Category: The Writing Life


A Q&A with author Judy Reeves

By Midge Raymond,

Just in time for a new year of writing, I’ve received a copy of the latest wonder from author Judy Reeves: her Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers.

In addition to being absolutely gorgeous, this book is filled with daily writing prompts, quotes, and inspiration — and its workbook shape and style make it easy to personalize, make notes, and (especially) to carry around everywhere.

You may already know Judy from her many books on writing, among them A Writer’s Book of Days — and she generously agreed to chat with me about this latest project. And, as you’ll see below, chatting with Judy is always inspiring…

Q: I love that this is a perpetual calendar—writers can begin any day, any year—and I especially love that it has a spot for us to note what hours we intend to spend writing, or, if we don’t have a specific schedule, what our goals are, such as “finish chapter three.” Over the years, what are some of the things you’ve learned about your own writing practice, and how has it evolved?

A. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that if I don’t make the time to do the writing, the writing won’t get done. It is so easy to say, “I’ll do my writing as soon as I _____________.” You can fill in the blank. I joke now that “as soon as” is going to be the epitaph carved on my gravestone. Thank goodness I’ve learned to do the writing first, and let “as soon as” refer to what I do after the day’s writing is done.

Another thing I learned the hard way: perfectionism is my Achilles’ heel. Many years ago when I was in a read and critique group with Janet Fitch, I used to stay up until o’dark hundred the night before group laboring over sentences and auditioning words for the perfect fit. Then I’d take these fraught pages to the group only to have that sweat-drenched sentence I’d struggled with until 2 a.m. x-ed out as “overworked” or “unnecessary.” Get the words on the page, I say; read them aloud and give them an edit or two to make sure the whole thing works, then do the fine tuning and wordsmithing. There’s always the next draft to change magenta to fuschia and use a semi-colon rather than a period. (I still haven’t perfected this practice, by the way.)

Do it alone? Not a chance. My writing community is critical to my well-being; to my self-esteem and conversely, to my humility; and to the writing itself.

Q: Throughout the calendar, you incorporate tips and inspiration from myriad writers, from Janet Fitch to John Steinbeck to Ann Patchett. What has been among the most helpful advice on writing you’ve ever received?

A: I’ve been a student of writing for so many years, and I am grateful to all the writers who have shared their experience so I am able to get better at this thing I want to do most in the world. Every piece of advice I’ve included in the Appointment Calendar, and in all my books, is something I have taken to heart.

Maybe the most liberating tip is Natalie Goldberg’s “You’re free to write the worst junk in America.” In our regular writing practice groups, we use that quote in the guidelines we read at the beginning of each session. Then add to it, “and some days you will. Other days you’ll write something really beautiful, and some days, you’ll just write.” Meaning, don’t let your writing be so precious. Just get out of your own way and fling the words down on the page.

The most affirming advice is Brenda Ueland’s “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” To me this means every human being is given some gift of expression: painting, singing, dancing, making pottery or poetry, cooking, crafting, and so on, ad infinitum. For those of us who are called to write, this is our gift, and we have a responsibility to use it. No one else is going to write like you do and no one else can tell the story you can tell.

Janet Fitch told me to “stay in the room,” and Cynthia Ozick said, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” Colette wrote, “Look long at what pleases you, longer still at what disturbs you.” Facing a blank page and writing from our most vulnerable place, being willing to expose ourselves, telling the truth even when it scares us—writing is fraught with danger. Before I understood this, I veered away from the scary parts by trying to be clever and glib. Those hours looking for the perfect word were really a way to avoid going deeper, which is what I needed to do to write the truth. I’ll admit my need to munch on almonds or raw carrots or apples when I hit the parts in my writing that need a longer look; there’s something about all that crunching relieves some of the anxiety.

I’ll stop now, though I could fill a book with advice that has helped, and continues to help me.

Q: The “Dear Lively Muse” feature appearing in the calendar is wonderful. In your experience as an instructor and workshop leader, what is the most common question writers have about the writing process, and what’s your answer?

