As a panelist on the WriteOnCon session “We Were All New Writers Once: Growth on the Journey,” I spent some time reflecting, of course, on my own writing journey.
Here’s the thing: I honestly never thought I’d be a writer.
My daughter disagrees. She says from what I’ve told her, at every turn I was a writer…from the boxes and boxes of saved handwritten letters (each one means I wrote to them first), to papers I claimed to have loved writing in school (including my dissertation), to comedy & theatre sketches, to the way I somehow always ended up writing at work whether it was news releases or ghostwritten technical papers or business plans. She even mentioned the mock Christmas newsletters I used to send out, like when I claimed she toured Europe in sold-out piano concertos (she was 7) and one son had unlocked the secret to the Dead Sea Scrolls (he was 5) and the other had been banned in the Midwest for his expert ninja skills (he was 3). [I guess I was always creative if nothing else.] Yes, I had stints as on-air and newspaper reporters too, but they came as a result of a corporate job where, to make a long story short, I ended up co-writing a syndicated newspaper column on a fluke.
Or was it a fluke?
Did I unknowingly will it to happen? Have I always been a writer?
My daughter’s accusation, if you will, really caught me off guard. But OK. Maybe I really have always been a writer even if I didn’t realize it until this week. Maybe it’s that I never thought I’d be an author. But honestly, aren’t they really the same thing?
I realized I have always been drawn to — what…places? work?… — where writing plays a large role. What a great creative outlet! And you’re in control the whole time. Don’t like what you’ve written? Go back and fix it. Get feedback that what you’ve written isn’t right, or good? Well it’s not like math–right or wrong. It’s subjective. So you don’t have to like what I’ve written. I do! It’s the perfect loophole, lol.
Surely that “you can’t tell me it’s wrong” caveat gets tricky when it comes to being published. The other person HAS to like what you’re writing in order to publish it, unless you are self publishing. Even then, there are grammar rules, punctuation, etc. People have to like your writing in order to buy it. It’s not exactly a free-for-all. But as a writer, I am in control of everything! I write when I want. What I want. I certainly take what others say into consideration. I honor proper English and don’t go rogue on spelling or manuscript formatting or query protocol. I have several critique partners that I couldn’t live without. I definitely do my research, attend conferences, and listen to experts. I learn and adapt. I feel I improve a little every day. I don’t do it for anyone else, any more than someone who practices free shots in their driveway over and over does it for any one other than themselves. (Are they trying to impress the neighbors? Get an NBA contract? No. They just want to get better at free throws. They earn a sense of accomplishment, of work well done.)
My daughter had a point. Maybe my journey started before I even knew I was on board, and all that time I spent writing earlier in life helped land me where I am now.
And my journey isn’t over. Far from it.
Maybe your journey started years ago too. Maybe it’s starting right now. No matter when it began, your writing journey can go wherever you want it to! You are in control, my friend.
Your writing is yours. Only you can write what you write, from your perspective, with your voice, with your knowledge base. And so too is your writing journey. Only you can decide where and how to map it out. Only you decide how often you write, how often you edit, how seriously you take professional feedback and direction. It might be up to another person to say yes or no as far as a contract, but its up to you to get your work to the point where they simply can’t say no! Write once in a while? Great. Just don’t expect grand success if you’re not hammering away regularly. Even the best natural writers won’t succeed unless they–wait for it–SIT DOWN AND WRITE.
It takes time. Probably more time that you’re gonna want it to take. Other people will succeed before you. But that’s their journey, not yours. Keep at it. You might not have all the time in the world right now. No one does. It might be really hard to see how to get from point A to point B if you can’t even make it through the day. We’ve all been there! If you can only afford a few hours a week for now, that’s okay. Relish those few hours a week! Work smarter so those 20 minute a day can be even more productive than an open day where “let me just finish this last email” leads to three hours of wasted time. It’s your time, respect it. It doesn’t have to be strictly in front of your computer. Block off time on the calendar and temporarily cut off the internet. Eat lunch alone outside under a tree and speak your notes into your phone. Brainstorm while folding laundry. Find a pen-pal to swap ideas and manuscripts with (note: be upfront with what you are looking for: do you want ongoing positive reinforcement or true honest feedback?)(not that they are mutually exclusive!). Try to do one thing every day to move your path forward, even if it’s one tiny step…but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Or three.
Your journey can only move forward if you’re in motion!
Mainly: take yourself seriously. Allow yourself that daily distraction-free time, even if nothing immediately usable comes of it. Nothing creative is wasted anyway. You’ll reuse it in some form, either by learning from it (finding out it’s not a direction you want the story to go, for example, is great progress!) or from the positivity you just allowed yourself to embrace.
Don’t forget the “journey” part of the writing journey means it’s a process, not a one-time event. The journey might be spotty and frustrating at times, but it will also be rewarding and wonderful. Stick with it, even if it’s just for fun. Not everything we write has to have the ultimate goal of being published. Some of our best writings never have to be read by anyone but ourselves. We can be proud of our work no matter where it sits. The important thing is that we’re writing–present tense.
Unique Gift Ideas For Writers They They Really Want (Hint: Not Another Journal)
What a year, amiright? I think it’s okay for me to be blunt. 2020 has been so nutty that I think we all deserve some peace this holiday season. Let me help ease your mind with some unique gift ideas for your writer friends; gift ideas that will leave them happy and thankful you took the time to understand them, to see them.
While none of these can be wrapped, they are all ways to better your writer’s life. And boy will they appreciate them.
REVIEW THEIR BOOK The best possible gift won’t cost you a dime. You can do it from home, any time, day or night. And you don’t even have to leave your house. Win/win, right? Reviewing your friend’s book means more than you realize. Admit it, when you’re about to buy a widget on Amazon, you look at the reviews. How many stars did it get? How many reviews are there? You don’t want to take a risk that what you’re about to buy is crud. Same is true on books. Even though reading is subjective (it can’t break, it won’t matter if it’s smaller than the image shows, etc), reviews matter. More reviews implies heavier loyalty/popularity, which helps get their book ranked higher in searches. It impresses future/potential buyers. It can make or break a sale.
Do your author friend a favor and review it anywhere you can: Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, your local library, your local bookstore’s website.
