Category Archives: A to Z Challenge

Z is for Zombies

I know, kind of a stretch, right? This is my final post for the April A to Z Challenge, and hey, Z is tough. But let me reassure you – I am not into that whole Walking Dead thing. Zombies just never have done it for me. However, there is one way in which they relate to what I’m doing that I can discuss. And that is the old writing maxim: Write it like they’re dead.

This typically applies to nonfiction work: memoirs, biography and the like. Most of the time, someone writing a biography has the cooperation of their subject, so it’s not an issue. But what do you do when you want to write a memoir – ostensibly about your own experience – and in come all those other people in your life, and you find you have to write about them, too?

I went to an excellent panel at AWP (I know, really, this is the last mention!) on Privacy of Secondary Characters. If you are writing creative nonfiction, memoir, or even poetry, you have to consider this. Or if there’s a chance that your best friend will recognize herself in your novel, I guess it would apply there too. But the bottom line is, it really doesn’t matter.

If you are worried about how others will respond to your work, then you have two choices: either don’t write it, or write it like they’re dead. You can’t create this work worrying about what others will think, even if they are explicitly mentioned in the work. One quote from the panel stands out: “The only authorization is the ethos of art.” Which is to say, you will get no authorization, nor do you need to. Unless you are portraying someone as criminal, you can’t worry about it. (And if you are, that’s a whole different story.)

Other tidbits from this session (it really was excellent) include:
1. Make the writing worth the cost (if it’s that good, who’s going to argue?)

2. Don’t worry about defacing the Family Scroll (a hypothetical scroll of family history on which you don’t want to make a black mark)

3. There’s no such thing as writing honestly about yourself and not doing justice to others.

4. You cannot ultimately predict how anyone will respond (panelists had stories of responses very different than they had envisioned, some good, some from different people than they had expected)

5. Compassion + mercy + forgiveness can come back around to the authors.

6. The subject and writer are in this together, even if the subject has a lot more to lose.

7. We do it, we do it imperfectly, but don’t kid yourself there’s no cost to anyone.

I guess then it’s all about your risk tolerance. How much of a risk are you willing to take? What might the costs be of your craft? There is, of course, always a cost. How do you weigh that against not performing your craft?

As I said, this has mostly to do with nonfiction, but you might also consider this if you are writing fiction. I had an idea for a novel a while back that would have been very transparent to my best friend, about a woman whose dad was dying of cancer. The new book I’m working on is actually about my best friend, who herself died of cancer. It is nonfiction. I have considered how her mom might feel about it, or her husband or her son. But I honestly can’t worry about that. Also, they don’t read much or go to book events, or read reviews. So there is really little chance that they would actually know about the book unless I told them. I am torn.

What is your responsibility to your subjects? Is their story just out there for the taking? How do you reconcile that if your story is inextricably intertwined with theirs?

There are so many questions. It’s an ethical question, to be sure. And a good discussion could be had on ethics in art.

What say you?

Y is for Yoda

Many of you may have seen the strange little illumination making the rounds online, of the curiously Yoda-like figure appearing in the manuscript from the 14th century. There is no explanation for this. It is just pure nerdery.


I don’t find this all that surprising. I happen to have a deep affinity for Yoda. My favorite Star Wars quote (and I’m sure the favorite of many of you) is “Do or do not. There is no try.” This is what comes up any time you search for a Yoda quote (I know, I just did it). It is by far the most likely candidate to appear on a t-shirt or coffee mug.

But what does it mean? What can this strange little hippy-dippy gnome-like creature teach us? If you haven’t seen the film, let me enlighten you (no, really, I know there are people who haven’t!). Yoda teaches Luke to become a Jedi by a method similar to that used in the Karate Kid (I know, really dating myself now, huh). Performing seemingly unrelated and mindless repetitive tasks and proving once again that wisdom is wiser than a punk kid. Yep.

And it works. Yoda teaches Luke that indeed, a rock is no different than a spaceship, in terms of what you want to move. It is just a thing. Size doesn’t matter. Just believe you can do it, and there. Bam.

By now you are thinking, what does this have to do with writing? Well, aside from the beauty of the illuminated manuscript pages, a lot. The main point is to keep going. Do not look over at the next person and say they are doing it better. Do not compare your work to a spaceship. Do not think that this is too hard. Do not give up.

It’s a lot harder to do than to say, I know. But it is a fundamental thing. At AWP (honestly, last reference to AWP, I swear!), The Loft Literary Center had a booth where you could write down an item, seal it in an envelope, and leave it in the basket, and then you spun a wheel to take an envelope. The color the wheel landed on corresponded to the color of the envelope you could take. The messages were written on the color of paper corresponding to the type of message it was. I wrote a message of encouragement (yellow). When the wheel landed on purple, that meant I got to choose a six-word story from the basket of envelopes (a purple envelope). A bit complicated, but the upshot of the story is that I wrote a piece of advice on my paper, put it in my color-coded envelope, and then tweeted it out to get people to come to the booth. My advice: Don’t give up. The only difference between a writer and an author is the author didn’t give up.

