Book Reviews

Perfectly Unique (A Review)

11:34 AM

My life so easily falls into routine. I do the things I need to do. I work, I eat, I sleep, I play. And I try to serve and glorify God when I find the time... or remember to.

In September, I received an email from a publicist, asking me if I would be interested in reading and reviewing her client's new book. I was hesitant at first, because I've been busy, easily overwhelmed, and unable to find time for much reading at all. But I finally agreed, and I'm so glad I did.

Perfectly Unique: Praising God From Head To Foot by Annie F. Downs came into my mailbox shortly before I left on vacation at the beginning of October. It was a tumultuous vacation for me. I had a hard time relaxing, and I felt like I knocked heads more than bonded with a few of the members of my family. (There's nothing like pulling us all away from our jobs and other life distractions and throwing us into a couple of bedrooms for almost 2 weeks to see how we really feel about each other. ;) So there were some rocky times.

But a highlight, and a turning point in the vacation, was when I finally started reading the book. Perfectly Unique is a very personal read, as Annie honestly shares her heart and struggles with body image, learning to hear and speak the truth, and glorifying God with everything that she is. As intense as that may sound, the book is a lot of fun, and Annie shares many humorous stories from her own experiences. She's the kind of person I'd like to have as a big sister, and I am always inspired and encouraged to hear from a single woman in her thirties who is serving God wholeheartedly and ministering to other young women in her life.

The hot topic of body and self-image issues is something that resonates with me. While God has mostly protected me from the intense pain that many young women with these struggles have experienced, it is still something that affects me almost every day. I see the dangerous tendencies within myself, and in my ambitious, high stress, type-A personality that is never satisfied. I set the bar impossibly high, and beat myself up when I fail to meet it. But in this book, Annie spoke to my heart, emphasizing God's love for me, and how much He wants to use me for His glory, regardless of my failures and whether or not I live up to my own standards.

I actually think the most revolutionary part of the book for me was how we can glorify God with our whole bodies. This is something I've known my whole life, but with each chapter I gained a new perspective, especially when it came to the ears, eyes, mouth, and mind, which can be tough areas for me to control. Not only was Perfectly Unique easy to read and very entertaining, it encouraged me to fix my eyes more firmly on Jesus, and to realize how I am able to glorify Him each and every day.

I definitely encourage you to pick up your own copy of Perfectly Unique (it's fantastic material for a Bible study!) and also to check out Annie's blog, where the humor and encouragement continues. I am so thankful for the opportunity to review this book, and for the way God has used it in my life. I hope He uses it in your life, too. :)

Hugs,
Amanda

Beginning Writing

What's in a name?

3:32 PM

Names are something that have always fascinated me. From the commonplace to the unusual, I feel that very little evokes such strong emotions as someone's name. They serve as reminders, raise feelings, and often tell us a bit more about someone (while we can't help our given names, sometimes our nicknames are clues to how we see and feel about ourselves).

I have never been a fan of very popular or common names (and for that reason, most Biblical names - sorry!), but have also been wary of ones that were strange, hard to spell, or unheard of. The names that resonated with me were classics that had fallen out of popular usage, and all seemed to ooze history, whimsy, and romance. My favorites were lengthy and sophisticated, with shorter snappy nicknames that could be used if the kid wanted a more contemporary handle. (In fact, I came up with huge lists of the ones I liked - complete with middle names - that I planned on naming my 10+ children. Now I'm definitely thinking there won't be that many... so I'll have to use the names on characters in my books instead. :P)

Growing up, I didn't like my own name. While I was fortunate not to know many of the millions of other girls born in the 80s who were named Amanda, so it didn't seem that popular, it always felt too modern, and as if it didn't belong to me. (Or rather the dreamy, ambitious, and romantic adolescent that I saw myself as. :P) I remember wishing my name was Allison for a while (although that was pretty popular), and always wanted to be named Elizabeth. The fact that my middle name was the shortened "Beth" was a great tragedy for many years. (In my mind, every "beautiful" name had to consist of at least three syllables.)

I didn't have any real nicknames growing up, and eventually resigned myself to the fact that I would be called "Amanda" for as long as I lived. It seemed a sorry thing.

And then I read this snippet from Anne of Avonlea...

