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Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.
You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”
That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having troublecaring.
First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:
There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.
If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:
Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.
Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.
Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!
This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.
One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.
If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.
Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.
But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.
My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.
Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:
Take away something they love.
Give them something they want. Take it away.
Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
Give someone else the thing your character wants.
Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)
Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.
And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.
Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)
And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.
How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?
I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!
There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.
But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.
In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.
My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.
So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.
If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.
What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:
First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.
Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.
If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.
Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.
In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.
It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.
Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.
And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.
Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.
How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning
My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked two days per week.
The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing, and was treated to snarky responses about how I should already know the answer.
Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.
Then, on a roll, I found a free site-blocker app and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.
Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.
I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.
So I stopped doing that. If I sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”
One week I felt stressed about all I had to do: I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach for tips, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.
So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.
And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.
You CAN Set Your Own Hours
Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time.
The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?
We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).
Granted, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.
But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?
Do MORE of What You Love
So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.
Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?
Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets.
Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.
This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.
We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.
But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.
Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.
The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.
After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.
I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.
This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.
There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.
I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty:
Between 1996 and 2015 I sent out over 200 magazine queries — each one to multiple publications — and sold somewhere around 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate — or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)
So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? Top magazines like Redbook, Health, USA Weekend, Parenting, and Writer’s Digest? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?
It’s because I was too stubborn to give up.
Even when I was failing most of the time, I kept pitching. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.
So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing:
Rejection isn’t about you.
If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.
When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product? No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.
The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.
It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”
If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from writing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!
The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. The good news is that the more you pitch, the more immune to rejection you become. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: When you have one magazine query out there, it’s your baby and a rejection can crush you. When you have 50 magazine queries and LOIs out there, a rejection on one of them means you still have 49 more chances.
Now…get out there and pitch today.
This post originally ran in August 2013, and I updated it to make it more useful to you.
I was going through my emails for some reader questions that I’ve gotten over the years. This one comes from Susan last year, and it’s basically this: She saw some marketing materials for a book that’s coming out that’s exactly like what she’s working on. She’s upset. How is she going to find the will to continue writing this project if someone else has already beat her to it?
This is actually a very common question, and here is the (at times, tongue-in-cheek) response I wrote that I hope can help a few more of you out there:
I know everyone says “don’t worry about it” and that obviously hasn’t made you feel any better but…don’t worry about it. That book and thousands of others will be published this year. Unless this particular book hits it DIVERGENT-big, it will have its moment on the stage and then gracefully recede onto the backlist. (Sad but, more or less, true. For every mega-successful book that’s published in a year, there are dozens or hundreds more that do pretty well for themselves but don’t make a global splash.) Then next year’s crop will come. Then next year’s.
It’s the ciiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiiife!
Meanwhile, in the BEST case scenario, you will take six months to polish your book. You’ll take three months to query and sign with an agent. You and your agent will revise for three months. It will go on submission, and let’s say it sells in an amazingly short month. Did I mention that the entire publishing process moves at a snail’s pace? And you’re not even done! Then it will go into contracts, editing, design, proofreading, blah blah blah, and it will finally come out in hardcover a year from when the editor bought it. That’s a MINIMUM of two years from today. But if there are invariable publishing delays or you need two revisions instead of one at any point in the process, or they decide that another similar book is coming out and they should push you back a season and you have no control over any of it, then it’s more than two years from the book that’s upsetting you right now.
On top of that, you can’t really know a book from a paragraph of description. The voice, the tone, the plot, the sense of humor, the lightness or darkness, the literary quality. All of these things happen in the execution, not the pitch. (ETA: The product and the pitch, people! It was an idea in my brain like a year ago!!!) So the book you’re worried about could be completely different from what you’re doing. And you don’t even know it until you read it. What attracted that writer to that idea, and that editor to that manuscript, could be completely different from what kind of response your idea will drum up.
So, basically, all this is to say you should probably trash your manuscript and start over. Just kidding! You’re totally fine. Keep on trucking. Nobody is stealing your ideas. Maybe one day your book will be featured in an online newsletter and some writer is going to start worrying and email me because she thinks she’s working on the exact same thing. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve heard this question. There are just a few archetypal stories in the world that we keep telling over and over, in different wrapping paper. That doesn’t make one book more or less special than the next, and as long as the stories are well-done, there’s room for them on the shelf.
Don’t believe in the myth of scarcity. This book isn’t taking away from your potential place in the spotlight.
This post originally ran as this week’s Monday Motivation for Writers email. If you’d like to get an email full of writing advice and insights in your inbox every Monday, plus two free e-books for writers, you can join here.
Also, this email generated a TON of great responses, and many of them had helpful insights that I hadn’t thought of myself…so I got the authors’ permission to include their comments with this post. (They’re at the bottom. Apparently there’s a limit to the length of a WordPress post so I couldn’t include all of them. However, I am opening the Comments on this post in case you have something you’d like to share! Thanks!)
Why I killed my social media accounts (+ why you may want to too…and what to do instead)
You’ve probably read a lot of those “Why I Quit Social Media” posts all over the Internet, and the arguments usually run along the lines of “Twitter is a time-suck” and “Why is it that everyone on Facebook is madly in love with their spouses, taking amazing vacations, landing lucrative (and fun!) freelance writing jobs, and gazing for hours at their perfect, adorable children? I must be a huge loser.”
This post will be different. And it starts, ironically, with an amazing vacation. (Sorry!)
My family and I just spent two weeks traveling around Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and France.
I decided this would be a non-working vacation — my first EVER since starting my freelance writing career in 1997. I can’t remember a single trip where I didn’t bring my laptop and stress out over the availability of public wifi. I was determined that this time would be different.
So, we visited old friends and a former exchange student, climbed the tallest church tower in The Netherlands, went to a genever festival and tried Belgian gin in chocolate cups (gin = yuck. chocolate = yum), toured an abbey that was founded in the 1100s, went on a food tour of Paris, and climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe at night.
I love my work and thought it would be damn near impossible to keep my mind off of email, the blog, the classes I teach, marketing, writing, and so on. But, shockingly, I felt ZERO urge to do any work for the entire two weeks. I didn’t even take notes, write a to-do list, or check email. That was…different.
In the middle of the trip, I noticed something funny: My Tourette’s tics had completely disappeared, and the persistent heartburn I had been suffering from for the last few months had vanished as well. Hell, I even LOOKED better. (See that photo of us at the Notre Dame? Guess how old I am. I’m not trying to brag…I’m trying to say I DON’T USUALLY LOOK LIKE THAT.) I felt amazing, my skin glowed, and I even lost weight. I wondered if this was the result of actually, you know, relaxing. (Which is kind of a foreign concept for me, no pun intended.)
Then It All Came Back…And Ended with Social Media Suicide
On the drive from Paris back to the Düsseldorf airport for the flight home, it was like some switch went off in my brain: The tics came back, the heartburn returned in full force, and the stress eczema I sometimes get on my feet cropped up. This all occurred DURING the 5-hour drive to the airport. I won’t fuel your nightmares with a photo of what I looked like at this point. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
As much as I enjoy what I do for a living, and have a wonderful home and family life, clearly something about returning home was stressing me out enough to cause strong physical symptoms. The body is sometimes so much smarter than the brain! But what was it telling me?
On the long plane trip back home, I did a lot of thinking and researching. (I had brought my iPad and paid for wifi on the plane.)
I normally work just six hours per day, Monday through Friday, which doesn’t seem like a lot…but I am such a productive Type-A person that I manage to get more done in my 30-hour workweek than most people can in 50 hours per week. (And I know this because they always tell me, “I work 50 hours per week and don’t get done half what you do!”)
However, I am also easily overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I should/could be doing. We business owners have to do it all!
I got to wondering — are there any activities in my work life that I don’t really need to be doing? Activities that are crowding out more important tasks that will have more of an impact?
An obvious one to look at was social media. It’s like a monster that you can never feed enough:
“I should post on Facebook.”
“I need to check Twitter in case someone sent me a DM.”
“How can I get more followers?”
“I better find some posts to fill my Buffer with.”
“Oh my God, I haven’t checked LinkedIn in DAYS.”
“I better respond to all those @replies!”
Social media takes only a few minutes per visit, but the overwhelm wasn’t about the amount of time I spent there — it was about the number of times I felt the need to stop what I was doing, check into one of the many social media platforms, respond to messages/add posts/share/etc….and then try to get back on track with my original activity.
Then there’s the matter of being at people’s beck and call in three more formats (outside of email). Not to mention feeling the need to learn about and implement every new social media marketing strategy some Internet guru comes up with. (Facebook ads! Tweet chats! LinkedIn posts! Twitter contests!)
I can’t sleep on planes, so on this lengthy Lufthansa flight, I started reading blog posts and articles from people who had quit social media, and ran across a post on the Forbes blog about how the author discovered that his tweets actually brought very little return in the form of clicks onto his articles.
I checked analytics.twitter.com and noticed that while many of my tweets were shared, few were actually clicked on. Then I checked analytics.google.com and realized something much more shocking: Of the 15,000+ unique monthly visitors to the Renegade Writer Blog, just 200 of them come from Twitter. That’s about 1.3% of my visitors.
Then I remembered the last tweet chat I did, which was hosted by a large media company. My tweet chat was not only promoted by the company in social media and on their blog, but it was also splashed across a huge electronic sign in Times Square.
To prepare for the chat, I wrote questions for the host to ask me, and planned out my answers in 140-character increments. I dug up helpful posts from my blog that illustrated the points we were chatting about so participants could click to get more info. I promoted the chat in email and on social media. And I took an hour out of my already-short workday to actually do the chat.
I watched my Google Analytics during the chat…and noticed that during the hour-long event, a big THREE people followed the links in my tweets. Three total. It’s not that the host company did anything wrong — they were amazing and I love them. And I think I did a fine job preparing for and promoting the event. But for some reason, potential Renegade Writer readers were not interested in or motivated by the chat.
Okay, so I was pretty convinced that Twitter was not very useful for me, business-wise. But what about Facebook?
While Twitter is more of a marketing platform for me, Facebook is mostly personal. Lately, my experience on Facebook has been people with clearly fake names and photos sending friend requests; me scrolling endlessly through political rants, click-bait posts, and photos of abused animals every time I felt a modicum of boredom or was stuck on a word while writing a newsletter; and feeling anguish every time I received a friend request from a student or reader. (A year or so ago I trimmed my FB friends list to IRL friends, but still felt bad saying no to requests from writing acquaintances and clients.)
