Making Your Writing A Habit

racing snails

One of the most challenging elements of being a writer is the art of habit-creation.  I am not talking about writing when we are inspired, of course. When we are inspired, writing comes easily.  We look up and three hours have passed….how did that happen?  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

No, inspired writing is not the problem. The problem comes when we are uninspired. When we are tired. Or cranky. Or scattered. Or wanting to eat pizza and binge on Better Call Saul. As with anything that requires daily habit to keep on track, once I allow myself to slip up and not write for a day (or two, or three) it becomes that much harder to get back in the game.

It’s not that we can’t catch up if we fall behind–it’s just more difficult. And if we aren’t careful, months can pass before we realize we have fallen off the writing horse and it has now galloped on ahead, four towns over. I liken it to exercise.  Several months ago, my husband and I were in the habit of running (albeit slowly. Jogging is probably a better word for it since neither of us would win any races, but it sounds so much sexier to be a “runner,” no?) 3.2 miles at least three days per week. The other four days, we walked that distance, often a little more. Then, one day, for reasons I don’t remember, but which fell along the lines of  “what a DAY! Let’s go get pizza!” and while we walked, we walked to the local pizzeria, which also has $2 beers on Tuesdays.

And you know, that was not a big deal on the surface. It was just one day, right? The problem was, the next day, with our bodies loaded with carbs and our minds still equally exhausted (because that never really goes away. If you wait to do the important things when you are feeling at the top of your game, you’ll never get anything done),  we were equally uninspired and instead took a shorter walk around the neighborhood instead. The next day, same thing. And so it goes.

Yesterday, however, I decided to get back in the swing of things and when I got home from work, I donned my running clothes, stretched, and hit the road.

Let me just say, it was every bit as terrible as I thought it would be. Whereas a few months ago, I could run that 3.2 miles easily and feel as if I could run another mile at least, yesterday evening, I thought I was going to die.  I ran slower than ever  and the entire time,  I imagined scenarios in which I passed out from heat-exhaustion and concerned neighbors had to rush out and dial 911. I made it 1.5 miles (barely) before deciding to walk the rest of the way. While I was glad I started running again, it would have been so much easier if I hadn’t ever stopped.

(Runners everywhere are laughing at me and my pathetic 3.2 miles, but alas, I have never been speedy.  Still, the idea wasn’t speed, but physical fitness and the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could outrun a zombie in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Right now, a zombie would catch me for sure. All because I got out of my little training habit).

Bit by bit, little by little, we build ourselves into who we want to be. We live our lives the way we want to live them, and this is reflected in our habits. This is true of any habit, which it is so important to do your best to stay on the horse, keep pushing ahead, even if you don’t feel like writing (or running, or whatever else it is you do).

So, what did I learn from this? Here are some thoughts on how to making writing a habit:

Schedule Your Habit. Probably the biggest thing you can do is to make time in your schedule for the important things you want to do, which will include writing. Understand that our lives are filled with a ton of tasks that need to be accomplished, but if we really want to do something, we must schedule time and make it a priority.  Then, prepare for your habit. Charge your laptop. Tell people you will be working from 5:00 to 7:00. Etc. I have read that the best plan is to do everything important “before 8:00 am” and I agree with this, although for me, it’s a far stretch to do “everything” important before 8:00 am since I also value my sleep and have to also be at work by then. This is why I have to move some of these things into the afternoon (i.e.: running). I do try to write in the morning, though, when I’m fresh, because writing is more important to me than running. It’s all about making priorities and living accordingly.

Have Smaller, Achievable Goals. When I am training for the zombie apocalypse, I have a goal of 3.2 miles, three days a week, with walking the other days. When I am writing, I have a goal of 500 words per day Monday through Friday.  I can write beyond the goal, but that is the goal. It’s modest, achievable, and I’ve found that by having smaller goals I can meet, I am more likely to write beyond my goal.  I also have smaller goals–finish this short story by the end of the day, revise this short story by next week, send out this one to ten journals by Monday, etc. This is just what works for me–you might have different goals and this is fine. Know thyself and what motivates you, but have a goal each day so you can concretely say you have “met” the benchmark you have set for yourself.

Remind Yourself Of The Reward (And The Consequences).  I have always been a writer and while I have had short stories, articles, and academic articles published, I have done so slowly and in spurts. Why? Because I have made other choices in my life at the expense of my writing (not that I have any regrets. If I had the chance to go back and do things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing other than getting rid of cable sooner and spending less time watching baby animals on YouTube). My writing career has been haphazard due to these other priorities taking place–some of them were noble, but some of them fell akin to going for a walk to the pizzeria instead of staying focused.  So, when I am tempted to not write for a day, I only have to remind myself of the short story I wrote five years ago that was still unedited when I started seriously writing again. Five years slips by quickly, people. “Just one day” of not writing can add up, day after day, and suddenly, you realize you haven’t progressed and you have a fairly decent draft of a short story sitting in a file somewhere for the last few years. If you had made writing a habit, that story would be published by now.

