Writing habits differ and writers define success in a variety of ways. But a universal truth is that distractions online, at home, or at the office are abundant. They can easily sneak into your everyday routines.
As writers, how do we go deep and get work done? It’s so easy to get lost online and realize an hour has passed since you stopped to research a fact for your book. Authors like Dan Brown have set hours in the morning for work and they make sure apps are not open during that time. It is focused writing time. Other authors prefer more flexibility, but be careful.
If you need to research a name or a story detail, will it send you down many interesting rabbit holes online? If that’s the case, you need to set a time for that kind of exploration and just leave a blank in your story or document until you can get to your research.
Since covid, many more writers work from home. That comes with so many distractions. I need some water, maybe a snack. I should use the bathroom. I can throw those things into the washer and get that done while I’m working… It’s as bad as the internet.
Writing classes, workshops, and writing groups can also be distractions. Joining writer groups in person or online can be helpful in making connections, but at some point, you need to decide which groups serve you. Does the group allow you to contribute and grow as a professional? Is the group just taking up your limited writing time? The same can be said of classes, and even writing opportunities for anthologies, magazines, and blogs.
Contests, magazine submission calls, and deadlines for anthologies can serve as opportunities, but also as distractions. The first question is why are you writing for this deadline. It’s good to be published and it can add to your credibility, but make sure what you’re writing furthers your career and moves you forward in your genre. Chasing contests can keep you from finishing your novel.
In the end, what’s important is learning your craft and knowing/finding your audience.
The four best things you can do for your writing career?
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Pamela Evans is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
It’s true, writing is generally a solitary practice, but it doesn’t have to be lonely. If you haven’t tried co-working, the benefits may surprise you.
Writers do work with agents, editors, and publishers among others. Those interactions may be conducted in person, but are often through email or phone calls. While writers often thrive on alone time, some contact with other creative people can be a real energizer and even a comfort.
That’s where co-working comes in. Co-working allows you to check in with fellow writers. You get to give and receive encouragement or just say hello. You can ask for craft or technical suggestions if you choose. All without having anyone commenting on your actual writing.
The first question to consider is how much support do you want or need? I am in two co-working groups; one meets weekly, the other meets monthly. Having a weekly or monthly online meetup time encourages me to get more writing done, even on a day I might not have felt like writing. These groups have helped me to meet deadlines and led to new professional contacts. One of my co-working groups meets on Friday afternoons. Some weeks I would have considered my work done by Friday afternoon. The impetus of my co-working group has led me to finish a piece or start a new project. It’s not unusual for me to continue working long after the group writing is done, because once the ball is rolling…it keeps rolling.
For professional writers this is a time to get work done with a little fellowship. For those starting out, nothing improves your skills more than spending your time actually writing and it’s nice to have colleagues.
Let’s get to the nuts and bolts of starting your own co-working group. If you know some writers or participate in a critique group, you can invite those contacts to form a group. There are also many online groups you can post in. You may ask for writers who are working in the same genre. Sometimes critique groups form out of co-writing groups.
Here are the basic guidelines for the groups I participate in.
Pick a regular day/time to meet up online, either weekly or monthly.
Pick a way to meet like Zoom, Discord, Skype, etc.
It seems to go smoothest if one person runs the meeting (you can take turns if you like).
Whoever is running the meeting checks in with everyone and asks what they’re working on. This is a pleasantry, but it also gives everyone a chance to get to know each other. It’s not unusual for an author to take a moment to ask the group for suggestions on a project, or mention an upcoming event that may be of interest to the group.
Set a timer for 30 minutes. Everyone mutes their microphone and gets to work.
Check in with everyone when the time is up.
Set a timer for a second 30 minutes and work again.
Do a final check in and say goodbye.
Your group can tweak these steps, but it is amazing how much work can be accomplished in just an hour of focused writing.
— Pamela Evans leads the SCBWI Central VA Co-working group and is a member of The Writing Tribe Co-working group. She is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
When I was in first grade, I concocted a salami and peanut butter sandwich. My mother, frustrated by my uneaten bologna and cheese sandwiches and other brown bag lunchtime staples, flung a challenge at me.
