People are always telling aspiring writers that they need to sit down and write. Write every day. I say that, too. Every week, I conclude this blog with “Now go write.” But you might be wondering “Write what?” Some days I wonder that, too.
If you have a paying writing gig, either as a job or a freelance assignment, you know what you need to write. All you need to do is get off Facebook and do it. But if all you know is that you ought to be writing SOMETHING, what should you write? Where do you start? When I’m between projects, I turn to my piles of prompts and the ideas I scratched out in moments of inspiration, but sometimes none of those seem right. To be honest, sometimes I play the piano, buy groceries or work on a puzzle instead. But more often, I sit down with my journal and just start writing whatever’s on my mind. Usually it leads me into my next writing project. Yesterday, for example, the date, May 8, reminded me that I made my First Communion in the Catholic Church on May 8 many years ago. That led to seven pages of memoir about what it was like at church in those pre-Vatican II days, so different from how it is now.
Many writers I admire preach the benefits of journaling, writing “morning pages” or doing free-writing exercises to get the writing juices flowing. Just get the pen (or the fingers on the keys) moving and don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or has any chance of being published. You can turn to books like Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir for lots of ideas to get you started. Julia Cameron also preaches free-writing in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.The idea is that writing is like a sport or playing a musical instrument. You need to warm up. I agree. Lots of times when I feel completely uninspired, all I need to do is start writing and the inspiration comes.
Other writers will say this is a waste of time. If you’re going to do writing exercises, why not write something that advances your work in progress? All I can say is do whatever works for you.
Which brings us back to that work in progress. What is it? What kind of writing do you want to do?
Some readers here are firmly established in one genre or another. They write novels or poetry or essays or articles. Others are still trying to figure out where they belong. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling in lots of different kinds of writing, but eventually you’ll find one genre fits you better than all the others. Think about what you love to read. If all your dreams came true, would you find your byline on a feature in the New York Times, on the cover of a novel, on the spine of volume of poetry, or on top of the most popular blog ever? Do you just want to capture your stories for your family and friends? Or, are you looking to make lots and lots of money writing and don’t really care if you get a byline? Are you attracted to technical writing, corporate PR or advertising? Would you like to write movies? Plays? Porn?
Forget about money or fame. What kind of writing feels most natural? What kind of writing gets you so involved that you lose track of time? What would you be most proud of having written?
Today’s assignment is to write about what kind of writer you want to be and then write about what you need to do to become that kind of writer. Do you need to take classes, download programs, read books, apply for jobs, or join a writing group? What have other writers done to get where they are? Write yourself a plan. Then, next time you sit down to write, put that plan into action. If you have decided to write a novel, start writing it. If you want to write a movie, write the opening scene. If you want to be a technical or corporate writer, write your resume and start sending it out. Make a plan, write out the steps, and then take those steps one at a time.
I welcome your questions and comments.
Now go write. 🙂
Once upon a time not so very long ago, writers didn’t carry computers around. A sharp pencil and a notebook was all they needed. Maybe a typewriter if they wanted to get fancy, but those things were heavy. If they needed to communicate with anyone in writing, they wrote a letter, put a stamp on it and waited days, weeks or months for a reply.
But now, everybody’s online. You would think in the heart of Silicon Valley (aka Santa Clara Valley), the place from which most of our computers, iPads and smartphones originate, a traveling writer would be able to get online. But no. My father’s house, built in 1950, not only lacks a dishwasher and garbage disposal, but there’s not a hint of computer compatibility. I spent most of October and early N0vember there, and I could not connect to the Internet without going somewhere else.
Getting online has been a challenge since computers started talking to each other. Anybody remember modems and plugging your computer into a phone line? Yes, kids, that’s what we used to do. When my husband and I were both working in our home offices, we did lots of yelling along the lines of “I need to get online. When are you going to be off the phone?” In those days, when I visited my parents, I would wait until everyone was asleep, sneak into the kitchen, disconnect the family phone, plug in my computer and do my online business as quickly as possible. I paid AOL a small fortune for the privilege of getting online for maybe a half hour. Even in hotels, I had to plug into the phone line and dial over and over because the connections were usually overloaded. On maybe the tenth try, I’d get through.
