7 Tips for Flourishing as a Writer

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The old year should never be tossed on the compost heap without first picking the meat and marrow from its bones. Here’s a compilation of the choice morsels of wisdom gleaned from my writing life in 2018. This is the first in a new series, Self-Care for Writers.

Creativity flourishes in community.

My mantra for the year was Vivat, Crescat, Floreat, a Latin phrase that means Live, grow, and flourish. These words truly shaped my year. In fact, if I had to sum up 2018 in one word, I would pick flourishing. I attribute this sense of thriving to a new group of friends I made in the Sunshine Coast Writers’ Roundtable, an initiative I launched in December 2017. Twelve months on, the group has grown and flourished.

As a card-carrying introvert, I am surprised at how much joy and vitality I derived from the weekly Monday morning breakfast gathering with these lovely writers. We kept each other accountable to our goals, and we cheered for successes:

  • Starting new projects (Pavla, Sarah, all of us, really!)
  • Finishing old ones
  • Completing mentorships (Ali and Kellie)
  • Finishing chemo!
  • Gorgeous new websites and fascinating blogs (Michel, Sarah, Dhana, Marg)
  • Requests from agents and publishers (Ali)
  • Publication in an anthology (Marg Gibbs)
  • Competition successes (Dhana Fox)
  • Signing multiple publishing contracts (Kellie Byrnes)
  • Launching first books: Rebecca Lennard‘s Ronah and Kellie Byrnes‘s Cloud Conductor, shown here. Congrats, ladies!

We commiserated over rejections, disappointments, and publishing injustices and absurdities. We ranted and raged, laughed, consoled, and strategised, all while ‘procaffeinating’ and eating really well! We even wrote together. The proof is there in the pictures below. Never mind that it was the final meeting of the year.

Writing can be—and sometimes needs to be—a lonely affair, but connecting with other creatives is revitalising. Doing so pulls me out of the cramped attic of my mind and makes me use different muscles: listening muscles, laughing muscles, and empathy muscles.

I discovered the buzz of forging genuine networks based on mutual interests and aspirations. Not gimmicks, agendas or marketing. Ew, Ugh, and No thanks. I may not have landed a contract in 2018, but I have landed several contacts for my friends, colleagues, and myself.

I started 2018 with the goal of building creative community in my new hometown. I’m very pleased to report back that I can tick that goal off the list, and I’m richer for it!

Mind the machine.

Writing is far more physically demanding than I ever realised. When I don’t mind the machine—my body——I regret it. In June, I rewrote an entire 60,000-word manuscript over four weeks, working up to eleven hours a day. In July, my kinks and cricks joined forces and revolted against the tyranny of my timetable. Fortunately, the crippling pain only lasted a couple of days.

I discovered three helpful strategies for writers to stay healthy and mobile.

  • Regular yoga practice de-kinks the shoulders, relieves sore wrists/elbows, and releases the hammies.
  • The use of a sit-stand desk is helpful for back, neck, wrists and elbows. Make it better by wearing supportive shoes, e.g., Birkenstocks, correctly positioning the height of the screen, and swapping hands for controlling the mouse or trackpad.
  • In the event of a back-pain emergency, a reputable Bowen therapist or acupuncturist can conjure up some relief. I’m lucky enough to be married to the latter, but OMG Bowen Therapy is amazing… Don’t tell him I said that.

‘Procrastiplanning’ is a thing.

Brainstorming book ideas is to writing what playing the field is to dating: high on fun, low on commitment. But this strategy can gradually turn into a shallow, unfulfilling flourishing writerlifestyle if you let it. While generating ideas and amassing reams of notes is a buzz, it’s important to remember the real learning and growth come from writing—and especially from finishing a project.

I have arrived at the end of the year with one polished project, another that’s on its fourth draft, and five intriguing, thoroughly planned ideas plus a few finished short texts. I spent a lot of time not choosing a new project. Do I suffer from full-blown commitment aversion or something else?

I know how long one project can take. I’ve spent four years on one manuscript, rewriting and fine-tuning, querying and pitching, and it hasn’t found the right home yet. Given the timeframe, it’s only natural to be hesitant about committing to a new project.

I’m recalibrating my strategies to ensure all my brainstorming isn’t actually procrastiplanning. I drill myself: Is this productive work? Or am I engaging in unhealthy avoidance? What am I afraid of? Journalling helps me dig deep into my motives.

