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Sage Cohen Uses Both Sides of Her Brain: So Can You

In Business of Writing, Craft, Interviews, Profiles on January 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

 Sage Cohen first slipped quietly onto my radar via Christina Katz, (whom many of you know as Writer Mama). I quickly friended Sage on Facebook and watched in awe at her productivity and grace, all the while becoming a new mother. She continues to inspire me with the publication of her third book: The Productive Writer, which speaks to both the artist and the business person in every writer. Join me for a Q and A with her now about learning to place as much importance on process vs. results, using both sides of your brain, structuring your time wisely, and much more.

JR: What inspired you to write/create The Productive Writer?

 SC: My first book, Writing the Life Poetic, was published by Writer’s Digest Books. When I learned that another editor at WDB wanted to publish a book focused on organization for writers, I pitched it and they bought it. As we got under way, the topic fanned out a bit and morphed from “organization” to “productivity.” It’s been a really fun and relevant topic for me, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share my ideas with readers.

JR: One of the things I love best about your book is that it couples strong work ethics with what you might call more “artist-friendly” concepts like building a writer’s “blueprint” and “embracing fear.”  How does this blend of right and left brain help writers be more productive?

SC: In my experience, the best strategies and tools are not effective when layered on top of the shaky foundation of bad habits and attitudes. So, my goal is to help people create the writing lives they want by first understanding who they are, how they think and work and vision and plan best, and then engaging these strengths to get the results they want.

 I invite readers to answer questions such as: What motivates me? What do I most want to accomplish? How much time do I have and how do I intend to use it? What do I want to produce? How do I define productivity in my writing life? What did I just do that worked, and what strategies do I want to reinvent?

 Once the reader has a clear picture of her own writing goals and work style, she can choose and use the tools and techniques that are best suited to her. I also offer a range of strategies for identifying and managing resistance along the way—such that even procrastination and fear can be channeled productively.

 JR: In Chapter 16 you discuss the importance of not always relying on external validation. What are some first steps a writer can take to start validating herself even in the face of rejection or not yet achieving publishing goals?

 SC: I think the absolute most important thing is to stay focused on and committed to your love for your work. If you’re writing because you have to—because you’re called to—then what So-And-So thinks about your final product is going to be far less relevant than that YES feeling you get when you’re engaged with your craft. This clarity of commitment is a safe harbor a writer can always return to.

 The other choice a writer can make again and again throughout his career is to focus on and appreciate her process, rather than her results. For instance, if I’m striving to have poems published in a certain publication, when I drop that envelope in the mail, I celebrate the fact that I got three poems written and polished, sealed, and sent according to specs and in time for the deadline. In short, I appreciate myself for doing everything I could to move toward that goal. The rest is out of my hands.

 Along these lines of process (versus results) thinking, I look at every rejection not as an end point of failure but an opportunity to try something new that might work better. And I invite readers to do the same, because there’s always a seed of opportunity in every so-called “failure.” In chapter 20, I share “My Writing Success Log” that’s designed to help writers track what’s working, what could work better, and what they intend for the future. Having a written record of your determination to succeed is a powerful way to stay motivated and grateful for all of your hard work.

 JR: You say in Ch. 6 “Consciousness is the first step toward change.” Tell us how this applies to writing.

 When we know what we’re doing well––or poorly––we then have an opportunity to either repeat what’s working or start experimenting with alternatives to attitudes or behaviors that are not accomplishing what we had hoped.

 For example, let’s say a writer starts using the daily time log that I recommend for a few weeks. He discovers that it typically takes him about an hour to write 1,000 words of rough-draft fiction. He sees also that he spends at least three hours a week on Facebook. He is surprised to see both how much time he was wasting online and how quickly he was able to get words down on the page. He decides to cut his time online down to one hour/week and commit to writing 2,000 more words every week. He continues to track his time and his results, fine-tuning his process and goals from there. 

 JR: I think your publishing story is a very inspiring one, as you are a poet first, and it might not seem intuitive that you would go on to publish writing books…was it a surprise to you as well?

