Resources for Writers
I love to help other writers along their writing journeys. Below, you'll find many helpful links and free articles. Elsewhere on the website, you can read about my professional critique service or buy one of my inspirational writing books. Also, get a free e-book on time management for writers when you sign up at my Writer's First Aid blog, a medicine chest of hope to ease the pains of the writing life.
- “Why Does It Take So Long?”
- “Unfinished Business”
- “Stop! Don’t Shoot!”
- "Who's in Charge?"
- “Voices of Self-Sabotage”
Excerpts from MORE Writer's First Aid
- "What Kind of Boss Are You?"
- "'Not to Do'" List"
- "A Parent's Writing Schedule"
- "Writing Through the Storms of Life"
Additional Helpful Articles
- "De-stressing the Writing Life" - an interview (November 2011)
- "Writing Mysteries" - an interview (October 2012)
- "Write What You Love"
- "Finding Time: Pruning Before Prioritizing"
1. The Purple Crayon with Harold Underdown children's book editor. He created the site to post articles and other materials about children's book publishing. Over the years, the site has grown and now includes articles contributed by other people, covering writing, illustrating, marketing, and editing. Be sure to sign up for his updates!
2. Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is the professional organization for children's writers. Helpful links for articles, finding local/state/national conferences, critique partners, and much more.
3. Right-Writing.com is Terry Whalin's main website. Blue buttons on the left link to dozens of helpful articles. Be sure to sign up for Terry's FREE Right Writing News (which comes with over $100 worth of FREE e-books.) Read Terry's blog which is full of insights into today's publishing world. I also highly recommend Terry's Book Proposals That Sell. I've used it extensively myself. It comes in e-book, paperback, even autographed! In addition, download his free e-book Straight Talk from the Editor.
4. Blockbuster Plots has wonderfully helpful articles on plotting, theme, and character development--and how to intertwine all three. Check out the "Plot Tips" and be sure to sign up for Martha Alderson's e-zine.
5. Writing-World.com has many helpful articles and links. See the links at the top in the blue bar.
6. How to Do It Frugally - Carolyn Howard-Johnson's wonderful "frugal" books. Also check out her "Sharing with Writers" blog for tons of helpful information. I personally use her Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won't.
7. Institute of Children's Literature - Learn to write for children and teens, live author/editor interviews, live chat, writing tips, inspirational articles and publications, free weekly updates.
8. Long Ridge Writers Group - Learn to write for adults, live author/editor interviews, live chat, writing tips, inspirational articles and publications, free weekly updates.
9. America Writes for Kids - Searchable by state and alphabet, this site links to hundreds of authors' and playwrights' Web pages, along with many other useful resources, and offers affordable Web page design to authors and playwrights not yet on the Web.
10. Aaron Shepard's Kidwriter Page offers a variety of resources from an award-winning author, including free samples from his book The Business of Writing for Children.
11. Children's Publishers' Submission Guidelines Online - Provides direct links to a comprehensive selection of children's publishers' web sites including direct links to submission guidelines where available.
Write What You Love
Several years ago a book by Marsha Sinetar, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, intrigued me with its title. This subject sparks controversy among writers–and I’ve had mixed feelings about it myself sometimes. Perhaps you think you’re already doing what you love—writing—and hoping the money will follow. But are you truly doing what you love? Are you writing the story or article or book that you yearn to write? Or have you settled for writing on hot topics or following a current trend or only submitting what’s listed in the market books? If so, you may develop money troubles in the long run.
To be successful as a writer—to make a living—I would paraphrase Ms. Sinetar’s title to say, “Write what you love, and the money will (probably) follow.”
The Passion Factor
“Become aware of the passion factor,” says Richard Carlson in Don’t Worry, Make Money. Critical to our success, “passion is a virtually unstoppable, attitudinal force that generates energy, creativity, and productivity…Part of the process of creating passion in your work is choosing work that you truly love.”
Can you really make money by writing what you love? How do the elements of this “passion factor” increase your moneymaking potential? In several ways.
When you write what you love:
l. You’re eager to start work each day. You hit the floor running, not because your rent is due or because you’re on a tight deadline, but because you want to. (Your rent certainly might be due, and the deadline might be tight, but this isn’t the driving force that propels you to your computer.) This difference cannot be over-emphasized. This eagerness to work is what carries you through your projects to completion. Such enthusiasm sweeps you along (on good writing days and bad) from the conception of your writing idea, through the rough drafts and many revisions, and keeps you “pumped” until you finish the manuscript and mail it.
Excitement and enthusiasm are often absent when you’re working on what you believe is merely a “hot topic.” It can be like pulling teeth to get started each day. Many such writing projects languish half-finished in a desk drawer. Finishing the manuscript (to submit and sell) is much more likely when your writing is fueled by passion and excitement.
2. You will automatically work more hours, take fewer breaks, and stop wasting time. Besides getting to work sooner and with more eagerness when you write what you love, you will also work harder at it once you start. When I’m writing something that I’ve chosen simply because I have bills to pay, I do finish the manuscript—punctuated by numerous trips to the refrigerator, to check email and Facebook, and the mail box. I watch the clock (”Isn’t it time to quit yet?”) and sigh a lot. My mind is fragmented; I waste a lot of work time.
Contrast that with a project I’m working on now that I’ve been anxious to do for several years and finally had the chance. Once the house is quiet, I sit down at my computer and write and polish for hours. Most days I snack every hour or two, but yesterday I ignored my first signs of hunger, then worked on till nearly two o’clock when the stomach growling couldn’t be ignored. I was even able to quit early for the day because I’d made such good use of my time. And making good use of your writing time means finishing more manuscripts and making more money.
3. Your unique “voice”—what sets you apart in the markets–is easier to find when you’re passionate about your writing. When writing on trendy topics, on the other hand, we try to make our voice acceptable to the masses. It’s the difference between giving an acceptance speech to a crowd of strangers, and telling your best friend about your freak car accident. The acceptance speech will probably be “formal,” lacking that special “fingerprint” identifying you. However, your true voice—its idioms, expressions, word twists, unique phrases—will come through in your enthusiastic tale to your best friend.
Editors continually search for “new voices.” A unique voice is more marketable. You will have little trouble writing in your own unique voice if you write about what truly inspires and interests you. For example, contrast writing a description of your daughter when she curls up in your lap at bedtime to writing a description of the pipes under the bathroom sink. Which one will have the warmth and tone of your own special voice?
