Rejection Email Blues

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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!

On Finding a Writing Community

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The email goes around on Thursday mornings, announcing to all of us in the Faculty Writing Group that we will be meeting again tomorrow, Friday. Sarah will read her short story and if we have time, Sam has a play he’s been working on. Who will be there?

I love getting these emails, even after I moved to a different campus at our college and attending the group became more difficult.  Later, when I took time off from writing to attend grad school and then write a dissertation, they kept me on the email list and when I’d see my old friends, they’d ask when I’d write fiction again. They gave me the encouragement only one writer can give to another. When will you write again? When can you come back?

These were things I needed to hear.

I joined the group many years ago, shortly after I began working at the college, and when the faculty learned that I wrote, they invited me to attend, even though I was still an adjunct and not as connected to the college as I would be in the future. Every Friday, we met at 1:00 and workshopped stories, poems, essays, and plays.  We have workshopped cartoon novels and flash fiction. We once workshopped a Twitter story. We could bring anything we wanted to workshop—nothing was out of bounds—and the comments and support I received from this group have proved instrumental in my revisions. In fact, everything I have ever published as an adult has gone through this group and their support and ability to analyze my work has made that happen.

This semester, I made it a priority to go back to the group. I can’t always make all of the meetings, but even attending some of them has been rewarding and motivating.

Having a community of writers in your life—whether you know them online or in person—is incredibly important. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, we spend a lot of time in our minds, so good community of writers in your life can help us stay motivated and keep us accountable. While I am sure I would have still continued to write fiction after the dissertation defense,  knowing that I had this group in my corner, encouraging me, helped give me the nudge I needed to start up sooner.

A community of writers will keep you accountable.  Each semester, we sign up for a day to read our work and have it workshopped.  If I know that in advance, I will have something ready, come hell or high-water. Sometimes, a good solid deadline is all a person needs to get going with a project.

A community of writers can also give you feedback to make you a stronger writer. This group is especially good because as professors (mostly English professors although we have also had professors from other disciplines, as well as administrators), they are already skilled when it comes to analyzing literature.  They can spot patterns in my short stories, or comment on the unconscious meaning of repeating the word “green” and its effect on the story, or let me know the need to condense several characters into one.  Also, if they “get” what I am writing, I know that I’ve succeeded at least somewhat because they understand how to read in a way that many other people don’t. They also point out errors in shift changes that happen, or question a use of point-of-view, or challenge the use of an adverb, all without quashing my desire to write. I trust their advice and while I don’t have to take that advice, I usually do.

Writing communities can also give each other connections or advice.  In the group I am in, several members have published a great deal, so when one member has a question about publishing a romance novel, for example, at least one of them will have some good advice to dispense on that subject. I recently encouraged one of our newer faculty to attend, once I learned she wrote.  She fretted at first because she did not write “high-brow stuff that should be in the Norton Anthology” but rather romance novels.  My advice to her was a) we don’t judge the genre and b) someone there will know what to do about publishing a romance novel. And sure enough, several people had excellent advice for her.

If you don’t have a writing community, it might be worth your while to go find your village.  This can be an online group, but I also like the intimacy of speaking with people in person. In the actual world, people can come to your poetry reading, celebrate your novel release, or attend the performance of your play, which doesn’t always happen in an online venue. Still, whatever works for you is the important part. Having a community of friends who also write has possibly more valuable than any education or any word-processing tool. Writing does not need to be a lonely endeavor, done in a vacuum.

Tricks To Reduce Distraction When Writing

One of the challenges of making the commitment to write every day—or adhering to a writing schedule—is being able to block out the world so you can focus on your work. I struggle with this continually.  According to Stephen King in On Writing, it is important to be able to “shut the door” and not be distracted by what is going on around you as you write. King points out that we need have a space as writers so that we can write (although, on another note, he also states that art should be a supporting element of life, not the other way around).

It is important to be able to “shut the door,” but what if you don’t have an actual door to shut? What if you write in the midst of things and still need a way to focus without physically shutting a door? I have a few ideas that worked for me.

Let everyone in your life know that you are going to be unavailable for your writing time frame. Whether it is an hour, two hours, or a half day or whatever time frame you choose, letting people know that you are busy is the first step in creating expectations to not interrupt. People may still interrupt you, of course, but you can hardly expect them to know intuitively not to interrupt. Make it clear that you will be available to them, but only after the writing time is over. When they interrupt you, remind them that you are doing your work and you will be with them when you are done.

