Why a Writing Community is So Important

Why a Writing Community is So Important

The writing life is a lonely one. It takes dedication and requires time shut away from the world. The struggle to keep from becoming a shut-in is real. Annie Evett illustrates this dilemma in her blog post The Lonely Life of a Writer. Loneliness is discouraging, and leads talented people to give up on their dreams all the time. This is why it’s so important for us ink-slingers to stick together.

When I moved to Springfield, Illinois I was delighted to find SpriFiWri, an organized group of local writers. They welcomed me with open arms, and for the first time in my career, I had peers to interact with. The group meets twice a month for critique sessions. We divide two hours up among those of us in attendance, read segments of our work aloud, and receive helpful suggestions for how to improve our work. One of our New Year’s resolutions was to hold each other accountable to setting aside time to write more. So twice a month we have ‘write-ins’ at a local coffee shop. I was blown away by how helpful this proved to be. Three of us hashed out almost 10,000 words between us!

Because writers tend to spend so much time alone, we oftentimes develop the mentality that we are alone. I have a large circle of friends, but very few of them are writers. It’s difficult for them to relate to what my life and the effort I put into my work is really like. In SpriFiWri, I found myself surrounded by skilled, talented, hard-working writers with voices and styles all their own. Impressed by the work they shared, it served as a reminder of the talent out there. It gave me a sense of belonging, but also helped me up my game. It reminded me of some wise sayings I heard growing up.

“Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.”

“You become the company you keep.”

For the first time in my life, I had people to show my work who were just as talented, just as skilled, just as passionate, just as hard-working, and probably more so than me. It’s important to have people in your life who challenge you. Kevin Daum wrote an excellent article about this very subject: Want Success? Surround Yourself With People Who Challenge Your Thinking. As writers, we shouldn’t write to impress people, but there’s nothing wrong with letting others inspire you to do better.

I know some of you are reading this thinking to yourself, “This sounds great. I wish my town had something like this.” First, it might have one already. Research local writing groups online; you might find a group established already.

“But what if I’ve searched high and low, and there are no groups in my area?”

Excellent question! The answer: take initiative, and start one of your own. Find a place to host a meeting. You can start with the Public Library. They’ll let you hang a sign on their bulletin board, post it in their newsletter, and help get you started. If you’re in college, you could do the same thing there. Make a post on Facebook announcing it to the world. Encourage your friends to share your post and spread the word.

You don’t have to emulate the style of SpriFiWri. It can be a social gathering where you meet up, mingle, and uplift each other. You can host critique sessions, or write-ins. Perhaps you want to initiate a group writing project for your community. Maybe a writing convention is coming to a city near you, and you want to plan to go together. The sky is the limit! Find something that works for you and stick with it. Commitment is the greatest challenge in this endeavor, but is so worth the effort to build a community. And don’t be intimidated if you come across someone more skilled or talented than you. This is a good thing! You’ll never learn anything from people who are looking up to you. Only by seeking those greater than ourselves can we truly hope to grow.

If you have questions about how to organize a writers group, please feel free to contact me or leave questions or comments below. Helping other writers succeed is one of my greatest passions. I hope you found this encouraging and helpful. Thank you for reading!

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A Guide to Editing and Revision

A Guide to Editing and Revision

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule when it comes to people is: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. But The Golden Rule of Writing is: rewriting is always better writing. There exists among us rare and exceptional people capable of producing a perfect manuscript with a first draft. They are, in fact, aliens from outer space inhabiting the bodies of humans, and are here for the sole purpose of making the rest of us look incompetent. If you’re one of these aforementioned body snatchers shelling out Pulitzer-winning words on your first attempt, then you can stop reading now. For the rest of us, here’s a guide to help you refine your work to the luster intended upon inception.

Planning

Not every writer fancies making a skeleton outline or road map before they start slinging ink. For some, they work better in the spontaneity of making it up as they go. However, I find it extremely helpful, especially when encountering writer’s block. Taking the time to write a paragraph summarizing the chapter gives you the power of organization. It acts as a bookmark for writing. With the busyness of everyday life, if I don’t schedule time to sit down and write it will never happen. To make sure I don’t sit staring at a blank screen for two hours, I look at my outline, and it tells me what I should be working on. If I don’t feel the inspiration for a certain chapter, I have a whole list of unwritten segments to choose from. Never underestimate the power of Copy and Paste.

First Draft

A lot of writers still prefer the old fashioned way: by hand, with pen and paper. I am not one of these people. I like my word processor very much, finding it more economical in the way of time. Regardless of your method, the goal in this stage of the game remains the same. Your focus should be getting as much as you can on the page. Don’t stop to fret over the perfect word or phrasing; when you come back to edit and revise, you can use a thesaurus to make sure you’re saying exactly what you mean. Getting the story out of your head and onto the page/screen is half the battle. You’ll have plenty of time to smooth rough edges when it comes time to edit.

