Tag: writing life

writing life

Survival Tips

The other day I was talking to a writer friend I’d lost touch with for about 20 years. We each shared stories of inspiring successes and heart-breaking failures and it occurred to me that there are a lot of highs and lows in this business. So I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors: How do you deal with the ups and downs? What are your survival tips?  This is what they said: Tracee: how to survive the ups and downs? I’ll take the ‘downs’ first and say it’s necessary to remember that this is a job, and like any job there are ups and downs. Some failures are private…. a flat scene, newly discovered plot holes. That these private ‘failures’ are in our heads doesn’t help and I think it’s necessary to have someone, or a group, to turn to and share the trials and tribulations and get a sympathetic pat on the back. Finding the right support person or group is important. Certainly someone who understands that while the failures are on paper, they are also real. Big failures, certainly those that are public, let’s say a particularly bad review, well, this is no different than losing a client at work, or a trial, or not being re-elected. Everyone has professional set backs, it’s what we learn from them, and how we dust off and get back to work that matters. Now success is another thing altogether. Success is such a sliding scale and – at least for me – when I hit my goals suddenly they are in the rear view mirror. Possibly we all need to remember to celebrate the little victories – that might be getting good feedback on a rejection letter from an agent! Or it might be staying on the NYT bestsellers list for more than 100 consecutive weeks. Every writer should appreciate where they are in the process and value the successes as they come (even while keeping a weather eye on the NYT bestseller’s list). Bottom line – don’t be afraid to applaud the small things, even while dreaming of the big time! Cate: Personally, I’ve been feeling the downs a lot this year and it helps to have people to commiserate with that remind when those successes, now in the rear view, were your destinations. thanks Tracee! Michele: I take the ups and downs as they come, remembering both are temporary. I seek comfort from other writers who understand how difficult this can be to do. Then I sit down, put my pen to paper, and start writing again. It’s the only remedy I know that works.  Robin: I’ll start with the downs first, too. As Tracee points out, “down” is relative. It’s not like writers and artists get a lot of sympathy from non-artists on the down days. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Isn’t this something you’re doing for fun? Just don’t do it.” Thus, I’m selective about when/if/what I share on a bad day. When I do, I’ll turn to writer friends, of course, and friends who have revealed themselves to be cheerleaders and allies. Before I had an agent, I didn’t tell anyone but my significant other, because she would bear the brunt of my moping around. As far as how I deal with it now, I give myself permission to feel bad, because it’s natural, but only to a point. It is a business, as Tracee said, and bad days happen. Wallowing serves no one. If I’m on the brink of wallowing, I look for opportunities to get out of my own head and help someone else. Volunteering, mentoring, sharing my expertise in some way. And, like Michele, I write. It makes me happy in a way nothing else does, which is why I do it in the first place. The good days are also relative. Before I signed with Paula, I printed out agent rejections whenever they said something complimentary, highlighted the good parts in bright yellow, then stuck the pages up where I could see them in my home office. I celebrate every win, no matter how personal. Had a great writing day? Yay! Attended a conference where I learned something? Yay! Met a personal hero? Yay! Sold a short story? Yay! Finished a new manuscript? Yay! Celebrations could be as humble as doing a literal happy dance (picture lots of fist pumping in the air) to splurging on a nice dinner or bottle of wine. When I signed with Paula, I did all three 🙂 Alison: I don’t think I can possibly add to what the rest of you have written, but I’ll try. As a relatively new writer, I firmly believe we can all use a little help from our friends–writer friends–with whom we can be completely honest. It’s hard to admit that you’re not happy with your writing or you got a bad review. I’ve known both and then some. After a little time has passed, I go back to the work I don’t like (if it’s not already sent to the copy editor) and revisit. When it comes to reviews, I also force myself to wait. If the critique doesn’t sting anymore, then the criticism had more to do with the person writing it than with me. If it still stings, then it’s me, and something I can learn from.  Alexia: My coping mechanism isn’t particularly profound–shopping. When I’m down, finding something nice cheers me up and when I’m celebrating success, shopping is my reward.If I’m in a full-on blue funk where nothing’s right with the world and everyone sucks, I try to do something completely unproductive and totally fun. A change of environment or a new experience or reliving an old but enjoyable experience usually gives me renewed energy. I also try to avoid the news and scale back on social media as I find the constant negativity reinforces my own glumness.One thing I have to guard against when I experience a success is impostor syndrome. I have to remind myself that I earned the success and I’m not a fraud, I didn’t just get lucky, and I deserve it.I don’t obsess over reviews, good or bad. Obsessing over reviews is crazy-making. I remind myself everyone is entitled to an opinion and not everything is to everyone’s taste. I take reviews as opinions on my work, not me. And advice/feedback from people I know and respect is a good thing–I use it to improve. (And I’m actually my harshest critic; see my above comment about impostor syndrome.)I tend not to share the downs with others. As an introvert, that’s not in my nature. When I commiserate with colleagues it tends to be about bigger things like the state of the publishing industry in general instead of something specific to me. Paula: I love this question. As a writer, because I know firsthand that if you don’t love the writing, you’ll never last. As an editor, because I know that the writers who get published are the writers who finish, and revise. And as an agent, because I see way too many good writers quit just when success is right around the corner. The answer: Never give up, never surrender!