NOTE: If the book is not your style, or you feel you’ll do a disservice by reviewing it, ok fine. Don’t leave a review. In that case, see #2.
BUY THEIR BOOK I can’t believe this goes without saying. You can’t review their book if you haven’t read it. If you HAVE to, buy from Amazon, but please get it from your local independent bookstore. If they don’t carry it, ask them to order it for you. That is a double bonus because it introduces your friend’s name the the bookstore owner!
And yes, technically you are buying YOURSELF something, but ultimately you are gifting your friend the best kind of support.
Once you’ve read it, two things can happen: You like it or you don’t.
If it’s not your cup of tea, still let your friend know the extent to which you bought it. No need to give your opinion, just give them admiration for all the time and effort they must have gone through to complete such a book. Ask your writer friend to send what’s called a “bookplate” and they will be thrilled!! (A bookplate is a signed sticker that can be placed inside the book, the quasi-equivalent of the author signing the book in person). Let them know you are either going to “keep it forever” or will now share it with a local school or library so more people can enjoy it.
If you like it, review it (see #1). IF you already bought one, buy another copy for another friend, family member, school, or library. If it’s kidlit and you have kids in school, ask your kids’ teachers to have the class read the book. Ask your friend what their rates are on a Zoom visit and maybe help sponsor an author visit. Again, let your friend know the extent to which you’ve gone. Ask your writer friend to send bookplates for the copies you’ve purchased and they will be thrilled!! (See above for bookplate definition).
BUY EDUCATION/GROWTH/NETWORKING OPPS Regardless if your writer friend is published yet, they’ll always want to be a better writer. They’ll want to hang out with other writers, even if it’s virtual. Get them a year’s membership in SCBWI (free webinars, access to publishers contact list), classes in legit places such as Institute of Children’s Literature or The Writing Barn or Children’s Book Insider (always check credentials before signing up!), or a subscription to Writer’s Digest (yes, the paper one!). Donate $5 or $5/month to Writers Happiness in their name so they can take some online writers’ yoga classes to ease their weary neck and shoulders. Research and create a list or calendar of virtual meet ups they might want to participate in (there are so many I guarantee they don’t even know about!).
Writers don’t need another pen, journal, or notepad you can use on the shower. We don’t need bookmarks or posters or coffee mugs. I mean, sure, yes, they are great gifts, I mean no disrespect. But what if you gave it just a little more thought?
Just like The Grinch learned, Christmas doesn’t come in a box.
Writing in the Time of COVID: Two Golden Rules of Word Count Goals
As our daily lives have been uprooted in the most unexpected if not the rudest of ways, I’ve been seeing A LOT about writing goals lately. Setting writing goals. Meeting writing goals. Not meeting writing goals. Adjusting writing goals. Changing writing goals.
With three school kids at home, and a husband who might as well be, it’s enough to make a gal want to panic. I’m going to put your mind at ease. Hint: there is no magical word count.
But first, some reasons why it’s not as easy as “don’t worry about it.”
I’ve been a huge advocate for setting goals. As a marketing professional helping business owners, I would always ask my own version of the Alice in Wonderland question: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
In this case we know the ultimate goal: finish writing your book. As that is an intimidating goal, as scary as finishing a marathon when you’ve never run before, it’s best to take it one step at a time. Break it into pieces. No one expects you to stand up one day and run 26.2 miles; you’d train and run a certain number of laps/miles a day and eventually get there. Everyone has their own pace, it doesn’t matter how fast the person next to you is. They might be naturally-gifted runners. Or have a personal trainer. Or ran races for 15 years. You are running your race, they are running theirs. They finished first? Good for them. That doesn’t mean you can’t finish too! Your accomplishment is every bit as valid as theirs, regardless of how long it took. So let’s look at the first Golden Rule of Word Count Goals right off the bat:
Don’t compare your goals or progress to anyone else’s. This is your journey, not theirs.
As far as your ultimate goal is concerned, let’s not focus too much on that end result right now. You know what it is, we all know what it is. We don’t need to keep saying it. The world is hectic. Home life is weird. They are both unpredictable. Trying to eat a entire elephant right now just might not be possible. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for failure. So let’s look at eating that elephant one bite at a time. As the great Judy Blume said at the #SCBWI conference this summer, you can write a novel spending two hours a day. Yes, two hours a day would bring great progress. But I can’t repeat that lovely nugget with a straight face. Who has two concentrated hours a day right now? We need to take what we can get, and eat whatever part of the elephant we can get our hands on. Don’t concentrate on eating the entire elephant by sitting at the table two hours a day right now. All that will do is set us up for failure. Let’s look at one part of the elephant and take it very seriously. Can we commit to the legs? One leg? An ear? OK, just the tail for now? It doesn’t matter if we eat it fifteen minutes at a time while the kids are zooming their hearts out, or a half hour before bed, or if it means we THINK about eating it while taking that weekly shower. Pick ONE thing, and do it. Do it well. When you’re done, pick another. I’ve got this bio idea in my head. First I need some research. So my goal is to interview people that knew her. Until I do that, I can’t get much further. So my part of the elephant is interviews. Back that up, and you’ll see I need to figure out who to interview, what to ask them, figure out how to get in touch with them, how I will approach the confidentiality of anything they may want ‘off the record,’ etc. So there is more to the goal of interviewing those people. It’s not a simple check mark. It’s not something I can complete two hours a day, especially since them getting back to me is not under my control. But with that as my goal, I can continually be working towards it. If I’m at a standstill, I can press a virtual pause and look at the next mini goal to start on in the meantime. Yes, that means all the steps/goals should be written out. Not having a word count goal doesn’t mean you don’t make yourself accountable for the steps required to meet your goal. It just means the number of words written per day isn’t on that list. That brings me to our second Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
