Friday, January 29, 2016

Is Your Writing Group Too Nice?

I've been part of a writing group for over a year now with a terrific bunch of writers and it's been a great asset to my writing life. We share our work, talk about the publishing business, books we're reading, chat about our lives and laugh. We offer suggestions and encouragement. Our group is a safe, comfortable place to explore our work. We know that when we share a piece of writing, it will be treated with fairness and respect. We give each other slack. We are each other's biggest fans.

Our writing group is a vastly different experience than what you'll find in most college workshops, where a collection of not-necessarily like-minded souls are thrown together. Sure, you'll find a few kind people here and there, but also a few sticklers, a curmudgeon, that one person who 'doesn't get' your work, and a competitive type or two who are more interested in their own talent than anyone else's. Even with careful ground rules in place, workshops can be a little intimidating--and that's actually a good thing. If you know your work is going to be met with a critical eye, you're more likely to try harder. A tough workshop is excellent preparation for the larger, even more critical world you'll face when you're published.

I was thinking about the difference between my cozy little writing group and a true workshop after receiving e-mails from two of our group members who were apologizing for not having anything to share for our upcoming meeting. At first, we'd all been great about keeping to our deadlines, but little by little our collective discipline was starting to erode. All it took was one person saying they weren't going to be able to make deadline and suddenly we all relaxed. I was probably the worst offender of all, not submitting work for months because I was editing my novel. It occurred to me that the reason why we all joined the group was to write more and to be held accountable for it. Instead, we were enabling a lack of discipline. We were being too nice to each other. I decided it was time for us to buckle down and I was going to be the meanie to say something.

I was a little nervous about sharing my thoughts. By bringing this problem to the fore I, too, would no longer have a free pass. But it had to be done. Overall, the other group members seemed to take it well and everyone agreed that we needed to buckle down.

To soften the blow, we changed our rules a bit. Instead of submitting our work every other month we changed our deadlines to every three months--giving us all a little built-in leeway. If we were unable to generate something new or didn't have a re-write to share, then we had to write a piece using a prompt. One of our members distributed a list of some interesting prompts she found on the internet.

It was settled. No excuses. No more missed deadlines.

If you're in a self-run writing group, I recommend an annual assessment of how the group is functioning and then making adjustments accordingly. Don't be afraid to set goals for your group. On a whim I threw out a challenge to everyone--by the end of the year, we all had to submit a piece of writing to a journal or a magazine. The piece doesn't have to be perfect--we just have to get over our initial anxieties about trying to get published and start getting into the habit of regularly submitting our work.

What challenges does your writing group face? How do you overcome those challenges?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Working With Your Personality To Reach Your Writing Goals

Have you caught Gretchen Rubin fever yet? She's the author of best-selling self-help books including THE HAPPINESS PROJECT and her latest, BETTER THAN BEFORE. She also has a new hit podcast called HAPPIER, which she hosts with her sister, television writer Elizabeth Craft (who, incidentally, was an editor for the SWEET VALLEY series around the time I was ghostwriting, but our paths never crossed). If you aren't familiar with Rubin's work, she studies behavior and how we can work with our personalities to achieve our goals.

I'm particularly fascinated by Rubin's concept called "The Four Tendencies". According to her book, BETTER THAN BEFORE, people tend to fall into four different categories when faced with expectations (both inner and outer). Here's a quick overview of The Four Tendencies (if you're not sure which category you fit into, Rubin has quizzes on her website to help you determine your tendency). Disclaimer: this is my interpretation of Rubin's book and may not represent her work precisely. For a more thorough explanation, be sure to read the book.

The Four Tendencies:

UPHOLDERS are people who respond well to both inner and outer expectations. Upholders keep the promises they make to themselves and to others. They set goals and follow through. For example, if Upholders decide they need to get into shape, they'll stick to their diets and go to the gym without fail. While they are extremely disciplined, they can sometimes be seen as rigid. Upholders are accountable to themselves and others. They make up a small percentage of population.

