Nine signs you were born to be a writer

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I think I realized I was born to write when I was in seventh grade. My English teacher pulled me out of class one day and asked if I was interested in participating in an essay contest. I was flattered and said yes. Never mind that I never submitted an essay to the contest.

Over the years, other teachers expressed similar opinions about my writing skill. No wonder I wanted to write when I grew up. Everybody thought I was good at it.

That begs the question: how do you know that you were born to be a writer? The answer, I suppose, is as varied as the individual writer. Some people start creating plays and writing short stories as early as kindergarten. Others discover their writing hobby in high school when they begin keeping a diary or dabble in poetry. Yet many others don’t discover writing until well into adulthood.

The truth is there are signs that you are meant to be a writer, or at least love to write. (I believe there is a difference between the two: loving to write is more of a hobby while being a writer is a calling.)

Here are a few signs that convinced me that I was born to write. Of course, your experience may be quite different than mine.  

1. You see stories all around you. No matter where you look – your backyard, the park, the school, or the grocery store – stories abound. You can find stories in the people you see on the street and in nature too. For example, there’s a story behind the couple arguing in a restaurant, and a story behind the family of raccoons that dig into your garbage cans every night searching for their next meal. When you see stories in people, places and things, you know you are a writer.

2. You’re a day dreamer. You could be sitting in a classroom, around the dinner table, or out on the patio with your morning coffee, and your mind transports to other worlds – some you know well, and others that don’t exist except in your own imagination. If you’re constantly dreaming of real or imagined worlds, you have the creative mindset to be a writer.

3. You love to read. Reading and writing seem interconnected; I don’t think you can do one without the other. If you enjoy reading full-length books, such as memoirs and nonfiction to suspense thrillers and science fiction, you are naturally going to want to write full-length books too. Reading helps you learn about crafting stories, essential if you want to be a writer.

4. You enjoy spending time alone. Recent research at the University of Buffalo finds that unsociable individuals who withdraw from society because of a “non-fearful preference for solitude” are more likely to engage in creative activities. Writers are by nature solo artists. They do their best work when they are alone. They don’t mind that alone time because it gives them a chance to hear their thoughts, organize their ideas and craft their stories, both inside their heads and on paper.

5. You’ve received compliments about your writing. You may even keep a file of papers and essays with teachers’ remarks on it that remind you how good you can be. Pay attention to the feedback you get from teachers and colleagues. More important, pay attention to what you learn about your writing from their feedback. For example, while the feedback from my teacher in eighth grade made me feel good, her observation about being verbose and repetitive made me more aware of what I needed to work on. To this day, I write with an awareness to be succinct. If so many people tell you that they enjoy your writing, that might be a sign that you were meant to write.

6. You always kept a journal. It seems many writers kept a journal when they were younger. Journals are a way to sort through your emotions, your ideals, your hopes and dreams. You might one day look back over what you’ve written so long ago to see how far you’ve come in understanding that time of your life. Making sense of nonsensical things is one of the strengths of writers. Keeping a journal to do that is one more sign you might have been born to write.

7. You are constantly reading and learning about writing. You attend workshops, conferences, lectures, and author readings. You join writing groups to get feedback for your work. You soak up all the knowledge you can about your craft. You don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a writer because there are plenty of other resources available, such as websites, magazines and writing studios. There’s a huge writing community, and we can all learn from each other.

8. You express yourself better in writing than verbally. Debra Lobel, an author at the Writing Cooperative, says when things get too emotional, she writes about those emotions and puts them down on paper. Sometimes she sends the note, but other times, Lobel says, she puts it into her fiction. If you were born to write, you probably find it easier to put your thoughts on paper than to speak them.

9. You had imaginary friends in childhood. Sure, you hung out with your school friends and did your homework together, but when you needed a good heart-to-heart chat, you turned to those invisible friends for comfort. At least, they never talked back to you.

However, just because you experience any or all of these signs doesn’t guarantee that you were meant to write.  Conversely, you can still be a writer even if none of these experiences is true for you.

Think about your own writing experience. Were there any signs early on that you were meant to be a writer?

Come to think of it, there is probably only one true sign that you were born to write. That is making the time to write every day.  

Let Your Natural Writing Rhythm Help You Become More Productive

Ever notice that there’s a natural rhythm to life? If you pay close attention, you can see it all around you.