Take a Break

When you finish your first draft, do yourself a favor, and set it aside. There’s no cut and dry amount of time, and if you’re working on a deadline this might not be possible. Though in most cases, you can afford to take a rest. Why? I’m glad you asked. Your brain gets into a groove, and your story and words start to consume your thoughts. When you edit immediately, you’re likely to skip over errors like missing words because you know what you mean, and your brain fills in the rest. My tradition, upon finishing a first draft of a novel, is to pick up a book or two in the same genre with rave reviews. Take the time to appreciate the work of your contemporaries, and take note of the things you liked or enjoyed. Personally, I take 30 days to keep my work out-of-sight and out-of-mind so it feels fresh when I read it again.

Proofread, and Read it Aloud

Don’t groan—and stop making that face. I’m serious! You’ll hear a lot of people tell you it’s not necessary, but trust me when I say this is one of the most important parts of the editing process. Here’s why it’s so important. It’s easy for your brain to organize your own thoughts, but you won’t know what it’s going to look/sound like to your readers until you read it out loud. If something sounds wordy or gets you tongue-tied, rest assured it will do the same to your audience. I won’t go into exhaustive detail here, but I have a helpful article entitled How to Improve Your Manuscript outlining four pitfalls writers oftentimes fall into. It’ll get you started on the road to editing. If spelling and grammar isn’t your forte, don’t be afraid to hire a professional editor. Investing a couple hundred dollars for your future is worth it to produce quality work. Don’t forget: your name is attached when it’s published, and they won’t blame the editor for mistakes.

Seek Help

Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to connect with other writers. Give your work to someone whose skill and opinion you trust. I belong to a local writer’s group called SpriFiWri stationed in Springfield, Illinois. We meet twice a month to share our work and offer criticism and feedback. Using red pens, we ferociously attack the work, and call it ‘making it bleed.’ Seeing lots of red is not a bad thing; it’s a great thing. If you’re serious about writing, nothing is more valuable than criticism. Lose the sensitivity, let go of the sentimentality, and grow some thick skin. If they read something you wrote and they hate it, you say, “Thank you for taking the time to read it. I appreciate your feedback. What can I do to make it better?” Then, listen to what they say, and take it to heart. Remember, you’re far more interested in what they didn’t like than what they did.

Tip: Print your entire manuscript when you give it to someone to review. It guarantees your file doesn’t go places it’s not supposed to, and it’s harder to overlook. Ever been sent a file and left it forgotten in your email inbox or saved in your Downloads folder? I have. They might do the same. But a printed, physical copy serves as a better reminder. Double-space so there’s room for them to take a red pen to it.

Read It Again

After you’ve made the changes you want, you might want to take another short rest from working on it. No need to wait 30 days this time; a week should suffice. Get your manuscript in the format you like to read best (e-book, printed, on-screen) and read your ‘finished’ product. You’re almost certain to find things you’ll want to change. At this point, you’re looking less for grammar and spelling, and more for whether the chapters flow together well. Are they in the right place? Do certain points in the story drag? You might want to shorten these segments. If there are bothersome things, however minute, bothering you, they’ll bother your readers too.

Try not to write the parts that people skip.

—Elmore Leonard

Conclusion

Writing is about what works. Following this guide to the letter might not be the best thing for you. Take what’s helpful to you, and apply it. Modify the rest, or throw it out completely. If you take anything away from this article, let it be the Golden Rule of Writing: re-writing is always better writing. A painter starts with a blank canvas and fills it with something that wasn’t there before. A sculptor starts with a block of stone and slowly chisels away until his or her creation takes form. Both principles apply to writing. Once you hash out what you want to say, take the time to smooth and polish until it says exactly what you want it to say—no more and no less.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found it helpful. Feel free to leave questions or comments below. Thanks for reading!

An Alternate Route to Publishing

An Alternate Route to Publishing

How It Used to Be

Twenty-five years ago, when a writer wanted to get published and get paid, first they sought out a literary agent to represent them. Upon finding one, this agent queried publishers hoping to find one looking for the kind of work the author produced. The author, if he or she took the initiative, also queried publishers accepting manuscripts from writers without a literary agent (while few and far between, some still do). This slow process typically results in a pile of rejection letters, and has driven many a writer to give up on his or her dreams of ever finding a traditional publishing contract.

Seeing a marketing opportunity, a vast number of vanity presses popped up in the late nineties and turn of the millennium. These dime-a-dozen companies offered joint-venture contracts to writers, saying they would publish the manuscript, but at the author’s expense. This method rarely resulting in success and notoriety, many writers fell victim to what most consider a scam. The author pays the publisher a fee under the impression they’ll turn their book into a hit, only to find out they paid for overpriced printing. When I was a naïve nineteen year-old with a story and a dream, I suffered this devastating indignity.

