Defining (or re-defining) Success

Standard

54cd4caecb66a

How do you stay motivated to write when you keep sending out query letters, manuscripts or chapter submissions and getting back form rejections or radio silence?

Let’s take a step back and look at how you currently define “success”. Is an actual publishing contract or agent representation the only way you’ll feel successful as a writer? If so, you’re not alone, this is a very universal goal among writers at any stage. But your unfailing ambition and persistence could be preventing other smaller (and maybe more likely) successes.

Success comes in large and small packages. How it’s defined is deeply personal…and you can change your definition anytime. I recently received an un-rejection by a reputable literary agent in a personalized (not form) email, and to me this felt like my manuscript sample had caught enough of their attention to ascend to a senior editor. Though that editor ultimately passed, they included a note that my story sounded intriguing and that they liked my character’s voice. I defined this response as success (a small one, yes). But if you spend all your time and energy trying to catch big, trophy fish, your artistic heart might starve in the process. In the same way that we take vitamins to supplement the nutrients we don’t get in our diet, a steady feed of small successes will keep you inspired through the process and help you to keep writing!

Aim high; aim low. Of course continuing to target major New York literary agents, as well as publishers directly, is the best chance of getting your work seen by the industry’s primary decision-makers. But with so many major publishers requiring submissions only through agents, you can boost your chances of visibility by including smaller, independent publishers, as well as newer literary agents who are just starting to build their list of clients. New agents are more likely to take a chance on a new literary voice than an established agent. Or if print publishing isn’t your only desire, you might consider a strictly-digital ePublisher. Certain ePublishers, such as Witness Impulse (a division of William Morris) balances their lack of offset printing with massive distribution and huge potential visibility.

Due diligence. Regardless of who you send your work to, keep your submission strategy simple. Go to the publisher’s or agent’s website and read their submissions guidelines, their specific directions, and follow them. Edit your query letter and your manuscript sample right before you send it. Yes, even though you’ve edited it a hundred times already. Resist the urge to include any additional content that wasn’t specifically requested in the submission guidelines. Keep track of your submission with names, dates and results.

Personalize. In the same way that us writers hate getting form-rejections, acquisition editors and literary agents have repeatedly reported that same complaint. An agent doesn’t want to feel like a number – like you’re paging through the Literary Marketplace and mass-mailing the same generic package to everyone. And I’m by no means knocking mass-mailing. I’m saying it’s advantageous to personalize a submission as a means of making an agent or editor feel…well…special. If you haven’t met the agent or publisher you’re querying, research them, learn something about them. Educate yourself about what books they love, where they’re from, what inspires them. Find a conference where they’re speaking and be there. Don’t fake a connection – make one.

Tactics. Here are a few ways to keep focused on your ultimate goal of landing a publishing contract while keeping your mind sharp, opportunities open, and muse fed:

  • You make direct contact (and get a direct response) from a literary agent via Twitter inviting you to submit
  • You learn of a new agent in New York who’s seeking manuscripts in your genre and you send them a query
  • A traditional publisher has now opened submissions directly to authors instead of only through an agent
  • You send a query letter and your recipient asks to see a partial of your manuscript (yeah, baby!)
  • You write a short story and get it published in a literary journal. If you can boost your publishing creds while finding a book publisher, all the better. The same goes for publishing a book review, or being asked to be a guest blogger on a writing blog
  • On your submission tracking list, create a separate section for Successes and list them separately, in bold, in a different color ink to call them out.

One final tip: not if but WHEN you do connect with a literary agent or book publisher who offers you a contract, check out Preditors and Editors to vet them first, read about their reputation, their contract, and feedback from other writers.

How do YOU define success in your writing career? Do you have other ways of keeping yourself inspired and motivated on the path towards publication? Please share your comments with me here, and thanks for reading!

 

 

How do you deal with rejection letters?

Standard

If you’re a serious writer who’s either published or working to get published, you’re not new to the dreaded rejection letter. They’re as ubiquitous to publishing as milk to the coffee industry. What happens when you get one of these in the mail?

letter

Do they cause depression?

