my novel before I started. I didn't set myself up for success. In fact, if I had outlined my novel, it would have been much easier for me to finish the word count, or even push past it. Let's face it, 50,000 words is not quite a novel, it's a novella. But that is alright, because people like reading novellas. 

All this to say that I am participating this year because I enjoy writing. And, I am still working on the novel I started last year. I am working on the novel I started my freshman year at CCU. NaNoWriMo is the perfect motivation to keep at it, and through my experince with it, I have learned how to write better, how to research in a time-effective manner, and a lot of other useful tools to add to my writing process. 

However, I do encourage all things in moderation, and so I will be planning for NaNoWriMo, and if you are thinking of participating this year, I encourage you to do some research and to join me in outlining our novels for a more successful November. 

Fall Submissions

Posted on August 25, 2017 at 1:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Hello Fellow Poets!

If you have been following along with the #365daysofpoetry challenge, you are probably knee deep in drafts of poetry. I have put together a list of magazines and journals that you can submit to this Fall. If you don't submit any poems, at least read some of these journals so that you can get a sense of what their editors are looking for in poetry.

You can find these journals and a few more on the page I made just for you!  And if you are more into writing fiction or creative nonfiction, you can check out these magazines and journals!

Reed Magazine--hurry, submissions close November 1st! You can submit up to five poems.

Tin House-- Submissions opens in September, so you have some time to polish and edit before sending your poems in!

The Kenyon Review--Submit between September 15th and November 1st. Submit up to six poems.

Boulevard-- Submissions open October 1st! Submit up to five poems.

3Elements-- Submission Deadline is October 31st. Be sure to read their information very carefully, as each quarter they have three words that must be incorporated in your submission!

Check out these five journal/magazines, and be sure to read the submission information carefully. If you submit your poems improperly, you will not get them published, and may upset the editors, who took the time to carefully line out how they wanted submissions. Good luck, and let me know if you get any published!





If Manuscript Proposals Freak You Out, This Post is for You.

Posted on February 5, 2016 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Last spring, I took Advanced Creative Writing, Fiction (eek!) which was fun, and stressful, and a huge learning curve. I had never written more than seventeen pages in succession before. Before me stood the daunting task of writing a 100 page novella. Eighteen year old me had know idea what she had gotten herself into (even though the professor had warned her that the semester would be rough).

Our very first assignment was a book proposal. I had absolutely no idea how to write one, and I had to do a ton of research just to find a starting place. Going back to that manuscript, I am feeling a little more informed and experienced this time around. So, I wrote this post mostly to help anyone else taking advanced creative writing from CCU. I knew that if I need it, other people probably could use the information as well.

I will be charting out the writing of my first novel, The One, with helpful tips I find along the way for you to use in your own writing. If at any point you have questions, ask in the comment section below. I would love to hear from you.

My very favorite website and blog to go to when I have any question related to publishing is Jane Friedman's website. Her post on manuscript proposals is so informative. She tells you exactly what it is, is not, and step by step directions for writing one. She even offers a class on manuscript proposals! Just go to  this page.

I also like the Writer's Edge, which has a sample proposal. It is one thing to read about what a proposal is, but it is so much better to see an actual one (or sample of one) in order to really get a feel of what you are supposed to be doing.

For me, I kept finding that the most important information included the synopsis, competing books, and a target audience. Basically, you have to prove that you have thought this through and are not going to waste the agent/editor/publisher's time.

Now, let's sit down and start the preliminary work necessary to write our novel proposals: answering the question, "what is it about?"

Grab your pen and notebook, or whatever you use to communicate in written language, and answer the questions, "what is my novel about," "what is my main character like," and, "what is my plot?" This is hard, since you are basically distilling your entire novel into the synopsis, which is usually a page (and painful for English majors). You may ask yourself, "is this even right?" The answer is yes. And here are my favorite websites for when you (and I) get stuck in the what details are important or not for the synopsis:

Of course Jane Friedman is first on the list. Here is her post on writing a synopsis. When you begin to question if this is too much effort for the return you'll get, read her post.

This post from PubCrawl perfectly explains why you need a synopsis, and also explains how to write a one-page synopsis.There are examples of a synopsis in the post, and if you are a Star Wars fan like my husband is, you will enjoy it! :)

The top two posts are by those in the publishing industry. This post is by a fellow author, who shares our pain. It can be difficult to sit down to write a synopsis, especially if you are writing it before you begin, like we had to for ACW fiction. However, it will make the rest of the process easier, because now you have what is essential to your novel, and you can just fill in the details. It is nice to have a destination, however hazy, in mind when you start a work.

If you are still confused, I will be writing a longer posts on novel synopsis. If you have your synopsis, it is time to look into the business aspects of novel-writing/publishing.I know you probably aren't a business major, but being business minded is almost essential to getting published. Again, you have to prove to your agent that you somewhat know what you are doing, and what you want.

This part is more fun than it sounds. This is where you get to sit down and imagine your ideal reader. Can you picture them? They get up early. They trudge to the coffee pot and make a fresh pot, soaking in the aroma of opportunity. Cup in hand, they make their way to their library, and pick up their favorite new book, the one they can't put down, the one they tell everyone about, the one they have read cover to cover every morning this week. Not your ideal reader? Sit down and imagine yours.

