Occupation: Writer?

I remember staring at the blank space on the preschool enrollment form. Mother’s Occupation: ____________.  In the past I’d used my old job. Graphic Designer. Then I resigned myself to “Home maker” but it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Not because being a home maker isn’t a real job. Let me tell you, it is a full time job and a half, but because it’s not a “job” I do exclusively, or alone. My husband and I make our home together. For a little while I aggressively wrote in “Mother” because psh, that IS a job that I do 24/7. That’s true for every mother, by the way, not just ones who don’t work full time jobs for money.

But it is not my professional occupation, any more than home making is. Any more that graphic design has been since I left my full time job after my first child was born.

So I wrote it, on that line.

Mother’s Occupation: Writer.

After a moment of intense self doubt I also added /Homemaker.

It took me a while to be comfortable writing this in. Because I do not make anything close to a living writing, yet. Yet I don’t get paid to cook, clean, or parent and I have no trouble listing those things as my occupation.

I spend a significant portion of my time writing or doing writing related things. I edit while my daughter watches morning cartoons. I research while I wait for spaghetti to boil. I do social media work all day in stolen moments. I write at night between baths and bedtime and the five times my kids need something.

Writing is my occupation. How much money I make for it doesn’t make it any more or less valid. I am building my career and every moment dedicated to it is precious.

So if you are struggling with the same thing, cut yourself a break. Money does not define the value of your job. It does not define you. If you are lucky or motivated enough to be able to dedicate your time to writing, you are a writer and you rock.

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Art to support your art

Writers can be a fickle bunch. We immerse ourselves in our story, falling in love with our characters, daydreaming about our settings. Then we see something shiny in the distance, a new story idea, a really good book, even (gasp) something happening in our own real life and our make believe world can fall away, once again as flat as the pages it’s written on.

This is a good thing. Because a little obsession can help you complete a project, but a lot of obsession makes you a little creepy. And in every author’s life there is a time when they have to let their book, their characters, their make believe world go, whether it’s to the world or a folder on computer, so that they can create something new and life their own lives.

But if you want to get back to that space, whether you’re trying to pick up a story you haven’t completed yet or edit a manuscript that you have left to simmer, sometimes it is not so easy. Sometimes the words don’t flow, the excitement doesn’t pop. Your story remains flat to you and you can’t immerse yourself the way you need to do get the job done.

There are lots of little tasks, projects, challenges you can set yourself, but one of my favorite methods for getting back into a story is to come at it through different mediums. Sketch your characters or landscapes. Write a theme song. Build their setting with blocks or playdough or whatever you have lying around.

Cook the foods your characters eat. Wear the colors your characters wear. Write a poem. Design a logo. Whatever you want!

You don’t have to be good at it. Your characters can look like stick figures and your song can sound suspiciously like “Rebel Yell”, but you are creating withing your world again. And the world will open up to you.

And if your attempts at other art are really getting you down, make a vision board and a playlist (with “Rebel Yell”). Make a pinterest board. Cast the movie of your book with real life actors.

Have fun and let that healthy obsession with your work take you away.

Talent and Time

There’s two things that can make authors cringe to hear.

“I wish I was talented so I could write a book.”

and

“Oh, yeah, I could write a book, if I just had the time.”

Please stop.

You can write a book, without time or talent. We writers know this because we started out with neither.

We weren’t born with a magical power that allowed us to string words into a story that was a delight to read.

We didn’t come by our “talent” because we were constantly faced with an abundance of free time.

Our first stories sucked. Our first twenty stories sucked. My first one hundred stories sucked, hard.

I wrote them between homework, during class instead of paying attention. I wrote them when my friends were outside playing. I wrote them in college when I could have been at parties. I write them now, late at night when the rest of my family is sleeping.

A writer makes the time and they develop the talent. Because we love it. Because we have to. Because it is a priority.

If you want to write a book, by all means go for it. Get up earlier than usual. Stay home instead of going out Friday night. Take a writing class after work on Wednesday. Read books during your spare time instead of scrolling through your phone.

Your talent will develop slowly. It will take years. But it will come.

