Where Do You Write?

“…I only have to turn up at my coworking space 10 times a month to make it cheaper than a coffeeshop…and here I don’t have to ask a stranger to guard my gadgets while I run to the loo… “and other, cheaper ways to carve out a writing space

Over at my personal blog today I wrote about my love for the coworking space I rent in my town. I jokingly call the old industrial building my ‘writer’s garret’ and my post was called “Everybody Needs A Garret”.

Which got me thinking. While it’s important to be able to write everywhere and any time and in long or short increments, it is incredibly powerful to have a space or a routine that helps you focus on your writing.

Where Do You Do Your Best Writing?

Some people, like me, have the luxury of time, a hip hometown and a little extra moolah, and can rent cheap, shared office space as a writing garrett.

Other people carve out space in a disused closet or the space under the stairs, jam headphones on their ears and pound away at the keys there.

Some people write in bed, on buses, in libraries and coffee shops.

If you haven’t set up your own writing space yet, experiment with some of these ideas until you find out what works for you.

Your Own Writing Space – Some Tips

If you want to try out having a writing space here are some tips:

  • Search your local area for a coworking space or a writers’ collective with desk space for rent. You might be surprised at how much flexibility you can find for relatively little cost (I worked it out. If I spend a morning working at a coffee shop I’ll buy a fancy coffee and probably a breakfast sandwich or something for lunch, to assuage my guilt at hogging one of their tables all morning. I might buy a bottle of water or a second coffee too. That’s probably $10-14 per trip. I only have to turn up at my coworking space 10 times a month to match that…and here I don’t have to ask a stranger to guard my gadgets while I run to the loo.)
  • Office Nook In The MorningCarve out a space in your home. It can be as little as an under-used corner of the kitchen, under the stairs, below an awkwardly sloped ceiling, in the space between two doorways. Pick up a cheap desk or, if you want a standing desk, pop this lap desk on top of a sideboard/buffet and call it your ‘desk’. (This really cuts down on the amount of space you need, as there is no chair to worry about). Maybe order an lightweight room divider screen that you can set up around yourself while you work and fold up when you’re finished. Get a desk lamp to illuminate (and focus) your little corner. Let everyone know that, when you’re in your writing space, this is Writing Time and tell them how long they have to leave you alone before they are allowed to have their next emergency. [2. It will probably take a long time and some persistence before this lesson kicks in at all, even with other adults.]
  • Carve out an Aural Writing Room by picking up a decent pair of big, obvious over-the-ear headphones [3. Make them big and obvious to signal to the world that you are Not Available] and a White Noise or ambient sounds generator (White Noise is ok, but I really like the Study app for iOS, which has soothing spa-like music and birdsong that is supposed to make you smarter).
  • 20140312-112836.jpgRemember, a Writing Garrett isn’t an office. You don’t have to have filing cabinets and lots of shelves [4. You already have books all over your house, don’t you?]. I keep my essential writing supplies for the major current projects together in a backpack. I grab that, and go – whether my writing space for the day is the Garrett or ‘back under the covers’.

Do you have a space where you write? Post a comment (or share a picture) below.

Making Time To Write – Success Stories

I find it useful to read case studies from people who have actually WRITTEN books (and possibly had them published and worked on a sequel). Theory is all very well, but hearing from someone who has actually done it? Much more inspiring. They also tend to be more passionate, less forgiving and much, much more practical.

Here are a bunch of articles from working writers who answer the second-most-asked question they hear. [1. The first, of course, being “where do you get your ideas?”]

Jon Scalzi is a speculative fiction writer, Hugo award winner and creative consultant on the SyFy Network’s Stargate: Universe. He wrote an energetic answer to the time question which includes this choice paragraph,

There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.

Jackie Kessler has written 12 novels (not all of them published, but hey, that’s a lot of writing time) and refuses to apologize for taking time to write.

Screenwriter John August shares his work-a-day experience of becoming a professional writer. It’s not sexy, but it worked.

Chip Scanlan talks about writing in small chunks, lowering your standards, rejecting the Soup Nazi.

And to finish things off for today:

Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn (@creativepenn on Twitter) shares this personal story, which debunks the ‘if I only had time’ myth a bit:

I once decided that I needed time to write my book. I had some money from the sale of my house, took 3 months off and tried to write every day. It didn’t work. I didn’t have anything to show for it, and went back to work disheartened at my inability to write. It was 4 years until I actually decided to try again.

Then I wrote “How to Enjoy Your Job” in 9 months of evenings, weekends and days off while working fulltime.”.

You can find the time – you just need to re-prioritise!


Best Of The Web for Short Story Writers – November 2013 Edition

Every so often I post lists like this (like a real, old-fashioned ‘weblog’) of recommended reading from around the web, especially curated for short story writers. Here’s the latest. You can read more like this here.

Write Every Day

http://www.salon.com/2013/11/25/nicholson_bakers_best_advice_writers_must_write_every_day/

Nicholson Baker says you should write every day
(And provides a few ways you can cheat and still succeed!)

