How Limitations Can Push You as a Writer

Guest post by J. Grace Pennington

J. Grace Pennington took The One Year Adventure Novel course and went on to write several novels. Her work has won contests, and she has self-published several books on Amazon, in particular Firmament, a science fiction series. Below, she shares her perspective on creative limitations.

When Life Gives You Broken Sharks - J. Grace Pennington When Life Gives You Broken Sharks

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Steven. Steven was an ambitious filmmaker with one film under his belt—a story about trucks. Being young and brave (and by his later admission, perhaps a little stupid) he thought that a hot new screenplay based on a bestselling shark-attack novel would be a good candidate for his second film. With only a few weeks to shoot, he and his crew headed out to a small island to deal with actors, boats, expensive equipment, and an animatronic shark. What could possibly go wrong?

Their biggest problem soon became apparent. The carefully-crafted shark refused to work for most of the shoot.

A movie entirely about a shark where you almost never even see the shark itself? That sounds like doom for a young filmmaker’s career.

Of course, anyone familiar with Jaws knows that it wasn’t a failure. The film went on to beat The Godfather as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Nor was Steven Spielberg’s filmography over.

Spielberg had several options in this highly stressful and frustrating situation. He could have tried to use the shark anyway, making a cheesy monster movie that wouldn’t have scared a six-year-old. He could have given up in frustration, wasting millions of dollars and writing his own directorial death-sentence. But he didn’t do either of these things.

Instead of bewailing or even simply accepting his limitations, he embraced them. He used them to force himself to be more creative. He decided to craft the film so that we never see the shark until the very end, creating tantalizing suspense as we see the horror the animal causes without actually laying eyes on it until the climax of the story. He used the fact that the shark didn’t work to make a better and more suspenseful film.

How can we apply this to our own writing? On the surface, our possibilities may seem unlimited. We can sit down at our word processors and type out anything our imagination can come up with.

There are, however, still many possible limitations. We are obviously limited by what we know or can find out about. We are somewhat limited by our own experience (“Write what you know!?”). We may be limited by word count, content, or subject if writing for someone else. But, like Spielberg, we can use these limitations to enhance our creativity and improve our craft.

Great writers have been doing this as long as fiction has been around. Charles Dickens published most of his novels as periodicals in magazines, forcing him to create segments that would hold the interest of a reader who’d read the previous installment last week or last month and might not read the next for equally as long. C. S. Lewis wrote by hand, so that his style is naturally structured in small pieces whose length depended on how long it took his pen to run out of ink before he had to refill it. J. R. R. Tolkien used a typewriter, but when he wanted to change something about his work, he had to completely start again from the beginning, rather than make a quick edit in the middle, as we can with computers.

And these limitations served these men well. Dickens’s plots are some of the most intricately gripping in classic literature. Lewis’s style is poignant and filled with concise, contained nuggets of meaning. Tolkien’s work is polished to a degree that most writers only dream of.

Today though, periodicals have mostly gone out of style. People want the whole story now. And most of us use computers instead of typewriters and quill pens.

Book cover of Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington

Book 1 of Pennington’s science fiction series; available on Amazon

Technology tends to remove limitations, but sometimes it’s a good idea to create your own, to force yourself to think outside the box and work hard and creatively.

As I started to understand this principle a few years back, I began looking for ways to implement it. I took a tip from Tolkien and started retyping my books when I do a major edit, instead of just sticking edits in the middle. This gives me a much better overall picture of the story and the changes. I also started asking friends to give me lists of random elements (for example, a librarian, post-it-notes, a gravel driveway, a jar of jam, crocheted lace) and then forced myself to write a short story that included all of those elements. Sometimes I even assigned myself random elements to write off of.

book cover for "Never" by J. Grace Pennington

A Western/mystery novel by J. Grace; available on Amazon

Our natural inclination is to be glad when everything is easy and we are relatively unlimited. But usually we have to work against this inclination in order to grow, whether in writing, filmmaking, or life itself. Most of us know from experience that God doesn’t usually hand things to us on a silver platter. He gives us a set of specific circumstances with specific limitations and invites us to use those things to learn and grow into a better person. We can treat ourselves the same way by not only embracing the limitations we have, but at times challenging ourselves with new ones.

