Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Breaking through Writer's Block

As far as writer’s block goes, this one wasn’t so terrible. I was only paralyzed for a week or so. But it was just enough for all the old self-doubts to come crashing back. Why am I doing this? What’s the point of writing these books that no one is ever going to read? What if I can’t write after all? Blah blah blah.

But I’m here to say that I pushed past it. At least for today. The answer, big shocker, was to write. Now I know that sounds counter-intuitive. Writer’s block implies that you can’t write. Like your fingers are in little casts or something or your brain has frozen up and no words will materialize out of the ether. But I had to learn the lesson once again that it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, it was this paralyzing sense that I couldn’t write right. I was so caught up in trying to work out my story that I lost sight of the fact that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be put down on paper.

Writer’s Block is really about perfectionism. Julie Cameron says in The Artist’s Way: "Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things…Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop… It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.”

But how do you let go of the crippling feeling that what you’re writing is crap? Answer: write anyway. Quantity not quality. I don’t know who said that. Probably Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way. (If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, go buy it. It’s THE manual for creative people.)

So that’s what I did the past few days. I wrote. Just a bunch of blather. Questions I had about my book. Worries I had about plot holes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through. Pages of boring backstory. I wrote over 3000 words and kept going. And somehow, miraculously, the process took over and I felt better. It didn’t matter anymore what I was writing, just that I was. In Bird by Bird (another must- have writer manual) Anne Lamott says that whenever she’s stuck she writes about school lunches. She doesn’t know why this helps. It’s simply the act of getting something down on paper. You start talking about the smelly tuna fish sandwiches you ate when you were in second grade or the lukewarm chicken noodle soup spilling out of your thermos and the next thing you know you’re off on some weird tangent that turns out to be the kernel of your next story. Try it. Really. It’s cool. If nothing else you might get new lunch ideas for you kids.

Okay. The second key to my breakthrough is another big shocker: reading. I read a great book, a truly amazing, impossible to put down YA novel that reminded me what the point of it all really is. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff won the Printz Award in 2004.

Don’t know how I missed this. It’s about a fifteen-year-old troubled girl who goes to live with her cousins in England. While she’s there war breaks out and the kids get separated from each other. The book becomes a kind of post-apocalyptic journey as they try to get back together. But this explanation doesn’t do it justice. The girl’s voice is funny and snarky and thoroughly original. There’s a fantasy element too—because the cousins can read minds and understand animals. And it’s a love story. Which seems weird, because we’re talking about two cousins, but somehow it works and you want so much for these kids to find each other again. I literally could not put it down, and I read the whole thing marveling at how brilliantly it was put together while at the same time being caught up in the story and just loving these characters. I finished the book and instead of feeling despair that I will NEVER be able to write this well, I was inspired to write anyway.

Imagine what an awesome thing it is to be able to capture a story and put it out into the world so that even one reader has a life changing experience or even just a couple hours escape into another world.

Hey. It’s enough to keep me going for another day.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I’ve been feeling cocky lately. Writing this blog to my beginner self of fifteen years ago made me realize how much progress I’ve made since I started. I’ve been smug, thinking I had discovered the secrets to my creative process and confident that I had the tools to take my writing to the next level. And I’ve been feeling generous—eager to share with other struggling writers my wealth of knowledge about inspiration and motivation, perseverance and discipline.

Today, though, I feel like I’m back at square one. It’s 1:34 and I have done absolutely nothing toward my writing goals. I’m stalled. Stuck. Floundering with a first draft that’s really more like a tenth draft. The truth is I don’t know what to do next. My usual little tricks don’t seem to be working for this one—

I’ve put the manuscript away. I’ve read it with a fresh eye. I’ve charted out the whole thing, trying to figure out what I have and what’s still missing. In the process I discovered that what I thought I was writing about has changed. Now this realization doesn’t freak me out. It’s happened to me before. In fact it’s happened every time I’ve written a book. Somehow the point—what you think is the point anyway—sort of morphs into something else. The story takes off. The characters suddenly start acting like real people, doing what they want instead of what you planned for them to do. It’s a pretty cool moment in the process when the story becomes what it really is, and it’s probably the most fun part about being a writer—just letting it go and following along for the ride. Later, you can see what the over-arching story is and that knowledge helps you shape the second draft.