OBLIGERS are the people pleasers. Most people fall into this category. Obligers are motivated by the fear of disappointing others, but aren't so good at meeting their own expectations. For instance, if an Obliger wants to get more exercise, they'll go for a walk every day if they have a walking partner, BUT if the walking partner happens to be sick one day, they'll probably stay home and eat potato chips on the couch instead. Obligers need accountability from outside sources.

QUESTIONERS are the opposite of Obligers. Questioners are good at keeping promises to themselves, but reject being told what to do. If a Questioner wants to go to the gym regularly, they'll go. However, if someone tells them they have to go to the gym because it will make them healthier, they'll need need statistics and documentation to back up the claim and then they'll make up their own minds to go--if there seems to be a good reason for it. Questioners are accountable only to themselves.

REBELS are the opposite of Upholders. They don't like limitations of any kind--from themselves or others. Among the Four Tendencies, this is the most rare category. When something needs to get done, Rebels have to want to do it. The task has to be fun--otherwise, forget it.

I don't think everyone fits neatly into one of the categories all the time--for example, I define myself as an Obliger with Questioner tendencies--but recognizing what motivates you can have a profound effect on making you a more productive writer.

How can we apply The Four Tendencies to our writing ?

If You're an Upholder...Deadlines from editors are not a problem for you. You know you'll meet that deadline, no problem. However, if you don't have a contract it's important that you set deadlines or goals for yourself whether it be setting time aside each day to write or setting your own deadline for a project. Use specific times and dates.

When it comes to following the advice of editors, you're very cooperative about making changes. However, be careful of your perfectionist tendencies, which can keep you from moving forward.

If You're an Obliger...You'll bend over backwards to meet any deadline because the thought of letting your publisher down strikes fear in your heart. When you're on your own without a deadline, you need to decide on a writing goal (with a specific date) and then tell everyone you know about it. Having others know your goals will keep you accountable.

Like Upholders, you are easy to work with during the editing process. The one pitfall to look out for is that your people-pleasing ways sometimes prevent you from standing your ground. You don't always have to make the suggested changes. Do what feels right and don't be afraid to speak up if it doesn't.

If You're a Questioner...Personal goals and deadlines are important to you--editorial deadlines, not so much. It may help to find out the full publication schedule, then you'll better understand why that particular date was chosen. If you know a few weeks out that you're going to miss a deadline, be sure to give your editor a heads-up. If they know ahead of time, often they can work around the new date.

You tend to push back when given editorial suggestions. While there's nothing wrong with following your gut instinct, try to remember that the ultimate goal for everyone involved is to make your work the best it can be. Take the time to consider a suggestion. Ask all the questions you need to understand the reasoning behind a change. You may discover the reason is valid.

If You're a Rebel...What can I say? If you want to write a book or short story or article, write it; if you don't, don't. Since you like to do things your own way, I wouldn't recommend sending agents proposals or half-finished manuscripts. Write the entire piece the way you like, at your own pace, before sending it out. Maybe self-publishing is the best route for you.

I envy you rebels, being able to write for yourself without worrying about pleasing others. I'm convinced some of our most creative minds are rebels. I would caution you not to adopt that 'difficult artist' persona, however. Find a way to work with others without sacrificing your artistic integrity. Being difficult will only hurt you in the end. But never mind what I think--you're going to do what you want, anyway.

Have you recognized your tendency? How has it hurt/helped your work?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Writing Goals for 2016

Every January I like to take a little time to look back at what I accomplished the previous year and take stock of what needs to be accomplished in the year ahead. I'm a firm believer in setting goals--it's the single most important exercise we freelance writers can do since most of the time we are accountable only to ourselves. Goals help us stay focused and moving forward.

Looking back, here are the goals I made for 2015:

1) Read 52 Books. I'm proud to say that I actually read 54 books. This is a big accomplishment for someone who used to read 1-2 books per month. I used to call myself a slow reader, but not anymore. By signing up for the annual Reading Challenge on Goodreads I made more of an effort to read. The one downside: I was less likely to drop a book that I didn't love because of the time invested.  