Time management isn’t one size fits all.

It’s tempting to think your day job steals all your time and throws up an abundance of distractions that prevent you from writing or succeeding. After a year of not having to balance employment and writing, I can say this: Your job is not the problem. Your partner/in-laws/needy dogs/nosey neighbours/sprawling cats are not the problem (*although I concede that kids, especially infants and toddlers, do pose significant and sincere challenges to the writing life. My unfettered admiration goes out to wordsmithing parents of these wee delights.)

The problem is bigger and sketchier than anything corporeal or material, and it hangs around even if you don’t have a nine-to-five job. The problem goes my many names, including fear, self-doubt and Resistance. See Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

More time and fewer distractions do not automatically equate to better writing or even to greater productivity. Busy people can find the time to write if it’s important enough. I wrote my first three novels while working 30 hours a week and volunteering intensively.

However, in my first year of full-time writing, my output increased only marginally despite having twice as much time to write. I’ve had to acquire a new set of time management skills to match my new lifestyle. My problem isn’t motivating myself to work; it’s stopping! I find it tricky to shift gears from deep-focus creating to surface-world relating . If I don’t control my deep focus superpower, my relationships suffer. And my body protests (see above).

Time management has its limits. Personal discipline gets you part way. But the thing that really marshals my meandering mind is a looming deadline. It forces me to work efficiently. I can’t afford to endlessly tinker and fine-tune. The real key for me then is to find or create meaningful deadlines. If I don’t have a real (read: external) deadline, I use competitions, applications, events and holidays.

Writing is an expensive lover and a cheapskate boss.

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I know this isn’t how it plays out for every writer, but it’s definitely the title of the script I’ve been handed. The reality of this state of affairs is felt more acutely now that writing is my sole source of “income”, a term I use loosely because it’s beginning to take on mythic overtones.

The emerging stage of a writer’s career (l-o-n-g in my case) can be fraught with expenses—writing courses and conferences, books, pitch opportunities, editing, blogging costs, software, books, professional associations, industry publications. Did I mention books? I’ve considered these things necessary and part of my writing apprenticeship, but now I wonder. I have seen numerous publishing professionals say, “Breaking into writing needn’t be expensive.” I used to scoff; now I pause.

In the past, I joked that my job funded my “writing habit” even though I was deadly serious about building a writing career. I still am; it’s just without outside income I have to be extra choosy about where and how I invest in my writing. It’s ironic. Now I have the time and freedom to attend courses and conferences and all the writerly things, but I can’t. Or rather, won’t, because it would be irresponsible. And I now question the necessity of it all.

Here are my hard-won tips on getting bang for your bucks as a writer:

  1. Put your money into mentoring, manuscript assessments, and editing. The most valuable writing lessons over the years have come from feedback from mentors, editors, and publishing professionals. Hiring an editor isn’t cheap, but it’s tailored to you and the process does double duty: it prepares your manuscript for submission and it exposes the flaws, quirks, and bad habits in your writing so you can improve. The markup and notes are rich with nutrients, like MiracleGro® for your writing. Two caveats: be sure to hire a reputable editor. Look for testimonials, credentials, and industry connections. Secondly, research the kinds of editing. You want more than a proofread and tidy. Don’t miss the opportunity to delve into structure and mechanics.
  2. For networking, join or set up a local or online writers’ group. Look for one that caters to your level and aspirations. The most valuable “networking” I’ve done is in writing groups like the Sunshine Coast Writers’ Roundtable (above) and Write Links. Both are low cost, mingle-free, and you do more than swap business cards; you build deep relationships and you learn from one another. Conferences are fun and useful for hobnobbing and networking, but they are super expensive and exhausting for introverts.
  3. As for hobnobbing with the pros, it’s hard to beat the Manuscript Academy, which lets you buy a Skype session with the US agent/editor of your choice. Be warned if you live outside of the US: the exchange rate pushes it into the expensive range. I reckon it’s still bang for your buck though.

My 2019 micro goals include finding and holding onto more reliable paid writing gigs and income-generating projects to fund manuscript assessments with editors and Skype sessions with agents—and to pay for the desperately needed research trip in the UK. Of course, the top goal remains to build a writing career, getting my books published and out in the world and generating a steady income.