Then, miracle of miracles, Wi-Fi (short for Wireless Fidelity) arrived. You could get online without telephone cables or hookups, the signals flying through the air. It was sort of like TV. But Wi-Fi, although available in a lot of places, is not everywhere, as I discovered at the Fishtrap writing workshop in the Wallowas last summer and at Dad’s house last month. Oh, there was Wi-Fi all over the place in San Jose, but all of the connections required passwords. The owners had put security blocks on them.
Then, as now, my father always had the same question: Why is it so important to be on your computer? Well, it wasn’t as important a decade ago as it is now. The writing business, like most businesses, is conducted over the Internet. Queries, manuscripts, acceptances, rejections, blog posts, comments, social networking, research, interviews, book orders—it all happens online, and we’re expected to respond quickly.
My dad is suffering from a heart problem. He’s scheduled for surgery next month. I was supposed to be taking care of him, so I couldn’t leave very often. I was late with my blog posts, couldn’t approve comments that came in, couldn’t process book orders, couldn’t post my book reviews, couldn’t hook up with my critique group. Compared to what was happening with my father, it wasn’t important, but I still ached to get online. When I could slip away, I grabbed some Internet time at Starbucks (noisy and crowded), at Kaiser Hospital while Dad was having tests (great Wi-Fi), at my aunt’s house where the connection kept cutting me off, and in the parking lot at the Westgate Mall, where I did weird contortions to keep the sun off my screen. If only I could have gotten online at the house.
It turns out I could have.
I’m not very up-to-date on my cell phone. I just hooked up to email a year or so ago. But it turns out where you can’t find Wi-Fi, you can often use the 3G or 4G mobile broadband networks that power smartphones and tablets. When my brother visited, he handed me his iPad, and it worked right there in that house where Wi-Fi never entered. I got to thinking about this. Yes, I could smarten up my phone. Or I could buy my own iPad. But what if I could hook the laptop I already have and like much better than my brother’s iPad to a 3G or 4G connection, whatever the heck those are?
Google! When I got home, I started researching, and voila, I can buy a 4G modem that plugs into my USB port or a “mobile hotspot” that will give me my own Wi-Fi connection wherever cell phones work. I’ll have to pay a monthly fee to my cell phone company, but hey, would I rather spend the money on Starbuck’s drinks I don’t really want or get cozy in the easy chair with my computer without some guy talking on his cell phone six inches from me?
The G in 4G stands for “generation” as in 4th generation communications technology. Each generation is supposedly faster and more efficient. Some devices still run on 3G these days, but 4G is the latest. If you’re going to do it, go for 4—unless there’s a 5G out there somewhere already. Some of the newer laptops already have the 4G built in. But if yours doesn’t, contact your computer guru or your cell phone company to check out the possibilities.
Next time I visit Silicon Valley, I will hook up to the Internet whenever I want, and that will be sweet. However, I did learn while I was gone that I don’t have to be online 24/7, that it’s healthy to walk away from the computer once in a while. I had some great sessions writing on paper while sitting in my mom’s old rocker by the window at dawn or in my bed just before I went to sleep. There was freedom in not having to worry about equipment, being interrupted by emails, or having to post anything, just writing. I recommend it. You can write without the Internet. You just can’t do research or sell what you write.
Eventually we’ve got to get online. So if you’re not sure how you’re going to hook up when you travel, check out the G thing. It might help you stay connected. That’s what I’m going to do. And then, when you’ve done all the Internet stuff you need to do, disconnect.
Now go write.
One piece of advice that especially hit home was Appel’s suggestion that we set our fictional stories in places we know very well, places where we have actually lived. With a guilty twinge, I thought about a novel that I drafted a few years back that I set on the other side of the country in a city in Massachusetts that I had visited for a few days. Great place. I took a lot of pictures and notes and always planned to go back and do more research, but can I ever capture the heart of a city where I have only spent a few days? I can gather lots of facts on the Internet, but can I really feel the place in my bones? I doubt it. Locals will know I’m faking it.
