Mary’s Muses

First Steps are Worth the Anguish

I went to the gym today. I know, that’s not a big deal – except it is.

I used to work out religiously. I’ve run nine marathons, competed in sprint-distance triathlons and taught aerobics for years. Then, I got hurt. The injury forced me to cut out workouts for a while. A while became months, then a year, then two years. Oh, I could have gone back to the gym after four to six weeks, but I didn’t. By then my routine was broken and my mind was filled with excuses:

What if they’ve switched up the class routine or music?

What if new people have joined and my work out buddies like them better?

I can’t do a hard workout today because I don’t want to be stiff and sore before this weekend’s trip.

Better not swim today, I don’t want “goggle eyes” in my afternoon meeting.

What if I re-injure myself?

I had been googling class times for weeks, always coming up with a reason that I couldn’t make it to a spin class or yoga session. But today I did it. Finally. And it wasn’t awful.

So, why am I sharing this exercise saga on a blog devoted to writers? Because it’s all pretty much the same.

Writers who get out of the routine of writing often face the same sort of anxiety when they try to get back to it. Instead of a weight room packed with muscle-bound humans, writers face blank pages and blinking cursors. For those who haven’t written in a while, the anxiety can be very real:

What will I write about?

What if the words won’t come?

What if my writing isn’t any good?

Those worries can fester and multiply until, well, it’s easier to run errands or clean the bathroom – pretty much anything but write. Put off starting for a day and pretty soon you will have delayed a week, then a month, then six months.

Haven’t written since high school or college? Yes, writing may feel awkward when you begin again. Sentences may be forced, ideas may be stale. Keep at it. Like a first day back in the gym, the first day writing again is just that – a first day, a first step. Stick with it. Start with 10 minutes every other day. As writing becomes more natural, you’ll be able to stretch yourself to 20- or 30-minute sessions.

Every time I’ve ever stopped exercising for a while, I’ve sworn I’ll never do it again – getting back into shape, getting back to a routine is so hard. It’s the same with writing. But it’s worth it.

So, tune out the negative self-talk that’s keeping you from starting whatever you’ve been meaning to start: running, yoga, writing, painting, learning a language. Taking the first step is never easy, but without it, change is impossible.

Writers Write and So Much More

“So, you’re just writing now?”

My lunch companion’s question was innocent enough. After all, she knew that I’d just quit a part-time gig teaching writing at a public high school.

I swallowed hard and calmly said, “Yes.” While conversation moved onto holiday plans and my daughter’s college applications, my mind kept coming back to her words: Just writing.

Why hadn’t I jumped onto the table, flailed my arms about, and shouted what I truly meant to say: Yes! I’m writing – and so, so much more!

I am certain that my friend was in no way belittling what I do, but I’ve heard it before. People have this weird – almost romantic – perception that writers spend their days curled up in comfy chairs, sipping tea, and waiting for inspiration. Not exactly.

The working writers I know are equal parts wordsmith and hustler. They work days, nights and weekends. Even when they’re not working, they’re working – scouting for ideas, looking for connections, polishing sentences until they’re bright and shiny.

Think writers just write? Think again. These are just some of the behind-the-scenes tasks writers tackle on a regular basis:

Brainstorming

I have notebooks in my car, my purse, on my nightstand, in the den – all for the purpose of capturing ideas.

Ideas are born everywhere and they’re slippery little fellows, so you must act quickly when you sense one. Inspiration for articles, books, characters, settings and plots can come from anywhere: A conversation overheard in a coffee shop, an episode of a 1970s television sit-com, the way rain bounces off the window sill.

Creating a backlog of ideas is an important part of writing. Of course, not every idea becomes a story, but without ideas a writer would have nowhere to start.

Researching

Research varies, depending upon what kind of writing you’re doing. Writing a book about the United States’ first African-American astronaut? You’ll soon find yourself up to your eyeballs in old news clippings, scientific journals, and official NASA documents.

