Four Writers (and One Painter) Resolve: New Year’s Resolutions

Champs Resolution 2019

What good is a New Year’s Day without a juicy resolution or two? I mean, even if we let our resolutions fall by the wayside on January 30th or 3rd, we’ve at least thrown a pebble into the pond and cause a mind ripple to form, expand, grow. There’s always the chance that the seed we plant today—even if left in the dark ground—will germinate, receive rain, eventually surface to sunlight, and bloom into beautiful being.

That’s how ideas often work for writers. Sometimes our ideas are a lightning strike, and we rush to the keyboard and pound out an entire chapter. Other times, one perfect sentence comes to mind, and we jot it in a journal, and every week or so, another joins it, and one day it’s a poignant story. Sometimes it’s just a phrase that tings in the air like the toast of crystal goblets, and we scribble on a napkin, to find it later and craft a poem that resonates and, yes, ripples, from our heart into the hearts of others.

Have I convinced you to make a writing resolution? I hope so! Nothing ventured . . . right!

A few weeks back, I was thinking of resolutions and wondering if writers other than myself toyed with them, made them, avoided them, broke them. I asked around, and a few friends shared their own writing resolutions with us. (Thank you for playing along!)

I hope you’ll find one—or more—of their resolutions inspiring.

Writer David Davis subscribes to the seed germination philosophy of writing. He wrote as a youngster but let writing fall by the wayside. It didn’t matter: The desire to write had taken root, and it later grew into a gig as a feature writer for the Daytona Sun Times. After the magazine went out of publication, David stopped writing. It was a job, after all.

Or was it? After seeing a Facebook post about (imagine this!) writing resolutions, David felt a powerful tug, and he dug out some old story snippets written years earlier about his grandchildren. He picked up his pen, and he’s resolved to write those stories. See? Even broken resolutions have a way of reaching sunlight!

Author, poet, essayist, blogger (need I go on?) Tovli Simiryan adopted a more Pomodoro-esque resolution, using a Fit-Bit app to jolt her into submission—both figuratively and literally. “From the once cluttered and disorganized mental office of Tovli Simiryan,” here’s her step-by-step resolution to put more of her gorgeous words into the world.

Katie Piccirillo Sherman, a journalist and journalism instructor in Chicago, believes in success through failure, as evidenced by her resolution to rack up one-hundred rejections. “The more you’re getting no’s, the more you’re submitting.” Don’t you love her positive spin and sassy attitude? Cheers to your one-hundred, Katie, and to an equal number of acceptances!

My own resolution? Ahhh, I almost hate to share it, because I expect I will no doubt one day have to admit its failure.

I resolve to Write. Every. Day.

Yup, even though I’ve been writing for over a decade now, I’ve never written every day, not even during my deadline-crazy Converse MFA years. (Don’t tell my profs!) No, I’ve always taken solace in my former mentor Robert Olmstead’s words to our small workshop group that, “Sometimes serious writing is sitting quietly, staring out a window for an hour.” Indeed.

This morning, as I thought of the writing resolution I wanted to make—because I certainly intended to make one (or two—I’m also resolving to network locally with more writers: We all need a nearby tribe), I came across poet Gabrielle Brant Freeman’s Twitter post, an article shared from The Rumpus, written by author and artist Kelcey Parker Ervick who resolved to paint every day. A painting—every day. Ervick asks, “What happens when you commit to painting—or to any form of creating—every day for a year?

“You exist in the world differently.”

Wow. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, if that isn’t inspiring, what is?

Yes, I want to exist in the world differently. So, this year, I’m going to attempt the actual, hands-on, practical (though perhaps impractical is the better word) task, and write every day. Whether it’s a blog entry (checkmark today!), a chapter, a poem, or just one fine sentence that sings, I’m going to do it.

C’mon, writer. What’s your resolution?

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She Thinks I’m Fierce!

There’s nothing quite as satisfying to a writer as having your work published; that is, except having someone else mention your publication in their own work! This week I’ve been twice honored:

First, by Hospital Drive who pubbed my short story “Things Long Dead” (read it here).

two trees in the fog

Second, by award-winning poet Gabrielle Brant Freeman who interviewed me for her #FierceFriday feature on her website!

Cover art and design by Dawn Surrat

Thank you to the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Hospital Drive and to Gabrielle Brant Freeman for believing in me and supporting my work! You’re FIERCE!