What are their interests? How old are they? Publishers want to know that you have an end in sight, and that there is someone out there who will read your books. With your help, they can direct their marketing to your ideal reader. But you have to inform them. Here are my favorite posts on finding a target audience:

This post from Author's Platform lays out the hows, whats, and whys of a target audience. It is very in-depth, and it is geared towards us authors.

Don't let the "mad scientist" look fool you, this is Advanced Fiction Writings's post on target audiences.

Knowing your target audience is going to become part of your overall marketing plan for your novel. Really, how can you begin to come up with a marketing plan if you don't know who you are aiming it at?

Having a marketing plan thought through before you submit your manuscript proposal will impress the professional to whom you sent your proposal. I think that is a big part of the reason it is required in ACWF. Again, it shows that you are thinking ahead, and that you a working on making your novel go somewhere. You are taking action, and publishers like that.

Your marketing plan would include what you as the author plan to do to promote your book. Are you going to go to readings or book signings? (Which is highly encouraged!) Will you blog or use social media? Do you have a grass roots movement started by the book club you attend? Are you going to write book club discussion guides to help sell your novel?

If you were a reader, what could an author do to get you interested in their work? What would your ideal reader want?

I hope this post helped you reading it as much as it helped me writing it! Enjoy your weekend, and let me know if you have any questions in the comment box!


p.s. The awesome graphics that you see were designed by me. I got the sweet original from Allison at Wonderlass.com, with her permission. Check her out! She has awesome stock photos and great business ideas.



Interview with Hugh Cook

Posted on January 9, 2016 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Hugh Cook is one of the speakers at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. He is the author of four books, Heron River, At Home in Alfalfa, The Homecoming Man, and Cracked Wheat and Other Stories. Cook is also a poet, and has been published in literary journals such as Malahat Review, Descant, and Fiddlehead, among others. He also runs an editing service to help writers.

Cook currently resides with his wife in Ontario, Canada, where he is a retired professor from Redeemer University College.

I was on the Festival website looking through the list of speakers when I saw Mr. Cook and his website. I thought, "How cool would it be if he let me interview him at the Festival?" I decided to take a chance and email him, and he emailed me back within an  hour, asking if I maybe wanted to interview him over email now, and then meet up at the Festival. So, here is the interview, and be sure to look for a post around the Festival in April of us meeting in person:




You were born in the Netherlands. Do you have any memories from there?




Yes, I still have a number of vivid memories. I’ll share one. My father owned a dairy products store a twenty-minute walk away from the North Sea, and on summer days I carried my shovel and pail and trekked to the beach where my mother held a towel in front of me while I shimmied into my bathing suit. I built sand castles and dug moats in the wet beach flats and occasionally ventured into the frigid water of the North Sea whose shocking salt taste, when a wave snuck up on me and I swallowed a mouthful, I still remember today.

My father would not be at the beach with us for he would be in our store selling milk and eggs and bulbous balls of Edam and Gouda cheese sitting ceremoniously in rows on wooden shelves after my father had taken them from their rectangular wooden boxes, and my brothers and sister and I would chew the wax the cheese came wrapped in and pretend it was chewing gum. Eggs came to the store in flats from the farm and when my father discovered a cracked egg he would not discard it but would lean back his head and tip the raw egg into his mouth and swallow it whole—we had just come through the Hunger Winter of ‘44 when people ate tulip bulbs, and we’d learned not to waste food.




How old were you when your family moved to Canada?




I was seven years old.




Did you enjoy school? What was your favorite subject? Were there any subjects that you absolutely hated?




The first several months while I was learning English were difficult, for I would often have no idea what the teacher was saying. But children learn languages quickly, and so did I. I soon developed a love for story. My father read from the children’s Bible at supper table every evening, and that was my first introduction to the power of narrative. On the one hand these stories from the Old Testament were historical-redemptive stories of the faith, but they were also what fairy tales are to other children, for they contain the same enchantment and magic and witchcraft and bloodthirstiness and undercurrent of sexuality that fairy tales have. A donkey speaks; an axehead floats on water; an evil king visits a witch’s hovel in the night in order to speak to the spirit of a dead prophet; a painted, wicked queen is thrown from a tower so that her blood spatters against the stone wall and the horses’ hooves; a king stands on his palace roof spying on a naked woman and then has sex with her after arranging her husband’s murder. Thus I was read to by my father every day. It follows as I went through school that English became my favorite subject. I was less enamored of mathematics and the sciences.




When did you know that you wanted to write?




When I was in college and first started writing poems. But because of my early love of story as I described it earlier I believe I was destined to be a writer before I even knew it.




When did you consider yourself a writer?