But here’s my problem. I’m not seeing it. I have glimmers here and there but that’s it. Stephen King in his book On Writing talks about how a story is always there somewhere, like a fossil underground, and our job as the writer is to discover it and dig up the pieces. The better writers are able to uncover the majority of the bones and put them all together. Beginning writers might only be able to get a few or maybe they stick the leg bone in the wrong socket. I’m feeling like a beginning writer this week. I’m not finding all my story pieces. Or maybe I have most of the pieces but I can’t figure out how to rearrange them correctly. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as correctly with this book anymore. I’ve written so many versions of it, I’m afraid I’ve damaged it or lost the heart of what it was meant to be somewhere along the way.

Over the past few weeks I’ve gone back and read some of the versions. I’ve kept a journal of all of my questions and problems and plot holes. I’ve taken walks. I’ve read books (a few great ones that made me feel overwhelming despair that I’ll never get this figured out. And a few mediocre ones that remind me that I can.) I’ve gone back and read old rejections/critiques on this manuscript. Here, I’ve been fortunate to have several editors give me some really good feedback on what’s working and not working with this story, one editor going so far as to ask for a revision and giving me specific points to consider. I’ve also talked to my generous, insightful, inspirational writing buddies, as well as to my long-suffering husband who listened to me rant and rave all weekend about my struggles with this book.

But I’m still stalled.

So what’s the answer here? I don’t know. There is a part of me that considered quitting on this book. Just saying, forget it. I gave it many years already. I certainly tried. But there is another part that refuses to let it go. I heard the great editor Patti Lee Gauch speak at a conference once. She said writers can be taught all of the elements of a story. We can learn about setting, characters, plot. We can study grammar and punctuation. We can have editors advise us on revision. But no one can help us with the heart of the story. Some stories have it and some stories don’t. I know this story has one. I can’t let it go. And I believe I’m the only one who can tell it. I have no deadline. No real pressure from anyone except myself. In all likelihood this book will never see a bookstore shelf.

I don’t care.

Time to get back to work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Trouble Writing? Leave the House

Some days it’s harder than others to open up the file and get started. Who am I kidding? Most days, it’s hard. I honestly don’t know why this is. I have been writing 1500 words per day, 6 days a week, for the last two years. You’d think it would be easier to just sit down and write. Maybe it’s all the distractions. Email. Stupid articles on Yahoo News and the accompanying inane comments. The giant waste of time known as Facebook. But even before Facebook existed, I was the queen of wasting time. In college I rearranged my room to put off studying for a test. In my younger and more vulnerable years I watched MTV. Okay. So that dates me.

The point is there’s always going to be something else you can do besides writing. Unless you have an editor breathing down your neck (which, I don’t, alas) than you’re going to have to motivate yourself. I’ve figured out that if I can just get started, the rest usually takes care of itself. Then I have a hard time stopping. But that’s an issue for another day.

So what have I learned over the years about getting started? Here’s my list in no particular order:

Leave the house. When my family first moved to Columbus I had no idea that it has cloudy gray weather to rival Seattle’s. A kindly neighbor with Seasonal Affective Disorder pointed this out the first week we were here. “November. Yep. It’s Cloud Season,” he said. “Won’t be sunny again til March. If we’re lucky.” I thought he was joking. He was. Turned out it was April. Our house was dark. Cold. Dreary. I could barely crawl out of bed, much less write. I had to get the heck out of there before I went crazy.

Most days in winter, I pack up my computer and haul my lazy butt out the door to the library. In our town it’s warm and well lit. It has nice comfy chairs. They’ve reserved one for me. (Not really, but it seems like it. I sit in the same one, back in the quiet reference section, near the big windows.) The library is a great place to write because it smells like books. Which is what I’m trying to write. Some days when I need an extra dose of inspiration, I meander over to the YA section and make a large space on the shelf where they’ll some day shelve my books. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

If I have $3.75 I head over to the Caribou Coffee shop. Our town has two, both within walking distance. (Not that I ever walk, haha.) A coffee shop is a good place to write because you can get a nice shot of caffeine to spur you on. They have electrical outlets where you can plug in your computer. And there are usually other people around working, writing, studying, so you’ll get a good motivational kick to go with your caffeine surge. (For the record, I also frequent Panera Bread and Starbucks.)

