Don’t Submit Your Writing Yet—Please!

Whenever aspiring writers send me their “fantastic, soon-to-be-bestseller” to compliment, I cringe. They’ve put a ton of effort into their manuscripts. They’ve neglected their family and social lives—and maybe even their paying jobs—to imbue their narratives with all the talent and skill they can muster.

But when I read these works, I’m reminded of my own early, unschooled efforts. I expected immediate acclaim, but, my work wasn’t nearly ready. I didn’t believe that creative writing is a craft—like carpentry—that one must learn. Now I cringe at my own beginning efforts.

Nicola Morgan has a post titled, Failure to be Published; Harsh Reality. In it, Morgan, now a repeatedly published author of YA and children’s books, says of her decades of rejected writing:

“I thought I was better than I was. I didn’t know what mistakes I was making.” [Emphasis mine.]

And that’s the thought I hope aspiring writers will internalize.

I’ve tried hinting, coaxing, and cajoling the sincere new writers I meet online.

I’ve suggested they learn the ingredients and skills that make good writing, and have their work critiqued by experienced writers. I’ve urged them to hold off posting or mailing their work to agents, until it’s polished and powerful.

I’ve tried to discourage them from sending out query letters before they understand querying. (The same problems that appear in their manuscripts pop up in their query letters.) And to know what publishers and readers want.

So, for your own peace of mind, let your work be seen by professionals and the public only if:

  • Your spelling and grammar are impeccable. (Spell check has its limitations.)
  • You know where the punctuation goes with a quotation mark, and understand the purpose of commas
  • You know what a paragraph is, so your words and sentences don’t run on and on
  • Your writing is free of clichés
  • Your word usage is correct, because you keep a dictionary near, as you write
  • You use words that precisely express your meaning, because you frequently consult a Thesaurus
  • Your characters are complex
  • You’re sure of the purpose and construction of scenes
  • “Show, don’t tell” is clear to you
  • Your story’s got an irresistible hook
  • Your story contains nicely unpredictable elements
  • You’ve had the final draft fully proofed by someone with strong proofreading skills
  • People who are unrelated to you enjoy reading what you’ve written
  • People who read something you’ve written ask to see more of your work

Read articles and posts by successful writers that explain how to write well. Take writing classes; join a critique group of good writers. Hire a writing coach or an editor. Keep practicing. Keep getting better.

If you found this post helpful, you might also like Calm Down! It’s Just a Draft. If you’re ready for even more “tough love” for writers, see Why Did You Resign?, by Mike Cane.

Need help improving your drafts? Get in touch with me; I’ll help you out. I’m experienced and easy to work with. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

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It’s Never Too Late to Start Writing

Here’s an article I wrote about senior citizens writing—successfully. I hope you’ll enjoy it, especially those of you who thought it was too late!

Seniors Catch the Writing Bug

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How Does a Mother of 5 Find Time to Write?

I met Darah Zeledon, the Warrior Mom, through one of the LinkedIn groups for writers that she and I both belong to. She’d posted an essay she’d written; I loved it, so I contacted her to tell her so.

Since then, we’ve become fast online friends. We seem to share a similar high-energy enthusiasm and intensity. Having hit it off so happily, we’ve committed to buddy up to help each other further our creative writing plans.

When I learned that Darah, the mother of 5 (gorgeous) young children, has pumped out 25,000 words of her memoir, I asked if she’d be willing to reveal her work schedule. What follows is the first part of my interview with her. And if you click on the links, you’ll be able to read samples of her essay writing.

Do you write every day?
I aim to. At the very least, I’ll jot down ideas by putting pen to paper while on the go with my kids. My writing habits are far from exemplar. In fact, my system is rather dysfunctional; would probably be counterproductive for most writers. I write in short intense intervals of about twenty minutes—essentially the length of my two toddlers’ attention span. I probably squeeze in a total of 80 minutes a day using this “technique.”

With your family responsibilities, how on earth do you find time to write?
I have 5 “spirited and dynamic” children that range from ages 9 to 2 years old. The youngest two, ages 4 and 2 are home with me 24/7. At 2pm we fetch the rest of the pack from school and from that time on, it’s madness as they all ruthlessly compete for my attention. And about 7pm, my loving, medium-maintenance, Latin-hubby strolls through the door and expects to spend time with his wife. I have no down time, no “me time.” Every waking moment is consumed with someone demanding my undivided attention. I write frequently about this mayhem and how I attempt to manage it all. [“See Girls Night Out: It’s Not What You Think.”]

Check back for the next part of Darah’s interview on shoe-horning time into the day to write, even if you have 5 young kids and a “high maintenance” husband.

And check out her blog, The Warrior Mom.

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You Don’t Have to Write Every Day to be Successful

There. I’ve said it. You don’t have to write every day!

I should know. I published my first articles and essays, and drafted dozens of pages of my memoirs while being employed in one of those jobs in which “full time” meant 60 hours a week.

How’d I do it? I certainly didn’t write every day. But whenever I could, I took advantage of all the little windows of time that came my way—the lunch hours, the stalled in traffic time, and more.

Here’s how another published writer, who runs an entirely different business as well, squeezes in time for her creative writing.

“I blog frequently, which I consider to be a wonderful creating writing exercise,” says Margy Rydzynski, owner of Brave New Web, which provides social media services for small businesses.

“Blogging is a public activity; you have to attract readers and keep their attention,” Margy continued. “It’s made me a better writer as a result.”

