Friday, August 27, 2010


Patricia Wrede writes:

“I don’t have time to write” is one of the most common writers’ complaints, both from people who haven’t published yet and from seasoned pros.

The statement means different things to different people, but the most common meaning is “There are a lot of other things in my life that are more important to me than writing, so those are what I spend my time on.”

. . . But. Nobody gets more than 24 hours of time in a day, or more than 7 days in a week. That prolific professional who has six novels coming out next year (and four the year after that, and five more the year after that) has exactly the same amount of total time as the much-admired writer who produces one novel every eight to ten years, the newly sold author who’s trying to juggle editorial revisions and copyedit and galleys while producing his second book, the as-yet-unsold writer who’s struggling to persuade herself that her writing will sell one day in spite of the latest rejection letter, and the one-of-these-days-when-I-have-time “writer” who hasn’t produced two sentences in thirty years on account of having “no time to write.”

It’s not about having time. It’s about making choices.

Go read the rest, and the comments too, some of which are also by P. Wrede and even better (if possible) than the post itself.

And this is why I love Linda Holmes and her gorgeous, wonderful, analytical mind. She can take something as awful as the "Real Housewives" shows and come up with stuff like this:

"If you've never watched anything Real Housewives-related (and really, good for you), let me sum up most of the plotlines in the show's history: Someone Wants An Apology. Somebody did something to somebody else, and the somebody else just can't believe it, and they spend all of their time telling everyone to whom they speak that the lack of an apology is consuming their every thought to the point where they can barely sit through a mani-pedi without twitching. Usually there is a fashion show involved. (And yes, some of it is staged. At the same time, I am entirely convinced most of those who go to war absolutely do hate each other.)

"Meanwhile, Big Brother features a ridiculous amount of crying and emotional superreacting, which has recently included a couple who decided they were soulmates after about four days of making out, and then a guy who lay on a hammock (I think it was a hammock; I cannot bear to fact-check whether it was actually the chaise) crying to himself, all the while telling himself that it was, after all, only Big Brother — a point somewhat undermined by his position lying in the hammock/chaise, crying.

"At some point this summer, it all became clear: the rest of us are saved from becoming these people in part by the fact that we have to get up every day and do stuff."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Waxing Gibbous, or How the Phases of the Moon in 1803 Weren't What I Wish They Were

"Gibbous" is up there in the title because it is just fun to say. Gibbous, gibbous, gibbous. (Except I really want to say "gibbeous".)
Sadly for my hero, at the time he was making his slog across the northern part of France, at night, on the run from the gendarmes, and badly (but not cripplingly) injured, it was a waxing crescent moon. Which means that it didn't give much light and was only up for a couple hours in the early evening anyway.
Historically accurate novels are just such fun. Where's a full moon when you need it? Over in the middle of June, that's where it is!
Poor fellow. Oh well. Soldier on, Thomas!
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alarmingly Little

I just finished reading Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (you might know him as the author of About a Boy), and there are a few passages I'm still thinking about. One is the thoughts of Duncan, a rather miserable bloke, after he's just cheated on his girlfriend of fifteen years. It strikes me as summing up the problems inherent in living together without vows:

Duncan was sweating, and his heart was racing. He felt sick. Fifteen years! Or more, even! Was it really possible simply to jump from the belly of a fifteen-year relationship into the clear blue sky? Was it allowed? Or would he and Annie be made to attend courses, to see counselors, to go away together for a year or two and explore what had gone wrong? But who would make them? Nobody, that's who. And there was alarmingly little tying him down. He was one of the first people to complain about the increasing encroachment of the state into personal lives, but, actually, shouldn't there be a little more encroachment, when it came to things like this? Where was the protective fence, or the safety net? They made it hard for you to jump off bridges, or to smoke, to own a gun, to become a gynecologist. So how come they let you walk out on a stable, functioning relationship? They shouldn't. If this didn't work out, he could see himself become a homeless, jobless alcoholic within a year. And that would be worse for his health than a pack of Marlboros.