2. Word count doesn’t mean hooey.
Think quality, not quantity. You might make more progress with the sudden realization a side character or chapter has to be cut than any number of words you could have placed on a page that day. You might figure out a plot hole and spend time thinking through how to fix it–without a single word added to the manuscript. As long as you’re writing or thinking about solutions to what you’re working on, you’re making progress. Even if you end up scraping a day’s work, you now know what DOESN’T work; you’re still closer to your goal. I think it was the late and wonderful Sid Fleischman who used to say the only thing wasted on experimental writing is a piece of paper. Don’t focus on the number of words per day or week or month. All that will do is stress you out. It might force your butt in the chair, sure. But at what expense? Maybe you’re better off taking a day or two away from the ol’ laptop and giving your muse a mini vacation. (Make sure she’s earned it!) There is simply too much going on right now to worry about the number of words you are or aren’t cranking out. That brings me to the Bonus Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
3. Be kind to yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up over missed opportunities or time away right now. It’s OK if you skip a day or two. Nothing bad will happen if a file is left unopened three days in a row, no curse will leak out of the USB port. It will all be there when you’re ready. Write a blog post (LOL). Send an email to an old friend with a fond memory. Call your parents or brother. Bake cookies for your sister or neighbor. Draw a tree. Or do nothing at all. Don’t force creativity if it’s not there. We know it’s a fickle beast. It’ll come back when it’s ready. In the meantime, let yourself know you’re doing the best you can. It’s all you can do. When it ain’t got than swing, numbers don’t mean a thang. I’m proud of you not matter what you’ve done so far.
How to Easily Work the Camera and Adjust Your (Nervous) Attitude
With videoconference meetings all the rage (if not necessity), odds are you will not escape attending one. And odds are you’ll be attending more and more of ’em, even after quarantine guidelines are lifted. Yep, they are here to stay. Does that make you anxious? If you hate seeing yourself on camera, or were never a fan of meetings to begin with (let alone ones where people CAN SEE YOU AT ALL TIMES), well, suck it up, buttercup. Videoconferencing is here to stay.
It’s making introverts nervous. It’s making teachers–who are already used to teaching–nervous. It’s making people who have attended hundreds of meetings, and held hundreds of meetings nervous. It’s even making extroverts nervous.
The good news is even the most introverted of introverts can succeed–if not enjoy–Zoom. (Or any other videoconferencing app/program/website.) Even if you don’t know how to present yourself on video. Or how to manage distractions that are out of your control. Even if you panic at the thought of being on camera. Maybe you don’t want strangers peeking into your room? The good news is, these videoconference meetings aren’t so bad. They’re not hard to run, and honestly not that tortuous to attend. Even if you’re an introvert! Really.
Here are six detailed ways to make the most out of your Zoom and Zoom-like videocalls, that even quiet-types can put to good use:
Making The Camera Love You
Worried about how you’ll come across on screen? The camera angle makes all the difference. Place your laptop or pc so the camera is at or slightly above your eye level.
Don’t have it on a desk or coffee table looking up or it’ll focus on your double chin—even if you don’t have one. Balance the computer on however many magazines, books and/or shoe boxes needed to get the right height (making sure it’s stable enough to last the entire call without a TIMMBERRR situation).
How close up is too close? I think you can answer that yourself. You know what size is comfortable to look at other people in the meeting, so follow accordingly. You don’t want to fill the entire screen with your face by leaning in too far, and you don’t want to sit so far away that you’re an indistinguishable dot.
Most people sit the same distance as if they were typing along their keyboard—OSHA suggests the best ergonomic position is about 20-40 inches from the monitor. Odds are you’ll need to access your keyboard/screen at some point anyway, so within an arm’s length is the safest and easiest way to sit.
If you want to get down to the nitty gritty on where in the screen you should be, the best ratio is to have your face in the upper one third of the screen, not centered. (Have you heard of the “rule of thirds” in the art world? Our brains naturally prefer to see things in thirds…https://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.) Don’t overthink it though, that top-thirds isn’t imperative. It’s more important that people can see you enough to recognize you, without your face taking up the entire screen.
Experts (Tom Ford and Hank Green among them) emphasize lighting. The recommendation is to have a desk or floor lamp next to you, aimed at the side your pretty little face. Make sure it’s not shining directly in your eyes in a “Where were you on the night of the 12th” kind of way, where you’re squinting. Yes, having it off to the side might make you feel like the moon where one other half of your face is in darkness, but unless you are blasting your car’s headlights, it won’t come across like a yin/yang symbol. (Even if it feels weird to have one side more lit than the other, it actually looks ok, honest, Google it.) For balance, place blank white paper or a white tablecloth under your computer—but Tom Ford suggests making sure the white isn’t visible in the camera frame. Picky, picky.
How fancy do you need to get? This, to me, depends on what kind of meeting, who is there, how well you know them, and whether you’re in charge or simply listening in. As with real life, your appearance can dictate the level of effort you’re putting into a meeting. I realize in the age of quarantine these rules have laxed quite a bit. But they haven’t gone away. People notice when effort’s been put in, and when it’s been blatantly disregarded.
If you are a makeup wearer, apply it a little thicker a darker than normal when on camera. Or not, your call. Have a look at yourself on your computers’ camera before going live to see what the others will see. At a minimum be sure to have foundation and powder, maybe a quick swipe of blush. I always use mascara. (If you wear glasses you’ve got a bonus: no need for eye makeup!)
If you’re not a makeup wearer, no need to start. In fact, please don’t have this be your first time in full foundation and cherry red lipstick, it might freak people out. A touch of powder won’t hurt, though, to soften a shine and even out ones (guys too). And don’t forget, there’s always the beauty filter! (Check your settings.) (Why that doesn’t default to ON is beyond me.)
Overall, makeup is for special meetings. No need to go full hog for Zoom Happy Hour with friends. They’ve seen you at your worst already.
Your hair? Tricky. If you throw a hat on, it will mask your face by shadowing it. Maybe you think that’s what you want. But others will find it frustrating. You can pull your hair back, but be aware that puts your smiling face even more center stage. Do your hair as you’d normally do it if that gathering was in person. Wet hair at least implies you’ve showered, which hey, these days is a win, but come on…
As for clothing, typically it too should be the same as if you were meeting in person…but again, that too carries less weight given our current sheltering-in-place. Do your best though. Skip the PJs, ditch the sassy t-shirts you would never wear in public, no bathrobes, etc. Even if you’re at home and under quarantine, you’re still at work, in a meeting. Studies show that dressing up (or at least not wearing sweats all day) helps you feel more professional and therefore act more professional. A recent Vogue article quotes isolation psychology professor Francis T. McAndrew as saying how you are dressed “…signals something about what you are prepared to do. If you are dressed professionally and you’re dressed up, in some ways that raises your own opinion of yourself, and you want your behavior and demeanor to match the clothes. So, if you’re dressed like a slob and you are in your sweat clothes, you’re either prepared to work out at the gym or clean out the basement, but you’re not doing anything professional or mentally challenging, and that spills over into your motivation and confidence.”
