Questions for Writers

Last week Kristen at Little Lodestar unintentionally set off a firestorm with her post, Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. She asked readers to answer these questions in the comments section on her blog, but many found the answers to warrant a post of their own. Nina Badzin, Lindsey Mead, Andrea Jarrell, and Justine Uhlenbrock are a few that I know of and whose answers I loved reading. I’m endlessly fascinated by the writer’s process, and any peek into the way others approach it is often eye opening for me.

Below are my answers to Kristen’s questions, and I would love to hear yours, whether in the comments here or on Kristen’s original post or on a post of your own.

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet?

I don’t usually share my works in progress with my husband. Certainly not blog posts. If I’m working on fiction or nonfiction, I’ll sometimes ask for his opinion or perspective, but this is usually to help with a sticky plot point or help me understand something like a scientific theory or historical event with more clarity. (Most of my freelance writing is for educational publishers.)

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback for it?

Like Lindsey, my feelings about this are complicated. I’m thrilled when someone in my personal life reads my stuff, but I certainly don’t expect them to do it regularly. Having said that, my mother, a children’s author, reads almost everything I write. She reads all my blog posts, and she’s often my beta reader for other writing projects. I know of a handful of friends and family who read pretty consistently. They might not always comment, but knowing they’re taking the time to read anything I’ve written means so much to me.

3. What do you do with pieces that continually get rejected — post to your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let go?

I haven’t started submitting pieces to other sites yet but it’s something I’m thinking about doing in the New Year, so I can’t answer for personal essays or blog posts. I do have a few fiction pieces that have been rejected. Some I gave up on and some I’m still fiddling with because I still believe in them and something about them keeps pulling me back. I think that’s the thing for me. If it still lights a fire in me, I know I’m not ready to let it go.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

For me, this would pertain to the educational writing I do, and I would have to say that it just depends. If the editor is open to revisions, or seems excited by the idea but it just isn’t working as is, I almost always try to “get it right”. If it’s flat-out rejected, sometimes I let it go if it’s an idea specifically for that editor/project, but sometimes I find through the process that I fall in love with a character’s voice or the idea in general, and I’m almost happy that it’s been rejected because I can keep these pieces for my own and try to develop them into a picture book, chapter book, or middle grade novel.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

Everything. I read almost anything I can get my hands on. Sometimes the reading takes over and before I know it, I’ve spent two hours reading blog posts and articles and dipping into books on my shelves when I should have been writing and/or working. For blog writing, I think I get the bulk of my ideas from other blogs. Something I read will spark a thought or a memory and I’ll go from there.

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

Again, I have to say almost everything. Along with the inspiration I find through other writers, it’s about remaining open and present in my daily life. Aidan Donnelly Rowley posted a photo to Instagram the other day that I think captures this sentiment perfectly. She was looking up at a lit Christmas tree in a corner window from her vantage point on the sidewalk and remarked that for just a moment she paused and wondered about the life that resides inside. That’s it in a nutshell — wondering, asking “what if”, allowing your mind and imagination to wander.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

This is a great question, and I’m afraid I might fail at answering it. There are so many bloggers out there whose words inspire me more than a lot of bestselling authors, but I’m going to say my mother. My mother is a brilliant writer and poet.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

I don’t know about “must have”, but I love Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” and Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art”. I haven’t yet read “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work” by Mason Currey, but I’ve heard it’s a good one. I also enjoyed a little known book called “Writing Begins with the Breath” by Laraine Herring. And I think Stephen King’s “On Writing” has been mentioned, but that is also a great read.

the writing life

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Call yourself a writer and stick to your story

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I’m a writer. I write because I can’t not write. I think like a writer. I read like a writer. I live like a writer. When I’m lucky enough to enjoy some “me” time, I don’t hit the mall or the spa. I lock myself away in my office with a hot cup of tea and I write, or I research, or I read. I don’t watch TV (hardly), I write. I don’t talk on the phone (much), I write. I write because I can’t not write.

