Category Archives: Writing Life

Writer’s Day Job: Is Teaching a Good Job for Writers?

Working with my WIP's first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

Working with my WIP’s first draft, summer 2012. c. Elissa Field

One of the most popular posts on my site is Writer’s Day Jobs: Balancing the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta – which weighs the challenges writers face in balancing time to write against the need to keep a roof over their head.

Aspiring writers might work on a novel at night after a day in an office job, but published authors might also be fighting for time to work on a new book while attending to promotional tours.  “Day job” is not a pejorative: whether that job is trying cases as an attorney or working in a book store or waiting tables or working as a surgeon, we simply use the nickname “day job” for how writers pay the bills.

In my earlier post, I mentioned that, over the last 20 years, I’ve balanced a daily writing practice while working a range of jobs. I worked full time as a writer, as a freelancer and an in-house writer. I worked an 8-5 desk job as a paralegal, office manager and as an assistant to a judge. I’ve taken time off to write, and I’ve worked piecemeal to buy flexibility. Most recently, for the last 5 years I’ve been a teacher.

I promised to share reviews of which day jobs allowed the greatest success — financially, for writing, for the job and for overall career success. Today’s post is the first as I review what has been an amazing job: teaching.

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Day Job Review No. 1: Is Teaching a Good Job for Writers?

In Writer’s Day Jobs: Balancing the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta, I set out the belief that a good day job for writers needs to offer a balance of 3 things:

  • time to write: hours, brain cells and creative energy available for writing
  • money: to keep the worries of life at bay
  • street credit: any form of credibility the job lends to your life as a writer, whether through credentials, experience, knowledge, etc.

Time to WriteRevision checklist-

In my first job teaching, I only taught afternoon writing classes. Each day, I’d wake early, drive my sons to school, and then write for 2-3 hours in that quiet time alone. Around noon, I’d dress and head off to teach, run an after school workshop, and be home with the boys by 4 or 5. Sweet gig. Not only did I have structured time to write, but the orderly schedule of getting ready for afternoon classes actually helped keep my writing hours more focused than in years when I was working as a full-time writer. I have other writing friends who have had a similarly light teaching schedule as an adjunct professor or teaching specialty classes, like English to adults or SAT courses.

As a full-time teacher the past 2 years, I struggle more to find writing time, although, strictly speaking, my work hours are still shorter than an office job. Even with after-school responsibilities, most teachers leave work by 5, and most teaching jobs are limited to during the standard working week.

More noteworthy are those long holidays and summers off. How do I have time for this post? Nine days off for spring break. Nearly 3 weeks off at Christmas-New Years. Long weekends, Thanksgiving, Easter… and then there’s the 2-3 summer months off.  This is a great benefit to writing parents, as it offers writing hours as well as flexibility for time with your family. Equally, this is time for attending workshops, conferences, research or travel, without having to take time off from work.

Whoa, not so fast. The downside is that teaching is not limited to your assigned classroom hours. When I taught 10 hours as a part-time writing teacher, I often spent an additional 10-30 hours/week in planning and grading.  (Really 30? Essays and papers take, on average, 20-30 minutes to review and give feedback on; multiply that by the number of students. It’s daunting.)  While I had those mornings to write as a part-time teacher, I rarely work on novel-length fiction during the school year now that I am full time.  Most nights, my “free” time goes to grading, planning, writing teaching materials or corresponding with parents. Or sleeping. I really love the creative vibe of teaching, but it does demand full attention.

There are exceptions.  If I were to teach this same grade and subjects again, the planning spent this year might free up time next year. Some subjects take less planning or have faster grading.  And some writers rally easily to go back to their own writing. In fact, depending on what you are working on, it is possible that your work teaching may feed your creative energy for writing (see more on this under Street Cred).

I find time for short work: I’m experienced at disciplining myself to write, so manage time for nonfiction, blogs, teaching materials and short, draft-form pieces of fiction (say, a single novel scene or a short story).  What I don’t count on is being able to claim extended and mentally consistent time for working on novel revisions during the teaching season.

That doesn’t mean teaching does not allow time to write. In fact, lots of teachers do write and publish, myself included. I’ve written most of my current WIP, kept 2 blogs, and written and published short stories while teaching, not to mention all I’ve written for the job itself.

The key is to be disciplined about setting aside time to write. Especially important is to be ruthless about using those extended holidays to write, revise and submit. Participating in a writing group may help keep you motivated to claim that time, when it feels tempting to work on other things.

Money

While other day jobs may demand less attention or time, full time teaching jobs can make up for this in the relief of a continuous income. When I was a freelance writer, I loved the flexibility of being able to write full time, but the need to constantly market or look for the next project was often a distraction from making the most of time for fiction (or for my family). Knowing you have a consistent income for the coming year removes a major distraction, which lends creative freedom.

A lot is made of teachers being underpaid, but a full time teacher generally makes a healthy middle income.  Depending on your state, subject area and certification, starting teachers earn roughly $25k/year at the low end, $35-40k/year in mid-range, and up to $65k/year in the highest paying states (there are only a few of these). Full time teachers also earn benefits including health insurance, sick days or personal leave, and retirement contributions or a pension.

If you loved the idea of that part-time teaching schedule I had, expect much less financial reward. My first year teaching part-time, I made $19k by also subbing and then filling a second part-time role for the last months of the year (so I actually was full time the last few months). The next two years, for the same part-time job and same hours, they changed my contract so I made only $7k one year and $11k the next. All of those roles were hourly, no benefits, and there were several staff meetings and trainings I had to attend, unpaid.

On the other hand, you may find ways to create additional income.

  • See Street Cred, below: teaching credentials and experience may open doors for you to get paid writing assignments or speaking engagements.
  • Current internet opportunities allow unprecedented ways to monetize your expertise. For example, teachers can become vendors to sell their best lesson plans on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers or by self-publishing.
  • More traditionally, outside tutoring pays $25-100/hour.

Teachers also benefit from a slew of random financial perks, including participation in credit unions or preferred financing. A surprising number of retail stores offer teachers 10-20% discounts, including clothing stores (J.Crew, Ann Taylor and Limited Express),  craft stores (Michaels), book stores (Barnes & Noble) and some restaurants.

Street Cred

There are lots of jobs that give you time off to write or a solid income, but lend no street cred. Credibility is something every writer will measure differently. Some want a title in the writing profession to feel they can claim legitimacy. For others, it could be experience in the field they are writing about. I count street cred as anything a writer takes to be legitimizing or helps them on the path to publication.

CastilloSanMarcosTeaching has cred, for nearly all teachers and writers. As a writer, the amount of street cred that transfers may have to do with the subject or grade level you teach. The connection between my teaching and writing was obvious when I was strictly a writing teacher, or even as a history or English teacher. As a writer of adult fiction, the connection is less obvious now that I’m teaching 5th grade, and might be less so if I were a lower elementary teacher or math teacher.  If I continue with strictly adult fiction, the connection between my writing and teaching might be stronger if I were a high school or college English or writing teacher.

On the other hand, what if you are writing for children, middle grades or young adults? Teaching gives you a huge advantage in this, as I can’t tell you how much more clearly one understands tween and teen concerns and interests when watching them all day long.

Plus, you understand the priorities of teachers who recommend and assign reading — for example, you understand that books are more likely to be purchased in classroom sets if they connect to the historical periods being taught, or character education or cultural diversity being addressed. Story elements that enable your book to not just reach kids, but make it onto summer reading or awards lists, ahem, significantly increases your ability to sell books.

As a profession, teaching credentials and experience also give you the credibility to write or speak as an expert in the field. Teachers have transitioned classroom experiences into books and paid speaking about teaching (may require advanced degrees or research). Other teachers write essays or how to books about specific skills (such as Kate Messner’s Real Revision). Beyond strict classroom teaching, educators may be able to transition to hosting workshops, camps or other educational programs. Similarly, many teachers become entrepreneurs creating businesses independent of the school environment.

One last point about street cred: teaching is by no means just a day job. You will care about teaching as deeply as you do about writing, so will care whether your writing gives “cred” to your teaching just as much as the other way around. Compared to many other day jobs, teachers are very careful about their professional and public presence outside the classroom, which may feel like a creative limitation to some writers.

Making it Work: Manage Your Time & Be Ready to Write

So, is this a good day job for a writer? Not if it leaves you too creatively drained to write.  I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I know countless teachers who always dreamed of writing but never attempt it until they’ve retired, simply because their creative energy went into teaching until then.

But there are also lots of very successful writers who got their first works written while teaching. Rick Riordan, Rick Wormeli, Kate Messner and more.  Yes, you can write while teaching.

Writing on vacation - while in the treetops with my boys.

Writing on vacation – while in the treetops with my boys.

But you have to do it — you have to have material ready to run with when the summer months hit (example of this: Novel Revision: Work is Messy, Book May Bite), and you have to have short tasks to accomplish at other times.

Not only does it take discipline to actually write, but you have to be ready to overcome surprise hurdles. Last summer, as I got underway revising the first draft of this WIP, my laptop crashed. Knowing summer was my only time to tackle that revision, I had to be disciplined to shift to handwritten revision on a printed draft and adapt to working on a different computer. Similarly, since I need to make use of our holidays off, I’ve had to adapt strategies to write on the run in order to not miss out on time off with my kids.

As with any job, you also have to prepare for the mental transition from the day-world to that of your writing. When writing for the courts, I had to shift from pragmatic legal writing to fiction; in my current work, it’s from teacher-voice with goofy kids to the journalistic-literary voice of my paramilitary WIP. This is one of the greater challenges, but is true with most day jobs — and many writers find it a relief for the day job to require a different voice as the day work doesn’t deplete the creative reserve needed for writing.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Teaching is not a “fall back” job. It is often referred to as a “calling.” Teachers love it for the creativity, challenge, and fun working with discovering learners… but it is a demanding job. Some positions may be easy to get, but it can also be very competitive to be hired or to keep a position. I’ve worked desk jobs before where I had my own laptop out and snuck in writing between phone calls; this will not be that job.

Requirements include a college degree plus certification. Elementary Ed majors generally do student teaching as part of their coursework, then take state testing for certification. Have a different degree? States generally have an alternative certification path, requiring certain education courses and then state licensing exams. Courses and exams for my certification cost between $3-6,000 (it was comparable to getting licensed as a real estate agent).

Some states require a masters degree (or you can earn more with a masters). Masters programs I’ve seen range between $9-20k.  I’ve mostly addressed teaching K-12 in this piece, but lots of writers teach at a college level, particularly during or after earning an MFA in writing. To teach other subjects may require a doctorate degree, and tenured college-level positions have been very competitive through the recent economy.

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How About You?

Do you have a success or challenge story to share about writing while teaching? Any recommendations for other readers?

Or, what other professions have you held as a day job while writing?

As always, it’s great to hear readers’ thoughts in the comments.

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Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

Dublin from World Bar. c Elissa Field.

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on – but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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grasp c Elissa Field

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Writing Process: Where Do You Write?

writing ct 1-

One of the cheery questions that writers seem to like trading experience about is, “Where do you write?”

There are those who are passionate café writers. There are those who post long reflections on their experience writing at a weeklong or month-long retreat where trees block view of the closest human being. There are those who write on subways. There are those attending conferences this summer who will imagine long hours writing in the Adirondack chairs on a grassy mountainside.  There are those with full fledged home offices or equally meaningful cubbies with small totems that inspire them to write.

One of my most productive places to write, ever, has been sitting in bed in my house, which is that kind of new construction where the master bedroom is huge and airy, on the second floor with a bay window looking over treetops so it feels like sitting in a treehouse. Chi moves so well through that room that I am neither bored nor distracted.

More often, as single mother, I am in the corner of the sectional sofa in the family room in the middle of my sons’ action, so I won’t someday hear them in therapy saying their mother spent their childhood with her nose in a laptop locked away in her room. I’ve written in other busy places: conferences, courthouses, schools, train stations, airports.

I’ve written in spectacularly beautiful places — on a cliffside balcony looking over the Mediterranean in Positano, Italy; in a beautiful hotel room; at famously photogenic beach. Few places are as beautiful as that empty chair in the picture with this post, where I am sitting right now on the sun porch of my mother’s house in Connecticut, looking out over her gardens as she and my son weed.

ard na sidhe blogBeautiful places and busy places have often left me with ideas to write from. My current WIP began with an image from a gorgeous mountain lake in County Kerry, Ireland.

But, ironically, my philosophy about “where to write” is the same as my philosophy on buying notebooks or pens for writing: the best writing places are equivalent to or more boring than the writing you’re doing. If you’ve ever had writer’s block, then never buy some heirloom-gorgeous writing journal because you’ll be too afraid to write a wrong word in it. I’d rather a boring composition notebook, any day.

As beautiful as this seat is in my mom’s sunroom, I’ve spent more time photographing it and writing about it than working through the list of revisions I’m supposed to be making.  As we get ready to drive back south tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll lament leaving this beautiful location many times. But the truth is, it does me well to dip in such beauty and then retreat to the quiet where the words I need to work on are the main attraction.

As a final thought, I think the best writing seats have good chi — air flows readily so your ideas feel free to unravel — yet are not in the main line of that energy. For example, that seat pictured in the window demands the action of looking out onto the world, in the traffic flow of the main door. In reality, these last two weeks, I’ve written better when snugged into the sofa set back in that same room, with a similar view and still in hearing of all the house’s activity, but sheltered behind the main traffic and action.

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What About You?

Is your writing space important to you as you write, or are you portable in your work? Do you have rituals, like favorite quotes or icons on your desk, or other ways your writing space gets you going? What would you change, if you could? What would you recommend writers look for or avoid in a good writing space?

If you’ve posted about your writing space in the past, feel free to leave your link in the comments.

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Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation

tree tops.

We talk a lot about prioritizing writing against other claims on our time. Travel has its own challenges for a writer working to maintain daily writing or editing goals.

On one hand, you’re awash in stimulation while away from the usual daily pressures. If it’s a vacation, time is often not an issue.  I say that while luxuriating with the dogs on the quilt covered sofa of my mother’s sunroom, looking out to her gardens. After weeks of 8-hour (or more) writing days, it’s shocking to have this much time on my hands.

On the other hand, travel presents its own set of distractions and obstacles. At home, we don’t mind pushing ourselves to be industrious. But how can you keep productive while surrendering yourself to time off with family or seeing fabulous sites?

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6 Strategies to Keep Writing While on Vacation

1. What Did You Say? 

At my family’s Michigan cottage growing up, we went out to swim at sunrise and came back inside when lightning bugs lit the trees.  As with many vacations, time was not an issue. But conversation is.  I can’t lose myself in novel revisions while in conversation with my mom about a turn in her business, or chatting with the sister-in-law I haven’t seen in 3 years. I might carry my work with me, but it loses out to listening to my niece explain the story behind her doll. For writers traveling with family, my suggestion is to know one activity during every day when no one will be talking, and be sure to have your work with you then. This may be a train ride, lying by the pool or while others are reading or showering.

2.  On the Move.

At home, I was working with a printed copy of my novel in a binder, a kit of colored markers and pens and post it notes, my coffee and a laptop… which covered the better part of my couch and adjoining table. I won’t be successful on vacation if I need to spread out like that. On the other hand, I traded documents by email the other day while 30′ off the ground, harnessed to a tree-side platform between legs of a zipline obstacle course, using the phone in my back pocket (pretty much at the point that picture was taken of my sons, above). I can take either my laptop or binder and write on the train into the city, or sitting on the bent limb of a tree fallen across the hidden tidal beach we hiked to yesterday.  The key to keep working while traveling is to have work in multiple, portable formats. Think ahead to where you will be and make sure you have some portable piece of your work with you to work on. Depending on how much I want to carry, I can take just my binder or laptop, or a smaller printed section with a pen, or just a notebook, and I always have my phone. Don’t overlook photography, which is great for capturing a thought more quickly than writing.

3.  Look, No Hands!tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

You have the time, no one’s talking to you and your ideas are flowing… but one obstacle travel tends to throw at writers is that it keeps eyes and hands unavailable to write. Take the 22 hours I spent with my hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, driving up the east coast last week. Holding hands while leading a kid through New York traffic, climbing rocks, swimming in the pool, cooking dinner… all of these come to mind as activities one just can’t write through. In some cases, like during that drive, audio options help make the most of that time. Use Dragon Dictation app on a smart phone to dictate revisions or new material. The app transcribes your spoken words, then you tap to email it to yourself. Or, use the time for reading by downloading an audiobook or podcasts from literary magazines or NPR.  Just as often, when the interaction with family or ocean dip or simply marveling at the world justifies dropping all thoughts of writing, throw yourself into it whole-heartedly, without guilt or preoccupation with the work. Claim time later to jot your thoughts when the moment is over.

4. Hold That Thought

Travel can be great for writing, as new settings and experiences and overheard conversations can be unique inspiration to start something new. But, wow, that can be a nightmare if you’re working to stay focused in a story you are revising. Last thing I need right now is for my war-toughened main character’s voice to suddenly lapse toward describing gardens and tea and children playing with plastic boats just because that’s my vacation view. To avoid cross-contamination, be flexible about what you work on. Use a notebook to record those new inspirations for later. If you feel like vacation demeanor is shifting your voice, work outside your main document, so you can decide later if the new material or revisions are a fit. Or, make an effort to write only during staked time, so distractions from the vacation world are reduced (see 5 & 6).

5. Stake Your Claim

There are vacations where you really drop everything to surrender yourself to the holiday. Foreign travel can be like that. This last week, I was visiting with my brother and his family after a long time apart. When that’s the case, don’t regret not writing or waste energy struggling to fit it in that would have been better spent experiencing your travel.  But, otherwise, when you have a daily writing goal, let your traveling companions know this and stake the claim for that time. Ask others what the schedule is each day and agree on the time you will spend writing.  If you don’t want to draw attention to the writing, disguise it as a daily trip to the coffee shop.  But you may be surprised to find someone else relieved for quiet time to read or check email. Buddy up with that person to avoid feeling antisocial. I am writing this morning while my mom catches up on business calls and email, and my sons play a game. Claim time and space with minimal distractions, but where you won’t feel like you’re missing out (see 1 or 6).

6. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down

When all else fails, unless it’s your honeymoon, use that last hour of the day when everyone is falling asleep. My first days on this trip, I fell asleep with my laptop on my knees.  It’s prime time: no guilt, no distractions, less influence from the stimulation of the new environment. If this is your plan, watch out for those days when rock climbing or wine tasting might leave you shot by bedtime. If you’re an early riser or it’s not the kind of trip where you have to be out the door early, try writing while everyone else wakes.

That said, I’m due to take my work with me to sit by the pool while my boys swim. One last warning for travelers, to be read in a spectral voice (a la Edgar Allen Poe reciting the Raven): whenever you are traveling with your work, remember to protect against loss by leaving backups behind.

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What About You?

Are you trying to keep up with writing goals while traveling or entertaining company this summer?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

elissa field:

This has been a popular post — and is one of my favorites, as Donald Maass’s novel writing prompts have been so consistently valuable to inspire powerful conflict and character. I’ve revisited the links, updated and added resources. I hope it’s as helpful to you as it’s been to others — especially during wordsprints (for drafting and revising) on Twitter this morning and throughout the month.

Originally posted on elissa lauren field:

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

nephele_tempestThanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In…

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Novel Revision Strategies: A Day’s Work in Pictures

novel revis 7-9

sols_blueIf you read Monday’s post (Novel Revision Strategies: Printing for Read-Through), you know I am using a printed draft for this stage of novel revisions.

Today’s post is a photo diary of what morning work looked like – as waffles with the boys shared space with ruthless edits on this draft.

“Failure is not an option”?

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Successful launch, Kennedy Space Center. c Elissa Field, repro w permission only

Go “where’s Waldo” to find the NASA slogan on my coffee mug: Failure is not an option.

Even as writing and revising drafts is all about failing over and over again? Yeah, I still love that mug’s inspiration. I bought it on a trip to Cape Canaveral with my rising-7th grader when he was in 4th grade. Ever wondered about the explosive launch sequence pictured on my blog’s masthead? That was taken on the same trip — a re-enactment of the control room for a successful Gemini launch. We’re in that control room when writing, and the mug reminds me to never stop.

Novel writing is launching into the risk of failure, the surging insistence that it will go well. The rocket will launch. Risk embraced.

Or, go with Samuel Beckett as inspiration: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Drafting and revising is all about getting something down. Being willing to fail as well as we can, then trying again, even failing again — but failing better. In that sense, the mug would say, Giving up is not an option.

So, here’s where that has gotten me in the past couple days…

These are probably my favorite revision pages:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

This is what less happy pages look like:

Messy revision

Ohhh… that looks painful. Chickie is staying out of it. BUT, check-marks show the changes have been made in the new computer draft. Work goes on. c. Elissa Field, repro w writ-permiss

If you read the captions, you see the range of changes going on.

The top picture shows pages from the opening scenes of my WIP, which are ready to go — marked “done.”  I also signal “done” in the computer document by changing that text to blue. Yup, plain text: that leaves you vulnerable to being cut.

The second pictures shows a scene that has been outlined with highlighter to say it will be kept (although not “done”), with corrections marked. Where I still have questions to answer, I wrote them on the blank page above to make sure they won’t get lost.

Apparently I was not mean enough to take a picture of pages with entire scenes X-ed out, but they are there. I do paste deleted text into a “Cuts” document… just in case.

The colored highlighter is an example of what I mentioned in yesterday’s post about using color codes to mark key scenes or characters.

Here’s the color key:

color key

This is the key on the first page – so far I’ve been marking the text that will be kept with a highlighter for the main character it relates to. Being able to visualize this helps, as this edit is all about getting the final structure in place, then seeing what’s missing.

Creating a Style Sheet – or, um, Lengthy To-Do List:

Revision checklist-

Every hour or so of reading, I go back to the computer draft to implement the changes. I’ve been checking corrections off to keep track of what’s been done, and also gathering this chapter-by-chapter task list of questions that need to be resolved. So far, it includes facts to resolve, like names, family names, locations, dates — as well as plot details that have changed between drafts and need to be made consistent.

If you want to read more about creating a “style sheet” to manage your novel, check out this post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner: Create a Style Sheet for Your Manuscript .

A Party so Wild it Needs a Bouncer – Enter the Outline:

Outline as Bouncer
Really, most of this mark-up on the draft took place yesterday. I came back to it this morning knowing I was still swamped in some choices. I had a clear list of scenes in my head, and knew the order I need to shift them into. As clear as it was in my head, with the story changes that took place between drafts, I need to keep track of the order of important reveals and progression of internal and external conflicts.

Enter the Bouncer, tough guy outline watching over the WIP’s shoulder above. Yes, it looks a bit techie — I am used to throwing Word tables together to manage info, so that works for me.

The Bouncer outline works like this: like velvet ropes deciding who will be allowed into an elite club, if a scene is not on this list, it won’t stay in the draft.

As much as writers chat about whether to “pants” or “plan” I believe fully in a hybrid of the two. In order to finish this outline, I had to analyze my understanding of the story. It reminded me of a couple scenes not written yet, and helped me better analyze how to get the right tension and resolution at the end. Mean as he looks, the list makes my job so much easier.

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How About You?

It’s been great to read comments from readers about their own process for revising — share yours as well?

Rather than revising, are you focused on writing new material? It was also great to connect on Twitter today, as Wordsmith Studio writers hosted wordsprints. Check out the hashtag #wschat to find writing activities each week.

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Motivated to Write: 12 Tools to Get Writing, Now

Day One - Begin

The bottom line with all writing advice is you have to get started. Write first thing in the morning, while coffee brews. Block out time to write on your calendar. Set word-count goals or write in 3o minute sprints. The bottom line on all of these is: get started.

While lots are taking time off to vacation this month, thousands of writers from all ranges in experience are committed to write every day in July or even the whole summer, to get this thing (whatever their writing project may be) done.

Whether you are a joiner, jumping in to share your daily accomplishments in a public forum, or are going it alone in classic writerly isolation, here are 12 online resources get you motivated to write every day.

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1.  Online Writing Forums & Challenges – motivation, camper-style

Camp-NaNoWriMo-2013-Lantern-Vertical-BannerThe most well-known forum at the moment is Camp NaNoWriMo, which began July 1. The July “camp” is an off-shoot of the Office of Letters and Light’s original project to “write a novel in 30 days” during National Novel Writing Month (November). NaNoWriMo gets writers going with site software for tracking daily word counts, counting down to reach a total wordcount goal. Traditionalists may balk at the thought, but the site attracts a full range of experienced and newbie writers who find the site’s ability to turn daily writing into a trackable accomplishment with peers cheering you on just plain fun. (Yes, NaNo has had lots of “real” books published.) NaNoWriMo is especially good motivator for a new project, but “rebels” (those who’ve already completed a novel draft, or are researching or…) abound, with rebel forums and guidelines for setting project-specific goals.

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonMore forums and daily challenges:

  • Teacher or Librarian? Teachers Write is a vibrant “writing camp” hosted by a slew of adult and young-adult authors, currently running (through summer) with daily prompts, Q & A with authors, community and feedback.
  • Is your writing goal to “build platform” (audience) for your writing? Robert Lee Brewer’s Platform Building Challenge from April 2012 is the most comprehensive resource I’ve seen for expanding competence in all social media formats. Click the link to go to day 1 – and check out Wordsmith Studio, an ongoing writers’ forum that arose from the challenge.
  • Blogger? If your goal is to post every day, join Liv, Laugh, Love’s July Bloggers’ Challenge which offers daily prompts and a Facebook forum to gain audience.
  • Poet? Try Our Lost Jungle’s February 2013 Chapbook Challenge for a month of inspiration to write daily poems and organize a chapbook.
  • Submitting for publication? Try Our Lost Jungle’s  May 2013 Submit-O-Rama with daily inspiration, goals and resources.

camp writingAm I participating in any of these forums? I used the 2012 Platform Challenge last year, I’m a Founding Member of Wordsmith Studios, I’ve participated in Teachers Write, and I’m a rebel at Camp Nano (find me here). For testimonial on how online interactions impacted the day’s writing, check out Tuesday Writes: Camping with Friends at NaNoWriMo.

2.  Use Good Prompts

Cynical about prompts? Not all prompts provoke insightful writing or help you advance the conflict of your story.

Of all the prompts I’ve ever encountered, I think literary agent & author Donald Maass rules. He occasionally tweets them from as a numbered list, as shown below. Follow him (@DonMaass) or his hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday for more. Below these tweets are links for more from Maass, as well as a recommended resource from Ann Hood.

More Maass prompts:

Another of my favorite books to prompt novel inspiration is Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions . Read about it here: Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy.

3.  Time & Word Count Motivators

Lots of writers motivate themselves with daily milestones. Ann Hood has built a career by writing 2 hours every day. Others aim for a word count goal. Writers with a deadline set this by dividing the number of  needed words by the available writing days.  Others may aim for 1,000 or 2,000 words — adjusted to whatever their normal, productive word count would be.

  • Written? Kitten!  Just for fun, to feel a sense of accomplishment for, say, every 100 words you write, you have to click and check this out. Every time you type 100 words, you’re rewarded with a kitten. (I’d forgotten using it, once, until I was transferring text from an add-on doc to my WIP and found it ended with the sentence, “If I keep typing, any word now a kitten will appear.” Meow.)
  •   750 Words This site takes its inspiration from the practice of writing morning pages recommended in The Artist’s Way. The site keeps a bowling card style score for each day you write, with double points each time you hit 750 words (equivalent to 3 pages) per day. Unlike the Kitten, you have to provide your email address and log in.
  • Timed Writing. Finish reading this first. Then log off the internet when writing, to blog the temptation to surf during writing time. Some writers use more forceful options: check out Mashable’s 6 Apps That Block Online Distractions So You Can Get Work Done.
  • For more time-management strategies, go to the January Challenge, below.

4. Strategies for Getting Started – or Finished

In January, I hosted the January Challenge… Check out the strategies below for ways to manage competing priorities to accomplish your writing goals – from writing daily to applying to residencies or increasing submissions.

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What About You?

What writing goal are you working on this month? Are there resources or forums that help you stay motivated, or are they a distraction for you? (Despite this post, I find resources both “helpful” and “a distraction,” so balance between networking and hermitsville.)

Feel free to share goals, prompts or links to your own articles on similar themes in the comments.

And, best wishes with whatever your goals this month.

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Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can't argue with that. c. Elissa Field

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can’t argue with that. c. Elissa Field

One of the biggest jobs I addressed in novel revisions over the winter had to do with one of my three main characters. She was originally the main POV, but I wasn’t excited about her voice.  Not helpful: I thought of her as relatively unlikeable: sullen, and not the way Jane Austen used to fix by saying, “It’s just that she has her head in a book.” No. My girl, Carinne, was broody.

I’ve written about my challenges with her twice before. You don’t need to read these now — they’re long-ish and I’ll give explanation, below — but here are the prior posts:

Is this Character the Best POV?

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

That last link shares a tool I used to evaluate the stakes for my characters — which revealed what I had already suspected: weakness in Carinne as main character was hint that she is not really the center of the conflict. 

In early versions, it was natural for Carinne to be the main POV as she fell in love with the other main character and tells the story (in present and past) after he is reported to be dead. Her POV allows his life/death to remain in question.

But in revisions over several months, much of what I’ve written has been from other points of view (Michael Roonan, his best friend, and his son, Liam). I set aside the actual WIP and went “off road” into the internal and external motivation, the characters’ voices and backstories and fears and desires, the setting. The male MC, Roonan, had a famous motorcycle racer for a father, and the voice of Roonan came alive the more time I spent thinking about that. (Here’s a bit of draft-work I shared from Roonan’s perspective)

As Roonan’s voice comes alive in new material, it allows the 3rd person POV to not be centered on Carinne but alternate between characters. The fix: Carinne is not “flat” when seen through Roonan’s eyes — and the story is stronger for being centered on its conflict.

c.Elissa Field

c.Elissa Field

It’s Not You, It’s Her

Going to the other posts listed above, one of my struggles with Carinne was that “challenge of the character most like myself.” While Carinne is not an autobiographical character, I still have that authorial “blind spot” and resistance in portraying her.

I called her broody up above and that’s the “character like myself” obstacle: my own self-consciousness about never wanting to be melodramatic or complain gets in my way when expressing Carinne’s crisis. In hard times, my family’s attitude is, “Well get to work and solve your problem.” But, uh — that attitude isn’t helpful when you’re a character depicting your reaction to an inciting event and wrestling your way through a book-length conflict. If authors toughened up and spared the emotion, we’d have very short books.

Following advice in those posts, I had to create authorial distance to see Carinne as outside myself, and I had to be unapologetic. When Carinne fights with her mom in an early chapter, I can’t be thinking, “I don’t want to write about fighting with a mom. What if my mom thinks I wrote it about her?” Because — well, yeah, I did, in the sense that I used the knowledge of how uncomfortable it is to be at odds with your mom and that it was a sign to the reader that the mother knew something more was going wrong with Carinne. As I occupy and own that truth, the scene I first envisioned loses thinness and takes on the resonance I intended. If you read yesterday’s post, the “something more going wrong” is the revised backstory that has me so busy right now. In getting to know Carinne outside myself, a much clearer backstory arose, empowering her motivation throughout the book — and also helping me see her as a character distinct from my own experience. There was no simple trick to doing that, other than continually asking myself, “Why would she do this?”

Likewise, in answering that question, I had to step fully into — and not back away from or deny or justify – the choices Carinne makes. I had to let her make bad choices — resulting in a memorable story — rather than back away and try to say, “She didn’t really do that.” Oh, yeah, she did that! She was bad, and we’re having fun reading the consequences. Um. I mean, sorry about that, Carinne.  When I fully owned what she had done and went deep into why she would do it, the story took over.

Now to Integrate Those Changes

At this point, integrating these changes into the WIP seems to resolve the issues with this character by writing Roonan more fully, seeing Carinne from his perspective and having Carinne own her experience. As the story gets going, it now seems clear that she has a good reason for her broodiness: She’s raising a baby by herself who was fathered by a man she last saw when he saved her from being shot, and feels isolated when everyone thinks she should get over it.

My remaining insecurity in revising Carinne will be that she is the voice of the opening chapter, which carries so much weight. That is, the first page is a disembodied internal monologue in Roonan’s voice, hinting at death and guilt, then the chapter opens with Carinne watching their son in the backyard, and responding to the inciting incident of the son questioning his father’s absence.

Beta readers have liked the opening, but I’ll still be jumpy about it as I finish revisions and I’m sure I’ll keep pushing myself to get her voice right. (What was the theme yesterday? “Sometimes the Work is Messy” and, “Danger – Book May Bite.” )

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Daredevil: Sharing a Bit of Today’s Work

I did something brave the other day. I submitted an excerpt of chapter one for consideration by a lit mag that publishes first chapters. (If by any wild chance you happen to be a reader or editor at said magazine-that-publishes-first-chapters, can I say just how fabulous you look?)

I won’t post the opening, to avoid negating “first pub” rights, but I wanted to share a bit of the work I’ve been revising.  So here is a short bit of Carinne’s conflict from the end of the chapter, an excerpt from my novel in progress, Wake:

She sees herself already, weak as she will be later, when Liam has fallen asleep – not in his bed, as other mothers would be so good to do, but stretched out long like a dog across her bed, sighing in his sleep as if it were such work to be here on this earth as a little boy, such relief those hours left alone to sleep, return to wherever it is he came from.  Wherever it is children come from and the dead return to – and she won’t be able to fight it, that urge, once again to hunt for Michael Roonan. Search websites and news footage and maps shot from space, pictures so accurate a man could be standing in that shadow beneath a cloud, looking up to wave.

Search until sleep took over. Never to find.

As if it had never happened.

I ran, she remembered.  Ran.  Escaped the agent dispatched from Dublin Centre, escaped the gardai at the rotating brass doors at the front of the hotel, slipping, ankle twisting.  Everything moved.  Rushing cars that might have been standing still.  Pavement rushing up to her, blood on her palm as she brushed gravel from her knee.  Blood at her wounded shoulder, gauze plastered in a crust to her skin.  A tunnel in her shoulder, perfectly-pierced hole raged through by a bullet plucked with stainless tongs.  The sound.  The sound of that flattened lead bud clanking into a metal pan, tongs rattling behind it.  Bullet. Real.  Real as a bullet clanking into that metal pan.  I was there.

She might have screamed it into the street, turning heads of Dubliners, of footballers anticipating a match, tourists murmuring as they all did, “World Bar, St. James Gate…”  Her vision blurred.  She stumbled blocks she could not have retraced, voices calling to her in her stumbling rush, blood maybe seeping through the bandage at her shoulder, crazed fear at her eyes - here and there they called out as to an injured animal, “You, there!”

Me there.  Over and over they called it out.  Me there. I was there.

Tiny bud of infant, even then, swimming its way north.  Evidence.  There, then.

Here, now.  Liam stretched asleep, like a dog at her feet.  Given over to it, once again: searching on her laptop into the night.  Hunting for Michael Roonan.

“I’m sorry I’ve lost your father,” she whispers.  “I’m sorry I have no answers for you.”

If you want to leave constructive feedback, I’d welcome answers to these questions:

  • Does the character/action/voice hook you? Do you want to read more?
  • Are there any details that work? Is there wording that is confusing?
  •  If Carinne seems flat to you, what do you feel is missing? If she’s not flat, reassure me if you found her engaging.

Read more about where revisions take me next:

Read this January 2014 post, which continues to share how I push Carinne’s character and explore the perspective of her son, Liam, including a draft excerpt from this same chapter, written from Liam’s perspective:  Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict.

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What About You?

What challenges do you encounter in writing character, or what approaches do you take to understand their motivations?

I find I’m slow to describe physical appearances — are there certain details you always include or tend to exclude?

I’ve enjoyed connecting with readers about your current writing goals and challenges. If any of this post or the links resonated with you, let me know.

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Writing Life: Get Out in the World

Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

Annual Sing for Hope installation of pianos in public parks, NYC. Photo credit: posted by Ashley Butler on Sing for Hope facebook (http://goo.gl/2PVae).

As the school year ends, summer’s long days rush at me — in freedom, yes. Yet the value of my summers off (in addition to spending time with my boys) is the time it affords me for novel revisions.

Are You In or Out?

Both of the novel manuscripts I’ve been working on involve people out in the world.

In Breathing Water, the main character moves all through vibrant scenes from her mother’s house along the Miami River to art galleries throughout Miami to an illicit trip to Cuba to recover threads from her mother’s past. The characters in Wake are on the run through the Irish countryside. I’ve written stories where the main character works charter sailboats, or is the marketing writer for a corporation expanded into India.

My stories move. They travel. The world passes through their fingers.

They don’t happen on the couch in my living room or sitting here at the keyboard.

But that is the irony of the long hours it takes to write and revise a novel: no matter the life and adventure and other world the story captures, so much of that has to be created by a writer trapped at a keyboard indoors. Sure, we can all snag some laptop hours on vacation or mobile work from wherever we might be. Still, hundreds of hours get logged at a keyboard far from the action.

I am ready for that this month. I’ve spent the past two months out in the world – in classrooms with students, on an extended history tour of St. Augustine, at beach parties, at an amusement park… I’ve spent so much time “out there” interacting with people and other places that I genuinely crave uninterrupted hours to disappear back into the work on my novel that has been relegated to 15 minute blocks here and there in the past 2 months.

So no complaints about the work ahead.

Where Inspiration Lies

But a piece in the New York Times got to me yesterday, as a fabulous reminder of what it is to be an artist (amateur tinkerer or pro, in whatever medium) out interacting in the world.

Each year in June, the group Sing for Hope installs 88 pianos into public spaces throughout New York City — there for the sole purpose to be played by anyone who happens by. Each of the pianos is painted or decked out by artists and designers.

  • Click here for the NYTimes article or here for a video link, in which the reporting musician visits and plays with people at several of the parks.
  • For more information, including interactive challenges going on daily (to wit: musicians attempting to play all the pianos in one day, and random players posting pictures), check out the Sing for Hope facebook page here.
  • Are you closer to Cleveland, Paris, Omaha or Boston? The group Play Me I’m Yours is running similar projects with events in those cities; visit streetpianos.com for more info on that group.

I’ll be in New York next month, too late to check out the installation for myself — but the concept alone (and listening to songs being played by various musicians who’ve posted video) was enough to captivate me.

Get Out

As much as I will make the most of my free-to-work hours in the coming months, Sing for Hope is reminder to savor opportunities to go where you can find pianos in a park or fresh fruit at a market or conversation with a friend or the warmth of smelling horses out in a field or the crisp snap of wind in filling sails… or whatever other joys of summer that will stimulate your senses.

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What about you?

Where will you go — or do you wish you could go — to stimulate your senses or inspire your creativity?

To my regular readers, this also serves as a “hello,” as so many friends have inquired about my absence from some of our common forums. All is well — I’ve been busy, in great ways, with work. In February, I took over teaching a 5th grade class, which kept me busy planning not only writing, but U.S. History and science. I’ve kept going with work on my novel, but additional writing time has gone to nonfiction and education materials, including setting up a separate blog and Pinterest, sharing the title Mrs. T’s Middle Grades (Why “T”? I teach under my married name of Thompson). I’d welcome feedback on the new blog (email or DM me), as it’s a baby and in need of tweaking.

I look forward to reconnecting to hear what you have been doing, as well — either here or in our facebook or twitter forums.

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2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops

Poets & Writers' listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Poets & Writers’ listing for Bread Loaf Writers Conference: http://www.pw.org/content/bread_loaf_writers_conference

Late-winter and early-spring are a time for hunkering in from the cold or taking refuge beneath tropical sun. We’re not yet thinking of summer.

But, for writers wanting to attend summer writing conferences or workshops, we are, in fact, in the thick of writing conference application season.

Rather than wait for this week’s Friday Links, today’s post will feature links to several of the best summer writing conferences — and also hashtag for following tweets from next week’s Associated Writing Programs Conference in Boston.

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2 Great Publishing Conferences:

  • #AWP13: It’s time, folks! March 6th-9th, AWP 2013 (Associated Writing Programs’ winter conference) will be off and running in Boston. In recent years, Twitter hashtags have added an entirely new, lively component to conference participation. If you are attending the conference, use the hashtag #AWP2013 to coordinate with other writers, editors, agents, etc., there with you, and to share insights from the conference. For those of us not attending? Become a vicarious conference participant by following the hashtag throughout the weekend.  You’ll be privy to great quotes from workshops, themes that arise and more. It’s a great way to discover interesting people to follow. [Also, here is the website link for the AWP Conference.]
  • Grub Street Muse & Marketplace 2013  was on my 2013 “wish list” as I swear it seemed that every single human involved in writing and publishing was there last May. When I workshopped with Ann Hood, she was flying out to be at Grub Street the next morning, and the weekend was full of #Muse2012 tweets from writers, editors, agents, publishers, digital content folks — you name it. The Muse is May 3rd-5th in Boston; overviews and registration are available online.

Renowned Summer Workshops:

Here are 3 of the most prominent summer workshops. As they are competitive to apply to, consider checking out forums discussing the process by following a link to the Speakeasy forum under Poets & Writers near the end of this post.

  • Bread Loaf Writers Conference: March 1st is the deadline to apply for Bread Loaf Writers Conference held in Vermont August 14-24. If you’ve never been to Bread Loaf, take the time to read about it, as it has one of the oldest traditions for literary conferences in the country, dating back to 1926. Numerous famed writers have participated as attendees before gaining fame and as workshop leaders. Admissions are competitive, so send your best work. If the application date passed you, check out the new Bread Loaf in Sicily workshop, scheduled for September 15-21.
  • Tin House Writer’s Workshop has steadily gained national recognition as one of the foremost summer conferences, attracting fabulous faculty and participants. The workshop is held July 14-21 at Reed College in Portland, OR. The link takes you to the admissions page; use the site menu for lists of faculty and more description. No deadline is posted, although applications are currently being reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis; admission is competitive, so apply early.
  • Sewanee Writers’ Conference  is a by-admission summer conference with a tradition for excellence in the faculty, workshops and participating writers. (Sewanee and Bread Loaf often share faculty in common; attending writers have described Bread Loaf as having a more structured schedule and being slightly more intense.) The conference is held July 23rd-August 4th at Sewanee - the University of the South, in Tennessee. Applications are being accepted Jan. 15th-April 15th.
  • Aspen Summer Words has been on my radar as the only workshop or conference I could find where Colum McCann has taught. Beyond this, search through the site to find clips from speakers and other great insight into the value of Aspen’s programs, which include both juried and non-juried summer programs (June 16-21) and winter programs.

More Great Summer Conferences and Workshops:

To Find Other Conferences or Workshops:

Do not underestimate the value of regional workshops and conferences in your area. To locate more conferences, either by region or by interest, check out these data bases:

  • AWP Directory of Conferences: use this customizable search to find conferences or workshops to meet your needs
  • Poets & Writers magazine: the link at left takes you to a data base of conferences and residencies on P&W’s site. Or, join conversations in the Speakeasy forum, where writers share their wisdom about the application process and what they gained from attending most national conferences.

If Not Summer, Then Next Year:

If summer is not your time for workshopping, then watch for more deadlines in the fall for fabulous conferences and workshops held over the winter. I’ll include one to watch as it unfolds in March:

  • Sirenland: If you have the liberty to take off to beautiful Positano, Italy (one of my favorite places), here’s one to consider applying to for next year. Sirenland 2013 takes place March 17-23, with applications accepted in the fall. The conference was established by Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief, and editor of One Story). If you’re curious, check for a #sirenland hashtag during the conference week.

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How About You?

What conferences or workshops have you considered attending? Which have you attended in the past?

Share your interests or experience in the comments, or share links to your own posts about conferences. It’s especially helpful to other readers if you can share advice about admissions, experience from attending, the names of workshop leaders you’d recommend, or the names of local workshops you’ve attended and would recommend.

For example, read this great 3-part series on writing workshops posted by writer Gerry Wilson, beginning with: Workshop Primer Part 1: What, Where & Why?

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Coming tomorrow: My Reading List: Winter 2013

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January Challenge Week 1: Did I Succeed at Finishing?

grasp c Elissa Field*

Ahhhh…..

Three o’clock came on Monday, deadline for entering grades. Project finished. I met my goal for Week 1 of the January Challenge — I finished this one thing.

I’ve heard from two others who also finished their challenge for the week, and I’ve heard from many who are using this week’s challenge to prioritize how they will get projects finished later in the month, or at other times throughout the year.

What all of the posts and emails have acknowledged — and what I observed, working toward my deadline — are the hurdles and resistance that are particular to finishing a project.

  • In the week’s kickoff post (Week 1: Finish Something), we thought about resistance or obstacles that keep us from completing projects and used strategies to identify the real obstacle, to break the resistance down in manageable steps.
  • Then, Sunday’s post (Week 1: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work) shared several concrete strategies for keeping the work moving toward “done.”

Advice is great. I really do use all those tactics, and heard from so many of you how these kinds of strategies are useful.  But you just know I didn’t glide toward perfect completion of my project following all that advice to a T, without a hitch.

Today’s post shares the insights that came to mind as I applied the advice of those earlier posts (successfully and with rough spots) toward finishing my goal. As always, do share your own experiences in the comments, whether you are actively participating in the challenge or if you stumble upon it even months down the road.

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Avoid Wheel-Spinning

Any of my regular readers might notice that Sunday’s post of “14″ strategies was updated to “15″ as I realized I left off one that is key (now #8 on the list): avoid wheel-spinning.

One thing that is hard for writers is that finishing work requires shifting gears from the energy of generating lots of new ideas to limiting efforts to the tasks that get the darn thing done.

“Avoid wheel-spinning” recognizes that in those goals for working hours or word counts it is easy to be busy working, yet not focused on steps that will get the job done. My goal last weekend was just to get any remaining grades entered to close out last semester. Sure, that includes tasks like filing paperwork and reflecting on how the semester went. But it was wheel-spinning for me to spend half an hour making notes to a student on a paper that won’t be revised again.

Going back to the endzone metaphor I used in Running on the Grass: imagine you are the running back, carrying a football (your project) toward the endzone. Discipline yourself to avoid running sideways or backwards, or wondering what’s happening over on the baseball fields or suddenly stopping everything to jump rope. Finishing a project means only strides that take you closer to that endzone.

What’s Worth Finishing – and What to Drop

In a few responses from readers, I heard a continued hesitation to even take a project on. They liked the idea of finishing something for this week’s challenge but… you could just hear it in their voice: they weren’t sure they even cared about their project any more. I’m thinking that is worth its own post.  Don’t you hear a list forming in your head, of good reasons for finishing something vs. when to just drop it off the list?

For today’s sake, let’s just say: sometimes you have to amputate certain parts of a goal in order to get it done. In grading, I had one class that was hard to get finished. We made it through our main units, but there was one other assignment I always have students write.  We ran short on time because of classes cancelled during hurricanes, but I was going to be stubborn and force it in — one more paper to write, one more paper to comment on and grade (when already slowed down with the holidays and a cold).  A more seasoned friend shrugged.  There were plenty of grades to accurately reflect the students’ learning; nothing was going to be done with that “one more paper.”  There was no reason not to drop it.

Throughout the weekend, making my deadline involved knowing when to edit out steps. File student papers later, get them graded now. Trade information with a peer by email, rather than a lengthy meeting (when our friendship gets us chatting).  We all know this strategy from our daily lives: make sure the kids learn important values, but don’t worry if you mastered scrapbooking.

Pick your battles. Know what matters and what to drop.

Declaring it Done

Hand-in-hand with that, finishing a project requires knowing when to declare it done.

Please people. Last summer my goal was to polish the third revision of a novel whose characters and storyline were thoroughly written in order to query agents by September 1. What did I do to myself instead? Discovered a whole new thread for a main character’s motivation. Augh.  I mean, yes, okay, it might be a better book for it.  But do I not realize that this second-guessing kind of revision (requiring a thorough rewrite) is what kept me from ever querying the last one? Every time it was just about to finish its writing-marathon, my little novel would say, “You know, I think I’d like to go back and re-run mile 15 differently.”

In perfect irony, that novel draft I never queried has a scene where the main character is an artist, working on finishing a painting in her studio. Watching her, the artist’s daughter asks, How do you know when a painting is done? Roughly quoted, the mother answers, You never really do — just, at a certain point, it starts to stand on its own. At a certain point, you have to take your hands out of it.  If not, it would be sold, framed and on the wall in a collector’s house, and I’d still be taking it down to make one more change. 

For both of the first two points above, as I was grading I had to limit the tasks I took on. It was being a perfectionist that didn’t let me read a student paper without adding one more comment, even knowing the paper and the semester were done. And the definition of finished (grades entered in the software by the deadline) did not need that one last assignment crammed in.

It seems the key is to clearly define “done” for your project, early on in planning.  When discipline is needed, you can then edit out unnecessary tasks and distractions by evaluating whether or not they are needed to reach that definition of done, and hold yourself to declaring a finish line crossed when you reach it.

Build a 20% Cushion on Your Deadline

Deadlines help, as they draw the line in the sand after which there is no more tinkering to be done — but deadlines need a cushion, as problems always come up.

Later this week I’ll introduce my Begin Something challenge: I have a literary magazine that has to be printed and in student’s hands by the last day of school. Which means the printer has to have it no later than May 10th. Which means he really needs it by May 1st. Which means I need to tell myself I have to deliver it to him by a week before that, or even by April 15th. There are holidays and conflicts with other spring projects that month, which means my deadline for having it finished is really April 1st. (Heh. Did you hear my shriek at the thought of how soon that is?)

Something always comes up. A glitch. Weather. Someone you are waiting on who delivers something late. Someone goes on vacation or is out for surgery. A brilliant idea for a last minute change. Run out of paper or ink or…  And we, ourselves, are imperfect. Procrastinate. Lose confidence. Have a glitch in our software or lose a key piece or catch a cold.

My grades weren’t due to be posted until 3pm Monday. Monday was a teacher workday for entering the grades. Awesome: that gave me 5 hours to grade, right? Who could have expected that a tragedy at a school in Connecticut would spur a Monday morning safety review meeting? Still, 2 hour meeting leaves me 3 hours, right? Except the training meeting evolved into the local SWAT team (you planned for this, right? we all plan for sudden SWAT developments?) performing evacuation training on-site until past lunch. Then a follow up meeting. Then a friend with a question. Arrival and assembly of new desks, redesigning my class layout.  Planning for new classes.

I learned after my first year teaching: never expect to grade on a planning day. Have it done the night before. In a perfect world, if I were as smart as posting-advice-lists would imply, I would have set my deadline 2 weeks back, at the end of the semester– anticipating that a Christmas cold would leave me worthless for grading during my weeks off. We are imperfect — subject to colds and procrastination and wanting to run see a movie with a friend and maybe struggling through finishing certain steps of a project.

We have to build a cushion to accommodate that imperfection and expecting — it never fails — something will always come up.

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That Said, I Met My Goal — How Are You Doing?

write start badgeI have some stray housekeeping (returning papers, filing, etc.) that keeps my finish something goal from being completely cleared off my desk but, overall, I met my goal.

How are you doing with yours?

Most readers and friends I have talked to are working on their Week 1 project throughout the month (or even the year) — and really, none of us want to finish just one thing. As soon as I have time, I’ll work in finishing my grad school apps and getting stories out, not to mention those novel revisions. So we’ll continue to trade insight on what works.

Do share your thoughts in the comments.  What are you working on finishing?  Do any of these strategies ring true for you?  Or are there others that help you finish your projects?

Have any of you decided to completely drop a project from your to-do list?

If you have blogged about this challenge, please share a link to my original post (so people can read the challenge) and post a link to your blog here in the comments so we can read what you are up to!

Next up will be kick-off of Week 2: Start Something. Think about a project you need to get started — mine will be the lit mag.

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January Challenge: 15 Strategies for Finishing Work

write start badgeOn Thursday, I posted the kick-off for the January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something.

If you’ve missed prior posts: the January Challenge: Finish, Start, Improve, Plan attacks our 2013 goals and resolutions by focusing one week at a time.  Week 1 (that’s now) finish one thingWeek 2 start something, Week 3 improve something and Week 4 evaluate and plan where to go next.  Participate at any time — see the end of this post on how to get started.

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The goal this week is to finish one thing.  Today’s post trades notes on the successes and challenges we are encountering, as well as 14 key strategies for getting this goal done. (Thursday’s post gave strategies for breaking the project into manageable steps, getting ahold of any missing materials and otherwise addressing obstacles that keep you from getting started — head there if you need help with those first.)

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Week 1: How Are We Doing?

I shared that my “finish one thing” goal for the week is to complete grading from fall semester.  So far, I’m succeeding: I’ve completed one class, jotted notes for Monday meetings for classes that are starting, and organized the papers I’ll finish grading for the other two classes. Not docile, but tamed.

Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum — chances are we are all trying to finish this one thing while other projects compete for attention.  My challenge this week may be grading, but I still have a novel that is my priority and two little boys who’d prefer I not forget about them (“There’s your food, right next to the dog’s kibble…”), and of course all those post-holiday distractions.

In sharing your goals for the week (or the month or, in some cases, for throughout the spring — use this challenge as it works best for you, and do jump in at any time even once the week is done!), many of you have acknowledged being short on time or distracted by other priorities.  I’ve been fighting a cold and struggling with a bratty urge to enjoy my last days of vacation with my kids before classes start again. Every time I sit down to finish grading, it’s not student essays but my current novel draft that fill my thinking. (Sing it folks: should I not be thrilled to be on fire about novel writing in a days I have off from teaching? It’s hard to compete with that.)

Week 1 tackles “unfinished” projects, and so often these old to-do items have a hard time claiming attention against more fun, more glamorous, more interesting, more entrenched or more profitable siblings on the to-do list.

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15 Strategies for Taming Unfinished Projects:

The point of sharing a challenge is to trade the strategies that help us get through the rough spots.  Here are 14 tricks that work to overcome resistance, find discipline and claim time for your project — balancing to finish this one thing while moving on with other priorities in your life.

  1. Get Started. It sounds obvious, but the biggest hurdle is taking the first step. Do it, now.
  2. Draw yourself in with an easy first step. Say, “Write for 15 minutes,” or “Just sort the papers,” or “Type the handwritten scene you wrote last month.” Kick off a day of novel revisions by just running a spell-check, or printing a draft for reading. Get past blank-page reluctance by baiting yourself with something easy — often, that’s enough to get you hooked.
  3. Find something to get out of the way. Scan to see if a “big” project has something simple you can knock off right away. With my grading, half of one stack was already graded– I only had to record the grades and file the papers. Shorter stack already. With my novel draft, I could type some handwritten edits before diving into major shuffling in Scrivener. If you’re tackling a cleaning project like the garage or the playroom, find things to throw away. If it’s cleaning up after the holidays, get that tree to the curb.
  4. Use the rule of 30. Get through large projects by asking yourself to work only 30 (or 20 or 45) minutes at a time. I have 8-12 hours of grading, but asked myself to work on it in 30 minute segments, several times throughout the day.
  5. Map your project in manageable steps. For grading, I divided the papers by assignment, then took them one chunk at a time, with a pad beside me to make notes for semester-start meetings or planning. For unwieldy writing projects, create a to-do list: write a “shopping list” of details that need research or interviewing, list scenes that need to be written or revisions planned. For short story submissions, make a list of 20 magazines to submit to, write a brief cover letter, proofread your story and format it for submitting. For revising a novel draft (say, one written in NaNoWriMo), your list might be: read draft, delete bad material, highlight best text, map plot points, assess word count goals, list missing elements. Then take on one at a time.
  6. Find measurable milestones. Each step should be a mini-success. Check-marks on a list of steps can be affirming.  Take pictures of each step of laying out that garden. Or set arbitrary motivators. In grading, watching columns in the gradebook software fill with grades (and stacks move off my dining table) is visual incentive.
  7. Set daily or weekly writing goals.  All industries set quotas to know, measurably, if a goal will be reached and adjust work when it’s falling behind.  In Friday Links, I shared writer Laura Maylene Walter’s post, which celebrated the milestone of 60,009 words by December, having set herself daily word count goals which she kept as a growing motivational tally.  Writing friends have shared daily goals of 500 or 1,000 words for regular progress, or goals of 2,000 when pushing toward a deadline. Other writers use hourly goals. Writer Ann Hood sets a goal to write 2 hours per day, and starts by revising the prior day’s work. Another option is to set page or chapter goals. Software (Excel, Outlook, or Scrivener) can track your milestones and keep you motivated.
  8. Avoid “wheel-spinning.” When you are starting a project, that’s the time for spit-balling, brainstorming lots of ideas, throwing lots of them at the wall to see what sticks. But when you shift to the goal of finishing, you need to be wary of spending your daily goals (word counts or time for working) on anything that doesn’t take you closer to “done.” Build an internal radar to detect when you are working but it’s wheel-spinning — lots of energy, but not taking you closer to your goal. Respect the energy of those new ideas (jot them down for later), but redirect your work back toward steps that take you directly to your goal.
  9. Balance this project with other priorities using the rule of 30 or the rule of 5′s. The rule of 30 (above) is great for alternating between key projects. Saturday, I wrote for 30 minutes, then sorted papers for 30, then wrote/researched for 30, then graded for 30, then a break and chores, then…   A variation of this is the rule of 5′s: alternate between projects, doing 5 things at each. I got myself started this morning saying, “Just do 5 papers,” then got over a mess my sons made by saying, “Just put away 5 things…” Especially in a week when we’re combatting post-holiday distractions, this counting approach can help you stay productive in competing tasks, like writing thank-you notes or putting away decorations or facing an overflowing email box at work. (I use “do 5″ to get started or during breaks, and “work for 30″ to make real progress.)
  10. Work to a deadline. New writers hate deadlines; seasoned writers love them. They declare a day when the work must be done. I will finish grading, because the deadline is tomorrow. There is no more tinkering with it after that. (Bonus: clears the decks for the next priority.) In creating measurable steps, start at your deadline. Write your list backwards, assigning daily or weekly steps to get there. Divide the work by the number of days to set your daily goals. Adjust daily quotas when these goals aren’t being met.
  11. Block out time-wastes. Especially if you are trying to finish a piece of writing, distraction-free time is a gift you give yourself. Stop in and say hi to us here(!), but otherwise avoid being sucked into email, social media or the latest marathon repeat of Top Chef.
  12. Do this goal first. Borrowed from my daily writing strategy: I drop everything and write before other things take over. Combined with other timing strategies, it’s easy to claim 30 minutes (or do 5 things) toward this goal, before anything else. A variation: work on it while the coffee is brewing.
  13. But build in healthy breaks. Minds go numb without food, and many writers swear by the value of a walk or run to release creative energy. Similarly, connection with family, friends and the outside world keep you inspired — so don’t feel guilty taking time out for these.
  14. Read, or seek experts. Reading triggers inspiration. More focused than that: if you are planning a class or conducting research or rethinking your marketing plan, look for advice that can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Taking time for a twitter search or “shout out” to friends might score time-saving advice.
  15. Talk about it. Especially for a stale project, renew your interest by telling someone you want to finish it this month. Tell us here in the comments, or blog about it, post pictures of your progress, or tell a friend or your family. Get someone else on board.

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What’s Your Challenge — or Favorite Strategy?

Whether applying the January Challenge this week or not… What kinds of projects do you fight to get finished? Is it a struggle to get a novel draft to submission-ready? Are you not sure what to do next, in building your platform or writing your blog?

What unfinished projects make your yearly goals for 2013?

And what strategies have you found for getting things done? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  If you blog about your challenge, please share a link to this post and share link to your article so we can visit your site as well!  You can use the January Challenge badge, if you want to be festive.  (I’m sure many will stumble on this post long past this week in January, but all participation is welcome, even once the month is done.)

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Friday Links 01.04.13

One of my great discoveries during 2012 was the wealth of insight I stumble across each week –  from the fabulous writers, editors, agents, journalists and more that I follow on Twitter, to some of the professional groups I participate in, to resources I come across in my work.

Fitting for the first Friday of the new year, I’m kicking off this new column — Friday Links — to share the best reading I’ve found each week, just in time for your weekend reading. I anticipate featuring anything from interviews with writers, advice on writing and publication, reading and publishing news… to issues on art, education or culture.

Welcome to Friday Links — and the new year!

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“Posthumous” Jeffrey Eugenides | The New Yorker

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, this fabulous essay from the New Yorker’s blog is identified in the magazine’s link as “Jeffrey Eugenides’ advice to young writers.”

Is That Kind of Like a French Pencil?

Perhaps I found kindred spirit in this interview — connecting over the voices of his 7th grade writers compared to my own middle grade writing students — but I loved The Literary Man’s interview with Andrew Slater, a writer and former soldier who has gone back to live in Iraq, teaching English and writing. The title was his answer to the question, What is your writing routine?

Rachelle Gardner: What Not to Blog About

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner has endeared herself to writers with the depth of her advice about all levels of the publication process, including best uses of social media. In this article, she offers the most important “no-nos” for a writer to avoid in protecting their professional persona.

Day of Week Affects Facebook Responsiveness

While on social media… here is an interesting analysis via MarketingVox. I’d heard analytics before about best days of the week to post to Twitter or Facebook — but this analyzes the level of interaction posts get for each day of the week by industry.  Holly Harrison (@hollharris; the “marketing broad” for litmag Paper Darts) cleverly observed that each industry’s target graph looks like a different origami animal. For those of us communicating in publishing, Sunday is a hotter day to hit than Monday.

And, celebrating the new year, some great New Year posts:

Stones in My Pockets: Resolve for 2013 by Gerry Wilson

Starting the New Year 60,000 Words Ahead by Laura Maylene Walter

In Which I Fail (Most of) My Resolutions… But End 2012 on a Good Note (Really) by Nova Ren Suma

The Yearly Reboot by Jeannine Bergers Everett

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January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something

write start badgeI started yesterday’s January Challenge (read overview here) by saying I’d found 2 great online challenges — the only problem being that the first month of 2013 required me to focus not just on one thing, but many.

So the January Write Start Challenge was born:

  • Week 1 (that’s now), I’ll finish one thing
  • Week 2, I’ll start one thing
  • Week 3, I’ll focus on improving one thing
  • Week 4 will be the wrap up to evaluate how things are progressing and plan what comes next.

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First, for housekeeping’s sake – if you want to participate at any point in the month: say hello in the comments here, then post your goals on your site. Be sure to share link to this post in your article (you can include the badge above, if you want to be festive), and then come back here and share link to your article in the comments so readers can follow your success.

Most of my readers are writers, but you’re welcome to share any goals you are working on!

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Week 1: Finish One Thing

Inspiration for the Week 1 Challenge:

Christa Desir was the source for this week’s challenge.  Christa is a writer (repped by Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown) whose debut young adult novel, Faultline, comes out in November. So, first off, kudos to her — I look forward to seeing her book in the fall.

Picture 6Earlier this week she shared her 2013 Jan Plan: an unstructured challenge to simply complete one thing in January.

She said, “This is the month for all of us to take a project and finish it. It can be anything…book, cleaning out the garage, knitting a sweater…it doesn’t matter. Just whatever you have been putting off, it is time to finish.”

Be sure to visit her blog and let her know, if you take on this challenge.

Choosing The One Thing to Finish:

Originally, I intended to take on only Christa’s challenge for January (and you are welcome to do that, rather than a different challenge each week).

It was the perfect excuse for me to take on one of my nearly-finished short stories, complete revisions, and get one submitted to a literary magazine. I have unfinished grad school applications.  I have a half-painted living room. I’m sure everyone has some project like these on their to-do list – and there’s something reassuring, even fun, in tackling them together.

But the truth is that I have a deadline to complete all paperwork for fall semester by this Monday, which includes grading all the essays turned in just before the holidays.  So — while I may use Christa’s challenge to tackle one of those other projects later in the month – my goal for the first week of the challenge is to complete grading for last semester.

Some Thoughts on Tackling Unfinished Work:

It’s possible you are just taking up the next thing on your list. Maybe you just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Maybe it was already the thing you planned to do this week — like my grading or taking down holiday decorations or writing holiday thank-you’s (shoot, I need to do that). If that’s the case, your path forward may be simple. Get to it.

But often, when we face an unfinished project like the unrevised short stories, or the grad school application or even things like unfinished painting or a half-knit sweater, we are facing a project that has lingered, getting stale and unlikable, on our to-do list for months or even years.

Strategy for Tackling Stale Projects:

Awhile back, I faced a to-do list like that. A couple items rotated from one to-do list to the next, but never got smaller.

Mystified, I applied a new trick —  I wrote my To Do list in 3 columns:

  1. The first column named the project that needed to be done.
  2. But, in the second column, I answered the question, “Why have you not done it yet?” Almost always, the answer was that it took materials, money or time I didn’t have, or… eek… I was afraid of failing or lost interest.
  3. So, in that third column, which became my actual to-do list, I wrote what I needed to overcome that resistance. Instead of “paint the living room,” my to-do item started with, “match paint sample, buy paint and roller.” Instead of “revise Hotsy Totsy,” my to-do item became “send HT to a beta reader for feedback; then, revise with feedback.”

Why is it so important to ask why you didn’t get it done before?

  • To address any resistance. We couldn’t finish painting the living room because the paint had been discontinued, so it helped to add “get new sample” to the action list. Addressing the resistance honors that you weren’t being lazy or unproductive; there is an actual obstacle to fix. Action steps always feel more constructive.
  • (Restated as a specific for writers:) Avoid telling yourself to “revise that story”or “finish that book” — it helps to break writing projects into action steps. Where vague orders like “revise” or “finish” beat you down with over-repetition, being clear gives you direction and the chance of actually completing the step.  Try “write the ending,” or “submit a proposal to (target publications),” or “address rambling in middle chapters,” or “research names of participants in the Easter Rising.” I gave the example of my short story Hotsy Totsy because we sometimes bang ourselves (and our stories) over the head with the same approach to revision, over and over. I knew that story didn’t need my revision again, but feedback from another reader, and solutions came much more quickly when I wrote “find beta reader” on my to-do list. (Kudos to Gerry Wilson for that!)
  • To identify overlooked steps. “Submit grad school applications” sounds like I need to fill out a form. But no, I did that already. What I’d need to write on my action list is: “email (specific names) for recommendation letters” and “write personal statement.” I might have forgotten, also, to budget for the application fees.
  • To plan better. As a mom, often I’m short on time. If that was the case, I answered the question, “What did I do instead of this thing?” I used my answer to that question to plan better times to work on the project — say, when I had time off from work or when my boys were at school.
  • To shift priorities.  Sometimes you need to honor that there is a roadblock that won’t move any time soon. When almost all of my hold-ups on one list were the cost, I realized the some of the unfinished projects were low priority compared to other expenses — and literally moved them off my list. In fact, I switched them for tasks that increased whatever was in short supply (“send out resumes” or “submit expense report”).

In some cases, projects are unfinished because we lost interest.  Maybe sharing this challenge will help you regain that excitement. Post a picture showing progress of that baby blanket getting crocheted. Post the garden you hope to plant, come summer.  Share your fears or frustrations, and the small steps as you move forward.

Here’s mine:

I have stacks of essays to grade, which is daunting. I need to chug my way into them.  I will find inspiration to move forward as I hit some great work.  Some of them I will flag for inclusion in the literary magazine I’ll be working on next week.  But I’ll use other milestones to keep me going: the satisfaction of watching grade columns fill in our grading software. Or I might use a timing clock, setting an estimated time-per-paper to help me read more efficiently. Maybe I’ll put some easy ones first to make quick progress, then save a few easy ones to reward myself with as I near the end.  And I’ll schedule a break, here and there.  Thirty minutes of TV with my boys, or a walk, or a snack, or 30 minutes to work on the novel… If I’m not back by Sunday, send a rescue crew. (Kidding.)

For more strategies for finishing a goal, read Sunday’s motivational post:  January Challenge: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work

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Your Turn!

In the comments below, on another post this month or on Christa’s blog, be sure to share with us the unfinished project you will be tackling whether this week or any time in January. 

What obstacles hold you back? Did you do the 3-column to-do list, and what did you learn from it?  Whatever your challenge, know you have a cheering squad here and be sure to check back in for the rest of the challenge, throughout the month!

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January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow – I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome – whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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2013 – Day One: Reflections, Goals… and a Challenge

c. Elissa Field - request written permission for use

c. Elissa Field – request written permission for use

You can’t look anywhere among your social media friends without being left with the question: Do I have resolutions for 2013?

Reading a few friends’ blogs had me feeling need to reflect on the state of my own goals — and to-do lists.

2012 was a great year for me, one of successes.  Goals met and some not yet tackled – but a renewed sense of my own abilities, a great sense of perspective and freedom to move forward.  I feel an odd affection for the idea of it being 2013 — not necessarily declaring “resolutions,” but feeling good about the possibilities ahead.

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Reflecting on 2012:

A year ago, around when I took that picture of my sons, I was entering a new year with a lot of old baggage and a lot of opportunities I had created for releasing them.  I was married for more than 15 years, and we had spent the last two years deciding if he was just having a midlife crisis or if he wanted a divorce. I’d been hanging on for my sons’ sake, and also clinging to some other things that weren’t really working.

But I’d finished certification to teach and was hired for a third year at the same fabulous school my boys go to.  I had bones to a novel down.  I had ideas of stories flowing. I’d hit a point where I was (mostly) able to balance writing hours and bringing in income and keeping up with the boys. (Mostly.) And, most interesting for this loyal, sentimental girl: I was ready for whatever changes came into my life to make things work.  Including divorce, job changes, moving — whatever.

You can’t help love a year where you opened your hands to release what didn’t work, willing to catch what does.  And I might not make resolutions, but I’d entered 2012 with a decent plan.

2012 Goals:

  • Daily life: For my boys, I needed income, stability, all that.  I’d finished 2 years completing credentials and started my third year teaching.  I kept the boys together in the same, fabulous school they’ve gone to since preschool. I had quality time with them. We spent a month of summer at my parents’ house in Connecticut. All around, this was a success for the year.  As someone who liked being married, it was a little moment of pride to realize I’d made it two years on my own with the boys and we were doing just fine.  Having fun, actually.
  • Writing hours: Without setting specific word or hour or daily goals, I needed to carve clear, productive writing hours in the face of demands on my time.  During the school year, waves of essay grading can bury me — made worse last fall as I took on another grade and science fair.  Still, I have been astounded how much more easily I can compartmentalize my focus and claim time to write than in other years.  Often, it means stopping whatever I was about to do and saying: write 30 minutes, right now, before you do anything else.  I teach afternoons, so claim undistracted morning hours while the boys are at school.  But I’ve also gotten better at writing with them in the room, so I could work near them while they watched tv or in bed as they did their homework beside me.  Somedays it would only be the 30 minutes, or just in the margins of a book I was reading as I fell asleep or on scratch paper in the car. But I also claimed whole mornings or nights, or whole days.  There’s never enough time. But the success was this: part of teaching is that I have holidays and summer off to write. When I worked freelance in the past, I sometimes had gaps like that but was so preoccupied with marketing or other distractions that writing didn’t happen, so this was my big fear: to have time off, but I’d waste it or ideas would fall flat.  “Success” for 2012 was that every minute I’ve had free time (and even when I didn’t) the ideas were right there, and the writing worked.  Little of it was garbage; most of it went into finished drafts.  Other than having my laptop crash midyear, 2012 was really productive.
  • Short stories: Goal was to finish 2 nearly-done stories, revise an older one with feedback, and submit until published.  Heh heh. Yeah, no.  Not a lick of work on short stories since about January last year. Sorry, half-drafted story. Sorry to the one ready for final rewrite. I’ve written before about not wanting to just be Running on Grass.  I like to keep a couple stories circulating — something done and out the door — while I’m working on a novel. It’s hard to accept zero submissions for the year — but not necessarily a failure, considering other successes.
  • Novel draft: Altogether, I have 3 novel drafts, and the goal for summer was to have one draft revised and first queries submitted by September. It’s supposed to be that I am finishing the first WIP, and only jotted out the bones of the other 2 to get them out of my head while I finish the first. But the newest one (Wake) did not sleep at all in 2012, and has completely taken over.  It developed really fully throughout the year, which is what you most hope for — that resonance that comes when the story lives inside your chest and picks up depth even when you’re not actively writing on it.  That would be useless if the story hadn’t made it to the page, but I had butt-in-chair enough to have finished the first draft in June, with second and third revisions over the summer. The setback of my laptop crash prevented having a draft ready to submit and queries out to agents.  But I’m more sure of Wake now than I was a year ago. It’s hard to resent the delay, as I used the time to finish research and the book has grown from it. My novel projects grew in other ways as well: downloading Scrivener turned out to be a great new tool for revising and, on a very different note, I’ve been debating whether one of the other WIPs might work best as a young adult series, which is an exciting possibility.
  • Reading: Twice during the year I took time to set down my targeted reading list.  I learned a lot from a few of the books I read, and enjoyed the intentional process of blogging about my reading and connecting with other readers.  That was new.
  • Connection: I could have called this goal “social media” or “platform,” but it didn’t start out that way. I started 2012 knowing I missed the old writing group I’d lost touch with during years I wanted to write without feedback.  And, as someone who has worked in PR, I was exploring new marketing avenues — for clients, or for online business ideas my mom and I were weighing. In April, I participated in a platform-building challenge with poet Robert Lee Brewer, which led to a clearer understanding of social media, and several successes developed on the heels of that. Numerically measurable successes included expanding readership on my website by over 400% and connection on Twitter by 1,000% — which well exceeded the growth numbers I set for myself for the year. From a freelancing standpoint, I understand how to help clients use social media in a way I did not previously. But the immeasurable successes are the greatest win. The best intangible has been some of the amazing friendships and professional connections I’ve shared. Anyone in Wordsmith Studio reading this should blush, knowing I count our group as a success for the year.  It’s a great group of generous and talented writers.  Despite the social media impact, as many gains were also in the real world, including participating in a great workshop, local friends, family and travel as well.

2013 – the year ahead:

There’s lots of messy stuff left from 2012′s list. I intended to apply for grad school by November, but turned deer-in-the-headlights mid-October and will likely soon regret not having gotten that done. I need to file for divorce (does the attorney not know the irony that his fee is equal to what I want to spend on grad school?).  In teaching, I tripled my salary (which speaks more of how little I was paid the year before), was given more classes and am leading the literary magazine now, although this still leaves me up in the air about where I’ll work next year.  A move is possible, as our house is our last remnant of 2008-bad-economy.

But mostly, there are new beginnings to look forward to.

  • I have a litmag to assemble by April.
  • Finish the novel and get queries out by summer.
  • Short stories. Repeat 2012 intention. Don’t cry if it doesn’t happen, as long as the novel does.  No.  Take that back.  Get your butt in gear and get these submitted.  Mom says.
  • Grad school.  Apply.  While waiting, take a course.
  • Write more for online.  Respond to requests for submissions and guest blogging.  Move forward with more additions to my own editorial calendar, here.  Submit proposals for paid articles. Part of teaching is having the credentials for some of the articles I’ve been jotting for parenting and other how-to sites.
  • Another workshop or maybe Grub Street in May.
  • Summer.  There’s always summer off to write.
  • And connections.  People like my friends at Wordsmith Studios, writing friends, visitors to this blog.

Thanks for being part of what made 2012 great, and 2013 great to look forward to!

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Want a challenge?

Picture 6In tomorrow’s post (January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan), I introduce my January Write Start Challenge, in which I kick off my goals for 2013.  The first week of the challenge was inspired by YA author Christa Desir, who posted 2013 the JanPlan on her site — a lovely, unstructured challenge to complete one thing in January.

My short stories eye me accusingly.  My grad school apps.  Or…?

I would love for you to join me in the January Write Start Challenge — or just tackle one unfinished thing!

Are you up for the challenge?  I’ll post more about it later (or click the link to read it on Christa’s site)… but for now, let’s get targeting: what one thing would you take on?

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Novel Revisions — Danger: Book May Bite

IMG_3468 2

Writing is a timid thing – right?

Delicately crafted with feathered pens by a dainty woman unused to the outdoors. Cough, sputter. Fantasize.

No fear. No wild things lurking. All purple ink and soft whispers.

She’s being ironic, the guard mutters as the wild thing rattles its cage. Writers do that, he nods, proud of the knowledge – and hoping, soon, such writer will step out of the shadows and tame this unwieldy thing, growing daily, hourly as it waits release.

The beast itself. Braced to resist domestication, eyes glaring in resistance against such things as braiding of manes, tying of ribbons in its tail.

I’m a wild thing, it purrs, snarls, gnashing a bone. I’ll be ridden, perhaps. But not a trot. Not an amble. Climb aboard, if you dare, and gallop raw across the veldt.

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Today’s post is provoked by Wordsmith Studio’s weekly Take A Picture! photo challenge – this week, the theme is “signs.”

While with my sons at Harry Potter World at Universal, I saw this sign above the caged Monster Book behind Olivander’s wand shop and couldn’t help feel it summarized my summer: taming my novel from first complete draft through second and third revisions.

Danger: book may bite.

My mother once questioned why a tiger shark lurks just out of view in the background photo on my website and I had to say it represents the danger I sometimes feel in writing. I love the rush of creation, yet so much is at risk — pride, talent, loss of that perfect image just at the tips of your reach. Novel drafts are not docile as rabbits and kittens, but bull sharks, boa constrictors, pacing tigers — unwieldy things within our reach, yet with a life of their own.

Or at least, for the sake of today’s photo challenge, this is nod to the days they feel that way!

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Writing Character: Challenge of Revising the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 2

c.Elissa Field

This is the second of two articles addressing the challenge some writers have identified of writing the character most like themselves.

Read the original post for an explanation of who this character is, and how the idea for the post originally arose  from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May:

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5 Approaches for Revising:

Again, not all authorial characters are broken — but this post addresses the situation where characters drawn closely from the author come across as flat. Each of the following presents a possible source of the problem and how to address it.

  1. See-through narrator: beginner’s error?  In one of my early novel attempts, I had a central female protagonist who essentially represented my entrypoint into the story. She was roughly my age, my cultural background, etc. Her story arc was dynamic, but she was the least fully-written and least empathetic character. I realized I was intentionally keeping this character thinly written, nearly transparent, as if she were a window to see through to the story.  Have you ever read an editor’s list of “beginner errors”? While revising this story at Bread Loaf one summer, I was startled to find this approach on a list of errors committed by first-time novelists who are still trepidatious about claiming that right to just present the story. It’s possible a transparent-window-character really is an effective device for your story (they do exist in some successful published work), but my authorial character did not ring true.  Fix?  The simplest approach is to eliminate the character — no window is needed for you to ‘frame’ the story. If you resist deleting the character, this means you believe the character has a purpose in the story.  Take the time to understand why you chose this perspective and own it.  Don’t avoid the character; understand the tension and emotion they create, and write the character fully.
  2. Lay back on the couch & tell me about your childhood: another beginner’s error?  Editors also report a beginner’s error of feeling a need to explain the psychology behind our character’s choices. This can be common when writing about from real life. Much of our memory may come from psychological processing of an event.  But see if the flatness of your authorial character arises from too much explanation of their thoughts.  Reams of psychological explanation is less intriguing than actions and emotions that reveal the same information, and can seem inauthentic or defensive. Fix?  Psychological explanation is often written as a placeholder for motivation in early drafts. As the action and emotion of scenes become more full in revisions, see if you can simply delete the explanations. If these other scenes have not been written, make notes to yourself of what the psycho-babble is trying to accomplish, then envision the kind of interaction between characters that would reveal it. An entire scene might not be necessary; a single line revealing a memory might suffice. A reader will always find psychology more believable if they came to the conclusion on their own through experiencing the character, than if you explain it.  Also, see 3.
  3. I’m a good girl/boy.  I spent my whole life trying to convince my grandmother that my hair was the current style, my brother that I hadn’t packed too much on the family trip, and anyone else that I wasn’t difficult.  Best thing ever was the year I realized it was okay if my hair was not my grandmother’s style, my suitcase was overpacked and I was as difficult as anyone else around me.  Around the same time, I realized I was raising my characters to be as well-behaved as my family wanted me to be.  If a character did something inappropriate, I caught myself reeling them in or tried to explain it away.  If they had affairs or stole or were judgmental, writer-me immediately tried to take it back (or, see #2, gave psychological justification and excuses).  Around the time I gave myself permission to be sassy, I read a single perfect line of writing advice: the most memorable characters are not well-behaved.  Not that they’re rude, but they have opinions, they speak out and take action.  Not that they’re all adulterers and murderers, but they make high-stakes mistakes, and story arises from the consequences, not excuses.  Best characters would, in all hopes, make my grandmother’s eyes fly wide first in horror, then in secret glee for having done what she would not have allowed me to do.  Fix?  Don’t hold back.  In Hood’s advice below, note how important it is that we create distance and not expect our characters to behave as we do. If you gave your character a gun, don’t apologize when it goes off — and it should.  Characters should get in positions other people avoid, or say things they shouldn’t, or do the wrong thing and then another wrong thing after that.  Sitting primly on the couch and keeping thoughts to themselves would rarely have kept even my elders turning the pages.
  4. Hood’s advice #1: Continuing from part 1, in our workshop writer Ann Hood said the key is to create the resonance and fullness of story in characters based on reality. A common sign that a writer is too married to reality is when they defend a manuscipt by saying, “But that’s what really happened.”  To write effectively from real life, a writer is seeking to create resonance and meaning that were not apparent in the thin reality.  To do this, Hood said, “You have to establish authorial distance [between yourself and the character] to be able to see the character as a character.” Distance allows us to view others more clearly — from all sides, with interesting filters — than we do ourselves. The key is to create that ability to see yourself at that same distance.  Fix?  Hood said the key is to give the character one quality or trait that is absolutely not like yourself.  Give them a tick. A quirk, an idiosyncracy.  Give them an obsession.  A hobby, a talent.   Make them older than yourself, younger, or change their gender.  Give them a profession or talent or hobby that defines their lives.  It’s not a small shift — the goal is to create something in the character that is utterly unlike yourself so that you start seeing them as someone other than yourself.  In the gap, you can begin to have perspective and write more fully.
  5. Hood #2:  Saying the same thing differently, Hood referenced another author in saying that developing story arises by repeatedly asking the question, “What if…?” Each answer to the question spins details to character or setting or obstacles.  For example, Hood wrote one of her novels in response to the grief of losing her daughter to a sudden illness.  But what if she directed that grief into learning to knit?  For a current story I am writing, a main theme is my own, but what if the character were ten years older? What if she worked in a museum tending taxidermied exhibits? What if something were stolen, so the story seems to be about the theft, not her inner struggle?   Fix? Begin with a “What if” that is not true of yourself.  What if… the character was a man or an older woman or an artist or just witnessed a train derailing in the middle of the night behind her father’s barn…

More revision strategies?

For a 6th example, I’ll suggest this and you are welcome to offer a solution. 

  • I’m just not that into me.  In freelance work, I once interviewed a woman who had been an entymologist and lived in the jungle for 6 years before going back to school, studying urban planning and being appointed to public office. It was a fascinating article on how those unconnected roles represented her drive to serve. Yet she was shocked that anyone found her years in the jungle interesting. For me, that is parallel to a truth when I write a character like myself: it’s easy for me to be fascinated by a character I’m just getting to know, while falling flat to describe the character who feels like the same somebody I’m inside every day. One of the problems with writing authorial characters arises when we don’t gain Hood’s authorial distance to perceive ourselves as interesting characters. If the character most like yourself feels boring to you, perhaps this is the dilemma. Fix? The fix may mean not writing about yourself if it bores you, or perhaps Hood’s advice in 4 & 5, to gain the distance and interest to write more fully. Or, how would you suggest solving it?

How would you answer that — or what other dilemmas do you run into with characters drawn from your life? Share your answers, ideas or links in the comments!

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Christmas Shopping for the Writer in Your Life: 40 Top Gift Ideas Writers Really Love

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At birthdays and holidays, how great is it when friends or family try to find just the right gift to honor the recipient’s interests? Since writers often work alone, it is especially touching when family try to affirm their work with what seem to be “writing” gifts.

But, wow. Looking at the feathered pens and pewter bookmarks and dolled up journals in the “gifts for writers” display at a bookstore the other day, I couldn’t help feeling protective of the well-intended money lost on such things.  At the same time, a real list of “gifts writers could really use” began playing in my head.

This feeling was furthered Tuesday when editor Jane Friedman tweeted: “Advice, please: How do you deal w/family who buys you stuff, even though you lead a minimalist life & hate accumulating things?”

In this economy, no one wants to see their loved ones wasting money. For every writer in your life, there are actual things they would love to have or maybe even need for their writing. Writers care deeply when you seek to honor how important their writing is. But, family and friends: your writer would love for you to not be tricked into that $25 pewter bookmark that could only dent pages and make books weigh a ton.

The list below highlights writing-related gifts that writers would genuinely appreciate, with guidelines for any shopper to make the best use of their money.

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Resist those cutesy kiosks by the bookstore cashier — we don’t all write with feathered pens in angel-covered journals.

1) Journal — or no? Over the years, I’ve been given some really thoughtful journals from friends, which have gone to good use. But know your writer. In the age of laptops and smart phones, it is common for writers to rarely use pen or paper. Tricks for guessing if your writer would like a journal: if your writer never carries a bag bigger than their cell phone and car keys, then they are unlikely to carry a journal with them for writing out in the world. If they make all notes and keep their calendar electronically, they are unlikely to use a handwritten journal. However, if they do use a journal, ask or notice the type they tend to prefer. Some writers really do like a luxurious leather one or artfully decorative one — while others prefer the stark usefulness of a Moleskin or even old school composition notebooks. If you can’t ask, use the accessories they wear or carry as measure of how elaborate or plain their tastes are. Cost (& where to buy):  $1-2 for composition books (try Target); $5-15 for Moleskin or other midrange journals (try your local bookseller or office supply store); or $30-45 for leather (finer stationers or booksellers).

2) Quill or… cheap ballpoint? I once wrote with only fountain pens and was thrilled to be given an expensive one. Then I had a few too many leaks. Same advice about journals goes for pens: some writers love paper and ink; others are nearly all digital. In most cases, a writer has use for pens, but not all will appreciate an expensive pen, so know your writer. Personally, I always appreciate when my sons put pens in my stocking that write well but are only midrange in price. Pilot V-Ball or Pentel gel are decent. If you live with your writer, try to see which type of pen they prefer.

Other “jotting” alternatives to journals:

2) Diver down!  Is your writer a shower thinker? Surprise them with a humorous — but genuinely clever — solution to help them remember their showertime brilliance, and avoid that dripping dash to write things down on paper.

  • Underwater writing slates, originally designed for scuba diving, are a great solution to hang in the shower for recording ideas. They come in standard (5 x 6″) or instructor (8 x 10″) sizes, and I’ve heard writers appreciating either. The smaller size is convenient and unobtrusive, but with room for short thoughts only. The larger size allows room for an entire paragraph or for several thoughts to accumulate without needing to be transferred right away. Both types have rings or hooks for hanging.  If space is not an issue, I’d go for the larger one.  Cost & where to buy: $6-14; available at a local dive or sporting shop, or here are 2 on Amazon:   smaller slate or larger slate.
  • Aquanotes: like the dive slate, this is a notepad for wet writing, specifically designed for the shower. Deciding between this or a slate, consider: as a wipe-off format, the slate is permanently available, although with the inconvenience that notes need to be transferred.  The notepad offers the convenience of tear-off sheets, although this makes it a disposable solution, needing to be repurchased again in the future.   Cost & where to buy: $9, offered by Your Shop via Amazon at this link.
  • Bath Crayons. What the heck — go for the laugh. This idea comes courtesy of the year my husband was taking organic chemistry and stole our son’s bathtub crayons to scribble chemical formulas all over the tile wall while showering before a major exam. The crayons are intended for toddlers’ bath time artwork, but work equally well for scribbling that brilliant bit of dialogue.  They wash off. They are cheap, easy to replace and easily stored. Best yet, they’ll provoke a laugh as your oh-so-serious writer gives you an odd look while unwrapping. Cost & where to buy: Crayola or Alex brands are $5. Try independent toy/children’s shops, Toys R Us, Target, some grocery stores, or here is a link to find them via Amazon.

3) Writing while driving. One of the funniest “you are a writer if…” pictures I ever saw was of a writer’s arm after having scribbled a scene up and down her forearm out of desperation while driving. Others confess the desperate grab for a receipt, napkin or anything else within reach to write on. Yes, we are a dangerous driving mess.  Here are a couple options to capture those genius insights behind the wheel:

  • Dragon Dictation smart phone app.  Love this one.  You download the app onto your phone.  When an idea hits you, click the app, then it records whatever ideas you dictate.  When done, it processes your words to text which it will then email to you.  It jumbles some words, but is enough to get the idea down while leaving your hands free for safe driving. It’s saved me many times. Cost & where to buy: The app is FREE, downloaded via itunes or other app stores (within the phone).
  • Evernote smart phone app. Popular with many writers, this allows a writer to type their ideas (pull over, please — not as readily used as Dragonware). Cost & where to buy: sample app is free; available via the smart phone app stores (within the phone); for complete app, gift an itunes gift card or purchase and email the app.
  • Car accessories. Try an auto supply store, office supply store or the auto supply aisle at Target, for various note-taking accessories available for business people who spend hours on the road. Options include dashmounted notepads or Post-It holders, or pen and pad options for the console.

The real basics — paper, ink & other office supplies:

4) Printer paper. Most of the time, your writer will be submitting their work electronically, so there is not the constant need for printing and mailing stories that there used to be — but paper is still a mainstay. Rather than fancy journals, a ream of printer/copier paper is a nonglamorous but useful gift for writers on limited resources. (Read: your wife will not find it romantic, but your grad student nephew might appreciate it.)  Hint: this gift will be less appreciated by people who are able to print for free in an office. Consider combining with ink, below.  Cost & where to buy: $4-7 for a 500-count ream; try any office supply store, or even Target or your grocery store, or order HP Multipurpose paper online here.

5) Ink. For writers who have to pay for their own printing, those ink cartridges are a constant and invisible expense. Cost & where to buy: single cartridges are $10-20 for black, and $10-20 for each of the colors, in an ink printer (laser cartridges are more expensive, but less common in home printers). Know the proper model for their ink cartridges, or give an office supply, Target or Costco gift card.

6) Other practical office supplies:

  • Standard stapler.For a young writer starting out or a writer who used supplies from their office before working from home, a good stapler is a basic.  Hint in choosing between a cute stapler or a sturdy one: writers’ stories can be 20 pages or more, and a sturdy, office-grade stapler by Swingline or Bostitch is less likely to break or jam.  Cost & where to buy: $5-20; buy at office supply stores or general stores like Target. Office Depot or Staples tend to have one stapler “on special.” For shopping online, here a Swingline classic at Amazon.
  • Heavy duty or automatic stapler. If your writer is submitting print copies of manuscripts, theses or grant applications, only a heavy duty stapler can clamp those documents more than 25 pages. I loved my automatic heavy duty stapler (up to 80 sheets), but had to borrow the manual one from my office for longer documents. Hint — knowing your writer: this will be very appreciated by a writer printing long documents, and meaningless to a writer who works only via computer. Be sure to include a box of staples.  Cost & where to buy: non-electronic ranges from $25-60; electronic ranges from $50-80. Try office supply stores, and aim for weekly sales. Here is link to a good manual stapler by Swingline  currently at a great discount price via Amazon.
  • Staples. If buying a stapler, include a box of staples — and be sure they are the correct size for the stapler.  Cost: $2-4, depending on type; buy where staplers are sold.
  • Post It notes or flags. If your writer is working on revising a print copy of their work, various PI notes or colored flags are great for tracking revision comments — and just expensive enough to be an appreciated stocking stuffer.
  • 3-ring Binder. Best practices for most novel writers includes printing a draft for read-through during the editing process, which happens several times.  A thoughtful gift for a writer at this stage would be an editing kit: a ream of paper, black printer cartridge, post it notes, highlighters, a pen and a 3-ring binder. How do you know if your writer would like this? If they have just completed a draft or if they’ve just finished a first draft through NaNoWriMo (you would have heard the cursing/boasting of word counts throughout November).  Cost & where to buy: Recommend Avery Durable View Binders. White is best, unless you know how to fit a theme to their novel or style.  The clear cover pocket allows them to slip in a “title page” if they want. For average novel size, 2″ binder will hold the pages without being unwieldy.  $3-10; office supply stores or Target, or here is one on Amazon.
  • Portable memory stick. These are the thumb-sized, mini memory drives for moving documents from one computer to another.  Cost & where to buy: $5-15, available nearly everywhere, including office supply stores, Target and even grocery stores. For fun, they now range in silly designs, including animals, toy cars and more.

Our real “office” is usually our computer:

7) “You had me at 4 GB.” If your writer is your significant other or someone else you’re likely to lavish, then know the main gear most writers live for are a laptop, wireless internet access (at home: a router; away: portable hotspot), and a printer . As a girl who’s gone 3 months with a favorite laptop out of commission, let me tell you how easy it is to romance a writer with efficient computer processing. Cost & where to buy: my #1 suggestion for buying laptops or printers is Costco. They have great prices for laptop packages and they double the manufacturer’s warranty with Costco Concierge service, which is the best tech support I’ve used. For routers or wireless service, go with your cable/phone service provider.

8) Software or updates. The key software for writers is a wordprocessing software and a backup or security software. For PC users, most use Microsoft Office-based Word; for a new computer, that would be helpful. But here are some more novel suggestions:

  • Scrivener software. If your writer is working on book-length fiction or nonfiction, Scrivener is a software that helps them organize the complexity of multi-scene, multi-chapter works.  Originally designed for Macs, a PC version came available in 2011 — so that it has been a “new discovery” for many writers in the past year.  I was a fast convert.  Days off during the holidays are a great time to get to learn and play with all the software’s functions.  Cost & where to buy: $40; the software is purchased directly from the vendor at this link Literature and Latte; if you are unsure if your writer will like it, you can download a trial first.
  • Quicken. We don’t go into writing poetry because we’re awesome at accounting. But writers accrue lots of expenses that can be tax write-offs. The day a fiction writer earns their first publication check, they should be able to see how much they’d spent in submission fees or research to get that piece written and published.  Writers who are freelancing need help managing not only expenses, but client accounts and invoicing and self-employment taxes.  Especially if you have a recent graduate or job-changer getting started as a freelancer, this is a great way to say you believe in the business they are starting.  Cost & where to buy: Quicken Home & Business 2014 retails $115; can be purchased as a download from various online sites including the manufacturer’s site, or at a range of stores including Best Buy, Costco or Target. It is currently on discount for $62 at this Amazon link, or check for discounting at other sellers.
  • PhotoShop or PaintShop Pro. Truth: many writers are photographers, bloggers or researchers, and a good photo software comes in handy. I prefer Corel’s PaintShop. Cost & where to buy: PaintShop Pro is $79 (on sale now for $59) via Corel’s website; or current sale price $41  via Amazon.

9) Upgraded battery. No matter what laptop stats brag, those batteries don’t keep a charge long when the computer is processing large documents with demanding software. It takes an upgraded battery to get beyond an hour or 2. Hint: you must know your writer’s computer model and DO seek a brand-name battery vs. a cheap one. I was slipped a mickey once, and it does not latch properly and performed inconsistently. Cost & where to buy: $90-150; try local electronic stores and battery retailers; or accessories sold on the laptop manufacturer’s website. Be cautious of fly-by-night discount websites.