Illustrated silhouette of a man sitting with his head in his hand

Rebellion?

rebellion

Anger?

anger

For some highly enlightened souls, rejection letters cause them to revise their manuscript and even create a new story twist or plotline that they hadn’t thought of before.

head

Some truths about literary rejection letters:

  •  They are a sign of courage that you were willing to write something worthy of market value, polish and perfect it to industry standards, and put it before someone else’s eyes to be judged. Don’t discount this aspect, it means something.
  •  They are unbelievably common among all of our industry peers – from John Grisham and Dan Brown to J.K. Rowling. Depending on what you write and which market niche you’re approaching, the odds of getting a query or manuscript accepted by either a publisher or agent are unmistakably low.
  •  It’s not personal. Unlike relationship rejection, literary rejections are solely based on your manuscript and project, not you as a person. When you can think of it in those terms, doesn’t it become a bit more business-like, impersonal, even clinical?
  • They don’t mean you’ll never get published – just that it hasn’t happened YET.

Picture yourself at a job interview. You’re highly skilled in your field, have some polished work samples and business references with you, but you somehow don’t make it to that second interview. Why? There could be a thousand reasons, and mostly they’re all because you and your skills just simply aren’t the right match for the position. This mismatch concept holds true in the literary industry as well. You’re sending your unique manuscript to a complete stranger and hoping your project and vision will track with what the agent or publisher is seeking for their client list.

Let’s step back a moment and take a look at this literary agent. And let’s assume you’ve done your research and confirmed that this particular agent is interested in acquiring manuscripts within your genre and they’re considering taking on new clients. And let’s say you’ve worked with an industry mentor to perfect your query letter, you have your manuscript formatted perfectly, and have gone through three editing rounds to fix any grammatical errors. The thing is, even if all these bases are covered, there are still lots of other variables that can influence whether an agent selects your manuscript over someone else’s. Like what?

  • Gender – Not you, your protagonist. The agent might be looking for fiction with a strong female protagonist and yours is male.
  • Voice – They could be looking for third person POV and yours is first person.
  • Length – Your manuscript could be too long or short for the existing market of your genre.
  • Subject matter – Some agents are seeking stories consumable by a wide audience. So if your book has a super edgy theme and touches controversial topics, they might opt to pass.
  • New or published writer – Some agents are eager to hear from fresh industry voices; others only want to work with established and previously published authors.
  • Setting – Some want domestic stories, yours might take place in Paris.

And these are just a few! I know, it’s enough to make you go insane. But you’re not expected to mold your manuscript to every single thing a potential agent or publisher could possibly ever want. The platitudes are true – write what you love. The good news is that there are lots of publishers and literary agents available in every genre, more every day, and lots of them are looking for new writers. Where are they? Check here.

Too often, an agent will reject a manuscript because it lacks the specific WOW factor they were looking for. That doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like it and that it’s not good. Because the industry landscape has changed so drastically in the past few years, they’re forced to be even more selective with the types of projects they invest in. In other words, if an agent can’t immediately see the potential for revenue in your book, they’re likely to pass even if they otherwise like your story, your writing, and everything about you. Money isn’t all that matters, but it definitely matters.

eq-and-iq51814pm

Emotional Intelligence

Rejection letters are a great reminder that we must constantly keep our thoughts on the right track and stay in a positive and inspired space when it comes to writing. DON’T wallpaper your office with rejection letters! The last things we need as writers are negative reminders. Observe your reaction to your last rejection letter. Did you use it as fuel to grow deeper into your craft and commitment to success? If not, it’s okay, there’s time to work on this. And it IS work and no one’s more worthy of that work, time and energy than you are. For more reading on creative resilience, check out this great article from Lifehacker.

Focus on Inspiration

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What kinds of books and writing continue to inspire you? This is the fodder for your creative expression and it must be positioned on a pedestal because it’s the most important aspect of your writing relationship. You see beauty around you, kindness, amazing human stories. Whatever it is that drives you to your keyboard or your journal, hold that in your heart as your primary focus. Post pictures of that inspiration in your writing space, your desktop, as reminders of what motivates you and what drives you to succeed over and over despite the odds.