“How to” apply makeup, and what to wear dress tips will be coming in another post. Hint: it’s more than you’d do in person and a little less than you’d do for a TV interview.
Here’s an idea: have enough fun with your background image and no one will notice your face! There are all kinds of sites popping up offering anything from making it look like your living room has a 65th floor view of the city skyline to having it appear you’re sitting on the deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Some people go so far as to make or buy their own “green screen” so the backgrounds look even more realistic, but it’s not necessary at all. A solid wall works best but anything, even a chair or couch and wall is fine. Open space behind you, like the kitchen though, won’t work–you need a solid background. Find and choose some super cool backgrounds from here, or here or here. Or, of course, choose any of your own images.
It’s easy to take that new image and change your background too; learn how with easy instructions here and here.
Your own wall and home is fine too! Don’t feel pressured to change anything. Be sure to look around and behind you before you hit the “start video” button. Keep in mind whatever you have in your background becomes public. Artwork, photos on the wall, books or food on the shelf, furniture style, family members walking by without pants, etc. If you’re a private person that doesn’t want to invite people into your world, or your friends and coworkers are jerks (looking at you, Karen), then move to a part of the house or room where there is nothing to see and no one can walk behind you. Sit on the floor in a closet if needed. Just make sure you prop the laptop up and you have decent lighting.
If you’re running the meeting and you’re nervous, RELAX! We’ve all had our first video call and we’ve all been there. What you DON’T want to do is belittle yourself the whole time. NONE OF THIS “ack, darn, how do I do this?” or “oh that was dumb, I hate this stuff” or “where is that darn button?” No. Shush. Calmly look for that button or fix what you’re trying to do. Can you tell the difference between, “Can someone tell me how to share a file?” and 35 seconds of, “Hold on, wait, dang it, I thought…no…ack this is…oh there it, no…one of…is it this, no, wait…I’m such an idiot, I give up, can anyone tell me where that dumb share button is?” In both scenarios the leader asked for help. One was a heck of a lot more professional about it. If you simply keep your mouth shut as you look for what you need, then matter-of-factly ask for help once you realize you can’t find it, it shows a completely kind of different leader than if you bumble and grumble around, doesn’t it?
Talk a little louder than a normal conversation—as if it’s a large meeting room and you need to make sure that jerk Karen hears every word you say. (Don’t give her any reason to call the manager this time.) If you’re using a headset with a mic, please for the love of everything that is holy do NOT place the mic so close to your mouth that all those plosive Ps and Ss come across scratchy like nails on a chalkboard. You’re not a pilot, I know you can hear yourself, you do not have the buzz of the engine for an excuse.
Smile. You’re on camera. The whole time. When Marco starts telling that same story he tells every gathering and you look over to Janice to roll your eyes like you normally do….well, not a good idea. Literally everyone can see you. And if it’s recorded, well…they can see it forever…
If you hate being on camera and are worried about being stared at, unless you are the presenter, relax. Everyone is NOT staring at your or watching your every move. (Don’t flatter yourself.) There is too much going on for anyone to be watching any other person for too long. You are one of many attendees. Listen and participate as you would a regular meeting.
If you are the presenter, yes, people will be looking at you almost the whole time. But they’ll also be looking at others in the meeting, their cat, the slides or materials you are discussing, etc. Don’t feel like you are under a microscope the entire time. You’ve held meetings before, right? This is barely different.
One more favor. Please. DON’T GREET EVERYONE AS THEY JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Would every single person seated greet every single person by name as they walked into the conference room? No. Don’t do it here either. It’s understood they can see you’ve joined. You’re on camera: wave. The meeting organizer can say “looks like Tavisha just joined, right now we are talking about xxx” and keep on topic without offering her the opportunity to say hello. If you’re in charge of the meeting, when you send meeting information let them know you’ll allow them time afterwards to chat and be social, and ask attendees to please refrain from greeting everyone as they join. Or, offer them 15 minutes prior to the call to sign in early to chat and catch up.
We get it, you’re at home. Distractions will happen. It’s not the end of the world. Try to get back on track quickly. No need to apologize or call attention to the fact your dog pooped or your kid is crying. That just makes the distraction all the more disruptive. Fix it and come back.
If you need to get up and answer the door or use the facilities, do it without announcing it. I swear not only do we not want to know what you are doing off camera; we don’t care…your life is not what the meeting is about. Come back silently and join the meeting in as if nothing happened.
The best way to get more comfortable with any technology is to keep using it. Take a trial run or two or three. Play around with the site/program on your own before your first meeting.
This may sound like a basic Q, but have you ever taken a tutorial? (Don’t be shy or embarrassed about it…for one, no one will know because you’re in the privacy of your own home. For two, there is no shame in getting help learning a new skill. You had to take drivers lessons, right?) If you’re nervous about the call, becoming more familiar with it will ease your mind. Try the “Getting started” or “Video tutorial” links offered on their own site. Zoom even offers free live training; watch the recording if you’re still too shy. You can Google “how to use [name of videoconference]” for even more help.
When you’re feeling comfortable, schedule a Zoom test meeting. Or call a meeting with friends or family to get used to it live. Check in with neighbors or relatives. Call some college buddies. Try any excuse to play around with and use the app. [I’ll offer specific “how to use Zoom” tips in another post.] This way you’ll knock out all those “am I doing this right” and “how do I share a file” Qs. The more you play around with it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less nervous you’ll be.
Overall, treat videocalls just like you would any other gathering. Be nice. Pay attention. Unless you’re running the meeting, you don’t have to talk or participate in any greater way than normal–speak up if you want, be quiet if you want. No big deal.
Soon you’ll find it’s not that hard–and kinda fun. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I mean, even introverts have their limits on being alone, right?
Writers tend to doubt themselves, amiright? “I’m not a real writer if I’m not published yet” or “Sure, I’m published, but compared to so-and-so I wouldn’t really consider myself a writer.” Knock it off. If you write, you’re a writer.