 

Four Reasons To Write The Hell Out of What’s Left Of 2013

http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/four-reasons-to-write-the-hell-out-of-whats-left-of-2013/

by Ploughshares Literary Magazine

A funny-serious look at productivity in December (and why not to wait for Jan 1)

 

It’s Alive! When Your Hibernating Story Wakes Up

http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/its-alive-when-your-hibernating-story-wakes-up/

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar …because flash stories don’t prey on your mind the way a novel would, writing them is refreshing rather than exhausting…

 

Finding Focus

http://zenhabits.net/finding-focus/

By Leo Babauta Do you ever have one of those days when you just can’t seem to find focus? When you fritter away your time on nothingnesses, distractions, wandering without really doing something important? Or one of those weeks?

 

Shared Storytelling Challenge

http://isawlightningfall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/shared-storytelling-advent-ghosts-2013.html

by Loren Eaten

Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy. It’s an open call for anyone interested, so why not join us?  December 20 is Ghost Day!

 

From Novels to Shorts and back again

http://womagwriter.blogspot.com/2013/11/guest-post-sam-tonge-from-novels-to.html

by Sam Tonge. How writing short stories after writing novels helped her become a better (more marketable) writer.

 

The Rule of Three

http://thewritepractice.com/the-rule-of-three/

Part of storytelling is creating something memorable… One of the most effective ways to enforce memory is through repetition, and so one of the most common storytelling techniques was born: the Rule of Three.

 

What Every Writer Must Know About “Hero Fact”

http://storyfix.com/what-every-writer-must-know-about-hero-fact

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard In my work as a writing coach, I come across a lot of stories where the hero isn’t being heroic. Either the hero is being saved by someone else or there’s not enough conflict to force the hero to actually step up and earn the title.

 

Secrets of The Phantom Tollbooth: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer on Creativity, Anxiety, and Failure

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/04/the-phantom-tollbooth-documentary/

“Failure is a process … you have to fail over and over and over again to get anything that’s worthwhile.”

 

A Little Bit of Me In All My Stories

http://womagwriter.blogspot.com/2013/09/guest-post-lynne-hackles.html

by Lynne Hackles – When someone asked Lynn for her secret ingredient, she told them…

 

Peruvian Writers Face Off in Lucha Libro

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/peruvian-writers-face-off-in-lucha-libro_b78563

Could you write a story in five minutes? In front of a live audience? While wearing a mask?

 

The Big List Counts 1,500+ Literary Magazines

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/the-big-list-counts-1500-literary-magazines_b78692

Looking for the ideal place to publish your writing? Check out The Big List, a collection of 1,500+ links to literary journals around the world.

 

 Don’t Apologize For Wanting To Be Paid, Flannery O’Connor Didn’t

(But that doesn’t necessarily mean expecting to be paid while you’re still learning your craft)

 

 For writers having a hard time

http://timetowrite.blogs.com/weblog/2013/10/for-writers-and-other-creative-people-having-a-hard-time.html

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what…

The One Thing You Must Do Before Taking Writing Advice

The problem with writing advice is that it all weighs the same.
Weigh Scale

  • You read four articles on character development and start to worry because vibrant characters don’t come easy to you.
  • Your favorite writing-blogger is having trouble with dialogue in her own fiction so she does a series on the importance of natural dialogue. Now you start to think worry that your high-fantasy characters’ dialogue isn’t naturalistic enough.
  • It’s coming up to NaNoWriMo, and everyone’s talking about outlining and sharing their own Type-A version of it, which makes you start to doubt that you could ever write a novel because…damn!

There is an abundance of wonderful advice about writing online. If you are ever having a problem in your writing it is easy to find five different polemics on that topic in as many seconds.

But if you’re not writing regularly, how do you know what advice YOU need hear?

Find Your Strengths, Work On Your Weaknesses

I had the pleasure recently of being able to ask the talented and prolific Chuck Wendig about his characters and how he makes them pop off the page.

His answer took me completely by surprise.

“I feel like voice is my strong suit,” he said, simply.

He went on to talk about other areas that he struggles with more — areas that need work in the rewrites — but this? It was the easy stuff for him.

A small, controlled explosion went off in my brain:

He’s just good at this stuff.

I don’t have to be as brilliant at characterization as him. Maybe I can’t be.

If I’m really, really good in some other area, maybe it’s OK if I focus on that.

This Is Not An Excuse

This is not at excuse to avoid learning about the craft. You do need to be proficient in all areas of writing.

But if your first draft is weak in one area (or several), don’t let it slow you down. Instead, play to your strengths. If you’re witty, play that up. If your wordplay makes people smile, go to town on it. If  you are all about the dialogue, get that down first.

  • Write a lot to discover your strong suit.
  • Play to those strengths.
  • Fix the rest in the rewrite.