4. Writing what you love will produce your most salable, profitable work. Of my thirty-four middle grade novels and nonfiction books, my biggest moneymakers (in terms of awards, book clubs, and reprints) were those books I really wanted to write. My enthusiasm never waned during the completion of these projects. They were also my easiest books to write. Since those themes and experiences ran deep, I felt as if I were really contributing to good books for children.
Do it now!
Writing what you love appeals to your heart and soul, but it’s also the most practical way to make money. It’s not something to save for the future, after you’ve proven yourself as a writer. Writing what you love is not something just for writers who are independently wealthy or have a spouse to support them financially. Writing what you love—what you feel passionate about—is your most practical way to increase your writing income. It’s not a luxury—in my opinion anyway—but a necessity.
Without passion, your odds of success are smaller. Your writing career will often seem like a struggle, if you don’t burn out completely. But when passion for your work fills your heart and you take the time (and courage) to discover what is truly nourishing to your soul, an abundant writing life can be yours.
So take a chance. Pursue your passions in your writing. If you can’t afford to do this full-time, split your writing time between “have-to” projects and ones dear to your heart. See if, in the long run, you don’t write better (and more) by writing what you love.
Finding Time: Pruning Before Prioritizing
According to time management experts (or “time analyzers”), the average American spends, in his lifetime, three years in meetings, 1086 “sick” days in bed, eight months opening junk mail, seventeen months drinking coffee and soda, two years on the telephone, twelve years watching TV, three years shopping, one year looking for misplaced items, five years waiting in line, and nine months sitting in traffic. So much wasted time… Time we could spend writing!
Most of us are told to make a list of everything that needs doing, then prioritize. Mark them A, B, and C or 1, 2, and 3. Do first things first. Good advice, but there’s one critical step before that: prune the list. Don’t spend time prioritizing unnecessary activity that could simply be eliminated. Some (like opening junk mail) can be cut by 95% immediately. Other things only require simple adjustments. (For example, cut waiting-in-line time drastically by going to banks and grocery stores in non-peak/non-waiting times—and be sure to carry something to work on or read for when you do have to wait.)
Take a close look at how you spend your time. What can you cut from your list or drastically reduce? Nothing, you say? You’re already trimmed to the bone, you say? That’s what I always said too—till I actually kept a “time diary” for a week, noting how I actually spent my hours. Just like writing down what you really eat in a day can stun you when you add up the actual calories, so can writing down how your time is spent shock you into making changes.
ME? Too much TV?
For example, I don’t watch TV. Haven’t liked TV since the ’60s. I don’t even know what shows are on anymore, nor do I care. So imagine my shock when I wrote down my daily time expenditures to discover that Mon-Fri I watched two hours of TV without fail! Two! I had been claiming for years—and meaning it—that I didn’t watch TV and what a time waster it was. But after I discovered PAX TV and all my favorite old shows, I had fallen into the habit of watching “Perry Mason” reruns during lunch. (I finished eating in 15 minutes, but the show lasted a full hour, so of course I had to see how Perry managed to win his case.) Then I watched “Diagnosis Murder” reruns before going to bed. Ten hours each week! Imagine the writing I could have accomplished in those hours. I needed to reframe my thinking: my lunch breaks were only refueling stops, not the entertainment hour. And that hour before bed could be put to better use by reading.
My point? Until you write down how you actually spend your time, you may deceive yourself in much the same way as the dieter who doesn’t eat junk food but liberally samples every dish before it’s put on the table. We are so good at deceiving ourselves!
An Ounce of Prevention
The average person spends 1,086 “sick” days in a lifetime? If that’s truly the case, then now is the time for preventative care. For example, an hour or two each summer spent on my annual physical spots early problems and saves me untold hours/days/weeks later for tests and treatments. The same holds true for my dental checkups. In the past, I skipped dental appointments until the “sensitivity to cold” became an abscessed molar requiring a root canal. Huge expense of both time and money, and so unnecessary! Learn about what health issues to watch for at your age. Be prepared. Don’t wait till you have curvature of the spine—take extra calcium now. Don’t wait till you rupture a disk. Lose the weight now. Don’t wait till you have lung cancer. Quit smoking now. Do whatever is necessary TODAY to reclaim for yourself days in the future you are otherwise destined to spend “sick.”
Pure Time Wasters
The average person spends eight months opening junk mail and junk e-mail? Discipline yourself starting today to toss it in the wastebasket (or delete it) unopened. Ninety percent of the time, you can tell from the outside of the envelope (or e-mail subject line) what’s junk and what isn’t. Trash both kinds quickly.
We spend seventeen months drinking coffee and soft drinks? Give them up! They aren’t even good for you. Or limit yourself to a cup in the morning and one in the evening, before and after work. It’s the coffee and soda breaks during work that eat up that time. Fixing the coffee, buying the coffee and soda, drinking it, wiping it up, cleaning cups, going back and forth from the break room and chatting along the way—all huge time wasters. Keep a big bottle of water at your desk instead.
Get Organized NOW
What about all that time spent dressing, shopping, and finding things? Organization would help all three areas. Clean your office and desk and keep it clean with a five-minute pickup before quitting for the evening. Clean your closets, tossing clothes that don’t fit or you never wear. Keep shoes and accessories in good repair so you can grab, dress, and run. Stick lists for groceries and miscellaneous needs on your refrigerator. When the lists are full, combine trips and save time and money. Buy what’s on your list and resist “browsing” in the mall. Browsing is purely for entertainment or sociability, and if you truly love shopping, save it for your weekend entertainment. But don’t kid yourself that leisurely shopping, or hunting all morning for the best bargains, does anything but waste time.
The average person spends two years of her lifetime on the phone? (Knowing our teens, we might argue that this is a very low estimate!) Know your weaknesses where interruptions are concerned. I have a terrible time getting off the phone when interrupted, so I need to use my answering machine. On the other hand, I can answer the doorbell when it rings because I have no trouble at all telling people who show up that I’m working. I have a writing friend with the opposite problem. When the phone rings, she takes ten seconds to announce that “this isn’t a good time” and gives no other explanation. However, when door-to-door salesmen show up, she gets roped into having her carpet cleaned and pots scoured as products are pushed. The point? Know your own weaknesses, set appropriate boundaries, and find a way to eliminate the temptations.
Early Birds Get Extra Time
Are you prone to oversleeping? Do you open one eye, hit the remote control “just to catch the news,” and lie in bed an hour? The early bird still does catch the worm, and people the world over will tell you that if you want uninterrupted time to work, get to your desk early, before the rest of the world wakes up. Skip the news and reading the paper in the morning. Your day will probably be better for it! If you don’t find out till evening about the latest politician’s escapade or where Elvis was last sighted, your day will be just as successful.