I’ve written for magazines, I have poems published in anthologies, I’ve authored a biography, but yet when people ask me what I do I never say I’m a writer. Why? Because I have yet to publish a book of my own creation. Which is a pretty silly excuse to not own up to the writer title, but I feel…unaccomplished. When I’m hard on myself I think that I want to be a writer but I’m not really a writer. Not yet anyway.

My mom wrote this (below) and sent it to me a while back. When I go through phases like the one I’m in now, where life sucks every minute from my day and ounce of energy from my body and I feel myself drifting farther and farther away from actually being a writer, I dig this out and read it. (There’s a part where she speaks about the ever-elusive cover letter, also called a query letter, and I’ll be posting a how-to / what-not-to-do on that soon.)

I’ve become aware of a lot of new (for me) blogs out there, and a lot of their authors have confessed to wanting to write a book or are in the process of writing one. I thought this might be of some help to all of us, a little reminder that we are writers no matter where we are in the road to publication.

P.S. This is a new(ish) book from my mom Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

P.P.S. This one, co-authored with the incomparable Jane Yolen, comes out March 1.

CALL YOURSELF A WRITER AND STICK TO YOUR

STORY

 by

 Rebecca Kai Dotlich

 

Are you a writer?

Across cities, prairies, mountains and meadows, I can hear you say it; from skyscrapers, schools, cafes and farms, I can hear you say it; the unsure, quiet, whispered, halfhearted yes. I know, because I can hear the echo of my own yes from years ago, before I was published, before I felt I could proudly and assuredly say, I am a writer.

But somewhere along the way I started picking up courage. It was like picking up clothes off the floor: first a shirt, then a sock, then another, little by little, until the basket is full. Maybe it was something I felt, maybe something someone said, maybe (and probably) something I read, some words of support another writer wrote. So I am writing these words to you, in hopes they help you to pick up your own courage:

Call yourself a writer and stick to your story.

No wavering, no hesitation, no embarrassed or halfhearted yes. And while you’re working on this new sense of conviction, keep these reminders in your heart-pocket:

A writer writes. Alone. That’s what a writer does.

In a room, at a desk, in a chair, on a tablet, at a computer, a writer writes. Looking out a window, through a notebook, across the yard or the library shelves, a writer writes. Chances are your husband or wife doesn’t, your neighbor doesn’t, your best friend doesn’t. So don’t expect them to understand, they won’t. It is a solitary job.

We are thinker, tinker, creator, researcher, doer, reviser, approver, editor, marketer; we are all these things. No one to answer to, no one to fix it, no one to turn to, unless of course you belong to a writer’s group, which is a great idea if you are a writer who both needs and appreciates feedback, but be prepared to spend time and thought giving a fair bit of it yourself. If you can do this, run to the nearest group and beg your way in, and if there isn’t one formed, get on the phone and start one.

The life of a writer can be a lonely and often frustrating business. But it can be so joyful that you can’t wait to wake up each morning and have a go at it again. And you will, no doubt, have both of these emotions, depending on the day, if you call yourself a writer and stick to your story.

Create a space for your writing.

I have now turned a spare bedroom into my writing room, complete with file drawers and shelves for my books, a long narrow desk for my computer, along with a printer, bulletin board, lamps and paperwork.

But years ago, when I started, I used the kitchen table between meals. From there I went to a desk in an unfinished, unheated basement with cobwebs for company. I’ve heard of writers who live in small spaces using a pantry for their writing nook. (Goodbye soup!) I saw one writer build doors in front of a little opening in a wall; the doors opened to a computer when it was time to write. Put a small table in a corner of your kitchen. My friend bought a used desk at a garage sale, then pulled out her dresser to fit it into her small bedroom. Some writers write in a garage with a space heater and gloves. (My basement space required both.) The places are endless. But have a place. It’s where you are a writer.

READ.

Read more than you write. And especially read the genre you are writing in, or would like to write in. Immerse yourself in it. Be a detective — what works? What are publishers buying? Be mindful of opening lines. Look at the way paragraphs and chapters have transitioned. How do characters come alive, and how are their personalities formed in the reader’s minds. Study dialogue, structure. Picture books have certain rhythms and a cadence that falls across the page. Poetry takes many forms.