How It Is Now

Fast forward to the twenty-first century where e-books and self-publishing is as easy as uploading a file and clicking a ‘Submit’ button. With visual media available with no more than the touch of a button, fewer and fewer readers emerge from each generation. Those who do, typically read from a tablet or smartphone, and no longer bother with printed books. Now, you’ll still find those old-fashioned folks like me who maintain the opinion that the feel of turning a printed page cannot compare with virtual simulation, but we are a dying breed.

The dream come true for writers is still a traditional publishing contract from a large firm able to throw money into marketing a book and building an audience. It still happens, but it’s like catching lightning in a bottle—or winning the Powerball. Anyone with a few thousand dollars to invest can hire a vanity press to turn their story into a printed book, but are left to do marketing and promotion themselves. Not every writer is a salesman or marketing guru, and books published this way usually sell less than 100 copies, and do not offer a lucrative return on investment.

Get Inspired

The publishing game has always been a competitive market, more so now than ever. With expert-level difficulty awaiting anyone attempting the audacious endeavor of using words to generate income, fewer people bother trying. But adversity is no reason to give up on a dream. You can’t lose if you don’t quit, and there is no shame in reaching for some low-hanging fruit. This dilemma has inspired some writers to dedicate their life’s work to helping other writers keep trying and not give up on their dream. Jeff Goins is one such writer. His book You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) addresses the modern writer’s frustrations and gives practical, easy-to-apply advice to help overcome some of these aforementioned obstacles.

An Alternate Route

Self-publishing is not the easy way out; it’s hard work, but it CAN yield results. Instead of waiting around for someone to pick you, why not pick yourself? There’s a few things you’ll have to do yourself that will be out of your comfort zone, but isn’t learning something new worth it to make your dream come true? The answer is yes, of course. We’ll start with the easy ones.

An Author Website

You need one. Don’t let someone tell you otherwise. If you’re not a web designer, don’t worry. There’s easy-to-use products out there to help you make a website in just a few hours. Squarespace offers professional, streamline templates with a user-friendly platform, hundreds of how-to tutorials, and knowledgeable customer service reps to help you along the way. I used them, and had my author website up and running in two days. I’m thrilled with the results and my only regret is I didn’t use them sooner. Check them out, and use the coupon code NERDIST to save a little money on your purchase. It’s not an investment you will regret.

Social Media

This is how the world connects and is the fastest way to spread the word. It’s free and easy to set up an author page on Facebook as well as to invite your friends to like it. You have to market yourself as well as your work. To do that, you have to get your name out there. Don’t stop at Facebook. Get Twitter, Google Plus, Tumblr, and LinkedIn too. If you use a business card, have an email subscriber list, a blog, or anything you send out to your readers, welcome them to follow/subscribe to your pages. Check them frequently and take the time to update them.

Word of Mouth

This is the most powerful tool at your disposal. Change your way of thinking when you meet new people. The question most-often asked by new people is, “What do you do [for a living].” If you’re like me, you have a nine-to-five day job to pay the bills, and writing is something you do on the side. Our first inclination is to say, “I work at such-a-such a place doing this-that-and-the-other.” Stop. Don’t do that. Your new response, from now on, should be, “I’m a writer.” Tell them about your writing, where to find it, about your website, and your social media outlets. Live your dream by simply being what you are at heart: a writer.

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)

Let me start by saying this: it’s free. That’s right. When your manuscript is ready (story, table of contents, copyright, and cover art) you create an account, upload it for free, and when people buy it you get paid. Instead of the months-long wait a publisher will force you to endure, your book is available between 24 and 48 hours. Wow! This changes the game. No more literary agents, no more query letters, and no more waiting months—years, potentially—to find someone to publish you. Amazon/Kindle has effectively transformed publishing into something DIY, by making it free and easy.

Conclusion

Make no mistake; self-publishing is still a long, uphill climb. It will force you to work harder and learn things you never knew. But it’s not without reward. You don’t have to wait on someone’s approval. When people start reading your stuff, leaving reviews, and the buzz leads to more sales and you get that royalties check in the mail, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you earned every cent. This method is not for everyone, but it is for anyone. Self-publishing is no small topic, and I intend to expand on many of its components in the future. I hope this article helped you. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.