Well, it’s a slow – and never-ending – process. You begin by sending off writing to literary journals and receive a lot of rejection slips. (I once heard Brent Lott, a fine writer and author of a dozen or so books, say at a Festival of Faith and Writing that he had collected 596 rejection slips over the years. 596!) Then if you’ve worked hard and you’re lucky you get your first acceptance, and another, and another. Are you a writer? You’re still not sure, but you believe you’re on the way. One very important moment when I was still writing stories for my M.F.A. at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa occurred when my instructor mentioned something about “when your first book comes out.” When, not if. I was taken aback, because I hadn’t begun to think in those terms yet. But then your first book does indeed come out – am I a writer now? Well, maybe, but not unless I’m able to do it again. And so on. So, after four books am I a writer? I think so, but I don’t let it go to my head.




Why do you write?




I find this a difficult question to answer. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to do the things I admire, so I wish I could dunk a basketball or play the cello or ice skate or be a gourmet cook or paint well. And having been an avid reader my whole life it was an easy next step for me to start writing the thing I admired, namely stories. I think why I write, then, is to make the kind of stories I myself enjoy. I also find that when I’m writing I live life more intensely, live life on a higher plane as it were, like an athlete who’s “in shape.” Food tastes better, music sounds better, the world’s a more beautiful place.




To follow up the answer to why you write, do you have any quirky hidden talents?




I was once a pretty decent soccer player, but no, not really. I’m disgustingly average.




How often do you write? Do you have a schedule that you stick to?




I started teaching before I started writing seriously, and because it’s very difficult to make a living from writing, especially when you have a family, I’ve had to continue teaching. That has meant that my writing schedule is shaped by the academic year. For nine months I teach, which to me is an all-consuming activity, so that while I might be making notes, I’m unable to do any actual writing during that time. Then in May I have to turn that huge ship around from literary analysis and marking student papers to narrative and image and character and metaphor. So for most of my life, summers has been my writing time.




How long does it usually take you to write a book?




That’s varied from book to book. If you see that my four books were published in 1985, 1989, 1998 and 2011 you’ll notice that each of my books took me longer to write than the last. I’m not sure why.




Do you have a similar process for writing that you have followed for most of your works?




Cracked Wheat and Other Stories, my first book, was written longhand with a fountain pen. During my writing of The Homecoming Man, my second book, the personal computer came out, so the second half of that novel was written by computer. As were my other books. I’m an inveterate reviser of my writing as I go along, so you can see that I love writing on the computer. It simplifies the process. One American writer has said that had the computer existed at the beginning of his writing career he would have written three or four more novels, and I believe it.

As for what my writing day is like, I go to my writing room no later than 9:00, most mornings I’ll do some devotions, then turn on my computer. I take a break for lunch (often running downstairs to change something in a sentence), then go back to writing. When I find my concentration flagging – it could be 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock – then I stop for the day. (And again in the evening often going downstairs to revise a sentence running through my head).




What is the hardest thing about writing? What is the easiest thing about writing?




I don’t know whether there’s anything easy about writing. There are two kinds of writers: ones who suppress their inner grammarian and go with the flow and get that first draft out, and those who painstakingly move along. I’m the second type. I can’t move from one sentence to the next unless I’m satisfied with the one I’ve just written. It’s not unusual for me to spend an hour on one sentence, or a whole morning on a paragraph. For me, it’s like trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. That being said, I think beginnings are always hard, getting a story or a novel off the ground and you’re trying to find out what this thing is all about.




How do you handle writer’s block?




Not well, I’m afraid. I know there’s all kinds of advice on how to break writer’s block, much of it conflicting – one writer says he does weeding, another says write anything, anything at all, even if it’s crap, a third says to journal, a fourth says there’s no such thing, still another says to walk around the block, and so on. I’m not sure what to say, other than to go back to reading whatever it was that turned you on to writing in the first place and see if that gets you going once more.




What are you currently working on?




It’s usually taken me some time to move from one book to the next, so it’s not surprising to me that I haven’t begin a new project since Heron River, my last novel. We’ll see where things take me.




Are you part of (or have you ever been part of) a writing group?




I haven’t been, but I strongly encourage everyone to be part of a group that meets regularly. What I have done is to have writers whose reading and editing skills I trust read the manuscript before I submit it to my publisher.




Do you have any writers that have mentored you?




Other than my writing instructors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not personally, no. I’m addicted, however, to reading books on the craft of fiction writing. Plus, any book of fiction I read I pay attention to matters of craft.




Do you mentor any writers?




Not on a personal, sustained basis. I do freelance editing of fiction manuscripts, however (I have a standing ad in the magazine Poets and Writers, if anyone is interested, or check my website www.hugh-cook-ca), and I’ve mentored/edited short story and novel manuscripts for people from Alaska to Florida and from California to Maine. A number of them have had their manuscripts published.




Do you write yourself into any of your books or stories?




No, I don’t, but I believe that aspects of your character and how you look at the world inevitably creeps in to some of your characters.




Looking at your works as a whole, do they have a theme that runs through each of them? Does your life have a theme that you see reflected in your writing?




Pretty well all of my fiction explores the immigrant theme. My characters come almost exclusively from the Dutch Canadian immigrant community. So one central theme that appears in my fiction deals with that community’s values and beliefs and traditions being displaced and relocated into a new setting. Perhaps because I am an immigrant I think the concomitant theme of a search for home also enters into some of my work. The word “home” appears in the titles of two of my books. And perhaps all Christians ultimately long for an eternal home.




