How to Produce Art when the World is Falling Apart

Sir Philip Sidney stated that poetry was “the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk little by little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges.” Ezra Pound believed that “The arts, literature, posesy are a science, just as chemistry is a science. Their subject is man, mankind, and the individual.” And yet, still, sometimes, we struggle to justify our creative practice.

If you’re in the middle of a personal crisis, it’s unlikely that you will have the energy or the mental bandwidth to produce art.

If you stop to consider big problems like climate change, terrorism, refugees, our shrinking job marketing, rising house prices, the privatisation of health care and a multitude of other issues, sitting down to work on a short story or novel can seem self-indulgent and pointless.

What good is a novel when the world is falling apart?

It’s important to acknowledge these feelings of inadequacy because simply ignoring them won’t do anyone any favours. However, it’s equally important that artists continue to produce work despite this feeling of inadequacy. Art itself may not be able to solve our complex, incomprehensible social, economic, political and educational problems, but artists must continue to use their skills and ability because we need art, even if the world is falling apart.

At their most basic, novels provide a space for escapism and entertainment. At their best, a novel can inspire us into action by forcing us to confront our own behaviours and beliefs. We may ask ourselves why we do the things that we do, whether our behaviour is contributing to the solution or to the problem, and how can we change for the better both individually and as a society.

Stories don’t have to change the world. If you want to write stories for the sole purpose of escapism, both for yourself and your reader, then that is an honourable use of time. We need a little escapism. We need books that we can read at the end of a long day; books that offer comfort instead of further confrontation. It’s okay to read funny books or adventure stories or mysterious. Not only is it nice to escapes into a different world with different people and different problems, it is also nice to see those problems get solved.

Here’s the thing though, even nice books have value beyond mere entertainment. Whether consciously constructed or not, narratives contain the observations and reflections of their author. They are stories about people living with other people. They contain insight and knowledge about human behviour, our relationships with ourselves and others, our desires, strengths, and weaknesses. A novel is a response to the experiences an author has had and the observations they have made. They contain magic, and though this magic is unlikely to reverse climate change, novels can still teach us something about ourselves and the world we live in.

Novels have purpose.

A well-crafted and thoughtful novel that asks hard questions may not alter the general public opinion, but it can cause a shift within a reader. You may choose to write a dystopian novel based on scientific fact about where we’re heading environmentally, or you may write a speculative fiction novel about what the world would look like if women became infertile (The Handmaids Tale – Margarett Attwood), or if we intentionally used clones as a means for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro). Stories such as these act as a type of role play. They allow us to ponder and explore potential future spaces. If we continue to remain passive about particular issues, what will happen? Additionally, they provide a container for our personal and social fears. Not only is the writer able to unburden themselves, but it also allows the reader to experience their innermost fears while remaining within the safe, imaginary confines of a story.

The world may have a lot of problems, but when has it not.

If you’re still struggling to justify your need to create art, perhaps my final point will convince you. When we looking back on the type of art that was produced at any given moment in history, we can see the prominent concerns of that time through the themes, structures, and styles that are repeated across different works by different artists. We need to write stories that capture this moment in time. That explore our societal concerns. That showcase our collective psyche. Artists need to make their contribution to the historical record because we have skills that scientists and politicians don’t have. We can take incompressible problems and present them in a consumable format that will make you feel something, and that is a very special skill indeed.

 

 

How to get the most out of a writing session

We all have looming deadlines whether they be personal or professional. If you have a full-time job, if you’re studying or if you have a family or other commitments, chances are you struggle to find time for writing. For a lot of us, writing is something that happens in the fringes. Maybe you write for an hour every weekday morning before you head into the office or maybe you’re lucky to carve out an hour on the weekend. Regardless of when, where and how often you write, these slithers of time are precious and you need to make the most of them. This week, I’m listing the four steps you can take to maximise your productivity within any given writing session.

If you prefer to video content, you can watch this week’s video here.

Be selective in your location

Writers can be pretty precious when it comes to our writing environments. I often take my laptop with me when I’m travelling and I always set out with the best of intentions. Although I manage to achieve some writerly goals while on the road, the moment I leave the comfort, ease, and familiarity of my day-to-day environment and routine, I struggle. My usual focus and discipline disappear and I have to white-knuckle my way through the drafting, revising and publishing process.