The people whose news and photos I really wanted to see, and who were interested in MY news and photos — we are connected by phone, email, or in real life. At the point when I was considering shutting down my account, I hadn’t posted in three weeks, and let me tell you — I was NOT inundated with messages from Facebook friends asking, “Where have you been? We miss your cat photos, brags about your son’s ballet performances, and musings on the writing life!”
Then, the kicker: There’s a woman who annoys the hell out of me on Facebook, and I came to realize that every time I posted a photo or update, I secretly hoped she would see it and be in awe about how great my life was going.
LIFE IS TOO SHORT to spend time and psychic energy making spite-posts on Facebook.
As for LinkedIn, every time I thought to check it — which was once a week or less — I would have to sift through a load of messages from people I don’t know very well asking me to connect them to other people I don’t know very well. (Early on in LinkedIn, I accepted every connection request even if I didn’t know the person. I realize now that’s the wrong way to do it.) Not to mention mass messages from people asking me to buy, read, or do something that I was 100% not interested in. And InMails from PR reps pitching me clients in industries I have never written about in my life.
The upshot: While most other people on the flight from Germany to Chicago snoozed, watched movies, or drank booze — I made the crazy decision to kill my social media accounts.
I deactivated my Facebook account (not too drastic, since you can always re-activate it later). Shut down my Twitter account. And closed out my LinkedIn profile.
The Results So Far
It’s only been a few days since I killed my social media accounts, but I feel much more peaceful knowing there are three fewer things I need to think about. Much more than three, actually, because now I don’t have to worry about tweet chats, direct messages, friend requests, @messages, Buffering posts in advance, scrolling through my feed reader looking for posts to Buffer, social media marketing, learning about social media marketing, and much, much more.
And strangely, it’s a really nice feeling to do, see, or experience something amazing and not immediately think, “I should put this on Facebook.” Experiencing something in real life and not through the lens of a camera — ahhhh. It gives you a sense of quiet confidence, knowing you can do something cool and not need to show it off to the world. It feels…classy. Confident. Peaceful.
What About Marketing?
Most of my business these days is teaching classes; mentoring writers; and writing books, blog posts, and newsletters to help freelance writers succeed. The little writing I do these days for clients such as magazines and blogs…well, I have enough contacts in the industry at this point that they come to me offering gigs.
I’m no longer on the prowl for writing clients, and I’m not looking for a full-time job, so dinging clients on Twitter, networking on FB pages, and updating my LinkedIn profile are not the best forms of marketing for me.
I maintain an email list of about 7,000 writers, and have 15,000 monthly blog readers, and these people — the ones who trust me with their time, who come to me of their own volition seeking help and advice — are my priority. For them (you!) I write newsletters, blog posts, and books, teach classes, and create new products such as meditations and mugs (coming soon!). I simply focus on producing the best, most helpful content I can, and my lovely readers read and share. Creating amazing value for writers — that’s my marketing.
But I know that YOU, my reader, are looking for freelance writing jobs…and every writing guru on the Internet is imploring you to network with editors on Twitter, connect with corporate clients on LinkedIn, comment on magazines’ Facebook pages, and update your accounts daily with the freshest, wittiest posts to keep your lovely face top of mind with whatever potential clients happen to be online at that time.
But here’s the thing: When writers ask me what forms of marketing they should do, I always tell them to focus on the marketing technique they like enough that they’ll do a LOT of it.
For example, when I was starting out as a freelance writer, I really enjoyed writing and sending query letters and sales letters. So I wrote and sent out a ton of these things — like dozens every week. I didn’t do cold calls, or send emailed introductions, or go to networking events. I just sent queries and sales letters, over and over and over. Because I didn’t like those other things, but I liked this.
And it worked. I launched my freelance writing career in July 1997, and within a few months realized I would be earning 50% more than I had at my last office job. Three years in, I was earning $80,000 writing only for magazines and corporate clients — and my ONLY form of marketing was writing and sending queries and sales letters.
Eventually, as social media grew — and marketing gurus decided everyone absolutely, definitely needed to tweet, comment, post, and friend — I ventured onto Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. While I did get a few freelance writing jobs from these platforms, the vast majority of my gigs came from good old pitching. It’s one of those Pareto Principle things: 80% of your results come from 20% of your activities.
So in my experience, it’s better to pick ONE form of marketing you love and feel good at, and really work it. Maybe you:
Make 50 cold calls per day.
E-mail letters of introduction to dozens of prospects every week.
Write and send queries until your fingertips bleed.
Go to every networking event in your area, speak at as many of them as you can, and invite prospects and colleagues out for coffee every week.
Work consistently to build a Twitter presence, hire someone to craft a beautiful background for your profile page, write and post many compelling tweets every day, and connect with prospects via DM and @replies.
Really do your LinkedIn profile up right, spring for a Premium account and send InMails to prospects, write amazing posts, and become an expert presence in the Q&A forums.
So maybe your one thing is a social media platform. But maybe it’s not. Whatever the situation, you should NOT feel like you need to be proficient and active in every possible type of marketing in the known universe. That just dilutes your power. If you’re really good at networking and not as good at LinkedIn, you know which will be the more effective marketing tactic for you. Every minute you spend on your LinkedIn profile is a minute you’re not taking an editor out for coffee.
What About Staying Relevant?
I know…we writers fear that if we’re not visible in all the social media, the world will rush right by us and we’ll be seen as old fogeys without a clue.
But think of this: I’ve been on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for years, and I can’t think of a single time this fact gave me more cred with clients and prospects. One of my best friends writes for some big-name magazine and corporate clients and she has never been on ANY kind of social media.
If you think high-quality editors and copywriting clients are trolling around the Internet and judging your lack of a Facebook page, you’re madly overestimating how much time they have. These people barely have time to answer their email, much less wonder if you’re using Facebook effectively.
And consider this: I had 300+ FB friends, 500+ LinkedIn connections, and over 6,000 Twitter followers. I had not been on social media for weeks before I killed my accounts, and not one of these close to 7,000 people noticed.
We’re all busy. When you’re following hundreds of people on social media, it all becomes a blur, and you’re not likely to even notice when someone stops posting unless they’re power posters and you’re a hardcore fan.
We have enough to think and worry about in our freelance writing careers to spend time contemplating whether we’re no longer “relevant” because we’re not posting links to cat videos. Focus on your core values: Your writing skill, your compelling ideas, and your professionalism.
If you have a website, even a simple one, you’re good to go.
Should YOU Quit Social Media?
This is a highly personal decision. Many people get great pleasure from connecting with friends on Facebook, or land a quality freelance writing jobs through Twitter or LinkedIn. If that’s you, great!
Also, if your main complaint is that social media is a time-suck and you’re kinda-sorta addicted to it, you can always block your bête-noir sites with an app like anti-social.cc when you need to focus on a project.
I challenge you to think hard about what social media does for you. Does tweeting 20 times a day really help your writing career? Could your time be better used elsewhere? Do you truly enjoy being on Facebook, or does your blood pressure rise every time you scroll through the posts?
If you’re on the fence, try taking a social media sabbatical. Have your partner change your passwords and hide them away from you. Or try one of the social media-blocking apps.
Don’t announce it…just do it. Block or log off of the offending sites and see how that changes your productivity, your emotions, and your day. And consider: Has anyone noticed you’re gone? If so, are these people you really care to stay in touch with on a daily basis? Are you able to find another way of marketing your writing — one you feel good at, and like to do?
And if you discover you really don’t like social media, and you don’t need it, and you’re more productive in your writing without it — consider pulling the plug for good.
Do your research before taking the final step. You’ll learn, for example, that you can deactivate your Facebook account without actually deleting it, which could be a good intermediary step. And supposedly you can reactivate your Twitter account within 30 days, but I’ve heard that some things, like your favorited tweets, don’t come back.
I hope I’ve planted a seed in your brain that will help you get more out of your writing time, boost your freelance writing career, and create more peace in your life. If you enjoyed this Monday Motivation, please forward it along to your writing friends!
COMMENTS FROM SUBSCRIBERS:
THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!!!!!
This post is exactly what I needed at this stage of my freelance writing career. I am just starting out. My business is in the gestational stage with the birth coming soon. The thought of marketing on social media has been a huge obstacle for me in terms of just-getting-going.
I am happy to report that at 48 years of age I have finally figured out what I really want to do “when I grow up” and am thrilled to focus on getting paid for my writing — something I have always longed to do but have been too afraid to try — until now!
Then, bam! As I am tooling about getting my website ready, finishing a business plan, and brainstorming on marketing ideas and niches, I read all over the place about the importance of social media for marketing purposes. My heart sank into my stomach. My gut aches now as I type just thinking about having to spend time on these platforms. I really do not like social media, huh? And to admit that makes me feel old and out-of-date. And brings angst that I cannot be successful without these.
A year ago I took down my Facebook account because reading through endless posts made me dizzy and wanting to scream at myself for spending time on this or at others for sharing yet another bliss-filled day in their lives. I accepted LinkedIn requests from people I barely knew and never looked back. Great networking!
I realize I will need to venture back into this area at some point but simply knowing that I can focus my efforts on the marketing I enjoy and am good at brings a smile back to my face. And gives me a desire to place butt back in chair, fingers on keys, and get going!!!
As someone just starting out, I had the notion to ignore what my inner wisdom and knowledge about myself and how I operate (having had a different successful small business prior to embarking on this one) simply on the merit and drumbeats of the online gurus/masses.
So thank YOU for nudging me in a direction I know is best for me in this particular here and now.
Time to get this baby kicking!!
Keep up the great work! The Renegade Writer blog and site — what a find!
I love this, Linda. Experiencing life in real time? What a concept.
Just want to say thank you so much for your email today. (Why I killed my social media accounts …)
I am a freelance journalist from Kentucky. I now have so many story assignments that I have to pace myself. I haven’t taken any of your classes, but I HAVE gleaned from your emails and I have watched/listened to some of your podcasts. I am appreciative of your enthusiasm and your expertise. I lead a writers group and I routinely refer to your wisdom.
I am going on vacation on Friday and will have the chance to be unplugged (mostly) from social media for over a week. I have made a conscious decision to NOT work on work while I am at the beach. (We will see how the guilt works on that one!)
Anyway, thank you so much. I am a small voice from the Bluegrass, but let this small voice encourage you as well. You are doing good things and I am ever so glad.
Wow, Linda, this is such an enlightening post. I’m on five social media platforms but need to be as I do social media work for clients. This does serve as a great reminder for me to really focus more on the platform that actually brings me clients which is LinkedIn and I understand LinkedIn well and like networking there.
Linda. This is so insightful! Actually, this morning, I realized I hadn’t logged into my Twitter account in awhile and started to feel “irrelevant” as you say. I quickly looked you up for an RT and found some old accounts of yours! I was thinking, IMPOSSIBLE.