Are you married?



Yes, I’m married.



Has that affected your writing?




I think one’s writing will inevitably be flavored by being married and having a family. Your experience of having a spouse and children gives you a great deal to write about! It would be hard for me to write about these things strictly from my imagination. Having a satisfying home life with my family has also provided a stable environment for me to do my writing. It’s sometimes been said that if you want to be a writer you should focus on it and not get married, but I would advise wannabe writers exactly the opposite.




Is there any advice you would give a new writer who has also recently been married?




I’m tempted to repeat the Old Testament’s wisdom: “Enjoy the wife of your youth.” Let the love the two of you share spill out into a love for the world, so that all its wondrous variety and beauty may find its way into your writing. And already embark on an active life of reading.




In high school and college, I was told to “read like a writer.” How do you read?




I think there are different kinds of readers. Immature readers read in order to turn pages, to find out what happens next. Intelligent readers read a book to find out what it means. A writer reads and asks, “How did she do that?” In other words, paying attention to the craft.




Do you read a lot while you write?




Absolutely! In a way, I’m never not thinking story, and I’m never not reading. You might say, Isn’t that a little bit obsessive? Yes, but that’s what it takes to write books. I think you can’t be a writer without being a compulsive reader.


Who are your favorite authors?


Probably the one writer to whom I owe the most is Flannery O’Connor, for I happened to read her work at a crucial stage in my writing life. I’d been writing poetry and had experienced a writing block that lasted five years. Reading O’Connor’s stories set in the South made me realize the importance of one’s community, and until then I had not thought of writing about my Dutch Canadian immigrant experience and my Dutch Canadian community, which I then set out to do. O’Connor also modeled for me that a writer who was Christian could write excellent fiction without writing the cheesy kind of fiction one sees in Christian bookstores. So she was a writer who was strategic to my development.

Since I’m Canadian there are also Canadian writers who have been important to me, writers who American readers may not be familiar with. There’s Alice Munro, a brilliant writer of short stories, who won the Nobel prize for Literature in 2013. There’s also Alistair MacLeod from the Maritimes, who has written powerful and haunting (not haunted!) short stories. One of the things that appeals to me in both their stories is a strong sense of place, how their stories could not have happened anywhere else. And there’s their creation of memorable characters, of course.

I’m also an avid reader of American writers such as Richard Ford and Annie Proulx and Kent Haruf and Cormac McCarthy and Tim Gautreaux and David Rhodes for the reasons I’ve mentioned above – so many great writers!




You called it 'cheesy fiction', do you like being labeled as a Christian writer, or do you wish that people would see you as 'just a writer'?




“Christian writer” is a term that people fill with their own meaning. For some it means the well-meant (I hope) but yet dishonest fiction on the shelves of Christian bookstores. To be a Christian writer is a vocation that one works out in the sanctity of his or her writing room. What it means for Marilynne Robinson it not what it means for, say, Rudy Wiebe, and what it means for Annie Dillard is not what it means for Anne Lamott. Each writer works this out for him- or herself. But if by “Christian writer” you mean it in the best sense of the phrase as represented by any of these writers I mention, then I have no difficulty with being labeled a Christian writer.




I am studying to be a high school English teacher. What advice would you give to teachers who write on the side?




Teaching leaves little time to write – oh, how I know – but if you’re really serious about your writing, try to carve out little pockets of time if you can. Then, when summer comes, take as short a vacation as possible, and devote the summer to writing. And read as much as possible during the school year.




You taught creative writing at Redeemer University College. Did any of your students go on to be published writers or poets?




Yes. I can think of four or five right off, and there may be more.




Have you written any books that haven’t been published?



Fortunately, whatever books I’ve written have been published.




Have any of your works been rejected?




A number of short stories I’ve written have been rejected. To be a writer means you will experience rejection. All writers go through this.




Are your books written in order of publication, or are they published out of order?




My four books were all published in the order they were written.




What was it like to be published for the first time? What kind of emotions were swirling around?




Utter elation and excitement! You hold a hard copy of the book in your hands and realize this is something you wrote. All your life you’ve loved literature and books, and now you realize you’ve joined that tribe of writers you’ve always admired. Then, after a day or so, you turn sober and tell yourself, don’t let it go to your head. And realize you will have to do it again.



What advice do you have for unpublished writers and poets?




Write, write, write, and read, read, read. Read as a writer reads, with an eye to matters of craft. Check out literary journals where you might send your first stories and poems. Keep a journal or a file containing notes that help you to keep a record of ideas useful for your writing.




Do you hear from your readers much?



At times, but frankly, not as much as I’d like. Every once in a while someone will come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed one of my books and I think, I wish you would have written me that. Ironically, I thought that with the advent of email, making communication so much easier than snail mail, I would hear more from readers, but the reverse is true. If I look into my files containing responses from readers, I see more cards and brief letters than I see emails.




