The Benefits of a Writer Friend

While today’s topic is not as much about the actual creative process of being a writer, it’s been on my mind a fair bit lately. Should writers network? Should we make a blatant attempt to seek out writer friends? What is it that other writers really do for our writing lives?

To answer the first question, I think that writers should absolutely network! Writing, as all of us know from experience, is a lonely activity and getting connected to the community is a wonderful way to add a bit of solidarity to your days.  A network of excellent writers offers a multitude of benefits, which are not available in their absence. In my long years of writing and rewriting my first novel, I found my writing buddies to be immeasurably valuable.

Without them one would not have:

Someone to commiserate with when your writing is not going according to plan: Writing is hard; that is the absolute truth. No matter how hard we try, and regardless of much we write, there will still be days in which our words don’t flow and our ideas are leaden with dullness. What we need in such instsances is a friendly voice to commiserate with. Someone who has been there many, many times. And despite the fact that your mother tells you that everything will be okay, a writing buddy can give you solid proof of real life instances when their writing went smoothly after being derailed.

Someone to read your work: One makes mistakes in writing. Perhaps your main character is an ass. Perhaps your plot is a bit threadbare. Perhaps your style needs a bit of oomph. The only person who can offer you this kind of critique, and still remain your friend, is another writer. A writer friend’s feedback is priceless. But please return the favor sometime! Offer to read their work if they are ready, and give helpful and encouraging critiques.

Someone to help you traverse the world: The writer’s world is full of deadlines. Some set by your editor, some by the courses that you are attending, and some set by yourself. A writing buddy will help you make sense of this world – help you apply to a writer’s conference, or to an MFA program. And you want to know about that cool gig that your favorite magazine is hiring for, yes? The only people who know are other writers.

Someone to go drinking with: Everyone knows that writers drink – all artists do, it’s just a part of the creative process! But it’s no fun drinking alone, is it? For a really good time, you need a gang of writerly buddies!

If you have made some valuable writer friends on HubPages, please let us know! We love hearing your stories.

[Image courtesy Big Mind Zen Center on Flickr]

On Writing Well: Using All Your Senses

One of the hardest things to communicate as a writer is immediacy. As I sit here at my desk, I am very aware of all my senses- the sound of the keyboard tap-tapping as I write, the slightly acrid taste of my coffee, the glow of the overhead lamp, reflected on the screen- I am connected to all of these things. Yet, often, when sitting down to write about an event, I forget a lot of what I have experienced and my sentences are wooden and dull.

The quickest way to put some verve back into your sentence is to write from your senses. While describing a place and event or even a character, incorporating all your 5 sentences within your writing will communicate the immediacy of your experience and make your writing more authentic.

Smell

This is possibly the most powerful of all the writing tools. Everyone associates smell with memory and memory with emotions – so use this one well.

Look at this sentence: He bit into a delicious apple

But it can be made to work harder, telling us more about the protagonist: He bit into the apple, releasing the tart, fresh smell, and transporting him immediately to a younger self grandma’s kitchen table, doing homework as she cut mounds of apples for the Thanksgiving pie.

The second sentence is a launching ground for a great deal of character development, and opportunity that does not truly exist in the first sentence.

Smell can be used in several different ways:

  • To offer a backstory: In came father, reeking as usual, of whiskey and smoke.
  • To develop character: She smelled of cheap perfume and yesterday’s sweat.
  • To create a sense of space: The house smelled of furniture polish and fresh linen. OR The house smelled of sorrow and long disappointment.

In the last sentence, see how the smell is mostly an emotion? This is the only sense where you can legitimately pull this off, without moving into melodrama. With all the others, it’s best to stick to more concrete descriptors.

  • Sight: The sun rose

Using the senses: The sun rose over the hills, its pale gold rays lighting up the valleys

  • Taste: He drank the lemonade

Using the senses: He drank the lemonade, its icy freshness reviving him as nothing else could.

  • Touch: She touched his face

Using the senses: She touched his face, his skin papery under her fingers.