 

Need help with the ‘write a lot’ part? Try these articles:

How To Become An Insanely Productive Writer

Delegate Your Way To Writing Success

Five Irresistible Writing Prompts

Need more help? Take a look at the Time To Write Workshop, The StoryADay Guide to Breaking Writers’ Block and the Warm Up Your Writing Home Study Course in The StoryADay Shop.

Writing Parent’s Interruption Flowchart

Please print this out and pin it to whatever door or wall space you use as a buffer between you and those loved ones whose sole purpose in life seems to be to keep you from your writing.

Updated! Feb 2016:

Interruption-Flowchart-2

(Right-click to save a copy. Pin it! Share it!)

 

Or you can have the original, hand-drawn version:

"Is Anybody On Fire?"

 

And here are some articles to help you with productivity:

Help! I’m Drowning In Ideas!

Help! I’m suffering an explosion of creativity and I can’t seem to stop myself finding time and ideas for writing!

How It All Began

One recent evening I tucked myself into my armchair, put my feet up, pulled my knitting on to my lap and settled down in the flickering black and white light coming from my television as we fired up a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone — our nightly non-guilty pleasure.

I love The Twilight Zone. The stories are so imaginative, they’re not afraid to take a dark turn (!); they’re stylish, well-crafted and intellectually stimulating.

I’ve been telling myself that they’re great research for my own story telling efforts.

And in a way they are. They’re all about a character (often a man, aged 36, oddly enough) who needs something, lacks something, wants something. Great stuff for storytellers.

But at the end of every Season 1 episode, I keep seeing this little line of text that makes me uneasy.

The line?

“Based on the short story…”

Short Stories Are Not Screenplays

I follow a lot of working writers’ blogs, but people who are getting paid to write the equivalent of short stories now are often working in TV. The influences they cite are other TV shows and writers. I follow those links and spend hours reading about how those other writers write and find success.

But I’m not writing screenplays. I need to remind myself how to show a scene in words, not images.

So I’ve embarked on another challenge (you know how I love a challenge, right?) and I invite you to come along with me.

Following Ray Bradbury’s prescription for writers (watch it here. It’s worth the time) I’m trying to read a short story every day, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — stories with some staying-power. I’m also trying to read one essay a day (though accessible, classic essays are proving harder to find than good short stories) and one poem a day (oddly enough, though poems are shorter, I’m finding it harder to rouse myself to do this part of the program).

The Results Are In

I’ve been doing this for just over a week and, as I said, I’ve been ‘suffering’ under an explosion of creativity. I’ve written one, long-for-me, 6,000 word short story and sketched out ideas for more than 50 more (yes, 5-0!) in a few different themes/genres, started my second story and written four blog posts.

And my kids are on vacation!

But I can’t seem to stop myself finding time to read and write.

I’ve rediscovered the joy of both reading and writing. I’m sneaking off, staying up late, ignoring people I love, to read — and little of it is on Facebook or Feedly or Twitter. I’m reading well-crafted fiction and non-fiction that has stood the test of time. And I’m bursting with ideas, references and imagery — I’m so full of ideas that I can’t hold them back. I simply have to write. (This is not always the case with me. I always feel better when I’m writing but I’m quite good at being lazy and grumpy instead).

Want to join me in being more creative, more productive, and more joyful? Start reading and writing today!

Here are some of the books I’m using to find short stories, poetry, essays and other inspiring non-fiction to read.

What Are The Last Three Books You Opened?

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to write in the summer. My kids are off school, my friends are calling, people come to visit…

I still write, but I scale back my ambitions. And I use the snatches of time I do have, to read.

But not just anything. I’m cutting back on reading ABOUT writing, and focussing more on readiung some great writing by the masters.

So, what are the last three books I opened?


Poems by Robert Frost

I’m trying to read a poem a day, so I picked up this volume of Frost poems and it fell open to After Apple Picking. I didn’t love it at first but I read it (slowly) a couple of times more and wrote it out once. I still didn’t love it, but I did find it a useful exercise and got much more out of it that way.

The Great English Short-Story Writers, Volume 1
I read Dr. Heidegger’s Experiement, which left me with a strong sense of the history of the short story and what a robust form it really is.


Cooked by Michael Pollan

I’ve always enjoyed Michael Pollan’s writing style. It really proves that anything can be interesting if the writer has a passion for it and that all good writing is storytelling.

Bonus Fourth Book:


The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians) by Rick Riordan

My eight year old and I are reading it together at bedtime. Mostly I read it but sometimes he reads it. We love reading out loud. Do/did you still read to children once they can read for themselves?

How about you? Leave a comment telling us what were the last three books you opened.

Why We Write

Today I have two things for you: 1, A quick rave about a great book for writers; 2, An fun announcement.

Why We Write

After we’ve been writing for a while — after you’ve succeeded in making writing a habit, even for just a month — it can lose its dreamlike appeal. It can become, well, work.

How do you reignite your DESIRE to write?

For me, it helps to read great writing by people whose style I adore.

But it also helps to read about the habits of working writers (yes, ‘working’ writers, meaning the ones who get paid for it. I ADORE my writing groups, online and off, but modeling my behavior on that of people a little further up the professional road, seems like a smart move).

