How Writers Can Create Their Own Self-Study Course

Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer.

This is part of my series on training and education for writers.

Several months ago, I wrote about MFA programs and how to tell if they’re right for you. This week, I’m focusing on self-study options.

An MFA is not for everyone, and some experts believe that it does not guarantee that you’ll be published. What it does do is provide an intensive training opportunity to learn everything about the writing craft. You’ve got a built-in network of fellow writers who are going through the same program and you learn from each other.

Self-study offers its own advantages. Students have more control over the content and direction of their training. You control what you study, when and for how long.

Whatever your preference – MFA or self-study – will depend on your studying style.

If you prefer to immerse yourself in a structured program where you learn everything about the craft of writing in a concentrated period of time, then an MFA is probably best for you.

However, if you don’t have the money or the time to concentrate on an intensive program like an MFA, self-study is the better option. In this route, you can pick up knowledge as you go along by taking workshops and classes on your own time and on your own schedule and reading every blog, magazine article and book about some aspect of writing.

For those who like aspects of both, you might appreciate the hybrid model. The hybrid is a do-it-yourself program that combines the independent learning of self-study with the intensive focus of the MFA. Whereas the typical self-study route can be haphazard in its approach, the hybrid is focused on mastering areas of competence in a given time, usually about a year.

Author James Scott Bell calls these areas of competence “critical success factors” or CSFs. Bell has identified seven CSFs that he recommends writers should master: plot, structure, characters, scene, dialogue, voice and meaning (theme).

(Personally, I would add three more to this list: pacing, setting and revision. However, in a hybrid self-learning model, I suppose you can create as many or as few CSFs as you want. It’s your self-study program.)

Bell’s idea is based on the work and writings of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin described his desire to master 13 moral virtues. He tracked his progress using a chart with the seven days of the week. He focused on improving one moral virtue each week. Writers, Bell says, can use a similar checklist for each of the CSFs he described.  

By concentrating on one CSF over seven weeks, Bell believes you will have covered all seven within one year with three weeks to spare. Of course, if you add others to your list, that time frame will be extended. Count on spending eight weeks – comparable to a college semester – learning about one CSF. By the end of one year or longer, you will have completed your own self-study program.

Bell also offers suggested readings for each CSF. You can find them on his website. Other helpful resources can be found on DIY MFA and Writer’s Digest magazine.

Of course, there are no formal hybrid educational models offered for writers. So you may have to create your own self-study course, says writing coach Ann Kroeker. “In this way, any of us can identify an area to improve in and find instruction pertaining to that exact skill or technique.”

Kroeker adds that this self-study approach isn’t limited to fiction writers, but to poets, essayists and non-fiction writers too.

It’s an interesting concept, and one I wished I had come upon when I embarked on my writing career. No matter how far along you are in your development, you can always test out Bell’s self-study concept.

Self-study tips

If you decide to go the self-study route to learn more about the writing craft, here are a few tips to get the most out of the experience, according to the Learning Agency Lab.

  1. Set goals for yourself. Decide what you want to learn and the measurements for mastering them.
  2. Schedule your self-study time. Self-study takes time, perhaps not as much as a formal MFA, but time that you could be doing other things. With busy schedules, you’ll need to set aside time each day for self-study, whether that’s reading, taking a class or completing writing exercises.
  3. Make sure you complete the exercises you learn in workshops or in the texts you read. This gives you valuable practice on technique. You may not use them all after the training ends, but some will likely stick.
  4. Don’t be shy about marking up articles and books. You’ll likely find key points you want to remember, so grab that marker and highlight it. Better yet, use a post-it note to mark the page so you can refer to it easily later.
  5. Celebrate milestones. For each CSF you master after seven or eight weeks, do something special to mark the occasion.
  6. Apply your skills. As you gain experience with each CSF, look for ways to expand your skills. For example, once you’ve mastered character, begin to apply those lessons to your own writing. Look at your own characters to see if they measure up.
  7. Find a study buddy. (This is my personal suggestion, btw.) Self-study, especially about writing, means you’re working on your own. By finding a study buddy, you can go through the self-study process together.
  8. Reflect on your learning. When you’ve completed each phase, reflect on what you’ve learned. Is there more you need to learn?

Writers are lifelong learners. No matter where you are in your development as a writer, there are always resources to help you improve your craft.

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.

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.

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.

The Seven Scariest Excuses People Make to Avoid Writing

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If you’re like most people, you’ve probably made a myriad of excuses for not getting any writing done – lack of time, fear of failure, too busy, no privacy, nothing to write about, etc.

Below are the seven most common excuses I’ve heard people use to explain why they aren’t writing. I call them the Seven Deadly Excuses because they can kill a person’s writing practice before it has a chance to flourish. Many of these excuses are influenced by negative messages and assumptions you’ve heard since childhood. By reframing these messages and taking positive action, those fears will diminish over time.