I met a few writers this year whose writing careers are following a very different script. They don’t spend a cent on their writing—not on courses, not on memberships, nor on editor appointments, competitions, conferences … nothing. Nada. They don’t even have writer-buddies (not that they cost anything…) And yet, they whip out publishing contracts and can point to books on shelves and brag about others in the pipeline—all the trappings of a capital-c Career and a real (not mythic) income. Whether it’s enough to live on I couldn’t say. I was gobsmacked. Who were these weirdos, these anomalies of the writing life? They’re men.

Own the process, at least the parts I can control…

…and let go of the rest.

flourishing writer 6Hard work, perseverance, dedication to craft, and thick skin will not guarantee success in this industry. Like it or not, luck, timing, chance encounters, the position of the stars, Wall Street, Krakatoa, and other variables play a huge part. Knotting the knickers over the uncontrollable factors is pointless.

Instead, I’ve determined to be excellent at the things I can control:

  • My knowledge, skills, and growth as a creator
  • The vibrancy of my curiosity and sense of wonder
  • The quantity and quality of the writing hours I put in each week
  • What media I choose to consume
  • How thoroughly I research the market
  • How I treat others in the writing community
  • The care of my body, my spirit, and my relationships

Though I’d like to, I cannot speed up the publishing industry, which is famously glacial. Radio silence (i.e., no response from agents and publishers) is frustrating, and yeah, it’s not completely acceptable, but it is highly likely. Rejections are unavoidable. Some ideas are ahead of (or behind) their time. Despite talk of equity and diversity, bias and inequality still exist in the publishing industry. These are all realities of the writing life. We can accept them and persevere nonetheless, or we can let them embitter and immobilise us.

I found myself ranting quite a bit this year, over what I won’t say here because I need to knock it off. (See the end of the previous section and you’ll get the picture). From now on, I’ll sublimate such disillusionment into tension for my stories, and I’ll continue striving for excellent process and mastery of the things I can control.

Lastly, my seventh and final tip for flourishing as a writer…

Comparison is a no-no.

“Keep your eyes on your own yoga mat.”

–Barb, my yoga instructor

flourishing writer 3The other key to survival in this industry is to avoid comparison. In a yoga class, if you sneak a peek at what your classmates’ practice looks like, you risk injuring your neck or discouraging yourself or both.

It’s the same in writing. Pathways to publication are as individual as body shape. Some yogis have extra long arms that facilitate reaching the floor while others have super loosey-goosey hips that allow for deep bending. Similarly, some writers excel at generating mega- commercial concepts while others excel at beautiful prose; both are awesome talents, but one might get published more quickly than the other depending on God-knows-what.

Don’t compare. Keep your eyes on your own yoga mat. No rubber-necking. Save yourself the pain of discouragement by trusting your passion, your story, your journey.

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So there you have have it: the bones of the old year picked clean. Another year older, another year wiser.

Over to You

If flourishing was my word for 2018, I’m curious to know what word you’d pick for yourself. Do you have a wise take-away for the year? Leave a comment so I can glean from your wisdom. Wishing you a year of living, growing, and flourishing in 2019.

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Image Credits

Header: Photo by Shelby Miller on Unsplash

Roundtable Shots: Ali Stegert

Good enough?: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Hourglass: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

Happy New Year: Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Piggy bank: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Breathe: Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Yoga: Photo by Jennifer Regnier on Unsplash

Comparison: Photo by Dietmar Becker on Unsplash

Love: Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

How to Get Your First Draft Done

First drafts.  Love them or hate them, we all have to do them. These two tips may help you get yours done.

Haters Gonna Hate

Plenty of writers find first drafts a huge chore. Joyce Carol Oates, quoted below, seems to fall into the hater category.

Joyce Carol Oates Quote

Quote created with Quozio.com

No doubt about it, first drafts are hard work. Forming something out of nothing is always going to strain the brain. Even God needed a day of rest after a bout of creativity, right?

Experience First (Draft) Love

Other writers find the process energising. I happen to fall into that category. Getting lost in my imagination is such a buzz. I can “see” the new story unfold in my head, and it’s as if I’m in a cinema, watching the action. Except, in this case, I’m not a passive viewer. I supply the choices and make the decisions. Maybe it’s more like playing a video game.

I have moments of familiarity with the JCO’s peanut analogy, but over all, writing a first draft for me is good fun.

Loving the process helps get it done, but even first-draft haters can streamline and smooth the process. Here are a couple of ideas to try out on your next first draft.