Thanks for sharing. This is definitely something I need to think about!! I want to be a writer and not a slave to social media!
WOW! My daughter, wife and I talked til 2 AM this morning about this very topic!
I told my daughter to stop staying up til 5 AM and tweeting and posting. Cease or at least seriously cut back.
She tells me that, in addition to wanting to be a writer — and she does have clients — she wants to act. I said, “Well, eliminate the tweets, FB, etc and take acting classes. Get rid of the negatives and add a positive.”
Fascinating, Linda! I actually went to look for your Twitter feed a few days ago, because the Pitch Clinic handout that goes over how to sniff out editor email addresses references being able to find yours via your Twitter feed, and I wanted to give it a shot. After a bit of digging, I noticed all your accounts were gone, and I wondered why!
I wish more people would make this decision. I run social media for clients, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve counseled people to give up all but one or two social accounts that they like or know they get engagement from. It’s just not sustainable to try to be on five, six — sometimes ten! — social media sites. And for some people, like you found out, it’s not worth it at all. Business and individuals would be a lot happier if they would stick with what really works for them, rather than trying to fit the mold of what “marketers” or “society at large” says you should do.
Anyway, hope you don’t mind me replying — this was a very inspiring post and congrats to you for pulling the plug for your personal peace! And hoorah for a wonderful vacation!
Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful post, Linda. As a writer with 15 years of experience and a decent career established, I still worried at night that my lack of a twitter account (not to mention my lack of interest in stalking people through their instagram photos!) was making me less relevant, that I was somehow missing out, even though my career didn’t seem to be lacking because of my lack of social media participation. This post made me feel better about my choice and confirmed things I’d often thought were true — in our busy world, nothing replaces beating the pavement with solid queries and/or choosing the method of marketing where you’ll be most effective.
SO, I did the RIGHT thing!
I already kinda killed my social accounts a couple of months ago.
Well, didn’t delete Twitter and LinkedIn accounts but deleted the FB profile, completely.
BUT I never logged into any of the social accounts – so it’s like I killed them when I took an oath not to use any of them.
You may or may not be aware that in Europe and Asia, people use WhatsApp on their mobiles phones more than they use other social apps. I deleted that one last year after trying it for 2 months and it was eating my time.
I love my work and thought it would be damn near impossible to keep my mind off of email, the blog, the classes I teach, marketing, writing, and so on. But, shockingly, I felt ZERO urge to do any work for the entire two weeks. I didn’t even take notes, write a to-do list, or check email. That was…different.
I also usually can’t live off of e-mail and my computers and Internet, but when I’m doing spiritual service and am with my group, the happiness I get is so so much, that I forget everything else. At times, this can be a week or more. This last August, it was about a month. No internet and no e-mail checking at all. I didn’t have my lappy even.
Without any doubt, like you said, our diseases go away, we don’t know where. So, it’s like freelancing brings into us some diseases?
I hope you get better with your small/big ailments. But, please know one more thing – these things are also internal and at the sub-conscious level. You’re into yoga so I’m sure you’ll at least listen, even if not believe me. There are MANY diseases and ailments which go into the next births because they’re in the subconscious mind, mind is a part of us (us being souls).
If you would like more on the above, do let me know. I’ll be glad to give more info.
Thanks for the interesting post with your experiences and the tour. Seemed like I was with you on the tour, to those countries too. So, thanks a ton.
BTW, if you wish to know why I stopped using social media, it was a determined decision I made with about 3,000 other youths in a spiritual class, when we were asked whether social media wastes time and we all had raised our hands. I’m glad I’m very strong on the decision and won’t revert back or change it. No excuses at all.
Even though you had to research and read about how to stop using social media, you made a super wise decision and God’ll bless you for that too!
Thanks a TON and stay social-media-less forever, like me. I’m writing an article in my institution’s spiritual mag, in Hindi, though, to help my spiritual brethren stop using social media.
This newsletter of yours struck a chord with me. Social media’s great because, at its core, it helps you connect and reconnect with people you care about. It’s been morphing into more than that, however, and in a very stressful way. People you don’t know, people you just met once (and ever-so-briefly!), batch mates from your kindergarten class whom you don’t even remember and whom you know don’t even care if you don’t even remember… they all request to be Facebook friends. I tried to limit my network to those just nearest and dearest to me. Unfortunately, I failed miserably at that. It’s just hard to reject people, especially when it’s the likes of that co-worker who you see daily and who must be secretly wondering when you’d accept his friend request.
That’s partly why I’ve limited the frequency I check my Facebook feed from once a day to just once a week. It’s a huge time-suck. It also doesn’t make sense to check the posts of all your contacts when you’re not even close with half of them. It results in a disconnect on a platform that’s supposed to connect.
Wow. I should write a blog about the stresses brought about by social media relationships.
Anyway, re: your tip about focusing on that one thing you’re good at, marketing-wise, well… that’s given me food for thought as well. I have an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google Plus. I also blog twice a week and manage my social media posts thrice a week. It’s a lot of work, and so far it’s not working so well. Most of my Twitter followers just favorite my tweets; they rarely retweet them. Most of my Facebook page followers just like my page because they like me, and not necessarily because they like what I advocate, which is wellness. Needless to say, I rarely get post likes there. It’s on Google Plus where I seem to have the most meaningful engagement, and it’s something that surprises me endlessly. I need to lessen the frequency of my posts elsewhere and just focus on that one marketing strategy and that one media platform that really works for me. I can’t give up social media, but I can work towards limiting my social media time whilst maximizing its benefits.
I’m very happy that you had a great European holiday! Europe is beautiful!
More power to The Renegade Writer!
Thanks for writing this email. It’s refreshing to hear someone who is as well known online as you are say that social media is a waste of time. I did a lot of marketing on social media a few years ago for a software company and generated a lot of sales leads for them doing that. But since I went out on my own doing marketing consulting and freelance copywriting, I’ve been doing social media and seriously wondering if it is a waste of my time, as even though I have solely focused my content on marketing-related topics to attract VPs and directors of marketing (my main target audience), I appear to have a lot of followers who definitely aren’t my target audience. But I suppose that’s because everyone wants good info about marketing. However, the one exception is having a LinkedIn profile, which has been invaluable to me because I’ve already gotten two clients that way.
In addition, I have been wondering how realistic freelance copywriting is. I know there is plenty of work out there. But I do seem to be hearing a lot of stories about people who tried to make a go of freelance copywriting and failed. And since so much of what is written about freelance writing (not yours, but a lot of other content) is written in such a hype way (i.e., make a million dollars writing from home in your bare feet, and get rich working only one to two hours a day while you sit back and royalty checks roll in), it seems too good to be true/not believable.
But I’m still going to pursue it, because I do believe, being a marketer myself and working in companies where the marketing departments have been short on staff, that there is plenty of work out there. The key is identifying which companies you want to work with, finding out if they even work with freelancers (I’ve worked at some that do and some that don’t) and whether they meet your ideal client criteria (e.g., will pay you what you are worth, have ongoing work/projects, are easy to work with, etc.), and then proactively going after them. To me, the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in this business comes down to those who are willing to be a true business owner by working hard and wearing multiple hats at one time (e.g., the writing hat, the new business development hat, and the marketing hat) and those who aren’t. Those three things are the only true/real recipe that I’ve found for success anyway.
Hey all! The PubCrawl gang here with a special Tuesday guest post with Beth Revis, the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, and one of the smartest and most generous people we know! Because Beth is so generous, she has written—not one, not two, but three—books of writing advice! We are giving away the first here today, which I think many of our readers attempting NaNoWriMo this year might find useful!
DON’T MISS OUT ON THE GIVEAWAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST!All orders of Paper Hearts made before November 15 from Malaprops will come with a special gift—more details below!
There is Always a Reason to Be Jealous
When I was a kid, scribbling stories and beaming when the teacher or my mom displayed them on the wall, authors were as mythical as unicorns. Walking among the shelves of a bookstore felt like walking among giants. It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel that I started to think being an author wasn’t an impossibility.
And that was also about the time when I started to feel jealous. I wanted, more than anything, to be a published author, and as time went on, I became more and more jealous of anyone who already held the keys to elite circle. That feeling just became more and more intense as I wrote manuscript after manuscript, hoping to find the golden ticket into publishing.
I would tell myself, If I could just get an agent, I’d be happy.
And then, eventually, I got an agent. And so I said, If I could just get a book deal, I’d be happy.
And I did. I got the book deal of my dreams. But then I said, If the book could just do well, maybe some awards or hit the list…then I can be happy.
And it did. And I was blissfully, gloriously happy. I had all my dreams come true. A great book deal, a trilogy that hit the NY Times bestseller list, publisher sponsored book tours, fan letters, literally everything I ever wanted.
But there is always a reason to be jealous.
Someone else hit the list higher. Someone else got a bigger deal. Someone else is heralded as the height of the genre. Someone else has higher ratings and better reviews. Someone else has everything I have, but also a nice lake house and isn’t allergic to kittens.
There’s always a reason to be jealous.
Even if you have it all, even if everything’s perfect…it won’t last. It just won’t. I guarantee that even J. K. Rowling worries that her next book will flop and the glory days are over. A number one New York Times bestseller fears that no one will read his next book. An author on the red carpet of the movie based on her book has a niggling fear that this is the peak and everything is downhill from here.
And even if you are riding that high, there is always someone who is higher up than you. There just is. That is the nature of the game. We all want to be the best of the best. We all want to be made immortal through our works. We all want to know that the things we wrote made a difference in someone’s life. And it’s hard to measure what our success is. So we look at things that do measure “success.” Things like author rank, or sales numbers, or who gets invited on a book tour, or who gets the most fan art on tumblr, or who is friends with who, who got a blurb from this other author, or which publishing house is better, or who gets more attention from their editor, or who stays on the list longer than who else, or who even makes the list, and in the end none of that matters.
None of it.
There is always a reason to be jealous.
No matter how successful you are, there is always someone more successful than you. No matter what you think the epitome of your career is going to be, when you reach it, there will be a higher point you want to reach. And that is good. You always want to be striving forward, you always want to be trying to make your art better. But if you become focused on what other people have, you waste your life on jealousy. You become bitter. You start reaching for the false goals. You quit celebrating the success of others, because you’re so wrapped up in yourself.
There are countless reasons to be jealous. But that doesn’t mean you have to succumb to them.
You can win a journal with this cover!
I wrote Paper Hearts for the writer I used to be. The questions I used to have plagued me when I was starting this career path. How do I get to the end? What’s the proper way to structure a novel—is there even a proper way? How do I make my book stand out from all the other ones on sub?
