Must we finish every writing project we start?

Finish everything you start, Mridu Khullar Relph advises in “The Secret Art of Reaching ‘The End,'” published at Writing-World.com. It’s a good column full of helpful advice. Yes, we  tend to get a little squirrel-brained. We keep starting writing projects and not finishing them. We’ll never get anywhere unless we do actually finish something, she says. I totally agree.

Relph quotes the late Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs as saying, “Real artists ship.” He means that at some point you have to stop tweaking, stop obsessing, stop revising, and send your product out into the world.

Relph adds that we need to look at how we’re spending our time and back off from tasks like social media that might be keeping us from finishing our work. We need to not just start projects but finish them.

All good points, BUT what if a product, be it a computer or a story, is defective, just not as good as it should be? What if no matter how hard you work on it, it just doesn’t have that special something, what one of my teachers called “juice.” Should you still finish it? I don’t think so. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you need to spend some of them eating, sleeping and relating to other people. If a writing project is not working, move on. But if it is working, finish it. Revise it, polish it, proofread it, find an appropriate market, and send it out. If it gets rejected, send it out again.

If you’re like me, you have plenty of ideas, but they don’t all get turned into completed poems, stories, articles, or books, often because you have a better idea that has more juice. Yes, you might have piles of incomplete writing and scraps of paper on which you scribbled what were brilliant ideas at the time. But I think that’s part of being a writer. Sometimes it takes numerous false starts or practice runs to get to the good stuff. You might write 20 poems and realize that only one of them is good enough to send out, but you got to that one by writing the other 19. You might have 20 ideas for novels, but nobody can write 20 novels at once, so you pick the best one and write it. If we had to publish every word we ever wrote, we’d be too stressed to write. Let the words flow. Figure out later whether it’s worth finishing.

Let’s talk a minute about Harper Lee and the just-released so-called sequel for To Kill a Mockingbird. (Why not? Everybody else is.) From what I can gather, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before her bestseller. She considered it an inferior book and did not want it published. To Kill a Mockingbird was the new and improved version. Check out this sad review of Watchman from NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. I feel bad for Harper Lee. I’m also tempted to burn all of my earlier drafts of unpublished novels for fear some fool will publish them when I’m too old or too dead to stop them. The thing is, we all have projects we start and don’t finish or never publish because they’re not good enough or we lost interest. We need to focus on the ones that have the juice. Finish those, get them out, sell them, get famous.

Meanwhile, if you need some spare ideas, I’ve got a few thousand I can share with you.

So, what are you writing today? Let’s go write.


Little things that drive editors nuts

Hey, did you know that . . .

* “Alright” is all wrong? It’s “all right,” two words. I know you see it in print all the time. It’s still wrong.

* When you’re about to recline on a bed, floor, beach, etc., it’s “lie” not “lay,” as in “I’m going to lie down now.” “Lay” is the past tense. “She got tired, so she lay down.”

* The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” Not “sunk.” Use it wrong and you are sunk with this editor.

* “Your” is a possessive word that indicates something belongs to you. “That’s your shoe.” If you want to indicate a state of being, such as me praising your wonderfulness, the correct word is “you’re.” “You’re wonderful.”

* “It’s” and “Its” are not the same thing. “It’s” is short for “it is” as in “It’s hot today.” “Its” is a possessive word, as in “The dog was chasing its tail.”

Editors care about this stuff. Get these things wrong on the first page or in your query/cover letter, and they’re going to move on to the next manuscript. So make sure you’re using these words correctly.

Maybe the Internet and Smart Phones are making us more casual with our language, but as writers using words as our tools, we need to get them right, at least in our final drafts. All right?

You might find these links interesting.

Commonly misused words and phrases from Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference

12 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases from the Huffington Post

Wikipedia: List of Commonly Misused English Words (It’s a long one!)

Now let’s go write.


Write your ABCs and 1-2-3’s to grab readers

I found myself reading an article all the way to the end this morning even though I really didn’t have time. I was drawn in by the format. The writer went through the alphabet offering words of advice for writers. A is for anecdotes, F is for focus, etc. And I just had to read all the way to Z. Alphabet articles get me every time.

Why?

1) They’re easy to read.

2) I’m curious what words the writer will connect with each letter

3) The letters act as mnemonic devices that help me remember what I read.

Letters and numbers can work for you, too. I’m going to talk about articles first, but hang in there, poets, fiction writers and essayists.

ABC articles are common, but numbered list articles are even more common: Ten hidden treasures on the Oregon coast, five reasons why your child should go to summer school, eight ways to get better orgasms, a baker’s dozen gluten-free cupcakes. Look at the front of any consumer magazine to see how popular list articles are.