AWPLoft game

It’s true. How many times have you heard the story of a writer who trudged through the motions for years? How many tried countless agents (well, not countless – they always know exactly how many!), sent out dozens of manuscripts, tried again and again, to the detriment perhaps of all else? Famous story: When Stephen King got the letter that Carrie had been accepted, he had just had his phone shut off. There are many many other stories like this.

And yet, Fahrenheit 451 was written on a pay typewriter, in the basement of a library! How did he even have time to do corrections? How many people today are writing a classic using their library facilities? To judge from the folks using the banks of machines at my local library, I would say not many, but I would also bet that I am wrong. There is always a way to do something that you really want to do.

Like Yoda says: Do or do not. There is no try.

How can you accomplish something unless you actually believe you will be able to accomplish it? How can you be successful without visualizing that success? How do you continue to try without believing that you will succeed?

The answer: very hard to do. You almost cannot.

Just Do It. Oh yeah, there’s another slogan for you. But you don’t need another slogan. You don’t need a ‘Wax on, wax off’ teacher. You just need to believe in yourself.

X is for Xacto, or, The Joy of Editing

You may have read the famous quote by Emily Dickinson, once addressed to an editor, “Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed.” Who has not had this surgery, as a writer? How does one deal with what can amount to killing your babies? How do you slice and dice, excising the bad and keeping the good?


I don’t deal with it well, I know. I find that many times when my work is edited (when I am edited!), the meaning is lost, the changes are arbitrary, the personality is gone. Sometimes, though, sometimes, you light upon an exceptional editor, someone who leaves your voice but makes it better. This is the goal, folks.

Because it is true, physician, you cannot heal thyself (to continue with the medical metaphor). Dickinson also said, “While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.” Sometimes, if you leave a piece for a bit and let it gel, you can come back to it and see it fresh. But this wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t think, for larger pieces. You really do need that extra set of eyes. The best editors I have worked with asked questions. They did not simply make changes. They looked for motivations, relationships and reasons behind the writing. That is a wonderful experience.

I know, many of us are erstwhile editors, but that’s only comparatively speaking. We spontaneously edit restaurant menus, chuckling to our table mates. We compulsively spot typos and erroneous grammar in print and online. We even, dare we say, correct reporters’ and news anchors’ grammar on live television (like we would be immune). But once it comes to your own work, your own baby, best leave it to a professional with a little bit of subjectivity.

I have worked as an editor for many years. I have been managing editor of five different publications (which, I know, is a very different skillset). I have done manuscript critiques (which I love doing!) and worked as a copyeditor. I much prefer the big picture to the niggly detail. I know my grammar rules fairly well – better than the average joe – but I don’t want to worry every day about split infinitives and dangling participles.

So in my client work, it’s big picture, but for my own work, I’m hiring out the line editing. I suggest that everyone hire a good copyeditor at least once during the process to go over their manuscript before submitting it to an agent or publisher. You may even go round more than once. I would actually recommend that.

Once you have your complete manuscript, start with a manuscript critique. Take those suggestions, and move on them. You may find someone who is willing to do a second pass on a manuscript critique, or if the changes were extensive, you may want to just have another one done. Then a copyedit, preferably with someone very experienced in the genre and form. You don’t want to hire a business writer to copyedit your romance novel.

Organizations like our own Professional Editors Network (PEN) and the National Writers Union are good places to find editors. PEN here in Minnesota is great. If you have something like that in your area, take advantage of it. As with many things, it’s best to start looking local. I think it’s exceedingly beneficial to have an editor in your local area. You may even find someone who will sit with you and go over edits and proposed changes. Most editors charge by the hour, so this is something you can work into the plan.

Above all, find someone that you can connect with. If you ask for referrals from friends and colleagues, you’re starting already with a good idea of how this person is to work with. I suggest a face-to-face meeting if you can swing it. Make sure they understand your work, and that they are reasonable to deal with. It’s often hard to discern this via email, so even a phone conversation can be helpful. If you feel uneasy about any of the aspects of the relationship, keep looking. Don’t be rushed.

Done well, a good editor-writer relationship can be wonderful. Last year, I participated in a panel (with my editor hat on) that talked about this relationship from the editor’s perspective. One of my comments that drew the biggest response was simply, “It’s all about trust.” You have to trust that your work is in good hands, they have to trust that you are doing your best, and you both have to trust that each other are committed to making the best result possible.

