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Writing tips

yellow-pad

With the approaching publication of my story collection PALE HEARTS, I’ve been thinking about the writing process.  When I first started these stories about four years ago, I had no idea how difficult writing would be.  Creating each individual piece took time-consuming, grueling effort; publishing was even worse.  Still, over time, I learned writing strategies that helped me press forward.  Each author has their own collection of writing tips.  Here are some that have helped me.

-Manage your time wisely.

Time management is key.  Most of us will never make any meaningful income from writing.  It’s frustrating, but it’s a fact we have to accept.  During the four years that I wrote this book, I worked full-time.  That meant setting aside dedicated writing hours and sticking to the plan.

Different strategies work for different people.  Some people like to reach a specified word count per day.  I write for a specific amount of time.  For me, a useful writing session is at least two hours.  That means writing for a full two hours after work at a specific time, such as from 6-8 or 7-9.  The tricky part is fitting this in with eating dinner and other daily activities.  During the work week, I make simple dinners so they don’t interfere too much with the writing schedule.  I have a set number of hours that I plan to write that week (usually 10) and I strive to meet it.  If I don’t meet the quota on one day, I make it up on another.  For instance, if I want to write for 4 hours over the course of 2 days, but only write 1.5 hours the first day, then I write 2.5 hours the second.

For some reason, it’s hard to start writing, especially when you’re tired after a long day at work.  There’s often the temptation to do other things “first”–organize your room, check websites, etc.  Try not to give in to this temptation–or, if you must, manage it by promising that you’ll only spend 10 minutes procrastinating.  Usually, once you dare to open your Word document, it gets easier.

Not that I have procrastination fully mastered.  I often get to the end of the day and realize that I wasted an hour here or there.  I’m always trying to discipline myself to use time more productively.

Push through self-doubt.

Many writers, myself included, often feel terrible about our work.  Sometimes I look at my drafts and think they’re the worst, stupidest stories ever written.  Apparently it’s common for writers to feel this way, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.  Self-doubt can sometimes feel overwhelming, an almost physical sensation of pain and paralysis.

I’m still figuring out how to deal with this.  One thing that works well is reading some really bad writing to reassure myself.  This might sound silly, but reading something terrible–especially if it’s published–is a nice and often humorous way to make yourself feel better about your own writing.  I may not be fantastic, I think, but at least I’m better than that. 

Be prepared for rejection.  Lots of it.

I knew, from stories about famous writers, that I’d probably get some rejections along the way.  I had no idea what I was really in for.  On average, I’ve sent stories to about 60 places before they get accepted.  I don’t count my rejections, but I have hundreds at least, if not a thousand.  Not only have I been rejected from lit mags, but also from newspapers, MFA programs, writing classes, grants, fellowships, and artist residencies.  I’m not going to lie: it is brutal.  The publishing world is cruel and arbitrary.  You do get used to it–most of the time.  Occasionally, when I start to think I’m fully hardened against disappointment, I feel hurt by specific rejections, like when I have a story that I thought was perfect for a particular magazine.  Yet while rejections hurts, the publishing gods also hand out pleasant surprises.  I’ve two pieces published in much better journals that I expected.  It still surprises me that the editors liked these stories.

Ignore your sense of embarrassment.

Writers tend to be introverts and perfectionists.  As such, we often experience conflicted feelings when we publish. On one hand, we want our work to be published and read–that is the point, after all.  On the other, we’re often mortified by what we have written.  It’s weird to know that strangers might be reading our words, and by extension, our thoughts.  We obsess over word choices and punctuation marks.  I often feel a sense of intense dislike for pieces that I have previously published.  I feel embarrassed by what I see as errors or oversights.

Many writers feel this way.  I’ve heard other people express the exact same thing.  I’ve even heard some writers advising others not to publish until they’re sure a piece is perfect, or “really done.”  I believe this is foolish.  Most of the writers I know are perfectionists to a fault.  They could spend their whole life rewriting Chapter 1 before they ever felt fully confident about it.  This is a natural hazard of the profession.  If you wait until you feel perfectly confident or completely ready, you’ll never publish a thing.  If you allow your embarrassment about past pieces to overwhelm you, you’ll never progress as a writer.

Put positively, if you feel a strong sense of shame and inadequacy about your writing, you’re a real writer for sure.  Just don’t let those feelings derail you!

When attempting to publish, visualize success.

This probably sounds corny, like something out of a self-help book.  However, in the face of crippling odds, it really does help.  Most of my published stories received several rejections before they were accepted at literary journals.  Although this was discouraging, thinking about how I would feel when the story was published helped me continue submitting.  For my book, this was especially helpful.  I submitted my story collection to about 50 indie presses over the course of a year. The process was horribly discouraging.  A few publishers loved my writing, then said they no longer accept story collections.  Others praised the manuscript, but had full publishing schedules or were going out of business.  Sometimes I wanted to forget the whole thing.  But then I imagined how it would feel to hold my book in my hands.  I thought of how glad I would be to have the collection given the status of book, not just a bunch of printed-out pages.  I kept submitting, and PALE HEARTS was finally accepted by Insomnia Publishing.

What are your favorite writing strategies?  Comment below!

