Some days, I love the internet. Specifically, when I need a cupcake idea for my daughter’s third grade class, Pinterest is my savior. Or when political news grinds my nerves to nubs, I require two otters holding paws on Facebook. In these instances, the internet is my friend. When it comes to writing, though, we are typically mortal enemies.
And I’m not even referring to all the distractions. (That’s an entirely different post.) Instead, consider the speed with which authors can race from idea to submission to publication. There have been mornings where I drafted a poem, submitted it over lunch, and even received word that it was accepted all in a twenty-four-hour period. Awesome, right?
That lightning process conceals a few fatal flaws. Nowhere in a sprint to publication is there space to reflect, edit, walk away, and return fresh. In a world where submission buzzes at our fingertips, are we skipping essential steps to better our writing?
I am not eschewing the process but instead offering a brief checklist of considerations to make a squirrelly writer take pause before hitting send or submit. Here I offer a few warnings for falling for the sprint instead of pursuing the marathon.
1. Editing matters. And it rarely happens well within twenty-four hours. The piece is so fresh in our minds that even glaring errors are camouflaged by our own mental copy.
2. Editing in a vacuum is dangerous. Rarely do critique partners exist who can turn around a piece in hours, and without an outside eye, the writing solely lives within our tastes and judgment. It’s not a bad place to be, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only place.
3. Did you find the right home? Unfortunately, fewer writers take the time to read online journals and get a taste of what they’re searching for. Instead many are lured by the siren’s call of fast and free submission windows, often jumping right out of them and submitting to the wrong places.
4. Submitter’s remorse is real. I have submitted pieces that found a home when they weren’t nearly ready, but perhaps the journal was new or the editor saw a glimpse of brilliance and kindly accepted. Looking back years or even months later, I see changes I’d like to make because those few pieces don’t represent my best voice, and as we all know, the internet preserves things forever.
5. Avoid looking unprofessional. As an editor for a literary magazine, like a shark smelling blood I can usually tell if a submission was dashed off without proper care. Perhaps they spell the journal’s name incorrectly, or my name, or yes – their own. We might receive a document that still shows original edits or someone else’s comments throughout. Even if the piece is wonderful, I rarely stick with it when so many glaring errors turn me towards more professional submissions.
6. Self-publishing can rob you of collaboration. Many authors, frustrated at rejection, post their own works on a blog or website. The problem with this is that they lose the opportunity to enjoy an editor’s help to polish the piece, and they may not consider why it was rejected in the first place. Persistence is a writer’s lifeblood, but not with blinders on. Every rejection or critique should move a writer to a better place. Not just a different platform.
Instant gratification exists, and it’s intoxicating. But some wins are hollow ones, and not all pieces are ready for publication. Good writing takes time, and good submissions represent that effort. Give your writing the space it needs to thrive, and I guarantee you’ll love the results. In the meantime, head to Pinterest for a yummy lunch idea.
I’ve read, and even written, many posts extolling the virtues of writing through any hardship. A heartbreak, a loss, a tsunami, a zombie apocalypse. The act can be a healing one and often helps us sort out our feelings or minimally allow our minds to escape whatever chaos has firmly lodged itself in our lives. But I would also argue that there is a space and time when for some, we need permission not to write.
From about the age of ten on, I started a firm routine of writing in the morning. Every morning without fail. Back then it was loose-leaf pages in a worn neon Trapper Keeper that survived three years of middle school far better than I did. And during my wild college days I still managed to jot down things as the sun rose even if I’d only slept a few hours the night before. My morning exercises have found their homes on the back of Target receipts, across paper towels, and everywhere else all because once I’d read that Hemingway followed this routine, and he turned out to be a fairly decent author (understatement intended). His daily practice also seemed more palatable than Vonnegut’s push-ups to spur creativity.
Of course, in this sort of mandatory writing situation, not everything I write during those early sessions is good. Although even out of bad pages, I can often resurrect a few good sentences. Once, seven pages of junky writing yielded a title that I used years later and somehow, that seemed like a huge win.
However, there were a few moments in my life that tossed up some rather large blockades and writing felt like a miserable chore. It was painful, and after some Herculean trying I learned that as an author, there are absolutely occasions that make it ok to put the pen down.
Ultimately every writer has different challenges and strengths. Unique routines and mechanisms to carry them from Once Upon a Time all the way to The End in their manuscripts. While this blog might make sense to some, it could be a totally wrong fit for others. But at core I think most writers tend to be the toughest self-critics. We rake ourselves over the coals when we’re not writing enough, not publishing enough, not doing those writerly things that make us authors. So, if nothing else, I hope the takeaway is to be kind to yourself. And if circumstances are so that you find you’ve got to put the pen down, that’s ok.
