Working With a Writing Coach

Writers' blocks image

There are many benefits to hiring a coach. A coach can help with anything from advancing your career to improving yourself and your life. Like all life coaches, a writing coach can (and often does) help with the following:

  • Setting and achieving goals
  • Building better habits
  • Reducing procrastination
  • Developing discipline
  • Increasing self-motivation
  • Meeting deadlines
  • Creating balance
  • Enhancing communication skills
  • Solving problems better
  • Improving relationships
  • Boosting self-esteem

The list above is not exhaustive. There are many areas of life where a coach can help people make improvements and achieve success. Most coaches specialize in an area such as finance, career, business, health, and writing (to name a few) however all coaches help people refine areas of their life that are not optimal.  Working with a coach is beneficial because you have someone to encourage and celebrate your success, someone to hold you accountable for the things you want to achieve, and someone to help make change more manageable. This post will focus on writing coaching.

What is Writing Coaching?
In addition to all the items listed above, a writing coach works with you in these additional areas:

  • Finding your voice
  • Expressing your authentic self in writing
  • Becoming more confident in your writing
  • Identifying areas of your novel that need more work
  • Improving parts of writing that you struggle with (i.e. plotting, characterization, research, synthesizing information)
  • Managing the emotional highs and lows that come with being a writer
  • Overcoming “writer’s block” or trouble starting, continuing, or ending your story
  • Learning not to edit (or continuing to research) while writing
  • Developing and sticking to a writing schedule

Another benefit of writing coaching is ongoing critique of your work. This alone is worth the cost of coaching!

What happens in Coaching?

  • A coach will ask you questions (often many questions) to understand your goals, assess your motivation, previous successes and failures, determine how much time you have to devote to your objectives, and the things that might be obstacles in order to build a strong vision of what success will look like for you and to work with you to develop a realistic plan to achieve that vision.
  • The plan will be broken down into milestones and steps to complete each milestone, not unlike how projects are planned and managed in business. How it works is that small, realistic and achievable steps are accomplished daily or weekly that will lead to your goal over time. Small steps create less resistance since we have so many demands on our time and energy already.
  • During weekly or, perhaps, twice monthly phone calls you and your coach will discuss the progress that was made and any problems that occurred and work through them. Adjustments to the scope, time or resources needed to reach goal can be made to the plan as necessary. A coach will work with you to make sure you succeed this time and that could involve tackling some of the bullet points at the beginning of this post such as problem solving, time management, discipline or creating balance. In addition to working with you, a coach will hold you accountable to achieve your goals, will celebrate your success, and help you turn struggles into new strengths.

What should you look for in a coach?

  • Someone who has experience in one or more of these areas: writing, editing, and publishing (traditional or self-publishing). This might be a published author, professional writers such as ghostwriters and technical writers, a writing professor, editor, publisher, publicist, and possibly a literary agent (depending on your needs).
  • A certified professional coach.  Certified coaches have completed training approved by the International Coaching Federation. This training is important because writers do not write disconnected from other aspects of life. We need to create a balance between our writing and everything else. We need to learn to manage all aspects of our life to be sure that we not only have time and energy for writing but for everything else in life as well. If we can create and maintain good health and work-life balance, we can bring our best selves to the writing table. What could be better?
  • Someone who is a good fit. Life/Writing Coaches are people too and our individual styles probably won’t work for everyone. Most coaches offer a complimentary session. Take advantage of this to meet a coach, discuss your needs, and discover how a coach can help you bring out your best writing. Present a challenge you are experiencing and ask the coach how they would work with you on that.

What does Coaching Cost?
Coaching rates vary greatly depending on the type of coaching, the experience of the coach, and length of sessions. You can expect to pay between $75 and $200 per hour. Executive coaches charge more. Some coaches offer discounts for committing to a certain number of sessions and full payment in advance.

It may take some time and effort on your part to find the right coach, but it will be worth it. You can achieve your goals and improve your life overall. Why not give it a try? With a complimentary session on offer, what do you have to lose? Contact me today to schedule!

Writers on Writing: Christina Marrocco

Addio, Love Monster book cover

CHRISTINA MARROCCO is a Professor of English and Assistant Director of the Writers Center at Elgin Community College. Her writing has been featured in Silver Birch Press, The Laurel Review, Red Fern Press, Mountain Review and Ovunque Siamo.  Her debut novel Addio, Love Monster was released on June 1 (Ovunque Siamo Press).

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

CHRISTINA: It depends on the genre, but since Addio, Love Monster is fiction, I’ll head in that direction. I’m an observer with a good memory. By that I mean I’m shy but interested in what people say and do, and I’ve always paid close attention to the world around me, and so a lot of my ideas about settings and human nature come from what I’ve taken in and held. Specific story arcs and characters, though, develop during the revision process. For this book, and a second one I’m finishing up, I moved from my initial vignettes or sketches to full story by reading, rereading, revising until I was delighted by what was on the page. I also find that ideas pop up every day and I have to say “no, not yet” to some. That used to bother me, but I’ve gotten to the point of realizing I can’t write every single thing I want to write, so I need to stay focused on the ideas I’m currently working on. 

ANGELA: What genres do you write in (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write in fiction, poetry, and memoir regularly. I also do scholarly research and write book reviews. I choose not to specialize because I feel each of these approaches allow me to tap different aspects of a topic or reality I’m drawn to. They depend on different intelligences and creativities–and I hate to limit myself. But maybe more importantly, I find that, for instance, working with poetry improves my prose, working on research improves my knowledge, which then improves my poetry and prose. Working in memoir uses all those skills from the other genres. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I think it can be extremely fruitful for mind and craft expansion. 

ANGELA: When did you start writing (and why)? 