If you want to write a book, stop making excuses, and projecting your weird insecurities onto us writers who have done it. You have a high stress job that doesn’t allow you the time? Honey, I work with doctors and lawyers, single parents and CEOs. They make the time, they put in the work. Because they have to get their stories out. Because they love it.

It’s okay if you don’t. Just stop using it to mildly insult us who have done it.

Learning to write short stories to improve your long stories

Writing short stories has always been a challenge for me. My ideas are usually too complicated and require a lot of set up and character development.

or so I thought.

Recently I’ve realized I am not doing myself any favors by refusing to refine this form of writing. After all, just about all my favorite writers got their start publishing short stories. There are so many more opportunities to publish a short story than a novel.

My first attempts were pretty bad. Even with “shorter” ideas, my stories were too complicated, too convoluted, and really pretty boring.

Then I came across an anthology with a theme that I was already writing a novel about.

And a lightbulb went off.

Because I already had the backstory, the world building, the set up in my head, I used this opportunity to write a short, side story about a minor character in my novel. A character that I would have liked to have given more attention, but it would have bogged down my novel.

As a short story though… it worked.

But I still had to edit, clean, and cut down words to make the word count.

Unfortunately the anthology was cancelled, but I did receive an encouraging reply.

So I kept trying. And I kept getting better. Ideas for short stories came easier. Keeping them short came easier.

And then something pretty cool happened.

I had to do some major edits on a novel manuscript. And that came easier. I had an easier time finding run on sentences, cutting out words, making everything clearer and more concise.

Learning how to write short stories made editing my novel easier.

Since this glorious revelations I have shared this discovery with some writing friends of mine. Most of them haven’t believed me. Like me, they feel that they are just no good at writing short stories. I hope they change their minds because I’d love to see what they come up with.

Everyone will find their own path.

Just don’t sell yourself short.

Do you write short stories? What is your best method? Please share in comments below.

Write your first draft for you and your last draft for your reader

I think I’ve been having an existential crisis. Does that qualify as a good excuse for not posting recently?

I’ve been writing much more than average. I polished a final draft. I’m working on a bunch of short stories and really refining my process there. I’ve been catching up on reading. I’ve been brainstorming, outlining, working with other writers and really enjoying myself.

I see a lot of writers complaining about how hard it is to write. I don’t really feel that way. When I’m writing, I’m enjoying the hell out of every minute of it.

For me, editing has always been the challenge, but recently something changed. After receiving a lot of feedback from beta’s who just weren’t getting certain characters, certain elements, major themes, I began to think on how to refine my story to relate to them, rather than clutch to what I thought they should know.

And once I changed my perception, the edits began to flow more easily as well.

Writing a first draft would be a task or a chore if I was trying to make it fit into some sort of mold I thought people would like. It would completely sap any of the creative process I enjoy so much. I let the words flow, whether or not they adhere to the outline. I’ve stopped worrying about what people will think of it and so it comes more easily now than ever before in my life.

I write because I love it.

But when it is done, I want to share what I love with others. And so it needs to be refined to go out into the world. For me it starts tentatively, making the changes I see are needed and putting it out to a select few who’s opinions I trust. Gathering feedback until i can see what is not on mark with readers.

A book is a portal, and not everyone is going to have a key, or even want to open it no matter how hard you try, but if you collect the data and do the work, you can figure out a way to make that lock open for those who want to enter.

A writers first job is to write the story. To commit it to paper. There second job is to clear away the rubble so that story can shine brightly in the dark, provide a refuge to those who are seeking, a hand to those who are struggling, insight to those who want to know.

Write your story. And then give it away.

Interview with author Gary Buehler

I met Gary in my first critique group. The soft spoken gentleman submitted short stories based on his life and transported our group back to a Philadelphia from the past. When I learned he recently published a collection of his short stories, I was excited to get a copy and interview him for the blog.

Gary is a lovely person, a supportive friend and a talented writer. His words do not just paint a picture. They immerse you in his world. His subject is his childhood, but his themes are universal.

Check out Gary’s book, Bits and Pieces on Amazon.