Make a date with a writer friend. It helps if you pencil this in on your calendar: Thursday—12 to 3 meet Jill to write. I used to think this method wouldn’t work. The person and I would get to talking and nothing would get done. But you’d be surprised. Throw two writers together and usually one of you will be in a productive mood. The other one will have no choice but to get cracking too.

Have a place in your house set up for writing. You know how articles about sleep issues always suggest that you make your bed a place for sleeping and nothing else? Well, I’ve learned this applies to writing too. Not the bed part. But having a place where all you do is write. An office. Or at least a desk. Last year my supportive handyman husband converted part of the guest bedroom into an office for me. It has a comfy chair. Shelves of children’s books for inspiration. A table for spreading out all my notes and research. And a wall-to-wall corkboard where I can pin up my ideas (typically scribbled on folded grocery receipts). When I walk into that room, I feel like writing is my job. Which I guess it is. Except for the getting paid part.

And my final suggestion: team up with an accountability partner—another writer like you who needs a nudge to get started every day. My writing partner lives in another state. We have only met in person a few times. Every morning we email each other our writing goals. At the end of the day we email what we’ve accomplished. Some days when we’re both lagging, we text each other, setting up mini races, such as write 100 words in the next ten minutes.

Let’s try that now and see if it works. Okay? 100 words. Ten minutes. Go.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Revision: It's Not Rocket Science

Revising has gotten easier over the years, but there’s always a part of me that resists changing what I’ve written. I’m not talking about fixing grammatical errors or cutting extraneous words. I mean major reworking: yanking out scenes, removing a plot strand, deleting the first ten chapters. Yes. I have done that before. It’s painful. And it seems wasteful too. Why did I bother with all of that? What was the point?

The point, apparently, was for me to find a way into that particular story. Once I did, I no longer needed those chapters. The story I’m telling no longer requires them. So, out they go. Ha ha. I've made it sound so easy. But anyone who's dealt with extensive revision knows how difficult it can be.

The best explanation I’ve heard about how to work through this potentially painful process came from Linda Su Park, Newbery author of the novel A Single Shard. Park spoke at a conference I went to a few years ago and perfectly captured the angst we writers go through when we approach a revision.

She started by describing the sick feeling you get when you first hear criticism of your manuscript. You think it’s finished, brilliant, moving, but your first reader will say something like: the beginning doesn’t work. Or: you don’t need that character. Just hearing her say this was revelatory to me. An award-winning author produces messed up first drafts too? Wow. She said she had an all-purpose response to this kind of criticism and I perked right up in my seat.

Okay. That’s her response. She says that inside she’s dying, nauseated, ready to kill the critic, imagining all of the work she’s going to have to do, but outside, she keeps a placid smile on her face and says: Okay. She listens to what the person has to say. And she gives herself some time to process the suggestions.

After a few days of stewing, she’s ready to prove the critic wrong. Okay, she tells herself, this person thinks that one of my main characters serves no purpose. Well, I’ll show her. And then she goes back to her manuscript and “plays.” It’s not rocket science, she says. I’m just playing around. She takes one chapter where that character features prominently, and pulls him out. She gives that character’s lines to someone else. She rewrites the whole scene to prove to her critic what a giant hole is left when that character is no longer present.

Next, to further illustrate her point about how wrong her critic is, she takes the same scene and continues to play, beefing up the role of that supposedly unnecessary character. See, she wants to point out, look how essential this character is to my story. Except nine times out of ten, she realizes that the critic is right. Once she’s played around with a scene or two, she can see it clearly. That character doesn’t need to be there after all. Darn it. And she never would’ve believed it if she hadn’t tried it. Thinking about it, arguing in your head about the merits of the criticism is not enough. You have to write it. Then she stressed once more that this process isn’t rocket science. We’re just playing.

Revision has a bad reputation. It’s hard! It means work, time, heavy thinking. All those years of hearing our English teachers telling us to revise have taken a toll.

Let that crippling mentality go. Next time you're faced with a daunting revision, take Linda Su Park’s advice and say: Okay, I’ll play.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To Outline or Not to Outline

The real question should be: when do you outline? Ask the average person, anyone who’s sat through a 7th grade Language Arts class, and the answer will likely be before writing. We’re taught to choose the main idea. Break it down into sub topics. Add details. The point is to organize your thoughts. Plan. See where your writing is going before you start. It makes sense. And if you’re writing an essay, it’s definitely a good idea.