 SC: You bring up a very interesting issue of identity here. It is true that I have identified as a poet first and foremost, and then as a writer of other genres later. Yet, fiction and essays, strategic content and thesis-driven papers have all shaped who I am as a writer. My major in college was comparative literature, and I have been writing marketing communications and advertising content professionally my entire adult life. 

In a way, the unfolding of each of my identities as a writer has been surprising––because writing has always been so intimately entwined with whom I am. Realizing that I was “a poet” in my early 20’s nearly knocked me off of my chair. And each succeeding revelation about the various writing realms I have named and claimed has been equally stunning.

I always expected that I would write books, but didn’t have a clear picture of the trajectory for doing so. In the movie The Secret, Jack Canfield explains that he drove in the dark all the way from California to New York, seeing with his headlights only 200 feet ahead of him at a time. This is how it was for me in arriving at the doorstep of authoring books. I got clear about my destination, took small and consistent steps in that direction, and was surprised to find myself clear across the country in no time at all.

 JR: Tell us something that you learned in the writing of this book that was unexpected…or anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t asked.

 SC: I learned that it isn’t necessarily any easier to write a second book than it is to write the first! For me, it was like first training a Labrador retriever and thinking, “I have the hang of this master-of-the-pack attitude.” Then you get a German shepherd puppy, and you find that none of your training accomplishments translate to this new relationship. Instead, you have to start at ground zero to adapt yourself to this dog’s herding instincts, hair-trigger fear of just about everything and hard-coding to chase cats and squirrels. I was reminded that in any writing project, we are always a beginner finding our way in new terrain, no matter how many days or years or decades we have been sitting down to the blank page.

 ***

About Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of The Productive Writer (just released from Writer’s Digest Books); Writing the Life Poetic and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs about all that is possible in the writing life at pathofpossibility.com, where you can: Download a FREE “Productivity Power Tools” workbook companion to The Productive Writer. Get the FREE, 10-week email series, “10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity” when you sign up to receive email updates. Sign up for the FREE, Writing the Life Poetic e-zine. Plus, check out the events page for the latest free teleclasses, scholarships and more.

Ignore the “don’ts” and “can’ts”

In Business of Writing, Craft, General, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on June 22, 2010 at 9:29 pm

When I was still pregnant with my now two-year-old son, Writer’s Digest (my publisher of Make a Scene) interviewed me at their website. And while I don’t normally make a habit of quoting myself, I have to say: I have some really good advice, that the me-of-now nodded along to. My life has changed so dramatically since my son’s birth, but pretty much everything I said here, rings true:

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

In short, “be persistent,” which actually means to me: FIRST worry about the writing (and explore it, delve into it, try a lot of things on and get excellent feedback). Work with great passion and be committed to gaining a thorough understanding of your particular form (or forms). THEN, be persistent in the face of rejection and adversity and trust the impulse that led you to create.

But, what has equally contributed to my success is a determined effort to block out all the negative noise and discouragement that abounds on the road to publication. I am a life-long practitioner of leaping first and looking later. I highly doubt I would have ever published a book if I had, for instance, paid attention to the statistics about how many writers are seeking publication (a mind-numbing number), or pursued my MFA because I thought it would make me great contacts. I have always pressed ahead towards what I was compelled to write, and only then has success followed.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

The writing should be your priority. Make the writing as good as it can be before you dip your toes in the whirlpool of publishing. Don’t take your tender, barely finished manuscript to a conference (or send a first draft of anything anywhere!) and let yourself get discouraged or beat up by the first (or sixth) word of rejection. Don’t get sucked into the lust for publication before you’ve given everything to the work. Because you might just need another draft—but rejection could make you believe you should give up right then. (Do, however, seek critical feedback when you’re ready).

For example, a client of mine attended a conference where she was able to pitch many agents at once. They all asked for samples. Problem was, her pitch was better than her manuscript because she’d only written a first draft! The rejections that followed caused her great despair until she realized she’d just done things out of order.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

I think the biggest mistake that anyone in any of these categories can make is what I’ve just said above, to throw yourself to the wolves unprepared, and to assume that there is any such thing as an “overnight success.” Successful freelancers train ourselves to thoroughly study the publications we’re pitching before we spend that valuable time writing a pitch, and sometimes we even have to do extensive research before we have an assignment! Non-fiction book authors survey the marketplace to be sure that the book they want to write hasn’t already been done a thousand times, before they  build a gorgeous, winning book proposal. And successful fiction writers understand the demands of the form—they get very good at it, they practice and read and get feedback and read a whole lot more. Most importantly in all of these categories, successful writers succeed because they commit to learning the highest standards of the form and then applying themselves to it.

