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Writer's Field Journal, Writing

Writer’s Field Journal

I am writing a book of writing prompts. Actually it’s a journal. Although it’s a book. Hm, let’s start again.

My second published book, “Writer’s Field Journal: Thought-Provoking Exercises and Prompts for Creative Exploration,” is coming out with Fox Chapel Publishing this fall. It is a collection of prompts with room to write and gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Cara Connors.

I spent my fall reading and sometimes rereading books on creativity and creative writing. I spent this January writing up prompts, choosing quotes, and having way too much fun. At the last minute I realized I had promised to include a bit on procrastination. This post is an act of productive procrastination.

The fun, careless first draft is done, and now I have to nail down some details about, among other things, how writers can get into character, how to spell Reginald Shepherd‘s last name, and whether or not a prompt about aliens is cliche.

Are aliens subject cliches for writing prompts?

 

 

Revising

Three Principles of Revision

Revision. Love it or hate it, I don’t care. Just make sure you do it. Revising is the difference between casual and professional writers.

Note: I consider professional writers not as people who get paid for writing (I’m a poet after all), but rather people who are working at certain level with a certain amount of experience and education, whether formal or self-administered.

Macro Before Micro

You know what this means. Don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Don’t spend two hours moving a few words around in a paragraph that you are going to delete later. Make sure you’ve said mostly the right things in mostly the right order before you polish that prose to a high sheen.

Note: This does not apply to poetry quite as much. In poetry, micro is often macro.

Know Thyself

If you’re a writer with a certain amount of education (formal or self-administered) and experience, then you have a general idea about your strengths and weaknesses. My poetry buddies used to make fun of me (affectionately) for the “Goldstein leap” where I would have a carefully constructed poem and then a reckless leap for the ending. I never had the penultimate line, and I often needed it. As a result, I always check for the Goldstein leap at the end of the poem.

When I teach, I make my writing students make up their own revision checklist. This is great for catching the small things you always forget (passive voice, repetitive sentence structure, citation arcana) as well as bigger issues. Although many students would have the some of the same items on their list, each one was slightly different. You have your own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Work to support one and address the others.

Don’t forget your strengths too! Are you good at titles? Do you write killer dialogue? Are your descriptions to die for? Do you write your references perfectly every single time? (If so, you should consider a career in copyediting.) Listing your writing strengths is a good exercise for reminding yourself the things you do well.

Kill Your Darlings

Nothing against your darlings! They are beautifully worded, delectable sentences, words, paragraphs, and image. But just because you love them does not mean they fit in your current work. Take them out and save them for later. Every poet I know has a list of images or lines that they periodically try to put into a poor unsuspecting poem. Is it a possum, brick dust, or the fact that sparrows can sense magnetism? Think carefully about what is good for your specific work, rather than just what is good.

What are your favorite revision tips? What are your darlings?

Submit or Die in Obscurity

How To Build Writerly Resilience

I’ve been reading Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer over the past few weeks. It is a smart book about all the nonwriting stuff that goes into having a writing career, however we may define it. And one quote has stuck with me particularly.

“Resilience in the face of rejection and disappointment is perhaps the biggest key to success [in writing].”

In my early twenties, I was lucky enough to be roommates with a writer. She was older and a great deal more experienced than me, however she took my beginning writerly ambitions and my poems seriously. I submitted my first poems to a literary magazine, and when I was sent a rejection form she said to me, “Congratulations! You are a real writer now!”

How does a writer become resilient even without having a good writer roommate?

Become a reader for a literary journal. The slush pile is mighty. As you read submissions, you will quickly see that all good writing does not get immediately published and that rejection is not personal. You might like something, but another reader doesn’t. I once rejected a poem from my small grad school literary journal that I read years later in Poetry.

Terri Lynn Coop says it better (scroll down to the comments).

Submit a lot. Make a routine for submission. Do your research, but don’t pin your hopes on an individual journal, grant, agent, or contest. The more you submit, the more you will be rejected, but also the more you will be accepted. The year I decided to submit to three places a week was my best year of publications ever, even if I didn’t manage to do it all year. As soon as you get rejected, send the work out again.