CHRISTINA: I began writing in earnest when I was a child–nothing anyone kept, but I would craft really pathetic letters to my mother and float them down the stairs–letters designed to convince her to let me off grounding. I had a journal, which I would edit and edit into oblivion as I extracted anything that showed me in a light I didn’t like in the days after I’d written it. I wish I’d left it alone and kept it, but I did not. I wrote and sewed together books of pressed flowers with nature notes. But then life changed: I despised school–a cursory look at my old report cards indicates I had undiagnosed ADHD–I became a struggling teen who became a teen mother, dropped out of school, and married two days after her eighteenth birthday. This meant writing in earnest–both for economic and time and confidence reasons–did not resume until my late thirties–I’m fifty-five now and over the last two decades I’ve worked hard to become formally educated and to write with skill. 

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

CHRISTINA: A few things, and all at once. I like to have a book in my bag for appointments and times I find myself waiting around–it’s got to be short stories or poetry so that I can dip in and out and hear my name when I’m called. Right now, that’s an old book and a small one–pocket sized–Welsh Short Stories selected by Gwyn Jones. They are simply beautiful little classics that don’t get read enough in the US. My bedtime book right now is also a Welsh author–but modern–it’s Alis Hawkins, and I’m reading her The Black And The White–a murder mystery set during the time of the black death. Great stuff. And then, up in my office above the garage where I prepare my teaching and my writing, I’m reading two books: Trapped! The Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori–I was so lucky to see Karen present on this book just last week at Chicago Literati–her research is impeccable and her writing just beautiful. I’m also re-reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing, which is a book I now recommend to so many of my students as well. 

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

CHRISTINA: Gah! How can I choose? When I was a kid I read Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko like crazy–because they were in the house and they were wonderful.  Just thinking about them now I can feel that joy, so maybe they are my favorite writers–their columns and their books. But then I read and re-read Watership Down and The Mists of Avalon–I could not get enough of those. I absolutely love JT Farrell–the Irish Chicago writer best known for Studs Lonigan–and my favorite of his is the collection of short stories–Chicago Stories. I just re-read Paper Fish by Tina DeRosa and was enthralled again. Tony Ardizzone’s In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I love it, it’s both an escape and a grounding, told beautifully in magical realism. I guess there are books I’m really drawn to over and over again, but I tend not to choose favorites because there are so many to love–I’m the same with music–If I love a song–regardless of genre, artist, era. Heck, I can’t even choose a favorite color. When people ask me to, I just stand there and blink my eyes. But those above are what’s standing out to me as I think hard.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing? 

CHRISTINA: I love writing, my own and that of others, that really expresses sensory detail and specificity of environment. I want a journey both in the mind and in the body. 

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

CHRISTINA: My process is not identical for all genres, but I’ll go with fiction here and memoir too to show how things vary. In fiction I am a character driven writer. I realize I need plot–but I hold off on it. I tend to write vignettes of my characters–sit with them and observe them. How they move, what they look like, how their laugh sounds. I start to write what is bothering them. What gives them joy–not in a list but in a scene. So for Addio, Love Monster–which is a novel told in story–linked story–I created my vignettes or scenes and then I had to sit with those and find arcs/stories/movement for them. It took me six years to write this book because of my slow method, but it worked for me. And as I did that the connections and the vitality of the neighborhood exposed itself to me. I have a book of linked short stories underway set in Wales over centuries and that one has worked in a similar way. When I work in memoir, I know the plot. The plot is my life. It exists intrinsically, so I find that process is more about free writing everything under the sun and then coming back to pluck out the best threads and cut away the lint. It’s a very different experience. And poetry, well, that’s something else altogether–like cutting gems. But in all cases, I’m a revisionary writer. If you adhere to Kurt Vonnegut’s idea about “bashers and swoopers” I’m definitely a swooper. I like what it creates. I’m going to list these like a recipe in the second person–as if I’m telling others what to do–but it’s simply what I do: 

  1. Schedule in time for writing–if you don’t, everything in the world will tell you it’s a “hobby” and it can wait. It can’t. I like to write early in the morning because I’m freshest then. Two hours a day–after that I’m writing garbage, but sometimes I go much longer because I just can’t stop. The hardest thing is sitting down to just do it. The second hardest thing is making sure no one disturbs you. Hide. Go out to your car if you don’t have a door with a lock. Earplugs are great. I’m not kidding.
  2. Read each day, even if it’s just 30 minutes. This will water your mind and make your writing stronger–plus supporting fellow writers matters.
  3. Don’t write in fear: save your docs, of course, but fear is not your friend. Don’t worry about losing stuff, don’t obsess about what if you die before you finish, don’t worry about your family being mad that you wrote this or that. All that worry, blow it away. You can probably tell I have to blow it away regularly.
  4. Don’t show your work to others too early. Wait till you have done your best with it, till you feel like things are in the right places, developed, ready and ripe. Showing too early lets others meddle too early.
  5. Do have a trusted writerly friend or a writers group so that when you are ready you can see how your story works with others. Observe. Don’t be petulant–this is difficult (for me). My writers group was very helpful in responding in particular to point of view issues as well as cultural issues. Addio, Love Monster is set in an Italian American neighborhood–in a culture that is very much my own. I needed to hear what they did not get clarity on–what needed more communication for a broad audience.
  6. Editing–another animal all together. I’m an English professor, so you would think I’d not need an editor or proofreader. I needed a proofreader–and when you get to this point, use someone professional and skilled. It’s necessary.
  7. Consider writing workshops–now with Zoom programs so easily available workshops are a great way to connect with other writers across the country or across the globe. Personally, I’ve been attending memoir workshops and a poetry workshop course. Carving out additional time. 

