Narrowing down the PURPOSE of your blog — Live to Write – Write to Live

I had to re-blog this post by Wendy E.N. Thomas over on Live to Write – Write to Live

She totally nails home the critical point that your blog…needs a point.

I’m currently teaching an adult education class on how to start a blog. When I teach these classes, we spend much time during the first class trying to narrow down the purpose of the blog you want to create. Before you can write your first word, you need to figure out […]

via Narrowing down the PURPOSE of your blog — Live to Write – Write to Live

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Writing Tip: Know Your Audience

image of medieval wood carving

Who is this for?

That question is asked frequently during critiques in my writer’s group.

It’s an important question, and I feel writers should always let it hover in the back of their minds when creating a story.

There’s a saying that “the first draft is for the author, the second for the editor, and the final for the reader”. While I feel there is truth to that, in some ways, a writer should always have an audience in mind. Even if that audience is just themselves.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you’re writing for practice or possibly therapeutic reasons and no one else will ever see it, then by all means just scribble away!

However, if your goal includes critique, publication, and eventually sale, you need to think about your target audience. I’m not telling you “write to market” because that is gross and sales-y and generally ineffective. I will tell you that it’s important to ask yourself some simple questions about who your story is for

  • What genre am I writing for?
    • If it’s a large one (like fantasy or romance) is it part of a sub-genre?
  • What age range is my audience? Kids, young adults, or grown ups?
  • Does it contain (and hopefully play with) specific genre tropes and expectations that my audience expects?
    • You know, like hobbits and stuff…
  • Does it contain themes, imagery, or subject matter that is either inappropriate or too complex for my audience?
    • My writing is full of gore and violence. I’m never going to be mistaken for a YA author.
  • If my story were on a shelf in a bookstore, who would pick it up?
    • “Everybody” isn’t an acceptable answer. Sorry.

If you’ve never given any thought to this, you may want to, since knowing your intended audience can help you shape your work in subtle ways that will help it appeal to them. That’s not to say you should compromise your creativity, but it’s been my experience as a writer and reader that the most successful projects set out with a clear message, and understanding of who they are meant for.

Writing Tip: Self Edit Your Work

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Editing is one of the most important parts of the writing process.

Common practical advice, especially among self-publishers, is to hire a professional editor and wrangle beta readers to edit and proofread your work. That’s helpful for final polish, but what about re-shaping the roughest first draft of your novel? Or maybe you’ve written a short story that you don’t want to invest money into a professional edit.

Fear not! I’ve compiled 10 great DIY editing tips from Lisa Lepki at The Write Life and Ryan Van Cleave from Writer’s Mag that are guaranteed to whip your writing into shape before you submit it for publication or show it to a potential editor which can save you both time and money on your road to publication.

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Writing Tip: Never Pay Submission Fees

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Today’s post is brought to you by the letter S. Or more specifically💲.

I’m preparing to submit another round of short fiction, and noticed quite a few “start up” magazines (especially on the gross-but-necessary Facebook) are charging submission fees. This isn’t cool, and I’ll try to explain why without it turning into a rant.

Suffice to say, you should never pay anyone to read your writing.

Submission Fees

Are bull$h*t.

Also known as “reading fees”, many literary magazines and journals claim they need these to cover production costs or to pay their editors/slush readers. You should never submit your work to a magazine that is asking for a reading fee, and here are a couple reasons why.

🎩 ::puts on curmudgeon-y businessman hat:: 🎩

  • It’s not your problem if they operate at a loss.
    • Many of these tiny journals are passion projects. Nonetheless, they probably get way more submissions than they can or will accept. Lit mags have notoriously low acceptance rates, and that means you’re subsidizing someone else’s creative endeavors for them to potentially read one sentence (if any) of a story and chuck it in the trash. If you DO get accepted and published, you likely won’t get any payment.
    • Most writers aren’t rolling in dough. You need to save money for more important things involving your own work
  • You don’t know their readership or margins
    • Often they ask for a fee, but either don’t pay the accepted authors or pay them in token copies
    • Sometimes the journals are “online only” which means their overhead costs could be next-to-nothing
    • If they ARE selling the magazine, you’re paying them to take your product (writing), and then make money off of it, essentially “double-dipping”.
  • The project may never happen
    • Not all ideas come to fruition. I like to believe people are good, but there are plenty of scammers out there who prey on idealistic writers and disappear without ever creating a journal due to “circumstances beyond their control”, but by the way “no refunds”.

