One piece of writing advice that I’ve really tried to take to heart is “Write what scares you”. I feel like some of my best, most authentic pieces have come from trying to follow this adage. But how does one do that? Like many things, writing what scares you is far easier said than done, but below are three things that have helped me as I’ve tried to tap into the parts of myself that would rather stay safe out of sight.
Take some time to be alone
A lot of times, there can be few things more helpful than writing with a partner or writing in a group. I don’t know what it is, but some of my most positive writing experiences have come out of group writing. But when you’re trying to write what scares you, it’s best to take some time to be alone. If you haven’t spent much time on your own, here’s a prime opportunity to get to know yourself a little better.
Allow yourself to be uncomfortable
Sitting with your deepest fears is not a comfortable experience. It’s not something many of us enjoy doing. You’re going to want to squirm away and do something, anything else. But like most things in life, the uncomfortable things are often the things most worth doing. Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable and stick with it.
Get curious about your emotions
If, as your spending time alone, you stumble across something that makes you uncomfortable, get curious about that emotion. Engage with it, rather than suppressing it or trying to make it just go away. In order to write what scares you, it’s not enough to know what that thing is, but you’ll also need to know why – why does that thing scare you? Because chances are the reason it scares you is the same reason it will scare someone else. It will be the thing that makes your piece resonate.
Inspiration can come from anywhere and often strikes at the most unexpected of moments. Often when you most need it, it’s the hardest to find. As a writer, and really as someone who endeavors to be creative in general, I’ve learned that you can’t rely on inspiration to appear to you. Rather you have to go out and seek it or, sometimes, learn to work without it. For those seeking a little inspiration, for my post today I’ve decided to compile a list of my five favorite inspirational quotes. They help me when I need a pick-me up, hopefully they’ll help you too!
“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.” – Joseph Campbell
“Nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.” – Marie Curie
“Yes, I’ve always been a dreamer, and yes, I have always tried. And dreams are special things. But dreams are of no value if they’re not equipped with wings and feet and hands and all that. If you’re going to make a dream come true, you’ve got to work with it. You can’t just sit around. That’s a wish. That’s not a dream.” – Dolly Parton
“Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” – Ella Fitzgerald
“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” – John F. Kennedy
There comes a time in most writers’ lives when the allure of being published becomes too strong to resist. We all, in our own way, write for ourselves, of course, but the idea that a wider audience could enjoy our work; that someone unknown to us could pick up an issue or click through to a website and see what we’ve written and be touched in some way is an idea that is hard to resist.
But how to go about it? Submitting to journals for publication is, to many, a complex process and a frightening prospect. How do I know I’ve picked the right journal for my work? Should I pay to submit my piece? How many times do I try before I give up? Below are five tips that have helped me be mildly successful as I navigate the wide world of submitting and publishing my shorter pieces. I will add, of course, that asking my fellow writers for advice and assistance has been a great help as well, and encourage anyone reading this to reach out to me with questions – I’ll answer the best I can!
Read past issues of the journal your submitting to
Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it’s a good piece of advice to try and put into practice none the less. If the journal you are submitting to has any of the work they’ve previously accepted available to read, even if it’s just excerpts, READ IT. See how your own work compares in terms of tone, style, and subject matter. This is a good opportunity for you to vet the magazine and see if you want your work to be represented with them, as well as an opportunity to see if your work has a chance of being selected based on what the journal has previously gravitated towards.
Pay attention to formatting guidelines
No matter how good your work is, you have to abide by journals’ formatting guidelines when submitting. Read submission guidelines carefully! In my experience every journal is a little bit different: some don’t want any identifying information on a submission, some want identifying information, but only in a certain place within the document, some don’t care, some only except PDFs, some anything but PDFs, etc. etc. These journals receive hundreds, thousands of submissions a period and are looking for any way to whittle down their pool of possible publications. Don’t get your piece thrown out simply because you didn’t follow instructions!