These articles are rarely great art, but they are easy to write, easy to read, and they sell. If you offer an editor 10 ways to ___________, he or she knows exactly what you’re offering and where it will fit in the publication. Write an intro and a list of what your list will contain, a bio paragraph about yourself, and your query is done. When the editor says yes, fill in the list.

A few cautions about writing the list article:

1) If you start out with the alphabet, you have to use every letter, and if you go with numbers, you need to follow through with all of them.

2) Each item must have value, no cheating, no excuses like X is useless, nothing starts with X. Find something and make it good.

3) The pieces all need to fit together somehow. Think of those exam questions that ask which item doesn’t not fit in the list: apples, oranges, bananas, snickerdoodles.

Now, you writers of fiction, essays and poems, some of my favorite works are done with lists. You can get painfully corny with alphabet poems, which actually have a formal name, abecedarium, but some are truly works of art. Many great poems, essays and short stories have been written in numbered sections that draw the reader along and come together in a way that straight stanzas or paragraphs wouldn’t. Actually, how different is this from numbering chapters? They’re just much shorter, sometimes only a paragraph or even a line. Try it. It works.

There’s an annual A to Z blog challenge which I did last year. I was surprised at how easy it was to find ideas with the simple prompt of a letter of the alphabet. Try a list. Or make a list about why you’d rather not.

Some links to check out:

1) Poets.org offers an explanation of abecedarium poems and some great examples.

2) At Blue Sky, Big Dreams, a lesson and some examples.

3) New Yorker Short story “Permission to Enter” by Zadie Smith, example of short fiction told in numbers.

4) Also from the New Yorker: “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova.

Now let’s go write. 1-2-3 GO!


Are Writers Really Loners? Should We Be?

The old stereotype shows writers sitting alone in their garrets writing for hours, avoiding people while the bills and the trash pile up—and maybe the empty whiskey bottles, too. But is that really where it’s at? I don’t even have a garret.

I ask this because it came up at our board meeting for Writers on the Edge, which puts on the Nye Beach Writers Series in Newport Oregon. We are running out of volunteers. Even though writers and fans claim to love what we do, nobody seems to want to commit to working on the team that makes it happen.

In wondering why it’s so hard to get volunteers, some of the board speculated that it’s because writers are lone wolves. But are they? Writers are always asking me as president of WOE where they can hang out with other writers. They want to chat, they want critiques, they want to just set their laptops side by side and work. They need that extra push of someone caring whether or not they write to make them put words on the page. Some want classes, many want deadlines.

I read online recently about a group of women that meet to submit their work. Side by side with their laptops, they pound out their manuscripts, queries, and cover letters. Every time someone hits send, they all celebrate. This is similar to the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-ins that happen all over the country in November. I have not attended these. I prefer to write in silence. Also, I speak my words as I type them, which would no doubt drive the others crazy. But if you would like to write with other writers, you don’t have to wait until November. Invite somebody for a writing date.

I prefer to produce my rough drafts and do major edits alone, but I don’t like to be alone all the time. I enjoy the company of other writers, and I love the extra push from workshops and write-ins where everybody’s writing at once. Over the years, critique groups have been very helpful. Several of the most successful writers I know, including Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch, are part of a Thursday night writers group in Portland, Oregon  that meets regularly for no-holds-barred critiques. I have no doubt that their association has helped them write better and get published sooner.

You may or may not like writing with other people around. I did it for years as a newspaper reporter and editor, so I know it’s totally possible to write elbow to elbow with other writers writing, phones ringing, police radios squawking, and people coming in and out. When you’re facing a deadline, you just do it. Now, I enjoy the peace and quiet, but I can write and have written anywhere.

I’m shy about reaching out to other people, but I do think we need other people once we hack out our early drafts. At some point, we need someone else to look at what we have written and tell us what works and what doesn’t. When we get stuck, they can help us find a way out. We also need someone to tell us it’s worth doing and urge us to keep going, especially when we’re getting nothing but rejections.

And when it comes to submitting our work, dealing with queries, cover letters, and sharing market information, it really helps to have friends to talk to, even if it’s only on Facebook.

The connections we can make with other writers are pure gold. Through my activities with California Writers, Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge, I have met big-name writers, editors and publishers. I mean, they know who I am and what I write. They can help me with my career. If nothing else, they make me feel as if I am a real writer and my big success is just around the corner.