10) I love you enough to guard your manuscript. Have you ever heard the echoing scream of a writer whose computer crashed while containing the only existing copy of what was certain to be the greatest novel ever written? Then you understand. Give the gift of a reliable back up.

  • Carbonite or Norton 360. Carbonite is an online backup service, provided for an annual fee. If you’d rather give security in a wrappable box, try buying Norton 360 (includes all around security), which includes a minimal amount of memory in online backup, and the option to upgrade for a comparable annual fee. Cost & where to buy: Carbonite is $59/year; free trial or download of Carbonite at this link . Buy Norton 360 for $33-60 (depending on sale prices) at office supply stores, Costco, or discounted at Amazon here; option to buy additional backup space when setting up account online.
  • Portable back up drive. (Also called an external hard drive.) A professional grade external hard drive copies the computer’s contents to a separate drive. Cost & where to buy: drives are available at office supply stores like Staples, for as little as $20-120. Price range corresponds to storage capacity.

11) Surge protector. That scream you heard from the writer whose computer crashed could have been at our house, where 2 computers died within weeks of each other after summer power spikes. Plugging equipment into surge protectors guards against such damage. Cost & where to buy: minimal protection is available for $20-30; higher quality provides greater “clamping” of spikes. Try office supply stores, or the electronics section at Target, where average Joes demand them for protecting tvs and video equipment.

Writers are readers – and no writer can afford all the reading they want to buy!

12) Literary magazines. If your writer writes short stories or poetry, their main targets for publication are literary magazines. Your writer needs to read what is being published to know what is out there, and those magazines need subscribers to stay alive. It is a great place to spend your money. Cost & where to buy: single issues are $5-20; subscriptions are $10-60/year. Eeshh… but which publication? There are hundreds out there, so here are some hints:

  • Single issues.  Single issues of literary magazines can be bought on the shelves of many independent and chain booksellers, and gifted the same as you would a book.  While there are hundreds of litmags out there, it is unusual to see more than half a dozen on the shelf, which narrows your confusion. How to select: a safe bet are the glossier, famed mags like Granta, The Paris Review, The New Yorker or Tin House. Literary writers may appreciate more the lesser-known regional publications, which vary by store. Flip through a magazine, maybe skim a few pieces, or select a publication that has more of the kind of writing (fiction or poetry) that your writer writes. Cost & where to buy: $5-20 per issue. Buying options: 1) Try your local independent bookseller (find one using indiebound.org). If your local bookstore is Barnes & Noble, they carry several. 2) Or, see links in “subscription” below — single issues can be ordered directly from the magazines. or 3) Order through the website New Pages, which sells sample issues of many literary magazines.
  • Subscriptions. The most cost effective and convenient option for you (and best for the publication) is to order a subscription. This is a luxury most poetry or short story writers would appreciate all year long. Hints for picking a magazine: 1) Ask your writer what magazines they submit to or which ones they would want to be published in. Those are your prime targets.  2) If you can’t ask, then check bookshelves to see publications they’ve bought before. 3) Or just pick a good one. Cost & where to buy: most are $10-20/year, some are up to $60/year. Find the magazine online and order through the website. Here are a few suggestions:  internationally respected publications that anyone might appreciate: Granta, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House and The New Yorker.  As a fiction writer, a few of my favorites:  The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review and Fiction. Right now, most are offering holiday promotions or “gift one, get one” offers.

13) Subscript to Poets & Writers. Over the years, this one publication has impressed me more than any other with the concrete professional advice it offers writers, including everything from submission practices to success stories to calendars and lists of submission deadlines. Cost & where to buy: order through this link to the site for $14.95/year (or $24.95 for 2 years); or, purchase a single copy at a bricks and mortar bookstore, and order using a subscription card.

14) Never enough books. If you have a book that was your favorite read, it can be a meaningful gift. But sometimes what a writer wants most is permission to buy a title that has been on their reading list, so a book store gift card is like gold.

  • Gift cards. Where to buy: To get gift cards from independent booksellers, try indiebound.org (can purchase via the website or find an independent near you) or try Powells in Seattle. If no indie is available, Barnes & Noble is good for gift cards, as they have bricks & mortar stores near most shoppers.
  • Find the book they want.  Hints to shopping, sneaky as an elf: social media makes it very easy to know the books your writer wants to read. If they blog, see if they posted a recent “must reads” list. Otherwise, see if they have a “to read” list on Goodreads or wish list via an online bookseller (Amazon has one here). Want other book suggestions? Here is a list of recommended reading: My Reading List Winter 2013.

Writing away from home:

15) Cafe gift card. Some writers actually do most of their writing in a cafe, and “rent” for that chair is paid in purchased scones and lattes.  If this is true for your writer, a gift card to their cafe would show you get it.

 16) Workshops, conferences or retreats. At the same time we’re sweating gift lists and holiday cards, many writers are already wrestling with whether they can afford to enroll in writers’ workshops and conferences in throughout the spring. Associated Writing Programs and Grub Street both hold fabulous long weekends that draw writers from throughout the country. Several other regional conferences last long weekends or full weeks in January. Other writers may be looking ahead to workshops at Iowa, Bread Loaf, Tin House or Sewanee in the summer. You can check out my post reviewing several famous workshops in this post: 2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops, which includes links to their sites.  But know your writer: unless you have overheard them talking about one, you’d need to ask your writer if they have such workshops in their goals for next year. Many workshops involve an application process, so you cannot just sign them up. Cost & where to buy: workshop fees and tuition can range from $150-1,500, depending on the program. You could sponsor tuition, or offer to pay for one option in the program (such as a private meeting with an agent, or manuscript review with an editor). Other costs include travel to the conference or housing.

17) Support that MFA candidate. If your writer is considering applying for an MFA program, you could sponsor the application fees. Entry into graduate programs is competitive, and it’s not unusual for writers to apply to 6-10 separate programs to get accepted. Cost & where to buy: application fees range $60-100; the student pays the fee directly to the school with their application. Another alternative: if your writer is already accepted, and attends a “low residence” program, then they have twice yearly expenses to travel to the school. Have accumulated frequent flyer miles? Consider sponsoring their next ticket to write.

Writers are researchers – do you know their current project?

18) Support their research. When I was writing Breathing Water, I learned Spanish, listened to Cuban music, cooked Cuban food and bought every coffee table book of Cuban photography I could find. I’ve done the same with Ireland and India. Here are ways you can support your writer’s current work-in-process, if it involves research:

  • Cookbooks, travel guides or music. For researching a foreign culture, books rich in photography of the architecture and common people are great. Cookbooks are great for this, and offer the added bonus of cooking the meals that provide the smells of a culture.  Illustrated travel guides or even maps are also useful.  Cost & where to buy: Look in travel, cooking, culture or art sections, as well as discounted sections, where books are sometimes available for $5-7.
  • Rosetta Stone, tapes or language classes. Are characters traveling through France? Is one character a soldier attempting the rudiments of Farsi? Do they have relatives from South America? Often, writers are trying to quickly learn the rudiments of a new language to write dialogue, or even just to describe the sounds of a location. Cost & where to buy:  English conversion dictionaries are available in most bookstores ($7-20). In the same section, book & CD sets are available beginning at $40.  Rosetta Stone is available for $200 through its own site, or via Barnes & Noble or Amazon. A foreign language course at a community college ranges $90-200, plus book.
  • Bang! Bang! Get your writer to ‘fess up: are they writing a thriller? The sweetest granny goes gritty when researching for the perfect murder weapon. Try Gun: A Visual History or The Illustrated Guide to Rifles. Or give real action by giving a day out at a shooting range.
  • Travel for research. How much do you love that writer? I’m sure there are statistics out there somewhere to show just how many writers have a fantasy destination they would nearly die to travel to, in order to get perfect research for their work-in-progress. That might sound over-the-top — but selecting that destination might be a thoughtful gift if you’d planned traveling this year anyway or, say, had a proposal to plan.

If only you could wrap up writing hours – give the gift of time:

19) Actual time.  Especially if writer has a separate job or children or family to care for, time is the greatest gift every writer needs to get work done. Surprisingly, there are ways to accomplish this:

  • House cleaning. The best baby shower gift I ever got was a gift certificate to a local maid service. Key is to use a service that is licensed and insured (or loan your own maid, if you use one). You can prepay the service, bill it, or see if they offer gift certificates. Cost & where to buy: assume $80-140 for a single visit, although a gift certificate for any amount could be an option. Merry Maids is a national service. Check local listings for one in your area, or get a word of mouth referral.
  • Child care. Personally, I’d rather the housekeeper — but a babysitter would be a tremendous gift to many writers. Cost & where to buy: DIY: one option is to babysit, yourself. Otherwise, pay the writer’s own sitter, or sponsor a day, weekend or week of camp ($20-50/day, or $50-300/week per child).

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What do you think is the perfect gift for a writer — or reader?  Let me know what you think in the Comments below.  I love to connect with my readers!

Coming next:

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Filed under Reading, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Writers’ Day Jobs 01: Balancing the Time, Money & Credit Trifecta

Summer hours spent revising Wake. c. Elissa Field

In the years I’ve been participating in social media with other writers — beginning on early boards at Poets & Writers Speakeasy – one of the most common discussions to arise among writers was over “day jobs.” Like superheroes not yet fully embraced by Gotham, so many writers work on their fiction but pay bills with another job.

Today’s post is part 1 of a series sharing my experience with day jobs.

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Day Job Balance: Money vs. Time

The repeated refrain in evaluating the perfect day job is the need to earn a living against a writer’s hunger to preserve time and creative energy for writing.

Camp counselors, bartenders, odd jobs, temps. Writers are mercenary in their willingness to fill a resume with a string of odd jobs that load the refrigerator while buying time. Writers’ parents may roll eyes over what seems a stubborn inability to assemble a genuine career — while the writer squirrels away hidden hours that mean not thousands in income but, if well-played, thousands of words toward a polished manuscript.

Of course some day jobs include professional titles or even high paying roles, but often writers are willing to take less income in order to avoid overtime hours or retain more braincells undrained at the end of the day.

The Trifecta: Time, Money & Street Cred

In a perfect world, a writer’s day job produces the trifecta: money to pay the bills, time and energy to write, and street cred.

Street cred, in this case, would be jobs that earn a writer credit for experience in the writing or publishing world. It could be a legitimizing title, it could be professional interaction within the publishing world. Booksellers, business writers, journalists, freelance PR or social media consultants, agents, teachers.

In our less perfect world, writers often trade time or money to gain recognition: write for free or trade lower pay to chock up a byline or tear sheet. I say this while spending hours blogging income-free, and having published my short stories without payment.

What is less obvious are those who went into becoming editors or agents out of their own writing aspirations, only to achieve the money and professional accomplishment but surrender all free time and creative energy so their own writing never occurs.

The Goal: Balance

It might seem that all writers would seek the trifecta. Yet, really, the key is for each writer to balance money, time and credit as fit the writer’s current goals. For example, there are times when a writer couldn’t care less about street credit, because all that matters is time to get that novel draft written. At the same time, having all the time to write can be meaningless to a writer who is unemployed and preoccupied with how to feed their kids. And street credit can be shiny but meaningless if the industry continues pushing writers to be unpaid for their work, or if the attention becomes a distraction that keeps an accomplished writer from writing new work.

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Evaluating Your Day Job

Today’s post is motivated, in part, by what all writers need to do from time to time: I’m evaluating my current day job.  There are times — no matter where we are in our career — when things are out of balance, and I’ve been feeling a significant imbalance over here for the past couple months. At the moment, my job is earning me street cred, but not sufficient income to minimize distractions, and with what feels like suffocating demands on my time.

In evaluating what change is needed, I’ll ask myself these questions:

  • Is it temporary? As a part-time teacher, overwhelming demands on my time from grading should be temporary — limited to the school seasons. The key is for me to evaluate if it is balanced by coming free time, and if that time can be used adequately to accomplish my writing goals. So far, each time I reach a vacation break I find myself writing like crazy, addressing those goals that have been on hold.  If not, I need to adjust — and adjustment, in most cases, comes through discipline.
  • Am I using my free time well? This is where discipline comes in. My litmus test on how well I am using my free time is reminder that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while working full time as a single mother to two young boys. She wrote before they woke in the morning and after they went to bed at night. Um-hmph. My arms cross in accusation over some unused hours I’ve let slip. The key is to know your goals, seek out your writing hours and get your butt in the seat, writing.
  • Are there alternatives? Last Sunday, I spent 8-9 hours cleaning house. It would take me 4 hours to earn the money to pay someone to do that. Is that an alternative that would remove a distraction? I could leave my current job and get a different job, possibly doubling my income, but would work longer hours and not have summers free. Which option would be more liberating? Are there alternatives to bring in income with less demand on time? In some cases, there are no alternatives. If that is true, go back to the two points above to find your writing time.
  • Are my priorities aligned with my current writing goals? Right now, I have two novels drafted that need substantial hours for editing — but either one would then be ready to query an agent. For this reason, it works that I kept a part-time writing position this year, as it buys me holidays off and the potential for writing mornings. In another year, if I were working on short stories or just blogging, it might make more sense for me to give up time to increase income. It’s also been a year where I wanted more writing connections, so it has made sense for me to take more time with social media and workshops than in other years where I just wanted time on my own to write. It’s important to respect your own current projects and goals when applying any writing advice. What is great for one writer may not be for you — at least, not at this moment.

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Coming Next: 

How About You?

What experience can you share about day jobs that worked well for your writing, or those that didn’t? Can anyone share experience working at a publishing house or agent, to say if this helped advance your writing or took over your time? Or have you held a profession completely outside of writing that made it easier to write? It would be great to hear readers’ insights.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Life, Writing Mother