Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving!

We’re doing Thankmas at my home this year, ten of us having turkey together Thursday, then Christmas the next morning. It’s the first time since my kids grew up and started their own families that we’ve been able to do this at my home, so it’s a big deal and I’m thankful we’re able to do it while everyone’s still living in one state.

I’m thankful that I’ve been able to write full time this year. I finished a novel I believe may stand as my most important work. It addresses the long process of healing after a woman is raped and trafficked. It’s being reviewed by agents right now.

I’m thankful I have my own space with room for writing projects.

I’m thankful I’ve relocated to a place where I have multiple excellent critique groups, so I can get broader feedback on a work or take different works to each group.

I’m thankful to be living in a time when it’s so easy to stay connected with people far away through text, email, and cell phones with no long distance charges.

I’m thankful to be living in a time with so many options available to writers.

I’m thankful for my early teachers, including my mother, and all the books I read when I was a child that developed my sense of language and story.

I’m thankful for everyone who’s encouraged me to keep writing, including the readers who’ve asked for more.

www.sherimcguinn.com
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Transition

A few weeks ago I completed my new novel and started pitching it to agents.

Logically, I should have gone straight to my non-fiction project that will tie into workshops. Or I could have focused on getting the marketing of my short stories and screenplays set up to run smoothly. Both of these projects are in process and could lead to more immediate income than a novel. But neither of them provides the same satisfaction as working on long fiction: creating characters and watching them evolve in unexpected ways, braiding together plot lines, and those “Yes!” moments when a phrase or scene is just right or critique illuminates a way to tell the story better.

Instead of being logical, I became depressed.

My files are full of ideas, but none of them was calling my name. I took different short stories and novel starts to different critique groups, to see which made people want to read more. Several did, so I still had to make a decision. I dithered, knowing it would be more practical to focus on the other projects before starting another novel, but missing the process unique to writing long fiction. Then I took ten pages to a drop-in critique. They only work on five pages there, but I intended to take the second five to another group later in the day. The faster readers read all ten pages and there was consensus that they wanted to keep reading.

I took it home, where I had the first twenty pages on the computer, and made revisions based on their critique, changing the starting point and several other minor corrections. I sent off pages to a critique group that pre-reads. I’m stoked! It’s YA speculative fiction, a contemporary setting with some parapsychological elements and that group not only gave me excellent feedback to improve the beginning, we discussed writing goals as well.

The next week and a half is going to be devoted to family. We’re doing Thankmas because one group’s moving across the country in December. (Thanksgiving Thursday, Christmas Friday.) But ideas will be simmering and once everyone’s gone home, I’ll be ready to crank out that first draft quickly.

I’ll still need to set aside time to focus on getting those practical projects set up and working, as well as pitching or publishing the just-finished novel and planning promotion and marketing for it. However, having a new work simmering energizes me and improves my focus, so that time spent on the practical will be more effective.

www.sherimcguinn.com
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Balance

Balance is essential to our well-being.

At this point in my life, I’m spending forty to sixty hours a week on writing and related activities. It’s my primary focus. Last year, health had to be my primary focus, as I went through injuries, surgery, and recovery. Writing was still part of the balance, but I couldn’t devote this much time to it!

I know, however much time I’m devoting to writing, all the areas of my life must be nurtured as well. Not only does it keep me healthy and happy, it makes me more productive as a writer and as a human being.

Six years ago, a group of my friends gathered on a regular basis to do exercises designed to help us take a close look at our priorities in life. Only after we had decided what was important to us did we go on to establish goals in all areas of our lives.

I revisit all of those priorities and goals every year, not just those about writing. This helps me maintain a healthy balance in my life and make progress to the things I want in the long run. The areas of life we examined are: people, things, spiritual, feelings, and activities. What is important to you in each of these areas?

  • People: Who are the people important to you? How do you want those relationships to look? What do you need to do to establish or nurture those relationships?
  • Things: What things are important to you? What do you need to do to maintain those things you have and get the ones you want?
  • Spiritual: How do you nurture your spiritual self? How can you make sure this is not neglected?
  • Feelings: What feelings do you want to have more often? What feelings to you want to avoid? For each: what can you do about it?
  • Activities: What activities are important to you? Keep the previous priorities in mind as you make this list—there should be considerable overlap.

Sometimes life throws crises or opportunities at you and you give one area or another more time than usual. However, if you remember to allow some time for the other areas, you’ll feel better and keep making progress toward your long-range goals—and you’ll be ready to get right back into a more balanced lifestyle when the crisis has passed or the opportunity is complete.

00A2011SheriCMYKwww.sherimcguinn.com
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Process

As I understand it, writer’s block is that empty feeling when you sit staring at the screen or paper with no clue what to write. I’ve had that feeling trying to figure out topics for this weekly blog!

But I’m not sure it counts as writer’s block because it doesn’t “block” me. I’m pretty sure my process is the reason I’ve never suffered from writer’s block for more than a few moments, why it’s never really stopped me.

Here are the pieces I think are key:

1. I have given myself permission to not write at any given point in time. It’s okay for me to say “Well, that’s not happening right now,” and move on to another task. There’s no feeling of guilt magnifying the temporary loss of words until it’s paralytic. There’s no time lost because I’m free to move to another project quickly.

2. I have multiple writing projects at all times. Currently, I’m researching what the future may look like so I can write a futuristic novel; I’m pitching a completed women’s novel; I’m pitching screenplays; I’ve started turning a short story into a stage play; I’m working on a self-publishing manual to go with my workshops; I’m writing this weekly blog; and I’m revising short stories with critique groups and pitching them. So if I hit a blank on one project, I can probably make progress on another—I can even spend a day reading for that research or critiquing others’ work, reading instead of writing.

3. I set yearly and weekly goals that include writing, networking, marketing, and other writing-related activities. As long as I’m making progress on any of those goals, I can feel good about the day. If not, I can adjust my weekly plans to make up for the lost time.

4. Sometimes I’ll even take a day off from writing altogether and take care of other areas of my life. That’s okay, too. I’m a writer, and that’s a huge part of me, but it’s not the only part that needs attention and nurturing. The rest supports the writer.

The issue that stopped my writing will still be simmering on a back burner in my brain. I let the pieces fall into place, so I return to the project not only ready to write, but eager.

00A2011SheriCMYKwww.sherimcguinn.com
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Tracking Your Time

Unless you’re writing just for yourself, writing is not just writing. There are a host of other activities that use your time as well, especially if you’re self-publishing. I got to a point where I felt like I wasn’t actually writing nearly enough, so I designed a spreadsheet to monitor my writing and writing-related activities.

This has had two benefits.

It’s gotten me into the habit of keeping my daily planner at hand and marking the time actually spent on an activity as I finish and go on to something else. This is keeping me accountable. It’s made me see how my time is actually used each day and what I’ve accomplished each week.

Most weeks, I’m spending about twenty hours writing and revising work. That includes blogs and promotional work as well as my books, scripts, and short stories because the promo work needs the same skills and attention to be effective. At first, I was going to separate new writing from revisions, but realistically, writing is re-writing and it’s more important to polish a work thoroughly than to rush on to the next.

I’m also spending about twenty hours each week on critique groups—the actual meetings and pre-reading others’ work. I currently work with several groups, three of which require pre-reading material. The time pre-reading other people’s work is my payment for the critique they give me. Even if I make enough to hire an editor, I’ll probably continue participating in critique groups because the multiple points of view provide rich feedback in the developmental stage and I learn from reading and participating in the critique of their work as well.

Finally, I spend up to twenty hours a week on research, routine business (website maintenance, emails, etc.), new business (queries, submissions, etc.), general networking (writer’s meetings, conferences, workshops, etc.), and assorted other activities related to publishing and marketing. I’d like to cut back on this and will, when I can afford to hire competent people to do parts of it.

Yes, that adds up to sixty hours a week. Do I do this every week? No. After two or three weeks hitting that mark, I’ll have a couple slow weeks. However, even when I feel like I’m being lazy, I find I’m doing writing-related activities about forty hours a week. I’m planning to take some “vacation” time over the holidays and it’ll be interesting to see how much time is still spent on writing activities.

I’d like to make a living from my writing, so it’s only reasonable to work as much at writing as I used to as a teacher who did prep and paperwork evenings and weekends.

00A2011SheriCMYK

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Writing Time

There are people with day jobs who get up before dawn to have an hour or two of writing time. They have my admiration. When I was teaching full time, I did not have the energy or focus to do that.

Some people have a set number of pages or words that they write each day. That is also an admirable habit. When I’ve squirreled myself away someplace other than home, I can sustain a goal of 10,000 words per day for a week or so. That means I can crank out the first draft of a novel in that time.

But sustain a daily writing habit with specific goals indefinitely? That is beyond me. Sometimes other things take priority for a day. Between now and Thanksgiving, I need to set aside several days to finish painting the inside of my home, rearranging things to house two extra families for a night or two over that holiday, and a full day to go pick up my granddaughter so we’ll have a week together before everyone else comes. We’re going to work on her book for that week. I might spend a few minutes here and there on activities that support my writing (like keeping up with emails), but it will be incidental. I’ll apply the same focus I give to writing to my family and other projects.

I do have long-range and short-range writing goals and I do track my progress. At the end of each year, I make a list of annual accomplishments. When I feel like I haven’t done enough, I check those and realize I’m really doing a lot. I also make a list of goals for the year ahead, and while I may not work on my writing every single day, I do track progress toward those goals. I tend to be overly optimistic about how much one person can do, but over the last ten years, I’ve usually accomplished most of my annual goals.

While writing every day is can be a good habit, even more important is using your writing time effectively. Whether or not you write daily, set goals for the year and monitor your progress toward those goals regularly. Every Sunday, I evaluate the preceding week in light of my yearly goals and plan the one ahead—including realistically setting aside days when I will focus on other things and not write.

