Four Reasons Writers Need to Read This Book

Every so often I read I book that I end up recommending to everyone I encounter, regardless of state of life, occupation, or literary interests. This spring, thanks to my husband, I came across Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, which falls swiftly into this category.

 

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I was first intrigued by Grant’s introductory TED talk, which inspired a piece I wrote for Verily on the merits of moderate procrastination. The book arrived from the library the day my piece was due. I was bummed not to have a chance to use it for the article, but once I began to dig in, I realized what I was learning was useful beyond a single article.

 

Grant argues that unconventional thought is not something you either have or don’t have. Rather, it’s something to which you can cultivate openness—once you discount common opinion on how brilliant minds and creative geniuses function.

 

Here’s why Originals appeals to writers (and humans in general).

 

  1. Moderate procrastination, as I mentioned above, is a tool, not a vice. Our first solution to a problem will usually be the most conventional. When we allow ourselves more time to consider the issue, the other experiences we encounter in the meantime can suggest connections we otherwise wouldn’t have made. Thus, a more creative final product. This is not license to wait until the last minute. Not having enough time to put a good idea into action renders it useless.

 

  1. Good ideas do not happen in a vacuum. Innovations that have changed culture are typically among heaps and heaps of failed ideas. Often the ones that take off are not what the creator expected to succeed. Basically, we can’t put all our eggs in one creative basket. Fear of failure can prevent the creation of what could be the next big thing. Translation for writers? Write, write, write. Submit, submit, submit.

 

  1. The writing is compelling. Research is used to present a focused narrative in a unique and engaging voice. If you normally write fiction, stretch your muscles with this. Broadening the scope of what you take in will deepen the resonance of what you produce.

 

  1. Grant proves that the best feedback you will get is from fellow creators. I’ve said it many times before, but a quality critique group is key to growing as a writer. You need to approach the craft from all sides—reading, writing, editing, discussing—to make progress. Accountability and encouragement don’t hurt the process, either.

 

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a full-length manuscript. I recommend this book whole-heartedly! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

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Perseverance Is a Tricky Thing

Perseverance is a tricky thing. It means sticking with something you believe in, even if your goal isn’t in sight. It means having faith in what you’re doing and trusting that good will come of your efforts. It’s easy to celebrate in retrospect, but can be tough to stick with in the midst of a challenge.

 

A few years ago, I heard about a magazine called Verily, whose mission aligned with what I was trying to do with my fiction, that is, create content in mainstream media that is backed by solid values without being preachy.

 

I subscribed right away. I was bummed when, three issues in, they had to go to online-only. Still, I signed up for the daily email and read the articles consistently. I looked up the submission guidelines until I had them memorized. Finally I got the courage to submit a piece.

 

Prior to this, I had little experience with magazine publishing. With the guidance of a friend who did, and with confidence that the piece I pitched mattered, I sent in my article. There was a dance party in the kitchen (the best place in the house for such an event) when it was accepted!

 

In the following months, I continued to pitch. Not everything was accepted, but I got a good response from what was.

 

One night, I was talking with my husband, wondering how it was that some of the writers contributed so much more frequently than I was managing. I looked again at the site’s job board, but I’d never seen a posting for a staff writer or anything like that.

 

It was about this time that I committed myself to publishing two pieces per month with Verily. Two weeks later, I got a message from the editor who published my very first piece. She wanted to know if I would be interested in contributing regularly.

 

Would I?!

 

I waited thirty seconds before responding, as not to seem overeager.

 

In the three months since, I have learned so much about pitching, writing, editing, collaborating, and what works online versus in print. I am grateful to have an editor who is interested in helping me grow as a writer.

 

I have tried to make myself read the things I thought I should be reading, the places I thought I should want my work to get published. What they say is true, and the best fit for my work was what I was already reading. It took courage, confidence, and resilience to bounce back when I was rejected, but ultimately, I’ve found a great place to contribute my work and build some great relationships along the way.

 

Is there somewhere you’ve been dreaming of submitting your work? What’s stopping you? What steps could you take today, this week, this month to give it a shot?

 

P.S. Check out my pieces at Verily here.

On Making Sense of Critiques

Let’s be honest: taking critique can be tough. It’s something every writer needs to learn how to handle, and it only happens with experience.

 

Sometimes I go in to a critique knowing that there’s something—an exchange of dialogue, a transition, rushed action—I need to work on. It’s encouraging when readers agree it’s an issue without my prompting them. I trust myself as a writer more because I’ve identified a valid problem. Simply hearing my readers put the problem into their own words can get me closer to a solution than I would have reached on my own.

 

Other times, I learn that readers aren’t connecting to the part of the work that means the most to me, or that they don’t understand what the piece is trying to be about. That stinks, but when I accept it, it always makes the piece stronger.

