The Sloth’s Secret to Writing Success

Sloth

Recently, naturalists announced that the sloth — the animal whose name has become a synonym for laziness — is actually a lot more active than previously thought. It turns out that when we cage them and observe them, we don’t see what’s really going on in the sloth’s world.

Today I have a great guest post for you from Susan Daffron, a writer and publishing consultant. She shows us how, as writers, the times when our minds are  most fertile and active, might — to an observer — look like the times when we are being, well, slothful. She shows us that productivity for writers makes its own demands, and how to succeed by embracing that.

(You can read more about Susan’s upcoming publishing conference at the end of the article).

Then, leave your comments about how you will jump-start your creativity at the end of the article and you’ll be entered to win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes – a great creativity booster in a box!


 

 

As a writer, I’ve gone through periods of extreme productivity and extreme sloth. Although I have written 12 books, last year in 2010, I released exactly zero.

For a variety of personal and business-related reasons, I went through a creative burnout like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Writing, which had always been fairly easy for me in the past, was suddenly extremely difficult.

Climbing Out Of A Slump

I also discovered that the less I wrote, the less I wanted to write. Talk about a lack of productivity!

I spent some time looking back at what happened during my creative slump. I realized my lack of writing productivity stemmed from three issues:

1. Lack of ideas. The stressful events I experienced caused my creativity to simply shut down. To jumpstart my mind, I surfed to online writing sites (like StoryaDay.org!),  used random-word and writing-prompt generators, and started talking to my husband about my various writing thoughts for outside feedback and support.

2. Lack of motivation. As noted, a bunch of things that happened last year brought me down. Creativity does not flow when you’re depressed. I decided to make a commitment to exercising and started reading more inspirational materials on creativity, writing, and life balance. (The library is full of wonderful FREE books just waiting to be read!)

3. Lack of time. You’ve read it before, but I’ll say it again: you have time to write if you make time to write. During my slump, I wasn’t working smart. Part of me already knew it, but I had to forcibly reacquaint myself with the methods I’d used in the past to carve out real productive writing time. I opted to make a commitment to write every morning and also started thinking up ideas for articles and posts the night before. “Sleeping on” a writing idea really works!

And The Winner Is…

I’m happy to report that the old adage “writers write” is true. Since I got my writing mojo back again, I have been writing regularly. I have my next book completely outlined and 19 case studies/interviews input so far. I’ll be speaking at a conference this summer and plan to release the book in time for it. (Deadlines help motivation too!)

If you’re a writer who wants to publish, you can get inspiration and learn more about the book publishing process at the Self-Publishers Online Conference. The third annual event is May 10-12, 2011 (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) Use the code SusanSentMe and get 10% off your registration!


Susan Daffron, aka The Book Consultant (http://www.TheBookConsultant.com) owns a book and software publishing company. She spends most of her time writing, laying out books in InDesign, or taking her five dogs out for romps in the forest. She also teaches people how to write and publish profitable client-attracting books and puts on the Self-Publishers Online conference (http://www.SelfPublishersOnlineConference.com) every May.


Win! Win! Win!

Leave a comment with your best tips for jump-starting creativity and win a copy of Rory’s Story Cubes, a wonderful dice game that doubles as a story-telling tool. Roll the dice and make a story from the extremely cute images on the dice. Brilliant for days when you’re stalled and need to regain your mojo.

Special thanks to Rory O’Connor and the lovely folks at Gamewright Games for donating this prize.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

I have a subscription to Storyville, on my iPhone, because I’m a sucker for new business models and digital publishing, and I’m enjoying being exposed to a wide array of stories (old and new) every week.

This week’s story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li, slowly unfolds the story of a couple, past the first flush of youth, meeting and deciding whether or not to marry. The story is set in modern-day Beijing. The woman in the story has lived there all her life, hardly noticing that she is aging and becoming a spinster, while the bachelor son of her old college professor has been off living in America.

It is anything but a cliched romance, though I will say that it has a satisfying ending. The author is quite skilled at making the characters and their culture seem complete and real without losing their interesting edge.

I liked the indirect way we learn about the characters and their backstories, as in this remark about the professor,

“Professor Dai must miss her students these days,” Siuy said after she and Hanfeng had exchanged greetings, although she knew it was not the students that his mother missed but the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals.