I just finished my first read-through of Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How And Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran (I say ‘first’ because I know I’ll be going back to this one a lot).

The writers include Jennifer Egan, Isabelle Allende, Rick Moody, Sebastian Junger, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Sara Gruen and David Baldacci, among others, so it’s a wide spread of subjects and audiences they’re writing for. There is, quite literally something for everyone in this book: from authors who simply must write in one place all the time, with one set of music playing, to authors who hate routine, can’t write with music on; writers who write every day, and writers who ‘binge-write’ and then take months off.

Some common threads from the book:

Music

It was amazing how often the word ‘musical’ came up. An astounding number of the authors profiled talked about how important it was to ‘get the rhythm right’ or ‘make it sing’ or about how the language, when writing was going well ‘feels like music’. That sounded like a good way of talking about that moment when you just know the writing is working.

Fear

I don’t think there was one (highly-successful) author in the bunch who didn’t talk about how much fear they have: before, during and after they write. They are all insecure about every project, and that doesn’t go away after they get published. In some ways it gets worse. This is (I say, with some schadenfreude) immensely reassuring.

Persistence

Most of these authors said something along the lines of “I write because I can’t do anything else/I’m unemployable/I must”. And they talk a lot about the necessity of getting your butt in your chair, your fingers on a keyboard, a pen in your hand and WORKING at it. Just keep writing (whether you have a writing routine or you’re a ‘binge-writer’) until you are finished. When it’s hard. When it’s going well. When you don’t want to. When you’re scared. When you’re despondent. When you’re flying on the wings of inspiration. When you’re starting to wonder if maybe a soul-sucking corporate job might not be a better idea after all…Keep writing.

And they ALL said ‘it’s worth it’. Whether they were billionaire best-sellers or acclaimed literary types scratching out a living by teaching while they write. They all said: it’s worth it.


And now I have a little gift for you. Two gifts actually: an assignment (with a deadline) and a free webinar to guide you through it.

The 7DayStory

As you’ve probably noticed I’ve been working on a little side project called The 7Day Story(write, revise and release a short story in 7 days).

It’s like a graduation gift for people who have been through StoryADay: a little more time to work on a single story; a little more help with the ‘what now?’ after you’re finished your first draft.

I’m working with Gabriela Pereira of DIYMFA.com and we recently ran a challenge where we guided people through the process of writing, revision and releasing a story in 7 days. The feedback was phenomenal, so we’re running the challenge again, starting on July 1. You can sign up here.

But this time we’re previewing the whole thing in a free webinar, next Wednesday. Join us, live online, for the webinar, and we’ll take you through our week-long inspiration, drafting, and tiered revision process — a process that you can use over and over again to turn out polished short stories in next-to-no-time. We’ll take questions during the webinar, so do sign up if you have any questions to ask us about the process, or tips for first-timers. We’ll also be making a big announcement during the webinar that I think you’re really going to like (we’re putting the final touches to that right now. Shhhh!).

A little bit about my co-conspirator: Gabriela Pereira (who actually has a fancy, traditional MFA) has made it her mission to show the rest of us how to get all the good parts of a University-based MFA, without the time-wasting and crippling tuition bills. She has loads of enlightening things to say about the revision process, which really complement what I try to do here at StoryADay.org (which is mostly about inspiring you and empowering you to get those first drafts done). I’ve learned a lot from her already and, in The 7DayStory, we’ve put together a set of tools which take you that next mile along the writing road.

Join us for the 7DayStory webinar, on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, at 1PM (EST, GMT -5).

(If you can’t make it to the webinar, make sure you’re on the mailing list so you hear about our Big Announcement, when it’s ready!)

Adjust Your Expectations

I’m all for big dreams and Big Hairy Audacious Goals [1. A term coined by Jim Collins in “Built To Last”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Hairy_Audacious_Goal] (after all, I’m the one who set herself the goal of completing a short story every day in May!) but not all goals are appropriate at every stage in our development.

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success

What Is Success?

Maybe you will get published in Granta or Ellery Queen or McSweeneys one day. But if you’re still grappling with so-so feedback from your writers’ group perhaps today is not that day. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot for a closer target. Perhaps you can submit to a smaller-circulation market, a newer publication that hasn’t attracted as much attention yet, a regional contest or anthology.

Or maybe you don’t need to ‘be published’ at all right now.

Reasons Not To Publish

Perhaps your version of success is ‘good feedback from my friends’. Perhaps you want to put together a collection of your stories and have it bound by a print on-demand publishing service to leave to your heirs.

Perhaps you can dedicate the next year to writing and revising rather than submitting stories, freeing yourself from the pressure of thinking about ‘success’ in terms of ‘acceptances’. File your stories chronologically and, at the end of the year, look back and see how far they have come. Then—and this is crucial—review your progress and decide what your next set of goals should be. Base your decision on where-my-writing-is-now rather than where-I-wish-it-was.