Make sure your submissions are good (not to mention typo free) before you send them out the first time and do not reread them before submitting after that. Feel the self-doubt and submit it anyway.

Find a sense of self-worth elsewhere. I don’t know how to tell you to do that really, but find a hobby that brings you pleasure and people that support you. This is very important.

Stay off social media. Sometimes you’re going to feel like shit even if you are a resilient person. Sometimes you’re going to feel like everyone but you has a book, a prize, the best spouse ever, perfect children, a clean home, and a new kitten. Get off social media and find the hobbies and people and books that sustain you.

When you can’t write, read something good.

How do you find the courage to submit another day?

Editing

What To Look For In An Editor

Budget and time frame are two very concrete things to negotiate when looking for an editor. You know when you need the manuscript back and how much you can afford. But how do you figure out if your editor is suited to you? Do you need to take a Meyers-Briggs test and compare astrological charts? No, thank god.

Genre

Make sure your editor enjoys or has experience in the genre in which you are writing. I’ve had people tell me my memoir should be a novel (I don’t write novels) and my fiction-writing spouse has had people tell him short stories should be essays (he does not write essays). You want an editor who will meet you where you are and who will be enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your genre of choice.

Communication style

Does your editor respond to your emails in a time frame that works for you? Do you want to talk to the editor on the phone or by video call? Does your editor do that? Does the way they talk about their work make sense to you?

Feedback style

An editor is going to give you criticism, probably a lot of it. What do you need when you receive feedback? Do you want the unvarnished truth? Or do you prefer your criticism presented in a gentler approach? Do you need a lot of encouragement or reassurance?

None of these styles are right or wrong, unless you are an experienced writer and your editor explains each change she makes in excruciating detail. That is a waste of time for both of you.

Not sure what kind of writer you are? How do you respond to criticism or feedback at your job? How do you give criticism or feedback to other people?

 

How do you know if an editor is right for you?

Editing

What To Know When Hiring An Editor

You’ve written something, and you need someone outside your friend and family circle to read it. You have a short list of editors you want to talk to. There’s a good deal  of back and forth before you hire someone you don’t know to edit your work. You need to establish a few things first.

Level of Editing

The first thing you want to figure out is the level of edit you want. Do you just want a quick polish for glaring errors or do you want someone to help you rethink the organization of your work?

Developmental editing is where the editor works with the writer to flesh out ideas, identify compelling storylines or themes, and organize the larger work.

Copyediting ranges from “heavy” to “light” depending on how much work needs to be done. In a copyedit, the editor checks for grammar, typos, awkward wordings, some organizational issues (that’s on the heavier side), consistency, readability, and continuity.

Proofreading is usually quicker and less hands-on for the editor. The text is in its relatively final form, and the proofreader is just looking to correct errors introduced earlier in the process.

Writing coaching is the process of helping the writer set and meet their writing goals. It can include all of the above level of edits, but what makes it unlike editing is that writing coaching involves helping the writer with their creative process itself rather than just the writing.

Budget and Time Frame

When do you need the manuscript returned to you? Is it ready to go today or are you halfway through and want to set something up for a few months from now to give yourself a deadline?

How much money do you have to spend on an edit? I live and die by the Editorial Freelancer Association’s chart of common rates. Editors will often ask for a certain amount of money up front and the rest upon completion of the project. For longer projects editors might want to be paid weekly, biweekly, or monthly.

Be direct (and polite, of course) about both your budget and your time frame. (And pay your editor promptly. We editors like to eat too.)

Editing Style

This is the less concrete part of your negotiations. Each editor has a slightly different set of interests and approaches. Each writer has different styles and needs. A successful editor/writer relationship needs compatible styles. Sometimes people are perfectly good writers and editors, their styles just don’t mesh. And there is nothing wrong with that; it’s just something one should find out earlier rather than later.