If you’re writing a book, you’ll want to organize your ideas by chapters and/or scenes. A few weeks ago I heard a writer speaking at a conference about how he creates a detailed outline. He charts out his scenes in advance, logically arranging the sequence of events—introductions of characters, plot twists, action, etc. It takes him two or three months to do, but when he starts writing the book, it comes fairly easy. Each day he refers to his outline and sees what scene he needs to write. He stressed that his outlines are not written in stone. He even showed us a sample that included cross-outs and rearranged elements. But overall, he sticks to it. He’s written all of his books this way, and he’s been very successful using this method.

I’m sorry I can’t go into more detail about how to outline a book, because it’s not the way I write. I must confess that I was one of those students who wrote the outline after writing the paper. (Let me say here that I don’t believe that any particular method for writing is better than any other. Interview ten writers about their process and you’ll get ten different answers.) My suggestion is to experiment with a variety of ways, cobble together bits of what works for others until you find what works for you.

So how do I write a book if I don’t outline first? I begin with a vague idea of where the story is going. I know the end, or at least what seems like the logical end. And I simply write toward it. Maybe “simply” isn’t the right word. There are painful days when I feel like I’m slogging through each sentence. But there are also days when everything flows out. (Here’s something interesting: when I read back over what I’ve written, I can never tell which parts were hard to write and which parts were easy. It all blends together. Which is just weird, but I digress.)

If you've read my other posts, you know that I set a word count goal each day, usually 1500 words. I think in terms of scenes and I concentrate only on the scene I’m working on that day. Occasionally I worry about where it’s all going. Especially when something pops up unexpectedly. Why did my main character do that? for example. Or where the heck did that person come from? But I just keep going, having faith that when I’m ready to start the next scene I’ll know what to do. E.L Doctorow said once that writing a novel is "like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Writing like this is a little scary. But I just keep plugging away at my 1500 words. Usually around day twenty (I have no idea why this is) something happens. I know what’s going on and it all starts to come together. Suddenly the words are spilling out. The tension is building and I can see the final scenes rising up out of the foggy ether. Now I’m eager to start each day because I want to see how it’s all going to play out and the only way to know for sure is to write it.

So where does the outline come in? Here’s the strange part: it comes when I’m “finished.” I write the last word. Print out the big mess of the first draft. Then I put it away in a drawer to marinate. (That’s how Stephen King describes it in his book On Writing.) I don’t look at it for at least six weeks. Later, when I pick it up, I read it like a reader. No red pencil in hand. I just want to see what I have. Yes, it’s a mess. But there is a real book buried in there and now that I see it, I can begin my outlining process.

I write out my big questions—what are the main ideas driving my story? Who are the main characters? What are the internal and external conflicts? I have a general sense of this while I’m writing, but you’d be surprised how things change over the course of writing a book. Sometimes what you’re really writing about doesn’t hit you until page 100. I list out the scenes I have on index cards and I literally spread them out on the floor. Every scene must contribute to the overall story; otherwise it needs to go. Or maybe I need to add a scene (or fifteen) where essential elements are missing. Once I’ve done that, I make my outline.

Now I can start my revision.

Seems like a lot of work, I know. When I spoke to the writer at the conference who outlines first, he looked at me like I was crazy. But after talking we realized that he does his logical work on the front end and I do that work on the back end. We both have to revise. Both methods take roughly the same amount of time.

Whichever method you choose, here’s a final word from the inspirational folks on the NaNoWriMo site:

“All the books we've loved started out in a similarly imperfect form. They're called rough drafts for a reason. No one gets a novel totally right on the first pass. This is true whether you give yourself a month or a lifetime to write the first draft. There's an adage in noveling that you can revise a bad first draft into a great book. But you can't revise a blank page into anything but a blank page.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo

Three years ago at the end of October my family moved to a new state. It was a big change for our all of us. New schools for the kids and new careers for my husband and me. It was the year I quit teaching and decided once and for all to focus on my writing. Only a few days after moving into our new home, before the pictures were even up on the walls, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. It changed my writing life.

For the uninitiated NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Participants pledge to write a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month of November. Sign up and you get helpful writing advice from published authors, a cool-looking page where you can chart your progress, daily inspirational emails, and the instant support and encouragement of a community of writers on the same journey.

