Starting Out as a Writer: 5 Things You Should Know

I did a guest post today called “Starting Out As A Writer – 5 Things You Should Know” on the What’s on the Bookshelf blog. I thought I would re-post part of it here for my writer followers who are starting out on their journey toward authorship.


Five things you need to know:

1. This isn’t easy. But it’s POSSIBLE. As ‘aspiring’ authors, I think we often underestimate two things about established authors: (a) how hard they work, and (b) how accessible a writing career can be. We imagine that writing for a living is a cushy job for the fortunate few, who roll out of bed and fart out a bestseller on their way to cocktails at noon. I don’t think that’s ever been true, and certainly the age of eBooks and self-publishing has opened the field for more hard-working writers than ever to earn a living with their craft. It’s as much about working your ass off as it is about getting a ‘big break.’

==> Read the other four things you need to know at What’s on the Bookshelf.


Front Matter is moving to!

Hello, writer friends!

Me in 1979, thinking of the topic for my very first blog...

Me in 1979, thinking of the topic for my very first blog…

Just a quick post to let you know that this blog will be moving to my new, improved and GORGEOUS website ( Please feel free to visit there anytime and follow with wordpress, or click the link below to sign up for the RSS right here, right now.

If you’re interested in mostly the writing challenges and self-publishing experience, you’ll want to check out the “Writing and Publishing” category at the bottom of the column on the left. But there’s lots of other fun stuff, too.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

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What would you take to the basement?

tornadoTechnically, tornado season in my home state of Georgia runs from March until June. If you’ve ever lived in the Southeast, you know the reality feels more like January to October. It seems that every-other week, we’re hearing the sirens and watching the local news for indications that it’s time to hit the basement. We had exactly that experience tonight: my husband screeched into the driveway on two tires so we could bundle the kids and a fresh bag of Taco Bell down the basement, minutes ahead of the scary-dark sky.

This is far more fun in our new house, where we have a real basement with actual walls and a couch and TV. We had a picnic and the boys played while the storm passed far overhead, quickly dissipating into nothing. Our old house (where we lived until just a couple of weeks ago) had only a partial basement, which was unfinished and had windows on all sides, so our “refuge” was a tiny utility closet with a concrete floor covered in dead bugs and a couple of 200-year old plastic air fresheners on the walls. The last time we all had to go down there, we all crammed into the closet with me crouching over the baby in his car seat, trying to make his big brother as comfortable as possible in a half-unfolded camp chair while their dad and I ducked under the rough wooden shelves, listening to the weather on our phones and anxiously awaiting our release.

Whether you’re cramped in a utility closet or relaxing in subterranean luxury, however, the basic thought is the same during a potential tornado: “If we had to, we could start over. As long as we have each other, whatever gets obliterated upstairs doesn’t matter.” The danger forces you to huddle together and acknowledge, even for just a few minutes, what the most important components of your life really are. It’s not the clothes or the knick-knacks or the TV. It’s not even the books or the photos. It’s the people you love. Everything else can be replaced or at least survived.

Later, with the storm passed, I began to think tonight about how this concept can also apply to writing. I’ve been struggling with my current WIP: not knowing how to grow it from what I’ve already written, dealing with the vague sense that some things are not quite right, but hesitant to blindly butcher it…. You’ve been there.

So tonight I thought, “If I had to rescue just the bare essentials of this book, what would I keep?” Rather than trying to decide what to cut, I began to think about what to take to the proverbial basement. What about this work is so essential that I could start over with only those pieces? My plan is, in a new document, to jot down only those elements the story cannot live without, and ditch (at least temporarily) everything else. Of course it’s hard, just like starting over without the contents of my family’s home and closets would be hard.

But sometimes a fresh start can lead to great, new things – and teach you what is most valuable in the process. Sometimes forcing yourself to live without the elements you’ve accumulated over time leaves you space to write something even better, even truer to the story’s essentials. And in my experience, if you know what’s essential, anything is possible.

Only a Writer or Therapist Would Find the Junk Drawer Significant


“I knew you’d come back for me.”

Luckily for me, I’m both (or at least have been both in the recent past).

I was cleaning out our junk drawer the other day – because we’re getting ready to move, not because I was desperately looking for procrastination excuses – and near the end of my task I glanced down to find it just as it’s pictured here. It struck me as mildly poetic somehow, so I took a break and snapped a picture. Ordinary objects can be fertile ground for writing if you look with the right eye…

In our house, the junk drawer is the catch-all place, where for some reason we keep life’s everyday essentials (scissors and pens) buried alongside the crap we will never, ever use again under any circumstances (year-old soy sauce and manuals to phones I recycled years ago). It’s the one place in the house where hoarding is normal and accepted, even in the tidiest, most minimalist homes. And in my home, which is neither tidy nor minimalist, it’s a place where the crazy really shows. This picture is just the 10% that was left at the bottom.