The novel I’m just finishing is set right here on the Oregon coast. I’ve been here for 17 years. I know the history, the people, the climate. I know what used to be where Walgreen’s just opened. I know the mayor, I swap critiques with a county commissioner, I have taught at the community college, had surgery at the local hospital, I know what kinds of birds, plants and wild animals live here, and I can name most of the businesses up and down Highway 101. I’m lucky that I live in a place where the natural setting offers plenty of opportunities for drama. I could write stories about the Oregon coast forever.
I come from San Jose, California, which has grown from a quiet farm community into a huge metropolis. You have to hunt for unpaved ground. Traffic, overcrowding and high prices are constant factors in everyday life. It’s a completely different scene, but I know that one well, too. My family lives there, and I visit often. I also know the road from here to San Jose ridiculously well. I’ve got so many places to set my stories.
How about you? Where do you live? What stories can you tell? Can you look at your hometown with the eyes of a visitor seeing it for the first time? Maybe they’re armed with a guidebook that points out the special attractions, but you know more about it than the guidebook. You know where the locals hang out. You know the history, the secrets, and the dangers. You know the language. One of my problems with the Massachusetts story was capturing that distinct New England way of speaking. But I don’t have to stretch to write dialogue from the West Coast. That’s how I speak.
Everywhere can be a setting for a story. For a writer, the whole world teems with stories. With enough research, you can set your story anywhere, but know that if you want to make it real, the best place to start is the place you call home. It may also help your career to become identified with a particular place. Give it a try. Write a story that happens where you live.
Next week: How to use where you live for your nonfiction.
I’ve still got a few copies of Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market available for $10, including shipping. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to buy an autographed copy.
Now go write.
You non-poets, stick around. This will work for you, too.
I’m not a great reviser of my poetry. I tend to throw lines on a page and consider it done. If it works, it works. But last week a prompt from Poets & Writers gave me a way to make an okay poem much better. The prompt was to take two favorite lines from a poem that needs revision and write a villanelle. Now, a villanelle is a form in which you write five three-line stanzas and end with a four-line stanza. What makes it tricky is that you are supposed to repeat the first line at the end of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line at the end of the third and fifth stanzas, then repeat them both as the last two lines of the ending quatrain. Confused yet? There’s more. The first and third lines of each stanza should rhyme while the second lines all rhyme with each other. Ready to give up? I hear you. For a great explanation and examples of villanelles, click on http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796.
But wait, you don’t have to write a villanelle. In this exercise, the villanelle is just a tool, like grabbing a different screwdriver from the toolbox. And you have choices. In my revision, I didn’t do the rhymes, just the repetitions, and I liked what I got. Using the villanelle form forced me to think a little harder about what I was trying to say and to choose lines that said it better. However the repetitions became too . . . repetitious. So . . . I started a whole new poem, using the best of the villanelle, with fewer repetitions, and now I really like my poem. It took a while, I got a little sunburned because I was working out on the deck, but now I get it. Keeping only the best of the poem, cutting and adding until all the lines are good, I think I finally am saying what I was trying to say.
They’re only words, friends, tools to express an idea or a feeling. If the words aren’t quite right, reach into the toolbox for other words. You can always save the rejected lines for another poem. If you insist on keeping only the words from that first blast of inspiration, it’s like trying to tighten the screws on a bookshelf with a flathead screwdriver when what you really need is a Phillips-head. You’ll never get it tight, and it will always wobble.
Now go write.
We have approximately one million unique words in the English language. The number varies, depending on which expert you ask. The numbers for how many of those words we use also vary wildly, but they all come out to fewer than 10 percent. Of course, we have the words we understand and the words we speak or write. Our language is full of delightful words that I understand but never employ, words like famished, harbinger, porcelain, and scurrilous.
I find that like most people, I’m guilty of using the same words over and over. For example, “amazing” comes out of my mouth at least 20 times a day. Surely everything is not amazing. But I hear the word all around me, so I use it. I go for the excessive word. I’m not just hungry, I’m starving. I’m not just cold, I’m freezing.
