As a general rule, and of course there are exceptions, writers are introverts, but even extraverts acknowledge that writing is a solitary act. It's easy to get stuck in our heads and in our stories rather than live in the real world. It seems easier, I think, because our families--no matter how supportive--don't really get writers.
Last semester in one of my undergrad creative writing classes, I asked the students why they write. A young lady, about sixteen (we have dual enrolled high school students on our campus) with long hair and thick glasses spoke up. She's rather shy, and this may be the most she spoke in class. She said, "I write to shut up the voices in my head." Immediately several people nodded in agreement. When I told this story in a faculty meeting, several of my colleagues looked at me like I'd lost my mind, some suggesting that maybe it was time to refer the student to behavioral intervention, because they really don't get it. If our families struggle with understanding our writing world, the people in the math department really don't understand creativity.
So we go to writing groups, develop writing communities, and eventually go to a writer's conference, because the only people who understand writers are other writers. Once or twice a year, we need to step out of our writing cave and visit with the only people on the planet who do understand.
Writing conferences have personalities just like people. If you go to the ThrillerFest, you'll be surrounded by thriller writers and will likely have workshops on law enforcement procedures, autopsies, and forensics. Mystery writers surround themselves with stuff of mystery, romance writers talk relationship building and romance tropes, while YA authors talk about everything. A general writing conference might have tracks for fiction writers, poets, and another for creative nonfiction. There might be someone who talks about memoir and another who talks travel writing.
So when you pick a writing conference to go to, make sure that they're your people. For instance, writing poetry is not my jam. SO if I ended up in a poetry-writing conference, I would be out of my element, which is the exact opposite of what we want in a writing conference. So do your homework and make sure the conference covers the topics that are of interest to you and your genre.
Once you sign up, or as you're signing up, you'll have to answer questions about food choices (yes, most conferences support vegan or gluten-free eating), but then it gets down to the nitty-gritty. Do you want an agent or editor appointment? Who with? Spend some time researching the agents/editors who will be there so you know which is most likely to appreciate your book.
For an editor pitch, this is a great way to get past the slush pile to submit directly to an editor. Make sure, however, that you've checked to see if they accept un-agented work/writers. Do your research and know what they publish, what lines they have, and what their current submission guidelines are.
For instance, at dinner during the conference last weekend, a writer at my table said the editor she pitched to was really nice and helpful, but "she doesn't edit horror." While the editor did make some recommendations for next steps for this writer, the writer should have known going into the conference that this editor wasn't an editor for a horror line. That's basic research that would have given the writer better options for her one pitch appointment.
If you're considering an agent appointment, figure out why you want an agent. There are oh so many reasons, but here are some from "How to Find a Literary Agent:"
If you're looking to pitch to an agent, here are some things to consider as you pick who you want to pitch to:
One of the interesting things I've noticed the last couple writing conferences is how my attitude and expectations from the conference have changed over time. When I first started going, I was all about the workshops, spending hour after hour in a clogged hotel conference room absorbing information, but as I've progressed in my career, those workshops hold less appeal. Of course there are exceptions. The two hour workshop presented by a coroner talking about dead bodies (DB) and the kinds of evidence we can retrieve from the body was the most amazing workshop I've ever attended, but typically, the workshops are things I've worked on through my coursework and my reading, and now I'm looking to focus on publishers or agents, so I know who the industry players are.
Which leads to the next reason every writer should go to conference: to network.
Yes, dear introverted writers, I know this sounds like hell. For some of us, networking is worse than hell, but we need to know who works for which publisher. Did they move, did they change to a different line, did they become agents or move to Hollywood? These are the kinds of details you really only get by becoming involved in a writing community and going to a writer's conference.
Last summer I attended RWA's conference because it was in Denver, so I didn't have to pay for travel expenses, which makes many national conferences an expensive proposition. Before my kids were born, I had been highly involved with RWA, even acting as president for my local RWA chapter, and I went to conference every year. I absorbed the workshop materials, enjoyed hanging out with my friends at the bar (every writer's conference ends up in the bar), but I didn't do an agent or editor pitch because I wasn't ready for it.
