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Writing platforms: three building blocks you can work on right now
Writers have more than strong narratives to build in the 21st Century
[March 2010]

Public domain image: “Column of Alexander I of Russia in scaffolds. Saint Petersburg” by Grigory Gagarin (1832–1833)

 

I’ve been developing a program for the writer who has completed (or neared completion of) a novel and is now looking for ways to find a home for their work. This is called the Writing Platform and it consists of a long list of things that writers can do to help bring attention to their work and be found by the right publisher, agent or editor and… ultimately… their intended reader.  

There are three main parts to the basic writing platform, which I’ll touch on below. If you’re a writer with a completed manuscript and you’re looking for help with building a platform (either you are self-publishing, or you are working with a small press which has no marketing budget, or you are working with a Big House and they aren’t doing enough marketing, or you are looking for an agent), feel free to contact me about platform development. 

My job as a consultant for this sort of service is not to build another writer’s platform for them, but to give them the guidance to do it themselves; writers who handle their own platforms are savvy about the industry and empowered to sell their work because they aren’t beholden only to the gatekeepers of the publishing world to put their work out there for them. 

Plus, it saves writers money in the long run. Were I to develop a platform for another writer, I could easily net tens of thousands of greenbacks from the work and still hold their fate in my hands. When a writer learns to do this for themselves, they save a lot of money and have the power to move forward independently of their own volition. 

FOUNDATION LIST
This is perhaps the most valuable and, yet, most tedious part of the writing platform: think of it as Grand Central Station for all of your contacts. This list should contain everybody you’ve ever met who might be interested in some way in your book, plus their contact information. Make a basic database and build on it regularly–this is a WIP (work in progress) that continues to grow as you continue to deepen your efforts at marketing your work. Candidates for the list include family, friends, neighbors, classmates, students, clients, colleagues, local media, national media, special interest media, experts in your genre/field, like-minded bloggers… you get the picture. These are your peeps and, if given direction and empowered by your enthusiasm in your own work, they can practically hand-sell or otherwise provide you with the word of mouth that gives any given book its cachet. This list will be useful to you whether you are self-publishing or going with a big name house. 

WEB PRESENCE
Yes, it means you will have to build a blog (I can help you with that, too). A blog, for a writer, is a virtual calling card. If you don’t have one, you will not be found. Publishing professionals don’t have the time or inclination to go the traditional route when they’re researching the markets. Don’t fall off the edge of the world by skipping out on this very important part of the platform trinity. A web presence also means engaging in social networking (Facebook), SEO (search engine optimization) and social bookmarking (Digg). Twitter is also a big part of the writing world and you’d be mistaken if you didn’t give tweeting a try; I always see peaks in my blog traffic after tweeting. 

TRADITIONAL MARKETING
This is the IRL (“in real life”) counterpart to web presence. You need to go out into the world and let them know you are a writer (whether you have or don’t have a book to sell). That means performing at open mics, attending conferences and networking, teaching the subjects that comprise the niche of your writing, joining writing organizations, and, when you do have a book, going on reading and book tours. This also means using traditional marketing media to get the word out, in the form of press releases, announcements, posters, postcards… anything you can put on a piece of paper and disseminate in a targeted fashion. 

TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Platform development gets even more intense, complex and detailed than this, but if you’re a writer with a book to sell (or plan to have a book to sell down the line), it’s never too early to begin work on these tasks. Just developing these three areas will yield results. Some writers spend a great deal of time locating their audiences before they even have a book deal, but by doing the work early on, they are in a prime position to capitalize even before they’ve signed a publishing contract (in fact, they might be more likely to land a book deal because they have a well-developed platform). 

Does this seem like a lot of work to you? Well, it is, but the savvy 21st Century writer knows that it’s no longer good enough to simply write well. The good news is this: you can develop a platform with a very small time and cash budget, so it’s worth it in the end. After all, what writer wants to go to the trouble to write a good book and suffer an outcome where nobody reads it? That would be tragic and yet it happens all the time. Don’t join the writers who comprise those statistics; build your platform one day at a time and you’ll practically guarantee you won’t get lost in the slush. 


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Use it or lose it
In the land of plenty, it’s easy to forget what we have
[February 2010]

Public domain image: “Treasure Island” by Georges Roux, 1885, for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book.

I recently had a conversation in which I realized that, for all the experimental cooking I do in my house, I have a host of gadgets that I’ve still never used. A salamander, for instance, and a ravioli form. The pasta making attachment to my KitchenAid. Rouladen clamps. Potato ricer. Biscuit cutters.

This is the year I will use them. I will use them the way they were intended to be used. And then I will try new ways to use them. And by the end of 2010, I will have used every tool in my house at least twice. That is the goal.

So should it be the goal for writers. Look around your writing space for things you haven’t used. Books on craft (or, really, any books that will teach and inspire you, including references, books on creativity, books like the one/s you’re working on, etc). Special journals given to you as gifts. Pencils. CDs holding e-books or recordings of work or lectures on writing. The dictionary. The filing cabinet.

What is it about American culture that drives us to possess things and then not use them? We are living in belt-tightening times and yet, all around us we can find plenty of things to keep us feeling whole and complete. So what if you don’t have the latest novel-building software because it’s too expensive? You might have a whole pack of notebooks you got on sale at Office Max last fall and some really great thin point gel pens, post it notes, and highlighters you forgot you even had. That could be your latest novel-building software, right there. And it won’t cost you any more than what you’ve already spent.

So take stock in what you have this month. Put all the things you haven’t yet used on a list.* Once a week, use one of them until you’ve used all your tools. Then repeat until you’ve used each of them twice (if applicable; you don’t need to read a book twice, but you’re welcome to, if you like). You have until the end of the year.

Keep in mind those tools that could still be useful to you, but which you have neglected to use, such as recorders, cameras, meditation exercises, ergonomic equipment, task lighting, and computer programs such as databases and spreadsheets.

One way to keep you motivated: promise yourself you will not buy one more book or tool until you have used up all of the books and tools currently at hand.

Write to me and let me know how it goes, and I’ll do the same. Today, it will be the Pilato ball inside the chair frame to stretch out my sedentary spine and, maybe, just maybe, the ravioli form.

—–

*OK, if they’re books to read for pleasure only, don’t count those; I happen to know someone with way too many books waiting to be read on my nightstand  (ahem) her nightstand. Put these on a separate list and read them; they’re still tools, as reading is an exercise every writer should perform DAILY, but these can be put to a different part of your working day. 

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Getting Away From It All: The Writer’s Retreat
[January 2010] 
I’m preparing for a week off from life. That’s right: on Sunday I’m heading out for 6 nights and 7 days at a cabin in the woods where I plan to read, write, and realign my writing life.

They call these writing “retreats” for a reason. Sometimes the best thing a writer can do to restore the creative juices and complete some projects is to leave real life behind for a few days of solitude.

There are all sorts of ways to go about setting up a writing retreat for yourself.

1. Apply for a residency.
Some of these are first-come, first served. And some are competitive. I prefer the first over the second because the second option, although it grants cost-free lodging plus a kind of status that some writers crave, means your likelihood of going on a retreat at all depends upon whether the selection committee likes you. I know more than one writer whose will to write has been seriously deflated by the recurring snubs they get from competitive residencies, as if, because they didn’t make it into the residency, they are somehow less of a writer. Don’t put yourself through that. Apply for those where inclusivity is valued, if you can. It’s your writing life, after all, and you don’t need anyone’s stamp of approval to fill the well.

2. Fund your own retreat.
I give myself a writing travel budget every year and this is how I manage to go to at least 3 writing trips a year (typically, one is an out-of-town conference, one is a solo retreat, and one is a residency-like conference I attend every summer). Once you figure out how much you can afford (remember to factor in lodging, travel expenses and meals), see how many days you can get away. Even a long weekend can work miracles! Or one monthly overnight somewhere, if you’re a time-strapped working parent.