All the revelations about the characters are measured and careful, just like the characters. The whole story is a skilled blend of what we are told and how it is told, leading us to accept the ending and even agree with the choices the characters make.

It’s worth remembering that how a story is told can contribute as much to the reader’s experience as the things we write.

[Write On Wednesdays] Escape

Tomorrow is the birth date of escapologist and magician Harry Houdini, so it seems a good time to write a story about escape.

Conversely today marks the 10th anniversary of the Russian Space Station Mir falling back to the Earth that had held it in is gravitational embrace for so long. Mir never really escaped from Earth, but it did soar above us, suggesting the promise of escape to those of us who look to the stars in our dreams.

photo courtesy of NASA

The prompt

Write a story about escape – or the failure to escape.

This week, try starting in the middle of the action and unpacking the back story as you go.

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesdays] Escape”

How To Fail At Story-Telling

“What if my stories are no good? What if I fail?”

This is possibly the most powerful thing holding us back.

FAIL stamp

We can find or make time if we really want to. Even if the power lines went down and the world ran out of paper, we could tell our stories out loud, around campfires as of old.

The most insightful of us understand that success brings its own stresses and that worries us.(Imagine if your first novel was a best-seller. Where would you go from there?!)

But the thing that really stops us?

Fear of failure.

Good News! Failure is Good For You!

Continue reading “How To Fail At Story-Telling”

10 Great Sites For Writing Prompts – Updated Feb 2016!

writing prompt logoIt’s the Number 1 question authors are asked in interviews: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Of course, a large part of being a writer is having ideas, harnessing them, molding them. But we all have days when the ideas aren’t coming. We still want to write, but where to start?

Here are 8 sites that provide writing prompts.

StoryADay.org Writing Prompts

Starting in our own backyard, you can check out StoryADay’s very own writing prompts. During Story A Day May I post daily prompts, Every Wednesday in other months I post WriteOnWednesday challenges, where you can post right in the comments and get some immediate feedback.

A Month of Writing Prompts 2014Each prompt is intentionally ambiguous, adaptable to any genre and style, and comes with a list of tips to help you delve deeper into the ideas. Try one today or download a copy of the 2014 StoryADay May writing prompts ebook, for free.

 

DIYMFA Writer Igniter

Easily the most fun prompt generator around: hit a button and spin! The Writer Igniter generates a fresh Character, Situation, Prop and Setting (with a picture for the setting). Useful for sparking an idea when you need a quick writing hit.

Writers’ Digest Writing Prompts

Weekly writing prompts from the ultimate writers’ magazine. You can post 500 words about the prompt in the blog comments and see what other people have posted.

Tumblr

Anytime a Tumblr user tags their post as “Writing Prompt”, it’ll pop up in on this page. There is a strong (and youngish) writing community on Tumblr, serious about their art. Definitely worth bookmarking.

Writing Prompts That Don’t Suck

Over 600 writing prompts, mostly one-liners and snippets of dialogue and word lists (which can be surprisingly productive).

CreativeWriting Prompts

Never again can you say that you have nothing to write. Creative Writing Prompts lists 346 prompts all on one page — that’s almost one for every day of the year. Hover your mouse over a number to generate a prompt. More for journaling than short story writing, but still useful.

Writing Fix

These prompts seem to be aimed at kids, but they work for me! There are journal prompts and prompts for creative writing. I love that they have them separated into Right Brain prompts and Left Brain Prompts, among other things. You can choose from among different types of prompts too: story starters, titles, themes, character descriptions, tone, even prepositional phrases!

Reddit Writing Prompts SubReddit

A collection of user-submitted prompts. Often skewed towards apocalytic/sci-fi/fantasy/horror topics, this is the place to go if you like to write dark!

The Teacher’s Corner

This site is aimed at teachers who give their students a period of free-writing or journal writing ever day, but it can work for any writer. You can use them for freewriting/morning pages/writing practice, or you might use them to spark ideas for seasonal stories (which publications love). The prompts are batched by month and often relate to themes and historical events from that month. Well worth checking out, especially if you are trying to do morning pages/journaling to warm up your writing day.

Poets & Writers Prompts

This page posts three different prompts every week: one for creative non-fiction, one for poetry, and one for fiction. Often the fiction prompt is ‘write a scene in a story that…’, but sometimes it prompts you to write a whole story, and it usually illustrates you how to think more deeply about the idea.