 

 

Writing Advice from the Masters: Writing in Paradise

WIP Magnuson

I recently spent eight fabulous days at the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise, under the tutelage of some of America’s finest authors. Set on Eckerd’s idyllic waterfront campus (some of us took a boat ride into Boca Bay as the sun set late one afternoon), we attended readings, social events, lectures, panel discussions, and intensive workshops over the course of the program. I was privileged to be awarded the Sterling Watson MFA Fellowship to attend this exciting conference, and doubly privileged to have a chapter of my novel workshopped by eleven brilliant authors, including multi-award-winning author and conference co-director Les Standiford.

As you might imagine, in a conference of this lauded measure, one receives a plethora of great advice and inspiration. It’s a serious writer’s job, then, to apply that advice to her manuscript and to carry that inspiration into her work. (Check out my brief essay on how to do that here.)

If you have the opportunity to attend a conference of this high caliber, I strongly recommend it. Until then, here’s a tiny taste of some of the advice and inspiration shared by the masters at Writers in Paradise. I hope you’ll support these generous spirits by attending their readings, buying and sharing their books, and reviewing their outstanding work.

 

On the craft of writing:

“Every good story is personal.” –Les Standiford

“Let suspense hook the reader, but don’t show them the hook.” –Dennis Lehane

“We can’t know who you are, until we know what you’ve lost.” –Andre Dubus III

“Don’t shroud the opening in secrecy. Tell the whole story in the first sentence.” –Les Standiford

 

On the writing habit:

“The ones who make it are the ones who stick with it. They’re the grinders.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Sculpt your entire life around getting your writing done. Don’t waste time. Write. Write. Write.” –Ann Hood

“We need special language to commemorate our lives: weddings, love, death, inaugurations. We need poetry.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“Writing is an act of humility, and it takes its own time.” –Ann Hood

 

On researching story details:

“Go where the story takes you.” –Gilbert King

“Writing is problem solving.” –Sterling Watson

“Start from ignorance. Admit you know nothing.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Always be particular. Writers will do anything to weasel out of being specific.” –Les Standiford

 

What success means to you as a writer:

“Success means being able to continue writing. I don’t want to be publishing, marketing, or finishing a book. I want to be writing. That’s where the reward is.” –Stewart O’Nan

“Writing a poem is devastatingly difficult; it’s also a privilege. Writing is a privilege.” –Aimee Nezhukumatathil

 

Do any of these words of wisdom speak to you or your process as a writer? What is the best writing advice you have to give?

 

How to Make Money as a Writer

Can you really make a living as a writer, without being one of the lucky few who make the New York Times Bestseller list? Can you quit your day job, or must writing always come last on your list of ways to earn a living?

Certainly you can make a living—and a good one—as a writer, without having a long list of novels under your belt. Here are some steps toward building your writing portfolio; landing paying jobs as a writer, editor, or proofreader; getting published; and yes, eventually quitting the daily grind of your current job.

  1. Tell everyone you know that you’re a professional writer who’s available for hire. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to become paid writers is keeping their mouths shut! Tell everyone you meet that you’re a writer and that you’re available for work. What kind of work? Any kind, as long as it includes some form of writing and a paycheck.
  1. Successful service industries and businesses get the word out about their services. You do have a business card or contact card, right? And what about word of mouth? It’s vital to becoming a paid writer. Social media? Make sure your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn connections know you’re available for work. Start local. Do you have references? Start a list of your publications and clients for whom you’ve written. Do it today.
  1. Hand out business cards and flyers to bridal shops, book clubs, churches, community groups, your child’s school, libraries, and small businesses in your community. Organizations like the Elks, Moose, Eagles, and Freemasons not only publish national magazines, but often need to have local newsletters and press releases professionally written. Businesses need blog articles, employee handbooks, technical manuals, and company newsletters prepared. If you have specialized training in your background (i.e., medical experience, IT experience, etc.) solicit work from companies in that field, marketing yourself as an expert.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start small. And yes, small can be a synonym for free when you’re getting started. If you don’t have a writer’s resume or list of professional writing references and publications, you must start somewhere. Write weekly bulletins for your church, a PTA press release, a groom’s tribute for a wedding program, or even short speeches for local banquets. Your current employer may need to have the office policy or benefits package updated and rewritten. Offer to do it free, after work hours, in exchange for a letter of reference, testimonial, or recommendation. Then, once you’ve written your company’s policy, you can solicit other similar businesses, charging a fee to update theirs.

The Beginner’s Bottom Line

Don’t look at any of your first writing jobs as “free,” even if they don’t pay with cash. You’re earning a byline, a professional business reference, and perhaps a long-term client who may hire you for higher-paying jobs in the future.

Now, About That Money . . .

You’ve got a bite. There’s a fish on the hook. All you gotta do is reel him in and serve him for dinner. But how much do you charge? Who sets the standards for what you can and should charge, once you’ve established yourself as a professional writer? The short answer: You do!

By the hour – What’s your time worth? How much would you make per hour at your day job? Does the fee you have in mind compete with other writers in your area? How much is too much? Even worse, how much is too little? Always consider your level of expertise. Beginners simply can’t charge the same hourly rate as someone with a long list of bylines attached to their name. Check the Web for information on going prices in your state, and base your price competitively. My recommendation? Consider $20-60 per hour, depending on the project and company, with a set minimum fee. Minimum fees (say, $45-$60) help weed out clients who “only want a short paragraph,” but who will take up three days of your time to get that paragraph “just right.”

 By the project – You might quote large, standardized, one-time projects with a set amount. Be careful not to under-quote yourself in these cases, because sometimes a small article can turn into a huge volume overnight. Consider whether research is involved. If so, can you apply that research to other similar jobs in the future? As an example, early in my freelance career, I wrote employee handbooks for various companies. When I wrote the first one, I spent a lot of time researching federal workplace laws, state employment laws, the employer’s benefit packages, and so forth. Once the first manual was written, subsequent clients only required minor changes specific to their company, because the state and federal laws remained the same. Your client doesn’t need to know that, however. For those jobs, in the early 2000s, I charged a flat rate of $450, which the clients were quite happy to pay. (Maybe I should have charged more!)

By the word – Charging a flat fee per word is an excellent way to receive a fair amount of pay for a fair amount of work, and it notifies your clients what you expect for the quantity of work they want delivered. Then, if they add extra pages to the job, you’ll earn extra pay!

Share the Wealth

If you follow these steps and you provide quality work, it won’t be long until you have more work than you can handle. As you build your portfolio, network with other writers, and read samples of their work. Offer to proofread each other’s project. Then, instead of turning away a job that seems too big, too involved, too rushed, or too time-consuming for you, offer it to another strong writer, with the understanding that they’ll return the favor. You might even retain a percentage of the company’s payment as a finder’s fee.

Remember, the best writers are only as strong as their network, so don’t hesitate to pay it forward. Uplift other writers, offering to pick up extra work when they’re overwhelmed, and sharing your overburden in return. As soon as the customers for whom you’re freelancing learn that you are available for any project, regardless of size or deadline, your business will grow–and so will your bank account.

 

 

The Hiatus: Taking a Break from Writing

 

“Write every day.” We writers have heard this mantra from nearly every teacher, writing coach, agent, and editor we’ve encountered. We’ve heard it from other authors who’ve had it drilled into their heads so often they have no choice but parrot it when asked about their writing habits.

I call bullshit.

First, I believe that all writers can—and should—have different processes for creating new work, and that a particular process can—and should—change to fit the creation. If forcing yourself to sit each morning in front of a blank screen until beads of words form on your brow is a technique that works for you, that’s great. Goody for you. And if waking from a deep sleep with a scene in your head rouses you from bed at 2:00 a.m. to pound on your keyboard, that’s equally as wonderful. Or, if staring out the window for an hour, or sitting on the beach for three days, or walking your neighborhood each morning for two weeks is what causes (or allows) a story to jell in your mind before you type the first word, then that’s fabulous, too.

If your particular way of writing works for you, then it’s the perfect way for you to write. One size does not fit all.

There’s nothing like a deadline to encourage your words to appear on a page. When you were in school, your teachers gave you a due date for every assignment, because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t do the research that resulted in ideas that formed the thoughts you typed onto the page. Now that you’re out of school, it may be up to you to set imaginary deadlines, if that’s what it takes to keep you focused. Or maybe you work with a writing group, and you set deadlines for each other to meet. If deadlines are what you need, then set them.

Whether your deadline is real or imaginary, sometimes life gets in the way, and you simply must take a break from writing. Recently, that’s happened to me.

I work multiple jobs (adjunct professor, Realtor, ghostwriter, editor) and have myriad “unpaid” responsibilities (mother, wife, homemaker, book reviewer, blogger). It’s no surprise that these tasks often come with their own deadlines, and sometimes those deadlines bottleneck into the same week or same day. My personal writing simply has to take a back seat for a while.

I’m not advocating putting your writing aside for other duties: no! Writing—if you take your writing seriously at all—must be a priority. However, if you’re sitting in front of your computer in an attempt to get into the mind of your main character while ignoring more pressing responsibilities, your brain often won’t let you slide into the creative mode required to write well. The muse—if you believe in muses—will tell you to get your butt up and do what must be done.

When, then, will you get back to writing?

Here’s what I believe: writers are always writing. Just because we’re not sitting in front of our computers or holding a pad and pen in hand doesn’t mean we’re not creating stories.

During my low-residency MFA days, we were tasked with keeping a writing log that detailed the hours we spent reading and writing. I always struggled with how to approach this log, because it seemed to me then—and now—that rare are the hours when I’m not reading or writing. When I’m driving, I’m plotting. When I’m drifting off to sleep at night, I place my characters in a scene (one that may or may not be appropriate for my story), and I see what they’ll do. When I’m doing housework, I imagine a setting and how I’d describe it from my main character’s point of view. When I’m in the shower, I consider what obstacles I can put in the way of my characters’ goals and dreams. When I’m walking, I figure out how in the world my character can get around those obstacles I’ve created. This is writing.

Sometimes I make notes when a great idea pops into my head. My desk, my purse, and the inside covers of books I’m reading are littered with scribbles; scrawled ideas, scenes, sentences, or even sparse phrases that I know I’ll use when I next sit down to write.

And when time has passed and that precious, quiet hour arrives when I finally sit down in front of my screen, the ideas are all there. The sticky notes and index cards are placed in front of me, the books are stacked within reach, their pages flagged with points of inspiration. My fingers fly over the keys.

It’s then I realize that my time away from the keyboard is not and never has been a hiatus from writing: it is my impetus to create.

 

 

SUBMIT!

I suppose that, in this post-Fifty-Shades-of-Gray era, I should tell you up front that I’m not writing about that kind of submission, though a rough spanking might seem preferable to the pain of formatting, reformatting, searching this-week’s-editor’s name, copying and pasting cover letters, adding your name, removing your name, and paying fees from one dollar to thirty of them simply to have your work read—and likely rejected—by the magazine/agent/publisher/editor you’ve long had your eye on. But if you’re a writer, submit you must!

Is there any way to make the submission process easier?

After several years of occasionally (and sometimes rarely) submitting my work, followed by a year of submitting more frequently, I’ve learned a couple of things. If there are painless ways, I haven’t found them, though here are a few facts you can accept and steps you can take to streamline the process and perhaps even soften the pain of rejection.

It’s not you; it’s them. The best literary magazines, most coveted agents, and biggest publishing companies receive—quite literally—hundreds of submissions each day. Imagine this: you drive to work in the pouring rain, get stuck in traffic, break the heel on your favorite pumps while running for the office door, spill coffee on your desk, and then your kid calls to tell you he forgot his homework, so you have to run home to retrieve the homework, deliver it to the school, and restart the process. You’re behind before you even begin. Then you open your email to find your inbox filled with new submissions. You have phone calls to return and meetings to attend, yet those submissions need your attention. How do you begin to sift through them? Like any smart editor, you sift the chaff from the wheat. You immediately reject any submissions that don’t fit your formatting guidelines, that open with a sluggish first page/paragraph/sentence, and those that are pocked with typos. Out of the dozen that are left, you save the few that fit a theme you’ve noticed coming in this month—they’ll make a nice collection when published together—and you reject the rest. After all, you’ll have a hundred more to scour tomorrow.

It’s not them; it’s you. You know you’ve done it. The Muse sat on your shoulder, whispered in your ear, and you pounded out a 5,000-word story in two hours flat, and the story blew your mind. You read through it a second time, and you only found one misspelled word. A. Maze. Ing. This is the story that will get you noticed. You send it to the top fifteen lit mags you’ve been drooling over since your fingers first fit a keyboard, and later that night, you drift off to sleep imagining the acceptance letters you’ll get, the Pushcart nominations, Best American Short Stories calling to ask for your bio, the movie they’ll make of your story, and what you’ll wear on the red carpet when you accept your Oscar.

And then the rejections start pouring in. Not even personalized rejections; they’re form letters! You take a second look, and you realize you called one of the editors by the wrong name—instant rejection. On the next, you submitted a .docx file, when they specifically requested rich-text files only. Then you notice that on page one your main character was named Kathy with a K, and on page six she’s Cathy with a C. And you accidentally wrote affect instead of effect. Ah, the pain. Self-inflicted pain, at that.

Slow down. Proofread. Wait a week. Proofread again. Send your story to a trusted writerly friend. Proofread again. Reformat. Check submission guidelines. Proofread again. Submit.

Do your research. There are some wonderful web sites that make the process of determining which agent is seeking what kind of story, which lit mags are open to submissions and when, and what the word count and submission guidelines are for your genre. I am huge fan of New Pages, which also offers the free service of weekly emails notifying you of calls for submissions, contests, and even conference and retreat notices, as well as book and lit-mag reviews. There’s also a great list that’s updated quarterly at Entropy Magazine, and author C. Hope Clark runs a website called Funds for Writers that has won awards for its regular market updates. Let these amazing services do the initial searches for you.

Keep notes. The best thing I have done to streamline my submission process is to start a submission file. You can use a notebook, a manila folder, a calendar—or simply do as I’ve done—use a Word document. My submission file is simply a table tracking my submission information (date submitted, publication, story submitted, result), followed by an ongoing list of magazines, web sites, agents, and publishers to which I want to submit, each with very brief notes listing maximum word count, passwords (many require you to set up an account), and web address. Don’t bother listing a magazine’s editor, because that may change before you actually submit your work. Always check the publication’s web site for submission guidelines before sending in your work. Always.

circus master

Submit often! You can’t get published if you don’t submit your work. Editors and agents won’t knock on your door and ask to browse your computer files to find a story they can’t wait to print. You have to send your story out, and typically, you have to send it to multiple places before it’s accepted for publication.

Submit a lot! I’m talking quantity, here. At any given time, I have around four to six stories and essays floating among ten to fifteen lit mags and publishers. I know other well-respected authors who can claim four times those numbers. If you always have submissions out there, you always have hope, so the sting of rejection is softened. Just when I’d almost given up (much too easily) on one of my stories finding a home, I received a publication agreement from a magazine I’d long admired. I’d sent the story so long ago that I’d assumed they’d lost it in the slush pile, yet it had been making the rounds from the slush reader, to the fiction editor, to the senior editor.

Following these simple guidelines won’t guarantee your work will be published—if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there are no publication guarantees for writers. But if you’ve worked hard, written the very best story you can write, and followed these guidelines, you’ll stand a much better chance of seeing your name in print.

Write well, and keep submitting!

submit

Writing Time: How Much Do You Want It?

juggling books

You know those writers. Yes, those writers. The ones who teach five English courses each semester, post witty blogs three times a week, and Tweet at nine, noon, and five. They check their bank accounts daily, mail thank-you cards, and submit short stories and articles to the best mags each week. They prepare scrumptious family dinners each evening, and on the rare nights they order take-out, they have to look up the number. They’ve published two novels this year . . . and it’s only January.

The rest of us? Well, we struggle.

It’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to write. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. If it were impossible, the libraries would be empty, and Kindle would bite the dust. I believe that, first, we have to stop thinking about finding time to write, and begin making time to write. There is something, however minor, that you can cut from your daily to-do list and replace it with writing time. You can delegate dog-walking one afternoon a week to a relative or the kid next door. You can forgo Seinfeld or Friends reruns every evening to spend thirty minutes putting pen to paper. You can close your Facebook page, and open a Word document, instead. You can toss vegetables, chicken or beef, and a can of soup or broth in the CrockPot before work, so you can write for an hour, instead of preparing dinner tonight.

In other words, time is available. You have the same twenty-four hours as every other successful writer. And rare is the bestselling author who quit their day job, hired a nanny, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper in order to start a writing career. Sure, a few may relish those luxuries now, but they started at a humbler place, and chances are good that at least one started where you are right now.

Stop. Making. Excuses.

Even good excuses. If you want this, you will make it happen. You will make time to read great novels and study books on writing craft, even if that time comes while you’re sitting in the bank drive-thru or on the sidelines during little-league practice. You will make time to write. You won’t wait for an angel to sing, for the sky to open up and beam down a ray of sunshine onto your laptop. You will make time.

Now is good. Right now.

Write now.

Welcome, Friends!

Welcome to my new blog, Read. Write. Live!  I’m an author, ghostwriter, editor, an adjunct professor of English, a licensed Realtor, and a pretty decent cook. I’m thrilled to be living on Florida’s East Coast, though I equally enjoy jaunts throughout the South and visits to the Appalachian Mountains.

Here I’ll share with you my book recommendations and reviews, my thoughts on writing, inspiration for surviving thriving in a hectic world, and a great recipe or three. (What good is living, if you don’t enjoy yummy food and a great drink along the journey?)

I’ll also treat you to posts from guest-bloggers who enjoy this creative life of reading, writing, and living, so check back often–or better still, click the link to follow this blog!

I invite you to chime in with your own comments and thoughts. Let’s Read. Write. Live!

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