Excuse 1: “I don’t have time to write.”
A lack of time is the most common excuse people make about not writing. If this is your biggest fear, chances are your writing practice has never gotten off the ground, or you write in fits and starts. You always talk about wanting to write, but you never do anything about it.

The problem isn’t that you don’t have time to write, but the expectation of how much time is needed for writing. If you expect a writing practice to take up two, three or four hours every day, that is unrealistic. No one has that kind of time. With full-time jobs, clients to take care of, families to raise and other important responsibilities, there’s little time left over for writing.

The truth is, you don’t need hours at a time to write. When you’re just starting a writing practice, only ten or fifteen minutes a day will suffice. For example, while working as an attorney, A Time to Kill author John Grisham set a goal of writing one page per day, roughly 200 words. Grisham shows it is possible to fit writing into your schedule.

Excuse #2: “I’m too busy.” 
When you say that you’re too busy to write, what you may actually be saying is that writing is a low priority compared to other responsibilities, such as a work, school, taking care of kids or aging parents, etc. Who has time to begin a writing practice when all these other priorities compete for your attention?

Perhaps you learned in childhood that school work and household chores came first before you could watch TV, play with your friends, or write in your diary. If this was your experience, writing became a low priority.

But maybe it’s time to rethink those priorities. Maybe it’s time to make writing a higher priority than before. When you make writing a priority, you’ll find it’s easier to begin a regular writing practice. If all you need is fifteen minutes a day, that’s time well spent, no matter how busy you are.

Excuse 3: “My writing isn’t good enough.”
From the first moment you put pen to paper, your writing probably won’t be very good.
That’s normal for most beginning writers. But it’s true for experienced ones too. Kristin Hannah, author of The Nightingale, writes as many as 10 drafts of each novel because she knows the first draft isn’t her best or final work. It’s simply the starting point that she can build on.

If you continually tell yourself that your writing is not good enough, ask yourself why you feel that way. What is your writing not good enough for? Publication? For other people to see?

Instead of berating yourself for not writing well, make a plan to keep improving. Read authors whose work you admire, so you can learn from them. When you write something, ask for feedback. Constructive criticism can help you spot recurring errors. Most important, write, write, write.

Excuse 4: “I don’t know what to write about!”
Do you suffer from blank page syndrome – the act of staring at a blank page or computer screen with no idea what to write about?  Or when you do come up with a story ideas, do you dismiss it as uninteresting?

When faced with a blank page, you may be overlooking the best source of story ideas: personal experience. You have plenty of life experience to draw from, so explore those events from your past to adapt to your stories. One way to access this reservoir of life experience is with writing prompts. You can find hundreds of prompts on sites such as  Writer’s Digest and DIYMFA.com.

Excuse 5: “I don’t have a private space to write.”
If you share a home with a spouse, three children, a dog and two cats, it may be difficult to find a quiet, private space to write. Others believe that without ideal circumstances, such as a desk and comfortable chair, their favorite coffee mug and favorite pen, they’re just not able to write.

You need to ask yourself if the problem is an actual lack of space, or the expectation that you need a lot of space to write. I’ve drafted blog posts on breaks at work, on buses and trains or while waiting for appointments. If you wish you had ideal surroundings and your current environment is far from ideal, you may be waiting forever to start writing. The truth is, your environment does not need to be perfect to begin writing.

Excuse 6:  “I’m afraid to fail.”
Another common excuse writers make is “What if I fail?“  The answer depends on how you define failure. What does failure look like to you? Not getting published? Not finishing your current work-in-progress? Not having anyone read your work? Not having anyone take your writing as seriously as you do? Everybody has their own definition of failure, but in reality, there is only one true failure: not writing at all.

To remove that fear of failure, it might be helpful to start small and work your way toward bigger projects. Start with stories of 100 words, then increase it to 200 words, and so on. Every week or so, add to your daily word count. When you reach these smaller goals, you gain confidence in yourself and you achieve small successes that you can build on.

Excuse 7: “What if I’m successful?”
While fear of failure is common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  fear of success. “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 as 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 success. Then you worry about what happens when you finish that project. 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 work.

If you fear success, then you may need to rethink 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. Are you defining success on your terms or someone else’s?

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it based on real, concrete and meaningful terms. It’s when you follow the path of success that others have defined for you that can strike fear in you. Write  according to your definition of success, not anyone else’s.

When you manage your expectations to conquer your fears, the writing life won’t seem so scary.


Writing Websites You Should Know

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

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

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

Professional development

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

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

Freelancing

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

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

Literary Agents

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

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

Content Marketing/Blogging


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

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

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

Communities

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

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

Publishing Resources

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

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

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

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

Getting Published

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

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

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

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

Finish What You Start: Tips for Completing That First Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Communications Pros

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Editor’s Note: In the spirit of the holiday season, this post is republished from December 2018. 

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 gifts for the writing and  communications professional in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the 2018 version of Writer’s Digest holiday gift guide.