That being said, the types of distraction that occur while travelling can also occur at home, so you need to be clever in the selecting of your writing location.

Let’s say you prefer to stay home and write in your study on the weekends. Though you may love the convenience of being able to get up and make a cup of tea, go to the bathroom or sloth around in your sweatpants, the reality is that writing at home can be counterproductive, especially if you live with others. Your spouse may knock on the door and entice you with suggestions of a cafe lunch, the kids might burst in and beg you to take them to the park or you may simply look out your office window and notice that the lawn needs to be mowed, the car needs to be washed or the washing needs to be taken off the line. Even if you set yourself up in a room with a lockable door, there is a good chance that domestic distractions will come a-knocking anyhow.

If this is the case for you, consider getting out of the house and setting yourself up at either a library or at a café, I believe that a coffee an hour is the going rate for occupying a table. If you opt for the latter option, again be selective. Don’t set yourself up at a café where you know there is a high probability of running into someone you know. If you find the noise inside cafes too distracting, you can either opt for noise cancelling head phones, venturing out at off peaks times or you can pick daggier cafes that are less busy.

Turn off your devices

Dani Shapiro has often compared writing on a laptop with internet access as akin to writing at an amusement park – there are just so many distractions! If you want to get the most out of your writing session, then you need to turn off the devices or features that are likely to distract you. That means any device that rings, buzzes or has a colourful touch screen. If you’re writing at home, switch off your wifi or invest in one of those nifty apps that blocks your access to the internet and others apps for a set time period. Now there may be instances when you can’t turn off your phone because you’re expecting an important phone call or perhaps you prefer to be available in case of emergency. If that’s the case, then at the very least I recommend that you turn your phone on silence and that you make use of apps such as Freedom that way you aren’t tempted to quickly Google something or check your social media feed anytime you hit a rough spot in your manuscript.

Set yourself up before you start

Regardless of whether you are writing at home or at a library or café, you need to set up your workspace before you start writing. If you’re writing at home, clear your desk, have your research notebooks close at hand, fill up your water bottle, open or close the window, turn on the aircon or heater, slip on a pair of socks and have a snack close at hand if you wish. For me, I place a small vase of flowers on my desk and I bring my dog and her bed into the room with me. Not only do these small tasks minimise the likelihood of interruptions, it also sends a signal to the brain that you’re about to start a writing session and it’s time to get serious.

The five-minute outline

Now, I know that some people detest outlining and that’s fine. If you have a process that you’re comfortable with and you don’t want to change it then that’s your decision. However, one of the best ways to increase the productivity of your writing session is to know what you are going to write before you sit down to write it.

Before you open your word doc, spend five minutes roughly outlining what it is you’re going to write. If you’re working on a novel, do a rough outline of the main story beats that need to occur within the next scene, what that scene is trying to achieve, which characters are present and where they are. If you’re working on an article or blog, break that piece down into dot points or subheadings.

Those first few minutes of any writing session are always going to be painful.

We all know what it is like to push through that initial resistance.

Eventually…usually… you can break through that mental barrier and the words begin to flow. The length of time it takes to get over this mental hurdle lessens when you know where your story or articles is going, and what it is you are trying to achieve with that piece.

So there you have it guys, those are my four quick tips for a successful writing session. If you have any tips of your own that you would like to suggest, feel free to leave a comment in the section below. If you’re into social media, you can find me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Novels are Anti-culture

(The video version of this blog can be found here).

I love Zadie Smith. Not just for her writing, but for her outspoken and thought provoking opinions. In addition to her novels, I’ve watched/read many interviews with her (I rarely watch TV, but I watch author interviews like they’re the latest serial) and I’ve ploughed through her online essays. Anyway, during one particular interview, Zadie was asked for her opinion on contemporary fiction. Her reply? “The novel is anti-culture,” which is a description I utterly love. (I pretty much like anything that is anti-mainstream culture).

Zadie went on to explain that as a society, we have become trained to consume content quickly. Social media, sound bite news and the dropping of a whole season of your favourite TV show, rather than weekly episodes, are just a few examples. I’ve often blogged about our tendency to whip out our phones the moment we are faced with a pause in action: standing at traffics lights, waiting in line at the grocery store or hanging out in the waiting room of your local GP. My god people! Take a book!

