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February 15, 2012
“A writer must feel comfortable expressing herself in words, letting them flow before critiquing them or subjecting them to examination,” say Linda Metcalf and Tobin Simon in Writing the Mind Alive. “Many people who have an ambition to write are held back at the starting gate by some form of this [cognophobia] condition.”
Judgments From Within
Is silencing those premature judgments a problem for you? Do you sit frozen at the keyboard, considering and then tossing out ideas and sentences that sound “dumb” or “trite” or ”silly” or void of any literary content at all?
I do it–every time I try something new or try to write on a more difficult level or subject. Like this month.
I took a work-for-hire assignment a couple of weeks ago that is giving me fits. It’s for an age group new to me, and it’s a form of writing I’ve never tried before. After my first effort, the editor very kindly asked me to go back to the drawing board and try again. (He was right to ask.) If I don’t snatch myself bald before I’m done, it will be a miracle.
Advice from the Greats
Help came from an unexpected source today. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading and loving The Literary Ladies: Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas. This morning I remembered some advice from the literary greats that helped me–and might help you too.
We are blessed to have so much written correspondence from writers of the past. I hate to think of all the wonderful material that would have been lost if famous authors e-mailed and texted back then. These quotes particularly struck a chord with me.
Edna Ferber blamed writer’s block on “trying to write better than you can.” Anna Quindlen agreed: “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
In It Together
Even Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind had this trouble. She said, ”I had believed that established writers, writers who really knew how to write, had no dificulty at all in writing. I had thought that only luckless beginners like myself had to rewrite endlessly, tear up and throw away whole chapters, start afresh, rewrite and throw away again. I knew nothing about other writers and their working habits, and I thought I was the only writer in the world who went through such goings-on.”
But that was Margaret Mitchell on writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. What about the rest of us? While none of us may be hoping for a Pulitzer, we are hoping for a book contract, an agent, good reviews, and good sales of our children’s writing.
What’s the Answer?
Nava Atlas in The Literary Ladies says the blocked state is a “self-consciousness that causes you to seize up and shut down… the answer to this is to be where you are with your writing, and not try to write as the Pulitzer Prize-winning fantasy version of yourself. There’s no way to reach soaring heights without taking all the tiny steps to get there.”
And we all have some kind of fantasy writer version that we aspire to. You may not be conscious of it, but you do. Usually it’s helpful, but when that fantasy version of ourselves becomes an inner critic, you have trouble. This judge can kill your words before they ever reach the light of day.
How can we keep this from happening? Anais Nin said this about her own writing: ”The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I wrote every day. There was no more than that.” She didn’t study writing or go to conferences or take classes. She simply sat down and wrote about her experiences at the end of every day, without fail. She is most famous for her published diaries too.
Our Own Worst Enemies
Perhaps we make things too difficult for ourselves. Maybe our self-induced cognophobia that could be eliminated if we lowered our expectations.
I know that Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life advocates writing sh*^#@ rough drafts instead of holding yourself up to such high inner standards. As one literary lady suggested, we need to stop despairing of writing eloquently–and just write instead. Get the words down, no matter how bad they may sound. The Pulitzer-type writing (no matter who you are) comes in the rewriting.
With that in mind, I return to the work-for-hire project. Like the Literary Ladies of old, I will be content today with just getting some words down.
How about you? Is there a piece of writing that is stopping you cold because you don’t yet write as well as you want to? Would you benefit from the advice of these Literary Ladies?
January 18, 2012
I want to share a gem I read the other day in this book: C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children. It is reported that C. S. Lewis answered all his mail (stacks of it daily), and he did most of it by hand. Occasionally his brother, Warnie, typed the answers he dictated. (Lewis didn’t type.)
Once Lewis’ Narnia books were published, much of his fan mail was from children. He answered it all, their questions about Narnia and their questions about becoming writers. Some of the letters were collected for this book. I love how he talked to even the younger children rather “man to man.”
Advice for Writers
This piece of advice, given to a young fan, is advice we would all do well to adhere to. Lewis wrote:
“I have one other piece of advice. Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do.
(1) Things we ought to do
(2) Things we’ve got to do
(3) Things we like doing.
I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them. Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping. Things one likes doing–but of course I don’t what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.”
What wonderful advice! In every life–including the writing life–there are things one ought to do, things we have to do, and things we like to do. And, as Lewis obviously knew, you won’t have time to do the things you like to do (including writing about the things you want to write about), if you’re being swayed by what others think you should be doing with your time.