Self-Publishing

The publishing industry has shrunk, or grown, depending on your perspective. And the changes are vast. 31% of all e-book sales are from self-published authors. Why do some writers turn to self-publishing as an option? There are lots of advantages, such as royalties. The royalties are typically way higher than traditional publishers (though no advance), and it’s a super quick turnaround to see your work in print (generally 30 days as opposed to 15 months). As you’re not working with a literary agent to sell your manuscript, there’s no middle man to take a 15% cut off your royalties when they start coming in. But there are offsets, too. Self-publishing can be expensive ($500 – $5000 per book), and there’s a lot more work you’ll need to do to push your book into the commercial marketplace, like arrange for distribution, marketing, advertising, editing, cover art, and layout.

Check out these famous, best-selling books and authors that were initially rejected by (in some cases, many) publishers or agents:

  •  J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
  •  Jack Canfield for Chicken Soup for the Soul
  •  C.S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia
  •  Dan Brown for The Da Vinci Code
  •  J.D. Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye
  •  Margaret Mitchell for Gone With the Wind
  •  Alice Walker for The Color Purple

There’s more here

What does this tell you? You’re in good company for one thing. Rejections give us an opportunity to re-examine what we’re doing…any why. If making money is why you write, self-publishing could be a great option for you. If you’re a compulsive storyteller hell bent on finding a traditional publisher or agent, then sink your teeth into that path and persevere and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

There are many forms of success – how do you measure yours and what’s your benchmark? If you’re new to the writing path, maybe finishing a novel is a worthy pursuit right now, or you might want to publish 5 books a year, or earn enough to quit your day job. A stack of rejection letters means you’re engaged, working, and investing time and energy in your success and future. Don’t let them derail you; instead use them as a necessary tool of the trade.

writing-the-tools

What are your rejection war stories, or successes that started as rejection letters? Please share!

Well Behaved Pens

Standard

What makes you sit down and write? And what keeps you from writing?

pen 1

I’m constantly at this question. I have no time to write, I’m exhausted, haven’t eaten in sixteen hours and slept only 2 last night, yet I find myself crouched on the carpet in the dark in a cramped corner of a room writing by moonlight as if my life depended on it. Then on an easy Sunday with nothing to do and my inviting well lit writing desk staring angrily back, I somehow find laundry to wash, countertops to wipe, rugs to vacuum, bathtubs to scrub, closets to organize. Ridiculous.

What if something as inconsequential as pens were the magic variable? I know – to writers, pens are the farthest thing from inconsequential and are deeply personal, like the traits we search for in a mate. You can’t explain your desire for short blonde women or men with tattoos – it just IS. And the same goes for pen-preference. I loathe fountain pens. To me, they’re heavy, bloated, full of themselves, ostentatious, ridiculously priced, and represent in sum all the human traits I can’t stand.

trump

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ball Points

These used to be my favorite. Solid, reliable, consistent. The ink lasts longer than you’d expect, they feel comfortable to hold – not too fat, not too slim, and you never have to waste valuable mental real estate on them. Pick me up, drag me across the page, voila!

hanks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roller Balls

I know, they can be temperamental compared to ball points and this took some getting used to, but their naturally flowy nature and the fluidity of their mechanism drove me to reconsider my narrow views. They’re impetuous, creative, and they surprise you with the unexpected.

86th Oscars, Arrivals

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite pen type? Do you keep any special pens, like locked away in boxes or tins that you don’t let anybody use?