What is the best feedback you have received on your own work? What is the worst?




Several people have told me that a particular character I created was very lifelike and the exact image of their father, say. That pleases me a lot. I also received a nasty letter once from a reader saying that he wasn’t criticizing me, but that I shouldn’t have portrayed something the way I did in one of my stories. I wrote him back as gently as I could that of course he was criticizing me, and that his critique lacked a good deal of love, and that I felt justified in writing what I had written.




Did you enjoy teaching creative writing at Redeemer University College?



Absolutely, a great deal! It helped keep me in touch with matters of writer’s craft during the academic year. And to have one of your students be admitted into an MFA program or later to come out with a book of their own is immensely gratifying. Students taking creative writing can be very eager learners.




You are a speaker at the Festival of Faith and Writing this year. Have you spoken there before?




I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to speak or read at every one of the Festivals of Faith and Writing since the very first one in 1990, when about 100 people came, Now 1500 festival-goers attend! The Festival is always one of the highlights of the year, for me. A little foretaste of what the new heaven and earth will be like: one giant arts festival!




How did you find out that they wanted you as a speaker?




Boy, I’m trying to remember. 1990 – was email around at that time already? If not, I just received a personal letter inviting me.




How did you feel about it? Do you like public speaking?




I was terribly flattered, of course. I’d only just come out with my second book in 1989; both it and my first book of stories received positive reviews in Reformed publications. Both books portrayed Dutch Reformed immigrants to Canada. Calvin College of course is a college of the Christian Reformed Church. And I happen to be a Calvin grad, which no doubt also helped.

Yes, I enjoy public speaking, especially reading from my work. I’ve spoken or read at a number of Christian colleges in Canada and the U.S., and relish the invitations.


--End Interview--

* I met Mr. Cook after one of his short story workshops at the Festival, and we instantly bonded over hockey and fishing!



World Lit

Posted on December 8, 2015 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)

 I am in World Literature this semester, and we just finished reading part of Svetlana Alexievich's book, Voices from Chernobyl. Alexievich is the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, and has written a number of books in this same style, which she calls a 'novel of voices.' She interviews people who were affected by disasters such as war or Chernobyl, and the theme that carries across all of her works is how the Soviet Union affected and continues to affect the lives of people living in the region of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Voices from Chernobyl is a beautifully written piece of creative non-fiction. Each person tells their personal story in a powerful way, and Alexievich weaves them together to create both private and public truth.I don't think that Alexievich could have chosen a better genre for her project. I would highly recomend reading this book, although I will admit parts of it are graphic, so maybe the book isn't for everyone. However, having traveled to Ukraine, I found the book interesting and read it all in one sitting. I couldn't put it down!

I liked (I know "liked" isn't the best word, but there is no good word to describe it) it so much that I used it to write my term paper for World Literature. In my paper, I discuss the genre of creative non-fiction, and Alexievich's use of creative non-fiction to look at the Soviet/Post-Soviet Soul.

I loved the whole class, and decided to share our reading list with you, so you can enjoy "traveling" through reading and experiencing all these cultures with us! 

To access the list and other free resources, subscribe to my email list! 

I Have Been Published: Paragon 18, 19, & 20!

Posted on August 18, 2015 at 12:30 AM Comments comments (2)


I have now been published  three times in Paragon, Colorado Christian University's literary and art journal! I think is a huge accomplishment, and I have been working towards that goal. Below is the first poem that was published. I won't be able to post all of the poems I work on here, because then they would be considered published, and literary journals won't accept them. However, I plan on keeping you updated on how my poetry journal is coming along, and the journey that is publishing poetry.

Ode to A Leaf

You make your appearance

In the soft sun of springtime,

Born of winter’s death.

Luscious and green,

You work with vitality

Through your summer days.

Those bright days of youth

Pass to the darker days of

Age and wisdom.

This knowledge and age

Manifest themselves in a change

Of color, A sign of maturity.

Soon enough, winter’s breezes

Shake you from your branch,

Unfettering you.

You journey on

An unknown path.

At its end, you rest,

Peaceful and oblivious

To the world around.

In May 2016, Paragon, Colorado Christian University's art and literary journal published their 19th edition. This year I had two poems published, Culture Shock and Memories. Paragon has just announced it's 20th year's theme, Memories. So, I guess I should have waited a year to publish that poem.


Culture Shock

Outside the window the mountains range

erasing childhood memories of the flat

praries of the Northern Minnesota country.

Where I live now is like a new country,

I think as I boil water on the range

of the stove in my two-bedroom flat.

Denver. On my tongue it sounds flat.

Not like the village names in the country,

from Minnehaha to Mesabi--the full range.

Culture shock is taking the Rocky Mountain Range in place of the flat country of the Midwest.


Can we take pictures in the garden?

  The garden is bursting with flowers,

bursting with colors.Bright spring


colors of blue, green, purple, and pink.

Are you blue? Here, let me kiss you to cheer you up.

Remember our first kiss? On the mountain?

We sat on the mountain and watched the sun set.

You took out or memories and set them on the rock.


Bright colorful memories of your years together.

