On Writing

A place for dreams, advice, and essays on writing.

A Meditation on the Subject of Whole Assing

Image via Flickr by The Huntington

Image via Flickr by The Huntington

“Don’t half-ass two things, whole ass one thing.” – Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

For the last three years I have split my time, creative energy, and care between writing and yoga instructing. In many ways, these two art forms complement one another. As a yoga instructor I have large stretches of free time during the day in which to write (or avoid writing by manically cleaning the house). As a writer, I’ve honed my ability to tell stories, which I frequently use to elevate my class from a calisthenic mediation to a true lesson. Yet, despite the overlap, I can’t help a niggling worry that I am short-changing each by pursuing the other.

Part of my problem is mental. Sometimes I think of myself as an aspiring writer who teaches yoga to pay the bills until my writing will. Then the next day I will think of myself as a yoga instructor who writes. This distinction may seem trivial, but I am a firm believer in definitions and their power to shape our world.

When I feel like I am primarily a writer, I am more diligent about writing everyday. It’s not always fun. Writing feels like pulling teeth as often as it feels like legos snapping satisfactorily into place. But I do it and my teaching suffers. Not a lot, but it’s noticeable. Maybe I’m teaching the same sequence as last week because I haven’t gotten my own ass to the mat as a student in all that time. I could be using an old playlist or my delivery is just a little off because I’m not quite in the rhythm of the class.

When I feel like I am mostly a yoga instructor it’s much the same, but in reverse. I make it to the studio as a student, study yoga, and teach some phenomenal classes, but I don’t write much. Though, in truth, it’s rarely that binary. It’s a spectrum from fully whole assing one thing, to half-assing both right in the middle and there’s the trouble.

You might justly question my premise by asking, “Why can’t you do both well? Does it really have to be one or the other?”

There have been stretches of time when I felt like I could whole ass two things, where I committed myself to studying and practicing writing and yoga while also teaching yoga professionally. They never last. The truth is: I only have so much time, creative energy, and gumption. If I were to put in enough time and effort into both arts to feel like I was doing the best possible job at both, I would be working somewhere around 60-80 hours per week. That kind of schedule is possible, but it’s hard to sustain, particularly because so much of that work needs to be self-motivated.

So, what’s the solution?

I believe it’s a pivot, in one direction or the other. Choosing to “whole ass one thing,” as Ron would say. But which way? That’s the question.

In a way, I’ve already spun the wheel by applying to several fully funded creative writing MFA programs. If I get accepted to one, and choose to go, I will be committing to honing my craft as a writer and will be paid for doing so…

Yet, I almost hope I don’t get into any of them. Part of me compares the hours I’ve spent grinding out pages to the hours spent teaching and knows which I prefer. Please don’t misunderstand. I do love writing. Like right now, when this question feels so urgent it’s burning the back of my throat. Writing helps me sort things out. I find its precision and craft beautiful.

Yet, I don’t generally stand up from a hard session at the keyboard feeling better than when I sat down. Usually the words either come or they don’t. There are breakthrough moments where I get passed a place where I was stuck, and that feels fantastic, but most of the time it’s more consistent than that. When I teach yoga, on the other hand, I almost always feel better by the end of class than I did at the beginning. In fact, I feel better at the end of the day when I teach four classes than I do on my day off. Exhausted, yes, physically and emotionally, but deeply content.

Again, with the information you now posses, you might question why this is even a struggle. “That sounds like a pretty clear indicator,” you might say. “Why don’t you just devote yourself to yoga for a while? You can still write when the urge strikes, right?”

I might just do that. I can feel the my heart spiraling closer to that conclusion, but there’s another factor. I am afraid.

Right now I make enough money to support myself in what my mother calls “a holding pattern.” I’m not worried about feeding myself or paying my bills, but I’m not putting much aside. Looming household expenses like buying a new furnace, or reroofing the garage, threaten to wipe out my meager savings. Committing to being a yoga instructor feels like committing to that uncertainty.

More than that, however, is learning to value a different type of knowledge. Wisdom and a deep knowing in one’s body might sound laudable, particularly in my circles, but in society’s eyes, it sure doesn’t beat the prestige of a master’s degree. As much as it pains me, I am a creature of society. I am a rule follower. I want to think well of myself and want others – particularly my brilliant, well-educated family – to think well of me. Somehow, trying to make yoga more than just a holding pattern doesn’t feel like it’s as legitimate a pursuit as writing. Part of me knows that my family will value me and think well of me no matter what I decide, but fears of being thought less than I could be blend with my more practical money worries into a potent fearful soup.

