Tag Archives: advice

Rest Days.

If you follow this blog at all, you know that I am very into both running and writing, and I am especially thrilled when the two overlap (See: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami). So when I found this quote on one of the writing blogs I follow, it really jumped out at me.

“There are days when I don’t write at all, but they are more like rest days.
There are days when I write a few thousand words and none of it goes into
the book, but those are like practice days, and they definitely happen to
everyone.” — Joanna Penn (in an interview with The Write Practice)

Just like running, you have to exercise your writing muscles. Back when I was working on my thesis for grad school I had no problem just sitting down and pounding out a few thousand words, but it was because I had been practicing for two years. And in the last year, as I’ve taken time to sort of detox from grad school, I’ve found myself having trouble even getting started. It’s sort of like how the hardest part of your run is the very first step (and the next few if you’ve taken some time off recently like I have…)

a professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit

You have good days and bad days in both running and writing. The key is getting yourself to start and then not letting yourself give up because of a bad day. Just take some time, rest, and start again tomorrow.

What does your writing/running schedule look like?

Do you plan your rest days? Or take them when you know you need them?


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Tackling NaNoWriMo While in School (and as a Post Grad)

The last time I participated in NaNoWriMo as was back in 2009 when I was a sophomore in college, justing getting the hang of the full college experience: extracurricular clubs, nights out, homework, and class. It’s already a lot to fit on your plate, and what’s more, November is right around that magical time when finals are creeping up and term papers are coming due.

I remember thinking how ridiculous it was for me to try and tackle NaNoWriMo on top of all that. That’s probably the reason I didn’t participate for the next three years–I knew what it involved and school kept getting harder.

But now, on my second real attempt, I am in a very different situation–graduated and working a professional part-time with my weekends and weeknights completely free.

Shouldn’t this mean NaNoWriMo 2012 will be easier? Logically, yes, it should. And the fact that I believe this is what worries me. The upside is that when I inevitably fall behind due to inflated sense of ease, I will have more time (presumably) to catch up. It also helps that I’m old enough to buy wine this time around.

But back to being a student: when it comes to trying to fit NaNoWriMo into the busiest November, there are some distinct tips I remember being very helpful for me. And while my situation is different now, I’d love to pass them along to those who still need them.

1) Knock out at least a few hundred words just after midnight on November 1st. It’s terribly inconvenient that NaNoWriMo starts while you’re still out celebrating halloween, but if you can come back from the party and manage to stay awake for a little while, just start writing. If you have had a few drinks, you won’t even think about your first sentence. You are completely uninhibited and can just start writing. I got about 300 words written before I was too tried to continue, but it made me excited to get up the next morning and I already had something to start with so there was no blank-page lag.

2) Write during every pocket of time you can find. This is hard because you (presumably) work hard at everything you do in school and feel like you deserve a break, but not during November. You need to use those breaks between class to get work done. Bring your computer (or whatever you’re writing on) everywhere you go. You never know when you can knock out a few hundred words and they can really add up.

3) Write during class (if you can). I probably shouldn’t suggest this, but it’s definitely part of how I was able to finish NaNo ’09. I had to prioritize my classes–which ones I had to pay attention in and which ones could I spend writing. Now, it worked out well for me because of the pick of classes I had that semester, but do not put yourself behind or in a bad situation just because of NaNo. There are other times to write besides in class and you will find them. But if you are already zoning out in a class, why not use that time to get some writing done?

4) Plan your breaks. You need mental breaks to keep going in such a stressful time. Watch tv during meals, write more during the week so you can take weekends off, etc. If you think you’ll just “make it up at the end,” you will be very upset with yourself when you’re rushing like crazy while your family is stuffing themselves with turkey. Plan your breaks.

5) It’s all about pacing. Always stay ahead of the word count in case something comes up–a big project or a rescheduled meeting–and make sure you just keep with it. Stick to your planned breaks and stick to your daily minimums. This is really not negotiable. Trust me. The minute you fall behind and have to make up three days of writing in addition to a 5-10 page essay for class, you will simply quit. Don’t put yourself in that situation.

When I participated, I finished the night I got home on Thanksgiving break after knocking out about 8,000 words sitting in the airport. I was able to enjoy the entire break at home with my family and bask in the glory of my victory. Ahhh success.

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Don’t Break the Chain!

They say the best way to improve your writing is to just keep writing. For most people, including big-name authors like Stephen King, that means making writing an every-day habit.

A lot of people struggle with this–I know I do. Busy lives get in the way and we find ourself getting into bed at night and wondering why we didn’t have a chance to sit down and write today. The reason? Because we don’t make writing a priority. It’s something you have to make yourself do, and to do that, you have to make yourself accountable.

I’ve personally started doing this by using Jerry Seinfeld’s method of productivity. Below is a brief explanation I’ve excerpted from this great LifeHacker article.

[Jerry] told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Essentially, you are visually holding yourself accountable for keeping up with your daily writing habit.

But how much writing you get done depends on you. Do you want to set a minimum word count? Maybe you want to write at least 500, or 1000 words a day. Or a time minimum, where you don’t get up from your chair until you’ve worked for at least an hour. Decide this ahead of time and hold yourself to it.

And thanks to the magic of the internet, someone has already created an awesome, easy to use (and free!) website called Don’t Break The Chain!

I am a huge fan of this site. I have it as one of my home screens to remind myself to get work done every time I pull up the internet. My favorite feature is how it allows you to create and manage multiple lists. I currently have four lists: Writing, Editing, Reading and Working out.

Unfortunately, in the wake of my recent completion of graduate school, “Working out” is the only list I’ve been keeping up with, but I plan on changing that. After all, I only went to school for five years to learn how to write well–I had better be using those skills, darn it!

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The Writer’s Block Myth

I spend way too much time online and as a result, I see way too many posts on blogs or forums about writers who have “writer’s block.” Forgive me for what is about to be a passionate rant, but I am so tired of this “writer’s block” nonsense. There is no such thing!

Why is there no such thing? Because writer’s block is just an excuse to not get work done. If you have writer’s block, you just don’t have a good enough reason to get something written. For me, deadlines keep me working. I don’t have time to not be writing. I don’t have time to sit in front of a blank document for hours on end because my next story is due in a six hours and I need to get to work.

And yet, I continue to see people posting about how they get over their writer’s block. How do you beat it? You accept that you don’t have it. You just start writing because you don’t have a choice.  You can’t give yourself a choice. You can’t give yourself an excuse. You get it done. You write what you have to write. And if you don’t get anything written, you don’t have writer’s block–you just aren’t motivated enough to do the work.

So to everyone out there googling “how do I get over my writer’s block?” Here’s the tried and true, forever tested and approved method of beating it. Just write. It doesn’t matter what, it doesn’t matter how much. Put words on a page. Because if you are putting the blame on “writer’s block,” you are taking blame away from yourself. And if at the end of the day your word count is still zero, you only have yourself to blame.

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AWP 2012 Panel Review: The Long and Short of It

R106: The Long and Short of It: Navigating the Transitions between Writing Novels and Short Stories 
With Bruce Machart, Hannah Tinti, Melanie Thon, Erin McGraw and Kevin Wilson

The first panel I went to was bright and early at 9am Thursday morning, and it was by far the best one I attended. It was clear that everyone was well-prepared and excited about the topic they were discussing which, as the title states, was the difference between writing a novel and short stories.

Each person on the panel had wonderful and insightful things to say, though some seemed to focus on things very specific to themselves rather than offer general advice but I think that was a positive. It is always good to hear how a published author gets things done, even if it doesn’t fully apply to you. You never know what might trigger something in your own mind and help you later on.

Some of the best and more memorable comments came from Erin McGraw, Hannah Tinti and Kevin Wilson. Though at the start of this panel, I had never heard of these people, by the end I had already jotted down a note to purchase their books.

Erin McGraw made the very basic assertion that  “Novels are not stretched out short stories and short stories are not shrunk down novels,” and I think that it needed to be said. She also noted that “the story we are telling dictates its form. Short stories, McGraw said, surround a singular informing incident, whereas novels follow a transition in a person’s life.

And when it comes to the difference in writing, McGraw said that with short stories you jump in and keep going. But novels are a much “sleepier” process, where after you write it, you must “come back and make it good.”

McGraw also suggested an “early moment of flirtation” with your ideas to see what form they will take and how they will develop. “Don’t make decisions too soon,” said McGraw, because the idea then becomes predictable. “Once we are sure, doors close.”

Hannah Tinti made similar comments, though she was more focused on a writer’s “intuition” dictating the form of a story. She said that she knows right away whether a story will be a novel or a short story, the minute an idea strikes her.

Tinti said that regardless of form, first drafts are you “just vomiting on the page.” But there are also distinct differences between writing novels and short stories, asserted Tinti, explaining that short stories are like jumping off a cliff, except you can see the water that you are headed for. Novels, on the other hand, require you to “work longer in the dark,” as thought you are trying to “put an octopus to bed” with each time you manage to get one arm under the blanket, another pops up.

I thought Tinti was the most interesting of the speakers, with great ideas, funny analogies, and a very frank way to speaking. It was after hearing her speak that I looked up her published work, which includes the short story collection Animal Crackers and the New York Times Bestselling novel The Good Thief. I just recently purchased her novel and I can’t wait to read it!

She also had a great suggestion about writing in general. It’s not one that I think I’ll use, but you never know who it might inspire. Tinti said that you don’t have to write chronologically, that sometimes you have to write the scenes that are most pertinent in your mind and fill in the blanks later. Specifically with short stories, Tinti said she usually writes from start to finish, working sentence by sentence. But in novels, she suggested that you “write looser” and not to kill yourself sentence by sentence because you’ll end up cutting or changing it later anyway.

Kevin Wilson also made a very strong impression on me with his good humor about his unique style of writing. His suggestions appealed to me the most, saying “with short stories, it is always a conceit”–a “what if” scenario that he then works a story around answering. He admitted that with this method, he fails roughly 3/4s of the time, and he has made peace with that, saying that “accepting failure is the easiest way to get to what you should be working on.” But when he gets it right, writing a short story is like “stealing a car and then crashing it.”

But when he tried to write a novel, explained Wilson, a conceit doesn’t work for him. The story needed more than that, it needed to arise from the characters–he had to care about the characters. He added that writing a novel is more like a long car trip that eventually crashes at the end, but with a much longer, meandering drive in between.

Being a big fan of conceit-based stories, I also picked up Wilson’s short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and can’t wait to get started.

The panel ended with a quick Q&A, which brought up some great questions.

In terms of the business of writing, the pressure of signing a deal and being under contract to finish your novel by a certain deadline, Tinti simply stated that “Everybody turns in  late.” She said that you do everything you can, beg or cry, to hold onto the novel until you feel that it’s finished, until you feel comfortable. “Don’t give in to pressure,” she said, because if it isn’t your best, people will criticize it and you will get bad reviews, and you will know it’s not your best.

Tinti also echoed McGraw with her answer to the question about the difference between short story and novel content, saying that “short stories are one emotional moment in [a character’s] life and how that changes them.” But a novel is “how their life has changed them as a person.” She added with good writing in either case, the reader should enjoy the ride of the story without being distracted, and then suddenly they arrive, much like driving with a GPS.

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AWP 2012: The Before

A few months ago I found out that a trip to the 2012 AWP conference in Chicago would be fully funded by my university. Chicago is only about a 6 hour drive from Oxford, Ohio and any gathering of writers is a place I want to be. Besides, conferences are part of the whole “grad school experience” and I don’t want to miss out!

Since I’ve never been to a conference before, I am still not sure what to expect. Many of my assumptions about conferences and conventions are based on The Office or the origin story for Legionnaires’ disease. In truth, I am going in almost completely blind. Luckily, some of my peers attended last year and had some suggestions for how I should spend my time. Unfortunately, their suggestions were varying: some advising I attend lots of seminars so I can to learn as much as possible, others saying to skip seminars all together and stick to off-sight events and parties. Some even thought it would be time better spent to hang out in the city, maybe check out the aquarium.

But the best advice I received about attending conferences actually came from Chuck Sambuchino who runs the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog, and who has been keeping me the busiest during my WD internship. He suggested that if I attend any seminars to take notes and blog about them (so expect a number post-AWP posts coming soon!) Chuck also advised me to get to know people and make connections over drinks, after verifying that I was over 21 of course. And, since I will get to spend some time working at the Writer’s Digest booth at the Book Fair, Chuck suggested that I not to fan-girl around any big-name writers, but instead act professional–like someone that people should want to get to know.

So here I am, making an itinerary of scheduled events, break times and meals, just to make sure I don’t walk in completely lost. Hopefully I’ll have a buddy with me to make sure I don’t wander off, but it’s a big event–sold-out this year–and knows what people will want to do and see? I am still a little nervous because this will be a completely new experience for me, but I figure that if I take a deep breath, shake a few hands and have a good time, things will work out just fine.

As for the Chicago traffic getting in and out of the city….pray for me.

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National Book Award Winners and Interviews

I am very jealous of my friend Annie. She is also in my fiction program and the fiction editor on OxMag. The reason I am jealous of her? Because she had the opportunity to interview a National Book Award winner.

Specifically, Jaimy Gordon, author of Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award winner.

According to Annie, Gordon is incredibly generous with her time and information which allowed the interview to last two hours during which they discussed everything about the book, Gordon’s life, and a good deal more since it takes a lot to fill that much time with talking.

Gordon also dropped by our workshop, also a very big deal. This is the first time my program (and school) has had a National Book Award winner as a guest and having the chance to meet her and talk to her was a fantastic opportunity.

There was also a reading, which, if you haven’t read or heard of Lord of Misrule, this reading made it clear why the book has been so highly praised. It should come as no surprise that with Gordon’s comfort speaking with people, that her reading would be fantastic. Much of the praise around Lord of Misrule is its ability to “capture the language of the racetrack,” and it only makes sense than it is when read aloud that the book is easiest to connect with. The language felt more lush and the characters came to life in a way that silent reading didn’t quite do the words on the page justice.

Gordon commented on how many people have had this same reaction and added that the book was sold to audio book and that a very talented woman–a former Shakespearean actor–would be doing the recording, and although she hasn’t listened to it yet herself, Gordon said that it had received good reviews. Apparently this woman can do every voice under the sun which is exactly what The Lord of Misrule needs.

And of course, there was also a book signing. Friendly, approachable, entertaining, and again, liberal with her time, Gordon spent a good while talking to each person, including me again (yay!) and it was quite lovely. She asked about my writing and I didn’t even know what to say (because you can’t tell a literary genius that you like to write genre fiction for children…)

But here is where the jealousy comes in, and I mean jealousy in how happy I am for Annie because of her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Gordon not only knows Annie personally now, but has requested samples of her writing and provided all of her contact information in case Annie would ever need a helping hand.

Annie of course was petrified, saying how she couldn’t possibly contact her….nothing is good enough….too nervous and shy…. Bah! I felt I had to explain it to her and that it merits repeating here:

She seized an opportunity to interview a NBA winner which in itself is amazing. This woman is now the perfect connection. One phone call to an agent or a publisher from her and Annie’s work will see print in under a year.

Connections are everything. And being connected and well-liked by a NBA winner is by far one of the best connections one can have. So anyone that has the opportunity to interview or meet with an author–do it. No hesitation. If they ask for your work, give it to them. The worst that can happen is they don’t like it. The best is that it leads to publications, and isn’t that really what we’re all after in the end?

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New Year, New Expectations

Break is over and like many, I have crawled forth from the warm folds of my comforter to start the new year as a better, more productive person. And like many, I didn’t finish everything I wanted to today. But that’s okay. The new year is all about what you do and what you’re going to do–as long as it gets done.

So as you compile your to-do lists and figure out exactly what you want to accomplish this year, keep these three things in mind.

1) The best diet is the one you can stick to. This might seem like advice specific to dieting, but it can be applied to all aspects of life. If you want to write more, set a schedule you can stick to. Don’t burn yourself out and then fall off the wagon completely–figure out a schedule that works for you, as intense or laid back as you need it to be, and stick to it!

2) Rest days are necessary. You are not throwing everything off or quitting by taking a day off. Your brain needs to relax every now and then, especially if you’re working, writing and taking care of others all at the same time. Just make sure you get back to it the next day.

3) Set short term and long term goals. You need a sense of accomplishment every so often to keep you going, otherwise you are more likely to give up. Short term goals will help you achieve small victories and motivate you to work toward your long term goals, such as finally finishing that manuscript.

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4 Tips for Dealing With Problems in Workshop

Graduate workshops are pretty interesting environments. They are often no more than 15 people (and that’s a big group). How a professor runs a workshop will vary, but the general idea is that each person gets to review 2-3 stories a semester, getting verbal feedback during class and a one-page response from each person. I have had some great experiences in workshop, but every now and then it’s possible to come across a workshop that is a less than perfect dynamic. You have to keep a few things in mind when dealing with workshop issues, such as where these people sitting around the table might be in a few years. You never know who you might need to ask for a blurb, or get a hook up with an agent. It’s best not to burn any bridges.

1) The best way to solve any problem in workshop is to talk to the professor. I don’t  mean tattle on someone who is skipping class or  complaining that someone is only writing 3/4 of the page for their response rather than the whole page. The big issues that require talking to the professor tend to be if you aren’t getting any feedback at all from someone, or if their feedback is completely off-topic and unhelpful. I once heard a story of a woman telling another person in her workshop that she would not read any of her stories because her religious kept her from doing so. Wow. These are the issues that are best resolved by going to the professor. You don’t go to complain, you go to ask what the correct course of action is. Chances are they have had a similar problem happen in another workshop they’ve taught so they have some good advice, but if not, at least you have their blessing to stop reading and responding to someone who doesn’t respect you or your work.

2) Expect to read things that will piss you off. If this is the case, you can’t let your frustration get in the way. Even if it “violates your religion,” you have to respect the person submitting the story. Does the content piss you off? Read for style, grammar, and word choice–leave the content to the others in your class. It’s more important to offer what you can in a positive way rather than get emotionally invested and cause problems in workshop (even if you’re passive aggressive about it and only go off in your written response.) If you need to rant, don’t tell anyone in your workshop–it will get around. This is what your pets, roommates, and signifiant others are for. Do not sacrifice the positive dynamic of a workshop because you don’t agree with someone’s opinions.

3) You don’t have to get along with the people in your class, but you have to respect them, unless they don’t respect you. You can go either way with this. If they don’t write you a good, helpful critique (or any critique at all), you can either be the bigger person and still put effort into yours in return, or you can put as much effort into their critiques as they put into yours–just make sure you talk to the professor first, and let him or her know that’s what  you are going to do (they will most likely understand, or be able to advise you, or even fix the problem) otherwise when the other person goes to complain, you look like the jerk.

4) If you’re not getting the feedback you want, be better prepared when you get to class. Go in with questions to ask as the end of the critique and meet with the professor out of class to discuss what was said or not said during class. Often times the professors will let the students do most or all of the talking, but they may have more to offer you in a one-on-one setting.

Basically if you are having a problem and want it fixed you really have to talk to the professor. It’s their job to make things run smoothly, so they will do their best to solve any problems that might arise. But it is also on the shoulders of everyone in the workshop to be kind, respectful, and as helpful to others as you want them to be helpful for you. Expect many more posts about workshops–they are the most important part of your higher education creative writing experience.

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5 Tips to Staying Productive During the Holidays

This is my first week on winter break and like many college students without solid holiday plans, I am feeling a little lost.  With no harsh deadlines for school assignments or a professor reminding me every day how far along on my thesis I should be by now, it’s hard to maintain any kind of productivity or even accomplish more than one thing a day (if that…)

Yesterday I spent about 75% of the day in bed, moving only to eat and transport my stationary body to the living room where the tv is. I’m not proud of days like this and rather than be relaxing, they make me feel pretty awful. But I told myself I would get one day like that, just to remind myself what “being on break” used to mean, and the rest of my holidays would be productive in some way–and they will be, because I’ve got a plan.

1) Have a solid reason to get up in the morning. Okay, I admit, this morning when my cats woke me up at 7am, I should have gotten out of bed. And when my alarm went off at 9am, I should have gotten out of bed. And when I woke up feeling refreshed at 10am, I should have gotten out of bed. But I ended up laying there till about 10:45am, and this is simply because I didn’t have any reason not to. Had I thought of a good reason to start my day last night, solidified it in my mind and made it a priority, this morning may have turned out different. Hopefully tomorrow will be an improvement.

2) Have a specific to-do list. For some reason, seeing “read Lolita” or “write a story” on my to-do list just doesn’t quite motivate me to actually accomplish that goal. So instead, I try to break these larger goals into very small, specific accomplishments that are more tangible in the short term, such as “read 10 chapters” or “outline a story”. This creates a much higher sense of reward and keeps me moving through my list.

3) Do anything “productive” to get started. When I’m feeling particularly lazy, I find it extremely hard to just jump into my scholarly pursuits with any kind of enthusiasm. So I try to do small, productive things like clean my room, take out the trash, clean the litter boxes, etc. It’s amazing how just accomplishing one small, albeit unrelated, task makes you feel productive enough to take on the things that you really should be getting done.

4) Go to sleep around the same time each night and keep a general schedule. It’s easy to stay up till 3am when there is nothing weighing you down or forcing you to get up the next morning, and for some people, 3am is the most productive time of the day. But then you’ve ruined your whole next day, you have created a bargaining chip for not getting anything done until that mysterious time called “later”, and you’ve set off a chain of events that will probably keep you from doing anything productive for the rest of the week–at least that’s how it works in my experience. So I plan on getting to sleep around the same time every night, unless a book gets particularly good right around midnight (and they always do), and keeping to somewhat of a general schedule. Wake up, coffee, morning tv, a little physical exercise, shower, read/write, family time, etc. You don’t have to stick to it hard and fast, but trying to keep it in mind will keep your day a little more structured and hopefully productive.

5) Don’t Break the Chain. This is the Jerry Seinfeld method of writing every day. Simply use this website to mark each day that you get some writing done, or whatever else you want to do every day (you can create multiple lists), and don’t break the chain. Simple! After a while, you’ll see when you get most your writing done, and when you check back and realize you haven’t done anything in a week, you know it’s time to get something on the page.

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