Tips for Writers
Some Inspirational & Practical Resources
Writing on a Unicycle
Writing on a Unicycle:
Making Time for What You Love
in a Life out of Balance
In all my years of working with writers—published and not-yet-published—in all the workshops I’ve led and courses I’ve taught, one question always comes up:
How do I make a place in my over-scheduled life for my writing?
Man or woman; married or not; with young children, grown children, or no children; working a full-time office job or freelancing from home or retired; with a dedicated work space or a makeshift spot on the kitchen counter—everyone struggles to achieve some semblance of balance.
Unless writing is your day job, these tips are for you. And if you have other ideas, and the time to write them down, please send them to me so I can share them with others.
Do Backward Housekeeping
Kathleen V. Kudlinski, author of many works on science and nature, taught me the concept of Backward Housekeeping. In the morning, she doesn’t make the beds or wash the breakfast dishes. She goes straight to her desk—to write. Then she squeezes in the most essential housework in the half hour before dinnertime.
She strongly recommends that writers should not have plants. No ironing, no silver polishing, that’s obvious. But why no plants? I asked her. They require too much upkeep, she replied, watering, repotting. Oh, I said, what about plastic plants? No, she answered, fake plants have to be dusted. You can imagine her stance on pets. . . .
Nonfiction writer Elaine Fantle Shimberg took this idea one step further: “If no one notices it, don’t do it. If you have to dust, water, polish or feed it, you don’t need it. Don’t clean your house, strip it.”
With children younger than school age, some writers share babysitting. Rebecca O’Connell says, “My friend Clare saved my writing life when I was a new mother. Clare’s baby was two months older than mine, and she called me and suggested we trade childcare two mornings a week. Tuesday mornings, she would watch my baby while I wrote, and Thursday mornings, I would watch her baby while she wrote. It worked! It freed up just enough time that we could both keep writing, even when we felt our time was not really our own.”
So, once you carve out a bit of time to write, here are five practical tips to help you use that time well.
Go to a Coffee Shop or Laundromat
If you can’t bring yourself to ignore the unmade bed, the unpaid bills, or the unwashed dishes, change your point of view, literally. Sometimes a change of scenery inspires new ideas.
As a bonus, the rhythm of the washing machine spin-cycle just might creep into the read-aloud rhythm of poetry or dialogue in your work.
Dress for Success
For writers who work at home with children underfoot, Ellen Braaf, nonfiction writer, journalist, and researcher, advises, “Pick a hat—any hat—a purple beret, beaded beanie, felt fedora, tweed deerstalker, straw sombrero with pompoms dangling from the brim. The wackier the better. Or get creative and craft your own.
“Enlist your family’s help. Tell them it’s a wearable Do Not Disturb sign—a gentle reminder that says, It’s my time to write, and I take my work—if not myself—seriously. Talk about what your children can do to entertain themselves while you write. Maybe they’ll opt to have some creative time of their own.
“Start slowly. Don your hat and work for fifteen minutes. If all goes well, gradually extend your writing time until you discover the limits of their tolerance. Plan fun family activities on a regular basis to reward cooperation. Hey, it’s worth a shot. And it beats locking yourself in the bathroom. If it fails, take heart. You’re all set for Halloween.
“Remember, when your kids are grown and out from underfoot, you’ll miss the interruptions and peanut-butter fingerprints on your manuscripts. (Or not!)”
Light a Candle in Your Work Space
Not a symbolic “light at the end of the tunnel” or the metaphoric “burning the candle at both ends,” but an actual candle.
If you’re tempted to leave your writing to answer the phone, the door, or—greatest distraction of our civilization—read e-mail, you won’t be able to do so for long. You’ll always have to return to the candle to check on it and make sure you’re not burning down the house!
Take a Mini-Sabbatical
You don’t have to be an academic to be the beneficiary of a sabbatical, nor do you have to be religious to find a comfortable way to incorporate the underlying principle of Sabbath observance. Just pick one day out of seven or even part of one day not to write. No typing, no e-mail, not even any work-related reading.