It also illustrates the weirdness of living in a society that legislates everything except morality.

Gosh, Hornby is good. He gets something like that in without seams in the story, with beautiful humor - funny and insightful, just great writing, that.

The other part I'm still thinking about are the thoughts of Tucker Crowe, an artist who was famous once but hasn't written any new songs in about twenty years. He's thinking about why that is, and you get this lovely piece of prose:

The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning, and he'd managed to do that with just about everybody he'd ever met or married or fathered. the truth about life was that nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you. He'd somehow managed to retain the mental habits of a songwriter long after he'd stopped writing songs, and perhaps it was time to give them up.

That image of taking everything and putting it into a glass case and looking at it and thinking about it till it gives up its meaning . . . I'm going to be haunted by that image for a long time I think. Feel familiar to anyone else?

Three cheers for Nick Hornby!

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Sunday, August 22, 2010

the Writer's Tale

I just got a book that's been on my Amazon wishlist for awhile: Russell T Davies' (and Benjamin Cook's) Dr. Who: The Writer's Tale.

I've been an admirer of his work, and I'm becoming even more admiring of his honesty about his writing process. Some great stuff so far:

When asked if he's ever gone into some tricky situation in order to gather material, he says no, but then says, "Is that true, though? Did I just lie my way out of that? Okay, so I've never sought out an experience just so that I can use it in a script, but every experience, every single one, I'm thinking, this is interesting. And they do find their way into a script in the end. So which comes first? Blimey, that'll keep me awake." (Italics mine.)

On the so-called writer's block: "I never call it writer's block, though. I don't know why, but I sort of react with revulsion to that phrase. I imagine it to mean sitting there with No Ideas At All. For me, it feels more like the ideas just won't take the right shape or form. Do writers ever run out of ideas? Doesn't the block say that something else is wrong? Something bigger? I don't know."

I think he's right. It's always something bigger. (Often, in my experience, acedia.)

And then, when asked if you have to have suffered, in order to write, he answers no. But then says this: "I can't imagine writing and thinking, this is easy. I'm marvelling at those words. This. Is. Easy. They're impossible. I might as well say, 'I'm a Martian.'

        "There I go again, saying that you don't have to suffer, while admitting that the process is an act of suffering. Still. No one said that this had to be logical."

His observation about how, even in the midst of a troubling situation, the author part of him is detached and observing and thinking "how interesting!" - oh dear, so familiar. It never turns off, and it does make you feel a little inhuman at times. But only because you're so deeply interested in the human. So weird.

Anyway, fascinating book. You probably want to have watched Dr. Who before reading it, as the book discusses his writing process in putting together series 4 of that show. But this guy is a master storyteller, and it's fascinating to see behind the scenes, into the work of putting that story together.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

p.s. I should add, I suppose, so no one picking up this book on my recommendation is surprised, that Mr. Davies is a gay atheist, and that shows a lot in his writing. Which makes sense, your worldview always does (and should). And I think this particular worldview makes this an often depressing read, because it's a bleak worldview. But, if you are an artist, I think there is enough here well-worth reading that it is worth slogging through the hard stuff. Much, I hope, as any Christian writer could get an honest read from a honest atheist, though he'd find some of the Christian's thoughts hard going. 

I guess that's as much as to say (though it probably doesn't need to be said), that though I do think there are some things bad enough not to read, I think that we should be as charitable reading people that we disagree with as we would be listening to someone we disagree with, and listen and read the way we'd want to be listened to and read. I guess it's a kind of literary Golden Rule.*

Sorry for the digression. I do think it's worth thinking about though: how can we read with both discernment and charity? Some of it, I think, is also to be reading books where we can expect to do nothing but learn and soak in truth, books like de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, or Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, to balance out the books where we are learning some things and thinking through others and disagreeing with yet others.

*btw, I also think there are some things that are not worth reading, most of the time, much as there are some people who are not worth having a conversation with, most of the time. Think pornographic books and abusive people. But I think most civilized people who disagree with each other can profitably converse, just as most civilized people who disagree with a nonetheless worthwhile author can profitably read his book. If that's not true, how could any Christian read Plato or Aristotle? And think what we'd miss if we couldn't!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


This is a good reminder for any parent with a child young enough to sit in a carseat.