Loud music.  I have mixed results with this method. While I love music and listen to it often (and often get inspired with new ideas when driving around in my car listening to my tunes), I find I have to choose just the right music if I really need to focus. I don’t want to end up singing along, which obviously interrupts my concentration. To avoid this, I have a few tricks. First, listening to classical music with earphones works very well (i.e.: YoYo Ma playing Bach on a loop is my favorite option) because it energizes without distracting. Another method is choosing a song or set of songs that has the same vibe as whatever I am writing and then play that song (or those songs) on a loop, over and over again, so the music becomes background noise. I find the loop idea works better than a fresh new song every time (because then my brain stops writing and has to ponder, “Oh, I haven’t heard this one in awhile…..” and bam, I am out of my fictive dream).

White noise. I have downloaded and used several white noise apps and those work really well instead of music at times. Sometimes, having a recording of rain on a tin roof is just what you need, so it’s worth it to play around with white noise.

Noise-canceling earphones work well (or so I’ve heard). Some people prefer to work in perfect silence. I am not one of those people, but if I were, I’d get some noise-canceling headphones. I love technology.

Have a back up writing location. Things super crazy at your house? Everyone calling and asking you things? Just can’t get away to write? This is when I sneak off to a coffee shop, order a beverage, and plug in the earphones. It helps to know the local coffee houses ahead of time so you know which ones get busy, which ones are noisy, and which ones no one knows about (and go to those). I once got completely derailed when every shop I went to within a five-mile radius of my house was packed full of people. I might as well have stayed at home. Come to think of it, the local library would also work well for this, or a quiet restaurant. The important thing is that you have a place you can go to that will keep you focused. Oh, and leave your cell phone on silent when you go so you won’t be electronically interrupted.

These are just some of the ideas I have to create my own writing space in my mind, if not physically.  If we want to be committed writers, we have to have plans and when things get busy, be able to adjust accordingly.  Am I missing any other ideas?  Let me know!

On Riffing in Fiction Writing (How To Have Great Ideas If You Are Stuck)

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A few years ago, I found my oldest daughter’s acoustic guitar in the secret attic room and after restringing it and tuning it, I decided to teach myself how to play it. I didn’t make it very far (I really don’t have time to properly teach myself how to play a guitar. After all, if I have any time, I need to be writing), but I made it far enough to learn a few chords and understand the concept that you can take a simple song—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” for example—and then, if you feel so inclined and have the ability, you can add different strum patterns and other dimensions, all based on that same basic song. You can take the skeleton tune and turn it into something entirely new.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this out. After all, almost everything we learn to do is based on this idea of what I call “riffing”—starting with a simple structure and then adding complexity and other dimensions to make it our own.

For example, we do this with cooking.  When we first want to make a new dish, we probably hunt down a recipe to figure out where to begin. Then, generally, we follow the recipe pretty closely that first time, just because we don’t necessarily trust ourselves not to mess it up (depending on what we are making). Once we have made it a few times, however, we decide to use different noodles, perhaps, or add some jalapeños. Oh, and red onion would be another good addition. Maybe some cilantro. Soon, the new recipe is perhaps but a shadow of the original one, with our own flare and probably even more delicious. It doesn’t always work out, but this experimenting with recipes is half the fun of cooking.

We do this with everything, actually. We start with something basic and then make it our own. And so it goes with fiction writing: if you are stuck for an idea, you can hardly go wrong with riffing an urban legend or a fairy tale.

You will start with a basic tale—take the “Three Little Pigs” for example.  With this tale, we have three pigs, one of them a bit lazy, one a bit middle-of-the-road, and one who gets shit done. We then have a wolf who, of course, wants to eat them because they are juicy and that’s what wolves do. Then you have some bit about a fair and rolling down the hill with a butter churn and the wolf meeting his demise by falling through a chimney into a pot of boiling water. All that, however, is old detail for the basic upshot of the tale, which is that the two pigs run to the house of the pig who gets shit done and they work together to foil the wolf. That’s the bones of the story, but you can take this story so many different ways.

In your story, perhaps, the pigs become human brothers (or sisters), who probably all have a bit of emotional baggage about their perfect brother who builds sturdy houses out of brick. The middle brother just wants to be left alone to publish articles on sub-tropical islands he can never visit since the mortgage to his ranch house in the suburbs takes all his cash. The younger brother, who built his house out of hay, lives in his girlfriend’s condo in LoDo because he’s charming and attractive, but doesn’t have a dime to his name and he is resentful of the other two. At some point, he wants to impress his girlfriend (so she won’t kick him out) and he starts a business by borrowing from a loan shark (enter Wolf)….