Don’t let your baby go out into the world being anything less than the best it can be. Find an editor to work with and take the time to do it right.

W is for Writing Groups

I’ve been playing around with trying to start or join a writing group for the past couple of years. I know some people swear by them. But recently when I was at a reading, the two readers were both asked if they had writing groups, and both of them said no. This might be due to the fact that they were both more spoken-word type performers. But I thought it was interesting that they didn’t show their work to anyone before it was performed.

I have not often felt the need to show my work to anyone for feedback. However, sometimes you get the impression that you are operating in a vacuum, so it can be nice to get some feedback. And I know some folks who rely on their writing groups for workshopping.

About a year ago, I started to feel the need for feedback. I had submitted some pieces to a couple of online journals, and had not had any accepted. And I had applied for some grants, and not gotten any traction there either. So I started to think the work needed some, well, work. I met a fellow poet at a reading, and we decided to meet up and workshop with each other.

The first time we met, it was a marathon session, which included a lot of just getting to know each other. I enjoyed it and I think she did too. We met at a coffee shop and it went on for about five hours. That was not something either one of us could maintain, but we agreed to meet again and I think we met once more. Then I helped her out with some childcare while she was taking a poetry class. Then we just never were able to get together after that. Both of us were dealing with health issues, and I think it was hard to find a good time. I liked the jist of it, so it was a shame that it didn’t work out.

After that, I was talking to someone who occasionally does editing work, and I asked her if she would look at a work sample to see if she would be interested in working together (I was looking for an editor in case I received any grant money). I sent her my work sample – and she promptly tore it up. Well, she didn’t really tear it up so much as she simply told me that I needed help – lots of help, more help than she could muster. Nothing specific, nothing actionable.

I tried once more. I took a class, which was supposed to include comments on a manuscript submitted in advance. The day for the class came, we each workshopped one poem, but then all discovered that there were no other comments on our manuscripts. (I think we had all waited until the end to look.) The miscommunication (or whatever it was) was righted with the instructor, who then provided cursory comments on our manuscripts a month later. The actual classtime had been interesting and helpful, but it was not what you would call a good experience (though it had been an expensive one).

Okay, so by this time I am about done with outside influence. I decided to circle the wagons. There was no way that I was going to get help. This had all happened within about four months. I was doing everything I could think to get feedback, to get support, to gain knowledge. And it just wasn’t working. This was the first time in about 25 years that I had tried to get group support for my writing, and it was a disheartening experience, to say the least.

I spent the next several months just writing on my own. Then I took a presentation class, which was three sessions over the period of three weeks. We were instructed on how to use a microphone and various other techniques for presenting your work to an audience. We were asked to read our own work in the process. The response I received here was overwhelmingly positive, as had been my previous experience reading to an audience the year before. The benefit here was that we were not only getting help on presentation skills, but there was one person leading the sessions who provided a little craft commentary as well. It was great.

So now I am no longer looking for a writing group. I am looking for opportunities to read my work in front of an audience. That provided for me a much bigger jolt of encouragement than any group setting had, as well as some helpful tidbits of craft advice. Talk about immediate feedback! I will be reading as part of a festival in May, and I am looking for other opportunities as well.

Now, in terms of writing groups – what has been your experience? Do you thrive and survive in one? Or do you find them hard to manage? Have you experienced groups where the attitude is cutthroat? Or have you found them nurturing and supportive? What are some ways you use to get feedback? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences with writing groups. What do you know?

V is for Virtual Tour

Many of you might have heard of a blog tour. These are also known as Virtual Tours, which is the term I prefer, because the sites visited might not all be blogs. So why would you do one, how do you do one, and what is involved in a virtual tour?

I love love love this idea. A Virtual Tour includes one of my favorite methods of publicity: article writing. In article writing, the article is not really about the book, per se, but about some element of its subject and there is usually some tendril that connects it to a bigger meaning. The publicity part is usually contained in the bio segment, a few tiny lines at the end of the article, where it says “Author Mary’s forthcoming book is xx.” The Tour part involves having the author featured on as many websites as possible during a given period of time. Typically this is the month during which your book is launched. But you can do these fairly effectively at any time during your book’s lifespan.

The Virtual Tour consists partly of content that you write yourself, and then offer to appropriate outlets, and partly of reviews that the site owners do when you send them a review copy. It is not a quick thing. Good Virtual Tours are planned months in advance. You need to be mindful of the editorial calendars and typical content of any site you approach, and you need to allow those who are doing reviews time to do the work necessary.

The most comprehensive and perhaps successful Virtual Tour I have ever seen was done by Mary Sharratt for the release of her novel Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. She hired an agency to set up the tour, which ran from Oct 14 to Nov 15 (for a publication date of Oct 15). (Note that the tour linked to here was done for the release of the paperback edition.)