I’m not saying all literary journals should be operating at a loss, but the legitimate ones that you see on Duotrope and Submission Grinder are usually stable enough to accept work without charging, even if they don’t have enough of a budget to pay the accepted authors. They understand that writers are providing their hard work for either a token payment, or exposure to a wider audience.

In my opinion, “Pay to Play” is never an acceptable model.

Exception: Contests

Here’s where I contradict myself.

If a writing contest is requesting a submission fee, because it intends to pay a cash prize to the winner, then a SMALL payment is usually OK. You should still do some research and only enter legitimate contests that have been around for a while. You can usually spot sketchy ones:

  • They’re “annual” but this is the first year they exist
  • The fees are much higher than the final collected pay out to the winner
  • There is little-to-no information or backing, other than an address to send money and writing to

I know some authors who have hard & fast rules about never giving their writing away. I don’t feel I’m at that level yet, so I’m open to opportunities that don’t involve direct payment. However, I will never pay money to either submit (or be published), and I’d encourage you to never do that either.

The entire reason publishers and magazines exist is to build a readership by selectively publishing the work of authors they feel deserve merit. It’s not our job to keep them in business.

That’s what readers are for.

 

Become a Better Writer for Under $20

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How many times have you seen someone selling you a course or some other product on the internet that claims it will make you a better writer, or purchase a book that can supposedly help you get published, only to have it contain nebulous tips like “practice writing every day”, “be persistent”, and “create great stories”? Or worse, corporate buzz like “grow your brand”.

I really hate these things, and they seem to be proliferating across the internet as people try to take advantage of hungry writers.

In an attempt to subvert that which I do not care for, I’m creating this post. It’s a list of 5 things that should cost you under $20 total (in fact, probably under $10 if you’re not a pen snob like me) and will absolutely make you a better writer.

Here they are in no particular order, as pictured above.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

This is the book if you want to improve your craft. The gold standard since around 1919, its beauty lies in simplicity. It provides straightforward, common-sense rules and style suggestions for writing the English language. Plus, clear examples of each rule so they are easy to understand. It’s quite short and easy to reference whenever you need it.

Buy it in paperback. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket if you don’t wear tight pants. My copy (pictured) is a tapestry of margin notes, dog-eared pages, and highlighter fluid. I own a bunch of writing references, but this is the one I use 97% of the time.

Cost: $5 to $10 depending on the retailer.

A Pen

People tell me they can be mightier than swords. Get one. Two if you’re prone to losing things.

Cost: $1 to $500 if you’re rich and crazy, but you’re a writer, so you’re probably just crazy.

Index Cards

Use the pen to write on these. Write notes, edits, even alternate plots and character bios. The beauty of index cards is you can re-arrange and lay them out. I’m a very visual person, and being able to “re-structure” a story by using these like Flashcards, or simply compare alternate ideas to what’s on my screen. If you have Scrivener you can type them into its “index card” system later. There are a million things writers can do with index cards, and stacks are cheap.

Cost: $1-4 depending on retailer

Notebook

Buy one and keep it with you, because inspiration shows up at the most inconvenient times. If you splurge on a pretentious one cough…Moleskine…cough they have a handy little pocket in the back where you can stash some index cards for easy access.

Cost: $1 for some Mead spiral-bound or Lisa Frank glittery unicorn action, up to $25 for the really overpriced ones that people make Youtube videos about.

Highlighter

I’m one of those people who highlights and makes margin notes in my books. Some people feel that is sacrilege. I disagree, because highlighting and writing notes is a sign of critical reading. Writers are constantly told to read, but reading critically will help you improve much faster. On top of that, I read a lot of books and I can’t possibly remember all the things I like about them them. The Kindle has a lovely “highlight” feature, but when it comes to ink on paper, I leave a yellow trail in my wake like a slug.

Cost: $1 to $1 (seriously, just buy these at the dollar store).

So there you have it. A kit for less than twenty bucks that is guaranteed to help you improve as long as you use all the tools it contains. It won’t help you “build a platform”, but it will help you with something far more important – your writing craft.

Writing Tip: Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group

image of a writer's group

Image credit: Lulu.com

I recently joined a writer’s group organized by my local indie bookstore. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to network with other nearby authors and get feedback on my work.

After some months and numerous critiques, I finally feel comfortable blogging about it and advising that writer’s groups are a great way to improve as an author.

Critiques

Each writer in my group has similar but different goals. The shared commonality is personal improvement. I can’t stress enough how quickly your writing can improve with constructive criticism from people who are engaged in the same difficult work as you. A writer’s group can provide a varied audience who are at the perfect “degree of separation” to provide honest feedback. They are more familiar with you than strangers on the internet, but have more distance than friends and family who might try to protect your feelings.

I’ve recently had a few short stories picked up for publication, and I directly attribute that success to the valuable critiques I received from my group.

Encouragement

Every writer’s path is different. What works for one author might not for another. There are no silver bullets, and that can be tough to accept. It’s good to have a tight knit group going through the same trials and tribulations with you. It provides understanding ears to gripe about rejections, and voices to celebrate your successes.

Insight

Writing and publishing is COMPLICATED. I’ve written about some of the most common publishing avenues available, and there are an overwhelming number of choices, services, potential scams, and opportunities across the landscape. Insight from active writers who are living this stuff alongside you is invaluable. A short conversation among a writer’s group will probably yield more insight than any paid “How to Publish” course you can find on the internet. The writer’s in my group are all at different stages, and everyone is able to provide useful tips and info to each other.

Love of Books

I’ve been turned on to new authors and books I’d have never known about, just by being around like-minded writer’s who are passionate about reading. It’s a wonderful social atmosphere to get suggestions, or have fun and engaging conversations about books.

For all the reason’s above (and more) I highly recommend writers of any level seek out a group. Keep in mind they are not without challenges! I believe anytime a group of creative people get together, there will be up’s and downs. I would also strongly encourage you to join an in-person group, rather than one on the internet. Writing is a solitary exercise, and the face-to-face interaction, along with the relationships you’ll build with other local writers are worth the time and effort.

Are you a member of a writer’s group? If so, what has your experience been like?

You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

image of a typewriter

image credit: College of New Rochelle

I’ve been reading a number of articles and blog posts recently about whether writers should get an MFA. Sarah Werner even covered it on the latest episode of the Write Now podcast. Must be back-to-school fever.

I’m in the camp that believes the only education you need to be a writer is a degree from “The School of Life”.

Irony alert: I have an (undergraduate) degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Before we go any further, let me say I’m a proponent of education, both formal and self-driven. I believe a high school diploma and undergraduate courses in English can provide a strong foundation and wider exposure to both classic and modern literature. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and professors I had throughout my education who gave me feedback, tough critiques, and encouragement.

With that said, do y’all REALLY need a Masters in this? Probably not.

Here’s a few reasons why –

  • Cost: MFA’s can be expensive. Like, up to $100,000. That’s a lot of debt for no guarantee of a successful career in a brutally competitive field. For that kind of money you’d be better off buying a laptop and a nice van to live out of while you travel the country as a starving artist. Being miserably indebted makes life tough, and a tougher life often leads to less writing time as you try to pay your bills.

 

  • Voice: There is no factual evidence that MFA programs nurture authors to cultivate a unique voice. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism lately that they’ve begun to actually homogenize writers. Don’t take my word for it. Go read this great (but oh so lengthy) article by The Atlantic. They’re one of the hoity-est of hoity toity liberal magazines, so I trust them to criticize Masters programs.

 

  • Burn Out: I read somewhere that there’s “no one more bitter than a grad school drop-out.” Intensive writing and workshops can be great, but you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even in low-residency programs. Plus, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t handle rejection well, I’d have to guess it stings more to receive rejection letters if they pile up next to a $75,000 piece of paper that claims it made you great.

 

  • The Unwashed Low-Brow Masses of The American Readership: Let me take a moment to pick on the country I love so dearly. Americans don’t read much anymore. Google it. There are numerous studies citing how few books we are reading these days, and when we do, it’s NOT literary fiction. Balk all you want, but MFA holders often hold certain views and a level of pretension. They also die a little inside every time something like Fifty Shades of Grey lights up the best seller charts. It’s why forum threads discussing “literature versus genre fiction” are always such nasty things. TL;DR – Writing literary fiction is a tough road to an audience.

Before you think I’m just slamming MFA’s because I’m poor or bad at standardized tests, let me say I think there IS a reason to get one. If you intend to have a career in academia and teach others how to write, read critically, and critique then you should absolutely have a Masters degree (MFA, or MA). From there, by all means write as many dissertations and chapbooks as you please.

However, if you’re like most “aspiring authors” or even published authors that I’ve met in my travels, you probably write some type of genre fiction or you’re writing “Lit Fic” with the intention of selling it to a mass market. In either case, I don’t think you should ever be concerned or discouraged if you don’t have an MFA, because you don’t need one to accomplish those goals.

You just need paper, ink, and a whole lot of time and determination.

 

Writing Tip: Avoid Perfectionism

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Perfect is the enemy of Good.

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

Figuring out when a story is ready to submit or publish can be the most challenging part of the writing process. Through all the edits, re-writes, and proofreading you need to find that “good enough” place. Good enough to submit. Good enough to push to Amazon. Even just good enough to show other people.

Perfectionism is one of the single biggest hurdles in getting to “good enough”.

My first brush with the perils of creative perfectionism involved being in a band. We would practice the same four songs, and re-write or tweak them on a weekly basis. We never made any true progress and declared them “done”. We rarely worked on any new material, and ultimately, couldn’t play any gigs because we didn’t have enough songs for a full playlist.

I only realized the real problem after I had joined a new band. There were no perfectionists, and we played plenty of shows.

If you’re a perfectionist, it can be extremely difficult to say “I’m done. Time to move on.” However, this needs to happen in the name of progress. If you’re forever working on the same project or piece of writing, you’ll never truly grow. The challenge is finding that balance.

Studying writing during college definitely helped me lose some of my preconceptions about writing. These are a few things I learned that helped me avoid becoming mired in the perfection trap.

  • First, understand that NOTHING is perfect. NOTHING. EVER. You’ll never create a piece of art that is truly perfect, because they don’t exist.

That said, each work you complete provides experience and the opportunity to reflect and grow as a writer. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Vince Lombardi, who said,

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

  • Second,you need to be open to criticism.

Perfectionism is a great shield against criticism. No one can criticize your work if it’s never complete, right? You can just keep “improving it” forever.

Unfortunately, you’ll never grow as a writer unless you open yourself up to critique. I’m talking about meaningful, constructive criticism that helps you recognize issues and fix them. Not the scathing comments of jerks and trolls, which the internet is full of.

Find a person, or group of people who you trust to provide honest and helpful feedback about your writing so you can make it better.

Perfectionism can be difficult to deal with, but it’s essential you conquer it if you expect to get your writing out into the world and appreciated by an audience.

Writing Tip: 5 Ways to Find More Time

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If you’re like me, you struggle to find the time to write. Between work, school, and family obligations, maybe you spend more time thinking about writing than actually putting words down on the page. If you are passionate about writing, this can be extremely difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of ways to squeak out some extra writing time even in the busiest schedule.

Write in Small Chunks

A novel, or even a short story, can seem like a daunting task. The mantra “write every day” is slapped up all over the internet, but I don’t personally feel that’s always feasible. What I DO subscribe to is writing regularly, and if I’m pressed for time, writing in small chunks. Even if you only put down 50-100 words, that’s more than you had before, and all that work will help you eventually reach your goal.

Add Hours to Your Day

I’m a big proponent of simplifying. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising that tells us “we’re too busy”, but the reality is that most of us waste a HUGE amount of time on our phones, social media, and just not focusing on achieving our goals. Try this: Start monitoring how much time you spend on social media for the next 5 days. Write it down and next weekend tally that up. Then, think about how many words you could have written during that time.  If it’s quite a bit, you should consider prioritizing your time writing instead of browsing Facebook posts.

Write on Your Commute or Lunch Break

If it’s possible, try to get in some writing on your lunch break or your commute (if you use public transportation). It’s some great downtime that you can use to put words on the page or screen.

Carry a Notebook

Ideas don’t show up when it’s convenient. That means you need to be ready whenever inspiration strikes. It’s why I carry a notebook with me, so I can capture ideas as they happen. Whether I’ve just woken up from an especially intense dream, or I get a great idea for a short story while I’m out getting a coffee. It gives you the freedom to write whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Give Up Another Hobby

This is a tough one, but it’s something I had to do personally. I spent many hours practicing instruments in the hopes of one day of forming or joining a band. While I had been in quite a few bands years ago, it no longer meshes with my life for a number of reasons (schedule, having to rely on other people, etc). I realized that while I enjoyed it, it was a creative “dead end” that was taking up precious free time I could have been using to write, which is my primary creative outlet. Therefore, I sold some guitars, and have started a personal fund to buy a new writing desk. When your schedule is extremely packed, sometimes you need to sacrifice lesser hobbies for the good of focusing on the one you’re truly passionate about.