2) Post More Often. I was surprised to learn that I achieved this goal, too--but not by much. I posted 22 times last year, which is more than I had the previous three years. Still, not a great number. It was tough keeping my focus on the blog because I was heavily immersed in rewrites.

3) Continue to Build Platform on Social Media. This goal was purposely vague, but I did reach out to my local writers' community and had more engagement than ever before. Also, my blog readership continues to grow.

4) Finish Short Story. Yeah...this didn't happen. I did make headway, though.

5) Finish My Manuscript. I came oh-so-close. I'm in the process of finishing rewrites and hope to be done by the end of January. 

And my one wish for 2015 was...

Sell My Manuscript to a Publisher. This didn't happen, either, because I'm still working on the manuscript. 

With all this in mind, here are my goals for 2016:

1) Read 60 Books--and Some of Them Have to Be Classics. Ok, I'll admit it--part of the reason I was able to read so many books in 2015 is that some of them were pretty slim. Also, at any one time I was reading a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction. When I look over my list for the previous year, I've noticed that I read a lot more memoir and non-fiction because it was a lot easier to read quickly. The fiction I read was mostly contemporary, which can also be easy to read. This year I'm going to dive into some thick novels and some classics that I've never tried. Like War and Peace. There are just so many books to read--it's overwhelming. 

2) Post 36 Times. Instead of being vague, I'm committing to a number. I'm aiming for 3x a month. Still not often enough, but to be honest, coming up with compelling content is not easy. Maybe a book contract will give me lots to write about...

3) Stop complaining. This comes straight out of Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR. I just devoured this book and will post about it soon. Briefly: Gilbert reminds us that we should approach our work with a grateful, playful attitude and not take ourselves or our work too seriously. Deep in our hearts, we artists know we've got it good, but we feel that if we don't act like it's a struggle, the outside world will think we're just goofing off. We should own our good fortune. So when someone asks how the writing is, I'm not going to sigh and list all my difficulties (after all, no one's making me do it!), instead I'm going to cheerfully say, "It's going well, thanks!"

4)  Finish My Short Story...and Maybe Send It Out? Believe it or not, I've never submitted a short story for publication. I stopped writing short stories the second I graduated from college. I've always seen myself as a novelist, but want to challenge myself by writing something in a different form.

5) Finish and Submit My Manuscript. This is a cheater goal, because I know this is going to happen. I'm only a few weeks away from making this goal. Sometimes you need to throw in a sure thing just so you can feel successful at the end of the year. Will a publisher buy it? That's anyone's guess. It's completely out of my hands, so for now I'm not going to worry about it. My goal is to get my work done--the rest will take care of itself.

So here they are--my humble goals for 2016. Nothing earth-shattering or exciting or all that different from the previous year. This list underscores how the writing life is just a slow and steady continuum. It's perseverance. It's keep on keepin' on for the love of the work--without expectation of glory. It's making a commitment to yourself to create (and finish your creation), even when no one's looking.

What are your writing goals for 2016? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Serve the Work

As 2015 comes to a close, my writing news ends on a high note. After many, many rewrites, Mr. Agent says my manuscript passes muster and we can send it out to publishers in January, after the holiday chaos. I am beside myself with relief and excitement. Just when I came close to giving up on this story, I stuck with it. Maybe the gamble will pay off. Whatever happens, I take comfort in knowing I did my best. I also look forward to finally returning to the business of writing after such a long hiatus and reporting the process to you, dear blog reader, along the way. 

There is one small detail to attend to before Mr. Agent sends out the manuscript. It's a plot point that happens in the third act that he feels needs to be reworked. At first look it seems an easy fix, but as I move deeper into the changes I realize it ripples out and affects many scenes. Whether I make the changes or not is entirely optional and up to me--but his feeling was that since we're waiting until January, why not?

I've given his suggestion a lot of thought and I've decided to go for it. If it doesn't work, we can always revert to the previous version. Part of the reason why I'm taking on the challenge is that the change we came up with together is actually an idea I had pursued many drafts ago, but had abandoned. Why? Because even though the story led me there, it didn't feel literary enough to me. It was too obvious, predictable. I wanted to create something more subtle, nuanced. 