The point is, SOME studies show that our attention spans are shrinking. One survey conducted by Microsoft claimed that we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish…well if that headline doesn’t qualify as click bait, I don’t know what does! Of course, many studies have proved that this claim is totally false (shocker). Besides, goldfish don’t even have eight-second memories; that myth has also been disproven. If you care to read more about this topic, here is the link to the BBC’s dismantling of Microsoft’s report.

Novels are anti-culture because they aren’t quick! Yes, you can dip in and out of a novel. You can read a few pages at a time, sipping away at its contents rather than gorging on multiple chapters, but it requires time and discipline to read a novel; two things the human species is becoming dangerously short on.

People who feel embarrassed about their reading habits often claim to be time poor. I don’t have time to read. You don’t make time. I’m too busy to read. Not too busy to watch three hours of TV before bed every night. I’ve just got so much on my plate right now. Who doesn’t?

Sidenote, though the reading and writing community may be a small one, it’s a thriving one. Independent bookshops experienced a steady decline between 1991-2009, only to have a massive resurgence within the last few years. Through the use of social media, the hosting of author events, the addition of food and beverage services and live music, indie bookstores have found a way to become relevant (and exciting!) hubs within the community. Okay, tangent over—now back to my argument.

Novels are anti-culture because they require self-discipline. Scrolling through our phones or watching a Law and Order re-run asks so little of us. You are not required to be present during these exchanges. Reading is different because you are co-creating the experience. Admittedly, the author has done most of the heavy lifting…but a book cannot fulfill its purpose until it’s in the hands of a reader. It’s the reader’s job to be generous with that book, another quality we’d do well to cultivate. The reader must be present with the book in order for its magic to work and storytelling is a kind of magic. Words on a page have the power to transport us to different times and worlds, they can make imagined people feel real and they can make you care whether or not these imagined people get what they want.

Novels are anti-culture because they encourage us to develop empathy. They show us that we are more alike than we are different. While sensationalised mainstream media and poorly research posts on social media strive to convince us that the world is divided into people who are like “us” and people who are not like “us”—and that people who are not like “us” should be feared—literature reminds us that the world is NOT that simplistic. Literature peels away the Halloween mask to reveal the truth: most people are more alike than they are different.

Novels are anti-culture because they ask us to think. They challenge our beliefs, present us with new knowledge and encourage us to read between the lines. Novels are deep… okay, not ALL novels are deep… but even the latest best-seller has layers! The story is never just a story. On a surface level, you may learn how a different culture operates or how a different industry runs. If you’re reading a historical fiction novel, you may learn how WWI started or how we willingly repeated this event twenty-one years later. Either way, beneath this educational layer, lies the heart of the story. Is it a meditation on grief, family, corruption, struggle, love or faith? Is it a subtle exploration of philosophical themes like, “What does it mean to be human?” You can read a novel to experience action, adventure, or complicated family dynamics, but it’s in the deep analyses that you will find true gold.

Novels are anti-culture and that’s why I love them.

If you enjoyed this blog or if you have any thought or opinions you’d like to express, please leave a comment below! If you’re into social media, you can find me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

 

How to Produce Content Regularly

These days, if you’re an author then that also means you’re an entrepreneur. Your days may be spent pitching to magazines, revising articles for publication, researching, and maintaining an online presence through blog posts, YouTube videos and social media. You may even have a podcast! In terms of social media, the pressure to produce daily content is immense. Of course, you don’t HAVE to spend hours producing this content, no one is expecting you to solve all of the world’s problems in 280 characters. You can post photographs of you and your dog walking in the park or an image of your workstation followed by the hashtag #amwriting.

In terms of articles, videos, and blog posts, again the content doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but at the same time, it shouldn’t be hollow. If you notice that your content has started to become repetitive or if you’re starting to see it as a chore, then your readers are going to start dropping off. The pressure to consistently produce content can be a little overwhelming and there will be days when you struggle to produce. On those cold days, I hope you will find some inspiration, or at least direction, in the following suggestions.

As always, you can find the video version of this week’s blog here.