I’m often amazed how little research a new writer puts into finding out how the industry works. There is nothing you can’t find with a simple internet search. New writers need to empower themselves to get informed.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

Other writers, both as friends and critique partners, and for the books they write. I recommend this too, because it’s not wise to rely on our spouses or family members or non-writing friends (though sometimes any of those people might have a very savvy eye). As for other writers-as-authors, they teach me and entertain me. I read voraciously and widely (some might even say indiscriminately)and am always learning something about my own craft as I go.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Despite the fact that I left a “day job” more than three years ago to work for myself as a freelance writer, I still rise as early as possible and end up sitting at a desk most of the day. The desk just happens to be in my home, and nobody notices if I’m late, but for anyone who doubts my work ethic, I’m butt-in-chair all day every day.

I do a lot of editing (of others’ manuscripts) and article writing. But I learned a long time ago that if I want to write fiction, I must do it first before anything else. So I either start with fiction, or if I’m not writing fiction at the time, I make myself do a “journal dump”—to get all the myriad anxieties I normally carry with me off my mind—then move on to whichever project is highest on my priority list, and then the second highest (I tend to work on 2-3 projects at a time). I do have the luxury of taking breaks—to eat, visit with friends, etc—and yet I probably take fewer breaks as a self-employed person than I did when working in a workplace because my home office is an environment completely in my control (except for the neighbor’s propensity to play incredibly loud Opera).

Though all of this is about to change in some unimaginable way I’m sure, as I’m expecting my first child.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

Smaller advances, higher marketing budgets for authors, which might then make it possible for more really good books to be bought as well as properly marketed.

But what I hear from my clients is that they wish agents and editors were not so inundated so they could get feedback on why their work was rejected.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

In every way. I decided I was ready to freelance full time nearly 4 years ago, and started stockpiling my on-the-side freelance income until I had a six months “net.” Then I leapt, terrifying as that was. My most significant successes have all come about in that time—I’ve published two books, built a steady income writing articles and editing manuscripts, and been able to do more teaching. Since my book Make a Scene was published, I’ve had the opportunity to present at conferences and to various writing groups and have gained more clients. Quitting that last job was the best thing I ever did (though in all fairness, I am married to a man with a very stable job!)

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

It’s easy to assume that since an editor likes your work, they’re instantly your “friend.” It’s wise to treat these relationships as professional vs. friendly (which is not to say be mean or terse!) because your editor undoubtedly has many other clients and it’s to both your advantage to keep your contact as professional and to the point as possible.

On the other hand, I will say that when it’s clear an editor likes your work and is open to working with you further, try to maintain that relationship by pitching new ideas as frequently as the publication or publisher allows.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

Taking my writing seriously enough to make a career out of it. I’ve had many, many jobs that run the gamut from vitamin buyer to spa director, and every time I stifled the writer in me, I grew miserable (ask my husband). I learned quickly that you don’t have to quit a good job to write—there is absolutely enough time to do it if you make it a priority. You can’t be published if you don’t write.

Any final thoughts?

I’ve always been someone who ignored the “don’ts” and “can’ts” that are slung at you in this industry. This doesn’t come from some defiant streak in me, but from a place of deep curiosity. I have to find out for myself if I can or can’t. And in doing so, I’ve found out more times than not that don’t and can’t are expressions of other people’s fears or anxieties. If you think you can and you put your energy into doing whatever that is the right way (with enthusiasm and purpose), you most likely WILL.