The writer’s brain is a lot like a junk drawer. We stow things away — both purposefully and at whim — never really knowing if they will resurface, or if they do, if they’ll be useful. An idea that seems essential to our work one minute can become trite and irrelevant the next. Or we scribble something thoughtlessly, only to find it again months later with fresh eyes and find it’s exactly what we need at a crucial moment in a story. It’s a beautiful process of acquiring, storing, and finally (painfully) purging ideas until we have something inspiring or useful to share. It’s good to have a quantity of stuff to draw from, but only when we’re willing to take the time to filter through it will we have the opportunity to see things clearly.

So when was the last time you went through the clutter from your own junk drawer, literally or figuratively? What inspiration can you find at the bottom of your pile — or mine, for that matter? It could be an army guy next to a poignant Taco Bell sauce packet, a mystery key, or a bag of dice. Or maybe an idea that got shelved months ago because it wasn’t ready for the world. Inspiration for a brand new story, or simply texture for a work in progress. Either way, maybe it’s time to revisit something you’ve stashed away, so that you can either toss it aside forever or give it a new life in the light of day.

I’d love to read junk-drawer stories – please link in the comments if you write one!

Anyone Else Suffering from Social Media Exhaustion?

I was cruising my social media universe the other day – it seems all I’ve been able to manage in 2013 is a little cruising – when I came across something that sort of disturbed me. I won’t link to it (a) because I can’t find it and (b) I don’t want to come across as critical of someone who has clearly mastered social media marketing in a way that is far beyond me.

This blogger/writer was touting the benefits of a particular social network site (it might have been Triberr or something, I truthfully can’t remember) and she was commenting that she really liked the auto-approval feature, which allowed her guest posters to post blogs, etc., during the week she was away for vacation or a conference and wouldn’t be available 24/7 to approve posts. Which sounds simply lovely, in terms of functionality. If you are a super-mega-blogger with tons of contributors and followers, I’m sure auto-approve is a convenient and helpful feature. In terms of scale, this person was sort of like the Emperor of Prussia, while I am more like the manager of a convenience store. And that’s all good.

What bothered me about the post was the next statement. It was something to the effect of, “I would hate for my social media venues to go silent for a week while I was away.” And I thought, REALLY? You can never just be ‘off’?


For me, social media is all about genuine connection, learning something new, and having a venue to post ideas I find interesting or informative (mine or others). Yes, it’s about reaching readers and marketing as well, but as I’ve matured in my experience that has become less the focus for me.

Between the kids, non-writing work, managing a household, and everything else; just finding time to write is challenging. To have to be constantly “on” social media as well… wow. Just wow. Some people seem to do it — tweeting every few minutes, blogging three times a week, guest posting, reading and retweeting others. I just don’t know where they find the time. And I wonder (and maybe readers wonder too) how they can produce quality writing while they’re spending so much time being social.

In the end, it’s probably a matter of time, situation and personal style. I can’t tweet forty times a day and be genuine, the same way I can’t write a novel every six weeks and do my best work. But I have a one year old and a three year old, so maybe those who are super-present on social media have more time (and less yogurt smeared on their laptops) than I do. Or maybe they work harder. Maybe they simply want it more.

It will be interesting to see, if we have a way of measuring such things in the long run, whether authors who are ultra-active on social media have more success than those who post less frequently or those who abstain entirely. Certainly it seems unwise to stay away altogether (unless you’re J.K. Rowling, and then you can do whatever you want), but I have to feel there must be diminishing return for time spent posting and re-posting, especially instead of writing and revising, past a certain point.

Could it be that in our frantic race to get noticed by readers and other writers, we are creating expectations for online activity that are completely unsustainable over the long run? Are we watering down the tools we love, and our communal dialogue, through ever-increasing quantity and ever-thinning quality? Could it be that we are contributing to information overload, flooding our followers with information that is often repetitive and only marginally useful or entertaining?

Or maybe I’m just rationalizing my own laziness. It could totally be that, too.

{By the way, happy new year, everyone!}

What to Get your Favorite Writer for the Holidays

If you have a writer in your life — and really, who doesn’t? — you may be wondering what to get for him or her this holiday season. Naturally, I have some helpful suggestions, sure to bring a smile to the wordsmith in your life.

An autographed copy of his favorite book by his favorite author. If you’re considering this option, you’re either very thoughtful or very wealthy. Or both. Good for you. That being the case, you have already probably bought your writer friend countless dinners when he was short on cash, and maybe even filled his decade-old Honda Civic with gas once or twice. So this is that extra-mile gift, the one that says “Dude, enjoy this, because it’s the last thing you are getting from me until you can start paying for your share of the pizza.” The nice thing about this gift is that the scrawled inscription of his hero will inspire and encourage him when he’s feeling positive, and shame him mercilessly when he’s flailing around in self-doubt and indecision. Just like you would do if you could be there. Awww.