Now, fifteen years, eleven unpublished books, three New York Times bestsellers, one self published book, and countless hours working on craft and working with other professionals, I think I finally have the answers that I needed way back then.
Unfortunately, I can’t travel back in time.
But what I can do is try to help others. I’ve been compiling articles on the things I’ve learned about writing, publishing, and marketing for years, first informally on blog posts, then more collectively on Wattpad. After hitting 100,000 reads, I realized that I should take Paper Hearts more seriously…and that I had not one book, but three.
Fully revised and expanded, the Paper Hearts series will feature three volumes, one each on writing, publishing, and marketing. Paper Hearts, Volume 1: Some Writing Advice will be out on November 1, with the other two following in December and January.
Your enemy is the blank page. When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper. But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.
Practical Advice Meets Real Experience
With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:
How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
What Common Advice You Should Ignore
What Advice Actually Helps
How to Develop a Novel
The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone
Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
How to Deal with Failure
And much more!
BONUS! More than 25 “What to do if” scenarios to help writers navigate problems in writing from a New York Times Bestselling author who’s written more than 2 million words of fiction.
Remember: if you pre-order the print copy from my local indie bookstore, Malaprops, you’ll also get a chapbook of the best writing advice from 12 beloved and bestselling YA authors included in your order for free!
BETH REVIS is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You. She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs. You can find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online. If you never want to miss a thing and also get exclusive insider opportunities, sign up for her newsletter here.
Alas, Pub Crawl readers, the time has come for me to make my exit. I’ve been writing for this blog since 2012 and it’s been a blast. From sharing publishing insights and craft advice, to engaging in wonderful discussions via the comments, to just geeking out over books and pop culture, I’ve had so much fun contributing to Pub Crawl!
But I also can’t ignore the fact that I am stretched too thin, that my writing time is precious and I need to guard it fiercely. It was a hard decision, but I need to cut back on my blogging obligations. I’ll still be writing books and sharing advice (via my blog, newsletter, and social media outlets), I just won’t be doing it here on Pub Crawl.
Before I go, and as Alex Bracken and Amie Kauffman have done before me, I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned since entering the publishing industry…
1 — ADAPT
There is no perfect time to write, and there is no perfect place to do so. You might have an ideal—your dream writing day/situation—but if you sit around waiting for it, you’re burning precious hours. In the words of Tim Gunn, you just need to “make it work.” I wrote my debut in half hour sprints after work and on the weekends. Then I became a full time writer and had all the time in the world. It was marvelous. Of course, I now have a one-year-old and am back to writing in sprints and cramming copy-edits in during naps and brainstorming while I push the stroller. All this to say: nothing is life is constant. Be prepared to write under any circumstance.
2 — YOU ARE NOT YOUR BOOK
If your book tanks, that doesn’t define you. If your book is a massive hit, that doesn’t define you either. Your identity is not tied to the success of your books. Remember that age-old mantra, The only thing you can control is the words? Well, it’s true. So don’t let your happiness be tied to things you can’t control, like sales numbers and best-seller lists. Find other passions and hobbies. Spend time with friends and family. Love writing, but live outside it too.
3 — SHARE KNOWLEDGE
I only made it through my debut season without going insane because kind, thoughtful, gracious writers who were ahead of me in their journey reached back and told me what to expect. They shared knowledge. They acted as a sounding board. They pulled back the curtain. Publishing can often feel like a giant mystery, like you’re wandering down a road-blocked, pothole-ridden street while wearing a blindfold. Help your fellow writers out. Pay-it-forward. We’re all in this together, I promise you.
4 — TAKE A SOCIAL MEDIA BREAK
Seriously. You’re allowed. As soon as you start feeling burned out, that you can’t keep up with the tweets, that the fun’s been sucked out of tumblr and that your networks are just another thing you have to maintain, STEP AWAY. Take a week or two off. Maybe more! The internet isn’t going anywhere. It will carry on just fine without you and it will be there when you get back. You’ll be amazed at how much you don’t miss, and how rejuvenated you feel when you finally return.
5 — CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Write outside your comfort zone. Explore new genres. Take risks. Do something that scares you. The only way you grow as a writer is by trying new things. Comfort—writing only what feels safe—will keep you stale. It will stall your growth. And aren’t we all trying to grow?
6 — DISSECT EVERYTHING
Storytelling is everywhere, so when you watch a movie, binge a TV show, read a book, look at a photo, listen to song lyrics, peruse a gallery… take note of what you love. What works? What inspires you? On the other hand, what do you hate? What would you change? Apply that to your own writing.
7 — ENJOY THE NOW
The grass is always greener ahead. The future holds great promise. It could be when you land an agent, sell that book, get a movie deal, go on tour, hit a list, get showered with awards, and so on. But if you’re too busy looking ahead, you’ll miss the things happening now. And remember my point in #2? Those fancy things are wonderful, but journeys without them aren’t pointless journeys. Remember to live your life. Be present in the moment. Tomorrow is going to happen no matter what, so make sure you enjoy today.
I was so happy to be able to talk with Lori Deschene. As the founder of Tiny Buddha, she’s helped more than 1,200 people (including me!) share their stories and lessons with more than 60 million readers (as of June, 2015). She’s the author of Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself, and her newest release: Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges.
Lori, I know you’ve written for girls’ magazines, and many of The Renegade Writer’s readers want to write for magazines themselves. How did you get into that?
I found my first magazine writing opportunity on Craigslist in the gigs section—something that doesn’t happen all that often! I didn’t actually have much professional writing experience at that time, but I did have the right experience.
The magazine was a new middle grade publication, for girls aged eight to twelve, and they were looking for witty, upbeat articles on friendship, self-esteem, and surviving embarrassing moments.
Prior to finding this opportunity, I’d worked in mobile marketing, taking promotional campaigns from city to city. My last tour was a walk across the country to promote a variety of health and fitness-related products. As the tour’s dog walker, I wrote a “dog blog” that chronicled my canine companion’s adventure.
These were all light, funny posts that fit the exact tone the magazine was looking for. They loved my writing samples and hired me to write an article for the first issue, which led to more than a dozen more.
Eventually, I submitted some of those articles to a bigger, more established middle-grade magazine and went on to contribute over fifty articles and quizzes.
I also wrote for a real estate magazine briefly that, once again, I found on Craigslist. It was also a new magazine, and I don’t actually know much about real estate. But I was looking to build a body of work, and I was open to any opportunities I could find!
In retrospect, I realize I could have been more proactive and targeted. I could have identified more magazines that I wanted to write for instead of taking any writing gig I could find on Craigslist (including a job writing travel guides for $6/hour).
But I think there’s something to be said for being hungry, and being willing to take whatever you can get to hone your craft and build your resume.
Then you started the Tiny Buddha site. What inspired you to do that?
Prior to starting the site, I’d spent more than a decade struggling with depression, bulimia, shame, and self-loathing. For years I felt alone with my challenges—like no one knew me, and no one would love me if they did.
After making tremendous progress with my personal struggles, I wanted to create a place where people could share what they’ve been through and what they’ve learned, to help themselves and others.
My hope was that this would help readers feel less alone with their challenges and more empowered to overcome them. And though I didn’t realize this at the time, I eventually recognized that starting Tiny Buddha was a big part of my own healing journey.
There’s something cathartic about leveraging your pain for something useful and valuable—and there’s little more valuable than making a positive difference in someone else’s life.
How has the Tiny Buddha blog helped your career? Do you earn money from the blog through ads, selling books…?
I earn money from a combination of:
I’m also planning to launch some products soon, including journals, gratitude journals, and calendars.
I launched my first eBook roughly a year after the site launched, and it sold regularly, but I was still working another full-time online writing job. I also dabbled with blog coaching and blog review reports—something I didn’t really love and only did briefly.
It really wasn’t until the three-year mark that I felt comfortable depending solely on Tiny Buddha for my livelihood. In retrospect, I’m glad I never felt pressure to earn a specific amount from the site. If I had felt that pressure, I may have said yes to opportunities that didn’t feel right for me.
There are a lot of ways to make money online, or to leverage your online presence to make money. Not all are good for each of us individually — or for our brands.
I also see you have a forum, a widget that lets people post quotes from the site on their websites, and much more. You accept guest posts, do blog tours… that all sounds like a lot of work! How difficult is it really to start and run a successful blog? I think so many writers believe they can just start a WordPress site and start posting their thoughts, and the readers (and money) will come flying in.
It is a lot of work! And I’ve been feeling that a lot more lately, as I don’t have an assistant or any employees. That being said, it wasn’t always a lot of work.
When I first got started, I devoted just a few hours each day to running the site. At the time, it was just a quote and blog feed, and I wrote very short posts (some of which, I now realize, weren’t all that compelling).
If I’d thought to myself back then, “I have to build a site with forums, daily guest contributors, a fun & inspiring section, multiple books, a widget, an eCourse…” I likely would have felt too overwhelmed to start. But I’ve added layers to the site over time.
I think the most important thing is that you show up each day and do something. You remain consistent and keep learning.
This guarantees that you’ll keep growing, slowly, bit by bit, over time.
Writers are always asking me, “I want to start a blog, but I don’t know what to write about.” I think you’re living proof that you don’t decide to start a blog and then cast about for a topic…you have something burning in you that you want to share so much that it can sustain thousands of posts and years of work. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely! This comes back to what I wrote before, about having a mission. You have to have a compelling “why” behind your blog—some reason you have to explore this topic. Otherwise, you likely won’t have a reason to stick with it if and when progress seems slow. And you’re absolutely right—you likely won’t be able to write for years on the topic.
Every now and then, someone submits a post to Tiny Buddha starting with “I wasn’t sure what to write about this week…” Those are usually the least compelling posts because it’s clear the writer was looking for something to say, as opposed to having something to say.
If you don’t have something you have to say, readers won’t feel compelled to listen.
What are your top three tips for writers on how to build a successful blog?
I believe you need all three to build and maintain an audience—you need to deliver with consistency, solve problems readers are facing, and reveal your own humanity in doing so.
2. Foster a sense of community.
We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, and we want to be where other people are congregating and connecting.
The first step in building a community is to have a compelling reason for its existence. People can “hang out” on any site—why yours specifically? What’s the movement they’re joining?
Is it a group of people committed to changing the world through meaningful work? Is it a group committed to sharing themselves vulnerably and learning from each other? When you have a strong mission for your site, community engagement becomes more than comments on isolated posts. It becomes about people supporting each other in working toward a common goal.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to end posts with questions. And if you can involve the community in a post in any way, that always helps.