Reaching and Stretching

Whatever you decide to focus on, try to set your expectations at a level just a little beyond your current abilities. Give yourself something to strive for, but don’t set yourself you up for failure.

Having Said All That…

– Don’t let your inner critic obscure all that is good about your writing.
Don’t let fear hold you back from finding out if your writing really IS ready for the big leagues.
– Don’t be timid in the face of challenge.
– Do set yourself ‘stretch’ goals that push you to improve.
– Do allow yourself to dream about your perfect reader, curled up in a comfy chair somewhere, transfixed by your stories, feeling the same joy you feel when you read a really great story.
– Do work hard towards your goal of being the best writer you can be.
– Do keep writing.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

 

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

Write More

The only way to learn how to write is to write.

Reams of paper

Write, finish, write some more.

After that you can start worrying about critiques and editors and agents and publishing and publicity.

But all of that is secondary to the writing. To become better at writing you must sit down and spin tales, craft stories, put words on the page.

The world is awash in articles, books and courses on how to manage the business of a writer’s life. You can find all the advice you will ever need and more on how to make time to write, how to write when you don’t have time, how to write better, and on how to find critique partners, find agents, find your audience.

The more important question is:
Can you find the will to sit down and put words on the page day after day after day?

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

Learning From Your Writing Heroes

So you’ve decided you can be a better writer, you’ve listened to feedback and now you have resolved to act to strengthen your skills.

Now, how do you do that?

Seek Out Knowledge

If you’re a self-starter, consider the feedback you’ve had and plug those terms (“realistic dialogue”, “character deveopment”) into a search engine. Seek out insightful blogs and articles to help you improve those areas in which you are weak.

Read blogs by successful writers who are further along the path to you. Many published writers are extremely generous (if sporadic) in their blog posts. Check out the blogs (and their archives) by Neil Gaiman, Jane Espensen, and more.

Read/Listen to interviews with writers and podcasts about writing. You can find some of my favorite podcasts for writers, here.

Commit to reading about writing over the long term, and dismiss the urge it raises in you to whine “I’ll never be able to…” or “I’ll never be as good as…”. If you do keep reading and listening for months and years, you’ll find that you’ll learn more and despair less.

Classes

If you like classroom learning there is no shortage of writing classes, workshops and ebooks to help guide your way.

Don’t be afraid to specialize. Don’t take a generalized ‘short story writing’ class if you’ve come to realize that what you need help with is dialogue.

Likewise don’t be afraid to reach outside your specialty. If you see an interesting drama workshop or screenwriting class about “action and suspense”, give it a second look. If you are interested, you’ll get much more out of the class than if you are taking it because you just feel you ought to.

If you like the classroom feel, but can’t get to an online or real-world class, look out for ‘home-study’ workbooks and e-books that are structured on a class format, with weekly (or daily) assignments and lessons. Set yourself a deadline and, better yet, see if you can get a writing friend to go through the course with you, to simulate that in-class experience.

CopyCat Writing

This is one of the most popular segments of the Warm Up Writing Course that I run each year before StoryADay May.

During the Renaissance — the great flowering of European art and culture during the 16th and 17th centuries — great artists and artisans enrolled apprentices to train with them. The apprentices learned the principles of their craft not by creating their own unique works but by painstakingly copying the works and style of their masters.

We can do this in writing too (just as long as we don’t attempt to get any of our trainee copycat work published. That’s a plagiarism scandal just waiting to erupt!).

Take a story by a writer you really, really admire — preferably a short short story that won’t take for ever to reproduce. Analyze it in minute detail: from word choice to sentence length. Now, choose a different setting and different characters with different dreams from that of the originals, and write a copycat story, following the exact structure and tone of the original.

(If you want more details about this, and examples to follow, consider signing up for the Warm Up Writing Class I run each April, or try the home study version, available year round.)

Keep Learning

Nowt hat you have some great sources for how to learn from the greats, there is one final thing to realize:

You are never going to be finished.

You will grow and change as a writer as long as you keep doing…and every stage is going to require more learning, more inspiration and new heroes.

Commit to learning about your craft for as long as you are doing it, and you’ll be firmly on the path taken by all your writing heroes.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you’ve enjoyed this series and want to read more, let me send more like this to your inbox:

How To Ask For — And Act Upon — Writing Feedback

Critiquing
If you want your writing to improve, it’s always a good idea to set a piece aside for a while and come back to it later.

But sometime, not even a month’s Time Out in the dusty recesses of your hard-drive is enough to separate your story from your hopes for it, and the only way to get some perspective is to show it to  someone else.

The real benefit is not just in plucking up the courage to show your writing to another soul (though that’s powerful). It’s in knowing how to listen to and act upon their feedback.

How Not To Take Feedback

Recently, at my Real-World Writers’ Group’s critique session,  I listened as a high-energy, opinionated novelist read out a sample of her novel, which was similarly high-energy and opinionated. It was also funny and well-crafted and she was clearly at the stage where she needed feedback only on errors, omissions and clarity. So we waded in: “You said she was standing on the other side of the minivan so how did he see her?”, “Oh, I do that hobby and there’s a detail you missed.”