Writing a fictional short story about a young girl living in London in the 1840s? You’ll need to research popular girls’ names and clothing of the era. You will have to learn how people got around the city, which neighborhoods existed, what the political and social climates were like, what the economy was like. Even when creating fiction, research is necessary in order to create a realistic storyline and believable characters. Imagine that your young English girl loves hearing the chimes of Big Ben, but alert readers know that couldn’t be because the landmark wasn’t completed until 1859. Those readers are going to begin to question everything about your story. A lack of research makes for an untrustworthy author.

Writing/Rewriting

Once enough research has been done and you know where you’re headed with your story or article, you can begin writing. Production varies greatly from day to day and writer to writer. In his autobiography, American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote that when he was finishing Following The Equator in 1897, he was writing an average of 1,800 words per day. In an interview published in 2002 in The Paris Review, English novelist Ian McEwan said his daily production was considerably lower, at around 600 words per day. If you land somewhere in between these literature legends and are able to write 1,200 words per day, it will take you 75 days to complete a 90,000-word manuscript, IF you don’t get stuck or frustrated or sidetracked. And that’s just the first draft.

Even Stephen King, who has published 56 novels, writes three separate drafts. In his book On Writing, he explains that he writes a first draft, then lets it sit for a month or more while he works on other projects. After a four- to six-week brain break, he rereads his manuscript, paying close attention to theme, character development and plot holes. He then writes draft number two. Kings sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their feedback to create his third draft.

Three drafts is just the beginning for many novelists. Perhaps it’s not the entire manuscript that needs rewriting, but rather a chapter or two that require eight, nine or more revisions – it’s not unheard of. Even if you’re not working on a book-length project, the process of polishing your work is both crucial and time consuming.

Pitching

Once your manuscript is ready, it’s time to figure out how to get it published. Writers spend hours reading trade publications and doing online research to find agents who might be attracted to their work. Are these agents accepting new clients? What kinds of manuscripts are they looking for? How do they want work submitted? Some writers are lucky and connect with the very first agent they query. Others must go through the process over and over, until they land with an agent who believes in their work. And, even then, there will likely be more notes and more revisions before the manuscript can be sent off to editors.

While waiting to hear from publishers, most writers dig in on their next projects – another book, magazine articles, business writing to cover the bills. Those clients don’t often just present themselves. Writers must contact publications and corporations in search of paying work. The pitching never ends.

Marketing

Websites lend legitimacy to a writer’s career and body of work. Maintaining and keeping those websites up to date takes time. There are blog posts to write, reader emails to answer, client proposals to address. Now, more than ever, writers must also engage on social media – connecting with readers, fellow writers, agents and publishers. It all takes time.

Speaking/Teaching

Many writers supplement their income and boost their profile by speaking to community or school groups, doing readings at bookstores, or teaching classes at colleges or through writers’ conferences. I find that sharing my love of writing feeds my soul and makes me more energized, more proud of the work I do. Of course, those speaking engagements don’t schedule themselves. Writers must work with schools and conference leadership to find the best fits for their talents. And, of course, a day away teaching means you probably won’t reach your writing goal for the day, which means your first draft or revision will take even longer to complete. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

Reading

Even when it looks like a writer is relaxing with a good book, she’s working. Reading widely is some of the most important work a writer can do. It’s important to sample the classics, know what’s new and hot, and understand the most popular works in your genre. I try to read my way through the National Book Award finalists and Michael L. Printz honor books each year. Sure, I enjoy this task, but I also recognize that well-read writers are better, stronger writers.

So, yes, I am just writing right now.

I am crawling into my comfy chair to sip tea, send out a query, edit a chapter, research legal defenses for my law-breaking protagonist, update my website, answer reader emails and plan a workshop – all before I begin the actual task of writing for the day.

 

Here’s Something Every Writer Needs: Proofreading

You’ve written something – a novel, an email, an essay – and it’s important. Really important. So, before you hit send, I beg you: Proofread like your life (or job) depends on it.

Everyone makes mistakes. Unless you’re a reporter working on deadline, chances are you have the few extra minutes necessary to proofread and edit before your mistakes become public – and embarrassing.