When we create boundaries for our stories, and allow ourselves full creativity within those, we will actually have more room to explore what’s inside those boundaries than if we had the whole of the universe to choose from.

What limitation do YOU use to your advantage as a creative person? Leave a comment with your own tips!

J. Grace Pennington bio picture About J. Grace

J. Grace Pennington lives in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with her parents, her eight younger siblings, and her horse, Pioneer. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading good books of all genres, playing movie soundtracks on piano, and looking up at the stars. She blogs about writing at

Why Go to a Writers Conference?

In a perfect world, every good book would find a print home, and every stupid book would die a horrible death. Obviously this isn’t how the system works, and I’m often asked by young writers what they can do to break into print. I usually begin with the three most obvious things:

  • 1. read extensively
  • 2. write every day
  • 3. build credibility by submitting articles and short stories to small publications.

But although these things are true, they usually miss the point. The real question young writers are asking is, “How do I get my manuscript read?”

It’s very difficult. The competition is fierce, not because there are so many great writers in our culture, but because there are so many mediocre submissions. Editors and agents don’t have time to wade through the tide of incoming paper.

Forty years ago if you submitted a decent manuscript to any major publisher you stood a reasonably good chance of having it thoughtfully considered. Even if it was rejected, someone would have taken the time to read your cover letter and opening pages. Today the publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts are increasingly rare. In most cases a good novel will not even be read. Many publishers have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with a slush pile. Submissions are either discarded or returned unopened (and this only if you provide them with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, or SASE).

This is why I consider conferences essential to getting noticed. If you really want to break into print as a novelist, you will help yourself immensely by going to at least one conference per year, preferably one that focuses on your genre.

But even though I frequently tell young writers to start going to conferences, few take my advice. Perhaps they’re too poor to afford hotels, gas money, admission fees, etc. but maybe they just don’t understand the benefits. So here are three good reasons to attend a conference:

1. You will make contacts.
Although attending a conference isn’t a guarantee you’ll meet anyone famous or influential, you will almost certainly rub elbows with people who know more about writing than you do. If you are teachable, you will probably learn a lot outside of the scheduled sessions. Hanging out with writers, editors and agents can be an education. At the very least you will discover that industry professionals are real people, not rock stars.

2. Appointments are your best chance of getting a manuscript read
Some conferences offer agent / editor appointments. These are short, private conversations with an industry professional. The point is to give you a chance to pitch your novel in a one-on-one environment.

This is great because it bypasses the slush-pile, the months of waiting for a response, the cold and unhelpful reality of a form rejection letter. Because some publishers (and many agents) will not read unsolicited manuscripts, a conference slot may be your only chance to get your book read.

An editor is more likely to request your work while meeting with you in person. It’s just harder to say no to someone when they are sitting in front of you. Also, having met you in person, the editor can gauge whether or not you are likely to wind up being a huge pain in her neck. Are you respectful? Polite? Knowledgable? Fifteen minutes in a room may not be a reliable way to tell if someone will be easy to work with, but it is better than what they can learn in your one page cover letter.

3. You will learn something
Some of what you need to know as a writer will be covered in the scheduled sessions. Beginning writers tend to make the same mistakes, and conferences spend a lot of class time trying to correct these unfortunate tendencies. Some conferences even offer mentor appointments and critique sessions. Feedback from an experienced writer can save you months of frustration.

Nothing about writing conferences is guaranteed, except the fact that you decrease your chances of getting noticed if you don’t go.

I was surprised to see two young men in their late teens at the ACFW conference a few weeks ago. I stopped Christian Miles and J.R. Parker in the hallway after a session to ask them what they thought about the conference. Both were enthusiastic.

“I found an editor who wants my first 50 pages,” Christian told me.

J.R. nodded. “And I have a request for my complete manuscript.”