3. Choose your destination.
Any place can be considered retreat-worthy: it just depends upon what you want. I like solitude, so I go for cabins or quiet hotels in small, out-of-the-way places. I tend not to spend a lot on accommodations and like the funky older facilities for their rustic charms. But then, I’m also a camper, so anything with four walls and a roof is luxury by comparison! Speaking of which: if you have your own RV, that could be your ticket to Retreatville. Simply pack and head out. You or a friend or family member might also have a vacation property you can spend a few days in; definitely give that a try if possible. Do you want a relaxing, pastoral setting? Maybe you like the anonymity and pace of a big city. Tourist destinations in the mountains or at the beach are also popular choices. The main thing is to pick the kind of space where you know your creative habits will be well fed. If you are easily distracted by what’s going on outside, maybe someplace remote and nondescript will work best for you. Or maybe you’re a little freaked out by truly dark skies where there are no streetlamps; then maybe a more urban setting will suit you. Keep in mind weather conditions for traveling and staying; the retreat I’m going to next week is in a place known for power outages during stormy weather, so I have a plan B in case I lose electricity.

4. Decide who will be there.
Some of my friends set up private retreats where they join other writing friends at the same place, possibly even sharing rooms, and the retreat ends up being social at mealtime and all business in between. I’ve done these before and they’re fun, but I personally find the schedule distracting. What can I say, when I’m in the zone, the dinner bell is more a hindrance than something I look forward to. However, going solo is only for those who are comfortable traveling alone. (I happen to love traveling alone.) You have to be comfortable being by yourself at all times, and not everyone can handle this. Whatever you do, don’t go on a retreat with your family. It won’t be a retreat, trust me! You’ll be torn between nurturing them and your writing life, and we all know that typically, the family wins that battle hands down. So leave them at home; you’ll love them that much more when you get back from your retreat!

5. Make a daily plan.
Once you’ve set up your location and schedule, it really is important to think about how you are going to spend your time. For me, the solo retreat is all about writing, reading, yoga, walking, cooking, and photography. No TV. No Internet except for research. (And yes, I do resist email. That’s what vacation autoresponders are for.) One year I took a retreat at the Interrorem Cabin (in the picture, above) and had only an outhouse and well water I had to pump every day (64 pumps per bucket) which I heated on a gas stove for my dishes, cooking and cleaning. For some, that sounds like a nightmare, but for me, it was the perfect antidote to an overstuffed life: it forced me to slow down, contemplate, breathe, and clear my head. No noise! Don’t forget: these are all aspects to the writing life that need attention from time to time. The retreat is not only about being a productive writer; it’s about recharging your body, your mind and your spirit. Of course, a daily plan doesn’t need to be realized by a point-by-point schedule; merely assigning a list of things to accomplish each day and being flexible in how you do that can be all that’s needed. Days like these open wide for me, I find, and without the distractions of ordinary life to interrupt my progress, I still end up with lots of daydreaming time.

6. Determine what to bring.
For poets, often it’s just a pen and a notepad. As a writer of multiple genres, I find I need my laptop and access to wi-fi (for advance posting of blog entries and or posting revisions to book-length works). You could take a printer but I usually don’t.  If I’m doing a lot of revisions, I’ll pre-print the manuscripts I want to look at and mark them up with a pen on site. As a traveler, I tend to pack light and bringing a printer reminds me too much of my home office anyway. But if you need one and have one to pack, go for it. I bring reference books I use often, lots of pens and journals, all sorts of reading materials, my cell phone and charger, a cooler of food (I like cooking at my retreats and always stay where there’s a kitchen at hand), and my power supply for the laptop (don’t forget this!). A few decorative items to warm up my writing space always come with me as well (I have a little kit that I take to all of my writing trips, including conferences). You may need to bring linens or other items depending upon where you will be staying, so make sure you check with your lodging arrangements before you hit the road.

7. Make it an annual habit.
I don’t know what I would do without my retreats, frankly. They are my back-up plan for those times when my life as a small business owner and full-time parent can overwhelm my writing life. I know that I still have these 3 separate yearly trips to recharge and that takes some of the anxiety out of personal writing deadlines and goals. I also come back from them very well rested and recharged; my family notices and appreciates the change. However, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to not build too much expectation into your experience. Each retreat will be a different experience and it would be unfair for you to expect each one to be equally productive and satisfying or a repeat of the previous trip. It would also be unfair to assign the same schedule or goals to each retreat; the needs of your writing life  should dictate how each retreat goes for you.

In 2008, one of my retreats was waylaid by the overarching news of a relative’s cancer diagnosis: I had trouble focusing on my work and a lot of big plans simply faded out. I couldn’t blame the retreat for this, though. In fact, in such circumstances, your best approach is to surrender to each day, one at a time, and follow your energy wherever it resides. Later that year, I took another retreat almost immediately after my ailing relative passed away and it was a healing, recharging experience. I didn’t write a lot toward any one manuscript, but I read and walked and took copious notes in my journal and, most importantly, reclaimed the center I had lost during the last retreat. I couldn’t have had that kind of positive experience without having the other less-productive one. See how it works? How being flexible is the best service you can pay to your writing life?

Well, I’m off to start packing. Six night and seven days of creative recharge… I can’t think of a better way to start off 2010!
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Your Survival Guide For Writing Through the Holidays
[December 2009] 

With the holidays in full swing, most writers have an either/or response to the days ahead. Either they thrill at the early signs of upcoming holidays and use all that energy to keep them motivated through the season, or they decide they won’t write at all because it’s just too chaotic. I’m just guessing here, but I bet most writers are more inclined to choose the latter response to impending holidays.   

Here are some tips for squeezing in that writing life even when the world upends itself at the holiday season. C’mon, you can do it! Hundreds of thousands of people wrote novels in 30 days last month. I know all sorts of full-time working parents who write and publish. I marvel at my clients, as well, many who battle health problems like multiple sclerosis and emergency hospitalization and, still, they produce at least a chapter a week. So can you!   

  1. Figure out what your prime time of the day is for writing. Where is your best creative energy? Identify that time, then set up a work zone at that time complete with a schedule. It could be everyday, or it could be evenings only or just on the weekends. Figure out how much time you can reserve for that time slot: 30 minutes? 3 hours? Pencil it in. Treat it like an appointment with your doctor or lawyer or client. Then turn off your phone, your wi-fi, shut your door, and do it. Do not reschedule. If time truly is short, remember this: you can write a lot even in 30 minutes a day if you’re writing at your peak energy period. It’s still more on the page than you would have produced had you not written at all.
  2. Make yourself a regular goal so you have something to work toward. Do you like to measure words? Give yourself the goal of writing 500 words a day. If your goals center on little snatches of time, then give yourself the goal of writing as much as you can in that time frame. Like pages instead? Assign yourself a “page horizon” and write toward it. You could also break it into scenes (“I pledge to write one scene a day”) or chapters (“I want to complete three chapters within the week”). Keep your goals “doable.” Don’t get all ambitious over the holidays; just set a pace you know you can manage. Whatever goal measurement you choose, stick to it however you are able and make it your crowning achievement when you reach your horizons.
  3. Keep distractions to a minimum. Especially if you work out of your home, close your office door or pack your laptop or a printed copy of your manuscript to a local coffeehouse or well-lit bar where you won’t recognize anyone. Ask your family to honor your privacy during your writing time. Set aside other time for chores and errands so that you won’t feel like you’re neglecting something else in order to write. You can do both in the same day, but only if you’re serious about it and plan ahead. If you work at a day (or night) job, use your breaks specifically for writing, if you can, or write on your commute (whenever possible). Say “no” to everyone and every event that might wish to upset your plans. Writing is serious work and it can’t get done unless you guard your time and energy like the precious commodities they are.
  4. Ask a friend to keep you accountable. Tell them how many pages or words or scenes or chapters or hours of writing you intend to accomplish within a certain period of time. Then, ask them to ask you to show them your work at the end of that certain period of time. This is the basic appeal of all generative writing classes: it forces you to do your homework (in your case, new writing). I recommend a weekly meeting either online, via phone, or at a coffeehouse where you have to actually physically share your new work with your friend. They don’t have to read or critique it; they just have to be there to keep you on task.
  5. Remember that writing is more than just putting words on the page. You may find yourself at a place in your project where generating new words is not really the issue. Maybe you need to do some revision. Perhaps you’re behind on research. Or you need to read a few related books or view a few related films or scour a few related scripts to inspire you. This is perfectly acceptable as long as you are making choices that move your work forward. If, for instance, you are trying to render your mystery short story series in a Hitchcockian style, you may want to look deeply at those films or screenplays. Or you may be writing a memoir and have a big blank in your manuscript that could be filled by informing yourself through historical research of a particular event at a particular time. Or maybe you just need to print out and reread your novel manuscript in as close to one sitting as you can, then take a red pen to the whole blessed thing.
  6. If you’re not on deadline, write something else. Some writers need to take a break from their Big Picture projects at the holidays or else deal with burnout. Why not write a few new flash fictions, articles or poems instead? Practice wordplay, have fun! Write holiday-related materials for no other reason than to write. Apply no pressure on yourself. The point is to keep the writing and thinking “muscles” warm and fluent; generating a bunch of new stuff can help you offload distracting subjects that keep nagging at your attention span as well as breathe new energy and vivacity into your writing life so that, when the holidays are over, you are still in tiptop condition when you get back to the Big Picture project.

