Posted in Publishing, Writing craft

Don’t publish all your writing! Please!

booksThere’s an old, well-worn maxim that is often quoted in ethics discussions; it applies equally well to us writers: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

The problem that faces writers and would- be writers in the 21st century is that it is actually possible to publish every bit of genius and garbage that we produce.  And it needs to be said that we all produce some garbage, but only a few produce works of genius.  Most of us inhabit that place somewhere between those two extremes in our usual writing.  So we need to make some decisions.  How do we decide what to publish (since writers no longer need anyone’s permission: read publisher), and what should been seen by our eyes only?

After almost a quarter of a century of publishing experience – most via traditional publishers, recent indie experience topped up by more the one unsuccessful partnership with an agent – here I offer you my five sad truths:

1.  Not everything you write is or even should be publishable. Discerning the difference between the publishable and the unpublishable takes honest  and active scrutiny and a capacity to self-censor so to speak.

2.  It is very liberating to know that what you are writing may be for your eyes only. Think about it: you have the luxury of time to write, and maybe it will be something that you’ll share with the world.  Knowing that it doesn’t have to be shared can free you up to write either better or worse than your norm.  It doesn’t matter.

3.  Writing what writing teacher Natalie Goldberg refers to as the worst rubbish can actually act as writing practice.  Just as a concert pianist does not normally have an audience for a practice session, you don’t need (nor should you have) an audience for every word that makes it onto paper or computer screen.

4.  If you absolutely need someone to read everything you write, get yourself a beta reader group. Their feedback will almost certainly tame your desire to publish every word, but only if you choose readers who are not personal friends.

5.  If you insist on publishing every word that comes into your head, start a blog. And take pity on the rest of the world by keeping it private.

Get a funky journal, use it and never let anyone read it!
Get a funky journal, use it and never let anyone read it!

The truth is that there are far too many poorly written indie books out there, and this makes it harder for the fantastic indie writers to find their legitimate voice.  At the very least, vow to never publish anything that is not edited by someone other than you!  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with editors, but in the end their input has invariably improved the writing. And this goes for both my traditionally and independently published books.

And just like dancers need to warm up before a performance, make sure that you have some kind of a writing journal – for your eyes only – that is the repository for those warm-up bits.

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Posted in Journals, Writing, Writing craft

A tale of two modes: Paper versus digital

My beloved notebook and my even more beloved computer!
My beloved notebook and my even more beloved computer!

The irony was not lost on me.  As I downloaded Natalie Goldberg’s new book The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language I knew I was treading on sacred ground: you see (if you are not familiar with Natalie Goldberg, which you should be if you think you’re a writer) Natalie’s writing philosophy is deeply underpinned by the notion of the writing flowing from the heart, through the arm and out the pen as you move your hand across the paper.  Although she acknowledges the utility of the computer, and no doubt uses it herself, the paper clearly has the upper hand in the paper versus digital divide for writing practice.

Last week I changed offices again at the university.  Yes, my time chained to my desk toiling away at chairman-type duties has finally come to an end.  Few people understand the concept of peer governance in university departments: that’s when we all take a turn at being “in charge” and spend a year or two or three with all the responsibility and no authority.  I have done my duty now three times – one for a full three-year term and twice to fill in for year-long sabbaticals for others – and now return to doing what I do best and prefer.  That would be teaching and writing.  However, changing offices is not without its substantial benefits.

true secret of writing natalie goldbergThe requirement to take files out of cabinets and books off shelves gives one a moment to pause and consider whether or not one actually needs all that paper.  And that question refers equally to one’s creation as much as to one’s consumption.

First I’m thinking about my consumption – of books, documents, pamphlets (does anyone actually produce these things today?), newspaper clippings, print-outs of academic articles, notes, and the list goes on.  It’s only recently that I succumbed to the eBook mania and began downloading books on my IPad.  What I’ve discovered is that I actually read faster on the IPad – although I still love that feel of a real book in my hands.  Now, though, I can have a whole library in the space of one IPad.  Who can argue with that notion?

So, I’ve taken the view that anything on paper that needs to be kept should be digitalized and saved on a hard drive.  I’ve been doing this both at work and at home.  As I move ever closer to early retirement, and my husband and I move ever closer to right-sizing our living accommodation, we have purged all manner of paper – photos being the number one culprit.  Even all those old photos of our ancestors just after the advent of the widespread use of photography from the early 20th century.  Yup, all scanned and digitalized, and the paper products recycled.  It’s such a feeling of a burden of paper being lifted off our shoulders.  So those are some consumption thoughts.  What about creation?