So are writers really loners? Not any more than the rest of the population. Have you noticed how many of us are on Facebook, Twitter and other social media? Quite a few writers I know prefer to write in coffee shops and other public places. You do have to put those words on the screen by yourself, but when you’re done, back away from the computer and find another human being to talk to. It’s healthy.

And if you live on the Central Oregon Coast, we sure could use your help with the Nye Beach Writers series. Write us at info@writersontheedge.org.

Are we loners? Are you? I welcome your comments. The comment link is at the top of the page just below the “tags.”

Now let’s go write.


Summer vacation? Not for real writers

It’s June. The kids are out of school, and people are taking summer vacations. But what about those of us who write?

My friend Christina Katz recently asked her writer friends on Facebook whether they take significant time off from their writing during the summer.  Most of them said something along the lines of “absolutely not.” I don’t either. Nor do I take winter vacation, spring break or Monday holidays off.

Here’s why not.

* When you take a break from writing, it’s hard to get restarted when you come back.

* I’m too involved in my writing projects to quit now, and I have deadlines to meet.

* I can’t afford it.

* This isn’t like working in a factory. There’s nobody to take my place.

*** I like writing. Forcing me to stop feels like punishment.

So I’m not going to take the summer off from writing, but I do highly recommend taking breaks from everything else. If you can, take a vacation from the day job and the chores at home. Travel. A change of location can be wonderfully mind-clearing and inspiring. But take your writing tools and a camera. You’ll need them. Instead of taking a vacation from writing, take a vacation to writing.

Put on your bathing suit and go lie on that beach in Waikiki. Feel the sand on your toes and the sun on your back as your pen races across the page. Now that’s a good vacation.

How about you? Do you take a break during the summer? Do you write more or less? What would be the ideal vacation for a writer? Please share in the comments.

By the way, Christina Katz has published several wonderful books for writers, including Writer Mama, Get Known Before The Book Deal, and The Writer’s Workout.

Now let’s go write.


Are you on Facebook when you should be writing?

I love Facebook, just love it. My friends and family are there, and I keep adding new friends. I have hundreds. At any moment, I can post something and get reactions within a few minutes. The red numbers keep popping up on my page, and I just have to see what they said.

Every morning after I check my email, I go through Facebook, reading, liking and commenting. I promise myself I’ll only spend a few minutes there before I get to work. I set the timer. But there’s always more. Oh, I have to look at this video, listen to this song, wish this person happy birthday. The timer beeps, I turn it off, and keep clicking through Facebook.

I find some good stuff, articles and links that I can use in my work, but I delay actually getting to my work. Often, the postings get my emotions all in a whirl. This morning, for example, the first thing I saw was a photo of family members at Disneyland—without me. I miss them, I’m homesick, and I want to have fun, too. I read about a friend’s serious medical problem. Then I read that another friend won a big award. Another friend published her book. Another is doing a reading. Me, I have nothing to brag about this week. Hey, I stayed on my diet, sort of, for one more day. I feel bad now. I don’t feel like writing. Let me just watch this puppy video . . .

And the day is ticking away. Does this sound familiar to anyone? I actually get more deep writing done when I’m at my Dad’s, where there is no Internet connection. I do get Facebook on my cell phone, but Dad gives me the look of disapproval every time I pick up my phone.

What I’m saying is, we have to set some limits. Write first. Save Facebook and other social media for dessert. We need them these days for all kinds of reasons, but we shouldn’t let them get in the way of our writing. There’s nothing on there that can’t wait, not a damned thing.

This post was inspired by an article from The Writer Magazine to which I found the link on Facebook. Read “13 Rules to Maximize Writing Productivity,” then disconnect.

Now let’s go write.


Write as a Gift to Your Future Self

“Whirled in the cyclone, I

am helpless against the storm

until it leaves me to recover

barefoot on the beach.”

I wrote those words 34 years ago as the opening of a book of poems that I never published. Finding the typewritten pages recently in a dusty black binder, I decided to type them into the computer. What I’d do after that, I didn’t know, but it has proven to be a wonderful exercise, connecting the poet and young woman I was with the poet and older woman I am now.

At the time I wrote those poems, I was going through a divorce and living alone for the first time in my life in an apartment a block from the beach in Pacifica, California. I had a different last name. I worked as a reporter for the Pacifica Tribune, drove a yellow VW Rabbit that spent more time in the shop than on the road, and dated several different men. I wrote poems, songs, stories and articles. I submitted them, too, receiving lots of rejections, but not all. One poem won first place in a contest. My prize was a thick book of poetry by William Butler Yeats and a reading in Daly City, California.