Schedule Vacations. I am a huge advocate of taking mental breaks, though. So while this is going to sound counter-intuitive, I feel it is important to allow yourself some planned vacations from your habit. Not too long, but small vacations can give you much-needed perspective. The key here is “schedule” the vacation.  Going back to the pizzeria trip that derailed our running goals, that could have been avoided if we had planned to walk to the pizzeria in the first place. If we run three days a week and we know there is a special deal on Tuesdays, then we could have scheduled our runs on other days and made a plan to walk to the pizzeria on Tuesday. The same is true for writing. I sometimes just need to think–unhindered from the idea that I am supposed to be doing something else.  This is why I don’t require writing on the week-ends (although I often write anyway). Or if I decide, in advance, “I’m taking a mental break on Friday and going to the beach” and not writing for a day, as long as I make this plan ahead of time, as long as it is scheduled, then it will not have the debilitating effect of derailing me in the long run. It’s all mental. It’s not the fact that you aren’t writing–it’s the lack of discipline and feeling of failure for not sticking to your plan that derails you in the long run. If you feel you have given into temptation, you are more likely to do it again tomorrow, but if you schedule the break, then you have control and accountability.

Log Your Success. Keep track of your days of writing and whether or not you met your goals. This can be jotting it down in a notebook or ticking it off on a to-do list or calendar. Whatever works for you. It can be incredibly helpful to see your progress and, again, hold yourself accountable. This is how you can also avoid five years passing without returning to a short story draft you wrote. Or thinking, “I wrote this, when?”

Keep Trying. So, as a fallible human, despite your best efforts, you might still follow the siren call of that unplanned pizza night, metaphorically-speaking. If it does, don’t waste time beating yourself up over it.  Just lay out your running shoes–or charge up your laptop, or sharpen your pencils–and start all over again. You can catch up. You’ll just have a rough patch at first.

Happy habit forming!

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On Creating Characters (Spying On The Neighbors, Part Two)

spying cat 2

Welcome back! So, before we begin, let me reassure you that this post will ultimately deal with how to develop character in your writing. Promise.

I do, however, need to back up a bit. In yesterday’s tale, I made it seem as if I saw the former trio of neighbors for the first time as I watched them from my twin daughters’ bedroom window, but this is not actually the case.  That was just the first time I realized they might make good story fodder. A few weeks before that incident, however, they had already begun contributing to my fictive rendition of their lives.

See, when they first moved in, I didn’t actually know who had moved in. I only knew that someone had bought the house, a moving van appeared, a general ruckus ensued, and after the dust settled, the kids and I baked the new neighbors some chocolate chip cookies, stacked them on a paper plate, and trotted around the corner to their front door. We rang the doorbell. We waited. And waited. We could hear movement inside the house, but no one came to the door. Then, just as we started back down the walk, the kids excited to eat the cookies instead, the door opened. The younger woman—who was about my age at the time—answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and clearly, we had interrupted her—maybe she’d been in the hot tub—and I felt bad. I hadn’t meant to intrude on her life, but when we moved in, our other neighbor across the street brought us cookies, so I was trying to learn some civility and be more like her.

I apologized and bumbled around, telling her we had made them some cookies—welcome to the neighborhood! She opened the door a little wider and I introduced myself and each of the kids. Then, however, instead of taking the cookies, she explained she didn’t eat cookies or allow her daughter to eat them either. Cookies had sugar.  Sugar wasn’t good for kids.

She eyed my brood of five, who saw where this was going and began to inch closer to the cookie plate. You have to move fast if you want the competitive-cookie-edge at our house.

“Oh. Okay. Well.”

Such went our first meeting.

The second meeting occurred a few weeks after that when she showed up at our door.  I smiled when I saw her. Maybe she felt bad about her previous decline and made us cookies? Or maybe she had a question about preschools? Maybe she wanted to go to the movies? I invited her in, but she declined and stood there on the doorstep with her daughter dressed in a pink ruffly dress, eating a popsicle.

Then she asked me if we had a CAT? A black and white cat? Because if so, this was a “courtesy visit” to let us know that our cat was sitting on their outdoor furniture and if it happened again, they were going to take the cat to the pound.

Oh no.

I explained to her that the cat was not ours, but belonged to the neighbor across the street (the super nice one who bakes people cookies without awkwardness).

“The cat is always at your house,” she said. “And we are allergic to cats. We cannot have cats on our outside furniture, so this is a courtesy visit to let you know to take care of your cat and keep it inside.”

“You said that,” I said, once I found my voice and stable ground, “but the cat really isn’t our cat. You’ll have to talk to Flora. It’s her cat. But Flora is really sweet. I’m sure she’s going to help keep the cat somewhere safe.”

