Make Peace with Holiday Writing Progress

sun tree“Christmas is the season for kindling
the fire of hospitality in the hall,
the genial flame of charity in the heart.”
~Washington Irving

I hope you are giving yourself a gift of time this year: time to spend with family and friends, time to sit and dream (i.e., pre-write & plan), time to be kind to yourself.

Perhaps you’ve been very motivated all year and focused on your writing projects. Now, it may be frustrating to feel you’re making little progress due to the “holiday dash.” Or, perhaps you’ve thrown yourself into the holiday celebrations BECAUSE you’ve made little progress this year. In either case, the following writing-related activities will keep your head in your project with a few snippets of time throughout the week. They are all related to pre-writing, which is an important stage in writing. If you can find time now to do a few of these, you’ll have that pattern established once the holidays end and your time frees up a bit.

1. Back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December and early January. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

2. Select 2 writing-related activities in lieu of adding word count. Items for this list might include:

  • reading (especially in the same genre as your project)
  • exploring publishers
  • finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter)
  • drafting a project summary or cover letter
  • making outline notes (or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle)

These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

The challenge of writing "on demand" pushes beyond the comfort zone.

3. Keep a notebook with you. Jot thoughts about your work-in-progress. (How do your characters celebrate the holidays? Which holidays occur during the course of your story?) While you’re in the holiday crowds (or at family gatherings), note mannerisms and oft repeated phrases. These could become character tags in your story, or provide a detail to make a character come alive. Note memories triggered during holiday activities. Then, journal about them.

4. Journal. If you don’t normally journal, now is a great time to begin. Journaling is a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if it’s only a few paragraphs or a summary of your busy days. (These details can come in handy when you return to your regularly scheduled writing routine.) Journaling can also help clear your mind and allow you to focus on tackling the holiday to-do list.

Think of the above as similar to working out. It’s much easier to get back into full swing after the holidays when you’ve kept the writing muscles warmed up with writing-related activities.

WhitePineSeason’s Greetings, and happy writing!

This is my wish for you:
peace of mind, prosperity through the year,
happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours,
fun around every corner, energy to chase
your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!
~D.M. Dellinger

Advertisements

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.

Proud to Read Banned Books

bannedbooksI’m climbing onto the soapbox for my annual speech about banned books. We all have the right to our opinions, and for most of the countries in the world, this includes voicing these opinions. If we can write and talk about our views, why should we not be allowed to make our own decisions regarding the stories we choose to read? This is why I “celebrate the freedom to read” every year. Besides, as a published author I’m against censorship. (Though, sadly, as a teacher I must at times “censor” excerpts read aloud in class due to the topics; after all, I feel it appropriate to consider the sensibilities of the other students, but this is the topic for another time.)

40bannedbooksWhat irks me the most about the lists of “censored” books (which include both those books challenged and those that are banned and removed from library shelves), is the reasoning behind the “complaints.” I often wonder whether the books have been fully read by the person complaining. When I worked at a library years ago, I was also baffled by written complaints from parents about a book. Clearly, they did not want their child(ren) to read these books and that is perfectly acceptable (see my first few sentences above); however, to make this “decision” for every other reader is the issue I have with such challenges. Perhaps I’m “offended” by the saccharine and shallow reading material you choose. But I don’t restrict you from reading it. See, this is the central point of the freedom to read–choosing your books.

Here are just some of the “reasons” behind books being challenged: “offensive language” (according to whom?); “sexually explicit” and includes “homosexuality”; “violence” (do you watch much TV?); “unsuited to age group.” This year, graphic novels top the list for children’s books included. In fact, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for challenged do to “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Do you realize how many families enjoyed this movie (which followed the book’s plot line very well) and had discussions about the heroes-readissues raised in the story? For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, the reasons include: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. If you’ve read this book, you know Alexie is Native American and the book is about living on Rez. Is someone offended by the portrayal of whites in this book or of Native Americans? If it’s the latter, then the book needs to be read not censored. The main character is trying to break the cycle of poverty of his family. Incidentally, many of the children’s books that make the list include “unsuited to age group.” Hello? These children’s titles are juvenile literature published by the children’s division of a major publishing house and I’m supposed to believe that those editors and publishers don’t know the target audience?

The first time I reviewed the list of banned and challenged books from the past, I was shocked to see so many books I loved, some that I’ve only read because they were required reading in literature classes. Many have changed my views on life because I read them. Here are a few I read in school (and am rereading while tutoring high school students): The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925); The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and so many more.

As an author, my mind whirls through potential story ideas based on how my life might be different if I had never been exposed to literature deemed “harmful” by some other reader. Even this finds it way into my writing, in a world I’m creating where Kaeylene lives in a time in her world when some others decided the who and what of daily life for all (and of course, she fights against this “norm”). Thankfully, it’s only a fantasy and I travel there to continue writing it on my terms.

Listening In for Motivation

As a writer, incorporating sensory description is important to me. I’m partial to those frequently overlooked senses: hearing, smell, and taste. I seem to zero-in on sounds and scents. I wake every morning joyful to hear birds singing outside. Now that it’s cooler, I love opening the windows to deeply inhale fresh, clean, jasmine- and hibiscus-scented air.

I like to listen and note the sounds I hear so I can later incorporate them into my writing. Lately, however, settling down enough to write is a challenge.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes I feel I would rather curl up in a good book and escape, but the To-Do list is heaping with extra tasks. Recently I decided to tackle some of the more mundane tasks (like sorting, clearing, cleaning) while listening to an old “book on tape” (which was actually an MP3).

It was a delightful experience that reminded me of elementary school when my teachers spent part of (almost) every afternoon reading a chapter or two in a novel. I even recall a few middle school teachers doing this on occasion. Back then, I enjoyed the “down time” as we were allowed to just listen and enjoy the story unfold. I recall thinking about the story later that day and sometimes even telling my younger sister about it.

Today, I enjoyed the time spent cleaning and thought about the story long after the tape concluded. I wanted more! It was a pleasant way to multitask and if I couldn’t stop the squirrels scampering through my head long enough to sit and read a book, then recorded books were a great option.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Then it hit me. The iPod icon on my iPad! I have rarely used it but now I opened it to discover I’d subscribed to several when I purchased my iPad, but I’d never listened. I went in search of short stories and writing-related options. Now, every afternoon I listen to someone read to me or interview a writer while I get tasks checked off my To-Do list. I feel more energized and settled — just as I do when I have a chance to read a good book — but I’m also trimming away that mile-long task list. And, in anticipation of the upcoming holidays, I’m looking for a few holiday stories I can listen to.

Here are a few of the “regular” podcasts I’ve been listening to:

EscapePod — new science fiction story each week
Clarkesworld — weekly science fiction story from the magazine. (To listen online, click a story title then “audio version” if that link appears.)
Fiction by The New Yorker — monthly story
Odyssey Writer’s Workshop — audio excerpts from workshop presentations at the annual Odyssey conference/workshop for fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers.

Look for them in your app/iTunes store or follow the website links to listen online. (Obviously I like science fiction.) Don’t forget the voice feature on many ebook readers either. Take the time to listen in and get motivated.