For example, you may see a rhythm in the changing of the seasons – from spring, summer, autumn and winter, then back to spring again. You may see it in the repeated patterns of the 12 months of the year, the seven days of the week, nighttime and daytime, and through the new moon/full moon cycles.

Likewise, humans have a natural rhythm, like the steady inhalation and exhalation of breath, for instance. You may go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time the following morning (unless you’re an insomniac, then all bets are off). Eating three meals a day, usually at the same time every day is another example of that rhythm. And for women, there’s the monthly menstrual cycle.

You may notice too how you are more energetic at certain hours of the day, while at others, usually midafternoon, your energy dips. When you become aware of the rise and fall of your natural energy levels, you can work with those rhythms to write more and create better work.

It’s like watching traffic patterns in the city and waiting for when highway traffic is light so you can drive to your destination without hitting any traffic jams. It’s like riding your raft in the direction that the river flows rather than fight against the flow going in the opposite direction.

Your writing process can fall into an easy rhythm too, if you remain aware of those cycles of productivity and creativity in your life. There’s as much an ebb and flow to your writing process as there is in the ocean tides. For more about creativity cycles, check out this article on Write to Done blog which describes the four phases of the cycle in depth.

At high tide, for instance, your energy level rises. You may feel ready to tackle complex projects, and ideas and words flow seamlessly. You seem able to get more done in a shorter amount of time.

At low tide, your energy dips. Everything seems like a struggle. You have difficulty finding the right words for what you want to say.

When you learn to recognize the high tides and low tides that are specific to you, you can adjust your writing routine accordingly. You can schedule writing sessions during high tides to to capture the creative flow and ride it as long as possible, like a surfer on the ocean. Reserve the low tides for administrative tasks that don’t require as much thought, creative energy or complex problem solving.

One way to learn about your natural creative rhythm is to track your activities throughout the day. For an example of how this works, check out author Chris Bailey’s blog A Life of Productivity in which he describes how you can calculate your biological prime time – your most productive hours of the day.

You may already know which hours of the day you are most productive. For me, it’s that morning window of 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. That’s when I do most of my creative writing.

When you are aware of your energy peaks and valleys – your writing rhythm – you can fit writing into those productive periods and save the valleys for more mundane tasks. You’ll get more writing done in short bursts when your energy is at its peak, and you’ll avoid spinning your wheels during those periods of low energy. Consequently, your writing practice may grow beyond your wildest dreams because you’re able to achieve more in less time.

When you recognize the best wave when it comes along, you can ride it to the shore. Enjoy the ride.

How Well Do You Manage Your Emotions When You Write?

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Several years ago when I faced an emotional and financial crisis, I took to journaling almost every day to deal with the pain and anxiety I felt. The emotional pain was so intense, in fact, that it took two notebooks of journal entries to release those emotions. I just kept writing and writing to release the anger, fear and guilt I felt until I had my emotions under control. Writing in my journal was much better than pacing floors and indulging in crying spells.

Psychologists at the Harvard University Healthbeat blog call this expressive writing. They cited several studies showing how expressive writing (journal writing) can help you manage stress and anxiety by organizing your thoughts and making sense of traumatic experiences. Expressive writing can also help you break free of the endless mental cycling through of events that can lead to brooding and depression.

So why am I writing about this? With so much going on in our world, many people begin writing to deal with their often confused emotions to make sense of things. For many, writing helps heal wounds both old and new. At a time like now, expressive writing, or different variations of it, can help you deal with the emotional aspects of these dramatic events.

Writers learn to write with emotion, to use it to fuel their stories. But how do you write when you feel too overwhelmed by life-altering events, when you feel too emotional to write? How do you express your emotions without being overwhelmed by them? How do you put those emotional experiences into proper perspective?

Here are a few writing tools to help you navigate those rocky seas of emotion.

1. Journaling – Therapists at the University of Rochester Medical Center say that journaling is one of the easiest ways to release your emotions, next to talking to a close friend or family member. That’s where expressive writing comes in. The idea behind journaling, or expressive writing, is to set aside time every day to write in a journal or notebook for a specified amount of time, say thirty minutes or so. (However, in my personal experience, if you’re feeling really emotional about a situation, you might consider writing for longer than that, or at least until you have nothing left to put on the page.) Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation or sentence structure, and don’t show your journal to anyone. Journaling is your personal path to healing.

