Tips for Creating an Online Portfolio for Your Writing Business

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Whether you’re beginning your career as a writer or you’ve been writing professionally for a while, you’ll want to show off your best work. That’s where an online portfolio can help you present your best pieces.

According to The Free Dictionary, a portfolio is a collection of works or documents that are representative of a person’s skills and accomplishments. It’s one of the most important marketing tools you have to demonstrate the type of work you can do for potential clients. It’s in your professional interest to make your online portfolio look as clean and compelling as you can.

If you’ve never had a portfolio, you might feel unsure about how to create one. Or perhaps you have one but it hasn’t been updated in several years. Consider this a primer on portfolio management.

Basic tips for creating your portfolio

The following tips from The Vault and Make a Living Writing can help you get started.

  1. Understand the purpose of your portfolio. What do you want to achieve with it? Are you using it to look for a job or to apply to graduate school? Are you trying to build your brand and find new freelance clients? Whatever the purpose you decide will determine what types of samples you should include in your online portfolio.
  2. Know your audience. If your audience is comprised of non-profit groups, you may want to include a few samples of work you’ve done for other non-profit organizations. If your audience is made up of professionals, such as insurance agents, CPAs and attorneys, you’ll want to include samples that contain content for those groups. Know who your audience is and what they are looking for. Then tailor your portfolio to your specific niche or ideal client.
  3. Curate the best and most relevant samples. Make sure your samples you choose represent the best quality work you’ve done. Your collection should also showcase the type of work you’d like to do in the future. The best quality projects will speak for themselves with little or no introduction from you.
  4. Include a brief introduction to each sample. The intro may be helpful so visitors understand the why of the project. Not everyone will get it with just a visual link alone. Besides, the introduction gives you a chance to show of your copywriting skills.
  5. Don’t overcrowd the portfolio. Keep the site neat and tidy so it’s easy to see the samples. Focus on quality, not quantity. Ten high-quality pieces may be more appealing to potential clients than 30 that are mediocre.
  6. Use thumbnail sized images. Smaller images take up less space on your site, making it appear more neat and clean, and more appealing to visitors. While having a list of links, (which many writers maintain for its simplicity, including yours truly), providing images adds visual interest. 
  7. Make sure you keep your portfolio updated. As you complete projects and get fresh clips, you’ll want to add them to your portfolio. In addition, you’ll want to review your portfolio every six months to one year to make sure it’s current.

But what if I’m starting out and don’t have many clips to show?

If you’re new to copywriting or freelancing and don’t have many clips, start with the few you do have and slowly build from there. Experts suggest beginners create a few samples of their own, such as a newsletter or blog post. Another possible suggestion is to offer copywriting services to local businesses, such as revamping their website with fresh copy or creating a newsletter for a non-profit group. Yet another strategy is to pitch stories to websites you’d like to write for to add to your portfolio once they’re published.

For some outstanding examples of online portfolios, check out these on portfolio site Format.com.

Your portfolio can be created on your own website, which most writers I know prefer to do. Sites like Squarespace and WordPress offer a portfolio layout. You can also check out the various external portfolio sites, such as clippings.me, pressfolios.com or Contently.com.

When you’re done creating your online portfolio, remember to promote it everywhere you have a profile. Include a link on your LinkedIn profile, on your emails underneath your signature and on your business card, if you have one.

When you’re building your writing business, your portfolio will reveal much about your experience and capabilities. So make sure your portfolio look its best.  

For more suggestions about setting up your online portfolio, check out these articles:

The Muse: 4 Secrets to Building a Portfolio That’ll Make Everyone Want to Hire You
The Balance: Your Writing Portfolio

Is an MFA Program in Your Future?

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Like many writers, I’ve often wondered if I would benefit from attending an MFA program to boost my writing capabilities. An MFA degree – Master of Fine Arts – gives writers an intensive educational experience about the writing craft. Did I have the desire to go back to school, to go through the application process? And did I want to spend money I really didn’t have on a program I wasn’t sure would help my career?

For me, the answer was no. I’ve been fortunate to find numerous workshops and classes about writing so I never felt compelled to apply for an MFA program. Other writers I know have found the MFA to be a valuable asset in their careers. BUT an MFA is not for everyone.

Before you take that leap, there are several factors to consider, such as costs, location, and the type of program. As of 2019, there were 158 full residency programs in the U.S. and 64 low-residency programs, according to Poets & Writers magazine. Full residency programs require students to be on-site and attend classes full-time. In a low residency program, students might need to attend sessions at the university location over a 10-day stretch twice a year while they work on their own the rest of the time. Some programs even offer class sessions abroad.

Every year more programs are launched. With so much to choose from, it can be difficult to know what to look for. Worse, there are tons of articles written on this subject. I’ve done some initial research for you here so you can sort through the key points. I’ll also share some valuable tips and resources to help you decide if an MFA program is right for you. But the rest is up to you.

Why would anyone want to pursue an MFA?

People decide to pursue a master’s program for a number of reasons. They may feel they lack proper knowledge about the writing craft or feel uncertain about their technical skills. Maybe they seek feedback for their writing, or want to be part of a community. For others, it’s learning to teach others, since some programs require attendees to teach classes. Whatever your reason may be, the long-term benefit is learning and growing as a writer.

When searching for a program, there are several questions to ask yourself.

* Do you plan to attend full-time or part-time? If you already work full-time, a full-time program may be more than you can handle, unless you are willing to quit your job for it. Full-time residencies may require you to live near the campus to participate in writing workshops and teach classes. Part-time programs don’t have nearly the time requirement that full-time programs do. Some of the classes may also be delivered online, which makes it more flexible for some students.

* What size program do you want to be part of? Depending on the school, you may attend small group sessions of less than 10 students, or larger programs with more than 30. Then there are programs with medium-sized classes.

* How much money are you willing and able to spend? While some programs are fully funded, meaning they offer all students in the program with financial assistance, others are not funded at all or are partially funded. That means you will have to find ways to finance your education. MFA programs aren’t cheap. Some can cost more than $20,000 a year.

* Do you have any desire to teach? Full-time programs that offer fellowships may require you to teach classes in exchange for income. That’s great is you want to work on your presentation and teaching skills. But if you have no interest in teaching, the full-time programs may be a waste of time.

* What kind of writing do you want to do? As Jacob Mohr writes on the TCK Publishing blog, most MFA programs frown on commercial and genre fiction. So if you want to publish your collection of horror stories, don’t expect a lot of support from program faculty. Most programs lean toward poetry, non-fiction and literary fiction.

Pros and cons of writing programs
Once you have these answers nailed down, you can examine the pros and cons of MFAs.

Pros:

  • You get feedback for your work from instructors and fellow students.
  • You can sharpen your writing skills so you write, edit, and critique more efficiently.
  • You receive intensive training on the writing craft, learning everything from plot structure, grammar and punctuation, and character development. You learn a lot in a short amount of time.
  • You have a chance to work toward a final project, usually a book or performance.
  • You can join a community of fellow writers who are working toward similar goals.
  • You don’t need to take the GRE or other standardized test to gain acceptance into a program.
  • Some programs are fully funded and provide financial assistance to support your education.

Cons:

  • Most MFA programs are pricey, unless you find a fully-funded program. Not everyone can afford to attend an MFA program, not even on a part-time basis.
  • MFA programs can be time-consuming and too intensive to fit into your schedule. Most programs are a 2-3 year commitment, which most people may not be able to give. In addition to attending classes, you may be required to teach classes or fulfill other obligations.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll find writing success after you complete the program.
  • Most MFA programs do not address the business side of writing, such as submitting work to editors, marketing yourself, how to get published, finding a literary agent, etc. It’s up to you to learn these hard skills.
  • MFA programs are highly competitive. Many universities receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of students, as few as 10 or 20. So the chances of being accepted are slim.
  • As Mohr mentioned above, most programs focus on literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing. Commercial and genre-based fiction is frowned upon. If you wish to write a sci-fi/fantasy series, don’t expect to get a lot of support for your work.

If you decide that an MFA program isn’t right for you, there are educational alternatives (thankfully). Try the slow, steady pace of the self-study or DIY MFA. This way you learn about the writing craft at your own pace. Take classes from local writing studios or schools, attend conferences and read self-help books about writing. This approach might take longer to teach yourself the proper techniques, but you control the subject matter and the timing of lessons. The self-study route also provides more flexibility so you can fit lessons around a full-time job or other obligations.

You can also join a writer’s group to get feedback for your pieces. Most important, write, write and write some more. Most published authors agree that writing a little bit every day is the best way to learn to write.

Still not sure whether an MFA is right for you? Check out Flavorwire’s roundup of opinions from 27 writers. The opinions are mixed. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), advises people to get “an advanced degree in the school of life…”

“After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly,” Gilbert writes.

For more information about MFA programs, check out these additional resources:
Association of Writers and Writing Programs: Guide to writing programs
Poets & Writers Magazine: 2019 MFA Index and Guide

Good luck and happy writing!

Is Self-employment Right for You? First, Ask Yourself These Questions

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my home page.

Many of us have dreams of hanging out our own shingle and taking charge of our livelihoods. For most of us, that’s all it is – a dream.

Many people who have started a business often wind up closing up shop within a year or two. They had difficulty finding clients or lost money before deciding that they weren’t as prepared for the solo gig as they thought. So they went back to working for someone else, preferring the stability of a steady gig and paycheck.

Working for yourself is hard work. Harder than most people expect when they start out.  The fact is, not everyone is cut out to own their own business. It’s more than the financial support and resources that can keep the business going; it’s your own mental and emotional make-up that can put a kink in your plans. Some people simply don’t have the fortitude, organizational skills and network to make the business work. Others don’t like the uncertainty about the future or fear rejection.

I fell into my solo writing career accidentally. I had left a job to manage a small business part time, but I was miserable. I quickly realized that this was not what I wanted to do. My former boss reached out to me to do a writing assignment for him, which led to other assignments. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do (although I knew I wanted to get out of the business management gig). Did I want to freelance full time, or were these writing assignments just a temporary fix until I could figure things out? Seven years later, I’m still trying to answer that question.

Looking back at that period of my career, I wish I had taken more time to think things through. I would have liked to have had a handbook or a self-assessment worksheet to help me figure out whether going solo was the right path for me.

The folks at the career site Vault have put together a really nice infographic that outlines a number of questions to ask yourself before deciding if freelancing is right for you.

Below are some questions taken from this infographic as well as a few of my own I wish I had asked myself. Hope these questions help you decide whether you’re ready for a solo career or not.

  1. Why do you want to work for yourself? Knowing why you want to work for yourself can help you feel grounded, especially when things don’t go as smoothly as you hope. Whenever you feel lost on your solo journey, come back to your why. It will help you refocus on your career goal.
  2. Do you have an established network and support system in place? Just because you decide to go solo doesn’t mean you work alone. You still have a support team around you, such as an attorney and/or accountant, a marketing person if you don’t plan to do it yourself, maybe someone to handle social media. Then there is your personal support team – your spouse, friends and family, and former colleagues who can pitch in when you need help.
  3. Do you enjoy working for yourself? Some people love working alone and have no trouble being in quiet surroundings. Others need to bounce ideas off other people. They’re more productive working in a collaborative environment. If you need to be surrounded by people in order to be productive, you may struggle working on your own. Then again, there are always libraries and coffee shops to make you feel you are surrounded by “co-workers.”
  4. How much of a financial foundation do you have? Most financial experts suggest having a nest egg of six months for living expenses while you launch your business. I would suggest more than six months, at least a year. For one thing, things are more expensive than you realize. Second, you’ll need cash on hand in case of emergencies, like a root canal or household emergencies.
  5. Do you have your first client or project to start? It might help your solo venture if you already have a client or two in place. They’ll provide the moral and financial support you need to build on for the future.
  6. How do you respond to uncertainty? Once you’re on your own, you’ll no longer have a steady paycheck, which means the future is very uncertain. That uncertainty can be too scary for some people. If you prefer the steadiness of a routine paycheck, then working solo may not be right for you.
  7. How are your time management skills? When working on your own, you won’t have to follow someone else’s schedule. You’ll be in charge of your own, or that of your client’s. In fact, if you have multiple clients, you’ll have to juggle priorities and that means having solid time management and organizational skills to keep track of them all.
  8. How much of a risk taker are you? This question might be easier to answer on a spectrum of one to 10, one being not much of a risk taker at all and 10 being “bring it on.” Knowing your comfort level with risk can help you determine what you’re willing to put up with as a solo artist – and for how long. Taking the leap into your own business is a huge risk, one that not many people are willing to take.
  9. How long are you prepared to go it alone? Experts say that most businesses don’t last longer than one year. One year is the barometer to decide if a solo venture is going to work out or not. For others, they simply run out of money or they lose heart in the project after six months to a year. If you’re in it for the long haul, then going solo may work out for you.
  10. How much experience do you bring from your chose field? Someone with only five years’ experience may not find as much success on their own as someone who has done the same work for more than fifteen years.
  11. How do you respond to new challenges? Some people welcome new challenges, and in fact, actively seek them out to spice up their lives. These people are more likely to succeed as solo business owners.
  12. How do you deal with rejection? Rejection is part of business. The most successful business owners will likely let the rejection slide off their backs or use it to fuel their next venture. They don’t give up. If you are easily discouraged by rejection, then working for yourself may not be right for you.
  13. How confident do you feel about your skills and prospects for success? The more confident you feel about yourself, the more positive impression you will make on clients and customers.
  14. How resilient are you? This question goes along with the rejection question. Are you able to bounce back after disappointment, such as a lost client or failed sales call? Most successful people working on their own are able to bounce back more easily because they understand that it’s only a temporary setback.
  15. Are you comfortable wearing many hats? Working on your own means doing a variety of tasks, everything from accounting, marketing, recruiting, even housekeeping. All of this in addition to your own unique skill, whether that’s copywriting, graphic design or pet care. You might be good at what you do and the reason you want to work for yourself, but you may not feel comfortable or have the skills to do the other tasks. You’ll have to figure out what you are willing to do and what you should outsource.

As you can see, working for yourself requires more than just basic business skills. It requires emotional and psychological strength to withstand the challenges of business ownership. By answering these questions honestly, you can decide if working for yourself is the right career path for you.

Eight Content Ideas to Make Your Newsletter More Read-worthy

Be sure to check out this week’s writing prompt.

Newsletters are one of the best marketing tools you can use to reach clients and customers. Whether you’ve had a newsletter for your business for a while or you’re thinking about starting one, it’s helpful to share good, strong content can put you in front of readers and keep them informed and engaged.

But most business owners and bloggers know little about newsletters. What kind of content should they include? What will their readers want to know and read about? The answers will depend on what type of business you have. For example, a yoga studio might include tips for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, healthy recipes, profiles of instructors and studio news. It might be a good place to promote a special offer too.

Or perhaps you provide a dog walking service. Your newsletter might include news about new dog treats, pet grooming tips and a list of local veterinarians.

While I have yet to start a newsletter for my writing business, I’ve worked on several others for employers and clients. I also subscribe to several newsletters from writers and publishing professionals, including Kat Boogaard, Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman. Each of their newsletters are unique based on what information they want to share with their readers and what services they want to promote. Some are sent out weekly (Boogaard’s) and C. Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers while others are shared monthly.

Those are some of the issues you will have to ask yourself as you determine your newsletter content. How often do you want to send it out? What kind of information do you want to include?

One thing is clear. The best newsletters offer helpful advice and information to their readers. They put their readers’ interests first. Further, the least helpful ones focus too much on marketing themselves with little thought about their readers’ interests.

So what kind of information can you include in your newsletter? Here are a few ideas.

  • Start with a brief opening to welcome readers. Keep it brief, no more than three or four paragraphs. Make it timely, referring to current events or the latest news in your life such as a conference you attended, a holiday or family event. Keep it casual and conversational as if you are speaking to friends, (which of course you are).
  • Link to your own blog/website. If you post to your blog frequently, perhaps a few times a month, why not share links to the most recent stories? We used to do this at one of my employers since we posted to our company blog nearly every day. In the weekly e-newsletter, we shared the headlines to the latest stories and linked back to the blog. This is a great way to generate interest in your work and give people a reason to visit your site. It’s one of the easiest things you can do to promote your business or services. Don’t post every single link, but only the top three or four that your readers may find useful.
  • Link to the most interesting news stories and blog posts that you’ve read. No doubt you subscribe to numerous blogs and online magazines. What is the most interesting and memorable things you have read from these sources? Make a list, then link to those articles in your newsletter. Freelance writer Kat Boogaard shares her favorite stories in each weekly newsletter issue. It’s a great way to share industry news that readers may not have known about.
  • Conduct interviews. Is there someone in your sphere whose work you admire? Or perhaps they’ve done something remarkable, like finish a marathon or got their first book published. Reach out to them for a brief interview. I like the Q&A format because it’s easy to read. But keep it brief, no more than four or five questions. Keep in mind that readers don’t have a lot of time to read and will skim through the material. So keep your questions on point.
  • Consider sharing a guest post or article. If you don’t have time for a short feature for your newsletter, why not recruit a fellow writer or business owner to prepare something. I’ve seen this done on several newsletters I receive, which adds a new dimension to your offering. Plus it helps build rapport and support among fellow writers and business owners, especially if they have a product or service that would benefit your readers.
  • Include a book review or recommendations. Have you finished reading a book about a topic pertinent to your business? Why not write a short review and share it in the newsletter? An alternative is to list books about a common theme or topic that may interest readers. For example, find three or four book titles about time management and share links to Goodreads or Amazon for details. This is another way to provide valuable service to readers.
  • List upcoming conferences and workshops. Since so many conferences are being offered via Zoom or other online platform, more people can participate in them that couldn’t before. Your newsletter is a great vehicle for sharing links to upcoming conferences, workshops and events that may interest your readers.
  • Close with a positive message. Ending with a quote from a famous person can inspire readers  and motivate them to be their best. My daily news brief from my health care provider always concludes with a healthy recipe, three tips for a healthy lifestyle, and a quote that makes me feel positive about the future. You can do the same for your readers.

While there’s no guarantee that readers will share your newsletter with their friends, it’s nice when they do.

Remember the best newsletters focus on the readers’ interests, so avoid too much self-promotion which can turn off readers. A little promotion of a product or service is okay, but when it’s done with a relentless force, people may give up on you.

Another piece of advice: browse the newsletters that come into your in-box every week or every month. Notice what you like and what you don’t. Then make a list of components you’d like to include in your own newsletter.

Focus on providing tips, tricks, tools and resources that will make your readers’ lives better. Make sure you are consistent with your timing too. For example, if you decide to distribute your monthly newsletter on the fifth of the month, make sure you do it every month. Readers will begin to look for it in their in box.

Keep the newsletter brief. Most people don’t want to spend hours reading lengthy articles because they suffer from information overload as it is from all the material they already receive. You want your newsletter to stand out. It’s not how long the newsletter is, but the quality of the information you provide.

What about you? Do you have a newsletter for your hobby or business? How often do you distribute it? What kind of content do you include?

Self-publishing vs. traditional publishing (and everything in between)

At a recent meeting of my writer’s group, we were talking about how we planned to publish the books we were working on. The vote was split between self-publishing and traditional publishing.

When I researched options, however, I learned that there’s more than those two paths. Thankfully, the publishing industry provides numerous options for aspiring writers, nor do you have to aim for the Big Five to be successful. Many small presses can provide the same benefits as the larger ones, and hybrid publishers can give writers more control over the final product, though it comes at a price.

Which path you choose depends on a number of factors, such as the type of product you’re creating, how much time and money you want to invest in it, and what you hope to gain. As new technologies emerge that impact the publishing business, authors have more options to choose from than ever before. It helps to understand what they are, and to ask yourself several questions to clarify your goals.

There are three primary publishing options: traditional, self-publishing, and hybrid. Each is explained below. For an even more detailed overview of publishing options, Jane Friedman has published this fabulously informative chart that describes and compares each option more fully.

Traditional publishing. Traditional is as it sounds, the conventional path to publishing where an author signs a contract allowing a publisher to produce and deliver a book that the author has written. The defining characteristic is the signing of a contract. Authors have few expenses to worry about in this option, but they share in the profits. Many traditional firms offer an advance against royalties. Authors usually need an agent to get their foot in the door and should have a completed manuscript to submit.

The traditional path is dominated by the Big Five publishing firms: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. Each has dozens of imprints.

Then there are numerous small and medium sized firms that provide the same benefits to authors. These traditional firms have marketing teams that can help promote the finished product, although they may also request an author’s involvement in the marketing process, such as promoting on your social media and website, doing live readings at libraries and appearing at book signings.

However, there are some downsides. For example, this may not be the most profitable option for authors. Once the publisher and agent get their cut of the profits, there’s less available to the writer.

Self-publishing. With this option, authors publish their works on their own and at their own expense. It helps to have strong business acumen to understand both the creative and business aspects of publishing process. While self-publishing provides greater creative freedom to write what you want to write and publish, you absorb all the expenses. It may require more work and more time than you’re able to give it.

Authors oversee all aspects of development from editing and formatting to book cover design and distribution, which is great if you like to get your hands dirty and be involved in all aspects of production. Writers are also responsible for doing their own marketing to make sure the book gets noticed in the marketplace. If you’re not skilled at certain things, like book design or editing, be prepared to hire designers and editors to help develop the book the way you envision it. That means paying for those services too. It’s why self-publishing is not for everyone. That said, the profits are all yours because nothing is going to a publishing house.

Hybrid publishing. As the name implies, this option combines the benefits and flaws of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Many of today’s authors opt for this approach because it gives them more creative freedom and control in the process. As Barbara Lynn Probst explains on Jane Friedman’s blog, hybrid publishing:

“resembles self-publishing because the author carries the cost and financial risk; thus it involves an investment of your own capital. It resembles traditional publishing because professionals, not you, carry out the tasks required to transform a Word document from your laptop into an object called a book that people can buy and read.”

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. When choosing the best option for you, it may be helpful to ask yourself a few questions.

  1. What type of product are you publishing? Is it a non-fiction book, a novel or an e-book? Smaller products like novellas or business e-books might be better suited for self-publishing while larger works might be better suited for the hybrid or traditional model.
  2. Do you have an agent? Most large publishing houses don’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers. If you’re a first-time author, you might be better off at a small press or hybrid.
  3. How much time are you willing to spend on the production and promotion processes? Some paths require significant time on your part while other paths require less. How involved do you want to be? If you have a full time job, you’ll likely want the path with less time involvement. Either way, be prepared to put in some time and effort to make your publishing dream come true.
  4. How much of a risk taker are you? How much risk are you willing to take on? Self-publishing requires more time, money and energy on your part, but the rewards are greater too.
  5. Are you a DIY-er? Do you like do-it-yourself projects? If so, self-publishing will allow you to get your hands dirty and get you involved in all aspects of the publishing process.
  6. How much control and creative freedom do you want? If control and creative freedom is important to you, then self-publishing is your best option. If you’re willing to give up some of those factors, the hybrid or traditional path will work best.
  7. How involved do you want to be? Some people like being involved in every phase of the publishing process, while others are only interested in writing. Knowing how involved you want to be will determine the best option for you.
  8. How much money are you willing to invest? Publishing costs money, and some of it may come from you. Depending on which path you choose and what size publishing house you work with, be prepared to invest some money on production and marketing. Most beginning authors don’t have a lot of money to invest. My advice is to set aside some cash to cover costs.