That’s what I knew going into it. But here’s why it changed my writing life. My previous method for writing a book was this: I would come up with what I thought was an interesting idea or two, create a few characters, and begin writing. And revising. And reworking. And editing. And revising some more. I literally could not move onto the next sentence until I felt that the one before it was perfect. It took me two years to write a book this way and by the time I was finished, I hated the thing’s guts and couldn’t bear to look at it again. I also patted myself on the back for having what I believed was not a first draft. After all I had revised it to “perfection” as I wrote it. I submitted it to publishers. It got rejected.

But the moment I began a book NaNoWriMo-style, I realized my revise as I go method was not going to work. Take 50,000 words and divide by 30 days and you get 1666 words per day. Subtract out weekends (not going to happen. I had a family. We were adjusting to a new town) and Thanksgiving (jeez, why’d the Nano people pick November? Don’t they have to cook 20-pound turkeys for visiting relatives?) and I was left with more than 2500 words per day. Let me tell you something. You try writing 2500 words in a day and see how quickly you move past the revise as you go method. Perfect sentences—ha ha. Forget it.

So this is what happened. I did it. I wrote a big 50,000-word mess of a book. And I couldn’t kid myself—it was truly a first draft. It had digressions and a string of loosely strewn-together scenes. Strands that went nowhere. Characters that disappeared and characters that popped up in the final chapters. But it was a thing of beauty anyway. It was funny. It was heartbreaking. Yes, there were long passages of bad writing, but there were also nuggets of the best writing I’d ever produced. It was not perfect. But it was finished. And here’s a saying from one of those inspirational Nano emails and something I’ve clung to ever since: a first draft IS perfect simply because it is finished.

Now I don’t recommend this type of writing for everyone. There are many successful writers who swear by the revise as you go method. But I found that Nano-writing forced me to let go of my crippling perfectionism and silenced the negative editor in my head. Nano helped me embrace the free-spirited creative voice and follow it wherever it wanted to go. Usually to a place I hadn't planned. Writing a book this way is exhilarating.

When I read that first Nano draft in January, I found the bones of a pretty decent book. This time when I revised, I had the whole thing in front of me to work with. I could do real revision and not what I had been doing before, which I realized was actually line editing.

This November if you want to kick-start your writing career, join me on NaNoWriMo.
If you stick with it, in 30 days you’ll be toasting your own beautiful mess of a first draft.
(Tips for revising Coming Soon)

Thursday, October 7, 2010


I have always loved to read. From the moment I learned how, I was the dazed kid stumbling around with a book in my hands. Most writers will tell you the same. We’re readers. Which is probably why we’re drawn to creating our own books. It’s Writing 101 that you must love to read if you’d like to write. Even the Me of fifteen years ago knew that. But here’s what I didn’t know: you need to read the kinds of books you want to write. (in addition to everything else!)

Like many children’s writers I was drawn to the field because books meant so much to me as a child. When I first started writing, I went back to the books of my childhood for inspiration. A Wrinkle in Time. A little known, but excellent book called Charlotte Sometimes. The mystery series Trixie Belden. This was a start in the right direction, but it took me a while to catch on that I needed to read the latest children’s books too. This means reading beautifully written, critically acclaimed books as well as fluffy page-turners. Yes, I know you love Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables (and these are must-reads without a doubt) but if you’re a YA writer, you should also know who John Green and Sara Zarr are. You should know what Katniss is up to in the latest installment of Hunger Games and that the newest teen trend is fallen angels. And for some odd reason (or maybe it’s not odd, now that I think about it,) two gorgeous boys vying for the attention of the same girl is the In thing at the moment.

Writers must know what their contemporaries are writing and what kid readers of this generation are yanking off the shelves and passing around in school. Not so we can copy another writer or jump onto a trend—(Good luck, anyway, with that. Write a book starring a schoolboy wizard or a brooding vampire and see how fast the rejections roll in.)—but so we can find our own voice in today’s world of books.

True story: a beginning writer wrote a darling picture book about a child resisting bedtime. The kindly editor critiquing her mentioned that there are a ton of bedtime books already out there. To which the woman responded, “Really?”