It was good stuff and just what she needed. But every time someone offered a critique or asked a question, the writer cut them off with a defense of why she had written it that way and prefaced most of her comebacks with, “Well, what you don’t understand is…”.

I started to wonder a, why she had come to the group, and b, how she ever hoped to get this promising manuscript published if she was unwilling to take feedback. (I had a sudden vision of her trying to follow all her readers home from the bookstore, calling out “Now, don’t forget, when I say that Marianne is biting her lip, that means she’s happy, not that she’s nervous. And the dog is symbolic. Symbolic!!”)

If It’s Not On The Page, It’s Not In The Story

If readers ask you for clarity about a story detail, a character or an event, it means something is missing. Listen to them, make notes and then go away and figure out a way to include more information or clues right there on the page.

If your story has too little (or just as likely: too much) of something, remember that this is not the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you stink as a writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never be any good. It just means you have some more (re)writing to do. And that now you know what you have to do.

Rejecting Feedback

Just as important as listening to and acting on feedback, is the ability to decide you’re not going to act on it.

I like to write stories with twists at the end. I like science fiction. I like humor. So I took along a funny (I hoped), twisty, vaguely-sci-fi story to my writers’ group’s critique night recently. I was pleased to get a few laughs and some smiles, but I also noticed that one of the women in the group was smiling extremely politely and blinking a lot. I gave her an encouraging look and took a deep breath. When she prefaced her remarks with,

“I’ve never read any science fiction and I really prefer slice-of-life stories…” I knew what was coming next. She didn’t get it and had no clue what had happened at the end of my story.

Of course I was disappointed. And of course I wondered if I should make the twist in the tail more obvious. But I also happened to have another person in the group who knew exactly the kind of story this was supposed to be and who enjoyed those kinds of stories. That feedback was, naturally, very different.

I was interested in the feedback of the more ‘general fiction’ reader, but I gave more weight to the critique of  the group’s lone sci-fi fan with the great sense of humor who thinks the ending was skating on just the right side of ‘predictable’.

Listen. Take notes. Consider the source. Go with your gut.

How To Find Critique Partners

If you’ve read this far and are thinking “well, that’s all very well, but how do I find these thoughtful, insightful critique partners?” here are a few idea.

Connect With Other Writers

Readers are wonderful people (I’m one of them), but if you pass a story to the most avid reader who doesn’t write, you’ll likely end up with a fairly unhelpful critique: I liked it/Hmm, it didn’t really work for me.

Avid readers know when something works, but they don’t tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the technique behind good writing: character arcs, if/then cycles, opposing characteristics. And why should they?

Finding Writers To Connect With

Writer Unboxed – This blog has spawned a friendly and passionate writers’ group at their Facebook site. Most of the writers are novelists but many write short stories too. Join the conversation, make some writer friends and see where it takes you.

Meetup.com – I found a fabulous writers’ group in my area through Meetup. Check the listings and see what other people say about the group. In my experience a great facilitator makes all the difference, so see if you can send a private message to some members to see what they think of the group’s leadership and make-up. Also, try to find a group where at least some writers are fans of the genres you write in.

Backspace – A serious writing organization for serious writers. There’s a subscription fee to join the group, which tends to weed out the dilettantes. I’m not a member but several people I respect have raved to me about the forums.

StoryADay.org — leave a comment here on this article saying what you write and that you’d like to form a critique group. If there’s enough interest I’ll set something up in our very own forums and get things rolling.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:

One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer

national museum of american art and portrait gallery-51

Supreme Court Justice and life-long overachiever, Sonia Sotomayor was a C-student until she decided she wanted to do better. Disregarding questions of talent and opportunity and what was expected of her, she simply went to the top kid in her fifth grade class how she got all those gold stars. And then Sotomayor listened as the girl taught her how she took notes, studied and used tricks to trigger her memory. From then on, Sotomayor was a straight-A student.

Until she reached Princeton and a professor gave her a C.

Once again, she asked for help, listened to the answer and then (and this is crucial) took action to correct her defects. She spent her summer at a bookstore, teaching herself remedial grammar. Each year she faced a different challenge and worked with her professors to overcome them[1. This story comes from a couple of interview with Justice Sotomayor by NPR’s Nina Totenburg. You can find them here and here].

And now she’s a justice in the highest court in the US, where telling a compelling story and choosing the right words are perhaps more important than in any other job but that of a writer.

Believe That You Can Improve

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking writing can’t be taught. Of course it can.

Every time you read a great book you’re learning how to write. Every time some great author talks about writing, you pick up a thing or two.

True, Sonia Sotomayor was not striving to write great literature, but she was willing to learn from people who knew more than she did. We must be willing to do the same.

Examining Your Writing Will Not Scare Away Your Muse

We’ve all experienced that magical moment when everything is flowing and it seems like the words are coming to us from some mystical well. We can start to believe that if we look too closely at what’s going on we’ll blow the whole thing.