But when I went to RWA last year, I wasn't interested in the workshops (except the autopsy one and another on self-defense for writers), because I was there to make industry contacts. A good friend of mine, who has been even more actively involved than myself, took it upon herself to help me network. I didn't realize this until halfway through conference when I legit hadn't attended a single workshop... But she had me at lunch with one group of writers, drinks with another, and after hours with yet another group. She hosted a tarot reading so I would get to know yet another group of writers all in much more advanced stages of their careers than myself. She was like a publicist who was getting my name out there and connecting me to industry professionals. It was a fabulous (and exhausting) conference.
When to go to a writer's conference is a personal and financial decision, but when you do take the plunge, know why you're going and what you want to get out of it. This last conference at Pikes Peak Writers, I had two goals.
First I wanted to grow my writer's resume by building a reputation as a presenter and speaker. This worked out well for me and has led to another conference gig this fall at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Second, I wanted to pitch to an agent. My publisher didn't require an agent (some do), and since I had researched my publisher's contract terms before signing with them, I didn't *need* an agent, but now I'm at a crossroads with my career. I have 6 books and a novella out in the world, and I really want an agent to take some of the business stress off my shoulders so I can focus on writing. Because I knew my book, my goals, and my pitch so well, the agent asked for the proposal within two minutes of me walking into the pitch room. That gave me the last eight minutes to simply have a conversation and decide if I think this is the person (or the kind of person) that I want representing my work.
Writer's Conferences are amazing opportunities for writers at all stages of the writing career. They build your writing skills, your industry knowledge, and your networking options.
The only question left to ask is when are you signing up for your first conference?
On Saturday, I participated in a mini-conference and book signing at the local library. It's free, a writer's favorite word, and had 2 panel discussions and a keynote speaker. Between sessions, readers and writers were able to talk to local writers who signed books. All proceeds benefitted the Friends of the Library. I love doing this event. Book sales are light, but it's a great way to network and stay connected to the local community. Plus, I worked for the library for years, and they take good care of me. I want to give back.
Now, for the interesting stuff.
The first panel had a publicist, an agent, and an editor. They talked specific to the business side of writing.
The keynote speaker discussed something no one likes to talk about. The dark night of the writer's soul when the words won't come. Writers tend to avoid this discussion out of some strange taboo, but every writer will go through it at some point. Stephen King threw out his initial notes on the book Carrie, convinced it was a dud. His WIFE was the one who believed in it enough to literally pull it out of the garbage. Take the time to go read that article about Stephen King. Trust me, it's inspirational.
The speaker pointed out that it doesn't matter if it's your first book or your eighth, all writers experience this moment of doubt. Hang in there.
Finally, the best part of the day was seeing one of my former students signing books! She took my novel writing class two summers ago. She said "your class is what gave me the final push and helped me put it all together." She has 2 books with another due out in June. I'm so proud! Her name is Adriana Carlson and you should checkout her website.
That's it for my notes for now. Hang in there. You're doing great!
First, a confession...
When I first started writing, a decade or two (ouch!) before I actually published, I wanted to be a historical romance writer. My favorite stories to read were Regencies and, because I read them, I wanted to write them.
Historical romance in general, and Regency in particular, has very demanding fans. Get something wrong about the Regency era, and the readers WILL haunt you. And, as much as I loved to read them, I really didn't want to do that kind of research.
Years later, I worked in the public library system in the reference department (yes, I see the irony). And I really do love research now, but I no longer want to write Regency. :)
I learned a few things in the process, though.
Most of it is fun. Often it is distracting from the real work, but necessary all the same.
The best advice I can give, however, is to enjoy the ride. Research can and should be mentally engaging. It should be interesting and intriguing.
Consider it playtime. Have fun!
To a young (frustrated) writer:
Writer's block is real, so don't blame or punish yourself. You'll only exacerbate the problem. A couple things you can try:
1) Julia Cameron's suggestion (The Artist's Way) would be an "artist's date," which essentially means get out of the house. Play. Do anything not writing related to refill your creative well.
Go somewhere and people watch. Go to a play, an art exhibit, a concert, or a movie. Go play laser tag or paint ball. Go jump on a trampoline or ride a bike. Give your muse a chance to recover. Make it something that works for you and your type of "play."
I've had students go to Painting with a Twist (you, a canvas, and a glass (bottle) of wine. Another student, who is also an actor, was encouraged to Improv a conversation with their protagonist.