"I think her parents gave her the only right and fitting name that could possibly be given her," said Anne. "If they had been so blind as to name her Elizabeth or Nellie or Muriel she must have been called Lavendar just the same, I think. It's so suggestive of sweetness and old-fashioned graces and 'silk attire.' Now, my name just smacks of bread and butter, patchwork and chores."  

"Oh, I don't think so," said Diana. "Anne seems to me real stately and like a queen. But I'd like Kerrenhappuch if it happened to be your name. I think people make their names nice or ugly just by what they are themselves. I can't bear Josie or Gertie for names now but before I knew the Pye girls I thought them real pretty."  

"That's a lovely idea, Diana," said Anne enthusiastically. "Living so that you beautify your name, even if it wasn't beautiful to begin with . . . making it stand in people's thoughts for something so lovely and pleasant that they never think of it by itself. Thank you, Diana."

This forever changed how I saw my name. Once I thought about it, I realized that a few names I had liked growing up had been "ruined" by mean or unpleasant people, and how many names that I had never been fond of became transformed by the wonderful people I'd met who bore them. It sort of makes me think of how an ordinary face can be made lovely by a beautiful interior. And, while I don't think I've done brilliantly so far, I hope like anything that one day I'll be able to turn my name into something truly beautiful.

Growing up, I was also crazy about pen names. I remember after reading about how the Bronte sisters came up with male pen names for their early work, my sisters and I did the same. (I think mine was Alfred.  :P) In my early teens I even went through a phase where I wrote under the name Amy Belle Frederickson. It was peachy.

By the time I started settling into myself as a writer, I had returned to my real, honest-to-goodness name. (Probably partly because, if I ever publish anything fantastic, I want to get full credit. ;) And I decided to use my middle name along with it. Not only because I've always liked middle names, but because two of my first "favorite" authors did the same.

Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Their books hold the most emotions for me, pleasure and pain, and both their writing styles influenced me so much in my teen years that I don't think I'll ever be able to shake them. (Not that it's a bad thing; they're a couple of the most popular female writers ever.) I've read almost their entire works, excerpts of their diaries, visited the places they lived, and feel as if, in some special way that is not just inside my own head, we are connected.

Thus... "Amanda Beth Flynn" is how I sign my work. Forever and always, even if I get married and change my last name officially (although I'm leaning towards hypenating it... very european ;). It's who I am. And after all these years, I actually really love it.

So... what's your name? Do you like it? Do you use your middle name, or a pen name? Have you tricked people into calling you something entirely different in your everyday life? ;) I want to hear your story.

-Amanda

P.S. So sorry I didn't get to blog on vacation... it ended up being crazy, and honestly, I haven't done much writing since then. I think I may need a little break. (But this does not mean on any condition that you are allowed to take a break yourself - keep writing, or die!)

Writer's Brain

To share or not to share?

10:10 AM

That is the question.

I've always been rather hesitant to share my writing with others. Not my non-fiction, blogging, articles or thoughts. That's easy. I feel like I'm just giving my opinion on something, and I love to give opinions. ;)

But when it's fiction, something I created all in my own head, I get a bit frightened. It's not that I can't take criticism. As long as it's constructive, I welcome it. And I don't even fear total rejection by a publisher or agent (I've already had a small taste of it). I don't know them and I don't really care if they hate my stories. Whatever. I'll get over it.

But when someone I know is reading my work, it's an entirely different story, and there are two big fears that haunt me.

Fear number one is that my friends will read my work, hate it, and then assume that I could never write anything better. It's one thing to be told that a story needs a lot of work, but another thing to have a friend say, "This is never going to work out for you. Just give it up." (Of course I wouldn't actually take their advice and quit outright, but I think it would make me emotionally unstable for a while. ;)

The second fear is that those friends will see too much of me. When I am writing fiction, the process is intimate. I become engrossed in the story, the characters, and their emotions. Little bits and pieces of myself slip out and become a part of the story. And I'm afraid of people I know seeing those little bits and pieces. It feels as if they've dropped in unexpectedly, and I'm caught wearing gym clothes and a mop of very unwashed hair. It's a little bit disconcerting.

So, up until this point, the only ones who have read my past novels have been my mum and my sisters. (All of whom are very honest, sometimes harsh critics. I don't mind them seeing me in my gym clothes.) But that is going to change.