But if you’re to make any progress, you must discover and internalize a simple truth that makes all the difference between the ‘wannabe’ writer and the seriously satisfied writer:

You must be willing to believe that writing can be taught.

And when I say ‘taught’ I simply mean that more experienced writers than yourself can share tips and techniques that help you find the fastest path from ‘beginner’ to ‘accomplished’.

Even more importantly, you must believe that you can absorb these lessons and put them into practice.

Sonia Sotomayor (no matter what you think of her judicial views on any subject) demonstrated an attitude and a pattern of behavior we should be racing to copy.  If you’re not writing brilliantly now, figure out what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to change it. Then work on making those changes.


This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebook and help support StoryADay May:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

What To Do When Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough

rejected

Every writer with any measure of skill will, at some point, worry that their writing isn’t good enough

Happily, you can find any number of articles and books telling us why you shouldn’t worry about it, how to break through the blocks it causes, how to ignore other people’s subjective opinions, and how to deal with rejection.

But what if your writing really isn’t good enough?

What if your stories are always being rejected?
What if your critique partners always have tons of notes for you, or worse, nothing but a blank stare?

It may mean your writing really isn’t good enough and you need to do two things:

– Work on your skills and become a better writer
– Adjust your expectations[1. You’ll notice I don’t offer ‘give up’ as a choice. You can’t. You’re a writer. You might as well accept that and drop the fantasy that you can quit whenever you want to. You can’t, so instead, work at it and set your expectations appropriately]

Stay tuned for the next few days for a StoryADay.org series on What To Do If Your Writing Just Isn’t Good Enough. In this series I’ll show you how to harness the same tools that took a poor girl from Brooklyn to the highest court in the US, how to learn like a Renaissance master, and how to feel great about your writing again.

This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here:

Becoming A Better Writer Pt. I: One Skill You Must Master To Become A Great Writer
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. II: How To Ask For — And Deal With — Feedback
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. III: Learn From Your Writing Heroes
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. IV: Practice Makes Perfect (Or: Write More!)
Becoming A Better Writer Pt. V: Adjust Your Expectations

If you want to read more like this, let me send future articles straight to your inbox:


Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee


How Do You Invest In Your Writing?

Consider the poor golfer. A cheap set of clubs costs $250, and he quickly finds himself tweaking his collection of clubs (a nice new 3-wood for $179, anyone?). Country club dues are rarely less than a couple of thousand a year. Writing, by comparison, is a cheap gig, but that doesn’t mean you should invest nothing! Let’s talk about how you’ll invest time in your writing this year…

Brandon Jackson Lambeau Leap

Writing is cheap.

All it takes is your brain and some way of recording your creations.

Writing’s low-cost-of-entry makes it the perfect low-risk creative activity …and therein lies the danger.

If you are investing nothing in your writing, what’s to stop you giving up when it gets hard?

I’m here today to make a case that you should consider investing more in your writing this year than you have before.

How To Invest In Your Writing

It might mean you buy more books on the craft of writing.

It might mean hiring a babysitter or a cleaning service from time to time, or negotiating chore-swaps with family members to buy yourself more time to write.

It might simply mean that you spend your time more wisely: actually writing instead of watching TV or browsing writing blogs (a-hem).

It might mean you join a writer’s group, or take an online course, or attend a writer’s conference.

My Writing Investments 2012 – A Case Study

Writing is my hobby, my avocation and my job. And even I don’t spend that much on it.

I consider last year a big year for writing expenditures:

  • 25+ books related to writing, StoryADay (plus well-written books I wanted to read for the joy of it) ($250+ and yes, I could have used the library!)
  • Writer’s Digest Writers’ Conference in NYC – to develop craft and network ($600+ with travel and accommodation)
  • Attended BookExpoAmerica to network ($200+ with travel)
  • Joined ML Writer’s Group (and paid my dues) to hang out with other writers, learn from them, share with them. ($25/year plus cost of dinner at monthly meeting.)
  • Bought notebooks that I enjoy writing in and quadrille paper that I can plan things out on. ($50?)
  • Bought apps to help with note-keeping and planning ($10-20)
  • Hosting for StoryADay.org (I consider StoryADay and the people who hang out there, part of my writing development. So thanks for being part of it!) ($100)
  • Business cards for StoryADay.org ($25)
  • Entry fees for three or four writing competitions ($5-20 each)
  • Used WorldCat to find local college libraries with books I needed for research (free).
  • Participated more in an online writers’ community I find fruitful (free).

My outlays were less than $2000 for the year.

My biggest-ticket items were the two trips to NYC for conferences (particularly the Writers’ Digest one.). I could have replicated some of that with a cheaper conference, closer to home, but for me at that particular time this was the right choice and I was fortunate to be able to afford it.

Happily, the return on my investments was HUGE. In the past year I’ve made massive strides in terms of craft, professional development, networking with fellow writers, in output and in simply  *seeing myself as a writer* (which is not to be underestimated). I made good connections and set up some new opportunities. I expect at least some of those investments to pay off in really interesting ways this year.