We often mimic what our favorite TV characters say. “I know. Right?” “Seriously.” “Seriously?” We also imitate our friends and family, copying their favorite expressions and their favorite curses. That’s not a terrible thing. Using the same words helps us communicate. BUT if we’re writers, we need to go beyond repeating the same old words. I’m not saying we need to start writing in such a way that readers won’t understand what we’re talking about. God forbid. But we do need to stretch a bit, to vary our language and find those words that are the best fit for the circumstances.
I’m in the midst of fine-tuning my new novel. Last week, I found a tool that helped me identify words that I use excessively. It’s amazing. Oops, I said amazing again. How about ingenious? In Microsoft Word, go to the edit menu and click on replace. In the blank that says “find,” insert the word you’re looking for. In the “replace” blank, type ^&. Now click on “replace all.” It will give you a number without changing anything in your document. Magic, right?
In my manuscript, I found 94 uses of “really.” I wrote “car” 150 times and “phone” 115. I used “freakin’ far too many times and employed f— more than I like. My character speaks of “crying” or “tears” 74 times. I used “so” more than 400 times. Obviously I have some work to do.
We all have our pet words. Among the most overused are “amazing,” “awesome,” “great,” “quite,” “so,” and “then.” Many are qualifiers like “really” or “very” that can be deleted without hurting a thing. Others are lazy words, not quite the right word but the one that comes to mind first. When I write freezing, is it truly freezing? Are things turning to ice, or is it just cold? Is it chilly, nippy, crisp, biting, or piercing? Am I shivering? Do I have goose bumps? Are my feet going numb? Am I truly starving, as in going to die for lack of food, or did I just miss breakfast?
When you’re writing a first draft and the words are flowing, don’t stop to worry about making each word perfect and unique. If you’re not sure of the right word, mark it and keep going. But when the rush of words slows, go back and reconsider your words. Is there a better word, a more accurate word, a more colorful word, a more powerful word?
Remember what Mark Twain said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
If you must, consult a thesaurus, a book that gives you words that mean pretty much the same thing. I’ve got my yellowed old Roget’s Thesaurus paperback, but I’m finding it easier to consult thesaurus.com online. Plug in a word and see what you get. But don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means and always consider whether you need that word at all. Seriously.
Now go write.
Here we are again with three quick tips for writers. The idea is to give you something you can use right away and then get back to your writing. If you have suggestions for websites, books or prompts to list here, please add them to the comments.
Literary agent Donald Maass knows how to produce books that sell, and he shares that information in his books for writers: Writing the Breakout Novel, The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, His books cut through the gobbledygook and tell you what it really takes to succeed as a novelist.
The web is riddled with writers giving advice to other writers (I know, I’m doing it, too). But Carol Tice’s Make a Living Writing site is truly helpful. Recent posts include how to write pitches and queries that actually work, what kinds of assignments writers should NOT take, and how to sell that piece you haven’t been able to sell.
Click on a random photo you have stored in your computer or other device.
1. Write a poem or prose piece about what was happening when that picture was taken. Describe the scene, the emotions, and what was happening before or after.
2. Now tell it from the point of view of somebody else who was there or a fictional character that you invent. Use your imagination.
Now Go Write
Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Are you finding that grammar is a mystery? Why do people keep adding commas to your manuscripts? What’s the deal with lay and lie? Find help from grammar guru Mignon Fogarty at Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She also has a Grammar Girl book by the same title.
The Poet’s Companion: a Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorriane Laux. It’s got everything from getting started to getting published, including lots of poems to read and lots of writing exercises to try.
Rewrite a fairy tale. They’re doing it on TV and in books. You can, too. Start with your favorite fairy tale or myth, give it a modern setting with modern problems and a new point of view and see what happens. You can do this with current stories, too, but you’ll need to make it a totally new story to avoid copyright problems.
Now Go Write
I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.
I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.
I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.
First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.
However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.
I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.
Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.
Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.
Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.
If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:
1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach
2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work
3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.
You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.
I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.
If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.
Don’t stop writing.
Best of luck,