No matter which publishing path you choose, be sure to know your writing goals and be prepared to wear several hats.

Five Signs That You’re Ready to Share Your Writing


Remember to check out the weekly writing prompt on my website.

Most writers I know are private people, especially when it comes to their writing. I’m certainly one of them. It’s always been difficult for me to share my writing with others because I have a terrible fear of criticism. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get few minor comments on my drafts. It’s why I take great care to make my writing as clean and complete as possible before I submit it to an editor or share it with anyone else. I want to minimize the chance of painful criticism that damages my confidence.

You may be torn between sharing your story and keeping it to yourself. The words you put on the page are personal, and you wonder if it’s worthwhile to share something so personal with others. Getting it down on paper is the first step, of course. It’s the direct path from inspiration to reality. But reading it to others, and letting people view your work, is a huge and difficult step. It’s like crossing a rushing stream when you can’t see how deep the water is, and you don’t know how to swim. Or it’s like crossing a rickety bridge that you fear might collapse under your weight.

But there’s comfort in knowing that most writers have survived those moments. They realize that to be taken seriously as writers, they had to share their work at some point. As Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist, writes, “Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

As you continue your writing practice, you may notice several signs that you’re ready to share your work with others.

Sign 1: You feel stuck in your current work-in-progress.

After working on a story for weeks, you’ve made steady progress toward the conclusion. Then at about the midpoint, you hit a brick wall in the plot. Your brain draws a blank. How do you get unstuck? Maybe you’re too close to the story or too emotionally involved in the plot to see what needs to be done to move it forward. Sometimes having someone you trust read the piece can provide insights on what to do next. It might mean having to rewrite an earlier scene or introduce a new character who interrupts the status quo. Sharing your writing at this point can provide the insight and motivation to keep writing despite the road block.

Sign 2: You feel the story is “finished” as far as you can take it.

When you feel the story is finished, or as good as you can make it, it might be a good time to share it with others. Perhaps this is the third draft of the story and it’s as complete as you can make it. Sharing your piece with others at this point can tell you if readers will appreciate the story. You might read it out loud to a writer’s group or class, have a teacher or mentor review it, and get it published in a small literary magazine. On the other hand, reading out loud may reveal cracks in the foundation of the story that you need to fix.

Sign 3: You’re too excited about the story to keep it to yourself.

You’ve finished a piece on a topic that excites you and you’re eager to share it with others. Maybe you’ve labored over a 3000-word essay for weeks and you’re thrilled with how it turned out. Thrilled too at the topic you wrote about because it has a lot of personal meaning to you. It might be time to share your work with others to revel in your accomplishment.

Sign 4: You’re bored with the current work-in-progress.

This might seem counterintuitive, writes Michael Gallant at the BookBaby blog. But when you’re bored with the piece you’ve been working on, it might help to share that piece with someone else. Their excitement at reading your piece can galvanize you into further action, and their joy can be contagious. With their input, you may look at the piece with fresh eyes and see that it isn’t as boring as you first thought.

Sign 5: You sense that someone can benefit from the story you’ve written.

You may write because they want to inspire readers and share your experiences with them. Maybe you write with someone specific in mind. Perhaps that person has gone through some difficult times, overcome hardships. Sharing your work with that person or with others just like them can cheer them up, and motivate them to stay optimistic despite those difficult times.

There is one caveat to these signs. Never let anyone see your first draft. Wait until after your second draft before allowing someone else to see it. The first draft is usually a disorganized mess where you are still working out the structure of the piece. The first draft is usually written just for you, not for outside consumption. Better to wait for a cleaner second or third draft to get an objective opinion of your piece.

Another rule of thumb, writes Patrick Ness at the BookTrust blog, is don’t show you work to friends. They may be overly enthusiastic about your work and may not critique it the way you need in order for you to grow and improve your writing. It may be better to have an agent, editor, fellow writer or mentor review your work because they have the knowledge and experience to know what will work.

As many writers and published authors can tell you, writing is meant to be shared. So don’t hold back. Don’t keep it to yourself. If you’ve written something, no matter how good, bad or indifferent it may be, don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. It will allow you to see your work through a reader’s eyes.

More than a hobby: Getting serious about your writing

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my website.

For many published authors, writing may have started out as a hobby. They did it for fun, and writing was an outlet for their creativity.  

These are the people who enjoy writing for the sake of it. They don’t care about being published, or getting reviews on Goodreads or doing public readings at libraries and bookstores. They simply want to spend time creating stories. The writing process is a personal endeavor, not a professional one.

Many professional writers frown on the concept of writing as a hobby. They argue that writing is too hard and too much work to be considered a hobby. Writing might be hard work, but if you get enjoyment from the process, if it gives you joy, then it’s a hobby. To say that hobbyists can’t be taken seriously as writers is garbage. There’s plenty of room in the writing world for professional writers, aspiring authors and hobbyists to co-exist.

But I digress….

Hobbyists separate themselves from their professional counterparts with several notable differences.

* Hobbyists have no set goals for their writing. They write for fun simply because they enjoy the process of creating stories. They write for themselves, and may not be interested in sharing their work publicly.  Hobbyists don’t care if they get published or not. That is not their ultimate goal. They write to express themselves.

* Many hobbyists may not have professional writing experience; in fact, they may be starting from ground zero. Other hobbyists may have different occupations and want to try their hand at writing fiction or their memoir. Perhaps they are testing the waters to see if they’ll enjoy writing for the long term or turn it into a professional endeavor later on.

* Hobbyists have more freedom to experiment with different writing styles and genres. They can experiment with poetry or essay writing or fiction to determine what is the right lane for them. Or maybe they’re content to work on one work of fiction or their memoir for their entire lives, experimenting with different ways of telling the story or writing from different points of view. There are no restrictions in what they can and cannot write.

* Hobbyists may not have a set schedule for writing. At least not at first. They fit writing in whenever they have time or are inspired to create something.

* As a hobbyist, there’s no pressure to perform professionally, writes Meg Dowell. Editors and publishers aren’t waiting for your project at deadline. Without that pressure, writing hobbyists can create whatever their heart desires without the fear of missing a dreaded deadline.

* There are no barriers to entry to writing and it costs nothing to start. All you need is a pen and paper and your imagination. Writing as a hobby keeps your mind active and alert too, which is always a tremendous benefit for older adults.

You may be content to remain a writing hobbyist. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who write for the sheer enjoyment of it.

But what do you do when you decide you want to do more with your writing that just maintaining a journal or contributing to your blog? How do you know that you’re ready to take your writing to the next level? How do you know it’s time to get serious about your writing? Author Bethany Cadman at the Writer’s Life offers a few suggestions, or you can follow a few of my own ideas below:

* You spend more time reading up on your craft. You follow writing blogs and subscribe to magazines to learn about different aspects of writing, such as plot development, humor writing or finding an agent.  By attending classes and workshops, you develop your skills and learn more about the writing process, and get feedback on your stories. You might go so far as to apply for an MFA program (which can be pricey) or a fellowship, though neither are necessary to be successful in the publishing business, say many published authors. In fact, most published authors I know did not graduate from an MFA program.  

* You seek out other writers and expand your network. Perhaps you join a writer’s group or find a writing buddy to share your written pieces with or help keep each other accountable. The online writing community is huge, and you’d be amazed at how many fledgling authors are out there, all seeking the same professional advice as you.

* You harbor a desire to get your work published. Or at least get it read and get it seen. Once you decide you want to be published, plan how you can accomplish that, and give yourself a deadline, say of five years. You begin to look for opportunities to be published, perhaps offer to guest post on blogs or submit material to literary magazines. Each piece you produce builds a body of work that you can show potential publishers.

* You develop a consistent writing practice. You write almost every day, usually at the same time. Perhaps you find you spend more time at your desk writing than you do watching television. You keep notebooks with you to jot down story ideas on a whim or note things you hear and see as you go about your day. With a consistent writing practice, you produce more work that can be shown to editors and publishers.

* You treat your writing as a business. You set regular office hours for writing and building your career. You constantly look for ways to earn money with your writing, even beyond publishing. That could be teaching, coaching, or editing others’ work. Perhaps you may consider starting a freelance writing business or explore self-publishing opportunities. Most important, you show up every day and make consistent progress toward your goals.

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, you should be proud of your effort to make writing an integral part of your life.

A Writer’s Guide to Managing Deadline Pressure

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Remember the movie The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Benning (one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time)? At one point in the film, Douglas (as the U.S. President running for re-election) gives a riveting speech to reporters about character. Afterward, his press secretary (played by Michael J. Fox) rushes to rewrite the President’s State of the Union Address – with only 35 minutes before the scheduled speech. Talk about a pressure-packed deadline!

While those kind of tight deadlines don’t happen often in a writer’s life, deadlines in general are part of the process. Most of the time we can handle those deadlines without feeling stressed or anxious. But other times, the pressure to perform under strict deadlines can be a challenge.

How do we manage to stay calm and focused on the project at hand while the deadline hangs over our heads like a guillotine blade?

Examined closely, this question can be divided into two separate issues. How are we able to deal with  the deadline themselves? How are we able to deal with the stress and anxiety it produces (stress management)? Looked at another way, the anxiety we feel about deadlines may have more to do with feelings of insecurity about our ability to do the job than about the project itself.

One online dictionary defines deadline pressure as “the sense that there’s a shortage of time to complete a project, producing feelings of anxiety and stress.”

That begs the question: is deadline pressure a management issue, or a stress management issue?

If there’s a silver lining at all, it’s that deadline pressure is a universal experience that affects all industries, not just writers and creative professionals. Accountants and finance people have year-end reports to file, and tax attorneys must prepare tax returns by April 15. Manufacturers must produce large quantities of their product before clients run out of stock. Hospitals race against time to find the perfect match for a patient that needs a new heart or kidney.

Deadlines are not the enemy. It’s our attitude about them that slows us down. While too many deadlines at one time can make us feel overwhelmed, deadlines can be motivating tools too, writes  Psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett. Without them, students may never finish their homework on time. Deadlines, he concludes, can help increase focus and boost perseverance.

If deadlines can help us meet goals and stay motivated, then why do most people struggle with the pressure? More important, how do we deal with that pressure so it doesn’t adversely affect our work?

Ironically, it may be our organizational skills that can keep the pressure to perform in check. Here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Set up a schedule for your project. Start with your deadline, and work backward toward the current date. In your schedule, allow for time for research, time for outlining, time to write the first draft and time to rewrite and proof before submitting it.

2. Start your project as early as possible. Granted, you may have other projects you’re working on. Try spending an hour doing the initial planning and research. Don’t wait until the last minute! Spending a brief time thinking about what you plan to write can give you a head start toward your deadline.

3. Divide your project into bite-sized chunks. This will allow you to work on your project a little bit at a time. You’ll make slow and steady progress. When you know you’re making progress and seeing the results of your efforts each day, you’ll feel less stressed.

4. Set short, intermediate deadlines. Allow an hour to perform certain tasks related to your project. Maybe it’s sending out a bunch of emails to set up interviews, conduct background research or draft an outline. When you know you have one hour to work, you’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

Most important, don’t wait for the last minute to begin your project! I know I said that once before, but I needed to say it again because it’s soooooo important.

As for the emotional aspect of deadline pressure, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself centered.

  • Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths before diving into your project. Following your breath will allow you to slow down your thought processes, and consequently, reduce your anxiety. Repeat this every time you feel stressed about the project.
  • Trust your instincts. When you’re racing toward a deadline, dealing with a difficult task or trying to solve a problem, sometimes the instincts kick in. Trust them. They’re usually spot on.
  • Trust your abilities. You know you have talent, you have experience and you’ve trained well in your chosen field. Once you’ve done your research and prepared your notes, trust your ability to get the project done on time. When you have confidence in your abilities, it takes a lot of the stress and panic out of the process.
  • Manage your time well. Doing small tasks each day will produce better results than a marathon at the finish line.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re really feeling stuck, walk away from the project for an hour. Go for a walk or take a snack break or watch TV to get your mind off of the problem. When you come back an hour later, you may notice a solution that you didn’t see before.

There may be another aspect of deadline pressure to consider: performance anxiety. There’s a pressure to perform at your highest level, usually because something is at stake – a grade at the end of the semester, winning a new client or repeat business, or a coveted promotion. Meeting that deadline shows you are serious about your work.

For more great tips about writing under deadline, check out this article courtesy of the Public Relations Society of America.

Deadlines will never go away, and neither will the pressure. If you plan your time well, you’ll meet deadlines with greater confidence and less stress.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal Can Spark Inspiration and Curiosity

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When I began taking my writing seriously – and I mean, writing almost every day – I decided it was time to keep track of all my story ideas. Little did I know then that there was such a thing as a writer’s journal.  That’s exactly what it was used for – to keep track of all things related to writing.

A writer’s journal is a place to track everything related to your writing. It can be based on a single story, a theme or your own writing journey.

Much of that depends on what you want to achieve from your writing. For example, I focus strictly on my writing projects. The writer’s journal is my place for developing story concepts, plot structures and character sketches.

I also keep a personal journal to record events in my life, which I keep separate from my writing journal. It’s my place for emotional venting. The second one is where I keep all my notes from all the workshops and classes I’ve taken related to writing. It’s more about the craft of writing.

I keep these notebooks separate because it keeps me organized. I know I have a designated place for each of them and I don’t have to search through countless story concepts to find that one nugget of information I learned in a workshop three years ago.

I use a simple notebook, but you can use a hardcover journal or use your computer. I prefer a notebook because it’s lightweight and easy to carry with me, and I don’t have to worry about having to turn on my laptop to add something to a document. I also carry a smaller notebook in my purse so if I am inspired by a setting or a conversation I overhear, I can write about it then and there.

Other writers use the writer’s journal differently, but see its value just the same. Writer Rebecca Graf uses the journal when her mind goes blank while she’s writing. “No matter how hard I try, I cannot get all those precise details pulled up from my memories. If I go to my writer’s journal, I can find those details and really enhance that one scene. It is a valuable resource any writer can use.”

Dolly Garland writes at The Writing Cooperative that she has used her journal to collect tips and inspiration for improving her craft. It’s also a place where she gets to know her characters and have dialogues with them.

Every writer is different, so you may want to set up your journals differently depending on what you want to achieve. Here are some common elements to include in your writer’s journal:

Basic story concepts. If you’re like me, you’re constantly coming up with story ideas. It’s important to  jot them down before you forget them. Start with a brief plot description or the premise, then brainstorm the rest of the story. The details about scenes and characters will come later.

Characters sketches. Have an idea for a unique character for your spy series? Or perhaps you met someone or saw someone at the bus stop who inspires a new character. Write it down. Describe their appearance, motivations and quirks. Give them a name to help you visualize them better. Like Garland, try having a dialogue with them.

Places you’ve been to that inspire setting. Think of some of your favorite places to hang out. Spend an afternoon at the beach, a coffee shop or the library. Describe the sights and sounds around you. When you need to describe a setting for a conversation between two people, you have only to refer to your journal to recreate that atmosphere rather than jog your memory for details.

Drafts of scenes. Perhaps you don’t have an entire story figured out but you have one or two scenes that appear vividly in your mind. The writer’s journal is the ideal place to get it all down on paper before you forget it.

Memories and flashbacks of your own life.  You might be going about your business when something you hear or see reminds you of a situation that happened to you a long time ago. Now you can’t get that memory out of your head. It’s time to write it all down, and write it as a real story with real characters.

Middle-of-the-night musings and revelations. If you’re like me, you have moments when you’re wide away at four in the morning and you brain is abuzz with different things: a song you can’t get out of your head, a movie that’s playing over and over, or an argument you had earlier in the day. Instead of letting it disrupt your sleep, get up and write it all down in your journal.

Research related to your next project. Include feature articles and news stories that provide historical background. In my files, I have several articles about women who have worn their grandmother’s wedding dresses. They’re handy references for the story idea I have about a similar situation.

Dreams, especially if they’re reoccurring. I’ve taken vivid dreams I’ve had overnight and written them down the next morning so I don’t forget them. Then I may rewrite them as works of fiction. You never know if you need a dream sequence for your work-in-progress.

Snatches of conversation. Ever sit in a restaurant, a coffee shop or a retail store and overhear conversations between other people? The best ones are the public arguments where the participants aren’t aware they have an audience. Jot down as much as you can remember in your writer’s journal. What were they wearing? What were they discussing? Even if you can’t recall the conversation or can’t hear it, make it up. You never know when you need a lover’s spat for your romance novel.

Some writers say it’s important to write in this journal every day. I usually write in it when I know I have something concrete to add, usually when I’m inspired by something I see or hear, or something directly related to what I’m working on. The choice is up to you, of course. Your writer’s journal is your own.

No matter how you use it, you’ll find the writer’s journal is one of the most valuable resources you’ll ever use.

Strategies to Maintain a Consistent Writing Practice during the Summer

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With summer just around the corner, the weather is heating up. Little by little, COVID restrictions are loosening up in many parts of the country. Like most people, writers are eager to get out to enjoy the season.

Along with the summer comes changes in schedules. The school year ends, families go on vacation and some businesses offer summer hours to allow employees time off. Everyone everywhere is in a more relaxed state of mind. They’re eager to enjoy the season, more so this year than in the past because of what we’ve all been through with the pandemic. Things may be so relaxed, in fact, that activities you were so diligent about – such as a regular writing practice — may slack off.

Is it possible to maintain a consistent writing practice while enjoying summer vacation? The answer to that is yes. You just may have to make some adjustments to your schedule.

If you’ve been diligent about writing every day (or almost every day), you probably want to keep momentum. It might help to have a plan for maintaining your writing during the active summer months, so you don’t lose track of your writing goals.

Now is the best time to develop strategies to maintain your writing practice, no matter what the summer holds for you. If writing is important to you, you won’t want to let it slide. If you already have a consistent practice, you’ll be more motivated to keep writing through the summer months.

Here are a few ideas for maintaining a summer writing practice.

Start your writing session earlier. With the sun rising earlier in the day, you have more daylight to play with. Why not use that daylight to your advantage? Rise a half hour earlier and begin writing when you wake up. Even if you already write for an hour a day, by starting a half hour or hour earlier, you’ll get your session done sooner and you’ll have more of your day to spend doing as you wish.

Condense your writing sessions. If you’re really stretched for time or you prefer to use the time to spend with your kids or your friends, you can shorten your sessions. Instead of writing for two hours (if you’re lucky) write for an hour. If you write for an hour a day, cut back to a half hour. You’re still writing every day, and you’re still making progress toward your goals. You’re just doing it at a slower pace.

Write in multiple short sessions. Another option is to write in short blocks of time, such as fifteen minutes. But schedule them throughout the day. So rather than write for an hour in a single session, break up that hour in four 15-minutes sessions. If all you have are little breaks throughout the day, use them to your advantage. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes. Check out my blog post about this topic.

Give yourself an occasional day off (or two). Sometimes you need to take a break from writing altogether. Summer vacation is a prime time to do that. If you’ve been working on a tight deadline or writing every day without a break in between, treat yourself to a couple of days off. You’ve earned it. You’ll come back to your writing with fresh eyes. Just be sure not to keep extending your break for too long or you will lose momentum.

Focus on non-writing tasks instead. There’s more to writing than putting words down on paper. Other aspects, such as research, interviewing subject matter experts, outlining and developing character sketches, are just as important. But sometimes they can be relegated to the back burner until we have to deal with them. Even daydreaming and people watching can be counted as non-writing tasks if they lead to story ideas and developing character descriptions and plot lines.

Capture experiences right away. Remember to carry a small notebook with you as you go about your day. You may notice something in your environment or experience something special that you want to capture while it’s fresh on your mind.

Make yourself accountable. If you don’t want to slack off too much, tap into your community of writers. Reach out to a mentor or writing buddy when you feel your motivation is lagging. Better yet, team up with them to write once a week in a coffee shop or at the beach. When you know someone else is along for the ride, it’s easier to keep on the path.

It’s tempting to let your writing slide during the summer months. By planning ahead and establishing a regular routine, even if it’s different from your non-summer schedule, you can make progress toward your writing goals.

Use Your Writing to Build Authority

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Be sure to check out this week’s writing prompt: Write a story about a childhood memory related to food (learning to cook, family barbecue, tasting something for the first time, etc.)

When you’re just starting a writing career, you naturally want to be taken seriously by your readers. This is especially true if you’re writing non-fiction or starting a blog, or anything based on factual content as opposed to fiction writing.

It can be difficult to establish your authoritative voice in a sea of experts on the internet. How do you set yourself apart from them? How do you establish your own authority? How do you make your voice stand out from the rest?

This is especially important if you’re a beginning blogger. Many beginning bloggers are unsure what to write about, so they write about everything. Unfortunately, this gives the impression of being scattered, so scattered that it’s hard to know what their specialty is. Even publishing expert Jane Friedman has admitted that she did not have a niche when she began her blog. But that’s okay. Sometimes your niche or book concept can grow over time as you post consistently and readers respond to your posts.

So how do you establish your authority? How do you reveal your expertise? Here are some steps you can take to help build authority with your writing.

1. Take stock of your experience. What are you good at doing? What professional work have you done (bookkeeping, legal, marketing, etc.)? Do you have any hobbies or special interests you’d love to tell people about? Most important, what are you passionate about? Perhaps you’re an expert knitter, love animals or play golf? Make a list of all your hobbies, special interests, and work experience, then rank them according to how passionate you feel about them.

2. Focus on a single niche. Once you’ve done your self-assessment from step one, you’ll have a good idea what you’re an expert at – and what expertise you want to promote about yourself. If you’re figuring out an angle for your blog, this step is imperative. A blog focused on one topic shows more authority than a blog that covers multiple topics. A good example is The Art of Blogging (all about blogging).

3. Do your research. Even if you have particular experience about something, there will be times when you need to do some research to supplement your knowledge. Adding quotes from experts or sharing the latest research can put you in good stead with your readers. Adding one or two statistics can bring more meaning to your piece. For example, for the magazine features I write for my client, I usually include one or two statistics to demonstrate key points. When you use data from recognized experts in your industry, it adds to your authoritative presence.

4. Know your audience. Think about who you are writing for. What do they want to know? What types of questions do they ask? Use their questions as a guide for future blog posts or an e-book. By providing readers with answers to their questions, you establish yourself as someone they trust and will come back to for more information.

5. Surround yourself with outside experts. While you may focus on one niche, there may be times when you want to cover a topic that is related to your niche but goes beyond your expertise. Then you’ll want to refer to subject matter experts. Ask them questions to fill in the blanks of your own knowledge and experience. Know who you can go to when you don’t have all the answers. Be sure to provide proper attribution when you quote them. Sometimes being an authority means recognizing that there are some things you don’t know. To find an SME, check associations, booksellers, universities and think tanks for possible leads.  

6. Provide real value. Once you understand your audience’s needs, you can offer meaningful and helpful content for your readers. Avoid writing fluff content that only fills space. It might help to think of one takeaway you can include in each blog post you write. Or if writing a non-fiction book or e-book, think of takeaways for every section or chapter. What can readers learn from you that they can’t get from anyone else? Readers want information that is readily adaptable to their own needs. When you provide meaningful, practical information, readers will begin to see you as an authority.

7. Be consistent. If writing a blog, be consistent with your posting. Whether you post a story every day or once a week, make sure it’s posted around the same time or on the same day of the week. Readers who follow you will begin to look for your story at that time.

I once produced a bi-monthly residential newsletter for an apartment high-rise community. Every other month, the newsletter would be slipped under their doors. If by the first of the month, the newsletter didn’t appear, the management office would receive calls from residents asking where it was. They knew when to expect the newsletter because we were consistent with the schedule. When you’re consistent with your schedule, readers are more likely to trust you.

8. Limit attributions. It’s not necessary to attribute every piece of information in your blog post or work of non-fiction. After all, your stories reflect everything you’ve ever learned by the VIPs, teachers and parents in your life. However, attributions are necessary if you are using a direct quote or sharing a principle that someone else formalized. While you still need to give credit where credit is due, if you include too many attributions, people will wonder how much of the writing is coming from you. If it isn’t original, it isn’t authoritative.

9. Use a variety of media to share your expertise. Once you establish you’re authority, you may want to broaden your reach. If you love social media, use it to establish a following. Write e-books, guest posts for other blogs, magazine features or opinion pieces for local publications. Alternately, you can establish your own YouTube channel, produce a weekly podcast, or appear on local radio shows. If the media isn’t your thing, you can teach workshops or make presentations.

Keep in mind that building authority with your writing takes time. If you find you lose interest in your chosen topic, it’s okay to switch gears. But you’ll have to go through this process all over again, and perhaps find a new audience.

With consistent practice and patience, you can begin to garner a loyal following of readers who see you as a trusted authority on your chosen niche.

How Writers Can Cultivate Curiosity

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Last week, I wrote a post about the habits of highly productive writers. One of the habits I mentioned is  the ability to maintain an open, curious outlook. For today’s post, I’ll be delving deeper into that habit.

Curiosity, by definition, is the strong desire to know or learn something. It is one of the most valued traits a writer can have. By staying curious about the world around them, writers are able to find answers to the questions they’ve long asked, and by extension, answer questions that readers want to know.

According to this Lifehack blog post, curiosity is important for several reasons:

* It makes your mind active rather than passive. By asking questions and doing research, curiosity makes your mind stronger and more engaged.
* It makes your mind more observant of new ideas. You’re more likely to recognize new ideas when they occur. When you fail to be curious, those ideas may pass you by.
* It opens up new worlds and possibilities. You’re able to explore different cultures and ways of doing things.
* It brings more excitement into your life. Because there are always new things to try and new ideas to explore, a curious person’s life is never dull or boring. Curious people have an adventurous life.

I will add one more reason to that list:

* Curiosity begets creativity. Curious people who have done their research tend to be more creative because the new knowledge feeds their desire to create something new.

By nature most writers are curious. They’re not afraid to ask questions. The five Ws are always in their writing arsenal. They’re the first to ask at an accident scene what happened, how it happened, who drove the car, when did it happen, where did it happen, and why.

Sometimes the grind of daily life can sap your curious nature, however. If you find yourself struggling to be curious about the world around you, here are a few ways to cultivate more curiosity in your writing life.

1. Read, read and read some more.  Reading books and magazine features on a variety of topics broadens your mind. If you prefer fiction, you can use curiosity as you read novels. For example, as you read, jot down questions about the characters, plot and setting. Where does the story take place? Is it a place you’ve never been to before, such as Alaska? Then jot down questions about Alaska that you’d like to find out.

2. Ask lots of questions. The five Ws plus How should be part of your writing toolbox. I would add a couple more:  “what if?” And “I wonder.” (Yes, I know “I wonder” isn’t a question, but it open up possibilities all the same.)

3. People watch. Hang out in the park, a shopping mall or a food court. Watch people as they go about their day. Be curious about them. Who are they? What do they do for a living? Why are they there? Create different scenarios for each person you observe.

4. Experiment. Be adventurous. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? For example, several years ago, I finally had the chance to ride in a hot air balloon, something I’d always wanted to do. I enjoyed every minute of it. The experience gave me something to write about. Experiment with your writing too. For example, if you’re struggling to find the right viewpoint for your story, try writing it from different character points of view until you find one that works best for the story.

Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.

Voltaire

5. Research something just for fun. Think of something you’d like to learn more about, preferably something not related to your every day job or your writing practice. It could be how to make lasagna from scratch or how to begin bird watching – whatever tickles your fancy. Then spend 30 minutes on the internet researching everything you can find out about it.

Michelle Richmond at The Caffeinated Writer suggests this exercise to test your research skills:

1) Make a list of ten subjects you’d like to know more about.
2) Choose one of those subjects. Then write a list of questions about that subject.
3) Spend 30 minutes researching this question on the internet.
4) Then find one book that will help you delve further into the topic and deepen your understanding. You can buy a book or borrow it from the library. Richmond says buying the book allows you to make notations.

Remember this is strictly for fun, so enjoy the research process. But be sure to cap the amount of time spent researching. It’s easy to get carried away and lose track of time!

6. Connect with an expert. We all know people who are experts at something. I have a friend who is a scientist, another who runs marathons, a third teaches yoga, and a fourth studied engineering. They’re all experts at what they do, and I know that if I ever need their insights or want to learn more about what they do, I can reach out to them, armed with my toolbox of questions.

I challenge you to jot down the names of 10 people you know along with the special knowledge or skill that they have. Then jot down questions you might ask them about what they do. Bonus points for reaching out to one of them and chatting with them about their work.

Because curiosity can boost your creativity. So it makes sense to cultivate more curiosity into your writing life.

Nine Habits of Highly Productive Writers

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“You can’t edit a blank page.” Unknown

Whether you’re a veteran writer who’s been published previously or an aspiring novelist, it helps to develop good habits that can make you more productive. Here are some of the things that have helped me in my writing practice.

1. Read a lot. To be a good writer, you need to read – and read a lot. Further, reading deeply and across different genres – both fiction and non-fiction – can broaden your mind. When you expose yourself to different authors and writing styles, you naturally absorb their techniques into your own.

2. Write a lot. This is a no-brainer. The more you write, the better you become, just like practicing a musical instrument or rehearsing lines for a play. It’s all about practice, practice, practice. Over time, as you write, you not only are able to express your thoughts clearly, but you’re able to writer faster in less time. The hard part for many novice writers is getting started. But really, all you need is 10 minutes a day. No matter how busy you may be, it shouldn’t be difficult to find 10 minutes to start your writing practice. Start small and build up your writing routine by adding another 10 minutes every day. Before you know it, you are writing – a lot.

3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Many novice writers believe they can’t begin writing until they feel inspired. But if you wait for inspiration, you will be waiting forever to begin your writing practice. Start writing first, then inspiration will come to you. It was only after I took a few writing classes and wrote in my journal that I began to find inspiration for several novels.

“But what if I have nothing to write about?” you ask. Then start by writing about the fact that you can’t find anything to write about. Or use a writing prompt to brainstorm story ideas. You can find numerous resources on the internet for writing prompts, including Writer’s Digest and DIYMFA. Remember that inspiration comes when you begin writing. So start writing, and write a little every day. The more you write, the more easily inspiration will find you.  

“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.” Harry Kemelman

4. Study the craft. Keep up with your knowledge. Take classes, webinars and workshops to build your skills. Read blogs and magazine articles about your craft. Talk to other writers and learn what works for them. Learning about the art and craft of writing is a never ending process and it’s constantly changing. So keep writing and studying.

5. Persevere when things don’t go right. Nobody is perfect, and certainly, no author’s writing is perfect at the first, second or even the third drafts. Keep at your writing and it will all come together eventually. Remember, that rejection is a normal part of the process too. See it as an opportunity to improve your writing. There will always be rough patches where you don’t feel like writing, where too many rejections get you down, and criticism can drain your enthusiasm. Keep persevering. Nothing ever gets accomplished if you decide to give up.

6. Be open and curious. Many writers I know are naturally curious and love to do research. How many times have I reached for my smart phone to look up something on the internet when I came across a topic that caught my fancy? Curiosity is nearly synonymous with creativity. Writers look at the world with wonder in their eyes, and they’re willing to ask the questions that everyone else is afraid to verbalize. Think of the five Ws – who, what, when, where and why. And don’t forget the H – how.

7. Meet your deadlines. No matter how busy you are, don’t ever let your deadlines slide. Meeting your deadlines shows you are serious about your work and that you’re reliable and professional. Editors will know they can count on you to fulfill your obligations, which means they’ll be more likely to come to you for future assignments.

8. Keep your work space clean. A clean work space is a sign of an uncluttered mind. Make sure everything is in its proper place. and off your desk space. When your space and mind are clear of junk thoughts and papers, it gives your brain free reign to produce quality work. Personally, with a clean work space, I find it easier to maneuver throughout the day and to find things that I’m looking for.

9. Have fun. Writing is supposed to be fun, so relax and enjoy the writing process. Seeing your stories come to life on the page is one of the most satisfying experiences you may ever have. If it stops being fun, then it might be time to find something else to do.

To be a productive writer, it’s necessary to establish your own ground rules. Form good habits from the start, and you can enjoy a satisfying writing practice, whether you get published or not.

What about you? Do you have any habits that make you more productive with your writing?

Don’t forget to check out my weekly writing prompt. See the website for this week’s prompt.

How to Make Friends with Your Inner Writing Critic

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Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving yourself and see what happens.” Louise Hay

Writers and creative types are known for being sensitive to criticism. But that’s assuming the criticism is directed from outside sources.  But what happens if the criticism is coming from within yourself?

How do you deal with the fact that you are your own worst critic? How do you respond when your worst critic – your internal one — rears its ugly head?

That internal critic judges everything that you do, from your thoughts and actions to how you talk to people and the clothes you wear to the words you write. According to Good Therapy blog, self-criticism is the act of pointing out a person’s flaws.

Some experts believe that self-criticism can healthy because it can help you increase self-awareness and personal growth. If taken too far, however, it can be self-defeating, causing you to abandon projects before they get off the ground or missing deadlines. While occasional moments of self-doubt is normal, it’s the excessive stretches of self-criticism that can be harmful to your mental health.

Your worst critic can manifest in your writing life in a number of ways:

* Procrastination – putting off starting a writing project or assignment
* Not meeting deadlines
* Never finishing a writing project or constantly re-writing a piece
* Reluctance to show your work to anyone else because you don’t think it’s good enough

It might help to recognize that we are all born with internal voices, and in fact, we have two of them, writes executive coach Svetlana Whitener in Forbes. There’s the cheerleader who recognizes your writing strengths and encourages you to reach your goals. The curmudgeon is an unhappy character; he’s never satisfied with anything that anyone does. No one can ever please him.

If we’re all born with these two types of internal voices, then it’s safe to say that we can choose which one of them to listen to – and it’s no contest. Give me the cheerleader any day.

To minimize the impact of self-criticism, it’s helpful to cultivate self-awareness. This allows you to look at yourself fairly and objectively. Self-awareness can help you reshape your thinking, and shift it from negative to positive. Rather than disregard the internal critic’s commentary, it might be wise to take their remarks for what they’re worth. See if there’s anything of value in those comments that you can use to your advantage. That’s just one approach to dealing with your own worst critic.

“The inner critic isn’t an enemy,” writes Yong Kang Chan, author of The Disbelief Habit: How to Use Doubt to Make Peace with Your Inner Critic. “Our reaction to self-criticism is more important than the self-criticism itself. Paying attention to our reactions is very important because the only thing we have control over is how we react.”

If you are your own worst critic, it might be time to make peace with it. Rather than silence it completely, there are some things you can do to put it to good use. In most cases, it’s a matter of rethinking how you view your internal critic and its place in your writing life.

1. Practice mindfulness and self-awareness. Cultivating better self-awareness can help you remain objective as you review your writing. You can readily accept yourself as a whole writer whose work may be flawed at times, but is still worthy of being shared and accepted.

2. Practice self-kindness and compassion. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Self-criticism is common. Most of us have feelings of doubt at times. Berating yourself for your faults is counterproductive. Acknowledging them while still appreciating your writing self is far more advantageous.

3. Work with a writing buddy, mentor or coach. They may be able to point out your writing strengths as well as the areas you need to improve on. They may be able to see your writing more objectively than you can. As Stephen King writes, “Writers are often the worst judges of what they have written.” So get another viewpoint or two and listen to their feedback.

4. Know yourself as a writer. This phase takes self-awareness a step further. As writers (or any creative type), it’s helpful to understand what kind of writer you want to be, and what kind of writer you are right now. That means understanding your strengths and knowing what skills you need to develop. Then – and most important – take the time to develop those skills.

5. Stop comparing yourself to others. When you and your internal writing critic compares you to other writers, it’s difficult to live up to those comparisons because it’s not a level playing field. Their level of writing experience may be different than yours. Perhaps they started writing at an earlier age. Comparing where you are now to someone else who has already gone through that phase is unfair to you, and unfair to them.

6. Turn negative self-critiques into a positive learning tool. Even the most negative self-criticism holds elements of truth. It’s up to you to listen carefully for them. Healthy self-criticism can help you spot flaws in your work and prompt you to improve your writing. Sometimes the feedback isn’t so harsh at all, but the voice of the internal critic may be so loud and insistent that it camouflages the critique behind the noise.

7. Understand that you are not alone in self-criticism. Everyone has internal critics. Even highly successful published authors suffer periods of self-doubt and self-criticism. If other writers have experienced those inner critics and found ways to work with their feedback to get published, you can too.

8. Recognize that first drafts, even second and third drafts, are never perfect. They’re messy and they’re usually junk. Self-criticism during these initial phases is meaningless. It only prevents you from completing the hard work you know you need to do to finish it. Even through the messiness on the page, you can find reasons to be optimistic about the manuscript’s outcome.

Before you berate yourself the next time you make a mistake, slow down and take notice of your thoughts. Is there a nugget of truth in what your inner critic is telling you? Can you turn it into something positive?

Self-criticism is a part of the writing life. Since internal critics are part of yourself, maybe it’s time to call a truce and make friends with them.

For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.

How to Manage Distractions during Your Writing Practice

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One of the most common – and annoying – aspects of maintaining a writing practice is dealing with distractions. Especially when you’re working on a deadline or immersed in your latest work-in-progress, distractions are not very welcome. They can interrupt the flow of thoughts that you need to put down on paper. They can disrupt your momentum, slow you down or make you lose your place in your manuscript.

I suppose distractions can have an upside too, although that’s rare. For example, they might help you notice a plotting problem in your story while you’re away paying attention to the distraction. Or they might inspire a new story idea. Still you need to get back to the task at hand.

Minimizing distractions is important for writers because good writing requires time and focus, writes Joyce Carol Oates on the Masterclass. Without that time and focus, the writing will lack clarity and impact.

In my experience, I’ve noticed five types of distractions.

1. Physical environment. Room temperature and uncomfortable furniture can make you lose your focus. A messy desk can be a sign of a cluttered mind. Outside noise, like construction and leaf blowers can disrupt your thoughts.

2. Familial environment. If you have kids, they may be curious about the work you’re doing, and pets may want your attention when you want to work. If you live in a condo building, neighbors may start renovations in their units that requires drilling and vacuuming. The occasional ambulance with its blaring sirens can disrupt your thoughts too.

3. Technology. Electronic devices, such as your phone and laptop, can tempt you when you should be working. You might be tempted to work with the TV on to keep an eye on a baseball game or catch up the latest breaking news. Social media is always a temptation because writers have a need to know what’s going on in their world.

4. Internal noise. These are the voices and conversations inside your head that may have nothing to do with your work. You might experience negative thoughts, replay arguments you’ve had or worry about upcoming events. You may be more focused on your worries and fears that you lose track of what you’re supposed to be working on right now.

5. White noise. Part of the background most of the time, white noise has little impact on your writing progress – or it shouldn’t. It might be the ticking of a clock, passing traffic from the expressway near your house, or the drone of a plane flying overhead.

Distractions, in whatever form they take, are inevitable. But you can minimize the impact they have on your writing practice. Here are a few suggestions to do that.

1. Identify the distractions that affect you the most. Before you can reduce distractions, you need to know what they are, according to the Author News blog at Penguin Random House. Take note of what is taking your attention away. Is it a pesky pet who insists on sitting next to you on your desk as you work? Is it the constant barrage of emails and phone calls that distresses you? If there’s one particular distraction that is bothersome, then find ways to remove that distraction. Perhaps move the cat to another room, or set aside a specified time to respond to emails.

2. Set office hours. Most successful writers treat their writing like a real job with set hours. Those steady office hours let others in your household know that you are busy during that time and cannot be interrupted.

3. Know your productivity hours. Every writer has a prime time for writing, where they feel at their most creative and productive. It could be during the early morning, or it could be late at night before you go to bed. Establishing a regular writing session during your most productive time of day can help eliminate unnecessary distractions.

4. Put away your electronic devices. This might be easier said than done. Most of us rely on our computers and phones to get our work done. But do you really need them for your writing? I’m a big proponent of writing longhand on pads of paper. I find it easier to brainstorm blog post ideas and fiction scenes that way. I can draft scenes in a heartbeat with only a pen and paper. Using a computer or phone to write or research might feel more productive – as long as you stay on task – but it can also be tempting to check your emails and your social media accounts. I recommend turning off the TV as well. The focus should be entirely on your writing.

5. Keep a neat, tidy desk. Put everything in its place and use only the materials you need to get your writing done. When writing my blog posts, I have my file with my blog calendar and list of story ideas, a lined note pad for drafting an outline, and a pen. I find that a clutter-free desk translates to a clutter-free mind. It’s also important not to have other tasks and deadlines hanging over your head, say experts at Mediabistro. Take care of those details before you begin your writing session so they don’t creep up on you while you write. Need to make a doctor appointment? Make that appointment now before you begin writing.

6. Reward yourself. If you still struggle to keep distractions to a minimum, try this experiment. If you’ve managed to stay away from the Internet and social media during your writing session, reward yourself with a social media hour or an hour of internet browsing or online shopping. If writing is your real job, then treat social media as play time. It’s what you do when you’re done with your work day. Knowing that you have a full hour of social play time waiting for you at the end of your writing session might be enough to keep you focused on the writing task at hand.

Distractions are a normal part of our work days, but you don’t have to let it ruin your writing practice. Start by identifying the pesky distractions that bother you most, then take action to minimize their impact. You’ll find you have more head space to produce better quality writing.

Learn to Recognize the Blind Spots in Your Writing

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Do you know what your blind spots are? You know, those areas around us that are obstructed so we can’t see past them.

Drivers have their blind spots that prevents them from seeing a pedestrian crossing the street behind them. Hockey goalies have blind spots too when an opposing player parks his body in front of the net so the goalie cannot see around him.

Writers have blind spots too. Usually, it’s about some aspect of their writing skill, like a lack of knowledge about grammar or the tendency to use the same words over and over. Sometimes you’re aware of those tendencies, but choose to ignore them. Other times, you’re not aware you have a blind spot. “Your writing is just fine as it is,” you say to yourself. “It doesn’t need to be fixed.”

Then there are the blind spots that appear in our stories. Perhaps you focus exclusively on exciting creating action scenes. You want to thrill readers with car chases and non-stop fight scenes. However, there may be little written about the protagonist – their emotional side, their backstory, their desire and motivation.

Your blind spot is your inability to see that your story is one-sided. All action, and little to no narrative. Readers may love the action scenes, but feel the story is lacking. It’s out of balance.

Writers can fall in love with different aspects of their story to the detriment of others. They may hate writing dialogue and focus exclusively on internal narrative.

We all have blind spots in our writing. Acknowledging that you have blind spots is half the battle. The rest is knowing what they are so you can improve your writing.

So how do we recognize the blind spots within ourselves? Experts say it’s easier to spot them in others than in ourselves. There are several approaches to recognizing your own blind spots.

1. Take time for self-reflection. You can get so busy with the demands of everyday life that you neglect to check in with yourself. Those moments when you are alone with your thoughts can help you become more aware of what you think or feel at any time. You can develop greater self-awareness through meditation, fitness or just sitting quietly too. No matter what method you use, you can learn to look within. Don’t be afraid of what you might see there either. We all have our faults, and many times, we’re afraid to admit we have them. Nurturing self-awareness can help you learn to accept all parts of yourself – the good, the bad and the blind spots.  

2. Seek feedback from a trusted friend. Since it is so much easier to identify blind spots in others than in ourselves, it might be a good idea to pair up with a trusted friend or fellow writer. Ask them to review your work with you. They may be able to see things in your writing (and in your personality) that you may not recognize in yourself. Their input can put things into proper perspective. They can help you identify weaknesses in your writing and offer suggestions for improving your story. Be prepared to take their suggestions to heart, no matter how painful it might be to hear them say it.

3. Separate yourself from your work. As difficult as it might sound, you are not your writing. While it’s true that much of yourself appears in your writing, that doesn’t mean that you and your writing life are one and the same. At some point, you have to detach from your work and look at it from an emotional distance. Without emotion clouding your judgement, you’ll be able to see the weaknesses in your story.  

Author Tom Avitabile suggests that writers “rinse all knowledge of the story from your mind.” When it’s time to review or edit your work-in-progress, either read the chapters out of sequence or in reverse order from back to front. Reviewing scenes out of order can help you focus on each individual piece, which can help you notice problem areas.

4. Target specific areas of improvement. There may be several weaknesses in your writing that may be occurring simultaneously. Focus on one or two areas at a time. For example, you might need help building your vocabulary, eliminating redundancies in your writing or developing flat characters. You may not notice that you repeat the same conversations in your story or use the same words over and over. Once you become aware that this is happening, you can focus on one aspect of your writing to improve. If you try to fix all your blind spots at one time, it can be overwhelming.  

We all have our blind spots. But by nurturing self-awareness and learning to review your work with emotional detachment, you’ll learn to recognize the blind spots that are holding you back from being the writer you were meant to be.  

More about Blind Spots

How to Avoid Blind Spots in Your Writing
https://arimeghlen.co.uk/2016/05/20/how-to-avoid-blind-spots-in-your-writing/

Confront Your Blind Spots: 5 Strategies for Self-Discovery
https://www.recruiter.com/i/confront-your-blind-spots-5-strategies-for-self-discovery/#:~:text=A%20blind%20spot%20is%20something,re%20supposed%20to%20be%20perfect.

How Writers Can Develop Better Resilience

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Check out this week’s writing prompt on the blog.

Life is filled with disappointments – the breakup of a relationship, not getting that coveted job or promotion, a cancelled vacation. But I’ve always believed that it’s how we respond to those disappointments that show who we are.

Suffering through one disappointment is bad enough. But a lifetime of disappointments (and rejections from editors) can make us feel like giving up. Fortunately, most of us don’t. Can you imagine if Stephen King or Toni Morrison had given up writing after being rejected?

Over time, those disappointments can serve an important purpose by building up a hard shell around us, so future rejections can bounce off. As Polly Campbell writes over at the Writing Cooperative, resilient writers are also among the most successful.” They learn to bounce back from setbacks and keep going despite the pain of rejection. And as they keep working, they are learning their craft and improving their writing.

“Resilience doesn’t prevent hardship or adversity, but it does help us to reframe the difficulties and move through them faster. With resilience, we become more adaptive, creative and flexible. We are less stressed, more capable. This helps us keep writing despite the setbacks,” Campbell says.

Resilience is an important behavior that writers need to develop. But it takes time. Some of us are naturally better at it than others. But like any other behavior and skill set, it needs to be developed, honed and fine-tuned. Unfortunately, that means going through some rough stretches in our writing careers and opening ourselves to disappointment – over and over again.

But successful authors says there are ways to strengthen our inner resilience beyond the school of hard knocks.

  1. Stay optimistic. It may be difficult to maintain a positive mindset when your work is constantly being rejected or criticized. The most resilient writers are able to do that. Campbell says optimism can motivate behaviors which foster improvement or better outcomes. That means keeping our eye on the prize and not letting it out of our sight. Believing in the potential of your latest work-in-progress may be enough to keep going.

  2. Not everyone will “get” your story. Whether writing science fiction, historical romance or non-fiction, recognize that not everyone will “Get” your story. They may not understand the plot, the characters or some of the action that takes place. That’s okay. There are other audiences what will understand it and believe in it. The most important person who needs to “get” the story is you. If you lose faith in what you’re doing, then you’ve lost the fight. Keep believing in the story, and others will get behind it too.

  3. Celebrate the rejections. As contradictory as that may sound, it actually makes sense. Science fiction author Alex Woolf suggests rewarding ourselves every time we receive a rejection. It’s a way of honoring our efforts. “Rejections are milestones showing you’re on your way to a win,” Woolf says. “Rejections show you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more stories you submit, the more you’ll be rejected, but it also raises the chances to get an acceptance.” One idea is to drop a dime (or a quarter) into a jar each time you receive a rejection notice. Over time, you will have built up a supply of coins that you can take to the bank, or reward yourself with a special treat.

  4. Look for positive nuggets in the feedback. Woolf says we’re programmed to focus on negative comments to the point that we overlook the positive ones. After the dust has settled and you’ve regained your composure, go back and re-read the rejection letter again. Did the editor make any positive comments? Did they make any suggestions for improving it, or invite you to re-submit something else? If so, take heart. Focus on the positive news, implement their suggestions, then be sure to respond with a kind thank-you to the editor.

  5. Remind yourself of your ‘why’. Several weeks ago, I challenged myself to list forty reasons why I write. (I actually came up with fifty, but who’s counting.) If you feel tempted to give up on writing, go back to your why. When we’re disappointed and feeling hurt by repeated rejection, it can be tempting to give up on your craft. But when you remember why you’re doing this and why you love to tell stories, it may be enough to keep going. When you keep your ‘why’ in perspective, you’ll easily bounce back from setbacks.

Whether you focus on positive feedback, celebrate rejections or remind yourself of your ‘why’ of writing, you’ll develop stronger mental capacity to deal with setbacks on your writing journey. The most resilient writers are the most successful. Don’t let rejection and disappointment deter you from your writing goals.  

Intuition May Be the Key to Better Writing in Less Time

Intuition, which is also fundamental to writing fiction, is a special quality which helps you to decipher what is real without needing scientific knowledge, or any other special kind of learning.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude


Have you ever begun writing a work of fiction with a clear idea where you want to go with it, only to see it head off in a different direction, seemingly all on its own? New characters showed up you hadn’t dreamed of, and they were more complex and interesting than the ones you had originally outlined. New scenes that you hadn’t planned evolved in your imagination that made the story more suspenseful.

Or maybe you began writing an essay about a certain topic, say a generic one about motherhood. As you began writing it though, a different idea took hold, perhaps about becoming a new mom during the pandemic. When you began writing that new essay, the process came easily, seamlessly, and the words flowed. You could almost visualize every word before you wrote it.

You can’t explain what happened in these instances or why. Only that you were guided by a little voice inside that instructed you what to write. Some describe that little voice intuition.

Ask any writer how they define intuition, and they’ll give you a variety of answers.

Colleen Story at Writing and Wellness blog calls it your “writerly instincts,” that inner knowing that you have about your work.

“When a scene works right, you’ll feel it in your bones. You’ll experience a ‘yes’ moment,” writes C.S. Lakin at Live Write Thrive blog. “Conversely, when a scene or character feels out of place you know that too. The more you try to rationalize it, the stronger the ‘No’ becomes.”

That’s why it’s important to listen to your body, Lakin says.

That inner knowing that something is off in your writing is common among writers, especially those whose level of intuition is high. Intuition is that internal sensor of what is going wrong with your writing – and what is going right. It’s there to redirect your efforts so you make smarter choices about plot structure, character and dialogue, even the right word choices.

Listening to the inner “knowing” can build your confidence too. “A well-honed writing intuition can free you from much of the emotional volatility you experience when someone is ‘dissecting your baby’. It means developing greater confidence in your work, disengage from negative emotions and response patterns because you see wisdom in the feedback you get,” writes Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers.net.

No matter what you call it, intuition can serve an important function during the writing process.

Whether we believe it or not, we are all born with intuition. It’s just that many of us tune it out or don’t pay attention to it. Some writers might ignore that voice, and stick to the story line they created in their outline. Others embrace it freely, allowing their intuition to guide their choices during the writing process.

The worst possible scenario is recognizing that it exists but not trusting it. When you don’t trust that inner “knowing,” you may ignore the power it gives you to improve your story.

I can’t tell you how to trust your intuition more. That’s up to you to figure out. But there are several things you can do to enhance your intuition so that it’s accessible and sharper. For starters, you have to learn to practice mindfulness. (These suggestions are also helpful for overcoming writer’s blocks and getting out of ruts.)

1. Take frequent breaks from your work-in progress. Time and distance gives you better perspective. If you feel stuck, set it aside for a day or two. When you come back, you may notice solutions you hadn’t thought of before.

2. Enjoy the outdoors. Being in nature can help you clear your head and perhaps inspire you to write something completely different. Keep the headphones at home too.

3. Practice meditation. Sit quietly on the sofa with your feet planted firmly on the floor, or sit cross-legged if you prefer. Lay your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Let your breathing slow. Follow that breath. As your breath slows, so does your brain. Release every distracting idea that crosses your mind.  

4. Do something else for a while. Work on another piece of writing, read a book, or take a nap. Maybe putz around in the kitchen or clean out a closet. The act of doing something else will engage you brain in other ways.

5. Immerse yourself in water. As strange as it sounds, water can release the tension in your brain as well as your body. Go for a swim, wash dishes or take a bath. In astrology, water is associated with creativity. Immersing yourself in water can help you re-engage your creative side.

6. Tune in to your body. During your walks or meditation or during any quiet moment of the day, sit quietly and notice what is happening with your body. Notice any aches and pains, any stiffness, or any other physical ailments. How does your body feel when it’s relaxed compared to how it feels when you feel tension? It’ll show up in your body in places you didn’t expect. Your body will tell you when something – whether it’s in your personal life or your writing life. Pay attention to those signals that it sends you.

A funny thing happens when you trust your writing intuition. The writing seems to flow more easily, the characters are more complex and nuanced, and the dialogue more interesting. Ultimately, listening to your intuition – and trusting what it tells you – can help you write more engaging stories.

What Writers Can Learn by Attending Author Readings

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Writers are always looking to improve their craft. Their journey is one of continuous professional improvement, and they’ll look everywhere to boost their knowledge and understanding of publishing, and to be the best writer they can be. That learning can come in various forms – conferences, webinars, classes, self-study courses and writing groups.

But there’s one resource that can easily be overlooked: the author reading.

Author readings are live in-person events held at libraries, bookstores, schools and coffee houses where authors read from their latest works and answer questions from the audience. The events can attract hundreds of fans or as few as a dozen interested observers.

For the aspiring writer hungry for learning, author readings can provide insider knowledge of the publishing process that they may not get anywhere else.

Of course, with the current pandemic, these live events have gone virtual. But that doesn’t mean writers can’t participate in them and learn something about the writing process. While the experience is better in a live setting, you may be able to gain the same benefits with virtual readings. After all, authors have to practice speaking their selected passages no matter how or where they deliver them. They have to learn to read for the audience’s ear, not just their own.

Hearing someone read their own published work to understand their story requires a different process. According to the writer’s platform Clear Voice, how our brains process meaning from what we hear differs from how we read. We recognize words on a page, visualize words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud in our heads. But when we listen, all the visual cues littered in the pages we read don’t hold much muster. Something gets lost in the translation.

Here are a few tips for taking advantage of this educational resource.

1. Treat the event as an educational experience.
See it as an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. Bring a small notebook to take notes – whether it’s describing the experience for yourself, jotting down sample language from the text, or making a list of questions to ask the author. If possible, chat with the author afterwards and ask about their writing process, how they come up with story ideas, and how they overcome writer’s block. While they may not have all the answers you’re looking for, and their answers may not be suitable for your situation, you can learn what worked and what didn’t for them.  Then you can decide if it might work for you.

2. Listen to the reading as a writer, not just as a fan. That means learning to develop a writer’s ear. According to communications coach Karen Friedman, a writer’s ear “can’t rewind or replay what a speaker has said…” While our eyes can browse through detailed information or re-read something that is complex in meaning, our ears need simpler language to grasp the speaker’s meaning. 

“When we talk with people, we don’t read to them. Rather, we have conversations. Our sentences are shorter, sometimes spoken in phrases and we naturally pause between thoughts. Our pitch, tone and pace automatically vary,” writes Friedman.

3. Pay attention to how the passage is presented. Listen for the way the author delivers the passage. Do they speak dramatically, or do they mumble? Remember poet Amanda Gorman who spoke at the presidential inauguration? Her poem “The Hill We Climb” was powerful because she made it powerful. She used her vocal expression to match the power of her language to make a huge impact. She enunciated words clearly and spoke with passion and emotion. If she had mumbled the words, the meaning of the poem would have been lost. When done well, presentation can be a powerful thing.

4. Listen for narrative descriptions. Close your eyes and see where the author’s writing takes you. Can you see what the narrator sees in the story? Do you feel as if you are right there at the scene with them? If you can, then you know the descriptions are spot on. On the other hand, there may be descriptions that get lost in the spoken word; they may be better by reading it than hearing it.

5. Listen for dialogue. Like the narrative descriptions, you can pick up nuances of language when you listen for dialogue. Can you tell which character is speaking? Does the author’s tone change with each character? The vocal styles of each character should be as distinct as their personality.

6. Pay attention to the author. How does the author conduct themselves in a public setting? We need to remind ourselves that they are human beings too, prone to having bad days just like the rest of us. They may be shy, retiring souls who would rather be at home doing their laundry rather than speaking to a room full of strangers. Be kind and respectful to them. Remember, they worked hard to get their book published.

The next time you’re looking for inspiration or an extra dose of education, consider hanging out at an author reading. You never know what knowledge you’ll pick up. Use the time well and be open to listening and learning from others who have gone before you.

Can Your Character’s Name Affect Their Destiny?

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I remember when I was a teenager, I went through a brief phase in which I disliked my first name. For some reason, I felt it was too formal to fit my emerging identity. Thankfully, that phase was short-lived. Today, I appreciate my first name (Regina) more than I ever have before. I feel fortunate that I have my formal name and a shortened version (Gina) that my family calls me.

Other people aren’t so lucky. Thousands of individuals have their names legally changed due to a number of reasons. More often than not, it’s because they feel the name doesn’t suit them in some way.

If it can be so difficult for real people to accept their birth names, imagine how fictional characters feel about the names you bestow upon them?

“Your name is not only your calling card, it is also something that uniquely distinguishes you from everyone else and may even determine, to a large extent, who you turn out to be in your lifetime,” according to the introduction to The Hidden Truth of Your Name. “The name you ‘wear’ affects not only how others perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself.”

Take Gogol, the lead character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, who grew up hating his name so much that he legally changed it to Nikhil when he was a young adult, believing that a name change would also change the way other people saw him – and more important, how he saw himself. 

“If you truly understood the meaning of your name in all its mysterious and hidden aspects, could you use that knowledge to affect your own destiny? Would it be possible to take advantage of the inherent power of your name to alter the direction of your life for the better?” continues THTYN

As writers, we wield a lot of control over our characters’ literary destinies simply by giving birth to their stories. What you name them matters. Some names work well; others not so much. How many times have you changed a character’s name because it didn’t quite fit their personality as the story evolved?

One true sign that your chosen character’s name works well is that it sticks in readers’ heads. So it’s important to make it memorable. Imagine if Harry Potter was named Rudolph Kristoffer?

A strong character name should establish three things, according to the Reedsy blog.

* Clarity — The right name helps readers differentiate that character from other major players in your story.
* Character – The right name reveals personality and type of character without the author having to explain anything.
* Bankability – The right name can make your character iconic.

Further, there are certain things to keep in mind when considering possible names for your characters. NY Book Editors offers these tips:

A character’s age – Some names are better suited for young adults while others are better suited for older adults.  For example, you rarely come across a Dorothy among today’s teens, while it was significantly more popular sixty years ago.

A character’s parents – Remember that it’s the character’s parents who name their child, not you. Consider what their logic may be for naming their child a certain way.

The location of the story – Names vary based on location. Mary in the United States is Maria in most Latin countries and Marie in France.

Genre of the story – Writing in certain genres may dictate different styles of names. For example, in science fiction and fantasy, the names may be more obscure and more creative. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games or Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.

The general rule of thumb is to create names that are easy to pronounce, easy for readers to remember, and fit the character’s personality.

Other naming tips apply. Avoid names that sound alike (Kelsey and Chelsea), names that start with the same letter (Tim and Tom) or names that are close to one another (Laurie and Lauren). Make sure each character has their own unique name so readers see them as distinctive characters and personalities.

For help, there are numerous sources to go for inspiration. You can pick up a baby name book or phone book for starters, or look up the top names of the year in Google. If you’re writing a story set in the 1950s, it might be wise to research names that were popular in that year. Similarly, if your story takes place one hundred years from now, understand that many of today’s popular names may not fit that future environment. You’ll have to create a few names that don’t exist now.

Also try automated name generators, which you can find at Name Generator Fun and the Random Name Generator. Some of these sites will even provide brief personality descriptions so you can find one that suits your characters.

My favorite source is The Hidden Truth of Your Name, a compilation of names and their meanings based on three mystical interpretations: The Kabbalah, runes and numerology. The book also provides spelling variations for more unique possibilities. The detailed descriptions provide insights into the type of person/character they can become. Reading about my own name provided clues to my personality, many of which were spot on!

Naming characters takes a lot more thought than you imagine. You have to consider the type of person you want them to be, the role they will play in your book and their age and cultural background. It can be challenging, but it can also be fun.

What’s in a name? Plenty. With the right name, your characters can reveal subtle hints about who they are and who they want to become. If you’re lucky, they’ll like the name as much as you do.

Write Stories with Better Sensory Descriptions

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This week’s writing prompt: Choose a season of the year and write about the smells that evoke that time of year for you.

One thing I often struggle with in my own fiction writing is sensory descriptions. While non-fiction might address the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why), fiction deals with the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

Experts say it’s easy to go overboard with descriptions, which can distract readers. On the other hand, it’s also easy to forget to include them. Writers need to walk a fine line between the two extremes. However, using them judiciously in your work can make your writing shine.

Kellie McGann, a writing consultant and contributor to The Write Practice, says the key to unlocking the five senses is the question behind them. “Why does the character see, hear, taste, smell or touch something in a certain way? What do those sensations mean to them?”

If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself the same question: what do those sensations mean to you?

McGann’s advice? “Don’t bog readers down with unnecessary details, but a few well-placed descriptions can immerse readers into the story and into the character’s world.”

You may find that some senses are easier to describe than others. For example, you may write an uncanny accurate description of the sound of a waterfall to your ears, but have difficulty describing the visual beyond just “stunning” or “beautiful.” There are other ways to make sensory descriptions work within your prose.

1. Sight – Visuals are the most important element in descriptive writing. However, it’s easy to overdo them. Masterclass writing experts suggest selecting only certain details you want to highlight. It’s not necessary to mention a person’s height or shoe size, unless those details are integral to the story. For example, a mystery where an imprint of a boot was found at the murder scene.

One way to approach visual descriptions is to describe them directly (“the sun was bright,” for example) or indirectly, which can give readers more visual interest. For example, “the light from the sun reflected off the glass windows so that they shone solid white.”

2. Taste – While sight might be the easiest to describe, taste may be the most difficult because it’s subjective. How do you describe the first bite of an apple? One person’s experience after biting into that apple, or a garlic clove, will be different than the next person’s. But if done well, it can make a powerful impression.

Remember that taste isn’t just about consuming food. Think of all the other ways we taste life. For example, the ooze of blood when we bite our lip or falling onto the ground and getting dirt in our mouth. What does that blood or that dirt taste like?

3. Touch/Feeling – Touch is usually associated with the texture of something. The sense of touch can be easy to overlook because we’re always touching some object every moment of the day. It’s a real and immediate sensation that places characters – and your readers – in the present moment.

For practice, make a note where you are right now. What are you touching? If you’re sitting down, pay attention to the chair. How does your body feel when you sit on it? Or try feeling different fabrics and textural materials. Describe how they feel in your hands or under your feet.

Remember that the sense of touch can refer to internal sensations too, such as pain, pleasure and temperature. Try describing the moist heat of a sauna, or the sharp stab of pain when you wrench your back.

4. Smell – Experts say the sense of smell is closely associated to memory. How many times have you walked into someone’s home and the smell of fresh baked break reminded you of your grandmother during the holidays? Or the scent of flowery perfume reminds you of your favorite aunt when she kissed you.

But don’t overdo descriptions of smell which can overpower your readers. Just like strong perfume in real life, a little bit goes a long way.

Try this exercise: Go to a place you know well, such as a library, a school, a bakery, coffee shop or a park. On a small notebook, make a list of all the smells that define the place for you.

5. Sound – Descriptions of sounds are often used to create a mood. Think of soft classical or jazz music playing in the background during a romantic scene, for example, or the boom of an explosion setting off panic and destruction.

Challenge yourself with this exercise: Sit quietly and listen to the sounds in your room, in your building or in your neighborhood. What do you hear? Make a note of every sound you hear and try to describe it.

When writing, it might be tempting to use onomatopoeia – words that sound like the noise they make (whoosh, boom, crash, etc.) It can help capture the mood of a scene, but again, don’t overdo it or your writing will come across as comical and insincere.

For more practice, I recommend Writing from the Senses by Laura Deutsch, which contains 59 exercises to challenge your sensory writing skills.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction narrative, sensory descriptions can spice up your writing and help you bring readers along on your literary journey.  


Learn to Read Books with a Writer’s Eye

Recently, I read A Deadly Game of Magic, a young adult mystery by Joan Lowery Nixon, who had been a favorite author many years ago. I decided to pick up a couple of her mysteries that I had not read before. A Deadly Game of Magic lived up to my memory of her suspenseful writing. Not only did the story keep me turning pages, it scared the pants off me – more than any other book I’ve read in recent memory. (Then again, I’m easy to scare.)

Why was her book so successful in my opinion? What kept me turning the pages to the very end? How did Nixon create tension throughout the story? How did she manage to scare me (and other readers, I’m sure) without mentioning a single drop of blood or showing a dead body?

These are questions I will have to ask myself the next time I read the book.

We’ve all had those novels that we could not put down. Or conversely, we’ve read stories that bored us to tears or made us feel confused by the protagonist’s actions.

This is where it helps to know how to read a novel with a writer’s perspective. It’s one thing to read for pure enjoyment and entertainment. It’s quite another to observe the techniques the author used to develop the story. You read to notice how the story was constructed.

In other words, you read in order to learn about the writing process.

As Gabriela Pereira at DIYMFA explains: “You understand that every piece of writing has a purpose. Once we read toward that purpose, we can see how writers shape and craft their words to accomplish what they want.”

When you read with a writer’s eye, you might focus on certain areas of writing, such as:

* Plot/story structure – How does the plot develop? What is the inciting incident that starts the story?
* Emotional tone – What is the tone of the story? Is the protagonist sad, angry, surprised, or confused at the start? How does the tone change throughout the story?
* Character development – is it consistent throughout the story. Do you care what happens to the protagonist?
* Conflict – is there enough conflict to keep your interest?
* Point of view – Which point of view is used to tell the story? Are there multiple viewpoints or just one? Would you use a different point of view if you were telling this same story?
* Theme – Most stories have a theme, such as good always wins out over evil. Does it come through the story?
* Setting – Where does the story take place? Can you visualize where it is? How important is the setting to the story? For example, in Nixon’s mystery, the story takes place at an old home in the middle of nowhere that is thought to be uninhabited – but it isn’t.

So how do you go about reading with a writer’s eye? First you need to understand that writing consists of a series of choices by the author on how they will tell their story. As you read, you work to identify what some of those choices are, whether they work well or not, and whether they can work within your own writing.

Author Shaunta Grimes says as “story consumers” (I love that description), readers must first “read deeply and analytically.”

But does that mean you must study every paragraph of every chapter? No, say most writers. Go back and re-read only those sections that drew your interest. For example, was there a particular setting description that intrigued you? Or a chapter that was filled with tension? Go back and re-read those passages to study the techniques the author used.

Grimes shares a three-step process for doing a “deep dive” to study an author’s craft.

1. Choose a story you’re already familiar with. Perhaps it’s a book from the Harry Potter series, or a childhood favorite such as Little Women. When you’re already familiar with the story, you can study certain passages without getting distracted.

2. Know what you’re reading for. As mentioned previously, you’ll be looking for specific passages. For example, you may want to study how the author makes transitions between the current time and the past. Or you may want to look at the way the protagonist’s character is developed so that she feels real to you.

3. Read with a pencil in hand. Don’t be shy about marking up the book and highlighting sections that stand out. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and try to understand why.

Another word of advice: Be patient with this process. It takes longer to read as a writer because you are studying and absorbing the content.  

It’s one thing to read for pleasure. But by studying the works of others authors, we can all learn to be better writers ourselves.  

Want to Improve Your Writing? Read It Aloud

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“I believe the eye and ear are different listeners. So as writers, we need to please both.”
Jane Yolen, author of sci-fi/fantasy novels

Reviewing and proofing your writing is a normal part of your routine. But if you want to take your writing to a whole new level, try reading it out loud.

Experts say reading your manuscript out loud can help you notice mistakes in your writing that you wouldn’t normally catch by simply reading it silently and seeing the words in your head. Reading out loud can also streamline your editing process because you’ll notice the mistakes faster. That said, it doesn’t guarantee that it will catch every mistake, but it will alert you to a lot of them.

“Read a passage aloud and you’ll get an immediate sense of how it ‘should’ feel; the way the words fit together and work as a whole,” writes Robert Wood, editor at Standout Books. “The same way you can hear a missed beat or a wrong chord in music, you understand when your phrasing is awkward or unwieldy.”

If you haven’t made out-loud reading part of your review process yet, here are a few tips for making it work and what you should listen for.

1. Notice the passages where you stumble over the language. If you struggle to read sentences that are complex or contain several difficult-to-pronounce words, your readers will struggle too. Make a note in the manuscript to simplify the language for your readers.

2. Notice if sentences are overly long and wordy. They can be more noticeable when you read them out loud. Also notice if sentences are poorly constructed and confusing. Will readers understand what you are attempting to say? Is there a better way to express what you want to say? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you’ll need to rewrite those sections for clarity and conciseness.

3. Notice the pacing and rhythm of the language. Do you need to slow down the pacing, or pick it up? Do you get bogged down in too many unnecessary details that slow down the pace of the story? Reading out loud will make you more aware of the natural rhythm of the words.

4. Notice if there are misspelled words, grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. For example, are there too many commas in your sentences? Or are they added in the wrong places, which can change the meaning of the sentence?

5. Pay attention to the tone of your manuscript. Is the tone appropriate for your piece? Is it appropriate for your audience? For example, is the tone too formal for a room full of parents at a PTA meeting, or is it too casual for the company’s board of directors?

6. Pay attention to the sequence of ideas or story scenes. When you or someone else reads your work out loud, listen to the order of ideas. Do they move seamlessly from one to the next? Ditto for short stories and novels. Note if scenes develop in a logical sequence. Also listen for transitions between ideas and paragraphs. Reading out loud can reveal gaps in story lines and thought processes.

7. Notice any repetitions. Did you explain one idea on page three, then again on page five? That’s a sign that you need to condense your content, and rewrite for better clarity.

8. Listen for filler material. Publishing expert Jane Friedman says many writers tend to add filler copy in their manuscripts. These sections and sentences don’t add any meaningful information to the reader. If you notice filler copy, get out the scissors and begin cutting. Make sure every sentence you write, or every section or scene, provides meaning and value to the overall piece.

If you have trouble recognizing these elements as you read your work out loud, it might be helpful to have someone else read it out loud to you. According to the University of North Carolina Writing Center, when someone else reads your manuscript out loud, you receive information in a different way. Most people have more experience listening to and speaking English than they do reading and editing it, the center explains. If your reading partner stumbles over the words or gets lost, those may be places where you need to revise to make your meaning clearer for your readers.

The UNC Writing Center offers the following strategies for reading and reviewing your written work out loud.

* Print out a copy to read. When you read from a printed page, you’ll be able to make notes on the page and mark the places that need revision.

* Read only what you see on the page. If necessary, use a finger to point to each word you see as you say it out loud. The brain has a tendency to “smooth over” mistakes on the page by filling in missing words or making corrections.

* Read out loud at a moderate pace. If you read too fast, you may gloss over words and phrases that need fixing. Slowing down your pace will help you notice errors more easily.

* Read one section or paragraph at a time. Covering up most of the manuscript as you read out loud will help you stay focused on only the material in front of you so you don’t race ahead.

No matter what type of writing you do – nonfiction, memoir, or fiction – learning to read your work out loud can help you catch errors you might otherwise miss. That can make you a better writer in the long run.

Seven Easy Ways to Make Readers Love Your Writing

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This week’s writing prompt: If there was a “Do-over” button, what event in your life would you like to do over or have a second chance at? Rewrite that event in your life the way you’d like it to turn out.

It’s not always easy to get people to read your stories or blog posts. It’s even harder to get them to like your work, share them or comment on them. How do you know people are reading your works? How do you know that they like what you’ve written? Figuring it out is like shooting an arrow at a target in the dark.

The most important thing is to pay attention to any feedback they give you. Which posts are getting the most likes? The more likes you receive, the more likely they enjoyed that story more than others. That might be a sign that perhaps they would like to see more content like that.

They may not always like the work you put out there, but that’s okay. As long as you meet certain expectations, they will like YOU. It’s up to you to give them what you want.

While you may not control how readers respond to your stories, you can control what you write and how it’s delivered. So whether you’re managing a blog or creating short stories or essays to share on Medium, here are six easy ways to make readers appreciate you what you do.

1. Be consistent with your writing. Set a schedule for when you post stories. If you manage a blog, decide how often you can post updates, whether it’s only once a week, or once a day or somewhere in between. Then stick to that routine. When people recognize the schedule you follow, they will likely follow along with you. They will begin to expect it. So if you post a story on Monday morning, they’ll look for it in their inbox. Readers like consistency and routine. It makes you easier to follow when you set that routine for them.

2. Keep your work clean and error-free. You might spend most of your time drafting stories and doing research, but don’t overlook the importance of proofreading. Check your grammar, spelling and punctuation to make sure it’s spotless. There’s nothing more annoying than reading a blog post filled with misspelled words; it’s distracting and it sends the message to readers that you don’t care about your work. Sure, there will be times when a misspelled word slips through after you’ve posted the story. That will happen. Readers will forgive an occasional error like that. Just be sure to take the time to proof your work before hitting the Publish button. Or if you’re unsure of your proofing skills, have someone else review it for you.

3. Write conversationally. Imagine that you are having a conversation over your favorite adult beverage with a close friend. You would likely ask the other person questions. You would probably use “you” to address them, and “I” when talking about yourself. Avoid heavy-handed descriptions and flowery speech that readers may not understand. Be blunt if you need to be, and don’t be afraid to break a few English writing rules if that’s what it takes to express yourself personally. The experts at Copyblogger have a few additional suggestions for writing conversationally on your blog.

4. Be passionate about your topic. Whether you’re writing a blog, a short story or an essay, be passionate about your writing. Indifference will come through, and readers will notice it. “It’s astounding how much better writing is when we write about something we care deeply about. The words flow easily, and we are much more convincing and engrossing,” writes Amy Newmark, publisher of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series in a Forbes magazine interview.

Maybe your passion is caring for your dogs. Then make dog care the focus of your blog. Then stop writing about things that have nothing to do with dog care, like the last restaurant you went to or the DIY home improvement project you attempted last weekend. When your topic is all over the map, you’ll have difficulty finding your target audience. When you stick with your core topic – dog care – you can expand your audience to include not only dog owners, but dog walkers, veterinarians, pet shelters and anyone who like dogs. Again, it’s about managing your readers’ expectations. If you establish early on that your blog is about dog care, readers will expect it from you again and again.

5. Give readers what they want. This is an extension of what I wrote about above. Pay attention to likes, comments and feedback from readers. They’ll tell you what they like best. If they respond positively to a particular story, say starting a dog walking business as a side hustle (to use the example above), then perhaps that is the angle you should keep writing about. If you’re a fiction writer, then give them fiction stories.

6. Give readers added value. Give them a few extras that will whet their appetite for good content. For example, I recently offered a weekly writing prompt which is consistent with my blog content about writing. In your case, you may decide to offer a weekly trivia question or a survey question related to a blog post. Those little extras become something new and interesting that readers can share with others, and makes them want to come back to see “what’s next?”

7. Be sure to respond to questions and comments. If readers really like what you’re writing, they’ll tell you by leaving a comment or asking a question. There’s nothing more flattering than receiving a compliment from a reader. Be sure to thank them though. Engage with them. Be responsive to their questions and comments. A simple thank you goes a long way to establishing trust with your readers.

It takes time for readers to find you and even longer for them to love you. But these simple steps will make it easier for them to appreciate what you have to offer.

Literary Agents Share Their Best Writing Tips

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Browse the Internet and you’ll find all sorts of tips for writers from fellow writers, editors and publishers. Another group of professionals have their own take on the writing process – literary agents. After all, they work closely with aspiring authors to get their work published.

Most writers won’t need an agent to represent them. If you’re primarily a freelancer writing magazine features, business publications and website content, you won’t need an agent.

But if you’ve completed writing a book — either fiction or nonfiction — that you believe is your best work and you want another pair of eyes to look at it, then it might be time to search for a literary agent. Check out the Association of Author Representatives, which has a database of agents that you can search based on different criteria. Other sources are publishing industry magazines, such as Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. For more about finding a literary agent, check out these pros and cons from Masterclass.

Even if you plan to self-publish your novel or memoir, or if you don’t plan to write a book at all, it’s worth paying attention to what literary agents have to say about the writing process and the publishing business. After all, they’re review hundreds of manuscripts in search of talented authors with potential. They know what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace. There are nuggets of truth in their words of advice.

Below is a collection of agent advice for writers, gleaned from past issues of Writer’s Digest magazine. In each issue, WD profiles a literary agent who shares tips for pitching and writing, and the genres they work with. They describe what they look for in author submissions as well as what they love about the work they do as agents. Whether you plan to self-publish or have no plans to publish a novel at all, it’s still worth it to hear agents’ perspectives on the publishing process.

“Don’t be precious about your material. Don’t keep a sentence because it sounds nice. Be prepared to get rid of material, and be as ruthless as you can.”  Claire Anderson-Wheeler, Regal÷ Hoffmann & Associates

“Keep writing, even when people aren’t telling you to keep writing.”  Kerry Sparks, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency

“Get yourself a great critique partner.” John Cusick, Folio Literary Management

“No amount of good pitching will make up for a bad project, so focus first and foremost on your craft. Always challenge yourself to improve.”  Zabé Ellor, The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

“Story arc is important, no matter what genre – even nonfiction, maybe especially.”  Rick Pascocello, Glass Literary Management

“Write what excites you; that passion can leak into the text and start a chain reaction.”  Ian Bonaparte, Janklow & Nesbit

“Understand that rejection is part of the process – learn from it instead of taking it personally.” Megan Close Zavala, formerly of Keller Media, now a writing coach.

“Believe that you have many stories to tell, and don’t despair if your first book doesn’t sell.”  Connor Goldsmith, Fuse Literary

“Don’t hold back when writing and dig as deeply into your emotional reservoir as you can.” Heather Cashman, Storm Literary Agency

“Practice verbally describing your pitch and watch for people to perk up with interest – that’s the heart of your pitch.” Caroline Eisenmann, Frances Golden Literary Agency

“Write a lot. Show your passion. Be authentic. I look forward to being surprised by a fantastic story.”  Linda Camacho, Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency

“Not every book you write should be published, but that doesn’t invalidate the experience you gained in writing it.” Susanna Einstein, Einstein Literary Management

“Don’t worry about following trends. Build a community. Support your local bookstores and fellow writers.” Lisa Grubka, Fletcher & Company

“Remember that agents and editors got into this business because we love books. We are not your enemies.”  
On editing: “Try to understand the gap between your intention and your editor’s understanding of your work.”  Rachel Sussman, Chalberg & Sussman

“Immerse yourself in the authors of your genre.”  John Talbot, The Talbot Fortune Agency

“Always build your platform by publishing smaller works: essays, articles, poetry, stories.”  Natalie Kimber, The Rights Factory

“Learn your own weaknesses and root them out ruthlessly. Don’t aspire to be published; aspire to be read.”  Bob Hostetler, The Steve Laube Agency

“Know the comparable titles that aren’t blockbuster bestsellers.”  Christopher Rhodes, The Stuart Agency

“No one’s success hurts the chances of yours. Be supportive in your communities. Be careful who gets to weigh in and critique your work.”  Erik Hane, Headwater Literary Management

“Pay attention to what people are looking for (manuscript wish lists). Write freely, edit with precision.”  Stephanie Hansen, Metamorphosis Literary Agency

“Have courage. You won’t know how to do any of this yet…but you’ll learn.”  Tricia Lawrence, Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

“Know/learn when to keep at it and when to move on. Don’t give up on your dreams of being a published author, but sometimes it is best to move on from a project that’s just not working…, and start something new.”  Patrice Caldwell, New Leaf Literary & Media

Do you work with a literary agent? What is the best advice you have received from them?

Keys to a Successful Writer-Editor Relationship

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Writing has been part of my professional life for several decades. I’ve worked on both sides of the table as both an editor and a writer (staff writer and freelance). So I’ve had the benefit of experience to talk about the writer-editor relationship. A good writer will make an editor’s job easier, and a good editor will make a writer’s work really shine.

“Writer-editor relationships walk a fine line between familiar and professional,” writes Chels Knorr at Clear Voice, a content agency. “They’re built on mutual respect. They’re transactional, but also because they involve something subjective as writing, deeply personal. The writer must trust the editor’s fresh eyes and insight. The editor must trust the writer’s voice on a deadline.”

Like any relationship, they bring different strengths into the mix. Each has certain responsibilities to make the relationship work. Here’s what writers and editors can do to maintain a strong working relationship.

For writers:

* Be reliable. Meet your deadlines, and follow instructions and style guidelines. When working for an editor at a publication, pay attention to their instructions. Is there a certain format you need to follow? Then follow it. Are there certain phrases and terms that must be included in your piece? Be sure they’re in there. If the publication editor asks for something specific, be sure to do it. Doing so establishes your credibility in the editor’s eyes, and improves your chances that they will want to work with you again. And of course, make sure you turn your work on time, which proves to editors that you are reliable and take your work seriously.

* Be thorough and conscientious in your work. Proof your work before submitting it to the editor. If you don’t know how to proofread, take a class. Also be your own fact checker. Confirm quotes with your sources. Look up statistics to make sure they’re accurate and the most current. When you submit work that is clean and accurate with few errors, it saves the editor time and effort to correct them for you. Editors will love you for it.

* Don’t phone it in. Give each assignment your all, even if you don’t feel well or have too much on your plate. Treat clients as if they’re the only client you have and end the message that you’d like to work with them for the long-term by giving them a strong representations of your skill. If you really are too busy to take on an assignment, say so. Honesty is better than doing a crappy job.

* Develop a tough skin. It can be demoralizing to receive a piece back from an editor with a ton of red marks on it. Learn to accept feedback with grace and an open mind. Try to look past snarky comments, which isn’t always easy to do. Whatever feedback you receive is meant to help you become a stronger, better writer.

For editors:

* Communicate expectations clearly. Most editors and publications I’ve worked for/with have a source sheet that outlines what the assignment is and what the editor is looking for. However, there have been times when even those instructions were vague. Make sure you are clear about what you want the writer to do. Even if it seems clear to you, it may not be clear to them. If you aren’t clear, the writer may submit something that was not what you expected, which means more work for the writer to fix it.

* Respect the writer’s time and expertise. Be kind to your writers, writes Sarah Gilman at the Columbia Journalism Review. They’re providing you with a valuable service, and most of them are professionals with a history of success. Treat them as professional colleagues and remember that they’re human beings too. Remember they have personal lives and go through rough times too. A messy divorce or a sudden illness, for example, might disrupt their work. Be kind to them, just as you would want another editor to be kind to you.

* Provide helpful, constructive feedback. Avoid hurtful criticism and personal attacks that can be demoralizing to writers. Stick to the work at hand. Explain what needs to be changed. Sometimes explaining why helps writers understand what is expected for future assignments.

* Pay writers on a timely basis – and pay them WELL. Most freelance writers have sporadic incomes, often getting paid at publication time, not upon acceptance. That can put them in precarious financial circumstances. Paying on a timely basis shows your commitment to them. It earns their trust in your publication so they will want to continue working with you. If payments are delayed, it sends the message that you either don’t care or have cash flow problems – a red flag for freelancers who depend on you for income.

More important, pay writers well. A well-paid writer is a happy writer, and they’ll be more apt to turn in their best quality work to your publication to show they are worth the investment. Underpaid writers feel undervalued and unappreciated. If your fledgling publication or content agency pays peanuts for the people who write for you, expect the submitted work to be subpar and you might have to continually replace freelancers who leave for higher-paying gigs. For information about writers’ rates, check out the Editorial Freelancers Association and Writer’s Digest, which both provide updated rates for freelancing services.

When both writers and editors understand the needs and expectations of the other party, they can look forward to a long, productive relationship.

Feedback vs. Criticism: How They Are Different and Why Writers Should Care

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As writers, getting feedback for our work is a normal part of the development process. Without feedback, we would never know how readers will respond to our story. Without feedback, we won’t understand how we can improve our work. Without feedback, we will never know how to become better writers.

Notice I did not say the word “criticism,” which opens a Pandora’s box of problems. It does nothing more than stop a writer’s progress in its tracks.

Why do we tend to cringe at criticism, but not feedback? Even the sound of both words brings different images to mind and produces kneejerk reactions. Feedback sounds softer, gentler, and kinder. Feedback might remind us of a beloved grade school teacher who provided helpful instructions to complete an assignment. Even when feedback is negative, its intent is to help you improve your effort.

By comparison, criticism sounds harsh, starting with the first hard C in the word. It immediately calls to mind negative experiences, like the day your first love dumped you with a scathing, hateful speech. Criticism seeks to tear you down. There is no intent to be helpful, instructive or kind.

Now look up both words in the dictionary. At first glance, they may seem to be similar, but in fact, they are different. For example, according to Google’s online dictionary:

Feedback is “information about the reactions to a product or a person’s performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.”

Criticism is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work; the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”

Take a closer look at the two definitions. What words jumps out at you? For feedback, the prominent words are: information, performance and improvement. For criticism, the words that jump out appear to be more severe: judgment, faults, disapproval, and mistakes.

It’s no wonder that writers (and all of humankind for that matter) cringe at the word criticism. All criticism does is judge others, find mistakes and seek reasons to disapprove something or someone. There’s no apparent room for improvement.

But feedback does encourage improvement. Is it any wonder that we all may be more open to receiving feedback than criticism?

Amber Johnson at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University succinctly describes the five differences between feedback and criticism in this Forbes article.

Criticism is focused on what we don’t want; feedback is focused on what we do want.
Criticism is focused on the past; feedback is focused on the future.
Criticism is focused on weakness; feedback helps to build up strengths.
Criticism deflates; feedback inspires.
Criticism says, “You are the problem.” Feedback says, “You can make this better.”

How do you spot a critic? Professional ghostwriter Laura Sherman at the Friendly Ghostwriter blog says that critics are usually frustrated artists themselves. “The harsh critics of today are the failed artists of yesterday,” she writes. Pay attention to how you feel after you’ve read their comments. If you feel worthless, develop a terrible case of writer’s block, or are tempted to quit writing, then you’ve been attacked by a nasty critic. Sherman advises writers to disregard their “advice” which is meaningless and harmful.

As you move forward with your writing practice, think about the role of feedback in your writing development. When you seek guidance from others, whether they are your beta readers, your writer’s group or your family and friends, be clear with them. Ask for feedback to help you improve your craft. Anything else might crush your creative spirit.

Also think about how you give feedback to others. Avoid being overly critical and nit-picky. Always look for something positive that they’ve done before presenting negative comments. Then suggest ideas for how to improve it. When someone asks you for feedback, be kind, be helpful and be instructive.

While feedback and criticism might be related, like distant second cousins, they serve different purposes and live on different sides of the tracks. Let feedback be your guide to a better, stronger writing life.


Why Pets Make the Best Companions for Writers

Check out this week’s writing prompt!

Many writers I know live and work in isolation. Luckily, most of them seem to have a loyal furry friend (or two or three) to keep them company. That begs the question: Do pets make the best companions for writers?

The answer to that, of course, depends on where you live, how many people live with you, and whether you like animals or have pet allergies. But more often than not, most writers I know have made room in their lives for a furry pal.

You don’t have to own a dog or cat to appreciate the benefits of pets. Even a goldfish or guinea pig can provide comfort and inspiration when you need it. Colleen Story at the Writing and Wellness blog describes the pros and cons of different types of pets, including horses, goldfish, birds and rabbits. Imagine that you can have a different pet for different reasons!

In fact, writers and their pets are such a fascinating topic that entire books have been written about them. Check out this one by Alison Nastasi and this one by Kathleen Krull.

So why are pets such an important part of writers’ lives? They provide multiple benefits, some related to health and others related to our work.

1. Pets provide inspiration for our work, sometimes acting as a writer’s creative muse. They may show up in stories as a secondary character. Think of Alice Walker and her chickens. She loved her chickens so much, she wrote an entire book about them! While Edgar Allen Poe did not own a pet raven, he was inspired by Charles Dickens’ pet raven to write about them.

2. Pets are good for your health. According to the Center for Disease Control, having a pet helps lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol. Pets can lower stress and improve levels of happiness in their owners. Pets need regular exercise to stay healthy and strong, and it’s only natural as pet owners to join them on their excursions. Pets remind us of the importance of regular fitness breaks to keep us active and strong.

3. They provide companionship. In these days of social isolation, when Zoom calls have become the norm, it can be comforting to hug a furry friend. I believe curling up with a dog or cat while reading a book is one of life’s most cherished moments.

4. They teach us about routines. Cats, especially, are creatures of habit. They live their lives by routine. They like to eat at the same time every day, take naps in the same spots, and play with the same toys. Writers who are just starting their writing practice can benefit from establishing a writing routine, just like cats establish their grooming habits. Having a routine can be good for our writing because it establishes a steady rhythm to life.

5. Pets remind us to take frequent breaks. Cats and dogs may race around the room chasing after toys, but afterward, they stop to rest. They take frequent naps too. The time outs are necessary to restore their energy so they can bounce back and play more. As writers, we need to take breaks too to restore our energy, to think more clearly and

6. Pets provide comfort when things aren’t going well. Whether we’re fighting writer’s block or we’ve just received a rejection notice from an editor, pets make us feel that our lives are okay despite the disappointments. Even better, they provide comfort too when things go well. Imagine a congratulatory lick on the face when you’ve just finished a story you’ve slaved over for several weeks.

7. Pets provide unconditional love. We may hate the story we just wrote or the publication that just rejected our essay. We may feel down on our luck and question why we put ourselves through the wringer. Pets love us anyway. As long as we feed them, play with them and keep their litter box clean, they’re happy, and they’ll gladly return the favor.

8. Pets will never share your secrets. When it’s just you and your dog or cat, you can chat with them all day and they won’t tell a soul what you’ve said. They don’t spread gossip either. While they might occasionally misbehave and talk back in their own animal way, they won’t betray your trust. They make good listeners too. So if you need an audience for your latest short story or poem, they will gladly listen – as long as they’re not napping.

Since writers often work in isolation, it’s important to surround themselves with a strong support group, even if that includes a favorite furry friend or two.

Do you have a furry companion in your life? How have they inspired you in your writing?

How to Love Your Writer Self (Even When It Isn’t Perfect)

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: Write about a time when a stranger did something nice for you.

As individuals, we play different roles – parent, child, student, employee, boss, spouse and friend. Add one more to that list – writer.

The writer self may start out small and vulnerable, like an infant or toddler. Just like a toddler who is just learning to walk, your writer self must learn to walk too. That means taking baby steps, such as writing a little bit each day, taking a class or workshop to develop skills and experimenting with different writing styles to figure out what kind of writer you want to be.

Most important, as you grow into your writer role, you learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You also must learn to love your writer self, flaws and all. In her book Milk and Honey about resilience and overcoming adversity, Rupi Kauer writes, “How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.”

At My LA Therapy blog, Tobias Foster writes, “Accepting our strengths and weaknesses and reconciling the conflicting parts in our inner world is critical to our health and happiness. You cannot achieve anything substantial in the outer world without fixing your inner world.”

In order to make an impact with your writing and create meaningful work, you must take steps to clear your inner world of negative thoughts and replace it with kinder, gentler ones. You must strive for self-kindness and self-acceptance.  “Having self-compassion builds resilience in the face of adversity, and helps people recover more quickly from trauma or romantic separation,” writes Ana Sandoui in Medical News Today. “It also helps us cope with failure and embarrassment.”

The harsh self-criticism we give ourselves, she adds, is because we’re driven by a deep need to do everything perfectly all the time, which can cause physical and mental health issues down the road.  

So what does all this mean for writers? How can writers move past these mental and emotional road blocks to become a more loving writer self? Here are a few tips for practicing self-compassion for your writer self.

* Avoid judging yourself. Or at least, don’t judge yourself so harshly. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You may not be aware that you are judging yourself because you may become so lost in your own world that you don’t pay attention to your own thoughts. Many times, we are our own worst critics when judging our own writing. If you find yourself judging yourself too harshly, have someone else review your work. They may be more objective than you, and they may find that it’s not nearly as terrible as you think it is.

* Recognize that perfection is a myth. Realize that no one is perfect; we all have flaws we’d prefer to hide from the public. But as part of a larger community of creatives, you experience the same feelings of self-doubt and fear. That makes you more alike with your fellow creatives than you are different. When you accept that you are not perfect and everyone else is not perfect, you won’t feel so alone or as different as you fear.

* Avoid comparing yourself to others. One mistake new writers make is comparing themselves to other writers, especially to those whose work they admire. Remind yourself that you are at a different experience level than they are, and you bring a different set of experiences to the table. When you compare yourself to others, you will always lose. You will set yourself up for failure before you even begin. Know that your life experience and writing skill has value.

* Learn to practice mindfulness. Whether through meditation, yoga or journaling, it’s important to quiet your mind so you can hear yourself think. Be still and be in the moment. Turn off social media and electronic devices and turn in to yourself. You may realize that your thoughts aren’t nearly as negative as you believe them to be. When you practice mindfulness, you develop emotional equanimity – that feeling of being in balance with your inner world, and you’re less likely to identify with painful emotions and experiences that can hold you back from writing.

* Don’t seek approval from other people. When you begin writing, it may be important to seek other people’s opinions of your work. You may wonder if you’re moving in the right direction, or if the story you’re writing is boring. While it’s important to get feedback, don’t let it influence your writing practice. Take everything than anyone says with a grain of salt. Remember to write for yourself first, then for your readers. If you write strictly for someone else’s approval, you will never be satisfied with your effort because you will always be looking at it through their eyes. Learn to trust yourself.

* Practice self-kindness. Learn to forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made. As I mentioned, no one is perfect. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend or a sibling – with kindness, compassion and understanding. Learn to speak tenderly with yourself, suggests mystery author Julie Glover. If you’re constantly berating yourself about your writing, then flip the script. Talk to yourself as a lover would, she says. (Glover gives a nice example of this on her Writers in the Storm blog.)

When you practice self-compassion for your writer self, you’ll forgive yourself for your mistakes and become more resilient in the face of adversity, such as a loss of a contract or a bad review.

Most important, remember that no one is perfect; all writers and creatives are flawed in some way. It’s a waste of time and energy to let self-doubt ruin your writing. In the words of poet Henry David Thoreau: “It is not worth the while to let our imperfections disturb us always.”

How Writers Can Cultivate a Strong Relationship – With Their Writing

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Check out this week’s writing prompt on my website!

February is the month for love and romance. It’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to our closest relationships, whether they be with a spouse, significant other, a friend, a child or a parent. Even if you’re not in a relationship currently, your thoughts may stray to someone you’ve loved before, or would like to love in the future.

In the publishing business, your closest relationship could be with your agent, editor, writing coach or readers. However, don’t overlook the most important relationship – the one you have with your writing.

Is there such a thing as a writer-writing relationship? Yes, if you think of your writing life as a separate entity. You can either embrace it, welcome it into your life with open arms, or reject it as some strange being who insists on getting more attention from you, more than you can possibly give to it.

If you do recognize your writing life as a separate being, how do you built a loving, kind and respectful relationship with it? Here’s one example of a writer-writing relationship, courtesy of Annie Mueller. Also check out this anatomy of a writing relationship by Samantha Stout.

I believe that a writer’s success hinges on how well they relate to their craft.  If you love what you write, your writing will love you back – or at least it should. If you give it the time and attention it deserves, your writing will reward you down the road, even surprise you when you least expect it. Just like a real relationship with a human being.

What you and your craft create together is as close to a partnership as you can find. Your writing can draw you out of yourself and bring out the best of you. It can showcase your deepest thoughts and emotions, and show how you have grown through life experience.

Likewise, your time, attention and effort will make your writing shine to editors and readers. Sure there will be rough spots when one or both of you don’t feel inspired to work with the other. There will be times when you ignore each other even. But then those periods may be followed by happy reunions when you work so seamlessly together and you wonder how you ever thought you could live without the other. You need each other, like sunshine needs the rain to keep the earth’s flowers from drying out.

As I’ve explored my own writer-writing partnership experience, I’ve noted a few rules of engagement to make sure it works. Here’s how you can create a healthy relationship with your own writing endeavor.

1. Spend quality time with one another. Try to minimize distractions. Whether you spend an hour a day or several hours a week, it’s important to use that time to learn about each other, to recognize strengths and accept the flaws. Understand each other’s desires and motivations, what makes you tick. If you don’t spend quality time together with your craft, how will your relationship to each other ever grow strong?

2. Recognize each other’s faults, and love each other despite them. Your writing has weak spots, quirky characteristics, routines and tendencies. With time and attention, the writer in you can strengthen those areas and perhaps lessen their detrimental impact. Your writing is an extension of yourself, with all its flaws and mysteries. Your writing is not perfect, but then, neither are you. So accept the flaws, improve them if you can, but otherwise, accept them for part of who you are.

3. Stay friends, even during the rough patches. You may never fully fall in love with your writing, but at least make friends with it. Develop a healthy respect for each other. Keep the lines of communication open to leave open the possibility of a reconciliation. Even as friends, you can learn and grow together.

4. Know when to make sacrifices and special accommodations for your other half. There will be times when each of you will need to make sacrifices and special accommodations for the other, just as if you were in a relationship with a human. For example, your writing may call to you at the most inappropriate times, like during your son’s soccer game or during a movie. It may demand you take notes of a new story idea. You’ll have to decide whether to give in to that demand or ignore it, which could be risky because you don’t know if that idea could evolve into a meaningful story.

5. Keep your heart engaged in the process. Whether writing soulful stories or romantic poetry, be sure your heart is truly engaged in the creative process. Share your deepest fears and your triumphant moments. That’s what will bring out the best in your writing. Without heart, your writing will appear bland and boring.

6. Take a break from each other when necessary. If you lose motivation to write, it might be time for a trial separation. The break might give you proper perspective on your writing partnership. It might give clarity about where you want to go with your current work-in-progress and how to get there. Alternately, if the relationship is beyond repair, dump the project that’s giving you problems and move on to something else.

7. Ask yourself why you love to write. If you love writing for all the right reasons, then you are bound to have a strong, healthy relationship with it. But if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, such as seeing your name in print or writing to please someone else, the writing side of your partnership may suffer at some point and your interest it may wane. When you remember your ‘why” of writing, you’ll likely return to center and stay motivated through difficult stretches.

It may seem odd to treat your writing as a significant other, but think about where you would be without it. When you view your writing as a true partner that you love for life, you’ll treat it with the care and devotion it deserves. Both you and your writing will thrive.

Need Motivation for Your Writing Practice? Find a Writing Buddy

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Don’t forget to check out this week’s writing prompt.

Last week I wrote about participating in a writer’s group to help you get past writing blocks and keep you on track toward your goals. But writer’s groups aren’t for everyone. Sometimes you don’t want to share your work with a group of people, but instead, only one other person. That’s where a writing buddy comes into the picture.

A writing buddy is just as it sounds – a person to share in the journey with you. You may have different writing goals (publish short stories vs. polish off that novel that’s been hiding in a desk drawer), write different genres (women’s literature vs. romance), live in different parts of the country (the West Coast vs. the Midwest) and live different lifestyles (one married and one single, for example). While you may have different writing experiences, one thing you do share is a love of writing.

The concept of the buddy system is borrowed from the fitness world where two people might engage in a weight loss plan together. They may arrive with different fitness goals and use different approaches to reach those goals, but neither wants to go through the journey alone. It helps to have a buddy to experience the ups and downs of the process, and to challenge and motivate one another along the way.

Writing buddies can provide the same kind of support. They’re there to inspire and motivate you when your interest lags. They make you accountable for your progress. You know you have someone who supports your efforts, encourage you every step of the way. Writing buddies can also exchange ideas and knowledge about crafting stories. They can also serve as a beta reader for your current work-in-progress, and be your initial reviewer, editor and proofreader.

However, writing buddies are not collaborators; they’re not there to work with you on the same project. Rather, a writing buddy has their own project that they are working on, separate from yours. They are also not a mentor or coach, who provides encouragement and support, but don’t receive any support from you in return. They’re not a boss either, who might teach you a few things about the craft, but may not be working on any project at all.

For a better idea who makes a good writing buddy, check out this article from Writing-World.com. Carol Sjostrom Miller writes that over a six-month period of working with a writing buddy, she wrote more, submitted more stories for publication and sold more than she had before finding her buddy. If you’re a new writer or want to ramp up your writing production, having a writing buddy might be the solution you’re looking for.

So how do you find someone that wants to be your writing buddy, and where do you find them? For starters, it should probably be someone you already know, not a total stranger. It could be someone you’ve met at a writing workshop, at a conference or a former member of a writer’s group that’s looking for a similar arrangement.

When you already know someone, you don’t have to go through that uncomfortable “let’s get to know one another better” phase. Since you’ve already bypassed that phase, you can focus on assessing your writing goals and what you want from your writing buddy.

If you think a writing buddy is right for you, here are a few characteristics you might want them to have – and what you should be willing to share in return.    

1. They must love to write as much as you love to write. This is obvious. The key is “as much as you love to write.” Are you both at the same level of writing? Are you each writing every day, or are you each struggling to make your daily word count goals? If you already have someone in mind for this important role, assess where you both are in your writing practice. Knowing where you each are on the journey and where you want to go will make it easier to work on equitable terms.

2. They’re non-competitive and non-judgmental – and so are you. Check your egos at the door. Writing buddies are neither collaborative nor competitors. They’re not there to judge you harshly or tell you how silly you are to write for young adults. They’re supportive and helpful, like the volunteers who pass out cups of water on the marathon race route or cheer you on at the finish line.

3. They bring an alternate perspective to your writing, and vice versa. Because you may both have different writing backgrounds, you’ll provide alternate perspectives that the other party may not have considered. Having that different perspective means you can share practical and meaningful insights that will help you each grow as writers.

4. You learn as much from their writing process and they do from you. Because you’re each on your own writing journey and working toward individual goals, you each have something to learn from and share with the other person. Perhaps you’ve discovered a more efficient way to edit a first draft that can help your writing buddy, or they have heard of a new online magazine that publishes your genre of short story. There’s an easy give-and-take in the relationship.

5. You both provide helpful, insightful and constructive feedback. Feedback is important to help you improve, so both you and your writing buddy should know how to provide meaningful feedback, not just be a cheerleader. Criticism can be hard to take, but it’s necessary to grow as a writer. Be constructive with criticism and communicate clearly and with sensitivity. There is a way to provide helpful advice without destroying their ego.

6. You both practice positivity. It’s easy to lose faith in your project and your talent over the long haul, so it’s important to team up with a buddy who can stay focused and optimistic to help you out of the doldrums. Likewise, your own positivity should motivate your buddy to stay the course.

7. You celebrate each other’s successes. When you’ve reached milestones, gotten over writing humps or finally published that story you’ve slaved over for months, a writing buddy can share in your joy. Be sure to share in theirs, writes Barbara Beckwith at the National Writers Union.

Writing buddies aren’t a perfect solution, and some buddy relationships may go through rough spells or end altogether. Yet others can last longer than some marriages. But for greater motivation and productivity, a writing buddy may make your writing journey more worthwhile.

Seven Ways to Turn a Plain Room into a Creative Writing Workspace

Most of us are working from home these days, either slaving away on a blog or writing for an employer. We can become so absorbed in our computer screens that we forget to notice – and enjoy – the space around us. That’s why it’s important to create a space that is fun and creative and lifts your spirt. Even more important, you want a space that will inspire you to produce your best work, no matter what type of work you do.

According to Mindspace, an online magazine about flexible work spaces, poorly designed spaces can affect a person’s psychology, motivation and creative output. Mindspace recommends some basic elements to make a positive impact. Start with comfortable seating which can increase your energy level and keep you more alert and engaged.

Emphasize natural lighting if at all possible because it is better than artificial lighting. Fluorescent lights are harsh and can cause long-term eye strain. Let’s face it, natural lighting is simply more beautiful too.

Bring in natural plants which freshens indoor air quality naturally. But if you’re the type of person who forgets to water plants, artificial plants will suffice. The greenery is easy on the eyes and has a calming effect on your mood.

While having a desk, chair and computer are imperative, they’re not enough to inspire creativity and productivity. You need to add elements that not only inspire you to do your best work but also expresses your creative side.

Here’s how you can spice up your workspace and make it more fun and creative.

  1. Rearrange your furniture. Before you add any new accessories, try rearranging the furniture. Switching around furniture pieces can change the energy in the room, say home décor experts. If your space feels stale, try removing one piece and see what happens to your energy level. While you’re at it, it might be a good idea to declutter too. Many of us have one or two pieces of furniture that we really don’t need. By subtracting, you’ll actually be adding to your productivity by creating more real space. When space opens up, it allows more air to move, and more ideas to flow along with it.
  2. Repaint the room. If you feel bored or experience the winter blahs, spice things up with a splash of color to your surroundings. Sometimes all you need is a fresh coat of paint to brighten your mood. If you don’t want to paint a whole room, try doing one accent wall. For example, if the walls are white, try a bold, bright color on one wall. The sudden splash of color can awaken your senses.
  3. Add wall décor. Once you’ve repainted the room and rearranged the furniture, don’t forget to add wall décor. Add a framed print of a famous person you admire, or a soothing landscape scene or a photo with an inspirational quote. If framed prints are too boring, try other options like a colorful handmade wreathe, a woven wall hanging or cut-out words that spell out a  favorite quote. Let your imagination be your guide. The last thing you want to see are bare walls, even if the paint colors are more interesting.
  4. Add unique lighting elements. If a desk lamp is too boring, bring in special lighting with different colored light bulbs, though be careful not to work under those lights, which might cause eye strain. Use those lighting elements to spark a creative mood rather than for productivity. For more advice about proper lighting for your space, check out this article from The Spruce.
  5. Switch out accessories. Add new throw pillows on your bed or sofa which can make an immediate impact. A few small votive candles can put you in the mood to write poetry, and a potted plant can bring in some of the outdoors. If you lack storage space, add a few shelves by your desk to hold your supplies.
  6. Create an inspiration board (or mood board). Need something to spark your imagination every day? An inspiration board contains photos, artwork, and phrases that help you focus on your writing goals or a specific project. Inspiration boards aren’t for everyone and they take a lot of time and effort, but they can provide the motivation you seek to be productive. (Some people call them mood boards, though I don’t know why. The boards are meant to inspire creativity, not affect mood. But that’s my two cents.) Check out the Lit Nerds for tips on creating mood boards.
  7. Keep a fun drawer. Who doesn’t love a fun drawer? That’s where you keep small trinkets and toys, your favorite candies and handheld games. I suppose it should be called the distraction drawer instead because that’s what those items are meant to do – create distraction. The fun drawer serves as a reminder that writing is not all work and no play, and that it’s okay to take a creativity break. You never know when one of those little distractions inspires a fresh story idea.

    Writers spend a lot of time in their work spaces – plotting stories, doing research, penning that masterpiece. Why not make it the most creative, inspirational place to work? Hopefully, these suggestions will spark some ideas on how to maximize the space you have and turn it into a fun place to work and play.

Five Signs That You’re Ready to Join a Writer’s Group

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This week’s writing prompt: What date on the 2021 calendar do you have circled? Is there a special event that you are looking forward to this year? Why is this date circled?

Writing is often a solo journey, but sometimes you need to pick up a few passengers along the way. You may be at a point where you need to hear different perspectives about your work-in-progress or pick up tips from fellow writers. Perhaps you hit a wall and can’t seem to write another word. That’s when you may benefit from joining a writer’s group.

Not every writer needs or wants to join a writer’s group. They can get by with working in isolation before sharing their work with two or three close confidants. Other writers, especially beginning writers or hobbyists, relish the social interaction and feedback that groups provide.  

Wherever you are on the writer’s spectrum, there will come a time when you will want to seek support or feedback for your work. That’s where a writer’s group might be a practical move on your part. Sometimes the insights of other writers can point you in the right direction – or a different one that you had not considered.

Writer’s groups aren’t for everyone, however. There are a few dangers to groups, writes Jennie Nash in this guest post at JaneFriedman.com. You may find that the writers in the group are either more experienced or are all beginners. You will have to decide what level of writers you want to work with. Writers who are struggling with their own writing may not be the best judge of your work.

Other times, members may not know how to give constructive feedback because they either don’t want to offend you or because they simply don’t know what they should be commenting on, Nash adds. In those instances, it might help to express what you want them to look for. Generic feedback may not help you improve your writing. But a more specific request, such as whether the dialogue sounds natural, may be more helpful.

Then there is the decision to join a writer’s group. How do you know you are ready to take the plunge? Here are five signs that you might be ready to join a writer’s group.

1. You’re tired of working in isolation. When you work solo most of the time, it’s necessary to grab some social time to balance your writing schedule. This is especially important during the current pandemic where most of us are working from home. A writer’s group can provide that social outlet. Whether you decide to meet once a week or once a month, you can develop some meaningful friendships while improving your craft.

2. You want feedback on your current work-in-progress. Perhaps you’ve been plugging away on a novel that just doesn’t’ seem to be moving along at the pace you intended. Or your characters seem flat, or you’re unsure where to go next with the plot. Having other writers review and provide feedback on your work can help you figure out what you may doing wrong and what you can do to fix it. Your group members may see things that you don’t. 

3. Your productivity is lagging. You want accountability for your writing practice so you can stay productive and meet your writing goals and deadlines. Since writing is more of a marathon than a sprint, a writer’s group can provide the support you need through the long haul.

4. You’re looking for beta readers to test out story ideas. You’ve come up with one or two story ideas, but you’re uncertain whether there’s enough substance to make them work. A writer’s group can help you assess the story, whether it needs more development or whether to save a scene or two for another plot, or simply to dump the idea altogether. Again, member feedback can give you needed perspective.

5. You’ve exhausted all the traditional modes of learning your craft. Through a writer’s group, members can swap stories of personal experience, learn from one another, and exchange writing resources. It’s another form of education beyond classes and workshops.

Before signing up for a writer’s group, however, you need to assess your own writing needs. According to Brooke McIntyre in this guest post at Jane Friedman’s blog, there are several questions you need to ask yourself.

* What is your writing experience? Are you a beginner or are you more experienced. Joining a group of beginners may test the patience of a more experienced writer.

* Do you have a completed manuscript to share now? Or are you more interested in a group that will motivated you through the finish?

* Do you have a consistent practice currently? Or are you looking for motivation to start a consistent practice?

* Where do you want to go with your writing? What can a writer’s group do for you now to help you get there? What do you want from it?

* What other ways are you developing your writing progress? Have you attended workshops and classes? Have you read books, blogs and magazine articles to learn about writing? If you’ve exhausted all these avenues, then a writer’s group might be the next step.

Once you understand where you are in your writing practice, where you want to go and how to get there, you can decide if you’re truly ready to join a writer’s group.

Five Ways Your Writing Life Improves When You Say “I Am a Writer”

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For many aspiring writers, it can be difficult to say the words, “I am a writer.” Deep down, they feel they don’t deserve the title because they’re new at writing. Many newbies argue that they don’t feel justified in calling themselves a writer because they haven’t published anything.

But the truth is, it’s a key step in your writing journey. Because if you are serious about your writing, you need to call yourself a writer.

But if you write, you are a writer. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if you craft posts for your blog, pour your heart out in your journal every morning, or slug away on a novel, you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you are published or not. As long as you are putting in the effort, you can honestly and proudly say, “I am a writer.”

The thing is, once you begin to say it (it might help to say it out loud or in front of a mirror), and say it every day, the name becomes a part of you. Even better, good things happen in your writing life.

As Jeff Goins writes (or more specifically his cat) at The Write Practice blog, “the only way to be a writer was to act like one.” For more definitions about what makes a writer, check out this post by Anne R. Allen.

But I think there’s more to it than what Goins and Allen suggest. Saying “I am a writer” alters your mindset. It’s all about belief in yourself. When you think of yourself as a writer, your behavior follows suit. You begin to form the habits that will make you successful.

Here are five ways your writing life will change when you begin to call yourself a writer.

1. You begin to take your writing more seriously than before. Maybe you already had a writing routine, but now, you’ve decided to add to your daily word count or you have a specific goal in mind, such as writing two novel chapters every week. Maybe you contemplate taking classes to learn more about technique, or you feel a need to share your work with others. Even though you may never get published, you call yourself a writer and you start acting like one.

2. You no longer want to hide behind your writing. You’re more willing to “put yourself out there.” That means reading your work aloud to a roomful of strangers, participating in critique groups or submitting your work to editors. You seek feedback from others in the hopes of improving your craft because you realize you no longer want to work in isolation. You no longer want to hide your writing from others.  

3. You’re no longer afraid of expressing yourself. To say “I am a writer” means you bravely share your ideas and opinions, and speaking your truth. The words you need to say come more naturally because they come from your heart.

4. Your confidence soars. When you say “I am a writer” with a smile on your face, people know you are proud of your calling. You stand taller, and you feel energized. You are filled with story ideas and you can’t wait to work on them. You don’t wait for inspiration to strike before you begin writing. Instead, inspiration finds you because you’ve already been writing consistently. 

5. Your writing life becomes more real. This isn’t a fantasy anymore, a dream. By saying, “I am a writer,” the writing life becomes real and worthy of your gifts. Writing isn’t just a hobby; it’s your calling. You decide to do the work you need to do to make your writing life real.   

The power behind these four magic words is belief. You must believe in yourself to write and write well. If you lack faith in your abilities or if you believe you are not worthy of this calling, you will never write anything. So it’s important to call yourself a writer to express belief in yourself. And when you believe in yourself, others will follow along on your writing journey with you.

Find Your Niche as a Creative Writer


Check out my new white paper, Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing, which you can download here.

Also check out this week’s writing prompt: “What is your writing superpower? What can you do that no one else can do?


When I first embarked on my writing journey, it was a challenge to shift from writing magazine features and website content to creative writing. It was a far cry from the business world, where the criteria was set by employers and clients. I had to shift from writing for business to creating whole new worlds in fiction.

Part of the challenge of being a creative writer is finding a niche. What kind of creative writer do you want to be? Do you want to focus only on novels, or are short stories more your thing? Maybe you enjoy baring your soul in creative non-fiction essays, or the challenge of rhyming words in poetry while still expressing a heartfelt emotion. I thought I knew what I was doing as a creative writer. After all, I’d already had magazine features published and had received positive feedback about my writing from teachers and editors.

But I quickly realized there was a lot I didn’t understand. It was necessary to start from the beginning – to take classes, read up on technique from writing blogs and magazines. And to practice, practice, practice. Further, I experimented with different writing styles. I attempted several novels before moving on to short stories and, more recently, novellas. I submitted essays to competitions, and sought feedback from writer’s groups. It’s all been part of a learning, growing process.

I still hope to get published one day. It takes more than talent though; it takes grit and determination. It takes a consistent writing practice.

Here’s what I’ve learned about finding a creative writing niche.

1. It’s important to read a lot, and to read a variety. Stephen King says the best way to learn about writing is to read and to read widely. You learn how to craft stories, develop plot and character, create suspense and satisfy readers. I read an average of 30 books per year, and I try to read a variety of genres and authors. By reading, you naturally absorb their writing styles and adapt to develop your own style. By reading, you also notice what works well and what doesn’t. Reading other authors’ works is a must to advance your own writing aspirations.

2. Know who you are and what you stand for. Julie Anne England of the Self-Publishing School says it’s important to assess yourself – your interests, your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and your writing goals. It also means knowing what you can tolerate and what you can’t. Maybe writing critique groups aren’t your thing. Not everyone is cut out for them. Maybe you feel more inspired by writing in a semi-public place were other people are nearby rather than alone in your home. England advises writers to “be true to who you are. Trying to be someone you’re not will only impede your progress.”

3. Pay attention to the feedback you receive. Whether you get feedback from a writing buddy, a coach, a boss, or your website audience, pay attention to what they tell you. Do they like the way you describe a scene or the way you draw your characters? Conversely, are they confused by your plot structure or is your protagonist flat, lacking in emotion and personality. You know from their feedback that you have to rework the plot and create a stronger protagonist that readers will root for.

4. Learn as much as you can about the writing craft. Whether you are just beginning your creative writing journey or you’ve traveled this road for some time, it’s important to keep learning the craft. Publishers’ needs and tastes change so what was in demand one year may be passé a couple of years later. You need to stay on top of the publishing trends. Further, by keeping up with your professional development, you keep your skills fresh and learn new story telling techniques. You show agents and editors that you are willing to do whatever it takes to produce the best story possible.

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres and writing styles. You may not have any experience writing magazine features but you think it might be worthwhile to learn how to write them, even though you specialize as an essayist. Don’t be shy about taking a workshop about magazine writing. You may decide after completing one or two stories that it just isn’t right for you. That’s okay. At least you tried, and there may be some things you learned about the research and writing process that can be carried over to your other projects. Don’t be afraid to experiment to see what works best for you.

6. Be flexible and open-minded. Don’t get locked into your niche or specialty because it will likely change over time, writes Shaunta Grimes at The Write Brain blog. You may start out with an interest in writing essays, but over time, you find yourself writing more short stories. For example, when I started my blog in 2016, I wrote about a variety of writing and communications topics because that was my professional background. As time went on and I gravitated toward more personal writing and less business communications, my blog reflected that shift. Now I focus almost exclusively on the writing life. Allow your personal interests to dictate your path.

If you want to know more about what kind of writer archetype you are, check out this quiz at The Write Brain blog. Find out if you are a Hesitater, a Skipper, a Spiller, a Teacher or an Artist. It will help you learn what you write and why. (Btw, I’m a teacher, which should be obvious from my blog.)

The beauty of creative writing is that there are multiple paths to choose from, and it’s not uncommon for writers to specialize in more than one genre or writing style. Finding that niche depends on knowing who you are and what you have to offer readers.  

A Writer’s Guide to Self-Care

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website.

Also check out this week’s writing prompt: Why do you write? Challenge yourself to come up with at least 40 reasons why you write.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t give much thought to caring for your mental and physical well-being when you’re caught up in your writing projects. You spend hours at your desk planning blog posts or your novel while you forget to eat right or get the exercise you need. But without a strong foundation of health, you may not have the strength and stamina to withstand the twists and turns, ups and downs of your writing life.

Some writers describe writing as more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the long haul. Writing is more demanding than most people think it would be. It can take a lot out of you day in and day out. Further, if you run a writing business where you must meet the demands of clients and work on deadlines, that adds more stress to your day.

It’s important for writers to manage their self-care. There are several simple things you can do every day to make sure you are healthy and strong. Below are my tips for practicing self-care.

1. Get plenty of rest. Sleep is key to restoring your energy levels and mood. I can always tell the difference in my energy levels and motivation when I sleep seven hours compared to only four or five. Sleep really does make a difference. I wrote about sleep and creativity here. But sometimes sleep can be difficult to come by. Experts suggest cutting back on caffeine, shutting off electronic devices a few hours before bedtime and avoid heavy meals before bedtime. If you find yourself routinely waking up at three or four in the morning, rather than fight the sleeplessness, try reading for an hour before trying to go back to sleep.

2. Eat healthy meals and snacks. To maintain your energy throughout the day, make sure you’re eating healthy foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and protein and fiber to keep you feeling fuller longer. Drink plenty of water – at least eight glasses a day – and don’t skip meals. If you feel your energy lagging mid-day, eat healthy snacks to tide you over until dinner time. Try an apple with a handful of nuts or nut butter, veggies and hummus, or cheese and crackers.

3. Get plenty of exercise. Health experts suggest getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. The activity doesn’t have to make you sweat, but you should feel your heart beat faster. Go for a walk, do yoga poses or ride a bike. If you don’t have 30 minutes at one time, break it down into two or three 10-minute breaks during the day. During these mini-workouts, you can dance, jog up the stairs or follow a YouTube fitness video. The fitness breaks will not only help you stay fit and strong, they will give you the energy boost you need to get through the rest of the day.

4. Talk to a friend when you struggle. Sometimes you may feel stuck or lonely during your writing practice. When those situations occur, make sure you call a friend to talk things over, especially if you’re feeling particularly sad about something. Find an outlet for your feelings, and talking with a friend can get you through those rough periods.

5. Curl up with a good book. Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, all I want to do is curl up with a good book. Reading just makes me feel better. Most books end on a positive, happy note, and that makes me believe that happy endings are possible in real life too.

6. Take a long, hot bath. Sometimes just soaking in the tub can ease the tension of the day. There’s something about immersing yourself in warm water that alters your mood. Research shows that warm baths diminish feelings of pessimism and depression because they give bathers a feeling of solitude, comfort and peace. Add scented soap to the water, like lavender which is also soothing and relaxing. Candles are optional.

7. Practice meditation. Sometimes the pace of life moves too fast, faster than we can keep up with. At those times, it helps to practice meditation. Or if you don’t have the patience for meditation, just try to sit alone with your thoughts. Turn off the TV and electronic devices for at least 10 minutes, longer if your schedule allows. Just enjoy the quiet. Sitting quietly helps slow down your breathing and the pace of your life will also seem to slow down.

8. Keep a personal journal. When things get especially emotional and intense, grab a notebook and begin writing. Those thoughts that plague you can interrupt the flow of your work, so you want to find an outlet for them. It helps you make sense of the curve balls that life occasionally throws at you. Once you find an outlet for your personal feelings, you can focus on the tasks at hand.

9. Spend some time with a favorite pet. Most writers I know seem to have a dog or cat as their companion. Many psychologists believe pets are good for your mental health because they help lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety. Pets also make you laugh, and laughing is good for your mental health too. If you’re not convinced, try spending a few minutes a day watching animal videos; they’re sure to put a smile on your face.

10. Get a massage. If you’re like me, you feel most of your tension in the neck and shoulders. A good massage can ease muscle tension and relieve anxiety. But massages can be pricey, so have a friend or significant other give you a good back and shoulder rub.

Self-care is important for your well-being. A healthy mind and body can prepare you to work longer stretches of time. With good health, you can finally finish writing that novel or meet your writing goals.

What do you do to take care of yourself?

Take the “40 Reasons Why I Write” Challenge


Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

“Why do I write?”

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that question? It’s important to think about the ‘why’ of your writing every so often. Whenever you feel lost in your writing journey, go back to your ‘why.’ It will reconnect you to your mission and set you back on your path.

Recently I came across a new writing challenge: Jot down 40 responses to that very question – “Why do I write?” When you stop to consider how many reasons you have for writing, you will never feel lost.

For a couple of examples, check out these lists from Marisa Mohi and Bryan Hutchinson at the Positive Writer.  After reading the first few reasons though, you’ll want to create your own list.

I did the challenge too, and I was able to do it in one sitting. Then after letting it sit for a day, I came back to it, and added a few more. Not only did I hit the magic number of 40, I surpassed it — by a good 10 items.

So grab a pen and paper, and find a quiet place to contemplate this question. Ask yourself, “Why do I write?” It might help to set it up as a prompt, such as “I write because…”

Then start filling in the blank. Bonus points if you can do this all in one sitting.

Give yourself a day or so to set the list aside before reviewing it. You might tweak it here and there, and maybe you’ll notice that you have a duplicate answer. You might even think of one or two more responses.

When you’re done, put the list somewhere where you can see it every day – a bathroom mirror, by your work space, the refrigerator or wherever. If you want, share it on social media too. Invite others in your circle to participate in the challenge.

So how did I do with this challenge? Here’s what I came up with. “I write because…”

1. I love working with words.
2. I enjoy story telling.
3. My bosses and teachers always complimented me on my writing.
4. I like sharing positive, uplifting messages to my readers.
5. I like escaping into other worlds I create.
6. I express myself better in writing that I do verbally.
7. I’ve always enjoyed reading, so it only made sense that I would write too. The more I read, the more I want to write.
8. I come from a family of teachers, so I use my writing to teach and motivate others.
9. I was inspired to write by some of my favorite authors, especially the late Mary Higgins Clark.
10. I enjoy using my imagination.
11. I like developing different characters, especially strong female protagonists.
12. I like the challenge of experimenting with different genres.
13. I like the challenge of creating different plots that people may not have seen before.
14. It helps me release my negative emotions, like anger and grief.
15. It helps me document my life experiences
16. It helps me heal from old and new wounds
17. Writing relaxes me.
18. I want to leave a lasting legacy of my existence.
19. I like seeing my work published.
20. Writing has no age limit. I can write well into my 80s and 90s if I want to.
21. I tend to live inside my own head so I might as well make good use of the space there. J
22. I write to make people happy, because I like to see them laugh and smile at my stories.
23. I write because I have more story ideas than I know what to do with.
24. Writing gives me the freedom to choose what to write about. There are no limits to subject matter.
25. Writing helps me describe and make sense of the dreams I have during the night.
26. Writing is portable. I can write anywhere and at any time. All I need is a pen and paper.
27. Writing is a great hobby to have.
28. Writing is a great career to have too.
29. I write because my soul calls me to do so.
30. I write because I like getting a byline.
31. I write because it’s an extension of my identity.  It’s who I am.
32. I write because I feel I’m making a valuable contribution to society.
33. I write because it makes me feel whole and authentic.
34. I write because it makes me forget what is happening in the outside world.
35. I write because I like to entertain myself.
36. I sometimes use writing to create an alter ego and pretend to be someone I’m not.
37. I like to dream up whole new worlds (world building).
38. I write to set an example for young, aspiring writers.
39. The more I write, the better my skills become.
40.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Bonus answers:
41. I write so I can keep my cat company while he sleeps on my desk. J
42. I write because I believe it’s a misunderstood and underutilized skill in the world (especially in the workplace.)
43. I like getting positive feedback about my work.
44. I write because it forces me away from the refrigerator so I’m not constantly snacking.
45. I write because I can’t think of any other way to earn a living
46. I write to get myself out of boredom.
47. Writing gives me a break from watching TV and forces me to turn it off during the day.
48. Writing makes me feel productive.
49. I like the solitary nature of writing.
50. It makes me feel at peace with myself and gives my life meaning and purpose.

Remembering the Authors and Journalists We Lost in 2020

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

Before getting too deeply into the New Year, let’s look back at the year that was to honor the authors and journalists we lost and the literary legacies they left behind.

Authors
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Prozac Nation,” a memoir about her battle with depression
Mary Higgins Clark, queen of suspense fiction
Clive Cussler, author and adventurer
Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump”
Terry Goodkind, master of fantasy fiction
John LeCarre, author of Cold War thrillers
Bette Greene, author of “Summer of My German Soldier”
Joanna Cole, children’s book author best known for “The Magic School Bus”
Rudolfo Anaya, considered the “godfather” of Chicano literature who wrote “Bless Me, Ultima”
Charles Webb, author of “The Graduate” which became a hit movie
Donna Kauffman, romance novelist
Tomie de Paola, children’s book author and illustrator
Diana di Prima, poet of the Beat Generation

Journalists
Gail Sheehy, journalist and author of 17 books, including the breakthrough “Passages” published in 1974
Jim Lehrer, host of PBS NewsHour
Bobbie Battista, one of the first anchors for CNN Headline News
Gerald Slater, founding employee of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
Hugh Downs, longtime TV anchor and host of 20/20 from 1978 to 1999
Tony Elliott, founder of Time Out entertainment magazine

Create a vision for your writing practice in 2021

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

What does your writing life look like a year from now? What kind of writer do you want to be by then? If this was January 2022, what would you have achieved, especially in your writing?

If you’ve been asking yourself these questions lately, then it may be time to create a vision for your writing practice.

Even if you don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m sure you have ideas of what you want for yourself in the coming year. Envisioning your future writing life isn’t easy – too many variables and unknown factors can throw you off your game. But you can use a number of tools to help you clarify your goals and help you envision your writing life for the coming year.

I’ve written in the past about setting a one-year goal. (You can read about it here.) Five years seems too long in the future to plan that far in advance, so I don’t. I only look ahead for one year. Then working backward from that starting point, I set milestone goals for myself on the way to that year-end goal. Make sense?

Visualization is somewhat like goal-setting. It’s a technique for using positive mental images to achieve a particular goal or outcome. It can help you create the future you want. For example, your goal for 2021 might be to write and publish an e-book for your business but visualization can help you imagine the steps you need to take toward that goal and how you will feel when you accomplish it.

Here’s how I once used visualization (and a bit of intuition) in my career. While working at a membership association some years ago, I started out in a lower level position, but I knew I wanted to work my way up into a manager role. However, at that time, I didn’t think I was being taken seriously in my job by some of the directors. So rather than complain, I assessed my own behavior. I asked myself, “How would I act if I already was a manager? How would I dress? How would I interact with people?”  

Over the next few weeks and months, I dressed more professionally and I responded more promptly to phone calls and emails from members and staff. I got to work on time, met my deadlines and proved that I was a reliable worker. I did everything to up my game. Within a year, I had my promotion to manager.

As my case shows, visualization can work. However, as life coach and TV show host Mel Robbins says, it’s doesn’t guarantee success. You might get some version of your goal and it may not happen exactly as you wish or in the time frame you’d like.

Having a vision changes your expectations, Robbins adds. When you alter the expectations of yourself, you alter your behavior accordingly to achieve that goal. Visualization helps you the steps you need to take to get where you want to be. All good things come to those who are willing to work for it.

What tools can help you visualize the future of your writing practice? A few of those below I’ve done on my own; others I’m just learning about. Find one or two that work best for you.

1. Write your vision as if it has already been achieved. Imagine that it is one year from now – January 2022. Describe what your writing practice looks like. Where do you write? Is anyone with you? Are you alone or in a roomful of other people? Remember that it might be different than it is now. What have you accomplished over the past year of 2021? This isn’t about describing what you wish your practice would look like, but putting yourself in a new pair of shoes in January 2022 and looking back at what you have achieved in the previous year. Seeing yourself a year from now can help you reset your goals and expectations for the coming year, as well as the steps to take you there.

2. Create a vision board. This is a fun, creative and personal project that anyone can do. When you have a goal in mind for the year, you create a visual representation of that goal. For example, using the e-book example above, you might cut out pictures from magazines that show someone writing or reading a book, or a laptop and other tools of the writing trade. You can make drawings with markers and add a positive message to keep you motivated. When you’re done, you can set the board somewhere in your office where you can see it every day. For a good example of a vision board and how to create one, check out this post at Mind Body Green. Review and update your vision board at least once a year, more often depending on your goals.

3. Do some heavy-duty soul searching by answering a series of questions. Mel Robbins has a list of questions that can help you visualize your ideal future. The questions can be used whether you’re looking ahead five years or one year. While Robbins’ questions can help you get a handle where your life is right now, I’m not sure how it helps people create their vision for the future. But contemplating your progress so far can be a strong foundation for creating a stronger future.

4. Create a writer’s vision statement. Once you’re done answering the above questions, use the answers to create a writer’s vision statement. Or use the method used by writing coach Marisa Mohi, who says that having a writer’s vision statement can help you stay on track to meet your career goals even as your non-artistic friends don’t understand the path that you’re on.

5. Use visualization exercises. If none of the previous tools work for you, you can always try the traditional visualization exercises, a form of meditation that guides your internal mental images of the life you want to lead. The images are all inside your mind but you can convert them to a visualization board or write an essay about your experience.

No matter what method you use, visualizing your future self as a writer is key to finding success on your terms and building a practice that you can be proud of.

What Are the ‘Silver Linings’ of Your Writing Life in 2020?

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Check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar menu.

“Every cloud has a silver lining.” You might have heard that proverb at one time or another. It means that there’s something good or hopeful to be found in every bad situation.

Dictionary.com has its own definition: “A sign of hope or a positive aspect in an otherwise negative situation.”

The year 2020 has shown us an overabundance of negative situations, from a pandemic of a highly contagious and dangerous disease and social isolation from loved ones to social injustice, civic unrest and political and economic uncertainty. It’s been a difficult year, but somehow we’ve made it to the end with the hope that 2021 will be better. It has to be better, right? We can only go up from here.

Yet despite the turmoil in our world, there is reason to hope. There are silver linings in the year that was. It’s called “counting your blessings.” We all have them if we look close enough.

So what silver linings have I noticed in my world? For one thing, I was highly productive with my writing projects.

* Consistent blogging. I recommitted to my blog, posting stories at least once a week, sometimes two. With this renewed commitment, I am now considering expanding my offerings to include a weekly writing prompt, white papers and e-books.

* Experimentation with writing styles. Without clients to write for, I’ve used my free time to experiment with different writing styles, most notably e-books and novellas. At 30,000 to 50,000 words, novellas are shorter than novels and tend to have only one plot line, but they are longer than short stories.

* Reading challenge. I kept up with my reading challenge throughout the year. Reading provided the needed escape from the darkest moments of the year.

* Professional development. I took advantage of discounted webinars, online workshops and virtual conferences that were offered, which I would not have participated in otherwise. I studied everything from building a freelance business to content marketing and writing holiday romances.

* New technologies. Like many people, I participated in more online meetings than ever before which meant learning new technologies, such as Zoom and Google Duo.

* Expanded offerings. I completed and posted a white paper on my website and plan to do another one in 2021. I also have two e-books in the works.

* Networking. I launched an email networking campaign to one group of contacts to search for new clients. The second phase of that campaign will begin in the New Year.

A writer’s work is never done and it goes beyond just writing stories. There’s the business of running a writing business and all that it entails – accounting, networking, marketing, etc. Despite it all, I feel hopeful and optimistic about the future.

I realize that in the midst of darkness, there is light too, like a rainbow after a storm. We must all learn to adapt to this new reality of ours, because frankly, it’s not going away anytime soon and our lives will be changed. Things won’t be the same as they used to be, even though we may wish them to be  “back to normal.” Each of us will have to redefine what that new normal means for us, and more important, what it looks like for us.

So how has your writing life changed – for better or for worse – because of the upheavals of 2020? What are the silver linings in your year?

How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

How to Write Stories That Will Inspire Your Readers

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Now Available! Download your copy of the new white paper, Find Motivation to Start Writing and Keep Writing. Also check out our new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar!  Happy Holidays!

Browse the Internet for “writing inspiration” and you’ll find pages of links to articles that describe how  to find inspiration for writing. But when you put the shoe on the other foot, when you search for articles about writing to inspire others, you’ll find very few articles that address that issue.

How do you create a story that not only engages with your audience, but inspires them? How do you shift the focus from seeking inspiration within yourself to helping others become inspired?

In this season of giving, it seems fitting that we all consider ways to give, share and, yes, inspire others. What better way to do that than through our writing?

If your goal is to share stories of inspiration with readers, here are a few ways to do that.

1. Be authentic. Be real with your readers. Tell personal stories of your own struggles, which makes you relatable. Readers are interested in knowing who you are, your triumphs and challenges, your fears and joys. They want to read about the obstacles you faced in your life and how you overcame them. “All these are common traits in many stories and inspire the reader to do the same with their own lives,” writes Bethany Cadman at Writer’s Life. People want to hear your story because they want to believe that they’re not alone in their experiences.

2. Bring lightness and warmth to your writing. Be personable as if you are having a conversation with a good, close friend. Add humor if it comes naturally to you, but don’t make jokes just because you can, which can come across as forced. It might be helpful for you or someone else to read your story out loud to make sure you’ve captured the right tone.

3. Share a positive message. Think about the message you want to convey, whether it’s hope, love, resilience, self-confidence or courage. Readers want to believe in the goodness in others, and in the goodness of the world at large.

4. Write with emotion. Writing with some emotion – joy or sadness, fear or excitement – can help readers empathize with you because you’ve shown your “realness.” If you’re writing about the death of a dear friend, for example, let readers see and feel your pain and loss. As I mentioned previously, people want to believe that they are not alone in their experiences. The better you are at writing with emotion, the more exciting, exhilarating and inspiring your stories will be to your readers, writes Cadman.

5. Remember why you write. If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to write next or if you’re searching for a story that will make a difference, go back to your “why,” suggests author Julie Petersen at Bang2Write. Think again about why you write and who you write for. Think about what is your passion. When you remember your why, finding the right stories to inspire others will be much easier.

6. Be brave in your writing choices. It’s not always easy to write about deeply personal and meaningful events of your life, but sometimes it’s necessary to heal yourself. Still there’s a lot of emotional pain to muddle through before you can reveal your old wounds. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of your comfort zone to spill your guts on the page, but readers will usually understand that process because they’ve gone through something similar in their own lives. Taking a stand on an issue and speaking your truth can be scary, but despite those fears, it is likely to garner the respect of your readers, more than you know.

Whether you share stories of heartache or of personal triumph, it’s not easy to bare your soul. But when you write those stories with emotion, courage and warmth, readers will respond to you in positive ways. Writing to inspire others is one of the greatest gifts you can share with your readers.

Related Articles:
How to Make Your Writing Inspirational
Breaking Barriers: Inspiring Others, Julia Alvarez

Creating Stories with Child-like Wonder and Delight

Sing like you know the words, dance like no one’s watching, and love like it’s never going to hurt. — Unknown

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 Christmas always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s that time of year when I realize that I really am a kid at heart. I love the decorations, the music, the lights and especially the gift-giving.

It’s especially joyful when I watch children. I see their eyes grow wide with wonder and delight at each new experience, from sitting on Santa’s lap to seeing brightly wrapped presents under the tree. Everywhere they look, they see something fun and interesting to explore.

I call this “Christmas delight.”

Children experience the same delight through the things they create, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a dance. They make things up as they go along, and they don’t worry about editorial guidelines and rules. They just do what they feel in their heart. They only know how to express themselves, to laugh, to have fun, to delight in their own creativity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all experience this same wonder and delight with our writing?

A recent essay on Brevity’s Nonfiction blog got me thinking about our capacity as writers to delight in our own creativity. The author, L. Roger Owens, described his experience when he lost the joy of writing. Even as he struggled with writer’s block, he admired the unabashed joy his daughter expressed in her own creativity. She proudly read her stories out loud to a roomful of strangers. She spoke enthusiastically about plot points and character motivations. She delighted in her original turns of phrases. Things Owens wasn’t able to do with his own writing.

For Owens, repeated rejections and strict editorial guidelines squashed his creativity. A lack of interest in topics he was assigned to write about through his job killed his enthusiasm too.

Why are we able to experience this delight of creating as children, but lose it as adults?

Whatever we create as adults seems more open to scrutiny, not just our own, but that of editors, publishers and our peers. What we write seemed unique at first but now seems mundane and boring. Too many rejections and negative feedback weighs us down. We worry more about pleasing others than ourselves. All that negative input kills our enthusiasm, our joy.  

It may seem that the child-like wonder and delight for writing is lost forever. But it’s possible to reclaim it. Here’s how:

1. Pretend you are a child again. Do you remember how you felt when you finished writing a story? Did you take pride in your creation? View your writing as a child would. Children have no knowledge of editor’s rules or expert writing advice, so they are not worried about how people might react. They write for themselves, for the pure joy of creating. Perhaps we can learn from children to live in the moment and enjoy the process of creation.

2. Give yourself permission to fall in love with your work. It’s okay to appreciate turns of phrases, story ideas, plot lines, characters, and witty dialogue. So what that it may never be published, that it might land on the cutting room floor at your editor’s office. Even if you don’t use the material, keep it anyway. Create a file of writing that you review periodically to remind yourself that you are capable of writing enjoyable stories, even if they are never published.
 
3. Read your work out loud. It doesn’t have to be a large auditorium. Whether it’s an audience of one or ten, it doesn’t matter. Getting up to read your work takes courage and shows pride in your writing. When you read it out loud, even if it’s a first draft, you may find it isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

4. Don’t take your writing too seriously. Remember that writing is just one aspect of your life, not the only thing. “Writers are entertainers,” writes author Barbara O’Neal in Writer Unboxed blog. “We’re supposed to have fun. If you’re not, it’s probably time to find something else to do for a while.”

5. Allow yourself time to play. Take a break from writing and do something else, advises  O’Neal. Indulge in a favorite hobby, visit a museum, or go for a hike. Bring a small notebook with you and jot down any details you notice in your environment. As writers, we spend a lot of time closed off from the rest of the world. It’s important to get out as much as possible, engage with other people, commune with nature and the world at large. We need to give our brains a break from creating – and to give joy a chance to rise again.

6. Illustrate your story rather than write it. Put away your laptop or your notebook. Instead, take out a piece of paper and draw images to tell your story, writes Ben Soyka at the Writing Cooperative. Readers are more visual and enjoy having visual aids to go along with the stories they read, he explains. Besides, the illustration process forces you to develop new creative skills while you consider different ways to share your stories.

Losing the joy of writing is bound to happen at some point in your practice, especially when you put so much of yourself into it. Have faith that the child-like delight will return. And when it does, imagine how much joy you’ll bring to your readers.

Thank you for reading. Happy Holidays! Don’t forget to check out the weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

In an Era of Self-Isolation, Christmas Greeting Cards Help You Stay Connected

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Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always liked sending Christmas cards. There is something about sitting down with a stack of cards, a little Christmas music playing in the background or a favorite Christmas movie, and writing heartfelt notes to my closest friends and family members. At a time when most of us are self-isolating and practicing social distancing, however, it may be even more important to send holiday cards to bridge the gap between ourselves and our loved ones.

Christmas cards remain as popular as ever. According to the Greeting Card Association, 6.5 billion greeting cards are sent out every year and 1.6 billion are Christmas cards. Millennials lead the way in buying and sending holiday cards, as many of them marry and start families.

Some would argue that Christmas cards are not cheap and they’re time consuming. “Just connect with people on social media. Or send an email, text message or a greeting from an online service like Blue Mountain or Jacquie Lawson? They’re cheaper and more convenient than snail mail,” others would say.  

One Millennial, in fact, explains why she stopped sending Christmas cards and suggests we should all do the same. She argues that greeting cards are mass produced as boxed sets, so they lack personalization.

Those are all valid points. But I argue that not everyone has email or owns a computer, including members of my own family. Sending email greetings feels too impersonal, and I fear my message might not be viewed as heartfelt arriving via computer.

Further, it’s important to me to reach out to people I don’t see or talk to often to let them know that I am thinking of them. That’s especially true for relatives who aren’t on social media or own a computer. (Not everyone does, you know.) I don’t have email addresses for everyone I know, but I do have a physical address.  

While it might be time-consuming to handwrite notes and put addresses on envelopes, it doesn’t take nearly as long as you think. My 25 cards takes about three hours, the length of a football game, including a personal message. It might take you less time than that. Look at it this way: if you can make time to put up holiday decorations and bake cookies, you can make time to write out Christmas cards.

Handwritten greeting cards have other advantages:

1. Greeting cards can be personalized. I can add personal notes, mention an experience that I shared with the recipient or express optimism about a forthcoming event. With each card I write, I feel a connection to the person I’m sending the card to. To make it truly personal, skip the pre-printed cards and use a blank notecard instead. Write your own message inside. For ideas on what to write, check out these suggestions from Hallmark and Good Housekeeping.

2. Greeting cards provide space for inserts. They allow me to include additional materials, such as photos, an invitation, tickets to an event or gift cards. True, there are ways to include these items to an email, but as I mentioned, some people may not have access to email or a computer to receive them.

3. Greeting cards slows down the pace of life. Writing out greeting cards is not a fast process. It forces me to slow down the pace of my life to think about what I’m writing and to whom. For a few hours in a day, I become wholly present in the moment to prepare personal sentimental messages.

4. Greeting cards are tactile. I like shopping for greeting cards, and feeling them in my hands. They simply feel more real to me than an online version. It’s much like the feeling I get when I hold a book in my hand rather than read it on a computer screen.  When I shop for cards right after Christmas, I can buy them at a steep discount and keep them on hand for the following season.

5. Greeting cards are more memorable. Most people I know display their Christmas cards so they can see them throughout the holiday season. You can’t do that with online greeting cards or email messages, which are transient in nature. I like to display cards around my fireplace so I can see them every day. When I see cards that loved ones have sent me, I get a warm feeling inside knowing that other people are thinking of me.  

In this time of COVID-19 when most of us are socially isolated from our loved ones, Zoom calls and video chats may not be enough to convey holiday cheer. Further, this pandemic has made many of us seek new, meaningful ways of connecting. Sending greeting cards, as old-fashioned as it seems, can cut through the electronic clutter. Sure, there are the costs involved, like the cards themselves, postage and the time spent writing messages, sealing them and stamping them.

It might be easier, cheaper and faster to send online greeting cards, but the online versions lack an emotional connection. Isn’t that emotional connection what we want with our loved ones, especially at Christmas?

So if meaningful connection with loved ones is important to you this Christmas, don’t overlook holiday greeting cards. They just might be worth the extra effort to let someone know you are thinking of them.

Your NaNoWriMo First Draft is Done. What’s Next?

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Congratulations! You’ve just completed your first NaNoWriMo challenge (or maybe it’s your third or your tenth), and your novel is nearly complete. Take a moment to savor your accomplishment. Finishing a first draft is hard work, so celebrate this important milestone.

Once you catch your breath, you’ll probably wonder “What do I do next?” You know your draft isn’t perfect—yet. You know you have work to do. Remember that the first draft is only a rough draft, like doing a practice run of a marathon or doing a sound check before the live performance.

If you thought writing the first draft was hard, brace yourself for the next phase. That’s the revision stage—the process of rewriting, editing, adding, subtracting, switching scenes around and creating new dialogue or eliminating characters.

“Rough drafts can be overwhelming,” writes Emily Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Your first instinct might be to never look at that hot mess again.”

But you will need to look at it again, whether it’s a hot mess or not. Usually, it’s not nearly as bad as you think it will be. Still, be prepared to do a lot more work on your manuscript to make it publishable.

As the experts at Scribendi write, “the first draft is about telling a story; the second draft is about writing a novel.”

To take the intimidation factor out of the rewriting process, it might be helpful to plan how to go about your revision process. To get a good inside look into one author’s revision process, check out Joanna Penn’s explanation in this blog post.

Here are some steps that can help you answer the question, “What’s Next?  

Step 1: Give your manuscript a rest. Set it aside for a few days or weeks to “cool off” as if it were a freshly baked pie. This waiting time allows the story to settle a bit. When you allow enough time to pass before looking at it again, you can review it with a fresh eye. A week or two might be enough time or it might be several months. That all depends on your desire to rework your draft.

Step 2: Print out a copy of the manuscript and review it from start to finish. It might help to read the story out loud, which might help you catch sticking points in dialogue or narrative. Don’t revise just yet. Instead, jot down notes in the margins for the changes you want to make. The first pass of review can take a week or longer, and the edits tend to be more substantial than later passes.  During this first review pass, pay attention to the scenes that need to be developed more fully. There’s plenty of room to develop the setting, characters and plot. Understanding these elements will serve as a foundation as you work though the rest of the story.

Step 3: Return to the beginning and make the changes you noted in the margins. This can be a painstaking process, so be patient. There will be a lot of notes and tons of rewriting. But that’s all part of the revision process. When you are done with the rewrite, print it out again and read it through. Do the same process of note-taking. You might have several review passes before you are satisfied with your manuscript enough to send it to an editor.

Wenstrom suggests focusing on the biggest issues first and work your way down to smaller details. It might be tempting to run spell check first or correct little inconsistencies, but Wenstrom warns against it. These are purely cosmetic changes and a form of procrastination to avoid having to deal with the larger aspects that make the story hum.

Step 4. Remember there’s a difference between editing and revising. According to Scribendi, editing is concerned with the technical aspects of language, while revising tackles the larger issues of storytelling, such as plot structure, dialogue, character development and pacing.

Here are some of the key areas that will need the most attention.  

1. Plot. Does the story start in the right place? Is the plot interesting and does it follow a strong time line? You may have to add or delete scenes. In any case, problems with plot will require the most rewriting work.

2. Character. Pay special attention to your protagonist. Does he/she change over the course of the story? Are characters believable? Are their actions consistent with their personalities? Make sure your story shows how the protagonist changes over time, for better or worse, which makes the story more compelling. Also consider if any characters are forgotten. For example, do they appear once early in the story only to disappear as the story progresses?

3. Language. Now that you’ve written your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo (give or take a few thousand), pay attention to extra padding in the copy—useless words like really, very, and just. Avoid dialogue tags, (he said/she said) and pay attention to any language quirks of your own–wordiness, redundancies and other empty phrases that don’t move the story along.

4. Dialogue. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Is it authentic? Read the dialogue out loud and note the rhythm of the conversation and whether it’s believable and natural.

5. Sensory descriptions. Make sure to include sensory descriptions and imagery in your novel which depicts a sense of place, time and theme. Keep descriptions simple and concise, and avoid flowery, extravagant language that may sound nice but don’t add anything to the story.

6. Inconsistent details. Watch for changes in details throughout the story. For example, at the start, your protagonist might have had long, straight blonde hair and by chapter seven, she had shoulder-length auburn waves.

Because there are many things to take note of in your novel, it may take several review and revision passes to catch all of them. The last thing you want to do is submit a manuscript to an editor filled with errors and inconsistencies.

“Every rough draft is ugly. That’s because it’s a first draft, not a final draft,” writes Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Use it for what it is – a foundation – and build from it to get your story to its full potential.”

14 Holiday Gift Ideas for Writers (and Yourself)

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The following article was originally published in 2018. It has been revised with new gift suggestions for 2020.

Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for holiday gifts for the writers in your life. Or even for yourself.   

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list.

1. Books about writing. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions. There are more suggestions here and here.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a current dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and your library is complete. Even if you have a dictionary on your shelf, they are updated fairly often, so it might be beneficial to get a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer should be without their daily supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers I know write their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider getting them (or yourself) a supply of really nice pens (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put you in a more serious frame of mind when you write.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers to stay on top of publishing trends. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Exercise your brain and jumpstart your creativity with a magnetic word game. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’  Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller.

7. Jigsaw puzzles. Speaking of puzzles, jigsaws are ever popular. Not only does it give you a needed beak from writing, it’s a way to relax and unwind. If you’re stuck in a writing rut or you’re facing a tough plotting dilemma, taking time out to work on a jigsaw puzzle may be just the distraction you need to get your mind off of your writing problems.

8. A book of writing prompts
. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

9. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I once saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

10. Music for your ears. Some writers enjoy a little background music while they work, so a few new tunes might put you in the mood to be creative. Even if you don’t listen to music while you work, music can calm you when you’re not working or make you feel like dancing when you’ve met a deadline.

11. Membership dues to a professional organization. If you have ever wanted to join a writers’ association, now might be an opportune time to give yourself a gift of membership. Some organizations charge only $25 or $30 annual fee to join, and if you’re lucky they may pro-rate it or give a holiday discount.

12. An inspirational poster. Looking for motivation? A framed print or poster with an inspirational quote can help you stay positive during those long stretches of writing time.

13. An ergonomic desk chair. With all the sitting writers do, it helps to have a good chair to sit on so you don’t suffer any back pain. How old is the chair you currently have and how often do you use it? Does it have enough cushion to support you? Does it allow you to plant your feet firmly on the floor? There are plenty of ergonomic chairs on the market that are designed to align your spine properly. They might cost a little more, but your backside will thank you.

14. Desk lamp. If you plan to spring for a new chair, why not add some new lighting to brighten your work space? Sometimes the right lamp can improve the lighting of your desk space while improving your mood.

At this time of year, it’s easy to become more focused on finding gifts for the people in your life. But don’t be shy about giving something to yourself. Self-care is important too, especially after the year we’ve all gone through. Remember to treat yourself well. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

20 Best-Selling Authors Share Their Best Advice about Writing

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In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, a time to give thanks to the many blessings we enjoy in our lives. At this time of year, I am always grateful for the writing talent I’ve been given, as well as the abundance of story ideas I receive and the courage to share my writing experience with others. I’m also grateful for my readers. Thank you for reading my blog and commenting on posts; it keeps me grounded and motivated to keep writing.

During this Thanksgiving week, I thought I’d share a compilation of the best advice from the world’s most celebrated published authors. Let these words of wisdom serve as motivation for your own work, whether it be a novel, memoir or short story collection.

It’s comforting to know that other writers have gone through the trials and triumphs of a writing journey, like I’m going through now. It’s also worth remembering that though we might each live/work in isolation, we are all part of one interconnected community of writers.

Be grateful for your writing talents, dedicate yourself to learning your craft, and share your stories with pride. Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are celebrating this year. Enjoy!

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“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”   — George Orwell

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise, you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of our right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”   — Margaret Atwood

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up too.”  — Isabel Allende

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write.”  — Stephen King

“Nothing will happen unless you produce at least one page per day.”  — John Grisham

“You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, and you find out who they really are.”  — Joss Whedon

“A short story must have a single mood, and every sentence must build towards it.”  — Edgar Allen Poe

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”  — Kurt Vonnegut

“When you’re stuck and sure you’ve written absolute garbage, force yourself to finish and then decide to fix or scrap it – or you will never know if you can.”  — Jodi Picoult

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  — William Faulkner

“Run your own race. Don’t worry about how fast someone else writes, how much another author makes, how many followers another author has. Write what makes you excited, and the enthusiasm will come through on the page.”  — Christina Lauren

“I think success requires a lot of hours learning the craft through books and workshops from talented teachers, to the point where you have enough confidence and instinct to sit down and say, “I’m now going to perform.” Where you can apply it to your past projects and drafts and understand what didn’t work, as well as what did.”  Robert Dugoni, author of My Sister’s Grave

“It’s freeing to actually write the thing that you want to write, because everybody when they start out tries to be the authors that they loved. I was able to explore all of these different voices, but every author has to come up with their own individual voice. It takes a while.”  — Jenny Lawson, author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

“Finish the book and don’t let the success of others make you feel less.”  — Beverly Jenkins, romance novelist

“It takes a lot of time and effort to get good enough at writing to make books that are fun to read, and you just need to accept that. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a deep natural gift at writing. Even writers who are famous for just one book did a lot of writing before they wrote that book.” — Andy Weir, author of The Martian

“You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult.”  — Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale

“Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing.” — Roxane Gay, author of The Bad Feminist

“It’s very hard to write without having things to write about. That doesn’t mean necessarily going out as ‘a writer’. But having experiences that interest you in the world are a good first step to having material.” — Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball

“I am a huge believer in revision. The more times you write it, the more alive it becomes. For me, very often the first, second and third times it’s kind of dead material, but the more you go over it, the more you rewrite it, the more it comes to life.” — Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic

“The best advice I can give is to close the door to your writing room and not worry about anyone’s feelings until you’ve finished a draft. You don’t know what you’ll discover through the writing unless you write it—and considering people’s feelings before you’ve even written is a form of self-censorship.” — Dani Shapiro, memoirist

Stuck in the Middle of Your Novel? Try These Methods to Get Moving Again

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I started writing my first novel nearly three years ago. After rewriting the opening chapter at least a dozen times and writing a draft of most of the chapters that followed, I’ve landed somewhere in the middle not sure where to go next. So I’ve set the novel aside to work on other projects while I figure out if I should rework the novel or give up on it.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Many aspiring authors experience this sticking point. It can feel like trudging through a muddy forest, feet sinking into the ground.

The middle is the largest section of your story, and where most of the action takes place. It’s where your protagonist begins their journey, faces trouble, and meets adventure. Life gets complicated and the antagonist displays all their power. The middle is where you present challenge after challenge, each getting more difficult and raising the stakes higher for the protagonist. Without this series of setbacks, false starts and obstacles, readers may lose interest in your story.

Literary agent Donald Maass describes this middle section as place to play, a literary playground of sorts. “The middle isn’t quicksand; it’s a sandbox. It’s a place to play, the place for surprises. It is the most fun part of the novel because it’s the least burdened with the heavy requirements and rules of set up and resolution,” writes Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel.

If you’ve been slogging through your latest novel-in-progress, and the middle part has stymied your progress, it’s time to step back and review the work you’ve done so far. It may be that several scenes are out of proper sequence and need to be moved around. Or maybe you have provided either too much backstory which slows down the pace, or you have provided too little backstory that readers can’t understand what’s happening on the page.

The good news is there are ways to fix these issues.

First of all, it’s important to relax and keep writing, writes Heather Webb on the Writer Unboxed blog. This is especially important if you are working on a first draft. First drafts are usually messy anyway. Don’t beat yourself up because there is plenty of time to revise it later. Many of the issues related to tension, pacing and stronger narratives can be worked out in the editing phase, Webb adds.

What other issues might you be having with your middle section? Check out the solutions below.

1. Have you done enough research? Most of your story’s research should be done before you start writing. So you might be stuck because you didn’t research adequately, says Webb. You can’t move forward until you know X, Y and Z. Maybe there isn’t enough backstory for your main character, or about a prior event, or maybe there’s a key prop needed to carry a scene. You might need to go back to research the time and place of your story, especially if it’s set in the past.

2. Do you know your protagonist inside and out? The middle section provides the challenges that will test the protagonist’s strengths and abilities, as well as their fears and weaknesses. It’s important to understand what those strengths, weaknesses, desires and special skills are. Understand the flaw or wound that keeps them stuck in a rut and makes them feel they don’t belong in their current environment. Webb suggests journaling in your character’s voice to get to know their motivations and personality inside and out.

3. Have you introduced sub-plots? Focusing only on the main plot can be boring for readers because it’s one note. By introducing subplots, you complicate the protagonist’s story, weave in complex situations and reveal the protagonist’s secondary concerns and goals. “Every scene is a mini-story where the hero struggles,” writes Zara Altair at ProWriting Aid blog. This increases the tension readers need to stay engaged with your story.

4. Have you allowed enough space on the page for your supporting characters? The middle section is the prime opportunity for your readers to get to know these supporting – and sometimes antagonistic – characters. These are the characters who will accompany your protagonist on their journey – or hinder their progress, says Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA. A good example is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, where readers learn more about Harry’s classmates and teachers at when he first arrives at Hogwarts.

5. Have you tried the rule of three to move the story along?  Pay attention to stories, books, TV shows and films and you’ll notice the rule of three appears somewhere in the middle of their story lines–three ex-boyfriends, for example, who show up to court your female hero. Or as in A Christmas Carol, three ghosts of the past, present and future who appear to Scrooge during the night.  The number three is common, says Pereira, because “it gives us a feeling of completeness. Two is not enough to establish a pattern, and four feels like too many. Three is just the right balance. It sets up a pattern but allows room for a twist in the third repetition.”

Remember, getting stuck in the middle sections happens to most writers. It’s part of the process of creating. It just means you have to step back, re-evaluate your plot structure, and alter where necessary. As Webb writes, “Be patient with yourself and with your story.”

Novel Beginnings and Endings: A Primer on Prologues and Epilogues

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If you’re working on a novel or memoir, you’ve probably considered how to begin and end your work. Should you open with a prologue? If so, what should the prologue contain? Should I include an epilogue too?

There is dissent among agents and editors about whether prologues are necessary. Some suggest that your first chapter should do the work that your prologue does. If your first chapter is written well (see my previous post), a prologue isn’t necessary, they claim. Other publishing experts feel prologues can work if they are done well.

Prologues are commonly used for genres such as historical fiction, thrillers, horror, and sci-fi and fantasy. They’re ideal for world building and providing background on a character or situation that may not fit into the main text.

If you’re considering starting your story with a prologue, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Prologues

  • Keep it short and simple. Prologues are shorter than chapters, which can run as long as 12 to 15 pages or more. Most prologues are only a few pages.  
  • Provide a glimpse of the past or future. If there’s a part of the backstory that’s integral to the main plot line that readers need to know in advance, a prologue might be the best place for that backstory. It’s better than flipping back and forth between the present and that other time or place, writes Shaelyn Bishop of Reedsy.
  • Use it for world building. Readers get a sense of what this new world looks and feels like, adds Bishop. You might be able to divulge some details about scene or present a different place and time that grounds readers
  • Reboot a series. If there’s a long gap between books in a series, the prologue can re-introduce characters, scenes and story lines from previous books.
  • Use an alternate point of view. For example, for a mystery or thriller, the prologue might be written in first person from the point of view of a person who is murdered, while the rest of the story is written from the perspective of the person investigating the crime.

These are general guidelines, of course. A good example of a well-written prologue is Caught by Harlan Coben, which follows several of the guidelines above. It’s shorter than the main chapters in the book, it introduces a character who becomes the focus of the story. It provides background to this character’s life story, which later becomes a contentious issue with the protagonist. The reader is left to decide which is true about this character – the one introduced in the prologue or the one the protagonist thinks he is.

Further, the prologue provides relevant and supplemental details to the story line. In this action-packed thriller, the prologue works because readers get caught up in the action. It also does a good job of tying into the conclusion, which answers all the questions readers need to know.

Ultimately, the best judge of whether to include a prologue is you. You know your story best. Let your story determine if you need a prologue or not.

Epilogues

There is less debate about epilogues, which come at the end of your story. The Write Practice describes the epilogue as “the moment when the reader learns the fate of the characters or when the hook to a sequel is revealed.” The epilogue generally has a different tone, point of view and time period compared to previous chapters. It is often set some time in the future, such as the epilogue for the Harry Potter series which placed the characters far into the future where they are seeing their own kids off to Hogwarts. Like the prologue, the epilogue is shorter than the chapters, usually only a few pages.

According to Kirkus Reviews, the epilogue can serve any number of purposes:

  • Illustrate a changed world. The epilogue can show how the world changed as a result of the conflict and action that took place in earlier chapters. If the prologue or early chapters showed dire circumstances, show how those circumstances changed and perhaps how the protagonist’s life changed.
  • Provide closure. Whatever remaining threads need to be tied up can be done in the epilogue. It can answer questions readers might have, such as “What happened to so-and-so?”
  • Return to real life after a difficult journey. The epilogue can serve as a breather after an action-filled story. It’s where characters recover from injuries, reunite with loved ones and resolve outstanding problems.
  • Create a cliffhanger. If the book is part of a series, the epilogue can provide a cliffhanger for the next book in the series, including a hint at a possible future conflict. In this case, the epilogue will whet the reader’s appetite for the rest of the story.

When contemplating whether to use an epilogue to conclude your novel, ask yourself “What do readers need to know to feel satisfied about the outcome?”

When used judiciously, prologues and epilogues can work like bookends, giving your novel a structural boost that can be carried throughout your novel