  • Hearing: She heard him approach

Using the senses: She heard him approach, his tread slow and heavy, and his breath growing louder and louder and he got closer.

As you can see, with a touch of added feeling, you can easily transform dull descriptions into vivacious explorations.

[Image by Dennis Wong, CC-BY, via flickr]

 

 

On Writing Well: Making Verbs Work

Everyone Needs Verbs

Have you ever read a sentence without a verb? No, right? It’s impossible! A few phrases and fragments may squeeze by without employing a verb or two, but any sentence worth it’s weight can’t manage without a couple of verbs.

Verbs are the building blocks of writing. Without them, no action would ever take place – we would neither eat, sleep, wake, or die without the help of these important words, nor would we ever celebrate, mourn,  share or betray. In short, we would not live. So verbs need attention. A lot more attention than we pay to them in our day-to-day writing. As the integral part of a sentence, verbs need thoughtful handling.

Here are my top tips on verbs, and how to make them stronger.

Using expressive verbs:

Here’s the thing with verbs. As writers we use the same set of verbs over and over in our writing. Yet, verbs can work really hard for us if we will let them. They can be expressive and explosive and powerful, if only we would think a tad harder.

For instance, look at this sentence:

He came into the room.

And then, look at these:

He sauntered into the room

He limped into the room

He crashed into the room

He ambled into the room

He skipped into the room.

All that has changed is the verb – yet the sentences communicate entirely different scenarios. Scenarios that you could labor over, with long-winded over-explanation, or quickly execute, employing terse, expressive, hard-working verbs. The choice is yours.

Using active verbs

Here’s the rule. It is simple. If there is no compelling reason against it, use active verbs. Active verbs are better. They work harder. Communicate faster. And make your sentences stronger. This is a fact.

When can I use passive verbs?

So when could you use passive verbs? Passive verbs diffuse tension, indirectly ask permission, and soothe ruffled feathers. So any time that you are moving towards these emotions, go ahead and use passive verbs if you wish.

Where to Hunt for Writers!

Writers may have a reputation for being solitary, reclusive beings, but that doesn’t mean that they should write in a vacuum.

Sites like HubPages offer great means of getting feedback on one’s work… but sometimes written comments from semi-anonymous readers are not enough. Sometimes even the most solitary beings require in-person interaction.  The problem with interacting with other writers is that they can be difficult to find! Many writers are hard to identify (they don’t have a uniform, after all), and more often than not, the more dedicated ones are at home writing and not outside networking.

That said, Pia Chatterjee put together a blog post a couple of days ago about various places where one can hunt for writers. The post was so popular that we thought we would make a podcast on the subject (How to Meet Other Writers). We hope you enjoy it!

If there is a place where you have found a high density of writers that was not discussed in this podcast, tell us about it! Just send an email to podcast (at) HubPages (dot) com. We would love to hear from you!

On Writing Well: How to Handle Literary Influences

As aspiring writers, we all wish that we could write like the literary giants, many of whom we have admired for most of our lives. Yet, when it comes down to starting work of our own, we are often uncertain of how to handle these influences of the literary heroes whose work we have read and reread so many times, and who cast such a long shadow over our writing lives.

What would be the best way to handle these wonderful influences? How can we ward off the sense of our own failure when we compare our own writing to that of Emily Dickinson, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald? How can we be influenced, but not plagiarize the work of those we admire?

These are my top tips:

Be flattered if your writing style reflects your idol’s: Many authors complain that because they read and re-read the same author so many times, they begin to notice that their own writing begins to mimic the tone and cadences of the writer they admire. They say this as if it’s a problem. When I hear them, I always wonder whether they can possibly be serious. Have your writing style be close to Austen’s, or T.S Eliot’s, or Salman Rushdie’s? This is a problem? Surely, they joke, right? So, writers if your constant re-reading leads to an evolution of your writing style, please be delighted. Writers pay much money in MFA programs to get to this stage!

Be worried if you’ve been copying entire sentences: Being influenced is not a good excuse for plagiarism. It does not matter whether you read that same piece one thousand times, if you copy an entire sentence into your text, you will get into an incredible amount of trouble. Just ask Kavya Viswanathan. Not only did her book get revoked, her contract for her next book was cancelled. But you know what the real tragedy is? The plagiarized sections were actually the poorest part of her book.  It was her original writing and the unique characterizations that made Opal Mehta such an exciting book. Yet, because of her mistakes, intentional or otherwise, it is very unlikely that Kavya will get a legitimate second chance into the literary world.

Don’t despair if you fall short: When you read the writings of a writer you admire, whether it is Ernest Hemingway or William Shakespeare, your own writing will seem laughable in comparison. Do not despair! Be influenced by great authors’ writing, but not paralyzed by their talent. After all, who knows, perhaps you will be the next Steinbeck or Faulkner.

Photo (Ernest Hemmingway) via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

On Writing Well: Getting Over Writer’s Block

Every writer, especially one who has recently finished a long piece of work, confesses to felling a kind of creative exhaustion. A pretty significant fraction of writers also go on to describe what may be only be named writer’s block, where they are unable to get words on a page.

Very often, writer’s block creates a sense of unhappiness and hardship on the part of the writer, who believes that they will never again be able to write. Yet, when questioned closely, writer’s block is described by many, not just as an inability to gets words on the page, but instead as a deep dissatisfaction with the words and ideas themselves. After having completed a longer work, writers are often very harsh on the new drafts and are exceedingly critical of the fledgling works. Unfairly compared to the completed work, the unedited first draft does often look paltry in comparison, and the ideas seem childish when juxtaposed with the finished manuscript.

As someone who has struggled a few times with this sense of dissatisfaction I can offer my top tips to work our way out of writer’s block:

Don’t be too hard on yourself: writing is hard, and your brain, especially after working on a long piece of work, is tired. Don’t compare your current writing to your completed work, to awards you may have won, or praise that your admirers offered. Sometimes success can be the greatest barrier to our creativity. Remember that this work is only a start, that you will have lots of time later to make it polished. For now, be nice to yourself, and don’t judge your work.

Give yourself some time: sometimes taking a break can be just what your writing needs. If, for whatever reason, your brain is not wanting to deal with words and language, then give it a break – cook, go for long walks, exercise, knit –  and give yourself a bit of time before writing becomes fun and interesting again.

Read poetry: this is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get out of the writer’s block rut. Read poetry that you love – Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost. Pick a poet you admire and read his or her work  everyday.  I promise that this will get your creativity flowing again.

Write letters and emails: Even the most exhausted writers can find it in themselves to write to friends and family. Look in your address book, see if there are folks you’ve neglected for a while, and write to them. It’s an easy step to get words to connect to each other in a non-pressured environment, and you will find yourself wanting to write more after your letter is finished. That would be a good time to start the new Hub, article, or short story.

On Writing Well: An Interview with Melanie Gideon

Melanie Gideon, Author of The Slippery Year

Melanie Gideon’s A Slippery Year is one of my personal favorite memoirs. It also stayed on the New York Times’ top ten best-seller list for many weeks, and received rave reviews from NPR, NY Post, San Francisco Chronicle, New Yorker’s Book Bench, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Magazine, Elle, Kirkus, Booklist, BookPage and others.

I asked Melanie what advice she’d give aspiring writers on HubPages, and here are her answers. Thanks Melanie!

1. Expect rejection. A good rule of thumb is 33% of people will love your work, 33% will hate it (unfortunately these people tend to be the most vocal and always on the internet) and 34% won’t care.

2. Don’t give up. If an idea doesn’t work, toss it and dream up a new one.

3. Get feedback and get it early on. I like to work with an editor as I’m writing.

4. Ask yourself if you’re an outliner or a find-the-story-as-you-go-along kind of writer. I outline quite extensively. Many writers don’t, but outlining works for me, for both my non-fiction and fiction. The point is you either have to do the heavy structural lifting on the front end or the back. I like the security of having a roadmap.

5. When your book is published you must separate from it. It will have its own fate out there in the world, and most of that fate is out of your control: how people respond to it; what kinds of reviews you get, if you are reviewed at all, etc. The best advice I was given was imagine your book is a boat. Carry it to the shoreline, launch it, then wave goodbye. The worst thing you can is jump in the water and dog paddle after it. As tempting as it may be to do just that (because who knows if it will sink or swim, find a stiff wind, or founder in dead calm) you must. Your sanity depends on it.

6. One more. Stop Googling yourself. It can only lead to heartbreak.

 

On Writing Well: Writing Groups

Writing can often feel like an isolated occupation, especially when you want feedback on your writing, or are working on a longer piece that takes a great deal of time. Many writers work from home, and miss the companionship and collaboration that other occupations provide.

Joining or creating a writing group may alleviate the sense of feeling marginalized, but sometimes writing groups can be a mixed blessing. That said, if you choose wisely, a good group can give you the sense of community, feedback and support that every writer craves.

Pros:

Creating a sense of community: Writing is a lonely hobby. Unlike art, or music, where the work is immediately accessible by others, writing is secretive, taking place in isolation. To me, one of the nicest things about writer’s groups is taking what is otherwise a lonely occupation and adding a social context where you can share your work with like-minded writers who will add valuable feedback. Which takes me to…

Feedback: As a writer, it’s very important to have constructive criticism of your writing. In the best writing groups, your writing mates will pinpoint the exact places in which your writing can be improved, and give you specific ways to improve your style, content and grammar. If you have the right writing group, you will be able to also get insight into what makes your individual writing shine. This is very helpful indeed, for often when we write, we lose the necessary distance required to see the strengths and weaknesses of our own writing. A writing group will give you that.

Cons:

Bullying: Ever watched Mean Girls? Remember how awfully mean the popular Plastics were to everyone else? Writing groups can be that way too. Writing is awfully personal – everyone has their opinions on what makes great writing, and often in a bad writing group, one person’s objective opinion of good writing gets pushed down everyone else’s throat, leading to hurt feels, despair and writing block.

Feedback too early in the process: Writing is a multi-layered process. For many writers, the first draft is just a placeholder, an outline, so to speak, to get things like structure, story arc, etc. worked out. Yet, this is a time consuming process and writers often make the mistake of sharing this work because they really want someone to recognize how hard they have worked, and validate their efforts. A well-meaning critic though can tear this apart, trying to give feedback on style and word-choice and development. This misunderstanding also leads to great difficulties for all parties.

On Writing Well: How to Create Brand Awareness as a Writer

As a writer, it’s becoming more and more important to market yourself to your readers, to create a brand perception by which you will be recognized so that your readers are able to seek out your writing. Wonderful as it sounds, very few writers successfully manage to create enough awareness of themselves, let alone create a positive brand perception, so that they are invited to reading events or to submit work for journals.

Yet it is not very difficult to create brand awareness, and many of the tools – regular writing, personal style, social media marketing – are easily available to all writers, regardless of how long they have been crafting their work.

Keep a constant stream of writing

As a writer hoping to create a specific brand awareness of your writing and of yourself as a writer, you must set up a regular stream of writing. You have seen examples of this, have you not? A writer who publishes a book every summer as opposed to a writer who last published seven years ago, and has not been heard from since, not even within an essay or a short story? Of the two, who is it that you have a stronger recollection of?

Readings and events

As a writer, you are both the words on the page, and also the creator of the work. Writers who stick the longest in the memory are those with whom the reader has had some positive interaction. Hubber Thooghun agrees, “The best exposure I have ever received for my personal writing (including projects and job offers — no lie!) came from public readings and guest writing in literary journals. The latter was immensely rewarding. I’m quite a good orator so the fact that I “acted” my work out made it appear better than it probably was.” As a writer, most of us want to hide behind the page, and don’t want to have the public interaction that Thooghun describes. But it does work magic for creating brand awareness. If you are so inclined, you could also record your reading, and post it on YouTube or even create a series of podcasts.