I'm in the midst of editing the first in a middle grade series (let's just call it LD for now, you'll find out more further down the road), and since I am planning on seeking an agent and pursuing publication for this work, I am going to let a bunch of my writer (and a few non-writer) friends read it. I want their advice and criticisms. It kind of freaks me out... but I am also a little bit excited. :)

About a year ago, one of my writer friends (the brilliant Lydia Albano, check out her work!) told me about Figment.com, a web site where you can share your writing, interact with friends and other aspiring writers, enter contests, and more. I visited a few times and finally signed up, but I have hesitated in posting any of my stories there. Even more than total rejection, I am afraid of some creep  stealing my work. So much so that I don't even want to reveal too many details about my projects here on the blog, or share titles, character names or anything. The internet is a scary place, and I'm not sure if I'm ready to put my stories out there.

So, here's a few questions for you all. First off, who do you share your stories with? Family, friends, strangers? Do you have any fears? Rejection, disappointment, others seeing an intimate piece of your mind? And secondly, do you post your work online? Part of me would love to share some bits and pieces of what I'm doing (and I've actually seen some well established, published authors do this), but the rest of me is afraid of being ripped off. :P

Please, share your thoughts, if not your own work! (And find me on Figment, if you're on there as well. ;)

-Amanda

Writer's Brain

I live in a book.

8:15 PM

Everyone wants their life to count.

We all have a story; full of struggles, victories, hardships, excitement, love, and laughter. Each one is different. Some are grander than others, but none of them are less than unique. And every human being wants the world to know their story. We want people to understand us, to feel for us, and to cheer us onward. We imagine ourselves as the hero or heroine of a work that will become a classic.

But the medium in which we imagine ourselves is different for everyone.

I have often heard friends describe incidents in their lives as "something out of a movie." Perhaps they saw themselves as the main character in an Austen novel, being rescued from their distress by a handsome Mr. Darcy (atop a white stallion - duh). Perhaps they had a day that was like something out of an epic action/adventure film, finished off with a sunset so glorious that they could almost hear a film score playing in the background. (Roll credits!)

I've experienced some similar moments, but it's always kind of made me laugh. How silly, to imagine my life as if it were a movie!

I've also heard people say they feel like they're living in a sitcom. Seriously, could their lives get any more cliché and ridiculous? Probably not. Every character is a character, and sometimes they feel like they're the only one who's got their head on straight, and actually gets the jokes.

I'm the oldest in a huge family, with an even huger extended family. I've seen some sitcom-ish moments. But how silly, to imagine myself as living in a giant sitcom?

I turn up my nose at such silliness. I am not so shallow. To continuously relate my life to something played out on the small or silver screen would be so ridiculous. Thank goodness I only slip up every once in a while. I am so much more sophisticated than all that.

I am such a hypocrite.

I imagine myself as living inside a book.

It's the medium that I prefer. Movies are fun, sitcoms are amusing, even radio can have its moments. But there is nothing, truly nothing like being swept off my feet by a good novel. It can turn an ordinary day into something exciting.

So there might not be a laugh track, or a beautiful sunset and romantic music, but as the moments of my life go by I see them as pages turning... covered in words, phrases, poetry, and lots of adjectives. ;) I have always dreamed of being a writer. And, more than anything, I wanted to write my own story. And I wanted people to read it, to understand, and to applaud.

Growing up and reading the endless biographies of my favorite authors, missionaries, and people who changed the world, I wondered how my own biography would read. (I think I even started writing one when I was eleven years old. Come on, tell me you didn't do the same thing!)

I wanted my story to be exciting, inspiring, and to matter to others. I wanted a remarkable life. And I hoped that someday people would see a bit more of who I am.... not on the screen in some academy award winning biopic, but between the pages of a book.

I still do. As silly as it may sound, I want to be the literary heroine of my own story. I want to live in a book.

Where do you live? :)

-Amanda

P.S. So sorry that I feel that books are the superior medium for life. You don't have to agree, and I'll try not to look down my nose at you. ;)

Procrastination

Distracted

8:00 PM

Today I like the idea of writing; all the inspired words pouring out in a torrent, overwhelming me, and developing my characters and plot so quickly that I can hardly keep up. Awesome. My head is so full of ideas, all clamoring for attention and shrieking at the top of their lungs to get out. It would be the easiest thing for me to just sit down, open up an empty document, and let it all tumble free.

