Writing Between Diapers

By Mayra Calvani

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.
—C. G. Jung

After a bad night of hardly any sleep, you’re sitting at the computer staring at the blank screen. You wonder if you’ll be able to do it—inish that article, short story or novel that you started months ago. The urge to write is overwhelming, yet you freeze. Not only are you exhausted, but the baby, whom you put to sleep less than half an hour ago, is whimpering in the crib. Your four-year old has just barged into the office and is tugging at your elbow begging for a snack, even though he had lunch an hour ago. This is hopeless, I may as well quit, you say to yourself while trying to suppress a scream. To your horror, you suddenly find yourself sympathizing with those animals that eat their young . . .

Don’t despair. Calm down. I’ve been there and know perfectly well what you’re going through.

The truth is, you can write, but you need to have four things:

The Right State of Mind

Before you plan a schedule, putting your mind in the right frame is the most important think you’ll do. Remember your kids will not stay small forever. Time passes quickly (I assure you it does!) and soon they’ll be old enough to go to school. Until that magical day arrives, though, you’ll have to “steal” time to work on your project. Wanting to finish a whole novel in one month at this point in your life is unrealistic. Don’t focus so much on the “end product” but on doing a little bit of that “end product” at a time. Little paragraphs are what articles, stories, and novels are made of. The important thing is steady progress, and as long as you take steps to follow the road, you’re on the right track. These tiny bird steps, however small, will give you a sense of accomplishment and keep you guilt-free to enjoy your life and family.

Good Physical Condition

You might think, “Good physical condition? I thought this was an article about writing.” Well, you bet it is. Let’s face it, moms who care for small children are always tired. And tired people don’t particularly like to sit at the computer and write; they want to collapse on a bed. Moms urgently need to raise their energy levels! A good diet and a little exercise can do wonders to raise energy levels. Eat high-protein foods and lots of fruits and veggies. Stay away from white flour and sugar, as well as junk food. Go for three meals a day with one light healthy snack in the afternoon and one before you go to bed. Stay away from those high energy bars, though. They are so high in carbs your sugar levels will sky rocket and then plummet, making you feel even more tired and hungry than before. Low fat cottage cheese and a couple of almonds with a bit of fruit are a great choice for a snack. Drink plenty of water! Scientists have found that dehydration is one of the main factors in making a person feel tired.

Finding time to exercise may be difficult, that’s why it’s a good idea to do it with your child. If you have a stationary bicycle or other exercise machine, do 15 minutes while the toddler watches the Teletubbies. You don’t have to exercise a full hour. Even ten minutes will do the trick. Take your baby for a walk in the stroller at least three times a week, preferably in the mornings when it’s fresh and quiet. It will calm your nerves, rejuvenate, and even inspire you. Your baby will love it, too. Not only will he/she enjoy the “sights and sounds,” but it will probably make him/her tired and eager to take a longer nap later in the day—just what you’re after!

A Well-Planned Schedule

Okay, so you have the right state of mind and are eating well and exercising. What next? A well-planned schedule that fits your lifestyle and plays around your strengths and liabilities is a must. But keep an open mind and don’t be unrealistic. If your baby naps in the afternoon, don’t set your writing time in the mornings, or vice versa. How much time each writing session will last depends on your lifestyle and children’s habits. You may choose to write half an hour each day or one hour every other day. It’s up to you. The important thing here is to keep it approachable and to stick with it.

There’s one thing I strongly advise: If you can manage it, don’t take more than two nights off from your project. Not only will it stall your momentum, but it will give your brain too much time to come up with self-doubts and excuses for procrastination.

You may be asking yourself: But how do I get rid of my children ?

If your children are old enough to go to nursery school, your problems are solved. Just set your writing schedule during those hours. For those of you whose children are still at home, there are other possibilities:

Write early in the morning before your children awake, during their daytime naps, and after they go to sleep at night. (See why you have to keep yourself in good physical condition?) I have a friend who wrote two books this way.

If you can afford a babysitter—maybe your neighbor’s teenaged daughter—to look after your child while you write on the next room (that way you can keep a close eye on them) then go for it!