And, we’re off to the races. Now we have an idea! The point here is not that this would be an excellent story or not—we have no idea because a story like that is in the telling and the details. In fact, we could all write this exact same story and none would be the same, which is the great thing about writing.  The point here is that if you ever get stuck finding a writing idea, you can always start with a basic skeleton of a well-known tale and, with a little riff session, make it your own.

Blending Reality into Fiction in Your Writing

I had an imaginary conversation with my mother the other day.  I had just finished a story involving an alcoholic and somewhat neglectful mother and in my imaginary conversation, I was explaining to my Imaginary Mother (I have a real mother, too, but she hasn’t read this story yet. I was imagining what I would say if she did read the story) that no, that story was not a commentary on her or her job as a mother raising me.  Not at all.

Imaginary Mother didn’t buy it.

“But you wrote her driving a brown Oldsmobile,” said the Imaginary Mother. “Just like we used to own.”

“I also wrote her smoking and you don’t smoke,” I said. “I also made her an alcoholic and you hardly drink.”

“You wrote about that boy I chased down in a car because he hit you,” said Imaginary Mother.

“Yes, but you actually caught him! This character didn’t catch the kid because she was drunk.”

“You didn’t even change his name!”

“Whose name?”

“The bully!”

I went on to explain to Imaginary Mother that the bully was actually an amalgam of three different people, melded into one who looked nothing like the original one that she once chased down with her car, so it wasn’t a matter of writing a story about a single person or an incident that actually happened. None of it actually happened.

Because I write fiction.

As writers, we take bits and pieces of random parts of our lives and toss it into the blender of our unconscious when we write. Our unconscious then blends the raw pieces of our experiences with its sharp blades and the end result is something entirely new, yet still retaining the some of the taste of the former.

We watch people. We take notes. We observe the crossed arms and breathing patterns of a bored co-worker. We file away knowledge that someone never takes left hand turns and it takes them two hours to get to work each day. We take note of a statue of a monster at the foot of the stairs when we are touring a house for sale (we didn’t buy that one).  We record the numerous times we have almost run over a man riding a unicycle down the street in the dark. We jot down the couple who takes their dog for a walk in a baby carriage. We remember the way our stomach hurt with hunger before lunch in third grade and our teacher wouldn’t let us walk down the hallway to the cafeteria until everyone stood perfectly silent.  We recall the time we went on a carousel for the first time, the scents of old wood and  machine oil. And all of that comes together in a way that blends reality into a new reality of fiction.

That’s what we do when we write. So, when people say, “Are you going to write a story about me?”  The answer is probably yes. And no. And maybe. Maybe just a snippet or two of a hint of you. Mixed with everyone else, including myself.

Because I write fiction.

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.

How To Be Efficient

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This post has less to do about writing, but since much of my time (and probably yours) is spent trying to find more time to write, I think it is still relevant. I have a lot going on in my life, much like everyone else, and with only 24 hours in a day, it can’t hurt to let be as efficient as possible to make those hours count. With all I have going on in my life (the five kids, the career, the husband, former grad school, making sure my house doesn’t look like a scene from Cops, etc.) I feel I have a few things to say on the issue. So, here we go:

Focus on the most important things. The biggest thing about being efficient is knowing what is important and what is actually not important and then make decisions accordingly.  We all know that person who spends a great deal of time on X when X is actually not that important in the grand scheme of things. We all silently wonder “Why is he spending all that time on X? Why is he doing charts and graphs for X? That’s going to end up in someone’s inbox of doom.”  Don’t be that person. The first order of business before starting any task is to analyze the task for how important it is in the grand scheme of things—whether professionally or personally—and analyze how much time it is worth to you and the rest of the world. You probably still need to DO most of it, but how much time you spend fretting and stressing over each item will depend on it’s importance in the bigger picture. After analyzing what you need to get done, mentally rank each task and give it the attention it deserves. Don’t spend hours and hours on unimportant or marginally important tasks. Don’t make mountains out of molehills, in other words. For some items, you just need to get them done and move along.