Formerly, I asked questions on Facebook (such as “How do you help people who won’t help themselves?”) and then incorporated the responses into posts. I’ve also asked readers to submit pictures and videos for different purposes. An involved community is an engaged community!
3. Focus on building relationships.
Behind the most popular blogs you’ll find people who weren’t afraid to reach out to more established bloggers to learn from them, and to other new bloggers to work with them.
This might mean asking to guest post on a larger site to introduce new readers to your blog. It might mean working on a product with another blogger to launch to both of your communities simultaneously. It might mean building a blog support network with lots of bloggers in the same niche.
The more people you connect with, the greater the odds your blog will grow. And the more people you help, the more people will want to help you.
And you’re the author of three traditionally published books too! How did you get into writing books? Did you find an agent, or were you approached by one? Did you have to write a proposal?
I first started working on a proposal a year after I launched the site, and I sent that to an agent who’d reached out to me. He wasn’t thrilled with my idea, but he gave me some feedback that helped me come up with a new one. Shortly after, a small publisher contacted me after seeing me speak at a conference.
The most helpful advice I got when writing my first proposal was to ask myself, “Why would readers buy this book from me specifically?” My first idea was something anyone could have written, and I didn’t have anything in my background that would have positioned me as an authority on this topic.
Each of my three books makes sense from me specifically, because they’re all extensions of Tiny Buddha, including both my own personal experience and insights from the community.
So you’ve written for magazines, and you run a blog AND write books. Do you find there’s some value for writers in diversifying? If so, what is it?
I’ve enjoyed the variety because I find it more stimulating—and challenging. Whereas I could write a blog post in a couple hours, a book is clearly a long-term project. And it’s something that’s far more involved, especially when you’re working with dozens of contributors, like I do.
There’s also a certain level of satisfaction that comes from stretching yourself and trying to do something new. Especially if you’re writing about the same topic every day or every other day, it can help tremendously to mix things up.
What are your top two tips for writers who would like to write traditionally published books?
Aside from answering the question “Why me for this book?”:
Get an agent with success in your niche.
While you could send your proposal to smaller publishers without representation, an agent knows what makes a strong proposal, and which publishers would be best for your book. As I mentioned before, I’ve gotten a book deal with and without one, and the latter was a far superior experience, on every level, and totally worth the money.
Create a solid marketing plan for your proposal.
Publishers are looking to work with authors who can sell books. If you have an established platform, great! If not, do you know any other high-profile bloggers who will help promote your book? Are you willing to invest your money in a book trailer, a blog tour, or a publicist? Do you have any ideas for creative social media campaigns?
Since the Tiny Buddha blog is all about topics like happiness, motivation, inspiration, and letting go…I’d like to talk about two emotions writers feel a lot — fear and stress. Do you have any advice for writers on getting over their fears of rejection, failure, and even success so they can start pitching and writing?
As someone who’s pursued both theater and writing—two incredibly competitive industries—I know all about rejection! Three things that have helped me are:
Not taking rejection personally.
It can be tough to do this when you put your heart into your writing. But agents and publishers aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting the idea—and at that specific time.
There are plenty of times when contributors submit posts to Tiny Buddha and they’re very similar to posts I’ve recently accepted. That actually means they’re strong posts, but my job as a site editor is to offer variety and look for varied themes and perspectives.
I always encourage writers to submit again. Not all editors do this, but submit again anyways.
Think of it as a numbers game.
When I worked as a telemarketer, I knew that every twenty calls would likely lead to one sale. Knowing this made it easier to face those nineteen rejections because I knew I was getting closer to closing a deal.
It’s not quite the same with writing, but it can help tremendously to think of every “no” as one step closer to a “yes.” Challenge the belief that “no” is proof you’re not good enough. If you need a reason to believe you can still succeed, despite rejection, check out this article or this one or this one.
Realize you have far more options now than writers once did.
If you have something to say, you can find a way to put it out there. You can start a blog. You can write an eBook. You can self-publish a print book. And if you do self-publish a print book, you could then leverage that to get a deal with a traditional publisher. (I know several authors who’ve done this!)
We’re fortunate to have so many options available us writers today. Knowing this somehow takes the sting out of rejection because you know that no isolated rejection can crush your dream, or prevent you from honing your craft and getting your work out there.
I absolutely hate sending rejection emails because I’m both sensitive and empathetic, and I never want anyone to think I don’t admire and respect both them and their work. If I’ve rejected posts from the same writer a few times, I might offer extra feedback and end the email with “I hope I’m not discouraging you!”
Not too long ago, a writer responded, “No worries—you’re not! I have a whole list of sites I submit to, so I’ll just submit this to one of them.”
It’s something I’ll remember next time I’m feeling rejected. There are other sites. There are other magazines. There are lots of other ways to get my work out there.
And stress…we writers feel that a lot! We’re running our butts off pitching, interviewing, networking, writing. We have tons of deadlines, client demands, and other stressors. How can writers become more calm and centered so they can work more productively?
The best advice I can offer any writer is to get out of your head. There were many times in the past when I sat at my computer for ten+ hours, when on a deadline, with only short breaks to eat or use the restroom. This was a surefire path to stress and burnout!
I used to think taking a break for a walk or a quick meditation was wasting time, but I’ve since learned than fifteen to thirty rejuvenating minutes are actually huge time savers. I come back to my work refreshed, recharged—and in some cases, particularly if I’ve been in nature, inspired.
Then I have much calmer, and much more positive energy, to bring to my work.
Doing something childlike, like hopping on a swing
Dancing to your favorite music and releasing pent up energy
Tell us about your latest book, Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges. What inspired you to write it, and where can readers buy the book?
As someone who’s felt alone at various points in my life, I understand the value of strong relationships. I also know we’re living in an increasingly disconnected world, despite being more connected than ever.
We all need to feel seen, valued, appreciated, and loved. We’re social creatures, and we need to feel like we belong, like people get us and will be there for us. We also need to know people trust us and depend on us to be there for them.
Of course, these things are far more easily said than done. Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges can help.
The book offers a year’s worth of simple daily challenges to help people give more love in their relationships, treat themselves more lovingly, and put more love into the world.
Some of the challenges are active, some are reflective, some involve having conversations with other people, and some are writing exercises.
Each month has a different theme, including:
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Compassion and Understanding
Authenticity and Vulnerability
Releasing Anger and Forgiving
Attention and Listening
Honesty and Trust
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Acceptance and Non-Judgment
Releasing Comparisons and Competition
Support and Encouragement
Admiration and Appreciation
Giving and Receiving
And every week starts with a relevant story or two from members of the Tiny Buddha community, illustrating the power of applying these principles in daily life.
The challenges are all little things, and some might seem simple, but the simplest things are often the hardest to do consistently—like putting your phone down and giving someone your full attention, or looking a stranger in the eye and smiling.
Relationships have never been my strong suit, but I feel much closer to people, and much better equipped to give them the love they deserve, since incorporating these tiny actions into my daily life.
P.S. All the e-books for writers in the Renegade Writer Store (except one) are Pay What You Want until Friday…this is an experiment, and if we like the way it goes, we’ll make this a permanent change. That means, at least for right now, YOU choose how much you’d like to pay for each book (with a minimum of $1 each). SO far we’ve had about 300 orders, most containing multiple books. Some writers are picking up EVERY book at $1 each, some are buying just a couple at a higher price, and some are in between. Have fun!
My 6-year-old son is a dancer: He takes several ballet classes and a jazz class every week, and has done tap as well. (That’s him at the Nutcracker rehearsal last year…sorry, I couldn’t resist!) So when a local Irish dance studio did a demo at T’s school and he asked to take lessons, I raced to sign him up. Encouraging his passions, and all that.
A weekly class costs $45 per month, but one month I had a brain fart and dropped off a check for $40. The next day, I got a polite reminder from the studio owner that I had sent in the wrong amount — fair enough — and I responded that I would drop off the $5 at T’s next lesson.
But at that very point, T decided Irish dance wasn’t for him. (I have to say I was relieved…driving T to dance five days a week and then sitting in a waiting room with 3-year-old copies of Dance Magazine is not my idea of a good time.) He had taken only one session at the beginning of the month, and after that I just stopped taking him.
A few weeks later, the studio owner emailed to ask where T had been, and I said he decided to stop taking classes, but perhaps one day he would change his mind.
She responded, “Okay, we hope to see him again…and by the way, you still owe me $5.”
I was taken aback: We had paid $40 and T had taken one lesson that month. I responded, “I think the $40 I paid covers the one 30-minute class T took!”
To which she replied: “Sorry, we don’t prorate for classes not attended.”
Now, of course, she was right. In fact, I’m sure I signed a contract agreeing to this very thing. But…seriously?
My husband and I joked for a while about sending the dance school a box of 500 pennies, or mailing five one-dollar bills a week apart, but finally I said, “Just send her a check for the five dollars and be done with it. I never want to deal with this school again.”
So the business owner got her five dollars — win! — but she lost potential future business, not to mention word of mouth. Because if anyone ever asks me to recommend a good place for dance classes, you can be certain I won’t be suggesting that school.
Ever hear the expression “penny wise but pound foolish”? This usually refers to people who cut costs unwisely and end up paying more in the long run. But it also applies to writers who are SO invested in coming off as professional, and so hyper-vigilant about not getting ripped off, that they turn off clients.
For example, one student of mine who had been attempting unsuccessfully to get good-paying clients for over a year asked, “A prospect wants me to come in for a meeting. My time costs money! So how much should I charge them?”
I understand the thought behind this: You want to look like a hard-bitten pro, and it’s true — your time IS worth money.
But is it really smart, when you’re desperate for work and someone shows an interest in hiring you, to go all hardcore and demand payment for an exploratory get-to-know-you meeting?
The same goes for writers who go into a frenzy when a client asks for a revise, or when an editor asks for 200 more words or a photo caption that wasn’t included in the contract. You need to consider whether it’s worth doing a bit of extra work for free to keep a good client.
(Of course, if this is an abusive client, one who pays pennies, or one who consistently asks for extra goodies with no compensation — you’re well within your rights to put your foot down…and hopefully ditch the client for good.)
Think about the last time you were at a café and you dropped your drink. (This happened to me just last week!) In 100% of the cases this happens, the barista will offer to replace the drink for free.
Now, the café owner is certainly justified in making you pay for the new drink. After all, is it HIS fault you had case of butterfingers? And drinks cost money, so he’s losing five bucks by offering you a free replacement!
But if he’s smart, the business owner understands that the cost of the free replacement drink is eclipsed by the goodwill created when he offers it to you. You’ll keep coming back and ordering more coffees, ad you’ll tell your friends about it too. That’s five bucks well spant.