She harrumphed, thanked us, and strutted across the street to harass Flora. Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.

So, long story short, a narrative of this family had begun to form—even before they began hosting their frequent parties.

Before we continue, though, I should say that I wasn’t tempted to write about this woman yet, or base a character on her.  Mean, small-minded cat-knappers do not by themselves make strong characters.  And why? Because the characters of great stories need to have some type of realization through the course of the story. Characters need to have some epiphany for the story to exist at all, but the previous run-ins I’d had with this person indicated that she, in her current state, was not capable of realization and change.  I’m not saying she didn’t have reasons for her behavior–I’m sure she did. We all have something going on–but at that point, I couldn’t see them or imagine what they could be. So there was no story. After all, not everyone is capable of having an epiphany  at every moment of their lives and clearly, this woman was not about to be dissuaded in her quest to box up Flora’s cat and cart him off to the pound. (In fact, she DID do this, a month later, but I’ve already turned this into a soap opera as it is. But don’t worry. It ended well and Flora got her cat back although he had to live inside forever after).

The Grinch can only be the Grinch if his heart is capable of growing. The ghosts of Christmas appear in Scrooge so that we can learn why Scrooge came to be Scrooge and only then we can understand how he might have the ability to change and grow. Hamlet can’t just rant and whine for the entire play….eventually, he has to make things right, however late. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard To Find” has to recognize the humanness of the Misfit and thus her own humanity. And so on. The upshot here is that we can’t have a story based on hateful people who steal cats, unless the hateful cat-stealer has something else going on, something to help us see the mustard seed of redemption. And I just didn’t see the potential for that yet. So, no story.

But then they started hosting parties.

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(Now we actually do have a black-and-white cat. Cats love to adopt us.)

Not long after I first saw the younger woman in the hot tub from the twins’ window, they held their first party.  It was no big deal, really–just some music and people drinking–completely normal partying. No one fell into the hot tub or danced on the outside furniture from which the cat had been ejected. I know this because I combat-crawled across my daughters’ bedroom floor as they slept and peered through the blinds. Okay, I’m not proud of this, but as a child, I read Harriet the Spy more than ten times and not much had changed for me in that department when I reached my thirties. At the time, I was in grad school as well and, living in the suburbs, I took what story fodder and entertainment I could get.

From there, they began to hold small parties every night.  After the child went to bed for the night, the mother and her daughter would have four or five different men over for drinks. Every. Single. Night.

Wow.

Starting about nine every night, I could hear their voices and know it was time to crawl across the floor and, ducking just so to keep out of sight, I’d watch the older mother waltz in and out of the sliding glass door with drinks. I’d watch the younger woman slow dance to music with her arms above her head as the male guests watched. They laughed and smoked cigarettes and played music and what on earth were they up to over there? I guess you could say that it was at this time that I found the sympathetic quality, the detail that helped me to see the younger woman’s redemptive abilities, the oyster inside the shell. Because however cruel she may have been to the cat, and however rude she had been to her new neighbors, no matter what they were up to in their back yard each night, I now had a better sense of the humanity of this woman.

As the weeks wore on, however, the neighbors–and often their guests–started looking up at the window and eventually, they built a fancy enclosure structure with red curtains that they could close off around the entire porch.  Which they did. Game over.

But by then, I had my story. I did notice that after awhile, the younger woman had a new live-in boyfriend.  He drove a yellow jeep and stayed all night most nights and the younger woman seemed happy with him, judging from the way she ran to him and flung her arms around his neck after he’d pulled up into the driveway and exited his Jeep. And I hope she was. I hope she is. At least she is when I get to write the story.

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You Can’t Capture Reality

sleepy birdie

One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

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Writers Should Read (A Lot)

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Many of us became writers because we first enjoyed reading. I know I did. I was one of those kids who would get excited about library day at school. When my mother took me to the library on other days, I would retreat to my dad’s brown leather chair with my cat and my mom would have to make me go outside after awhile just to give my eyes a rest. On more than one occasion, my parents punished me for reading under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime.  And when, at the public school I went to in Denver, we got to choose a free book as part of the RIF program (“Reading Is Fun-damental”), this was as close as school could ever get to being Santa Claus for me, who already owned bookshelves crammed with books. I was the kid who walked to school while reading—it’s amazing I never got hit by a car—and eventually, I morphed into a book-toting teenager who read every Stephen King at least twice. I haven’t changed much from there.

I have, however, while leading writing workshops and also when teaching, found folks who write, but claim they don’t have time to read.  On one level, I get it. We only have so many hours in the day and we have to make choices. It makes sense to spend that time writing instead of reading if writing is the goal. And I understand that, except that in my experience, we learn to write by reading. New writers can learn more from reading more than anything else they do.