Write while your toddler watches his favorite video movie. He wants to watch it again? Go ahead! This is not the right time to consider the effects of too much TV on children.

Go to the local library and write while you and your child listen to story time! Almost all libraries, and even bookstores, schedule story times for children. Take advantage of these.

If you have a writer friend who is also a mom, enlist her as your “writing partner,” take the kids to Mc Donald’s and write while your kids play in those weird game tunnels. “Hey, wait a minute!” you think. “You said to stay away from junk food.” Nice try, but even McDonald’s now offers a good selection of salads and fruit cocktails. Besides, I never said one hamburger once in a while would kill you. You might even reward yourself with a hamburger . . . after you’ve fulfilled your writing quota for that day.

Invite your writing-partner mom or moms for a “writing morning” at your home and write while your children play together. You may take turns with your homes. Also, as a group, you can consider hiring a sitter for these occasions. Writing with a support-group of people who are in the same situation as you is usually very rewarding and productive. Plus it’s a lot cheaper when each of you contribute to pay for the sitter. You may even want to start a club and meet once a week.

Determination

None of the above will prove helpful if you lack the determination to stick to a schedule. Think about it. Do you want to reach the age of seventy without having accomplished your goal—that masterpiece of a novel that will land you multiple contracts, fame, and fortune? You’ll never know unless you take the first step. Family, and especially your children, should always come first, but don’t use your children as an excuse not to write. The truth is, life is so hectic there never will be a “perfect” time to write. I assure you, if not children, later you’ll come up with something else as your procrastinator. It may be difficult to follow the schedule at first, and you may need to modify it, but eventually you’ll be glad you did. Otherwise you’ll live with self-guilt, self-loathing, disappointment, and frustration.

Do it. Start today. Now.

Don’t forget: Frustrated writers are frustrated moms. Frustrated moms are unhappy moms. Artistically fulfilled moms are happy moms who can give themselves to their loved ones without reservations.

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Mayra Calvani has a website. You can find out about Mayra Calvani’s children’s books here

No Time to Write?

By Sherryl Clark

It’s a familiar complaint. Everything else seems to get in the way—family commitments, work, sports, the need to sleep—and nowhere is there time to sit down and write.

People often say to me, “How do you find the time? You’re so prolific.”

Well, no, ‘m not. A lot of the time I feel guilty because I don’t spend as much time on writing as I could. Notice that I said could, not should.

Should is like the stuff we got told as kids—you should eat your veggies because there are starving children in Africa. If we think of writing as a should task, where is the incentive to do it? You’re trying to work out of a sense of created guilt.

I say could because I know that I waste time. And even more importantly, I know that I procrastinate. Why? Because of fear, I think. Fear that I will have nothing to write and I will sit there for hours producing zilch. Or more often, fear that anything I will produce will be terrible. Despite all I know about rewriting, and how the first draft is nearly always either bad or just not what you wanted (because you wanted to create that miraculous story in your head, and what happened to it between your brain and the page, darn it?), I still have to convince myself anew every time that all I have to do is sit down and write.

Usually I get there by telling myself that I only have to do one page. What’s one page? Even if it’s an awful page, just write one. And eventually I do. And most of the time I write a lot more than one. But I still have to talk myself into that first one.

How do I waste time? The way everyone does. I read, do housework, e-mails (they’re a time killer), catch up on paperwork, do class preparation (because I teach), talk on the phone . . . you just add in your favorites. And it’s always time in which I could be writing.

How do we solve this problem? I doubt we can do it by beating ourselves over the head with a heavy dictionary, or any other implement. That’s the road to more guilt and shoulds, and it’s best to avoid those.

Cover of Kristi Holl's Writer's First AidI like an analogy I read in Kristi Holl’s book, Writer’s First Aid. A professor shows a large jar to his class and fills it with rocks. He then goes through a process of asking them if the jar is full. Each time, he demonstrates that it’s not. To the rocks, he adds pebbles; to the pebbles, he adds sand. Is the jar full now? No. He then adds water. Many of us assume this analogy is about how much we can cram into our day. Kristi says no—think of the rocks as your writing. They have to go in first, otherwise you will never fit them in with the other stuff.

How many of us put writing first? Really and truly? We fill our days with all that other stuff and then try to cram writing into the odd half an hour once a week.

There are some people for whom life is just too chaotic and busy. You might have five kids, plus an ailing mother, plus you have to work part-time to help feed the family. I see these people put aside their writing, month after month, and yearn for the chance to write.

Then I read stories about writers who have all of that and more to cope with, and they still find half an hour a day to write, even if it means getting up earlier or staying up later. In half an hour you can write one page. In a week, that’s six pages (you may take Sunday off!). In a year, that’s 300 pages. A novel.

Am I preaching? I guess so. I know that I finally became totally serious about my commitment to writing after I had been to the US for a two-week writing workshop. Every day I wrote in class, I workshopped my own and others’ writing, I talked writing non-stop. And at night, in my little room (alone—bliss!), I wrote. In two weeks I wrote 7,500 words. I wrote every night because I figured that’s what I was there for and I wanted to make the most of it.

But when I arrived home, I realized that I could do it anywhere. I hadn’t been writing in my room for five or six hours—I’d been working most nights for an average of an hour. I think what changed was that I understood it was the rhythm of writing which had worked for me. Regular stints, instead of trying to write for a whole day every once in a while, because, especially with novels, you’ve got to spend a lot of time rethinking your way back into the story. It was the “showing up at my desk every day” that worked.

I was always thinking about my writing project; even if it was in the back of my brain somewhere so I wasn’t conscious of it, something was simmering, simply because I knew that sometime that day I would be doing more writing. And when I sat down to write, I was ready. Out came the words.

I’d like to say I have continued this marvelous work routine ever since, but I’d be lying. However, I did continue it for four months until I finished (and rewrote) that novel. I still retain that feeling of “living the writing” and am convinced that short, regular periods of writing will get me there a lot faster and more effectively than saving up for rainy writing days.

This was doubly confirmed for me recently when I attended the Chautauqua children’s writers’ workshop and listened to Linda Sue Park speak about her writing. She made a commitment to write two pages per day, no matter what. She had to make herself stick to this every day for three months before it became an ingrained habit that she couldn’t stop, but it worked for her, and it will work for you.

So—where and when are you going to write each day? You only have to find half an hour. Are you convinced half an hour won’t be enough? Block out three one-hour sessions per week. In your diary. Call it “Writer’s Meeting.” Call it anything you like, but make sure you’re there, backside on the chair, ready to write.

You don’t think you have three hours? Try these remedies. Turn off the TV. Don’t even look at your e-mails until you’ve done your hour. Take the phone off the hook. Get the family to help with the chores, and don’t accept any excuses or arguments. Put a sign on the door to say “Keep Out!” And mean it.

Mean it for yourself. Do you want to write? Really and truly?

Then do it.

Sherryl Clark teaches professional writing at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. She writes children’s and YA books, short fiction, and poetry. Her website is at www.sherrylclark.com.

No Rules, Just Write

By Jeanne M. Fielding

1,000 words a day or more? You’ve got to be kidding!

As if writing a story wasn’t daunting enough, published writers have killed many a tree imparting the “writing is a discipline” mantra. You must commit to writing five gazillion words a day—no matter how long it takes you.

My reply when I read these diatribes is, “Pshaw! As if!”

Perhaps this is why I struggled for so long to consider myself a writer. I hold a full-time job, co-own a home with my husband, and am the mother of one three-year-old boy. I think my plate is quite full, thank you. And yet, two years ago, I found a way to carve out fifteen minutes for myself to write every day.

You read me correctly—fifteen minutes.

For a wife and mother who also works outside the home, fifteen minutes seems like a lifetime! What working mother hasn’t wished for two seconds to rub together without a child crashing in, a husband calling out or the boss breathing over your shoulder? When a friend suggested that I give it a whirl, I scoffed at the idea. At the time, I didn’t even bathe alone, so how was I about to find fifteen minutes to sit down and write?

I thought about it. And thought about it some more. Until, sick to death of being badgered by my friend, I took a break at work, opened up Word, and wrote whatever came into my head. For about fifteen minutes.

The next day, I did it again, only this time, I picked up where I had left off.

After a week, I actually had the beginnings of a story. After a month, I had the start of my novel. In six months, I had a finished manuscript in my hands.

87,000 words.

The world didn’t end.

My baby is still fed and clothed and loved.

My husband hasn’t left me.

I still didn’t consider myself a writer.

Why? Because I averaged only about fifteen minutes a day. Some days I wrote for an hour, some days I didn’t write at all. When I did write and I was getting somewhere with my story, I was addicted. Other days, I couldn’t put two words together to save my life—usually because I was exhausted after having been up every few hours all night long with my son.

It wasn’t until another friend of mine took up writing that I found myself telling her that it doesn’t matter how much or how often you write. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if you have a project to work on. Find a few minutes each day and write a letter to a friend, jot down some thoughts about the weather, vent your feelings about the guy who cut you off on the thruway. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Just write.

Avoiding Writing Scams

By Laura Bell

Let’s just get real for a second. There probably isn’t a way to get around them completely. As negative as this sounds, they are growing by leaps and bounds. The use of the Web in advertising writing jobs has just made it all that easier.

Here is the latest one that I fell prey to. I read about this new “citizen journalism” site. The story about the background of the founder, she had covered politics, impressed me. That was my first mistake. Frequently, you see promises of shared ad revenues. That sounded o.k. at the time. I went to work posting to get folks to read the work I uploaded. I was impressed with my numbers. I waited and then I waited some more.

There was an excuse about Google, the source of the shared ad revenue. Then there was talk about hunting for new financing. Then finally, there was an announcement late May that there would be a payout at the end of June. The timing was supposedly necessary so that June clicks could be included. Well, to my dismay, I got paid for, according to an email announcement, June earnings. Hmm, doesn’t seem to be what I agreed to.

Avoid sites that don’t specify when and how much you are going to get paid. I have another site acting as agent for my content. Every time he make a sale, he lets me know what my portion is; and, he sends me money when promised.

Print publications are not out of the running for having management deep into skullduggery when it comes to cheating writers. One of my goals has been to get my byline into a national glossy general interest magazine. I found a copy of this at Barnes and Noble years ago. The publisher running this was so good that she convinced Hearst, by use of a great “dummy,” to be her distributor. I got my desired byline, but never saw a penny. It was the first time an editor actually lied to me, saying that a check had gone out in the mail. I never got a dime; nor did any of the contributors. I found out later that nobody, including staffers, ever got paid. The publisher packed her bags and went to a new town and started again.

Then, there was the guy in upstate New York that managed to get many to write more with promises of later payment. He was successful in convincing about a dozen writers before he disappeared. I found out later it turned into a class-action lawsuit. He actually gave me a phony Fed Ex tracking number when telling me when to expect delivery. I spent days on the phone while listening for a truck that never showed up.

Getting Exposure

Many novices are dragged into these schemes because they are so anxious to see their names in print. My suggestion is don’t be anxious. It really and truly isn’t that difficult. There are hundreds of community newspapers throughout the country. What they never have enough of is content. Find one near you and volunteer. Stay long enough to get four or five good clips and then move on. There are also non-profits in every city who would be thrilled to get your help with one of their publications. All writing exposure for newbies does not have to be on the Net.

However, there is one thing that wouldn’t put you into the clutches of scammers, start your own blog. WordPress is easy. Learn how to get the word out on it. Editors are now accepting blogs as legitimate samples of your work.

Cautions that May Help

Any writing post that says “great way to get exposure” means run for the hills. Do not jump into any alleged opportunity that promises revenues or money down the road. There is a very good chance the publication or site will no longer be in business when it comes time for payment.

Join writers groups. Writers talk. Go to yahoo.com and click on the Groups link on the left side of the homepage. Type writers into the search blank.

There are professionals groups that still meet in person. Many now have web pages. You can check that out by using Google or your favorite search machine.

Use your email mailing lists (also known as YahooGroups) as a place to make friends with other writers. Start writing to a few off-list and make arrangements to meet in person when possible. Share your war stories.

Also, take advantage of writers’ newsletters. There are a multitude of them. Find them through your favorite search engine also. Many given warnings about publications and websites that haven’t paid or are paying late.

Team up with one or more of your writing pals and check out possible gigs together. If you are both dealing with same editor, then there will be strength in your numbers. I had this help many times, and we got out just before a couple of sites dissolved into ashes.

Check out www.well.com if you really want to have a gateway to writers and the ups and downs in their life. This ISP started out as a BBS and has been around since 1985. Its main core has always been writers, editors and artists. I have been a member since 1996. There are conferences for both editors and writers. You have a chance to hear the other side of the story.

One last thought on the subject, well at least for the moment—when checking out a print magazine as a pending market, check out the contributors. Have you heard of any of them? Just perhaps, you can find their email addresses with a little digging. I have used this trick more than once to find out if someone else was waiting on money.

Unfortunately, the publishing world is even harder than breaking into Hollywood some days. You have to learn how to look out for your rights. I guarantee no one else is going to do it for you. Amazingly, I still find there is more to learn after almost 30 years.

Laura Bell has been a published journalist since 1979. She has over 350 bylines to her name along with five years of self-publishing history. She has been a columnist five times and her work has appeared in: the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, Small Business Opportunity, the Los Angeles Business Journal, the Pasadena Star News and the Pasadena Weekly, to name a few.

Persistence

By Mark Terry

A long, long time ago (in what occasionally does seem a galaxy far, far away), I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was toward the end of my college career, between, I believe, my junior and senior years. I was majoring in microbiology and public health and not doing a very good job at it. My girlfriend (now wife) had graduated and moved back home where she was working nearby, and my college roommate (Andy) took an internship for the PASS network in Detroit, so I was living alone, working full-time in a mailroom of a veterinary laboratory at Michigan State and not doing much else.

I picked up a book of essays about Stephen King and he had written an introduction called something like “The Making of a Brand Name,” which was all about how he got started. I was struck, naturally, by the paperback reprint sale of Carrie for $400,000, but I was hit even harder by the idea that a writer was somebody who wrote things and sent them out to editors, who did or did not decide to publish them and pay the writer for the privilege. I started writing.

It’s been a very long and often twisting road, but I’m happy with where I’m at. It took talent, but I can’t define it let alone identify it. It took persistence. A lot of it.

Did it take luck? I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve been all that lucky in this writing gig. My second manuscript almost got picked up by St. Martin’s Press. My first book contract was with Write Way, and they went out of business before the book got published. I signed a contract with another small press, and they disappeared into the night, their website replaced by—I kid you not—a site for a veterinary incinerator. I’ve had three agents. The first was this kind of fly-by-night outfit in L.A. The second was a good, well-established agency in New York and my agent there tried to sell stuff of mine for six years without success before I moved on. In my efforts to get another agent—the one I have—I sent out nearly 100 query letters.

I kept writing. I branched out, often not intentionally, into nonfiction. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

This could have been a faster process. I could have networked more. I could have gone back to school and gotten a journalism degree.

I could have given up and gotten an MBA or whatever.

I didn’t. So where am I now, in the spring of 2006, versus the summer of 1985, when I started this path of folly?

I make a full-time living as a freelance writer. I make a decent, even good, living. I have published two books, one self-published (not recommended), one by a small press. I have a two-book contract for two more, the first of which is coming out from Midnight Ink in October 2006. I’m very busy. I can pay my bills. Clients come to me with work.

Is it talent? Yes, some.

Is it luck? If you keep being persistent, you’ll get some luck; you’ll be in the right place at the right time because, frankly, you’re always working.

But I’ll tell you what. It’s always, always related to persistence.

I grabbed a tiger’s tail back in 1985 and didn’t know how to let go. I didn’t even want to let go, although I definitely had some low spots where I wondered what the hell I was doing. But I knew I loved writing and I could never quite give up the dream of being a novelist (still can’t).

There’s no advice here, really. It’s just that, yes, if you persist—probably persist past any norm of common sense—you can probably succeed at some level.

There’s this brutal story about a master violinist who, after a concert, was approached by a young man who said, “Master, will you listen to me play and tell me whether there’s a future in music for me?” The maestro nods and the young man plays and the maestro shrugs and says, “You lack the fire.” The young man abandons music and goes on to have a successful life in business. Years later he runs into the maestro and tells him the story and asks, “What did you hear in my music?” The maestro shrugs again and says, “I wasn’t really paying attention. I never do. If you’ve really got the will and ambition— the fire—you won’t listen to anybody who tells you to stop. Nothing can make you stop if that’s what you’re meant to do.”

I really don’t advocate destroying your life in pursuit of anything, actually. I think there’s a lot to be said for “getting a grip,” and deciding what things are worth to you, and deciding what’s important. Writing, for me, is a passion, yes, but it’s also a job, and I don’t think I should wreck my marriage or alienate my kids or ruin my health over a job.

Cover of Stephen King's On WritingStephen King, again, wrote a lovely essay about this subject and comments on how do you decide when to quit. He suggests that if you quite after three or four or six tries, it’s too early. But if you’ve received 1,000 or 2,000 rejections, rejections that NEVER say anything like, “Pretty good, try again,” or have no other encouragement, then it’s time to re-evaluate your time.

My guess would be most people can decide long before that 1,000 or 2,000, but it depends on what you’re doing. If it’s journalism, unless you’re a total hack who can’t string words together at all, I think you’d get an article published long before you hit the 500 mark, let alone the 1,000 or 2,000. If you’ve gotten 2,000 rejections from agents or book publishers, there’s something wrong, not the least being that there just aren’t that many markets.

But it’s your life. Only you can decide what’s important.

Mark Terry is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and novelist. You can read more about his books at Markterrybooks.com.

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.

 

Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.

Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

Writers’ Resolutions for the Newly-Published—and the Yet-To-Be Published Alike

By Karyn Langhorne 

It’s that time of year again: the time of reassessment and reevaluation, renewal and revision.  In short, it’s time to resolve.

Since we’re all writers here, it seems appropriate to use this space to make some writing resolutions for 2005, resolutions that are true for me—and might also resonate for you as well. I’m writing them down here to solidify them for myself . . . and in the hope that the public confessional aspect will help me to stick to them better in the year ahead.

So here they are, my Top Three Writing Resolutions for 2005. Feel free to adopt as many as apply to you—and Happy New Year!

1. Let ’Em Live!

If you’re like me, you probably have a least a couple good ideas every day—and maybe more. Sadly, though, most of my good ideas die quick, brutal deaths. They should be killed off by editors, agents or publishers. But those folks never even see them, never even hear about them.

Why?

Because I kill my good ideas first . . . before anyone else can.

It may be only me, but I think writers get so used to rejection that we exercise a kind of “preemptory rejection process” or PRP.  PRP means that, in the speed of thought, we talk ourselves out of viable plans, possible story ideas, and future revenue streams. In short, we save ourselves the trouble of writing out proposals, and the pain of rejection by “getting ourselves . . . before THEY can.”

When I write about it in a column like this, it’s obvious to me how damaging and dangerous PRP is.  Sure, there are times when an idea is really half-baked and needs to stay in the oven a little longer . . . and there are ideas that we probably should toss out with the trash before they stink up the whole room. But there are many more ideas that need to have their moment in the sun– or least to be offered to the world– that never get their chance because PRP reinforces our laziness and appeals to our desire to protect our tender feelings from the possibility of further rejection.

And that’s the problem. PRP thrives in a mindset that assumes rejection. But maybe, just maybe there’s an acceptance or two or twelve out there with my name on it— with your name on it.  With PRP as my default expectation, I may never know how many acceptances are possible for me, and if it’s your default expectation, you’ll never know how many acceptances belong to you, either.

The truth of the positive possibilities of presenting ideas more aggressively was confirmed by my talented editor, Selina McLemore, who, when I informed her of the deluge of ideas coming her way, responded enthusiastically.

“I think it’s great to pitch as many ideas as you can,” she said. “When editors talk to new writers BEFORE they sign them, they’ll ask questions like ‘Do you have other projects you are working on? Are you developing any other story ideas?’ You want to have as long a list as possible. Lots of ideas shows an editor you’re always thinking . . . and that’s a good thing.”

So, my first resolution for 2005 is to change my selector from “assumed rejection” to “I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-but-I’m-willing-to-give-it-a-shot.” I’m not quite willing to assume that what I submit will be accepted . . . but I’m willing to give up PRP and see what happens.

What about you? Are you squelching your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow? Maybe you should consider resolving to replace your PRP with something a little more optimistic in 2005!

2. Review the contents of the “The Drawer” for marketable ideas and get them out there.

You know “the drawer.”  The place where dead ideas go.  The home of stories with great beginnings that never grew middles or endings.  The holy repository of finished projects that were rejected all over town, and for unfinished projects with no clear future. Every writer has a “drawer,” a file folder,  or a floppy disc (or several of them) of projects that never quite made it out into the world.

The drawer is suspended animation.

Too often, however, writers consider the drawer not as project hibernation, but as the project graveyard. Once surrendered the drawer, the project is never revived again– except in reminiscent conversations, “Yeah, I started a story about that once, but it’s gone to the drawer now.”

Opening the drawer is like revisiting the skeletons in your closet– sometimes it’s a reminder of weaknesses, a chance to confront failures. Shifting your view of the drawer from death to life means being willing to confront your failures and to see them as stepping stones to a better, stronger and more vibrant future project.

In 2005, I’ve resolved to go deep into the drawer– and to look hard at its contents. I’m going to stop looking at the drawer as “defeat” and start seeing it as a “resting place” for those projects that I either didn’t have the ability, maturity or life experience to finish back then… but that might just have a shot now that I’m older and wiser.

Or not.

The point is, I’ll never know if I’m not willing to re-read, re-open, and reconsider.

Again my editor, Selina McLemore, agrees: “If you have one idea I like, I’m going to ask you about your other ones.  Even if those ‘dead ideas’ aren’t your absolute best, it’s great to be able to present as many ideas as possible. You might say something to an editor like, ‘Well I’m always thinking, and while I’m not in love with everything, some of my ideas have been x, y, z…’ And as I said before, having lots of ideas shows me you’re thinking all the time. That’s what editors want to see from writers: new ideas, all the time.”

How about you? What’s in your drawer? Maybe 2005 is the year to revisit a project from the past– and make it your magnum opus for the future!

3. Network with other writers.

Friends are good things—not just because it’s good to have folks around you who have similar interests, but because you never know whom you can help– or who can help you! Already in my long and checkered path to becoming published, I’ve met people who have turned out to be great supporters, friends and resources (some through this column, thank you!) who have helped me in innumerable ways.  They’ve taught me that the more willing I am to share, reach out, network, and assist others, the more good things come back to me in ways both anticipated and unanticipated.

I’ve been hesitant to share in the past; partly because I’ve doubted that my experiences would have meaning or value to others. And it’s true, not everything I do or say has worth to everyone. But that doesn’t mean my words are worthless to everyone either.  Sometimes, one little comment goes a long a way to one person, and that alone is enough to make the communication worthwhile.

Are you holding back because you think your contributions won’t please the masses?  Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about “the masses,” and start thinking about the impact you might have on just one person, if you’re willing to put yourself and your work out there!

In 2005, let’s all resolve to help each other—as fellow writers and as human beings—and see what a difference it can make!

Happy New Year—and happy writing!

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.

Beating the Block: 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Cure Writer’s Block

By Magdalena Ball

You’ve got writer’s block?  So did I, for more than five years. I had plenty of grand ideas about what I wanted to write —the literary masterpieces which would stun the critics, the lofty poetry.  With idols and role models like Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Faulker, it isn’t surprising that my meager efforts seemed hopelessly trite and mundane.  We live in a world of instant gratification, but quality takes time, hard work and many drafts.  No one simply brings forth genius in automatic and effortless writing.