The Cost Of Other Activities – Comparative Case Studies

Now consider the poor golfer. A cheap set of clubs costs $250, and he quickly finds himself tweaking his collection of clubs (a nice new 3-wood for $179, anyone?). Country club dues are rarely less than a couple of thousand a year. Hiring a golf cart for every round might be $40 and some clubs have monthly restaurant minimums (use it or lose it). Even if he plays as a guest he’s looking at $50-$100 per round (or more), plus cart fee and dining costs. And what about lessons? And the cost of hitting the driving range in the winter when the course is snowed out?

My spendy year is starting to look kind of frugal, now!

And what about the ardent football fan? The cheapest tickets to see my local football team are $60 a game (if you can get them). If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan and are lucky enough to have a blood relative who’s willing to sign over their season tickets to you, it’ll set you back $1400 per seat just for the transfer after which you are obliged to buy ten tickets a year (at an average price of $260 per seat per game).

It Isn’t All Or Nothing, Is It?

Of course not.

There are plenty of people who tell you going to games is over-rated. They’re happy to party at home and watch the game on their big-screen TV with a few friends, but even that ain’t free (TV: $800-2000, DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscription $199-300/year, nachos and beer, $200+/year).

Or you could watch the game for the price of a couple of Bud Lights (and maybe a babysitter) at your local bar. But I’m willing to be that the most ardent fan in the bar has, at some point, wondered if they might be happier with a season ticket in their back pocket.

And every writer with a pencil and paper has wondered if things might be easier with a word-processor. Every mystery writer has wondered if there might be tricks they could learn from more experienced writers. Every professional in every field needs instruction if they are to progress.

You Don’t Need Season Tickets (But Going To A Game Or Two Might Be Nice)

You don’t have to spend $4000 a year on tickets to call yourself a Packers fan.

You don’t have to spend thousands on courses and books and conferences to develop your writing.

But at some point you’re probably going to feel the pull to subscribe to a writers’ magazine. Or join a group. Or take a course. Or go to a conference.

Deciding What’s Right For You

When my friend told me she’d been offered the chance of taking over some family season tickets to the Green Bay Packers, she told me about the transfer fees and the ticket prices and the hours-in-the-car-with-kids-there-and-back. Oh and the windchill.  My jaw dropped lower and lower and my eyes clearly read “You must be crazy!”.

But that’s because I know nothing about football culture. I’m not from Wisconsin. (I’m not even from the US!). I didn’t know that people sign their babies up to the Packers’ waiting list before they even sign the birth certificate. People deed their place on the waiting list to their heirs in their wills! Season-ticket holders sell unused tickets to other people, and there’s never a shortage of buyers. Oh, and she and her husband are huge fans, who go to games whenever they can.

$1400 a seat for a transfer fee? In that context? She’d be crazy NOT to take on the tickets. I hope my ignorant reaction didn’t color her decision.

Likewise, be careful who you ask for advice when you’re considering traveling thousands of miles and spending hundreds of dollars to attend a conference about writing (which, after all, we all learned to do by the time we were seven, right?).

Another writer may see the value in that. Your golf-playing buddy may not.

Even another writer, at a different stage in their development, may not see the value of the investment you want to make in your writing.

Don’t let anyone derail you.

Likewise, don’t assume that because a conference, or a course, or a book is popular and/or expensive, that it is a ‘must’ for you. My Cheesehead friends had to consider whether, with three small children, the tickets were a sensible investment for them in their real lives not as an abstract idea.

Take some time to think about your goals. Interrogate every opportunity to spend time or money on your craft as it comes along.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this get me closer to my goal of being a fiction writer? And what kind of fiction?
  • Does this conference focus too much on trying to ‘be published’ and less on developing my writing?
  • Have I taken all the classes  I can stomach on “better dialogue” and should I be moving on to figuring out how to submit to magazines?
  • Do you have a good writing friend you can correspond with (like Emily Dickinson) or do you need to join a writers’ group (think: Shelly, Byron, Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Keats!)

How Will You Invest In Your Writing This Year?

What have you been doing to develop  your writing and what will you do to step it up this year?

  • Been writing a few stories here and there? How about committing to a story every month (or even, dare I suggest, a story a day in May?)
  • Reading only fiction? Why not add some non-fiction, to expand the knowledge you bring to your fiction?
  • Are you writing and reviewing your work alone? Perhaps its time to join a critique group or sign up for a writers’ conference.
  • Read enough inspirational blogs and books about writing? Perhaps its time to try something that has a curriculum (a workbook,  or home-study class.)

Parting Points

You are allowed to spend time and money on writing. It’s as important to you as football is to people who claim to ‘bleed green’ (or ‘blue’ or ‘orange’ or whatever). And probably cheaper.

You must make your own decisions about what you need in your writing life right now, and pursue those things.

You — and your stories — are important. Do whatever you can to stalk those stories, capture them, and share them with us. We need them.

 

Keep writing!