Another true story: a YA adult writer tells me she would never read Twilight because she doesn’t like vampire books. Well, okay. Say what you want about this series—mediocre writing, stereotypical romance-novel characters—but it IS a page-turner and millions of girls and women have snapped it up. Like it or not, the phenomenon (along with Harry Potter) may have single handedly propped up the children’s book industry so that publishers can afford to publish quiet, lyrical, award-winning books too. Read it and get a taste of what all the fuss is about. It’s your job, for crying out loud. And really, as far as jobs go, I’d say it’s a pretty good one.

Here’s a plug for a brand-newish YA book that may restore your faith in the written word after you’ve read all of those vampire/fallen angel books I was just urging you to read:
Lips Touch by Laini Taylor. It’s actually three stories, all built around the premise of a kiss. The first story, which I read last night, is a take on an old poem by Christina Rossetti called “Goblin’s Market.” Yes, I am a former English major and high school English teacher, so I can appreciate a story inspired by a poem. Beyond that very cool idea, though, is Taylor’s amazing writing. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before. Part old-fashioned, descriptive and sensory. And part contemporary and slang-y. The story perfectly captures the longing and desire of teenage girls who want want want what is just out of reach and who simmer with impatient frustration as they wait for their real lives to begin. (prediction: you will root for the goblin.) This is one of those books that inspires both despair and joy in me. Despair—that I will never ever be able to write this well. And joy that someone can.

Read it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Every day I have the best of intentions. I’m going to sit right down at my computer, fortifying cup of coffee beside me, and begin. Open up my file (whatever project I happen to be working on) and GO. But first, I really should clean up the breakfast dishes. I can’t have them sitting out all over the counter. And I need to check my emails. That laundry piling up in the hallway—I should make a dent in it. Just throw in one load. Oh. And what are we having for dinner tonight? I should put something in the crockpot. Get THAT out of the way. Who’s on Facebook? Ha ha. That’s funny. Someone posted a clip of a guy singing about his sister getting attacked. Wait. That’s not funny. Is this a sign of the decline of Western Civilization? Jeez. Now the laundry’s finished. I need to throw it in the dryer.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. Next thing I know it’s nearly lunchtime, I’m still in my pajamas and I haven’t written a single word.

Ah, procrastination. It’s a pitfall most writers continually battle. How do I know? Because I have read dozens of books by writers about writing, and every single one says something about the challenge of motivating yourself to write. I used to wonder about all of this working-yourself-up-to-write business. What’s so hard about writing? It’s not like you’re painting houses, or grilling steaks at Ponderosa, or washing two hundred pizza pans at Papa Ginos (all jobs I’ve actually had, by the way). I don’t know why I put off writing. And I don’t know why there are days when I slog through each painful word. All I do know is that when I don’t write, I feel really horrible. Which is usually enough motivation to get myself going.

Here are a few other tricks of the trade (gleaned from all those writer books on writing) that I wish I had known 15 years ago:

1. BIC—Butt in Chair. As in, put your butt in the chair and write. Some people think you need to be inspired before you can start writing. I’ve learned that if you sit and write, the inspiration will come. It always does. I have no idea how this works. It’s magic.
2. Set a word count. Stephen King says he writes eight pages a day every day. I believe him. But (and correct me if I’m wrong here, Stephen,) I don’t think he has to make dinners or take forgotten lunches to school or clean toilets. Eight is too much for me. I write six. And I take one day off a week.
3. Find an accountability partner. I email my word count goal to my best writer friend every day. At the end of the day I check in with her and tell her if I’ve done it. It’s amazing how this simple thing keeps me on task. When I first started doing it I realized that it didn’t even matter if she read my emails. Just telling her what I was going to do, made a difference. I guess I’m one of those need-a-deadline people.
4. Finish each writing session in the middle of a thought/sentence. It’s cool how easy it is to get going when all you have to do is complete the last sentence from the day before. And you’re off!
5. Don’t blog. Ha ha. (Just realized blogging is THE perfect vehicle for further procrastination.)

Must sign off now. It is noon. I have not started on my writing goal for the day. But my laundry is finished. My counters are cleared off. I am out of the old pajamas and ready to put my BIC.

Monday, October 4, 2010


The other day a beginning writer on my writers’ list serve wrote that he’d just received two rejections. He explained that one agent and one editor had rejected his query for a middle grade novel. WHY!? he wondered. What was the problem? Was it the quality of the query? The idea of the novel? The sample pages he’d sent? Jeez, was this a sign that he should quit writing? The kind, generous, sensitive souls on the list serve chimed in. Rejections happen to the best of us, they said. Even the most successful writers have gotten rejections. Look at JK Rowling, they pointed out. Didn’t she get like 25 rejections before someone snapped up Harry Potter? The beginning writer was cheered up and presumably will continue to send his work out, and, (I sure hope he realizes this) get more rejections.