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

CHRISTINA: I write five days a week when I’m being good. I also teach six sections a semester and have lots of household responsibilities, so it’s a challenge. But that’s the goal and I often make it. 2 hours per day. When I start writing I’m tempted to go for eight hours–always–but I find doing that ensures you will not repeat writing the next day, and in the long run creates worse and less writing. 

ANGELA: Where do you do most of your writing (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write either in my above-garage office or in a chair in my living room. I should go to the office more but there’s no bathroom. When I write in the house, I’m constantly asked questions by family members and pummeled by my dogs who see the laptop as an unwanted sibling they would like to destroy once and for all so we can be on a perpetual walk. If I were more disciplined I’d always go up above the garage, but like I said: the bathroom. Also, I like to be close to the fridge and pantry just in case of a craving for Nutella and Italian bread. In the summers, I like to drive to Wisconsin. I know a place with cabins for $35 per night and I can write like mad there. Scheduling that right after this. 

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. In fact, I’ve got the Welsh Stories, a 350-page manuscript in its final revision plus a memoir I began in Edvidge Guinta’s workshop on cross-generational memoir. The memoir will include family history but also our family struggle with my daughter’s death at thirty-four this past Christmas from leiomyosarcoma. It will be important to me in a very particular way and yet so difficult. I tend to work on two or three things at once, which means I have a pipeline going. It also allows refuge if you are working on something that is emotionally taxing. That said, I’d be working multiple projects anyway because I have a lot of writing I want to get out into the world, and time being what it is, I think it’s natural (for me) to dip in and out of a few projects, while slowly herding them all toward the gate. 

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. Always. Because I’m always excited about the next thing coming. Wrapping up a manuscript or poem is very different from the invention process. I want to always be inventing. 

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block? 

CHRISTINA: I don’t have writer’s block. I have the opposite: a lot of things I’m compelled to write about and the willingness to write clumsily at first and revise until I get it right. Or even write something that will never see the light of day. Will get scrapped. That’s okay. In fact, it’s necessary. I find that writer’s block –and I see a lot of it in my classroom–comes from a focus on perfection at a time when perfection is not called for. It’s fear related. And it’s unnecessary. Write for yourself. Write the story you want to read. Or the poem you want to read. Start there and don’t worry. Tony Ardizzone once said to me (and a group of others) something like this: in invention–when you begin the new piece–it should be the child-you running the show, finger painting if you will. Keep the teenage you and the adult you out of the room. They can come in later when it’s time to revise and edit respectively. I found that helpful. Be kind to yourself. I think that can go a long way in eliminating writer’s block.  

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer? 

CHRISTINA: I think my experience had to take the path it took. I find that I learn what I need to as the proper time comes. I don’t know that I was ready before I was ready. So there really aren’t facts or techniques. But there are these things. I’ll number them for ease:

  1. You have every right to write what you want to write. It’s no one else’s place to determine your topics or style.
  2. It will be hard, hard work. And that’s normal.
  3. Remind yourself it’s also joyful. Not just another task. A passion. I like the word story-teller a lot in this space.
  4. Sometimes you will feel dejected, rejected, tired. Okay, so what?
  5. Writers are generally pretty nice people. If you ask them questions, they are often thrilled to reply–writers want more writers, more books, more stories, poems, exploration. Join them. 

Keeping up with Christina Marrocco:
Author Website

Interview conducted in May 2022.

Writers on Writing: Scott Austin Tirrell

Dawn of the Lightbearer book cover

SCOTT AUSTIN TIRRELL is the author of 4 fiction novels (with 2 more on the way) and 7 non-fiction books in his Frustrated Writer series. He also maintains his own publishing company, Satirrell Publishing, which publishes journals and project planners on a variety of topics for creative folks. Scott lived in China for over 3 years where he taught English and American business culture to graduate students and executives.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

SCOTT: I generally start with an image and a single character and see where the muse takes me. For the “Dawn of the Lightbearer”, book 1 in my Absolution of the Morning Star series, this was an old tree in a cave and a young blacksmith’s apprentice. From there, a story bloomed. I’m now writing book three of the series- some 1,200 pages into the story. It’s been an adventure.

ANGELA: Why genres do you write in? And why?

SCOTT: I would say broadly speculative. I’ve written in horror, historical fiction, and sci-fi, but darkish fantasy is where my heart is. I’m fascinated by the medieval period, but I get bogged down in the research for historical fiction. I enjoy the freedom of fantasy and its ability to transcend into other genres.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

SCOTT: It’s a tie. The Damnation Game by Clive Barker is just a comfy Faust-like tale. It is more commercial than his other works, but I’ve read it a dozen times. The second would be Frank Herbert’s Dune– it is just epic world-building.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

SCOTT: I just wrote a blog on something I call dump to dialogue. It is a process of taking an infodump and transforming it into an active dialogue between characters.  

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

SCOTT: I used to plan my stories out in detail. I stopped doing that. I now start with a single situation and let it grow organically based on the characters. I may have a specific destination I want to get to, but I don’t like to know how my characters will get there. I let them make their choices based on their personalities and see where it takes them. It doesn’t always work, but it often does. If I don’t know where they will go, my readers likely won’t know either. I like the poetry of that.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

SCOTT: I try to write at least 1,000 words a day, every day. It doesn’t always happen, but I try. This usually takes me about two hours. I write from 6 pm-8 pm. If I can fit more writing into my life, I do, but I also have a day job like most writers. You have to pay the bills, right?

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

SCOTT: Yes, I have about ten ideas percolating right now. I am actively working on two different series. For The Absolution of the Morningstar series, an epic dark fantasy, I am writing the third book of what will be a six-book series. Book one, “Dawn of the Lightbearer”, and two, “The Mourning Son”, are currently available on Amazon. I am also tinkering with the sequel of my first published book, the Island of Stone. This will likely be my next project before continuing with the Morningstar series- I’m about 70 pages in already.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

SCOTT: I usually take about a month off to promote what I’ve just published, and then it is back to writing. My goal in life is to get two books out a year.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

SCOTT: I research for inspiration. All it takes is a little bit of new information to turn the wheels again. Luckily, I’ve not had a severe case of the block, but sometimes I do lose motivation. Some days I don’t want to spend two hours forcing it, but once I get going, I’m usually ok. The best medicine for the block is to just keep writing- even if it all ends up in the bin.

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer?

SCOTT: Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect the first go. First drafts are first drafts. Just keep moving forward and get a foundation down on paper. When I was younger, I wasted so much time reading and re-reading what I wrote to get it perfect, only to cut it during editing. It will all work out in the end. Have confidence in your process. Think about writing a novel like climbing a hill. If you look up and try to encapsulate the entire story, you will get overwhelmed. You may even give up. It will also feel like it takes forever. Instead, focus on taking one step at a time, and you’ll get there before you know it!

Connecting and keeping up with Scott Austin Tirrell:
Amazon Author Page

Interview conducted in May 2022.

How to Write a Literature Review

Literature Review word cloud

Many people are daunted by the literature (lit) review portion of a dissertation or thesis. It requires much focus, time, and energy, so it is not something to put off or be undertaken casually. The good news is that getting this section right will make it easier to write the remaining chapters. Before starting your lit review, you need to decide on your topic and develop a strong research question. Ask yourself the following questions to find a good topic.

  • What topics are you very interested in?
  • What are some of the problems or challenges in those topics?
  • Which of these challenges would you like to learn more about?
  • Is there sufficient current research (within the last 10 years) available on this topic?
  • What kind of study could you undertake to learn more about that issue?
  • Of the theories you have studied, which would best guide your study?
  • What do you hope to find or solve?
  • How could your study benefit others?

You will then phrase your topic in the form of a question that you will strive to answer by performing your own study. The research question should be specific while the topic is broad and complex. This will ensure that you have a lot to work with and room to adjust your research question or study parameters, if needed. And, finally, the research question should be answerable within the allotted time.

Once you have your research question, you are ready to begin! While there are many steps to planning your study and the writing of your thesis or dissertation, this post will focus on the literature review. The lit review is very important to the overall project. It provides information about the current state of research in your topic area and lays the foundation for later chapters, including providing support to your own findings and recommendations. The main steps to planning and executing a good lit review are:

  • Find lots of good research
  • Group scholarly articles by themes
  • Determine the order in which you will discuss the themes
  • Write the lit review

Good research is the key to a great lit review. Find more articles than you think you will need. Not all of what you find will be as applicable or supportive to your project as they seemed at first. Be prepared to search again later as you get further into the writing of your paper. For a thesis, you may need to cite a minimum of 20 or 30 sources. Often, it is more. I used 50 sources in my master’s thesis. For a dissertation, the minimum might be 50 but you could use 100 or more sources. Check your school’s requirements or follow up with your advisor/dissertation chair to be sure.

Once you have a sufficient amount of research, read the articles you found. Highlight quotes and sections that you think you might use in the lit review and make notes of the main points, methodologies, population, findings, and recommendations. Once you’ve read all the articles, make note of the main similarities and differences you found among all the articles as well as any themes that stand out. Analyze your notes and begin to group your articles with similar main points, findings, or themes. Then, look through the articles in each grouping and re-read the highlighted portions. At this point you are ready to develop an outline or perform one or more of the other creative processes that prepare you to write such as brainstorming or freewriting.

Whether you start with a detailed outline, freewriting, brainstorming, clustering, or some other pre-writing technique, it will be best to consider how to order the groupings of articles. You want to arrange them into an order that makes sense. Each subsequent theme should build upon, or connect in some way, to the previous idea discussed. By the time your reader gets to the end of this chapter, they will have a good grounding in the topic including current research and problems and will be able to understand your research question, the study you will undertake, as well as your own findings and recommendations.

Once you have a plan, you can start writing. You will discuss the themes you found, each article in a group (including a brief summary of a relevant aspect such as the main points, stating the population studied, or highlights of the findings and recommendations), and compare and contrast the research and themes you found. You should point out if you think any of the articles do not support their findings well, if there are problems with their methodology, sample problems, or weak conclusions. Explain the articles in relation to your topic and research question. The idea is to take all these different articles and present them as a coherent whole by tying them all together by topic and themes while discussing their differences and the outcomes of your examination of the current literature. This is more interesting than randomly or chronologically discussing each article, one by one, and summarizing at the end. It also highlights your knowledge and understanding of the topic and current research and allows you to organically transition to discussing why your study is needed (and how the current research is lacking).

The most critical part of the lit review is the discussion of the theoretical framework that will be the foundation of your thesis or dissertation. More of your time will be spent discussing this in detail because this is what your study will be based upon. The findings and your recommendations will be the original contribution you make to your field so it is critical that you choose your theory well. Ideally, some or all of the research you find can be tied to the framework in some way. The theoretical framework is the thread that will tie all the chapters of your dissertation or thesis together.

The importance of the lit review can’t be understated. Having this section well-organized by theme will help with writing your findings and recommendations because you can organize the writing of those sections in a similar way or be able to point out why your study is different than much of the prevailing literature. It sets up the writing of future chapters and will make your writing seem more seamless and very cohesive as everything will be smooth and well-tied together. Knowing how to prepare a literature review and allowing enough time to research and write the chapter, will get you off to a great start.

The Writing Life: Routine

to do list

When I was in my 20s, I thought having a routine meant you were in a rut. Life should be spontaneous and doing the same thing over and over did not appeal to me at all! I was quite nomadic. Always carrying a backpack with a few essentials because I never knew where life would take me. I didn’t know how freeing a routine could be.

I like to think of a routine as two or more habits grouped together. Gretchen Rubin stated that “With habits, we don’t make decisions, we don’t use self-control, we just do the thing we want ourselves to do.” We have many habits. Brushing our teeth. Showering. Washing dishes while preparing a meal. A routine helps us do more of the things we want to do without having to give those tasks much thought. This helps with procrastination and other feelings that might get in the way. No matter how tired I am, I brush my teeth, remove cosmetics, wash my face and moisturize before going to bed.

Developing routines can be so beneficial. A morning practice such as showering, having coffee (or tea) and a bite before work can ensure that you’re starting the day out right. And if, for any number of reasons, you don’t get enough sleep, having the habit of a morning routine will ensure a poor night’s sleep doesn’t wreck your whole day. Being tired makes me crabby but a shower makes me feel better.

Having a routine is very grounding and being grounded is important to a balanced life. As writers, we are not always the best at self-care. Sometimes we forget to eat. Sometimes we can’t sleep because the ideas and words keep flowing. When we’re in the middle of a project, sometimes that is all we can think about. Much of our time is spent writing, researching, and thinking about the writing. Some of us spend time planning and outlining each chapter of our book. Some of us develop detailed character sketches. Being a writer means often being consumed by our work. Routines can keep us healthy and on track with all aspects of our lives. We don’t want to neglect our health or our relationships.

Maintaining routines can ensure that we take time for ourselves and the people we love while ensuring that we have writing time in our busy lives. This is especially important if we work a full-time job to pay the bills. It is challenging to make a living from writing. Author Scott Tyrell quantifies how much he gets paid for writing in his blog. It’s not a lot right now. Like Scott, I have a day job to pay the bills. I work full time in addition to my editing and coaching work, writing, cooking, shopping, spending time with my spouse and our dog, and everything else that constitutes a life these days. If we didn’t have a routine to write regularly, our stories wouldn’t be told. 

The trick to routines is making sure that they don’t become rigid. We want the behaviors that make up a routine to become automatic so that we complete tasks without having to think too much about it. Thinking rather than doing can lead to procrastinating and other forms of resistance. On the other hand, if a routine is too fixed it can lead to problems. We need to be flexible. If I used the last of the coffee the day before (and forgot to buy some more), I’m going to be very upset with myself and I’m not going to have a good morning. My morning routine is out the window. Rather than just being upset and going to work upset and out of sorts, I could skip breakfast to get out the door earlier. Then, I can use that time for a quick stop at a coffee shop and grab some food there as well coffee. I can treat myself to a nice breakfast I didn’t (and would rarely) cook for myself. Maybe I’ll have ham, cheese and egg on a croissant! Or a blueberry scone! I usually eat something healthier like fruit, nuts, and low-fat yogurt. But going outside my comfortable behaviors can be a nice treat on the rare occasion rather than an upsetting and frustrating event.

Similarly, if you always write in the same place and at the same time, a break in the routine may not be as welcome. If you’re used to writing in a coffee shop and it’s closed due to lack of staff or renovations, where will you go to write that is busy and noisy? It might be better to have a routine where you write in different situations – quiet and noisy and, if you don’t have a day job, at different times, so that you can quickly and easily adjust to a change and still be able to meet your writing goals.

It’s good to have productive routines but remember to be flexible when normal routine is broken so that you can still achieve your goals.

Writers on Writing: Joshua Isard

Conquistador of the Useless book cover

JOSHUA ISARD is an Assistant Professor and Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. He has published numerous short stories and his first novel, Conquistador of the Useless, was published in 2013.  

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JOSHUA: Mostly real life experiences. I can’t say that’s new for a writer or anything, but it’s true. Sometimes it’s the mundane, like suburban living, sometimes it’s more exciting things like travel. But my stories always have a kernel of something real, and then expand into a fictional world as I write.

So, I wouldn’t say I write autobiographical fiction, as much as to say that my fiction sprouts from my real life.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the contemporary/minimalist/realist genre?

JOSHUA: Well, I didn’t always. I tried for a much more mandarine prose when I was in grad school, and it didn’t work out. Then in my mid twenties I started discovering contemporary minimalists like Amy Hempel, Marc Richard, and Tom Spanbauer, and something about the way they told a story really resonated with me. I tried it out and realized that a sort of minimalism suited the stories I wanted to tell, and I’ve gone with it ever since.

I think that’s the important thing, finding the style that suits your stories. When those two elements are in harmony, they end up informing each other to produce cohesive fiction.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JOSHUA: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’m in this stage of reading tons of books set in Japan because I’m teaching a course about it next semester. So, it’s been all Japan all the time, with only a few breaks, since June or so. I love it, I’m fascinated by Japan and the way Western culture relates to it.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JOSHUA: I’m glad you phrased is as “one of,” because who can choose just one as the top?

I’ll go with Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s been a heavy influence on my current project, and the way he imbues such a dark situation with humor is just incredible.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JOSHUA: I use a lot of em-dashes. I think that’s the best piece of punctuation, and can represent several things based on context, like offsetting sort of parenthetical phrases, and joining two independent clauses in a far more intuitive way than a semicolon (I hate semicolons).

Lots of writers forget how useful punctuation is, and the ranges of uses that still fall within correct grammar. I like stretching punctuation use to its limits.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JOSHUA: I go to Starbucks, sit my but in the chair, and write. I also listen to music, but otherwise, that’s it. I think people fetishize the writing process far too much, all it involves is getting in front of a computer or piece of paper and writing. There is no muse, and no magic amount of coffee that makes one able to write. It’s all the will to sit down and do it.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JOSHUA: I try to write every day, but that never happens. On average, five days a week, maybe?

And I make sure to get in a few hours each session. I think sustained time works much better for me than small snippets. But, that’s just me and what seems to get me producing the best work. For whatever reason, I think my writing’s better in the second hour than the first of a writing session.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JOSHUA: You hope this happens, but it doesn’t always for me. It took nine months after my novel was published before I started a new one, and I hardly wrote anything in that time. I definitely need to be more disciplined in thinking ahead and making sure I have another project in mind when I finish the one in progress.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JOSHUA: Again, I don’t always have that luxury. But I think that if I do find myself with an idea ready to go, I wouldn’t want time off before starting it.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JOSHUA: I don’t believe in it. Not having a story to write isn’t writer’s block, it’s my own lack of discipline in thinking about a new project. Writer’s block really means the writer thinks everything he or she comes up with is terrible. To which I say, so what? Most of the time you have to write something terrible to get to something good, so just write some bad pages.

I think that if we stop using terms like “the muse,” or “writer’s block,” more people would write more good stories. Those ideas are nothing more than excuses, taking the agency away from the writer. If you’re not writing, it’s your fault—don’t try and blame anyone or anything else. When I was unproductive for nine months, that was on me, and I own up to it. Doing so will help prevent me from not doing that again.

Connecting and keeping up with Joshua Isard

Interview conducted in August 2014.

How and When to Edit

manuscript with markup

Many people think of editing as reviewing a written work, line by line, for typos and errors in grammar. While that is certainly a significant part of editing, there are other types of editing that can be just as beneficial as line editing. In a previous post, I discussed the writing process. Now, I want to discuss editing in relation to the writing process, specifically how and when to edit as well as the various types of editing.

But first, a gentle reminder because writers don’t always take the best care of themselves.  It’s always helpful to take a rest of at least a few days before revising or editing so you can come at the daunting task feeling fresh. You’re going to need that! The focus and analysis you use during editing is distinct and more intense—in a different way—than the other phases of the writing process.

I find the prewriting stage to be both interesting and frustrating. It can be a challenge to find the resources that will suit your writing project best. There is also a lot of skimming and reading that can be a bit tedious.  But I try not to get hung up on that and move on to writing as soon as I have a baseline. The revision stage can, and often does, include more research so everything works out in the end.

The writing period is like the honeymoon phase of a relationship. It is intensely creative. Ideas, words, and phrases reveal themselves all the time, sometimes at the wrong time. Like when you’re trying to sleep! It can be magical when you’re in the zone and the words quickly fill page after page. It can also make you cranky when it doesn’t flow, and then you know it’s time for a break. Many of the authors who I’ve interviewed for my blog agree that writer’s block means you need to take care of yourself. If you are struggling to write, you must replenish yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I want to say that revision is my favorite part of the writing process. However, like many writers, I struggle with this aspect. I know what needs to be done. I can see where more details are needed. The sections where the writing is not sparkling. The inconsistencies and discontinuities. But it often feels overwhelming. Nevertheless, revision is the opportunity to see the work as a whole and to weave our writing more tightly together. There is creativity in this step but also a lot of evaluation. Many of the students in my freshman comp classes went right to proofreading after they completed their first full draft, but revision is an important element of writing that should not be neglected. This stage is necessary for anyone who wants to bring their best writing. It can be a lot of work—more work than writing—and that can be scary. Looking at the literary devices and techniques in your stories, drafting an outline so you can play around with the plot, examining the synthesis of your research, along with your conclusions and recommendations, requires a lot of time and energy. It sometimes involves scrutinizing your word choices to refine the tone, making sure your outcome is a forgone conclusion in hindsight, strengthening your arguments or researching and writing some more. If analyzing your writing is not your thing, an editor can help by providing an editorial assessment and/or a substantive edit of your manuscript to identify the components that need work. Then, you can focus on what you do best (and enjoy the most)—writing.

An editorial assessment is a detailed analysis of a work as a whole that concentrates on the development of a novel, including an appraisal of literary devices and techniques, or a chapter-by-chapter critique of a technical manuscript, such as a dissertation, including examination of the lit review, discussion of the research, the findings and the recommendations. A substantive or content edit studies the structure of a work—how the content is organized and presented. Both of these will highlight the work that is needed when you revise your work.

Line editing and proofreading, which comes after the writing process is complete and you have a fully developed manuscript, is a different animal again. It requires a lot of dedication, patience, and hard work. There are so many facets that need to be considered: spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, switching verb tenses, repeated words, sentence lengths and structure, word choices, and the application of appropriate style guides for academic and journalistic writing. It can be difficult to tackle so many aspects of writing all at the same time so many writers make multiple passes, focusing on one thing at a time. One writer said they make seven passes at editing. That is an excellent way to edit a work. But you don’t have to make seven passes. Try breaking down your editing as follows.

  1. Inspect sentence lengths and structures. The more varied you can be, the more interesting it is for readers, and it also creates a nice flow. Check your punctuation while you are at it.
  2. Examine your word choices to ensure that you are not repeating words and that you have used the correct word (such as ‘an’ instead of ‘and’). Spell check won’t catch that. Assess your use of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, symbolism, imagery, irony and so on. This is more engaging for your readers and makes them think.
  3. Make sure your subjects agree with your verbs and that you aren’t switching tenses.

Looking at style, grammar and punctuation is characteristic of line or copy editing and you can hire a professional to do this for you. I recommend hiring an editor at least once because it can be very enlightening to see your work through the eyes of another. You can learn a lot and began to change how you write. If you don’t need a review of style and are ready to move on to your next work, you can pay someone to proofread before submission. Proofreading, sometimes called mechanical editing, will evaluate your grammar, spelling, and punctuation so you can send a well-polished manuscript to publishers. As a writer and editor, I have at least 2 people edit my writing and a third to comment on the content and development. The diverse perspectives are extremely beneficial to the piece and to how I approach later writing.

Many writers do not like proofreading or line editing but, if you take the time to do it, you can learn a lot. The more you edit your own work, the better your writing will become. Correcting your own errors is a learning process if you do it mindfully. Recognizing and correcting mistakes will make you less likely to make them while you write. Still, there is nothing wrong with paying someone else to do this for you. It leaves you free to write more! Let’s talk about your editing needs.

Understanding Story, Plot and Narrative

Rip Van Winkle

“Rip Van Winkle” is the quintessential American short story.  It is compact, has an impact, and a beginning, middle and end that you can read in one setting.  More importantly it has humor.  The story is full of meaningful descriptions and imagery.  “Rip Van Winkle” is simply enjoyable and fun to read.  Like other short stories, it is influenced by historical features of the time when it was written.  And, the story has a message.  It is no coincidence that “Rip Van Winkle” is the archetypal American short story.  It was published in 1819 by Washington Irving who created and helped define the characteristics of the American short story.  This short story, because it is such a classic model, is a wonderful vehicle for literary analysis.  In this post I will use “Rip Van Winkle” to illustrate a few literary terms.  These terms are story, narrative, plot and fable.

Story, plot and narrative are related topics that should be discussed together to fully understand the differences.  According to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, story is the series of events that make up any work.  Plot refers to how a work is structured.  A narrative is the details and descriptions of events, places and characters. The three make up the substance of a literary work.

If story is simply the events and characters in the story, the plot is how those events are arranged to create the effect that the writer is going for and narrative is the details that engage the reader and support the build up to a climactic event.  A good analogy for these three terms is planning a trip, plotting on a map all the things you want to visit, and communicating the lovely vacation to your friends back home.  Once you have that visual representation of the things you want to do and people you want to visit (story), you can plan the best route for visiting those things (plot).  When you visit your great-grandmother who has lived in Tuscany all her life she will relate the significance of each thing you saw and any events you experienced in that beautiful region (narrative). 

In relation to Irving’s tale, the story is about a man who avoids household chores, avoids his wife, helps all the other people in the village, spends long afternoons chatting at the inn, falls asleep for twenty years and spends the last years of his life without a wife, without chores and doing all that he loves best.  The events are well plotted out to give the reader a clear and sometimes humorous picture of life in early America.  Life at that time, in this country, was raw and full of potential.  Being able to redefine oneself and one’s country was a heady experience.  Irving, while defining the American short story, was giving a sense of the American experience at the beginnings of this nation for the reader.  It is through the richly detailed imagery in the narrative that the story comes to life for us.  One scene gives us a vivid picture of the characters and life way back then.  Dame Van Winkle “would suddenly break in upon the tranquility of the assemblage and call the members all to naught; nor was the august personage, Nicholas Vedder himself, sacred from the daring tongue of this terrible virago, who charged him outright with encouraging her husband in habits of idleness”. 

In even fewer words as in the “fairy mountains”, where Rip Van Winkle meets the magical beings and their powerful liquor that send him into a very long slumber, we are told many things.  All manner of fey creatures must live in the fairy mountains.  Such beings are never depicted as sharing the morals that humans live by.  They do not even experience the passing of time in the same way.  The reader knows something out of the ordinary is going to happen.  The short story takes on the qualities of fairy tale or fable right in the opening paragraphs.

The fable is a short story that provides a message about how we should live our lives.  Unlike a parable which is shorter and quite often contains religious doctrine, a fable teaches us about morality.  Parents have used fables for time out of mind to teach their children how to behave properly.  Fables ensure a shared sense of morality that facilitates groups of people living together in society.  The tale of “Rip Van Winkle” is such a story, but a somewhat complicated one.  In “Rip Van Winkle”, Irving explores the Puritan work ethic and its desire to become more divine-like through good works.  Then, he compares this to the American desire to be free, to just be, to live fully or as people say today, live large.  This short story was influenced by ideals upon which this country was founded as stated in the Declaration of Independence – the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The main character represents the American while his wife represents the puritan.  Rather than state outright which is the better way to be or live as fables often do at the end, Irving instead conveys his moral through the telling of what happens to Rip Van Winkle after he awakens from his twenty year sleep.  In the end, Rip Van Winkle has not changed at all.  However, he is happier than ever just being himself and only having to do what he has always loved best.  He doesn’t seem to regret the twenty years he spent sleeping high up in the fey mountains.

As far as fables go, it’s a great one with a good message that has come to signify the individuality and independence typical of Americans.  Be yourself.  It seems that Washington Irving had his finger on the pulse of America.  He really understood the foundations and founding of this nation.  Irving understood the spirit of the country and its people while seeing the lack of this character in our literature.  With his writing, and “Rip Van Winkle” in particular, he helped to characterize and define American Literature and especially the American short story. 

Writers on Writing: Kim Antieau

Kim Antieau photo
© Kim Antieau
Used with permission

KIM ANTIEAU is a prolific writer, researcher, librarian, publisher and blogger. She has published 20 novels, six collections of short stories, four non-fiction books and numerous short stories, articles and poems. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, and fellow writer, Mario Milosevic.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

KIM: I get them from everywhere, from what I read, see, hear, experience. For me, my stories come from the ground up, so it often makes a difference where I am—geographically. I get more stories from some places than I do others.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the fantasy and/or non-fiction genre?

KIM: Fiction: I don’t really write in any particular genre. The stories just come to me, and I write them. Nonfiction: If something moves me in some way, I’ll write about it. It’s how I communicate with the world.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

KIM: The Golden Age of Botanical Art by Martin Rix, Energetic Boundaries by Cyndi Dale, and An Illustrated Record of Chinese Civilization.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

KIM: Terrastina and Mazolli by Mario Milosevic. It’s a novel told in 99 word chapters. I love it because it’s kind and beautiful, quirky and hopeful. (Yes, Mario happens to be my husband, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still one of my favorite books.)

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

KIM: A story comes to me; it rolls around in my imagination for a while; if it needs researching, I’ll research it. Then I sit down and write it.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

KIM: I write in spurts. I can write every day for hours at a time, but then when I’m done with a project, I can go months without writing anything. Of course, that’s with fiction. Even if I’m not writing fiction, I’m usually writing nonfiction or a blog post or something.

ANGELA: How much time do you spend revising?

KIM: When I finish a piece, I read it right away and fix up what I call the stupids. I also determine at that point whether the piece has merit. If it actually needs a major rewrite, I just let go of it. Nothing can kill a story more than a major rewrite (at least for me). Stories come out whole cloth for me, so if there is a major flaw or the writing is bad, it can’t be fixed, in my view. I can redraft: Throw out the whole thing and start from the beginning. If the piece does work and just needs some editing, I’ll edit it and then give it to Mario. He’ll give me his two cents. I’ll incorporate his edits. Then I put the manuscript away for a bit. When I have some distance, I bring it out and read it again, edit it, and then it’s ready to go.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

KIM: I always have many novel ideas. I don’t know what I’ll write next, though. I let the Muses decide at the time.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

KIM: I try not to start immediately after I’ve finished a long project. If I do, the piece is usually awful. I need down time. I need time to fill up again.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

KIM: I whine about it to my husband. It’s not so much writer’s block as sitting my butt down in the chair block. When I’m ready, I’m ready. When I’m not, I’m not. If I’m suffering from a bout of depression or I’m just having trouble for some other reason, I’ll ask my husband to give me a word count deadline. He’ll say, “Give me 500 words by lunch.” And usually that works. (I write about a lot of this in Answering the Creative Call, by the way.) I don’t know why it works, but it does.

image of book covers

Connecting and keeping up with Kim Antieau:
Green Snake Publishing

Interview conducted in July 2015.

Writing: Structure and Organization

graphic of an outline

The structure and organization of writing is critical to effective communication. There is a standard format that can be followed regardless of the purpose or intended audience (two important elements that were discussed in this post). The following framework will help you successfully convey your thoughts and ideas. You may recognize it as the format your high school English teacher taught you for writing essays. But it works for all types of communications!

All writing should have an introduction, body and conclusion.

  • In today’s world of information overload, the best way to get your ideas across and to have any hope that people will remember what you wrote is to state what you’re going to discuss, provide the material, then summarize what was written.
  • Using different language each time will help you to reach a larger portion of your audience and deepen people’s understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.
  • The introduction and conclusion can be as short as one sentence each.

The introduction must state what your writing is about and prepare readers to receive the knowledge you will provide.

  •  Is there any background data needed in order to understand the overall topic or specific points?
  • Are there terms that should be defined?
  • Start general, ease into more specifics, and end very focused.

Always include a thesis statement or statement of purpose at the end of the introduction or in a separate paragraph immediately following the first paragraph. This can be expressed in one sentence or a whole paragraph. To compose the thesis or purpose statement, answer the following questions.

  • Why are you providing this material?
  • Why is it significant?
  • What will be discussed in the body paragraphs to illuminate and support your objective?
  • How do you expect audience members to use the data?

There should be at least one body paragraph where you expound on the introduction.

  • It will be helpful to your readers if you provide examples, similes or metaphors to relate the intelligence to knowledge they already possess. These types of connections not only engage your audience more, but it makes understanding your perspective easier.
  • To take comprehension and deepen it to belief, provide some type of evidence to prove your statements. A simple fact or anecdote should be sufficient.
  • Keep each body paragraph to one main idea. If you have 3 points to make, you will write 3 paragraphs.

Each paragraph should flow smoothly from one to the next while building upon the information provided in the previous one.

  • One way to accomplish this is to use transition words such as furthermore, in addition, next, although, and consequently.
  • A better method is to tie each paragraph back to your stated purpose. A thesis statement is, after all, both the purpose of your writing and the glue that connects together each point made in the body.
  • Effective passages have an introductory and concluding sentence. Body paragraphs are like miniature versions of the whole. Using transitional words and phrases at the beginning and end of each paragraph ensures an effortless stream of expanding knowledge through your writing.

The conclusion should succinctly summarize what you’ve written.

  • This helps your audience remember all the data in between the introduction and conclusion.
  • Start specific and end very general, the opposite of how you began in the introduction.
  • The thesis statement or statement of purpose should be restated in new language.
  • A useful conclusion will connect the big picture to something your audience already knows, aiding in comprehension and recall.
  • An outstanding conclusion will tell the audience what they should do with the information they just received.

This way of organizing writing will enable you to share your knowledge skillfully with any audience. You can also use this framework for presentations and speeches. Effective communication can take different forms. But, when you resort to speaking, you’ll want to notice what you do with your hands, the expressions that show on your face, how you stand, and how you move your body.  Don’t forget to pause during speeches to give people a chance to make the connections between your points, and be prepared for interruptions. In some ways, it is much easier to write to people than to talk with them!