Track your submissions
It’s time to break out that excel, baby. You’re going to need to keep track of when you submitted, to whom, what you submitted, when you can expect to hear back, and ultimately what you heard back. This is important because you’re probably going to be engaging in what they call “simultaneous submissions”, a.k.a. submitting the same piece to multiple journals. And when (not IF, WHEN) that piece gets accepted somewhere, you’ll need to make sure you let all the other journals you submitted to know that the work is no longer available.
With any luck, a majority of the journals you’ll be submitting to will use a tool called Submittable. Submittable will become your new best friend as it will do all this tracking for you. I love Submittable, as it even has a feature where you can search through journals that are currently open for submissions. Pretty much if a journal doesn’t do submissions through Submittable, I think twice before sending my work their way, simply because it means an extra step for me in keeping track of the process.
Watch how much you’re spending
The sad truth is that submitting to journals can get expensive fast. Whether you’re just hoping to get published in someone’s next issue or you’re going for a special cash prize of some sort, I’d say about 75% of the time there is a fee involved in submitting. Now that does mean that 25% of the time, there is no fee! You can find opportunities out there that are free if paying even a nominal fee to have your work considered just isn’t in the cards for you right now (I think we’ve all been there). All that being said, most journals will charge anywhere from $3-$10 for a normal submission, to as much as $30 or $40 for a contest submission. Keep an eye on your budget, weigh the cost/benefit of the opportunity, and use your best judgement when submitting! Even if you’re sticking to the $3 a pop submissions, those can add up quick!
The very first time you put your piece out there, it gets rejected. Fair enough, you think, and you go back and give the piece another look. Maybe you revise it a little and then try again. Another rejection. Perhaps there’s something wrong with the piece you’re just not seeing. You put it out to a critique group and get some thoughtful feedback, feedback you could’ve never gotten on your own. You tweak the piece some more and submit again, confident it’s as good as you can make it.
It gets rejected again.
I’m not the first person to say it, I certainly won’t be the last, but it’s at this point that I must urge you: DON’T GIVE UP. There are any number of reasons a piece gets rejected, and many of them having nothing to do with the quality of the piece. If you truly think you have something worth publishing and you know in your heart of hearts it’s as good as it can possibly be, keep submitting the piece. Use the steps above to make sure you’re submitting to the right places and losing as little as possible in this admittedly painful process, but keep trying. Someone, the right someone, is going to read your work and love it. But if you stop putting it out there, they’ll never find it. Don’t give up.
I’ve given myself a personal goal – to write 1,000 words a day, five days a week. In the grand scheme of things I’m not sure if this is a lofty goal or a laughable one, but to me it feels manageable; just tough enough that I feel proud when I accomplish it, but not so hard that I might as well quit before I even begin. But what do I do on those days when I’m at a loss for inspiration? I’m not blocked, necessarily, I just…have no new ideas! Do I stare at the blank page and just wait for something to come to me? Honestly, I’ve given that a shot and sometimes, just sometimes, it works. But most of the time I’m left feeling frustrated and useless. There has to be a better way.
Below are five things that I do when I’m in need of a little inspiration. Hopefully they’ll be able to help you track down your uncooperative muse too!
Read something different
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. If you’re all out of ideas, pick up something you would never read in a million years and give it a whirl. Never read any Faulkner? No time like the present! Hate romances? Try reading a chapter or two. Even if you don’t find anything you want to emulate, you may get an idea of something opposite that you want to try and write up.
Listen to music
There’s something about just letting your mind wander as you listen to music. It’s not the same as staring at a blank screen and trying to squeeze out thoughts like toothpaste out of an empty tube. It’s more organic than that. Listening to music while courting the muse gives ideas space to grow and come into their own. Indeed, science has shown that listening to music helps improve cognition, enhance learning and memory, and even help encourage creativity or ‘divergent thinking’. I like putting on some jazz in the background when I’m struggling with thinking of new things to write, but whatever works for you, pump it up!
Go back through abandoned pieces
If you’re like me you have a stack of half-finished short stories and novels that, for one reason or another, you never got back to. If you find yourself in a creative rut, now is the perfect time to delve into that mine of material and see what gems you can uncover. You might find that a piece you were working on is really close to being done, and only needs a few more bits and bobs that you were at a loss to provide before but now can see clearly. You may still not know what to do with a novel idea but love one of the characters you developed for it and want to use them in something else. The mind boggles at the possibilities.
