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.

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.

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?

The Writer’s Guide to Overcoming Rejection

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Rejection is one of the most painful experiences a writer can go through. It’s also a normal part of the creative process. Because without rejection, we would have no impetus to improve our work.

At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, right?

When rejection happens over and over again though, it can feel like a giant boulder slamming down on your head. You may grow weary of all the effort you put into your work only to have it rejected. You may wonder if a writing life is worth all the rejection, and you may begin to doubt yourself. You may even be tempted to give up on writing altogether.

But don’t give up. If you have a story to tell, you need to tell it. Keep going. Keep writing.

Whether you’ve been turned down for a job, overlooked for a promotion in your company or received a rejection notice from a publisher, rejection hurts. It will always hurt. But there are ways to deal with the lingering emotional turmoil so you can make the most of the rejection and use it to fuel your future endeavors.

So how can writers move past rejection? There are several steps you can take to not only cope with rejection, but use it to fuel your work.

1. Take a time-out. After you’ve been rejected, it might be helpful to take a time-out to re-settle yourself emotionally. Getting rejected is painful, especially if you’ve toiled for weeks, even years, on your latest masterpiece. But rather than get back to work, take a break. Do something else for a couple of days — read a book, do yoga, take a hike, work in your garden, clean house, or visit a museum. Do anything that will clear your heart and mind before getting back to work.

2. Write about your rejection. Don’t dwell on the rejection. Sometimes writing about your rejection experience can help clear your mind and body of the emotional turmoil rejection leaves behind. Write about it in your personal journal, or write a personal essay. In fact, it doesn’t have to be anything anyone else will read. But by writing about it can help heal a wound before it festers beyond repair.

3. Talk things over.
If you don’t want to write about your experience, talk it over with a friend, spouse, or a colleague – someone close to you who understands your need and desire to write. Writers need to surround themselves with a strong emotional support system so they’ll always have at least one shoulder to cry on, one person to listen to your angry rants, and one person to celebrate when you accomplish your dream.

4. Don’t reply back to the rejection source. This is important. Responding in anger is counterproductive and will likely make you feel worse, writes Angela Tung in the Huffington Post. She suggests that sending an angry reply can hurt your chances of being published later on by this publication. They may not want to work with you. However, there is one exception to this piece of advice. If the editor offered some helpful tips to improve your piece, you can reply with a gracious “thank you.” If the editor took the time to provide feedback on your work, it means they liked your writing enough to give you encouragement. Take their comments to heart.

5. Work on another project. If you’re like most writers, you may have several projects going on at once. While the initial project is on hiatus, pull out another piece you’ve had on the back burner and give it another read. After time away from it, you’ll be able to look at your work with a fresh eye.

6. Review the editor’s comments. Once the emotional dust has cleared, review whatever comments you received from the editor. If they took the time to provide feedback or make suggestions, they clearly felt your piece has some redeeming value. Review your work again, this time with the editor’s comments in mind. You’ll find more often than not, their suggestions are worthwhile.

7. Get back to work. That might mean rewriting your piece or it might mean finding another publication to submit your piece to that might be a better fit. With rejection behind you, you can roll up your sleeves and get back to writing with a fresh eye and renewed energy.

8. Don’t quit. Keep working. Keep writing. Don’t let rejection deter you from your writing. Instead use it to fuel your work.

All writers experience rejection. It’s a normal part of the creative writing process. Rejection, and any feedback that comes along with it, is meant to help you become a better writer. Use it to your advantage.

Related Articles
Tips for Dealing with Inevitable Rejection
Five Easy Steps to Conquer the Heartache of Rejection

Get Motivated to Write with a DIY Writing Retreat

 

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I’ve been reading about do-it-yourself writing retreats a lot lately. I became intrigued about these retreats after reading an article on Writer Unboxed, which provided some practical insights about planning one. After further investigation, I was surprised by the number of articles about writers’ retreats. There’s even an e-book that can be purchased on Amazon.

Writing retreats, especially in exotic locations, sound like a dream. Imagine sequestering yourself for days in a quiet place to focus on your writing, with occasional breaks for meals and hiking and sleeping. Think of it as a solo getaway to inspire and motivate you. But writing is a solo activity, and sometimes you need a change of scenery to unblock yourself and perform more creatively.

If you have ever considered attending a writing retreat, you know how pricey they can be. Most writers I know don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on a retreat. But many writers who have planned DIY retreats say you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a fancy hotel and air fare or go to exotic destinations.

Sure, it’s nice to meet other writers and attend workshops to immerse yourself in your craft. But it’s not always possible if you are short of time and money.

To plan your own writing retreat, here’s what you need:

1. Create a vision for your writing retreat. Think about your definition of a writers’ retreat. What does it mean to you? What does it look like? Where would you go? Would you confine yourself to a library for a few hours or would you spend an entire weekend at a hotel? What would you do during the retreat? Would you do only writing, or would you take short breaks to explore the neighborhood, practice yoga or read up on your craft? You are in charge of planning your retreat, so it can be anything you want it to be. If you’re unsure what a do-it-yourself writing retreat looks like, here’s one example.

2. Start small, then work up to larger retreats. If you are a busy mom with young kids, you may not have the luxury of spending a few days away to write. Consider a short-term solution, such as a morning at the public library. Offer to house sit or pet sit for friends when they go out of town, and use their home as a writing sanctuary. Other low-cost options are a hotel lobby where there may be quiet reading areas, an unused room at the local park district fieldhouse or a neighborhood community center, a hospital lounge, or a university library. Some would argue a coffee shop, but they can be fairly noisy if there is music playing.