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How to deal with criticism (as a writer)

 This month’s issue of The Writer magazine contains my article on How to Deal With Criticism. I happened to be under a tight deadline for that article, and it was due right in the middle of ThrillerFest, but it didn’t matter because never has anything I’ve written come so easily. Do you ever just sit down and find words flowing out of you? Me neither, but I did in this case. Partly it’s because I criticize for a living. As a teacher at Gotham Writers, my job is to read through my students’ writing and give them helpful ways to improve it. Although I try to be positive, there comes a point when you have to note that the story would be better if it had a plot. For example. Then, as a writer, I receive criticism for a living. I write something and send it to my fabulous agent. She has a few suggestions. She sends it out to publishers. They have a few suggestions. Then there are the kind folk on amazon. If you can’t figure out how to deal with these suggestions, you’ll have a very short career as a writer. So I had A LOT to say in this article. Plus which, it contains one of my favorite sentences I’ve ever written (perhaps inspired by the fact that I’d just met George R.R. Martin at ThrillerFest. Here it is. “I find being critiqued a harrowing experience. My beautiful words that I have treasured and nurtured for years, are now being flayed alive like something out of Game of Thrones.” So please check out the article. And don’t criticize it! (And thanks to the fabulous Paula Lanier for the photo.)

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Trusting Your Gut

As a journalist and now author, I’ve had more than a dozen editors. The best ones finessed my writing and ideas, getting the best story possible out of me and my research. The worst ones used me as a living tool to tell the story they wanted in their voices. The former resulted in some of my best work. The latter in some of my worst. I strongly subscribe to the every writer needs an editor doctrine. But I also believe that every writer needs an editor that respects him or her enough to bring out the best in the individual author. Writers need the freedom to tell their stories the way that resonates with them. The editor can help focus an author’s ideas and tell him or her where they are losing the reader, where the characters are falling flat, where the scene isn’t translating, etc. But the editor shouldn’t use the writer to tell the story in his or her head. It won’t work. It will read as strained as the process of creating the story will invariably become.     