I have a big, comfortable chair in my living room designated for leisurely reading—no work or phone calls related to work while I sit in that chair. Even half an hour there provides a break and results in renewed focus when I return to my desk.
By moving away from the intensity of constant work, even in a small way, you allow your unconscious to do its job, unencumbered by your intensity.
A few months ago, I had a challenging conversation with an author I had worked with for many years. We had already been on the phone for more than an hour, and I had asked him to revise and remove, change and fix, and … well, as tactfully as I could, I had encouraged him to do away with a major plot thread and—gasp!—even to commit character-icide. He saw the logic and actually embraced the concept. In theory, anyway.
But it was easy to see that he was becoming overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in making all this happen. So I said, “I’m going to ask you to do one more thing, something hard, even harder than what we’ve already talked about.”
Now this author and I have worked together for a long time, and there is a lot of trust between us. Even so, there are limits to trust. A deep intake of breath. Then he said, “Um. What is it?”
Go to the movies, I said. Meaning, let it go, let the work wait, distract yourself today, let your unconscious take over. Come back to the work, fresh and refreshed, tomorrow—one of the principles of a traditional Sabbath or an academic sabbatical. But more than just passive rest, an effective break involves nourishing different parts of your brain and moving beyond your everyday activities. The means can be praying, having a meal with friends, looking at art, quilting, going to a concert.
Kent Nagano, an orchestra conductor, agrees that expanding your activities and interests beyond your work is good for the work itself. He says, “It’s like food. You’d get pretty strange if you ate ice cream all the time.” But the occasional scoop….
Take a Deep, Cleansing Breath
For a micro-sabbatical, try deep, deep breathing. It’s an easy and always-available way to relieve stress. It helps you focus, and that can make you more productive. It's a mini-break, with some of the benefits of a power nap and without the sleep lines.
Remember, we are all in this together. Take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed, in longing to win the lottery or the National Book Award.
Wishing you a peaceful and productive balance of work, life, and play.
Wise Advice for Writers:
What advice would you give new or aspiring writers?
Deborah asked several authors and agents that same question. Here are their answers, as varied and inspiring as the individuals who offered them.
Recipe for a Best-selling Novel:
- Start with an inspired concept.
- Add characters that leap off the page.
- Mix in a high-stakes plot.
- Wrap in a deeply felt theme.
- Place in a vivid setting.
- Revise and polish, revise and polish.
—Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary Agency
“‘In the beginning there was the Word’ and, as a boy, my favorite word was Popocatepetl. What’s not to love?
“But all words—short, fat, lean, spiky, tumescent, avuncular, outlandish, necrotic, subtle, noisy, picaresque words, all their sweet-salty flavors and colors and textures—don’t we just plain get a rush from words? Pour them out of our fingers and let their shape fill any container. Capitalize them and stand them alone like sentinels, or beacons or fence posts. Allow them to assemble, line up in sentences, congregate in paragraphs, and march off into images and ideas.”
—Charlie Price, author of
Dead Connection and Lizard People
“All books for children need an emotional core. In writing nonfiction for middle graders, I look for what wordlessly touches me. For One Thousand Years Dead, about the mummies of southern Peru, it was the balls of yarn, still vibrantly red and yellow, found in the tomb of a thousand-year-old mummy, that was the arrow connecting me to the rest of the story. My grandmother’s balls of yarn, in her knitting basket, looked just the same. I had something real, in my life, to both keep me grounded and let me fly back through the years and see/visualize my subject’s life.
“Zena Sutherland, internationally recognized expert on children’s literature, said that stories are read and loved by adults and children because ‘they satisfy, deeply satisfy, a basic emotional need that we as human beings have, and, in fact, can’t escape.’ Why would we want to? It’s called life, and it is the raw material for our work.”