There were a good amount of book blogs (sometimes two a day), most of which only needed to have a review copy sent to them. (But again, this needed to be done months ahead of time, for the busy fall publishing season.) These placements included interviews, giveaways and contests. Because the company that organized the tour specialized in historical fiction, they had a waiting slate of blogs to pitch Mary’s book to. This is half the work of any virtual tour – finding your targets.

But Mary also wrote for many other sites that at first glance had nothing to do with books, but everything to do with her subject matter. By a lucky chance of fortuitous timing, Illuminations was originally released in the same month that Hildegard was named a Doctor of the Church, and right around the time that she was elevated to sainthood. (Actually, luck had little to do with it – Mary knew what was going on with her subject and communicated this to her publisher, and I think the pub date was moved to coincide with these other happy events.)

For the initial release, Mary wrote articles on feminist websites, she wrote opinion pieces, she wrote articles about Hildegard’s music, her botany work, and her relevance to our world today. Sometimes this was done in concert with an independent book review, and sometimes it was done on a website that was not a book blog. She had an article placed nearly every day of her launch month. The beauty of this is that the article would then reach people who were perhaps more interested in the subject matter, so more motivated to read the book.

When I asked her about this tour, she said that she had hired an agency to coordinate all the posts, but the link on her website only points to the book review sites included on the paperback release tour. So I can’t give you a link that lists all of the other sites on which she wrote wonderful articles for the initial launch (she has redone her website since then). However, as you can see from the one I’ve linked to, this went on for over a year after the paperback edition was released – though certainly not at the pace at which she did it right around the initial publication date.

If you find a website or online magazine that has a particular affinity for your subject matter, you might be able to arrange a regular appearance there, as Mary has done with Feminism and Religion. Search for her other articles on that site, and you will see what I mean. They are timely and relevant, and give new life to the extensive research that Mary did for Illuminations. You may even be able to use material that didn’t make it into the book.

In order to organize a Virtual Tour, it is first necessary to find your markets. You should be open-minded about what you can write about, but certainly make sure that there is a tie-in to the site’s main topic. (Make a list of the different areas you can write about, and sub-lists of what you focus on in articles in each area.) You will need to determine who to query, and operate as if this were a regular magazine query process. Writer’s Market can be helpful for topic-specific sites, and for contact information. You can usually find an email in the Contact Us section, or if all else fails, look under the advertising section. Spend some time looking around the site, and make your query specific.

For book bloggers, you will need to familiarize yourself with the blog. Make sure your book is a good fit. Don’t pitch to bloggers on social media, and don’t pitch something clearly not appropriate (like a mystery novel to a historical fiction blog). Support your work by sharing each post on your own social media. Offer giveaways if you can, or original content. This can be a Q&A, an excerpt, or some other piece that you write based on the book (like a character interview, etc).

A Virtual Tour allows you to access an audience that you otherwise would not have. It is ostensibly free – that is, except for the time involved, which is substantial. There are many agencies which can set up Blog Tours for you, but a complete Virtual Tour will take something more. Do your homework on this one.

U is for Unplug

Time away from the interweb universe is a good thing. It is especially a good thing when you consider that as a writer, the internet often functions as a serious distraction. But even if you are not writing, it is good to unplug if only to recharge your own batteries.


I typically like to unplug over the weekend, if only from work devices. Which means I don’t like to check my email, or even sit in my office, during the weekend. I stay off Facebook, for the most part, but I have been known to be on Twitter on weekends. It’s the desktop that I avoid. Ironically, I am now sitting at my desk on a Sunday afternoon writing a blog post about unplugging, because I am trying to catch up before the end of the April A to Z Challenge.

I believe unplugging is very important for a writer (hey, for anyone!). You can find any number of articles, opinions, or writerly advice columns to back me up on that one. In many ways, I think that writers of the past had it easier than us. Not so many distractions. But then hey, they didn’t have the internet (for research, now) and they didn’t have the bliss that is copy and paste or the ease of printing multiple copies.

I remember back in college, when computers were first being used, and I was still using a typewriter. I had a professor who would allow us to make certain changes in our papers for a better grade. But in order to do that, we had to type the whole paper over again. For a 10 page paper, that was two hours of work for me. For one paper, I told her that I was okay with the B. She asked why and I told her I didn’t have time to retype the whole paper. She allowed me to retype only the section in question, so I did. But she had assumed (as many of my profs did) that I was living on campus and so was using the rudimentary computer center in the basement of the library (which used BankStreet Writer!), and so could easily make the change (inserting my floppy disk) and print out a new paper. But I wasn’t, so I couldn’t. Okay, but that’s a different story.