Give to Get
Not only should you think hard about demanding money when a good client asks for a little extra here and there — but you should make it a point to offer little freebies even when the client doesn’t ask:
An extra sidebar you create with research you couldn’t fit into the article.
An introduction to someone who can help your client.
Some tweets and Facebook posts to promote an article or blog post you wrote for a client.
The occasional little gift just to say “Thank you,” such as an e-book or a box of candy.
Ten minutes of consulting time to help the client with a question or problem you happen to have the expertise to solve.
Yes, you’re spending your valuable time, and sometimes your hard-earned cash as well — but it’s worth it to foster loyalty in your good clients. As they say in Big Business, it costs much more to get a new client than it does to keep an old one.
Don’t Be a Sucker
I know you don’t want to be taken advantage of — and you definitely don’t want to come across as a doormat.
The trick is, when you agree to do free work, convey how much it’s worth and that you’re doing the client a favor.
For example: “I had some extra materials I couldn’t fit into the article, so I created an extra sidebar, no charge. I hope you can use it!”
Or: “I normally charge $X for that kind of work, but you’re such a good client I’d like to offer it to you gratis.”
This way, you graciously offer something of value to your client — but you also get across the concept that there is indeed worth to your offering, making the favor even more valuable in your client’s eyes.
At the same time, you keep the requests for freebies to a minimum because you’ve made it clear that these are things you normally charge for. And if the client DOES ask for more, they won’t be shocked when you say, “Sure, I can do that — how does $X sound?”
Remember, don’t be a stingy Irish dance teacher…you may get your five dollars, but you’ll lose a client. [LF]
P.S.Two new (awesome!) classes coming up that you can register for now: (1) Write Big: A Fear-Busting Bootcamp Experience: Practical exercises, live coaching, a challenge, and bonus goodies to help you overcome the fears that are keeping you from writing, pitching—and succeeding. (2) Freelance Writer’s Pitch Clinic: A class on how to write killer queries & LOIs. Your homework will be critiqued, and your questions answered, by editors from Redbook, Forbes, and Writer’s Digest/Print Magazine. And…you have the chance to get a full refund on the course fee!
Is it at your dining room table, surrounded by dirty breakfast dishes? At your local Starbucks? In a well-appointed home office?
Wherever you’re working as a freelance writer…the space needs to work for you.
And your home office is about more than physical space—you also need to think about your phone service (and voicemail message), your equipment and supplies, your working hours, your mailing address, and more.
Are You a Writing Fangirl…Or a REAL Writer? 7 Ways to Tell
We writers can spend hours every day thinking, dreaming, talking, and ruminating about writing. We love what we do!
But when we use these activities (and I’m loathe to even call them “activities”) as substitutes for actually writing…that’s a problem. We leave the realm of serious writer and enter the realm of — fanfolk.
And it’s a sneaky problem, because geeking out over all things writing feels like we’re being productive. We call it brainstorming, networking, getting motivated, whatever. But what it is not, is WRITING. Oh yeah, and MARKETING. And otherwise getting off our butts and going after, and completing, paying writing assignments.
(Caveat: I’m not saying we’re not allowed to have fun, kill time, and kibitz on writers’ forums. It’s when these time-wasters placate us into feeling productive — or we’re more interested in the trappings of a writer than in writing itself — that there’s a problem. )
Seven Signs You’re a Writing Fanboy/Girl:
1. You wear your Grammar Police badge with pride.
Writing forums, email discussion boards for writers, and blog comments are full of posts like these:
My client just sent me an email where he used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’! *headdesk*
Look at the typo in this newspaper headline! What is journalism coming to these days?
Hey, blogger…you call yourself a writer? There’s a word missing in the second paragraph.
Pointing out/kvetching about other writers’ grammar mistakes make you FEEL good because hey, you don’t make mistakes like that so clearly you’re a superior writer. But is it getting you more gigs? Is it getting more writing out of you? Or is it simply wasting energy you could be using to get more assignments?
The person who made the typo is writing. What are YOU doing?
I have a guest post on the MakeaLivingWriting.com blog that goes into much, much more details on why you want to pit away your Grammar Police badge. (With 177 comments…clearly a hot button topic!)
2. You give a crap that The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play. (And you know that it has 1,787 words.)
Look on almost any writers’ forum and you’ll see long threads where writers discuss their favorite pen (who writes in pen anymore?), post interesting factoids about Shakespeare, share motivational quotes from Hemingway, and hash out the details of the latest plagiarism/book banning/angry-author-screwed-by-publisher case.
I call these “fanboy writer posts.” These writer trivia posts show you’re a big fan of all things writing…but do they actually count as writing?
3. You’re a member of 10 writing organizations.
Here’s your email sig line:
Jane Smith, Wordsmith Extraordinaire
National Writers Union
Science Writers of America
Mystery Writers Association
Medial Journalists’ Society
East Podunk Stitch & Bitch Writing Club
Romance Writers of America
[Add five more here]
Guess what? Editors and potential clients do not look at this list and say, “Wow. She must be a serious writer. Let’s hire her!”
Being a member of (most) writers’ associations does not prove that you are a writer. If you shell out your $150, you can get in. Even if you’ve never written a word in your life!
Join the organizations that pertain to the exact type of writing you’re actually doing. Not the genres you wish you were in, or the ones you think will impress people. And only join if you plan to be active in the group (which includes — wait for it — writing.)
4. You are the proud owner of a vast collection of quill pens.
Many writers love the trappings of writing more than the actual act of writing itself. So we see aspiring writers posting photos of their collection of mugs with writerly sayings; getting/talking about/comparing/sharing on social media their tattoos of Remington typewriters; collecting recycled-paper, leather-bound journals (just for looking at, natch); and strolling the aisles of Office Depot coveting the fancy pens.
Anyone looking at you, with your exclamation point tattoo and “Writer at Work” doorknob hanger, would think you are a writer. But…are you actually writing? Don’t delude yourself: A collection of quill pens does not a writer make.
5. You take writing classes you don’t need.
Wait a minute…did I just say that? Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot because I teach a ton of classes for writers here—but seen too many writers take class after class in order to avoid having to actually pitch and write.
(Many instructors LOVE students like that…they pay good money, don’t do the work, and the instructor gets something for nothing.)
A multitude of certificates from writing classes is the sign of an insecure writer who always thinks she needs to know more before getting started — or the sign of fanfolk who love showing off their creds more than they do actually writing.
Yes, take a class to learn the skills you’re lacking, whether it’s writing the perfect pitch, running a writing business, or crafting an article that will sell. Then…go out and do that thing. That’s what makes you a real writer. If you come to a a roadblock because you need more skills, THEN you can take more classes.
This goes for free classes, too. Just about everyone with something to sell online offers a free class/instructional webinar/training call to get people on their email lists. It’s tempting to try them all! But unless you need that exact skill right now, you can hold off until you do.
6. You love books.
Writers love spending lots of time on Goodreads reviewing books. And weighing in on the latest literary controversies (is The Goldfinch crap or not?) And discussing On Writing and Writing Down the Bones and The Artist’s Way. And bragging about how many books they have in their homes. (I have over 1,000 books! Oh yeah? Well, I have 1,500. Here’s a photo to prove it!)
But the fact that you have a library overflowing with books, a shelf full of writing manuals, and 500 Goodreads reviews (especially of those writing manuals!) does not show you’re a writer. You talk a good game, but do you have the ass-in-seat-time to prove it? Serious writers with limited time use their time to — write.
7. You call yourself a “scribe” or “wordsmith” on your business card.
You are not a scribe, and you’re not a wordsmith. These terms bring to mind unpaid writers jotting down poems for the love of it — or monks copying Bible passages. (My editor at a writing magazine kept changing the word “writer” to “scribe” in my articles and it drove me batshit crazy…as much as I loved this editor!)
You are a serious, well-paid businessperson who offers writing as a valuable service. Right?
So: Are you a fanboy/girl or REAL writer? And if you say you’re a real writer: Prove it today by shutting down the forums, putting away the writing manuals, resisting the urge for one more class or one more writing group membership…and writing.
Stephen Guise is the author of the new book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and I was excited to be able to interview him for The Renegade Writer…because we writers often let perfectionism keep us from getting out work out there.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
The difference between chance and failure
How confidence = comfort
Why quantity is more important than quality
The perceived benefits of perfectionism
How setting the bar low can actually help you get more freelance writing jobs
Also…when I asked Stephen for a “cover image,” he misunderstood and sent me a headshot. I decided I’m totally going to include it as eye candy for the ladies!
Enjoy — and feel free to pass these files around to your writer friends!
P.S. Carol Tice and I are offering the audit version of our 4-Week J-School RIGHT NOW! Cart closes on July 30, which is two days from today. Want to gain the skills and confidence to land — and write — lucrative article assignments? Check out the success stories from our previous students on the J-School page. Work at your own pace…your access never ends!
By that I mean Carol Tice’s and my 4-Week J-School Audit is on sale until July 30 (a BIG welcome to the 80 of you who have signed on so far!) — and we have a whole lesson on journalism ethics. And because we’re talking so much about ethics in our marketing materials, we’ve been getting a lot of questions from readers.
One awesome writer sent in this question:
I was surprised to read, in your post about mistakes you have made, that it is not okay to reuse ANYTHING from a previous article, not even a phrase or a quote. I’ve never heard that before. In fact, I seem to remember you or Carol encouraging us to reslant and resell our stories as a way to get double duty from our work. If we can’t reuse our quotes, that doesn’t seem like it saves us anything. I’ve been planning to try and spin a couple of my stories in different ways for different markets. Comments?
Stealing from your own previously published work is called self-plagiarism, and it is a big problem. In fact, as you’ll see in the post I linked to above, I was once fired for it before I knew any better.
While it’s not technically illegal to reuse portions of your own work (unless you signed a contract forbidding it), and some debate whether or not it is unethical, according to this article on Slate, it’s all about the expectations of the audience. So, for example, when I compile blog posts into a book and make it clear in the subtitle that the book is made up of previously-run blog posts, no one seems to mind. As long as the information is new and helpful to the audience, it is likely not a problem.
But when you write for magazines or online publications, your first audience is your editor. You need to ask yourself: How would your editor feel if she saw another article that had the same quotes or phrases as the one you just turned in — especially when she bought first rights or all rights to your piece? I’d wager she wouldn’t like it very much.
And that’s all that matters if you want to keep getting freelance writing jobs. You can debate the ethics of self-plagiarism with her until your face turns a lovely shade of blue…but if she thinks it’s unacceptable — which I assure you she will — then it’s a no-no for you. (And with Copyscape, you certainly won’t get away with it.)