Do you have any other tips for writing in the middle of things? Feel free to share them in comments!  

 
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Earn Your Epitaph
Johnson Grave Oysterville August 2009[November 2009] 
An Exercise in Visualization

Recently, an arts community cohort of mine, Dinah Satterwhite, mentioned an exercise she once taught for a class in which students had to write their own epitaphs.I vaguely remember doing something similar in an English comp class back in my freshman year of college, but Dinah’s assignment was different: write the epitaph you want on your tombstone. Not the epitaph that you think others will write about you when you’re gone… the story of your life if you are to live it entirely on your own terms and following all your dreams and ambitions.Writers sometimes express fear that they will not be finished with their writing masterpieces before they die, or they fear that someone will unearth all their crusty first drafts and shine the light on just how awful they really were. This is really wasted energy; what we should be focusing on, if we are to embrace the idea of sizing up our lives in limited characters on a slab of granite, is not what we weren’t, but what we leave behind. And the only way we can expect for anyone to use the epitaphs we write for ourselves is to earn them.So I urge you to take the challenge. Write the words that describe the writing life you want to have lived by that point in your future when you will finally pass away. Be reasonable and yet be fearless.If you tweet, this exercise may come more easily for you. I mean, folks in Twitter have the 140-character life story down pat. If not, no worries, just be honest with yourself.Note: There are some things that happen beyond our control (for instance, earning a “bestseller” status for your book is really not going to be up to you at all, so don’t just assume that you can write “bestselling author” and be able to achieve that status). But you can certainly write that you were an excellent poet whose poems were circulated widely around the world and be very proud of that fact.Then, make this the new bull’s-eye of your writing life. Have you hit that center yet?Probably not, but you might actually be closer than you think. If so, then your writing life may accelerate itself organically. Just as readers will breeze through the last ten pages of a novel because they know the end is nigh and they want closure and resolution, you may discover renewed motivation to finish up projects that are close to completion.If your writing life goals are nowhere near that bull’s-eye, then you still have something good: you have a target, a place to train your eyes every time you hit a snag, every time you get a rejection, every time you send out another manuscript.Think about setting a new bull’s-eye on a regular basis. Over the years, your skill set will strengthen and shift, your focus will wander to the new and unexpected shiny objects that define a writer’s life. It never hurts to reassert your path, and to earn that epitaph!

 
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Strangeness
[October 2009] 
Make the Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m intrigued by oddities in culture and society. Cryptids, aliens, monstrosities. Anything that steers clear of the norm. Freaks of nature. Miracles. The inexplicable.

Look up strangeness in a thesaurus. That says it all! If something is bizarre, curious, eccentric, idiosyncratic, marvelous, oddball, peculiar, quirky, uncanny or weird, chances are, it will capture my attention. And I don’t mean—literally—just the strangeness of objects. Landscapes can be otherworldly right here on earth, after all. Characters can transcend normal expectation. Storylines can take unexpected twists and turns. And readers love all of this.

Human beings cannot resist the lure of the strange. It’s hard-wired into us, our fascination with what is unfamiliar. Why else do we travel to faraway locations for vacation? What is it about colorful characters that we all seem to admire? And roller coasters: they’re not popular because they make us feel sick to our stomachs, they’re popular because they force us to face the unknown.

All animals hold some cognitive ability to distinguish the familiar from the bizarre. It’s how we adapt to our environments. It’s also why we slow down to examine car accidents on the highway; it’s why readers prefer storytelling that is far from ordinary.

For this reason, writers walk a hard path these days. The world is changing at breakneck speed and nothing stands still for more than a second. On top of that, readers, though not necessarily more discerning than their counterparts 50 years ago, are far more demanding consumers of fiction. Grabbing and keeping the attention of those who are already hyper-stimulated by free or cheap media fixes is perhaps the hardest task any writer faces in the 21st century. New voices must resonate on an even higher frequency than the noise of the everyday if they are to be heard and appreciated.

Many writers should think about how they can incorporate a little more strangeness into their work as one antidote to this dilemma. I say this as an editor. When I’m wearing that hat, I discover so much writing that’s cut off at the knees: the drama and tension and suspense have been hacked away. Why do writers do this? Well, it’s safer, easier. It fits a prefabricated mold. It’s something your mother and her friends can read for their book group without blushing.

A lot of this sort of safe work gets published, sure, just like luminous seascape paintings are sold by the dozen to fit the space behind your sofa. Listen, if this is the kind of work you want to produce—that you like to read—then go for it. But if you want, as a writer, to produce work that breaks the mold and stands out, your goal should be to produce a manuscript that can hold up to multiple readings, work that haunts the reader even when they’re not safely enrobed in their reader’s mind. The work we all cleave to as readers is the kind that returns to us in unexpected moments, re-delivering an image or an idea that can’t be shaken from memory… because it’s strange.

Think about the books that rate high in any particular canon: every single one possesses something that separates it from the rest of the pack. Lolita? Jane Eyre? Crime and Punishment? The Martian Chronicles? To The Lighthouse? Each and every one of these titles brings to the reader something unexpected, unusual, or downright odd.

No, not strange as in Stephen King’s clown in It. And no, not strange like you’ll find in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! You don’t have to be so literal with the idea. Strangeness could be just as easily represented through novel structure (Cortazar’s Hopscotch, anyone?), voice (Catcher in the Rye), or the use of deep metaphor (Beloved).

I’ve found Harold Bloom articulates it best in this comment from The Western Canon:

“I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange… When you read a canonical work for the first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations. Read freshly, all that The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Faust Part Two, Hadji Murad, Peer Gynt, Ulysses, and Canto General have in common is their uncanniness, their ability to make you feel strange at home.”*

So how do writers break out of their ordinariness? They take risks. They question assumptions about narrative, realism, and truth. They break rules. They apply themselves playfully to their very serious work.

Here are four ways you can practice inviting strangeness into your writing: 

Consume strangeness. Find it everywhere you can. Traveling, and preparing or eating exotic foods, are two straightforward lifestyle ways to consume strangeness. However, our media arts culture just brims with strangeness. Check out these artists:

Music: Anything by Frank Zappa or Bjork or Devo or Tiny Tim, “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin), Iggy Pop

Stories: “The Metamorphosis” (Kafka), “Enoch and the Gorilla” (O’Connor), “The Swimmer” (Cheever), “The Veldt” (Bradbury), “The Falling Girl” (Buzatti) 

Film: Spirited Away, Being John Malkovich, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., Brazil, Blue Velvet, Edward Scissorhands, PeeWee’s Big AdventureNovels: House of Leaves (Danielewski), A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel (Murakami), Pedro Paramo (Rulfo), Alice through the Looking Glass (Carroll)Television: Twin Peaks, Six Feet Under, Twilight Zone, Carnivale, X-Files, Fringe, Paranormal State, Jericho Explore unfamiliar territory. Okay, so a noun is a Person, Place or Thing, right? Why not deconstruct this notion in a kind of quest outside the box? What I mean is this: Pick a famous or infamous person who is extremely different from you, someone who comes from a different reality altogether. Learn everything you can about them as if you were an acting studying a role. Be open-minded; see where the exploration leads you. Do the same with places and objects. Make your research as primary as possible (in the field, versus online or at the library). The main thing you need to do is accept new ideas even if they follow a different lifestyle or moral agenda than yours. The goal is to leave behind the safety of your familiar world, and the only way you can really do this is to be nonjudgmental.Defy reader expectation. Take a scene you’re working on at the early draft stage and find the core of its conflict. Map out all the possible outcomes of that conflict. Eliminate all the outcomes that are predictable or expected (you have to be as objective as you can here). How many remain? Now, take those outcomes and exaggerate them so that they’re not only surprising but immensely dramatic. You can do the same thing with aspects of the setting or with the development of characters. The goal here is to avoid predictability and set out to take your reader on a journey they’d not expected.