Plotters, Pantsers & Somewhere In Between

The terms plotters and pantsers refer to two styles of writing attack. Pantsers (who write by the seat of the pants) “make up” their story as they go along. For them, the first draft is both a step of faith and a feeling of the way in the dark. Plotters, on the other hand, figure it all out before they begin. Their imaginings are shaped and formed into an outline with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I can’t help wonder if the first-draft haters are pantsers or plotters. Maybe pantsers find first drafts hard because their free-range characters are calling the shots and running amok. On the other hand, plotters might find a first draft about as invigorating as filling in an endless bureaucratic form.

As for me, I’ve decided to call myself a plotting pantser (or a pantsing plotter. I’m not sure which.) I spend ages doing research, writing backstory, and forming an in-depth outline. When I finally begin writing, I use the outline as a guide, but I don’t let it thwart my characters’ intentions. If I suddenly find my characters veering out of the outline’s parameters, I write on and see what happens. The results are usually interesting but not always fruitful.

My outline and first draft are pliable matter, not rigid objects. Shannon Hale’s quote sums it up perfectly.

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Quote created on Quozio.com

A pile of sand, so malleable, so impermanent–so full of potential–is a wonderful analogy for a first draft. Shovelling sand–building that first draft–is about discovering the lay of the land, patting down the rough patches, and setting the foundations.

So, my first tip for learning to enjoy first drafts is to be playful (think sandbox) and see it as experimental. It is a chance to discover your story’s bones. If you’re a pantser, try some plotting: Lay out the major turning points and pinpoint where you’re heading. If you’re a diehard plotter, fasten your britches and see what happens for a few scenes.

Beginning with the Ending

Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost,” and while that’s true, it makes a useless maxim for a writer who’s trying to complete a first draft. Wandering may have some use in generic creativity, but it won’t get a draft done. At least not without a full surround sound and vivid Technicolour experience of the peanut + dirty floor + nose scenario above.

A destination fixes the problem of aimless wandering. To put it simply, know the end. If you can’t imagine anything, at least have that mind-blowing last scene clear and bright in your mind.

Learning from the Masters

I read a book in 2014 that rocked my writer’s brain. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving was so wondrous that I was winded. Seriously, my mojo hid out in a dark cave in the high country and whimpered and licked its wounds for a month. I was left with one resounding question: “How did Irving do it?”

I found my answer on a podcast that featured John Irving. It turns out he starts at the end. Yep. It’s that simple. John Irving wrote the end first and moved on from there.

The miracle of Owen Meany didn’t just “happen.” The abracadabra and poof of smoke came about by starting with the last scene. He discovered everything that his protagonist needed to learn through the rest of the (epic) story. The book’s power came from the pervasive sense of doom and the miraculous, both of which were foreshadowed in the opening lines, developed through the middle, and culminated in the unforgettable ending.

My second tip for learning to enjoy first drafts is to begin at the end. Not only will it give your story momentum and direction, but it will also inform the whole process, leading your imagination to create learning experiences for your characters.

These tips won’t change the fact that first drafts are hard work, but they may motivate the writer through the toil. All the best with your finishing your draft. Feel free to share your tips in the comments.

Check out this post by Christopher Makar for some more handy-dandy tips.

Does the iPad Cut It as a Writer’s Tool?

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iPads are portable and convenient and powerful enough for simple computing and gaming, but can they cope with the demands of a serious writer? Or would a writer be better off investing in a laptop or desktop?

It depends on the writer, of course. As an emerging writer, I rely almost solely on my iPad. I have a $20 Bluetooth keypad that snaps onto my tablet, because if I had to rely on the screen keypad, it just wouldn’t work for me. The silly native keypad slows me down and gobbles up half the screen space.

So what writing can I do with my iPad?

With my cheap keypad and the apps listed below, I’ve written one novel and mapped another, concocted umpteen short stories, and spun off hundreds of blog posts on my iPad. Here’s a list of web tools and apps that help me..

…Write content

While Pages, the Apple word processing app, is good, I prefer to write my drafts with the PlainText app because the documents are instantly synced my Dropbox folder. No worries about losing something! The formatting is pretty basic, but I know I can pretty up things later with other software.

…Blog

I write posts, edit them, upload them, and track my blogs on my iPad. I use the WordPress app for tracking my stats and managing comments, but I prefer the Blogsy app for writing, formatting, and uploading. Its interface is super easy, especially when adding images, and the customer service is outstanding.