2) My suggestion: write something else, and give yourself permission to write badly, or as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, write a "shitty first draft."
Write a weird short story, bad poetry, or substandard music lyrics. Sometimes you just need to switch gears until you're ready to work on that project again. I vacillate between Fiction and Creative Nonfiction for this very reason. Sometimes I just need a break (and you might too).
3) Do something physical. Run, walk, jog, treadmill. There's something about movement that shakes things loose, creatively.
4) See cartoon below on the potential for the books to write themselves:
5) Watch this video of a letter from sculpture Sol LeWitt to artist/friend Eva Hesse. The language is NSF (not safe for work), but it tends to kick creatives where we need it most:
A writer does the same. We tear things apart to figure out the how and why, so we can duplicate the techniques in our own writing. Reading is the primary means of learning to write, which is why it makes me sad when new writers tell me they "don't read." I typically sic Stephen King on their heretic asses:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. (King)
Reading as a writer is a good talent to have, as reading is the sole training ground for writers. You don't have to have a background in "how to write fiction," you don't have to have an undergraduate degree in Literature or an MFA in Creative Writing in order to be a writer. You just need to start as a reader.
But as often as English teachers or writing professors or well-meaning friends tell you to "read like a writer," most of them aren't as explicit at what they mean by that. Some call it close reading, because you're reading very carefully, but I like the phrase read like a writer, because it gives reading a purpose. I'm reading like a writer so that I can become a writer (or a better writer).
Mike Bunn, in his essay "Read Like a Writer," says that
When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your writing. (Bunn)
Before we know what to write, we need to know how to write, and the how is reading like a writer. Asking questions, annotating, figuring out how a writer accomplished a certain technique. Like the seamstress, we are taking apart a shirt so that we can use it as a pattern for making our own shirt.
Mimicry is part of the learning process. In middle school I wrote a noir detective story my teacher said sounded "borrowed." Nevermind that her destructive commentary became that negative voice in my head (and most writers have them). The point is that I started at a point of mimicry, but I grew past it. I learned the rules so I knew when, where, and how to break them effectively. I still read like a writer, and I'm reading a book a week (or more). I read across the card catalog: fiction and nonfiction, literature and genre fiction like romance, mystery, thrillers, women's fiction, and just about any genre but horror (sorry Stephen King). Speaking of Stephen King, he continues the quote about the value of reading with the following:
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in … Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway" (King).
Reading is an invaluable part of a writer's toolbox. In fact, it may be THE essential tool, but only if you're reading like a writer. So what does that mean? Check out Mike Bunn's article, published free as part of an OER (Open Education Resource), for specific, concrete ideas on what it means to read like a writer. Also, see the video below on how to annotate as you read.
“Dear Professor Skaggs,” a recent post on social media started. The writer was inquiring about MFA programs and was concerned about her age and the actual value of an MFA degree. First, I assured her that age has nothing to do with literary success.
One of my creative cohort in my MFA program was a 22-year-old when she started, the youngest person ever accepted into the program, straight out of her undergraduate degree. She is talented, driven, and will likely be a PhD before she’s 30. But she is by no means representative of our group, which skews older with many looking for a retirement sideline rather than a life’s vocation, and many of us in between those two diverse bookends. Neither goal is wrong, in and of itself, and none of these demographic groups are better served by the MFA.
Writing, in fact, is democratic, and does not discriminate by age or other demographic detail. When you look at when an author is first published, there is no statistical “perfect” age for writing.
One example of writers starting after forty is Lee Childs who writes the Jack Reacher novels. Childs has a unique perspective on writing, in that writers mature with age and have more depth. He says writing is the “ideal career to start later in life.”
Agatha Christie, started much earlier, writing poetry, and earning literary awards, as a child. “But it was her sister’s challenge to write a detective story that would later spark what would become her illustrious career.” She became a published novelist at the age of 26 (“How Christie Wrote”).
Stephenie Meyer has sold more than 85 million copies of her book Twilight. She was 35, so nearly a decade older than Christie, and yet, wildly successful in her field. Her inspiration is quite different as well. She wasn’t challenged into writing a novel, she dreamed it. “Once a stay-at-home mom, Stephenie says the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream.”