Today, buy a gift for your inner writer and reward yourself for the deep work and introspection required by our craft. Buy a new, beautiful pen. Invest money in something that will be your gift of inner travel and exploration, your path toward imagination and escape, something that will make you want to spend money on an exquisite journal. Write a new story in that journal with your new pen, or draw pictures of cartoon owls. Write an impromptu poem about the dying plant on the table, what it intended to look like before it got waterlogged or before sunlight became too hard to find. Write at a big desk, write on the floor. In the morning light, or by candlelight. Writing has such power – with nothing but a pen, we can build a whole world.

gandalf

 

 

 

 

 

 

LUNATICS WANTED

Standard

young-frankenstein1

Writing encompasses more than one of the academic disciplines known collectively as the humanities. And as art refers to an expression or application of creative skill and imagination, writing is most definitely an art. What about science? A scientist is someone who acquires knowledge through systematic means. Systematic implies an ordered or methodical organization to how that knowledge is pursued. Writers – fiction or nonfiction – are pursuing knowledge of their craft, seeking to understand something and then transmogrify it through the creative process. There, we’ve just proved that writing is a humanity, an art, and a science. Why does this matter? Because I’m about to turn you into a mad scientist.

Image

What I’ve always loved about mad scientist movies is their laboratories. Bubbling glass beakers, formalin-suspended brain specimens, eyeballs in jars. And what do scientists typically do in their laboratories? Conduct experiments in their pursuit of knowledge.

I have a mostly-written novel that I started several years ago and haven’t been able to find the time to finish it. You’re a writer so you can relate. We’re great at starting projects, not so great at finishing them. I’m about to embark on a 30-Day Challenge to finish this book. And while preparing for this challenge, I’ve been feeling lately that I need a laboratory to help me sort out my thoughts. It could be somewhere in my basement, a rented studio, or make-believe laboratories work too. Mainly, every writer needs one.

We’re all scientists in a way, and we need a place for exploration and experimentation. A place where we don’t need to keep an organized filing system, don’t need to sweep sunflower seed shells off the floor, a playroom that can be messy all the time and where we can be completely allowed to write the worst crap of our lives and have that be a viable part of our creative process.

young-frankenstein-1974

“Throw the third switch!”

“Not the third switch, Doctor…”

“Throw it!!”

Your writing lab doesn’t need good lighting or proper ergonomic chairs. You can sit on the floor and write with crayons on gigantic sketch pads. Or purple sharpies, or those China black art pencils.  There are no rules in your laboratory. You can write what you want, write at two in the morning, write backwards or make everything rhyme.

And then having an office, too, is a useful arrangement, because that’s where we organize our thoughts, make logical decisions and mold the raw material into something others would want to read.

NJ-office-3-screens-closeup-s

So I ask you – where do you typically write? And do you have a different place for practice and experimentation than for polishing, editing, and molding your work into final form? If you don’t yet have a writing spot, now’s a great time to start thinking about it. And if you already have a home office or designated space, think about where your writing lab would go. And don’t forget goggles!

 

 

 

Does your writing life need Feng Shui?

Standard

Curious about Feng Shui but a bit bewildered by it? Good, me too. Read on.

When I first started researching this ancient art of placement and spatial arrangement, I felt totally overwhelmed and daunted. There’s just so much to learn and absorb. What’s a bagua? Why do I need a compass (do I even own one)? From tai chi and yoga, I’ve learned a little bit about energy. But the energy of a room, of a desk, a doorway? To be honest, it sounded a little new-agey to me.

As I continued reading, I started learning more about Qi and realized that the science behind Feng Shui is about maximizing auspicious (beneficial) elements in a room so they don’t hinder the flow of energy. So not necessarily the Qi of a desk, but more like analyzing what objects or situations near or on the desk might be blocking the flow of that Qi.

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything. Writing requires that we harness our inner flow of creative energy and imagination to tell stories. The type of stories doesn’t matter. Fiction, nonfiction, they’re all ultimately stories. Writing is hard work and requires not only time but commitment and focus. And small changes can make it easier and more fun.

Where do you write? Lying on the floor with a pen and journal, on the couch with your iPad, noisy coffeeshop, or upright at a desk typing on a keyboard? Do you feel that your typical writing location helps or hinders your flow of creative energy? If you haven’t yet uncovered your perfect writing spot or if you dread the very sight of your desk, simple Feng Shui changes could make a huge impact on how that space feels. Like anything else, it’s best to consult a trained expert on the subject, and I’m the farthest thing from that. But I have spent a couple of years reading about tips and tricks and I can attest to their efficacy in how they’ve helped me feel focused, productive, and excited about going to my writing space at home. I’ve also included lots of links in this post to Feng Shui experts and consultants.