However, this last year (2017)  I went a different route, and it paid off! I decided to publish a short story, which was new for me. Last year at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I took a break one afternoon and went to the art museum on Calvin's campus. There, I saw the cutest pair of Chinese baby slippers. I had already been working on a piece inspired by my intro to creative writing class, but I decided to take my story from the prairie and drop it in China to see what happened.

I loved how it turned out, and so did the staff at Paragon! I won first place in prose, which was a big deal for me, since I am new to this whole writing and being published thing, and this was my first short story. But, it feels really nice to be validated in what I am chosing to do with my life, and I learned a lot in between the Festival and today, the first day of my last week of college.

On Saturday, I graduate with my husband! And I get to focus on writing full-time!

You can read The Hope Chest in my self-published chapbook, Aesthetic Blindness, wich came out in June 2017. It is a micro-chapbook, with eight poems and a short story, and all were either written during my time at CCU, or heavily edited then. 

Stay tuned for more updates on writing full-time. In the meantime, you can check out what I have already written in the realm of writing/publishing, and stop by my page just for writers and poets. There are a lot of contests going on now and coming up, so if you want to enter a contest or try to get published by a journal, you should see the list. If wouldn't hurt, right?


Festival of Faith and Writing

Posted on August 17, 2015 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing for the first time in 2016, and absolutely loved it! The CCU English Department traveled (mostly) together, and I it was awesome to get to know my professors and fellow English majors better over the course of the weekend.The weekend was incredible, and as Dave Harrity put it, a bit like drinking out of a fire hose.

The sessions went by so fast! We had the first keynote session at noon on Thursday, with Tobias Wolff reading one of his short stories, and then describing what went into writing it. Then, I had the chance to listen to Makoto Fujimura discuss his book, Silence and Beauty, and how it relates to Endo's Silence. (Read both books and watch the movie!!! I cannot reccomend them enough!) It was really helpful with the paper I was currently writing for my Worldviews class at CCU, and I could talk about Silence for hours. A really challenging book for me, and it helped me grow so much. 

The second concurrent session I went to was on liturgy and poetry, and it was interesting to hear contemporary poets who are orthodox Christians talk about the two. I've decided I love Scott Cairn's poetry! I bought Idiot Psalms while at the Festival and am still reading it! Nightstand favorite!  For the last keynote of the first day, Zadie Smith began to answer the question, Why write? I have lots to think about for the next few months, and that was all just from one day!

I wish I had known about this conference in high school! I feel like I've missed out by not knowing. Oh well, I can go to future Festivals. Friday's first session this morning was on friendship, and how uncategorizable it is. It seems to always be the exception to rules placed on it. It was a very interesting discussion. My second session was on blogging, and whether or not authors should have a blog. Watch out for an upcoming post on why I blog.

After an extended lunch, I went to a ecological conversation which was, to put it nicely, quite interesting. Although I did not agree with everything being said, I came up with many writing ideas. Finally, I went to the travel story session, and came up with several more new writing ideas. I should be able to keep going for some time to come. Having been to Ukraine, Viet Nam, and France, currently living in a camper traveling the US,  I have a few travel essays I could write...Plus, Tara Isabella Burton is so great as a live speaker, and a writer, and if you don't already follow her on twitter, do it. Trust me, just do it!   (@NotoriousTIB)

The keynote at the end of Friday was with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff, and it was fantastic. Saunders read one of his short stories and had the audience rolling with laughter. I love hearing writers and poets read their own works. 

I went to an early morning session Saturday on writing book reviews. I am going to have to practice slow reading. After a coffee break, I went and met up with Hugh Cook! In preparing for the Festival, I read Hugh Cook's novel, Heron River. If you remember, I did an email interview with him as well. If you are attending the 2018 Festival, you may have seen my interview on his speaker bio.  I got to meet him and talk for a few minutes after his short story workshop (couldn't attend, seats go so quickly!) We bonded over hockey, and it was incredible to meet him in person after interviewing him. After that, I went to the art gallery at Calvin's Fine Art Center. I sat down and wrote a short story (The Hope Chest). It was not the only work to come out of the weekend, but it might become my weekend favorite. *This short story was published in Paragon 20, and won first place in the prose category!!! You can read it in my chapbook, Aesthetic Blindness

The last session of my first Festival experience was on teaching and writing, which was encouraging for me.Even though I am no longer pursuing a traditional teaching role, Seth and I are planning on homeschooling our kids (Baby #1 was born July 2018!) and I am in the process of writing some e-courses. I just love teaching, and am passionate about helping others reach their goals.Hopefully my writing will encourage my students to better their own. 

We ended the weekend with an ice cream social back at the hotel, and a small morning service Sunday at Lake Michigan. So much fun to hang out with the CCU English department!

As you can imagine, I really, really wanted to attend the Festival in 2018, and was planning on it! I booked my hotel and flight, registered, and started doing some serious speaker research. I had my sessions planned out. And then we had a little scare, where Seth and I thought baby #1 might come too early, and even though we got checked out and everything was fine, we decided that it would be better if I didn't go this time. I would have hated to be states away from Seth and my doctor had anything happened at the Festival, and Seth had an event booked for that weekend, so he couldn't come with. 