Looking back now, I can see many instances when I tried to steer the story instead of letting it steer me. And what happened? I veered off course. Trying to make the story something it was not cost me a lot of time and pages. 

On a whim, I borrowed a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's WALKING ON WATER: Reflections on Faith and Art from my local library. Shortly after my conversation with my agent I came across the following passage (don't you love it when this happens?) which refers to her process of working on A WRINKLE IN TIME, her masterpiece:

"I began to comprehend something about listening to the work, about going where it shoved me. And so the long two years of rejection slips which followed were especially difficult; it wasn't just that my work was being rejected; or, if it was, it meant that I had not even begun to serve the work."

Serve the work. Yes. This is what I've been learning. When we get in the way of a piece by trying to make it something it is not--either by deciding the story isn't lofty enough or it's in a particular genre we don't care for--we ruin it. Our job as writers is to accept the story as is and let it guide us into being. Our choice, our art, comes from how we tell that story. This is where we can let our heads rules our hearts. 

Is there a story you're stuck on? Think for a moment--are you trying to make it something it's not?

See you in 2016.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

9 Great Gifts for Writers (2015 Edition)

It's time for my annual roundup of 9 Great Gifts for Writers. While I mostly create  this list in service to my readers, it also use it as a thinly-veiled wish list for any of my loved ones who read this blog. Happy shopping *wink, wink*!

Blackwing Pencils.  On last year's list I extolled the virtues of a smooth-writing, medium point pen but this year I rediscovered the beauty of the pencil. And not just any pencil. After reading BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN by Mary Norris and learning of the devoted following the Blackwing had (especially among editors of The New Yorker) I just had to try them out.  They are expensive ($21.95 for a pack of 12), but so worth it. The pencil is extra long and the Palomino model is painted in a shiny slate metallic color. When it's in your hand it just feels special. The writing is smooth and the erasing clean--the eraser is rectangular and flat and slides out as needed so you don't run out of eraser before you run out of pencil. I loved these so much that I started using them all the time instead of my beloved gel pens. One word of advice: make sure to buy the special 2-step pencil sharpener ($7.50) made for it.

Litographs. I have a niece who is an avid reader and who just earned her doctorate in entomology. Her favorite color is orange. I was searching for the perfect gift to celebrate her achievement and came across this amazing company. Litographs takes classic works of literature and creates graphics using the text of the work. How cool is that? They put the graphics on t-shirts, tote bags, and posters. For my niece, I bought a print of Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, which is in the shape of a giant bug, and chose to have it printed in orange. She loved it. I'm partial to Thoreau's Walden, pictured above. ($24-$39)

Gift Certificate from an Independent Bookstore. This year I made a concerted effort to buy fewer books from a certain online mega-retailer and more books from my local bookstore. By purchasing from independent bookstores you are supporting your local economy and saying no to predatory practices that hurt all writers. Any writer in your life would be thrilled to have some mad money to spend at the neighborhood bookstore.

Grammar Nerd Shirt.  I'm no expert when it comes to grammar (as you've probably noticed) but like most writers I do have certain grammatical pet peeves. This is my new favorite t-shirt until I find a snarky one that shows the proper use of the possessive. ($27.95)

Bookish Candles.  The scent description of these soy-based candles makes me swoon--paper, dust, newsprint, vanilla. Other scents include Oxford Library, The Shire, and Sherlock's Study, which smells of pipe tobacco, cherrywood, and fresh rain. ($18 each)

Scapple. No, this is not the cousin of the famous Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast treat but a poorly-named program from Literature & Latte--the makers of Scrivener--my all-time favorite word-processing program. Although I have yet to purchase this particular product, it's on my to-do list. The next project I'm working on is research-heavy and this mind-mapping software should help with plotting, note-taking, character development, and making thematic connections. Literature & Latte offers a free trial period, but at $15, it's a minimal investment.