I create a lot of paper.  All I have to do is open the bottom file drawer in my desk to see that I do love to keep paper copies of my writing.  I write on a computer and I print out everything.  And I do love my writing journals.  I won’t go on about them now – since I’ve done that before – but it does bear repeating that there is nothing quite like a new journal and a pen that glides smoothly over the pages.  If you can get that just right, you can be in writing heaven.  But my hand gets a cramp these days.

Does this mean that I’m confined to the computer forever?  As I’ve begun to read Natalie Goldberg’s book (on my IPad), I begin to get excited again about the possibilities of those ideas truly flowing from head to heart to hand in just that physical way.  I actually dug out one of my hard-backed journals and did some writing practice.  The ideas did flow – but the unfortunate result was a severe hand cramp.  So, I’m back at the computer this morning as I embark on two months of writing.

There was a tie when I’d do a ten-minute timed writing as Natalie suggests every morning before I stared what I considered to be my real writing.  To me that’s a bit like sitting meditation before beginning work: something I should do but often neglect.  Like my return to my daily meditation, perhaps writing practice on paper is something I should get back to.  My only question that still remains though is what to do with all that paper!

I have a list of half- and quarter-completed writing projects, and one that isn’t started but has to be finished by August 1 (only 1500 words for that one, so no problem).  So, pe or keyboard, I better get at it.

What are your thoughts on pen and paper for writing practice?

Posted in Journals, Writing craft, Writing rituals

Blogging as writing practice

Just like athletes and dancers, those of us who call ourselves writers need to “practice” our craft and “warm up” before embarking on a new piece of work.

Whenever I’m faced with the prospect of a brand new writing project and find myself sitting in front of that blank computer screen, fingers poised over the keys, I need to feel that I am in practice and that I’m warmed up to begin properly.  So, how do writers practice when they’re not writing something destined for publication in one way or another?  And how do we warm up for the task at hand?

Over the years, many writers have simply kept journals.  I’ve done that myself and I continue to do it.  I love my journals as any of my regular readers know. I have journals for a wide variety of things.  But they do serve me two very different purposes.

The first purpose is for me to have a place to write down ideas as they come to me.  Most writers do this and these days many will do it electronically on IPhones and IPads or other electronic devices.  I do this as well, but for me there is nothing like my nice pen and my Moleskine journal(s).

What kind of book notes & ideas reside in this journal? Hmm...

The second purpose for me in keeping journals is for writing practice.  Writing guru Natalie Goldberg says, “It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice.  It is what keeps you in tune…”[1]  I’ve always loved her approach to writing practice; keep your hand moving.  That works fine when I use a pen and notebook, but it’s not so useful when I’m at a keyboard.  Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.  That’s where blogging comes in for me.

Just like everyone else out there, when blogging first started to become a force, I started a blog.  I thought that I could use the blog to make some of the work I do at the university available to a wider audience – but I wasn’t committed to it, and as I look back on the exercise now, I think I really wanted to learn the technical aspects of blogging more than I wanted it to be good pieces of writing.  But blogging can be that practice Natalie talks about.

Consider this: if you are a writer, you need to write every day – or at least those five days a week that you devote to “work.” (I know, some of your friends don’t think you’re actually working when all you seem to be doing is sitting at home diddling away on the computer – my mother thinks that if I’m not in front of a class or at a meeting, I must not be working.  I wonder where she thinks those books come from?)  But you don’t always have a big project – and sometimes when you do, all you seem to be able to do is stare at that blank screen.  This is where blogging as writing practice comes in.

Blogging, however, can only be a practice if you are committed to it.  This means that you commit to writing almost every day and posting at least every week or two.  But do you have to make your every blogged thought available to the masses?  In a word, NO!

Not every blog has or needs to have an audience.  You can actually blog away with your settings set on private.  It does not need to be searchable by the Googles of the world.

For most people, blogging requires an idea that triggers a personal response that then becomes the basis of a blog post that begs for reader response.  Blogging in this scenario is a very public activity that begs for that dialogue.  Blogging as writing practice, on the other hand, does not need an idea, or an angle.  It does not need an audience, and certainly doesn’t need any feedback.  It just needs the writer to begin with a word or two – such as “I remember…” as suggested by Natalie Goldberg – and fingers to the keyboard, repeating that two words every time the ideas stop flowing.  What’s very important here is that what you write doesn’t even have to be good – it just has to be.

This is how I justify spending time on this and my other blog – the other blog is one that chronicles my other passion – travel.  They started out as ways simply to practice and warm-up before a big project.  They have, obviously, evolved.  That’s the nice thing about writing practice (even in your journals): you never know where they might lead.  They just don’t need to have an objective at the outset.  Happy blogging!

The Common Craft video reminds us that blogs are “news” of the 21st century – but as writers, we know better.  Blogs can be anything we want!

[1] Goldberg, Natalie. (1986, 2005). Writing Down the bones.  Shambhala Publications, p. 17.