Read Other Blogs

This may seem obvious, but we don’t always do what is obvious, do we? If you’re struggling to come up with an idea for a blog, have a look at some of the recent (or not so recent) topics covered by the blogs you follow. By taking a little time to peruse other blogs, you will like come up with a broader range of ideas then if you’d tried to generate content from an uninspired mindset. Alternatively, you can simply take the title or topic of a post that you find interesting and write your own version. For example, you may come across an article about how to pitch to online magazines. You may have never covered that topic before, but you know quite a bit about it, maybe you could write an advice piece covering the dos and don’ts of pitching. Alternatively, you may come across a fresh or innovative article that inspires you to write a response piece. For instance, you might read Mark Mason’s blog about shit sandwiches* and realise that you have your own “Coming to Jesus” moment about life, responsibilities, happiness and the various pros and cons that come along with adulting.

Muse about something that has been bothering you

This is the avenue I personally tend to wander down. Writers tend to be ponderers. We like to reflect not only on our own opinions of world affairs, politics, social, environmental and cultural happenings but also about our own lives, behaviours, beliefs and the human condition. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. Do people with a critical and reflective mind naturally gravitate towards writing as a way to express (and rationalise the copious amount of reading and research) the ideas, connections, and ponderings that keep them awake at night? Or does one develop the necessary skills of observation and deep thinking after they have awoken one morning and announced, “I’m going to be a writer! How do I do that?” The muse, snickering from her position on a chaise lounge in the corner, answers, “In my ethereal opinion, I recommend that you pay close attention to everyone and everything. Take the time to notice the nuances and details of life. Then spend a disturbing amount of time thinking about all that you have seen and ask yourself, ‘what does this really mean?’”

Hmmm wow. Sorry. Went off on a bit of a tangent there, didn’t I?

Anyway, I think you get the point. If you’re a writer, chances are you have a lot of opinions, observations, interests or reflections, waiting to be shared. Of course, if you’ve established a particular brand online, say a writing blog….then that platform may not be the best place to publish your political, environmental, mindful, cake-loving pieces…Fortunately, there are many other places where you can publish that content.

Start a Blog Series

This is another one I personally use. I started The Standard Writers Interrogation List a few years ago after noticing that writers are always asked the same types of questions. These questions range from the basic “are you a panster or a plotter?” to the meaningful “why do you write?” Series are great for a couple of reasons. If you’ve been blogging for a while, then you will have noticed that all your website traffic goes to the most recent posts. By starting a series, you can include the links to earlier posts within that series and redirect your readers to other content on your site. Incidentally, if you’d like to check out the posts in The Standard Writers Interrogation List series, I’ve included all the links at the bottom of this blog. See what I did there. 😉

If you are going to start a series, I recommend picking something that has a broad scope. For example, “How to” post and listicles are great as they provide a set structure while also giving plenty of wiggle room in terms of content. Of course, you can be more specific by focussing on umbrella topics like editing, publishing or craft. Though topics like book titles and copyright are interesting, the scope is too narrow for a series. These types of topics work better as one-off posts.

Interview Someone

Interviews are a great way to quickly broaden the content of your blog without jeopardising your brand or online voice. Of course, you want to interview someone who is in alignment with your brand. If you have a writing blog, for example, you may consider interviewing authors or professionals from the publishing industry. Ideally, an interview should be both educational and inspirational.

When interviewing someone, there are a few things you should be aiming for. Firstly, you need to establish why the interviewee is an authority on that topic. You can do this by asking questions about their current role, their experience in the industry/education, or by asking for their backstory. Secondly, you need to ask open-ended questions. That is questions that do not have a yes or no response. The aim here is to get your interviewee talking. Think of your questions as prompts. It’s not THAT important that your specific question gets answered, but what is important is that you get the interviewee talking about their experiences while also sharing their insider knowledge.

If you don’t have any experience with interviewing, then the simplest way to become familiar with the art form is to listen to podcasts! I highly recommend The Creative Penn (writing, publishing, book marketing) and The Rich Roll Podcast (entrepreneur, health, fitness, non-fiction writing, inspiration).