In Feb (2020) I held a “You’re Still a Writer If…” blog event at WriteOnCon. In honor of that event, I’m giving a quick preview list of the opposite…ways you can tell if you are NOT a writer. Hopefully you do not check any of these boxes, my friend.
You’re NOT a writer if…
You’ve posted a FANTASTIC blog/tweet/chapter and are waiting to go viral (or be discovered)
Yeah, sorry. No one is going to just happen upon you, discover your brilliance, and offer you a million-dollar book deal. That’s not how it works. Publishing isn’t a passive sport. You need to get off your duff and hit the virtual pavement. You need to find THEM. You need to seek out the best editor or publisher or agent for your work. Chronicle Books, for example, gets over 1,000 kidlit submissions A MONTH. You think those hard-working editors have time to proactively scour the internet looking for a diamond in the rough? If only. You are the captain of your ship, the coach of your team, the driver of your bus, the director of your movie, the beater of your drum. You can’t sit there and wait.
Wanna call yourself a writer? Then don’t just sit there, man. Go out and get ‘em.
Let’s say you now submit your story, but you’re not a writer if…
You cranked out a story in record time
I always say writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard. There are formulas and formats and industry standards and protocols…things you can only learn by putting in your time.
Can you wake up one morning, never having run a day in your life, and win the Boston Marathon? (Uh, correct answer is No. Nice try, optimists.) Writing is the same way. You have to train: do your homework, hone your craft, edit, rewrite, edit some more. Perfection can be simple, but it’s never easy. Writing crappy stuff doesn’t make you a writer. Not to me at least.
After a talk I gave about how to start writing children’s books, a young man and his lady friend came up to me. Or should I say he swaggered over and she quietly followed. He proudly announced he had just written a children’s book, how he had never written one before, and how excited he was about it. His lady friend was duly impressed. I congratulated him. He told me he knew it was good because it took him “only about three minutes.” I tilted my head, paused, and said something about how that’s a great start and encouraged him to consider spending some more time on it, maybe joining a critique group and getting feedback before going any further. He shook his head and waved his hand at me as he said “No need,” and proceeded to tell me because it came to him “just like that” <with a snap of the fingers>, that meant it was good. Finished.
Now you have to understand, in the hour-long presentation he had just attended, I talked about reading 100 (current) children’s books to get a feel for the industry, how you still need a solid plot, the importance of word choices and word count, to set aside your first few drafts for a few weeks, etc. But this guy here, having perhaps (I’m guessing) read his last children book 13 years ago when he was five, was convinced he wrote The Next Great Picture Book in three minutes.
I wished him well, and he swaggered off into the proverbial sunset.
I am sure he was well intended.
He was not a writer, though. He was a poser.
Let’s say you now take time to edit, but you’re not a writer if…
You listen too hard to other people
Heck, maybe that person is me. I never saw that guy’s manuscript, maybe it IS genius. <insert shrug emoji lol> Writing is subjective, sure. What works for you might not work for me or someone else. Just because I don’t read magical realism, for example, doesn’t mean there isn’t value in it. But you’d be best off getting a critique partner that knows (and likes) the genre rather than someone unfamiliar with it.
There are certain aspects and styles and formats and rules that we all need to follow to some degree, though. I always say follow the rules the first time, and once you’re “in,” break all the rules you want. Even that advice might not work for you. Remember when I said you’re the captain of your ship, the driver of your own bus, etc? You still need to be in charge of your own writing and editing. It’s yours!
OF COURSE other people’s opinion’s matter—that’s how books are sold (how any product is, really—people need to like or want it). You need to listen to the right people. I know, I know, that’s the tricky part—figuring out whose advice can best steer you in the right direction. It’s been said that a critic suggested F. Scott Fitzgerald “get rid of that Gatsby character,” and we’ve all heard how many times the Harry Potter series was rejected because it was too long, not kid friendly, considered not commercial enough, blah blah. Clearly those writers knew well enough to toss those kernels of advice. When you ask for feedback, such as at critique groups or a paid conference critique, please keep an open mind when people give you feedback, especially in the beginning, and consider what other people have to say; I’m not saying to toss all of it. (I do listen to unsolicited advice from well-intended friends that aren’t in the industry, because almost all readers are potential buyers and they might actually be my target audience one day, but just like taking parenting advice from someone that’s never had kids? Please.) The longer you’re in the industry, the better you get at discerning valid feedback (“Wow, I never thought of that, thanks!) vs opinions that are not in line with your vision (“Gee thanks, I’ll try to keep that in mind…”).
But if you listen too much and change TOO MUCH (your style or genre or main character’s motivation or whatever), then you’re not a writer. You’re a robot.
Let’s say you now have a solid story, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t read
Read, read, and read some more. It’s not about knowing what your competition is up to (they aren’t your competition anyway, this industry honestly isn’t like that, they are your colleagues). It’s staying on top of what’s trending, what to avoid, and knowing who is who. You’re educating yourself on the book industry overall, the one you plan to play a large role in some day. Don’t you want to know what’s going on? You gotta stay educated.
Reading can give you inspiration. It can offer effective roadmaps that you don’t have to (re)create from scratch. It shows you tricks like layering or effective use of metaphors or good old distractions that allow for a spectacular twist ending. I mean, you can read a How to Write a Mystery manual, but there’s no better teaching method than reading an actual mystery that’s well done and watching it unfold before your own cute little eyes. Can you imagine taking your driver’s test having only read the DMV manual, without ever being in a moving vehicle or having seen a car? [Wait, in that case I’m saying you can’t just read a book and then do it but I think you see what I’m saying…] You have to experience it, not just hear someone tell you about it.
You can’t be a writer without being a reader.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Let’s say you now read lots, but you’re not a writer if…
You don’t write
“Writer” is a verb, not just a title.
Stop making excuses! Taking a break is fine, but breaks have end points. Stop spending so much time finessing your bio about how you’re writer that you’ve left no time to actually write. Stop surfing social media. [Seriously. Give yourself a window, and ONLY check in at those times. I try to check in midmorning, AFTER I’ve done some work, and later in the afternoon. Sometimes at night too, but never late b/c it tends to agitate me and disrupt my sleep (there’s so many distractions!).]