 

There are two important things I’ve learned recently:

 

  1. You can recognize the issue a critique presents, without agreeing with the proposed solution.
  2. Sometimes the reader isn’t the right one for your piece.

 

Some of my critiques have given me great ideas for how to remedy issues in my manuscript. Others have clarified where the problems lay and I’ve decided not to use the suggested solutions, because they were not aligned with the larger purpose of the novel.

 

This is not a decision that can be made emotionally or reactively. It’s not about whether or not the critiquer was “right”—it’s about what best serves the novel.

 

I usually still change something, since there was something disengaged the reader. It may be a sign that I need to rethink what I believe the novel is trying to be about.

 

The farther I get into my current novel, the more I understand what it is—not just what I want it to be. In the years I’ve been working on this manuscript, some elements have stayed the same, but become sharper. Others have changed dramatically. The more willing I am to let go and let the thing move on its own, the faster I make progress toward a more cohesive and more engaging novel.

 

As far as point 2, consider that my novel falls into the category of “foodie fiction.” Early on, I had a reader suggest I cut a scene in which the main character is cooking a meal. This reader thought the scene went on too long and wasn’t important for the rest of the story. In fact, it is a pivotal scene in establishing the character, and one I’ve gotten good feedback on from my first round of submissions.

 

Was the scene not right for my novel? No, the novel wasn’t right for that reader. And that’s okay. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d read before, and he didn’t connect with it. That doesn’t mean much of anything other than that.

 

By learning to make better use of critique, I am gaining confidence in my ability to identify and fix issues in my writing. My novel doesn’t need to be for everyone. It does, however, need to be the best version of itself for its audience.

Editing On Purpose

I’ve been editing my first novel again recently. This is not news.

 

What is news is the conversation my writers’ group has been having recently on how we incorporate feedback in our revision processes. Those who have responded use different methods I won’t get into here, but there’s a similarity at their core: these writers edit with intention.

 

Each critique in our group consists of a conversation that lasts forty-five minutes to an hour. Within forty-eight hours, each member strives to send written feedback—the notes composed before the conversation, for the most part—as well. This means that post-critique, a writer can have eight documents to compile and make sense of. It’s a gift to have this volume of consistent feedback, but using it can be a challenge. So how best to go about it?

 

One way is to organize the critiques by concern, that is, consider all the comments on dialogue together, then those on character X, then those on character X’s relationship with character Y, and so on. Then the writer can pass through the manuscript once per concern with focus and intention.

 

When I was editing my novel earlier today, I took this advice to heart. There were a couple things I knew I needed to fix, but then I ran out of steam. I started reading through the manuscript just looking for something, anything to fix. I didn’t know what I was looking for, nor did I have an idea of how I would remedy it. I started to get discouraged.

 

So I stepped back and returned to my critiquer’s notes. I identified something I agreed needed to change and went in and worked on that. Then, onto the next note. There will be a time later to read through the whole and see how all the pieces work together, and I’m sure there will be more to do then. Isn’t there always?

 

With this technique, I got a lot more done in a lot less time, plus I’m fired up to do it again. As with any goal, having a plan—even if it’s one you’ll deviate from—is worthwhile. And at the start of a new year, when everything seems fresh and possible, making the most of the moment is a great practice to get into.

 

 

Things I Didn’t Finish in 2015

Happy New Year! It’s a time for reflection, resolutions, and rebooting. I’ve been doing some of each. I have a goal to sell my novel this year, but that’s not really a new thing, I guess. Ha! Still, I made some big changes to the manuscript last year, after some big feedback from the year before. I’m psyched to get it to my agent and see what she thinks. And speaking of sending it out . . .

 

I had this crazy idea that I would rework my last edit in the last two weeks of December. You’re laughing, right? I am, too, which is a good thing. Especially with three little kids and family visiting from four different states, this is a very special time of year. My oldest had a long break from school and my husband took the same break from work. I didn’t write, but I hit the reset button in a lot of ways. Speaking of the reset button . . .

 

I received my annual blog report from WordPress recently, and saw that I posted here only thirteen times in 2015. Now don’t get too excited; I’m not committing to a jillion posts this year. But I am happy for the perspective on where this blog fits in my writing life. Right now, revising my novels, writing for Verily, preparing every other week for my writing group, and completing editing projects take the majority of my writing time. I haven’t forgotten about this corner of the cyberworld. I’m grateful for it. It’s a place to take stock, to share ideas, and to mark progress.

 

My initial idea of posting twice a week hasn’t become a reality, and that’s okay. Maybe twice a month is more like it. Maybe something big will happen this year, and it will take on a life of its own. Maybe the new year is a new page turned, but without anything written on it yet.

 

This is all to say, I’m still writing. I’m still here. I hope to have more to share this year. I don’t achieve every goal I set for myself (if you followed my #25BookstoChristmas on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve seen proof). But I’m trying and I’m finding my way in the ups and downs. I hope the strike of midnight on 01/01/2016 gave you permission to do the same.