This is just to illustrate the beauties of modern word processing (as we used to call it back in the day). However, as we all know, it has its foibles and its snags. If you are typing away on your home computer or laptop, you are likely on a machine that is hooked up to the internet. So if you hit a snag, like what is the capital of Bulgaria? you can simply search for the answer and you are done. You might even check a couple sites to be sure. But then while you’re online, hey, you want to check to see if that book is in at the library, and oh, there’s a new message on Facebook, and you really should post about that upcoming event that you’ve been meaning to share. And then you see a link to an article that sounds interesting…

And so it goes. Suddenly, an hour has gone by and whoosh, you have written like one paragraph. There are several schools of thought on this. The old-school of thought, that I tried to practice (and that made more sense back when using typewriters), was to just get it all down. Type it all up. If you need to look something up, make a note and look it up later. Don’t let it slow you down, don’t get bogged down in research, don’t go chasing facts while you’re in the midst of the writing process. Research is research and writing is writing.

Only now, it’s so easy. It’s so easy to just go over and click that icon. Mozilla, my friend! So nice to see you! And then go down a long rabbit hole of indeterminate length. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

In addition to the old-school method of just getting it down – or perhaps in tandem with it – there are several things you can do to avoid that rabbit hole. There are apps and programs that will effectively shut off your internet (I know someone who uses the ironically named program Freedom and swears by it). You can have a separate device that you use just for writing. This can be a different laptop, or a device designed solely for this purpose. Or you can, maybe, use your indomitable will to resist the urge to click.

While I was at AWP, I saw one such device being demonstrated. It is called the Hemingwrite (no subtle play on the writer’s name), and it is only meant for writing. There is no internet connectivity, except for the fact that your file is saved to the cloud. There is also no revising, no saving of files. No hard drive. I’m not really sure how this would work. You could likely retrieve your file from the cloud and then work on it later. But this is for pure generation. The best part, though, may be the fact that it actually looks like a typewriter. The Old Man would be proud (truth, the Old Man would likely be horrified, but well, that’s another story).

I liked the feel of it, and I liked the nostalgia of it, of course. Bear in mind that this is from someone who still has her old Smith Corona in the closet (I remember how excited and proud I was when I bought that – correction all the way to the beginning of a line! Oh my gosh!), as well as an old black metal Royal in the basement (which I’ve been meaning to promote to the office). There is nothing quite like having to bang on those keys to get your point across. In fact, if the Hemingwrite has any flaws, it’s that the keys are too soft, and it doesn’t have that clackety clack sound (not like the app called Hanx Writer designed by Tom Hanks that lets you type on your tablet while making the noises that evoke thoughts of yesteryear. Yes, I downloaded that).

Or you could, you know, just go commando. A pen and paper. The old yellow legal pad. My favorite is a notebook that my husband bought me, wrapped in suede, with a tie-closure. It’s soft, yet firm. And works on the deck, never needs battery replacement or wifi connection, and is fairly durable. I take it on trips. Go ahead, go old school. Or go for a walk. That works too, if you really want to unplug.

T is for Twitter

I loves me some Twitter. It’s true. Twitter is somehow more personal than Facebook, more accessible than Tumblr, more purposeful than Pinterest. It is also a great literary community.


I call Twitter the Great Equalizer. It is a place where I am in contact with writers that I would never know on a personal level otherwise, including Erika Robuck, Greer Macallister, Erika Dreifus, and many others. I am being followed by the esteemed Robert Gray from Shelf Awareness (a newsletter for booksellers), and once, just once, I received a personal tweet back from none other than Neil Gaiman, when I commented on his tweet with a question. He answered me.

In fact, it was Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer who both kind of convinced me that Twitter was the place to be. After all, if they are spending time on it, it had to be worthwhile, right? Amanda espouses the benefits of Twitter in interviews. I’ve heard her talk about the time she needed a nettie pot in Amsterdam or some such place, and tweeted it out and someone met her at a coffee shop with it. Now that’s community, right?

I’ve been on Twitter since 2009 and I have more than 750 followers. I follow more than that – I follow more people very day. It started slowly, but has really ramped up over the past year. I’ve found that there is more going on in that universe than meets the eye. There are chats, there are challenges, there are regular features. Today, in fact, there is a 24 Hour Read-a-thon going on, which I heard about on Twitter but which is also taking place on Tumblr and Instagram. The social media outlets are where you go to cheer each other on, and to be cheered on in turn. I’m taking part – at least on some level.

The chats are great. The first one that I became aware of was LitChat – held in the afternoon, usually an interview with a published author, typically focused on some aspect of their work. But hey, open to everyone. You can ask questions, get great advice, and find other people to follow. Just use the hashtag #LitChat. (Hashtags allow you to see any conversation associated with that hashtag – just click on it and you have the whole conversation. Also used for other purposes.)

