I recently gave a talk to a group of Catholic writers, and this post is a recap of some of the main points of that talk along with the writing books I would recommend to anyone looking to strengthen their craft of writing. As someone who has published one novel but is in the throes of polishing a second, I still feel very much a student but I get asked a lot how to begin. In life and in writing, I think of all of us as hungry beggars looking for bread. My suggestions are meant to say: here is where I found some bread.
Sol Stein’s definition of being a writer is “someone who cannot not write” and I think this is so true. Once you have realized the writing urge in you, becoming interested in the craft of writing and is your next step. There are, fortunately, a tribe of writers and creators who are generous in sharing their hard-earned wisdom. I began by studying their advice, devouring writing books for both their technical writing advice and their ability to combat fear and navigate the creative life. So here are a few of the best tips I have gotten from them, some thoughts on how being a Catholic helps me write, and a list of the books that helped me grow as a writer.
I get asked a lot, when do you write? I mostly write when my kids are at school. I also write when my kids are sleeping at night. I sometimes write when I have a sitter but I generally can’t write if they are awake and home, something this summer is reminding me of all over again.
Being a mom is my first vocation. I could write at a faster clip if I had someone to pick up my youngest from preschool and help my big kids off the bus, but I want to be with them. One thing that has helped me tremendously is that my graduate work included a ton of writing, and it enabled me to be a very disciplined writer. The minute I sit down in a chair, turn on my computer, a cup of tea by my side, I focus hard. I remember reading an interview with Barbara Kingsolver, and she said something like, ‘If you want to be a writer, have children. They will make you use your writing time very productively because you’ll have so little of it.’ And I whole heartedly agree. We write in the margins of our time, and it turns out God can do a lot with a little.
On Persistence + Distraction:
Since my first novel has been published, so many people have talked to me about wanting to write too, and asked me how to go about finishing a book. And aside from the solid advice of read a lot, and write a lot, the thing I want to tell them is this: The road is long. It has very few cheerleaders, and plenty of doubters. It is just you, alone, every day, sitting with your dreams and your belief in yourself and in the story. If these are not strong, or if you are writing for praise, you will probably quit long before you are finished. If you are expecting accolades, you will be disappointed.
Persistence is the only way to get to the finish line of writing something you are proud of, that offers something to the world, and hopefully gives Glory to God.
I think it is a myth that you need to retreat from life to produce art, or that isolation yields the highest quality work. Yes you need time and space to think deeply, but I think the messy stew of life makes the best art. I recently heard on this podcast about a writer that worked undisturbed by the demands of life for months, even having people bring food to his door, only to produce a book that wasn’t that good. Sometimes isolation leads us to ‘navel gazing’, whereas living life with others makes us reflect on our experiences with other humans.
If you are a writer with a family you have people that constantly remind you about the human heart, and at the end of the day that is what we are writing about. They remind you daily about triumph and disaster, about pouring yourself into something meaningful, what being our truest selves looks like. And when you are steeped in these realities it can’t help but make its way into your writing.
On Getting Published:
If you are a non-fiction writer, you should google ‘How To Write a Book Proposal’ and then find a publishing company that publishes content in the area you want to write about. Non-fiction publishing companies allow you to submit book proposals and many writers have gotten published that way.
If you are a fiction writer, you need an agent. Fiction publishing companies only consider proposals from literary agents. The best websites to find an agent is AgentQuery.com and QueryTracker.net (I am currently using this second one).
Be prepared for rejection. I sent my current (second) novel out to around 20 agents and had no bites last summer. I took a step back, hired a professional developmental editor (which I highly recommend) and am very excited to take his suggestions to make the book better. I sent my first novel The Wideness of the Sea to around 12-15 agents before I eventually signed a contract with an agent.
Be prepared to be open to alternate ways of getting published. Even though I had an agent, I decided to go in a different direction when my novel won a novel contest. I loved the experience of being published by an independent publishing company, especially since I was about to have twins. I also got to keep my rights to the book, though I sold the Audible version rights to someone who was willing to pay to produce it and I get royalties. There are many self-publishing avenues today, and it is worth researching this avenue to see if it makes sense for you.
On Mystery, Wonder and a Sacramental World View:
This was the biggest take away from the talk I just gave: Catholics have a sacramental world view, and it makes for natural story telling that is rich and beautiful. The Word, Logos, Christ, is in his essence the communication of truth and love and beauty. He taught us in parables, stories, and miracles that contain all the elements of the craft of story-telling: complex characters, desires and motivations, choosing good and evil, cooperation or rejection of grace. His words are called The Gospels, the Good News. We also believe that this eternal Word is still being expressed in the particulars of our lives, and that alone is something to write about. We need more Catholics writing about how God’s grace is working in our lives, because they make for some pretty great stories that are intrinsically true and beautiful.
A sacrament is an expression of God’s grace, so having this sacramental world view just means we see the sacred in the everyday, and as a writer who is trying to pay attention, I just see it everywhere.
I recently discovered this book by Fr. Harrison Arye - Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental World View. It speaks to this exact point, so I am very excited to read it. To see the sacred in everyone, and the divine everywhere in nature, is such a gift and for me as a writer it is the magic, the life-force, the thing that makes life worth living and art worth making. This article about Fr. Arye’s book articulates the sense of wonder and awe that make for story telling magic:
“True beauty gives meaning to a core observation of philosophy: the whole is greater than its parts.” he writes. Beauty leads to wonder, which leads us “to see the ‘something more’ of the world.” It gives us meaning and, ultimately, leads us to behold the mystery of God.