JK Rowling didn’t dream her inspiration. She waited for it, specifically while waiting for a train “traveling from Manchester to London King’s Cross … Over the next five years, she began to plan out the seven books of the series” (“JK Rowling Biography”). The first Harry Potter was published when she was 32, and the last when she was 42.
Bukowski was 51 and Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64. Writing knows no limitations of age or experience, but that wasn’t the writer’s only concern in her message to me.
Her post continued, “I am considering applying to MFA Creative Writing programs, knowing that lots of folks think it's not a worthy degree.” She’s worried that the study of writing is a waste, a frivolous degree. In respect to the merits of an MFA, I answered,
I'm not one who believes the MFA is without merit, but I think you need to go into it knowing what your expectations are and how you can achieve them through the program. A big part of most MFA programs is close reading, which means a big chunk of your time is spent reading, studying, and writing about the work of writers in your genre to learn what is effective or ineffective. On top of that you have your creative writing element, plus some programs require a critical thesis in addition to the creative thesis. It is definitely hard work. There are pros and cons.
I went into the MFA to become a better writer, and I believe that element was effective, but I was also working (teaching) and raising kids, so I exhausted myself and it took some time to recover creatively, but I met wonderful people who will remain part of my writing network for life, and I studied under some amazing writers. It really is what you make of it.
When we enter into an MFA program, we go into it knowing that not all of us 22-year-old wunderkinds. We’ve had to work jobs, endure hardships, and reclaim ourselves before we chose to write.
There is no right time to start writing, as long as you start.
Food for thought if you are in or considering an MFA: Why are you in an MFA program? What do you hope to achieve? How much time, energy, and creativity are you willing to expend?
Years ago, as a new single mom, I got a job working in the optical department at Wal-Mart. First off, that’s a really weird and unexpected place to find a writer, and second, it wasn’t exactly in my career plan, but I needed a job, and Wal-Mart was hiring.
We had to go through a week of classes and group discussions with other new hires back in the HR section. One discussion asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we wanted to work at Wal-Mart. Note the phrasing: wanted. Along the way, we each told socially acceptable lies about why we wanted (not needed) to work at the big box store in the sky. One young man, with messy dark hair and sad eyes, broke the mold, however. He looked around the table at the eight of us sitting there, and said, “I graduated from college… and then… life didn’t go as planned.”
Truer words, my friend.
That moment when life doesn't go as planned? That's conflict
Conflict “arises because something is not going as expected” (Kress 13). Conflict belongs in the early part of your story, so readers want to know what happens next. If nothing happens, if life goes as planned, where’s the conflict? Where’s the interest? “But no matter what kind of conflict your story explores, its nature should be hinted at in your opening, even though the development of the conflict won’t occur until later” (Kress 13).
Let’s take a look at my favorite Harry Potter. There is an implied conflict from the outset as Professor McGonagall, who we don’t know much about yet, says that the Dursleys are the “worst sort of Muggles” in the movie version, and that you “couldn’t find two people who are less like us” (Rowling 13) in the book. Readers see the conflict developing within the first chapter, and that conflict between Harry and the Dursleys goes until the last book in the series.
Along with that conflict, the larger conflict with Voldemort is implied here as well. McGonagall mentions that the only one Voldemort is afraid of is Dumbledore. She relates that Harry’s parents have been killed, by Voldemort, and somehow, a baby—Harry—survived. He was the boy that lived.
As writers, we need to establish that conflict early so the reader wants to stick with our story. We don’t always know—going in—the various layers of conflict within our story, so once we finish the draft, we need to evaluate the level of conflict and where it begins.
The novel I’m working on now is a straight fiction novel (as opposed to romantic suspense). The first time through, in the original draft, I wrote quickly and recognized some of the conflicts right away, but it wasn’t until I finished the novel that I recognized the conflict that wound from the beginning to the end. On the rewrite, I’m adding in hints of this conflict throughout, including the first chapter, so I can ensure the conflict is enough to sustain the reader.
Looking back at our Harry Potter book, we see conflict in the first paragraph: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense” (Rowling 1).
The implied promise here is a conflict between the Dursley’s expectation of “perfectly normal” and the “strange” and “mysterious.”
For your own writing:
Kress, Nancy. Elements of Fiction Writing – Beginnings, Middles, & Ends. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic Press, 1997.