This article is about how the language you speak shapes the way you think. (Hat tip Semicolon.)

Two very helpful posts from Nathan Bransford: one on how to write a novel and one on how to revise one.

Love this post from Anne Kennedy, which includes the awesome declaration:

And so, in a fit of brilliance, the idea that we should Not Ever Ever Ever let fall the contents of our hands upon the earth, and nor should our children, nor our children's children, nor also the cat, nor the dog, nor any creature that moveth in the house or in the yard hit us as from Heaven itself.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

on inspiration, maturity and work

A friend sent me this post, about a mom who let her kid just quit doing math for a few months, to look at and asked me what I think. I don't know what she thinks yet, so I don't know whether we agree or not, but it was certainly thought-provoking. Here's my immediate response, though I imagine yours will be different because what you think will probably depend on your experience of trying things that are too hard for you to do, and also on your kids' experiences when they try to do things that are beyond them.  Anyway, here's my not-very-reflective reflection on the post:

That it sounds like summer vacation. :)

My other thoughts are:
-yes, you take un-intentioned breaks sometimes (hmm, let me talk about my last year . . .)
-yes, sometimes there's growth that has to happen before mastery can be achieved, but . . .
-as Picasso said, "There is such a thing as inspiration, but it must find you working." I think that's so, so true. And I think not making the kid work is a disservice to the kid. Now, adjusting the work to fit the child's level . . . i.e., maybe switching to a different program, or playing math games instead of worksheets, or some such, till the necessary maturation occurs and the child gets it? Yeah, absolutely. But I think just letting the child stop working is a bad idea. (Unless, of course, it is summer vacation.)

Mostly because I think letting myself stop working is a bad idea. And I'd hate to be less fair to my child than I am to myself.

So, yeah, I think the back-burner idea is true. At least, I find it true in myself. But I also find it true that I: 1) get the concept faster if I'm still working in the area and 2) learn other good things in the meantime if I keep working in the area. Back-burner break-throughs seem to happen best when you ignore the exact problem area itself "(I can't seeeeeeee you" <-- is the dialogue in my head at those times) but still stick really close to the area around it. Otherwise you can waste days and days and days because you're not aware and alert and present when the readiness kicks in.

Also, we can be very, very wrong about whether or not we're able to do things. I'm always amazed at how much more I can do when I make myself work versus when I think about working. Again, I think the same is true of kids. (Minus the fact that they have a much lower tolerance of frustration. That's where we need to be careful, I think. Hitting frustration is something you don't want to do very often or very long with children. I'm finding. Hence the switching it up, but keeping close to the subject.)

There. I've blathered. What do you think?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I've been working towards this for a YEAR

Tonight my six-year-old read me "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie". And she read it happily.

For the first time, I saw it make sense in her eyes. I saw her realize that if she was willing to read, she could experience a story she loved entirely under her own power. Not a phonics-graded reader, but a story familiar and beloved. The familiarity lowered the bar enough that she saw she could get over it, and the belovedness made her willing for the climb.

This is a book she knows well, but doesn't have memorized. So it was real reading, not just recollection. But she knew enough that she was able to use her memory of the story to help her take the right course when she got to words that were hard to sound out.

I think up till now, reading has been drudge work for her - remember this rule, solve this puzzle, shoulder through it. There would be times a sentence here or there would make her laugh, and those were the best times (this is my girl who will learn anything if it can make her laugh - for some reason, btw, math has largely fitted in this category), but this time, she saw the whole story, and persevered through words whose rules she knew, words whose rules she didn't and words of impossible length. The way her eyes lit up when she read "refrigerator" and realized she'd got it right! I want to bottle up that astonishment and delight and hold high for a light on a dark day.