Don’t waste time prioritizing activities that need to be pruned from your life. Go back and take another look at that time analyzer’s list. Be honest and take a hard look. You could gain back years of your life by either eliminating or cutting back on several categories. Keep a time diary for a week or two. Find the time leaks and plug them. Turn that found time into writing time. At the end of your life, instead of twelve years spent watching TV, perhaps you will have spent twenty years writing—and three years signing autographs!
Why Does It Take So Long?
Whenever you feel discouraged about your lack of writing success, consider the Chinese bamboo tree. When you plant this tiny shoot, you can expect no growth for up to four years. Even though you water it faithfully, there are no signs that the tree is growing or maturing or will ever amount to anything. But if you keep tending the Chinese bamboo seedling all during those somewhat discouraging years, you can expect as much as 80 feet of growth in the fifth year! The tree could never support that rapid growth without a deep root system. Those early growing years, when it appears as if nothing much is happening, are rooting and grounding years.
It is the same with your writing career.
“We may fear failing, but we don’t expect to fail,” say Sarah Edwards and Paul Edwards, authors of Secrets of Self-Employment. “We expect success to be right around the corner.”
And it’s easy to see where we get that idea. TV shows, movies, and soap operas have depicted writers whose first novels were instant best-sellers. Each novel took only a few weeks to write and was sold on the basis of an outline. Each unpublished author had an editor holding his or her hand throughout the writing process (with many face-to-face luncheons to discuss THE NOVEL), then arranging a national book-signing tour.
We need to face the fact that a writing career seldom blooms as it does in Hollywood. More often it takes long, lonely years when you’re tempted to quit dozens of times. It’s at those times we most need to understand about learning and publishing curves and why it takes so long. It seems like such a struggle for us, when it has apparently been easy for others. But it’s a mistake to compare your publishing curve to other writers, those you know and especially those you read about. You must understand that your particular “success path” will be strictly your own.
I have known a few writers who sold the very first story they wrote. Truly instant success. One was a friend. I had been telling him how hard writing was, how impossible the odds of getting published were—and then he wrote and sold his first story. Was I jealous? You bet! Did I understand why it took me so much longer? No. However, in the long run, I think early success helped set him up for failure. I received 30-plus rejections before I sold my first article. My friend tried a couple more times to sell something, got rejected, and quit. So even though overnight success may look appealing, it doesn’t always root and ground you in the writing process, or give you the patience and persistence that will be required later.
People who experience overnight success sometimes have another problem as well. Friends and family expect a series of repeat performances from someone who isn’t necessarily sure how she succeeded the first time. The pressure to perform can be intense before sufficient skills have been acquired to support the writing. This pressure easily becomes a block. Quitting often follows shortly. So while overnight success may sound appealing, it comes with its own set of problems.
The tortoise approach is often ultimately the most successful, but it can take so lo-o-o-o-ong to succeed that discouragement can set in. Picture again that Chinese bamboo tree. It is sending roots down for years before its sudden rapid upward growth. If you are writing and studying diligently, you are putting down a writer’s roots. It’s a critical time, with little to show others for your efforts.
But if you look closely, you can see progress. You may not be making many sales yet, but there is progress in your writing skills, your marketing skills, your networking. You are building a solid base that will support future growth. It will be comfortable, steady growth too; it will add to your life rather than disrupt it. As one Chinese proverb says, “Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still.”
While we may know intellectually that slow growth is more solid, the delays and detours and rejections attack our emotions and strain our patience. After receiving our third rejection in a week, it can be next to impossible to find a good reason to write today or keep up with markets that don’t seem to want us.
That’s when you need to look up and away. Look up from your desk and your current work and your market guide. Take the long view. Get some perspective. Focus mentally on your goal, your end result, the reason you’re plugging away daily at your craft. Each day you write is like taking another step on the journey. You may not feel as if you’re making progress, but feelings lie. If you’re consistent (and that’s the real key), those steps eventually add up to miles down the writing road.
Each step is important, and each step is taking you down that road. Yes, a few writers will have instant success. They’re like boxes of instant brownies—you just add water, pop them into the microwave for 10 minutes, and voila! They’re ready to eat.
Most of us are the homemade variety, requiring many steps to achieve a tasty result. The time we spend creaming eggs and sugar doesn’t feel like we’re making brownies. The time we spend sifting flour doesn’t, either. Even when all the right ingredients in the right amounts are mixed together, the gooey mess has to go into the oven for 35 minutes. We wait. We drool because we can almost taste success. But provided we didn’t skip important steps or quit somewhere along the way, provided we don’t walk away from the oven because it’s taking too long, eventually we’ll have a wonderful pan of homemade chewy brownies.
Better than instant? I think so. Worth waiting for? Definitely! So is your writing career. Learn the skills. Take things in order. Keep at it. Be patient. Get rooted and grounded. Then prepare yourself for surprising growth and success!
Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. Without effective work habits, your half-finished novels, plays, and articles won’t get completed and won’t be published. Plain and simple. But unfinished writing business causes even more serious trouble. It breeds discouragement, lowers self-esteem, and causes a dramatic loss of energy. And this loss of writing energy, sooner or later, could mean the death of your writing dreams.
Sound melodramatic and far-fetched? It’s not. This is why.
There are three main phases of any writing project. In Stage One we find the idea, do the necessary research, and make the outline. Then we move to Stage Two, creating the rough draft of the project. Stage Three entails all the revising that takes us to “The End.” Productive, efficient work habits carry us from Stage One to the completion of the writing cycle.
Completing a project generates a sense of energy, power, and increased creativity. (Remember the last time you finished an article and mailed it off, or printed out the last chapter of your revised novel to submit? Do you recall the euphoric high, even if you were exhausted?) Although you might take a break from your writing for a few days or weeks following the completion of a project, your mind is free to contemplate the next idea. Even during a break, your brain will be on auto-alert, scanning your environment for ideas, angles, plot twists, and intriguing characters, ready to begin the writing cycle all over again.
On the other hand, without productive writing habits, you’ll leave many writing projects abandoned. What’s wrong with that?
Incomplete projects suck your writing energy away. Unfinished business of any kind drains a person. Gazing at a cluttered desk or a sink full of dirty dishes left from last night’s party reminds me that I need a nap. Ruminating on an unfinished argument with my teenager makes me want to slump down in front of the TV. Unfinished projects—whether it’s the unpacked moving boxes or the half-written novel gathering dust on your desk—drain your energy. You can feel it dribble right out the ends of your typing fingers.