Recognize revision as your opportunity to apply strangeness. I don’t usually advise writers, in their first drafts, to tinker too much with their work; the first draft is the “finishing line” draft, the one they need to get on the page so that they can return to and massage it into the eventual final draft. The revision stage, however, is exactly the place to begin thinking about crafting strangeness. As you find areas that fall flat or need more tension, you’ll discover opportunities to build in more strangeness. Take it over the top in the subsequent draft stages, even if it makes you a little uneasy. That uneasiness is tension: what you feel that your readers will also likely feel, if you don’t mess with its rawness too much. Remember, if something doesn’t work, you can always take it out later, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? 


*Reproduced from David Long’s excellent essay, “Making the Stony Stony,” Poets & Writers magazine, March/April 1998, italicized text added for emphasis.

 

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Beware the addiction of WWL!
[September 2009]
Walking While Listening (to writing podcasts)

One of my favorite new habits is WWL, walking while listening (to writing podcasts). It’s a good habit because it’s about an hour of walking (3 miles) and I can stay in touch with various audio programs that feature creativity, creative writing, the writing life and all things related.

It’s a different experience, listening to a podcast as opposed to music, as you really need to focus on the discussion with a podcast. Listening to music can be rather hypnotic, and the music can act as background noise, rather than the focal point of your mind.

Other differences when listening to either that are worth mentioning:

1. If you are listening to a podcast, it’s really much harder to have a conversation with another person while you’re “plugged in” because your mind has already focused on the words in the podcast. With music, you can tune out a phrase or two from a song to say hello to someone, then jump right back in to listening. Be prepared to make a different kind of intellectual leap.

2. If you find your podcasts especially humorous or engaging, you may unwittingly discover yourself laughing out loud on an otherwise lone walk; this might come across as a little odd to passersby who are not tuned into the same program you are. (Though, in truth, it’s just as odd to watch someone grooving to their own music when you can’t hear it for yourself.)

3. When you download podcasts, be aware that some of them are only 5 minutes long, while others are as long as 2 hours! Hence, WWL may require some more additional pre-walk planning than if you were just listening to random music.

Case in point: I used to use a Creative Zen mp3 player and download enough episodes for a week’s worth of walking (4 walking days at 1 hour each day), so I made sure I had enough content to listen to so I wouldn’t run long or short of my scheduled walking time. I don’t like to carry much with me when I walk and I don’t wear a watch, so timing my walks to the length of the podcasts was very convenient. I also always chose podcasts that were between :55 and 1 hour in length.

Now, you can always pause in the middle of any given podcast and come back, so having too much to listen to is not so much of a problem as long as you have another way to tell time. If you don’t carry a watch, though, you will need to determine the lapse time of your program in advance so you can measure your walking time. 

Now that I have an iPhone, however, that’s all changed. I’ve downloaded somewhere close to 500 podcasts to my phone, and as I pick my material for the day, I check the times assigned to each of them to gauge my listening regimen before I start walking, so I know when to stop without having to check the time.

Also worth noting
Because you brain tunes into language differently than it tunes into music, you really need to be especially aware of your surroundings for safety’s sake. This also applies to music devices and cell phone use; any good, involved relay of audio information through a headset of any kind can take you intellectually out of your physical element. Please don’t get hit by a car! Keep your eyes open and look around often as you walk.

— 

The following podcast programs are ones which I happily recommend; they are all available, free to download and via free subscription, through iTunes. These podcasts are created by some hard-working, talented folks who, behind the scenes, do it for the love of their subject matter and the medium. They deserve a call out! If you ever have a chance to send any of these podcast producers a note in email or via Skype, tell ‘em Writer’s Rainbow sent you. And let me know if you have encountered these or other writing-related podcasts that you really enjoy or feel are the cream of the crop. Podcasters typically rely on word of mouth and networking to get their shows attention; I’m happy to share in the dissemination of well-earned link love. 

Note: These links will take you to each show’s main website where you can find options for downloading and subscribing. You will typically find show transcripts (“show notes”) as well, which can be extremely useful for relocating information from a podcast you’ve found indispensible to your own process. You can also search iTunes to download each of these podcasts directly and automatically.

Behind the Grammar (Mignon Fogarty)
Unscripted discussion about the writing life with the original Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty.

Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty)
Pesky grammar rules are deconstructed in this wildly popular and entertaining podcast. Mignon is smart and charming.

I Should Be Writing (Mur Lafferty)
From a veteran podcaster and creative writer, a personal journey into the process and progress of a writing life.

The Joy of Living Creatively (Eric Maisel)
Applicable to the needs of all sorts of creative people, including writers. Hosted by my creativity coach!

NPR: Books Podcast
This is a compilation of book lovers’ episodes from all of NPR’s award-winning audio shows. You can’t go wrong with NPR.

The Writer’s Almanac (Garrison Keillor)
Only about 5 minutes per episode, but chockful of facts, poems, and inspiration. Good for brief waits (bus stop, train, picking up the kids from school, etc.).

Writing Excuses (Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells)
This one’s fun, informative, and brief enough to meet a daily pre-writing listening habit.

The Writing Show (Paula Berinstein)
A comprehensive, long-running series that covers all sorts of literary territory with lots of interesting guests.

 

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What is process, anyway? 
[August 2009]
What works for you is what works best.

Recently, a client of mine asked me to define writing process. It’s a good question, and the more you understand about what process means for creative people (and what your process is), the better time you’ll have developing a satisfying and productive writing practice.

My definition of the writing process is:

All the things that you must do in order to get the words on the page in the way you most desire.

Keep in mind, everyone develops their process differently. There are many right ways to write, after all. You just need to find the ways that serve you best. In the act of developing a creative writing habit, pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work for you.

For instance, consider time: time of day, days of the week, even seasons can influence your sense of productivity, creativity and accomplishment.

Where you work matters, as well. Do you need background noise, music or complete silence? Can you work in public or around other people at home? Do you have a dedicated space to write? What makes your writing space inviting and productive for you?

Writing habits vary depending upon form, for some. I know writers who use a computer for their long work, but switch to long-hand in a notebook for poetry. Others can only use a computer or a notebook, but not both. If you write by hand, what are the instruments you prefer? Pens? Pencils? What kinds? And what about paper? Do you like lines? Loose-leaf paper? Anything you can get your hands on for scribbling?

If you imagine the writing life as taking a journey, then you can see that these are some of the things you will encounter and deal with, to some degree, along the road’s edge.

The basic writing process model

If you look up writing process on the Internet, you’re more likely to find this model, one which you’ve likely learned in elementary school already: the five parts to writing any single manuscript. This is more procedural than anything else, an orderly map that keeps you on the right path.

The five parts of the basic writing process model include:

Pre-write. This is where you put together outlines or sketches, the place where all your information gathering is contained. Not quite a draft, but everything that leads up to one. Think of this as the itinerary part that will help you get started on your journey.

Draft. This is the very first manuscript you write to completion, with all its rust, dents, scrapes, cracks, missing parts,  and other imperfections. It’s not a complete draft until you get to “The End” or at least know for certain how your narrative resolves itself.

Revision. This is the place where craft happens. Not only are you fixing information gaps, smoothing out potholes in the narrative, clarifying your setting, and deepening your characterizations, you’re writing new material, inspired by the first draft, which has more texture and resonance. If you drive these paths long enough, you’ll see the ruts that mark the true way to the end. The options for revision are endless; what works for you is what works best.

Grooming. This is proofreading and polishing, not the same as revision. While revision is about the guts and structure of your story, grooming is about cosmetics (voice, diction, sentence structure, punctuation, style). There are definitely rules for these things (many which only require that you remain consistent if there’s more than one right way to do something). Consider them roadsigns that you need to obey to make sure the reader gets to where you’re headed.

Sharing. Depending upon what you want to do with your manuscript, you could, at this point, submit your work for consideration by a publisher, editor, or agent. Or maybe you want to share it with your writing group or as an assignment for a workshop. The point is that you, more likely than not, will want someone to read what you wrote (and, with luck, respond to it emotionally). You wrote it precisely because you want them as companions on your journey, right?