What About You? Are You Free?
Most of us have areas where we don’t feel free, where we ”bend” our true selves into a shape that we hope is pleasing to others. It might be in how we dress, or how we talk, which opinions we voice, what topics we write about, what movies we watch, how we decorate our homes–you name it. While I don’t waste time reading books I don’t like (as Lewis advised), I know that my writing time is often eaten up by things that don’t fit Lewis’ 1-2-3 criteria.
If you’re having trouble finding time to write, time to study, and time to read good books–all those necessary “writerly” activities–assess your activities. Hold each one up to the light of Lewis’ recommendations. He fulfilled his true responsibilities to others (#1 and #2), but he also read what he liked and wrote what he liked. (And he did it despite criticism, including having his friend, J. R. R. Tolkein suggest that he give up on those Narnia tales.)
While I don’t expect to write like C. S. Lewis, I do like his rules! If those guidelines were good enough for Lewis, they’re good enough for us!
January 11, 2012
If you want a writing mentor, you need look no further than Cec Murphey’s Unleash the Writer Within. The subtitle calls it ”the essential writers’ companion.”
I would have to agree.
What’s Different About This Book?
It’s honest, it’s transparent, and it comes from the heart. It also made me laugh on more than one occasion because the author had the guts to say some things that need to be said about the writing life, how we market, and so many other topics dear to a writer’s heart.
Before you get stressed out and caught up in all the things “they say” you have to do and be and write about to be successful, I urge you to get a copy of this book. It will help you discover your own personal voice and style so you sound authentic. It will show you how to actually make friends with your inner critic and writer’s block–and eliminate them. And the author deals so honestly with a writer’s fears–and how to use them and learn from them to grow as a writer.
Who Is This Man?
So who is Cecil Murphey? Why should you listen to his advice? Well, he’s a New York Times’ best-selling author who’s written or co-written more than 120 fiction and nonfiction books, including the runaway bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Don Piper) and Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into more than 40 languages.
- “Too many want-to-be-successful authors get the idea that you must write in a certain way to succeed.”
- “Your most honest writing becomes your best writing.”
- “I don’t advocate rigid self-discipline. I tried that. For years, I held to tight schedules, refused to allow deviations, and castigated myself when I failed. I’ve since learned that true self-discipline flows out of gentleness and self-respect.”
- “How would it affect your writing if you weren’t constantly looking at your faults but focusing on what you can do?”
- “You write best what you know best. The better you know yourself, the higher the quality of your work.”
- What if you follow everyone else’s advice about your writing? “If you heed their words, you may end up trying to be somebody you’re not. To follow that advice not only weakens the power of your words, but the writing doesn’t ring true because it no longer comes from deep within.”
- “If it’s easy or simple to write, it probably isn’t what I’d call poignant or powerful.”
- “You don’t have to be productive every day….for compulsives (like me), it takes a major decision not to be productive and not to feel guilty. I remind myself that the best part of my writing takes place inside my head.”
- “Start within your comfort zone and write from who you are.”
- “I feel afraid when I bare my soul. I run the risk that others will despise me, ridicule me, or ignore me. That’s who I am. That’s all I have to offer.”
When Cec Murphey explained to his agent why he didn’t want to write a book for writers–that he actually dreaded it–this was her response: “Too many writers won’t acknowledge their fear, and when they eventually come to the place where they realize they’re afraid, they freeze. You need to write it for those still behind you on the pathway.” I’m glad he took her advice.
I hope Cec Murphey decides to teach a workshop or lead a writer’s retreat based on his book for writers. I would love to attend! Until then, I’m starting the book over–from the beginning.
October 7, 2011
I very rarely read an e-book and then buy the hard copy–but I did in this case. I have to mark it up, add my colored flags and post-its, and turn down page corners.
Why? Because it is so very full of practical, usable, frugal marketing advice. (And I mean frugal in terms of both money and your time.) I already owned the 2004 first edition, but publishing times have changed so much–and this 2011 updated version reflects that.
Why a New Edition?
We all know that book promotion (and life!) has changed since The Frugal Book Promoter was first published in 2004–particularly in ways that have to do with the Web, but in other ways, too. As an example, the publishing world in general is more open to independent publishing now than it was then. So, this update includes lots of information on ways to promote that were not around or were in their infancy a few short years ago.