We all have too much clutter in at least some area of our lives. Hopefully your writing desk doesn’t look like this:

bad desk

Aside from the obvious hoarding tendencies, lack of organization and a 45-year old chair, this space lacks a few other essential elements – lighting, for one thing. Check this out:

classic-home-office-design-idea

So the desk/writing surface here is large, which is great. And they’ve got an ergonomic adjustable arm for a computer monitor, which saves tons of space. Love it! More points for the live plant in the corner of the desk. But the best part, of course, is the huge French window with a view of the woods. A nice view, simply put, will make you want to be there. Even if your writing space looks nothing like the picture above, I guarantee you could make your space feel just as aesthetic and inviting, and it might be easier than you think.

Some basic tips:

Don’t use a u-shaped desk or arrange your desk facing a wall, as these orientations could make you feel boxed in. There should be enough space for you to walk completely around your desk and it should preferably be facing the entry to the room. Situate your desk katty corner facing the door for an optimal “command position”.

Don’t put a trash can beneath the desk, as this could impact your writing success. Why? A trash can or waste container is likely to attract challenging, low-energy vibes. Set it out from under the desk and empty it frequently so as to not cause stagnation.

Stimulate your creative juices by hanging inspiring art or decorative objects on the walls. Find an image that makes you feel good, gives you energy, and draws you in. I prefer abstract art because, to me, it looks like a question that wants to be answered.

291830376_bfa843181a

Manage clutter! I have no drawers in my writing desk, which is a constant challenge causing me to be creative about what I store and where. I found an open, 3-shelved bookcase, which is perfect for housing decorative office storage boxes. You can find them in almost any color and size to match the vibe and color scheme of your home office.

modern-desk-accessories      IMG_7034

Confession: I’m obsessed with pens. I gather, collect, store, and hoard them, and openly steal them from my friends and colleagues. As a lifelong writer, I seriously feel on some level that all pens are just simply intrinsically mine. So one of my most successful de-cluttering tactics was to a) locate all my pens, b) pitch hundreds (literally) of broken, inkless relics, c) buy new ones, and d) display them on my desktop. Releasing that which we no longer need makes s p a c e in our lives and minds for more useful things, like ideas.

41t9g2u+QML__SY300_

To read more about desk organization, click here.

Next: cables. Look under your desk. What do you see?

Week_9_A_cluster_of_cables_under_the_desk_1280x3000

Even if your desktop is clean, well-organized and aesthetic, an atmosphere of unaddressed chaos beneath it can sabotage your writing process. How about this?

IKEA-Signum-Cable-Organizer

Check out cableorganizer.com for ideas.

If after renovating your writing area you’re ready to get serious about Feng Shui, you can easily find a certified Feng Shui consultant online in your area. Typically an initial consultation takes 2-3 hours, and be prepared to take lots of notes! They’ll prepare a list of recommendations along with alternatives. In other words, if you’re not willing to move your home office out of the damp basement, they’ll recommend ideas for making that environment more hospitable and conducive to how you want to use it.

Want to learn more?

http://life.gaiam.com/article/how-feng-shui-your-home-office

http://video.about.com/fengshui/Feng-Shui-for-a-Home-Office.htm

Inside Voice

Standard

Did you choose your protagonist or did they choose you? If you’ve got a novel in-progress, how did you come up with your main character? Sometimes mine come to me while driving, when my brain is active but my creativity is dormant. I also get name ideas from watching movie credits, and sometimes I hear a name so extraordinary that the evolution of the character and their attributes unfolds on its own. Kermitt Rictose, who was a stunt person in one of the umpteen Die Hard movies. What kind of character would emerge from a name like that? An older gentleman, affluent, entrepreneur, lives at the top of a hill in a gray, monolithic house. Too stereotyped? Okay, he’s a rock singer living on a houseboat and mows lawns for a living.  Kermitt the go-getter.