There is also #BinderChat, which has to do with topics of interest to women, #K8Chat, run by Kate Tilton, which may cover many different topics, and chats associated with different movements, challenges and so on. The Challenge I am doing right now has chats every Thursday (#atozchat), where we come together and the moderator poses questions, but which sometimes digresses into discussions of what we’re drinking (the evening chat) or what we’re working on. It’s a lot of fun and a great way to get to know other Challenge participants. All a chat means is that certain people interested in the same thing have a time where they have agreed to meet on Twitter.

My favorite Twitter story is how I met a woman who lives about 2 hours west of me, out on the prairie. We found we had some things in common, so we decided to meet for lunch, and to visit a bookstore that was about halfway between us. We had so much fun. Then she asked me if I wanted to come out to her neck of the woods to see the Saint John Bible. I love the Saint John Bible. So of course I said yes. What I didn’t really grasp was that we would be taken by the project manager, into the vault, and be allowed to see the actual pages, and touch them. Yes. He even gave us magnifying glasses to see some of the details in the illuminations (the scales on the dragonfly’s wing, the hairs on the butterfly). We spent two hours in that vault. I had tears in my eyes at the end. It was overwhelming.

So when you find people that you are in tune with, it’s a lovely thing. And Twitter is a great place to find people like that. Be generous with your RTs and your Favorites. If you really like something, tell the person who tweeted it. If someone mentions you in an article, and tags you, give it a RT.

Read someone’s bio and take a look at a few of their tweets before you follow them, though. I won’t follow someone who doesn’t have an original thought, or someone who only posts photos, or only says “Thank you for the follow!” to everyone. But I am following a guy who posts tiny little poems, and nothing else. They are lovely.

For a writer, Twitter is indeed the great equalizer. Most publications now include a Twitter handle either for the publication as a whole, or the specific section that might interest you. Follow book editors, follow authors of articles you like. Follow literary magazines, follow reading initiatives. Follow libraries and associated organizations. Follow the guy who posts amazing photos of medieval manuscripts (Erik Kwakkel). Search out whatever specifically interests you. When someone makes an interesting point in a chat, check out their bio and a few tweets in the pop-up, and if you like what you see, follow them.

Twitter works best if you have a smart phone and use the app. I use it on my desktop also, but it’s quicker on the phone. I have probably spent far too much time scrolling through my Twitter feed in the last few months (since I got a new phone), but you don’t have to do that. It’s great for events and causes and crowd-funding campaigns. I have more stories of lovely things that have happened because of Twitter. But hey, don’t break the Cardinal Rule: no selling on Twitter. Not in your bio, not in your ‘Thank you for the follow’ messages, not at all.

You can find an article called Twitter Basics on the website here that explains some of the nuts and bolts. Go on, tweet your little heart out!

S is for Scheduling

Recently, my schedule has been all out of whack. One of the reasons that I wanted to do the A to Z Challenge was to get myself back into a real writing habit. Yes, they say you should write every day, and I wanted to carve out a little bit of time every day to do that. The Challenge helped me with outside accountability, and I thought that I would be able to stick to it better that way.

Then I went to AWP, and after that, I wanted to take a couple days off. Then I started feeling kind of poorly, and I thought I was coming down with something. Turns out it was something, perhaps a bad cold or something. Sore throat, aches and pains, foggy brain. I didn’t work for two days. That doesn’t sound like much, but I was already behind one day on the Challenge, when I missed a day during AWP. So that put me behind two days (one of those days I missed was a Sunday, not a Challenge day). So at this point in time, I am behind two days (right? What day is it anyway?).

Now, that’s doable. I can catch up on that over the weekend. And I would hope to be able to get ahead a few days, too. The idea behind doing the Challenge is that I will be able to turn that routine writing time into very productive writing time once April is over.

But that isn’t going to happen if I don’t make the habit in the first place. The first several days, before I went to AWP, I was very good at getting up and getting right on the post for that day. It was the first thing I did. Some days, it was the only thing I did. But at least it got done. Why should my bigger writing projects be any different? I am at a point where I am in control of my days. I don’t have a ton of clients, and I am not looking for a lot, since my health is not quite up to snuff yet. If I can’t write because I’m sick, I can live with that. It’s a lot different to have to offer that excuse to a client.

It’s not the ideal situation, but I mean to take advantage of it. Last year, I was working with a writing coach who emphasized the idea of committing to what she called ‘your writing habit.’ If you committed to 15 minutes a day, and kept that commitment, then you could give yourself credit for it. And this fueled the desire to do it again, since obviously it feels good when we do something we mean to do. It’s a classic self-motivator, getting something done. Plus, then you can reward yourself, which is nice.