My first job was as a newspaper copy editor. By the time stories got to me, they’d already been edited, so I was providing a final proofread. I caught lots of mistakes. I single-handedly stopped the newspaper from printing articles about “cork prices” (corn, corn, corn) and “barbecuing children” (make that chicken, please). I am sure I missed mistakes too, but none were as big and bad as these infamous proofreading fails:

Chalmers Roberts, who documented the history of the Washington Post, wrote about a headline the paper printed in 1940 on the first page of its early edition: FDR IN BED WITH COED. The President was actually in bed with a cold. The newspaper reportedly caught the mistake partway through the printing process and destroyed the offending copies before they were distributed.

In 2012, The (Centralia, Ill.) Morning Sentinel published this correction: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”

Banner Travel Agency bought a $230 ad in its local Yellow Pages to promote its exotic vacations. Instead, thanks to a lack of proofreading, the ad touted “erotic” travel. In 1988, the Travel Agency successfully sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.

To ensure that your next email, tweet or blog post doesn’t contain the kind of error that makes it go viral for all the wrong reasons, follow these important steps:

1) Spellcheck. It’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step. Spellcheck doesn’t know whether names are correctly spelled and it doesn’t know if you’ve used the correct word. Use it, but don’t rely entirely on it.

2) Print it. Somehow mistakes you didn’t see on your computer or phone screen become glaringly obvious when they’re printed out. Take the time. Don’t just glance over the copy, really proofread it, line by line.

3) Read it out loud. Sure, you may sound loony if you share work space, but you’ll be amazed how many mistakes jump out at you when you hear them as well as see them. Reading aloud is also great for catching punctuation problems and words you’ve repeated over and over.

4) Get a second set of eyes on it. After you’ve done your first few read-throughs, ask a trusted colleague or friend to proofread your document, too. You know what the text is supposed to say. Someone who is not so familiar with it may find mistakes you’ve overlooked.

5) Double check names of people and places. You may spell Pflugerville or Skaneateles correctly the first time, but make sure those spellings don’t morph on the second or third mentions. When I worked for a newspaper in Iowa, Terry Branstad was governor. Within a single news article (pre-copyediting) I saw him referred to as “Brandstad,” “Branstand” and “Brandstand” – and his name isn’t even particularly difficult. Check, then double check.

6) Proofread everything. Reviewing body copy is important, but so are headlines, subheads, and captions. A mistake in the copy in an annual report is a sin; a mistake in a 72-point headline could be career-ending. And, just because your company always adds the same boilerplate template to the end of every news release doesn’t mean it’s error-free. Proofread it all.

7) Do the math. Anytime your work includes numbers, make sure they add up. If you say you’re going to offer “5 Quick Tips,” make sure there really are five tips. If you’re reporting on budgets or percentages, check and recheck your math.

8) Look at the big picture. If your copy is part of a newspaper,  newsletter or website, make sure the layout doesn’t create a mistake. Do articles continue on the pages they really say they continue on? Do links work? Even if everything in your copy is perfect, consider whether its placement is at all odd. A newsletter article about witches, for example, may make people shudder if it’s placed under a photo of your city council.

9) Walk away. Often deadlines don’t allow you to delay proofreading but, if you have the luxury of a little extra time, take advantage of it. If you finish a document a day early, wait to proofread until the next morning. Fresh eyes are more likely to detect errors. Even if you only have an hour to spare, get up from your desk and walk around. Clear your head before you dig back in to begin proofing. Time away really does make a difference.

10) Remember: Proofreading and editing are not the same. Proofreading catches typos, spelling errors and missing punctuation. Editing is more in-depth, focusing on content, structure, clarity and flow. Most writing will benefit from both.

If you’re a notoriously bad speller or you don’t know a colon from an ellipsis, hire a professional proofreader, editor or writer to do the work. The money you’ll spend is an investment in making sure you and your business are portrayed in the best possible light.