Social Media

Social media has made it a lot easier for writers to get their name out there. Posting your writing on Facebook and tweeting your work to your friends and followers is a great way to publicize what you’ve been working on. It also creates the potential of going viral. Hubber laral recommends this technique as well – laral says, “Create a Facebook page and finally send your work for reviews to relevant magazines, newspapers and editors.” I agree!

Specific voice

This point has come up before in my previous post. The more recognizable and unique your voice is, the closer you are to having a brand perception working for you. Whether you write exactly as you speak, or have a humorous or ironic style of writing, you’d be best served to stick to it within all your writing.

On Writing Well: An Interview with Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords

As a part of our On Writing Well series we reached out to Mark Coker, the CEO and founder of Smashwords, an eBook publishing company. As so many of our Hubbers have literary ambitions and given the growing success of eBooks, I believe that Mark’s advice on writing well will be very valuable to our community.  His advice on editing, writing, and publishing are very accurate and wise. Thanks Mark for sharing your story with HubPages’ writers!

1. What would the best advice you’d offer writers about the writing process?
Writing is the easy part.  Editing and revision is the difficult part, because that’s where masterpieces are made.  Writers should strive for masterpiece, in the sense that you must honor the reader with a great story.  When my wife and I wrote our novel, Boob Tube, the first draft was nearly 200,000 words.  It took us three years and nearly a dozen major revisions to trim it down to its current svelte 86,000 words.  Each revision was grueling and painful, but the new draft that emerged each time was better.

2. How important is it for a writer to have community support?
Without community, writers are writing in a vacuum.  It’s more important than ever for writers to work together to share knowledge and experience.  Writing is a craft and a skill you will hone your entire lifetime.  Surround yourself with writers greater than yourself.  Be a sponge and learn from them, and then return the favor by sharing your knowledge with your fellow writers.  When writers work to contribute to their fellow writers’ success, new doors of opportunity open for everyone.

3. Tell us about Smashwords and why you started it.
Smashwords is probably the largest eBook publishing and distribution platform for indie authors.  In the last three years, we’ve helped over 22,000 authors from around the world publish and distribute over 55,000 eBooks.  Most of the biggest names in indie publishing are Smashwords authors.

The idea for Smashwords grew out of my experience as an author.  My wife and I were fortunate enough to have representation by one of New York’s most respected literary agencies, yet after two years they were unable to sell our book to a New York publisher.  Our book explores the wild and wacky world of daytime television soap operas (my wife is a former reporter for Soap Opera Weekly Magazine).  Publishers questioned whether there was a large enough commercial market for a book targeting soap opera fans.  Previous soap opera-themed novels had fared poorly.  They all rejected us.

As you might imagine, it was a disappointing experience.  My wife and I had put our lives on hold to spend four years on this novel. We pour our hearts and souls into it. Our beta readers loved it.  Yet publishers had the power to deny us a chance to reach readers.

After much contemplation, I came to the conclusion that the business of New York book publishing was broken.  Publishers are unable to take a risk on every author.  They say no to most authors.  They reject great authors.  They look at what sold well yesterday then acquire imitation titles today that they’ll then publish 12-18 months from tomorrow.  It’s a backward looking business that stifles creativity and limits reader choice.

With Smashwords, I saw an opportunity to create an online publishing platform that would allow any author, anywhere in the world, to professionally publish an eBook. We launched the business in 2008, and then in the following year we expanded into distribution.  We now distribute our books to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and several others.

5. What is your favorite thing about HubPages?
I like the democratic aspect of HubPages.  HubPages is doing for web content what Smashwords is doing for eBooks.  You’re providing a free publishing platform that helps connect writers with readers.  The best writers who honor their readers with words worth reading will float to the top, attract more readers and earn more income.  I see services such as HubPages and Smashwords as mutually complementary tools to help writers build readership and grow their platforms.

[Thanks, Mark Coker!]