—Trish Marx, author of
Steel Drumming at the Apollo: The Road to Super Top Dog
and Golden Thrones: Inside China’s Forbidden City
“Write wherever you are; always keep the invitation open. Wherever you are, have a small notebook with you—that’s much better than scrounging around for paper and writing on napkins and matchbooks, but if you have to do that in an emergency, or you think that’s more romantic, fine. But if you have a notebook by your bed, in your purse or pocket, in the shower, by the sink, in the car (but be careful), in the movies, at a concert … you are always keeping the invitation open. Because you never know where you will get a great idea, a way to fix something, a thought about a character, an inspiration for a new book.
“Read all the time, all kinds of things: classics, junk, fun, serious, fiction, nonfiction, for kids, for adults. Read like a writer, even if you’re reading something just for fun. How did the author do that? Why did the author do that? What would I have done? How could it be better?”
—Deborah Heiligman, author of
the Holidays Around the World series
and Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
“My advice? Write every day, even if only a snippet. If I do this, I find that some part of my brain becomes attuned to my story and continues to mull it over, even when I’m doing something else. I can be driving to the dump or chopping garlic, and suddenly an insight about one of my characters, or a new way of saying something I’ve been struggling with, pops into my head seemingly out of nowhere. I am deeply grateful to that mysterious part of my brain!”
—Kate McMullan, author of I Stink!
and the Dragon Slayers’ Academy series
“Read everything, from cereal boxes to Dr. Seuss to War and Peace. Read out loud to hear how words sound, how they feel rolling around on your tongue and not just on the back of your eyelids."
—Lois Ruby, author of Miriam’s Well
and The Secret of Laurel Oaks
“While everyone is seeing ruin and end-of-times all around, this is also a moment in history when one should be taking stock personally and professionally, and considering profound changes in how one works and does things. This is a time for objective, inner contemplation and seeing change as opportunity, of doing what jazz musicians used to call ‘woodshedding’ or practicing and getting better at your craft, of finding the courage to try new stuff, knowing that almost certainly most of it will fail, though one thing might hit really big. It's only writing, after all, no one is going to die if you make a mistake!”
—Peter Rubie, Fine Print Literary Management
“Use verse with caution. Don't neglect story structure for the sake of rhyme. Draft a prose version of your story to review the key issues—character, plot, setting, theme. Verse is frosting, not the cake itself. Also, make sure you have true rhymes and consistency of meter. Never try to bend phrasing to accommodate rhyme.”
—Emma Walton Hamilton, coauthor,
with Julie Andrews,
of the Dumpy the Dump Truck series
and The Great American Mousical
“Create strong main characters. The time your readers spend with your stories is a visit to the setting you choose—with the characters you created. If the characters are engaging and interesting, your readers will be eager for a return visit.”
—David A. Adler, author of the
Cam Jansen Adventure series
and Don't Talk to Me About the War
“I am a collector of sayings that touch upon writing, and happily share three that have inspired or helped me:
- “William Zinsser, On Writing Well: ‘There's no sentence that's too short in the eyes of God.’
- “John Lassiter, Pixar Animation: ‘Quality is a great business plan.’
- “Anonymous: ‘A blank piece of paper is God’s way of saying it ain’t easy being God.’”
—Don Brown, author/illustrator of
All Stations! Distress!: April 15, 1912: The Day the Titanic Sank
and A Wizard from the Start: The Story of Young Thomas Edison
“Hemingway Did It in Six Words: Baby carriage for sale. Never used.
“The first job of the writer is to make the reader care what happens to the fictional people in a story. Don’t be afraid to put your characters in situations that make readers worry. Engage the reader by having your characters make mistakes, make poor choices, and make trouble for themselves and others. Readers will worry—and turn the pages to find out what happens!”
—Helen Hemphill, author of
The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones
“I always tell writers not to write what they think they should write, or what they think will sell to a publisher. Write the story that’s begging to be written. You know the one! The one where the characters speak to you and are real, the one that keeps you up at night and won’t let go. If you’re working on a piece and find that a different story keeps pulling you away, take that as a sign.
“I’ve seen it over and over again—when my authors tell me they are having fun, their families have to pull them away from the writing, they can’t wait to get back to it… these are the times I get excited, because I know the manuscript will be full of passion. And that is the story to share with readers.”