2. Freewriting – Freewriting is like a stream of consciousness on the page. You don’t stop to edit yourself either, much like journaling. While expressive writing helps you deal with the emotional content, like a dumping ground of sorts, freewriting is the flow of thoughts and ideas. Journaling is more personal, while freewriting is less emotional. But because of the assortment of ideas, freewriting helps you sort through them to find nuggets of wisdom. I also recommend handwriting for both journalizing and freewriting because writing by hand creates a direct connection to your subconscious mind.

3. Letter writing — Another exercise I used to get through my emotional crisis was letter writing. Write a letter to that person (or organization) who you feel angry with (or disappointed, saddened, frustrated, etc.). Describe your rage or fears, and most important, explain what you would like them to do in response. Be specific in your request. Most important, don’t mail the letter. Instead, tear it up or burn it. Release the contents into the Universe. You never ever want to mail a letter to someone that you wrote in anger. You might regret it later. Write as many letters as you see fit until your emotions are under control. It really does make you feel better to get things off your chest, even if you never mail the letter.

4. Write about your experience in third person. This suggestion comes from a therapist at Psych Central, who explains that writing in third person (he/she/they) creates distance between yourself and the traumatic event. When it’s less personal, the traumatic experience is easier to deal with.

5. Do nothing. Yes, you read that right. Do nothing – at least for right now. Be careful not to respond to a volatile situation with a kneejerk reaction. What you write in the heat of the moment may not be what you really want to say. Allow time for your emotional self to cool off. It could be a few days, a week or a month or more. When you wait for the drama to subside, what you want to write about will eventually become clear.

The turmoil in the world has created a lot of emotional noise. You don’t want your voice to get lost in it. Take a step back (or two or three) from the drama, allow some time to pass, then you’ll be able to look upon that situation with greater clarity. Writing can help by giving you an outlet for those pent up feelings.

With life in topsy-turvy mode these past few months, writing solely for yourself can bring balance back into your life.

Are You Being Truly Authentic in Your Writing?

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Webster’s dictionary defines authentic as “genuine” or “real.” But what does it mean to be genuine or real in your own writing?

Writing authentically means revealing a little bit about yourself through your writing. You provide a glimpse of your daily life so others can see that you are not some robot but a real person with real feelings and real experiences of the world. Your readers are looking for a reason to connect with you. They want to see your humanness. Being a responsible, authentic writer means opening yourself up to them.

I’m not talking about an online diary or a log of everything you ate for breakfast this morning. I’m talking about human emotion and experiences, which readers can relate to.

Writing with an authentic voice is the key to being a successful writer, says writer and blogger James Prescott, who eloquently describes his own experience about losing his authentic self at the Publishous blog. When Prescott focused on external ego-centric factors like publishing deals and how many followers he had, he said he easily lost sight of what was truly important about writing: connecting with readers.

Your readers aren’t interested in those ego-centric things about you. What they do want to know is how you overcome writing blocks, how you found your first writing gig, how you brainstorm story ideas. Because these are issues they deal with every day. These are problems they want to solve. They want to see that you are just like them, a writer who struggles with motivation and inspiration and time management, even as you build your success.

Writing authentically is about knowing what your audience wants to know, not what you want for yourself. For example, you might begin a blog post by telling readers about a writing class you attended recently and what you learned from it. Not only do you share your knowledge, you put up a mirror of sorts so they can see themselves through you. Sharing your personal stories helps you connect with your readers.

Readers are on your side. They want you to succeed in your writing. They want to read stories that are honest and truthful and speaks to their heart. They seek authenticity from the writers they read and follow in social media, so it’s up to you and me, as writers, to give them what they want.

Here are a few ways that you can bring more authenticity to your writing.

  • Turn off the negative internal voice. You know the one that tells you that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have a right to share your knowledge with others, that writing is a big waste of time. You get the idea. Find a way to shut out that negative internal voice. Better yet, shout back at them. “Yes, I am good enough. Yes, I enjoy writing so it’s not a waste of time.”

  • Stop worrying about being perfect. Just focus on your message. What do you want to say to your readers? When you focus on your message, the right words will come naturally.