Get a free 17-page creativity workbook when you sign up for more articles like this



[Write On Wednesday] – Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras 2008
Photo by Michael Nyika

Yesterday was Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Carnevale, Fastnacht, whatever you choose to call it.

In countries around the world, people celebrated in advance of the sombre season of Lent, which starts today. Poeple around the world celebrated, even if they aren’t participating in the penance-fest that is the Lenten season.

Write a story that features a big, last blow-out before a change, echoing the idea of Mardi Gras.

(It might be a stag night, the last meal at a diner before an old man goes into a nursing home, or it might be Mardi Gras in New Orleans, itself. And don’t forget, you can write it from the perspective of the day after, too!)

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in your story (however tenuous the connection).
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post the story in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Don’t miss my Mardi Gras story: http://bit.ly/el8ltW #WriteOnWed #storyaday

Laissez les bon temps roulez! It’s still Mardi Gras at #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://bit.ly/el8ltW

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “Mardi Gras”: http://bit.ly/el8ltW #storyaday

Come and write with us: http://bit.ly/el8ltW #WriteOnWed #storyaday

See my story – and write your own, today: http://bit.ly/el8ltW #WriteOnWed #storyaday

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

With thanks to my friends at Creative Copy Challenge for inspiration and support. Go to Creative Copy Challenge every day for a new writing prompt and supportive community of writers.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Man of The House by Frank O’Connor

from Fifty Great Short Stories(Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

This story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1949, is a wonderful example of how every line in a short story should contribute to the story, the plot or the characterization. That’s tough to do, so don’t be discouraged if your first draft isn’t as good as Mr O’Connor’s New-Yorker-ready version! It is, however, a goal worth keeping in mind.

Man Of The House

The story’s opening is crammed with short, efficient sentences that do an amazing job of setting the scene,

“When I woke, I heard my mother coughing, below in the kitchen.”

We don’t know yet, when the story is set, but we have a setting – a home, where the main character still lives with his/her mother. The mother is up early, in the kitchen, probably fixing breakfast.

“She had been coughing for days, but I had paid no attention.”

That sounds callous, but consistent with what we discover about the narrator: that his is a ten year old boy. It also sets up a tension that carries right through to the end: what is wrong with the mother. Will she survive? Will he be paid back for his callous disregard of her? When a line like “I had paid no attention’ is offered up right a the start of the story, it makes me nervous!

The third sentence (we’re still only 24 words into the story here) is completely natural and conversational, easily rooting the story in its geographical place, painting a picture of it and, at the same time, letting us know that this was happening some time ago,

“We were living on the Old Youghal road at the time, the old hilly coaching road into East Cork.”

All that from 19 words. I love it!

The rest of this paragraph paints a picture of both the mother and the narrator that puts us firmly on their side and rooting for them both,

“The coughing sounded terrible. I dressed and went downstairs in my stocking feet, and in the clear morning light I saw her, unaware that she was being watched, collapsed into a little wickerwork armchair, hoding her side. She had made an attempt to light the fire, but it had gone against her. She looked so tired and helpless that my heart turned over with compassion. I ran to her.”

Isn’t that a great opening?

Voice

The story is mostly told in one voice — that of the 10 yr old boy — but from time to time the voice of the older version of the boy creeps in, now grown up and telling us the story, judging, explaining. In one glaring example the narrator voices an opinion that will enrage most of the women (and some of the men) reading it, when he casually opines,

“It’s a funny thing about women, how they’ll take orders from anything in trousers, even if it’s only ten.”

Not a very modern, politically-correct attitude and it is the one line that makes the story seem old-fashioned. The rest of it seems fixed in a particular time, but also pretty timeless: a small boy is struggling between childhood and responsibility; sometimes he’s good; sometimes he fails; how he feels about it all. We’ve all been 10 [1. with apologies to any younger readers out there. You’re even better placed to understand this character!]. We’ve all struggled with the passage from childhood to adulthood, whether in rural Ireland or a suburb or a city.

But even that one jarring line serves an important purpose in the story. It’s not just in there because the writer wants to tell us something about his character’s attitude towards women. It tells us the age of the boy in the story, and that there is no way he should be the titular man of the house. It also tells us a thing or two about his mother in particular, (and you could argue that it talks about her only, rather than women as a whole, if the line makes you uncomfortable).