2012SheriWaimuPicchuForProfessionalwww.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

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Profession or Hobby?

You’re writing a book. Are you approaching this as a profession or is it a hobby?

Given how difficult it is to be successful, it might be healthier to approach writing and self-publishing as a hobby, something you do for fun.  However, are you approaching it seriously enough you don’t harm others?

Self-publishing is gaining respect because of writers who are approaching writing and publishing professionally. They make sure their books are edited. They pay attention to genre and industry standards for formatting. The hobbyist who publishes a rough draft rife with errors and formatted poorly hurts every serious self-publisher, not only by putting a dent in the self-publishing image, but by making it that much harder for a reader to find the good books.

You can approach writing and self-publishing as a hobby and still produce a well-written, professionally-produced book. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

A good critique group can help you polish the writing. Your library, book clubs, and English teachers at a local college may be able to suggest good editors and proof-readers. When it comes to formatting, you can buy templates or do it yourself using your word processor—if you know how to use styles, show all formatting marks, paragraphing, and other tools. If you don’t, head back to the library and local college and ask for a word processing guru. In any case, make sure you have copies of traditionally published books in the same genre to use as examples of how it should look. Pay attention to details.

This takes more time and effort than throwing up a rough draft, but friends who buy it may actually read it, and you won’t be hurting other writers.

2012SheriWaimuPicchuForProfessionalwww.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

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Read Your Work – Out Loud

I work with several critique groups. Some of them have us email pages ahead of the meeting and we come prepared to dive right into discussion. Others, we each bring a (usually smaller) number of pages to be read on the spot—often out loud. While it’s possible to get more work critiqued with the mail-ahead groups, I really like reading a story out loud. As I read, I often make my own corrections as I hear a word repeated unnecessarily or realize I missed writing a word. I also read pieces aloud before I submit them. It’s amazing how many times I’ll catch one last typo in a work that’s been polished.

It makes sense, though. Teachers are encouraged to use multi-modality instruction because we learn through all of our senses. While we write, we’re using primarily vision, along with the tactile and kinesthetic senses used with the keyboard or pen. If we only use our vision to edit the work, we’re more likely to miss errors. By reading aloud, we add our auditory sense and move the kinesthetic experience from hand to mouth. Because we’re changing the senses used, errors stand out more vividly. Especially if a sentence is worded awkwardly, or meaning is not clear, or the wrong word has been used, it will be heard more readily than seen.

Especially if you are a new writer, read your work out loud before you submit it to a critique group, contest, or publisher.

2012SheriWaimuPicchuForProfessional

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Read Your Genre

I recently had an artist/writer ask me to review her book.

She’d made water colors based on photographs she took on a journey to Thailand when she was young, then rendered them in colored pencil to mock up a picture book aimed at young children, including short lines of text for each picture. She’d taken it to a critique group and they’d advised her to write more for each picture, giving much more of her story as a teen. She came up with the alternate text, but didn’t think it met her original purpose. She was right.

Her pictures were appropriate for young children, and most picture books have very few words accompanying each picture. Her original mock-up was perfect for that audience. The alternate text was more appropriate for older kids—maybe even teens—and her original photos might work better for them, rather than the paintings she’d made with little children in mind.

The members of her critique group were good writers, but they were accustomed to writing for older audiences. Fortunately, she had looked at enough picture books to question their judgment. She only came to me for affirmation.

Mysteries, thrillers, romance novels, young adult, middle school, picture books—each genre has its own audience, and the audience develops expectations whether they realize it or not. You can try to learn these forms by reading about them, but your best bet is to read the genre—lots of what fans are reading now.

2012SheriWaimuPicchuForProfessionalMake sure you’re reading what your audience is reading.

www.sherimcguinn.com

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What Makes a Good Writing Class

I’ve taken courses and workshops in English, journalism, fiction writing, poetry writing, technical writing, grant writing, and probably more that I’m not thinking of this moment. Quality has varied, but many were excellent. Based on that experience, here are some elements I consider essential for a good writing class:

  • The instructor is a good teacher, someone who builds on your strengths rather than focusing on your errors.
  • Once you have basic skills, the instructor helps you refine your writing style rather than forcing your writing into a template or their personal style.
  • The instructor is a writer, preferably someone who’s published or is in the process of trying to be published, so they know what it’s like to risk rejection repeatedly.
  • The instructor regularly writes the form they are teaching, be it short or long fiction or non-fiction, plays or screenplays, or academic work.
  • Students are there because they want to improve their writing. If it is a required class, the majority of students become enthused as they see their writing improve.
  • Everyone is expected to write for every class meeting, whether that’s bringing in new or revised work and/or doing spontaneous writing in class.
  • The class as a whole or in small groups critiques each other’s work with the instructor modeling and supervising constructive critique methods. The emphasis is on the work, what works, and what can be improved. This way you will learn from everyone’s writing.

If you have other criteria, please post them.

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