Most of us believe that we begin our days with a limited amount of energy. It’s based on our health, how well we slept, our age, and what we ate for breakfast. We use our quota of energy during the day, then must rest to rebuild our depleted stores. This belief is false!
Prove it to yourself. Instead of resting the next time you feel lethargic, choose to tackle some unfinished business. Unpack a few more boxes. Finish edging the flower bed you weeded yesterday. Wash your car. Clean off your desk and file that pile of bills and correspondence. Now how do you feel? Even more tired and depleted? No! And here’s why: You’ve actually generated energy by revving up your creative cycle and propelling these unfinished projects toward completion.
Once you get moving, then tromp on your accelerator and really give it some gas. Instead of unpacking at a snail’s pace, play some military march music and pick up your tempo. Crank up your speed as you ply your spade. Moving through the completion cycle at a higher velocity increases your energy twofold. Try it and see!
How does all this apply to your writing? When you’re stalled somewhere along the way in the writing cycle (whether it’s gathering research for your book on Indian art or doing the final polishing on your whodunit), your energy becomes depleted. The longer you procrastinate, the more tired you get. Unless you get your cycle moving again, eventually you’ll pack the novel away in a drawer and stash your research materials in the basement. Despondent, you’ll believe you don’t have the talent, the perseverance, or the determination to succeed.
What you’ve really done is unintentionally sabotage yourself by allowing unfinished business to sap your precious writing energy.
We often try to remedy the situation by jerking ourselves up by the bootstraps and setting ambitious goals. As an isolated activity, that just creates more unfinished business. Instead, come up with a more modest, practical goal (“I’ll set the alarm earlier and write for an hour before work”) and write it down. So far so good—but it’s only Stage One in creating a new energy cycle.
Stage Two would encompass the first week you experiment with this goal. Some days you’ll write brilliantly, some days your dog will join you at dawn’s early light and demand a walk, and some days you’ll doze off at the keyboard. You’ll be tempted to discard your plan. Don’t! You’ll be dissipating the energy that got you this far.
You need to move to Stage Three for completion. Review and revise your morning strategy to accommodate the early rising dog. (Perhaps you can give him a good walk the night before?) Take care of your drowsiness with extra-strong coffee or (even better) going to bed earlier. Revise your morning strategies until the kinks are worked out. This will complete the cycle and give you a writing habit you can count on.
Establishing effective writing habits will help you complete the projects you start. When you complete your manuscripts, you experience increased energy, personal power, satisfaction, and pleasure. So next time you experience lethargy in your writing—or in your life—don’t take a break right away. Instead take an inventory of unfinished projects. Make a list. Decide which ones you really want to finish. Then overcome your inertia and take the first small step in that direction. Then take another. And another.
You’ll be amazed, as you gather speed, how fast your projects are completed and how much energy you have left! Beginning a project with enthusiasm and energy is a fine thing. But although you may grow tired in the second phase, completing a project will once again rejuvenate your enthusiasm and boost your energy—just in time for your next writing project!
Stop! Don’t Shoot!
Don’t be like the legendary gunslinger who marched down the street in spurs that “jingled, jangled, jingled,” fixed his beady eye on the villain, and yelled, “Draw!” Why not? Because his shiny six-gun stuck in his holster. When he pulled the trigger, he shot himself in the foot.
What in the world does this gunslinger have to do with you and your writing? Plenty.
Early in our careers (and by early, I mean anytime in the first three years of writing), authors get bitten by a bug. This bug causes a raging fever, accompanied by an agitation with our current lifestyle. We conclude there’s only one possible solution to this mental frenzy: we must quit our day job!
Ready, Set, Go!
I’ve been bitten by this particular bug three times early in my 27-year writing career. I couldn’t stand my day job anymore, and I HAD to have more time for my writing. Deep down I knew I could make a living as a writer. That day job was standing in my way, draining my creative energies. Mistaking frustration for inspiration, I quit my job. I shot myself in the foot.
I’m sure you’ve guessed the ending to this story. The exhilaration of having all day to write evaporated quickly when the bills piled up. During this period I did receive more acceptances for my stories—actually many more—but the time that elapsed between writing the story and receiving an acceptance and actually getting paid for it created a major cash flow problem. Pressure mounted.
At home I cut expenses to the bone, but it was soon apparent that I had done more than shoot myself in the foot. I had jumped ship without a life jacket. I had not looked before I leaped. I had jumped the gun. (Goodness, why are there so many metaphors for making stupid, impulsive decisions?)
Like Sands through an Hourglass...
There’s no getting around it. Success takes time. As Jacquelyn Denalli once said, “It takes so doggone long to become self-supporting. That’s the one thing that scares a lot of freelancers off; they’re good writers and they try it for six months, but when they don’t make a lot of money right away, they either give up or are forced to give up because they can’t negotiate payment on publication with the electric company.”
This happened to a student of mine, a teacher whose husband was in school part-time. Her family required her income for at least another two years, yet against my advice, she resigned in the middle of the school year. She’s an excellent writer, and I’m confident her book will sell, but after a few short months it was apparent she needed her day job to keep food on the table. She ended up delivering pizzas because her teaching position had been filled.
So...before you give up your job to become a self-supporting full-time writer, pause and honestly consider these questions.
(1) Do you manage time well? Is discipline no longer a big problem for you? Writers who have been squeezing in writing hours among regular jobs, household chores, and family obligations often enter full-time life figuring they’ll now have all the time in the world. Unfortunately, too much time often leads to procrastination and less productivity than a busy part-timer might achieve. So be honest: have you proved to be self-disciplined and motivated in the past? Are you already able to stick to a writing schedule almost every day, no matter what your family or friends are doing? Do you continually start and finish new writing projects?
(2) Do you have sufficient financial support to keep you afloat for a minimum of six months, preferably a year or more, if you don’t make much money freelancing? If you’re married, can your spouse carry the whole load that long, and is he or she willing? You really should have six to twelve months’ worth of living expenses socked away in savings. (This is the most ignored suggestion; it may be the most critical to your success.)
(3) Do you have a business plan? Do you have some writing successes already? Know the markets you want to approach, and take the necessary time beforehand to study in the specific areas where you want to publish. Do you study current market guides already, and read books/magazines/bulletins in your genre? That’s critical. You also need to be keeping careful records of income, expenses, and taxes.