Just glorious. I'm so happy for her. It's so exciting. After a year of work, we have a reader! She gets it!  :D

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Friday, August 13, 2010

links! Dr. Seuss, P. G. Wodehouse and religion in sci fi

Here's a good reflection on religion in science fiction: how it can be done badly, how it can be done well, and why it isn't done as much as it should be.
Ooooh . . . Peace Hill Press, the folks who brought you The Well-Trained Mind and The Story of the World, is releasing a Bible curriculum next year. Want!
This analysis of Dr. Seuss' great work Green Eggs and Ham is funny in its own right, but I have to admit that I like it most because it assures me that I am not the only person who has to restrain her snickers when reading the line, "I would not, could not, with a goat."
See, this is why Chip MacGregor's blog is so worth reading. (Link includes discussion of P. G. Wodehouse, so you know it's good.)
Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I fixed a scene in my novel that's been bothering me for two months.  It wasn't right, and I k new I'd need to fix it, but I didn't know how. Turns out it needed to be a quarter of the length it was.  Oh, I'm so happy. 

I'm not letting it go so long next time. I'm going to give myself permission not to just revise, but to rewrite. As in, not to fix what I have down, but to write the whole scene again from scratch. That is what was needed.


Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I had my "quotations" document open today, and thought others might be interested in my small-but-growing collection:

What we hope to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence. -Samuel Johnson

"You WILL carry out God's purpose. But it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John." CS Lewis

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.
-JRR Tolkien

"Don't worry about what you do not understand... Worry
about what you do understand in the Bible but do not
live by." ~Corrie ten Boom

"The difference between the easy way and hard way is that the hard way works" - Terry Prachet

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."~Barbara Kingsolver

In stuffing my face, I neglect my spiritual life. I turn to the refrigerator instead of turning to prayer.  -Joe Carter

"We are not walking with Our Lord unless we are spontaneously depriving ourselves of many things that our whims, vanity, pleasure or self-interest clamour for. Not a single day should pass that has not been seasoned with the salt and grace of mortification; and, please get rid of the idea that you would then be miserable. What a sad little happiness you will have if you don't learn to overcome yourself, if you let your passions and fancies dominate and crush you, instead of courageously taking up your cross!" (Friends of God, 129) - St. Josemaría Escrivá

"Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: 'I tend to leave out the parts people skip.'" - unknown columnist.

The only thing I would add to this, as neither a wise apostle nor a zealous reformer, is that I am learning something very valuable from Luther as my young children get a little older (the oldest is approaching double digits). It is very tempting for me to think that I have completed my job as a Christian father when I have taught my kids how to be good. I think it is literally a temptation: It would be a parental sin, a sin of the foolish variety, to launch my children into adulthood armed with nothing but the advice not to sin. What they really need is the knowledge of how to deal with sin and guilt as they all-too-predictably acquire it. I don’t want them to be blindsided by the fact that they are sinners, or uninformed about what to do with consciences that rightly condemn them. They need to learn the Christian skill of taking it to God, of walking in the light, of believing Christ boldly, rejoicing, and praying boldly. –Fred Sanders

Stupid Well-Named Friends: A Complaint

I am working on a new story, and looking for a good name for my hero, and there are just way too many that won't work because I know someone with that particular name and just cannot use it on a romantic hero. 

If only all my friends and relatives were named Plumperton or something. Then I could take all those good saints' and kings' names and bestow them on my characters.

Dear friends, if I end up calling you "Boozelbreath" instead of George or John or Peter*, you will know that it is because I have decided your moniker can be of more use elsewhere and that you would be willing to donate it to Art.


-Jessica Snell

*Actually, all three of these are available to me, unless I'm forgetting someone. Sadly, they will not do for this particular character. 

Thursday, August 5, 2010

excellent work we will never accomplish

From St. Francis de Sales Finding God's Will For You:

The enemy often tries to make us attempt and start many projects so that we will be overwhelmed with too many tasks, and therefore achieve nothing and leave everything unfinished. Sometimes he even suggests the wish to undertake some excellent work that he foresees we will never accomplish. This is to distract us from the prosecution of some less excellent work that we would have easily completed. He does not care how many plans and beginnings we make, provided nothing is finished. No more than Pharaoh does he wish to prevent "the mystical women of Israel" - that is, Christian souls - from bringing forth male children, provided they are slain before they grow up.

