Monday, December 2, 2019

How to be a Writer: Part VII - Dealing with Criticism

Last week, we talked about how to handle rejection. This week, we'll talk about your response to something far more insidious, and possibly far more psychologically damaging: criticism. When you write, it's easy to lose objectivity on a story. I mean, for heaven's sake, you know what you're trying to say, and what comes out through your fingers may be brilliant to your mind, but it may not translate well to readers. That's why we often look for critique groups, writers' circles, and other such gangs of would-be writers who bring their knowledge to the table and expect you to do the same. In addition, we also throw our work out there for reviewers, agents, editors, and every random person who reads our work. And as the old saying goes, opinions are like strings: every yo-yo has one. Yes, I know that's not how the real saying goes. Call it artistic interpretation.

Grandma will always tell you that you're a genius because, well, she's grandma, and that's what she does. Telling you how good your work is without any shred of criticism doesn't help you. That's actually why we seek out things like beta readers, test readers, etc. What you're looking for is an honest opinion on your work. Not one that's spiteful, not one that is uninformed. Ideally, you're looking for a member of your target audience who is willing to be a guinnea pig for your story. A beta reader, writers group, critique circle, etc. should all have a single goal in mind: To make you better.
Be the best version of you...
So how do you deal with criticism? First, consider the source. I'm going to break down some different types of sources of criticism, and how I deal with them.

  • Respected Professional - Let's say, for sake of argument, that Stephen King grabs hold of one of my raw manuscripts. It could happen. And let's say that he offers up some advice on how a particular character should act or about what does and doesn't work. Him, I listen to. Why? Because he obviously knows what he's talking about. Not only that, he doesn't have any skin in the game of whether or not I succeed. If King is offering advice, his is the voice of experience. Listen to him. 
  • Critique Group - You have a group of amateur or professional writers who get together with the goal of working on each others' pieces in the hopes of making them publishable. When it's your turn to be critiqued, you get a lot of advice. Some of it's helpful, some isn't. But the point is, this is the purpose of the group. So, yes, I listen here. There's a caveat (which I'll talk about in a moment or two), but yes, I listen. 
  • Reviewer - When your work gets published, your work will get sent to professional reviewers (you hope). Those reviewers will often times give detailed accounts of what did or didn't work. Do I listen? Meh... Sometimes. I mean, if the criticism makes sense, sure. However, I've read plenty of reviews of my work that it was clear they weren't the target I'd intended, so I didn't put much stock in their criticism. 
  • Rando McRandom - Check Amazon... Everyone thinks they're a critic these days. Why? Because it's easy. Log in and tell the world your opinion (yo-yo strings, remember?). But the question is, do you listen to the criticism of a bunch of random people on Amazon who may or may not be your intended audience? Yes and no. I mean, yes, because reviews drive sales, and after a certain number of reviews (I think it's 100), Amazon takes notice of your book. On the other hand, I've gotten reviews that were... less than helpful. I got one in particular who was so "triggered" by a scene in one of my books that she basically called for me to be pillared. Forget that the whole point of the scene was to show how screwed up that part of society was, the fact that I dared put it in a book (which she didn't normally read in my genre anyway) completely was beside the point. Also, a quick google of my name will let you know the kind of thing you're in for with my work, so there's that. So do I listen to those critiques? Well, if it says something thoughtful, sure. But if it's really just a chance for the reviewer to crap all over the work without giving a thought to how to fix it, no. I just let it live and roll with it. 
Here's the thing: Every piece of criticism is not created equal. At the end of the day, the best gauge of whether a critique is worthless or not is you. You need to be able to read the critique that someone put together and weigh whether the suggestions make sense or if they are as much a fetid bag of dingo's kidneys. Consider: does the critique just tell you that what you wrote sucks? Or does it give you some idea as to what specifically doesn't work, and why? Does the person offering criticism know what they're talking about? Is the criticism designed to knock you down, or to help you build yourself back up? I think that's the real point of consideration. 
Not like this. 
So what do you do with criticism once you've gotten it? You thank the person offering it, consider whether or not it has merit, and act accordingly. You don't get defensive, or snark back at them on Amazon, or tell them off in a heated email. Believe me, I've seen plenty of folks do this and with very few exceptions, none of them are working right now. No matter what, you need to be professional. Act like the professional you are, and thank them for their time, then, if you read the criticism and decided the person offering it is a loony, you go about your day and forget about it. If you start to get the same criticism from multiple sources, maybe have a second look. But, again, it's your book. At the end of the day, you have to be the one who is pleased with it. Those of us that offer advice, well... opinions are like strings, after all.
Look at all the opinions... I mean strings...
Next time, we'll talk about how to give good criticism. 

Until then, write on!


Monday, November 25, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part VI (Dealing with rejection)

The dream of being a writer is wonderful. In theory, you write a book, send it off to either a publisher or agent, and they give you a suitcase full of money and you live happily ever after. However, that's not the reality. In reality, you spend months writing your book, send it off, and odds are more likely you'll be told "no." Worse, much of the time you'll be told "no" with a form-letter that gives you no clue why (or the classic "it's not you, it's us" line). Consider this: With expanding technology, the number of aspiring writers has grown in the past 30 years by incredible rates. Publishers can't possibly publish every book that hits their inbox, nor should they. They have to take into account not only quality, but marketability, audience, shelf space (yes, really) and a thousand other variables that can determine whether or not your book will make them money. It is, after all, a business. Yes, we're creating art. Yes, we're making political statements. Yes, we are creative. But at the end of the day, writing is about thirty percent art, seventy percent business. It's a cold truth, but it's a truth, nonetheless. So you, the artist, have to develop a thick skin. Of course you love your book. You wrote it. You know what you were trying to accomplish. But not everyone else will have that knowledge. And a rejection can come down to something as arbitrary as what the acquisitions editor had for lunch that day. No, I'm not kidding. So how do we, as writers, deal with rejection? And what kinds of rejections are there? Let's answer the second question first.

In my experience, whether sending things out to agents or editors, there are two kinds of rejection: Personal and Impersonal (form-letter). The form-letter rejection is the kind that most people get. They're maddening. They usually start off with "Dear Author" or have an obvious "insert-name-here" field. They then go on to a boilerplate that gives no reasons, no critique. More or less, it just says "No, Thank You." When you get one of these, you put it on your pile of rejections and move on. The second type, the personal rejection,  is, believe it or not, coveted in the world of writers. If an editor takes the time to actually pen (or type) a few personal remarks, that means they actually stopped their busy schedule of work to give you personal attention. That's huge. Seriously huge. If you receive a personalized rejection, you should take it as a complement, be encouraged.

So now to the bigger question... How to deal with it.

Well, you could go through the stages of grief.

Oh no you didn't!...

But there's a healthier, and more productive, way of dealing with it. If you get the first type of rejection, the form letter, put it in your file and move on. There's nothing to do about it. Just move on.  I know it's hard to do, but you have to realize that 99.9% of the time, a rejection isn't a condemnation of you, the writer, so you can't take it personally. You have to understand that there are literally a thousand little things that make a rejection happen. Your book may feature themes that, while well written, aren't suitable to the publisher's image. Your book may need a few more rounds of editing and critique. Your book may not have an easily identifiable market. Who knows? The point is, there's no point in obsessing over it. You gather your rejection and move on.

If you get the second type, the personal rejection, you read it. You see if the publisher mentioned why it was rejected, and then you learn from it. Graciously. Humbly. There are stories all over the place of authors who clapped back at rejections, and those authors will never get their work published by that, or any other, press. See, publishing is a notoriously small industry with a long memory. We talk. We share information. And we share who acted like a jackass. If there's nothing to be gained from reading it, still take it as a complement. If you feel you must, send back a simple "thank you for your consideration" message, and let the matter drop. And then send them your next novel. None of this is personal. If it's not right for them, it's not right for them.

To put everything in perspective, every famous book out there was rejected by someone. And the most famous ones you can think of? Rejected multiple times. Consider:

  • Carrie - Stephen King - Rejected 30 times
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone - J.K. Rowling - Rejected 12 times
  • Dune - Frank Herbert - Rejected 20 times
  • Agatha Christie was rejected for four years before her first book sold
That's not a comprehensive list, of course. But you get the point. Do not give up. Just because the first eleven places you send your manuscript won't touch it doesn't mean the twelfth isn't the home for which it's been waiting. 

So the bottom line here is this: Rejections come. It's part of the gig. You deal with it by realizing that they're not rejecting you. You put your fingers back on the keyboard and you keep writing, no exit strategy. I'm proud to say that I've been rejected from some very fine publishing houses. Proud, because that means I'm trying. 

Incidentally, and I've told this story before, I do have a favorite rejection I've received. It was from a magazine that I don't believe is still in print. But I got back the self-addressed-stamped-envelope (yes, this was in the days before electronic submission was a thing). Inside was simply a torn scrap of paper with the word "nope" scrawled on it. I still have it, somewhere. 

That's it, folks. Next time, we'll talk about handling criticism. 

Until then, write on!


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part V (Making Routines and Setting Goals)

One of the most common things I hear from people who glamorize the writing lifestyle (oh, yes... It's sooooooooooo glamorous) is "I just don't have time to write" followed by "Where do you come up with all those ideas?" The second one is a whole barrel of monkeys that I'll dive into on another day. But the first one, I have lots of advice for. And, should you find yourself pondering the jet-setting lifestyle of a writer (smell the sarcasm), you might find this blog entry useful.

Pictured: The glamorous writing life...
The best way I've found to manage the whole writer-with-a-day-job thing, as well as just the "writer" thing, is to set routines and goals. Routines are important for many things like muscle memory and mindset. Ever notice how there's a particular room in your house that, whenever you go in there, you feel relaxed? Or there's a particular place at your work that, when you go there, you feel anything but relaxed? How about this... Think about your morning routine.

If you're like me, your morning routine is a thing crafted over years of hard work and efficiency. Actually, it's more like "this is what I do" and I fall into a habit. The habit goes something like this: Wake up. Take care of bathroom necessities (no details here), pour myself a cup of coffee, let my dogs out, and sit on the back porch and drink coffee. I'll do a word puzzle while my dogs do their dog-stuff, then we go in. I fix the dogs their breakfast, then cook my breakfast, wash up, kiss my wife good bye, then go to work. I've been following that same routine every day for more time than I care to recount. It makes it efficient, makes it to where I don't have to think too hard about it, and it just gets done.

So why should your writing be any different?

On weekends, my routine is similar... I get up, drink coffee, let the dogs out, etc, but then I go sit at my computer for a couple of hours and work. That's my routine. It's why I look forward to weekends. So look at your schedule and see where you usually have time. That's your writing time. And don't just make it a "I'm not busy, so I guess I'll write" thing. Make this a "6pm to 8pm MTWThF is Writing Time, dammit!" Like I said, a routine helps put you in the right mindspace. If butt is in chair, fingers are on the keyboard and mind is in writer-land. Obviously, times don't matter. Just when you have a reasonable reliability that this time is your time. Trust me on this one.

Okay, so you've got your routine. So now what?


Pictured: My goals...
Setting goals is one of the easiest and best ways to make sure you, as a writer, are productive. The key is to set realistic goals, and then to stick with them, of course. What do I mean by realistic? Well, one goal I have is to write the great American novel, have it made into a movie, make forty-seven billion dollars off it, and retire to some place where the temperature never gets above 80 degrees. Is that particularly realistic? Not really. I mean, I'm sure stranger things have happened, and I suppose it's technically possible, but it's also highly unlikely. So what you need to do is set realistic, reachable goals. Consider the following:

  • Daily Word Count - When I'm working on a project, I set a word-count goal of 1000 words a day. That's roughly between four and five pages. Some writers (Stephen King) set a word-count goal much higher, but then, he's got all day to fill it. Since a lot of us (me) only have the time after work and weekends, 1000 words seems about right. 
  • Writing Time Goal - If the word-count thing doesn't work for you, maybe try setting a goal of total time spent with butt in chair before the keyboard. 
  • Milestone Goals - Give yourself a week to get a chapter done. Give yourself a specific amount of time to get plotting done, get characters fleshed out, etc. 
  • Deadlines - Get yourself a calendar and mark specific dates at which point you need to have specific things "turned in." 
Now, goals only work if you take them seriously, so make sure you inform those who live with you about what has to be done, and by when. And work your hardest to hit those goals. But then, if you occasionally miss one, go easy on yourself. Also, remember that they are goals, which, by definition, are things that you have to work up to. If you can't hit 1000 words in a day, don't sweat it too hard. Just reset the goal to 500. Once you hit that one, move it up to 750. In no time, you'll be at that 1000 word goal and wonder why you ever thought it was hard. 

That's it for this edition. Next time, we'll talk about something we all have to deal with: Rejection.

Until then, write on!


Monday, November 11, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part IV (Managing the Day Job)

Today, in Part IV of our series about how to be a writer, we're going to discuss one of the most hated aspects of being a creative of any type: The day job. I know, we've all been fed the image of the professional writer who flies off to make movies of his work and has a huge mansion and a private plane and gobs of money that would make Scrooge McDuck envious, but that's not how it actually works for the vast majority of us.

Of the thousands of writers in the world today, according to many sources, only about 300 of them can actually make a living at it. Think about that for a moment. Judging by the numbers of attendees at writers conventions that I go to, that's like one out of every thousand or so. Or more. So what chance to do you have? Same as anyone else, I imagine. And, while it's noble to say "I will be the exception!" and go whole-hog into it without a net, most folks have to do things like pay rent (and the electricity bill for your laptop from part one of this series) and like to do silly things like eat. So what does that mean? You need the dreaded day job.

I've been fortunate my entire working life in that I've worked (with very minor breaks) in university settings. Currently, I work for Texas State University and Seton Hill University. Why? Because they give the predictability of a steady schedule, health insurance, paid vacation, a retirement plan, etc. But working for a university is just not an option for some folks (trust me, I know how lucky I am). So how do you navigate both careers at the same time? The key, of course, is planning.

If you work hourly, let's say retail, without a fixed schedule, you need to make sure you take time for your writing career. It may not be every day, but you need to make it a priority in your life. For example, let's say you work the morning shift (8am - 5pm) M-W-F. That means that on M-W-F, you need to carve out a block of time when you get home to do your writing. T-TH, you have all day. Does that mean you can just write whenever? Theoretically, yes, but I find it better when I have a set schedule. That's me, though. What if you work mornings one day, evenings the next? Besides trying to find a new job, the same thing applies. You need to carve out a time when you can work. Wake up early to get it done. I don't recommend staying up until all hours because that becomes a vicious cycle of self-abuse. Since I work from 7:30am to 4:30pm every weekday, my writing schedule is easy. I get home at around 5 or 5:15pm every day, and I decompress for about thirty minutes (pet my dogs, sit on my porch), then I eat dinner. After dinner, I go into my office and bang away until I get 1000 words written (more on that in a future blog).  On weekends, I actually still do work, but I also take time out to be with friends and family, pet my dogs and ride my motorcycle.

The point is, I know it seems impossible, but it isn't. With planning, you can accomplish juggling the two careers. It's difficult, and it sucks, but only until you get used to it as your "new normal." Once you figure out the whole scheduling thing, it becomes a question of discipline and drive. Think of it like this: If you want to lose weight, there's a very simple calculus for doing so - Eat right and exercise. Every now and again, you have a "cheat day" where you can eat carbs or pizza or whatever, but then you have to have the drive to get back in the gym and hit it hard. Writing is the same way. You want to write that novel? You have to put in the time. You have to set a routine. It's okay to take a day off every now and again, but once that day off is done, get back into your writing gym and hit it hard.

A few other tips:

  • Do not write at work on work-owned equipment - Check your contract, if you have one. Chances are, anything written on company-owned equipment becomes owned by the company, and that includes your novel.  Dropbox is a great thing, but if you put it on your work computer to access your work, then guess what. Everything in your dropbox could be argued to become company property as well. Want to take the guesswork out? Just don't do it 
  • Do keep a notebook at work - You don't need to write the whole plot line, but keep a notebook and a pen handy and make notes when you get ideas. I keep a pocket-sized composition book in my pocket when I'm at work, and it's full of random little notes that wind up in my books later. 
  • Read on breaks - Part of being a writer is reading. It's a thing that we all do, and it's a way to continually stay sharp in our genre and take ideas from other genres. On your lunch break, have a seat, eat your lunch, and read a chapter in a book. It's good for a brain break. 
  • Post your schedule - I don't just mean your work schedule, but also your work schedule. Put it on your refrigerator. 8am - 5pm, work. 7pm - 9pm, writing. Post it so you and everyone else you live with can see it. 
  • Don't talk about the book you're writing to just everyone at work - Sure, if you have a friend at work, that's great. But people don't want to hear about what book you're writing. Especially ad-nausium if you're just now writing it. From experience, depending on where you work, mentioning that you're a hopeful writer will get you a combination of snide comments, pithy nicknames, and outright jeers. 
  • Do tell folks when it gets picked up - Folks love to pick up books by people they know. Just be ready to educate people on what it's really like to be a writer (i.e. my first book got picked up and, no, I'm not a bazillionaire yet).
  • Join a writers organization - Seriously, whatever genre you write in, there's an org for it. Horror? Join the HWA. Romance, RWA. Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Join SFWA. Why? Because these organizations are there to help their members succeed. Some even offer health insurance discounts. No kidding. 
Being a writer with a day-job (full or part time) is manageable. It's a pain, but manageable. The hardest part is to never let your day-job-self crush the ambition of the writer-self. With discipline, determination, and planning, you can do this.

And one more thing... This image made me think of this entry.

Next time, we talk about making routines and setting goals.

Until then, write on!


Monday, November 4, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part III (Self Care)

This is a very sensitive subject, and one that is very close to my heart. I talk about mental health and physical well-being all of the time, but I think there are aspects of being this weird "writer" creature that many people do not take into account. Someone has to talk about it, so it may as well be your old Uncle Scott.

First thing's first: This whole "writing" thing? It's hard. Really hard. There's no stability, no retirement plan (unless you make one), no healthcare (unless you buy it), and no steady paycheck. Sure, you're your own boss, you set your own hours, etc. But there's a downside to that: It's all on you. And that leads a great many of us creative-types (not just writers...) to have a particular mental outlook on the world. Yes, I'm talking about depression. Serious, severe depression. Studies have shown (links below) that writers and creative types (musicians, artists, comedians) are more prone to depression than the so-called "normal" folks, and while theories abound as to why, no one really has clue one about the solid concrete cause. Of course, I have my own theories. Shall I share them?

To my mind, part of what leads the humble writer to depression is that we are constantly bombarded with rejection. Literally, our worth in our chosen field is determined by a group of strangers who don't know us, the random masses who may or may not read our work, and even people that may or may not "get" what we were going for in a story. And those things are not objective at all. They're all determined by taste, upbringing, what they had for lunch today (you try being nice with heartburn...), or even how their day is going. So you, the writer, spend months writing what you think is the greatest story you've ever written, then you send it out to agents and editors, and the response you get is "no." Or worse, "meh." And suddenly, the invasive thought appear. "I suck." "I'll never be good at this." "Why do I bother?" "I should've been a veterinarian." We fall into a hole of self-doubt and beat ourselves up until one of two things happens: We either quit, or we get stubborn about it and keep moving on.

Another reason for this issue in our lives is that writing is largely a solitary endeavor. As social creatures, we crave human contact. Even if you say you hate people and want to live as a hermit, for the most part, there will come a point where, if you don't have human contact, it's unhealthy. So we want people in our lives, friends, spouses, significant others, but we want them to leave us the hell alone when we're working.

We impose deadlines on ourselves and feel guilty when we don't meet them. We set impossible expectations for our work and fall into despair when it comes up short. We all have dreams of being the next big thing, and those dreams are constantly being smacked with a hammer.

So what can we do? Give up? Nope. I'm stubborn. I've got some things that I do when I'm on a downward swing that may help you.

Give yourself permission to suck. Look, not every word you write is going to be gold. Every first draft sucks, and that's the truth. So when you read through something, try to see your intent when you wrote it as opposed to how many times you wrote "there" instead of "they're." If you find something that sucks, mark it, revisit it, and ponder on what you could do to make a stronger choice. But don't beat yourself up over little mistakes or first-draft fuckery. It's fine. Everyone does this, from King to someone you've never heard of. Every first draft sucks.

Give yourself permission to step away from the keyboard. You know what happens when you're at your keyboard and the words won't come, but you're still sitting there determined to force them to appear? Nothing. The words still won't come. And you begin to feel depression jumping on you because you're obviously not a real writer because you can't just summon the muse from the ether and  make her shit out a few dozen pages at will. It doesn't work like that. Never has, never will. Yes, set a daily word count goal, and hit that goal, but also recognize when you need to step away for a few minutes. Realize that, at some point, you're going to get blocked and you may need to take a lap to get that creative magic back in your fingers.

Take a walk. When I'm having difficulty, I like to do things that I don't have to particularly "think" about. Typically, that means taking a walk through the neighborhood. See, if I sit and watch a TV show, I get involved in the plot. Hell, I wind up binge-watching the whole thing, and that's just a giant time-suck. Same thing for movies, though I love watching movies in the theater. Instead, I go for a walk through my neighborhood. I don't have to think about where I'm going so long as I follow the sidewalk, and that gives my brain a chance to kickstart itself back into working.

Exercise. One of the other pitfalls of this lifestyle is that it requires large amounts of time with butt in chair, which isn't conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Realize that the amount of time we spend in the chair for each novel is directly proportional to what I like to call "ass-spread." At least, it's that way for me. When I graduated from high school, long before I realized I wanted to be a writer, I weighed 142 pounds soaking wet and had 6% body fat. After more than a decade of being a writer, I saw my weight soar to the heaviest I've ever been, which is 240 pounds. Every joint I had hurt, and I got winded going upstairs in my own house. Since then, I've been on an exercise program, and at the time of this blog entry, I'm at 211. Exercise is a great way to turn off your brain and let it do the processing for you.

Read. How did we first learn to tell stories? By reading the works of the masters of our craft. How can we recharge when we feel that our batteries are low? By reading the works that inspired us to start with.

Connect. As I said, we are social creatures, whether we want to be or not. It's biology. So you do occasionally have to get out and (*gasp*) hang out with your friends. Reconnect with the people in your life that care about you and want to know where the hell you've been. Remind yourself that you do have people who love you. And if you don't think you do, I'm betting you're wrong. And if you want a more "writerly" way of connecting, have I got a solution for you: Writers' Workshops. I regularly attend In Your Write Mind, a writer's retreat created by alumni of Seton Hill University, at which I work. There are writers' retreats, workshops, and conventions in every state all year through. There are organizations for your genre as well. I'm a member of the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association. Why? Because it's nice to not feel alone in this endeavor, and it's nice to have other people to talk to, to ask questions, and to basically bullshit around with.

Get help. There is no shame in the realization that you need help. Everyone needs help. Invasive thoughts, feelings of depression, hopelessness... These are signs of a larger problem, and one that a qualified, trained professional can help with. Please, before it's too late, get help.

These are the things that work for me. And you may need to find more that work for you. I was diagnosed with what was at the time known as severe manic depression years ago. I also have a touch of PTSD, the reasons for which I won't go into now. I have been on that ledge, on that chair, at the proverbial tipping point where my life could've ended. One thing that helped me walk away from it with my life still intact was this:  YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people who can help you. And here's one other little thing that I do when I'm having a mental health crisis... I write about it. The books that I wrote after a major trauma in my life feature some very heart-crushing themes, and they were my way of getting them out of my soul and healing. I'm not saying it's a magical panacea for everything what ails you, but I'm saying that, for me, it helped. I have lost too many friends to suicide, and I've had a couple of friends come awfully damned close. I don't want to lose any more, and I don't want to be the cause of anyone else's misery if I be the one taking my own life.

The point of this entry is very simple: You can't be a writer if you're not around to write. Make your goals, set your deadlines, whatever, but you have to make time to take care of yourself. Read that again. You have to make time to take care of yourself. Take a hot bath, take a nap, go grab a coffee, reconnect with friends... Do something that makes you feel good about who you are as a person. Take care of yourself.  And don't you dare let anyone shame you for it. If anyone says "well, you're not a real writer unless..." Kick that person squarely in the junk. Tell them I told you to. I gave you permission. G'head. Send 'em my way.

Remember, your story will not get written if you aren't around to write it. You are valid. You have worth. And there is an audience for your work.

Next time, we'll talk about that pesky day job.

Until then, write on!


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Monday, October 28, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part II (Your Writing Space)

Last time, in part one of our multi-part series, I talked about the basic tools that you need to be a writer. This time, I'm going to talk about where you write. Keep in mind, there is no right answer for this. There is what works for you. I'm going to be talking about what works for me, sharing a few glimpses into my writer's lifestyle, and what works for a few of my contemporaries (with their names redacted so you won't think I'm name-dropping anyone).

So what do you look for in a writing space? Well, if you're like me, you look for a few things. Darkness, few windows (I'm easily distracted), and a frickin' door, to start with. For me, a writing space becomes holy ground. When I'm in that space, I am not to be disturbed, and everyone in my life, in theory, knows that. It's not as pretentious as it sounds, really. The thing is, I have to be in a certain mindset when I write. When I hit that point, I can type for hours on end without a single break and not even realize the time has passed. But the thing is, it takes me a while to get there, and only an instant to pull me out of it. So, before we look at some different type of writing spaces, let's talk about the whole "sacred space" thing.

A Sacred Space is a place in the home that is used to unplug from everything else in your life so you can focus on one thing and one thing only (whatever that is). In most cases, when people talk about sacred spaces, they're talking about focusing on their spirituality, loving the world, or some other aspect of spiritual growth. Now take that concept and apply it to your writing room. Your writing room/space/garage/nook/ironing board should be that sort of place for you: A place where you can tune out the rest of the world and focus on what truly matters. In this case, it's your writing (and let's be honest here... Writing is a form of spirituality. And therapy.). It should be filled with things that help your writing, not distract you from it. Let me explain.

My writing room is an ode to chaos. Contained therein, you will find dozens of occult curios, reference books, novels, books by friends and former students. You'll find Captain America's shield hanging on the wall and my pug's bed in the corner. You will find my guitar behind my desk and paintings by my wife around my desk. In short, the room is me. It's everything that I need to feel comfort. It's everything that I need so I won't worry, look around, and find excuses not to write. One thing you will not find: Bills on my keyboard. See, nothing goes into my writing space that causes me anxiety because, well, that's not how I work. When I write, I write in silence with only ambient noise from the house around me.

But that's not how everyone works. One author I know finds his creative juices in a booth an the local Starbucks, surrounded by people and with noise all around. That's his sacred space. That's the space he goes to when it's time to go to work. Ernest Hemmingway wrote standing up with his typewriter on his dresser. That was his sacred space.  Some people write with music. Some write in silence. I know at least one writer whose typewriter used to sit on an ironing board in a very small cubby.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find yourself a space that, when you are there, it's time to work. Why? Because you are training your brain to get into its creative state. It's a trigger. Think of it like a Pavlovian response. We ring the bell, you drool. You sit in your writing chair, you start thinking like a writer. Then comes the tricky part: EVERYONE ELSE.

I got lucky. I married an artist who understands that, when I'm working, I need to be left alone. She needs the same thing when she works. When we bought our house, we each created a space that was uniquely ours. I have my writing room downstairs, she has her art studio upstairs. And we both know when the other is in their sacred space, we leave them the hell alone.  And, yes, I'm aware that this makes us sound unbearable to live with, but that's what it is to live with creative people. We complement each other, and we deal with it.

But most folks aren't that lucky. The key to dealing with this? Ground rules. Communication. You can't just assume your partner(s) will understand what's going on in this room if you don't tell them. So you need to very carefully and explicitly set some ground rules for how you would like the world to operate if you're in your writing space. And then be expected to make compromises. For example: "I'd like to not be disturbed if I'm in this place, because I'm working on a novel." "Okay, but if we haven't seen you in eight hours, I'm breaking the door down." "Fair." Remember, a temperamental creative type you may be, but you're not allowed to be 100% asshole. Your partner's feelings are just as valid as yours, so you need to respect them. But you also need time to do what you need to do. Communication is the only way to solve this problem.

The point I'm trying to make is this: Find your space. Whether it's in a coffee shop, an office, your back porch, or even in your kitchen, find what works for you. Find the place that, when you sit there, your brain knows it's time to go into a creative cycle. And if you're one of those people who can work anywhere and anytime, more power to you. I wish I could, but I can't. And that's okay too.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, here are some photos of my indoor and outdoor writing rooms.  Yes, I write on my back porch some times.

Next time, we're going to talk about one of the most important, and often ignored, aspects of actually being a writer in part three of our three-part series.

Until next time, write on!


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

How to Be a Writer - Part I (Tools of the Trade)

As writers, we spend a lot of time dealing with mechanics. Punctuation, grammar, spelling, storytelling, plot, etc. We spend so much time learning the craft of being a writer, but no one ever really tells us how to be a writer. I get it, sure, if you don't have the tools, you're not going to get very far. But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you've finished your MFA, you have a head full of ideas, and you're raring to go. So then what? I mean, writing a story is one thing, but how does one actually be a writer? What are the pitfalls of the writing lifestyle that people don't talk about? For the life of me, I don't think a single person ever said "hey, yes you can write, but do you know about...?" concerning the lifestyle of a writer? How do relationships work? What equipment do you need? Where do you write? How do you support yourself while you write? Do you have a day job? How long before a publisher offers me a suitcase full of cash and lewd promises of questionable morality?

I'm going to attempt to answer those questions. At least, I'll give you the insight that my experience has taught me. I don't pretend to be the end-all-be-all expert on all of this, but if you let me, I think maybe I can help. So let's start with Part I - What tools do you need to be a writer?

This is not going to be some esoteric discussion that ends with "all you need is imagination and gumption." Sure, those are nice, but let's start with the obvious: A computer. Laptop, desktop, iPad, Windows, Mac, Linux, it doesn't really matter what the specifics are. You just need some sort of word-processing apparatus that facilitates the recording of your story/novel/play. Before you get your shorts in a knot, let me explain. Nothing against the people who prefer to write longhand, but I have yet to meet or even see an editor or agent that accepts hand-written submissions, no matter how pretty the handwriting. I use a combination of my desktop (older 27" iMac), laptop (Macbook Air, provided by one of the universities for whom I work) and an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard, depending on where I am. None of that matters, however. Go ahead and draft on a yellow legal pad. But before you get ready to submit your stuff, you're going to have to enter it into the word processing software (or pay someone else to). Which brings me to my second point: Software.
Trust me... No one cares what you use. 
If you walk into a room full of writers and loudly ask what writing software they use, you will get as many different answers as there are people in the room. What's more, each one will extol the virtues of the software they use, and try to convince you that theirs is the OMGBEST for writing. And it's all bullshit. Look, every writing software out there does basically the same thing. Some help you keep track of plot points, others help you keep track of characters. Some are free, others are quite expensive. But the absolute truth of the matter is this: It doesn't matter. Whatever software you choose, choose it because you like it, not because some over-caffeinated lunatic told you to. Try a few. They all have trial versions, and chances are you'll find one you'll like. Me? I use good-old Microsoft Word for two reasons. First, every publisher I've come across requests manuscripts in one of three formats: .rtf (Rich Text Format), .doc (Word Document), or .docx (updated Word Document). Most word processors will have these formats listed under their "save as" menu, but I figure I'm just cutting out another step, and eliminating the chance for the formatting to be off. The second reason? Both the colleges I work for provide the Microsoft Office Suite for free to faculty and staff members, as well as students. So... Yeah. I use it because it's powerful, does what I want it to do, and I don't have to pay for it.

So what else do you need? Well, obviously, a place to write. We'll go more into the details of your writing space in a later episode of Strange Words, but suffice to say you need a place where you can sit with your thoughts and put your words down. It can be an empty room, the middle of your kitchen, or even a crowded coffee shop. What matters isn't the trappings themselves. What matters is that you are comfortable there. What matters is that the place is conducive to your creative process. Wherever that place is, don't let anyone tell you that it's wrong. A very dear friend of mine (who is incredibly well accomplished and published) writes at Starbucks. Trying to do such a thing would drive me insane, because I would keep getting distracted. But it works for him, and that's all that matters. So you need to find a place where you can gather your thoughts and lay them out.
I love office supplies...
Everything else is just window dressing and props. There are things that are useful to have, sure, but not necessary. For example, I carry around a composition book and a pen everywhere I go, even though hand-writing stuff out drives me up a wall. Why? Because I don't know when I'm going to see something that will spark an idea. I don't know when I'll need to make a note. And flipping open a notebook takes way less time than unloading my laptop, firing up the word processor, creating a new document....blah blah blah. I also use composition books to keep track of things in my books so I don't have to keep going back thirty or so pages to figure out what a certain character's middle name is (it's Irving, by the way).

There are a few things I would suggest you have, but none of it is necessary. Pens, reams of paper, stickies, a cork-board, all help make the job easier, but they're never necessary. I also suggest that every writer should have a good quality laser printer. Why? Because they last a good long time, and editing is easier on paper than it is on the screen.

Next time, we'll talk about your sacred writing space.

Until then, write on!