In terms of finding someone to interview, I recommend starting with your existing network. Do you have any writer friends that would be interested/open to being interviewed? Have you met any industry professionals through either mentorships or conferences with whom you have a rapport? Look towards the connections and relationships that you already have before you start flicking out cold emails to strangers which FYI I don’t recommend unless you have a VERY established online presence, in which case….Hi, how you doing? Welcome to my blog!

There you have it guys, those are my four strategies for producing online content regularly.

If you enjoyed this blog or if you have any tips of your own you’d like to add, please leave a comment below! If you’re into social media, you can find me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter where I post daily pictures walking the dog, eating cake and musing about the craft.

*The idea that everything comes with a shit sandwich and you got to decide which ones you can put up with and which ones you can’t.

The Standard Writers Interrogation List

The Standard Writers interrogation List: Daily vs Binge

The Standard Writers Interrogation List: Larks vs Owls

The Standard Writers Interrogation List: Penmonkey vs Typist

 

 

 

How to Make the Most of a Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended a research conference specifically aimed at creative writing researchers and their supervisors. Though I have attended writers’ conferences and festivals in the past, this conference was different. Perhaps this was due to the specificity of the conference, the cosy number of attendees (30-40) or the individuals themselves. Perhaps the main reason why the conference was different is that nobody was trying to get something out of anyone else. We weren’t there to pitch to agents, publishers or editors and we weren’t there to have a D&M with a beloved author. If anything, people were attending the conference with the specific intention of connecting with other researchers/writers, not because they want to “get” something out of that exchange, but because they want to learn from others’ experiences while sharing some of their own insights. With that sentiment in mind, I wanted to talk about the five things you can do to get the most out of a conference experience.

If you prefer to consume video content, you can find the YouTube version of this blog here.

Network, but not in a gross way

As we all know, writing can be a lonely business, but the plus of attending a writing conference is that everyone there will be just as socially awkward and weird as you. 🙂

I have to admit that the conference I attended had a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. I felt as though I could have gone up to anyone and struck up a conversation because a) I already know what their interests are, researching and writing, and b) we were all there for the same reason, to connect with other researchers/writers.

To be completely transparent, most of the students I spent my time with were from my university. I wasn’t treating them as a personal safety net, I just hadn’t met any of them before! I am currently halfway through Honours while the other students were a combination of on and off campus, Ph.D. and Doctorate students. For this reason, our paths had never crossed. The being said, I did have some great chats with students and supervisors from other universities, but I’ll admit that most of my break sessions were spent socialising with my own university cohort.

Put a face to the name and introduce yourself

There were several lecturers and researchers whose names and publications I was familiar with. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool to put a face to a name and to see the real live human being behind the academic papers I’ve read and journals I’ve submitted to. You don’t have to talk their ear off, but a quick hello and “I read your paper on [insert topic]” is always nice.

Learn from others

One of the most exciting things that came out of the conference was the ability to hear from other students who were further down the academic path than myself. Obviously, everyone’s “journey” (I hate that word!) is different and yet there were several topics that came up repeatedly over the course of the two days.
Here are a few:

Managing time and stress

I don’t think I need to unpack this one too much, but one of the biggest issues for students was a desire to reduce their stress level and to become more efficient with their time. Obviously, there is no “one-size” fits all solution to this problem. However, some of the advice that did crop up during group discussions was a need to figure out a system that works for YOU. Students need to figure out if they’re a morning person or night person, if they’re self-driven or a procrastinator, if they’re good at meeting deadlines or not, if they’re good at handling stress or not, if they’re good at prioritising, organising, researching, writing, editing, rewriting, analysing on and on and on.

Whatever your weaknesses are, you then need to figure out how you’re going to work with or around that weakness. If you’re a procrastinator, maybe you can set up fortnightly meetings with your supervisor or have a weekly “accountability” meeting with another research student. Only you can design a system that is going to work for you, your lifestyle and responsibilities. This is one step that cannot be “winged.”

In discussing time management, one student pointed out the need to view the project in blocks. You may spend two or three mornings doing nothing but reading and notetaking and then spend the next week writing. You may spend the first three months reading widely before going deep on one particular topic or area. It’s likely that you will cycle through stages of mostly reading, mostly researching and then mostly writing. To aim for a “balanced” day is to set yourself up for failure or burnout. You only have so many good hours in a day, so you need to prioritise what needs to get done now, and what can be done later.