(4) Do you have private space for an office where you can work undisturbed when you need to? It doesn’t have to be fancy (my first office was a tiny closet painted orange), but you’ll need good lighting, an answering machine, decent office equipment, and a comfortable chair. You need space of your own [a] to be able to leave your work out (without anyone rearranging your manuscript pages or coloring pictures on them), [b] to work without being disturbed (by the family room TV), and [c] to feel like a professional (which is hard to do when mopping up milk off your manuscript at the kitchen table).
I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t try full-time freelancing until you’ve eliminated every single risk. For one thing, I don’t believe you can. There is no such thing as the perfectly safe time to quit your day job, a time where it will be risk-free to be a freelancer. If and when you make the break, it will always require a leap of faith.
However, do strive for balance, for being responsible and sensible, especially if others depend on you. You owe them that. (Obviously, if you’re single and without family or financial obligations, making the break will be less of a risk.) Let me repeat: strive for balance. While you owe something to your family, you owe yourself something too.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Is all this said to discourage you from ever making the break from your day job to full-time freelancing? Not at all! Being a full-time writer is as fun and free and gratifying as you think it will be.
I just want to save you from the agony of leaping too soon, without a safety net, spraining both ankles, then having to crawl back to your employer. So much of our creativity depends on how we feel about ourselves and our writing; being forced to give up puts a real dent in our egos.
Making the change slowly gives you a much higher chance of succeeding. Moving too quickly (“I have to quit now!”) can actually be your downfall. Having to admit failure can be so discouraging that it is the death of your writing dreams.
Count the Cost
Better, I believe, to count the cost first. See where you are. See where you want to be. Then plot sure and steady steps to reach that full-time freelancing goal. Plan your work, and work your plan.
Then you’ll be able to strap on your six-gun, jingle your silver spurs, and (instead of shooting yourself in the foot), take down that villain with a single well-aimed bullet.
Who's In Charge?
Your writing life is the sum of all the writing-related choices you make. Choosing means to make a decision each time you come to a particular crossroads. Most decisions are not deliberate. Instead we unconsciously follow our habits, choosing what is easiest because it’s what we’ve done for years. We choose negative thoughts about our abilities, we choose negative attitudes about our progress, and we follow with negative actions of not setting goals and not writing.
Choice or Habit?
Although many of your choices have become automatic habits, each one is still a choice you make. So if you want to have a successful writing career (however you define “success” for yourself), you must control the process of choosing. You must begin to notice your choices, moment by moment. Think about what you’re thinking about! Then start making consistently better daily choices. Take control of your writing life by being in charge of yourself.
Writers make critical decisions in three areas every day–sometimes every hour. Wake up! Train yourself to be a close observer of your choices. You come to a fork in the road hundreds of times each day, and each time you have a choice to make. Beginning today, consciously choose the direction that leads to your writing goals.
If you want to make changes that last, you must change the way you think. Your mental and emotional framework needs adjusting. You must focus on getting your MIND moving in the right direction. The way you think will ultimately dictate your long-term success or failure. Certain thoughts and beliefs will derail you before you even get started. (”I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have the talent I need.” “It’s who you know in this business, and I don’t know anyone important.” “I don’t have the time/energy/family support to write.”) Take time to recognize which particular issues negatively affect your choice to write.
Perhaps your thoughts about writing contain a few myths that need exploring–and debunking. Do you think that you’ll be a happy writer if you just manage to get published? You might be–but probably only if you’re happy before you get published. Grumpy, negative, passive writers who achieve publication tend to be grumpy, negative, passive writers with a publishing credit. Publication itself won’t make you happy.
Do you think there is a magical short-cut to writing success? You DO need to study your craft, but are you on the constant lookout for the latest quick fix writing book or article, the latest get-published-quick scheme? Do you think, if you just find the “key,” you’ll get published immediately? Although we’re a society of instant gratification promoters, it is still true that excellent writers don’t spring up overnight–they are grown. S-l-o-w-l-y.
Do you think it’s someone else’s fault that you aren’t published? Do you have a general mental habit of blaming your lack of success on others? While it’s a human tendency to do so, this kind of thinking will keep you stuck–and unpublished. Every career has obstacles to conquer on the way to success, and writing is no different. The obstacles only change from time to time. (Obviously, writers fifty years ago did not worry about their hard drives crashing or scanners not working.) But writers of all ages have had barriers to overcome. At one time women writers had to disguise what they were doing–and even use a male pen name in order to get published!
Choosing your thoughts is noticing when a thought like this passes through your head (”When am I going to get published? I’ve been submitting for months and months! I should just quit!”) and replacing it with one that is both true and positive. (”Getting published takes time for all new writers, and if I’m persistent and consistent in my efforts to improve and market well, I will probably get published eventually!”) At first, it’s reinforcing to say these new thoughts out loud.
Changing your thoughts will change your attitudes and emotional feelings about writing. Instead of postponing happiness until you get published, choose to be content with your writing today. Choose to enjoy the act of putting words down on paper to capture an image. Choose to enjoy delving into your memories for a kernel of a story idea. Choose to enjoy the process of reading back issues of magazines you want to submit to. Choose to enjoy reading a book on plot or dialogue or characterization for tips you can apply to your stories. Instead of feeling pressured to succeed quickly, choose to be patient with your learning curve. Choose to be happy about each small, steady step forward.
Look at the larger picture, how each writing day is another small building block laying the foundation of your career. Stay present in the present! Pace yourself with the determined attitude of the tortoise instead of the sprinter attitude of the hare.
You also need to choose an attitude of commitment. Commit to your goals and deadlines, to continued improvement in your writing, and to dealing with negative feelings as they come up. Commitment is more than “I wish” or “I’d like.” Commitment is “I will.” There is a huge difference! (Like the gap between a man saying, “Gee, I’d like to marry you” and “Will you marry me–here’s the ring–let’s set a date!”) Move from the wishy-washy attitude of “I’d like to be a writer” to the commitment level of “I’ll do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to be a successful writer.” Attitudes of self-control and self-discipline will make those small daily changes that add up.
That committed attitude will make choosing your actions easier. When you’re willing to do whatever it takes to revamp your personal life so you can write, the choices become clear. You will do things like choosing to write before doing the dishes, even though it bugs you to leave dirty dishes in the sink. You will choose to write for an hour instead of watch TV or talk on the phone. You will choose to have that lower carb/higher protein lunch so your writing energy is high all afternoon. You will choose to retire at a decent hour so you’re alert to create the next morning. You’ll consciously choose to make quality time with your family so you can write without feeling guilty–and without being neglectful. Instead of a mental wish list, you’ll choose to set goals, write them down, and even make a poster for your wall so you’re staring at them daily. You will choose to settle family quarrels and resolve conflicts partly because NOT doing so saps all your writing energy.