So, I am planning on attending in 2020, toddler in tow! If you have been to the Festival (or anything like it) with small children, I am in need of advice and tips, so please help a mama out! (alexandriamaxwellwrites@gmail.com)

As a reader, it is obvious to see how useful and amazing the Festival is. You can meet your favorite writers (they'll sign your book!), listen to authors you have never heard but will definitely enjoy, and meet up with other readers who share your interests. You might even walk away from the Festival as a member of a new, long-distance book club! 

But what about writers who attend the Festival? 

Still so useful! Here is a list of all the great things that can come out of the Festival for writers who attend:

1. A renewed sense of purpose. Being a writer is often a lonely job, especially if you are having a hard time finishing a project, or growing a readership. Listening to writers who have made it in the genre that you work in is so refreshing and empowering. If writing really is what you want to do full-time, soak in all their advice and joy, and get back to writing.  

2. Networking. A lot of writers who are in the same place you are in are attending the Festival. Find them. Talk to them. Help each other out! If you both blog, you might be able to get some guest posts (and a bigger reach), book reviews, and social media shout outs. This can seem like a really competative industry, but you can be so much more successful if you collaborate. It would be great to start a long distance writer's group, and maybe meet up at the Festivals as they happen every other year.

3. Large gathering of readers. Grow your readership! Talk to everyone there! There will be hundreds of other readers, editors, and publishers there to meet. If you have a book out in print, give away free copies. Make new friends. Growing readership is a really slow, organic process, but attending this one event and working it can help give you a boost. 

If you are planning to be at the Festival 2020 and want to get in touch, email me at alexandriamaxwellwrites@gmail.com, and I would love to meet you and hang out!

p.s. Did you miss the Festival 2018? Come to the #FFWgr20! I did a lot of research and am preparing the ultimate planning sheet for this coming Festival. You will be able to download the free printable planning sheet Fall of 2019 and get started on getting to the Festival this next time! In order to access the printable (and a ton of other free awesome resources) you need to subscribe to my email list. Enjoy! And get planning!




Round vs. Flat Characters

Posted on January 31, 2015 at 12:35 AM Comments comments (0)

We have been studying round and flat Characters in class. One of the things that makes a character round instead of flat is that character's depth, and their abilities to surprise us in convincing ways. The discussion led me to the question, "Are people basically good, bad, or shades of both?" I haven't  completely formulated my opinion on the question, but here is the start of my answer to it:

People are basically good--and they are basically bad. We are made in the image of God, and at creation, he called us, "good." Yet, we also live in a fallen and sinful world, full of evil and decay. We are rotten to the core.

Being made in the image of God, we can see some of his characteristics in us. Some people are very creative. Some are fair and just. Some are hospitable and compassionate. Some people care for orphans and widows, and others help clothe and feed the homeless and the refugees. All of us, in varying degrees, bear God's fingerprint.

We cannot help but notice one person's joy, another's kindness, or one's ability to be a peacemaker, and those intent on helping the poor. We all have some ability to do good.

However, we also have the ability to do wrong. We decieve, we manipulate, and we use others for our own selfish advantages. We cheat, when we could have studied harder. We steal when we could have worked for what we wanted. We covet others' belongings, instead of rejoicing with them for what God has blessed them with. We lash out in anger at one another. We are selfish and sometimes think of others as less than ourselves, as less than human. We murder, we rape, we enslave one another, and commit all kinds of atrocities. We are all varying shades of darkness and evil. Therefore, we are not completely "good."

We are the complicated messes that we enjoy reading about. We are the real-life models that authors use in their writings.We are round and alive and complex. We are the Scarlett O'haras, the David Copperfields, the Jane Eyres, and the Eponines of the real world.

As an writer, I think the only way to develop round characters is to study people in real life. That's why professors assign people watching and evesdropping to their English students. It's why artists use actual people as models for their work, or if they paint still-life, they have their "scene" set in front of them. If we want to produce art that imitates reality, we have to imitate reality! 

I'm going to admit to you that some of my friends have cameos in my work, or are the base idea for a character that I develop through putting the character in lots of different scenarios to see how they react. My characters are not 100% representative of those they are based off of, but I start with real people that I know. 


Writing Group

Posted on January 28, 2015 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

This is the end of the third week of the semester. The third week!

This week, I was put in a writing group. In my group are two girls, whom I believe are seniors. I am so excited to get to work with them, especially since they are each working on their second novels! They have both written one before, and are (I believe) writing the sequal to their previous novels. So, I am lucky to get to work with writers who have more experience than I do.

So far, I have not written a single page. (Gasp!!!) I really thought that I would be finished with the first chapter by now, but I see the need for research. Researching will make my novel stronger, and more realistic.

So, I have been researching and researching and researching. Who my characters are, what their values are, their family traditions. I've looked at houses, furniture, occupations, clothes, cleaning supplies, and appearances for my characters. But the hardest part are their names. I have changed their names so many times!