[Note: For the purposes of this discussion on writing process, I’d recommend that you put Sharing to the end. Once you share your manuscript, you are taking it into new processes (deep revision, developmental editing with an agent/editor, production, publication, marketing, etc.). These are advanced steps to the writing process; giving them too much weight early in your practice means you run the risk of losing your purpose and creative drive as a writer. This is where many new writers fall short; I’d take a detour here for now.]

The writing process model cited above should be considered a procedural aspect to the writing process; it doesn’t acknowledge all of the other facets of the writing life that affect your ability to get the words on the page in the way you most desire.

Preparatory aspects of the writing process

Writers who drive their narratives “without headlights” are doomed to fail. Just like a driver on a road trip, writers need their proverbial first-aid kit, tire iron, snacks, gas money, windshield wiper fluid, and an operational vehicle.

The following represent behavioral, organizational, and inspirational aspects to the creative process that the writer needs to consider while developing a regular writing practice.

Behavioral preparation. Making art of any kind requires healthy, productive human behaviors. Here are a few:

1. Rituals. Identify any practices that help you transition into a writing habit. For instance, some writers like to get up before dawn and watch the sun rise before they write. Many writers like to have a jolt of caffeine (coffee, tea, cola) at their elbow before they can get started. Still others light a candle, meditate, shower, go for a walk, or speak aloud an intention. Most every writer I know does something to prepare for the journey of writing, even if they aren’t aware of it. Even checking email just to get that chore off your mind might be considered a ritual.

2. Immersion. Once you discover the arena when and where your narrative will reside, it’s important to find ways to immerse yourself in it, however possible, in order to produce an authentic voice and vision in your story. Immersion should be as literal as you can make it so that it directly informs your own behavior, such as in the following ways:

• if you physically take on the tasks that your characters labor through themselves, you can cull first-hand experience (or you can try to tap into your own previous experience in those areas, i.e. childbirth);

• if you travel to the landscape represented in your narrative (or to those which most resemble that landscape) and capture as many details there in as many forms as possible (audio, video, photo, journal), you’ll become an intimate architect of the setting you eventually write yourself;

• if you encounter the cultural products of your landscapes, characters and time periods (through art, literature, fashion, food, music, theater, film etc.) to ground yourself inside the time and place of your narrative, you’ll naturally imbue your narrative with authentic details;

• if you try to reenact the conditions that your characters encounter (live for a day on the street, stay in an opulent hotel, visit a haunted house), you’re more likely to gain a deeper understanding of their motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears;

• if you study the history that surrounds the characters and landscapes you write about (by reading or recording oral histories, checking out Information Please and other almanacs, searching local papers in microfiche, reading copious amounts of relevant historical fiction and nonfiction), you become your own expert.

3. Inspiration: Some call this the muse, and that’s fine. Others sit down and start writing, trusting in what the muse also provides: discovery. These are the epiphanies that arise out of your own creativity, little truths that emerge when and where you hadn’t planned. You really don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration is about open-mindedness, or what I think of as creative radar. If you begin a regular writing practice, you’ll find that, even when you’re not writing, you’re still, in fact, thinking about writing, and while that’s no substitute for the work of writing itself, it still opens the door to your narrative and attracts ideas, suggestions, and details you can use in your work.

Another kind of inspiration comes from being an active part of your writing community. Whether you visit a regular writing group, take a class, attend a literary reading, visit a famous writer’s home, volunteer for a writing center, or read or watch interviews of writers you admire, you’re sure to nurture the momentum of your regular writing practice.

4. Isolation: I include this under behavioral preparation because saying Yes to writing and No to distractions is more of a behavioral challenge than an organizational or inspirational one. Make it a point to find time and place and space to write, on a plan that works for you (if it’s not everyday, that’s okay; what works for you is what works best). While I strongly recommend that you seek out a support system for your writing life, which may involve family and friends, teachers, and other writers, you will also need to seek out solitude. You can talk all you want with cohorts about your story, but if you don’t write it down, then it will never become a manuscript. Talking about your story often also dilutes its energy; I recommend you save that energy for your writing practice. Listen, books are not sold based on ideas alone; you have to write them! This seems silly to point out, but many, many writers think that having a good plot worked out in their mind is enough reason to seek an agent, when what they really need to do is sit down and write.

Organizational preparation: Consider this information management. You can’t write anything without information, and without a way to collect and use it, you could complicate your writing life unnecessarily.

  1. Research. There are no hard and fast rules on research; the “road” is wide open. Some people do all their research before they write a word; some research as they go; others only do their research after they’ve written a skeleton draft. Research can be done in the field (by taking pictures, walking a setting, interviewing people, taking notes) as well as achieved online or at the library. The more live research you can do, the better, but don’t be crushed if you can’t travel halfway around the world to do your research. Debra Dean wrote and published The Madonnas of Leningrad, a historical novel set in Russia during the Second World War, without ever going to the Hermitage Museum (she did travel there, afterward). You’d never know all of her research was done virtually. 

  2. Inquiry. The best research is done between people. If you can ask questions of people who populate the kinds of landscapes and situations you have in your manuscript, you can extract many more realistic details that help give clarity to the human condition. Inquiries on sensitive subjects really should be done in person, by the way, and controversial subjects will require that you corroborate your facts. You can make inquiries to experts in email, by phone or by letter. Also, consider making inquiries of your characters, your settings, and your plot on a regular basis. Have fun with this practice; for instance, find interview questions that real-life celebrities often have to answer, and ask your own characters the same questions. See how many they (you) can answer! Those questions that you can’t answer might point to holes in your understanding of your character (motivation, history, etc.). The same can be done for setting and narrative. Ask a lot of why (or why not?) questions to make sure the assumptions you make in your writing can withstand the test.

  3. Incubation. Sometimes the best thing you need for organizing your thoughts and ideas is downtime and breathing room. The open road. I call this incubating because, when you set aside the chaos of your research and development for a time, it tends to hatch new ideas while you’re not looking that you can use. This is the kind of thinking that inventors practically rely upon: redirecting their focus to other tasks while letting the problem in question lead to what are known as Eureka! or A-Ha! moments. Incubation is also a way to let your brainspace lie fallow for a short period of time so you don’t overwhelm yourself with too much material. Incubation works not only for writers struggling to focus, but for writers who are struggling to find ideas. Instead of staring at the blank page for hours at a time, why not let it sit, go out into the world, and let the frustration of blocked ideas stew awhile?

Inspirational preparation: Nurturing the writing life is essential to maintaining its longevity. Here are some ways to enhance your writing process that will also have a positive effect on your whole life:

  1. Reading. Writers should always be reading. Whether you read work that is like yours in form, voice or intent, or its complete opposite, is up to you. What works for you is what works best. Quantity and quality go hand in hand; you should read as much in any given day as you write, and you should be reading work of the best quality for its genre. That interaction between your mind, your eyes, your mind’s eye, and the written word all help keep your brain’s problem solving center well lubricated.

  2. Self-care. Preparation also involves ensuring that you can manage a regular writing practice in a way that sustains body, mind, and soul.

• Body. Is your working space ergonomically smart? Bad posture, ineffective lighting, and negative environmental conditions (allergens, noise pollution, cold drafts) can lead not only to discomfort but chronic conditions that can keep you from writing. Think about how often you sit, as well, and whether you take enough breaks. Exercise your eyes, your back, your wrists, and loosen your jaw. Plan for different kinds of exercise as well: aerobics, team sports, yoga and/or Pilates, weight training. I especially recommend walking, swimming, yoga, and rope-skipping. Massage or a pedicure is a nice treat to celebrate the completion of a particularly challenging project!

• Mind. From an intellectual standpoint, taking care of your brainspace is also important. Do you enjoy Sudoku, movies, live concerts, cycling, cooking? Your hobbies are the way you balance work with play. Playtime is an incredible chance to exercise your mind in different areas; the more “stretching” you get, the better you’ll become at problem-solving when you need it the most: while writing.

• Soul. Finally, what about your spiritual side? Even folks who don’t belong to an organized religious membership can feed their soul. This can be done through relationships with family and friends, meditation, caring for a pet, solitude, behavior therapies, Reiki, hypnosis, creative retreats, activism, and the like. Sometimes it is enough to meet with writers once a month and talk about the writing life; a strong sense of community affiliation can buoy you through a lot of low points.