Reading exposes you to possibilities in writing. How else will you know you can tell an entire story as a list of rules or instructions? Or tell a story backwards? Or never use a polysyllabic word? Or spend five pages describing a cookie?

Reading shows you how to pace a story.  If you read a piece that you appreciate, it’s worth it to spend a little time considering how the writer paced the story. How did it begin? Did it hook you right away? What kept you reading? Or if a story drags, you can ask yourself where it drags and why. Then you can do the same thing with your own writing.

Reading shows you how not to write (for bad writing). Along those same lines, there is nothing to show you the effect of bad writing than to read some bad writing. Can’t stand the overly-plotted tale populated with cardboard characters? Well, now you are less likely to write one.

Reading expands your vocabulary. How do we learn words like “lugubrious’ and “soporific”? We read.

Reading allows you to appreciate different writing techniques. Just like a film buff appreciates different camera angles, a writer will come to appreciate the reasons why stories are told in first person POV or in third, or why a story should be told in present-tense or past. Reading a lot reveals the structure of stories–will it be told chronologically?  Or using a lot of flashbacks? Who are the narrators? All of these elements and more are important to writers when they see a piece of work coming together.

Reading gives you confidence. Reading provides a familiarity with language that allows it to become second nature for a writer. You will know where the commas go because you’ve seen commas in action a million times. You know when something doesn’t sound right because you know how language fits together. Like an experienced driver making her way down a highway, these things become automatic. Also, if you read something particularly atrocious, you can feel confident by knowing that if that piece can be published, there is hope for you.

What should you read? Anything you want. I know, many of us have heard the phrase “crap in, crap out,” but I don’t agree with this. Everyone should read whatever they heck they want to and if what you end up choosing to read is crap, well, then you will learn a lesson from that.  If a character seems flat in a novel you just read, take some time to pin that down. Analyze it. What should the writer have done? What advice would you give her? Eventually, as you grow as a writer, you, too, will cringe at the adverb-laden and clunky plot-line and strive to do better. Sure, you should strive to read works you know are good and can help you see beauty and art of your craft, but the most important thing is that you read and read and read. Whatever you want to read.

How much should you read?  This is a personal choice since we all read at different rates and have different approaches to what we are reading. Some people I know race through everything they read, trying to get to the point, while others will linger. I am a lingerer and even tend to re-read entire books as soon as I finish them—or a month or year later—so counting the number of books I read is not necessarily helpful because many of them I will have read twice or more.  I will say that I read roughly a book a week, depending on how thick or dense it is, and this is not including non-fiction or scholarly texts for my day job. A good plan of action is to make time for reading, just as you would for writing. I like to read in the evenings, which I do instead of watching TV.

So, fellow writers, give yourself permission to indulge! Go grab a cup of coffee and settle back with whatever you’d like to read today.

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Stay The Course

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This week, I haven’t felt much like writing. There is no single big reason, no one thing that sticks in my mind as The Reason. You may know what I’m talking about. I think all writers sometimes feel this way, so since it’s so apropos, that’s going to be the topic for today.

As with anything, I analyzed the situation. I assessed the current goings-on in my life to see what might be the issue and came up with these theories:

  • I had to tweak my writing schedule just a bit, but given the tenuous arrangement of my writing schedule as it is, sometimes one tweak can mean a lot.
  • With the end of a semester, there are a lot of work issues that need to be dealt with, which can leave the writer part of my persona mentally-drained.
  • The college kids have new summer schedules, which doesn’t overtly affect me, but subtly seems to affect my unconscious. They are finishing something and moving on to something else, which gets me thinking seriously about all of my family and the future. This isn’t a bad thing, but it takes mental energy.
  • The high school seniors are about to graduate. See above. Times two.
  • I can’t stop reading Kim Addonizio’s novels. I love her poetry, but I guess I didn’t know she even wrote novels until I was scrolling along in my Kindle library and found one I bought years ago and forgot about (My Dreams Out In the Street). Two “pages” in and I was hooked and I read it every free moment I had. I guess it makes sense that a poet would write so artfully, but still. Her writing does not play. After I consumed that, I bought Little Beauties, which is even better thus far. I won’t even attempt to give it a review here (and I’m not done with it yet), but Little Beauties was one of those books where I wanted to reach right out to an author and send fan mail using a lot of unstable and scary exclamation points when describing my awe of her skill. Teach me your ways (!!!!!!!).  So, maybe, as I absorbed Addonizio’s brilliance, I needed to take a bit of a break and step back for a minute from my own writing, just so I could learn lessons and also not allow my reverence to interfere with my latest story? It’s a thought.
  • Then, I started thinking how I might want to write some poetry again. I never felt as if I gave poetry a fair shake, after all.
  • Then I started to try to eat healthy again and spent a lot of mental energy contemplating which foods to eat and in what order.
  • I had to resist making another batch of fried Oreos. See above.
  • A few weeks ago, I wrote for a day straight and I think I wore myself out, temporarily.  I liken it to when we go on a 9-12 mile walk on a Saturday and then temporarily hate the look of my walking shoes and have to let the blisters on my feet heal. I have not built up to writing all day at this point. I also needed to let my thoughts gel.
  • Fried Oreos are seriously delicious. No joke.
  • And so it goes….