I did like the 15 minute idea, but I had trouble keeping my commitments. Yes, even of 15 minutes. I would commit to three 15 minute sessions, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. (Note that you were always allowed to go over your time – the idea was just to commit to the smallest amount that you thought you could accomplish.) I would check my calendar for conflicts and make sure I was scheduling for times I would be available. But then I would forget about it, or get wrapped up in something else. She suggested that giving yourself a day and time was the best way to keep the commitment. But I kept forgetting.

It is a good idea, though. I like the idea of committing to my own writing. But I can’t do it in the midst of a workday. I thought I could, but no. I think going at it first thing in the morning is the best idea. This will allow me more freedom to continue if I am on a roll. I was trying to fit in my 15 minutes in the middle of the day, as a transition or a lunch break. And when I forgot, I always felt terrible, which prevailing wisdom will tell you is the surest way to make yourself feel discouraged. And discouragement is the surest thing to lead to quitting.

Well, I’m not about to quit. I have always been a writer. It is who I am. I just want something more to show for it. I have set some goals, and I have pursued some paths to those goals, and I think that putting the writing first thing in the morning is the thing that works best.
So the rest of my blog posts should be posted rather earlier in the day. Look for that, will you? And if I’m slacking, call me on it. I won’t do daily blog posts after the Challenge is over, but I will be working on the website a lot. And that requires a lot of writing too. So yay for the Challenge, and yes, yay for scheduling!

What schedule works best for you? When do you do your best writing? What obstacles do you have to work around? How do you feel about the maxim that a writer should write every day?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

R is for Reading

I know, you all want to hear more about AWP, right? Well, I can’t help it. I got so much inspiration from there, that I have to liberally sprinkle it throughout my posts.

One thing that came up again and again was that writers must read. A literary journal will ask that you peruse previous issues before submitting. Most periodicals, in fact, will ask the same. They don’t want you to submit a story about a boy wizard with a scar on his head when they have, in fact, just published one. A magazine will take queries of a similar vein, aimed at the same audience (their audience), but they do not want stories that echo articles recently published. A newspaper will prefer that you submit items of local interest; the smaller the paper, the more locally focused it will be.

In a session at AWP in which we were discussing how to please editors, Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press, put it thusly, “There is a home for a lot of writing. And your job as a writer is to find that home. How you do that is by reading.” I’ve seen numerous variations on this advice from many different directions. There’s no way around it. You have to know your market, your competition, and your marketplace.

So that’s your job, then. Which, to my mind, is not such a bad row to hoe. I love to read. Don’t get me wrong – some reading is work. I write reviews for some national publications, and when I get a book that doesn’t interest me, it’s sheer drudgery. But when I get something good, that can be so much fun. In the past, I’ve read for work doing manuscript critiques and of course the compulsory reading involved in either working on a book as an editor or representing it as a publicist.

These days, though, I’m reading with a different aim in mind. I went to AWP with the goal of finding out more about getting published, and came away with a few tote bags full of journals (yes, four). I now have these stacks of journals sitting near my couch, and I am hopeful that this weekend, I can begin at least perusing them, to find out which ones I might want to submit to. I spoke to most of the editors of the journals I collected, so I am encouraged. (In fact, I have never been asked to submit so much in my life. But they haven’t seen the work yet, have they?)


In addition to the journal pieces, I have a couple of book ideas in my head. For the first one, I have been reading books on grief, loss and death for more than a year. It isn’t all I’ve been reading, mind you, but I definitely see a trend. I have a stack of books here waiting for me on that project. Currently, I am reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, after watching the PBS series. This relates directly to my work, since my book is about my best friend’s death from cancer. Other books for this project include Nox by Anne Carson, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down by Rachael Hanel, Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen, Stiff by Mary Roach, and many others. I guess you could say I’m making a survey. My own book will be creative nonfiction – not quite memoir, not quite straight nonfiction – with some poetry mixed in. I also am looking at some fiction, just to be thorough, like The Hollow series by Jessica Verday and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. They all relate to each other with themes of friendship, loss, grief or illness.

What I am aiming for with this particular spate of reading is to find forms I like, to find ways of approaching the subject matter, to hear what others have to say about it. I am drawn to this like a magnet. I can’t resist a book about grief or death these days. I know, it sounds macabre. But that’s what is in my head, and I know the only way to get it out is to write it out. I don’t aim to copy these titles; I want to get at what makes them tick. This started rather casually, but it has turned into a methodical research project. As it should be. For years I devoured books about books and YA novels. But now my reading is much more focused.