It’s been a while. A long while, actually, since I’ve blogged. This hiatus came from a sharp bit of wisdom that really resonated with me in Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the University of the Arts several years ago. He mentioned considering a goal to be a mountain and asking yourself with each new task if it was carrying you towards or away from the mountain. As I worked through the first draft of a novel, my blog entries felt like they were diversions dragging me from the task at hand. So, I filed them away and told myself only after I’d reached my own personal mountain, that first draft, would I return.|
Now that a full one hundred and forty pages sit in front of me, each chapter carefully printed and labeled, it feels appropriate to blog in the face of the daunting editing process. This is my first round of edits for this novel, a second round will absolutely follow, and then I intend to submit to agents after a final polish. This all sounds so easy, but the reality is the process is exhausting.
Editing reminds me of visiting the grocery shopping with an economical and underwhelming list. The further you wade into the store, the more you realize you’ve forgotten to include everything your kitchen really needs and what started as milk, bread, and eggs now grows to dozens of details and new plot ideas that should have been included in the first run through. And with each change, the world shifts. I’m writing a children’s fantasy where there is a world being constructed, but even in a good old-fashioned literary novel, new details are earthquakes that cause seismic shifts in the fictional reality.
In order to keep myself vaguely sane and always moving towards my mountain, I’ve devised editing tips and tricks that might be of help as you tackle your own revisions whether they be for a short story, a novel, or anything in between.
As I bask in the glow of a completed manuscript currently battling it out with others in the #PitchWars Twitter contest, I find it so easy to lounge. I wrote a book! Time to take a break…or not. At least for me, I find that if I don’t jump feet first into the next project, a week of leisure can become a month, even a year between major writings.
But jumping in isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Where do I start? How do I select an idea out of the dozens hopping up and down like strays at the pound looking for a home? Should I continue with a similar genre, or should I head off into waters unknown? And even after all of those questions, the big one looms.
How do I start?
Starting a novel is terrifying. It’s not like giving over a few days to a poem, essay, or story, knowing that it’s easy to pull the plug. If a shorter piece fails, you’ve only invested a few days. Mere hours on the writing spectrum. But a novel, it’s a commitment. It’s taking an idea and locking in as if you take the hand of your first date and say What the heck, let’s go get married in that chapel around the corner. It’s a spiritual and emotional mortgage, cementing you to an idea. Once you’ve made that jump, though, it’s essential to get going because again, waiting too long can take the shine right off of your idea. So, I’ve assembled a few tips that have helped me move forward in the past, and one of these tips will hopefully help me put pen to paper tonight as I sign off on my new endeavor.
Whatever you do, keep writing. And enjoy every delicious, painful minute of it.
Summers for teachers are bliss. While I don’t want to support the ridiculous idea that we don’t review lesson plans and strategize for the following year, June, July, and August do lend themselves to pursuing hobbies, slowing down to cook meals at home and play with the kids more, and write with abandon. Bliss, indeed.
Except when no clock is ticking, writing often slips to the wayside. During the school year I write on a very regimented schedule…and it works. I hit my word count every day, whether it’s brilliant or bollocks. But when I’ve given unlimited time to write, without the urgency I often wait and write when I’m too tired or distracted. This reality reinforces how important, at least for me, it is to maintain a writing schedule and treat it less like a hobby and more like a profession.
In light of this, I thought I’d share a few different writing routines that have worked for me throughout the years.
For more writing routines, check out The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers and happy writing!
Last year as a Pitch Wars newbie, I was intimidated but pleasantly shocked at how welcoming the community and contest were. I didn’t make it to Mentee status, but I learned some invaluable tips through my first bumpy try. And I can’t wait to try again this year and see what happens.
I am completely taken with the novel All the Birds in the Sky and by completely taken, I mean obsessed. I've read it twice, and I want there to magically be a film adaptation tomorrow. In a pitifully small nutshell, this sci-fi fantasy romp that places the magical and the technological world s head to head in a brutal battle for power. Add a Romeo and Juliet-esque complication, and I was sold by page three.