Stop Being Clueless About Communication

Some clients are clueless – at least when it comes to communication. And there’s a good chance you’re one of them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re a small business owner or nonprofit manager or politician and you’ve got five minutes to spare, I can teach you what you need to know to make your communication efforts more effective.

This isn’t top-secret information and it’s not intended to eliminate the need to work with a professional communicator. Rather, it’s knowledge that will make your next meeting with a writer or public relations specialist more productive – because you’ll have a better sense of what you really want to say and to whom.

It all starts with S-M-C-R, a straight-forward model that describes how information is distributed. This timeless model can be applied to all forms of communication, from emails to TV commercials. Learning it can help guide all your future communication decisions. Write it down. Remember it:

Source – The creator of the message.

Message – The actual content or idea for the communication.

Channel – The medium through which the message is being sent.

Receiver – The person or group who receives the message.

The next time you think about web content or direct mail copy you need to have written, run it through this model. You can start the process by writing the letters S-M-C-R across the top of a sheet of paper. Then jot down what you know about your project beneath each of the letters. “S” is typically the easiest place to start; you have a message, so that makes you the source.

Next, it’s important to take a step back and figure out what you want to accomplish with the communication piece you’re having created. Do you want to:

  • Create awareness?
  • Educate about a trend or issue?
  • Introduce a new product or service?
  • Announce an event or promotion?
  • Attract new customers?

There’s a good chance that you want your email, brochure, or news release to accomplish several things – and that’s OK. Just try to limit yourself to two intended outcomes and then prioritize them so you’re certain your messaging does what it’s supposed to do.

Settling on an intended outcome can be the toughest part of the process. It’s OK to take a day or two to think about this before you proceed with their project. If you don’t know what you’re hoping to achieve with their new communication piece, it’s impossible to produce something that’s effective. The important take-away here is that a single communication piece cannot communicate everything to everyone. Focus is key.

Once you know what you want to accomplish with your new communication piece, you can begin to think about the “R” or receiver. If you run a nail salon and want to reward loyal customers with a coupon, your “R” is your current customer base. If you run a nonprofit that’s offering afterschool tutoring for middle school students, your “R” is likely the parents of middle schoolers. If you run an insurance company and you need to justify your request for a rate increase, your message must be targeted toward government regulators. Identifying your primary receiver will ensure your communication stays focused.

Next up, it’s time to focus on the “M” or message. What do you need to tell the receiver? It’s not important for you to come up with a polished and complete message – that’s what you’ll hire a communications professional to do. You simple need to capsulize the message in a sentence or two so that you’re prepared to tell the writer exactly what you want.

The last step in this process is to be sure you’re using the best “C” or channel to get the message to the intended receiver. Think through the pros and cons of various channels, from free news releases and web copy to paid radio spots and social media. Be realistic. Having great web copy is important but, if your goal is to attract new customers, how likely is it that they’ll just happen upon your site? It’s possible to share the same messages with the same intended receivers via two or more channels. Be open to guidance from the communications professional with whom you’re working.

Does knowing about the S-C-M-R model make you a bonafide communications pro? No, but it does better equip you to ask the right questions and make the right decisions. And it’s a sure step toward making sure you won’t be “clueless” again.

5 Reasons Why Writing for Children is so Challenging

Think Writing for Kids is Easy? Think Again!

I just finished writing a book about George Washington Carver for first and second graders. The whole project – including main text, sidebars and fact boxes – was 650 words.

I know what you’re thinking: Well, that couldn’t have been too difficult.

The truth is, writing low-level biographies is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve tackled some tough projects. I’ve written annual reports for financial institutions and penned an entire book about a band that hadn’t yet released an album. I’ve interviewed the families of murder victims and created consumer-friendly prose about complicated insurance and medical topics.

Writing for beginning readers is a whole different kind of difficult for a number of reasons:

Challenge Number 1: Context

Six- and seven-year-olds can be very bright, but their knowledge of the world, politics, science and history tends to be fairly limited. When I wrote about Carver, for instance, I mentioned his parents were slaves. I then had to explain what slavery was and that it was legal in the United States until 1865.