  • Watch for performance anxiety. Putting words down on the page is a lot like standing on a stage to perform for an audience, but you don’t have a script and you have to fly by the seat of your pants. Not knowing what to say to a room full of strangers can cause anxiety for even the most practiced public speakers. If you feel performance anxiety just by staring at a blank page, again focus on your key message(s). The words will come.

  • Feel the fear and write about it anyway. Human emotions are the one thing that connects us all. We all feel fear. We all know what it’s like to feel our knees go weak, our hands tremble, and our heart beat wildly inside our chest. Write about those things. Those experiences will help you connect to your readers.

  • Learn to meditate. Meditating helps you quiet your mind and slows your breath to an easy rhythm. When your thoughts slow down, you can observe your inner world more clearly. You can observe the way you think and the way you feel. When you slow down, new thoughts arise, thoughts you never knew you had. Meditating helps you reconnect to your true self, and when you connect to your true self, you discover your personal truths. When you are in tuned with those truths, you are more likely to share them with conviction.

Don’t be afraid to share what you learn about yourself. It’s scary, of course, but that’s what makes it real. That’s what make you human. That’s what makes you authentic. And your writing will improve because of it.

What about you? How do you bring authenticity into your writing?

For more about authenticity in writing, check out these links:
Why Authenticity as a Writer and Blogger Is Crucial to Success
Writing with Authenticity

Learning to Pivot During Times of Crisis

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I’m stepping aside from my usual posts about the business of writing to explore a different topic – learning to pivot.

“Pivot” has suddenly become one of the common terms associated with the pandemic crisis that we’ve been dealing with these past few months. What does it mean to pivot? In today’s terms, it means repurposing skills and resources to address an immediate need. It’s the ability to switch gears, to shift from one focus to another.

It’s much like watching the weather change before our eyes, then taking steps to protect ourselves from the wind, the rain and lightning.

In the time of coronavirus, people are pivoting between careers, relationships and life goals. One day they may be serving meals to customers at their diner. The next they are packaging meals to deliver to healthcare workers working on the front lines.

Or one day, they may be operating a T-shirt company or work as a seamstress. The next, they may be making masks to meet public demand for face coverings.

Parents have had to pivot too, by becoming at-home school teachers for their kids.

Writers and creatives are not immune. They’ve had to make some rapid adjustments as well. A survey by Freelancers Union in early April found that 76% of freelancers lost business because their clients cancelled contracts or projects. Their clients were small businesses or travel/hospitality companies that were hit particularly hard during this time and couldn’t afford to keep them on. Further 65% reported that they could not find new clients as a result of the pandemic.

With those results, it’s easy to see how some writers need to pivot as much as restaurant workers and travel agents. At least, writers may have more options than those other workers.

So how can you pivot in your writing career during this difficult time? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

— Ask yourself, “How can I help?” Look around at what is happening in your community. Is there someone who needs assistance? They may not need your writing and editing skills, but maybe they are isolating and need groceries or prescriptions. Doing something constructive can give you some peace of mind, even when you’re not writing.

— Brainstorm ways that you can repurpose your creative skills, or develop new ones. If writing assignments have dried up, look at other ways you can engage. Perhaps start a blog if you don’t already have one, teach a writing workshop to friends and colleagues on Zoom. Or read stories to your kid’s kindergarten class via Zoom. By repurposing your creative skills, you may discover a new talent you didn’t realize you had.

— Look at different industries. Believe it or not, there are some writers who are as busy as ever. Why? They write for companies in industries that are near-recession proof, writes Courtney Danyel at Freelance Writing Gigs. (Check out these tips for finding recession-proof writing gigs.) These industries include ecommerce, healthcare, technology, education government, legal, accounting and energy, among others. Look for companies that are established too. While small businesses and startups can make great clients, they may not be able to afford your services and they may not exist beyond a crisis, like a pandemic, says Danyel.

— Find a way to innovate. There’s an old saying you might have heard of: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When we are faced with challenges we’ve never encountered before, we learn to innovate to solve those challenges. We develop new systems for operating, invent new products, or experiment with different teaching methods to keep our kids interested in learning. We learn to pivot because a crisis calls us to do so. Look around you now. What can you do that will better serve your family, your neighbors or the community at large?