In both the Mind and Soul applications of self-care, you will want to regularly ask yourself: Why am I writing this manuscript? For whom am I writing this manuscript? and What are my goals and expectations for this manuscript? Understanding your intentions as a writer (to heal, to express imagination, to change the world, to entertain, to have fun, to tell the truth) will make the writing life much more resonant for you down the line.

Management aspects of the writing process

Once you prepare and develop a writing practice, you need to maintain it so that it endures. Creative writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even as you succeed with one manuscript, you will encounter new challenges with the next one. It’s an endless, but creatively satisfying, learning curve—but only if you persevere.

Embrace chaos. Being a creative person means coming to terms with chaos. Creativity can be messy, out of order, lopsided. Think of aggregate materials used for paving: a mishmash of rocks, sand, shells, glass, minerals. When blended together into a paved surface, they take on new life and strength. It’s across this sound pavement that you’ll travel to your destination. Occasionally you’ll find a speed bump or a pothole on your way. If you accept the disorder of your journey, you’ll notice more than just these obstacles; you’ll see all sorts of roadside attractions along the way. In fact, it’s there that you’ll find everything you need to nurture your writing journey.

Here are some ways to embrace chaos:

  1. Take a side trip. Allow yourself to divert from the plan if the energy is there. These alleyways offer a lot of good things to discover and use in your narrative.

  2. Go out of order. If writing in a linear fashion seems to lead to dead ends, try this. You can always connect the separate pieces later. Think bridges.

  3. Write last first. Sure, take a stab at the very last paragraph. Think how it references the very first paragraph. Think how the story will connect the two on the map.

  4. Change perspective. It’s okay to try on different points of view, especially in earlier drafts. One will stand out as the best choice, but you’ll never know unless you experiment. Think of this as changing modes of transportation: from driving to walking to horse and buggy.

  5. Don’t beat yourself up. Accept that some days the words will come flying out of you, and some days you’ll be scratching for just a sentence. Das Autobahn or traffic jam? Also accept that there will be days when you want to write but can’t, and other days when you’ve planned to write but simply don’t feel like it. Hit the road anyway.

  6. Get a paint job. Experiment with a new form or genre. Writing poetry can make you a better fiction writer; writing blogs can loosen you up for more intense creative writing. Writing science fiction can teach world-building, writing short stories can show you what can be left out.

Manage your habit. If you turn your writing into a habit (say, daily from 6-7 am, or weekly on Saturday mornings, or in the weeknight evenings after your kids go to bed), it’ll be easier to keep your momentum. Think of another habit you have, such as brushing your teeth. The more regularly you do it, the better you are for it, right? But you also know what kind of outcome you’ll suffer if you break that habit.

Distinguish between time and energy. Time and energy are resources we can tap as writers. However, in our hyperspeed culture, time management gets all the focus. What writers need to do is study their own energy levels at different times and in different situations to better plan when to spend their energy. If you always wake up bright and early on Sunday, maybe Sunday morning is your best time to write; you could get in 3-4 hours of writing then, or suffer through a week of low energy spread over 9-12 hours and get nothing done. Rush hour has never been a good time to drive; why choose that time to write?

Call yourself a writer and mean it. When you plan to write on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, pencil these as appointments into your calendar and don’t break them for anything other than real emergencies. If you write during your lunch hour at work, beg off from invitations to go out to eat. Set up a schedule that works with your family schedule and they’ll be less likely to interrupt you, as well. Put a sign on your door: “Writer at work.”

Creative writing is often viewed as a hobby, but in fact, it’s some of the hardest intellectual work anyone can do. Hard, yes, but also very satisfying, just like a career. A career is not a job, it’s a journey, after all.

So call yourself a writer in public and take your work seriously; others will cue into your behavior and take you seriously as well.

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Want fan mail? 
[July 2009]
Start the karmic loop by sending some of your own.

Maybe you’re into writing for the art of it, or because you can’t help but write—it’s a compulsion. Or maybe you have something to say, or maybe you write because, darn it, it gives you a lot of pleasure to do so.

And maybe you’d like to make some money for your writing. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a writer on the planet who would turn down compensation for their narrated thoughts and creative compositions. But sometimes that reality’s not entirely up to the writer: market conditions mean that short story writers make small beans compared to magazine journalists. Still, money is only one motivation. Short story writers write because they love the form as well.

Another reason to write is to gather fame about you. Recognition. Notoriety. A stamp of approval from the world outside your creative brain, maybe? And who wouldn’t want the fan mail that comes with that?

Well, maybe some people wouldn’t. Reclusive folks, for instance. Writers who are trying to live off the grid.

But most writers would love to hear from their readers, and especially through fan mail.

Have you ever written a piece of fan mail?

In the “old days,” this usually involved hand-writing a letter, getting some writer’s cramp in the bargain, maybe a paper cut while sticking it in an envelope, stamping and addressing it, then sending it off to a mailbox on the other end to some publicist somewhere. Whether your letter actually got read was dicey back then. Sometimes celebrities would send autographed photos in reply, and occasionally (like my friend Nancy did), writers of fan mail got a bona fide hand-written letter in response (hers was definitely the real thing, and from Katherine Hepburn, no less!).

These days, writers can send missives to their favorite scribes in email, but in the ether-land of Internet uncertainty, who really knows whether the author actually received the email, and if they did, whether they actually opened it and read it and, beyond that, sat at the keyboard to tap out a reply? Most celebrities (except for Ashton Kutcher, maybe) are not thrilled about sending email replies to fans. I mean, imagine all the unwanted extra mail that might attract (hence the many unofficial fan pages of so many famous folks).

But it’s also not entirely unheard of. Somewhere, I have Stephen King’s email address, with his explicit guarantee that if I emailed him, he would respond. (Did I ever write to him? No, I think I chickened out!) I have friends who’ve successfully corresponded with other well-known writers for several turns of letter writing. Writers write, after all. It’s what they do.

A third option is to visit the author’s website and leave a comment or a  message to the author by way of a digital form. No, you can’t be sure who’s answering these messages either, but it’s worth a shot.

Why? Because writers, no matter how celebrated or obscure, love to hear from their readers.

Why not start now? Write a letter to an author whose book you just read and really liked.

I did recently, to NPR contributor Cheryl Wagner, who wrote Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around. I found her through one of my social networks, and we had a nice little chat. Now she knows she has reached at least one of her readers and now I can say that I’ve had the privilege of chatting with Cheryl Wagner.

Of course, you don’t want to go stalking your fave writers. Just a brief little note—”Hey, I loved your book, it made me want to work on my draft!” or “I just finished your latest and I almost died laughing, thanks!”—is all it takes. 

Now, keep in mind: being overtly “friendly” as a fan is probably illegal, but even worse, it’s bad karma, plain and simple. You don’t need to go and buy gifts for your favorite writer, nor should you send them your freshly baked upside down pineapple cake (because they’ll never eat it) or run a highly investigative Google search using maps and other data to track down the private address of the recipient of your fan letter (which will definitely catch the interest of HomeSec, if nothing else).

So what if your digital send goes to the publicist first, or to a hired reader at the other side of the modem, or to an agent?

Maybe it won’t.

Or maybe it will, and the third party involved will forward it on anyway because, well, who doesn’t want to get fan mail?

Writing a note of appreciation and thanks is not only good karma (for beefing up your own writerly karma in anticipation of the day when you, too, become the published author pining to hear from fans), but it also captures in writing what it is that you likely want to find in your own work after it is published: evidence of the ability to weave words into beautiful narrative, say, or the skill to craft excellent dialog or draw an unforgettable landscape, or to write a book that readers don’t want to end. By telling the writer what you loved, you set a course for yourself.

This, my friend, is creative visualization, projected. 

Which boomerangs to one of my favorite bits o’ wisdom ever: writers should write the books they’d want to read.

If these aren’t enough reasons to coax you into writing a fan letter today, well… keep in mind, Ms. Manners would look upon your act of etiquette as thoughtful and kind in a world too busy and distracted to do so otherwise. That’s another kind of good karma all its own.

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Can writers ever take a break? 
[June 2009]
Cautioning against packing the laptop with you while on vacation.

Here’s a common quandary among writers during the summer months:

“I can’t make up my mind. Should I pack my laptop on my vacation?”

The trip may be a family vacation, but you’re still a writer, a blogger, or both. The compulsion to write is every day, no matter where you’re at.