Yas needs ta write to be a writer! If you’ve stopped, start again. If you are just getting started and are frozen in fear, dude get over it. Start writing. Anything. Outlines. Summaries. Notes. Story ideas. Character names. Backstory. A list of potential future titles (I have a friend that has written TWO books after a cool title popped into her head). Anything that will get your pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You don’t need an arbitrary daily word count or daily number of minutes/hours toiling at your desk; not every successful writer has them. You don’t need to write every single day; not every successful writer does. You don’t need to feel like writing; not every successful writer is magically inspired at every given moment. But you know what all successful writers have in common?
I can’t believe I have to say this…but you’re not a writer if you don’t write.
End of story.
Are ya with me? What you need to do RIGHT NOW is stop reading this, and get back to work.
Not everyone is comfortable sharing information online, even when it’s required.
If you’re self publishing and/or using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to print your books on demand (POD), you will notice that you have to hand over your social security number (SSN) or TID (Taxpayer Identification Number) in order to set up an account and get started. You also need to hand over your bank account info so they can pay you royalties (lots, hopefully!). In the age of cyber and identity theft, many people are uncomfortable sharing that precious information — as well they should be. Our friends over at the Northern California Publishers and Authors (NCPA), have suggestions.
EID: You don’t have to use your SSN, actually. What do you mean? you may ask. I have to give them a legal identifying number or I can’t sign up. Well, instead of using your SSN when you sign up for your Amazon KDP account, there is an option to provide an EIN, or Employer Identification Number. Do it. Use your EIN instead of your SSN or TID! It’s that easy.
But I don’t have an EIN, you might say.
Then get one!
Many people assume that to get or have an EIN you have to run a business or at a minimum, hire employees (hence the Employer part of the acronym). But no, you don’t have to be or have either. As a writer, you are a business.Gasp! And get this — it’s free to get an EIN directly through the IRS, online. Double gasp! Tell me more! Click here for the direct link on how to secure an EIN. You *will* have to give your SSN or TIN to sign up (they need some way to track you, it is the government after all)–but you’ll be giving it directly to the IRS.
Sharon Darrow, president of NCPA, cautions, “DO NOT waste time and money going through a third party, because they often charge and can take longer because your application has to be submitted through the IRS.” She finds the EIN page “clear as mud,” but it’s not too bad for government work (wow, two government burns, nice, Kemper). The app should take about 15 minutes to complete. And, Ms. Darrow feels, is worth it. “Using the EIN not only protects your privacy, but makes you look a little more professional.”
Uncomfortable with completing the form online? The bottom of the page has a form you can download to apply through the mail.
BANK ACCOUNT INFO: Kindle also requires your bank account. No, they aren’t being nosy, they need it in order to get you your moolah from book sales. Ms. Darrow has another suggestion that is “very simple and helpful for your tax records.” And I agree. “Set up a separate account for your writing business,” she says. “Even if you only have a handful of transactions a year, it protects your privacy and is more professional. Make sure you are getting an account with the bare minimum or no fees, and ask your banker if it’s connected to any of your other accounts in a way that an outsider could access. If you are especially worried, set up the writing account at a bank or credit union where you have no other accounts. This way, you can give the bank account information to Kindle with no worries.”
First let me say that SCBWI’s “The Book” is an online, members-only resource that I’ve always said is one of the single most valuable pieces of membership. You can also have it printed-on-demand and mailed to you, which I also recommend, as I’m tactile as well as visual and like being able to flip through it manually. But the online version IS WHERE IT’S AT! But recently I’ve realized many, many SCBWI members have no idea what the book is, what it offers, let alone how to use use it. Stick with me as I explain the #1 use most people DON’T KNOW, BUT NEED TO.
If you’re unfamiliar with the book, for the most part it’s an up-to-date listing of kidlit editors and agents. It lists names of head honchos down to assistants along with how to get a hold of them, websites, policies, expected turnaround time, etc. More importantly, I think, it clarifies what each house wants and doesn’t want. It offers A TON of other stuff to (how to format a manuscript, write a query, etc), but for now, let’s focus on the list of editors and agents.
Here is an example of detail provided in the Market Survey portion for one house, redacted since the information is proprietary (Note: there are over a hundred pages of listings, each page with 5-6 house per page):
NAME OF PUBLISHER (An Imprint of NAME) PO Box XX TOWN, STATE ZIP (PHONE); FAX www.WEBSITE.com Publisher: <first and last name> ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER: <first and last name> Editorial Director: <f/l name> Editor: <f/l name> Associate Editors <names> Description: NAME OF PUBLISHING HOUSE publishes board books, picture books, and paperbacks that encourage young children to explore facts, examine ideas, and imagine new ways of understanding the world. XXXX imprints also include XXX, XXXX, and XX Digital, none of which are accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Only XXX accepts submissions. Distribution via XXXX. QUERY LETTERS: Accepting. MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS: Accepting. UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS: Accepting for XXX and XXXX imprints. See full instructions at <specific URL given>. Send to <specific email addy>, typical response time 3 to 6 months. PAYMENT: Advance against royalty or flat fee, depending on project. ARTWORK INTEREST: Accepting. Send portfolios for consideration to <email addy diff than manuscript addy>. Will respond only if interested. ARTWORK PAYMENT: Flat fee or advance against royalty, depending on project.
It looks much better in The Book, lol.
Anyway, back to why I’m creating this post. I was recently surprised when I saw someone tweet about her frustration that The Book isn’t the greatest resource. She lamented that sure, there are lists of editors and agents, but it’s such a pain to have to cut and paste every agency’s URL to get more info, or reenter their posted email address. Another tweeter, from a different part of the country, agreed. They were/are both active members.
Even if they weren’t, well, this Book needs a better PR agent! 🙂
To start with, ALL THE URLS AND EMAILS ARE LIVE HYPERLINKS!! There are soooo many websites and emails in there that The Book couldn’t possibly bold or underline each one. It would look a mess. But they are live all the same. There might be a few here or there that have been missed (I mean, there are literally thousands of them in the 322-page document) but I think a solid 98% are good to go. What a timesaver! A thing of beauty!