Right? I'm feeling inspired, aren't I? This should be easy.

But wait. There's so many things on my "to-do" list today. So many important things. Now that I think about it, I'm really pressed for time.

I can do this. I sit down and shut my "thinking" brain off. I open the story document. (That's a good girl, Amanda! You can do it!) I write a few sentences. Darn, I forgot to switch that load of laundry. Mum really wants to put in another wash. I should get up and switch it so she'll be happy, and I'll be a good daughter, and all will be right with the world.

Yeah, I am superwoman. Look at me, getting stuff done!

I sit back down. I really haven't checked my email in a while. And I'm expecting an email about my nannying schedule this week. It won't hurt to take a quick peek.

A few quick peeks later, I am back on the document, typing away. Ahh... I think it's coming together now. I haven't been distracted from my writing in a while. Yeah, it's nice not to be distracted. You know, I should really check all the other things I have on my "to-do" list, so that when I finish writing I can jump right into the next thing. That way I'll be way more productive.

Ok, so I rearranged my whole "to-do" list. That was satisfying. Back to my story!

I wonder if I would feel more inspired if I was listening to some music. I jump onto Cinemix.us or open it in iTunes. Ahh... this is much better. Listening to soundtracks is inspiring without being distracting. Wait, this song sounds familiar. Could it be composed by Rachel Portman? I take a peek. Oh yes, I am so smart. I'd recognize an opening title by Rachel Portman anywhere.

Alright then, MUST FOCUS. I won't check any more of the music titles, even the ones that sound familiar, and I'm sure would bring up some glorious childhood memory, and remind me of that fabulous movie that I really should show my little sisters some time. Write. Write. Write.

I wonder what the Olympic medal count is. U.S.A. had better have the most gold medals or my siblings are going to be ticked. Now that I think of it, I haven't checked ANY of the latest news in a while. It's been like a whole day since I saw what was happening in the world. Maybe just a quick peek at Google News... just to read the Entertainment column, anyway.

NO. Must write. Nothing else. Write. Write. Write.

Ok, so if I write 200 more words without stopping, I'll reward myself by checking the Google News page. Ok? Ok. Write. Write. Write.

YAY! I made it. Now I can go and see what's going on in the world!

Bleh. Nothing interesting. I can't believe that movie made that much money. This is ridiculous.

Ok, back to writing. Write. Write. Wri- Oh wait, I am definitely out of time for today. I've got to practice voice and answer a couple of important emails before I run out to of the house to pick up the kids I watch. Priorities. Right.

Bye bye, half-filled page of words! I'll deal with you tomorrow.

Sincerely,
Amanda
___________________________________________

This is me on almost every day of the week.

What distracts YOU while writing? How do you overcome it (or do you just give in)? Please, chime in so that I don't feel like the only loser here. ;)

Beginning Writing

"Dear Diary"

7:33 PM

Outside of writing for school, documenting my life was one of the first things that got me to put pen to paper. I started my first journal when I was eight years old with the words "Dear Diary..." and I've had a sporadic love affair with journaling ever since.

That first notebook took a few years to fill, with short and scattered entries documenting my first crushes, summers with cousins, the birth of each of my siblings, and every family holiday. As I grew older my entries became longer and more consistent. I filled book after book, and the years flew by.

But there was an overwhelming pressure. I felt the need to document my life for posterity, and to do it with flair. I though that every sentence must be elegant, interesting and perfect, because someday my great-grandchildren would be reading it, you know? And having a couple of close girlfriends with whom I constantly discussed journaling (and how up-to-date our notebooks were on all the dances we'd attended) added some more stress.

Finally, after a year of so many major happenings and changes that I could hardly keep up and breathe normally, I decided to take a break. Actually, I flat out quit, right after my best friend (and fellow "journaler") got married in 2008 and moved away. It was one of the best things I ever did.