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Saying no

I am one of those people who says yes to everything, until one person too many asks and then I lose my temper and explode. Or whimper, anyway. Over the last few years I’ve become the slightest bit more assertive, but at the current trajectory, I should reach emotional maturity by time I turn 100. So I asked my Miss Demeanors if they had difficulty saying no. Robin: No (see what I did there?). Seriously, “no” is not a problem for me. My first instinct is usually to overextend myself when I get enthusiastic but I’ve learned to pick and choose quality over quantity. It’s better and healthier for me to put my passion and energy into fewer endeavors and knock them out of the park rather than risk half-assing something that will come back to haunt me. I’m perfectly comfortable “being the bad guy” for a moment rather than regretting a squandered opportunity for a lifetime. And, honestly, it’s rare that “no” makes me “the bad guy.” “No” doesn’t always mean “never.” It often means “not right now.” Tracee: I don’t have a problem using that particular two letter word. Part of this comes from years running large organizations highly dependent on volunteer help – I had to listen to my fair share of Nos. When I turn someone down I try to be specific so they will know that No means No, or No means Later or No means maybe a Yes if my assignment was different. I try to respect the No, and that means saying it with respect. That said, I don’t think that a No requires an explanation. As my mother would say “No, but thank you for asking.” End of story. When the time is right, it might turn into a yes! After all, for all things there is a time. Paula: I may paste what Robin has to say on my refrigerator LOL I read somewhere that you should spend the first part of your career saying yes to everything and then when you reach a certain level of success, it’s time to start saying no to everything. I still say yes more often than I should, but I’m getting better. Cate: I am horrible at saying no. Case in point: I am cooking a turkey for the second grade class for thanksgiving and my edit/rewrite is due at the end of the month. I also agreed to read and blurb someone’s book. I have problems. Michele: You do realize you’re asking a woman who one year ago today agreed to cochair a conference for writers and readers and who just came home from it. I don’t need the sign with Robin’s quote on my refrigerator. I need to crawl into the refrigerator and hide. I’m learning to say no and I’m selective about what I say yes to. On the other hand, saying yes means you have full life. Remember that quote, if you want something done, ask a busy person. I say yes a lot because I want to. Alexia: My ability to say “no” depends on the situation. I find it much harder to say no to friends than I do at work. I used to be afraid to say no to anyone. I wanted to be the “nice” girl who everyone liked, the indispensable Janie-on-the-spot. During my second year of residency (I remember the moment: standing near the elevators after a particularly crappy day on my 2nd pediatrics rotation.) I realized that always saying yes was getting me nowhere. People didn’t appreciate me; they took advantage of me. They interpreted niceness as weakness and went in for the kill. And at the end of the day, they still didn’t like me. No one likes their doormat. Uses it, sure. Likes it? Not so much. At that moment my animal brain woke up and said, “Screw nice. Let’s talk survival. These people aren’t your friends and won’t become your friends. Since they’re going to dislike you anyway, let them dislike you for not being a pushover. Have the spine to stand up for your own interests.” Magic happened. I’d pay money to see the expression on the face of someone who assumed I’d acquiesce (translation: roll over and play dead) when I asserted myself and said no to their plan, then explained the good reason I said no, and offered a better, more balanced alternative. Friends are different. I actually want to accommodate my friends’ requests because they’re my friends and that’s what you do for friends. Saying no is hard so I take the sneaky way out and pretend I didn’t get the message (phone call, email, text, etc). Avoidance: the preferred technique of passive aggressives, cowards, and people with boundary issues everywhere.Oddly, with family it’s a bit easier to say no. Probably because they’re stuck with me. Bwahahaha. Alison: I don’t like to say no to anyone, but I’m learning that it’s not only a necessary life skill, it’s a critical one. I’ve spent too many years saying yes to things I didn’t want to do, doing those things well, and being resentful. Now, I try my best to determine whether I’ll actually enjoy whatever it is that is being asked of me. If the answer is no, I say no if I can (familial obligations excepted). With close friends, I’ll give an honest explanation: “I’d love to help out with your charity project right now, but with my daughter applying to college, I just can’t take anything else on.” Otherwise, I find that a simple, “I’m sorry, I just can’t devote the time this deserves right now” works just fine.Now, if only I didn’t feel guilty after I said no, I think I might be on my way to good mental health. Tracee: Guilt after saying no is better than guilt after saying yes! 

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I am in a waiting phase of my career. I’ve spent five years researching and writing a book, which I have turned over to my fabulous agent. She has said very flattering things about it, and now it is all in her hands. All I can really do is wait and hope and pray and drink. And talk to my dogs. Not necessarily in that order.  Of course I am incapable of sitting around doing nothing, so for me, the waiting period is actually a very productive time. For one thing, I’m reading a lot. I’m gorging myself on all sorts of random books. I just started reading (and finished reading) Mary Higgins Clark’s Where are the Children? That’s a master class in suspense right there. I also just read Allison Pataki’s book about Benedict Arnold. The reading takes me outside of my anxieties and reminds of why I love to do this in the first place. I’m also jotting down ideas. Not big things, because there’s no point in writing a whole new thing until I know where I am with this thing. But mind is percolating with strange thoughts, and some of them I’m turning into short stories. I love writing stories because you can explore all sorts of characters that might wind up in later books.    Then, I’m organizing my office. I have years worth of strange scraps of information tacked on the wall. I know the astrological sign for about 20 characters. Perhaps I should take that down and put it into a folder. There are books I don’t need anymore that I can give to the Attic Sale, and books that I forgot I had, that I now have time to read.                                                              Of course I am also checking my phone, and I can report that Democratic National Committee has called me 5 times. I respect Tom Perez, but unless he plans to sell my book, I don’t want to hear from him.  How about you? What are your strategies for waiting?  

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December brings many exciting things for me (and others), and one of them is the New York Pitch Conference, where I’ve worked for almost ten years. This is a 4 day extravaganza/endurance contest in which authors pitch their novels and memoirs to editors, receive feedback, and occasionally contracts. One of our success stories landed on the NY Times Best Seller list. My own first novel, The Fiction Class, was sold at the pitch conference (which was how I came to get a job there), and my second and third novels were sold by my fabulous agent, Paula Munier, who I met at the pitch conference. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a truly magical place.    My job is to meet with a group of 14-18 writers, help them write their pitches, and then sit with them as they talk to the editors. This has taught me a number of things. One is, when speaking to an editor, you should never put your head on a table and cry. You should also not grab on to her hand and refuse to let go. But mainly it’s taught me that a good pitch can help you shape and sell your book. A lot’s been written about pitches, and I won’t go into it, except to say that the essential part of writing a good pitch is to make it sound interesting. That sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people feel compelled to pack a pitch, and a novel, with all sorts of “essential” things that are really not that interesting. How do you know what’s interesting? You have to try to put yourself in a reader’s point of view. Say I come to you and say that you have a choice between reading a book about a woman’s experience at the podiatrist, or reading a book about  a woman accused of faking the kidnapping of her child. Unless David Sedaris wrote the podiatrist one, you’re probably going to go with the kidnapping. It’s high stakes. There’s a story there. You know something’s going to happen. There are few things in life as wonderful as seeing a spark in an editor’s eye when you tell her what you’ve written. It’s so exciting for me to be a part of this journey, though sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m the one who’s learned the most from all of this. Have you ever written a pitch for your novel?