KEEP NOTEBOOKS.

Keep scraps of paper with kernels of ideas in a folder, a box, a basket, a coffee can. Notebooks keep your jumbled thoughts together, and often hold unexpected surprises. (The perfect word, the beginning of a picture book, a bit of dialogue.) Notebooks help you to find and keep treasured nuggets of thought you might otherwise lose. I keep quite a few notebooks going – favorite words, book ideas, poem starters, things I’ve observed on a walk, an overheard bit of conversation. I keep scraps of paper in a wicker basket, (and in my purse, and my robe pockets, and the car, … ) and rummage through them now and again to see if maybe, just maybe, a light goes on. Sometimes not, but sometimes . . .

REVISE.

Sand that splintered board, polish that rough edge. Writers often forget to let their writing sit for a few days, or at least while they sleep. We are an impatient bunch. I hear you laughing. Isn’t it true? We should have our own chapter in anthropology textbooks. We feed off of immediate gratification, a state of finished-ness. We despair over empty mailboxes and unreturned phone calls. We do strange dances and sing ourselves praises after long, lonely hours of cobbling words together in the cozy security of our cave. So splash a little cold water on your cheeks and dig in; cut, slash, rewrite, rework, smooth out. I sometimes revise a 12 line poem more than twenty-five times. A picture book goes through countless revisions.

STUDY the market carefully.

Pull down books from bookstore shelves – what’s new in the category you are writing? What publishers are publishing what? What makes them work? And magazines: go to the library and look at every issue for the past year or two. What did they publish for the winter season? Do they seem to like holiday or nature themes for December? What is the word length of their stories or poems? Write each magazine and get sample copies. Read Publisher’s Weekly. Read reviews. Get yourself a copy of the newest Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books. There are many similar books on the market too.

REMEMBER to send a cover letter with your manuscript.

Keep it short and simple. If you’ve studied their list, mention a book you admire. Get the editor’s name right. (Call the publisher if you have to and inquire.) Give the title of your work and mention the type of book it is: novel, middle grade novel, I Can Read book, poetry collection, picture book, non-fiction, etc.

Don’t ever mention that your grandchild loves it, even if he does.

Don’t mention that you know of a great illustrator who is starving, even if you do.

And don’t send a manuscript with coffee stains. (You’d be surprised.)

And include an SASE, or you won’t ever hear from them. And if you don’t know what an SASE is, you need to read more than you have on writing and publishing. And I say this with compassion but firmness.

LIVE like a writer.

LISTEN. READ. WRITE. REVISE. OBSERVE.

Collect words. Study the markets. Attend workshops and conferences. Join a writer’s group. Spend more hours in libraries and bookstores than grocery stores. Explain to your family that macaroni and cheese can be a meal.

DON’T TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY.

Sometimes your manuscript isn’t a good fit for that particular house or magazine, or even for that editor. Maybe he or she just accepted something similar. Or it could also be you didn’t study their guidelines well enough, and your ms. wouldn’t work for that list. It could be (and you might not ever know this) that it almost made it. Almost. A word that is both heartbreaking and electrifying. And yes, it could also be you need to look at your work with a critical eye and — breathe — revise. Again. View rejection as a challenge, a nudge to try harder, change, think, improve, target your audience and or book publisher or magazine with more focus and a renewed spirit. I know editors with a wonderful, edgy, offbeat sense of humor. And some who are extremely tender at heart. These two editors will naturally love different manuscripts. These are things you won’t know. Luck sometimes plays a part.

Don’t give up.

Not if you really, reallyreallyreally, long to be a writer, to scoop out those thoughts and words and stories and poems from your soul, your brain, your heart, and get them on paper. Don’t do it. Don’t quit. Don’t even think about it. Why do you think the stars are there, if not for you to hang your hat on.

Give yourself permission to fail. But give yourself permission to write. Call yourself a writer. And stick to your story.