Most of the time, though, the world is presented to us through the voice of the ten year old from a particular time and place.

“In the afternoon, my mother wanted me to run out and play, but I didn’t go far. I knew if once I went a certain distance from the house, I was liable to stray into temptation. Below our house, there was a glen, the drill field of the barracks perched high above it on a chalky cliff, and below, in a deep hollow, the millpond and millstream running between wooded hills — the Rockies, the Himalayas, or the HIghlands, according to your mood. Once down there, I tended to forget the real world…”

He notices the things a ten year old boy would notice: the barracks where the soldiers live, the millpond where you could find creepy crawly things, and the hills, a setting for imagined adventures.

Plot & Suspense

The story continues to take our likable little hero away from home and into temptation. Whether he resists and whether he has to pay for his sins are the questions that kept me turning the pages faster and faster until I reached the end.


Is your writing economical or more wordy? Which point-of-view do you use most often in short stories? Are your ‘voices’ distinctive?
Tell us in the comments:


How To Become An Insanely Productive Writer

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

Laptop lady
Laptop Lady by Aidan McMichael (used with permission)

If you really want to become a good writer, in this lifetime, you have to write. You have to write a lot.

Here are seven of the best tips from last year’s StoryADay participants, to help you become an insanely productive, happy and sane writer. Plus one bonus tip and a question for you, at the end.

“Nothing will work until you do.”
-Maya Angelou

Insanely Productive? Yes, Please!

1. Have ideas ready to go

There is nothing worse than carving out some time to write and then being stuck for a place to start. So start now: pay attention to all the ideas you have, all the time, when you are away from your desk. Carry a notebook around. Capture snippets of conversation, what ifs that occur to you as you people-watch, thoughts spurred by other people’s stories. Write them all down, ready to be picked up again when you sit down to write.

2. Write First

When you sit down to write, actually write. Don’t check email, don’t check Twitter, don’t even check the StADa site (unless you need the daily prompt). Just leaf through your ideas until you find one you can work with, and go. Turn off your email notifications, close all the browser windows. Don’t worry about fonts and formatting or whether it’ll be any good. Just write.

@Gabi If I think too much about writing before I actually start doing it, I tend to psych myself out. Instead I just start writing and before I know it, I’ve got a bunch of words on the page and it’s time to call it a day.

3. Keep writing until you finish

Starting stories is all very well, but anyone can do that. The point of StADa is to help you learn to craft a whole, finished story. Keep writing until you finish. Even if you hate it, keep writing. You’ll thank me later.

4. Unless you must take a break

Obviously, if your kids are screaming or someone comes to the door to tell you you’ve won $10million in the lottery, or your boss calls to ask where you are, you might have to get up from your desk before your story is finished. In which case, go. But keep thinking about your story. Leave it in the middle of a sentence, so that you’re ready to leap back in, and go. But keep thinking about it. When you’re walking to the coffee machine, wonder what your characters will do next. When you’re doing some menial, mindless task (can you tell I’m a mother?) let your mind wander and picture how you’re going to resolve the central mystery of your story. If someone turns on a radio, listen to how people talk and steal yourself some dialogue.

@KristenRudd says: “My trick so far is to mull my story all day, while I’m doing whatever it is I do. I think about the directions it could go, but I mostly think about how to open it. Then, when I can finally sit down after the kids are in bed, the dishes are washed, and I’ve done everything else that needs doing, I’m excited about the story that’s been buzzing all day.

5. Make it priority #1

You can put off watching TV shows and you can turn down an occasional invitation for coffee without your life falling apart. Tell people you’re working on your writing this month, that you’ll be a better friend next month (maybe). Take some time to make your writing your top priority. You’ll always wonder, if you don’t, what you could have achieved. Explain to friends that you are investing in your dream of becoming a writer, just as they might make time to invest in a course of golf lessons or an art workshop. If you want to take your writing seriously you will find that something’s got to give, but the good news is: that could be the housework!

StADa: How do you make time for writing?
@AdorablyAlice This is a good question. And when I have an answer that doesn’t involve neglecting chores/cooking, I’ll let you know.