— Explore new career options. Pivoting can put you on a different career path, one you may not have ever considered. This time might be opportune to take an online course in a subject that interests you. Check out Coursera or Udemy where you can learn about grant writing, entrepreneurship, leadership, content marketing, and contact tracing — the decades old practice of contacting individuals to curtail the transmission of disease.

We are all learning to adapt to the new realities of COVID-19. Some of us are adapting more easily than others. It all depends on how quickly we can pivot

Writing Websites You Should Know

Writer’s Digest magazine just published its annual list of 101 best websites for writers in its May/June 2020 issue. I’m pleased to see several of my favorite sites named to this list, including Bookends Literary Blog and Writer Unboxed.

I am inspired to share some of my favorite websites about writing. Some provide helpful advice for developing a writing career while others offer online courses and tools for getting started writing. Some focus on freelancing, others on blogging. Yet a couple of them focus on finding and working with literary agents.

Take some time to browse these sites to find resources and inspiration for your own writing needs. You just might learn something new.

Professional development

Writer’s Digest – This is the largest collection of writing resources you’ll find on the web, and maybe the only one, depending on what you’re looking for. They offer online classes, webinars and a critique service called 2nd Draft. You could probably get lost in their archives of articles that go back quite a few years. It’s worth spending a rainy afternoon browsing their site.

DIY MFA – Most writers can’t afford to return to school for an MFA program. That’s why this site is so helpful. DIY MFA offers time management and productivity tools to help you manage your writing process more easily. Just for fun, check out the random generated prompt feature. Just hit the Shuffle button, and the app spins to reveal a protagonist, situation, and scene to get you started on a story.

Freelancing

Contently.net — Contently.net is a platform for freelance professionals. Its blog The Freelancer provides relevant content related to operating a freelance business, from setting rates, making sure you get paid, and finding new clients. You can also sign on to their platform to showcase your work to Contently’s clients.

Freelancers Union – If you currently freelance or would like to start freelancing, this site is a must. According to its website, Freelancers Union has been advocating for the rights of independent workers since 1995. The site gives them access to insurance benefits, education, community and a political voice that is so necessary these days.

Literary Agents

Books and Such Blog – Focused on books, publishing and life, this blog gives readers an inside view on the world of book publishing from the perspective of a literary agent. What I like most about their site is that they are always so positive and motivating to new authors.

Bookends Literary Blog – Bookends provides practical advice for finding the right literary agent for your manuscript. There’s lots of information about when and how to query an agent, what to do when you meet them at conferences, and what agents look for when reviewing a manuscript.

Content Marketing/Blogging


Copyblogger – If you specialize in content marketing for your own business or for a client, Copyblogger offers all the tools and tips you need to operate your blog efficiently and profitably.

Problogger – Whether you’re new at blogging or have been managing one for a while, you can always learn something new about blogging at Problogger. This site provides insights into the latest trends in blog publishing, such as adding video and podcasts to your site.

The Art of Blogging – If you’re just starting out blogging, The Art of Blogging can be your go-to source of practical information on how to get started. The site covers everything from how to write headlines and improve readership to how to earn money from your blog.

Communities

The Writing Cooperative – You could spend hours on The Writing Cooperative site browsing through hundreds of articles. They are writers too, and the belief is that writers can learn from each other. As their tag line says, “A community of people helping each other write better.” You’ll find articles from blogging and fiction writing to grammar and time management. Most important, reading and learning from others’ experience can motivate you to be more dedicated to your craft.

She Writes – This online community of women writers offers different perspectives of the writing life. While they are currently closed to new members, you can still browse the multitude of articles by and for women writers. They also have special interest groups such as travel writing, blogging and struggling novelists. Also check out their sister site, She Writes Press which offers hybrid publishing options for women authors.

Publishing Resources

Writer Unboxed – This blog covers the craft and business of writing fiction, and has more than 50 authors and industry professionals contributing content daily. With so many perspectives, you’ll learn something new every day.

Jane Friedman.com – Any writer who wants to improve their writing and, more important, stay motivated, should check out Jane Friedman’s site. A former editor at Writer’s Digest and a current occasional columnist for Publisher’s Weekly, Friedman is renowned for her knowledge of the publishing industry and freely shares her insights about its changing landscape. Sign up for her newsletter and check out the archives for publishing advice, or sign up for one of her sponsored online courses.

