Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ten habits of highly productive writers

1) They reject the notion of “writer’s block” the way others shun gluten. Some people are truly unable to tolerate that vilified protein, but many more leap after a culprit to explain their dyspepsia or inability to refrain from carby deliciosity. Maybe cutting out a big food group makes it easier to stick to a diet than being careful about portion sizes of crusty bread and pasta puttanesca. Certainly there’s a comfort in diagnosis, relief in the idea that suffering can be linked to a thing that others also get. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to say that the muse has gone AWOL than to admit that writing is hard and requires discipline and sacrifice.
Productive writers don’t reach for excuses when the going gets hard. They treat writing like the job it is. They show up, punch the clock, and punch out. They give themselves a quota; sometimes it’s butt-in-chair time, sometimes a word count. Simple math allows you to figure out how quickly 1,000 words a day adds up to a book-length work. These writers know how to use deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, to stay on track.
2) They believe in themselves and their work. To be a prolific writer you have to believe that what you’re doing matters. The work takes priority. You have to believe it’s your job to be productive and to feel bad if you’re not.
3) They know that a lot of important stuff happens when they’re not “working”. Productive writers have been through the cycle enough to know it’s a cycle, and sometimes you figure out problems while you’re walking the dog. They know to trust that and don’t get twitchy when the pages stop piling up.
4) They’re passionate about their projects. Too much scholarly work is obviously produced without heat. Some academics take so long to finish a book they can barely remember what interested them about the topic in the first place. Productive people become impatient and seek out new thrills. They like to learn stuff.
5) They know what they’re good at. Perhaps academics find themselves traumatized by writing because they’re trying to sound like some “smart” version of themselves. Their writing comes off as inauthentic. Often, however, these same people can talk about their ideas in a way that makes you want to listen for hours. The best writing is a conversation between author and reader. If these folks could write more like they teach—be themselves on the page—the work would surely benefit.
6) They read a lot, and widely.  Productive writers (should) pay attention to craft and read to steal tricks and moves from authors they admire. Reading becomes a get-psyched activity for writing. Anyone who’s ever assigned (or done) an exercise in imitation knows that.
7) They know how to finish a draft. As with relationships, beginnings are exciting and easy, full of hope and promise. Middles can get comfortable. You fall into a routine and, for a while, that can be its own kind of fun. But then many of us hit a wall. Whether it’s disillusion, boredom, or self-doubt, we crash into stuckness. Productive authors know that they have to keep going through the hard parts and finish a complete draft. At least you’ve got something to work from.
8) They work on more than one thing at once. Of course, when you hit that wall, it’s tempting to give up and start on something new and exciting. While that can lead to a sheaf of unfinished drafts, it can also be useful. Some pieces need time to smolder. Leaving them to turn to something short and manageable makes it easier to go back to the big thing. Fallowing and crop rotation lead to a greater harvest.
9) They leave off at a point where it will be easy to start again. Some writers quit a session in the middle of a sentence; it’s always easier to continue than to begin. If you know where you’re headed the next time you sit down, you’ll get there faster.
10) They know there are no shortcuts, magic bullets, special exercises, or incantations.There are no tricks to make it easier, just habits and practices you can develop to get it done.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Used with permission.

Write soon,

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Reject the rejection

So you may have heard about the high school senior who wrote Duke University a letter rejecting the university's rejection - here's the link:

This opens up a world of possibilities for writers, who often face rejection on a regular basis. So, if you could write your own letter rejecting a rejection in an effort to take back your power, who would you send it to? Would it be a publishing company? An evil editor? Or maybe it's to the boy (or girl) who rejected you in the 10th grade. It doesn't matter, just do it, and tell us about it! 

Write (a rejection letter) soon,

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Go ahead and judge!

A request to judge a writing contest used to make me a little nervous. Now, however, I have become more confident. Maybe it comes from years of teaching and designing rubrics for grading, which have given me some insight.   

To begin, a judge should always ask two questions: “What are the judging criteria?” and “What is the deadline?”

When the judging criteria are stated clearly, your job is easier. The main thing I’ve learned about grading/judging is that objectives should be clearly stated, and match the evaluation process. That means the criteria is tied directly to the outcome.

So if there is a mystery writing contest that must be set in North Carolina, then the winning story should be a North Carolina mystery. Sounds simple, but it may not be so easy. There’s always an outlier that sneaks in with wonderful writing, but doesn’t quite match the requirements. Don’t give in. Stick to the rules and you will always be able to defend your decision.

Using a rubric (or judging criteria sheet) helps to quantify the work, and if one is not supplied, you may want to develop one. I did that a few years ago when asked to judge books, because there were so many areas to address that I had trouble keeping it straight until I came up with a general form that addressed key issues such as plot, character development and tension/pace. By applying numerical measurements to the key issues, a clear winner emerged.

So the next time someone asks you to judge a writing content, go ahead and do it, confident in the knowledge that even though some writing is subjective, using a consistent rubric means the strongest writing will emerge as the winner. And if you enter any writing contests, knowing the judging criteria may give you a leg up! (That means you should read the instructions carefully!)

And don't miss a deadline, ever.

Write soon,


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why do we write?

(Criticism and the arts, part 2)  

I saw the movie “Birdman” last weekend. Michael Keaton plays a former movie star/action-hero (Birdman) named Riggin Thomas, who opted out of the “Birdman” franchise years ago, and hasn’t had much success since. Thomas adapts the Raymond Carver story “What we Talk About When we Talk About Love,” for Broadway, and is writing and directing the play in the hopes that it will revitalize his career.

One of my favorite scenes features Edward Norton, who plays Michael Shiner, a not-so-likable-character who drives Thomas (and others) crazy before and during the play. In one scene, though, he defends Thomas to a theater critic sitting in a bar. (I’m paraphrasing) 
He’s taking a chance. He’s willing to lose everything for this. What are you willing to lose?

So why do we do it? Why do we create art? Why bother, when we know people will line up to tell us what we are doing wrong. Many writers, artists and musicians get the “art” beat out of them early, and stop. But others who are hurt just as badly continue. Why?

Is it that you want to change the world, or share a story that is bigger than you? A story can offer a new perspective or understanding of a topic, or maybe you want to connect with people - make them laugh or cry. Perhaps it’s just that you want to get something off your chest. Writing can be cathartic, and make you feel better. Or do you think your story can help someone who is struggling in the same way you struggled?

Does fame or recognition play a role in the process? A healthy ego is necessary to put forth any art in the world, so is that what drives you? Or is it money? Is writing just a job that pays the bills?

Maybe it’s all of those things, or a little bit of those things all rolled into one big giant unknowable reason that has no definitive answer. So, I'll ask again - why do you write? And what would you be willing to lose?

Write soon,