Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Time to Write

“Time is grit.”

That’s how author Leigh Newman recently answered a question that writers often get asked: How do you find time to write?

Grit. It’s one of the best answers I’ve heard. But if you’re looking for more, here are seven keys to making the most of whatever time you have to write, whether it’s ten minutes or ten hours a day:

  • Know yourself: When David Vann’s working on a book, he writes every morning, seven days a week. Leigh Newman gets up at 4 a.m. Others do their best work at midnight. Figure out when and how you do your best work. Arrange your other obligations around whatever time you can spare.
  • Be present: This isn’t just butt in the chair – it’s senses to the world. Figure out what most helps you feel present – a walk, a few yoga poses, meditation, a single deep breath. Half an hour, two minutes, ten seconds – it’s not the amount of time so much as the grounding itself that matters.
  • Revel in language: Language is your instrument, your palette, your stage. Read a poem. Sing. Share a quote. It takes precious little time to embrace words.
  • Study your craft: Read from your aspirational writers. Challenge yourself with a book on writing well in your genre.
  • The 80/20 rule: Whether you’ve got ten minutes or ten hours, aim for 80 percent of your time actually writing, and 20 percent on everything else - the things mentioned here, plus other stuff like networking and promotion.
  • Set limits: Identify your personal time-suckers, the ones you have control over, things like surfing the internet, social media, checking sales figures. Box these in tightly. Not only do they rob time from your passion - they also activate parts of your brain that aren’t conducive to creativity.
  • Order your operations: After a little “be present” grounding, I start my writing sessions by copying words, lines, and phrases from poetry. Then I read in a genre I’m not writing at the moment, with a timer set so I don’t linger. Then I write, and write, and write. 
Don’t like routines? Discover what works for you and make it happen. That’s the grit.

You don’t have to write every day or every week or even every month. Sometimes a writer’s best move is to wait. But if you tell yourself you’ll write when you have time, or when you feel inspired, you’ll likely be waiting a long, long time. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

All Ate Up: Five Humble Precepts for Writers

All ate up.

I’m told this is an old Indiana expression, used to describe someone who’s consumed by something. She’s all ate up, you might say, for instance, of a writer who’s obsessed by results.

In one sense, writers have to be all ate up. Goals and optimism and perseverance and dedication – these are essential to your work. But it’s ever so easy to get all ate up over results – not your work, but how your work is received. When you think no one’s looking, you’re checking your Amazon rankings, your earnings summaries, your Twitter follows, your Facebook likes, your BookScan sales. When grants and awards and fellowships are announced, you’re wondering when your turn will come.

Last week it was announced that Eowyn Ivey’s book The Snow Child was one of two Pulitzer finalists in fiction. Knowing Eowyn, I doubt this was a result she in any way expected. Besides being a fine writer, Eowyn is gracious and kind. At every opportunity, she’s thanking and acknowledging others for her success. She wrote the best book she could write, and now she’s on to the next one.

I started thinking about other authors I know who’ve won national or international recognition. Debby Dahl Edwardson, National Book Award Finalist for My Name Is Not Easy. Melinda Moustakis, Flannery O’Connor Fiction Prize for Bear Down, Bear North. David Vann, Le Prix Medicis Etranger for Legend of a Suicide. Joan Kane, Donald Hall Poetry Prize for Hyperboreal. Seth Kantner, Milkweed National Fiction Prize for Ordinary Wolves. (These, by the way, are only a few highlights from among the many awards this distinguished group has collectively received, and – not to slight anyone – other writers I know have received prizes and awards not mentioned here.)

I doubt that any of these writers expected the particular recognition they received. They aren’t people who obsess over winning or results beyond producing their best writing, day after day. They aren’t “all ate up” over the many aspects of publishing that are beyond their control.

Pondering what I admire about these prizing-winning authors, I’ve distilled out five precepts to help all of us keep from getting “ate up” over the wrong things:

·        Writers control products, not perceptions. When building a platform becomes a whole lot of striving, it’s time to back off.
·        Though some claim it’s motivational, envy is distracting at best, destructive at worst. Cultivate joy for writers who achieve recognition, and don’t fret over when you’ll get yours. Keep producing the best writing you can, and keep making it better.
·        When results do come, acknowledge your team. Increasingly, it takes a village to grow a book.
·        Cultivate gratitude, not gratification. Be aware of how social media can mess with your mind.
·        Cultivate grace. It will serve you in a wide range of matters beyond your control.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mentoring, Anyone? Five Things Writers Should Consider

These days you’ll find an abundance of mentorship opportunities for writers, from the mentoring relationships inherent to full-blown MFA programs to mentors-for-hire who advertise online.

For several years, I’ve mentored writers both informally and for hire. Recently, I was asked by a chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to design an affordable digital mentorship opportunity, and that prompted me to think about what contributes to a positive mentoring experience.

Here are five factors you should consider if you’re thinking about signing on with a mentor:

  • Your expectations: A mentorship should yield improved writing and a refined sense of how you can grow as a writer. It is not, however, a guarantee of publication. Which particular areas you hope to work on with your mentor? Which aspects of publishing you hope to learn more about? As you begin to explore mentorship options, list what you hope to accomplish with your mentor. Take a hard look at these expectations and adjust based on where you are in your journey as a writer as well as how much time you can devote to improvement. Depending on what you hope to accomplish, you might be best served by a series of mentorships, either arranged independently or within the context of an MFA program.
  • What you’ll bring to the mentorship: Before you begin working with a mentor, you should have at least a solid start on a project you’d like to improve. You should also have a sense of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. A good mentor functions as your coach, your editor, and your critic. If you’re thin-skinned, mentoring probably isn’t for you (and writing may not be, either). As with your expectations, jot down what you’ll bring to the membership. Sharing your expectations and your self-assessment with a potential mentor will help both of you decide whether the relationship will be helpful.
  • What else you’re doing to grow as a writer: Mentoring is a wonderful way to work one on one with a writer who can help you toward your goals, but you shouldn’t rely on it entirely. Do you read systematically both in your genre and in your craft? Do you write regularly? (One of the benefits of a mentorship, by the way, is that it gives you deadlines.) Do you study with a variety of writers at workshops and conferences? How will your mentorship dovetail with these other activities?
  • Your options: Ideally, you want a writer who has experience as a mentor and who enjoys mentoring. You also want a writer who is several steps ahead of you in the game, a person whose writing you admire, and who has a proven track record in publishing and/or sales. As with many other professionals, the best mentors don’t need to advertise much, and they know better than to take on too many clients. Ask other writers whom they’d recommend. If you’ve enjoyed a workshop with a particular writer, ask if he or she does any mentoring. Ask your local writing center and local chapters of writer’s organizations like SCBWI if they offer mentorship opportunities. Although the ideal mentoring relationship might be with a writer in your genre, that’s not essential. I rarely write short nonfiction (except for blog posts), but one writer I mentor only writes essays, and most of the projects she has worked on with me have been published. It goes without saying that a good mentor will be able to provide references and testimonials upon request.
  • Your relationship: I’m a big believer in the preventative power of the written word. If your potential mentor doesn’t offer a written description of how the relationship will work, don’t be shy about asking for one. How long will the relationship last? How will you communicate back and forth? How often? Will both macro- and micro-editing be included? If the relationship’s not working out, can it be dissolved? Will your mentor work with you on building a career as a writer? How much will it cost, and how is the cost billed? Every mentor handles these questions differently. For both macro- and micro-editing, you can expect to pay in the $50 per hour range. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

2013 Writeathon over...but you can still donate! Final update: 10:09 pm

My final session:
1599 words
First line: "Lunch came as a big relief." 
Last line: "But Dr. Faustus is the classic.” 
Total revision of "No Returns" during writeathon: 4221 words! 
Thanks so much, everyone!

Writeathon update 9:04 pm

Woo-hoo! 1045 words (keep in mind I'm revising, so some of these were already written)
Starting line: "I’d rather face down a pack of snarling wolves than meet up with a guy who looks like James Cagney."
Ending line: "But of course I didn’t."
Last and longest stretch ahead: 1 hour and 9 minutes.

Writeathon update 8:04 pm

Writers take a yoga break!
731 words for me.
Opening line: "Pod, how come you didn’t try touching it?”
Closing line: Though they knew me better than pretty much anyone, this was the thing Flaco and Manny didn’t know about me.

Writeathon update 7:04 pm

840 words revised.
Starting line: "The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up."
Ending line: "Manny paced again, kicking up dust."
Session 2 begins now!

Live update 6:04 pm 49 Writers Writeathon

And they're off! My team is assembled, along with other Alaska writers, including some holed up in their writers' turrets. The goal: write for four hours straight, in support of 49 Writers, a nonprofit that supports Alaska writers and their work. I'll be starting this first hour by revising chapter two of a novel called No Returns, a Faustian spinoff for young readers. I'll be back in an hour with an update.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where Have All the Fact-Checkers Gone?

I thought nonfiction would be easy.

When I started Wealth Woman, my book on Kate Carmack and the Klondike Gold Rush, I’d already written a few novels - two published, with a few more in draft. Much as I love writing fiction, you have to make everything up. You have to create whole worlds and people them. Sure, you get to decide what happens when and to whom – but for every good choice a novelist makes, there are thousands of ways to go wrong.

Nonfiction would be so refreshing. So straightforward. The people are who they are. Events happen. I’d only have to gather the facts, then present them in a beautiful and compelling matter.


Take, for starters, the wrangling of those facts. If you’re going to contribute something meaningful on your topic, this requires a ton of work (and no small amount of cash). You have to slosh through multiple perspectives on each person and event, and from these you must fashion the truest version of truth. You can’t make a mistake. You have to get it right. There may be no such thing as a flawless book, but you can’t screw up repeatedly, or you’ll lose the trust of the reader.

Enter the fact-checker. I first learned that novels got fact-checked when Lodestar, an imprint of Penguin, published my first book, A Distant Enemy. The fact-checker pointed out that surely there were no Yup’ik Eskimos alive during the waning years of the twentieth century, when my book was set, who could recall the first time they’d met a white person. After all, the Russians had colonized Alaska way back in the 18th century.

But Alaska is a big place, I reminded the fact-checker (gently – it was my first book, and I didn’t want to be branded one of those difficult authors). Because there were no resources to lure the Russians inland to the tundra where my book was set, white people didn’t reach parts of that tundra until the first half of the twentieth century. Score one for the author: my character got to keep the snippet of dialogue in which he talked about the first time he’d seen a white person.

Considering the multitude of ways in which traditional publishing is cutting back, it’s not surprising that fact-checking now appears to be going the way of the pay phone. To my knowledge, my last few books have been fact-checked only by me. And judging from some books I’ve read recently, so it is for other authors.

Take a book on the Klondike I’ve been reading as research for Wealth Woman. Released by a reputable press that specializes in literary fiction and nonfiction, it’s a lively, well-written nonfiction treatment of what went on in Dawson City between 1896 and 1899; in fact, it’s so nicely done that it’s in production as a Discovery channel miniseries.

It’s the sort of book you’d recommend to your friends, if it weren’t for some really big boo boos. Over and over and over, the author talks about the Chilkoot Pass running through the St. Elias Range. (It runs through the Coast Mountains.) She describes hillsides blooming with wildflowers in mid-April, even before the ice breaks up: fireweed, wild roses. (These bloom in June.) Most grievous of all, when she mentions First Nations people, the author gets the band/tribe affiliation wrong almost every time, which leaves the unfortunate (and I believe unintended) impression that they’re all more or less interchangeable.

My purpose here is not to come down hard on authors, which is why I’m not naming this particular author or her book. I’m from Alaska, and if Missouri is the “show-me” state, Alaska is the “you don’t know me” state: we have something of a reputation for jumping on anyone who doesn’t “get” the details of who we are and how we live – and I’ve never wanted to be one of “those guys.” But we authors need to understand that in this BNWP (Brave New World of Publishing), the fact-checking responsibility most likely lands squarely on us – and in the internet age, when facts can be checked by pretty much anyone, anywhere, the burden of truth has never been greater.

What’s an author to do? Pay attention. Don’t make assumptions. Twist arms to get experts to read your drafts. Crowdsource if you have to.

Fiction, nonfiction – it matters not. What we do isn’t easy, and increasingly, we have only ourselves to rely on, especially when it comes to getting our facts straight.