The last six months is intense

Almost every student and supervisor said that the last six months of a Ph.D./Doctorate was intense. This is due to the (often) large volume of revisions that occur prior to the final submission. This particular tidbit was one of my biggest takeaways because SO many people said it! This final sprint before the finish line may be unavoidable, but knowing that this is a common trend amongst research student means that I can attempt to ease this situation for myself by having the appropriate processes and procedures in place.

Stress (again!) and Mental Health

The pastoral care offered by your supervisor is one thing, but there is a host of other ways to make sure that you aren’t slowly going insane. One way is by being engaged with other researcher and building a sense of community. I know that at some universities, the creative writing students have weekly on-campus meetings, monthly dinners or attend conferences/workshop together. Weekly meetings don’t have to be purely social. This time can be used to practice confirmation presentations or to critique one another’s journal submissions or creative works. Though… commiserating over lattes does have a certain appeal…

However, if you haven’t worked on your project in….a while….or if you’re starting to slip into depression, burnout or some other distressing mental state, it is important to know that there are counsellors and resources available through your university. Don’t wait to seek help!

Opportunities

One of the most exciting and unexpected things to come out of the conference was the opportunity to collaborate with other writers on other projects. By the end of the two-day symposium, a fellow researcher had invited me to be part of a research presentation by providing the “student perspective,” students from my own university decided to start an on-campus writers group, I joined the conference committee for next year and I volunteered to be a part of a different conference that is scheduled for the end of this year. I didn’t attend the conference with the intention of seeking out opportunities, I just wanted to learn and connect with other writers. The opportunity to collaborate with other writers and to join new communities was simply an added bonus!

Go for walk

As writers, you would think that we would have no problem sitting down all day, but by the time the second day rolled around I was eating my lunch while standing and taping my toes during seminars. Sitting down for 8-10 hours is actually pretty uncomfortable, so I highly recommend that you go for a walk before the conference begins. The reason I say before is that a) you’re going to be totally exhausted by the time the conference is over and b) you may get an invite from another writer to grab a coffee or drink after the conference, and you’re not going to want to turn down that down. This final tip may seem small and trivial, but I think it’s an important one!

There you have it, my top five steps for getting the most out of any conference! I know this week’s topic was pretty different from my normal blog content, but I hope you were able to find something useful in the above suggestions. If you enjoyed this blog or if you have any tips of your own to add, please leave a comment below!

If you’re into social media, you can find me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. All the links to my relevant pages can be found below the archive section on this page.

Five Steps to a Successful Writing Career

When it comes to writing advice, and writing rules, my advice would be to pick out the tips and tricks that resonate with you and leaving the rest. There’s a lot of writing advice out there, and much of it is conflicting. If you find inspiration in another author’s routine or if you come across an interesting literary technique, then by all means, give it a go! If a particular tool or practice doesn’t work for you, simply revert back to your old habit, preference or style. All writers have their opinions and viewpoints on how to best get things done, and today I’m tackling one of my favourites: Heinlein’s Five Rule for Writing.

Robert Heinlein was an American writer who broke into the science fiction community in the 1940 and his controversial works continue to influence the genre today. Along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein is known as one of the “Big Three” authors in the science fiction community. Heinlein developed his five rules because aspiring writers constantly asked him how they too could have a successful career as a writer. Of his rules, Heinlein said, “The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction […] they are amazingly hard to follow – which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket!”

To reiterate, though these five rules may seem simple – even basic – they are incredibly difficult to follow.

If you prefer to consume video content, you can find the YouTube version of this blog here.

Rule number one: You must write

Don’t roll your eyeballs at me; I told you these rules were simple! And yet, how often have you heard a fellow writer harp on about the brilliant premise of their novel only to discover that they haven’t actually written a single word? It’s all fine and dandy to have a fully formed manuscript in your head, but if that story isn’t on paper, then it doesn’t exist. You can’t edit an imaginary story and you certainly can’t get it published.

Writers are people who write. You don’t have to write every day and what you write doesn’t have to be perfect (especially if it’s the first draft) but if you want to be a published writer, then you must write.