But take heart! When developing a new pitch/article, you can still reuse:
Your idea (Reslanted for a non-competing publication; for example, I once wrote a diet article for Oxygen and then reslanted it for Men’s Fitness.)
The knowledge you gained writing the original article, which will make your research much faster.
Your sources. (Though you would need to re-interview them or use quotes you didn’t use in the original article.)
Journalism ethics is a sticky topic — you need to know not only about self-plagiarism but also libel, using proper citations, quoting sources, fair use laws, and other practices that can keep you from getting sued (or at the very least, in trouble with your editor).
If you’re not up to speed on these topics, consider joining the 4-Week J-School Audit today. You’ll not only learn the ins and outs of journalism ethics, but also get the scoop on generating salable ideas, writing pitches that sell, and crafting compelling articles. The class is self-paced, and you get access to the materials (including the tasty bonuses) forever. And we offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee! Go to the class page to check out the testimonials from happy students who have gotten freelance writing jobs after taking our class.
Years ago, when I was in competitive dance, my instructor often told the group we should practice like we meant to perform. Which meant that from the very beginning of putting together a new routine — learning new steps and memorizing choreography — we had to smile (or make whatever facial expressions were appropriate for that style of dance). We had to dance “full out,” including jumps and turns, and other things that we could have “marked” that early in the process. In the months and weeks leading up to performances, we put on a show every time. We gave it our best even when we’d done the whole dance twenty times that day and had twenty more to go.
The idea was that we’d get so used to doing the dance correctly every time, right down to replacing expressions of concentration with whatever was appropriate for that style of dance, we’d unconsciously do the same during the performance.
We practiced like we meant to perform.
Writing is not a performance art (as author Elizabeth Bear says). And thank goodness for that. But writing as if someone’s going to read this draft still benefits me. Here are some things I like to keep in mind, even as I’m writing my first draft:
1. I have a plan before I go in.
This doesn’t mean The Plan can’t change. It usually does. But The Plan gives me an idea of what the whole thing should look like — what moods and feelings I want to convey to the reader. When The Plan has to change, I don’t just adjust that one spot. I go through everything I have and figure out how the one change affects the rest. I revise The Plan accordingly.
2. I research as I go.
For big things I know about ahead of time, I research during The Plan stages. (Sometimes research will change The Plan if what I originally thought I’d do doesn’t actually work like I thought it should.) But you know those sentences where you realize you don’t actually know what grows in that climate, or when the harvest is, or . . . how the whole situation works? And it’s really just one line, so maybe it’s not that big a deal. . . .
I research it right then. It’s one of those details that will make the world feel more real. More believable. And I do it then so I don’t have to do it later. You know, after I’ve forgotten that I wanted to research something. I don’t want to risk leaving in a lazy line. (Sometimes I really do need to move on, so I leave myself a comment on that detail.)
3. I keep a critical eye on my first drafts as I write them — and I fix things.
Some days, it’s important to just write through and not look back. It can be easy to get caught up in a revision loop, never moving forward. Fixing as you go may not work for people prone to the revision loop. I’m not one of them, though. At least when it comes to the first draft. I like to push forward and see that wordcount rise.
So when I notice that the last few paragraphs I wrote feel emotionally thin, I go back. I layer in the emotion right away. This is useful for me because it puts me back in touch with my character, but it also makes that first draft better. Same with choosing the right word, making sure the motivation is clear, grammar and punctuation issues — whatever. And the more aware of any particular problem I become, the more able I am to spot it sooner.
That sort of awareness eventually becomes second nature. I don’t have to think as much about going back to cut weasel words because I didn’t write them in the first place.
Yes, this does slow down my first-draft process. Gone are the years when I could write 7,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Now I’m more unconsciously critical of my own work, even before it hits the page, but my first drafts are stronger. Getting those things right the first time — and continuing to make them better with every revision — makes my final manuscript that much better.
Note that I still said revision. I don’t expect to have a perfect first draft. (If only!!!) The first draft is only a foundation to build the real thing off, but if I have that first draft in good shape, I can focus on more interesting story issues. I work on spotting higher-level issues that I didn’t notice in the first draft. That way, when I start my next book, I can keep those things in mind, too, and fix them as I see them. They, too, can become things I unconsciously fix before they’re ever a problem.
All that said, there is no wrong way to write. Everyone writes differently, and this is simply what works for me — writing like someone’s going to read that draft. (And someone usually does. I have a friend who likes to read my stories as they drip out of my head. She’s brave. Crazy, but brave.)
What about you guys? Do you watch your first draft, like I do? Or do you power forward and do the real heavy lifting in the revision? What works best for you?
A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my Renegade Writer subscribers letting them know I’m thinking about offering a four-week Pitch Challenge where writers would need to send out eight unique queries in four weeks to be eligible for prizes. And I mentioned I was thinking of a price of $150.
A very nice writer emailed me a very valid question:
“If you’re only entering names into a database, why are you charging $150?”
This question is important because it reflects why so many writers are getting paid less than they’re worth.
More Than Components
My husband works in the boardgame industry, and you’ll sometimes see avid boardgamers on forums posting things like, “Why does this game cost $50? I went to the Chinese component manufacturer’s website and priced out all the pieces, and the components are worth only $11.”
I always want to offer to send them a game for $11, and then mail them a blank box filled with blank components.
What are you really buying when you buy a game? Beyond the bare components, you’re purchasing enjoyment. Fun. Excitement. The ability to impress your buddies on game night. Not to mention everything that goes into creating and delivering a game you would want to play, from the idea to the artwork to the distribution.
When you buy a book, are you just paying for the paper and the ink that goes into printing it? Judging by the people who complain about the prices of e-books because “They’re cheaper to produce than print books,” you may think that. But if that were the case, you could just get book with a blank cover and the word “and” printed in it a few thousand times.
But in fact, you’re buying the author’s ideas and skills and hard work. The cover art that enticed you to pick up the book. The agent that brought the book to the attention of the publisher. The marketing that let you know about the book in the first place. The infrastructure that hosts and delivers the book, such as the bookstore or website. And most important, the main value you’re paying for is adventure, excitement, action, inspiration, knowledge, romance.
In the same way, what are you really buying when you buy a class like the Pitch Challenge I’m considering doing? Are you buying the minutes the instructor spends entering pitches into a database? No…you’re buying the entire infrastructure that makes this class exist. But more importantly, you’re buying confidence. New skills. The ability to earn more.
Carol Tice and I recently ran a pitch challenge as part of our Pitch Clinic class. Of the 36 people who completed the challenge, around 20 received assignments from publications and businesses within those four weeks. A couple of these assignments paid over $1,000. A few writers landed multiple assignments. Two were offered full-time writing jobs (which they turned down). And one writer started with nothing, and 6 weeks later is earning $2,000 per week.
What do you think that was worth to them, to get the skills and confidence, the motivation, the accountability, to pitch like crazy and get work? To start new careers as writers?
Behind the Curtain
I think entrepreneurs (yes, that’s what you are!) who are new to running a business have a skewed idea of what it takes to create something people want. That’s why they underprice themselves — they think, “What does it cost me to write 500 words? Just a few keystrokes and an hour of my time.”
But there’s so much more that goes into creating something other people want to buy — and that will help, entertain, or inform them.
The last e-book I wrote cost hundreds in cover design, layout, professional editing, business coaching (to get advice on marketing the book) and more.
The last class I built with Carol Tice over at UsefulWritingCourses.com cost us $24,000 to create, market, and put on. No, there is not an extra zero there. (And that does not even count the cost of our time and skills in creating the actual course materials — webinars, handouts, recordings, and so on!)
We have a team of four freelancers who create our logos, banners, and web design; do our coding; handle IT; and man the helpdesk to field students’ technical problems. We had to build and design a sales page, course modules, forums. We hired editors to critique students’ assignments in the forums (and paid them a rate that would entice them to work with us!). Class recordings needed to be transcribed. We gave free webinars, which required building special sales pages to capture email addresses where we could send the webinar details.
It took months for a team of six people (including Carol and me) to build that class. And it was freaking expensive.
Do you wonder why we charged $500 for that class?
The same thing happens when you write something for a client. You may not have need employees or web design to write an article or a blog post, but there are indeed costs that need to be accounted for in your pricing. More on that below…
What is a Word Worth?
If you’re writing for a magazine that pays $1 per word, does that mean the word “the” is worth one dollar?
No. Clients aren’t paying for words, otherwise you could just write the word “the” one thousand times and collect a thousand bucks.
First, your payment compensates you for the things that cost you money that are required to run your business:
Your education (J school, writing classes, writing books, writing magazines, an English degree — or even the School of Life, if that’s where you got your education)
Your overhead (The fixed costs of doing business: Your rent, heat, health insurance, self employment taxes, etc.)
And even more important, your client is paying you for these intangibles:
Your skills and creativity
The value your words bring to their publication in terms of attracting readers and advertisers
The actual profit you help bring into the company
The loyalty your words help create in the company’s customers/readers
Your ability to generate great ideas that help them profit
So: If you write a 500-word sales page for a client’s website and it brings them $500,000 in sales, what are those words worth? Would it be fair for you to charge $5,000 — just one percent of the value you create? I think so. What if your sales page brings them 100 new loyal customers who in turn each bring your client a handful of new customers through word of mouth? Or what if your writing helps the client win an award that garners them great PR?
(And for myself, I can say: If you put on a class the helps people get new careers they love, gain confidence and ability, and earn lots of money, should you feel bad charging a premium?)
When you feel guilty charging a high rate because it’s “only words” or “only minutes,” you’re shortchanging yourself.
Pricing your services can feel very fuzzy, because you can’t put a price on a lot of these things you bring your clients: New customers. Confidence. Skills. New careers. Good PR. Awards. Happy-fuzzy feelings.
So all you can do is go with your heart. I read an excerpt of the book Unveiling the Heart of Your Business by Mark Silver — the excerpt was on heart-centered pricing and you can find it free here — and it really resonated with me, because it’s how I’ve always set my prices. I know the range of what’s being changed out there, and I choose my place in that range based on what feels right in my gut.
You know, in your heart, the value you offer your clients. You know, in your brain, how much it costs you, financially, to offer that value. Let those insights direct how much you charge, or your minimum rate for taking on an assignment — and don’t feel bad about it for even a second.
That means you’re writing one query that you’ll be sending, tweaking as necessary, to multiple publications at the same time.
If you already have your query written, then it’s no skin off your nose to send it to one more magazine. It will take you only a few extra minutes to research the editor’s contact information and tweak the query as needed. If it ends up the pub doesn’t use freelancers, or doesn’t have the space for your idea, or doesn’t pay, then you’ve only wasted a few minutes — and your query is still under consideration by a group of other editors.
