Keeping faith to pursue life as a published author is not an easy task. Our Ask a New Author panel, Mindy Mejia, Olivia Chadha, and Jean Ryan know that first hand as newly published authors with Ashland Creek Press. This month, they answer three questions from aspiring writers, including how to keep your confidence up to follow your dream. Next, they tackle the issue of what do we do when we have TOO many writing ideas? Is it better to publish them as a collective of short stories or eave them together as a novel? Lastly, like breaking up, self-editing is hard to do. But that is what makes a great writer stand out, put their best foot forward, and cross that finish line to getting published. Mindy, Olivia & Jean share their personal secrets & strategies.
Don't forget - Send your writing and publishing questions tp email@example.com or post in the commets below for Mindy, Olivia, and Jean, and we will pick one person each month to win an Amazon gift card for $25! This month's winner: Kevin V. Congrats Kevin and good luck pursuing your writing dreams!
Now onto our questions of the month!
1. Did you ever find it difficult to keep faith and have confidence in yourself enough to make the time to write? It’s an extraordinary amount of time and effort to put into something without knowing what will become of it. - Kevin V.
Mindy: You can’t be a writer if you’re not willing to give something else up. I don’t know what you’ll have to give up; it’s different for everyone. I give up TV, downtime, and sometimes returning emails or even paying bills on time. Whatever it is, you have to come to terms with it and say very deliberately to yourself: writing is more important than these things. No one in your life will make time for you to write. They want you to do other things. You have to carve that space out of your life and guard it fiercely, even from yourself, because you’ll always be tempted to rob yourself of that time.
Faith and confidence usually require time and encouragement. Keep writing until you write a story that makes you proud. Join a writing group or take a class where you can workshop your pieces. Spend time with other writers who will validate your commitment and provide the criticism and support that will help you hone your skills.
I wrote for years before I had anything published or even dared to send stories into the world. I didn’t tell people I was a writer, because I hated the placating looks that came when I had to explain I wasn’t published anywhere. I still wrote. I wrote for hours upon hours into the darkness of stories that seemed to swallow me in their nonsense, but always with this image in the back of my mind. I imagined, eighty or ninety years from now, my grandchildren going through my things and finding these dusty pages, reading them, and realizing I was a writer, that I had spent my life creating this art. It was a silly romantic thought, but it kept me going when I wanted to give up. It made me see that I needed to devote my time to creating something beyond myself, and that my dedication was more important than any of the thousands of trivialities that might otherwise fill my days.
Jean: Writers, like other artists, work in a realm of uncertainty. Publication is not guaranteed, nor does publication guarantee an audience. If publication is your only motivation for writing, you might want to reconsider your calling.
It is a given that writers will meet with disappointment and rejection. They are putting their ideas into the world and many readers and publishers will not be interested. Because a writer puts her deepest thoughts on paper, there is a personal component that makes rejections especially keen. One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is apt here: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Shake off these rejections; they do not serve you. On the same day you receive a rejection, send your story to another publisher. Publishing decisions are mostly arbitrary and do not reflect on your work. If your story has merit, it will eventually find a home. Meanwhile, keep writing.
You will also encounter tepid reactions from your family and friends. This means nothing—they are not writers and cannot relate to your passion. If you are lucky enough to get feedback from a seasoned editor, you should probably heed it.
Most of all, seek encouragement from yourself. Write because it requires your best effort, because you want to ask excellence of yourself. Write for the exhilaration. Write to discover who you are.
Olivia: Writing is the one thing in my life that has been certain. I feel that is the difference between someone who is a writer and someone who wants to be or likes to write: there is no choice in the matter, a writer must write. Every writer has suffered an impossible schedule, life difficulties that come in and interrupt their path, or toxic naysayers who point out over and again how difficult it is to write and publish or enjoy pointing out how difficult it is to make a living from just writing. These things are to be expected and also to be ignored. Once, not long ago, I suffered a massive injury that left me without the use of my right hand/arm for nearly a year. I am right handed. I felt my creative pathway was severed, interrupted unnaturally, as I could not type or lift a pen to paper. So, I found a voice to text software that could assist me. I wrote two scripts, a few short stories, and thankfully my ability to write with my hand returned. Though at times we write differently, and different amounts, I feel writing needs to happen without a doubt. You can doubt your characters, and at times your ability to drag yourself out of bed early enough to make a scratch before your class begins, but you can’t doubt the act. It would be too defeating to do so.