Challenge Number 2:  Making it Matter

Johannes Gutenberg invented a way of printing books using movable type. Cool, but why does something that happened 600 years ago matter to today’s elementary school students? As a writer, it’s my job to explain that this invention made it much easier and faster to print books. If the movable press was never invented, every single word you read would be handwritten or carved. Whether it’s a book about an inventor or a scientific concept, it’s vital that students understand why the information should matter to them. They need to understand how it relates to their lives.

Challenge Number 3: Economy of Words

Adult nonfiction books often contain upward of 100,000 words. That’s roughly 99,350 words more than I got for my Carver book. When writing for children you must tell your story in fewer, more impactful – but still grade appropriate — words. Adverbs get the ax. Why have a character “walk quickly” (two words) when you can instead say they “jogged” (one word)? Every word matters A LOT when you write for children.

Challenge Number 4: Doing Your Topic Justice

I put the same time and effort into researching a low-level biography that I do writing a 5,000-word magazine profile or a young adult book. You can’t skim the surface – even if you only get 650 words to tell the story. I hunt down primary sources and spend a lot of time taking notes and prioritizing facts. Words limits mandate that many details will have to be left out. I want to make sure I’m including the most important facts in the most interesting ways.

Challenge Number 5: Surprising Readers

Nonfiction has a bad rap as being boring. I strive to create books that are factual and informative but also relatable. My goal is always to write the kind of copy that makes a young reader go, “Wow.” I want something a child learned from my book to be the thing they rush home to tell their parent about. That’s not easy stuff, but when it happens, it’s amazing.

So, you’re correct. Writing 650 words is not difficult. Making them matter to a young reader is an enormous – but rewarding – challenge. If you write something that matters, something that really speaks to a child, your work could have an effect that lasts a lifetime.

Developing a Writing Habit

Quite often, when I tell a stranger what I do, they follow up with something to the effect of “I wish I was a better writer” or “What I wouldn’t give to be able to write.”

The truth is, there are few shortcuts in this business. That’s because much of improving your writing has to do with writing more. It’s like running. You’re probably not going to become an Olympic marathoner if you only run once or twice a month or even a week.

To become really accomplished at something, you must practice it on a regular basis. Yes, I’m talking about writing daily or almost daily. If you want to jumpstart your writing, you need to create a writing habit.

If you’re not already writing every day, I suggest you start building this new habit by taking baby steps – otherwise it won’t be sustainable. Think about weight loss. You may see someone who lost 50 pounds and you think, “Hey, I want to do that – by Thanksgiving!” So, you cut everything out of your diet but water and lettuce and you exercise three times a day. Within a week, you will inevitably burn out and eat an entire chocolate cake by yourself.

That’s because the changes you tried to make and the way in which you tried to make them were unrealistic.

If you want writing to become a habit, focus on starting with five minutes per day. Every single person I know has five extra minutes. Deciding you want to begin a new habit is the easy part. Making this habit a reality can be a challenge.

Author James Clear wrote a book called Transform Your Habits, in which he refers to the “Three Rs” of habit building:

  1. Remind
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

You want to write every day. You intend to write every day. But you keep forgetting to do it. That’s where “Remind” comes in. Clear suggests making a list of things you do every single day: Get in the shower, put your shoes on, brush your teeth, sit down for dinner, and so forth.

Once you’ve made your list, identify which of these activities will best serve as a trigger for your writing habit. I take a morning walk every day, rain or shine; the fresh air does my brain some good and I choose to write as soon as I get home. You may decide it works better to have a journal next to your bed and writing first thing in the morning or just before you go to sleep is the ideal time for you. Remember: We’re only talking about five minutes.

The Reminder will get you writing. Then, bam, you’re suddenly at Step 2: “Routine.” By taking the time to write, you are developing a writing routine. Do it today, tomorrow, the next day. A 1960s cosmetic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz wrote a self-help book called Psycho-Cybernetics. In the book he claimed it took 21 days to create a habit. Unfortunately, he made that claim without any scientific testing. Research conducted by a team at the University College London in 2009 suggests that, on average, it takes doing something for 66 consecutive days to make it a habit. Keep at it. Before you know it, you’ll find those five minutes are such an integral part of your day that you’ll feel like something is missing if you skip a day.

