January’s guest post is written by a good friend and former teaching and grad school colleague, Naomi Stephens. I first met Naomi in a Critical Theory class as we were both starting our graduate English programs. I was taking a break from teaching and trying to figure out what I was going to do in a new town with no job, a toddler, and another baby on the way, and she was a newlywed making adjustments as the wife of a seminary student. We hit it off immediately. We would eventually teach at the same high school for a short period before she and her husband took off for vicarage in another state. I was proud to be a member of the launch team for her first book, Shadow Among Sheaves. Below she writes about the unexpected in the writing process.
I often tackle new writing projects during periods of change.
When I’m stressed by difficult decisions, or when I’m suffering through pangs of grief or loss or confusion, or when I’m growing up from one season of life into another, writing is one of my favorite ways to gather my thoughts. Sometimes, change is a blessing, a new beginning in which God grants us clarity rather than confusion, purpose rather than wandering, and in these moments, too, I find myself turning to that tiny cursor on my screen, which blinks eagerly up at me as if to say, “what are we going to write today…?”
When I really think about it, though, writing is a funny way to work through seasons of change. After all, writing is in and of itself a changing experience, a leaping forward into the unexpected. Sometimes, we’re changed by what we learn during the writing process—about ourselves, or about history, or about the world around us as we research. Sometimes other people are impacted by the words we’ve written, for better or for worse. Sometimes we realize what we’re capable of when we truly apply ourselves to a difficult prompt, and so with each draft we shift into a stronger, more confident understanding of how we need to grow as writers. We always come away from any given project with a new or more refined perspective than when we started.
My first published novel—Shadow among Sheaves—came about during my transition into stay-at-home motherhood. My son napped a lot in those sweet, sleepy, newborn days. It was during one such nap that I opened a blank Word document and titled it “Ruth & Boaz.” And, goodness, but so many unexpected experiences have resulted from that moment, not the least of which was walking into Barnes & Noble with my (then) three-year-old son and his baby sister in tow, to buy that first copy of my book fresh off the shelf.
I still remember how small and light the book felt in my hand, a pristine paperback with a flawless spine and un-creased pages, every inch neat and trim. And yet, there was nothing “neat” about it. Because I knew that beneath the book’s simple binding was a culmination of chaos—countless hours of research, of revision, of feverish midnight scribblings, of ripping apart one scene to make room another. Every page represented dozens of conversations I’d had with friends, family, and editors as I worked out how to blend history with allegory and allegory with romance and, occasionally, how to plug up a bothersome plot hole.
And, really, the unpredictable road to publication twisted back even further than that.
I’ve been a lover of storytelling since I was about seven-years-old. As a young adult, I wrote three manuscripts before I ever began Shadow among Sheaves, and, honestly, two of those were truly wretched in every sense of the word. But I was trying. And I was learning. It’s tempting to jump forward to the phone call that changed everything, when I signed with my agent, who refers to herself as a fairy godmother for very good reasons. But my inbox filled with countless rejections before that conversation ever happened. I experienced set downs and letdowns, and I harbored a lot of doubts because of it (and sometimes still do!). Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with a steadfast circle of friends and family who’ve encouraged me through it all. But I do believe a little rejection and uncertainty is good for all writers. After all, criticism helps us grow. It keeps us humble. It helps us look at our work through outside eyes so that we can fight all the more to improve upon our words. And though the slamming of many doors can weaken any writer’s resolve, I urge all writers (myself included) to keep knocking.
Of course, every writer’s process is different; there’s no one right road that leads home. For this reason, back when I was a writing instructor, I encouraged my students to allow room for a little chaos as they tackled their writing prompts, particularly in the early stages of a draft. Whenever I start a new project, my first instinct is to approach it as if I’m preparing for battle. I plan to read every speck of research. I plan to outline ruthlessly. I plan on knowing every character inside and out before I ever introduce them to the page. And while there are many, many fabulous writers who work this way, I always seem to charge in well before I’ve finished planning. As it turns out, my personal writing process is a messy, chaotic, jogging ordeal, which, admittedly, gets me into trouble from time to time. But I’ve learned to appreciate the way my mind works because sometimes—sometimes!—I’m surprised in only the best ways. Sometimes I think I know who I want a character to be, and that character decides to be someone else entirely. In one case, I set out to write a black-hearted villain who decided, as I was writing him, that he needed to be a bit more morally gray. In my current manuscript, I intended to make a passing reference to a famous general, and yet he’s shouldered his way to the front of my plot, and there he remains, a permanent fixture. More often than not, the messiest parts of my process lead to some of the most unexpected (and delightful) surprises.
In truth, the road isn’t much more predictable these days. After all, my 2020 unraveled much like anyone else’s—nothing like I expected. I had a book to finish drafting, and I had to finish it in the middle of a pandemic. Even on normal days, finding the time and motivation to write isn’t always easy. But sometimes all it takes is a bit of fresh perspective. I was in the homestretch of my current manuscript when my husband and I packed up our car and drove off to New York for an impromptu (socially distanced) road trip. We made a very last-minute hotel reservation. We had rest stop picnic lunches and tacos on the Hudson with our kiddos, enjoying the adventure together as a family. And then, after more than nine hours in the car, we arrived at the actual setting of my book in progress. With my children laughing and scampering on the path ahead of me, I ambled beneath a canopy of trees and smelled the rain-scented mist rolling up from the Hudson, just as my characters would have done. It was arguably my favorite “author” experience to date. It re-connected me to my story, filled me with the motivation to finish, and it only came about through a series of unexpected frustrations, when absolutely nothing—including my writing—was going as planned.
And so, as we tiptoe a bit tentatively into 2021, here stands my call-to-arms to all fellow wordsmiths: leave room in your margins for the unexpected. Of course, it’s good to plan. It’s good to organize and to strategize. But a touch of the unexpected is par for the course for any writing project, and we shouldn’t let that discourage us. Rather, I hope we can all embrace at least a few happy surprises in the margins soon to come.
About the Author
Naomi Stephens is a bookworm turned teacher turned writer. Her first novel, Shadow Among Sheaves, is an Inspy Award shortlister and winner of the 2020 Carol Award in Debut Fiction.
In bookstores, Naomi gravitates towards 19th-century British novels—the broodier the better (i.e., Jane Eyre)—but she can also be found perusing the young adult, mystery, and fantasy sections. Anything that keeps her turning pages past midnight!
Though she’s called many places home over the years, she currently lives in Ohio with her husband, her two children, and a rascal of a dog named Sherlock. When not writing or having adventures with her family, she can be found drinking tea, practicing photography, and pining for London.
Check out her work at naomistephens.com