But the upshot here is that I know I can’t stay derailed. That can’t happen. So, when I had this happen before, I allowed myself to take a three day hiatus from everything and then gave myself a little talking to. We have to move onward. We have to stay the course.

And then I wrote this post.

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Rejection Email Blues

guinea pig sad

First things first. If you are a new writer, you have to be prepared to get many, many, many, many rejection slips. Many. Many. Did I say many? Yes, many.

When you receive a rejection slip (and actually this is a metaphor because actually, you probably aren’t going to get a rejection “slip” in the mail, but a rejection email. I realize that some literary journals still take—or even require—physical copies of submissions as in, through the mail using STAMPS (I know! Right? How 1985!), but I personally don’t submit my work to those journals. Why?  Because if a journal editor does not embrace technology and accept submissions via email or by using Submittable (or similar), then I figure they probably won’t appreciate my experimental, non-traditional writing style, either. But I digress).

Where was I? Oh, yes, when you receive a rejection email, don’t fret. Don’t be sad! All a rejection slip means is that what you currently sent the journal just wasn’t what they were looking for at that moment.  It does NOT mean you are a terrible writer and that you will never get published or any of that. Don’t even think it. It just means that out of the hundreds (or even thousands) of submissions they receive, yours was just not the one they chose. That’s it. So, like water off a duck’s back, you need to file it away and move along.

There are a variety of reasons for a journal rejecting a story/poem/what-have-you and most of them are purely subjective.  I know because I have worked as a fiction editor in the past and I am here to tell you, it’s a subjective world out there. I have had very heated discussions with my colleagues about which pieces to accept and reject for a contest and when it comes down to it, the decision was highly subjective. I have heard (and can easily believe it to be true) that decisions can be made about things as simple as the use of first person (“We don’t want any stories that rely on the crutch of first person”)  or that editor’s dog just died and you just submitted a story involving a dog. Or your main character is named Sam and reminds the editor of his cousin who stole his screen play….you can’t control any of that (although if you know that a journal doesn’t want stories written in first person, then don’t send them any, although sometimes they won’t tell you in advance what POV they currently prefer).

Some things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance, of course, is to:

Read the submission guidelines. Read them carefully and do EXACTLY what they say.  If they say they want the short story cut and pasted into an email in Helvetica with a specific heading in the subject line, well heck, you’d better do that. Don’t give a cranky editor a reason to decline your work before she even gets to the first paragraph. Some of these guidelines can be super picky and pretentious, but just take a deep breath and do them.

Read some back issues.  You want to determine if your work aligns with the rest of what the journal publishes in terms of style. I don’t actually belabor this too much, but if they seem prefer a minimalist style and your story is jam-packed with twisty-winding sentence constructions, you will want to send that one someplace else. You also want to make sure you would be cool with having your work published that journal. It may sound great to be published, but if you read a few pieces and realize that the journal should be named BuxomBum Esquire, then you may want to submit elsewhere (I made that up. I hope that journal doesn’t really exist. My apologies if it does. I recommend you don’t google that, especially if you are at work).

See their response time and make sure they take simulteneous submissions.  I am surprised at the number of people who don’t realize that you can and should send out simultaneous submissions.  After all, if you send off a story and then wait patiently for six months, receive a rejection, cry, send another one out again, wait six more months….you don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out how long it would be to actually publish that piece. So, don’t do that.  Most journals will accept simultaneous submissions (and if they don’t, do it anyway. This is the one submission guideline you should ignore. Just make sure you keep good records so you can withdraw your piece if it is published elsewhere), so a good rule of thumb to send out about ten journals at a time.  This is fine to do, as long as you make sure you keep organized records of where you submitted each piece and when and then promptly withdraw your work once the piece is published. I also withdraw my work if I don’t hear back from a journal in six to eight months. I also don’t submit my work to journals that say, “If you don’t hear back from us, that means we passed on your piece.” (Does it, now? I feel that if I am going to consider sending my work to a journal, they can at least send me an email to let me know if they reject it. That’s a professional courtesy.)

Keep track of “nice rejections” and take note.  You will get a variety of rejection emails. Most are polite and encouraging to all, which takes the sting out of the rejection, so I always appreciate the effort. Most of these are still templates, sent to everyone, however.  Sometimes, though, you get a rejection email that is clearly written to you, personally, and these will be more encouraging. These will tell you that your work is really good and the only reason your piece wasn’t chosen was because of space restraints, or it just wasn’t chosen this time, but will ask you to make sure you submit more of your work in the future.  This is a good thing and a very special kind of email to receive because it reinforces how you really don’t suck at writing. Make a note of that and submit your next story to that journal. Also, these rejections should make your day because they do validate your skill as a writer.