A: Probably the most common question about process is, “Do I have to write every day?” I tell them it’s a good idea to write every day, at least five days a week if possible. I say they need to create what Flannery O’Connor called “a writing habit” and that the writing will come easier if they do it daily and writing every day keeps the story alive. I also tell them that I understand daily writing isn’t the be all and end all to being a good writer, and then I recommend your book, Everyday Writing, to show them how they can be about their writing when they’re not actually sitting at their desk and writing.

The most common question about the craft, probably because I mention it so much, is how to “show, don’t tell.” So we talk about lively verbs and specific, concrete details and writing from the senses. We unpack abstract words and play around with descriptions that move on the page and characters that have unique qualities and interior lives, and settings that make the reader feel as if they’re actually in the place. We examine writing in scene as the events in the story actually happen so the reader experiences them right along with the characters, and moving from the head into the body, and from the brain into the heart.

Q: I enjoyed the section on rituals and habits—for Francine Prose, it’s a view; for Toni Morrison, it’s coffee and morning light. What is it for Judy Reeves?

A: Candle, coffee, journal. More coffee.

Q: The calendar makes note of literary events—National Poetry Month in April, for example, and International Short Story Day in June. What are some of your favorite literary events, from local to international, and how do you celebrate them?

A: I love Banned Books Week, which is the last week in September. Over the years, I’ve been part of number of Banned Books readings. I think it’s important to call attention to our freedom to read and write whatever we choose. This isn’t the case the world over. During Poem in a Pocket Day I print out little poems from the poets.org website and leave them around places, and I chalk poems on the sidewalk. Last year I participated in World Book Night, and gave away 20 copies of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I hope I’ll be chosen as a participant again this year. I make sure to kiss a librarian during National Library Week, which is also in April, and I wouldn’t miss San Diego Writers, Ink‘s Blazing Laptops Write-a-thon. Oh, and the LA Times Festival of Books. What an abundance!

Q: Tell me a little bit about the process of creating this book, from the fabulous prompts to the wonderful illustrations and design.

A: I first thought of creating a daily calendar for writers with a prompt for every day more than a dozen years ago. When I sent my proposal to New World Library, they said they didn’t publish calendars, but would I consider writing a book. (Would I?) This is how A Writer’s Book of Days came about. But the idea of a calendar for writers didn’t go away, and somehow the project found its way to the top of my list last winter.

The daily prompts were critical to my concept. From nearly twenty years of leading writing practice groups, and from the response I get from my books, I know that no matter what else is going on in their writing, writers can use a prompt to get started or get unloosed from a stuck place. Where they go from the initial prompt doesn’t matter; all that matters is getting the hand moving and the words on the page.

My initial idea was a single-year calendar, spiral-bound and hardcover. You see that the published book is actually a perpetual calendar, rather than a single year, that it has a soft cover and is perfect-bound. Concepts change as you talk to friends and get practical advice from people who’ll actually use the product. Designs sometimes have to change, too, as you research what’s available in POD format. Oh, what I have learned!

About those wonderful illustrations and the design: Steve Montgomery, my close and dear friend and co-leader of our Thursday Writers group, has so many talents and gifts, I can’t begin to list them here. Among the many things he does really well is design. He and I have co-created many a project and work easily and well together, so I asked him if he would be interested in doing the layout and design for the calendar. He answered with an enthusiastic “yes!” and am I ever grateful.

I knew I wanted to use the Lively Muse as inspiration—a muse for us if you will, and Steve found all those delightful sprites that frolic throughout the pages. (The Lively Muse comes from the subtitle of A Writer’s Book of Days, A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life. I blog as the Lively Muse, and started The Lively Muse Press to publish the book.) Steve created an elegant design with so many subtle and not-so-subtle echoes of the text in the illustrations; I think he did a brilliant job. The book is a collaboration, start to finish.

Click here to get your own copy of this lovely book (which, by the way, makes an amazing gift for the writers in your life!)

Judy Reeves is a writer, teacher, and writing practice provocateur who has published four books on the craft including A Writer’s Book of Days, which was named Best Nonfiction in the 2010 San Diego Book Awards. She lives in San Diego and is co-founder of San Diego Writers, Ink. Her website is judyreeveswriter.com, where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter. She blogs at livelymuse.com.

 

 





Three tips to keep your writing project going

By Midge Raymond,

I have always had a lot of trouble keeping projects moving steadily ahead — it’s not that I don’t ever finish anything but that it all happens in such fits and starts that it can be psychologically distressing. I never quite enjoy the feeling of making forward progress, even when I am, because so often I write in snatches of time rather than nice, leisurely hours or weeks or months of time.

This is one of the reasons I wrote Everyday Writing — to find ways to keep my projects moving along even when I don’t have time to write. And I love all the little ways I’ve found to do that. But, having recently returned from a residency at the amazing Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center in Friday Harbor, I’ve also realized how important it is to balance my everyday writing with the serious, get-down-to-business writing that we all need in order to see a project through to completion.

I achieved more in one week at Whiteley than I had in months of my regularly scheduled life. This is exactly what a retreat is supposed to do, and why we need to make time for them. And being there was not only great for that reason; I also came home determined to keep up a better pace on a daily basis. I knew, of course, that the real world wouldn’t allow for quite the same level of productivity … but I did learn a few things that have made my post-Whiteley writing life so much better.

Below are a few tips related to the things I’ve discovered …

Know yourself. Be honest with yourself. And create a schedule that truly works. Before Whiteley, I’d been getting up at 6 a.m. (or earlier, depending on how hungry the cat was and how obnoxious he was about it) and doing my writing then. I figured I needed to get it done first thing, or the whole day might go by with no writing happening. While this was all too true, another thing I’ve realized is all too true is that I’m not a morning person. And yet another thing that is true is that I am a bit of anxious person, and knowing I had emails piling up in my in-box made it hard to focus. In other words, I realized I needed to carve out a better time to write.

At Whiteley, I was there to write and only to write: I had committed to leaving the day job behind. Yet being self-employed and running a small press, I couldn’t leave everything completely behind — while I’d cleared the week ahead of time, I did have to check in just in case something came up that needed immediate attention, and sure enough a few things did. But I’d made rules for myself, and I stuck with them: I got online first thing in the morning and once more in the evening — and no more. And not only was I able to stay on top of things in only a small amount of time, but I realized how well this worked for my writing — by taking care of business before getting to my writing, I could clear my mind of nagging worries, deadlines, and other issues and free my brain for creative work. And by checking in once more after dinner, I could be certain all was well and keep the creativity flowing.

So now that I’m home, instead of getting up early to write, I get up early to get to work. And, nearly every day since I’ve been back from Whiteley, I’ve been taking an hour or two in the afternoon to go to the university library to write. These hours are always far more productive than my early morning hours ever were — because I’ve taken care of business, and because I’m far more awake and ready to write by then.

Find a dedicated writing space — or create one. For me, a huge challenge is writing at the same place I do everything else. So I fired up my ancient, clunky laptop, and I’m portable. I lug it out of my office for my writing time, and it doesn’t matter where … whether it’s the dining room table or the library or a cafe, I’m away from the Regular Work. I disable the wi-fi so I can’t check email or Facebook; I can’t do anything, really, but write. Below is the idyllic writing space I had at Whiteley — and while I haven’t quite been able to replicate that, I make sure I don’t have distractions, and this is the next best thing.

Take breaks. As many as you need. The other thing I did often at Whiteley was take breaks. It’s necessary when all you do for sixteen hours a day is write. So I learned to break up my writing sessions: with meals, with hikes, with a change in setting. Sometimes it was a quick break to make tea; other times I would head to American Camp to look for the sweet red foxes who live there.

And even if you’re only writing for two hours a day, you need breaks. It may seem like cheating to step away from the computer during your writing time, but in fact it is necessary and often even helpful — most of my writing epiphanies have come when I’m anywhere but sitting at my desk. So as soon as I get restless, I’ll go for a hike or a walk, or even run an errand if it gets me out in the fresh air. Being in nature is always the best and most soothing first option, but just getting away from the page can be a big help in terms of solving problems in the work at hand. Be sure to observe the world around you, whether it’s a forest or a city park — and if you’re stuck on a specific scene, for example, view everything you see through the eyes of one of your characters, and see how that goes.

These tips are not new; in fact, they’re pretty obvious. I’ve both heard them and repeated them a thousand times — yet here I am, discovering them all over again. It’s amazing how often we hear good advice and how seldom we follow it.

So, your assignment for today: Do at least one, if not all, of these things during your next writing session: change your writing schedule/routine and see how it works; find a new writing space and see how you like it; and schedule a break one hour into your writing time, and take it. Shake things up, even if you think you don’t have to. Change is good.







Writers’ most common submission mistakes — and how to avoid them

By Midge Raymond,

I remember learning years ago that the  average short story is rejected 25 times before finding a home. (Now, I’m guessing this number is much higher.) This made me feel a lot better — some of my stories were above average in terms of how long it took to publish, some were below, and many were right on track.

Half the battle, I’ve come to learn, is just sticking with it — sending out that story over and over again even when the rejections keep coming in. But the other half of the battle is even more important: making sure you not only have a terrific story (or novel, or poem, or whatever it may be) but that you follow editorial guidelines and send a professional submission, whether you’re targeting a literary journal editor or an agent. Time-strapped editors and agents have little patience for sloppy work, and it’s worth paying a little extra attention to detail when it could mean the difference between getting a fair read or being tossed in the reject pile.

As both a writer and editor, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to put together a submission that gets a fair read. While every editor is different, below are a few of the most common submission mistakes that writers make and how you can avoid them yourself.

Sending out work before it’s ready. Keep in mind that it’s the writing that is most important — always. If your story or novel isn’t ready, don’t send it out. Period. I’ve done this many times, of course — it’s hard not to be eager to send out something brand-new, especially if you’ve spent months or years working on it — but it never turns out well. What editors and agents look for more than anything else is great writing. So wait until your project reaches that level before you even consider sending it out.

Submitting a sloppy cover letter or query. If a cover letter is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, an editor will assume your writing is the same — this will not encourage a thoughtful read. Many writers have their manuscripts professionally copyedited before sending them out — and if you’re a writer who needs this, be sure your cover letter is edited as well, as it’s the first thing an editor/agent will see. By “sloppy” I also mean not researching the publication, agency, or publisher — writers who submit a literary novel to an agent who only reads mysteries, or a science fiction story to a poetry journal (and yes, these things happen all the time) will not get read; it’s simply a waste of everyone’s time. Be sure your submission is appropriate to where you’re submitting.

Overselling yourself. You do want to be confident about your work, but in a professional way, not a desperate-salesperson sort of way. Keep your cover letters and queries short and to the point, and if guidelines are available, follow them exactly. Don’t compare your work to that of other authors (unless the guidelines specifically require this); I’ve seen letters for everything from short stories to novels in which writers compare themselves to famous writers (often misspelling these famous writers’ names, no less), and it’s no surprise that there is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever. For a literary magazine submission, don’t describe the story, essay, or poem — let it speak for itself; your cover letter need only contain a bio, contact information, and whatever the guidelines may ask for. For an agent query, follow guidelines exactly (this usually means a one-page query with a little about the book and a little about you).

Don’t get ahead of yourself. Many writers include a copyright symbol with their work, or they include a dedication or acknowledgments page with a manuscript — unfortunately, including these things at such an early stage reveals a lack of awareness about publishing and may get in the way of your getting a fair read. If you’ve been writing and think you’re ready to submit but don’t know anything about publishing (whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or agents), take the time to learn before submitting — it will save you a lot of time, energy, and rejection. (For example, you’ll learn that your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it; there is no need to register it or do anything else — and you’ll also learn that you submit a dedication and acknowledgments to your editor only after you’re under contract, with the final version of your manuscript.)

Less is more. Simplicity is key here — again, it’s the writing that is important; let it speak for itself. The less you include with your submission, the more quickly the reader will get to your writing, and this is exactly what you want.

 





Think like a writer every day, even if you can’t write every day…

By Midge Raymond,

A million thanks to Joanna Penn for hosting me this week on the brilliant The Creative Penn blog, where you’ll find my post “Think Like A Writer Every Day, Even If You Can’t Write Every Day.”

Best of all, Joanna’s wonderful readers have chimed in with fantastic tips and ideas for how to stay inspired and creative, even when you’re unable to sit in the chair and write — I so enjoyed hearing about so many different processes and learning a few new tips.