So, what am I to do?

Well, today, I submitted my last MFA application for the year. In February I will take a break from writing regularly to see how it feels. If the urge strikes, I’ll write, but I won’t force myself to the keyboard. I will take this time for myself and my yoga practice. We’ll see what happens from there.

3 Blog Posts You Need to Stop Writing Immediately

Image via Flickr by Tanmayee Deshprabhu

Image via Flickr by Tanmayee Deshprabhu

After three years of blogging I feel I need to make a public service announcement. Because these three blog post forms are ubiquitous and pointless.

1. Apologizing After an Absence

When I first started blogging, almost every post began with “I’m sorry this is so late.” Or, I would write a separate post explaining why I wasn’t sticking with my schedule before getting down to the business of the day.

This practice was tedious, embarrassing, and unnecessary.

Unless you’re writing a serial piece with an actual reader base, no one cares if you take a week, or three, off from blogging. The only effect it will have is making your site less visible to Google because the content isn’t “fresh,” so you will get substantially fewer visitors during that time. You’re hurting yourself, not something for which you need to apologize.

The only reason to write an explanation for why you haven’t been posting is if your absence was caused by something significant or interesting. Your pet died. You got married. You were on a life-changing retreat in India. If it helps your readers connect to you, fine, but no one cares if you were just lazy.

2. Writing Without Passion

“Write about something that feels urgent to you.”

So said my personal essay professor in college and it’s still the best advice I can give.

Again, when I first started blogging, I thought that every post needed to be writing related because the site is called “The Ink Slinger Diaries.” This premise led to some pretty uninspired pieces like Young Writer’s Tools: Dialogue Tag Word Bank. The article advises young writers to replace their adverbs with more specific dialogue tags. For example, “he said menacingly” might become “he growled.”

Though the article was sincerely written, this is not actually very good advice and the only reason I haven’t taken the article down is because one of the writers I mentioned in the piece took the time to comment. His short, clear explanation of how and when to use dialogue tags is valuable enough to justify the article’s continuance.

Bottom line: write about things you care about and the quality of your work will be much higher. The diversity of your subject matter may even broaden your reader base.

3. Really Long Articles

Although I still believe this is true, I’m not going to be as strident about this one. I’ve read plenty of engaging blog articles that also happen to be long. However, keep in mind that a long article requires a lot of investment from your reader. Unless you grab them immediately, it’s likely they’ll wander off. That’s just how internet reading works.

I think this goes double for genre writers. Putting up full short stories on your blog is awesome. You’re providing high quality content, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do to attract readership. However, asking someone who just stumbled upon your writing to tackle a 2,000-3,000 word post strikes me as rather ambitious. Not only that, but many authors feel unappreciated when they spend hours working on a short story only to get one or two likes on social media.

I’ve had the most success writing 700-1,200 word essays about things that feel important to me and 250-300 word flash fiction for people to get a taste of my fiction writing voice. Not  only are these articles manageable for my readership, but I can write one or two per week without taking too much time away from my other writing endeavors or feeling slighted if no one reads them.

Like all other “writing rules” these are not absolute. If you can write a long blog post about something you don’t care about while apologizing for an absence and still appeal to a broad readership, more power to you. Sometimes breaking the rules yields amazing results. However, if you’re working hard and struggling to gain traction, examine your article writing strategy to see if you’re vanishing into these common pitfalls.

I Will Be Represented by Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberly Cameron & Associates!

While attending The Antioch Writer’s Workshop in July, 2015, I gave an eight minute pitch to Elizabeth Kracht.

I wasn’t particularly hopeful. In my afternoon critique group I learned that the project I intended to pitch wasn’t even close to ready.

Still, I thought, I have other projects and pitching an agent will be a valuable experience.

I decided to pitch the first in my Sherlock Bones Mystery series, A Study In Cutlets. Although I’d already self-published this work (something I thought might be a deal breaker), I believed in the book and in the series. If any of my work was worthy of publishing, this was it.

Amazingly, Elizabeth, or Liz, agreed. She took the physical book I’d brought for her and asked me to query officially with a cover letter and series sketch. Of course, I completed these as quickly as I could, sent them in, and waited…

Until Tuesday, when she emailed me to set up a phone call…The Phone Call.

I’m ecstatic to announce that she wants to represent A Study In Cutlets and my other Sherlock Bones Mystery books!