So here is what is new:
- A simplified method for making social networks actually work–without spending too much time away from my writing
- How to avoid falling into some of the scam-traps for authors
- The best “old-fashioned” ways to promote–the ones I shouldn’t give up on entirely
- How to write (and publish) an award-worthy book
- How to promote your book to mobile users and others
- The pitfalls of using the Web and how to avoid them
- Unusual methods of getting reviews–even long after your book has been published
Today’s technology, social networking and marketing techniques are covered. Updated web resources abound. Advice in sync with today’s Internet are incorporated:
* Blogging tips and pitfalls
* Obtaining reviews and avoiding scams
* Finding places to pitch your book
* Using the eBook explosion to promote sales
* Using Google alerts to full advantage
* Staying on top of current trends in the publishing industry
* Writing quality query, media release letters and scripts for telephone pitches
* Putting together power point and author talk presentations
This is just a tip of the iceberg too. I highly recommend Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s updated Frugal Book Promoter. (NOTE: Be sure you get the new 2011 edition with the cover above.)
September 9, 2011
We writers all want to know what editors REALLY think about our submissions. Especially with rejections, we wish we could know what is wrong with the story.
If you want some terrific insights into this question, I’d recommend Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein. (The full title tells it all: Second Sight: an Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults.) It’s a collection of speeches given to writers, plus a few blog posts from her website.
Defining Good Writing
One chapter that might give you a clue about your rejections was on defining good writing. Klein wrote about five qualities she thinks about a lot when considering whether she wants to acquire a manuscript:
- Good prose: the quality of the writing. Smooth? Clean? Lyrical? Good pacing?
- Character richness: interesting people with dimension. Do they grow and change? Do I care about them?
- Plot construction: things must happen. Logical? Unpredictable? What’s at stake?
- Thematic depth: the story says something about the world.
- Emotion: being caught up in the emotions felt by the main character (and those emotions may vary widely)
What About You?
Cheryl Klein says to be “a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories,” most importantly (to her) #2 and #5.
How about you? When you read a good book, what is most important to you? What is the one (or maybe two) qualities it must have for you to pass the book along to your best friend as a “must-read”? [For me, it's character richness. I don't care how great the writing or the plot is until the author has made me care about the character.]
July 11, 2011
Over the years, you might feel that I’ve given you conflicting advice. One week I might say, “Write every day!” Another time I might advise you to “get some rest and renewal.”
While it might appear to be conflicting advice, I think it has more to do with the fact that we’re all different–and at different points in our writing.
Here is a poem or saying from the book The Relief of Imperfection by Joan Webb that explains why this is true. I will adapt it to writers below.
Unique Personalities and Needs
- Some of us need to stop thinking and do, while others need to stop doing and think.
- Some need to stop asking and give, though others need to cease giving and ask.
- Some of us need to stop crying and smile, yet others need to stop smiling and cry.
- Some need to stop confronting and give in, while others need to quit compromising and confront.
- Some of us need to stop waiting and run, though others need to stop running and wait.
How would these ideas apply to writers? I think it might go something like this:
- Some of us need to stop researching and write, while others need to stop writing and think through their ideas.
- Some need to stop asking for free critiques, though others need to stop giving away their writing and ask for payment.
- Some writers need to stop crying over rejections, yet others need to stop pretending and admit that rejection hurts.
- Some writers need to stop arguing every point in their contract, while others need to quit compromising and ask for what’s fair.
- Some writers need to stop procrastinating and start writing, though other writers need to stop writing and rest a while.
Different Folks, Different Strokes
Only you can decide where you fall in this continuum. And it won’t always be the same place.
I’ve had years where I plunged ahead with a writing project, but I should have stopped and done more research and thinking. On the other hand, I’ve had projects where I’ve been too scared to start the writing. Rather than face the overwhelming fear, I procrastinated and called it “planning”.
There is an old saying in many churches designed to help people get unstuck. Someone may ask, “Are you waiting on God – or is God waiting on you?” Only you can know your own motives. Only you can know if you are putting off submitting your novel because it’s truly not ready – or if you’re a frightened perfectionist afraid to let it go.
The next time you’re stuck, examine why you are doing – or not doing – your next writing task. Journaling your feelings is a great way to discover your own motivation. What works for you today may not be what worked for you last year. Writing advice is not “one size fits all.”