As you do more of these on your own and as you earn more from your writing, you may decide to venture on to larger retreat experiences involving groups of people. Writing is a solo journey, and meeting with other writers can be stimulating and socially rewarding.

3. Decide if you want this to be a solo adventure or a group outing. There are advantages to both. Going solo means you are in charge of your own schedule, you don’t have to meet up with other people and you can do what you want on your own terms. Some writers have organized retreats with other writers to share the experience, swap ideas, and motivate each other. However, if you’re doing this for the first time, going solo might be the better route.

4. Pack everything you need. Obviously, bring along your pens, notebooks and your imagination. Let go of any guilt or preconceived ideas of what you think you will accomplish. Remember to bring along books to read, especially books about the writing craft that may be collecting dust on your bookshelf. Be sure to bring a battery recharger too.

5. Re-treat yourself. Once you’ve done one or two retreats, you’ll want to do them more often. It’s like eating potato chips – you can’t eat just one. Commit to a mini-retreat once a month or every other month or even once a week. A mini-retreat can be a few concentrated hours on a Saturday morning or an entire weekend at a hotel or B&B. Planning repeated retreats shows your commitment to yourself and to your craft.

Other tips:
Do-it-yourself retreats don’t have to be just for writers. They’re perfect for aspiring entrepreneurs planning their business, artists looking for inspiration from nature, or students studying for exams.

If a retreat is beyond your schedule or budget, look into write-in programs at your local library or university. These write-ins are usually free and open to the public and give you a chance to work quietly along with other writers. Snacks are usually provided so you don’t have to take a break for meals. It’s a great opportunity to engage with other writers and immerse yourself in your writing. You can stay as long as you want, whether that’s for an hour or the entire day. The one downside is that they are planned events that may not fit your schedule.

That is why planning your own do-it-yourself writing retreat is such a cool idea. Need ideas for planning one? Check out the following articles:

Create your own mini-writing retreat
Introducing the DIY writing retreat
If you build it: Do-It-Yourself Writers Retreats

Eight Books Worth Reading in 2017

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As the first week of the new year comes to a close, I’m still closing the door on 2016. I did a lot of reading last year, getting caught up on books that were lying on my book shelf for months, and in some cases, years.

If you’re looking for a good read in 2017, I might suggest the following titles which I read last year. Some are well known, while others are rather obscure. All are entertaining, thought-provoking reads, guaranteed to stay with you long after the story ends.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman 
Historical fiction set in 70 C.E. in ancient Israel during the Roman invasion of Masada, where 900 Jews held out against the Roman army. According to ancient historians, only two women and five children survived. Five years in the making, this is their story, told by four incredibly bold, resourceful women. The writing is authentic and poignant. At times, I felt I was watching an epic movie unfold. Considered to be Hoffman’s best work, so be prepared to be swept away by her colorful and dramatic storytelling.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book sat on my shelf for several months until I learned of Lee’s death last spring. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. The writing is authentically southern, so at times it was difficult to follow. But beneath the language lay a story of racial tensions in a small town in the South and one man’s attempt to teach his children to treat all people, no matter how different in color or religion, with dignity and respect. Written from the viewpoint of a six-year old girl, the story is both timely and timeless, and just as important today as it was then.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Long before the Netflix series, Kerman shares her observations and experiences during her 15-month prison term at a federal correctional facility for women in Danbury, Connecticut. She also shares the stories of many of the women who she met along the way. The first-hand account reveals how Kerman and her fellow inmates managed to survive the day-to-day boredom of prison life, as well as their compassion for each other. Fascinating, if not sobering, read.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCullers was only 23 when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a book filled with humanity and compassion far beyond her years. Like Lee’s Mockingbird, this book also tackles racial tensions with grace and dignity. Even more poignant is how McCullers paints her characters, showcasing their strengths and vulnerabilities, and just how isolated each one is amidst their personal and moral crises. I was most fascinated by Singer, the deaf mute who everyone seemed drawn to, yet who understood very little of what they were telling him. It is through his thoughts and his eyes that we ultimately see how the heart is a lonely hunter, constantly searching for connection with like-minded souls.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Most of us in the free world would have difficulty imagining living in a society that banned certain books and prohibited women from furthering their education. Nafisi was a professor of English Literature in Iran. When Islamic morality squads began, Nafisi had the courage to set up secret gatherings for seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Reading this memoir and their discussions of famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, made me appreciate the freedoms we have in our country as well as the classic writing I have yet to experience.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Genova’s book reads like a memoir, and I suppose it could be. Still Alice is a poignant look at Alzheimer’s disease. The story opens with Alice Howland living a full and active life as a psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert on linguistics. As the story progresses, we see her become increasingly disoriented and forgetful. This is her journey and her fight to prolong the onset of the disease for as long as possible. This heart-breaking story will make you think, “Gee, this could be me someday.”

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Another novel that reads like a memoir, An Unnecessary Woman is the story of a book-loving, obsessive and isolated 72-year-old woman, whose belief that she is “unnecessary” in the world is shaped by her upbringing in the Middle East. She used her love of books and her translation work to hide from the world. Despite her efforts, circumstances force her to come out of her shell and interact with the world. The ending gives us all hope that we don’t have to be alone, that we are all necessary to one another, no matter where we live.

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Written with wit and journalistic integrity, 10% Happier is the memoir of Dan Harris, the weekend anchor of Good Morning America. This is his journey into the world of mindfulness and meditation, which at first, Harris fights. What I found intriguing about this book is the journalistic approach that Harris takes in which he interviews numerous high-profile experts about the experience of meditation, from Deepak Chopra to the Dalai Lama. We learn from Harris’s lessons, his experiences. Meditation is not as easy as it looks, and the lessons we learn about ourselves aren’t so simple either.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!