But this isn't just a plug for the novel, although if you're reading this I expect you to go get a copy ASAP. This is, however, a huge plug for genre-jumping. And if you're already putting up your nose saying I don't DO fantasy or sci-fi, I especially charge you to try it. Minimally try a genre that you may enjoy but have never attempted for the following reasons:
1 - You will have to learn. As writers we ought to be learning constantly through our reading and workshops. Through mentor texts and interaction with authors. Unfortunately too many writers feel that their voices and styles are fixed somewhere after college and don't necessarily try to evolve.
2 - Genres need to be challenged, too. Perhaps you can bring new flair to an established medium. Your personal style and voice paired with a new genre might just open up a new space for authors to write in.
3 - We don't know until we try. It's impossible to know what you're good at it without flopping here and there. What if children's lit is your thing, or perhaps gritty detective narratives will allow your skills at setting creation to flourish.
4 - You won't be bored. Ever feel like you're writing the same story over and over again? Do characters nefariously appear and relive their plot like Groundhog Day? It's tougher to do that in a different genre, and it forces your brain to be creative in a different way.
5 - It's fun to fail! Ok, maybe not fun but we all need more practice and we learn more from what doesn't work than what does. Write a historical piece and see what you learn. Maybe research isn't your thing, or perhaps developing a not-so-modern voice doesn't gel with your voice. That's ok, and now you know.
Ultimately I think one of the most attractive things about the writing life is the ability to continue to grow, defying age, defying physicality, and defying resources. It is truly a craft accessible to everyone with a bit of elbow grease and determination.
April is my favorite month for writing because it's typically the month I sign up for summer conferences and plan where my writing is going for the duration of the year. The NJ SCBWI conference is by far my favorite, but I also investigate writing retreats and summer contests. As a teacher I'm afforded the luxury of being a mostly full-time author in the summer.
But as I make these plans I also block out which projects take priority, and every year I ask myself if it's wise to embark on two, three, sometimes even four writing adventures simultaneously. The same questions flash through my mind.
Would I be more productive if I just buckled down with one piece at a time?
Will the projects become repetitive?
Do characters hop from one work to the next?
Is splitting my attention essentially heading down a rabbit hole of never finishing anything?
And every April I arrive at the same answer. Absolutely not. While I can't speak for every writer, I know that laser focus on one project for me leads to writer's block and burnout. My writing blurs much the same way my eyes do if I stare at one thing too long. And while I keep a writing routine (writing every morning for at least two hours) working on the same project exclusively makes my passion fall into the landscape and becomes a task as tedious as cleaning the bathrooms and wiping down kitchen counters.
That being said, there are a few tips and tricks I use to keep projects organized up in the air simultaneously.
Physical Space: I keep the projects in separate binders or separate folders, color-coded so they carry their own visual cues. Just the different appearance often is enough to help my brain transition from one project to the next, particularly if the colors relate to the tone and vibe of the work.
Temporal Space: I never work on things back to back and minimally give myself an hour or two of physical work to cleanse my creative palate. I am by no means an avid exercise gal, but nothing allows me to reframe my focus like walking the dog or funning a few errands.
Emotional Space: The mood of the pieces matter. Rushing from a tragic piece to something cheery leaves a bad taste in my mouth. My mood matters, too. Multi-tasking my writing never works if I'm feeling overwhelmed in the other areas of my life. Doing so is akin to trying to parent my children simultaneously when both have different needs and different joys and challenges. If major problems in the 'real' world are at play, I've got to clear out those cobwebs before my fictional worlds can take flight.
Market Space: This one is touchy. By market space I really mean do these projects have a finality to them? Are they being entered in contests or submitted to agents? Have I given thought to where they'll go, or are they balloons in the wind with no real direction? Multiple open-ended projects can induce a sense of frenzy. If none have deadlines or take priority over the others, they can easily become tangled.
For me, multi-tasking my writing projects keeps them alive and keeps me on my toes. I know it's not for everyone, but that's ok. As with parenting, teaching, and the other facets of my life, I appreciate the fact that as I get older I learn how to best do each to suit my skills and challenges.
It's that time of year again when I find myself compelled to scamper around watching as many Oscar films as I possibly can before the big event. (Sort of a PokémonGO activity for movie fanatics.) This year, I've sort of outdone myself and broken down the walls into genres I tend not to care about so much. Arrival and Hell or High Water were the biggest departures from my book and film comfort zone, and I am so glad I decided. How the academy is picking a best movie from this year's insanely moving and powerful nominees, I have no idea.