Storyaday.org – If you want to get started writing every day, this site will give you the tools to do so. You’ll find a daily prompt to get you thinking about your next story. The site is less focused on getting published and more about challenging yourself to think and write creatively.

The Write Life – This is another helpful resource for writers from blogging and freelancing to marketing your writing services. This is an especially practical place to go for news and advice about building your writing business.

Getting Published

Creative Nonfiction – If you specialize in memoir and personal essays, this site is for you. Creative Nonfiction is a literary journal published twice a year usually centered around a central theme. They also publish a mini-magazine True Story for long-form pieces. In addition, they offer online courses, webinars and self-guided classes year round.

Submittable – Submittable is a multi-faceted platform where writers can research literary publications, and submit and track your manuscripts. It’s a must tool to make it easy to manage your essay publication process. It’s free for individuals to use. You can also find grant applications and projects for screenwriting. 

Narrative Magazine – A new entry on my list is Narrative, an online magazine that publishes short stories, novel excerpts, nonfiction essays and poetry. They operate as a nonprofit, so donations are always welcome. Most important, they encourage new and emerging writers to submit to their publication.

What about you? Do you have a favorite website or blog about writing?

Finish What You Start: Tips for Completing That First Draft

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How many first drafts do you have tucked away in a desk drawer? If you’re like me, the answer is at least two, maybe three.

You start the project with enthusiasm, proceed steadily until the halfway point, maybe even  two-thirds of the way through. Then suddenly, inexplicably, you stop. Why did you stop writing?

There are several possible reasons. Either you stop to go back to review what you’ve already written, and then you get detoured editing and rewriting sections of it. (Guilty!) Or you get stuck with the plot, unsure where you want it to go next, so you set it aside until inspiration strikes. (Guilty of that too!) Or you believe your writing simply isn’t any good so you abort the project altogether before giving it a chance to grow. (Yep! That too.)

But don’t give up just yet. Your novel-in-progress can be saved. In Writer’s Digest webinar, Self-editing Techniques That Work, publishing experts Marie Lamba and Cari Lamba offer some tips for making sure you finish that first draft.

* Think of the first draft as a brain dump. Here’s your opportunity to pour all those scenes and plot twists stored inside your head onto the page. The whole point of the first draft is to sort through your story ideas to see which ones work. Consider it a literary experiment to see how all the pieces will work together as a cohesive unit.

* Understand that the first draft is never perfect. Much of what you put down on the page will be garbage, BUT also recognize that some of it will be valuable. Don’t be tempted to throw any of it out – at least not until you finish writing the whole thing. That will be your reward for finishing.

* Write as if no one will ever see it. Chances are the first draft won’t be very good. Who cares if no one else sees it? Instead, enjoy the process of creating your story, of seeing your characters come alive on the page. Don’t stop writing until you write the words “The End” on the page. Refrain from re-reading what you’ve written. You might be tempted to edit those sections, which only slows down your progress. Or you might decide you don’t like the story, feel discouraged, and abort it altogether. Keep writing until you get to the end of the story.

* Stop trying to write and edit at the same time. Writing is governed by the right side of the brain, the creative side, while editing and other analytical skills are governed by the left side of the brain. They generally do not operate simultaneously. Editing as you write slows you down and prevents you from getting to the end, your primary goal. It also takes your focus away from the creative process. Stay focused on writing the first draft, and you’ll get to the end sooner rather than later. There’s always time to edit later.

* Do only the lightest of editing. Okay, this might seem to contradict the tip #3. There is one exception. Do light editing only if it helps move the story forward. Better yet, just make a notation in the margin of the changes you want to make, then edit that section later.

* Have an end scene in mind. Before you start writing that first draft, visualize or sketch out what the final scene will be. Then begin writing toward that ending. Or write a draft of that final scene in its entirety (with the understanding that you’ll probably have to revise it later). Either way, you’ll have something to work toward.

* Write a book jacket summary of the novel. Before writing the first draft, try writing a summary of the novel as if it will appear on the inside flap of the book cover. The summary acts the same way the end scene does, by providing you with a picture of how the story will progress.