You will make choices in all areas of your life that will support your writing instead of making it more difficult. Each time you come to a fork in the road, make a choice and be in charge of your writing. Each choice might look small, but these decisions add up to your life. Do find that freedom that comes from being in charge of yourself–and thus, your writing.
“If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self.” —Napoleon Hill
Voices of Self Sabotage
You’ve often heard the phrase, “You are your own worst enemy.” Does this apply to you when trying to create a writing life you love? It certainly applies to me!
How does this enemy within keep you from moving ahead with your writing dreams? By telling you lies. Some are bold-faced lies. Some are wrapped in soft wool. Some lies ridicule you, while others sound downright comforting. What do all these voices in your head have in common?
They’re instruments of self-sabotage. They convince you to give up.
Who’s Talking Now?
There are many voices inside your head. You must listen and decide who’s doing the talking at any particular moment. Some voices are easy to recognize; some are so subtle you’ll be shocked. First, you have the…
Voice of the Inner Critic
It whispers words like “What makes you think you have anything interesting to say?” “You’re no good.” “That junk will never sell.” “You’re actually going to show that story to somebody?” The Inner Critic beats you down with criticism. Sometimes this voice bears a remarkable similarity to that of your mother, your spouse, or your junior high English teacher.
As Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way at Work, creativity requires a sense of inner safety, something like a fortress. “In order to have one, you must disarm the snipers, traitors and enemies that may have infiltrated your psyche.”
I spent years fighting my Inner Critic’s voice with positive affirmations and gritted teeth. “Oh, yes, I can!” was my motto. In time, my Inner Critic was quieted, only speaking out when I got an unexpected rejection or bad review. Yet I still wasn’t creating the writing life I dreamed of. Something was holding me back. It took me a long time to realize I still had voices in my head, because the tone and words had changed.
Do any of the following voices live inside your head and keep you from fully pursuing your writing dreams? Listen and see.
Voice of Responsibility
This voice sounds so adult, so sensible. It tells you to grow up, to get your head out of the clouds and your feet back on the ground. “You’re neglecting your children (or your job),” says this voice. “Look at your messy kitchen (or yard or garage).” “You have no business hiring someone else to mow the lawn so you can write!” “You’d better walk the poor dog first.” Guilt is piled on by this voice, and you crumble under its weight. You put your writing dream on the back burner until a time when you’re less burdened by responsibility.
Voice of Intimidation
This voice is snide and cryptic. It slaps your hand when you try to crawl out of the box that is your life and declare yourself a writer. “Who do you think you are?” this voice asks. “You’ll make a fool of yourself!”
Doubt and low self-worth take these statements as the truth, and that of course only serves to further lower your self-esteem. Cowering, you crawl back in the box and close the lid on your dreams.
Voice of Fear
We all know this voice; it’s been with us since birth. We fear different things, of course, when we declare ourselves as writers. We fear rejection, we fear ridicule, we fear what our loved ones will do. “You’re risking your close relationships (with your spouse, parents, children, friends) by committing to your writing,” this voice warns. “Why lay yourself and your ego on the line just to get rejected?”
Voice of Compassion
This soothing voice sounds like your best friend or older brother. This voice understands you. It puts an arm around your shoulders and gives you a sympathetic squeeze. “You work so hard; why don’t you take a nap or watch that football game on TV instead of writing?” the voice croons. “You’ve taken on so much, and I worry about you.” You certainly agree with this voice. You’re exhausted from all the demands already on your life, and you need to take care of yourself. “You’ll be a better writer after you’re rested and relaxed,” this voice assures you as you switch off your computer and head for the couch.
Voice of Procrastination
This voice is a close relative of the voice of compassion, and just as alluring. This voice is a comfort because it reminds you that there’s no rush. There’s all the time in the world to write that play or story or book proposal. This voice is too smart to tell you to give up on your writing dreams. Instead this reassuring voice says, “You don’t have to write that article today. You’ll have plenty of time tomorrow.”
Most of what stands between us and writing success is what occurs inside us-not in our surrounding environment. So learn to listen to the voices in your inner environment. Argue with the negative ones. Then argue with the comforting ones, if the effect of their advice will be to derail you from your writing dreams. Be alert. And learn to be your own best friend instead.
What Kind of Boss Are You?
“I want to be my own boss.”
That statement is often made by people who want to quit their day jobs and work at home. As writers, we love the idea of no one telling us what to do. We love being able to schedule our work and our days. It’s a wonderful system—but only if you have a wonderful boss!
Are you the kind of boss you’d like to work for? Many days I am, but it’s taken years to get to this point. Over the years I’ve been many kinds of bosses—some of them good, some destructive. Which kind are you?
The Coach Boss
In my early years of writing, back when it was all new to me, my boss was a real coach. Enthusiastic, fun, excited, non-restrictive. She wanted me to explore all my writing and publishing options, try various topics and formats just to see if I liked them, and she never harped about the bottom line.
She was fun to work for—and my work showed it (in terms of both quantity and quality)—despite being surrounded by babies and toddlers at the time.
The Authoritarian Boss
I worked for this boss next. He held a whip over my head, which he cracked often (e.g. if I slowed down or considered taking a sick day.) To be honest, this boss got a LOT of work out of me. I dragged myself to his office no matter how sick I was. Days off were frowned on, so I rarely took one.
It wasn’t worth it anyway. I felt his condemning glare no matter where I tried to hide from him. It was easier to give in and work nonstop than fight him. After all, there were bills to pay! I knew the quality of my writing was going down, but this boss didn’t seem to notice or care. Quantity was everything to him.
The Paranoid Boss
This boss believed in lots of networking, and at first, I liked his ideas. I met other writers, read their work, saw their websites and blogs and podcasts and newsletters and webinars and YouTube videos and book trailers. Unfortunately, my boss couldn’t let me enjoy all the new things I was seeing.
He started breathing down my neck, changing orders every half hour. “We’re behind the times!” he’d whisper in my ear. “Create a newsletter!” I’d start that project, but soon he said, “Yours isn’t as good as the competition’s! Drop that and create a teleseminar instead!” No matter how many projects I juggled, this boss let me know it was never good enough. My job was always in jeopardy. I took out stock in an antacid company.
The Dream Boss
While I was in the hospital recovering from working for the paranoid boss, a wonderful thing happened. My dream boss visited one day with a bouquet of daffodils and box of chocolates—and offered me a job. I’ve been working for this boss ever since, and I hope she lives forever!