—Tracey Adams, Adams Literary
“When I was young and just getting started in my career, a seasoned and very well-regarded editor once told me, ‘My dear, forget all this nonsense about writing what you like. A professional writer ought to be able to write about anything.’ I was duly chastened at the time, but in the intervening 25 or so years, I have come to the conclusion that being able to write about anything is not the mark of a professional writer; it is the mark of a hack.
“Forget being able to ‘write about anything,’ I think writers should write about what they love, what engages their hearts and minds most fully, deeply and truly. This may well turn out to be what you know, but it may also be what you need to learn. Writing then becomes the mental fuel that feeds the spiritual hunger.”
—Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of Breaking the Bank
and The Doll Shop Downstairs
“Say it out loud: I am a writer. Banish self-doubt. Ask questions of the text, the characters, and their motivation, but do not question your abilities or desire.
“Write a first chapter? Celebrate! Get to 100 pages? Celebrate! Send out your work? Receive a nice rejection? Receive a form-letter rejection? Reward yourself every time you take a chance, and every time you meet your goals.
“This business is about making mistakes. It is all about ‘do-overs.’ You need to write the wrong thing to figure out what the right thing is. So don’t save your big celebration for a launch party. When you learn something new, pat yourself on the back.
“You are on the journey. You are writing. You are a writer!”
—Sarah Aronson, author of Head Case
“Writing is all about the difference between what you want to do and what you can do; it's coming to terms with yourself and your own limitations—and possibilities.”
—Leda Schubert, author of
Ballet of the Elephants and Here Comes Darrell
“Painters often turn a picture upside-down to see if it works. Upside-down the painter can’t count on reading the actual figures, only the composition. Well, we can’t read a story or poem upside-down, but we can do the equivalent. Take a story or chapter and break it up into breath spaces as if it’s a poem. You will very quickly see where you have overwritten a piece. And when you see a cliché on a single line, it leaps out, grabs you by the throat.”
—Jane Yolen, author of
Owl Moon, The Devil’s Arithmetic,
and How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?
“As part of the writing process, take the time to give your conscious mind a break and allow your subconscious mind to add its two cents. Too often I read promising manuscripts that just aren’t ready for submission, and these days, I need a manuscript that’s completely fine-tuned in order to sell. By waiting and rereading a manuscript, an author gains perspective on the story. While editors are used to reading manuscripts multiple times and helping authors through the revision stage, when a manuscript takes their breath away on the first read, they open their wallets wide.”
—Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary, Inc.
“Hone your instincts and learn to respect them. If you find you often get sharp comments from critique partners or editors or agents you've submitted to, and those comments make you say, ‘Hmm, something was nagging me about that, but I ignored it,’ it's a sign that you do have good instincts that you aren't paying attention to. Listening to those little voices can make the difference between good writing and great writing.”
—Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary Agency
“I don’t want to be the first person to read my authors’ work. I feel strongly that writers need to make time to share their writing and to ‘workshop’ that writing with their peers. The more eyes and input a writer has, the better the writing will be. It’s about the writing-and-listening-and-rewriting-and-listening-and-rewriting process. As an agent, I want to know that my author has gone through this process a couple of times before I read the manuscript and before I go out with it to editors.”
—Kenneth R. Wright, Writers House Literary Agency
“Editors have increasingly less time to do their most important work. Getting a foot in the door is tough. Submitting a manuscript that does not need major editorial work makes that first book deal much less difficult to attain.”
—Paul Rodeen, Rodeen Literary Management
“Whenever you elect to debut an Internet presence—be it before or after your first publication—think about how you want to present yourself. What will your blog, site, or social network tell the world, publishing professionals, gatekeepers, and young readers about you? Are you projecting that you’re a mom who writes as a hobby (not that there’s anything wrong with that) or as a dedicated professional? Are you projecting yourself as an academic who writes part-time or as a full-time writer with a university ‘day’ job?