I Wrote a Manuscript, Now What?

As an editor, I’ve recently joined a couple of online platforms that are focused on helping authors find the resources they need to bring their stories to the world. I was already a contractor on Elance, which is now part of Upwork. Now you can also find me on Reedsy and Pronoun. I’m grateful to be involved in communities that help writers get access to the guidance they’re looking for. I meet fascinating people as an editor, and I love the breadth of stories I get to work on.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of authors who have completed manuscripts and are looking for help with next steps.

Zack Morris Time Out: Let’s take a minute to recognize the considerable milestones these authors have achieved. Not only have they completed their manuscripts, they are ready to share them with a stranger, investing time and money to get feedback, with eyes toward improving their work. This is a big deal.

Time back in.

It’s not across the board, but I’ve noticed a theme often enough in the proposed work: authors are ready to take next steps, but they don’t know what those steps are. They are ready to pursue publication, but they’re not familiar with the industry’s landscape. They know they want to get published, but they don’t know how traditional or self-publication works. Basically, they ask me to do whatever it is that needs to happen for their book to be published.

On one hand, this makes sense, and kudos to them for going out and asking questions to figure out how the whole thing works. On the other, I’ve sometimes gotten the impression that authors—who have already achieved so much!—want to hand their work over and have someone else sort it all out. There are lots of sites out there that explain the various means of contemporary publication; there are societies, conferences, workshops. To my mind, this is work that needs to be done before approaching an editor.

I get that feeling of wanting someone else to just finish the thing already. There have been more times than I can count that I want to send a finished-but-not-yet-read-through revision to my agent to let her identify what still needs to be fixed . . . and then tell me how to fix it. Or to send it to editors and have them see that I could eventually get this thing into shape, if they’d take a chance on me. In my right mind, I know this isn’t really what I need. Rather, I need to persevere and accept that this thing is going to take a while, and the hard work is on me.

My main concern with some of the projects I’ve been approached with recently is that the authors don’t have specific and realistic expectations. They haven’t done their research and haven’t clearly defined, for themselves, what they want to achieve with their work. This isn’t a decision I can make for another author. It’s based on how much the author wants to put into it and how much they are willing to endure to accomplish their goals.

If these goals aren’t set, there is a greater possibility that these hard-working, passionate people are going to be disappointed and discouraged from further pursuing the work they love. And nobody wants that!

So what’s an author to do about it? Well, there are blogs to read (like this one!). There are websites to follow, authors to keep up with on Twitter and other social media outlets. Get involved in the community you want to be a part of. It’s a fascinating place, filled with all kinds of people, all kinds of stories.

And when you know what you want from your work, when you have an understanding of what it’s going to take to get from point A to point B and you’re ready to tackle it, find an editor who shares your passion for good stories, for hard work, for the satisfaction of giving something your all. It will be an investment of time and money, but it will not improve not only your manuscript, but also you as a writer.

You’ve gotten this far. Keep it up. Watch a classic underdog movie for motivation: Miracle, maybe, or Rocky or A League of Their Own. The good stuff is worth fighting for. And what you’ve been working on? It’s good stuff.

Cleaning Creative House

Summer is drawing to a close, and even though only one of my three kids is in school, it feels like we’re in a transition period. My response to this, creative type that I am, is to go head-on into finishing a bunch of stalled projects and planning to start new ones come the change in season.

I am an avid/obsessive knitter, and this week I will be finishing up a Christmas stocking, a purse, a dress, and a sweater. I may sew some shorts and a pincushion, too. You know, for good measure.

I have tried to reflect on where this creative burst is coming from (last night I stained two end tables that had sat incomplete in our living room for the majority of the last year). Part of it is that the change of seasons does something to my mind, which likes to compartmentalize—this happens here, then that, then we’ll be ready for this other thing. I recognize life doesn’t work that way, and that the changes often bring us much more exciting experiences than we would have come up with on our own.

Still, I like to have a plan. If you don’t believe me, you could ask my kids. My four-year-old asked for a calendar for his birthday. My two-year-old regularly suggests what he’d like to eat at his next meal, finishing with, “Is that a good plan, Mom?”

A good plan is one that gets the job done, but that allows flexibility for real life to happen. A good plan means there’s a realistic goal and a reasonable amount of time to accomplish it—with the understanding, of course, that something entirely different might take place instead.

For me, a good plan gets the juices going, gives room for me to produce, without causing upheaval in the rest of my life. At this point, it means completing what I’ve started, seeing something (somethings, rather) through to the end, so that my mind, my plate are fresh and clear.

I have a plan to edit two novels in the remainder of the year. I’m hopeful that one, if not both, will be ready for beta readers by New Year’s Eve. But then, something else might take me on another path. And being willing to follow it, if it’s promising, is the best plan I can manage.