I've also been playing around with either having a narrator, or telling the story from the main character's point of view. When the first chapter is due, I will have to turn in a first-person and a third-person version. But before my first chapter is due, my synopsis is due. It is difficult to write a synopsis before a novel, because I don't know what is going to happen yet. It is helpful, though, because I really have to think about what my characters will do and when, so I have a better grasp on my novel, but I know when I finish, my synopsis will have changed significantly. 


What I am finding out is that there is so much more than just writing that goes into making a novel (or really any book). To be completely honest, it is really intimidating to think of everything I have to do, and the fact that I have no idea how do do any of it. I am so thankful that I am in a writing group. I think that being able to discuss with my group will help with the stress.

If you would like to discuss everything writing related, like my Facebook page and join my exclusive writing group!!! Be sure to check it often and post whenever you want. I will answer almost any question! 




Posted on January 28, 2015 at 10:15 AM Comments comments (0)



This post first appeared on my website http://www.alexandriamaxwellwrites.com, as a part of my Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction class that I was attending. The pictures I’ve used for this post’s graphics are from a family trip to Viet Nam in 2012.



Zeitgeist means “the spirit of the times,” and refers to the mood, feeling, and attitudes of a time period. There’s a lot that goes into a time’s zeitgeist: art, literature, politics, etc. One of the exercises we were asked to do in my Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction class was to pick a place and show the zeitgeist through our writing.

Saigon, Viet Nam, June 2012:


"A Taxi took us through the city, which pulsed with life, even at this late hour. Mopeds, the favorite mode of transportation, passed us. During our stay in Viet Nam, the record amount of passengers we would see on one was 9. But tonight there were only one or two passengers on each."


Wow, that looked a lot longer in my notebook. It took about a page. I guess I write pretty big when I’m in a hurry. The excerpt above was based on the night we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Viet Nam.


The picture below was taken in the park across the street from the hotel, where the taxi was taking us. We got to the hotel at midnight. The next morning after breakfast we walked in the park, and this is what we experienced (excerpt taken out of my diary):


"We took a walk in the park after that. We saw women practicing a fan fighting technique, a man teaching martial arts and gymnastics, and some boys kick boxing. There was a cute little boy with an adorable giggle running around with a soccer ball, and a chubby little kid at the pool about to jump off the diving board in a speedo. We also saw an art class in the park drawing trees."


I didn’t share my diary entry with my classmates, but we did share our zeitgeist exercises, and my classmate totally got it:


“I’m getting the vibe that the time is now–or recent, at least. The ‘spirit of the times,’ I guess, would be bustling with life–fully alive. I feel swept into a place where you can hardly help but be thrown into movement and life.”


I think zeitgeist is a simple to understand but hard concept to master as a writer. And I would not call myself a master of zeitgeist! It takes practice and deep observation. Before I give you another example, try answering one or more of the questions below as a writing prompt!


  • Can you think of a place that you have traveled to? What was the zeitgeist of that place when you went there? Has it changed?
  • Is it different from the “spirit of the time” that you grew up in?
  • In your own writing, what is one of your best examples of zeitgeist?


I love to travel! In high school, I was able to take three separate trips abroad. I visited Ukraine, Viet Nam, and France, in that order! Now, my husband and I live in a 24 foot bumper-pull camper and we travel the United States with our daughter and dog. We get to experience a lot of different cultures and subcultures. Each place we go to has its own “flavor”.


I’m not always the best at it, but I try to keep a diary. I believe that is one of the best ways that I have been able to better my craft. Because of my diary, I’m also able record the mood and feeling of the different cities and states we have traveled to.

In fact, journaling became the basis for my poetry work-in-progress, a full-length chapbook devoted to poems about life on the road. It’s kind of a memoir of poetry, and I am so excited to celebrate its publication in April of 2020!


Below is part of a poem that I wrote in 2017, our first year living in a camper.


It is the color

of my favorite

memories. Of working

hard with Grandpa

in the garden

of eating ice

cream outside on

a june day

I have melted

into a sticky

mess, but still

Grandma offers me


Stanza 4, “Vert”, Already Almost Home, Alexandria Maxwell

I think I’m primarily a poet, so I wanted to show you an example of zeitgeist in poetry as well as prose. Even though I learned about the concept while studying fiction/novel writing, I thought it applied to most creative writing.


The zeitgeist invoked by this stanza is one of contentment, peace, and being generally carefree. Does it bring back summer vacations as a kid? Think of your favorite day. What was going on in the culture that you were a part of at the time? Did that place and time influence your memory of your favorite day? Write about it!


I want to leave you with a few writing prompts that focus on zeitgeist:


Write about something that happened today, even something that’s not necessarily noteworthy. Try to show today’s political and social culture through this event/happening.

If you keep a journal or diary, flip back a few pages and find an incident to write about. Have someone read it and see if they can figure out where the incident took place.

If you don’t keep a diary, I encourage you to! And not necessarily a detailed itinerary of your day–although that can be interesting to look back on for writing ideas. Try to focus on capturing the spirit of each day, not just every single thing that happened.


I hope this helps you with your writing!


Thank you for reading,