6. Write Wherever/Whenever You Can

It’s tempting to think that you need solitude, silence and a particular pen to be able to write, but that’s a rookie mistake. Professional writers write wherever and whenever they can squeeze in some time.

  • Ray Bradbury rented a typewriter in a typing room in the basement of a library and typed until time ran out. That couldn’t have been quiet or private or relaxing, but he’s one of the most prolific writers around.
  • Stephen King wrote in a passageway in the back of a trailer, with two toddlers, a wife and a full-time job in a laundry jostling for his attention.
  • PD James worked for the Home Office by day, visited her sick  husband in hospital on the weekends, and put her two daughters to bed alone, and wrote her first novel — all during the London Blitz!

You may need some peace and quiet to get a story started, but once you’re up and running, write! Write when ever you have 15 minutes, wherever you are, with whatever comes to hand. Write!

(Hint: you full-time workers have the gnawing envy of stay-at-home parents of young children: you get a lunch break. Are you sneaking off somewhere and using it for writing?)

7. Be realistic

You’re not going to write an epic or a polished draft in a day. You’re going to write something and it’ll likely be bewtween 30 and 2000 words. The more frequently you write and finish a story, the more you’ll get a sense for how to pace yourself and your story. Don’t waste time on backstory or explaining anything at the  beginning. Jump in half way through and unpack the story as you go. Some of it will be terrible, some of it you will learn from and some of it might even be quite good. On a good day you’ll write a character you’re proud of or make yourself smile with a twist, or discover you can write really convincingly about a gardener.

@GabiOnly a handful of the stories are worth keeping and working on. One of them has spawned into an idea for a middle-grade book that I am in love with.

Every lesson enriches your writing. Every day you practice, you’re one step closer to Carnegie Hall.

Bonus Tip: Be part of a community.

I know a lot of us are loners (I certainly crave my ‘alone’ time) so the idea of joining a community seems strange. But one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in the past year is the value of having people on your side, people who understand what it’s like try to write, people who are rooting for you (because if you can do it, maybe they can too).It was incredibly inspiring to drop in to the StoryADay.org forums during May – and afterwards ‘meet up’ with people on Twitter – and trade stories of how our writing day is going.

Join our Serious Writers’ Accountability Group (SWAGr) and post your goals for this month…today! (We’re “Serious”, not sombre. All are welcome!)

Thanks to all the previous participants for their comments and suggestions, quoted here or otherwise.


What do you do to keep writing? Share  your best tips in the comments.



To be among the first to hear when sign-ups open for this year’s challenge sign up for the Advance Notice List. (No spam. Just StoryADay.org news)



Write-On-Wednesdays – Embrace Your Inner Sadist

If you saw the comments on last week’s post 6 Reasons You’ll Never Be A Writer, you’ll know that one reasons touched a nerve with a lot of people:

#6: You’re Too Nice

Commenter Michelle Kobayashi captured the mood when she said:

“My first 17 chapters were very nice. There was little conflict and the characters worked out their issues reasonably.

“It sucked.

“Then I learned about inciting incidents and the need for conflict. That’s when the fun began. One character in particular is so rude I cringe when I reread her scenes. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Embrace your inner sadist indeed!”

(Thanks to Donald Maass for the catchy slogan at the end there!)

Seems like this is something ia lot of us need practise with. So,

The Prompt

Shout ! ! !
Photo by lempicki.maciek

Write a scene featuring a truly loathsome (but believable) character. They don’t have to be a Disney Villain. It could be that really annoying person at work who has no redeeming qualities that you can find, no matter how hard you try.

Dig deep. Remember how annoying, frustrating, irritating your least favorite person in the world is. Pair them up with your favorite hero-type and give them a scene.

Then let your hero say all the things you’ve rehearsed in your head but would never say, because you’re just, well, too nice.

Let it all out. Make us (and yourself) cringe.

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in some way in your story (however tenuous the connection)
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post your scene in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Embracing My Inner Sadist: http://bit.ly/ehx03t #WriteOnWed #storyaday

I never knew I could be so mean! #WriteOnWed #storyaday http://bit.ly/ehx03t

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “Embrace Your Inner Sadist″: http://bit.ly/ehx03t

Come and write with us today: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday

See my story – and write your own: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

With thanks to my friends at Creative Copy Challenge for inspiration and support. Go to Creative Copy Challenge every day for a new writing prompt and supportive community of writers.