Despite my fulltime job, I was constantly asking for advances on my paychecks to make it to the end of the month. Even in 1981, $1,200 a month wasn’t enough. I had long hair, short skirts, thick glasses, and a heart full of dreams. In other words, a younger me. I had not met Fred, never published any books. My parents and grandparents were still alive. But now, widowed, living alone by another beach, I find the parallels striking.

I don’t mention all this just to take a trip down memory lane. I have a point. Writing these poems, most of which were not published, had value. Even at age 29, I was not a new writer. Not only was I a professional journalist, but I had been writing poetry since I was 7 years old. I had won some prizes, gotten some published, taken many classes in creative writing, and had aspirations beyond the weekly newspaper.

Those poems were good practice. I wrote and rewrote and became a better poet. Some of the poems are still good enough to submit.

They serve as a scrapbook that captures that time and the feelings I had then. I didn’t remember a lot of what I wrote in those poems until I read them again. Then the emotions, the scenes, and the experiences came rushing back.

They are source material for future writing. I can use it all for new poems, fiction, essays, or articles.

I find comfort in reading the voice of the younger me, validation that I was a good writer, and a tying of the strings that connect who I was then with who I am now.

What I’m saying is that even the words we never publish have value, so write. Write often in whatever form feels most natural, and save your writing in a format that you will still be able to read in 30 years (flash drive?) and say, “Oh, that’s who you were.” Think of it as a gift to your future self.

If you become famous, maybe those works will be published in a thick book of your “complete works.” You, me, and William Butler Yeats.

Let’s go write!


Think You’re Finished? Take That Extra Step

Last weekend, I attended a conference called “Compose” at Clackamas Community College near Portland Oregon. Unlike so many conferences these days, we did not talk about marketing, pitching, platforms or publishing. It was all about writing, and I learned something very important. I learned to try again.

In a flash fiction class taught by Samuel Snoek-Brown, we read some super short stories, then wrote our own. Then we wrote them again. And again. Each time, we were instructed to look for the moment, the epiphany at the heart of our story arc. Even though we were trying to write as short as possible, we needed a scene, a character, and something happening. We needed sensory details. In our second pass, we were to add whatever was missing and subtract whatever was not essential. In flash fiction, which can range from a few words to 1,000 words, much is left to the reader to figure out. There isn’t room to spell everything out. Finally we were asked to write one essential sentence that told our story. That one sentence was so rich because we could not waste a single word..

My next class was memoir, taught by Jay Ponteri, whom I had met last fall when he was one of our guest authors at the Nye Beach Writers series. He’s a dynamic writer but just as impressive as a teacher. With a two-word prompt, “laundry basket,” we filled pages with memories and story possibilities. But here’s the thing. We divided our pages in half. On one side, we wrote what the prompt first brought to mind. On the other side, we jotted down other ideas that came up in the process. Then we took a new page and wrote about those other ideas, starting a new column with what came into our minds next. People came up with wonderful stories, all different. In many cases the original prompt disappeared and the story became about something else. The writers were able to find it because they went beyond that first idea. They let their minds wander past the laundry basket to what else it made them think about and took the time to explore wherever it led.

So often we feel like once we’ve written something, we can’t change it, we’re stuck with what we have. Or we’re anxious to send it out, so we hit save and send and move on to the next piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can try again. We can dump all but the one gold nugget that we find and go where it leads us, to the gold mine

Of course it helps to be in a classroom with nothing to distract you, no kids, jobs, cell phones, chores, or Facebook. Look for opportunities for undistracted writing in classes, writing groups, or whatever. Leave your desk and go where all you have to do is write. Then try it again. And again. Don’t think about marketing or publishing. Just think about getting to the heart of the story. If it takes 1,000 or 10,000 words to find that perfect 100 words, so be it.

Now let’s go write.


Everybody’s Writing About Death and Dying

Let’s talk about death and dying. Fun, eh?

We are writers. We process life by writing about it. My husband died four years ago yesterday. Throughout his illness, I wrote in my journal about everything that happened. It was a coping mechanism that allowed me to transfer painful experiences from my brain to my computer and move on. But, to be honest, the writer in me was also thinking, “This is a good story that I could do something with.” Crass? You bet. But it’s true.

I’m not the only one. In my reading, which includes books, magazines, webzines, literary journals, submissions for The Timberline Review and more, I find an overwhelming number of stories about death and dying lately. The authors write about the mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, best friend who suffers a long illness or a sudden tragedy and is gone. I get it. What’s the most dramatic thing that happens in our lives? What else can we write about when death is all we can think of?