Some observations about this dilemma:

• Writers use their computers (PCs, laptops, handhelds, Blackberries, netbooks) for more than just writing. They use them for researching, managing communications, purchasing goods and services, making reservations, and as devices for entertainment.

If you’re intent is to use your laptop only for writing, be vigilant. You could end up using it for everything else and then, where did that vacation go? Wait, that’s right, you spent it in front of your laptop while everyone else had fun.

• Writers may not be able to help their compulsion to write, but do they need a laptop to do that (and everything else)? No. Little notebooks and pens/pencils have worked for centuries. Also, writing utensils and notebooks don’t require memory, a dressing down at the airport terminal security entrance, or insurance to replace.

• Internet cafes abound everywhere except for the very remote places. Aren’t you going to the very remote places to get away from it all in the first place? And if you aren’t going to be very remote, won’t you want to be doing other things on your vacation besides slaving away at the keyboard?

Fine, sometimes real life does interfere, even on vacations. But that’s why an internet cafe is a good thing; you can take care of EMERGENCIES if necessary. Note the all caps. EMERGENCIES can’t wait. Blogging and email and social networks can.

Lest you think I’m being unfair, allow me to challenge some reasons why you might think that taking a laptop on your trip is a good idea.

I can send digital email postcards.
[Is this really what you want to be doing on your vacation? Editing and sending digital images to all your friends? Wouldn’t postcards be just as easy and require less baggage? You could write them while sunbathing and drinking mai tais. With a laptop, you could spill your  mai tai on your laptop or your computer could overheat, and it would ruin your trip. Trust me.]

I get a lot of email; taking a laptop means I can stay on top of it.
[Then you aren’t technically on vacation, are you? But worse, you have not yet learned to follow the screen rules you impose on your own children, eh?

 Time limits exist for a reason, and not just to control your children’s habits. Taking a break from your “screens” (television, computer, video games, Wii, DS, etc) roots you in the here and now and reconnects you with the natural world. No small thing.

And isn’t this the same world you focus on when you write, the living and breathing world? Why not just be in it for a while, sans the plug in?

Note: If you are bogged down by that much email, then maybe you need to take a class in information management. That’s not a snarky comment, it’s a recommendation.

I have 5 email inboxes and get at least 100 “real” emails in each every day, but I can walk away and come back and my working life does not suffer any worse than if I had gone on vacation and left a message on my work phone.]

I can use my laptop to search for things when I’m at my destination (restaurants, sightseeing destinations, etc).
[And you can do this before you leave or get help from a concierge or local friend or even find an internet cafe, if necessary. It’s not a good enough reason to drag the computer along.]

I can download photos immediately so they aren’t taking up my camera’s memory.
[Again, do you really want to be an efficiency expert on your vacation? Lighten up. Do your photos afterward; it’ll extend the pleasure of your trip.]

I can work on my current manuscript/s.
[You can decide to take a print out or journal and use a pen or pencil instead. And you can also decide to take a vacation and not write at all, which is not evil or poor judgment, but a kindness you could pay yourself.]

I can add to my blog/s.
[Or you can prewrite them and schedule them to launch while you’re away. No one will ever know. Or, again with the local internet cafe. If it’s that important, you can always get a latte, sign on, take care of business, and then sign off. Badda bing, badda boom. Back to the beach.]

I can take notes that will lead to some new writing.
[And a pen or pencil won’t allow this? This is like saying you can’t participate in a class without taking your laptop for note-taking. Of course you can; in fact, you pay better attention when you’re not busy typing, but listening.]

Some other good reasons for leaving your laptop at home while on vacation.

• One more thing to pack. With the cost of check-in baggage these days, is it really worth lugging around?

• Your laptop could get stolen. Probably it’s safer in your house, where your neighbors are keeping watch.

• You send your children a mixed and/or unhealthy message when you take your work on vacation.

• Using a pen and paper draws from a different area of the brain. So write if you like, just try it from a different sector. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.

• Your vacation could be just the ticket for getting relief from ergonomics problems associated with sitting in front of a computer: pain in the neck and back, carpal tunnel, eye fatigue, jaw fatigue, headaches.

• You’re more likely to actually slow down and enjoy the moment if you’re not plugged in. It’s a frame of mind.

• You might just find out that you really spend too much time on the machine and not enough time immersed in the land of the living. This sort of epiphany could really help not only your writing life, but all your other lives as well.

Creative people need breaks. This is how we recharge ourselves, “refill our wells,” and heal through the physical and emotional stresses of our creative lives. Please, try to step away from your machinery for a short while on a regular basis. And don’t fear you’ll lose your way. Just find other ways to do the same thing. The change will do you good, which is the whole point of a break or vacation. Remember to reconnect with people and landscapes and sensory experiences and you’ll take care of a lot of creative roadblocks you might have been dealing with, as well.

Rest and relaxation matter to everyone, including both the hard-working laborer and the hard-working writer. Hard work is hard work; without some downtime, it only gets harder, folks.

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Original blog content ©Tamara Kaye Sellman. All Rights Reserved. Please disseminate with copyright information and credits intact. Please contact Tamara at tamarasellman@gmail.com  if you wish to reprint for more than a single personal use.

————– 

On surviving rejection
[May 2009]
Tools and strategies for weathering No.

WE DEAL WITH all kinds of problems through a variety of mechanisms, most (but not all) of them which are meant to protect us emotionally/ psychically in some way. Creative writing is one of the hardest forms of intellectual labor out there, made more difficult by society’s often unrealistic expectations for writers and the fact that, most of the time, it’s done on pure speculation and faith and, often, without a lot of support.

When rejection darkens the doorstep, it’s important for us to listen to our own self-talk at the moment when we encounter it, and to pay attention to what we’re saying to ourselves following that moment (a day later, a week later, even a month later). Why? Because if we become cognizant of our own emotional behaviors, we can do something productive with them. Otherwise, we can hamstring the creative lives we aspire to, becoming our own worst enemies. By dealing positively with rejection, we can maintain some power over the progression of our writing lives even when so much of the outcome is not within our hands.

Rejection is always going to evoke an emotional response, and it’s the self talk that will either buoy us up or sabotage us as writers. If we can distinguish positive self talk from denial and negative responses, we can figure out ways to avoid sabotaging ourselves and, therefore, keep going. Creative writing is nothing if not a lifelong practice in patience and “stick-to-it-ness.”

Here are some common emotional responses to rejection and the self talk that might accompany them.

DENIAL 

  • Overconfidence (egotism, narcissism)
    “I’m awesome! The editors aren’t smart enough to recognize talent!” 

  • Anger/resentment/defensiveness
    “Everyone else is wrong! They don’t know what they’re talking about!” 

  • Intellectualization
    “It’s the state of the economy or the marketplace.”
    or
    “What should I expect from student readers and underpaid editors?”
    or
    “I don’t know the right people, so that will keep me from breaking in.”

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE (all examples of self sabotage) 

  • Vanquishment
    “I’ll never make it in this business!” 

  • Surrendering to the judgment of one editor
    “If they rejected me, it’s because I suck. That will be my future, as well.” 

  • Pessimistic action
    “I quit. This is never going to amount to anything anyway.” 

  • Retrying, without openness to learning or growing
    “The editor doesn’t get it; I’ll keep trying until I find an editor who gets it.” 

  • Lowering one’s standards
    “It’ll be easier if I aim lower, then if I still get rejected, it won’t matter.” 

  • Pursuing less “worthy” goals
    “Maybe I should just write children’s books/romance novels/pulp fiction instead. Those are easy, right?”
    or
    “Maybe I should just do something easier; I’m not good enough for the dream novel I want to write.” 

  • Eliminating challenges to eliminate failure
    “I give up on this manuscript.”
    or
    “If I don’t send it out, I can’t be rejected.”
    or
    “I’ll never send to these kinds of markets again.” 

  • Taking it personally
    “This editor just hates me. It has nothing to do with my work.” 

  • Internal blame for a problem
    “I suck!”
    or
    “What was I thinking? I can’t write.” 

  • Unrealistic expectations
    “I can’t be an award-winning writing, so why bother?” 

  • Indecision
    “I don’t know how to make this manuscript better, and I don’t know how to find the right agent/editor, so I’m stuck. That means I’m not going to do anything.” 

  • Focusing on other writers “unworthy” successes
    “How did Write X get published in that magazine? My work is way better than theirs!” 