One Story Magazine. Co-founded by a former Writers House colleague of mine, Hannah Tinti, One Story is a unique literary magazine that simply publishes one story every three weeks. Contributing authors only get published once, allowing for the discovery of new talent. Subscriptions are available in both print and digital formats, or you can purchase single back issues of you favorite authors. Fun fact: Maine's own Lily King is featured in the latest issue. (12 issues for $21)

Thermos. I've never been to a writers' colony, but I'm a little obsessed with the idea of spending a month or two in the woods of New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony. Spending a couple of weeks in a cabin with nothing to do but read, write, sleep, and eat from MacDowell's legendary picnic baskets that are delivered right to your door. Those picnic baskets reportedly come with a thermos full of coffee to keep you at your writerly best. Since my children are still too young to have me running off for weeks at a time and since my backyard in the Maine woods basically looks like the MacDowell campus, I won't be applying anytime soon. Instead, I've made my own pseudo-retreat by filling up this thermos with my favorite hot beverage and heading out to my kids' play house to write. It's not quite the same, but at least my coffee stays hot for 12+ hours. ($23)

Wise and Otherwise. I received this board game as a gift a few years ago. Players are given the first half of an obscure saying or proverb and must finish the rest of it. Everyone's answers are read aloud (including the original ending of the proverb) and then players must vote on the most convincing answer. Players with good writing skills tend to do well--which is why it's become one of my all-time favorite games. Not that I'm competitive or anything. ($42)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Getting Into the Groove

I just received a really nice note from a Goodreads friend named Alex who has the itch to write but doesn't know how to start.

We've all been there, haven't we? Think about all the skills you've learned over your lifetime--reading, riding a bike, cooking a pot of pasta, driving a car--and what it felt like at first. The word that comes to my mind is overwhelming. I remember, vividly, my first driving lesson: hands on the wheel trying to steer, foot on the gas (or brake, more often), eyes bouncing from the road to the mirrors to the dashboard, my brain on overload. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to drive with ease. But eventually I did--and I never would have if I hadn't gotten behind the wheel in the first place.

And so it is with writing. You'll learn by doing. The trouble is that learning to write, or learning to create any kind of art, feels different than other skills because our thoughts and feelings are so exposed. Emotionally, there's more at stake. We're afraid of appearing idiotic or dull to others--or, even worse--to ourselves. Spoiler alert: No matter who you are, at one time or another both are going to happen. But you will also experience moments of joy when you turn out work that surpasses your expectations. If ups and downs are a given for all of us, why not stop fretting and just get to work?

Whether you're picking up a pen for the first time or returning after a long hiatus, here are a few baby steps to help you get into the groove. 

Step 1.  Buy yourself a beautiful notebook and a bunch of your favorite pens. 

Even if you think you'd rather work on a computer, I urge you not to skip this step. For the first several months it's best to stick with paper and pen. Nothing is more discouraging than a blinking cursor, or more distracting than knowing the Internet is just a tab-click away. Lovely paper and a smooth-writing pen are a pleasure to use. By purchasing good writing materials, you are making a commitment to taking yourself seriously as a writer.

Step 2.  Schedule your writing time.

No matter how busy you are, I guarantee you can find ten minutes a day to write. You can either block out the same time every day or you can choose to be flexible--as long as your ten minutes are done by bedtime. No excuses. For the first month, I recommend sticking to ten minutes only. Even if you're on a roll and could write for an hour, shut it down after ten minutes. It's always best to stop when you're hot--it makes it a lot easier to sit down and write the next day. In fact, it will make you look forward to writing the next day. Getting the motivation to sit down and write is half the battle.

After the first month or so, up your time to fifteen minutes. Then twenty. Settle into a block of time that is comfortable for you. Most writers I know only write for a maximum of about four hours a day. How long you write for is less important than keeping a consistent schedule. Some writers insist that you must write every day. Personally, I take weekends off. If your schedule allows you to only write on weekends, do that.

Step 3.  Give yourself permission to be bad. 