For those of you not yet familiar with The Creative Penn, do check it out — you’ll find a wealth of information on writing, publishing, and marketing. In addition to Joanna’s own expertise as a writer, her website features guest posts and interviews with other authors on everything from finding time to write to editing and revising to how best to publish your work.





Weekly Writing: Past summer

By Midge Raymond,

Write about the best summer you can remember. Be as detailed as possible, from who you spent your time with to what was going on in your life at the time. Was this summer a recent one, or was it in the distant past? (Note: Fiction writers can apply this exercise to their characters.)

 





How important is your book’s cover?

By Midge Raymond,

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a book cover’s got to be worth at least forty to a hundred times that, if it’s going to sell what’s inside.

According to Para Publishing, “everyone judges a book by its cover,” and their statistics cite a Wall St. Journal study that reveals that bookstore browsers spend eight seconds looking at the front cover and fifteen seconds looking at the back. Yet the trick is usually getting readers interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.

As many of you know, Forgetting English was reissued last year with a gorgeous new cover.

What most of you don’t know is that I was madly in love with another cover image before falling in love with this one. That first cover was exotic and mysterious and beautiful, in a way completely different from the one above. But we ran into a permissions issue and had to let it go.

Naturally, I thought I’d never fall in love again. My kind and patient publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53, assured me that I would.

And I did. Now, I can’t imagine my book having a cover other than the one above.

Below is the first edition of Forgetting English, the cover of which went through several dramatic makeovers (different type styles, different colors, different layouts, with the Gauguin painting the only thing that didn’t change) before turning out like this.

While I’m partial to my new book cover, I’ll always have a fondness for this one — my ex-book, if you will. Going through this process not once but twice was interesting; I think authors (not to mention readers) react to a cover much the way they do to people they meet: There’s an instant connection, or there’s not. A good publisher and book designer understands that and looks for an image conveys what’s beneath the cover as best it possibly can.

Check out this book design case study, featuring Erika Dreifus’s wonderful book, Quiet Americans, which takes us through the steps a book designer goes through in preparing not only a cover but the interior design.

Most authors, unless they publish with a small press, don’t have a say in what their book covers look like (or, they attempt to have a say and are ignored or overruled). For my first book, while the Gauguin painting featured on the cover is one of my favorites, its South Pacific feel evokes only one story in the collection, and I didn’t feel it was a good fit. While I’d already sent along a few cover ideas and even several images, someone had already secured permission to use the art, and there was no room for debate.

When my book was reissued, I was thrilled to work closely with Kevin at Press 53 to find a cover that we both thought was perfect for the book. He understands, as good editors, agents, and publishers to, that while the publisher knows how to best market its books (and is footing the bill for book design, no less),  the author also has a valuable contribution to make — and an author who loves his or her book cover will be all the happier to promote it.

For more insights on authors and their book covers, check out this piece in The Awl featuring six writers on book covers and marketing; it’s fascinating to hear from authors who either love or hate their covers, who were consulted or not, and how they approach the strange process of getting blurbs.

When all is said and done, when it comes to our book covers, we authors have to be flexible. If our books are our “children,” as the comparison often goes, we have to let go just as parents do: Parents, after all, never know exactly how their kids are going to turn out. And they love them all the same.



Weekly Writing: Jewelry

By Midge Raymond,

Write about a favorite piece of jewelry, whether yours or someone else’s. Is it something that was given to you or something you bought for yourself? Was it something you gave to someone (like an engagement ring) or something you inherited? What makes it special to you?





Bookstore Geek: Shiretown Books

By Midge Raymond,

It’s autumn — and in New England, that means celebrating the foliage. If you’re out leaf peeping, don’t forget to pop into the local bookstores in all those fabulous New England towns.  Woodstock, Vermont, has one of the sweetest: the lovely Shiretown Books, right on the main street as you stroll through town.

The store is small but has plenty to offer, including books by local authors and staff picks, and it’s a terrific place to browse. And it’s a bookstore with a big heart: Last year, in response to Hurricane Irene, which devastated parts of Vermont, including areas of Woodstock, Shiretown gave back by donating a portion of book sales to relief efforts.

Bookstores like Shiretown are among the many reasons it’s wonderful to shop locally — to support not only the indies but the communities that support them best as well.