Send them at the right time of the year. Generally speaking, if the journal is run by an educational institution, don’t sent over the winter holidays or the summer.

The approach we all need to take to rejection slips is to embrace them for what they are—each one is evidence that you are progressing. You are moving forwarding with what you want to do. And that counts for a lot. Just keep it up and don’t become discouraged!

Whatever You Do, Do It With Passion

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For many years, four of our kids swam competitively. The whole swim thing began by four of them signing up with the neighborhood swim team and then a year-round swim team, later the high school swim team and the USA club swim team and for many years, we spent every week-end in natatoriums throughout the city watching our kids race. I have a lot of metaphors comparing swimming to life, but none so much as the “swim with passion” story I’m about to tell.

One of my friends from this time period is quite an impressive person. Not only was she an olympic swimmer for West Germany back in the day, but she was also a pilot (originally a trained astronaut. Her husband is also a retired astronaut) AND an anesthesiologist. The two of them have three kids who are my own kids’ ages, and that is how I met this couple because our kids swam together for years.

For those who don’t know, the life of a swim parent involves waking up at the crack of dawn and herding kids into a minivan destined for a pool of some sort. For several years, before my kids could drive themselves, I spent many a summer morning on a pool chair, bleary-eyed, holding a cup of coffee as the sun rose, watching a series of little heads bob up and down, back and forth, across a pool for hours.  Whistles blew, coaches yelled, and occasionally, one of the kids would yell, “MOM!” to ask me for a drink of water or to fetch some lost goggles.

So, I was doing that one day when I saw my friend’s son—who at the time was about eight or nine—suddenly stop swimming. I glanced up and watched him.  He stood up because they were in the shallow end, and then held out a hand to stop the swimmer behind him, who was dutifully swimming freestyle and about to run into him. One arm up, back down, the kid went. The other arm up, back down. Robotic. Head down. At the time, I remember knowing, subconsciously, that there were some kids who didn’t particularly want to be swimming, yet were, nevertheless. Maybe their parents made them or bribed them. Maybe they had to swim or they wouldn’t be allowed to play video games later in the day, I have no idea, but they clearly weren’t into it. This was one of those kids. Arm up. Arm down. Breathe. Arm up, arm down. Breathe. Slowly progressing across the pool.

My friend’s son held out his hand and the kid stopped and stood up, confused.

“Hey,” the son said. “Hey.  You aren’t swimming with passion.” He said it simply, like a teacher would do.

The kid took off his goggles and stared at the son. He didn’t say a word.

“Everything you do in life, you have to do with passion,” he said. He put his own goggles back on. “So, swim with passion!”

And with that, he took off and started swimming again. Graceful, electric, and alive.

The other kid also started swimming again, but I wouldn’t say he knew what to make of my friend’s son or his advice. He put his head down and started plodding along in the water, one arm, then the other. Still dutiful. By contrast, my friend’s son seemed to be putting everything he had into the water, into his stroke, into being better each time.

Years later, I told my friend that this happened and she had no idea her son had said this or where he got the idea. My guess is from his parents, either one of them, even if they don’t remember it. All I know is that it made a huge impact on me that day.  The message here is to do everything we do with passion. Everything.

A Space to Write

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In addition to allowing yourself time to write, you also need a physical space to write.  This is also something I struggled with, but once I found the spot, writing became easier.

With seven people living in our house–seven people demanding and exerting their wills upon the spaces of our home–finding a spot is not always easy.  When I wrote my dissertation. I commandeered half of the dining room table. It’s not as if we dine on the dining room table anyway, except for major holidays, on which I would dutifully stack all of my notes, papers, articles, and texts and pile them on the floor while we ate. The entire time, I would watch the stacks to make sure no one stepped on one of my highlighted and annotated articles. No one did–I think they sensed the danger of going anywhere near my dissertation stuff.

Some people recommend having a “door you can shut” for a writing space, but if you are in charge of the people roaming around in your life–or at least feel responsible for them–you cannot just shut them out–at least not without upsetting your writing schedule. The dining room table was a perfect solution because it was out of the way, but still in the midst of things.

After defending my dissertation, however, I celebrated the event by packing up everything on that table and stuffing it all into two large plastic bins for my children to have to deal with after I die. Then, to finalize the celebration, I set out a few candles on that table and for a few months, it once again became a dining room table. I didn’t want to write a damn thing for a long time.  For six months, I avoided my personal laptop at all costs and devoted myself to reading only novels–preferably novels I had already read before so I wouldn’t have to think too much.