If we read much or often, and if we're writers we should, then we will soon find our world expanded through the beauty, struggle, and/or reality of another writer's work. One writer who does that for me is Tim O'Brien.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.
As we read through Jimmy Cross' story, we see how he copes with the war through imaginings about the elusive Martha, who keeps pieces of his soul clean (notice how he cleans his hands before reading her letters) while the rest of him is "dirtied" by war. It is a painful and personal story that hits me in the feels every single time I read it. O'Brien's style is very direct, yet he buries the truth within his narration, circling ever closer to the true moment by recycling the story and its impact on every other character in the story.
I've written before about how this short story has on more than one occasion caused me to write about the things that I carry, the tangible and intangible. I carry a messenger bag and a laptop. I carry parental guilt and debilitating fear.
What do you carry?
They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
You're only human
Many (although certainly not all) writers are perfectionists. We (as I include myself in that number) want everything to be perfect.
But, there's that whole "human" thing going on behind the scenes is messing with our stats, and not a single story, poem, song lyric, or novel will be as good as that "perfect" image in our head. And it will kill us if we don't let it go.
No, I'm not exemplifying hyperbole. The kind of stress perfectionism places on the human psyche has real consequences on our health.
Amanda Ruggeri writers in February of this year, "The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential" (BBC.com), and the physical manifestation of our perfectionism includes depression, anxiety, self-harm, OCD, binge eating, anorexia, PTSD, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, and early mortality.
I have a writer friend with far more publications than my own, and who writes for a major traditional publisher. Each time this writer gets edits from the editor (sometimes numbering in the thousands of comments in MS Word), this friend goes into a deep depression and can't even finish reading the revision letter before running for the M&Ms. And I completely understand that level of angst.
I was raised with the middle-class work ethic of my parents and grandparents, to whom complaining was weakness and giving compliments to their children was coddling. Obviously, they had some serious issues to work out (or they were editors in the making), but the idea behind their work ethic has remained an indelible part of American culture. Work hard, play hard, write hard, create as fast as you can.
But creativity doesn't work the same way as body building or climbing the corporate ladder.
In past posts I've mentioned my crazy publication schedule, which, BTW, was my own dang fault. I had already gone through an MA program and was in the process of shopping a novel when I joined my MFA program. The book sold, and was coincidentally released while I was at my first MFA residency in the summer of 2015. Between 2015-2017, I completed all my coursework while maintaining an intense publication schedule that included writing and publishing 6 novels and a novella, in addition to my creative nonfiction essay collection which I am currently submitting to publishers.
In many ways, that crazy publication schedule while attending school AND working up to 4 jobs and raising my kids was a result of my upbringing and the expectations of a strong work ethic. It was also the result of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, impostor syndrome... The list goes on and on.
And once I graduated with my MFA, I crashed. There was no creativity left. I had expended it all and didn't take the time to refill my well, as Julia Cameron would say (The Artist's Way). I had attempted to impose my middle-class work ethic on my creative muse, and she was not amused. The creative crash was the natural result of my actions.
Writers everywhere struggle with perfectionism. In a perfect world (pun intended), we would continue to write as we struggled for elusive perfection, but in reality, perfectionism stifles our natural talents and creative impulses into what some would call Writer's Block.
So let's stop seeking perfection. Let's stop worrying about perfect grades, perfect essays, perfect stories, and perfect lives. None of those things exist, or if they exist (as in a 4.0 GPA), they will injure us in the process of attainment.
The result of chasing perfection is a creative coma, and we are better off to write at a slow and steady rate than to burn in the fire of frantic production.
As you head into the next season of your writing, and whatever that entails for you, consider the cost of perfectionism. Of course we want to write our best, we want our editor and publisher to like our work, but we can't control their feelings. We can only control the work.
The goal here is not perfection. The goal is growth.
What perfectionist tendencies do you have? Which perfectionist goal can you leave behind and replace with creative growth?
Writer Reference (Blogroll)
Show Don't Tell
Wired for Story
Genre by any other name
He for She
A Little is Enough
Writing 17 minutes at a time
The Unlisted List:
The best women nonfiction writers.
Aubrey Hirsh' Beginner's Guide to publishing with format templates and more
Agent Query 15 posts on writing query ltrs
Platform Action Plan
Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.