Oh, the hours I wasted, staring at a blank screen, afraid to write a single bad sentence! It would have been so much better to just give myself permission to write the worst possible sentence and then fix it later. You can't edit what isn't there. Every writer writes junky first drafts. The real art, the real skill is in the editing. You have to write garbage--a lot of it--to get to the good stuff. To learn how to write, you'll need to be a garbage-producing machine. In my college oeuvre of junk-writing I produced a schmaltzy story entitled "Pink Soap and Lilacs", that still makes me want to gag whenever I think about it. I will not be sharing the awful details of this particular story with you, which brings me to the next step:

Step 4.  Don't share with anyone--yet.

As you begin to churn out your requisite pile of word-sludge you may suddenly strike gold. You might suddenly hit upon an idea for a nail-biting thriller or you may turn out an exquisite sentence that makes you proud. Your instinct will be to share it with someone, but I urge you to keep it to yourself. As I've said over and over again, you will rarely get the ecstatic reaction you are hoping for and early on your writer's ego will be too fragile to handle it. When you find a golden nugget in your junk pile, hoard it. Keep this treasure for yourself. Keep hoarding your literary gold until you have enough of it to feel confident in your ability. If it pleases you, that's all that matters.

Step 5.  Read, read, read. 

When I got my first ghost-writing job, I still wasn't quite sure how to intersperse dialogue with action.   I wasn't even sure how to properly punctuate dialogue. To learn how, all I did was open a book and see how it was done. Every book is an instruction manual. Unsure how to open a story? Or create suspense at the end of a chapter? What about using page breaks? Everything you need to know is sitting on your bookshelf. Take down a few of your favorite books and see how it's done. I still do this all the time.

You should also be constantly reading for pleasure. Read what you like, not what you think you're supposed to read. Fill your head with words and they will be accessible to you when you need them.

Moving Forward

Once you've practiced enough to produce a rough draft of a short story or several chapters of a novel, then you might want to consider finding a writers' group in your area. Don't rush this step, but when you're ready writers' groups can be an invaluable resource for every skill level. For more info on choosing (or starting) the right group for you, see my post about writing groups.

Do you have a question about writing or publishing? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it in a future post. 

Happy writing!

Monday, November 9, 2015

No Downtime For You!

I'm back!

I've finally finished my latest draft and turned it in to my agent. If you're a regular reader of this blog, thank you for hanging in there with me. I hope to be posting more regularly for a while. Finishing a draft is intense--for the past two months nearly everything else in my world has fallen by the wayside. I've managed to feed and clothe my family, but that's about it. Now I can breathe a little and clean my house, have coffee with friends, go out to lunch with my mom, get ready for the holidays.

So the process will go like this: Mr. Agent will read this version of the manuscript. He may or may not suggest further revisions. If this version of the manuscript is fine as is, he will then shop it around to various publishers. If a publisher is interested, they will make an offer. Then there will be contract negotiations. After that, the real work begins.

There's a huge amount of downtime in publishing. The steps I just described above might take several months. If you're an impatient or obsessive person--which is probably 99% of us--the publishing industry is enough to send you over the edge. What you need to do to is kick up your feet, sip a margarita, and wait for the phone to ring while basking in the glory of your achievement. You've been working hard, haven't you? You deserve to do nothing for a while--so turn on that TV, grab some salty snacks, and get down to some serious binge-watching...


To hijack the words of that immortal Seinfeld character: "No downtime for you!"

The worst thing you can do is sit around waiting for something to happen. You have to start the next thing immediately to save your sanity. It's even better if you're so excited about the next thing that the manuscript you just turned in seems old and tired and you're sick of it. The new thing should be so shiny and sparkly and full of promise that it's all you can think about. I know it sounds like a drag to have to keep going but trust me--this is the worst possible time to take a break. You can goof off later once you have your new project well underway.

I'm thrilled to say I have just such an idea in my back pocket. I also have a short story I've been picking at for a long time that I've been eager to finish. And, of course, I have this blog. These things will be more than enough to occupy me in the coming months.

Now if I could just stop checking my email.

In the meantime, are there any topics you'd like me to cover in a future blog post? Post your publishing or writing questions here and I'll do my best to answer them for you. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog.