On Being Wrong or Admit it, You Fucked Up by Josh Smith

Remember that time you wrote a perfect manuscript, proofread it, fixed a couple minor grammatical errors, then fired it off to your favorite publishing house and woke up a month later to find it on the Best Seller’s list? Yeah, me either.

Let’s be honest, if writing was such a magically painless act, there would be no editors and you wouldn’t be here right now. Writers of all levels are well aware that no first draft materializes fully-formed and ready for mass consumption, but what is truly difficult is not only recognizing areas in which you have failed to achieve what you envisioned, but accepting that failure. Not accepting it in the “well, this sucks, but I need it for the mechanics of this story to work, so I guess it stays” sense, but accepting that you have failed in order to understand why you failed, which in turn will lead you to the rectification of said failure.

While a great many issues can be dealt with during regular revisions, it is common to be so focused on a specific idea or approach that you overlook faults that negatively impact other areas of the work. Given the nature of these more insidious flaws, they usually require an external perspective, such as a beta reader, editor, or critique group to bring them to light. However, having someone else question your failings within these foundational elements can be challenging when you’ve already built an entire story or novel atop them. As I recommended in a previous post, take time to consider these suggestions before dismissing them outright. You aren’t beholden to the specific requests of any editor or reader, but their acknowledgement of the problem will help you internalize that it exists, and your wild writer brain will begin to redraw the map that will lead you to the optimal solution.

In high-concept pieces, each poor decision can construct a step in a Rube Goldberg machine triggered to derail your story. The first tripwire is the most important to root out, and once you see it, its entire architecture will become clear. Yes, you will have your work cut out for you. Yes, you may want to call for backup to help determine the success of your restorative efforts, but if you want to tell your story on your terms, I suspect you want to do it as effectively as possible. There is a delicate balance in non-traditional works that are more driven by tonal or visceral choices than plot, so be on the lookout for sections where style devours story.

Not all pieces require such in-depth scavenging, but that does not necessarily make them any easier to edit. All the best stories take us to previously unimaginable places and make us feel emotions we would never fathom otherwise, but these powerful elements can’t just be loaded up into the ol’ canon and blasted at our sensory receptors to achieve the desired effect. An intense or climactic scene might exist precisely as you envisioned, but if it doesn’t translate for your readers, it’s a wasted effort. Oftentimes, it isn’t even the writing of the scene itself, but the storytelling around it that leaves people grasping at your intent. Scenes featuring unrealistic or traumatic events are almost always divisive in early drafts, because they require the reader to conjure considerable imagination or empathy, and it is possible that you have not properly set the stage for such an undertaking. It can be particularly difficult to endure these criticisms if you are fictionalizing a lived experience, or are writing non-fiction, but no one said this would be easy. Again, recognizing that a problem exists, accepting that your approach is off, and working your way through will guide you to a more fulfilling story for you and your readers.

There is something to be said for a writer who will defend their vision to the death, but the mark of a true professional is identifying something that isn’t working, being open to changes, and dedicating themselves to improving the reading experience.

The Big Book Proposal Part One by Catherine Foster

Your book is written and edited, but what is the next step to publication? How can you get the attention of a publisher? Should you contact an agent? How do writers make the transition to respected published authors?

There’s no single correct answer to these questions. Writers must decide for themselves if they would like to pursue self publishing or attempt their luck with online routes, independent presses, literary magazines and small scholarly publishing houses. For the purposes of this article, we’ll explore the options related to the brass ring that hangs above them all: the traditional publishing industry. These are some steps you can take to get noticed by the titans of the old school.

You’ll typically need a literary agent first, and agents can be as difficult to land as the publishers themselves. The agent is the gatekeeper to the publishing process in that they are the first person to read your manuscript and they have the power to decide if it is worth fighting for. They have established relationships with presses, and they know the appropriate places to submit. They have a keen sense of the most likely market for your book, and they manage everything from the size of the print run to percentages you earn. These finer points of negotiations on your behalf can come at a hefty cost, but most “respectable” publishers will not consider anything that is not submitted through a literary agent. Landing an agent—and paying their fees—is the price of admission to the big presses.

What, then, is the etiquette for securing an agent? The first thing you need to do is construct a book proposal. This can be as daunting a project as writing the book itself. Some seasoned authors write the proposal before they pen the book itself. Why would they do that? The proposal is a business plan, and it should be viewed as one. Many authors make the mistake of confusing the book proposal with a book discussion; it’s natural to assume that an agent or a publisher may want to know the content of the book they are planning to represent. This, however, would be a grave error on the part of the author. To know what is essential information to include in a successful book proposal, one must first understand the viewpoint of the agent who will be reading one. The agent is not as interested in the content of the book. They are looking for a book that will sell. They understand the need of the market, and it is up to you, the author, to supply information to them about how your book will fit that market. Books are now, more than ever, simply a profitable venture. It isn’t about an interesting story or an intriguing plot. It isn’t even about the quality of your writing. That might be hard to accept at first, but it is most essential that you are able to identify a key segment of the market and explain how 1) they are interested in your topic  and 2) they will buy from you. This is called evidence of need, and it is crucial for the success of your book. If you are able to present a reasonable explanation of this to an agent, they will almost certainly take you on as a client. It’s that simple.

Your book proposal should highlight this evidence of need and go on to demonstrate how it fulfills this need for the reader or for society. This will make it very easy for the agent to understand why your book is a wise investment. It may go against your principles to reduce your writing, an artistic endeavor, as something as basic as money. Writing is, indeed, a craft. It is all about art and creativity. The selling, promotion and publishing of that craft, however, is not. If you want to take the next step and go on to the publishing process, you need to view this step of writing as a business. The book proposal is set up with that aim.

The structure of the proposal can take many forms; they do not need to be followed rigidly. The purpose is to present a plan to the agent or publisher that shows that you are asking them to invest in your product (your manuscript) and explaining why they are likely to receive a favorable return on that initial investment. You may consider it akin to applying for a loan at a bank; in that case, you are asking an institution to grant you a certain amount of money and you explain why you will return it, with interest, over time. In this case, you are asking publishing houses to invest capital into the manufacture and marketing of your manuscript and you are telling them why they are going to see their investment returned. The book proposal is more important than the actual book itself, in many cases, and you must be prepared to understand business (to some degree) at this stage of the process.

Templates for book proposals vary. They can be found online, but what matters is that you understand what you are trying to accomplish. You can add or edit sections as they apply to you and your particular manuscript. The most important thing is to always keep in mind the idea that you are not explaining the content of your book, but rather always trying to provide an evidence of need. This should be first and foremost in your mind throughout the process.

A sample book proposal template may run as follows (although it is important to remember that you may diverge or tweak this as it applies to your particular situation):

Information

Proposed Title

Author

Once Sentence Description

Category Audience

Readers Say

Purpose and Need

Unique Angles

Current Interest

Competing Books

Proposed Back Cover Copy

Marketing and Promotion

Potential Endorsers

Other Details

About the Author

Proposed Outline

Table of Contents

List of Chapters

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Sample Chapters

            This is most certainly a comprehensive list covering every type of book; not every genre will require every category listed. For instance, a book of short stories or essays may not be written in a chapter format and won’t include many of those headers. This is not meant to fit your book into a mold or cause you second-guess what you have written; it is merely a guide on what how to most thoroughly package and present your manuscript to the people who have the power to accept it.

For those of you who were looking for a template, you can get started! If you need a little more help, I’ll begin to break down those headers in my next post. I will go section by section and give a thorough explanation of each category, what it is, if and when it is necessary, an example of what it looks like when it is written out and where to include it in your book proposal. If you ever have any specific questions about your own writing, your own submissions or editing in general, please address them to me at catherine@theletterworks.com or any of the other editors or writers here, and we’d be happy to help. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next time for part two!

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advice From My Publisher: Being a Better Writer by Amanda Wayne

Being a writer is easy. You just sit down and write. Being a good writer is much harder. For a time, I worked at The Indiana Review, and I was always eavesdropping on the editors, trying to find that one little nugget of truth that made a “yes” piece. Was it something about the language? The characters? The plot? What was missing from my work that would take it from mediocre to good? So, I asked one of the editors, Tessa Yang, what she sought. She replied, “Freshness and risk will capture my attention. I’m looking for something that dares in the first few pages. It needs to have difficult and new language, character, or concept. At the same time, what keeps me reading to the end—and what ultimately convinces me to vote for a piece—is earnestness and vulnerability. I’ve become less and less interested in emotional withholding. If you’re brave enough to reach for honesty and feeling, no matter concerns about sentimentality or mawkishness, I’ll want to take the plunge with you.”

Freshness? Risk? I tried to square this idea with “write what you know.” It’s that adage that every author knows. What I knew was everyone else’s work. I had decades of reading other people’s words. Everything I wrote read like my favorite authors. When I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wrote a short story about a man trying to find his son in a post-apocalyptic world. It wasn’t half bad, but there was nothing new in it. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote macabre pieces about the baser side of mankind. They were mediocre at best. My poems had bits of Frost and Dickinson, slapped together with a touch of Whitman and a dash of Poe. It was only later that I found a place where my work was my own. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice that was only mine. Sure, it echoes with reverberations of the millions of words I have read. It stands on the shoulders of the authors whose work I relished. That doesn’t make it less mine.  Writing what you know doesn’t have to be boring. It just starts emotionally, physically, or aesthetically in a place you are familiar.

The other half of the advice concerned emotional vulnerability. That process of letting your characters show your own emotion. This is even harder. Modern society doesn’t have much place for emotional vulnerability. We love it in our romantic comedies. We love that moment when the plucky but underappreciated woman convinces the emotionally absent male lead to open his heart to a chance at love. We like to see a hint of it in politicians because it makes them seem like real people. We wait for that moment when they swear, or slip up, or stumble. In everyday life, though, no one wants to see the innermost emotions of your local barista, the man walking his dog, or the neighbor you barely know. However, it is important to your character because without seeing their emotional vulnerability, the reader cannot grasp why they behave the way they do. A story needs this in order to engage the reader. Each piece of emotion lays bare a piece of the author’s soul. Not every character is like me or does what I would do, but each character is a part of me. To send those little pieces out into the world, to allow someone else to see them, is to put those vulnerable Horcruxes of my soul in danger of discovery and critique.  It was my own vulnerability that is needed, my own willingness to be open and available.

In short, what I learned was that the easiest way to get an answer is to ask the question. And being a better writer is hard. It takes writing more, reading more, and editing more. It requires that I be willing to part with pieces of my soul and be vulnerable. It is this last piece that I have struggled to overcome. I have the language, the vocabulary, even the imagination. Letting a stranger, let alone a multitude of them, into the private recesses of your being is what a writer does. Anything short of that isn’t worth my time or my reader’s time. Good writing begins with emotion and is propelled by prose and plot. Whether we like or dislike a character is immaterial; we must believe in their humanity in order to care what happens to them. A writer puts a piece of her own humanity into her characters, breathing life in where before there only existed form. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, not a destination. At no point does the learning and editing stop. I can try every day to improve my craft and so, too, can you. It requires taking risks and creating emotional vulnerability. Both of those are tasks which even seasoned and published authors struggle to accomplish. By writing every day and actively seeking to better ourselves as artists, we become better each day.

Writing Past The Wall: A Guide to Beating Writer’s Block by Melissa Heiselt

It has begun. You are neck-deep into NaNoWriMo, or a writing project with a looming deadline, or your own creative baby. And it has come to an abrupt halt. Suddenly the ideas just won’t come. You aren’t sure what comes next or why you are even doing this anymore. Every. Word. Is. Wrong. Welcome to The Wall. Let’s discuss how to navigate around that sucker.

Embrace the Mess

I agree 100% with Malcolm Gladwell’s assessment that creative people have messy brains. It’s not just a matter of disorganization; many of us are actually painfully well organized. It’s just that we recognize that every experience can be useful, so we don’t throw anything out. Our minds are overly full, spilling over the boundaries of categorization. The problems arise when we try to pre-edit before that glorious mess comes out on paper. Embrace that mess. Learn the value of a good edit. Which comes later. Know that if it winds up even messier than you had planned, you can always hire a good editor to help you sort it out. Your job at the creative stage is just to see what might happen. What could happen. Scott Barry Kauffman, author of The Psychology of Creative Writing, claims the secret past the notorious writer’s block is in allowing for error, and realizing how non-linear writing can be.

Write Something Else

Prolific writer Graham Greene found that keeping a dream journal was his solution. It allowed him to be completely free of all compulsion to judge the work he was writing. It just was. He was merely the recorder. And everything could happen. Not much of a lucid dreamer? Try another writing exercise to get you going. Imitate another author’s work. Re-write your day the way you wish it had happened. Embrace your inner poet. Take another character’s point of view. Write their backstory, or the backstory of a totally minor side character, and have fun with it. It’s not going into the final product, so don’t worry about it being “right.” My favorite part of this strategy is that I can convince myself I am working on the project. Because it all matters. Even if those pages don’t wind up in the final piece, you as author knowing these details will enable them to emerge in meaningful ways throughout the text. Side trails do not make you less productive. They are an important part of the creative process!

Switch Gears

A routine helps ensure you are making room in your life for creativity and progress in your work. But it can also start to make you dread that 5:00 hour, or whenever you begin writing. Switch it up. Wake up early. Take your work outside. Read out loud. Write with pencil and paper for a bit. Beyond that, get up and MOVE. Literally get a fresh perspective. A Stanford study showed an 81 percent increase in divergent thinking in participants who went for walks. Science doesn’t lie, friends. I’ve also found it helps to go make something totally unrelated. Pottery. Cookies. Paper crafts. Bookshelves. Giving your brain a much-needed break to creatively solve other problems while allowing the story to marinate in your subconscious can create delicious results.

Allow for Distractions

Is there another project taking up brain-space just waiting for you? Tackle it. Do the laundry. Answer emails. Get some holiday shopping done. Get it out of the way so you can relax into the more creative work on your docket. Clear out those distractions. Setting a timer is a great tool for free-writing, but it’s also great for giving room to those nagging projects begging to be an interruption. Give yourself 20 minutes to tidy up the office, or make a phone call. Accomplishing something so visible and refreshingly complete feels fantastic when you’re in the middle of a beast.

Self Care

NaNoWriMo, huh? So… how much sleep have you been getting? Despite the urgency of the task, your brain is dependent on the rest of your body getting everything it needs for survival to function at its best. Make sure you are getting a reasonable amount of sleep. Take a nap, if you need it. Set a goal to drink at least 8 cups of water a day. Get some exercise. Running is known to release endorphins and help with memory and cognition. Run on a nature trail if you really want to break out of writer’s block jail. That combo of endorphins and stress relief found in the great out of doors is like dynamite to those walls hemming in your creativity. One 2012 study found that people who spend significant time in the wild increase their ability to solve creative puzzles by 47%. Finally, listen to your grandmother. Choose healthy foods. When you eat well, you feel well.

Hitting that wall can be a daunting experience, but with the right mindset, it can actually lead you down paths you would have otherwise left unexplored. Embrace the mess. Write, walk, and work your way around it. Take care of yourself, and carry on. You’ve got this.

 

Bibliography:

http://bigthink.com/videos/creative-types-embrace-chaos

http://www.businessinsider.com/study-walks-make-you-more-creative-2014-5

https://www.runnersworld.com/health/5-ways-running-boosts-brain-power

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520840/

30 Days in the Trenches: Staying Motivated During NaNoWriMo by Josh Smith

Now that we’re a few days into NaNoWriMo, you may be starting to question whether or not you can actually pull this off. You may not have even started yet if you plan on word-sprinting through the weekends, but that fear might already linger. Make no mistake, this is a massive undertaking, but it is far from impossible. The first step is preparation. At this point, you should have a game plan, but if you still need some pointers, Melissa has you covered right here: Making the Most of NaNoWriMo.

Once you have yourself sequestered in your sacred writer’s cave with a head full of characters and a clear direction you’ll lead them in, nothing can stop you, right? Well … you’re going to experience some fatigue. It may not be today, tomorrow, or even next week, but your brain is going through the wringer this month and you need to stay limber if you’re going to reach the finish line. Here are some insights from previous NaNo participants to keep the words flowing!

Set Goals, stay on schedule
The 50,000 word finish line can easily be broken down into manageable chunks, such as 2,000 per day or 12,500 per weekend. These regular goals can be tailored to your schedule, and when you keep track of your word counts at https://nanowrimo.org, you will earn badges that act not only as trail markers but confidence boosters as well! There will likely be times that you fall behind, but as long as you don’t stray too far from your target, you’ll be able to catch up without exhausting yourself.

Remember why you’re participating
Those word count gaps can strike terror into the heart of even the most seasoned NaNo vet, so when that fear creeps into your periphery, when your text isn’t living up to your expectations, or if you’re just flat out tired and unable to focus, remember why you signed on in the first place. Whether you feel like this is an important step in growing as a writer, or you’ve always wanted to complete a novel, or maybe you just want to prove to yourself that you can do it. As long as you honestly care about your motivation, it will be an effective fuel!

Don’t let you physical or mental health slip
There’s a good chance you’ll notice a boost in your caffeine intake and a decrease in your physical activity and non-workplace human interactions. The quality of your meals might deteriorate as you hijack every possible minute to reach your goals. These situations may be unavoidable for most, but try to strike a balance. Your health is very important to both creativity and productivity, so it’s worth sacrificing a little time to go outside and enjoy the brisk autumn air, play a game with friends or family, or get a little exercise. Sometimes these short breaks can even clear your mind of clutter and help you work through troublesome patches in the novel. However, hunkering down over the leftover Halloween candy and seeing how much sugar you can pack into your body in one sitting is not an ideal break. You’re going to need snacks, and while a little candy here and there can be a nice treat, you should stock up on trail mix, fruits, or even energy bars. I’m not saying you need to go to Whole Foods and go wild on chia seeds and dried kale (unless that’s what you like), but be mindful of your snacking and try to take it easy on the caffeine. If you need a break from coffee, try brewed cocoa or new flavors of tea and always have water nearby!

Remember: 50,000 raw words
Don’t stop to edit yourself or second guess a decision. If you start questioning what’s hitting the page, make a note and write through it. There will be plenty of time to edit later. When your writing begins to feel sluggish, go wild! Use these moments as opportunities to explore situations you wouldn’t typically consider. Use your instincts and let the characters guide you. If you need to catapult someone into the sun or reveal that someone’s been an agent of the antagonist the whole time to get the pace of the story back on track, so be it. You have plenty of time to edit once NaNo ends, so don’t let any second-guessing throw you off track. You are a warrior, this is your battle, so get in there and slay that word count!

Special thanks to NaNo vets Nancy Moran, Judy Hopkins, and our own Melissa Heiselt for all the excellent info that went into this post. Be sure to check out next week’s NaNo blog as Melissa squares off with THE WALL!

National “Not Writing a Novel” Month by Catherine Foster

National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo—kicks off on November first. The now-traditional exercise involves writing 50,000 words in thirty days. NaNoWriMo began in San Franscisco in July with a group of twenty-one people, and the movement has snowballed since then. Nearly half a million would-be novelists participated officially in 2013, and impressive statistics can be quoted involving municipal liaisons, keynote speakers on the topic, libraries that host write-ins and so on and so forth. NaNoWriMo has become such a part of writing culture that it it sometimes feels impossible not to participate. If you are a writer, you may experience a lot of pressure to join in the writing fun and frenzy.

But before you grab a stack of snacks to fortify you and hunker down to write for the next thirty days straight, perhaps you should take a step back from the crowd and consider if you want to take part. There are a lot of blogs that promote the benefits of NaNoWriMo, and I’m not here to knock any of those points, but there are a margin of writers that may not benefit from the style of gonzo writing. This is a list for you to think about this November while you decide if NaNoWriMo is for you:

 

Quality vs. Quantity: Quantity is important for novelists. Or is it? The benchmark for NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words, but what does that really mean in publishing terms? The following table represents the guidelines set by the Science Fiction Writers of America when they consider nominees for the Nebula awards:

  • Short fiction: under 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

However, Lori Perkins, of the L. Perkins Agency in New York, claims that the charts for what they see at their agency and are likely to publish look more like the following:

  • Short fiction: 1,500 to 30,000 words
  • Novella: 30,000-50,000 words
  • Novel from a first-time writer: 80,000-100,000 words
  • Novel from an established writer: 55,000-300,000 words

There are more charts out there, and while they all concur that novels are longer than short stories and novellas, no one can seem to agree on what constitutes a proper word count for a decent novel. The range is anywhere from 20,001 words to … well, infinity. Take the winner of 2011’s Man Booker prize, for instance. The Sense of an Ending            by Julian Barnes contained no more than 43,869 words, including page numbers, titles and other incidentals. If this “short novel” can be considered, indeed, enough of a novel to win one of the most illustrious prizes in literature, than we must understand that quantity is very much in question when we try to define what makes a novel.

This brings us to the topic of quality. If we need not settle for 50,000 words—or even quite 43,870—to establish a novel, then there is time enough to devote to quality. The quality of the writing is something that usually suffers when people are trying to compose so many words in a day or in a week. This is understandable if the point isn’t quality. The aim of NaNoWriMo is to get one inspired and to get most of the novel completed. It is to spark a fire and to get excited. What if, however, you were motivated to write during the other eleven months of the year? If you want to be a successful writer, daily writing habits are more important to cultivate than a rush of stimulation all at once. One hundred good words every single day of the year is far superior to fifty thousand words that are mostly gibberish and will sit, untouched, in a junk folder somewhere until next year when you will do it all over again. One hundred words a day? What good is that? you might scoff.  It’s great! The commitment to write and the time you set aside to do just that is sacrosanct, even if it is only fifteen minutes a day. If you can only commit a small bit at first, that’s all right. The point is that you do it. Those words will build and you will have something. A wild fever dream of words in November is entertaining, but the product of that fun will not amount to much.

Novels vs. Short Stories and Poems November can be a lot of amusement for people who love to get in the spirit of community writing. NaNoWriMo brings together a group of people who are, by trade, largely alone in their craft. Many writers don’t seek out solitude because they dislike others, but it happens that they fall into it naturally. The wonder of NaNoWriMo is that it breaks down these barriers and allows writers to join together. People who are normally alone can be part of a community and work towards a goal together.

What if you are one of the minority within a minority group, however? What if you are one of the few who isn’t storyboarding? What if you don’t live to plot out your characters’ story arcs or work out what’s going to happen at the end of your trilogy? When your writing group falls silent with the collective hush of NaNoWriMo fever, what can you do?

There are a lot of short story writers and poets out there, and for you, NaNoWriMo may feel like the longest month of the year. It can feel as if you aren’t “real” authors because you aren’t participating in a novel writing challenge. Don’t fret; during November, keep to your own writing schedule and don’t let talk of writing marathons derail your own progress. If you are a poet, remember that April is your time to shine with APAD– A Poem A Day! If you are a short story writer or writer of a shorter form of fiction, you can also participate in your own adapted challenge amongst your novelist brethren by writing a micro-fiction a day or by keeping up with the same word count on multiple stories. You can also stay out of the challenge entirely and know that writing isn’t about how much or how fast you go; it’s about listening to you own voice and dictating your own pace. Keep in mind that the Nobel prize in Literature was won in 2013 by a short story writer, and some of the most incredible and humbling works we have to read were composed by poets. These were most certainly not written in haste; these were well crafted after much thought. There is a place for NaNoWriMo, but if it isn’t for you, that’s okay, too. It just may mean that they will be reading your works three hundred years in the future! Stay strong and get through this November with your passion to write intact. The important thing to remember is not what you wrote on November thirthieth but what you write on December first.

Stop Aspiring to be an Author by Amanda Wayne

Are you an aspiring author? It’s time to stop aspiring and start writing! We live in a busy world. There are only so many hours in the day, and life demands we fill those hours with such tedium as food, sleep, and social interaction. All of those obligations can really take a toll on the aspirations of an author. There are a lucky few people who have the resources to simply sit at a laptop for hours a day and just write with no distractions, no obligations, and no excuses. For the rest of us, there is laundry to fold, hours to work, children to raise, and any number of other things that demand our immediate attention. Fitting a thousand words a day into that can be quite difficult. As with any dream or resolution, achieving success is a matter of planning and execution.

In order to successfully write, you must have the discipline to schedule your keyboard time in around the rest of life. Then, of course, you have to follow through with that schedule. Having carved out those minutes or hours, you must protect them and treat them as a precious, necessary item. Perhaps you write best in the morning. Set your alarm for an hour earlier, pour yourself a large cup of coffee and write. If you thrive in the late hours of the night, put your house to rest and settle in for a few hours of uninterrupted writing time. If neither of those are an option, perhaps you could write during a morning carpool, on the bus, or on a lunch break. You could schedule a block of time every Saturday morning, Thursday during soccer practice, or Sunday after The Walking Dead. It bears repeating that you must protect that time. Don’t short yourself the time you need to be successful. If this is important to you, you must make it happen.

A support system is crucial for writing. There is a reason so many first novels are dedicated to children and spouses. Let your family know that you need their support and their tough love. It can be a powerful motivator to have a spouse who is willing to tell you that you should be writing instead of surfing social media for cute cats or funny videos. Have your children ask how many pages you wrote today and give them a truthful answer. Their excitement or disappointment can be critical. Let your friends into your literary world. Involve them as Alpha readers or bounce story ideas off of them. Not only will their advice be helpful, but it can also give you something new to discuss over coffee or wine.    A plot twist or character arc can really add some life into otherwise dull and rote conversations. Perhaps pick a friend’s brain about how they would handle the issues that your characters face. Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely places.

When writer’s block strikes and you simply cannot get yourself to express even a single sentence, it is time for something new. Change which story you are working on. Find a quick prompt to get the words flowing. Take your laptop to a coffee shop and journal about the patrons there. Try jotting phrases free hand instead of on your computer. Compose a poem about falling leaves or the scent of coffee. Construct a dating site profile for your main character. Blog about what you ate for dinner last night. The important part isn’t the words, it is the communication of ideas into something concrete. The act of writing gets your brain into the mindset of writing. Even if you keep nothing from these efforts, you still put pen to paper, and that is a far better use of your time than “liking” pictures of your best friend’s cat.

In the end, it is unlikely that anyone in the world cares about your dreams more than you do. If you can’t find the time or discipline to write, you will never be a writer. Your stories will suffocate in the dark of your mind. They will stay locked inside of that place in you where fictional characters live before they are born of ink and word.  Free them from the confines of “could have been”.  Make time to write. Make yourself accountable.  Be a writer. Not an aspiring writer.

 

They Said WHAT about My Piece?! Navigating the Critical World by Josh Smith

Criticism is inescapable in the Internet age. In addition to the myriad news outlets, magazines, blogs, and personal pages that feature reviews, the distance and anonymity afforded by the web has turned criticizing one another on social media into some kind of national pastime. This, combined with so many websites requesting reviews and ratings for everything we purchase, see, eat, and experience, “everyone’s a critic” has transitioned from an old adage to an element of modern life.

While this “review everything” landscape has mostly been curated as a customer service tool, people often get caught up in the rush of trashing something publicly, which is usually less a result of something actually being bad and more related to a particular perception, bias, or trend. Full disclosure: I dabbled in album reviews that were predominantly snarky and negative from the outset, but I eventually realized that cracking jokes at the expense of someone’s creations was a lazy approach that did nothing for an art form that I truly love. It turns out that it’s so much more rewarding to sit down with something, whether it’s initially appealing or not, and give it a chance to affect you on the artist’s terms. Unfortunately, there’s still an audience for those scathing “cheap thrill” reviews, and anything we create that winds up in a public space is a potential target for some hack with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a difficult task, but it’s important not to let this permeating negativity crush you, especially when it comes to your creative endeavors. That’s not to say that all unfavorable criticism of your work will be inherently wrong, but identifying the difference between trolling and actual critique will save you a lot of sleepless nights.

No matter the source, intent, or validity, nearly all criticism is accompanied by the sting of failure. That sting never disappears completely, but you can learn to temper it. It becomes a challenge in this age of constant commenting, and there is a real threat that you can become so callous that you are unable to find merit in insightful critiques when they do arrive. The opposite can also occur—when your work is so close to you, you may feel personally attacked by every bit of judgment coming your way, making it next to impossible to get anything positive out of even the most gentle and constructive criticism. Both of these responses develop over time if left unchecked, so be mindful of your emotional response to critiques, whether they come from friends, family, writing groups, or randos on Twitter.

For many writers, the worst form of criticism is also the most common: indifference. Indifference in a review can be devastating, but when your work doesn’t even reach a platform upon which it can be judged, you start asking dreaded questions like, “should I even be doing this?” and “what if no one ever cares?” These crossroads are the ones that define you, and when you approach them, you must do so with complete honesty. If you can see a way onward without requisite praise or even much acknowledgement, hang in there, put in the work and pave your own roads. If critical reception, fame, and wealth are your primary writing goals, maybe it’s time to take some time off and consider a career path with a more realistic pathway to grand success. If you can’t help but work through the debilitating indifference that most writers experience early on, then you will develop the fortitude to handle any criticism that comes your way, and the poise to  allow it to improve your work.

One of the most important lessons in receiving criticism is giving it time to sink in. Quick reactions to tough observations can increase anxiety, causing you to overlook any helpful elements populating the critique. In writing groups, editor’s reviews, or other professional situations, this can lead to overreactions or outbursts that won’t advance your writing or your career. When you feel that sting, slow down, take a step back and ask yourself why it hurt and what comment struck the hardest. Oftentimes, it is because something has hit close to home. Specific pieces of advice might suggest things about your work or even your personality that are tough to face, but hard truths are often the ones we need to hear the most. Do your best to not be dismissive in these situations, as difficult as that may be. Sometimes you’ll learn important life lessons, and other times you’ll discover that the reader merely missed the point. That said, if you find that people frequently misunderstand what you are trying to do, you may need to reconfigure your approach. Use the results of past critiques, reviews, and comments to zero in on where you’re losing people and find a way to clarify what you want them to see. The subjective nature of art and perception will ensure that someone, somewhere will certainly receive different signals than you intended to send, but if you have made yourself as clear as possible without insulting the intelligence of your core readers, then you can rest easy.

You may not think much of every opinion about your work, but you can learn something from almost any critique. Even a cheap jab can train you to shake off thin attacks and can show you how to more thoughtfully respond if you are asked to chime in on the works of your peers. Take your time, keep an open mind, and prepare to get a bit uncomfortable. Being under the microscope is a stressful endeavor, but the quality of your work is sure to improve if you can allow yourself to see it from new perspectives.

The Smallest Winner Contest

At the LetterWorks, we believe writing is a very personal and important matter, and sharing it with the world is the one of best ways to hone your craft.  Many of our customers are submitting their writings to publications and even contests.

Winning a contest isn’t always about having the best story, format or editing.  Sometimes your work just doesn’t mesh with the publisher’s theme.  It could also be that your competition is very strong.

We think you should be rewarded for your efforts, even if you don’t come in first place.  So the LetterWorks is holding our own contest!

In the spirit of being positive, we are calling it “The Smallest Winner!” contest.  We will have multiple prizes:

  • First place will be awarded to a contest winner with the smallest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  First prize will be a $25 Visa gift card!
  • Second place will be awarded to a contest winner for the largest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  Second prize will be a free edit from theletterworks.com, up to 2500 words!
  • We will have up to three honorable mentions.  These will win a 50% discount off any edit up to 2500 words.

Winners will also have the option to have their publication link posted on the LetterWorks homepage!

To enter you can choose one of the following options:

  • Like Us” on Facebook and make a quick post on your page including the hashtag #theletterworks and mention the amount you won and where you submitted your work.
  • Follow Us” on Twitter @theletterworks for the amount you won, where you submitted your work, and include the hashtag: #theletterworks.
  • Send an email to contest@theletterworks.com letting us know the amount you won and where you submitted your work.  Please include “The Smallest Winner” in the email subject.

Submissions should be received by November 10th, 2017.  We will have the results of the contest by November 17th, 2017.

We will tally up the results, and if you win we will contact you in the same way entered the contest.  You may enter as many times as you like, but your odds of winning depend upon the number of total entries and the value of those winnings.  If we contact you, we will ask you for evidence of your winning (a published link or forwarded email, for example).

That’s it!  Get writing and submitting.  Good Luck!

Making the Most of NaNoWriMo by Melissa Heiselt

Nothing gets a fire burning under you like a tight deadline. Ah, that alarming shock to your system that says you’ve got to move now or you will suffer humiliation at the hands of your friends, family, or coworkers! Which brings us to National Novel Writing Month, A.k.a. NaNoWriMo, where hundreds of writers dash in, determined to finish that novel! Or start that novel! Or crank out any novel! All in just those scant thirty days of November. Sound crazy? Well, yeah, it pretty much is, but it’s also a really fun way to make some serious headway on that one project that you love/fear the most, if you approach it the right way. Here are five steps to use this October to prepare for the greatest writer’s holiday ever this November:

        Get Your Head in the Game

Many authors decide to join the NaNoWriMo hype on a whim. I should do something amazing this month! I’m totally going to write a novel! There is nothing wrong with that if it’s just for kicks and you see no serious goals of publication in the future for your work, but it’s very hard to cross that finish line without a concrete goal. Get clear about your purpose here. Why are you doing it? Is this an intense writing exercise to get you over the mental hang-up of writing something as massive as a full novel? Is this to get your ideas fleshed out fully? Is this the major push to get your concept on the road to publication? Know where you want to go when you board the NaNoWriMo train, and you will reach your destination. At the same time, know this: thirty days isn’t enough time to complete a great novel. It can be enough time to complete a rough draft if you are committed. Don’t demand perfection in every word here. Revisions will be necessary, and that is okay. Even a draft that takes years to assemble will need many revisions and editing work. Just get it all on the page so you can see it take shape.

        Don’t Fly By the Seat of Your Pants.

I know, I know, I just quashed the creativity right out of you. Just hear me out. If you are using NaNoWriMo as a catalyst with a goal of publication, you will want to use this month wisely. If you want to actually write a novel instead of 50,000 random words, you will still need to plan. Before you write a novel you MUST KNOW your main characters. What drives them? What stands in their way? What scares them? You MUST KNOW the beginning, middle, and end of your plot. If you doubt this, just binge watch the TV series LOST. You guys, it could have been so good. Know your ending. That’s what enables you to foreshadow and create meaningful connections throughout that create that brilliant/ shocking/ satisfying ending. You MUST KNOW your landscape. Your readers will be as confused as you are about where things are happening. Make sure you aren’t disorganized. Strategies for outlining, storyboarding or however you like to organize your world are myriad, and I’m not going to delve into that here, but spend October planning for November. If you have a vague story idea you’ve never had time to really flesh out, this is a great time to give yourself a kick-start on bringing it to life!

         Create Space to Create.

Perhaps the greatest value of NanoWriMo for aspiring authors is that it forces you to commit deeply to your writing and to schedule fiercely guarded, uninterrupted writing time. After all, it’s only for a month! At least that’s what we tell our loved ones as we closet ourselves away for hours at a time writing hundreds or thousands of words each day. If you find your roommates cannot resist coming in during that sacred writing time, pick a different venue. The library. A coffee shop. Wherever will allow you to focus and stay on target. That act of carving out time and space for your creative work has the potential to become a deliciously self-perpetuating habit. Maybe you can’t keep that break-neck speed forever. Maybe you have bills to pay and actually like the people with whom you cohabitate. But that habit carries momentum that you just have to renegotiate to keep rolling at the pace that’s right for you. Begin now to set aside time each day to prepare for NaNoWriMo. Word count doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be hours. However, it needs to be consistent every day.  Use that time to get plot details hammered out. Get acquainted with your characters. Research relevant professions. Draw maps. It doesn’t even have to be writing, it just needs to be relevant to the project.

        Embrace the Cloud

Create a safe place to store your work. Nothing is worse than losing your nearly finished masterpiece-in-progress.  It’s sheer devastation. Plan ahead to find the place to save that’s right for you. Dropbox (unless you are incredibly prolific or use it for photos) and Googledocs both offer cloud services for free. Create some accountability for your writing with a word count widget, or commit to consistently updating your word count on the NaNoWriMo site once you begin. Find some way to see your progress visually. It will keep you motivated to keep driving this crazy train.

          Find a Writing Buddy

As antisocial as some of us may be, at our core we are social creatures. We perform better when there is accountability involved. Whether it’s your best friend you’ve roped into joining you on this ride or your local writer’s group or an online forum for NaNoWriMo inductees, find someone with whom you can commiserate. Writing fifty thousand words in thirty days is a huge undertaking; it’s the marathon of the writing world. Connecting with a writing buddy will give you a place to share strategies, encourage, and receive encouragement! Once you begin the race, you won’t want to waste your precious writing time trying to locate someone who really gets it and who understands your insatiable need for hot drinks and validation. Seek out connections beforehand and you will find yourself ahead of the game.

National Novel Writing Month is both a celebration of writing and a beastly challenge. Take some of the fire out of this dragon by preparing now, and you will be much more pleased with your completed novel on November 30th at 11:59pm.