Here’s how you know if a website is hyperlinked: hover your pointer over the URL or website. Your pointer should change from the arrow to a hand (at least, that’s what my laptop defaults to). Tap or click the words/phrase that the hand is hovering over and VIOLA! you are taken directly to that site, no highlighting and opening another tab and cutting and pasting and hitting enter needed. If someone’s complete email address is given, and you click or tap the provided email address, your computer will automatically open a new window and create a new email with that address in the “To” or “Send” section, from you. No highlighting the address, copying and pasting, opening up your email account, composing a new email, pasting the name into Sender, etc…. *trumpets sound, confetti is thrown* Yes, it really is that easy.
There are soooo many other ways The Book can make your writing life easier. But for now, soak that up. Explore. Enjoy. Click away.
I was presenting at a workshop where they held agent pitch appointments, also called Agent Meet & Greets. Several attendees ended up disgruntled. And they shouldn’t have been.
Let me take a step back.
What’s an “agent meet and greet,” you may ask? At this one, attendees paid a certain amount of money for 10 glorious minutes of face time with any or all of the agents that were attending the one-day conference. Writers weren’t allowed to hand over their manuscript directly, but could:
ask about the agent (are you editorial–do you give feedback on manuscripts or do you only submit as is? how many clients are you actively subbing right now? what kinds of stories do you like and tend to submit: humor, sci fi, YA, etc)
ask about the agency (how long has it been around? where is it headquartered and is that where you are located? how many are in the office? [<–technically they should have already looked up that info but I digress] are you autonomous or does the Director play a strong role?)
ask about the industry (do you see many historical fictions these days? are picture books selling well?)
Mostly, though, (smart) writers were there to use the 10 minutes to talk about their manuscript and ask for feedback. If we’re going to call a spade a spade, mostly people were hoping that after discussing the manuscript, the agent would say “sounds interesting, send it my way, I’ll have a look.” They were there to pitch their story to the agent in hopes of getting representation. And that’s fair–nothing wrong with that. Agents know that coming in–in fact, that’s why there are there too! They are looking for new talent/work. Win win.
But as in every potential relationship, not all work out. Even when they were SURE this one would.
Several people lamented to me that their agent meetings “didn’t go well” because the agent didn’t like the manuscript, or didn’t ask for them to send it in. They felt they wasted their time and their money. But that’s not true!! That meeting still went well. In fact, it almost went better than if they asked for the entire manuscript to be sent in.
Listen. If the agent wasn’t a fan of your submitted work/idea, or if you didn’t get the feels, THEN SHE ISN’T THE AGENT FOR YOU! You 100% still had a good meeting. How? You now know that agent isn’t for you. The last thing you want is someone not committed to you or work work, or a contract with someone you don’t get along with. An agent is someone you’re going to be working with for a long time–you want a good working relationship based on mutual trust and effort. If she isn’t into you or your work, it’s GREAT that she let you know (and I’m sure it was a gentle let down). It’s now a confirmed data point vs an unknown.
This applies to interviewing almost anyone for anything–once you’ve said or heard no to/from that person, you are that much closer to saying yes to the right one. This “No thanks” was time well spent. In the case of the writing world, you aren’t getting your hopes up by emailing a proposal or query or manuscript to someone that on paper looked perfect only to wait six months to get a form rejection letter back. You already know this isn’t the agent. Seriously, that is good information. In other industries and situations, you can confidently say, “we avoided making a mistake by hiring that one.” It’s not idle effort. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself out there, seeking.
I once had a dream agent that I found out about, read all I could about her, practically memorized the agency website as well as her bio page, and followed on her on Twitter. She was hilarious. We had the same sense of humor. I KNEW we’d be a great match. I couldn’t wait to meet her at a conference. But once I met her in person…wow. Does. Not. Equal. We were sooo not a match. While she was a great agent for others, there was no way I wanted to work with her. And I never would have known for sure had I not met her in person. It was not a waste of time. It saved me time.
Think of if this way: now you can get moving focusing on someone else to grow old with. The right someone else.
I’ve had a long slump. I’m IN a slump. One long train of rejections that keeps chugging by, practically waving in my face as it passes…
I told a friend of mine last week that if I didn’t hear back from a certain house by Friday, that I was done. I had shopped this particular manuscript around with fast and early interest rapidly fizzling into radio silence. That glowing promise, I think, is what has stung the hardest. Because after what I was certain was a sure thing, it’s gone nowhere. I’ve received the highest level of feedback I’ve ever heard on this one, and yet also received the fastest rate of rejections. I don’t get it. And I’ve. Had. Enough.
I’ve been frustrated for months. “Nothing of mine has been picked up for a few years now,” I told my friend. “I’ve had a good run…21 books. But I’ve got to face the new facts. I’m not cutting it. I need to move on. It’s okay, no hard feelings. No regrets.”
She didn’t say a thing. So I continued:
“I don’t get it. This sh*t is good. Borderline great. I mean, quite frankly it’s my best work,” I bragged lamented. “Agents and editors have flat out told me! Yet for one reason or another, it’s ‘not the right one for them.’ ARRRGGGH.” (I may have shaken my fists to the sky in a trite manner before toning it down a wee bit.) (OK, fine, I may also have let a few swear words fly before caching my breath.) (But I did not punch her, or the wall, or the poor guy walking by with fear in his eyes as he gave wide berth.) “I can’t control others, I can only control myself,” I said, sorta calmly. “So if I don’t hear back from [said house that I’d been really optimistic about] by Friday, I’m done. I’m getting off this train. I’ve submitted dozens of new manuscripts this year alone.” I scrunched my face and self corrected. “Tens? Well, at least five. Some better than others, I can admit. This last one can be my swan song. Time to jump ship. Or long-waving train car, whatever.”
“Everyone has a slump. That doesn’t mean you abandon ship. Shut up–I know you’re gonna say train. You know what I mean. What’s your problem? Why now?”
“The problem is, nothing that I’ve felt with my heart and soul as NEEDS TO BE TOLD has gone anywhere. My older stuff I’ve let go of, it’s crap, but some of this stuff I haven’t been able to abandon because I’ve truly thought they’re worthy. Yet guess what–after years and years of trying, they aren’t published. I’ve got to see that for what it is and recognize maybe my work is just not good enough. I need to move on. It’s okay, I’ve really thought it through. Been thinking about it for years, actually, and only now have the nerve to do it. I’ve made peace with it. ”
“Can you, though?” she asked, her question boring through my heart like a fire-heated rod.
“Can you really give up writing?”