Top Writing Blogs

I set out to compile a list of truly helpful articles for my readers, but it turns out that Bryan Hutchinson from positivewriter.com beat me to it.  This is the post for 2014’s Top 25 Writing Blogs in which he promises to deliver 50 this year.  I am anxiously awaiting that because every single one of these articles proved to be much-needed advice and encouragement.  Give them a read.

http://positivewriter.com/top-25-writing-blogs/

Writing: How I Started, and Why I Never Stopped

Writing: How I Started, and Why I Never Stopped

My history with writing goes back a long way—all the way to the second grade.  I loved to read as a young child.  During those years, the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine was largely popular with kids.  My parents encouraged me to read, and between buying the books and letting me check them out at the library, it didn’t take me long to read every one published at the time. These books were produced and published fairly quickly, a handful released every year—but patience was never my strong suit.

Without a book to keep me entertained, I decided I would write my own Goosebumps story. Using a plain white piece of construction paper and a purple marker, I started writing—and I never stopped.  Construction paper and markers turned into spiral-bound notebooks, pages upon pages written on an old typewriter, and finally, to thousands of words saved on files on our family computer.  It was more than a hobby; it was an obsession.  I did it every day for as long as I can remember, but I always did it for fun.  I never dreamed of publishing a series of my own—until the summer of 2006, a year after I graduated high school.

Still an avid reader, my friend Adam recommended a book to me called Eragon, by Christopher Paolini.  Working at the shaved ice shack my parents owned, I cracked it open in my downtime. Instantly captivated, when my shift was over, I went home and finished it that evening. I drove to Walmart afterwards, hoping and praying the sequel would be there.  To my delight, I found a hardback copy of Eldest staring back at me from its place on the shelf.  I took a little more time reading this one as it’s quite a bit longer. So impressed with writing style and story, I decided to look up the author.

When I found out Christopher Paolini was only five years older than me, and was my age at the time (nineteen) he published his first book, I thought to myself, “If he can do it, so can I.”  He ended up being the second author who truly inspired me, setting me to a year-long task of building the world of Espiria.  It all started with a map drawn on Microsoft Paint.  Before I wrote a single word of narration or dialogue, I mapped out the names of the months, how many suns, how many moons, how many races, where they are located geographically on the map, the names of the kings and people who ruled there, and some history to give it the feeling of a real place.

So, with delusions of grandeur, a nineteen year-old naïve kid with a dream set to writing his first novel.  Writing was never a difficult thing for me, and before long, I had a 350,000-word manuscript no publisher would look at, let alone touch.  I split the original into two books, and focused on selling the first one.  Learning the publishing game is akin to feeling around in the dark unless you have someone showing you what to do every step of the way—which I did not—and I settled for a vanity press that did not help me like I thought they would.  Conspiracy didn’t sell very well, and looking back, it’s no surprise.  But two things my father taught me: failure is never final, and you can’t lose if you don’t quit.

My adventures in writing had only just begun.

Eric, another friend of mine, bought a copy of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  I read the prologue three times because it was so captivating and well-written.  I loved the feeling of being thrown face-first into a world I didn’t know or understand, and watching the plot unfold on the page before me through the eyes of characters rich with complexity.  It was around this time I realized where I had gone wrong with Espiria.  I had done so much ‘telling’ in the world-building, I neglected to ‘show’ my readers anything they hadn’t seen before.  I promised myself then and there I would not make the same mistake with the second installment, and set out to write Crusade.

Partway through writing the first draft of a manuscript, Alex, a former co-worker, started pestering me to watch the HBO hit series, Game of Thrones.  After weeks of telling him I would get around to it, he finally brought the first season DVDs to work, and told me to take them home and watch them.  I watched the first episode, stopped, and drove to Target where I picked up my own copies of seasons 1 and 2, knowing this would be my next great obsession.  I hosted a one-man marathon over the next two days, and then went to purchase the books.  For those of you who have not read A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, let me tell you, the plot is larger and more complex than your average fantasy epic.  Hundreds of characters, dozens of places, and an immersive world to fall into await the reader on every turn of the page.

I changed the approach, style, and format to Espiria, taking what I’d learned from Stein, Paolini, Sanderson, and Martin, and applying it to the manuscript.  After I finished Crusade, I knew that I had something special.  It dwarfed the previous novel so dramatically, I knew I had to re-write Conspiracy and release it as a second edition.  This turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  Taking the words that came from my original dream, and making them into the story they were always supposed to tell.  I had grown up, and so had my work.

My inspiration story is like so many others.  I stumbled upon the work of damn good writers who not only impressed me, but inspired me to do better.  Without Stein, I would have never even tried my hand at writing.  Without Paolini, I never would have believed I could write professionally.  Without Sanderson, I never would have learned to live vicariously through my characters.  And without Martin, I would never have dreamed Espiria could be so big a place.  I owe a lot to these men, not just because they produced  great work, but because all of them were part of the journey that led me where I am today.  All of them continue to inspire me to keep going in spite of past failures.

So here’s to a New Year, a fresh start, and making my dreams come true.  Here’s to remembering that failure is never final, and you can’t lose if you don’t quit.