Tell me everything you know about your current protagonist. I’m sure you know their physical attributes, how they look, dress, walk. But do you also know what they love, what they loathe, and what they fear? What keeps them up nights, and what drives their obsessions? If you don’t know, here are a couple of ideas.

You could just…ask them. That’s right – create a sort of back and forth interview of your character, asking them about their favorite foods, favorite color, the car they drive. It’s more challenging than you think, because it takes not only creativity but courage to really make this exercise work. What you’re doing is tuning your senses inward and bringing the act of listening to a new level. I find it takes a certain willingness to surrender before your character really starts talking to you. And they will, and when they do, you’d better be listening. No, there’s no medication that can be prescribed for this affliction. It’s called creativity and there is no cure.

Another way is by mapping your characters to actual film stars.

Capture

I find that writing realistic dialogue requires me to not only know my protag’s inner and outer personalities, but also how they express themselves and interact with other people. So I model them after an actual actor whom I’ve seen in films. In the book I just finished writing, I modeled my homicide detective after actor Timothy Hutton in his latest series, Leverage.

090715leverage-timothy-hutton1

I’ve been watching Hutton since 1985’s The Falcon and The Snowman, where he portrayed an unlikely 19 year old American spy. And after twenty plus years of movie fandom, I feel like I know him. I’ve watched and studied how he behaves, reacts, his expressions, body language, and from that rich dataset I can infer how he would talk to his departmental underlings, the Medical Examiner, and my protagonist.

Sometimes I print photos of all my celebrity-mapped characters and tape them around my monitor, where they serve as a sort of visual Greek chorus. Other times, I tack them to my white board all in a cluster. The idea is to know and study these people, constantly. And even if they’re imaginary, they must at least be real to you. Having a face to build upon makes them broader than one-dimensional. For me, it helps bring them to life.

When it comes to your personal writing practice, you are the pilot and, generally speaking, there is no co-pilot. So you can do whatever you want, draw on any tricks of the trade, and don’t be afraid to go deep with your characters, even if it means, on occasion, talking to yourself.

Notes from a Master Procrastinator

Standard

“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”   (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)

I know you’re out there. You know who you are. So these will all sound very familiar. “There are far too many icons on my desktop, better clean them up.” “How long has it been since I cleared my temporary internet files? Two, three  months??” “Man this desk is dust-yyyy!” “Will you just look at the crumbs in this keyboard? I really should do something about that.”

procrastination-group

More? No problem, because I assure you I’m an endless well of excuses not to write. I admit, there’s something so freeing about the empty canvas feeling of a blank page. And also so unyieldingly daunting.

“Lemme just check my email real quick. Oh those annoying ads in the margins. What’s that…JCrew….SALE??”

Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks. How much new content did you actually W R I T E last week? Not thought about, planned, considered, but actually typed and saved somewhere. Last Monday through Sunday evening, blogs, books, stories, journals, everything counts except emails. 3 pages? 10? 50?

Start Small

I know how it is, and I know how lame it feels when the “don’t have time to write” excuse, which has worked for a while, falls flat. Writing is a habit, and habits are easy to make and break. If you’re in the habit of procrastinating your writing practice, create a new habit for writing every day. It might be easier than you think.

Day 1 5 Mins 10 Mins 15 20 30 45
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5

Do you write longhand in a journal or prefer a keyboard? Are you midstream through a writing project or about to begin something new? For today, write for 5 minutes. Anything, about any subject, but keep your fingers moving nonstop for 5 minutes.. Then put a little check mark in the 5 min column of Day 1. Congratulations – you’ve just started a new habit! Tomorrow, write for 10. These small goals might seem ridiculous, but they help build the repetition of constancy and achievement, which will make you want to go back for more and keep building on this skill. There’s one catch – no going backwards. If you write for 20 minutes one day, you must write for at least 20 the next day. The idea is to challenge yourself but set bite-sized, realistic goals that you can actually follow…longterm.

One of my first writing teachers, Natalie Goldberg, teaches about nonstop writing practice in her amazing book “Writing Down the Bones”.

Let me know if this works for you, or how you battle the constant temptation for “maybe later” on your own writing journey. I want to hear from you!