Rule number two: You must finish what you write

And you thought number one was hard. It’s one thing to start a project and an entirely different thing to finish it. If you’ve never completed a manuscript or short story, be patient with yourself. Plan for success by managing your time, outlining (if applicable to you) and setting small regular goals. Rather than thinking, “I have to write a book,” break the project into smaller more manageable chunks. By viewing your book as a series of scenes or chapters, the project becomes far less overwhelming. You can’t write a book in a day or even a week unless you’re Stephen King and you’ve just snorted some great coke which is how he wrote Dolores Claiborne.

You won’t know what it takes to write a novel until you have written one. You won’t know what level of discipline or time management is required. You won’t know how to maintain a consistent voice or characterisation. You won’t know how to construct a plot or maintain narrative drive. You can read all the blogs on the internet and you can watch all the videos on YouTube, but the only way you’re going to know how to write your novel is to write it.

Rule number three: You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order

Rules one and two are applicable to all writers, but this rule is a little more controversial. Remember, Heinlein was a science fiction writer whose stories were generally geared towards the pulp magazines of the 1940s. The world is a different place, but there is value in this rule depending on the type of writer that you are, and what your definition of success is.

If your aim is to win the Vogel, the Pulitzer-prize or some other literary award, this rule is not applicable to you. If your aim is to produce a literary novel that is carefully constructed, then this rule is not for you. If your aim is to be traditional published, then this rule is not for you. If you want to produce a high-quality self-published novel, this rule is not for you. If these are your goals, then you should be rewriting and editing your work long before you submit it to an industry professional, whether that be an agent, editor or publisher.

However, if your goal is to have a short story published through an online magazine, small press or your own blog, step three could work for you. This rule is especially applicable if:

  • you write genre fiction (particularly formulaic stories like Mills and Boon Romances)
  • are submitting to a publisher who specialises in pulp fiction
  • payment is not your main concern publication is.

Perhaps a better way to phrase this rule, especially in today’s marketplace is, “Edit your work, but don’t edit forever.” A novel is never truly done; it’s just worked to a level that the author and other parties involved can live with…ideally!

If your story is close to a publishable standard and if the editor at a publishing house likes your work, then they will take the time to provide feedback with the intent that you resubmit.

Rule number four: You must put your story on the market

If you never hit the send button, then you’re never going to get published. Emailing a story to an editor is nerve-wracking. It’s an incredibly brave and courageous act to let someone read your work, but if you want your story to find an audience, then this step is a must. You can’t get published if you don’t submit your work to publishers. So be brave. Do your research and find the online magazines and publishing houses that might be interested in your story and submit to them. The worst outcome is that they say no, but if you don’t at least try, then you’ll never know.

Rule number five: You must keep it on the market until it has sold

Don’t let rejections stop you! Thanks to the internet, there is a slew of online publications for you to submit to. Just because your story has been rejected doesn’t mean that the story is bad. There are many reasons why an editor may say no:

  • your story is too similar to something they’ve already published
  • the story isn’t to their taste
  • your story isn’t a good fit for their magazine
  • they’re over budget
  • the content for the next few months is already scheduled.

If you receive a rejection email with feedback you agree with, revise your story and either resubmit to that magazine (if the editor has indicated that it is okay to do so) or try submitting to another publication. If you don’t receive any feedback, simply send it out to someone else. Keep going! Personally, I get 10-20 rejections before a story or article is accepted. Writing is a business, so don’t take it personally.

There you have it! Those are Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing. Though these steps may seem disturbingly easy, they are incredibly difficult to follow. If you enjoyed this blog, feel free to subscribe or follow me on social media. My Instagram, Facebook and Twitter links can be found below the archive section of this page. If you enjoyed the content of this week’s blog or if you connected with Heinlein’s rules feel free to leave a comment below!

Consider jotting these rules down on a post-it and keeping it near your desk for those days when the writing game is feeling a little too hard or complicated. Remember, writing may not always be easy, but it’s always worth it.

Happy writing.