Eventually, though, my son started college and because he currently lives at home, one day I saw that he had  set up camp in my old dissertation area on the dining room table.  Now, the dining room table is completely covered with neat piles of textbooks, homework, papers, and a cup of pencils and pens, along with his computer. The spot that had served me so well when writing my dissertation is now serving him in the same way–a place that is somewhat removed from the chaos of our house, yet not so far away to feel excluded from the excitement.  As a mother, I can hardly say no to this commandeering of the dining room table/academic workstation–not when I arrive home in the evening to find him buried in those textbooks or hunched over his own laptop, earning A’s.

Still, if I wanted to write, I needed a space.  Even though half the time, I choose to curl up on a chair with my laptop, there is something symbolic about having our own place, dedicated to our most important pursuits. Similar to not seeing writing as a hobby and thus giving it importance, having a space of our own is critical to making writing an important place in our lives. After all, I required a space for my dissertation–why not other writing as well?

We do have a secret little attic room that looks like a closet from the hallway and I knew that space would be perfect. For a few days, I considered buying a desk and turning it into a writing den, not unlike that of Ernest Hemingway (see above). I could even get a lock for the door and paint it a sea green, but as I fantasized about what my accompanying bookshelves might look like, I heard the inevitable “MOM!! MOM!!!” in the back of my psyche. That still happens, even with teens and young adults, so rather than simply taking off my earphones and addressing the kid, I’d have to walk to the door of my writing oasis, open it up, yell downstairs, then walk downstairs, all writing interrupted. Nope. Wasn’t going to work. I needed to be in the midst of things, yet, not.

My own bedroom was a possibility, but when I need to write, I can’t kick my husband out.

Outside? Sure. Except when it rained or approached 100% humidity and the trees may drop water onto my laptop.

Well, we also have this little built-in-desk area, circa 1980’s style. It’s not exactly lavish–there’s not much room to spread out–but I could sit at it and type. And it has drawers to put old drafts and notes, although originally, those drawers were filled with the usual detritus of a paper world–old bills, faded Christmas cards, warranty paperwork for products we no longer owned. I spent an entire day going through it all, but in the end, I came up with this space: writing spot

My son laughed when he saw it.

“Is that your new space since I took over the table?”

And so it is.

Half the time, I don’t even write sitting at this little desk. I pick up the laptop and move somewhere else–the kitchen table, if no one is there, or a couch in the living room. But, the space is mine. If I write notes and put them in a drawer, everyone knows not to mess with them.

We all need our space for things that are important to us. What space do you have?

 

Conquering The Blank Page

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So, I’m about to face The Blank Page this morning. I tried to face The Blank Page yesterday, but in the end, I had to work on other things to meet my daily writing quota and give The Blank Page some further consideration before I began to type. After all, The Blank Page cannot stay blank forever.

I have a love-hate relationship with The Blank Page, and I’m sure I’m not alone. On the plus side, The Blank Page offers so much potential. It is an unscripted world I’m about to create and I know that I can write anything I want on that page. It is an unpainted room awaiting a brilliant accent wall. It is a new garden in springtime. It is a refrigerator full of food that I can combine to make a delicious meal. The Blank Page is an uncut pattern and two yards of luxurious fabric. The Blank Page is full of beginnings and possibilities.

The Blank Page also holds risks, which often prevents me from writing at all–as it did yesterday. The Blank Page holds the potential of a paint color that dries too dark to be beautiful. The Blank Page can get taken over with weeds to choke out the roses.  It is a refrigerator full of substitute ingredients that don’t quite work. The Blank Page is an ill-fated home-economics throwback jumper. The Blank Page is so….blank.

Usually, when I first approach The Blank Page, I already have an Idea. Having an Idea is not really the problem—as I’ve aged, I have tons of great Ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s just my life and experiences and outlook have come together to marinate just so to allow me to have endless writing ideas or what, but I am currently backed up three story Ideas already. And all of them are currently Blank Pages.

No, it’s the smaller details. I know the big picture, but The Blank Page forces me to face the little details before I even begin and I must make choices. Once I puzzle my way through these, I am able to write some words.  So, yesterday, here is what I concluded:

First, the biggest question we need to ask ourselves is which point-of-view to use. I am going to write about this in more detail with my next post, but this might be the most important choice we make when we are facing The Blank Page. We have to ask ourselves, who should tell this story?  There are some very specific reasons to choose first person POV over third person POV, or vice versa and it pays to be intentional with this choice.  The problem is, we don’t always know the whole story before we write it (at least I don’t), so we don’t realize a story should be told in first person instead of third until we are several pages in. C’est la vie. We still have to face The Blank Page.