  • Allowing the market to decide the quality of your work
    “Well, if this publisher thinks my manuscript sucks, then obviously it does. Time to burn my work. Will I start over? Why bother?”

  • Believe that your entire career rides entirely on the rejected project.
    “What am I going to do now? If this manuscript never sees the light of day, my writing life is over!” 

  • Inflexibility
    “I don’t care what this editor says about my work, I don’t need to learn anything new.”
    or
    “I don’t need to revise. It’s good enough.”
    or
    “I’ve already taken enough classes/published enough things/written enough.”        

POSITIVE RESPONSE 

  • Accept the pain of reaction, and then take action. (see Stages to Dealing with Rejection)
    “This feels awful, but I’m not going to let it ruin me. Let’s see what else I can do.” 

  • Perform other noncreative tasks related to writing to keep your hand in the action.
    “I think I’ll submit some of my other work for now while I let this rejection cool on the back burner. Then I can get back to it with a new strategy.”       

  • Take a breather from the writing life. Not the same as quitting. No one ever takes too many vacations. These periods rejuvenate us, refill our wells, correct problems with perspective.
    “I think I’ll take a hiatus to focus on some other aspects of my personal (or creative) life. This way I can generate some new ideas, relax, address what  my creative life means to me, and feel better about the situation. I can’t make good decisions if I’m bummed out about rejection.” 

  • Generate no new writing, initially.
    “I should probably do some revision.”
    or
    “I should find a support group or workshop to get some help.”
    or
    “What classes can I take/what books can I read to get me through this?”
    or
    “What can I do that isn’t writing that will inspire me again so I can get through this low point?” 

  • Write something brand new that makes you feel good about being creative.
    “I’m not going to get blocked out from my own creative life just because of one rejection. What else can I do?” 

  • Take an editor’s/agent’s advice and try again.
    “Hmmm, maybe they’re right. I can save a second version of this manuscript, try out their advice, and see what happens. Even if it doesn’t work, I might still learn something valuable from it.” 

  • Start working on the next thing.
    “Well, maybe this won’t be my best work but I have these other ideas and they might rock! so I think I’ll give them a shot.” 

  • Try again to prove the system* wrong. Use negative emotional energy as a positive force to keep you in the game. (*Remember, it’s not the people in the system who are corrupt, it’s the system.)
    “I’m not going to let that get me down. I really want this, so my response  is to keep trying, because I’m going to do this whether they like my work or not!”

  • Acknowledge that rejection is unavoidable and that the word No will not kill you.
    “Lightning did not come down from the sky and strike me dead just because one editor/agent said no.”
    or
    “This is only one opinion. I should seek out more opinions before I give up.”
    or
    “What’s the big deal? Everyone, even well-established and popular writers, gets rejected.” 

  • Practice positive thinking habits in daily life, actively defining success on your terms. This means shedding external expectations and truly asking yourself what you want from your (creative) life, then making a plan to achieve that.
    “I can do this, just like I can do well at anything if I put my mind to it.”
    or
    “Rejection is less important than writing for my heart’s sake.”
    or
    “I’m not going to let one rejection decide whether I can be happy writing.”
    or
    “I love my creative life and I don’t need exterior validation to feel good about it.” 

  • Talk to your writing friends or learn about how others respond to rejection.
    “I’m just going to dump it on my writing group because they know how it feels and misery loves company.”
    or
    “I need to go back and remind myself of all the awesome writers out there who have suffered from rejection so that I can remember that I’m not alone and belong to a worldwide circle of people who real with rejection everyday.”

  • Celebrate rejection as evidence that you are a real writer trying to make it in the world. Rejections, after all, are proof that you are trying; many writers often don’t even submit their work out of fear of rejection. Also, from a practical standpoint, rejection slips offer evidence for tax purposes in the event you decide to claim expenses as a creative writer on your annual return.

Stages to dealing with rejection 

          1. Identify your emotional response and acknowledge it as valid.
 “What am I feeling? Anger? Sadness? Disappointment? Disbelief?”
and
 “Might I be suffering from denial?”
and
“Is my self talk negative or positive?”
and
“This is normal to feel this way. I’m only human. I want to be loved for being myself and that includes wanting to be loved and accepted for my creative work, which is an extension of myself.”           

2. Take action.
“What am I going to do about it?”

Suggestions for dealing with rejection 

  • Reread your submission and be objective about its quality. Is this manuscript the best you can make it? Have you learned anything new since you submitted this that might make this manuscript better?

  • Consider any written remarks the editor has made, being analytical and as objective as you are able. You may still decide to reject their comments, but at least you’ve done it on an intellectual level instead of emotionally.

  • Reject the rejection. Decide to keep going and resubmit your work.

  • Physically dispose of the rejection or file the rejection. By taking some control over the physical manifestation of your emotional response, you can re-assume power over your creative life. (Not recommended if you claim writing expenses on your tax returns!)

  • Visit all the positive responses cited above and try to replace any negative self-talk with these more productive thoughts.

 Some further insights

 From Bruce Holland Rogers’ Word Work: “Negative and positive feelings shape our behavior in an obvious way. We move away from what feels bad. We move toward what feels good.”

From author Sean Stewart:  “I don’t wish to advocate blind rage and senseless vindictiveness, but as the comic said, it worked for me. If you have a choice between fury and despair, go fury.”

From Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: “More sensitive than others in the beginning, we have to develop the will, the stamina, the determination, and the  insensitivity to take critical abuse. A good writer, therefore, does well to see himself as a strong weak person, full of brave timidity, sensitive and insensitive. In effect, we have to learn to live in the world with its bumps and falls and occasionally startling rewards while protecting the core of what once seemed a frighteningly perishable sensitivity.” 

Recommended reading

Art & Fear: Observations of the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
 ©1993 David Bayles & Ted Orland, Capra Press 

One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers
 ©1999 Gail Sher, Penguin Arkana 

The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors
 ©2005 Catherine Wald, ed., Persea Books 

The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path through Depression
 ©2002 Eric Maisel, New World Library 

Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations For Writers
 ©1993 Susan Shaughnessy, Harper Collins 

Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer
 ©2002 Bruce Holland Rogers, Invisible Cities Press

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Original blog content ©Tamara Kaye Sellman. All Rights Reserved. Please disseminate with copyright information and credits intact. Please contact Tamara at tamarasellman@gmail.com  if you wish to reprint for more than a single personal use.

Wax poetic this month
[April 2009]
Celebrate National Poetry Month.

You may or may not be a poet, but one thing can be certain: you have been personally affected in some way by poetry. Commercial jingle? Song lyric? Nursery rhyme? Bawdy joke? Love sonnet? Poetry pervades our culture: always has, always will. Why not join in celebrating the largest literary event in the world?

Our community does a lot of things to celebrate National Poetry Month. There’s a limerick contest, broadsides of local poems plastered all around town, several local readings, a theatrical celebration of local poetry icon Theodore Roethke, a poetry slam, and a poetry presentation from local fifth graders. I’m hoping we’ll get some more of that Beat poetry we enjoyed last July 4th as well, with bongos and bandannas as the whole nine yards!

The 75-year-old Academy of American Poets, which founded National Poetry Month, is the go-to source for information on this 30-day-long celebration. Their mission has always been to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry.

Other programs include free poetry lesson plans for high school teachers; a collection of over 700 recordings known as the Poetry Audio Archive; and Poets.org, their award-winning web hub, which receives a million unique users each month.

At Poets.org, you can find a host of activities you can participate in as part of National Poetry Month, including:

Poem In Your Pocket Day: The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends on April 30, 2009.

Poem-A-Day: Beginning April 1, Poets.org sends one new poem to your inbox each day to celebrate National Poetry Month. The poems have been selected from new books published in the spring.

New poetry books for Spring: Check out this list of new poetry titles that will be published in spring 2008 by the sponsors of National Poetry Month.

Subscribe to Poets.org: Receive poetry in your inbox, your news feed, or your iTunes—choose your favorite, or sign up for all three.

Poets.org also offers a way for you to determine what’s happening in your area. Check out the National Poetry Map for local, regional and state Poetry Month events.

_____

 

Comment on this advice at the Writer’s Rainbow blog


RELATED

“National Poetry Month comes to Bainbridge Island”
Field’s End: A Writers’ Community blog, Apr 09

  

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