I also feel strongly that we all need support. To rid oneself of those who do not support their efforts is the most crucial thing to do. To define your writing space – even if it’s just a corner of a counter, or a makeshift desk in a garage, is to support yourself. Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own is a critical read for women (and men), writers and creatives in general. Make a space for yourself. Make sacred the time you have – even if it’s only fifteen minutes while everyone is asleep before you go to bed –and defend it. Writing is one of those things that should be practiced as much as possible. It’s like a religion, perhaps, with many gods.
2. I have a multitude of ideas that have led me to write a variety of short stories. Some of these stories could flow into a short novel, but I’ve never been sure whether to pull them together, or if it was best to keep them separated. I also never have had anything published. I would like to get a proper start. Would you suggest publishing the short stories one at a time, trying to have them published in one book (each separate), or trying to consolidate them into a short novel? Thank you for your insight and guidance, Sincerely, New Kid Around the Way.
Mindy: If you aren’t sure whether the stories should be pulled together, they probably shouldn’t. Look at books like Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her, which is a novel in short stories. The stories are linked by character--Yunior--and theme--love. Linked short stories should all be addressing the same thing from different points of view, whether that is a central event, theme, and/or character. If several of your stories seem to be circling each other in this manner, you might have the beginning of a novel in short stories, but because you seem to be hesitating about the idea, I would say that connection probably isn’t there and you shouldn’t force it.
Focus your efforts on picking the best story of the lot and polishing it until it shines from every angle. Examine it for each craft element. Does the narrative build to a crescendo? Does the suspense keep the reader engaged? Are the characters nuanced, original, completely their own flawed and stumbling selves? Do they make their own trouble? Is the point of view consistent? Are the sentences standing tall? Don’t be afraid to rip it apart and create something better. Don’t worry if what you thought would be better turns out to be awful. Don’t worry if it turns into a novel. Just keep at it. Murder your darlings. After the bloodbath is over, take that fabulous story and send it out to five appropriate literary magazines. As soon as you get a rejection, send it out again. Keep the story in someone’s inbox at all times. That’s your job.
Once you have published several stories, you might be able to publish a collection. Short story collections are harder to sell, so editors will want to see that you’ve had success publishing individual stories. Just keep sending that best story out, and work on the next one while you wait.
Jean: If you haven’t been published yet, do start submitting individual stories. Short stories can be submitted online or, less frequently now, by snail mail. The response times vary—from several days to several months. Because responses can be slow, most editors allow simultaneous submissions, as long as you inform them right away if the piece has been accepted elsewhere. You can find essay, poetry and short story markets via websites like New Pages and Duotrope; the latter has handy filters you can use to narrow your search: length, genre, subject, average response time, percentage of acceptances, etc. Of course your piece must be in the proper format and free of typos. Along with your story, you will also submit a cover letter; the current Writers Market or online sources will provide examples. As your stories are published, you can list them in your letter, thereby gaining more authority.
Collections of linked short stories have become something of a trend, probably because story collections don’t sell as well as novels, and a recurring character or subject makes the collection read more like a novel. As most publishers are not interested in collections, offering them a linked set of stories can be an advantage. That said, a writer must be true to himself and his material. My hunch is that you are more concerned with publication at this point than the craft of writing. Your stories may not have an obvious link, and they may not be ready for publication as a collection. Regarding whether a story should be expanded into a novel, well that’s something only the author can determine—the story will be the guide.
Get your beak wet. Start submitting your stories and don’t be deterred by rejections. If possible, join a writer’s group so that you can share your work, discuss the process and stay inspired.
Olivia: Without reading your work, I cannot comment on what would be your best path. However, the short story is a different genre than the novel. A novel, while it can have chapters, has essentially a long arc and different type of character development and many other differences. I suggest not shortcutting the valuable lessons that can be learned from publishing a short story. Polish one piece, make a list of the various journals that it could find a home, draft individual queries for these journals, and keep an Excel file with all of the information in it. Mail or email it out. It’s always nice to have a few pieces in circulation at any one time. Rejection will become something you grow accustomed to, but not to worry, you will get a note from an editor who encourages you, and you will eventually publish your work. Polish a different story in the meantime, and send that one out. These things are fairly certain.