And keep reading for my interview with Gary.20171216_182132.jpg

Gary, what made you decide to release this collection?

It was never my idea to wait until I was eighty years old to get my book published. If any of the people along the way (who had promised to help get me published) had done anything at all, my book might have been published a long time ago. When I was in the final stages of getting Bits and Pieces published, I sent an email to one of those people. I thought or perhaps just hoped she would be happy for me. Her lack of a response would tell me all I needed to know. She couldn’t have cared less.

In the back of my mind for years I toyed with the idea of writing a book, but never seriously thought I ever would. At the time I was rather content just reading my stories at Open Mics. Instant gratification without any concern for run on sentences, misspelled words and improper punctuation is a writer’s idea of heaven.

My life was to change the day I joined the Mainline Writer’s Group led by Gary Zenker. The group had just published an anthology written by the membership titled “Unclaimed Baggage”. Anxious to learn more about the writer’s group I had just joined I purchased a copy. For the most part I was in awe over what I read. Down deep inside me I was a little jealous but never once thought I would ever be a good enough writer to have something of mine published. Several years later with dogged determination Gary Zenker wouldn’t leave me alone and kept insisting that I needed to put my stories into a book. He said he thought my stories needed to be preserved in something other than his sometimes inadequate memories of them. I was unaccustomed to someone like Gary with such a giving nature who didn’t make empty promises, I must admit I did wonder what his motives were.

Perhaps with a little kicking and screaming on my part I finally agreed to put some of my stories into a memoir. I hadn’t made it easy for Gary to gain my trust but he certainly did. He was my champion, mentor and good friend. Countless emails from me asking perhaps stupid questions must have had Gary asking himself what he had gotten himself into. To his credit he never lost patience (with pain in the ass me) and almost always answered my emails immediately. Gary was doing all the real work to get my book published and without him in my corner it would have never happened. All I did was to write the words.

 

What is your favorite story in the book?

Good question, but not an easy one to answer. My stories are like my children. As a parent I am supposed to love them all equally. If I must pick one story as my favorite it would be “In the Beginning”. Each time I read one of my stories I am somehow transported back in time as if I was experiencing the events for the first time. The few years I lived with my aunt Betty were perhaps the only time in my life where I felt unconditional love. Taking a line from the last story in my book “even at my young age I knew as long as I was with her, I had nothing to fear”. From a literary standpoint I think the best crafted of my thirty stories in the book is “Marvin and Me”.

 

 

You’ve received a great response so far. Your stories really resonate with your readers. Why do you think that is so?

Without any formal training as a writer the short answer is (it is a gift from God). Over the years my writing style has been compared with other writers. Some of whom are actually famous. Instead of giving my opinion I will defer you the Introduction that Gary Zenker wrote for my book, which I think hits the nail right on the head. I was flattered by Gary’s kind words, but I protested saying: “I didn’t deserve such praise”. When I shared Gary’s Introduction with friends they said the praise was well earned and for me think it wasn’t was just me being foolish.

Introduction

My friend Gary Buehler is something special, as is this book

To me he is the Norman Rockwell of writers. An accomplished artist uses his or her canvas (in Gary’s case, words) to do more than merely create a scene; he transports the audience to a different time and place. Gary places me right into his stories as a close observer, just to the left or right of him as he recounts many of the events that have made up his life.

Anyone can describe the sound of a baseball bat hitting a ball in stickball or the smell of hay on a hayride using nouns and adjectives. Gary can make you feel the emotion behind the panic of a pre-teen hitting a ball that veers toward a building window and the angst of young love, sitting in the cart on the hayride, drowning in unrequited romantic feelings.

Many of Gary’s stories come back to me weeks or months after hearing them while driving in my car or talking with someone on the phone or taking a shower. They are the sleeper agents of story-telling. They make me feel – really feel – happiness, sadness, joy, hurt, surprise, regret, rejection and a dozen other feelings as surely as I had personally gone through the events he describes. And he does that all in the space where lit fiction authors are typically merely setting a scene.

Gary’s emergence as a writer came late in life. Maybe, in order to get these stories out, they needed to marinate… for a couple of decades. Many of them are not easy-to-tell stories and some distance was probably needed. Whatever the case, I am glad they are out now, collected and preserved in something other than my inadequate memories of his reading aloud at the writers group we both attend. I like the idea of being able to reread his exact words and time travel back to his world.

These are stories that you will want to read and read again. More than that, you should let your friends read them, as well. I think you’ll agree that something this ‘special’ is better shared.

 

Gary Zenker

November 2017

 

What is your writing process like? How do you get yourself writing?

My writing process is haphazard at best. Due to the diuretics I must take, a sound night’s sleep often escapes me.  On nights like that I sometimes just lay in bed waiting for sleep to overcome me. While waiting I often revisit the latest story I have been working on, doing mental edits. I often write them down on the back of old envelopes. When that becomes too cumbersome, I get up and sit down at my computer. The next thing I know the first rays of morning sunbeams are creeping into my bedroom. Another sleepless night that has become all too common. The upside is, on a good night I have added a few more pages to my story.

Guilt over not accomplishing anything worthwhile is usually what gets me writing. I am old school, believing that one must have something to show for the last twenty four hours. If not I feel that I am just being lazy. I dislike that feeling and will do whatever it takes to get rid of it.

 

Is writing something you’ve done all your life or did you pick it up at a certain point in your life?

Writing is probably something I have done since my first recollections of my life. First my writing was only mental. But back then my young mind was like a sponge that could retain a tremendous amount of information that I wasn’t likely to forget. Eventually (probably when I entered junior high school) I began writing things down in a composition book. In between I wrote letters to my brother Jack who was serving in the army. My life was nothing special, but I somehow I had the God given ability to make ordinary events of my humdrum existence sound interesting. Jack thanked me for my letters always adding that his army buddies who he had shared my letters with were eager for more. That was probably my first real audience. With the exception of my talent in art, I probably was never thought of as a gifted student. I preferred being seated in the back of my classroom where I hoped I was invisible and wouldn’t be called on. That was all about to change the day when my English teacher asked me to read a story I had written as a class assignment. Never being the sharpest pencil in the box, I wondered why she had called on me and no one else. After a day or two it finally dawned on me that I could write. That probably started the ball rolling to where I am now (a published author). I know I am, but I still find it hard to believe.

 

How did you develop your writing style?

It must have been through osmosis or perhaps some other process that I don’t understand. I like to think of my stories as being a one sided conversation with the reader. I endeavor to keep my stories simple and try to avoid confusing the reader with too many details. To keep a story interesting it must have some details. It is kind of like putting salt in a stew. That is a very fine line that to this day often confuses me.

I think my writing style came about mostly because of the public readings I do. The audience usually will often tell me how much is enough. When no audience is available I read my stories aloud for only me to hear. The lesson I learned from doing that is, what looks good on paper often doesn’t sound good when read aloud. There was a time when our long gone family dog Little Bear was my only audience as I read my stories to him. Perhaps he didn’t appreciate my stories, but he did love the sound of my voice.  There aren’t too many days when I don’t think of him. I miss him dearly.

Thank you so much, Gary.

Check out his book!

When you have writing momentum DON’T STOP!

You will scrape and toil, pecking out a few horrific words and deleting them for days, weeks, months, years. You will stare at blank pages in utter horror as the words in your mind shrivel, unwritten, into dust. Then one day you still start to write and it will flow.

When this happens, my best advice for you is don’t stop.

Your words are a boulder that is rolling down a hill. Let it roll! Let it crash over cars. When it hits a plateau let the force it built up rolling, keep it moving forward,until it hits another hill.

Do not stop the rolling boulder! It was was hard to get moving in the first place.

Skip the Game of Thrones finale, if you have the writing momentum. It’s on Demand. Your words are not. Let them roll out or they will stop.

Skip the early bedtime that you wanted to get. You can hazard through a tired morning if it means you spilled two thousand words onto a page.

Even skip the night out, unless you have amazing tickets, already hired the babysitter, or your meeting a friend who’s only in town for the night. Then, do the night out, but get home and get writing as soon as it’s over.

Skip everything you can skip. Work. Dinner. Bathroom. Life. Just don’t stop!

Okay, well, you may have to stop, sometimes. It’s very hard to pull off mad artist these days.

But put off all the things you can, at least for a couple weeks, if you can keep the momentum going that long. Because it is a gift, and it does not last, especially if you don’t get on that big rolling rock and ride it as far as you can.

Other people will have great advice for you on how to finish a first draft. It all can work, but for me, from me, this is the only fool proof advice I have.

Don’t stop. Keep writing, until the well dries up or you finish the draft.

Things you learn when you’re a writer

You might have gone to grad school for creative writing. Or maybe you’ve just joined your first crit group. You might have written twenty eight novels or still be pecking away at your first short story. Regardless of where you are, there are some things that you need to know. I am going to tell you these things. In fact, many people may tell you these things, but it’s likely you’re going to have to learn them through experience before they really sink in.

So if you’re just starting out, this is just a heads up.

  1. Everything about writing takes time. The writing part, that’s the short part. Editing, submitting, waiting for response, publishing, everything takes time. Lots and lots of time.
  2. Everything about writing takes patience. See above.
  3. Your first works won’t be that good. You can fix them or you can move on.
  4. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to redraft. You may think by editing as you go you are saving yourself time or effort. You are not. Just get the first draft done so that you can get to that second, third and fourth draft.
  5. You are a writer for a reason. Even if you’re struggling to find your voice, it’s there and with time and practice it will emerge.
  6. Not everyone’s suggestions are valid to you. It’s your story. When people try to start rearranging it, they’re trying to turn it into their story.
  7. Most of them time “They just don’t get it” is not a good excuse. You may use it alot when you start to get critiques on your work. The thing is, if the people reviewing your work just don’t get it, neither will your readers.
  8. Only JK Rowling is JK Rowling. We’d all like to have that first manuscript we punched out during a hard time in our lives become an international sensation, but the truth is even JK Rowling’s idea took seven hard years from conception to publication.
  9. Your ego will be crushed. Again and again. Just say goodbye to it. It’s not serving you anyway.
  10. You can do this. Yes. It takes a lot of work and even more perseverance. No one can do it for you, and for a long time, there won’t even be anyone to do it with you, but if you have been gifted with the burning desire to write stories, to share your mind with the world, then there is a reason for that, and if you keep moving it will come together for you.

What are some lessons you have learned about being a writer? Please share!

You’re always moving forward, unless you give up

There is nothing quick about being a writer. Writing a book takes a long time. Editing a book can be just as long or longer. Publishing takes forever. Making money… I think you get the point.

In this very long process, it is easy to get discouraged. In fact, it’s pretty much standard. When you finish writing a novel and realize how much work it needs, when you spend years editing and it’s still not right, when you can’t find an agent, a publisher, when your self published work languishes, literally at every step you are going to be discouraged because it feels like after all this work and all this time you are stagnant.

This is only emphasized by the fast furious flurries of activity, writing and editing binges, critiques, contracts, launch parties, that seem to consume everything while they are going on.

With these big exciting milestones, it’s not always easy to see the little steps in between. They are frequently eclipsed by the waiting game that plays such a prevalent role in the path to becoming published author. But if you find yourself discouraged while you wait for these big things, it’s time to scale back and look at all the little things that you have been ignoring, because that is where the real progress is made. Even if it doesn’t seem like progress.

Because another reason we get discouraged is that these little steps can feel like they’re going backwards. A bad critique, a failure to impress with your novel, a query rejection.

But they are all pushing you toward what you want, as long as you keep going. Each failure is an experience to learn.

If you join a new crit group that tears apart a manuscript that your last crit group was praising, it’s not a back slide. You just leveled up. You’re going to learn things you never would have learned in the last group.

Your query’s been rejected again? Now you know that query isn’t working for you. Write a new one!

A reader doesn’t like your book? Find out why and determine if it’s something you can and want to fix. Maybe they are seeing something you missed. Maybe it’s not for them.

There are also little steps you take every day, cutting a few words, writing a new chapter, reading articles on writing, signing up for classes and seminars that are pretty mundane but all provide the potential of that final piece to make your work click into place.

And don’t forget the way you help other writers. Reading and critiquing the work of other authors can not only give them the benefit of your knowledge but also help you to zero in on your own strengths and flaws. Supporting other writers gives you a community to support you, people to bounce ideas off of and to commiserate with.

The milestones are huge. They tend to overshadow our little steps, but they cannot be accomplished without them.

You are not stuck, no matter how long it’s been since your last milestone. You are never stuck unless you throw in the towel forever.

 

Keep writing, friends.

 

Start encouraging other writers now

Hey. You with the finished novel and the query plan. And you with the agent and the possible interested publisher. Also, you over there who just got smeared on a writing critique website and that chick beside you with the Masters in Creative Writing. All of you, listen up.

You might be great. You might be golden. But you ain’t shit without other writers to back you up. And if you going around with your Grammar Nazi red pen and your condescending  and overly worded notes on how they should have written their novels, you aren’t doing them, or yourself any favors.

In my life I have read all sorts of writing from all sorts of people and there have been times I have put my hands over my face and thought, this is too hard to read. Sometimes the genre was just not my cup of tea. Sometimes the writing really did need a lot of clean up. Sometimes they had a writing quirk that I fixated on until it drove me crazy. Sometimes It was just so really good that I wanted to gouge my eyes out in jealousy. It’s honestly happened many times for many different reasons.

But the fact of the matter was, I always did read it, all the way through. And after I digested it a bit, I could always see the light glowing in that story.

Every story has a light.

A unique voice. An amazing premise. A clear and concise manner of wordplay. A riveting style.

The truth is, I have been wealthy in the work I have gotten to read. There is very little I have gotten my hands on that hasn’t revealed it’s light to me. Hasn’t taught me something, changed my ideas just a little, made my brain spin in that beautiful, awesome way the brains of writers do.

And you will never read most of it. Because someone, or sometimes, multiple someones, have beaten that story down. They convinced the writer that instead of chipping away at the rock and mud and sometimes, yes, sometimes even caked shit, until they shined that gem gleaming at the center, that instead that gem itself was trash, and maybe the writer was trash as well.

Now, please, let me clarify a moment, before going on. Not everything you ever write is going to be diamonds. You are going to write a lot of petrified dinosaur poop with some garnets sprinkled in. Especially when you first get started and before you tell your ego to take a back seat to honing your craft. But you can salvage those garnets and you can keep trading them up until they surround diamonds if you keep working at getting better.

And working at getting better takes some serious diamond hard will. Not all of us will make it. Not because we can’t, but because we get crushed under the egos of the peers and mentors we go to to help us refine our craft.

So here is my plea to my fellow writers, who have used that diamond will to forge on.

Keep looking for the light in the words of those around you. Keep looking for the lessons they have to teach you. Keep looking for their strengths. Keep encouraging writers, every writer.

I’m not telling you to pander. To flatter. To lie. Those things serve no one.

But find the strengths in the work. Find that spark that made that person decide they wanted to write in the first place and while you give your criticism, and please do make sure you tell them how to make their work stronger by elevating the strengths that are already there.

A person can learn grammar. They can learn plotting. They can learn to set the tone. But they need to feel like it is worth it. And it is always worth it.

Neil Gaiman is quoted saying “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

This is what we, as writers and as critics, need to remember. The story is unique to the writer. We do not know where it is going until it has gone there. We must read as readers and not as writers. We must acknowledge that every story is a journey for the writer, because we know every story we write is our own journey.

Not all of our journeys deserve publication. Not all of our paths lead to riches. But we learn along the way, don’t we?

And to your benefit, you never know when that kid your encouraged in night school is going to unleash the NYT bestseller, or the girl in your crit group is going to be endorsed by Stephanie Meyer. Do you want to be the person who told them their story sucked because you thought the twist should be something different, or do want to be the one they are endorsing when you release your first work because you made it possible for them to see their flaws and play up their strength?