Such an outcome would be unlikely in the traditional submission process.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the end of the 2009 Banned Books Week. Call me jaded, but I can’t help seeing this as a massive publicity stunt cooked up by publishers and librarians in order to promote reading. Not that I blame them. In a society where every person is bombarded constantly by extreme messages from every conceivable perspective, it probably takes something like Banned Books Week to remind us of the importance of reading, to say nothing of the importance of free speech and the freedom of the press.

But I find it hard to take seriously the idea of books being banned in the United States. Sure, we have a few intolerant cranks here and there. What we don’t have is a trend, a movement of Fahrenheit 451 anti-book infidels.

Or do we?

Guess the title of this book.

Guess the title of this book.

First, it’s worth pointing out that “book banning” is, in reality, a fantastically inclusive term. A book can make it onto the Banned Books list if a couple of people per state mention concern about it to a librarian. An “Expression of Concern,” according to the American Library Association, is “an inquiry that has judgmental overtones.” And Inquiries with Judgmental Overtones, almost unbelievably, can be reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. (Yep, in the interest of free speech, expressions of free speech are reported. Go figure.) These reports are then compiled into a confidential database and published in the Banned Books Week Resource Guide. (Yep, there is a Resource Guide for Banned Books Week.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not coming to the defense of pitchfork wielding nut cases bent on burning down their local libraries–if indeed such people exist. I’m not even coming to the defense of people with Judgmental Overtones. I’m just wondering who cares enough to censor–of all things–books?

When kids are given condoms in school; when they’re afforded access to public computers, internet pornography, sexually graphic movies, reality television, cage fighting and, well, you name it; when they’re exposed to a veritable fountain of media stimulation 24/7, who cares about some random young adult novel that might happen to depict the violent rape of a young girl? (Yep, it’s out there.)

Okay, so maybe some books cross the invisible line of acceptability. According to the ALA, most objections about books are expressed by parents who have a natural and constitutionally protected right to protect their children from the constant stream of yuck that flows through our culture. Still, who are we to judge?

But we do judge. We apparently do think that some books should be banned.

Don’t believe me?

Consider the Bible, conspicuously absent from Wikipedia’s and the ALA’s lists of banned books. We don’t hear much about Bible banning in the U.S., mostly because it’s only banned in places like schools. But no book is more likely to draw the ire of communist dictators, who historically have used more than Judgmental Overtones to enforce censorship.

More importantly, you don’t have to live in China or North Korea to see the influence of what might be called the Okay to be Banned Books List.

Take the One Year Adventure Novel. In the interest of fairness, I must stress that banning and OYAN have only slightly more in common than do banning and Expressions of Concern. OYAN has not really been banned anywhere, but it has raised eyebrows and elicited Judgmental Overtones. Why? Because in it I mention a handful of stories from the Bible as excellent examples of storytelling. So far no one has Expressed Concern about my mentioning Buddha or Lord of the Rings. No one has mentioned my inclusion of Huck Finn, The Blood Ship, Zenda, Holes, The Book of Sorrows, A Christmas Carol, Tarzan, The Land that Time Forgot, Black Rock, or any of the other stories used in the curriculum. But teachers and administrators alike have told me that merely mentioning the Bible is a red flag. The context in which it is mentioned doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if the content is informative and true. It doesn’t even matter if the curriculum works. It only matters that the Bible is mentioned.

Just as close to home is the case of Runt the Brave. The book sold well to school libraries when it was first released. No one seemed to have any problems with it until a school principal read a review with Judgmental Overtones that indicated RTB might be based loosely on the story of David & Goliath, which of course is from the Bible. The principal told the school librarian that she could not have students read Runt the Brave because someone might Express Concern.

No doubt these experiences color my thinking, for I have very mixed emotions regarding Banned Books Week. On one hand, the ALA is calling attention to the importance of reading, and quite possibly building a shield wall against any unlikely future tendency towards national censorship. On the other hand, our culture has already accepted national censorship, against which the ALA’s Banned Books Week is merely a Maginot Line.

As human beings we constantly make value judgments about what is acceptable and what isn’t. One person finds graphic depictions of child rape offensive; another finds a novel loosely based on a Bible story offensive.

Strange that the hammer of intolerance comes down on the latter and not the former. Strange that these concerns can’t, at worst, be treated equally.

I wonder why.