Rejections. There is nothing that bums a writer out more. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. You get that “unfortunately this story does not fit our editorial needs at this time…” letter and sometimes even the best of us can’t help spiraling into an existential pit of despair.

I got my first rejection over ten years ago. It was from Seventeen magazine when they were still publishing YA fiction. It was a form note, but scrawled on the bottom of it were two words: nice story. My first reaction was shock. They rejected ME? What were they thinking? Was it a mistake? I analyzed those two words “nice story” to the point of absurdity. If they thought it was a nice story, why didn’t they want it? What did they mean by “nice”? I cried. I questioned my decision to write. I questioned my reasons for existence. I had no list serve to buck me up. I knew no other writers. I suffered alone.

Then I sent the story out again. It was rejected once more (by Teen. Is that magazine even around anymore?) Then it was accepted by Cicada. Woo hoo. My first published story! After only TWO rejections. I was on my way, happy that the days of rejections were behind me. Ah. I was so deluded and naïve.

Looking back now, I realize this experience was the most gentle of introductions to the submission world. Because over the years I have amassed quite a collection of rejections. (I’m not one of those writers who papers the walls with them, so I can’t tell you how many). The very kindest rejections have those handwritten words on the bottom—nice story, or keep sending. (God, be thankful for those. They're truly little gifts to keep you going.) The worst rejections are not even the form notes, but the no notes. Lately, the policy of many editorial houses is to contact a writer only if they are interested, which means that most writers will receive nothing. No response. Your work simply disappears into a black hole—which I picture as some NYC editor’s desk and later her recycling bin.

Okay, this is starting to depress me. And my intent was to be uplifting to a suffering, frustrated writer soul like the Me of fifteen years ago. So here’s my advice: quit now if all you’re dreaming about is publication and awards and monetary success and movie deals and sitting on a set with Robert Pattinson who is playing your main character. BUT, if you truly love to write, keep writing. You don’t need me to tell you this or some editor either, by the way. If you’re looking for a sign from above, here it is: if after you receive your first rejection (or your 100th) you continue to write, then cheers! Writing is what you are meant to do.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Searching for a Mentor

Here's something I wish I knew fifteen years ago: how helpful it would be to have a mentor--a kindly, wizened writer to take me under her wing and guide my career. Okay. I never found that person, exactly. But in some ways, over the years, I have. My first few years, unfortunately, were spent floundering alone. I was the perfect mix of arrogance and ignorance. I thought I knew everything about writing (I had majored in it, after all! I had won awards! What could someone teach ME?)

A lot, as it turned out.

My first glimpse of a mentor came in the form of meeting other writers at conferences. No, none of these people ever took me on as a project, but just seeing real people, real women like me, living a writer's life, was important. They showed me that being a writer wasn't some unattainable, magical, crazy dream. These women were like me--they had husbands and children and went grocery shopping and ran errands. They weren't strange characters living in turrets ala Emily Dickinson.

I asked these writers how they worked--nuts and bolts about inspiration and revision and craft. They had different methods but I found that there were things that I could apply to myself and my own work.

Which led me to reading about writers. There are tons of books out there on writing, some more helpful than others. My favorites are: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, (hilarious and God, I wish I had read this book 15 years ago); On Writing by Stephen King (even if you don't like his books, you will find helpful advice on the craft of writing); anything by Natalie Goldberg (very New-Agey but so inspirational); and The Artist's Way by Cameron (also New-Agey, but this book literally changed my life with its ideas about creativity and inspiration).

So I never found my in-the-flesh guru. But over the years I have learned so much from a community of other writers--those I know personally and those I know only through their books. And now I am extremely grateful to have found a writing partner--a woman who is roughly at the same stage I am who reads my drafts and give me much-needed advice. I met her in line at a Port-a-potty at a writers' conference. Which just goes to show--I don't know what. Be open to meeting writers. Be receptive to learning new things.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Never close yourself off from reaching out. You might find a mentor. Or maybe you'll just make a new friend.