I felt like all through my childhood I had spent my time hating growing up and all the changes that the years brought. I was always looking back on the past, recording it, and then re-reading it over and over. So I decided that I was done with journaling. I decided that life was going to be an adventure and that I would focus on moving forward into it, instead of looking back over my shoulder at what was. I poured myself into my other writing projects, and felt that I expressed enough of myself through fiction that there was no need to record it any other way. I was journal-free for over three years.

And then, last fall, right after my twenty-third birthday, I felt like journaling again. But I knew I didn't want it to be in a notebook as in days of yore, since I write pretty slowly by hand, and the pages and pages of empty lines always felt intimidating. So I looked around online, and I found "Oh Life." It was (and is) the perfect fit.

Every night I get a little email asking "how did your day go?" and I reply, sometimes in a few sentences, sometimes in a few paragraphs. There are days when I am incredibly witty and clever, and nights where I am just plain boring, catching up right before my head hits the pillow. But it's there, every day, and it feels wonderfully pressure-free.

Honestly, journaling again has been such a good thing for me. I began at the perfect time, as I was just starting to deal with some health issues and other things, and it was important to keep track of what was going on, so that I could go back and learn from it. It's given me a space to vent about people in my life who drive me crazy (without talking badly about them to other people ;), and a place to share what makes me happy. Even if it's just ice cream and old Audrey Hepburn movie.

I like the ability to journal in a simple, no pressure and no frills way. It feels like therapy.

What's your journaling experience? Have you kept a diary, and for how long? Do you prefer hard paper, or the internet? Please share your story. :)

-Amanda

Beginning Writing

I (usually) don't enjoy writing.

1:20 PM

I often listen to other writers talk about writing, and how much they love it, how it's their favorite thing to do, and how their dream day would involve writing from dawn until dusk. It sounds wonderful, emotional and inspiring, but I've come to understand that that is just not the way I work.

I used to think that I had to have "inspiration" in order to write, and that the timing had to be "perfect." I had to be in the right frame-of-mind, be bursting with passion and creativity... basically, I had to feel it. I had to want to write. I determined that the only time that I was in this "mood" was at night, at about eight o'clock on, and I refused to write so much as a word of my stories at any other time. I was terrified of jinxing it, of breaking up the flow, of writing a single sentence that was less than 100% inspired.

Throughout that entire period (most of my teen years), I would have bursts of inspiration where I would write and write and write... thousands of words, feeling brilliant, strong and unstoppable. And then I would hit a dry spell, where I just couldn't bring my fingers to keyboard, because I was uninspired, and the words just wouldn't measure up to my standard. That was "writer's block," and it hit me hard, sometimes keeping me away from my stories for months on end, because the mood wasn't right.

When I finally got serious about writing, decided I wanted it as a career, and was determined to make it happen, I threw my feelings out the window. I told myself that I must write, whether I wanted to or not. At first, the important thing was just to write something each day, even if it was only a few sentences. Then I raised the bar, and forced myself to make it a minimum of 500 words a day, 5 days a week, regardless of the time of day, regardless of inspiration. If I missed a day, I had to make it up.

It worked. Somehow, I turned writing into a habit, something that I could do without even thinking about it, without feeling inspired, without loving it. It became a part of my life, every day. A few years later, I am happy to say I am more productive with that slow and steady method than with all the highs and lows of inspiration and lack thereof. And the process has become addicting, exciting, and more rewarding than I ever thought it could.

So, do I usually enjoy writing? Not usually. (Don't get me wrong, there are still times of inspiration and emotion, but the cold, hard, pounding-out-the-words is the usual daily routine.) But that's ok. When I've got that finished manuscript in my hands (or on a computer screen); when I revisit the thousands of words that somehow, unbelievably, came from my own brain; when I get to share those words with others, hear their praise and critiques... it's the best experience in the world. And it's worth the days of feeling no emotion for that one, satisfying, emotional conclusion.

Do you enjoy writing? How does the writing process work for you? Is there lots of inspiration or do you just put in the hours? Obviously, there are no rules and the writing process is different for everyone, so just because something works for me, doesn't mean it will work for you. But it might. ;)

I'm curious. Tell me, what does work for you?

-Amanda

Beginning Writing

How I Began

8:23 PM

I  decided I was going to be a writer before I even knew how to spell. I loved the books my mum read to me, and I knew that somebody had to write them, create imaginary worlds, and earn fame, fortune, and maybe a place in the history books. It was a no-brainer. Of course I would be an author someday.