Margy, creator of the Maggie and Della mysteries, generally gets her ideas at night (the best ones arrive when she’s “off for the day”). But she does most of her writing during the daytime. “I carry a notebook around with me, and keep special blogs for story ideas,” she says.

Most importantly, she “keeps the pump primed” with lots of reading, blogging, and of course, writing.

The memoir writer featured in my upcoming post—or maybe two posts—shares her secrets on how she, a mother of five(!) young children, finds time to write.

More tips for finding time to get serious writing done—even if you can’t write every day—are in Polish and Publish: The Indispensable Toolkit for Creative Writers.

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Tell Me a Better Story

As creative writers, we want to create stories—not reports. We know a story when we hear or read one, but sometimes it evades us when we’re writing, especially when we’re writing nonfiction, like memoir or autobiography.

But even if the audience you envision for your memoir or autobiography is your family, you’ve got to tell them stories to keep them engaged.

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, writes that a simple definition of a story is how you got from point A through point B and on to Point C, where you see things differently from the way you did at point A, the beginning.

Rainer goes on to say that “a story is: what you wanted; how you struggled; and what you realized out of that struggle.” In other words, how your experiences and challenges changed you.

As you think about your life, memoir, or autobiography, think of the way(s) in which what you went through changed your life or your lifestyle; the way that you think; your view of yourself or of others; or your values or priorities.

The struggle doesn’t have to be a fight to the death. It might be something as ordinary as convincing your parents to let you go to college or into the military. It could be about your reaction when you found out you were allergic to your favorite food or when you broke a bone just before a sports trial.

But whatever it is, give it power by shaping it into a story.

Next we’ll talk about the elements of stories. (Hint: one is emotion.)

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Tell Me a Story

In a previous post, I wrote that a “memoir is a story.” Here’s what I meant.

When you’re writing a memoir, or doing most types of creative writing for that matter, you’re not just presenting a collection of facts or opinions. Not if you want anyone to read and relate to what you’ve written. Not if you want them to care enough to follow your retelling.

Sometimes when boomers and seniors in my classes write about a period in their past, it turns into a paean to the great outdoors (very often in Vermont).

By writing about this period in their lives, my students are re-imagining a carefree portion of their past. So, they write lengthy—and I mean lengthy—descriptions of the fields, mountains, and the gorgeous glare of sun on snow. They might include generalized activities they pursued, or briefly mention a picnic in that pastoral setting.

But, real people—individuals—are missing. It’s as if en masse, everyone (who are they?) left the house, skiied down a mountain, or rolled in a field. There are no incidents: no one fell, got cold and had to go home, reached for a sandwich, or spoke.

Despite the use of imaginative language and a lot of adjectives, these are reports, not stories.

A brief definition of a story is “a sequence of events, one leading to another.” More specifically, the events need to show cause and effect. And they need to convey meaning.

Since it’s so challenging to define “story,” I’ll address it again in future posts—specifically as the term applies to memoir and autobiographical writing.

In the meantime, here’s a kernel from Ira Glass, the marvelous storyteller-host of public radio’s This American Life.

According to Glass, the writer has two essential “building blocks” for stories. One is the incident. The other is the reflection.

Reflect on that for a while. Or read (and see) what Glass actually says.

Now that you’ve got the basic idea down pat, take a look at Tell Me a Better Story.

For more tips on every aspect of writing, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.

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Are You Cut Out to be a Writer?

I want to share another excerpt from my book, Polish and Publish. It’s about whether or not you have the temperament—and interests—to be a writer.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write?” Maybe you’ve said it yourself. An estimated 80 million Americans want to write a book. But how many actually write anything, let alone a book?

Creative writers must believe in themselves and their dreams. They must be persistent and able to accept rejection and send their work on to the next publisher on their list.

They have to be observant—notice what’s said and happening around them, and be interested in how and why thing happen as they do.

Creative writers have a need to express their ideas and personal point of view. They love words and appreciate the power of language.

They are able to envision an appropriate audience and write for it.

And they develop their writing skills.

Many people believe that since nearly everyone has written a variety of things in their lives, it’s easy to write. It might be, but it isn’t easy to write well, unless you are armed with the right tools and approach.

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Reasons Writing Gets Rejected

Most writing fails to get published because of one main reason:

The quality of the writing is weak.

It’s flat, predictable, and uninteresting. It lacks depth and vitality. It doesn’t grab the reader’s attention quickly.

Or it might be that the story, characters, language, or settings don’t show originality; everybody’s writing on that topic, and publisher are sick of seeing it.

Here are some resources to improve your writing.

Failure to Be Published: Harsh Reality
After twenty-something years of trying to publish her novel(s), Nicola Morgan, the author of this blog post admits, “I wasn’t good enough. And maybe . . . sorry . . . you aren’t either. But maybe, by listening and learning and improving, you can become good enough.”

Basic Writing Principles Across All Media
Scroll down to see the excellent tips.

Write Better
This is a (short) list of (long) articles from Writer’s Digest, covering novels, memoirs, and interviews with some well-known authors.

To rise above the mediocre writing out there and attract a publisher’s attention, we have to constantly tweak our writing, making it as strong and engaging as is humanly possible.

That’s our mission.

To read more about strengthening your writing and getting it published, click on Polish and Publish at the top right of this page.

And if you’ve recently had writing rejected, “3 Critical Steps After Rejection,” by Jane Friedman should strengthen your resolve.

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