“There’s no one right answer (and you may even need a dual strategy). Do what works best for you. But think about it first. Make a conscious decision.”
—Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of
Jingle Dancer and Eternal
“You've worked for one, two or more years to complete a book very near and dear to your heart. You've submitted hundreds of pages of manuscript, which an editor has accepted for publication. Then you receive a dozen-page document from your publisher. It's your contract.
“From the moment you receive your contract, that stack of manuscript pages on the editor's desk means...nothing. Zip-Zero-Zilch! The editor can't do a thing with your manuscript until you sign that contract. And you'd better not sign that contract until you are actually comfortable signing it. That means making a copy, reading it closely, and marking up anything you don't understand, or that you think you'd like to see changed.
“Consult other published writers, or use the opportunity to find an agent, or a publishing contracts consultant, if you wish. Ask all the questions you need to ask of the publisher to allow you to negotiate reasonably with the publisher. You'll have to accept some compromises and probably have to give up some of the changes you'd like to see.
“Once the contract is signed, then, and only then, does your manuscript take priority again.”
—Sean P. Fodera, Associate Director of Contracts, Macmillan
“It's easy to get caught up in scarcity mentality and think that if someone else gets published, your slot has been filled. But someone else's successful children's book can open up the market for other children's books, including yours. Try to see the bigger picture. There's always a new editor coming on board, always a new publishing imprint starting up, always a new format developing. The market expands. It may seem like a paradox, but you can help yourself get published by helping someone else get published.”
—Anna Olswanger, Liza Dawson Associates
There are many helpful books about writing — a few favorites follow — but it’s also possible to extrapolate principles directly from well-written fiction and nonfiction.
- A quirky example of how to effectively play with point-of-view: The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische. Irene writes the autobiography of her own grandmother, who complains about her worthless granddaughter, Irene.
- For descriptive passages about ice and snow so powerful you will need a coat, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.
- As a model of concision, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. “Bums in the Attic,” barely a page long, tells us everything about being poor and having dreams.
- For an unusual use of second-person narration (“you”), The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber.
- A surreal relationship to time reflected in the structure of the book itself: A Three Dog Life, a memorable and poignant memoir by Abigail Thomas.
- If you’re about to head off to the proverbial desert island to do some writing, and your backpack is really small, I’d suggest packing Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. The title refers to a situation her brother, ten years old at the time, found himself in—up against a deadline for a school report on birds. Their father advised him: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Lamott’s subtitle has two parts, both valuable, both beautifully and helpfully laid out in this book: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
- On Writing by Stephen King: Ya gotta love a guy who exhorts you to remember that “to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” Earthy, personal, funny—and consistently helpful.
- For writer’s block: On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity by Victoria Nelson. Supportive suggestions for turning a stumbling block into a building block.
- For writing exercises: What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, gives a variety of ways to approach creative issues and their solutions.
- For good tips, rather like sound bites: How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, by Janet Evanovich, with Ina Yalof.
- To help you honor the journey as well as the goal, silence your inner critical voice, and appreciate life's gifts: Writing Yoga: A Guide to Keeping a Practice Journal by Bruce Black.
- Who says using correct English can’t be fun? You’ll have a great time with Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner. You’ll also find out the answer to the burning question, “Death Sentence: Do clichés deserve to die?”
- The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. With a title like that, you can’t possibly be surprised to find this as an example of a coordinate conjunction: “The robot and the dentist tangoed beneath the stars.” Not to mention the bizarre illustrations.
- It's hard to get a foot in the door without one. For that critical first step of preparing a proposal to submit to agents and editors, two supportive guides give specific examples of strong proposals, annotated with practical advice. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O'Shea and Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why, by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman will shepherd you through the initial part of the publishing process.
- the Authors’ Guild
- the Women’s National Book Association (men also belong)
- and/or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
These organizations help both the published and the not-yet-published become more professional, even as they create a community of writers for inspiration and support.
Many websites also provide guidance about writing and publishing, but Cynthia Leitich Smith’s site stands out as an exceptional resource.