Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
Eighteen Ways to Make a Literary Life, Vanessa Hua (@vanessa_hua), Powell’s Books Blog
What does the literary life look like for the everyday writer? Sustaining creativity in the midst of life events, rejections, a day job, and family roles is difficult. How does a writer maintain a consistent and productive practice? Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars, offers what has worked for her. She asks writers to identify their hours of power:
Figure out when you are at your most inspired and productive — early or late morning? After 10 p.m.? — and spend that time working on the projects that matter to you most. When I’m feeling less than inspired — say, late on a Friday afternoon — I deal with administrative tasks, such as sending and following up on pitches and submissions, or taking care of paperwork.
Along with identifying what hours are most productive for you, Hua recommends writing toward mystery and revising with clarity.
Be relentless in considering story possibilities. Challenge yourself to come up with lists of 10 possibilities for narrative dilemmas. Your subconscious is doing a lot of work in the background to put the raw materials of your story in place. You just need to notice them. Don’t be afraid to shake up your neatly structured narrative and see what happens; complications are never dull. And if you know your characters well, their responses are likely to be interesting.
Hua also thinks writers should network by connecting with a literary community. I agree with Hua. I’ve learned so much by attending readings and conversing with my in-person and virtual writing communities. All writers are looking to feel less alone.
Attend and organize readings at your favorite local independent bookstore, subscribe to literary magazines, form writing groups, and volunteer at literary festivals. You will find friends with whom you can commiserate and celebrate, and they’ll show up in force for your events, just as you have shown up for theirs.
Along with writing, it is important to have other interests which foster creativity. I love taking photographs of nature on my morning jog or listening to music. Hua labels these activities as “wordless recreation.”
Take yourself on a walk when you have nowhere you have to be, and don’t listen to music or make phone calls. Go to a museum alone. Go listen to music. Draw or do watercolors. Do something that engages your curiosity, your mind, your feelings, but doesn’t involve reading or writing. Cross-pollinate your creativity by engaging with other modes of expression — or with the external world, unfiltered. Counting laps in the pool, looking at the weeds in the garden, moving to music is what can lead to breakthroughs.
This is only a snapshot of Hua’s advice and I recommend reading all of her tips. They are practical and relatable.
What’s Stopping You?, Allison K. Williams, (@guerillaMemoir), Brevity
In the last month, writers shared their rejection stories on Twitter. I evaluated my rejections this past year and I admit, sometimes, not landing a byline does stop my creative momentum. It is easy to take one rejection and spiral into negative thoughts about publishing essays, novels or memoirs. Allison K. Williams (in a tweet that went viral) listed different writers and the ages they published their first book. The list was surprising.
Toni Morrison: 40
Mark Twain: 41
Marcel Proust: 43
Henry Miller: 44
JRR Tolkien: 45
Raymond Chandler: 51
Richard Adams: 52
Annie Proulx: 57
Laura Ingalls Wilder: 65
Frank McCourt: 66
Harriett Doerr: 74
Harry Bernstein: 96
No, you’re not too old to publish your first book.
— Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) August 19, 2018
When facing rejection, it becomes easy to engage in self-defeatist thoughts. Williams explains:
A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.
She evaluates her book writing progress:
In a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”
I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.
I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.
I don’t want to quit traveling.
And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing.
I relate to her dilemma. There are other tasks and interests I put in front of my writing too. Abandoning some of those endeavors aren’t appealing to me. However, as Williams points out, all writers need to make time for their work.
If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things.
Writers need to find what is in their way for achieving their ideal writing life. Williams advises writers to ask this question:
Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.
This piece pushes me to evaluate what I need to let go to carve out time for writing.
It’s Okay If Writing Doesn’t Make You Happy, Jennifer Baker, Electric Literature
Crafting sentences, revising drafts, facing rejections, and working through the writing process is often arduous and difficult. The pull to stop writing is sometimes too much to overcome. Jennifer Baker contemplated her resistance when she talked with a writer-friend who confessed writing offered little joy.
When we’d met I had been avoiding my own writing due to personal circumstances. I found ways to procrastinate, be it under the guise of research or simply being stuck and not pushing myself any further. I considered whether the pull that compelled me to return to the page translated to me finding joy in writing via the dictionary definition? Was it really that simple for others to find pure satisfaction, gaiety, bliss from the act of writing?
Baker knows this joyful writing exists. She witnessed it while teaching elementary school children.
Having worked with elementary school students months earlier, I remembered that kind of excitement. I remembered how overzealous they got as we began a group story, each student adding a new scenario until it became a dreamscape within a dreamscape where no one would ever die. Their smiles were genuine, their giggles infectious, their energy off-the-charts. You couldn’t tell these kids that they needed better structure. That they needed to make a more coherent plot to attract audiences. That their work simply wasn’t plausible. As we created an improvised story together, I pointed at one child, then another, all of them shouting over each other as the dragon ate the prince then took over the castle that ultimately was demolished by lava.
Baker analyzes what pushes her to write and shares her perspective:
So what does make me write? Stubbornness? Or, and this is also plausible, a deep-seated need to get these ideas out of my brain? Does joy work its way into any of those scenarios? There may be some key tenets to sticking with it—not simply the pleasure of imagination and creation, not only the pats on the back when it works out, if it does, or simply an appreciation for getting over another hurdle. Maybe joy, in a sense for those of us who live and breathe writing, who cannot imagine a life without words, ties to other factors that keep us coming back. The authors I admire rarely cite joy as the reason they write; instead, they talk about engagement, stubbornness, obsession, obligation. Could one, or all, of these factors be a replacement for the kind of uncomplicated joy in writing my elementary school students feel?
The essence is the craft, not the outcome, which dissuades writers from abandoning their art. Writing is part of their core and even if the process is not a joyful one, the alternative is even less appealing.
What is a Flat Character? (And how to fix one), (ReedsyHQ), Reedsy
Your writing critique group points to a character in your novel and dubs him as “too flat.” What does this mean? A flat character is:
When a character has few discernible personality traits and lacks emotional depth, they are considered flat. In its purest form, according to EM Forster, a flat character is constructed “round a single idea or quality” and has no existence outside of that line.
Flat characters will usually display one or more of these symptoms:
- Lacks internal conflict
- Conforms to a stereotype
- Never undergoes character development
- Lacks a multi-faceted personality
In contrast, round characters exhibit the following:
A round (or “three-dimensional”) character is one who is lifelike and undergoes a compelling story arc.
Three-dimensional characters generally:
- Have internal conflict
- Undergo significant character development
- Experience mental or emotional changes
- Have a multi-faceted personality
What are the ways to remedy a flat character? One way is to give the character backstory.
To give a character more than one “dimension,” begin by thinking about them as an actual human being. What defines them? What strengths and flaws are central to their very being? What gets them out of the bed each morning?
The other options involves developing the story arc.
As you proceed with your character development, consider how your characters are going to change because of the story. This will plant the seeds for their character arcs, which is all about what the character wants — and how they need to grow to achieve it. To quote Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”
Focusing on a want will help transition from a flat to a more complicated and compelling character.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!