* Remember, you’re not alone. Every author has experienced first draft-itis, no matter how experienced they are and no matter if they’ve been published before or not. If they all managed to overcome these obstacles, you can too.

When you are done writing the first draft, congratulate yourself. You put in some hard work and a lot of hours of writing. Savor your victory, but remember, there’s more work to do. Don’t jump back into your novel right away. Set it aside for several weeks at least, to give it a chance to cool off. That time away from your novel will give you a chance to catch your breath, rest your brain, and shift from right side thinking (creativity) to left side thinking (analytical). Then when you’re ready – at least several weeks – you can begin to tackle the revision process.

Working on the first draft of a novel is hard work. It’s like a practice run for a marathon. Pace yourself, and keep writing. Before you know it, you’ll be writing “The End” in no time.

Tired of Staring at a Blank Page? Begin Writing with a Story Starter

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Staring at a blank page is one of the scariest experiences for a writer, no matter how much experience they have. It’s one of the most common objections people have about starting a regular writing practice. “I don’t know what to write about!” they cry.

Story starters can help you fill that blank page. Story starters are word games and activities to help you generate story ideas. Not only are they great at helping you flex your creative muscles but they can also prompt you to look at events in your life in unexpected ways. Most important, story starters can help you stay motivated whenever you feel stuck or want to take a break from your current work-in-progress.

So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, try one of these starter activities to help you fill that page with prose.

1. Writing prompts. Perhaps the most popular story starter is the writing prompt. As the term says, a writing prompt poses questions or fill-in-the-blank statements to stir your imagination. For example, “Whenever it rains, I like to…..” Or “If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?” There are entire books devoted to writing prompts or you can find them on sites like Writer’s Digest, StoryaDay.org and Self-Publishing.com. Or you can revisit my previous post about writing prompts here.

2. Word lists and associations. This technique was popularized by author Ray Bradbury who often used it to brainstorm story ideas whenever he felt stuck. First thing in the morning, Bradbury would jot down whatever words came to mind. Then he’d look at whatever connections they made to each other, or in some cases, how they prompted a memory. By combining some of the word associations, he was able to form the basis for a story.

3. Dreams. If you are an active dreamer, I hope you keep a notebook at your bedside to jot them down. That way you can remember them later. The longer you wait to write it down, the more likely you will forget important details. Dreams have a way of revealing issues we’re dealing with in our lives, sometimes when we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. Maybe you felt yourself falling helplessly in a dream, or you were being chased by an unknown being. Try to capture that scene as well as your emotional response. You never know when dreams can serve as the premise for a story or a scene in a larger work.

4. Visuals, such as artwork or photographs. Is there a painting, sculpture or photograph that moves you or inspires you? What do you see in that image? Each piece of work conveys different meanings to different people, so what you see in a painting will differ from what your friend sees. The next time you see a visual that moves you, try to write a story about that image or about the artist. What do you think inspired them to create this piece?

5. Maps. Lay out a world map on your desk, or find a globe. Then close your eyes and let your finger drop down to a place on the map or the globe. Wherever it lands is the backdrop for your next story. Imagine what it’s like to travel there, or create a character who is from that region. Maps can guide you to a story set in faraway places.

6. The news. You can’t escape what is happening in the news these days. Current events and TV news programs are filled with interviews with experts, personal profiles and events. They can look at one story from different angles. Perhaps someone in the news provides inspiration for a character in your latest short story, or a news feature can spark fresh story lines you might not have considered.

7. First line game. Think of a first line of a story, then keep writing to see where the story takes you. Or for an added challenge, find a first line from any novel you choose, then create your own different story from that first line.

8. Dictionary word game. For this activity, all you need is every writer’s best friend – the dictionary. Open the book to any page, close your eyes, then with your finger point to a word on that page. Then open your eyes and see what word your finger fell on. Does that word conjure any images in your head? If that word doesn’t work, scroll up and down the page for another word that strikes your fancy. The important thing to remember is that the word should somehow resonate with you, conjure up images that have meaning to you. For example, perhaps the word you settle on is “cantankerous”. What image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the image of an elderly uncle whose gruff manner frightened you as a child?

9. Favorite object. Do you have a favorite object that has special meaning to you? Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you own, a book you’ve read, or an ornament you picked up on your travels. Perhaps you owned something that is missing or broken. Describe the object and explain why it meant so much to you.