When you have an idea for a novel, write the novel. Until then, be proud of your short stories (as you should be) and help them find a home.
3. How do you know what’s worth keeping and what’s not? Do you find it’s difficult to make those decisions or is it sort of natural? - Kevin V.
Mindy: I never know what’s worth keeping in a first draft, so I keep it all. Everything I write in that first draft helps build the second draft, so I never feel like I’ve wasted time writing “the wrong thing.” I just keep plugging through the first draft until I feel like I’ve arrived at where I need to go. Then I might find that the story actually starts in the middle of the book, or a character that I was interested in at first has completely disappeared or turned into someone else.
Ultimately two things determine what I keep and what I throw--the plot and the themes. I’m a very plot-based writer. Once I figure out the arc of the rising action and what it all means, the story underneath that I’m really trying to tell, then the scenes fall into place. That’s when I know where I should cut and where I need to explore further. I never really throw anything away, though. I just move the scrap into a “Deleted Scenes” folder, because I might end up mining the folder for a background or a certain description or phrase. Somehow those deleted scenes always come in handy later. I also save a copy of every draft, mostly so when I finish the book I can go back to that first draft and have a good laugh.
Jean: I do believe that the best writers can determine what parts of a story are worth keeping and what parts must go. I’m not sure this can be taught. Maybe it has to do with the amount of books they read, the cumulative effect of that. Like tuning an instrument, over time a writer just knows when the wrong chord has been struck and she must make a change.
I tend to edit as I go, which is not recommended, but it’s my way. A sentence must be as strong as I can make it before layering on another. Each sentence must carry its own weight by contributing to the idea I am putting forth and also sounding right. Rhythm in writing is important; it makes for easy and enjoyable reading. A sentence can be written any number of ways, and a writer must try them all out to determine which syntax suits that particular sentence. Meanwhile, care must be taken to avoid pesky things like unintended word repetition and grammar mistakes.
There are no shortcuts. Writers must stay on course, figuring out what they want to convey, putting their idea into words, then finding the right words—precise and beautiful at once. Every so often the perfect word or phrase arrives unbidden, but writing in general is hard work. If it isn’t, it probably isn’t worth much.
Olivia: In my office I have hundreds of small colored notebooks stacked on shelves above my desk like an army waiting to descend upon me. I love the soft covered Moleskins and ones with pulpy pages that my ink can sink into easily. These notebooks are filled with what I lovingly call my “gnomes.” These gnomes are ideas, beginnings of stories, snippets of narratives, characters, that fall into my brain and I record. Some of these become stories, characters, and novels, while others are just good exercises. How to chose what will and what will not become a story? I choose pieces that I can see and feel the larger landscape and atmosphere, or an idea I’d love to live with for a year or longer. The rest of the gnomes stay put. When I am between stories, I flip through these books and find something else to write.
When considering the path of a novel, it’s important to have a critical eye and not let the writing write you. It’s very easy for me to write, and if I let go of the reins I am in trouble. Writing is nothing if not decision-making: Should the character go left or right? Should they care about this or that? Who is speaking? And, to whom? This critical eye is crucial or else with a blank slate and unlimited possibilities the narrative will never be written.
In novel revision, I find that this type of critical eye is even more important. Sometimes we can’t see our forest for the trees, and sometimes we don’t even know if we’ve made a tree or a mountain. I feel that if you are too close to something, putting it in the freezer always helps. (I have put a manuscript in the actual freezer, but a desk drawer also works). When you return to the work after as long as you can manage – 6 weeks is usually a good number – then you will have fresh perspective. Revise literally means to “re” “see” so in order to see you work with new eyes, distance is a good thing. Workshops or writer friends are always nice as well. As long as they keep in mind your ethos, and know what you are trying to create. Writing should not be done by committee, as sometimes happens in workshop, but another perspective can be welcome, as your work will hopefully reach a wider audience that will have similar reactions.