She gives me one project to do at a time. “Multi-tasking is another name for fragmented,” she informed me. I now write for two hours before I’m required to do anything else.
My boss doesn’t compare my work to anyone else’s. She loves quality, but she doesn’t measure quality by the size of the advance.
My boss is understanding about sick days, yet she makes sure I show up for work most of the time because she knows I’m happier that way.
You’re the Boss!
Writers are in the enviable position of being their own bosses. Are you the kind of boss you’d like to work for?
If not, you have the power to change that. Starting today, be your ideal boss. List the traits of your perfect boss, the kind of treatment you’d love to receive. Then turn around and give yourself that treatment. You’ll be a happier, more productive employee!
'Not to Do'" List
I once had an apartment with one large hall closet. At first it was roomy and organized. Over the two years I lived there, it grew more and more crowded and chaotic as I stuffed more and more junk into it. One day, I realized I couldn’t jam one more thing in there and still close the door.
Something was going to have to come OUT before more would go IN.
Time is Like a Closet
One year I took some online classes plus set up a self-study program to grow in my writing craft. It would require around four hours per day to do everything I wanted to do. Given the fact that I NEVER had four free hours in a day, where was that time going to come from?
One thing I love to do on January 1 is change calendars: wall calendars in kitchen and office, desk calendars (daily and monthly) in my office, and pocket calendars for my purse. The squares of the New Year calendar pages are virtually pristine and pure. An occasional appointment already made dots a square or two, but that’s all.
The calendars I pitch have perhaps one or two clean white squares per month with nothing scheduled. Just looking at them makes me feel tired. I know from experience, though, that the clean calendars will soon look just as jam-packed as the old calendars if I didn’t take steps NOW to prevent it.
Create a “NOT To-Do” List
To make time for some new things I wanted to do, I had to look at the calendar and find the time wasters. Some events are important to me and will stay on my new schedule: our weekly potluck supper with my grown kids and grandkids, teaching Sunday school at the Air Force base to basic trainees, my every-other-week critique group, leading DivorceCare at church, and blogging 3X/week. These activities feed my goals of a strong extended family, volunteer service, and growth as a writer.
However, I noticed a LOT of stuff on my calendar that could easily go. (Well, easily in the sense that I wouldn’t miss it. Difficult in the sense that it would mean saying “no” more often—and people pleasers like me hate that.)
My Personal “Not To-Do” List
I know the Internet eats up a lot of time for me. This year I’ve decided to stay offline until noon by adding the blog the night before so it posts automatically in the morning without me being online. Before I go to bed at night, I remove the laptop (which has the Internet connection) from my office altogether. It’s easier to deal with the temptation this way. Out of sight, out of mind! Reading other people’s blogs, posting on Twitter and Facebook, and answering e-mail can wait till later in the day.
No more “come and buy something” parties. I don’t like parties selling jewelry, home interior decorations, clothing, pots and pans, etc. I am also going to limit how many invitations I accept to showers. At my age, every woman is having grandkids and giving baby showers for friends having new grandkids. I rarely know their children or grandchildren. The shower only appears to take two hours, but by the time you’ve bought and wrapped a gift, gotten yourself ready, and driven to and from in heavy city traffic, it kills about eight hours. A gift card in the mail would be fine most of the time. (Not sure I’ll ever get up the guts to RSVP with, “Hey, I’ve never even met your kid, and I barely even know you, so I won’t be coming or sending a gift.”) Sounds very Scroogey, I know. But ooooh, so tempting.
I will no longer clean the house before the every-other-month visit by the Orkin bug man.
I won’t attend more than one social function per weekend, no matter how much I love the people. Social functions wear me out, keep me up too late to get a good night’s sleep, and because talking aggravates my TMJ, it results in headaches. I was astounded how many things were on the calendar that I didn’t enjoy. (Example: both my husband and I hate football, so why are we going to Super Bowl parties every year?)
I will stop scheduling necessary doctor and dentist appointments in the middle of my work day.
This is just a beginning, but I think you get the idea.
Your task, if you decide to accept it, is to look at your old calendar and make a list of things you no longer want to do. Prune away the events, committees, and jobs that have become time wasters keeping you from fulfilling your own higher priority goals and commitments.
Keep the list near your phone. Practice saying, “Thank you for asking me (or inviting me), but I’m afraid I will have to say NO at this time.” End of discussion.
You can do it! I can do it! Having a “NOT To-Do” list is the only way we’ll be able to have a writer’s “To-Do” list that is effective.
A Parent's Writing Schedule
When my children were small—and even as they grew older—I struggled to find a writing schedule that worked most days of the week. After much trial and error, I would hit upon a schedule that allowed me to write nearly two hours per day. Bliss!
Not For Long
That “bliss” lasted a very short time usually — until I once again had morning sickness, or someone was teething, or my husband switched to working nights, or someone started school, or someone else went out for three extra-curricular activities and we lived in the car after school and weekends.
It was many years before I realized there is no one right way to schedule my writing. The “right way” (by my own definition) is simply the schedule that allows me to get some writing done on a regular basis.
How can you schedule your writing?
Let me count the ways...
1. Be an early morning writer. Even if you’re not naturally a morning person, you can train yourself to be one. It was never my natural inclination, but today I can’t imagine sleeping in, even if I tried. There are so many pluses for writing early: the house is quieter, the phone is quieter, no one comes to the door, it’s not time to cook or run errands, and you can still parent or go to your day job at the normal time. Morning is a fresher time to write for most people. The added bonus is that once it’s done, it’s done for the day! You don’t have to keep trying to squeeze it in somewhere.
2. Be a night-time writer. If your biological clock says you’re an owl, and there’s no changing it, then write after hours. It’s also quiet on the tail end of the day. The kids are asleep, the spouse is watching TV or reading, the phone is quieter, no one rings the doorbell, and you’re finished with cooking and running errands and your day job. Actively plan to finish up necessary chores (homework checking, making school lunches) before your set time for writing—and then write.
3. Be an office writer. If you have any kind of day job, chances are that depriving yourself of morning sleep won’t work. And you may be too drained from your job at night to do much writing. So learn to write a bit before work (if you can get there early), during lunch or scheduled breaks, and then stay at your desk (or in your parked car with your laptop) after work for half an hour. If you have a private office—or just a quiet place before others show up for work—consider getting there early with your writing materials and/or staying a bit late after others go home.