In the excellent book Chapter after Chapter, Heather Sellers suggests that, after reading your hundred or so books on the craft of writing, you ought to pick three as your mentors. And then stop reading the hundreds of others. Just have your trusty few to guide you as you actually write.

In the first place, this strikes me as very similar to the advice St. Francis gives here. In the second place, I think there is merit in also choosing three or four spiritual "mentors" as well, and I think St. Francis de Sales is one of mine. I've finished two of his books now, and I want to go right back to the beginning and start them again (especially as I read bearing blog's series on de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life). De Sales is like Br. Laurence, but more thorough. He's like C. S. Lewis, but more Catholic. He's like Dallas Willard, but more succinct (probably because he was writing by hand! - and not that I would cut any one of Dr. Willard's words).* 

See how St. Francis follows up the paragraph above, following his warning of the danger with an explanation of the reward that is ours if we go by the narrow way:

On the contrary, as the great St. Jerome says, "Among Christians it is not so much the beginning as the end that counts." We must not swallow so much food that we cannot digest what we have taken. The spirit of the seducer holds us down to mere starts and keeps us content with a flowery springtime. The Spirit of God makes us consider beginnings only so as to arrive at the end, and makes us rejoice in the flowers of the spring only in expectation of enjoying the fruits of summer and autumn.

This is what I need to hear. What I always need to hear. I like beginning. I like planning. I like pondering. But finishing? What a glory!

It is wise to research, to think, to pray, to ask. But there comes a point when we must act, and keep acting, and work through the summer and heat. Otherwise we're never really working.

And the real end we're waiting for comes at the end of the whole of a human life. Let us not grow weary - or distracted - in the way.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

*Speaking of spiritual mentors met via books, Lewis and Willard are probably my other two, though if I got two more, I'd add Frederica Mathewes-Green and Dorothy Sayers. If I could add a couple of poets? Donne and Herbert. And musicians? Rich Mullins and Michael Card, without a doubt. These are the people whose works I go back to again and again to learn how to love God aright. Who are yours?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

summer crafts: volcano!

When we haven't been out enjoying the sun and dirt and trees, I've been trying to do some crafts with the kids. I admit, this is partly to make up for the fact that it will soon be schoooooooooltime, and I'm bad at doing school mess and craft mess in the same day, so I thought it best to get lots of craft mess in over the summer. Sort of stock up on it and hope it holds us over through the fall. (I mean special craft mess. There's always marker-and-paper-and-tape-and-scissors-and-stickers mess around here.) 

One of our best crafts so far has been making a volcano. I was inspired by this post. The best part was that the kids loved doing it. The worst part is that after we exploded it (with baking soda and vinegar, of course) and I let the kids fill the pie pan with water, the water and vinegar mixed with the playdough and we had goop everywhere.

Still, it was beautiful while it lasted:

If you look closely, you should be able to see the plastic sandwich baggie I rubber-banded onto the juice bottle top. That was to put the baking soda in for the explosion that was to come.
Adding the playdough was the part where the kids really got to do their thing. I showed them how to take little pieces and pat them on one at a time. It took awhile, but we covered all the cardboard, duct tape, and foil:
Then we had to get some denizens for our volcanic plain. Bring on the dinosaurs!
This last one is just post-explosion. Do you see how shiny that playdough is starting to get? It's about to turn completely liquid.

I feel for the poor dino stuck headfirst down the crater. I really do.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

lots of this

That picture is summer.  I have four pairs of this variety of long children's feet in my house (my kids' footprints went out of the boxes on the paperwork at the hospital when they were born - my husband's genetics, not mine) and they've gotten to spend lots of time outside getting dirty. Hence the lack of posts. My apologies. There should be more soon, but if they take awhile in coming, it's because I'm outside watching four children get happily covered in leaves, dirt, mud and water.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell