I’m continuing on with tips to boost your writing mid-year.
Tip 4: Practice Being a ‘Public Writer’.
Although summer is the time of beaches and barbeques, I would challenge you to add in a few ways to practice being a ‘public writer’. There are lots of ways to do this, but I am going to focus on two topics here—attending open mics and readings.
Attend More Open Mics and Read at Them
Reading your work in front of an audience is an invaluable experience for a writer. We can see when people lean toward us, laugh (one hopes at the appropriate places), and get a sense of how our words affect others. Reading aloud also helps us to become comfortable with our work no matter what the reaction. We meet new friends and learn about the work of other writers. In most places there are many opportunities to read your work in public—open mics organized by writing groups, in bookstores and cafes, writing conferences, and informal gatherings with friends. Practice, practice and practice some more.
If you get to read your work in public, be gracious if someone compliments you on your writing. Don’t say that you’re not really a writer because you’re not published yet (or published widely), or let any negative comments about your work leak out. Shine in the moment.
Attend More Readings
I hear from so many writers, “I don’t have time to read or attend readings.” Reading other writers and hearing them read is part of our writerly duties. We have to make the time. Attending a reading helps us learn about writers new to us. But, it is also about building community and being visible as a public writer.
You learn so much from how an author gives a reading. You learn about their writing practice, you learn about how to answer questions skillfully, you learn about what kinds of things to reveal, and you learn about how much work an audience can digest in a given sitting. It’s a great way to observe differences in style and tone between newly minted authors and long-standing ones. We also get to practice going up to a published writer and introducing our self and talking intelligently about our own work (if asked).
I recently got to see speculative fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal talk about her new book, Valor and Vanity. She is a former puppeteer and she incorporated puppetry into her talk (which was very cool). She dressed in an outfit that reflected the early 1800s time period that she was writes about (partly handsewn, to boot! Mary is super creative!). Her discussion of 1800s fashion became another interesting layer of the reading. Mary oriented the audience by giving some background on the ‘Glamourist Histories’ for those of us who were new to her work (we were in a minority), which I appreciated. But, instead of reading from her current novel, she did something very interesting. She gave us a teaser from the novel that she is currently writing which will complete the series and is due out in 2015. I thought that was a very cool thing to do as most people were probably going to buy the current book anyway, so it was nice to feel like we were hearing fresh material.
She also encouraged the audience to buy something from the independent book store, even if it wasn’t her book. As incentive, for people who bought any book, she gave out beautiful fans with a clever tag on them that contained information about Valor and Vanity. Not only did I learn about Mary’s work (Valor and Vanity is the 4th in the Glamourist Histories series), and buy her book, but I learned something new about how to promote one’s work in a fun, clever and ethical way. Her exemplar reading satisfied and surprised on so many levels.
Another tip for jump-starting mid-year writing.
Tip 3: Plan a Submissions Party
In my first writing group, more than fifteen years ago, I learned about the power of holding at least one ‘submission party’ during the year. A submission party meant that we planned a date and we all brought our polished manuscripts, manila envelopes, our bundle of SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes –yes, back in those days when you had to send manuscripts via snail mail and with a SASE!), and food and drink to someone’s house. We helped each other write query letters, find new markets to submit work, develop submission charts, and triple check final copies of stories. And, the best part of all, we’d each leave with several stuffed packets ready to mail to magazine and anthology editors and contest judges. These parties uplifted us and took the fear, dread and challenge out of submitting. And, they helped us get a batch of stories into the mail at one time.
If you are trying to stretch yourself by increasing your submission rate, a submission party might be just the kind of event that inspires you.
Last year, my current writers’ group decided to gather for a submissions party. Now, we were very lucky as our impeccable host went above and beyond throwing a simple submissions party. She set up stations where we could list our current writing accomplishments and talk about the rejection (or acceptance) letters we had received (i.e. the ‘good, bad and ugly’).
She also made up little gift boxes for each of us containing chocolate, specific submission markets and also laminated strips of paper with prompts for building characters (gleaned, she said, from the local community college catalog—reminding us that inspiration is everywhere).
At this party, we also helped one of the writers come up with a marketing strategy for her recently published novella. We traded literary journals and read aloud some of our favorite poets. We talked about our dreams for ourselves as writers and, of course, we told stories. We’re a critique group that meets monthly, so this party was a nice departure from our usual routine. We’re planning another submissions party in July and I suggested that we each bring a recipe for a drink of one our favorite writers (or make up one for a character that we’re working on). The making and sampling of a variety of non-alcoholic and ‘adult beverages’ should be fun!
At your next writers’ group meeting, suggest hosting a submission party during the summer. And, it doesn’t have to be as elaborate as the one I described. And, if you’re not in a group (Well, you should be! Remember–when focused friendly people come together to support each other, they can produce incredible results!), then ask a writing buddy, if he or she would be interested in executing this idea on a smaller scale.
This piece originally appeared in the ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News, June 13, 2014.
Like many other people, over the past few weeks, I have been remembering Maya Angelou and mourning the loss of such a tremendous creative force.
Dr. Angelou was a teacher, writer, healer and lover of life until the very end. I discovered her work in college and remember performing her poems “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman” with other powerful women at various gatherings. As a young woman, I found her work accessible, rich with positive female imagery, sensuous and often jubilant.
Maya Angelou’s death has made me think about aging, writing and being a creative “late bloomer.” What many people don’t know about Angelou, and I take great comfort in, is that she didn’t publish her first book until her early 40s (although she longed to do so before this).
She was an actress and performer for many years and then left the United States in 1960 to live in Cairo, Egypt, where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. Her next stop, a year later, was to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She continued honing her writing there by working as a features editor for The African Review and also wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
She used her years abroad to great advantage by studying and taking classes in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. After her return to the States, with encouragement of her mentor, the esteemed James Baldwin, she started work on her famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which became an international bestseller. And once those creative floodgates opened, she didn’t stop, writing seven memoirs in total (with an eighth underway at the time of her death), a cookbook, television and film scripts, music scores, and more.
Angelou’s writing trajectory that began later in life makes me grateful about manifesting my creative work in my early 40s. It’s only been recently that I’ve come to appreciate that the path to your heart’s desire is rarely straight and narrow, or progress easily demarcated strictly by one’s age.
Enchantment with child stars and people who seemed to achieve big things early in their careers used to fascinate me. And, it’s true that as an academic, I’ve had solid and early professional success, so I can’t complain on that front. I’ve written creatively all my life, but it is has only been in the last decade that I’ve made more space for that identity to flourish. When younger I was convinced that something needed to happen at a particular age – 20, 25 or 38. I’m now less worried about age being a gauge of inner or outer success. If they have been blocked, by midlife, people often open to inner prompts, urgings and guidance about fresh directions. This leads to new commitments to pursue buried or unrealized dreams.
I am also cheered by examples of writers including Sapphire, Amy Tan and Toni Morrison that didn’t start their writing careers until their late thirties and early forties. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a remarkable memoir. The skill and focus it took to craft it might not have been there if Angelou had not lived a full and complex life (i.e. sex worker, sexual assault survivor, performance artist, world traveler, and teacher), and faced her internal demons and doubts as a mature woman.
A writing life in middle age, though, demands mandatory self-care. The average life expectancy for American women is 80 years. It will take all the mental and physical courage I can muster to meet the page every day for the next 30 or so odd years; I want a supple mind and a healthy body. I have embraced a preventative regimen: a weekly schedule of yoga, exercise (to counteract all that sitting), meditation (to counteract loud inner critics), eating right and easy on the alcohol.
Watching Dr. Angelou over the years, it seemed that she found a balance between work and deep pleasure. She taught until 2011, but had plans to go back into the classroom later this year. Angelou appeared to be as delighted by the language of aspiring poets as she was by the writers she deeply admired including Shakespeare and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And, her dinner parties in Winston-Salem were legendary.
If I die at my desk, at 80, with a pen in my hand, a gorgeous journal in my lap, surrounded by my published works, I’ll be a happy woman.
And, if I can get a few fabulous dinner parties in before I go, I imagine Maya would be proud.
Posted June 16, 2014on:
This month, I’m offering some tips that can support your writing practice mid-year.
Tip 2: Increase Your Submission Rate & Strive for 99 Rejections
Years ago, writer Marjorie Hudson, shifted my perspective on submitting one’s work and coping with rejection. She declared that as part of claiming the mantle of a writer, one should strive to gather at least 99 rejections. I sat in the workshop feeling pretty smug thinking that surely with all the years that I have been trying to get published I reached that number, no problem. Later, when I reviewed my submission file, I was shocked to realize that I wasn’t even half way close to 99 rejections! This revelation spurred me on submit my work, in a serious and organized way.
I love Chris Offutt’s essay, ‘The Eleventh Draft’, where he discusses how he dealt with the fear of rejection:
“The notion of submitting anything to a magazine filled me with terror. A stranger would read my precious words, judge them deficient, and reject them, which meant I was worthless. A poet friend was so astonished by my inaction that he shamed me into sending stories out. My goal, however, was not publication, which was still too scary a thought. My goal was a hundred rejections a year.
I mailed my stories in multiple submissions and waited eagerly for their return, which they promptly did. Each rejection brought me that much closer to my goal—a cause for celebration, rather than depression. Eventually disaster struck. The Coe Review published my first story in spring 1990. The magazine was in the small industrial town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with a circulation that barely surpassed the city limits. The payment was one copy of the magazine, and the editor spelled my name wrong. Nevertheless, I felt valid in every way—I was no longer a hillbilly with a pencil full of dreams. I was a real live writer.”
The common suggestion is for writers to have at least five pieces submitted at any given time. Last year, I submitted pieces to a total of 21 different contests, anthologies, and literary journals, etc. Three pieces were accepted for publication and another story placed in a contest. And, I received my fair share of rejections. However, I also received a few lovely emails from editors who although declined the piece submitted, encouraged me to submit something else. The submission and rejection cycle is also one of building relationships with editors whose work you admire. Think of it as deepening your apprenticeship.
This year, I have submitted to 9 places and can claim an even higher rate of success with four pieces accepted for publication and an honorable mention in a contest. I’m hoping to beat last year’s submission record by the end June. The more work you have out, the easier rejection becomes. It’s also incredibly gratifying to take action in support of your writing life.
How is your submission rate going? Are you close to 99 rejections?
June is a great time to research new markets and submit to them.
BTW: Have you checked out my post on the ‘Magic Spreadsheet’ and how it can support your daily writing practice?
PS, If you’ve surpassed 99 rejections go and celebrate and also check out Mur Lafferty’s excellent podcast about going beyond 100 rejections and keeping the submission process fun and creative (Episode 317)
Posted June 9, 2014on:
June provides a great time for us to review the goals, commitments and visions we made at the beginning of the year. Do we even remember the commitments we made in January? Do our goals still take our breath away? Have we already accomplished some of them?
When you think about your writing goals are you feeling a sense of ‘Woo-hoo’ or ‘Uh-oh’? I hope you’re on the side of joy and excitement. If not, then it may be time to take stock of your writing strategies thus far and make some adjustments. There is still plenty of time to meet the writing goals that you set at the beginning of the year. This month, I’m going to suggest some tips that can support your writing.
Tip #1: Track your daily word count using the ‘Magic Spreadsheet’ (or your own system).
I discovered the Magic Spreadsheet from author Mur Lafferty. For many years Mur has hosted a terrific (and addictive) podcast for writers called I Should Be Writing. One of her MFA buddies, Tony Pisculli got inspired to design a support structure that would encourage one of the hardest practices of the writing life to maintain—daily writing. The story goes that he heard that author Cory Doctorow say that if you write about 250 words per day, in a year you’ll have a book. When it comes to writing, small increments of time and energy can yield tremendous results. And, Tony thought on most days, one can write at least 250 words.
So, he designed a system (a spreadsheet) where people can enter their daily 250 word count. He also added elements of ‘gamification’, meaning that it has fun elements–there are points awarded, levels to gain, etc. He circulated it to his MFA community and then over the last two years many other people discovered it and joined in. Currently, it is hosted on Google.
I think the Magic Spreadsheet is brilliant and is a great service to writers. This idea appeals to me on a variety of levels. I love group related activities that provide public support and accountability. I love the idea of friendly competition (it’s all on an honor system), and I love anything that kind of resembles a video game. Score, score, score!
The only thing that you do is enter your name, a few details and then move across the spreadsheet to enter your daily word count and with a click of a button, the program calculates all the other stuff. It’s like magic!
People are using the Magic Spreadsheet to make progress on their goals of finishing short stories, novels, plays, and even a few dissertations. You get more points for every day you write and every day you make the 250 word count (but you are of course free to enter in higher word counts).
A few days ago, on my birthday, I found a space on the spreadsheet and entered my name and word count. I wanted to start the spreadsheet on my birthday with the intention of writing every day from now until my birthday next year. I’m a pretty consistent writer, but have never tried to write 7 days a week, no matter what and with a minimum word count. It was a great way to kick off my birthday!
If you’re interested, you can listen to two podcasts here where Mur Lafferty interviews Tony about the Magic Spreadsheet’s origins and about the technology behind the scenes that makes it possible. You can also find all the info about the Magic Spreadsheet and how to join in here. There’s info at the link about the Facebook and Google+ groups. And, BTW, it’s all free! How is that for support?
Give the Magic Spreadsheet a try or set up your own system. Setting a specific and manageable word count (or page length) and sticking to it consistently is a fantastic way to build your writing muscle that is fun and sustainable.