Do one thing at a time. I know, I know, it sounds counterintuitive to do only ONE thing at at time when you have ten to do, but there have been several studies out lately that multi-tasking actually wastes time and energy, plus increases the odds for mistakes (feel free to google this and see the previous item for why I’m not actually providing the links). I used to be the biggest multi-tasker of all time—sitting there with five browser windows open, two Word documents, all while texting the kids, making dental appointments, all at once—but a few years ago, I tried doing just one thing at a time and in my experience, it worked well. Doing one thing at a time allows you to have zen-like focus and completely absorbed yourself in the task, thus allowing you to finish it more quickly and with less errors. To facilitate the “do one thing at a time” approach, I have my own system of creating a set of to-do’s and then once I complete one item, I move on to the other. At work, I use the tried and true “Post-It Note approach,” where, as tasks arise, I will then add them to a series of Post-It-Notes laid across my desk. Once a task is complete, I cross it off the list and then take a break before choosing a new task.  For domestic and personal items, I keep an electronic to-do list on my phone. Don’t ask me why I have different systems for different parts of my life because I have no idea—it’s just what works for me. You may not even like to write to-do lists and that’s okay. You choose what works work you. The important part is that you do one thing at a time and focus on that one item until you are done or have found a stopping point.

Take breaks. Which brings us to the next point—when you come to a stopping place, efficient people take a little break to rejuvenate. Walk around the hallways for a few minutes. Refill your water mug. Pop outside and feel the sun. Have a cookie. Whatever. But take a break for a few minutes and then go back to your to-do list to tackle the next item. If you don’t take a break, though, you will be more likely to make mistakes, rush, or just feel drained. Remember, you are trying to be efficient and you can’t do that if you are worn down and dragged out.

Know yourself and have a plan.  Everyone is different when it comes to how they function.  For me, I am a bit of a morning person and by around 3:00 pm, I begin to lose focus. Don’t get me wrong–I can still function at that time, but I feel my brain getting flaky and you probably don’t want me doing anything too complex much after 3:00 unless I have plenty of snacks. Because I know this about myself, I tackle all of the difficult things as early as possible in the morning (which is one reason I prefer to write in the morning, specifically if I am writing fiction, which takes more concentration for me than other types of writing) and save more mundane things for the afternoon.

Delegate appropriately.  As a perfectionist, I struggle with this. I AM one of those people who will take the stance of “I want this to turn out well, so let me just do it all so I can make sure it gets done correctly.” I am here to tell you that this approach is not efficient.  While I still struggle with delegating, it is important to know how to do it, or at least have a strong understanding of where our own responsibilities lie and where they don’t. It is important to be able to say, to a work group, “I will do X….who wants to do Y?” When you get a volunteer to do Y (or if dont, you then have to say, “Joe, I think you’d be GREAT at doing Y! Let’s meet and talk about what that’s going to look like”), make sure you outline what the expectations are for the task at hand (or you will make more work for yourself by having to harass poor Joe to make sure he is doing Y). This works very well in your personal life as well. Just this morning, one of my teens overslept and said, “You didn’t wake me up!”  I reminded her that waking people up was not my job (I didn’t even add that there is nothing like teaching responsibility to a teen by refusing to wake her up every morning. My refusal to wake her up is actually some rockin’ parenting right there. She just doesn’t realize it yet).  Don’t take on roles by default.  It is perfectly fine to remind people that they are equally accountable for x, y, and z and hold them to that. Having to wake people up in the morning or chase them down to remind them to do things is not efficient.

Have routines.  It can be tiring and inefficient to constantly adjust the plans for the day.  We have to do enough of this as it is, so it helps to know the routine you will have each day waking up, writing, dressing, driving to work, checking email, then looking at the to-do list….etc. You can also have weekly routines.  One big one for me is doing all errands and grocery shopping on a specific day, rather than wasting time going to the grocery store three or four times per week, whenever we run out of eggs. If you run out of something, oh well. Make do. Now, this does’t always work, but I know for a fact that it is not efficient to have to stop by the grocery store to buy cat food after work instead of just driving home and getting on with the rest of your evening.

Wear a “uniform.” This one goes out to my former writing professor at UT Dallas.  He wore the same black shirt, black jeans, and black boots every day of the week.  He claimed to switch it up to a black t-shirt on the week-ends. Why? His uniform freed his mind to do other things in life rather than spend time worrying about whether he should wear the gray slacks or the blue button up. (You can Google this work uniform approach, too, but be prepared to read a lot about Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.)  You don’t even need to be extreme about the uniform, though. Two years ago, I launched an entire system for whittling down my wardrobe and the end result (still a work in progress, but better) is a selection of work clothes that largely consists of a variety of black and gray skirts and dresses, with with red or burgundy accents.  The goal for this system is to have a wardrobe which, while it does not consist of all black, still doesn’t require a great deal of thought in the morning because I like all of the items, they all fit, and they all coordinate with one another. I also know that all my work clothes are right there on the “work” portion of my closet, so I can just grab them. Whatever you can do to limit your energy about anything is a win in the morning. I also eat the exact same breakfast every day as well.

