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.

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Dos and Don’ts from the Poetry Editor

I have been reading poems as one of two poetry editors for the fledgling litmag Timberline Review. Over the last few weeks, I have read and reread at least a couple hundred poems, voting yes, no or maybe on the Submittable form that we use. Some of these decisions are easy. The poems are awful. Click on the thumbs-down marker. Others are brilliant. Click thumbs up, yes, yes, yes. Most fall somewhere in the middle. Click the question mark for “maybe.” They have what my friend Dorothy calls “lines to die for,” but there’s something not quite right. Maybe we can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. Maybe they’re mixing their metaphors. Maybe the last line falls flat.

The poetry editors and managing editors have been meeting to hash out which poems to use. It’s a grueling process. I want to share with you what I’m learning about how it works from the inside and what I’m learning about my own poetry. For example, today I realized a poem I thought was brilliant last week would never be accepted. So, here are a few lessons, most of which apply to any kind of writing you submit:

* If it says “blind submissions,” don’t put your name on the page with your poem or on the file name. We’re ignoring these mistakes this time, but most editors won’t.

* Write your poems in the heat of inspiration, but at some point, go back and figure out what you’re trying to say and make sure the poem says it.

* Weird is only okay if it works.

* Pick one great metaphor or simile and stick with it.

* Learn the difference between “its” and “it’s”.

* Spend extra time with your last lines. The thing we want to change most often is the last lines. Usually we want to take them out because they’re unnecessary. The poet has lingered too long.

* Consider whether your poem would rather be prose, whether the line breaks don’t really make it “poetic.” I think that’s the main problem with my poem from last week.

* Don’t preach in your poem unless you’re submitting to a religious publication.

* Give your submission a file name that says something more than “five poems for x review” so we can find them in the submissions queue. Try the title of one of your poems.

* Expect to wait a while for an answer about your submission. We each read these poems, have a meeting to talk about them, weigh the ones we like against the other ones we like, consider how they will fit together and how much space we have, meet again, and then we notify the writers yay or nay. Only the definite no’s get an early answer, so give us time to love your poems and figure out where to put them.

* Our deadline for submissions was March 31. About half our writers waited until the last minute. Send your stuff early if you can. The editors will be less rummy and will read with clearer minds.

There will be more lessons to share, I’m sure. Our magazine is Timberline Review. Visit the website for details. Our plan is to debut the first issue at the Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon the first weekend of August. It is going to be full of great writing. You can reserve a copy now at the website.

Comments? Questions? I’m here.

Now go write.


Where is the Best Place to Write?

My officeWhy is it that some of us find it easier to write away from home? I know I do. I’ve got a whole office set up with everything I need and nobody to distract me, but I still find that the words flow more easily when I go somewhere else, whether it’s a tiny table in a crowded Starbuck’s or a rock beside a river.

Home just has too many distractions, chores that need doing, family members calling for attention, or today in my case, the unidentified critter that seems to be living under my kitchen floor. It’s hard to concentrate when you hear claws scratching at something, possibly something important like the wiring. It’s also hard to concentrate when the dog is running around whining with her nose to the linoleum. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to do something about this situation, along with several other house problems that are screaming for my attention. But right now it’s time to write.

For me, once I get going, I can write pretty much anywhere. I spent years writing in busy newspaper offices with phones ringing, people talking, and folks coming in and out. It can be done, especially with deadlines pushing you to get the work done, but is it ideal? Not for me. I like it quiet.

Different writers have different needs for their writing space. Some keep music playing all the time; some need silence. Some are comfortable surrounded by stacks of books and papers; others need clean surfaces. Some need a windowless room with no distractions; others find inspiration looking out the window.

Whatever feels right to you is what you should have. If you can write on your laptop wherever you happen to be, or if a dedicated space makes you feel claustrophobic, make your backpack your traveling office. But most of us benefit from a dedicated space where we keep our computers, books and papers, and where we can surround ourselves with whatever we need to feel comfortable, whether it’s inspirational pictures and knickknacks, a cat to keep us company, or a cooler full of beer. Well, maybe not the beer. Write first, drink later.

I recently saw a picture online of a vintage travel trailer one writer turned into her office. It’s cozy and cute and best of all, it’s not in her house. My parents used to have a similar trailer, and I wrote in it for a while. It felt great.

In some cities, writers have joined forces to share rented office space to write. They share amenities like photocopiers, Wi-Fi access, and conference rooms. Read here about a few in New York or click here to read about The Writers’ Barn in Vermont. Here in Oregon, Willamette Writers has set up a writing house, where for $10 a day, writers can come write in comfortably furnished rooms decorated in famous-writer themes. Yes, it’s a house, but it’s not their own house. During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), members get together for write-ins, where they work on their novels together. That shared energy can really work.

We can all think of a hundred reasons why we can’t write, but lack of a comfortable writing space should not be one of them. Even if all you have is a corner of a room, claim it, put a screen around it if you have to, and get to work.

Where do you write? I would love to hear about your writing spaces and suggestions in the comments.

Now go write.


How do you find a critique group?