An office supply store gift card. It sounds trite, but if the writer in your life is anything like me, there is no place she would rather kill writing time than an office supply store. Leather bound journals with blank pages we can stare at for hours. Planners, calendars, list-makers, and grid paper — all suitable for outlining complex plots and ingenious ways of tricking ourselves into writing on a regular schedule. Folders, binders, notebooks. And color coding — oh my goodness. Innumerable tools — maps, software packages, reference guides — that we can use for “research.” And the pens. Dear God, the pens. It’s all such a turn-on. Not a figurative turn-on, either, but a serious, heavy-breathing, inky-fingered sexual thrill. Your writer will open that envelope, give an involuntary gasp, and whisper “I am going to procrastinate. I am going to procrastinate so damn hard.” And you thought this would be impersonal.

A free pass to use something from your life in her novel. This is kind of like the coupons that lovers give one another for free shoulder rubs or a night of doing the dishes. Except you’re giving over a part of yourself. It could be something quirky about you, like the fact that you have to line your food up alphabetically in the pantry before you can make dinner (which will make her hard-as-nails feminist detective seem more human and approachable) or something deeply personal, like your history of dating jerks who look suspiciously like your father. You don’t really get to choose, actually, but one day you’ll be reading your friend’s novel and come across a bit of you, right there in black and white for the whole world to read. Your cheeks will flush with embarrassment and anger. You will confront your friend, and she’ll give you a sheepish grin and the coupon you gave her in December 2012. Voila! Friendship saved. Not to mention you don’t have to spend a dime on her for the holidays this year. Lord knows she won’t be spending much on you.

A crappy childhood. Every writer needs a suffocatingly boring, chronically strained or downright traumatic childhood he can draw from in his writing. To be effective, a childhood must be happy enough to produce a semi-stable human being, and yet awful enough to provide the rich experience (and perpetual ennui) needed to be a successful writer. Now, unless you are the parent of an adolescent novelist, it may be too late to give your writer the crappy childhood he really needs. But what you can do is sort of a reverse Pollyanna: ask your writer to talk about his life, and point out the terrible side of everything he says. Grew up middle-class in a suburban home with unassuming parents who stayed together and loved him? Sounds like a bunch of vanilla, Stepford, cultural fascists to me… You get the idea.

A Kindle, nook, or iPad, pre-loaded with her favorite authors and the MLA style guide. There’s no snarky explanation for this one. That’s a damn nice gift. Need another writer friend? I’m available!

NaNoWriMo – How’d You Do?

It’s the first Monday of December, and all over the world, the participants of NaNoWriMo are either (a) celebrating their huge accomplishments, (b) explaining at length why they fell short of their goals, or (c) trying to pretend that they never really set out to do this crazy 50,000 word project anyway. It’s like the morning after a raging bachelor party: everyone is either trying to make it sound like it was more fun than it really was, or to distance themselves from the humiliation as much as possible.

I want to congratulate my two virtual writing buddies, Ann and Gus, who both made the goal and are Winners in the eyes of NaNoWriMo and everyone else who knows them. Awesome, guys!

As for me and the three R’s (my little group of friends here in Atlanta), we are a mixed bag. Ross, the one among us who had the least writing experience and the most ambitious energy at the outset is by far in the best shape: He made it well past 30,000 words and realized that his entire project could be completed in less than 40,000; so even though he is not in sight of the official 50K goal, going from nothing to an almost-complete novella is nothing to sneeze at.

The second R, Rob, developed an outstanding concept out of nowhere, and clocked several thousand words in the first couple of weeks. This being his first foray into creative writing in several years, I would venture to say he’s in the process of learning how long-form fiction can fit into his busy life. There’s also something extra challenging about having NO IDEA where you are going with a piece when you start. He was really brave to sit down and attempt it, and I’m hoping he will stick with the idea that formed in the coming months as it germinates and grows.

The remaining two of us abandoned our projects mid-stream, both realizing that our energies needed to go elsewhere in our writing lives (and with a household that could not stay healthy during November, I had fewer energies than usual to begin with). My friend Ryan realized he was essentially writing a prequel to the actual novel he wants to write; while I found myself lured away by a different project altogether.

Yes, I was distracted by a shiny object and, no, I’m not even all that embarrassed about it. I’ve come to respect and embrace this as part of my process. I’ve also come to realize that there is no way to say the words “part of my process” without sounding like a complete ass. And there you have it.

As of now, I don’t think I’ll be back next November. I wrote earlier about how I don’t think NaNoWriMo suits my working style at this point in life. I am, however, trying to capture the urgency and non-critical writing that comes with it. The other aspect of NaNoWriMo that is key is about making writing a priority: asking for help from partners, taking time out from other hobbies and activities, etc. I’m not someone who can put writing first every single day — at least not at this stage — but I do think it’s helpful to see how much I can accomplish when I bump it higher on my priority list.

What about you guys? Did you participate this year? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time?