She had some suggestions, of course, so over the next few weeks I’ll give my manuscript another look, but it’s the first step.

I’m on my way!

(Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy but I like the song)

Young Writers: Don’t Self-Publish

Allow me to preface this article by saying that I know a lot of good people who self-publish. I fully recognize that it’s possible to become a successful author by self-publishing. This article is not meant deny anyone’s accomplishments or talent. It is simply the advice I wish someone had given me three years ago.

If writing is your passion, self-publishing is a gratifying option. When you tell people that you’re a writer they’ll say, “So, is your work available?”

And you can say, “Yes! It’s on Amazon. You can get it on your Kindle or you can order a physical copy. They’ll print one and send it to you. That’s how print on demand works.”

The stranger’s eyebrows will lift. “Wow, isn’t modern technology amazing?”

You’ll smile. “It sure is!”

It’s a nice exchange, one I’ve experienced many times during the last three years as a self-publishing author. If it’s this experience that you’re looking for, you should self-publish.

However, if you want to make writing your profession, not just your passion, traditional publishing is the best way to go.

For an unknown author, it isn’t even close.

This is the tough love missing from the conversation around self-publishing right now.

Or, maybe I just didn’t want to listen to the warning calls when I was making my decision. I don’t know. All I can do is share what I’ve learned and hope that someone will listen to the advice that I did not.

So, here’s why authors who want to make a living selling books should not self-publish. [Read more…]

Why We Write

“Writers start writing either because they see something in print and think, ‘if that got published I could get published!’ or they see something so amazing they say I want to be able to write like that.”

Roughly quoted from memory, the above is Orson Scott Card talking about why writers first devote themselves to the craft. Although Orson Scott Card told many people that he started writing for the first reason, it was actually Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy that convinced him to devote himself to writing. He wanted to make people feel the way that series made him feel.

I think most writers have both of these experiences – more than once in fact.

I also think we can experience both responses to the same book, or series. For example, I can trace my first book, The Grey Heir, to my love of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. As an eighth grader, I devoured that book. It was one of the first that I binge read, finishing it in two blissful days.

Yet, as the series went on, I grew older, more discerning, and (quite probably) more snobbish. I started finding fault with what I felt were needless tangents and (what I saw as) clunky prose.

I thought, “If that book was published and became enormously successful, mine can too.” [Read more…]

Nothing but NaNoWriMo Will Happen in November!

I meant to post this at the beginning of the month, but then didn’t.

If you’re wondering why no new essays have appeared, it’s because I am participating in National Novel Writing Month, which is eating up all my time and energy!

Therefore, our regularly scheduled essays will resume in December.

Have a great Thanksgiving everybody!

Zac

4 Self-Publishing Lessons Learned

I first published The Grey Heir in June, 2013. Sitting here, on this cold October morning, sixteen months later, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve learned and share my new-found wisdom so that future generations of self-publishing authors might tread an easier path than I.

There’s only one problem: I read most of this advice in other authors’ blogs before publishing and I still didn’t listen.

Why should you listen to me when I didn’t listen to those who came before me?

Because what I’m about to share with you isn’t advice. It’s please-for-the-love-of-god-do-this-or-you-will-waste-a-lot-of-time-and-emotional-energy wisdom. [Read more…]

Young Writer’s Tools: Dialogue Tag Word Bank

I was surfing the Web last week and came upon Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers.

Rule #3: Avoid Adverbs.

Rules #4: Avoid Adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”

I began paying attention to my own writing and realized that I used quite a few adverbs, particularly after dialogue tags. This isn’t the end of the world. In fact, I came across another article that provided a compelling defense of adverbs. This article claims adverbs are just another part of speech, and that there aren’t any “rules” in writing unless you’re a weak writer.

That may be true.

It’s also true that it’s easy to abuse adverbs – particularly for a young writer – because they provide quick descriptive phrases like “he said angrily” or “she ran quickly.” There’s nothing wrong with either of these phrases, but, unless you’re accomplishing something specific with the adverb, you’re probably better off saying something like “he fumed,” or “she sprinted.”

So, after noticing my own tendency to use adverbs after dialogue tags, I decided to try to cut them out for a while. I ended up spending a lot of time on thesaurus.com, and found some great dialogue tags. Therefore, I thought I’d start a little word bank, so that writer who are interested in adding some descriptive words (rather than descriptive phrases) would have an easier time of it than I did.