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Writing, Blogging, Editing and Reading–All At Once

The first book was difficult because I didn’t have a publisher. I spent hours each day writing it without knowing whether anyone besides my mother and husband would ever read my work. Without a deadline, I had to apply pressure on myself to get it finished, making up deadlines as I went along and justifying to myself why I had to stay up late or wake up early in order to make them. After it was done, I had to hold my breath and pray that my agent would be able to sell it. The anxiety was horrible. The second book was difficult because I did have a publisher. I had to write it while also tearing up chapters in my first book that my editor found boring or distracting. I had to rejigger secondary plot lines and beef up character arcs in between penning chapters for the second book. Essentially, I wrote two books at the same time. When book one was with my editor, I went back to book number two. When my editor gave book one back to me, I put down book number two to rework another chapter or review another copy edit.  While doing this, I also had to read the books in my genre and do what I normally do each day as a stay at home mom of two children who, at the time, were both under five-years-old. I’m not alone in this. Most writers I know are juggling day jobs or full-time family responsibilities with writing multiple books at a time and publicizing previously published books.  Now, I’m on my third and fourth books. My third is in with my publisher and I am two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of my fourth. I am also in the midst of publicity for the second book which includes blogging and radio interviews and writing guest posts for other people’s publications.  I know that the edit for the third will come back soon and I’ll have to start the two book trade-off. I also have a list of must-read books (many by fellow authors on this blog) that I intend to finish before the year is out.  Writing is 10% inspiration, 60% perspiration and 30% time management.     

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Getting In Touch With My Villains

 The other day, I lost it on my daughter. She had taken out a school library book for the third time and, for the third time, she’d completely and utterly forgotten where she could have possibly put it. The first time my six-year-old lost a library book, I was a good mom. I explained to her the importance of taking responsibility for her things, particularly things on loan. I reminded her of the designated spot in her room where the library books lived when she wasn’t reading them (this spot is not on her bookcase mixed in with the hundred books or so that she and her sister own). I found the book, buried in a toy box, and told her that I would pay the fine but that she had to help me Swiffer the kitchen floor to earn back some of the $5 fee. The second time, I was calm—albeit a little less so. Again, I pointed out the spot where she should keep the book when she was done reading it. This time, rather than dole out a chore, I took away a toy that was the amount of the fee and, since I couldn’t find the book, bought back the book that she’d lost at a store and had her bring it in. The third time, I yelled and nagged. I slammed my hand down on the desk in her room where she was supposed to keep her library books and asked her why in the heck she couldn’t remember to put them there. I told her that money didn’t grow on trees (horrible both because it’s a cliché and because it means I’m turning into my own parents) and that we had paid thirty dollars in fines in the past three months, also known as the cost of takeout dinner for our family of four. I threatened to have her write a note to her teacher explaining that she was not allowed anymore library books because nothing her mommy did could help her remember to be responsible. On and on I went, until she cried. It was not a good day for either of us. Afterward, I felt very guilty. She’s six. She forgets things. It’s developmental. It’s also an accident. She’s not trying to get me to buy the book by hiding it. To be completely honest, if she left the book in the kitchen while I was cleaning, I might have tucked it away somewhere and forgotten about it. I also had learned something I can apply to my villains. Sometimes a villain doesn’t start out bad. They try to do the right thing and it doesn’t work. Then, they try again and it doesn’t work. Ultimately because of a lack of patience, inability to deal with frustration or some other moral flaw, they lose it and opt to do something negative in order to achieve a desired result.  Yelling at my kid is bad. By the end of my tirade, I’m sure that she no more remembered where to put the book than she had the first time I’d shown her the special spot on her desk. All she was thinking about was that mommy had made her feel horrible. But, I was frustrated and annoyed that doing the patient parent thing wasn’t helping and I got angry. I became the villain. Clearly, I still feel guilty about my behavior because I’m blogging about it. But at least I can bring the insight to bear on my writing.

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