My friends, has anyone ever asked you a question that stopped you in your tracks? One that called you out and showed you who you are? One that perhaps caught you off guard because you thought you already thought through all the ramifications and possible outcomes and were fine with all of them, but that one question made you realize you were just PRETENDING to be okay with said decision?
That’s what this question did to me.
Especially because this decision was based on an arbitrary if not fake deadline, with all hope pointing to a house actually getting back to me by said fake deadline, because I really wanted to hear back from them so I could continue writing. I mean, if I wanted to quit, I’d quite, right? None of this “starting tomorrow” business. If I wanted to stop swearing (HAH!) then I’d take it seriously and quit–not starting next week as long as no one pissed me off before then. I guess it’s like an addiction?
Swearing Writing is part of who I am. It’s what I do.
So no dumb, fake deadline is gonna make me quit.
Spoiler alert: As you may have guessed, that house hasn’t gotten back to me. It might never get back to me. Yet here I am. Writing. I’m still looking, still pounding the pavement, still pandering, still waving my LOOK OVER HERE flag. I’ve chosen another house to send to–three in fact. (I never said I was exclusive in the submission and unless requested, these days most assume you aren’t. I’d really like that first one. But tick tock, I ain’t got all day to hear no, lol. I can retract my submission to the others if that one signs me. Wouldn’t that be a great problem to have?)
So, yeah, here I am, writing again.
Does it feel good?
Better than not writing, that’s for sure.
Thanks for joining me on this writing journey. I bet you’ve got “I’m done” stories too. Let me hear about them!
You may have wondered if Work For Hire is right for you. If you’re considering writing in the children’s book industry, I’ve created a quiz that might help. It’s based on my personal experiences as well as several colleagues I interviewed. [To give you some perspective on collective experience that I’m drawing from: I’ve written 16 kidlit titles for hire so far; picture books, chapter books, and YA–most of them as part of an existing series where the other titles were written by several other people. The fellow writers I talked to have authored close to 100 for-hire titles total.] We’ve all written for different editors and publishers, on different topics, in different genres, with different parameters. Every contract was in some way unique. But generally speaking, Work For Hire has similarities that differ from traditional publishing.
It’s not for everyone.
Is it for you?
First, a definition. “Writing for Hire” means a contract from a publisher or third party—usually from an outline, writing samples, or pitch—to write a book as assigned. For them. It
might have pre-established characters and settings
might be ghostwritten under someone else’s name
might include a “tie-in” or “media-related” connection to an existing product, entity or trademark, such as a movie, comic book, game (typically referred to as intellectual property rights, or i/p)
Lawyers define it as “an exception to the general rule that the person who creates the work owns the copyright. If a work is made by an employee within the scope of their employment or if it was a specially commissioned contribution…it may be a work-for-hire. The employer or hiring party is considered to be the author and thus the copyright owner. A work-for-hire agreement must be signed by both parties before the creation of the commissioned work.” (emphasis mine)
Sometimes you work directly for a publisher. Sometimes you work for a middleman, called a book packager or book producer, who in turn works for the publisher. The book or series might be your idea, but is more likely their in-house idea that they are hiring out for–usually part of a series such as early readers featuring popular TV characters like Spongebob or a history series for K-3rd grade.
Bottom line is: you write it, they own it.
Do you prefer innovation over purely-from-scratch invention? (More like, say, creating a collage than painting)
Can you work with a pre-existing format, one you didn’t create?
Can you write in someone else’s voice, and/or match the general tone/voice and target age range of an existing series?
Are you okay handing over your work and having someone else do whatever they want to before going to print–even though it (probably) has your name on it?Do you take direction well? (See earlier reference to pre-existing format and matching voice)
Are you good at research, note taking, keeping files of resources and interviews?
Can you handle rewrites without arguing? (See all of the above)
Are you good with deadlines–possibly short ones? (Typically in the six-eight month range, start to finish)
Can you handle someone else telling you exactly what needs to be done, then possibly changing gears midstream?
Are you okay getting a flat fee, with no royalties? (Note: there is a chance you’ll come out ahead this way. Slim chance, sure, but a chance.)
Are you okay with the fact that even though it has YOUR name on it, the contents and everything about it may not have been your preference or decision?
If most answers are Yeses, you might be on the right track.
If most questions made you clench, well, relax. Before you get too nervous, know that the publisher isn’t out to screw you. They don’t want to mess up your work on purpose. Their goal–like yours–is to get the best possible product in the hands of their customer/reader; but the main caveat is it’s usually the best product possible created in the shortest amount of time. You might disagree on what the best product ultimately looks/reads like. (It doesn’t matter though. They have final say. On everything.) Just know they really do have the best interest of the customer in mind. They want to sell books! This is their business! They fully understand a crappy book won’t sell as well as a well-written one. They don’t want to put their reputation on the line for shoddy quality. They have your back; their name is on the cover, too.
There are feel-good questions to ask yourself about Work For Hire too:
Would you like a shorter time to market? (That is–getting your book on the shelf faster? Most WFH is on the shelf within a year, vs up to potentially 2 to 5 or even 7 years later going the traditional route.)
Would you like getting paid in a timely manner? (Many pay half the fee upon acceptance of contract and the other half upon submission/completion of the work)
If the project is cancelled, would you still like to get paid some of the contracted amount? (Make sure you’ve got a “kill fee” in your contract!)
Do you like direct feedback on how to make your assigned work better?
Do you like taking an idea and running with it? (Assuming you are okay when they need to rein you back in)
Do you like a clean set of rules, with a detailed schedule, giving you less time to goof off online and on social media? [Maybe that’s just me, lol]
Do you like being in control of which projects you agree to and which you decline? (It’s always okay to say no thanks)
Do you like researching and choosing which publishers and packagers you work with?
Do you like having a built-in opportunity to work with the same WFH people again? (Assuming you’re not a jerk to work with…)
Do you like learning about new topics you may have never considered writing about?
And most importantly:
Do you want to get published?!
If you took this quiz and are a yes (wo)man, then Writing For Hire is for you! Give it a try!
How to go about finding Writing For Hire opportunities will be the topic of my next blog… Hint: it takes just as much effort as pitching your current manuscripts! But worth it.
If you’ve had experiences similar or in contrast to these Quiz questions, tell me about in in the comments. I love hearing anecdotal WFH stories.