Tuesday Reading Room – Brooksmith by Henry James

from Fifty Great Short Stories (Milton Crane, Ed. Bantam Classics reissued 2005)

I don’t know much about Henry James, though I have struggled through more of his short stories than I have novels. I’ve never formally studied his writing, so don’t know what the prevailing literary criticism theories are…but I can tell you this: I dislike his characters and I dislike his outlook and I always end up, as I did at the end of this story, wanting to punch at least one of the characters in the nose.

Which is, I suppose a kind of a compliment to the writer.

Brooksmith by Henry James

As much as I say I don’t ‘like’ Henry James’s stories, I do recognise the work of a master craftsman. (I wonder if I would have liked him any better if he had been writing today [1. Probably not.])

The first thing I admired about this story was the way he pulled me in right from the first sentence. You might not think of the slow-paced Henry James novels as belonging on the same shelf as Ian Fleming or James Patterson, but there is, nonetheless, plenty of suspense to keep the reader hooked:

We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver Offord, but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other.

Who was the late Mr. Oliver Offord and why do his friends only ‘chance to meet’ and share a ‘certain esoteric respect’ – and what does that really mean?

James continues to ratchet up the suspense in the very next sentence,

“Yes, you too have been in Arcadia,” we seem not too grumpily to allow.

Why was it “Arcadia” (and why would they ordinarily be grumpy with each other)?

The story turns out not to be about Mr Offord at all, but about his butler, Brooksmith and the perils of allowing the servant class to rise above their station.

I’m not sure which side Henry James would really have taken on the issue of class and station, but his narrator has a very fixed, extremely anti-egalitarian viewpoint that makes him supremely unsympathetic to the modern reader.

He is, however, so unrelentingly shaped by his societal norms that he is absolutely believable and ‘true’ – and loathsome, I might add.

It really struck me — after putting down this book with a sneer on my face and a punchy urge in my fist — that my writing could benefit from a bit more loathesomeness. I’m really a very nice person, trained in life to be fair and tolerant and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But being well-brought-up can create a tendency to be too nice to my characters, too forgiving.

If I want to create characters as ‘true’ and real as Brooksmith‘s unworthy narrator, I have to risk creating characters that someone 111 years from now might want to punch.


What do you do to make your characters ‘real’? Please do leave a comment!


6 Reasons You Will Never Be A Writer

Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If you’re making any of these six classic mistakes…

Wondering when you’ll reap the fame and fortune that come with your dream of being a writer? Well, probably never. If:

1. You don’t read

The Writers' Museum
The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh by Peter Nijenhuis

At least, not the right things. You read all the books on writing and polishing and publishing, and all the books that literary critics are praising, but nothing of any real value. You don’t read books that light a fire under you, you don’t read in your genre, you don’t read non-fiction for fun and inspiration.  You don’t have an Audible membership or a library card and you couldn’t name a book that has meant anything to you since you turned 20.

If you were learning to be an accountant you’d study accounting law. If you were studying to be a doctor you would read medical books. Stephen King, in On Writing calls it the Great Commandment: Reada lot, write a lot.

“Read, read, read, Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.”

-William Faulkner.

2. You’re too busy to write

You’re not independently wealthy: you’ve got a job, a family, commitments, a social life, a pressing engagement with the cast of Glee! You can’t possibly squeeze any time out of your day to write.

Jon Scalzi, current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America puts it bluntly and truthfully:

So: Do you want to write or don’t you? If your answer is “yes, but,” then here’s a small editing tip: what you’re doing is using six letters and two words to say “no.” And that’s fine. Just don’t kid yourself as to what “yes, but” means.

You can make time to write, but something else is probably going to have to give. It might be sleep, it might be ‘watching Ellen in the afternoon’, it might be having lunch with the same people every day in the dreary work cafeteria. It might be ‘feeling bad about yourself because you’re not getting any writing done and eating ice cream instead’.

But, chances are, you can make time to write.

3. You have no original ideas

Every time you sit down to write you are paralyzed by the overwhelming feeling that everything has been said before. Well, you know what? You’re right. But it hasn’t been said by you, in this time and place, at your age, and in your circumstances. Agent Donald Maas talks a lot in The Breakout Novelist about the difference between ‘original’ and ‘unique’. You don’t have to be original, but you do have to be ‘unique’.