The Myth of Overnight Success

In Business of Writing, Craft, General, Interviews, Profiles on April 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Every so often, a potential client comes my way for editing services. Or, I should say, for “Overnight Success” services. This person has read several bestselling books and has great ideas for their own Next Big Thing. This person writes a manuscript, which is in and of itself hard work admittedly, and runs it by me with the expectation that I will say: “It’s perfect. Just tweak a few sentences, and then go on little writer, become rich and famous.”

This person, when told that they have the requisite amount of work that anyone who has written a first draft does, inevitably gets angry with me. They have “bought” the myth perpetuated so easily by celebrities who churn out books and the illusion that the NYT bestsellers like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code foster, that all you need is a good idea and success will naturally follow.

I know a lot of published authors whose experiences run from tiny, small press situations where they had a difficult time selling 100 copies, to blammo bestselling authors who were taken by surprise when something they lovingly gave their soul to write caught fire in the collective unconscious and hit it big.

In every case, I can promise you, not a single one of them had “overnight success.” Most of the published authors I know didn’t even publish the first book they wrote. Some not even their fifth or six. They spent years grinding out words, running them through the cutting process of writer’s group critique, revised until their eyes bled, and then put equally as much work into the process of selling a book.

Coming soon to Make a Scene are stories of what it took writers to get published. You won’t want to miss these! And feel free to share your stories in the comments.

Writers’ Series on Time: Becky Levine

In Business of Writing, Craft, General, Interviews, Profiles, Musings, Writers on Time on March 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Welcome to my Writers’ Series on Time. At first this was going to be about time “management,” until I realized that managing time is like wrangling crocodiles while strapped with raw beef. The best we can do is manage ourselves. The writers, coaches and other professionals I’m bringing here to talk about the subject, will hopefully help you feel inspired and drive home my main point: Make time to write. Do it, no matter what. Somewhere, somehow.

We start out this fine Spring Monday with Becky Levine, author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide:

What concessions or shifts have you made (or do you make daily/weekly) in order to make time for your writing? How did this come into play when you wrote your book, The Writer’s Critique Group Survival Guide?

 BL: In the past, I was a writer with one story idea and no deadlines. Around the time I got the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, I suddenly had multiple ideas for fiction projects, including one picture book. So, I’m new to the juggling thing, but definitely trying to figure out how to make it work.

 My work “plan” is to put the first hour (at least) of my writing day into my fiction.  I realized that, unless I put the fiction first, it dropped off the bottom of the to-do list, untouched. On the other hand, if I spend that time on writing, all the other things still get taken care of…somehow! I’m not perfect at following this plan; on weeks where I have more available time, I’ll try and chunk by days—a day or two on marketing/ “life” stuff, and the rest of the week in longer hours of fiction. Basically, I try and look at my upcoming week and figure out how it’ll work best. Then I try and stick to that. 🙂

 Do you plan your time in any special way, with a special calendar or notepad or smartphone? Or do you just sort of attack the day?

 BL: I have to have a calendar.  I definitely use it when I start to get overwhelmed. When time starts slipping away and I don’t see myself making progress on my writing, then I get out the calendar and schedule that writing for about a week ahead, trying to get some on every day possible in that week. Then, of course, I have to remember to check the calendar in the morning—not really because I can’t remember what’s on it, but to remind me of this commitment that I’ve made—that I want to stick to.

 I did just get a Blackberry, and I love it for its portability. The only problem with it is that there is no great view of the whole month where you can see all the scheduled events. So, yes, I have a paper back-up that lets me see what’s coming all at once. Not an ideal situation, but it’s working for me right now.

 How good (or not) are you with deadlines? Are you a writer who loves the pressure, or prefers not to be fenced in?

 BL: I have a serious love-hate relationship with deadlines. When I know I need to get something done by a certain date, I do get it done. When I’m close to getting a few scenes written, knowing that I should get them to my critique group by a certain date really motivates me to get writing and put in extra hours. And when I have an “official” deadline, like the ones for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, my focus and organization definitely amp up. I make deadlines.

 In fact, with real deadlines, I’m usually early. This is the “hate” part. I never pulled an all-nighter in college, and I had every essay done a day or two early. I’m still the same way with projects someone is expecting from me. It’s not because I’m so good at this; it’s because I hate the adrenaline rush that comes with a tight deadline. I know people who thrive on this feeling, who almost wait for it to come so they’ve got the energy that comes along with it. Adrenaline just makes me queasy.

 What is your most effective strategy for getting writing done, even if you’re not “in the mood” or inspired?

 BL: If the words aren’t coming, if I’m staring at the page and fiddling around with Twitter or Facebook, I’ll open a new file and  just start throwing down ideas. If I’m writing a fiction scene, I try and really focus on what my characters want—it’s often because I don’t know their goals that I can’t get the scene going. If I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to look at my section heads, to rethink the overall organization of the chapter. I find that unless I have the “right” form or structure set up, I’m going to be in problem.

There’s something a few writers have started on Facebook to kick themselves in gear. Someone will announce that they’re writing for the next hour, or until they get some small piece of a project done, and they’ll invite anyone to join in, to identify themselves in the comments. Then an hour or so later, they’ll check in and report their progress. I’ve done this a couple of times, and it’s a bit like writing together at the coffeehouse—you’ve said out loud that you’re going to write, so…you write.

 So many people who want to write often use that phrase, “I wish I had more time.” What advice can you give these people?

 BL:  Writing takes time, and it takes more time to do well. We get very caught up in word count and page count, and sometimes there’s research and plotting and just thinking time that can’t be quantified. We all want to finish our books, we want to revise them and get them ready for submission, we want them published. Focusing on these goals, especially when we can only do so much about that “published” one, can drive us nuts. I realized at the end of last year that I wasn’t enjoying writing. I have loved writing—the act of writing—since I was twelve years old. If I lose that, well, then what’s the point? So I’m slowing myself down and letting myself relish the flow, or not-flow, of words—the process.

 Then again, if you catch me on a bad day, you’ll probably find me tearing out my hair about the years flying by and “success” being all-elusive! 🙂

 What is your top tip for “making time”?

 Schedule it. When you want to get something done, write it on the calendar. It raises your level of commitment, and takes away that overwhelmed feeling we get when we try to keep all our tasks organized in our brains. It also cuts down on that time we spend at the computer, fiddling or staring or doing online crossword puzzles!

 ***

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (Writer’s Digest, 2010). She has over ten years critiquing manuscripts for other writers, and almost fifteen years experience participating in her own critique group. Becky writes freelance articles about authors and writing, and she reviews books for children and teens. Becky also writes fiction; her current project is an historical young-adult novel set in 1913 Chicago. Learn more about Becky at her blog & website: www.beckylevine.com

Switching Seats on the Flying Teacups

In Business of Writing, Interviews, Profiles on March 2, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Wow, where have I been? Oh yeah…Editing your manuscripts. Revising a novel. Teaching classes. Writing the occasional article. Not to mention raising a nearly 21 month old boy. (And dealing with a mainline drain stoppage and hoping these El Nino rains don’t also lead to flooding)!

In other words I feel like I’ve been jumping from seat to seat in that dizzying ride at the carnival–the flying teacups. Some days I feel euphoric, high from the ride. Other days, I feel dazed and like I might just lose my lunch. Such is the life of a freelance editor/writer. Maybe such is the life of anyone in this “new economy” as it is irritatingly being called.

To help, however, I’ll be starting a new Writers’ Interview series then on what I am loosely, and hilariously calling, “Time Management.” I know, it should be more like: Time Wrangling or “The Illusion that I Have Any Control Over Time…”

Look for interviews with bestselling suspense novelist Robert Dugoni; Becky Levine, author of the Writer’s Critique Group Survival Guide; Writing coach Marla Beck…and more.

Mutual Respect between Editor and Writer: Maria Schneider.

In Business of Writing, Craft, Interviews, Profiles on January 27, 2010 at 7:58 pm

In this Writers on Revision series, we’ve heard a lot from the writers themselves this past couple weeks. Now, I bring you Maria Schneider, former Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Digest magazine, creator of www.EditorUnleashed.com, and current Lifestyles Digital Content Manager at the Cincinnati Enquirer.  For anyone who believes that a magazine editor is some kind of power tripper who just wants to shred your work, let Maria’s point of view forever change your attitude!!

From your perspective as an editor, what would be most useful for writers to understand about revision? (What would make your job easier?)

 That it’s almost always necessary and not a condemnation of you or your writing. For magazine writing in particular, every publication has its own house style rules and space constraints to consider. And getting the tone right for your intended audience is so important—it has to fit into the whole of the magazine.

 Where is the line between an editor revising a writer’s work and re-writing it. What should a writer expect in magazine writing?

 This really varies from editor to editor. But in general, I’d say that most magazine editors will ask for at least one rewrite and may ask for more specific detail, a stronger lead, or just an overall tightening of the piece. It’s true that some magazine editors will rewrite a piece to the point that it’s almost unrecognizable. As a writer, you should always ask to see any edits and have final approval of anything with your byline. It can be a tricky situation to confront an editor who’s rewritten your piece too zealously, but I would definitely recommend speaking up if the piece has your byline but no longer has your voice, or if there are factual errors. Otherwise, you’re better off letting it go—editing is just part of the process.

 Do you have any tips or approaches on how to make revision “easier”?

 Knowing the tone of the magazine you’re writing for is so important. If you read the publication and get a strong sense of its tone you’ll have a much easier time with revising the piece to make your editor happy. If your editor requests a revision, try to get her to be as specific as possible: If she’s asking for a new lead, would an anecdotal lead fit better? If she’s asking for the piece to be tightened, is there a specific section that she’d like to see cut back or sections that could be fleshed out with more detail? Editors are very busy people so you might have to reach out to get specific feedback on what she liked or didn’t like about your piece.

 In order to be published in magazines, what kind/how much revision can writers expect to do both before submitting ideas and after acceptance?

If you query with a story and the editor assigns you the piece, you’ve already won her over with your idea, your voice, and she already has confidence that you’ll be able to turn in a good piece. But don’t be surprised when you submit a story and are asked for substantial revisions. New writers often don’t realize that it’s just a part of the process of making a magazine—they tend to take it personally. You should expect to be asked for at least one revision, perhaps two, and if it’s still not quite right in the editor’s eyes after two revisions, most likely she’ll either reject the piece or have an in-house editor rewrite it. 

 What’s your own approach to revising your own writing?

 I tend to edit as I go. I really like to get the lead right before I dive into a piece, so that can take a lot of writing and rewriting time. So I’d say my typical process is editing in waves. It’s always useful, if you have the time, to finish a piece, and leave it for a day or two before you go back and try to revise it. And if you’re stuck, printing it out and reading it with fresh eyes and a pen is always helpful.

Ellen Meister: Bashing Through Revision

In Business of Writing, Craft, Interviews, Profiles on January 20, 2010 at 1:45 am

The title of this blog post is misleading, lest you think Ellen Meister, author of three novels, most recently The Smart One and the forthcoming, The Other Life, is anything other than elegant.

However, she’s got one of the wryest wits I know and it shows in everything she writes. (She’s also funny in person!) So leave it to her to quote Kurt Vonnegut right off the bat. Enjoy!

***

How do you approach revision? 

Kurt Vonnegut once said there are two types of writers—swoopers and bashers. Swoopers write the whole first draft and then go back and edit. Bashers hammer away at each paragraph before going to the next. He was careful to point out there’s no right  or wrong here—just two different styles.

I fall into the basher category,  which I think classifies me as anal. I just can’t let go of a paragraph until it feels right. That’s not to say I don’t go back and edit again after the whole thing is done, but I tend to keep the draft pretty tight.

 What aspect of revision do you find the most difficult?

When my editor or agent asks for a revision to the story that creates a ripple effect through the book, I just want to cry. It’s not ego—I have no trouble killing my darlings—but the daunting amount of work involved. It’s overwhelming. But … I kick the wall, whine and moan to a few close friends, and then get to work.

 What is the most difficult revision you ever had to do and why?

Before submitting my first book to editors, my agent asked me to make the through-line stronger. Apparently the book spent too much time meandering into subplots. The revision required a more massive rewrite than I understood, and I tried again and again to fix it by applying band-aids. After the third go-round, I realized I had to deconstruct the whole thing and rebuild it. It was a painful but valuable lesson.

 What aspect of revision do you embrace or even look forward to?

I love when a manuscript is really close to being ready to submit and I go through it one last time in hard copy with an erasable pen in hand (I prefer these to colored pencils). At that point the book is pretty tight, and all I need to do is make elegant tweaks.

 How many drafts does it take you to reach a finished book?

This is question I can never really answer, because I don’t write one full draft before going back to edit. With me, it’s a relentless, ongoing process. Every day when I sit down at the computer, I read and edit what I wrote the day before. And every two chapters or so I print out the whole manuscript and edit in hardcopy. By the time I’m finished with a book every chapter has been revised dozens of times.

 What advice do you have for the aspiring writer about revising one’s work?

 I have an old friend who is one of those rare and lucky individuals blessed with a rock solid ego. Back in college he had a talent for writing, so I asked him why he gave up. He confessed that he’s just too self-confident to be a writer, saying he could never edit his work because he thought everything he wrote was so good to begin with.

 That’s my way of telling you to embrace your insecurities. They’re not going anywhere anyway, so just recognize that the constant questioning and second-guessing you do is what drives you to deliver the best work you can.

 Now get back to it.

 ***

Ellen Meister is the author of three novels, THE OTHER LIFE (forthcoming from Putnam, 1/11), THE SMART ONE (HarperCollins/Avon 2008) and SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA (Morrow/Avon 2006), as well as numerous short stories. In addition to writing, she served as editor for an online literary magazine and currently curates for a literary series that airs on NPR. Ellen also does public speaking about her books and related issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband and three children. For more information visit Ellen’s website at www.ellenmeister.com.

Intrepid Dreamers

In Business of Writing, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on October 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Most of the freelance writers I know are talented dreamers, who took to the field through a variety of unusual paths–many giving up jobs that sucked the life out of their souls, many taking huge leaps of faith to launch themselves.

Recently, one of these intrepid dreamers, Brandi-Ann Uyemura, looked me up after reading some of my work. It turns out she lives less than a half hour from me, so we decided to get together for coffee, to talk about the writing life. For freelancers, who no longer have offices, it’s a good thing to get together in person, step out of the isolation of our desks, put on something other than pajamas (you know who you are!), and talk shop.Brandi

The visit was such a pleasant reminder that not everyone in the freelance world is in competition with each other, that some of us work better together, in fact.

She has since interviewed me for her blog 2inspired.com.

She’s a talented and inspiring writer who deserves to thrive!

The Left Brained Writer Learns to Show, Not Tell

In Craft, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on October 10, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Guest post by Mike Fine

I suspect I may be one of the most “left-brained” writeMikers out there. After 20+ years as a software engineer and managing technical teams and technical projects, I discovered—lo and behold—I love writing! How strange is that? Well, probably not very strange to you if you’re reading this post, but it was certainly strange to me when I first realized it about 10 years ago.

There’s a great deal about being educated and trained as an engineer that works against me as a writer. First, while all of you were probably reading the great works—Austen, Bronte, Melville, Tolstoy—you know the list better than I do—I was taking the easiest Language Arts classes I could find. I had all of these advanced math and science classes, you see…

Second, and more seriously, engineers are trained to distill an issue to its core. The essence of a thing is what matters to engineers; we like to simplify and abstract, to get right to the point. The good news is that because of this, I rarely struggle finding a theme or central idea for my writing. I rarely fear that I’m going to write some long-winding run of flowery prose with no point. I am rarely without a solid outline. The problem is, readers don’t want to be hit over the head and be told the morale or theme, they want to feel it, to experience it. Stories are supposed to immerse the reader in a detailed world with believable characters so that they—the reader—infer the message(s) from the story. And, of course, sometimes, readers will infer things we never intend as writers. I have to force myself to remember this—something I think comes more naturally to most other writers with their predominately right-brained brains.

 Third, because I’m focused more on the essence of the primary arc of the story and the critical characterizations of the main characters, my writing often feels rushed, too much like a treatment than a story. The structures of my stories are usually sound; I struggle with adding enough detail. My wife often says that I’ve painted the trunk of the tree and the larger branches, but none of the smaller twigs or the leaves. Again, I suspect others with different educational backgrounds and personalities have an easier time with this sort of “inside out” nature of writing. I have to constantly remind myself: show the leaves in all their splendor, and let the reader infer that there’s a tree holding them up.

 Like many writers, I struggle to ensure that my writing follows the old maxim, “show, don’t tell.” For years, I couldn’t get my weak engineer brain around this concept. Then, finally, I came up with a way to think about this. I think even you non-engineers out there might benefit from thinking about things this way.

 When we’re guilty of “telling” instead of “showing,” what’s really the problem? It’s that we’ve summarized too much. If I tell you that “Abe and Ben fought,” your experience is much different than if I describe the right crosses, the chipped teeth, and the broken tables. I get that. You get that. Most everyone gets that. But how do we ensure that we don’t fall into the summarization trap? Simple: engage your left brain a little bit.

 Here’s the idea: allocate a certain amount of space—words, paragraphs, or pages—for a scene. Say to yourself, this scene has to take X pages. Let’s take our fight scene. Imagine it’s important to our story. We want to slow time down and stretch this conflict out for all the drama we can milk out of it. So, how many pages should the fight take up on paper? Three pages? Five? Ten?

 Once you decide how many pages (or paragraphs) you want the fight to last, you simply cannot summarize “too much.” If you do, your writing will stop short of your allotted space! If I write that “Abe and Ben fought,” I have to stare at the remaining 9 ½ blank pages for the scene. I have to fill them up. How can I do it? I can start to describe what happens in more detail and by slowing down time. I cannot stop editing and improving my scene until it fills up the space I’ve allocated for the scene. Is it possible I can introduce other kinds of problems into my writing—dialogue that drags, character descriptions that are too lengthy, etc.? Sure. But one thing that’s almost certain: my writing is much more likely to slow time down so that I provide enough details. And that’s something my readers will hopefully enjoy.

 ***

Mike is the co-creator of the Young Writers’ Story Deck Writing Program. He writes technical, marketing, and educational pieces for high tech companies and school districts. He has written novels, short stories, screen plays and stage plays. His stage play “Building a Bridge” was produced in the 2008-09 school year in Sebastopol and received rave reviews. See www.buildingabridgeplay.com  for more information about the play. His short screenplay “Time Capsule” is slated for production for some time in 2009 or 2010. In February 2008, Kansas student and forensics competitor Taylor Montgomery performed Mike’s piece “Pushed”, placing 2nd out of 40 competitors and qualifying for State Champs. Mike’s creative writing can be found at www.blackfoxbooks.com. Mike is an active volunteer in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, and has been an active volunteer in the Morgan Hill Unified School District and at Rocketship Education in San Jose, California.

Fiction Writers Need Platform Too

In Business of Writing, Interviews, Profiles on April 17, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Day Five of my interview with Christina Katz, author of Get Known Before the Book Deal and Writer Mama.

 

 

Q: Is it as necessary for a fiction writer to build platform as a non-fiction writer?

 CK: Why in the world wouldn’t a fiction writer want to build a nonfiction platform alongside her fiction platform? Fact of the matter is: published fiction writers produce a ton of nonfiction. Why not own it? Why not own it starting now? Any traditionally published author (or self-published author, for that matter) is going to be producing a ton of nonfiction material to support her platform. I have a whole chapter in Get Known about how fiction writers can spin off nonfiction topics from their book.

 

Don’t get hung up on being one kind of writer and not another. Fiction is one form. Nonfiction is another. If you write strong fiction, there is a pretty good chance you can write strong nonfiction too. Everyone is a writer today. A huge number of people write fiction. A huge number of people write nonfiction. Be one of the writers who write both and save yourself a lot of headaches. Once you become traditionally published, a huge gush of nonfiction writing comes pouring in at you. I’d suggest embracing the opportunity to write nonfiction and even using it to make some money.

 

 

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s question:

 

There has been all kinds of press lately about how the publishing industry is changing, how it’s becoming smaller and more competitive than ever. How do you think platform plays into this new world of publishing? Do writers need to be more online savvy then every before?