And as many other writers, I hope a special spot in my heart for both original screenplay and adapted screenplay awards. Realistically I will sadly never grace the screen with Leo or Brad, but what if...just what if a short story or book I write ends up getting adapted by a screenwriter? Or better yet, I hone my skills and adapt something myself? There's a lot to be learned from the adapted screenplays which is why whether it's Brokeback Mountain or Hidden Figures, I often try to read the source story first. Watching what translates to screen is an excellent exercise in learning how to edit the fat down and make dialogue and action points more authentic. In fact, doing so for a number of years helped me evolve my own writing activity for my short stories, one that I'd love to share and strongly encourage if you're looking to discern the heart of your story.
It's not too terribly difficult, either.
First, go to a site like First Draft and read one of their tutorials. If you fall in love with doing this, you might progress to purchasing screenwriting software, but it's not necessary. Plenty of free ones out there. Celtx is a personal fave of mine.
Once you've learned the ropes, highlight digitally or with a good old-fashioned highlighter all the lines of dialogue in your story. These are your bread and butter and have to carry themselves well without excessive narration. In isolation, you may find that some of the lines fall flat - a good hint that in the story itself they need more oomph and purpose.
This part is tricky. Start slashing narration. Look, instead, for the action moments and include more of those. The narration is still needed, but a screenplay visually leans on dialogue and action. Narration is on a need to know basis. If it's not essential, it doesn't make it to the script.
Finally, and this is where having a writing group counts, ask a few folks to read the script for you. If they stumble over the dialogue, there's a problem. It will also allow you to see how easily they fall into character and if you've created characters that have different voices or are they really echoes of one another. Take notes. Lots of notes.
And when all is said and done, return to your story with a fresh eye to reexamine what could be cut and what perhaps is missing to build the tension, to flesh out the characters, and to give your story a pulse. All of this may seem like an extra phase in the editing process, but I promise, it's fun and a need way to stretch your brain in terms of writing skills.
And who knows, maybe you'll fall in love with screenwriting and I'll see you on that Oscar screen in a few years. Happy writing!
These shoes drive me insane. They’re stunning and overpriced but fit like a dream and make any ho-hum outfit dazzling. I found them online and took a leap of faith ordering a brand and size I’d never tried before, and the retail gods smiled down and they arrived in all their sparkling perfection. They were actually the inspiration for my Instagram account FashionAndFiction pairing two of my loves, books and shoes. How does this relate to writing in any way shape or form? Oh trust me, it does.
I save these shoes and rarely wear them, worried they’ll scuff or the heel might come off. But really, what good do they do in my closet, nestled between two pairs of everyday pumps? And as much as I logically know that these shoes were made for walking, I still snugly lock them away. Worse yet, sometimes I do this to my writing.
I don’t take risks when I should. I harbor plot ideas that feel too wild or hide away poetic bits that read more purple prose than I’d like. I keep them tucked in the corners of my brain firmly labeled with yellow caution tape. These ideas watch others come to fruition in stories and essays, in poems and play scenes. Because whenever I sit down to write the really risky stuff, I get the sensation of standing on a writing precipice and what if, what if, the ideas don’t take off? Then my precious writing time has been squandered on mischief rather than the slow and steady projects that are safer bets.
But with safety comes complacency. Safer ideas are often derivative of one another. They chug along and are enjoyable to write and complete, because there is a defined ending and no mental gymnastics required. And there is a time and place for them. They are satisfying and cozy, a literary form of grilled cheese and tomato soup, the mahogany loafers I can always count on because they’re already scuffed and a little beaten-down so I can really go anywhere, do anything, in them without pushing any boundaries.
The jeopardy in lively solely in these safe writings is that the wilder side to writing, the big risks and the big payoffs, don’t often stand around waiting for the proper moment. In fact they are risky because they’re like a maelstrom that arrives while you’re in the shower or manifest from a wild scene you’ve witnessed, a catastrophe in the news, the urgency of the human condition, and they need to be welcomed and managed as handily as you’d ride a rollercoaster from start to stop. Screaming and shaking and possibly breaking off into unchartered territory.
And that’s what writers, and artists and scientists and many other professionals in creative fields, are for. To push the boundaries of what we know and what we like. To show the world how things could be. One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Egan, always takes risks. Whether it’s a chapter written in PowerPoint or a story fully developed on Twitter, she pays fair homage to her wild ideas. And they create new spaces in the literary world.
So, I charge you to think back to the nuttiest idea you’ve had, whether it’s a play written backwards or an edible poetry collection, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might unleash something incredible or break a literary mold. And even if you don’t, your creative brain will thank you for the exercise. Personally, I’m taking those shoes out for a spin and beginning a chancy short story because today is a great day to start, don’t you think?
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.