The cure for my block was a simple one, and perhaps obvious too, but it took me a lot of lost writing time to work it out. Germination? The gaining of maturity and perspective?  Nonsense — just lost time.  The one and only way to beat writer’s block is to write.  It doesn’t much matter what it is.  Writing a full length novel is perhaps the hardest, most structurally and emotionally challenging type of writing you can do, so if you are having trouble starting, try something quicker and easier to get your work moving, and don’t worry if it isn’t an epic full of depth and pith.  That will come, but only with lots of rework.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you through the block:

  1. Read the newspaper and pick a real life story that captures your imagination. Turn it into a fictional one.
  2. Keep a dream journal. The very process of translating those vague bits of imagery that make up a dream is the stuff of fiction writing.  Pick any dream theme that interests you and turn it into a full blown story.
  3. Pick a period of your life — any period. The year when you stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, your first love (and breakup), the loss of a pet, childbirth — anything powerful, and write it out.  Have fun and change the ending to suit your story better — improve the characters, make that boyfriend suffer as you leave him instead of the other way around.  This is not only cathartic, it can make for very good writing as you recall those deep sensory impressions — the ring of truth will increase your impact.
  4. Pick an era or historical subject that interests you and research it like mad. Then write up a biography, historical paper or fictionalized story based on the original.  Some of the best examples of fictionalized stories based on real characters include Atwood’s Alias Grace or Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.  There are plenty of untapped famous characters whose lives make for excellent material.
  5. Write a pastiche of your favorite author. Try stream of consciousness, a sonnet, a short drama — anything you fancy.  Use it as a springboard for whatever theme you want to explore.  Try varying the form — do a sonnet and then turn it into flash fiction.
  6. Change tack. If you’re blocked on your normal style of fiction, try writing in a different genre.  Give horror, romance, science fiction, flash fiction, a children’s story (if you have children, try targeting their age group — you will have a good understanding of what will and won’t work) or fantasy a try. While this type of writing may not be your cup of tea, it can be quite liberating to write to a formula and you may produce something quite unusual by working across your normal genre.
  7. Try nonfiction. Write a book review, a piece on your last holiday, advice for saving money, for raising a child, for throwing a birthday party, gardening, make up a recipe — anything!  There are plenty of markets for this kind of work and it can be rejuvenating to produce a finished piece.
  8. Join a writing group. This is not for everyone, but if you are a socially inclined person, the pressure of having to produce something combined with the stimulation of being able to obtain criticism and support immediately could be just the sort of thing you need.  There is probably a local group in your area which would involve meeting up in a specific location with other like minded writers, and many of these are supported by a wider network.  The camaraderie, assignments, local submission information and support is worth the trouble to get to one of these groups.  You could also join or set up an online group.
  9. Take an on-line course. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
  10. Buy a book filled with inspiration.There are many on the market.  One of my favorites is Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, which gives you a mini-assignment for every day of the year and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  Any writing book will provide inspiration, though.  Another favorite, which is a ‘must have’ for any writer is your local Writer’s Marketplace.  This has different names in different countries, but it is an invaluable list of markets, and very thorough.  Just reading the book will inspire you to produce material for submission.  Just read through its pages and stick a Post-it note on any of the markets you are interested in.  Then write for them!  One acceptance will generally pay for the cost of the book, so it is a very worthwhile investment.  In the US you can try the  Writers Market published by Writer’s Digest Books.  For other countries, just do a search at your favorite search engine on “Writer’s Market” + the country you live in and you should get a decent list of publications. The most current edition is also usually available at your local library if you want to just browse and say, choose a market a month to target.
  11. The secret is that writing begets writing. Your first efforts may well be trite, but the more you write the better you will get and the easier the words will flow.  Don’t ever use “lack of time” or “lack of inspiration” as an excuse. Inspiration comes out of the writing process — not before it, and time is an illusion. No one ever has time. Make time. You don’t need much as long as you are consistent and regular. Commit to writing something, anything, every day. If you wrote a page a day, you’d have a fat novel by the end of a year, a full length short story every month, or 2 articles a week. Few authors produce more than this. Even a half hour a day is worth committing to. Don’t make the mistake I did.  Write through the insecurity, the uncertainty and self-doubt and your block will most certainly disappear. Don’t expect immediate perfection, either. Ulysses took James Joyce 10 years to write. If you visit the archives containing his handwritten drafts, you’ll see that the first jottings were nothing like the finished product.  The main thing is to keep writing. Your own masterpiece is just around the corner.

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything.  Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications. Magdalena Ball also has a website, and blogs.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com