If you aren’t reading for a particular project, you can still have purposeful reading that you do. I have reading lists for many things. Many of my Facebook friends are writers, and many of those writers teach college. Occasionally they will post a request, like Recommendations for books about poetics by a poet? Last year, someone did that and the discussion went on until there were 50 titles listed. I promptly copied it all into a Word document and I now have my reading list for my own Master Class in Poetics. This list should prove to be helpful for another book project. I also have a list of favorite book-length lyric essays and a list of creative nonfiction craft books, gleaned in a similar way.

Why not take a stroll through your favorite bookstore’s writing section? Or sit down with a stack of journals. See what grabs you. Or check the back of some of your favorite writing books for Suggested Reading lists, or, best yet, ask those you trust what they recommend. Next time you read a nonfiction book (or even a novel), check the list of sources, and you’ll see why I’m reading so widely. For books on writing, I recommend Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and for reference, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. What do you recommend? What are your favorite writing books – either on craft, the writing life, or for reference? Because there’s no way around it – a writer’s gotta read.

Q is for Quiet

There is something you learn when you have a baby: if you keep the house perfectly quiet, hoping for longer naps, the slightest sound or breath of air will wake that child. Whereas if you maintain a normal hum of activity, maybe with some soft music or something playing in the background, you can practically vacuum under the crib and that baby will sleep through it.

Now, I don’t know if this applies to writing or not. I do know that when I used to work at home alone, in the beginning I would play lovely classical music, usually Mozart or something lively, to keep me humming along. And then when I got really busy with clients, I got out of the habit of playing music. And then my husband started working nights, so now the house is full of all sorts of distractions, interruptions, and different kinds of noise.

Oddly enough, my productivity is about the same. Which is to say, not as much as I’d like, but I am less distracted by the idea of being at home writing than I used to be. I was so in love with the idea for so long that I couldn’t get down to work. Now I just sit down and start typing, most days while still in my pajamas. I am doing less client work these days, on purpose, to have more time for that. We’ll see how that plays out with the pocketbook. It’s a gamble, to be sure.

Most days, I don’t even hear what my husband is saying. Right now, he is in the living room, reading aloud from the latest Growler magazine he just received. He wants me to be up on all the latest news, on which new tap rooms are opening up or what new seasonal beers are available. Truly, I want to know this. But once I start typing, about two or three paragraphs in, I no longer hear him. It’s not that I’m ignoring him – I’ve just kind of vacated into another conscious plane, or something {insert new age thoughts here}.

Very often, when he leaves to run errands, he is back before I even really realize he has left. Often, he will say something to me and I will murmur some response, and then shake my head a few minutes later and ask him, “What?” He is puzzled, “Didn’t you just answer me?” And I have to remind him, “No, not really.” He never remembers to get my attention first. By the time he’s finished his magazine and gone to do something else, I’ve lost track of him entirely.


This could be considered amazing concentration, or a severe ADD symptom, or absent-mindedness. I don’t know. What I do know is that I cannot wait for quiet to sit down and write. So I write where I can, when I can. I’ve written in theaters, during other people’s readings, during my own readings. I’ve written during high school plays and at bars and cafes. On planes, in hotels and at interstate rest stops. Anywhere where my butt hits the chair, I can write. (Yes, that’s my office, after a big book purge.)

Most often, I write at night. I compose poems and parts of essays in my head, and only rarely do I get up to write them down. I should do that more often. It’s far better than the Facebook posts I used to compose, or the work emails I used to compose before that. Maybe I should be keeping that proverbial notebook near my bed.

I have found that it works best for me to just write it as it comes. I know that there is some truth to the idea of habit – a habit can be a powerful thing. You should cultivate good habits. You should cultivate a writing habit – a creative habit. This was actually the name of a class I took with my coach Rosanne Bane, Building the Creative Habit, and the purpose of her book, Around the Writer’s Block. Now, I’ve never had writer’s block (at least I don’t think), but why take any chances?

There are many collections of the rituals that famous writers performed before they sat down to write. My writing coach thought ritual might have some value for me. It would probably serve to calm my thoughts. There is, of course, some value in routine. Hemingway always wrote standing up. (I’ve been to his Key West house – his writing room contained two large tables, one with the typewriter and one bare. He would clip his pages apart and lay them on the work table, jostling them around for the best effect.) Joyce always wrote lying down on his stomach (with crayons). Many writers required certain types of desks, certain pre-writing rituals (picking fleas off your dog, anyone?) or certain things to be placed near them (rotting apples!), or with only certain writing instruments.

I have found that it can be inspiring to look at where other writers work. I love to tour houses all over the country. So far, I’ve only been to Hemingway’s, but I have a long list to get to. Of course, that is after I finish what I’m working on now. What type of writing environment works best for you? Do you like it quiet? Can you write in a coffee shop? Do you like to be right in the middle of things or tucked away in the attic? I’d love to hear how people write!