A New York Times article titled “Why We Write About Grief” looks at the “literature of loss” through interviews with Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote about the death of her husband in A Widow’s Story and Meghan O’Rourke who wrote about her mother’s illness and death in The Long Goodbye. Other recent books in this genre include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death, Anne Roiphe’s Epilogue and Roland Barthes’ posthumous Mourning Diary.

I’m currently transforming my journal notes into a memoir, and of course I expect it to be a best-seller among the many other books about living and dying with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe it will. Or maybe readers will sigh and say, not another one. My challenge is to make this death and dying story different from all the others and give the readers something besides sadness.

As a reader, I’m starting to get tired of death and illness. I’m happy to find a book that is about something else. As an editor, I’m getting weary of bedside farewell poems. One of my favorite poems that we just accepted for Timberline is written from the viewpoint of Mozart’s sister and tells what a spoiled brat he was. Another talks about working in the forest cutting down trees. Another offers portraits of people seen on the streets of Portland, Oregon. There’s a dying poem, too, but only one because we can’t publish too many poems on the same subject.

Other popular topics these days are almost as grim as death and disease. Countless writers are publishing books and essays about sexual abuse. Others write about eating disorders, addictions, or coming out as gay. It makes me feel sometimes as if I can’t get published unless something horrific happened to me. I was raised by two loving parents who were not alcoholics, who did not beat me, who fed me well, took me to church and taught me my prayers. I’m straight, healthy, and relatively sane. What am I going to do with that?

Well, what about imagination and reaching out beyond our own experiences? What about putting a new twist on the old stories? What about writing something happy instead of tragic?

Death and dying are part of life. Go ahead and write about it. It’s healthy to express what you’re experiencing and feeling. But when you decide to publish what you write, think about these things: Has enough time passed that I can see my story objectively? How can I make my story different? How do I make sure it isn’t totally depressing? What will the reader get out of this? Read some of the memoirs mentioned above to see how they do it.

I just finished reading a memoir titled Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. Author Kelly Kittel went through horrible experiences. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say, she was pregnant 13 times and now has five living children. It’s a dramatic story that kept me reading all last weekend. I had to know what was going to happen next. And the story ended with a positive feeling. How? Read the book. If you can do it that well, you can write about death.

Let’s go write.


Don’t Be Dejected Over Rejections—It’s Not You, It’s Us

Rejections happen. The more writing you send out, the more rejections you get. I got one while I was working on this post. The wording usually follows a pattern: Thank you for letting us see your work. Unfortunately we will not be able to use it. We received hundreds of wonderful submissions and wish we had room for all of them. Sorry for this impersonal response. We wish you the best of luck.

For some reason, this makes me think of those dating breakups where the man or woman says they have to end the relationship, but “It’s not you. It’s me.” Right? You’re never sure whether it really is their problem or they’re trying to let you down easy. Either way, it’s over.

As one of the poetry editors of a new literary magazine called Timberline Review, I have been involved this month in the process of accepting and rejecting poems. It’s a discouraging process. We have only so much space, and we have two poetry editors and two managing editors who need to agree on the final selection. That means that some poems I love are not getting in and others that I was less thrilled about are getting acceptance notices today. It also means that while poets are allowed to send up to five poems—and most send five—we are probably only going to use one or two, even if the others are fantastic. We’re only using one from Oregon’s poet laureate, for Pete’s sake.

In addition, we are trying to create a good mix of styles and subjects, so if we have too many similar works, some will not get in. Ditto if it just does not fit. The process is flexible. When we thought we had our final list, a couple of us had second thoughts about some poems we wanted in and kicked out a couple of others that had been in the definite-yes group.

I’m sure the same process is happening with the prose submissions.

All this explains why a) sometimes it takes a long time to get an answer and b) good work gets rejected.

Discouraged? I don’t blame you. This whole experience has affected how I think about my own submissions. But what I’m saying is that rejection does not mean your work is bad. It could be great and still not make it. When you go shopping, don’t you pass up a lot of products because you just can’t use them right now? It’s the same with selling your writing. Most of the time, it’s not you. It’s us. Brush it off and send it out again. Rejections happen, but so do acceptances. Don’t give up. Next time they might say yes.

***

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about how authors don’t make any money off used books. In the latest edition of Writing-world.com, Moira Allen offers another view of the subject. We authors might not get royalties, she says, but there is great value in having our books being shared and sold second-hand because it lets new readers find our work and become fans who will pay full price for the rest of our books. Click here to read her piece, “Books: Read and Delete, or Read and Share?”

***

Now let’s go write.