Step 3 of this habit-forming process may feel silly, but it’s important because of the ways in which the human brain responds to “Reward.” We all want to keep doing things that make us feel good.

Your reward can be whatever you want. Maybe it’s telling yourself, “Well done.” Or, you can decide to reward yourself with a cup of tea or a bite of chocolate. Maybe it’s as simple as a calendar on your bathroom mirror, where you make hash marks every time you write. Tell yourself that when you collect 20 or 30 hash marks that you’ll buy yourself a new journal or take yourself out for lunch.

The first time you sit down to write, it’s probably going to feel awkward – especially if it’s something you don’t currently do often. But, like running, it will get easier over time. After a while, you’ll find you don’t struggle to think of things to write about. In fact, you’ll start to collect ideas as you go about the rest of your day. You may even decide to stretch those five minutes into 10 or 20.

Baby steps. The important thing is to write.

Not sure what to write about? Here are five-minute prompts to get you through your first week of daily writing:

  1. Write about one of these firsts: Your first day of school, your first kiss, or your first broken heart.
  2. Write about a lie you told. Why did you tell it? When was the lie revealed/discovered?
  3. You’ve been invited to dinner at a famous person’s home. As the meal progresses, it becomes obvious the famous person is trying to   kill you. Write the scene
  4. Write a breakup letter. You can write to a boy/girlfriend, a toxic friend, an annoying neighbor, a bad habit – anything/one you need to break up with.
  5. Write something – anything – using this as your first line: They had been hiding in the closet for hours.
  6. Write about your happiest birthday ever. What made it spectacular?
  7. Describe yourself at age 5. What did you look like? Who were your friends? What did you like to do? What were you afraid of?

5 Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Writer

I’m a decent baker. I make pretty awesome chocolate chip cookies, but I’d never dream of baking a wedding cake. That takes real expertise.

So why are companies having “decent” writers create web and brochure copy? If you’re a geophysicist or a banker, go ahead and write your own emails and business letters. But when it comes to creating sales, marketing, editorial and web content, those things require expertise. Here are five reasons you should hire a writing professional:

  1. A pro can identify your communication needs. It’s not unusual for a client to call and say, “I need a brochure.” When I follow up with questions about what messages they want to include and what action they hope clients will take, I’m often met with a blank stare. They just want a brochure because their competitor has one. A professional writer will help you identify your message and the best channel – website, social media, brochure, article – through which to send it.
  2. Audience matters. Your basic message may be the same, but the way you need to say it will vary depending upon who you’re trying to reach. Are you talking to potential clients? Long-time customers? Vendors? Regulators or governmental officials? A communications professional can help identify your intended audiences and tailor-make messages for them.
  3. Sometimes you’re too close to the subject. For example, a real estate agent who sells a couple dozen homes each year, doesn’t think twice about terms like “amortization,” “adjustable rate mortgage” or “bridge loan.” But if you’re a first-time home buyer and you encounter a website filled with these foreign words and phrases, your heart will start to race and your anxiety level will rise. A professional writer can make even complex subjects easy to understand.
  4. Mistakes make you look bad. Sure, Spellcheck will catch a lot of errors, but it won’t stop you from using the wrong there/their or its/it’s. You may argue that no one is hiring a plumber or landscaper based on their spelling ability. You’re right. But people do want to hire someone who projects reliability and professionalism. Silly errors make you look amateurish.
  5. Efficiency matters. Unless your expertise is content creation, you’re liking spending far longer writing and editing than you should be. Wouldn’t your time be better spent doing your real job? You have processes and knowledge that allow you to get your job done efficiently and effectively. The same is true of professional writers. By hiring a pro, you’ll save time and money and end up with content that draws people in.