My younger sister Rebekah and I "wrote books" before we actually learned to write, stapling stacks of blank pages together and drawing a series of pictures to tell the story. We re-hashed fairy tales (like Thumbelina), drew stories about our favorite literary characters (like Laura and Mary in the "Little House" series), and invented tales of our own. I think there were a lot of beautiful maidens being kidnapped, befriending animals, and marrying handsome princes in the end. ;)

As I grew older, learned how to write, and began to read extensively for myself, my stories increased in length and ambitious proportions... although I finished very few. Young women of the 19th-century rebelled against the status quo, made friends (or foes) among various indian tribes, and attended many a fancy ball dressed in a gown of perfection.

When I was about 12 years old, I completed my first "full length" work of fiction, a rags-to-riches medieval epic, heavily influenced by the work of Howard Pyle. I remember the writing process quite well, staying up "late" to work while listening to the "Anne of Green Gables" soundtrack.  Of course, I was disappointed that the finished work didn't quite live up to my expectations, but I was satisfied and thrilled by the writing process. I planned a load of sequels, but they never came to fruition.

Then came a period of about four years where I didn't complete anything. Story ideas crammed my head to the bursting point, but none of them made it more than a few chapters. When I was sixteen, I decided to retell a classic novel to "make it better," since I thought I had a much nicer version in my own head. It took me three and a half years to finish the adaptation, often with gritted teeth and month-long (or longer) breaks. By the time it was complete, I was thoroughly tired of the story. Not only did I feel like I was in a very different place as a writer, but I was just dying to move on to something new. Regardless, I'm so glad I put in the work and finished the project, even though I felt that I had "outgrown" it. The story is an entertaining (and often amusing) read, and my mum and sister Rebekah actually had a hard time putting it down. Mission accomplished. ;)

It was the now the fall of 2008, and I was eager to start work on another book. The story came to me unexpectedly, and it became a very personal project, following a young 20-something woman, who was a bit like myself, through the year of 1931-32. This first draft took just two years to complete and, over the course of it, I grew in consistency and discipline as a writer. While my previous novel had seemed like one big lesson in what-not-to-do, I felt as if this one had brought me to more maturity. The finished story was not perfect, and I don't think it would currently be very marketable (it's much more Lucy Maud Montgomery than Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins), but it was something I needed to get out of my system, and I enjoyed it.

In 2010, I made my first, very small foray into the world of publishing. About five years earlier, I had a written a short story/children's book about a turn-of-the-century mouse who owned a hat shop, and had always kicked around the idea of trying to get it published. I did some research on the industry, re-wrote the story a couple of times with the help of some writer friends, and submitted query letters to a grand total of six agents. I received four rejections and never heard from the other two.

I was not crushed. I'd read enough about the industry to be completely cynical about my chances of success, and honestly, I didn't really believe in the project enough to take the time to fight for it. Maybe some day I'll dig it up again. I still think it could be a charming picture book, with big watercolor illustrations, but my writer's heart is much more attached to the creation of a good novel.

In June of 2011 I started my latest manuscript, a middle-grade novel set in the late 1940s, and I just finished it in May (see, I'm getting faster each time! ;). It's something I am a little bit proud of, and I truly believe in the characters and the story. My goal is to have it edited up and ready to be submitted to agents by the end of the year. I hope you'll be hearing a lot more about it.

So.... this is where I'm at. Working towards (maybe, we'll see, cross my fingers) publication, and wanting a place to share bits and pieces of the journey. (At the beginning of May, I took an official break from my fashion and style blog of four years, but since then I've missed airing my thoughts and opinions in public. ;) And writing is such a fascinating thing to me; both my own journey, style, and process, and all the things I continue to learn from books on the subject, and from the other authors around me. I believe it is worth being shared.

I would also like get to know some other writers out there; those who have been published and write for a living, as well as people who do it for their own fun, and those who are just starting out... with high hopes. Please, take some time (since you've been patient enough to read this lengthy post) to share a bit about yourself (even if you are just a reader, not a writer!) and "how you began." I can't wait to meet you.

Until then... iWrite. :)

-Amanda Beth Flynn