In this conversation with award-winning writer Rachel Swearingen we talk about how to build a writing practice that grows with you, the art of writing short and long fiction the importance of play, her residency in Berlin and about some of her short stories and how they came to be written.
Next time we’ll talk about her favorite stories of her own and the writers she admires, working in short fiction now. We also talk about the importance of community for writers, and then Rachel turns the tables on me!
Rachel Swearingen is the author of “How to Walk on Water and other short stories” which received the New American Press Fiction Prize.
This simple phrase changed everything for me, this week.
This was a massive (and kinda obvious) disruption to my thought processes this week. It goes deeper than simple fixes, but is much more likely to have a real impact on your writing life…and your quality of life. Enjoy!
Everyone you know seems to be preparing for National Novel Writers’ Month. Are you?
I’ve done a few challenges in my time (from StoryADay to NaNoWriMo) and I have some questions for you about how you’re preparing and what you’ll do instead-of/as-well-as outlining to sustain you through the month.
This week we take a look at the publishing industry, your goals, and how you can become endlessly inspired and creative…
Learning about the realities of the publishing industry can free you to create your own definition of success (that may or may not include traditional publishers). Step 1 towards success is to imagine your vision. Step 2 is to turn up for your writing, something the new StoryAWeek newsletter can help with!
In the middle of the 20th Century “Art” because professionalized, to the point where we felt we didn’t deserve to tell stories unless a New York publishing house was slapping it between hardcovers, or an overpriced university program anointed us “Writer, MFA”.
This was an aberration; a moment in history that did not exist before and does not exist now.
Humans have always sat around and told each other stories, without the benefit of editors or tutors or anyone giving us permission. We told stories to audiences, and we gauged their reaction in order to make our stories better next time.
The success of the “amateurs doing things on TV” genre (American Idol, The Voice, Dancing With The Stars) along with the boom in indie publishing, indie movie making, indie everything making, are signs that the artificial workshop of creative professionals is over. Humans are taking back control of our own creativity.
Tell your stories. Show them to people. Make them better. Write new stories. That’s all there is to it.
You have every right to write. In fact, print out this certificate and write your name on it.
There’s a scene towards the end of the movie WALL-E when the captain of the only remaining human ark-in-space realizes it’s time to go home to Earth. They’ve been away for generations. By any reasonable measure, he’s been successful. His ship is still flying. His people are still alive and procreating. Everything is running smoothly.
But, in his research, the captain falls down a hyperlinked-rabbit-hole of cultural practices that humanity has simply forgotten.
“Computer,” he says, prompted by the previous entry. “Define: dancing.”
Imagine an existence where we’ve forgotten about dancing! Would you consider that kind of existence ‘successful’?
Decorate your calendar with a sticker every day you write.
At the end of the month, step back and gaze at the ‘heat map’ of your work progress. Hopefully there’ll be enough ’stickered’ days to make you smile. If not, make a commitment now to do better next month.
KEEPING YOUR GOALS REALISTIC
If you can make an unbroken chain of those days that’s great. But bewarE! Setting so high a bar can backfire. What happens the first time life gets in the way and you miss a day? You feel terrible. You get demotivated. You quit.
Rather, I’d suggest setting a goal to write on a certain number of days a week.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE INFORMATION
At the end of the month, look back at your log see how much you achieved and if any patterns emerge (are weekends good or bad for you? Do you write more when you’ve had more sleep? When the kids are in school?). You can see where you might make changes or improvements.
Again, try to not use the log as a weapon to bludgeon yourself with guilt. Use it to analyze and study (and to face) what’s really going on. Try to increase your goal a little from what you actually achieved this month (not some abstract and possible unrealistic ‘ideal’).
Whatever type of log you choose, use it to keep yourself accountable, spur positive changes, and reinforce good work habits.
Because all of these things get you closer to where you want to be: writing.
Are you logging your writing days or word count? What methods do you use, and how do you use it to help you progress? Share in the comments, below!
How I used the StoryADay Word Count Logging tool to write 100,000 words last year, and why you should be logging your progress too!
Do you log your word count?
I’ve been logging my word count (on and off) for the past couple of years. Last year, without really trying too hard, I managed to write 100,000 words of fiction. That was the end of one novel, several short stories (a couple published) and the first half of a second novel.
If I’m so productive, why bother logging my word count, you say?
Come closer and let me whisper into your ear…I’m productive because of the word count log.
Not living up to your New Year’s Resolution? Now is the time to reset — to recommit — before guilt and shame derail the rest of your year.
You probably set some pretty ambitious writing goals at New Year. Did they include writing a certain amount every day or every week? And now, are you find it hard to even log your word count because you’re afraid of what you might see (or not see)?
That the sinking feeling you get when you’re disappointed in yourself is not something installed in us by a malevolent designer to make our lives miserable.
To create a regular writing habit (and stick to it), try scheduling it immediately after something you already do regularly…
There is a very helpful technique for creating new habits, known as ‘anchoring'[1. I didn’t make this up. It’s being studied by Dr BJ Fogg, a human-behaviour scientist at Stanford University].
The idea is this: you don’t think about brushing your teeth before you go to bed at night, or showering when you get up. It’s just something you do.
If you want to create a new habit (and stick to it), try doing it immediately after something you already do by rote.
So, if you want to remember to floss your teeth, say you’ll do it after your morning tooth scrub. If you want to brainstorm ideas for stories, say you’ll do it as soon as you’ve poured your first cup of coffee.
In “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem” by Michel Faber, a father sits with his family on a train, traveling through Scotland. A passing mention of the inadequate overhead luggage racks drew me into a story that ended with me blinking furiously and which I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.
Faber didn’t describe the gorgeous scenery whisking past the window. He didn’t spend any time at all describing the train (only that their bags were on a seat because they were too big for the overhead rack), but just that detail made the setting seem real for me (I’ve traveled on a lot of Scottish trains).
This story also featured an interesting trick I haven’t come across too often: the flash forward. Rather than tell the story in flash back, the story just unfolds and then gives us a glimpse of the future. It’s more than a gimmick though. It really works.
You can listen to the story here”