 

It Only Takes One ‘Yes’

If you submit your writing for publication you will, someday, receive a rejection letter. It’s inevitable. If you haven’t gotten one yet, you either haven’t submitted enough or you are the next coming of Ernest Hemingway who, by the way, received a rejection slip for The Sun Also Rises. The 1924 publisher’s rebuff called his writing “both tedious and offensive.”

When I first started submitting my work, I saved all my rejection letters. A few years ago, realizing how horrifically unhealthy this habit was, I spent a therapeutic afternoon shredding the entire folder – except for one letter.

The sole survivor was a note that stung badly when I first received it. Now, years later, I can laugh at its bold insult. The letter was a blurry photocopy which the rejecter “personalized” by handwriting my name after the typed “Dear.” My favorite line reads: We are sorry to tell you that we cannot publish your work now or in the foreseeable future.

The foreseeable future? That seemed so cruel, almost threatening.

The snub could have knocked me to my knees. I could have sworn off writing forever. Instead, I remembered the advice a college professor had given me years earlier: It only takes one “yes.” He’d convinced me that my writing was strong enough that if someone didn’t want the book or article I was pitching, it was actually a blessing. I hadn’t yet reached the right editor or publication. If I believed in my work, I had to keep trying to find the right match. He was right.

Don’t believe me? Let me share this story about my friend, author Garth Stein:

Garth and I were both teaching writing part time at a Tacoma, Wash., high school back in around 2000-2001. We met one evening after a student event to have a beer and talk with another author friend. Garth, who’d already enjoyed critical success with his first two novels, was frustrated that his agent had told him she was taking a pass on his new manuscript.

He went on to describe the project: An adult novel told from a dog’s point of view.

The notion seemed pretty crazy and our third friend and I delicately suggested maybe the agent was correct. Could the book be reoriented?

No, insisted Garth. This was a good project, he just needed to find the right agent and editor. He believed that strongly in his work.

He was right. He found a new agent – one who shared his love of his manuscript. The resulting book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was released in 2008 and has since sold more than 4 million copies in 35 languages. The book has spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list and is in development with Universal Studies for a major motion picture. Imagine if Garth had given in to rejection…

Getting a “No” shouldn’t mean “The End.” If you believe in yourself and your project, you must keep plugging along. Keep looking for the right match. If not now, perhaps the market will change in a year or two. Try again.

Above all, remember: It only takes one “Yes.”

Reading about Writing

Stop by most any bookstore and you’ll find shelf after shelf of books dedicated to the craft of writing.

There are books about writing memoir, developing memorable characters, creating suspense, and refining your writing practice. There are grammar books, agent and publisher directories, and books filled with story prompts for “reluctant writers,” “modern women,” and “bored writers.”

There are even books about writing about writing.

I’m sure many of these tomes are terrific. But, the fact is, you don’t need most of them.

The best way to become a better writer is to read. I know, every teacher you ever had and every author you ever met probably told you the same thing. That’s because it’s true. To write, you must read. Don’t restrict yourself to the genre in which you’re writing.

The more widely you read, the more you’ll learn. For example, I’ve taken participated in workshops and read books about “Setting the Scene,” but reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder was like a master class on the topic. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, but Meyer’s young adult book, set in futuristic China, had me seeing and believing – with multiple senses – from the opening scene:

Cinder was the only full-service mechanic at New Beijing’s weekly market. Without a sign, her booth hinted at her trade only by the shelves of stock android parts that crowded the walls. It was squeezed into a shady cove between a used netscreen dealer and a silk merchant, both of whom frequently complained about the tangy smell of metal and grease that came from Cinder’s booth, even though it was usually disguised by the aroma of honey buns from the bakery across the square.

Meyer expertly uses sensory details to quickly give the reader an idea of who Cinder is and where the story takes place.

Similarly, you can read books and articles about the importance of choosing the right Point of View for your story. Or, you can read and learn from stories that obviously wouldn’t be as powerful if the author had chosen a different POV. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a prime example. The book’s first-person perspective makes protagonist Starr’s pain more raw and relatable. The moments immediately after her friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer take on a horrifying intimacy as seen through Starr’s eyes:

An ear-splitting scream emerges from my gut, explodes in my throat, and uses every inch of me to be heard.