Next, we need to decide how to structure our story, more or less.  Are we going to tell it from the present tense fully? Why? Or will it all happen in the past? Why? Are we going to flash back to various events? Are we going to circle back into the past, then up again in the future, then to another point in time, in a figure eight?  Or will it be a frame story? Are we going to focus all of the scenes over one image or theme?  What is our reasoning, more or less, on any of these decisions? Eventually, the structure will find itself, but a little forethought can get us going. Then again, sometimes we just feel like telling a story a certain way and we have absolutely no reason for it. Generally, though, when this happens, we aren’t staring at The Blank Page.

If we want, we can put a character in a situation and see what happens—to an extent.  I love to put a character in an interesting or difficult situation and see what happens. Or give the character an object and see what he does with it. Still, this sometimes gives me angst because it can cause spinning wheels after a page or two, or start a story that slides into ennui if nothing happens. Or I know I will have to hack off the first half of the story on rewrite and start it in the middle if this happens, which is   one reason why I like to have a basic idea about what the story MAY be about. I might be wrong about what I think the story is about—in fact, I generally am—but I like an idea to have some sense of gravitas before I begin. I am nearly always wrong about my stories—they always end up being about something entirely unforeseen as my unconscious works its magic, but I like to be able to answer the question, “This story is about x” or “This story explores y,” even if I am wrong.

We will revise anything we write, so we need to not get too worried about any of this.  All of the above is just to get us started writing. To have a game plan of sorts.  It does not mean that we have to stick to it and not change anything. Think of it as a general guide for a road trip. If we want to, we can just hop in the car and go (that would be fun), but most of us, due to time and financial constraints, like a little focus. So, we navigate the trip, plan a few rest stops if we are organized about it, and maybe decide where we’d like to eat. When we actually leave the house, however, we never know if a road will be shut down and we will have to take a detour, or if there will be an accident, or if we will all decide to pull into the Amazing Cave of Bats because why the heck not? or buy fake-grass flip flops at a funky cafe.  The trip itself will pan out—we just need to make some general plans to get us on the road.

So….if you are having to face The Blank Page like I am currently facing, those are just some thoughts to consider to get  you on your way.

Well, let’s see if I can follow my own advice….here I go! Wish me luck.

Writing Is Not A Hobby

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The word “hobby” means, according to Dictionary.com, “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.” Certainly, writing technically fits that mold for many of us. We enjoy writing—many times we are relaxed by writing—and for many of us, it is not our main occupation or we would starve.

Yet, I felt a twinge when I listed “writing” among my hobbies if anyone asked.  It just didn’t fit among my other pursuits such as sewing and growing herbs in little mason jars.  There seemed a crucial difference between what I did when I wrote and the times when I pulled out my sewing machine to sew an occasional skirt. There is a psychological urgency for me when it comes to writing that simply isn’t there for the other hobbies I listed. While I do not make any serious money writing, the potential is there, even though money is not the main reason for doing it.

So, as I tend to do, I attacked the question logically and came up with the concept that even if one of our passions does not make money, it is not a hobby if it has potential to be a serious identifier in our lives and if we have concrete plans in place to make that happen. That can go for anything. If I had hopes of creating and selling my own dress patterns or clothing (I don’t), I could hardly call my budding business a hobby, even though it may start out not making any money. While it may bring me relaxation and and pleasure while I dedicate time each day to the tasks associated with the business, the seriousness removes the label of “hobby.”  The same is true for writing.

A true hobby, on the other hand, really is a non-serious way for a person to unwind. For me, sewing is a legitimate hobby. I find it relaxing to focus on seams and to mathematically puzzle out the process of altering a pattern. I love the process of creating things, especially things I can wear. I also can cite and argue a great deal about the importance ethical fashion, which sewing supports.  Yet I have absolutely no plans to do anything further with my sewing than making occasional skirts or dresses. Therefore, sewing is only a hobby. I don’t get up at 5:00 a.m. out of duty to sew, but I do wake up that early to write.

Why even hash this out? Well, the largest reason is that if you, as a writer, think of your writing as a hobby, then you may be tempted to not give it the seriousness it deserves. This is especially true if you have limited time resources. If you are scrambling through your day, dashing off to your day job and running around afterwards doing all of the necessary things you need to do in a day, the hobbies are the last priority. And if you are an especially giving person who says yes constantly when others ask of your time, it may seem extremely selfish to tell people “no, I need time to work on my hobby.” This is the subconscious excuse many people have for not writing—it seems too selfish to indulge a hobby when there are many more pressing “real” things in our lives.

So, the way around this is to stop thinking of our writing as a hobby. After all, it isn’t—at least according to my argument above. By thinking of writing as a “second job” or a “career,” we then can give it the attention it deserves. I began to tell myself that I worked two jobs—my day job/career and my writing career—both are important and both are serious. The writing career is, of course, a part time job, but it is a job,—not a hobby—nonetheless.

So, with that, make sure you put in time at your second job today!