How to Become a Better Writer

 

How to become a better writer. It’s an ambitious title given that my blog posts are a thousand words or less. If you type this title into Google, you will find 124 million links. Some of these posts cover topics like show don’t tell, remove adverbs, write in active voice, outline, establish a routine etc. If you dig a little deeper, you will find articles about voice, structure, pacing, and plot. Further down the writing craft hole, you will uncover articles about literary devices whose names you can’t quite pronounce and romantic quotes about bleeding veins. Below is my contribution to the conversation. Most writing advice should be preceded with the word sometimes. Sometimes showing is better than telling. Sometimes an alternative structure is innovative. Sometimes it is important to have likable characters. Sometimes. However, there are three fundamental staples few would argue against. If you want to become a better writer, if you want to become an active participant in your own improvement, follow the below practices without exception.

Read more

This may seem simple or obvious, but aspiring writers can never hear this advice enough. If you want to become a better writer, then one of the best ways to do that is to read more. Despite the myriad of online courses, how to books and advice blogs (present platform included), it is through reading that a writer will learn how to turn words into images, names into people and imagined heartbreak into real empathy.

There is only one apprenticeship available to writers and the course’s requirements are simple: read and write. It’s a cheap apprenticeship, but the determination and willpower required for these tasks are immense.

Reading more also means reading widely. If you regularly find yourself in the science fiction section of your local independent, consider checking out the biography, romance, young adult, general, literary or classic sections. Why stop there? If your Sunday morning breakfast revolves around pulpy lifestyle articles, challenge yourself to read a scholarly essay, a feature article in the local paper, or a carefully constructed opinion piece online.

It’s important that you read within your genre, but if you ONLY read science fiction, then your novel may be nothing more than a mediocre regurgitation of stories that already exist. Part of the fun of writing is the challenging of pushing yourself and your story into new places. By reading widely, you may discover a literary device or story structure that would work well for your story. You may find inspiration through an experiment discussed in a scientific journal, an interview with a worker from a little-known profession, or a shocking story reported by a reputable news outlet. Inspiration is everywhere. Indulge your curiosity and push through your resistance. Read content that doesn’t immediately appeal to you. Read articles that challenge you intellectually. Read stories about different people from different countries with different problems. Read. Read. Read. Then write.

Write Often

The second component of a writer’s apprenticeship is writing. You don’t have to write every day (though I think it’s great if you can), but you do have to write with some regularity. If you don’t have a regular writing practice, your confidence in your abilities will start to weaken. You will resist the blank page. You will see your word document or notebook as a barren landscape rather than a canvas brimming with potential. If you decide to write every day, it doesn’t have to be for long. In fact, smaller goals are better goals. Setting the intention of writing 500 words a day or writing for fifteen minutes each morning is way more doable then lofty and unspecific goals like, “I’ll write a novel this year.” It’s important that you be realistic and set yourself up for success. More often than not, you will find yourself exceeding these small goals. Your fifteen-minute window may stretch into an hour and 500 words can quickly turn into a thousand or two. This is a good feeling; chase that feeling.

Again, you don’t have to write every day, but you do have to have a set routine. Maybe you can write every Tuesday between 8-9pm and every Saturday morning from 10-11am. Mess around with your schedule and see what works best for you. It doesn’t matter when you write, it doesn’t matter how much you write, but it does matter that you write.

Think Critically

The link between reading and writing is critical thinking. Though your subconscious may absorb some lesson through passive reading, a writer who is determined to better their craft needs to reflect and think critically about what they have read. You don’t have to give yourself an aneurysm, but you do have to go under the hood. Ask yourself what that novel was really about. What themes was the author exploring, why did they structure the novel in that way, did the structure support the narrative or not, how did the voice or perspective affect the telling of the story, did they apply or use devices in an innovative way, was the story plausible, did it move you, did you learn something about yourself or the world?

The only writing “hack” that exists is critical thinking. By reading widely and thinking critically, a writer can avoid the pitfalls made by other writers while adopting the devices, structures, and ideas that make for effective storytelling. Of course, you will still make mistakes. That is unavoidable. However, if a writer can actively engage with what they have read and if they can apply those lessons to their own writing, then they are giving themselves and their stories the very best chance of success. If you have chosen to live the life of an artist, then there are no guarantees. What you can choose, however, is to be an active participant in your own evolution. To read because you want to learn, to think about what you have read because discernment is invaluable, and to write because someone else needs to know what you know.

The world may not need another book, but it needs books. I hope you find the courage and tenacity to pen the stories that are housed within you because there is someone out there that needs to read the story that only you can tell.

Happy writing.