As I shared before in this post about the truth art lets us say, Flannery O’Conner writes in Mystery and Manners:
“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
Fr. Arye and O’Connor both discuss how this view at odds with the modern worldview, one that only believes in the material realities and those of progress and power. The sacramental world view is rejected by atheist materialists who hold science as the only bearer of truth we can rely upon. But our world view helps us to see that science was originally born of this wonder and awe and mystery in the universe, and that truth of any kind, whether it is scientific or about the human person, has a unity. We don’t see a division between art and science the way that someone like Richard Dawkins does.
I think we have a much richer and deeper color palette to paint with, but we also have a greater need to learn our craft so that these rich and nuanced truths can be communicated well so they don’t collapse into sentimentalism or clichés. We have to use the tools of the writer to express them with fresh eyes, and attempt to write something that everyone knows to be true but is only hearing it expressed in your words for the first time.
That is the goal. It is no small feat and we need a lot of help to reach it. So on that note, here are my favorite books on writing.
12 Books on Writing:
Here are the writing books that I find I keep turning to again and again. I hope they help others develop the call to write.
1. Story Engineering, Larry Brooks // This is the first book I pick up when starting a new novel. I also outlined this book and revisited the outline often as I am working on a plot. I find ideas are generated so fast when I read this book I can’t even get them on the page fast enough. Fiction writers tend to be identified as a ‘plotter’ - someone who has every step of their story outlined - or a ‘pantser’ - someone who flies by the seat of their pants and lets the story unfold. I use this book as a general plot outline, with a lot of room for letting it unfold in between plot points, so I am sort of a hybrid of the two.
2. . Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan // I am inspired to write every time I open this book. I added lots of scenes to my novel very organically by opening this book up and doing the exercises. Really fruitful advice. Made me fall in love with poetry and metaphors, and opened me up to the fact that if I don’t have time to study a whole novel, a short piece or poem or even a good essay can yield powerful examples of good writing.
3. On Writing, Stephen King // I read this when I was a newlywed, while my husband traveled a ton and I was stuck in snowy, upstate New York winters. He recommends to forgo all writing groups, conventions, conferences, and just to sit in a room and write the damn book. This is great for new writers, though now I appreciate the fellowship of writing communities. He also recommends only one other book and it is:
4. Elements of Style, William Strunk & E.B. White (Of Charlotte’s Web fame) // Take out every unnecessary word is their battle cry. Edit, edit, edit. Not surprisingly, this is a very thin tome. I feel the need to re-read it weekly. Nearly every accomplished writer recommends it for good reason. Extremely valuable advice.
5. The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield // Pressfield really helped me as a writer grow into myself, and recognize that doubt and uncertainty are just resistance – that universal force that wants to squash creativity. His examples of how he wrote books, screeplays and writing books in the face of his own doubt and resistance is powerful. He also is one of the best writers I’ve seen interviewed.
6. 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists, Andrew McAleer // I wouldn’t have written anything without this book. It taught me that a book grows with a commitment to a certain number of words or hours every week. It was filled with the thoughts and insights of other writers that matched my own in the process, and helped me to separate my creative process from my inner critic (who is helpful when editing, but not at all when writing).
7. No. 4 Draft by John McPhee // John McPhee is an institution. His style and sharpness of mind drip from every page, and he is the embodiment of everything Elements of Style tries to teach about using as few words as possible, and have clarity as your goal. This book is such an amazing overview of his over 40 years in the writing business, from writing at The New Yorker and Time to teaching writing at Princeton. McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize Winner in Creative Nonfiction, as well as father to four daughters, one of whom is a novelist and his reflections of his conversations with her and how hard writing is are my favorite parts of this book.
8. Working Days, John Steinbeck // It is fascinating to travel along with this master while creating the masterpiece Grapes of Wrath. Keeping a journal of your writing process is such a great idea, one that I aspire to although my editor Shawn Smucker did create a video journal and shared it on his Substack - I highly recommend listening to the ones he highlighted, as it is so encouraging and helpful. From these I learned another writing book I need to read is:
9. Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George – I have just started this but based on Shawn’s description I think it will help me to restructure my second novel and think about how to approach my third. A wonderful guide so far.
10. Stein on Writing, Sol Stein // A master of his craft, I feel like I am at the knee of a wise teacher when I read this. As a life-long editor, he has seen all the ways writing can be improved, and offers many case studies that are very helpful to anyone who writes, nonfiction or fiction.
11. The Writing Life , Annie Dillard // I read this book a long time ago, and the image of her writing in her little shed spoke to me like nothing else had. It is very easy to romanticize the writing life, and she both offers this and keeps the blood sweat and tears element to writing. Her best advice: "One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.... Something more will arise for later, something better." And, if that is not enough, "Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients," she says. "That is, after all, the case.... What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"
12. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott // This book is one of the most often recommended by writers, which is why I put it last because you probably already heard about it. But her key idea is how to get started, and that is very helpful if you are struggling. The title comes from a story in her childhood when her brother had to write a report about birds, and had procrastinated until the night before, when he then panicked. Her father was a writer, and told him to just take it bird by bird. She offers an image I think of a lot when writing, which is to picture the idea you are writing about as a tiny window, and try as you write to just keep expanding the view you have through that window, making it bigger and bigger with details and ideas you see through that window. Lamott is such a readable writer, her words flow and her voice is uniquely her own.
Note: Image is Carravagio’s St. Jerome Writing found on FineArt America.
Article originally appeared here: https://katiecurtis.substack.com/p/on-writing
Reused with permission.
Katie Curtis is the author of The Wideness of the Sea, Catholic mom to many, and PhD student in philosophy/humanities. You can find out more about her and her writing at katiecurtis.substack.com