Draw from real life
If no new ideas are springing to mind, don’t be afraid to draw from things that are happening in real life. They don’t have to be huge, world-changing things either (though they can be if you want them to be). You can start writing a story about a person putting together a grocery list and who then finds a mysterious item in the back of their cabinet. You can start writing a story about someone taking their dog for a walk when they suddenly run into their old nemesis from high school. Most of the world’s best stories have mundane beginnings; don’t be afraid to start with the ordinary and write to the extraordinary!
Give yourself permission to write something terrible
I find that what stops me from starting something new sometimes isn’t just a lack of new ideas, but a fear that whatever I put down won’t be ‘good’, whatever that arbitrary little word happens to mean at the moment. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is get out of your own way, and the way I do that when searching for new ideas is, right from the get go, by giving myself permission to write something terrible. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be something. When I do this, when I let go of self-expectation, I find that those new ideas flow a lot easier from my head down through my fingers and onto paper. Who cares if I don’t capture the idea perfectly the first time? I’ve given myself carte blanche to mess it up. The important thing is that I’m writing at all. That, after all, is the goal: to write and to write often. Editing and polishing can and should always happen later.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned”. This is a famous quote, often used when talking about the subject I wish to address today: how to know when a piece of writing is done. It’s a simple enough question. When am I finished? By what yardstick can I measure completeness when it comes to my work? But for such a simple question the answers are very complicated. Drawing from my own experience, here are the four signs that I look for when I’m working to determine whether or not the end is nigh for one of my pieces. These are guideposts that help me, hopefully they can help you too!
You’re only making minor changes to the piece
In this article I’m assuming you’ve been editing your piece for a while now. If you haven’t done at least three or four full-blown edits of your piece, do that first or you’re not even close to being done. But assuming you’ve done that, and you’re still tweaking and working with the piece, you’re eventually going to reach a point where you’re only making minor changes. Adjusting sentence structure ever so slightly, triple checking grammar, deleting a word and then putting it back – if you’re consistently doing these things and nothing more major, it’s a good sign that your piece is close to done.
The piece has been beta read
If you’re not ready to have the piece read by someone else in a critical fashion, the piece is nowhere near done yet. Beta readers are invaluable at giving you feedback on the overall merits of your work and can help identify those last few major issues that you might be struggling with. Besides, to me a piece is never really done until someone else has laid eyes on it. Then it becomes a real thing, rather than just something I’m playing with in my spare time.
You can walk away from the piece
If you can leave the piece for a few days or even a few weeks without feeling compelled to work on it, that’s a good sign that the piece is done. Still compulsively going back to make minor edits? See #1.
As a side note, if you haven’t let the piece rest at all during your time working with it, now would be a great opportunity to do so. I’ve said so before in other articles, but I believe that a piece of writing is like a good bottle of wine – you have to let it alone to breathe before it can be fully appreciated. If you think you’re done but you haven’t stepped away from the piece at all, try it. You might be surprised by what you find when you come back to it.
You feel good about the piece
Notice that I said “good”; not that you feel “happy” with the piece, or that the piece is “perfect” or that you “know” that the piece is done. Just check in with yourself and ask, “Do I feel good about this piece? As it stands right now, am I comfortable with it?”
I’m a perfectionist, which means I have a hard time letting go of my work. I’ve had to teach myself to accept that no piece of mine is ever going to be ‘perfect’, whatever the hell that means anyway. Put I can strive for what I call in my mind ‘solid’. A solid piece, a piece that I feel stands up to scrutiny and says something, has become my standard of success. When I read over a piece and think to myself, “Yes, this piece is solid”, that’s when I know I’m done.
Each writer has to determine for themselves what they are striving for, but I urge you now, for your own sanity, make it something achievable. Set yourself a standard and meet it. That’s how you know you’re done with a piece.