I once interviewed Daniel Pinkwater and he said the same thing: only you can speak in your voice, and if you write for a while you’ll discover what that voice is.

I love that what my readers need, they can only get from me. It’s riskier, but much more ego-gratifying
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

He also said,

Ideas are everywhere. I have 60 ideas a day. So do you. So does everybody.
-Daniel Pinkwater, 2003 interview

The trick is paying attention, taking those ideas and developing them into the story only you can tell.

4. You have no qualifications for this. You don’t know what you’re doing

No writer does. Every artist is engaged in creating something unique and new. Experienced writers say this all the time: I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. Here’s a little evidence:

The only way to write is to write… Stupid b*****d job.
-Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale

Very few writers know what they are doing until they have done it.
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

You can’t completely understand what good writers do until you try it yourself…Write from the very beginning, then, and keep on writing…The next story will be better, and the next one after that still better, and eventually—
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

5. Your Writing Sucks

When you do make the time to write, it’s hard. The words do not come dripping off your pen easily; all the elements in your story don’t come out in the right order; your characters are flat and uninteresting and they speak in cliches; you want to give up.

And that is what Anne Lammot calls your ‘shitty first draft’. It has to be got through in order to get to the second draft, the third, and the polished end result. If you are too scared to suck, too scared to fail then you will never be a writer, because all writing involves putting some truly terrible prose on the page — and excising it later or, like William Faulkner, throw it out entirely and start again,

Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
-William Faulkner

Sure, it’s scary but even the great and prolific Isaac Asimov says, of the writer’s daily task:

We sit there alone, pounding out words, with out hearts pounding in time. Each sentence brings with it the sickening sensation of not being right.
-Isaac Asimov, Gold

Can you allow your first drafts to be less than perfect?

6. You’re Too Nice

In real life it’s nice to be nice: people like you, you offend nobody and your mother is proud of you.

In literature, being nice doesn’t pay. It’s boring if nothing happens, if no-one gets upset, if no-one is threatened, insulted, shamed, murdered, even. Your writing can be your playground. Be nice in real life if you must but, in your writing,

Embrace your inner sadist.
-Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist


I’d love to hear which of these touched a nerve with you. Let me know in the comments which part of your writing life you’re struggling with the most at the moment? Has it changed over time?

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If you’re feeling inspired to write now, why not check out some of the StoryADay Writing Prompts? You might want to start with some Flash Fiction, to warm up.


Write-On-Wednesdays – 2001: A Short Odyssey

Introducing Write On Wednesdays: a weekly warm-up for all endurance writers.  Wednesday is the day we limber up for the challenge of writing a story a month; or keep the muscles warm after the challenge is over. No point getting all those creative muscles in shape only to let them atrophy!

The Prompt

What might you – or a character very like you – have been doing on this afternoon ten years ago? Write a short story that springs from a circumstance or character from your life in February 2001.

OK, so we weren’t traveling to moon bases and stopping off on rotating space stations, but there was a lot of other stuff going on. Remember, this was post-Millennium Bug, pre-9/11 (but only by 7 months), after the first dotcom bubble had burst but before the banking/mortgage collapse. Friends and Seinfeld were still on the air but American Idol was not. “Reality” TV was just about to take over from quiz shows as the new money spinner for networks and no-one was watching video online yet.

What was life like all those years ago? Take us back.

The Rules:

  1. You should use the prompt in some way in your story (however tenuous the connection)
  2. You must write the story in one 24 hr period – the faster the better.
  3. Post the story in the comments — if you’re brave enough.
  4. Find something nice to say about someone else’s story and leave a comment. Everybody needs a little support!

Optional Extras:

Share this challenge on Twitter or Facebook

Some tweets/updates you might use:

Travel back in time to Feb 2001: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

What were you doing 10 years ago? Is there a story there? #WriteOnWed http://t.co/OpHsJ04

This week’s #WriteOnWed short story prompt is “2001”: hhttp://t.co/OpHsJ04

Come and write with us: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

See my story – and write your own: http://t.co/OpHsJ04 #WriteOnWed #storyaday #wow

If you would like to be the Guest Prompter, click here.

With thanks to my friends at Creative Copy Challenge for inspiration and support. Go to Creative Copy Challenge every day for a new writing prompt and supportive community of writers.