Recommended Reading

Picture of novels on a shelf
Photo source: Morguefile.com

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert–This is a pleasingly ambitious historical novel about the life of a nineteenth-century female botanist.  It seems cliche to use the word “sweeping,” but that really does describe the experience of reading this novel.  It deals with science, love, family, and perhaps most strikingly, female sexuality, all within the context of one woman’s intellectual quest to describe the natural world.

Euphoria by Lily King–This is the story of a love triangle between anthropologists, based loosely on events in Margaret Mead’s life.  King’s writing is gorgeous and the characters are well-realized.  The subject is fascinating, the setting vivid, the plot suspenseful.  All of this ties in for a perfect read!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark–This lovely short novel somehow captures perfectly a beloved teacher’s influence, positive and negative, on young students.  It’s very difficult for writers to describe such a fleeting, ephemeral thing, yet somehow Spark does it in a way that’s timeless and touching.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton–This classic is really worth reading.  Wharton is a master of describing the nuances of forbidden love, within the context of wealthy late nineteenth-century New York.  It’s entertaining and heartbreaking and suspenseful all at once.  If you love reading about love, this subtle, beautiful novel is for you!

What did you read this summer?  Post your recommendations in the comments!

How to stop the internet from ruling your life

Photo of laptop
Source: Morguefile.com

 

Go online with a specific goal in mind. Stick to it and then get off.

Set social media time limits. My goal is fifteen minutes a day or less. That’s enough to post something, check your notifications, and get off. Even better, go on social media only every two or three days.

Turn off email notifications for social media. That way you’ll be less tempted to go on Twitter, Facebook, etc. every time you check email.

Take note of how much time you spent online. Visualize how that time could be better spent in real life (What are the things you think you don’t have time for? Exercise, reading, taking a class, getting outdoors, DIY projects?)

For long periods of concentration, invest in an internet-blocking app like Freedom.

Set aside periods of no-tech time–weekends, or a few week nights. Physically separate yourself from your laptop and phone.

Keep parts of your life offline. Try not posting photos of everything. It’s worth printing out special photos and putting them in a physical photo album that only you can see.

Don’t always reply to emails or texts right away. I know, this is heretical these days. However, I believe this is about habit and culture formation. If you’re in the habit of replying to messages right away, it reinforces the need to check your phone or email constantly (and if you don’t, you become freer from your devices). Reply time is socially enforced. When we reply instantaneously, everyone expects others to reply right away–causing us to become dependent on phones and laptops. By taking longer to reply, we shift the norm and break the cycle.

It’s time to get offline when

Consuming one thing makes you want to consume all the things. It’s not enough to read one or two news stories about an event or person; you have to read all of them.

You find yourself thinking about social media even when you’re not it. You think of tweets or pictures to post even when there’s not a phone or laptop in sight.

You’re not on the internet and you’re itching to get back on. The moment you try to do something serious, your mind urges you to take an internet break.

Every time you read a book or watch a movie or do anything at all, you feel the need to know what other people thought about it. You seek out reviews, amateur and professional, trying to find a piece of writing that sums up your feelings about it in an eloquent, satisfying way. These never exist, but you keep searching for them anyway.

You realize there’s an emptiness to the constant pleasure-seeking, scrolling mindlessly through social media feeds–and yet, even once you’ve decided none of these things are satisfying or enlightening, you continue anyway.

Interesting Links

In the New Yorker: A piece on Beethoven’s influence; a somewhat rambling review of recent biographies on the composer

This is what the real war on women looks like

On finding community when a writer relocates

When books were bad for you

An argument for conservation burial

By Janet Malcolm: A fascinating review of the Gossip Girl book series, calling them “a transgressive fairy tale.”  I came across this essay via Alice Gregory, a writer whose own non-fiction is also pretty interesting.

Recommended reading: Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman, on the difficulties of writing biographies of Sylvia Plath and  the controversies involved.

Raven Book Store

Raven Book Store in Harvard Square is my favorite place to buy used books.  Whenever I’m in there, I wish I could buy them all.  Today I needed to get a new copy of The Great Gatsby, having lost mine.  The only one they had on the shelf was this:

Books_Gatsby

The guy at the cash register took one look at it and said, “Oh, the movie one.  Usually we don’t carry these.”  That was kind of awesome.  I love Raven!

Bonus:

Someone has actually made an old-school Great Gatsby video game.

(Warning: Highly addictive.  And surprisingly challenging.  Watch out for the drunken revelers, and the evil eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg!)

 

Links

Like everyone else, I definitely spend too much time reading stuff on the internet.  One of my goals is to stop doing this.  However, there are occasionally things that are worth reading.  Here is a collection to prove that not all was a waste:

-Rebecca Makkai is not only a great short story writer, she also writes hilarious posts for the Ploughshares blog.  Here are a few:

Writer Nightmares

Amateur Author Spotting

An MFA For the Rest of Us

-This was an interesting review of Stuart Dybek’s latest collection and the state of MFA fiction

-An uplifting essay on how classical musicians are innovating to find new audiences and performance space

-Finally read this great essay by George Orwell today: Why I Write

-A piece on whether or not The Goldfinch counts as “Literature.”  I haven’t read it yet, but I tend to agree with one of the comments: “If a book sells a million copies and wins the Pulitzer Prize, who cares what the critics think?”