4. Be a nose-to-the-grindstone writer. Suppose for whatever reasons, you can’t write much at all during the week. You have newborn triplets and take care of your parents as well, run a home daycare, and are the PTA chairman. You hate to write in short spurts, but given the opportunity, you can hunker down and write for eight hours without coming up for air. If that’s your style, make your schedule around that. Have your spouse or a babysitter do a day of child care for you on weekends and hole up at the library (or hide in the attic) for the day.
5. Be a mini-block writer. This is how I wrote for at least two years. Ten minutes at a time. Occasionally fifteen. I grabbed bits and pieces when I could. I wrote on the typewriter sometimes, or on a pad of paper in my purse in the doctor’s waiting room, or scribbled on a tablet while sitting in bleachers waiting for an event to start. I could write a whole page in fifteen minutes, if I took time to think it through before I sat down at the keyboard. It adds up. I wrote my first five middle grade novels this way.
Where There’s a Will...
If you want to write badly enough, you’ll find a way. Just remember that even when you find the perfect schedule, it’s only perfect for right now. As circumstances change, often our writing schedules have to change. Experiment with all the different types of schedules and see which ones work best for you, given the circumstances you’re presently living with.
Just remember that you have choices—but quitting isn’t one of them!
Writing Through the Storms of Life
Writing well requires an enormous amount of concentration and energy, plus a decent dose of self-confidence and courage. It’s not like making widgets on an assembly line, where your mind can wander while your hands stay busy producing.
For that reason, even “normal” amounts of stress can freeze your writing fingers. I use “normal” to mean those stresses that come to us all at times: sick children, fights with a spouse, financial problems, etc. These storms of life are common, but not necessarily easy to ignore so we can write.
To write during “normal” stressful times, try these techniques to get going:
First, inventory your life experiences to create a list of topics to write about. When burned out, or you feel stumped for something to write about, ask yourself questions like, “What has bugged me that I’ve been able to handle effectively?” or “What have I learned from this experience?” From this come articles that make a difference in people’s lives—whether it’s teaching them the healing power of laughter or just helping them to decorate on a shoestring.
Then make an inventory of your life experiences. (My first Writer’s First Aid book has a section called “Getting to Know You” which gives you such an inventory to use.) What have you learned in the school of hard knocks? As writer Marshall Cook said, “You have a great pool of living to dip into for your writing. You’ve met scores of different people. You’ve been scores of different people.” Use that!
Second, switch from output goals to time goals. At least for a while, switch from a set number of pages per day to hours spent writing. (“I will write for one hour;” not “I will produce five pages.”) Skip the daily quota pressure until life settles down. (Or skip it altogether, as I ended up doing.)
Third, schedule your writing time, but be flexible. Sounds contradictory, but it’s not. Do schedule writing time, as usual. Strive to keep that appointment, no matter what else is going on in your life. But be flexible; if your time is taken by a bedridden father or an emergency call from your daughter’s school, attend to the urgent event, but carve out the writing time later in the day, even if it’s in three or four smaller pieces. Overcome the tendency to think, “My writing time is shot today—I’ll try again tomorrow.”
Fourth, develop a specialty. In stressful times, you often become an expert on your situation. Over the years, I’ve collected extensive libraries on personal recovery, remarriage, writing, quilting, the Civil War, England, and devotional books. You probably have your own collections.
Capitalize on the information you’ve absorbed. Do more research, and slant ideas many ways: for fiction and nonfiction, for children and adults. (Example: if you provide care for a bedridden father, you might write an inspirational piece for adults on having the strength and patience to do it; or a how-to piece for a family magazine on finding the best home health care for an invalid; or a children’s article on how to make visits to elderly grandparents a joy to both child and grandparent; or a middle-grade novel that includes living with a bedridden grandparent.
Fifth, be yourself. Use your life experiences to express your unique vision of the world and insights into life. Those insights become your style, that special something that is yours alone—voice.
Keep On Keeping On
Be aware that all writers—both the famous and the not-so-famous—deal with stress. They find ways to do this and keep writing, often incorporating those very experiences into their work. Writers write—and not just when the days are easy. We’re like postal workers, pushing on through rain, and snow, and sleet, and dark of night...
You’re not alone in finding it difficult to write some days. But when the dark days pass, you’ll be very glad you continued to work even when it was hard. When the sun comes out again, you’ll be thankful that you spent that time growing as a writer. Then it will be full-steam ahead!
Write Your Life — ALL of It!
Writers are told to follow their passion, to write stories and books that move them deeply. Often those very stories come to us in uncomfortable or painful ways, through stressful circumstances in our lives we’d gladly bypass.
Twenty-seven years ago, after my dad died, I tried to finish writing a fun puzzle-type mystery. Even though I’d had several middle-grade mysteries published by then, I just couldn’t finish it. Instead, I chucked that idea finally and wrote The Rose Beyond the Wall, a middle grade book where the young heroine’s favorite grandmother dies from cancer.
I cried when I wrote that book, and I cried when the grandmother died. But the book about how people deal with grief was from the heart. It sold first in hardcover to Atheneum, then to paperback book clubs, and was nominated for several children’s choice awards. It’s still used in some hospice programs, although it’s only available as a reprint from an obscure publisher that brought it back into print ten years ago.
“We may regret our circumstances,” says William Stafford, “and no doubt many of us should. But the way toward a fuller life in the arts must come by way of each person’s daily experience.”
Write Through Circumstances
Why use our personal experiences? Our daily lives are full of concrete details, raw emotion, lots of issues, drama, and dialogue. It’s a shame not to use it all! And if you want to write authentic, moving stories that ring true, it’s the best source of material.
In Walking on Alligators: a Book of Meditations for Writers, Susan Shaughnessy suggested this:
“The way to a fuller life in the arts is through your own experience today. Many of us are in circumstances no one would choose. Loneliness, physical disability, financial want, disappointment--we long to escape from these things that won’t let us write. But we escape by writing right toward them and right through them, not by trying to go around.”
Take an Inventory
For the last year or so, there’s been something really bugging me that I can’t fix, and it won’t go away. I’ve done everything I can to just accept it and forget about it—but I can’t. I finally realized this summer that until I fictionalized it and wrote about it, it probably wouldn’t leave me alone. So I’m writing about it now. And believe me, as heated as the subject makes me, I’m writing this with a lot of passion!
What’s going on in your own life that’s unwelcome, yet might lend itself to a story or novel? Think about your own life, and also the lives of your children, neighbors, spouse, and friends. What is causing you (or them) problems today? What about these issues makes you angry—or sad? What are you learning in your circumstances? Whatever it is, consider writing about it!
Remember: the way to write authentic stories is to write straight toward them — and through to the other side!