Book Review: Pen on Fire

Book Title: Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within

Author: Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

 To say I happened across this book would be an understatement. This book nearly strangled me when I absentmindedly scanned the cover while walking by a tent at the West Hollywood Book Fair last year. I whipped around and made a beeline to pick it up, nearly taking out a few other browsers in the process.

I’ve read a number of writing books, both in college writing classes and for my own benefit, but I hadn’t actually seen one catered to people exactly like me – a busy woman who needed a spark. I read the back and the first few pages and realized this could be the book that would light a fire under me and get me to finally pound away at that keyboard with some enthusiasm. And I was right – this book kicked me in the ass as soon as I started reading.

The book is aimed at women who are juggling hectic lives and who, despite having a desire to write, struggle to find the time to actually sit down and do it. While DeMarco-Barrett refers frequently to the task of balancing taking care of kids and/or home with writing, I found nearly everything she wrote also applied to me – a twentysomething with a demanding and high stress job that struggles to find free time to sit down and put words onto paper.

The first two sections of the book are about getting started and finding those pockets of time in your life to write. The chapters are short and always include a 15 minute exercise afterwards to get you going. 15 minutes is the time frame that the author encourages you to start with each day, as it is certainly easier to find 15 minutes to dedicate to writing each day than an hour, or even half an hour.

In one chapter, “Stolen Moments,” DeMarco-Barrett writes, “It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that once you finish whatever it is that eats up your time, you’ll get to your writing…..Instead, what will more than likely happen is you will have forgotten about your own needs – notably, the need to write.” Later on, she says, “Whether you’re published or not, feeling like you haven’t gotten anything done unless you’ve written even a paragraph is a good indication you are a writer. If you are in love with writing, or simply committed to it, you will take the time. When something is important, you will find a way.”

I felt like these and other similar passages really hit home – as I’ve written on this blog before, I tend to beat myself up when I don’t get to the task of writing, even if I spend my time doing other things that seem productive like cleaning my apartment or answering work emails late at night. It greatly affects my mood and energy level, weaving a thread of guilt into my otherwise happy (though very busy) life and making me feel like I’m not making progress towards my ultimate goal of being a full-time writer. After reading that passage, I realized It is about making the time for writing, not finding it, as my very happiness depends on it. It’s those kinds of revelations that made this book completely worth reading for me.

The rest of the book is structured in the same way – short chapters followed by writing exercises – and covers topics like writing tools, craft, and obstacles that you may face as your pen starts burning up the page. The exercises are useful and I found myself using my daily journaling time to try them out. I usually aim for 5 minutes of journaling or writing practice a day (because I’m an overachiever like that) and the exercises always ended up inspiring me to write longer, so I guess that means they were effective.

What I really liked about this book was more than just the inspiration it offered. The best part was the amount of outstanding writing advice that DeMarco-Barrett includes from other writers, including a large amount of material from her weekly radio show, Writers On Writing. Hearing from published authors and successful writers about their struggles with the same obstacles that I face was the most motivating part of the book, and is what sets it apart from many other books about writing.

I highly recommend this book to any writer like me that has a strong, innate desire to write but struggles with finding the time start or the inspiration to keep going when things get tough or tedious. Though it is aimed at women writers, I would suspect that a lot could be gained from it by men too. It is definitely one I’m going to keep on my shelf for those days I lack the motivation to get my ass in the chair and start writing.

Amazon: Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within

Author Site: Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Books On Writing – What To Read Next?

My designated shelf for books on writing – everything is there except the Writer’s Market guides which are too big and have to go on a different shelf!

Is there such a thing as having too many books on the subject of writing?

For me, the answer is no, but only as long as you don’t spend all your time reading them and no time putting in to practice what they teach.That is definitely something that, up until now, I’ve been guilty of.

I was looking through the titles on my special writing shelf today and was trying to decide which book to dive in to next. I’m trying to pick one that will keep me motivated, both to keep writing for this blog and also to work on my novel-in-progress. Typically, I concurrently read a writing book while also reading another fiction (and sometimes non-fiction) title. That way I can just grab whichever book I’m in the mood for at the moment.

The books on my shelf range from old college textbooks to old favorites to reference books to several titles that were gifts that I haven’t read yet. Here is a list of what I have by author:

Any recommendations from this list on which book to grab first? Or any big ones I’m missing that I shouldn’t be without in my writing book library?

The Courage To Start

Today, I made history. For myself at least. Today, I started writing my novel.

I sat down, opened up a new word document, and strung together a scene. I didn’t open up my chapter breakdown grid. I didn’t start trudging away on another lengthy character profile. I didn’t even get on facebook to update my facebook status. I just started with one line of dialogue, followed by a bit of exposition, and then some more dialogue, and then a character description and a short action sequence. The next thing I knew, I had a full page of a first draft completed. And then I had three.

This is a personal victory that I cannot begin to exaggerate.

I tend to be a bit of an over-planner. Actually, I’m a violent over-planner, who usually ends up getting tired of a great idea after planning it for so long that I no longer want to execute it. But not today.

Today I was a doer. I was able to actually accomplish something, even if it was mere 1,600 words.

I was spurred on by chapter I read today in the book Pen On Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett about the process of rewriting. She says that “You can learn to appreciate revision, especially if you frame it like this: At least you have pages that need revising, a major accomplishment in itself.”

It then occurred to me how silly it was that, even though I’ve been “working” on my novel idea for several months now, creating chapter outlines and writing character histories and maps and timelines and whatnot, I hadn’t actually written anything.

I’d been held back by fear that it wouldn’t be great, that I’d never do my great idea justice. DeMarco-Barrett says that “fledgling writers mistakenly learn that coming up with great ideas is the most important thing, not rewriting. They also believe they should be able to say exactly what they mean the first time out of the gate. Nothing else in life is like this. Who prepares a fabulous meal the first time they cook? Or plays a piano concerto at will?”

She’s right, dammit. I need to get a first draft out there and then beat the crap out of it before it will start looking like I want it to. How ridiculous of me to sit there planning it for months and months, when the only way I’ll get to really know my characters is by writing them, and then rewriting them. The only way I’ll get to that amazing plot is to write a really shitty one first, with a lot of holes and a bunch of poorly written, one-dimensional characters.

Let’s do this. I’m diving in.