…Plan & Outline

Idea Sketch is a mindmapping tool that helps me conceptualise an article or outline a story. I’ve found Pinterest to be fantastic for the early stages of planning a novel. I collect period costumes, scenery, historical information, and more to feed my imagination. I created a companion board for a completed novel that shows all of the places and foods mentioned in my YA travel adventure novel.


…Research

The ease of surfing the web is one of the iPad’s strengths, but keeping track of all that glorious info is the trick. For basic research, I use the Wikipanion app to access and store wikis. More in-depth searches are stored in SpringPad, which I love for organising notes, links, photos and more. I have individual notebooks for competitions, freelance opportunities, writing tips, and individual writing projects.

…Enter Competitions

PDF Entry forms can be filled in, signed (with a stylus) and emailed off from the GoodReader app. Very professional and convenient! No more wasted paper, SAS envelopes, stamps and time. (The Pages app can convert documents to Word or PDF when submitting, but remember that formatting can go wonky in the process. Send yourself an email first to check it.)

…Edit

Grammarly is a web tool that allows writers to give their work the once over, checking it for grammar, spelling, punctuation and plagiarism. There’s an annual subscription, but it’s money well spent. I use the CloudOn app to work on Microsoft Word documents. It’s can be a little clunky, but it’s great to be able to make changes to a Word document using Word software. Documents are synced to a file in Dropbox.

…Track Submissions

StoryTracker helps writers keep a record of what story has been sent where and when. You can even keep a record of earnings and total word counts. It becomes a database of editors’ contact details. Just make sure you back it up regularly! (I learned the hard way.)

So what CAN’T I do on my iPad as a writer?

Advanced Editing of Word Documents

Tracking changes to Word documents by various editors is not possible. For example, when I was revising a manuscript with my agent, I had to revert to a laptop to get the best possible view of her suggestions. I could see the changes, but it wasn’t always clear who made it and why.

Printing

Printing from an iPad is still a bit cumbersome, but there are ways to get around this (and the ways become second-nature.) The iPad has trained me out of my paper dependency. Printing is simply something I do less and less of.

Scrivener

Scrivener is super-sexy software for writers. Sadly, it is not available for iPad–yet.

All in all…

An iPad is definitely adequate for most writer’s tasks. With a decent bluetooth keypad, a writer can accomplish almost everything on her ‘to be written list.” Access to a laptop or desktop will probably be necessary at the advanced editing stage and makes it easier to ensure the formatting is up to scratch.

My advice? Get the iPad now and keep your clunky old laptop for the tidy-ups and printing. Set yourself a goal: Upgrade to a slick new MacBook when you make the first significant sale of your writing.

Check out this article in the series iPads for Serious writers. Pimp My iPad – Writers’ Accessories – 5 Pimpin’ Keypads

How to Torture a Writer in One Easy Step

Easy: ask for a 500-word synopsis of their 100,000-word opus magnus.

Synopsis writing is sheer torture. It beggars the mind. It hobbles the spirit. It cramps the style.

Seriously, writing synopses is hard word. Paring down all that work, with all the well-planned detail, the clever nuances, and the deft sleight of hand, is nearly impossible. It actually makes my brain hurt. It’s exhausting and emotionally taxing and makes me hanker for a nana nap.

The good news–and the reason for this post–is I’ve found a brilliant shortcut. Now, stop–hold your horses. I can hear you writers scoffing and puffing and muttering how there is no shortcut, damn it. I beg to differ.

Today I came across a blog called Let the Words Flow. One of the bloggers posted a fantastic article that offers not only some handy how-tos, it offers a worksheet. If you answer the questions and fill in the worksheet with well-crafted sentences, more than half the work of compiling a synopsis is done.

I know, I know. It sounds too good to be true. The author actually goes so far as to suggest that we writers merely add some connecting words–meanwhile, back at the farm, under the cloak of darkness, et cetera–and voila! One synopsis at your service.

Before you knock it, you should try it. I did, and I liked it! It actually worked. Writing my synopsis took under 3 hours, and normally I’d be at eye-gouging stage after 6 hours, with only half the thing done.

Here’s the link. The creator’s name is Susan Dennard, and she has a new book coming out in July. I liked her worksheet so much, I adapted it and made a template for future reference.