“Why don’t you come up with a sandwich you’ll eat?”
Now, to a first grader, that’s a big challenge indeed.
I asked my older sister, “How do you come up with a new idea for a sandwich?”
She loved making sandwiches. She thought to add onion salt to a turkey with mayo and lettuce on white bread, for example, and it was sublime.
Okay, so maybe she wasn’t the first person to come up with that combination. It was still delicious.
She shrugged. “I take my favorite things and combine them.”
So I did. I took peanut butter, a perennial favorite, and slapped it on white bread. Then I took slices of hard salami and layered it on top.
It was as disgusting as it sounds and I went hungry that day at school.
Why am I telling you this story? Because to me, combining AI with proofreading creative writing is like my childhood experiment with peanut butter and salami. It’s two good things — artificial intelligence and creative writing — and combining them into an unpalatable mess.
I experimented with combining the proofreading of my novel with an AI program and made the biggest mistake of my creative writing career.
Seriously Screwing Up My Novel Release — and a Lesson Learned
This year, I released my second novel,I See You. It takes me about three years and at least three drafts to get a novel shaped to the point where I feel it’s ready to debut, and I See You was no exception.
In years past, I hired an editor to proofread my novels and novellas. A few mistakes ended up in the final drafts; I’ve found it’s inevitable when asking someone to proofread almost 400 pages of text.
This year, however, I was strapped for cash. My biggest client had gone out of business leaving five-figures of unpaid invoices on my business’ books. A magazine client also went belly-up leaving a smaller, but no less important, unpaid bill. I’ve had clients go out of business with unpaid receivables before but never two in one year.
I had no money to pay a proofreader. I scrambled for a solution and came up with the obvious. I had a paid subscription to an AI-driven proofreading software that served me in good stead when I worked on blog posts and short articles. Why not use it for my novel?
I dutifully broke the novel up into 3,000 word chunks and fed it into the churning maw of the AI-powered site, trusting it to do its good work as it had done for my articles. I saw typos captured, grammar mistakes highlighted. I clicked “okay” and thought, Well, this is fine! I just saved money on a proofreader!
I scheduled my novel’s release to great fanfare on social media. My loyal fans queued up to purchase advance copies. They had waited three years to learn what happened to the Majek family; many had grown close to the main characters. They couldn’t wait for the novel to hit Amazon’s virtual shelves, and I couldn’t wait, either.
Until the day my friend Barb, a loyal reader and fan of my work and the editor of a national magazine, dropped me an email bombshell.
“I think Amazon published a previous draft,” Barb wrote in a confidential text message. “I’ve just read the first chapter and found three typos in the first six pages alone. I can’t go on. When you correct the errors, let me know.”
What? How could three mistakes in the first six pages have escaped the magic AI machine’s all-knowing grammar and spelling check?
I pulled out my Kindle and scrolled through the manuscript. The mistakes leaped from the page. Broken sentences. Character names misspelled. Horrible comma usage.
How did the AI-driven program, which was highly accurate with my blog posts about software and digital marketing, screw up my novel so badly?
Creative Writing Defies Many Writing Conventions Upon Which AI Is Based
Good writing tends to be beyond the skills of predictive technology. Creative writing pushes the boundaries of acceptable grammatical conventions, often breaking rules in dialogue and descriptions.
I used the phrase “gunmetal sky” in my novel. The AI program flagged it as incorrect; it was certainly correct, as I meant to liken the color of the stormy sky to the color of a gun barrel, an ominous sign. To the AI program, ‘gunmetal’ doesn’t belong with the sky. The program wasn’t smart enough to figure out the phrase and it didn’t understand why it was there in the first place. The nuances of poetical description to set the mood and tone of a scene were beyond its capabilities.
I cleaned up my mess, had a friend who had worked with me as a proofreader in a past gig at a publishing house proof the novel, and re-released it. It’s getting great reviews, but I seriously screwed up my launch by releasing a subpar product. My hard work, three years of late nights and aching typing fingers, and the book pulled from the shelves for revision.
I could blame the AI program. I had tried to force it to work with text it wasn’t meant to work with in the first place. The company producing the AI program actually warns against using it for creative writing projects, suggesting instead that writers hire a human editor through their handy freelancer program.
It was my fault entirely that I’d tried to trust a job meant for a creative person to artificial intelligence. Peanut butter and salami. Two good things poorly paired leading to a stomach ache.
Nothing matches a skilled editor for catching mistakes and improving my writing. I started working with a new copy editor at a marketing agency gig this month and she’s not only caught my mistakes but her edits have improved my writing, making it stronger and teaching me in the process how to be a better writer.
That’s the best gift a skilled human editor brings to a project: they make a writer’s work better. No AI program has ever taught me to choose strong verbs or avoid unnecessary dialogue tags; my human editors, Donna, Marge, and Eleanor, have. The ensuing discussions about why I chose to write as I did and how it impacted them as readers also added nuances to my understanding that no artificial intelligence can match.
One day, AI programs may equal the abilities of seasoned editors. But today, I’ll trust Marge’s decades of newspaper reporting and editing, Donna’s novel writing skills, and Eleanor’s sharp-eyed proofreading when it comes to my novels. Gunmetal skies and sapphire eyes, dialogue written in English and American Sign Language, and other aspects of my novel flummoxed the AI checkers but excited and engaged the human editors.
And that’s how it should be.
Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning fiction writer and a freelance content marketing writer. She is the author of several paranormal mystery novels set on Long Island, New York’s famed Gold Coast area. When she’s not writing, you can find Jeanne hiking, gardening, or spending time with her German shepherd dog and many cats. Learn more about her fiction at jeannegrunert.com
For nearly a year I have found it very hard to put pen to paper, as the saying goes. I don’t know if you could call it writer’s block as much as writer’s avoidance. I have been trying to find my way back to my old habits, trying to set aside time to write each day, but each day I find a new excuse not to write. I wake up too late to write in the morning, I get out of work too late to write at night, I have to meet a friend for Happy Hour, I have to clean, there is a new show that I want to watch, a new book that I want to read, and the list goes on ad nauseum.
The reality of the matter is that ten months ago I lost my writing partner, the person I bounced ideas off, the person I called when I finished a poem, the person who called me when they finished a poem, the person who recommended new books, the person who I called Dad. As Father’s Day came and went I have found myself writing more, or at least attempting to write. I have been forcing myself to sit and stare at the blinking cursor until something ends up on the page. Usually what ends up on the page could be likened to the scribblings of a kindergartner wielding a giant crayon, but with each attempt I get that much closer to getting back into a groove. I haven’t been happy with much that I have written recently but I have found the process to be very therapeutic. It has been like rekindling a relationship with an old friend I didn’t know I needed in my life so badly.
One of the things I’ve done to help me dive back into writing has been to do some freelance work for a travel blog. I’ve just begun writing for a blog all about Bogota, Colombia. Bogota holds a lot of wonderful memories for me and with these memories, words have begun to spill out on the page. As I revisited some of the familiar sights and smells of the city I thought maybe it would help me to revisit some of the poems my father and I wrote for our book. As I thumbed through the pages I realized I could still bounce things off him. I could see his writing style, see the things that I loved in his work, and the things that he loved in mine. I could still hear him reading his poems and making comments after I read mine. I still talk to him, and while I’ll never know if he hears me I hope I’m not just a crazy person talking to the air. I’d like to think that we join the particles that make up this earth when we pass on. Many times, I could swear he hears me, that my dad really is a part of everything, and that thought helped me to write a poem.
You Will Be
You will be the star
on a starless night
showing me the way
with your guiding light.
The single drop of rain
that splashes on the ground
in the dirt beneath my feet
evaporating without a sound.
The snow that falls overhead
just hanging from the pines.
Branches about to break
like I’ve nearly done so many times.
The air that I breathe
that fills up my chest
fills me with memories
until there’s nothing left.
Sometimes I wonder
where you are today
then the breeze hits my ears
and I hear you say,
“I went back from where I came
So, quiet all your fears.
Go lie in the sun
and let me dry your tears.”
The words still don’t come as easily as they used to, but the rust is flaking off each time I write. I’m sure that writer’s block will strike again. I’ll find new excuses, and new ways to avoid writing altogether but next time I’ll know how to find my way back. For me, it was starting the habit of sitting at the computer, and I found that if I had the time to sit and watch the cursor blink, I certainly had the time to try to churn out coherent sentences. I also found a topic, a point in time, that was filled with wonderful memories and I let it permeate my senses until it came out in words. If you are currently facing the dreaded “block” chip away at it until you tunnel to the other side. Harness the beautiful memories in your life that help the light filter through, and before you know what’s happening the words will find the page, and you will realize that nothing is insurmountable.
This post is courtesy of Phyllis A. “Maggie” Duncan, novel and short story author.
If you believe the Facebook memes about the writing life, writers are solitary creatures, shuttered in our writing caves, subsisting on caffeine, and keeping distractions to an utter minimum. To an extent, that’s true, but biological and psychological needs conspire to push us into the non-writing sunshine, where we get inspired to write again.
A key aspect of inspiration for me is my participation in two writing groups.
But, you say, going to writing group meetings takes time away from writing, and what possible good are they, anyway?
My answer: A writing group consists of people who respect each other’s work and who are interested in each member’s success. How do I know this?
I retired six years ago to write for myself rather than Uncle Sam, but, frankly, I would have been content to sit in my office and write only for myself if not for my writers groups.
When I first joined the Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG Writers), our meetings were social gatherings only. We met in a bar—of course; we’re writers—and chatted about what kind of writing we did and what we hoped to achieve. Then, a member had a story accepted for a literary journal, and that prompted me and others to try the whole submission thing.
SWAG was the place where I shared the news of my first acceptance of a story for publication, where I could do readings in a comfortable environment and could argue the efficacy of the Oxford Comma.
Along came National Novel Writers Month and the Shenandoah Valley Wrimos, a Facebook group where we encouraged each other and lamented our lagging word counts.
From that group developed the year-round writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. We have online short story discussions, writing sprints, and other craft-related fun. Mostly, however, we celebrate each other’s writing. We share each other’s publishing successes and commiserate over rejections. Though our primary interactions are online, we have occasional in-person get-togethers to talk writing and/or eat muffins, along with consuming large amounts of that writer’s fuel, coffee.
From both of these groups I get validation as a writer, I get encouragement, and, well, I have fun with writing. In short, without my writers groups, I wouldn’t have had anything published (including two recent releases, a novella, My Noble Enemy, and a novel in stories, The Better Spy), wouldn’t have won or placed in any contests, wouldn’t have evolved as a writer. I’d still be sitting in my writing cave, writing, revising, rewriting, and being the only person in the world to read my work.
A writing group challenges you, not merely to write, but to write better, to question your own writing toward the end of making it the best it can be. If you don’t have one, find one or make one and watch your writing blossom.
Phyllis Anne Duncan is a retired bureaucrat with an overactive imagination–at least that’s what everyone has told her since she first started making up stories in elementary school prompted by her weekly list of spelling words.
A commercial pilot and former FAA safety official, she lives and writes historical thrillers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. A graduate of Madison College (now James Madison University), she has degrees in history and political science. Her love of politics continues to this day.
Her first print collection of short stories was the 2000 paperback, Rarely Well Behaved, which, in 2012, became two separate, reissued books, Blood Vengeance and Fences. In December 2012, she published Spy Flash, a collection of espionage flash fiction stories. In 2015, a novella, My Noble Enemy, and a novel in stories, The Better Spy, were published.
Other short stories have appeared in eFiction Magazine in 2011 and 2012; in the 2013 Blue Ridge Anthology; and in the 2013 1 x 50 x 100 Anthology, a collection of 100-word flash fiction; in the 2014 Skyline Anthology. A short story, “Marakata,” submitted for WriterHouse’s 5th Anniversary Short Story Contest, won third place. Her short story “Man on Fire” was a finalist in the Press53 AWP Flash Fiction contest and later published in Prime Number Magazine. A short play, “Yo’ Momma,” won the Ampersand Arts Bar Hopping Contest and was staged in April 2014 in Staunton, VA. Her story, “Reset,” will appear in the premiere issue of Ink Ribbon Press in 2015. Two contest winning stories, “Dreamtime” and “Blood and Guts,” will appear in the 2016 edition of Skyline.
Ms. Duncan has studied writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, Writers.com, and Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Her freelance, feature articles on life in the Shenandoah Valley appear occasionally in the Staunton News-Leader. She is a member of WriterHouse, James River Writers, Virginia Writers Club (1st Vice President), Blue Ridge Writers, Shenandoah Valley Writers, SWAG (Staunton/Waynesboro/Augusta Group) Writers, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
When not writing, reading, or reviewing books, she takes delight in spoiling her grandchildren.
This guest post is courtesy of Belinda Miller, children’s book author.
No one, except a fellow writer, understands the laments or the excitement a writer experiences when you are writing. There is a commonality, a bind, a coming together of an art form that is almost spiritual.
After a twenty year plus career is the finance industry, and a medically forced retirement in 1998, I found myself, in 2013, at age 63, writing and publishing the Middle Grade series Phillip’s Quest and Children’s series The Ragwort Chronicles. At first, I was a little freaked out. Like any fledgling author, I wondered, besides whether I was good enough, what the heck do I do now? I had written technical manuals, which were always for “in-house” use, but these books were going to be published — I hoped. Well, it is now 2015, and my fifth book is ready to be released. Amazing — huh? Surreal to me. It took hours and hours of work, and hours and hours of help, and hours and hours of my husband’s patience. One thing that helped me immensely, was a local writing group whose members shared and compared their skills and experiences. A handful of us formed a strong, like-minded bond, some with more and some with less experience, but all with the same goal — to perfect their art. To learn and share things like technique, websites, books and contacts that are not found in a text or course on writing. And, as one becomes more confident and successful with their writing, through the group, one has the opportunity to expand and market oneself — brand oneself as an author. As I was able to do.
With much sadness I resigned in August from this local writing group that I had helped to gain a strong community presence. This handful of hard-working and now successful writers took part in various library and arts’ council events; held signings on First Fridays [in Manassas, VA]; donated books to First Book and various veterans’ organizations; conducted workshops for young writers, and most recently, joined with Manassas City officials and the Public Library Foundation to build and dedicate little free libraries throughout the City and [Prince William] County. We did it through persistence and perseverance. It was a tough decision to leave because of these three reasons: 1) I loved the people that were at the core of the group, 2) I learned a tremendous amount from these people, things that would take months or years, if I would have had to learn on my own, 3) the camaraderie of like-minds is invaluable.
I resigned because like many groups that are formed, they explode in size — this one started in 2011 with four people, and last week, it boasted some 250+ members. How did that happen, you ask — the explosion? It happens easily when there are no clear-cut guidelines for allowing people join. People were welcome from all over, (instead of a geographic area for which the group was designated), and who knew who they were or if they’ve ever written more than a sentence. So: know your members.
But most of all, as it grew the mission became blurred. Yes, there are bylaws, but they were not enforced. If you’re joining a group, and you can’t get answers about mission or financials, don’t join. If there are no scheduled meetings, or meetings that are put off, and off, and off — don’t join.
I will miss the group as it was. The beauty of a well-run, organized, cohesive group of like minds, is that you share ideas and experiences that you cannot share with anyone who does not write! It doesn’t matter whether it is prose or poetry, or what the genre is, there is a commonality, a bind, a coming together of an art form that is almost spiritual. No one, except a fellow writer, understands the laments or the excitement a writer experiences when you are writing — a poem, a short-story, a novella, a novel! No one understands the angst you go through to have your story published. No one, except another writer! Will I join another group? Already have. Many are the same people who were part of the group before, but this time, we are more knowledgable, older, and much, much wiser.
Belinda Miller is a former language arts teacher who applies her love of literature and the arts when writing Middle Grade series Phillip’s Quest and Children’s series The Ragwort Chronicles. After living in Colorado and Wyoming, this ex- New Yorker makes her home in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, Gary, and her cats, Sambucca and Skye.