Last week when I wrote about how to tell when your novel is done, I mentioned my critique group and their reactions to my manuscript. You may have noticed other authors talking about their groups or thanking them on the acknowledgements pages of their published books. And you may be thinking: I don’t have a group, I have no idea how to get one, and it’s lonely out here.

I hear you. Good critique groups are not easy to find, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do. If you happen to be in a college creative writing program or taking a workshop, you might have a chance to critique each other’s work, but that’s only a temporary fix, and these might not even be the people you want to have reading your work. The ideal critique group is long-lasting, local, and small enough that every writer gets the attention he or she needs, but big enough to offer varied opinions. The members share a similar level of skill and experience, and they understand what you’re trying to do with your writing. They stick to a regular schedule and a consistent process that works.

How do you find such a group? That’s where networking comes in. Most writers would rather just write. Too bad. There are many steps between the writer and reading world, and you need other people to get there. Here’s what you do:

* Join a local or regional writing organization. Here in Oregon, I belong to Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge. We also have Oregon Writers Colony. In California, I belonged to the California Writers Club, which has branches all over the state. Most states have their own writing organizations. A quick Internet search will surely find you a group. You can find a great list of genre-specific groups at http://www.writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations.

* Go to writing events. Look for readings, open mics, workshops and conferences where you can meet other writers.

* Get involved. Join the board, volunteer, offer to bring cookies, read your work at the open mic, talk to people. Writers are inherently shy, but if you get yourself an official job to do, it’s a lot easier to meet people.

* Ask people about critique groups. Do they know of one that could use another member? Would they like to start one with you? If there’s a newsletter, submit a notice that you’re looking for a critique group. Our group was born one night before a Willamette Writers program when three of us were having dinner together and discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We set a date, started meeting, added a couple more members, and have been meeting every other Tuesday since then. When I lived in California, I was invited by a fellow member of California Writer’s Club to join her group.

Not every group succeeds. You may need to try different combinations of people. It helps if you’re all working on similar types of writing. In my group, we’re all doing novels or memoirs right now. Another group I know does nothing but poetry. And you need to set up a process. Where and when will you meet? Will you read passages out loud or distribute copies before the meeting? Our group sends up to 10 pages by email a few days before the meeting so members arrive having already read and marked up their copies. We go clockwise around the table giving our comments while the author listens and takes notes. We talk about what works and what doesn’t and about where the story is going. We discuss issues like flashbacks, point of view and plot. It’s painful when a friend says, “No, this section doesn’t work,” but it makes our work much stronger in the long run.

It’s not essential to meet in person. You can exchange critiques around the world by computer, adding comments and corrections with the “track changes” function in Word. You could even meet via Skype or Google Hangout. You can also join existing online critique sites such as the Critique Circle, where you earn critiques for your work by commenting on other members’ work. I belonged for a long time, and it was helpful. But there’s something about meeting face to face, working through the pages of your work together, that really does make it stronger.

We writers would like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do. We cannot be objective about our own work, and we will never see it as a reader sees it. We need a critique group.

But of course there’s nothing to critique until you write it.

So now go write.


If I’m not going to get rich, why publish a book?

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about book publishing. Posts have covered making the decision to write a book, how to approach a traditional book publisher or literary agent, and how to self-publish with a print-on-demand company. Before we move on to e-books and other forms of self-publishing, let’s take a minute to talk about why we might want to publish a book.

Dick Lutz, an author/publisher, notes that publishing a book is like buying a lottery ticket. One’s chances of winning the big jackpot—fame and fortune–are small, but we love to try because there’s always a chance that this book is the one.

In a recent column, he wrote something that got me nodding my head and writing “Yes!” “Success at book publishing can be measured in many ways. It’s not only whether or not you make money. Many a book that didn’t sell well enough to break even is still a success in that it served a purpose or fulfilled a need.”

Lutz goes on to list reasons to publish a book besides getting rich, all of them valid. Most of us don’t write just to get rich and famous. We also write to tell a story that needs to be told, to inspire, inform, educate, or entertain. We might do it just for fun or as a stepping stone to building a career.

I’ve been thinking about all this as I try to figure out how to explain to my father why I just spent $2,500 to print copies of my new book, Childless by Marriage. I’m sure I’ll spend more to publicize and market it. I hope I make money at it. I believe that I will at least match the modest but steady income that I get from my other books.

I daydream about a major publisher picking it up and zooming it to number one on the bestseller lists. But even if that doesn’t happen, I needed to tell this story. I needed to open the discussion of what it’s like to be childless because the man you marry is unable or unwilling to have children with you. If I never make a cent, I’ll still be glad I published this book.

Childless by Marriage has been available as a Kindle e-book since Mother’s Day. Yesterday, I picked up nine boxes of the paperback version. I’m not sure where to store them yet. I could have used the print-on-demand method, where the book is stored in digital form on a computer somewhere and copies are only printed as orders come in, but I’m an old-fashioned writer. I wanted books I could hold in my hand, carry in my car, sell at talks, meetings, fairs, conferences, etc. I didn’t want another company to come between me and my readers.

This book took more than a decade to see print. I will spend years marketing it and talking about it. Like a child, a book becomes a permanent part of your life. Before you commit to such a project, know why you’re doing it. If money is your only object, think again.