Instinct says don’t move, but everything else says check on Khalil. I jump out the Impala and rush around to the other side. Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us.

“No, no, no,” is all I can say, like I’m a year old and it’s the only word I know. I’m not sure how I end up on the ground next to him. My mom once said that if someone gets shot, try to stop the bleeding, but there’s so much blood. Too much blood.

“No, no, no.”

Khalil doesn’t move. He doesn’t utter a word. He doesn’t even look at me. His body stiffens, and he’s gone. I hope he sees God.

The more you read, the more you’ll be able to unearth these sorts of writing lessons. Read with a writer’s eye. Ask yourself why you’re drawn to particular characters and how an author was able to keep you guessing until the very end of a book. Draw inspiration from descriptions of sensational scenery or especially villainous villains.

It’s OK to buy yourself a handful of  “How To” writing books (check my suggestions at the end of this post*), but save the majority of your book-buying cash for good literature and learn from it. Not all readers are good writers, but most every good writer I know reads.

* If you’re ready to invest in a few good writing books, here are three of my favorites:

1)         The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. – I bought this book for a college class and continue to use it 30 years later. Sentence structure, over-used words, unnecessary words, and active voice are among important reminders here.

2)         Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott – I’ve lost track of how many copies of this book I’ve gifted to friends. This collection of essays is equal parts inspiration and instruction. It speaks to me. I hope it speaks to you.

3)         On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser – This classic reiterates fundamentals and preaches about eliminating clutter from writing. First issued in 1976, this book has been updated and continues to be a best seller – for good reason.

 

 

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Whenever writers say they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. Real life can be a real inspiration.

Blame my roots in journalism, but I love the news. I read at least one newspaper daily – a real, paper copy – and I’m forever sending myself links to news magazines and websites. I’m not reporting on the events I’m reading about, but rather I’m looking for tidbits – thought-provoking nuggets that can spawn bigger stories. When I find something that interests me, I clip it or print it out and stick it in my idea file. I’m especially drawn to crazy crime stories, but the file contains a wide variety of real-life inspiration that I thumb through from time to time:

  • Teva, the company known for its outdoor footwear, made its largest pair of sandals ever – for Shanthi, a 41-year-old arthritic elephant who lives at the National Zoo. The sandals reportedly make it easier for the 9,000-pound pachyderm to walk around.
  • A 2007 clipping details the almost unbelievable unraveling of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to confront a romantic rival. As she drove, she disguised herself with a dark wig, glasses and trench coat and wore adult diapers so she wouldn’t have to stop.
  • Two Kentucky men were arrested in 2016 after they accidentally called 911 while sitting in their car, discussing plans to rob a local restaurant. The dispatcher listened to their conversation and police were able to intervene.
  • A burglar got stuck in a chimney while trying to break into a home in Huron, California, in November 2015. The man was discovered when the homeowner returned and lit the fireplace. Bad luck turned into horrible luck; the would-be thief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation.

Will I ever write a novel about star-crossed NASA lovers? Probably not. But the intimate details of that account – the ways in which Nowak became so obsessed with “the other woman” – could well find their way into another story. Similarly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday one of my characters butt-dials 911 and accidently confesses a crime.

Real life doesn’t have to be outrageous to be inspirational. I have journals filled with notes about people I’ve known or observed: How they dressed, wore their hair, talked, walked:

  • The high school classmate who always ate dessert first, in case she “ran out of room.”
  • The teammate whose softball uniform was so tight she confessed she had to shimmy into it while it was wet and let it dry on her body overnight.
  • The college Latin professor who carried a satchel, and wore a tight black turtleneck sweater and black leather pants to every class for a year.
  • My grandfather, who dressed in worn chambray shirts and drank one beer each summer – an Old Milwaukee to celebrate the end of haying season.

Those types of traits, those tiny details breathe life into fictional characters.

It’s not complicated. It’s real life. Observe it. Make notes about it. Use it the next time you need a little inspiration.