Use technology wisely. I love technology and I am one of those people who is never more than five feet from my phone.  I use software like Evernote for everything and there is nothing more efficient than being able to access all my notes I ever wrote by just searching one word. I, like everyone else I know, lives by my calendar. If it’s on my calendar, I will be there because The Calendar will tell me when to leave, according to the traffic patterns.  Also, I have already written about how I can get a lot of work done in an orthodontist’s office waiting room by using Scrivener, so technology is great. That said,it is also important to also know when to turn it off.  Just yesterday, I went to the grocery store and I somehow managed to forget my phone. I shopped with my son and got done quickly before realizing that my phone hadn’t buzzed once. How odd!  When I looked for it, though, I realized I had just forgotten it (and then went into a panic and felt the shakes of withdrawal until I got home, but that’s another post). No wonder no one texted or called me–I just didn’t have my phone.  When I got home, I saw that actually, I had twenty different texts from family members with their shopping requests, in addition to other texts.  The fact that I got done shopping in record time without my cell phone wasn’t lost on me—the fact that no one could reach me to interrupt my shopping played at least a small role in that accomplishment. So, sometimes, it’s important to unplug and focus on a task at hand in order to be efficient.

Spend time reflecting and adjusting. Finally, at the end of the day, it pays to spend a few minutes reflecting on how the day went.  Did you accomplish what you wanted to do? Did you live a good day? What might you try differently next time? What will you continue to do? It may be only five or ten minutes, but taking that time to reflect and adjust can help your future plans.

Well, that’s it. I hope those ideas work for you, too.  By increasing our efficiency in our lives, we can do more of what we love to do.

Enjoying Your Writing

I started writing for fun when I was a child. I can’t remember the exact year, although a story remains from when I wasn’t much older than five and wrote a tale on gray pulpy paper about a bear who got “stickers in his nose” and couldn’t get them out. I do know that shortly after learning to read well, at some point it occurred to me that people wrote books and that meant I could write books too.

When I was a child and a teen, I wrote because it was fun to write and I enjoyed it. That was it. Yet, as I have previously mentioned, eventually, writing became imbued with so much seriousness that it lost its fun. I’d sit in front of a computer with ideas, but they wouldn’t come because I felt I had to Write Something Important, which of course, is stressful and the furthest thing from fun. I am here to tell, you, though, that the single biggest way to begin writing again is to make writing enjoyable and fun once again.

Take exercise as an example. We are all different when it comes to how we like to get our exercise (if we exercise at all), but the key to doing it frequently is to find a way to enjoy it.  For years, I tried to go to the gym. I’d don my gym clothes and dutifully drive to the gym, only to be accosted by a gust of ice-cold air and the smell of human sweat. I think it may have been the cold air I hated the most. Gyms keep their temperature cool on purpose because obviously, when people are working out, they get hot and most people are not as cold-blooded as me. I also hated dealing with each machine—wiping it down, hooking up my music, etc. If I found a way out of going to the gym, I found it. Eventually, I canceled my membership ever single time (well, except when we lived in Dallas with small children and the trip to the gym allowed me to put them in the child watch, which they loved. This was my only hour alone for a year, but I digress).

It took long time before I realized that I was far more likely to exercise if I went on a walk or a run outside my house. Sometimes I listen to music or audiobooks and sometimes, I just think. The air is warm (very warm in Houston) and I’ve found out that I look forward to walking or running each day. The trade-off of sometimes being rained out (or flooded out, in Houston) or having to run when it’s cool enough to avoid death, but this is a trade-off I have to make to keep me exercising most days out of the year.  After analyzing why I wasn’t exercising before and doing what I needed to do to make it enjoyable, I was able to make it part of my regular routine.  Again, if it is fun, we tend to do it more.

The same goes for writing.

Write what you want to write!  Tell yourself a story and for a first draft, don’t think beyond yourself. If you suffer from writer’s block, you might want to first begin a new draft by telling yourself that you are just writing for fun, no one has to see it, you are just playing. Tell yourself this even if you have every intention of ultimately submitting the draft for publication.  Writing what you want allows you to try new things you wouldn’t have tried before. It allows you to explore different themes and concepts and techniques.  Just let that first draft unwind and go where it wants to go. You will reel it back in and edit it later, after all. You can fix what ails it later. But the first time you write it? Let her rip. You need that raw material.