1. Books. 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.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a 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 their library is complete. They might have a dictionary, but since they are updated annually, it never hurts to give the writer on your list a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer or communicator should be without their 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 begin writing their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider giving them a really nice stylish pen set (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put them in a more serious frame of mind when they write. Add a stack of notepads or legal pads, and your writer friend will be well stocked and ready to write before the New Year begins.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers and communicators. 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. Brain power and creativity are key for writers. Word puzzles and writing exercises can help boost a writer’s creativity. Try magnetic word games, for example. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create numerous combinations of 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 as the Storyteller and 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. All these options are sure to be fun for you and the whole family.

7. 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.

8. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I 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.

I hope these ideas give you a head start on your gift shopping for the writers in your life. And don’t be shy about giving a gift to yourself. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

Making Collaborations Work

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I’ve been reading about collaborations a lot lately. I have never collaborated on a creative fiction project myself; I’m far more comfortable getting my own ideas published. But for many writers and creative professionals, collaborations are a means to expand their business opportunities.

The truth is, writers and other creative professionals have been joining forces to create new innovative products for years. Sometimes these collaborations work; many times they don’t. There are numerous reasons why writers would want to seek collaboration on a project. They may want to experiment with a different genre of writing but don’t have the experience or the confidence to pursue it. A collaborator can bring that perspective.

Another reason for collaboration may be the size of the project. It may be too large for one person to handle on their own. In that case, a collaborator can share the responsibility — and the rewards. Yet another reason is the challenge it brings. Many writers may relish the thought of working with another person because they feel the process makes them a better writer.

If you decide to pursue a collaboration, keep an open mind. It’s important to be open to new ideas and not get locked into your own.

According to Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn blog, it helps to have a clear idea from the start what kind of project you and your collaborator are working on and to set parameters for making progress. Lack of proper planning can derail the project before it even gets off the ground. You both need to be on the same page to move the project plan forward.

Here are a few words of advice from writers who’ve been part of successful collaborations.

1. Work with someone you already know. When you know someone, you are familiar with their strengths as a creative, their personality, their ideas, work habits and more. It’s much easier to get on the same page when you know who you are dealing with. While it’s not a requirement, it can be helpful to work with someone you already know. When you don’t know the other person as a writer or collaborator, you have to start from ground zero in getting to know how they work, and more important, whether you can work with them at all. It might be helpful to start on a small project like a play or novella before embarking on a larger project.

2. Start slow and plan you project ahead of time. Don’t begin writing right away. Plan out what you want to create, though you don’t need every detail outlined. Outline what each of you will be responsible for during the project. A simple sketch with your story ideas and characters might be sufficient. Once you start writing, keep working at a steady pace. Put a schedule in place with incremental deadlines and a final publication deadline. Having a clear plan of action with deadlines can keep you and your collaborator on track to meet your goals.

3. Be clear about the story concept. Define your genre. Is it historical fiction, an international thriller or a fantasy series for young adults? Penn says it can be tempting to do a mash up of different genres to please different audiences, but that can result in a confusing product. Instead, choose one and do it well. When you focus on one specific genre, it will be easier to market it to consumers.

4. Communicate clearly and often. You may be working at opposite ends of the country, so it’s important to have frequent communication to update each other on progress, says writer Jeff Somers in Writer’s Digest magazine. Set aside time each week or every other week to check in with each other to see how the work is progressing and resolve any problem areas before they derail the project. 

There are other important tips to consider. 

1. Be respectful of each other. You each bring something special to the table – your skill level, writing experience, etc. If you find yourself encroaching on the other person’s space, take a step back and allow them room to work their own magic. Likewise, if you find they are encroaching on yours, politely ask that they give you time to work your own writing magic. There’s no room for egos when you collaborate.

2. Embrace different ways of working even if they make you feel uncomfortable. The new processes may actually help you see past writing problems that have stumped you before. Learning new processes through collaborative efforts may even help you become a better writer.

3. Speak up if the project seems to stall or doesn’t seem to be going well. Don’t let resentment simmer in the background or boil over, Somers says. Address issues as soon as they arise.

4. Take time to celebrate milestones and successes. When you complete that first book in your fantasy series, or get that contract, celebrate that success. Then get back to work. Most important, have fun.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you find you cannot work with this person or a stalemate has occurred, walking away from it may be your best option. You may have to weigh the pros and cons of doing so. For example, if you received an advance from a publishing company, you may have to find a way to complete the project. Honor your obligations. But if you don’t have any restrictions and this is simply a creative experiment that clearly is not working out, by all means, walk away and chalk it up to experience.

Remember, for all the success stories about collaborations that fill the Internet, there are still many others that have failed. In any partnership or relationship, sometimes you have to set aside your ego to let the relationship flourish. The same is true for collaboration. If you enter it with the right mind set, the end result may be a product you can be proud of.

Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about them.