10. Observations. Look around you and describe what you see. It could be a cat sleeping on your desk while you work. It could be a person you see on the street who started digging around a nearby dumpster looking for food, or a doorman in front of an apartment building who smiles and says hello to everyone walking by. Just jot down what you see, what they are wearing, what they are doing. Simply observing the world around you can spark a scene or short story.

With so many story starters to work with, you won’t have to search hard for stories.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

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At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

What You Can Learn by Re-Reading Past Writing

 

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Most writers I know are reluctant to go back in time to read things they wrote a long time ago. I don’t usually like to do that either. I figure I’ve already looked at that piece so many times and completed so many editing passes, that by the time it gets published, I’m sick of looking at it. I’m so relieved when I can finally move on to the next project that I gladly put it out of my mind.

So why are writers reluctant to re-read old published works (or in the case of unpublished writers, completed or semi-completed works)?

Perhaps they fear that they won’t like what they read, that it will confirm their suspicions that they are indeed a bad writer. Or maybe it’s a different kind of feeling – that the work is better than they imagined — or at least it will be once they tweak it here and there.

Author Adam O’Fallon Price writes in The Millions:

“A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person.”

I bring this subject up because I’ve spent the past couple of weeks re-reading unpublished essays and half-completed manuscripts that were hidden in my desk drawer. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours re-reading the first three chapters of a romance novel I started writing a couple of summers ago which I set aside to pursue other projects. I thought I was done with that romance novel. After reading it, now I’m not so sure.

I look at these pieces now, and I’m amazed at what I’ve accomplished. Even old blog posts from several years ago and magazine features I’ve written for a client give me a boost of confidence.

With so much time passed, I can look at each of those pieces with a clear head and an objective eye. What have I learned from this practice?

I’ve learned that I’m a pretty good writer. That my magazine client thinks I’m proficient enough to publish my work. That my blog posts are clearly written and provide practical advice to help my writing peers. That even if I never get that romance novel published, I can be proud of my accomplishment.

Likewise, what can you learn by going back and re-reading what you’ve written long ago? I’m not talking about your current work-in-progress, or the essay you finished last week. I’m talking about writing from a year ago, five years ago, or even things you wrote in college.

How can re-reading your old works benefit your writing today? Here are a few reasons.

  • It can help you see how far you’ve come as a writer. The person who wrote that essay in college is not the same person who would write it today. You’ve matured as a person since then and perhaps you’ve learned more about the topic you wrote about. Perhaps as you gained more knowledge, you’ve changed your stance on that issue.

    Your writing skills are likely better now too, especially if you’ve been writing consistently or have taken writing classes. You may have started out with humble beginnings, but you can see that you’re a better writer now than you were then.

  • It can help you realize that you still have much to learn about the writing process. HealthWriterHub suggests reviewing old emails and projects so you can see recurring mistakes and bad habits. With so much time that has passed, it will be easier to spot those errors and fix them in your current writing. It’s also important to note your strengths, not just your weaknesses, so you can continue to improve.
  • Re-reading past works can affirm in your own mind that you are a good writer. By putting time and distance between yourself and a past work, you can review it as a reader would. Perhaps you realize your work isn’t as lousy as you feared it might be, and that there are many redeemable qualities to your writing that you can still build on for the future.

    Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, says re-reading old works gives you a chance to savor your accomplishments, and it offers a list of questions to keep in mind when you review them. For example, would you write it differently now? What surprised you about the text? Did the voice sound authentic? By answering these questions, you can see ways that you can improve your writing.

  • You may notice opportunities for re-writing that old piece. You might re-read something from long ago and decide there are nuggets of good writing there. Perhaps you know more about the subject now to give it more substance. Or through your life experience, you can provide a different perspective. With the new knowledge and experience, you can bring added dimension to that piece that you did not have before.
  • You can decide if that older piece is worthy of being part of your portfolio. If it’s better than you remembered, you might decide to show it to prospective clients, or maybe just hang onto for your own self-enjoyment. Even if it isn’t the most current work or your best, it might be worth keeping just in case a future client or employer wants to see an example of different types of writing. You never know.

So the next time you’re tempted to toss out old stories, essays and written works from a decade ago, think again. They may still provide value to your writing experience.