No problem, right?
And get this: If your idea is even a somewhat close match for the magazine (which it is, right?), you’re probably ahead of 90% of the pitches they get. I once heard a Family Circle editor tell writers that they shouldn’t pitch her articles on the sex life of frogs. She said that because people do it.
Let the editor say Yes.
You need to research a magazine only enough that you can be reasonably sure your idea will fit in it.
What you don’t need to do is spend hours poring over back issues and guidelines trying to figure out why your idea won’t work. Why spend all that time and effort thinking of reasons not to send a query?
Instead, give the editor a say. Editors are smart. They know a lot more than you do about their magazine and their audience.
And only the editor can know if, say, he’s about to start a new department where your pitch would fit perfectly, or he was just wishing he had an article on X (with X being your idea), or one of his freelancers just flaked and he needs another good writer pronto.
Or maybe your pitch will be so wonderful that the editor will make an exception for you. Carol Tice and I had one student in our recent Pitch Clinic class who sent a Letter of Introduction to a business she wanted to blog for. Here’s part of the response she got.
Ordinarily we do not accept guest posts, as they are almost always short and shallow. We receive numerous requests daily, but only post two or three per year. However, your email is better than most and touches on a few points that interest me.
We pay our writers and they work on assignment. Our top writer is off on baby leave so I’m looking for a backup. A few candidates are in the wings, but I’d like to try an article from you, if our terms are suitable to you.
This can only happen to you if you go ahead and pitch.
You don’t necessarily want to sell your idea.
Guess what? The goal of a pitch is not necessarily to get an assignment.
Well, of COURSE you would like to get an assignment. But what often happens is that your query or LOI doesn’t quite make the cut — say, the publication already has a similar article in the works — but the editor is so impressed by your pitch that she invites you to pitch again, or even assigns you a different article.
The goal of a pitch is to start building a relationship with a client.
If you hold off on pitching because you’re not fully, absolutely, 100% sure your ideas are a good match, then you’re missing out on the opportunity to start a conversation with an editor who may want to hire you down the road.
Your pitch shows what you can do. It shows you have great ideas, can write well, and are professional. Even if it’s not a perfect match, it can lead to assignments.
So the next time you find yourself spending hours researching magazines looking for excuses cut yourself out of the running, stop.
If you’ve ever visited the DEPARTURES area of the airport, you probably know that it is not exactly an oasis of tranquility. There are cars trying to park; cars trying to double park, cars trying to squeeze out of where they’ve double-parked, orange cones, orange vests, whistles, and general chaos.
I was being dropped off at Burbank Bob Hope Airport by my mom and dad, 74 and 80 respectively, and wanted to debark as efficiently as possible so they could be on their way. Adjusting my new felt hat, I strapped my laptop bag across my chest, hauled out my suitcase, and hugged my parents a quick goodbye.
Approaching the Southwest counter, I reached for my purse.
And felt air.
My stomach dropped to my knees. I had made a big mistake. I left my purse in my parents’ car.
Stacey’s troublesome vessel of all things crucial, circa 2004, Anthropologie.
Frantically, I searched my laptop bag, hoping I had jammed it in without realizing. But, no. My purse was in the carpool lane of the Five freeway, headed down to the OC. How the heck was I getting on a plane without my ID?
I couldn’t make a phone call, as I didn’t have a cell phone. I couldn’t even use a pay phone, as I had no money. (And btw, the sudden absence of money tends to amplify one’s hunger pains).
I could ask someone to loan me change, but would they think I was a panhandler? And my hat, which I thought was stylish, suddenly cast a shadow of suspicion upon me. Suspicious people always wear hats.
I might have started to hyperventilate. My flight was leaving in an hour.
A petite Japanese security guard asked if everything was alright.
“I left my purse in my parents’ car!” I blubbered.
She tsked her tongue, but then fished out a dollar’s worth in coins so I could use a payphone. After profusely thanking her, I dropped two quarters into the first phone. A metallic crunching and gargling followed, which I believe was the sound of the phone eating my change.
Trying not to panic, I moved onto the next phone. This time, the call went through.
But no one picked up. Remember how I mentioned the age of my parents? Well, with old age comes certain …realities, such as, hearing loss. Mom’s voicemail answered, but that didn’t help me because even if she heard the ding of voicemail, she doesn’t know how to check it (another age-related reality). I tried calling my husband collect, like, a billion times. But it turns out, since his company pays for his cell phone, its collect call feature is disabled.
I explained my situation to Southwest. I must have looked honest, as they issued me the ticket, with the caution that security still might refuse me. Shame-faced, I stepped to the security counter and tried to explain why I wasn’t carrying my ID.
He frowned, and I grew smaller. “Where do you work?”
“At home. I mean, I’m self-employed.”
Another frown, another inch shorter. “Occupation?”
Another frown, this one with an upward flick of his pupils that says, isn’t everyone?
If only I had one of my books on me. I could show him my author picture.
Then it occurred to me, I could show him my author website.
After perusing the site, then conducting a thorough search of myself and my luggage, security finally did let me through.
Stephanie: When Stacey first told me this story, I felt horrible. But since I’m a teacher, I also thought this would make an awesome writing lesson.
The thing I loved about this story (from a writing perspective, because obviously I felt terrible that my friend went through so much stress) was that everything that could go wrong did go wrong. As Stacey said, everyone knows you can’t get on a plane without an ID. And this situation was so much worse because on top of not having her ID:
The hat of suspicion and lawlessness.
Stacey did not have her phone.
The only people who could help her (Stacey’s parents) were impaired, and therefore unable to come to her rescue.
She was hungry.
Her husband wasn’t answering the phone.
On top of not having an ID, she was also wearing a hat, which made her highly suspicious to airport personnel.
And the clock was rapidly ticking. Stacey only had one hour.
Now, imagine you’re writing a character and you’ve put them in this same situation. It could be really tempting to have another character (maybe the husband) make a miraculous appearance and save the day. Perhaps this husband calls in a favor with the head of security. And not only does your character get onto the plane, but they are upgraded to first class and handed a glass of champagne.
Unfortunately that did not happen to Stacey. But I believe what happened was even better. Stacey used her smarts to save herself, by directing the security to her author website, where her photo was able to confirm her identity.
Now if Stacey were a character, not only would readers think, wow this woman is smart! They would also know a little more about her character, because not only did this action save the day, it revealed more about her background, mainly, her profession.
People are always saying, put your characters in the worst situations possible, but then, too often, characters don’t use their intelligence to get out of those miserable scenarios. Because of this, writers often miss great opportunities to deepen their characters, and make their stories richer.
Think about whatever story you’re working on. Are there any scenes where you can pile on more conflicts? Are there scenes where you can show off your character’s strengths, instead of having someone else save the day?
Also, if any of you have stories similar to Stacey’s, we’d love to hear them:
Writing a book isn’t easy. I think we can all agree on that. So the realization that you might need to cut chunks — not just little pieces, like I talked about here, but big things — can hurt. I mean, after writing all those words, it can feel like a big waste to cut them!
Here are some reasons to go for it, though:
1. It’ll make the book stronger.
If you’ve already decided that a certain subplot isn’t necessary, or a scene isn’t doing enough work to deserve to stick around, or a conversation has too much blah blah and not enough interesting stuff, then you already know the story will be stronger and better paced without it. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
2. You’re not wasting words.
I know it can feel like that, but you’re not. Sometimes you need to write something just so you know what you don’t need in the story. Or, in my case recently, I needed to see several parts of my characters’ history, but aside from a few important moments, it wasn’t big or interesting or important enough to deserve to stay on the page. I needed to get that part of the story out of my system so could know, but that was iceberg stuff — and not the tip that shows.
As for how to make the cuts?
1. Identify what you need to keep.
Be extremely honest. If there isn’t anything that needs to stay, just highlight and cut the whole thing. (I assume you have a different draft saved somewhere else that has all this stuff. Or, if you’re using Scrivener, you’ve taken a Snapshot and have plenty of backups.)
You probably already know what needs to stay, but some general advice:
a) Can the reader understand the story without this part? If not, keep it! b) Does it move the story forward and reveal something (motivations/worldbuilding/theme) in a new way? If so, keep it!
In my case, I was cutting a bunch of flashback scenes down to the most important moments. Down from over a thousand (or two thousand!) words to under five hundred. I looked for the meatiest bits. The big, pivotal moments. The one, most important thing I needed to share with the reader.
2. Make the cut.
Yeah. It’s a big step. It gets its own number.
3. Smooth out the edges.
Chances are you chopped up some transitions and messed with your pacing when you snipped out a huge chunk of text, so go through and fix them. Take a careful look at the beginning and end of the cuts for transitions. Read the whole thing through and see how it sounds. Is it too fast now? Maybe add a beat or two to make it feel more natural. (But not too many! You cut for a reason, after all!)
Don’t be shy about going through it a few times! You’ll probably find more and more places to smooth out. It’s a delicate process, so take your time.
4. Eat a cookie.
What? You worked hard. You deserve a reward.
What do you guys think? Any tips I missed? What other advice would you give to someone who’s looking at cutting a huge chunk of their beloved book?
We all have down days as creative’s, when whatever we draw just doesn’t turn out how we envisage in our heads. We screw up countless balls of paper to add it to the emerging mountain of sketchbook remains behind us and we just feel our art isn’t good enough. Now believe it or not despite the fact that feeling despondent with our art is a natural thing that every creative goes through from time to time. It can be used to push us into being more brave and exploring new avenues we hadn’t before. It’s when we produce creative work with a closed mind that things can become to narrowed down and you’re just not sure what to do to make art you’re confident in.
So here’d a few ways to boost that creative confidence, regain that part of yourself that knows you’re good enough and how to present that artwork with pride!
Draw things you get excited to draw : Although creative trends do help in our industry to produce work of interest to different markets, it can over time wear you down drawing things that don’t inspire you. This is why drawing things that make you smile, get your head reeling with ideas and heart filled with enthusiasm that you will be more happy with what you draw. You’ll be less likely to second guess yourself and people will connect with your joy and enthusiasm for the art you make.
Think outside the box : Taking a little inspiration from people around you can really refuel your creative energy and give you a boost to take your art in a new direction. For example you might take inspiration from a creative whose just launched a new project and think ” Wow if I tweaked this with my artwork in my own way then maybe the outcome would be better”. This is can also be used when you’re looking to expand your creative reach or acquire that dream client. Don’t copy others but take a little inspiration and make it your own.
Illustration featured in this post was created by illustrator Jessica Richardson, you can find out more about her work here.
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.