You can always ask an editor to talk about their editing practice and approach. Also think about what approaches have worked well for you in the past. Haven’t been edited before? Think back to other collaborative and teaching experiences. What works for you and what doesn’t?

The best way to figure this out is to ask for a sample edit. (This is more common with larger projects.) Some editors (such as myself) will edit 2 pages or so for free. Others will give you a sample edit for a small charge. Either way, this is a great way for the writer to figure out if they like the editor’s approach and the editor to figure out if the writer is receptive to what the editor says. It also helps the editor set a more accurate estimate on the final project.

What do you ask when first contacting an editor?

(Image from https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/help-tools/proofreading-marks.html)

 

Uncategorized

Marie Curie’s Kitchen

At some point (maybe around 2010 or so), I read Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith, and it changed my writing life. This was a book not just about Marie Curie’s accomplishments, it was also about how a poor Polish woman became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. There was all the domestic detail a nosy writer could ask for about how she managed her life and her work.

The personal lives of scientists became my new interest. How did one woman become a successful scientist in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while another woman became merely a woman who knew more about science than her peers? It was place, education, and encouragement. It was class, ambition, and personality. It was all fascinating.

“Marie Curie’s Kitchen” began its life as an idea. I was in the early twenty-first century still trying to kill the Angel in the House, Virginia Woolf’s specter of domesticity. I had a sink full of dirty dishes and poems to write. What did Marie Curie’s kitchen look like? was my rebellious thought.

The idea became a poem, and then a few years later it became prose. My friend encouraged me to submit a piece to Flashback Fiction, a journal of historical flash fiction. It never occurred to me that I could write fiction. However, a slightly fictional interpretation of real-life events I thought I could manage. Evidently the editors thought so too. Today you can read “Marie Curie’s Kitchen” up at Flashback Fiction.

What’s your favorite personal detail about a historical figure?

 

 

 

Writing

How To Develop A Sustainable Writing Practice

I once had a workshop teacher who would light a candle in the beginning of each class in order to “invoke the muse.” I secretly rolled my eyes, thinking it was hokey. A year later, I found myself making tea in a china pot, taking it to my desk, and making myself stay and write until the tea got cold.

My teacher was right. Sometimes we need something external to signal that we are taking time from our daily life to write. (A door that closes and locks is another one that comes to mind.) Lots of people want to write, but what makes a writer is the ability to establish a practice and get their work done.

This is where sustainability comes in. It’s a buzz word, sure, but “long-ass haul” doesn’t have the same professional sound. You want to develop a practice that keeps you writing, not one that burns you out. I had a friend who said she was going to walk five miles every day. If she missed a day, she’d walk ten the next. This is not a sustainable practice, and she did not sustain it.

Ignore all Advice That Is Not Useful to You

Sure, one person might write only in the library, and another meditates before an hour of writing. Standing desk, timers, waking up at 3 am, in the car at your kid’s soccer practice. There are a thousand stories of how people get writing done. The only one you need is the one that works for you. Not the romantic image that you would like to be part of, but the actual system that will keep you writing in the middle of the summer and in the middle of the winter, when you have company or when the other members of your household are away.

Don’t know what works for you? Try a new approach every week. Figure out what works best for you, and stick to it.

There Is No Magic

Sorry. The fickle fairy, the muse, creativity blessing you and abandoning you in turn is a myth. Writing begets more writing. Reading begets writing. Write on a regular basis (whether that’s every day or a few times a week) and you will almost always be able to write something. Major life events do mess up your access to your writing brain, but be patient, it will pass. If grad school taught me one thing, it’s that I can sit down and write a decent poem draft in two hours given enough caffeine and pressure when I’m “in shape,” that is, writing regularly.

Not in shape? Start slow. Do low-stakes writing, like keeping a journal. Do writing exercises. Work your way up to a short story, essay, poem, or—lord help you—a book. Write a blog or a letter to a friend. During my last move I made up soap opera versions of my daily life to regale a friend. Moving was stressful, and that was all the writing I did on those days. But it was funny and creative. It was better than nothing.

How do you keep writing?