Alternatives to:

“Said angrily”

Exclaimed, Exploded, Ejaculated, Fumed, Flared, Shouted, Roared, Yelled, Screamed, Shrieked, Snapped, Hollered, Raged, Hissed

“Said quietly”

Murmured, Muttered, Sighed, Whispered, Hummed, Insinuated, Mumbled, Purred, Whimpered, Squeaked

“Said happily,”

Joked, Laughed, Beamed, Glowed, Grinned, Sang, Caroled, Chuckled, Chortled, Whooped

“Said sadly”

Groused, Complained, Whined, Cried, Griped, Grumbled, Groaned, Moaned, Fussed, Kvetched

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list. It is, however, enough to get you started.

If you have any favorite dialogue tags or adverbs that aren’t on this list, please leave them down in the comment section and I’ll add them to the word bank!

 

Earning Every Inch; Setting Expectations Correctly and then Following Through

Almost the first thing a potential eBook author reads when he or she begins to research the subject is, “Don’t expect money to rain from the sky onto your ‘deserving’ head.”

When I read these words at the beginning of my self-publishing journey, my reaction was, “Of course! No one really expects money to just come pouring in! I know it’ll take time to build up a following and then even longer before I start making ‘real’ money.”

The Trap of “Modest” Expectations

What I didn’t realize was that, even though I didn’t expect money to “shower” upon me, I did expect it to drip – even when I wasn’t doing anything. I think to words “book royalties” were too firmly ingrained in my mind. The words conjure an image of an unshaven author in a grey bathrobe and bunny slippers rubbing the sleep from his eyes, getting a check in the mail, and then going back to keep writing his next book.

Maybe that’s really how it is with traditional publishing. I wouldn’t know. With ePublishing, however, just about every single sale I’ve made can be traced to one of my promotional efforts. “Well, that’s perfectly reasonable,” you might say, and with some justification, but think about what that implies: Whenever I’m not actively promoting my book, it’s not selling.

In tangible terms that means that at the beginning of my vacation, my book was ranked on the Kindle bestseller list between 100 and 200 thousand, it is now 532,918. Ouch.

3 Tools for Self-Promoting

So, what’s helped the most?

Here are the 3 promotional tools that have worked best for me:

1) Friends, Family, and Word of Mouth:

Obviously, this one will only take you so far. However, if you haven’t already, definitely send an email to everyone on your contacts list and ask them to send it to everyone on theirs. Probably only your mother will actually do it, but the more “word of mouth” advertising you can get the better and it starts with them.

2) Local Papers:

Research your local papers. If they have an “announcements” section, that can be a good way to get the word out.

3) Twitter:

Although by far the least efficient, I’m pretty sure that Twitter has earned me some sales from people I don’t even know. So, once you exhaust your friends and your home town, turn to the Web!

I’m still working on cross-promoting with other authors and maybe doing some local appearances. I’ll let you know how those turn out, but, until then, just remember: if you’re considering ePublishing, it’s not going to just rain – or even drip – money you don’t earn.

4.5 Things to Avoid When Finding a Day Job as a Writer

After college I had a plan. I was going to commit myself to my writing and work odd jobs to support myself however I could until my writing did. In fact, that’s what this entire blog is about.

Well, in the last seven months I have had seven jobs, six of which have all taken place in the last two months – after I moved out of my mother’s house – and it’s been pretty rough. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: my determination hasn’t changed. The world hasn’t crushed my youthful dreams. What has changed is my understanding of what “supporting myself however I can,” actually means.

Here are a few of the lessons that I think my fellow moonlight artists might find useful:

1: If an interviewer asks you, “What’s the hardest job you’ve ever done,” don’t take the job.

In the spring of 2013 I was looking for a job in Ohio. My plan was to move to Columbus for the summer, working, and living with my girlfriend, and then we’d move at the end of the summer. I had a romantic notion that I wanted to work with my body, outside, so that I would be mentally fresh to continue my writing after work.

Before we continue let me make one thing clear: when you’re physically exhausted, mental exhaustion tends to follow. Fatigue is fatigue and manual labor is not necessarily the key to an artistic life.

Anyway, I found a job as an exterior house painter and I accepted the job, despite the interviewer asking me the fatal question.

I ended up working one day in nearly 100 degree weather, under a blazing sun, on a shaky three story ladder, reaching above my head to paint trim in a moderate wind. The shift lasted twelve hours and I honestly thought I might die, but that brings me to lesson number two. [Read more…]