Some people will love what you wrote and others won’t. It’s a simple fact of life. Don’t worry about it. You are not trying to please the entire world—you are just writing in a way that will probably please some of the world.  I have had people read things I have published—one story in particular that is fairly experimental—and tell me “I didn’t really like that one,” or something to that effect. This is fine. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. That same story also received quite a bit of kudos from others and actually made a small amount of money, so some people liked it. Every piece is not for every person. Don’t sweat it. Just keep writing.

Explore in your writing. Use it as a project to understand something, whether it be understanding a new technique or understanding a personality trait. Or write because you have a story to tell and that story isn’t written yet.

At the end of the day, we all need to take ourselves a lot less seriously. We need to do things because we enjoy doing them, regardless of the bigger picture.

When to Use First Person Point-Of-View

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When I was writing about The Blank Page the other day, I pointed out that one of the most difficult choices to make initially is deciding which point-of-view to use.  Whether you choose to write a story in first, second, or third person POV will depend on a variety of elements and, ideally, should be an intentional decision you make at the outset. It’s not always intentional, but upon revision, that choice should make sense.

A first person narrator, for one thing, will ALWAYS  be at least a little unreliable.  Always. Why? Because a first person narrator can not necessarily be depended upon to tell the entire truth about his or her experiences, even if the narrator is sane and reliable on the outset. With a first person narrator, everything in the story is filtered through that first person conciousness.

For example, you are probably sane for the most part, but pretend you get a speeding ticket and later, you are telling someone about that speeding ticket.  You may, as the unreliable narrator of your life, change the details of your life just a bit so as to paint yourself as not driving so fast. You may paint the cop as being unfair or brusque or determined to give a ticket.  Or maybe, you want to depict yourself as a speed demon, so you tell the tale where you are driving very fast, with flames following you down the road, but then, you slowed down just in time–so it could have been worse!–and yet you still got a ticket because you were going that fast.  And so on. The details you choose to tell in that story will be filtered through your consciousness–they will be the details you choose to tell so as to continue on with the narration of your life, so no matter how truthful you may be on the bare facts of life, you are still not fully reliable.  And this is only a speeding ticket. We can only imagine what you might say (even to yourself) when depicting the deeper elements of your life–the things that keep you up at night. We all do this, which is why first person narrators are unreliable.

So, if you plan to exploit a narrator’s unreliability in your story, then you should write your story from first person. If the lack of reliability adds to your story, then you should write your story in first person POV.  For example, take the narrator from the “TellTale Heart” or the novel You by Caroline Kepnes or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Those are extreme examples, but even John Updike’s “A & P”  would not be the same story unless it was written from a first person point of view. That story is told from the perspective of a 19-year old who doesn’t fully understand why he walks off his job, except that it makes him feel “squishy” inside to see the way the girls were treated. He can’t even articulate his emotions or why he chooses to take certain actions and this adds volumes to that story.

I am always very careful when using first person POV because in order to use it responsibly, first person POV HAS to exploit that lack of reliability some way and this exploitation has to add to the story in order for it to work. You can’t just use first person as an immediate go-to point-of-view because you like it (Well, you can, but your story will be stronger if you don’t).  You will use first person POV because the character is lying to herself, maybe, and this inability to see the truth is part of the story.  Or your character is very young and unable to see the bigger picture or come to a full realization due to inexperience.  Or your character is insane or going insane and you want to raise the question of that insanity (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).  Or your character is hurting deeply and lying to himself about the reason for that pain.  Or your character is doing something wrong and lying to himself about that wrong (for a brilliant example of this that will reduce you to tears, read “Dark Meadow” by Adam Johnson. Read it. Then read it again. And again).  But whatever the reason, you need to have a purpose for exploiting the first person’s unreliability and that needs to add to the story. This doesn’t happen often.

Not everyone understands this. I once ran across—years ago—some editor’s comments in the submission guidelines for a literary journal (not sure which one) which said something to the effect of how the magazine didn’t want short stories that “used the crutch of first person.” That comment always bothered me because first person POV is NOT a crutch. It’s actually harder to write an effective short story in first person POV, but beginning writers don’t always know this. Nor do editors of certain literary magazines, apparently. Or maybe they just worded this badly.

I rarely use first person when writing fiction because it IS more difficult to do.  Still, if I choose to use it, the aforementioned are the reasons.  If there is no particular unreliability at play, then third person or second are possibly more appropriate choices.

At any rate, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and it has saved me rewriting stories on several occasions.

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?