7 Things Your Writer Needs to Hear

Hi! Colonel Shifty here, reporting with another list of tips for the people who care for writers.

Maybe your writer is shy, or passive aggressive, or just so darn busy drafting Book 3 in her series that she can’t manage to tell you what she needs to hear. Granted, some of these things she needs to hear from people in the publishing business (agents, editors, whatevs), but even if they come from you, a person who cares for her, they’ll still make her feel better/keep her from throwing her manuscript into the fireplace. (Throwing her book into the fireplace just might be the best thing for her…but she has to figure that out on her own.)

1. “Your turn will come.” Your writer may have friends who have published a book. Or books. Or maybe your writer has friends with literary agents, and he’s been desperately trying to find an agent to represent his work, and he’s having a really tough time hearing about how each of those friends had multiple agents fighting over him, and he’s happy for them, he really is. But he’s also feeling a little frustrated about his own place in the process. What your writer needs now is some cheerleading in the form of, “You will have your turn, and it will be glorious.” Because he will have his turn! And it will be glorious! (Please do not mention the possibility that his turn could be, oh, fifteen years away. Or more. He doesn’t need to hear that.)

2. “Take your time.” There’s no rush. I mean, obviously, your writer shouldn’t be dominating the Twitter feeds of her six followers, but she can spend some time taking a head-clearing walk or diving into book-related research. Maybe there’s a ticking clock of needing to get a “real” job once her baby starts school. That’s okay. She can still write. And rushing through a book doesn’t help anyone. She should enjoy it – otherwise what’s the point?

3. “Write the book you need to write.” Does your writer want to tell weird stories? Or super sad stories? Or historical fiction or paranormal romance about vampires? Is he drawn to something that might not exactly be marketable? Tell your writer it’s okay. If that’s the book he needs to write, he should write it. If he’s passionate about it, that passion will shine through. And maybe it won’t be publishable, but he’ll never know unless he writes the darn thing.

4. “Define your own success.” Publication isn’t the only way. Tell your writer that. If she’s writing, and she’s happy, that is a GOOD thing. Maybe her success shouldn’t be measured by things she can’t control, like the publishing industry. Maybe it should instead be measured by the progress she CAN control, like finishing a book, or learning more about a certain format (cough*verse*cough), or getting out there and attending a workshop. Some days this one writer I know defines success by whether or not she makes the time to sit her bootie down to write.

5. “Chocolate doesn’t have calories. Nope, none. Not a single calorie. Eat as much as you want.” No explanation necessary.

6. “It’s okay to cry.” Even if your writer is defining his own success and writing the book he needs to write and taking his time…rejection can still sting. A lot. Give him a day or two to get over it. Crying’s okay, as long as he isn’t short-circuiting his laptop keyboard with the tears.

7. “You want to leave me with our two young children for how many days while you attend a conference? Okay!” I’m sure you’re already supportive in this regard, in which case you may pat yourself on the back and help yourself to one of your writer’s chocolates from her not-so-secret stash. Your writer is taking big risks putting words on the page. An even bigger risk might be attending a writing conference and putting herself out there, learning new things, and totally leaving her comfort zone. Huzzah and hooray to the support network personnel (aka YOU) who are willing to step out of your comfort zone and let her have at it!

And finally, you may kindly point your writer to next week’s Guest Post by Me, Colonel Shifty, in which I list a few of the things your writer can be saying to you, her support network.

New to being the Support Network for your writer? If you need a tutorial on lingo from the publishing world, you can visit my Handy Dandy Dictionary.

5 Reasons Why Writers Shouldn’t Drive

Woo! Back from my Social Media Blackout. It was very refreshing. While I’m happy to be back and check in with people, I’m coming away from this with a definite desire to set more limits on my social media use.

A comment a writer friend made got me thinking of…this. Blech. Let’s just jump in, shall we?

1. Fictional Worlds I.

You may think the writer present, noting details about her surroundings. This happens on occasion. But writers are often off in alternate realities. Another time, another place. With other people. Figuring out a plot issue, or having imaginary conversations with talkative characters (SHUT UP!). Suddenly the writer has missed several turns. She finds herself somewhere in Canada when she was trying to get to the corner store (in California) for chocolate.

2. Fictional Worlds II.

There is another, more secret kind of fictional world experienced by that of the writer (indeed, of any daydreamer). That of the fame and fortune that will, of course, inevitably be given the writer upon completion of her book. Imagining various scenarios in which she will be interviewed, how she will spend her humongous paychecks, where in Italy she plans to buy the villa – these thoughts are known to especially distract the writer whilst she drives to whatever mundane location happens to be on the day’s itinerary.

3. The Big Idea.

Ever have a sudden bolt of inspiration that just MUST NOT BE FORGOTTEN? I have. Usually when I’m drifting off to sleep, taking a shower, or driving down the highway. It’s pretty easy to deal with. You stop what you’re doing, grab a pen and paper, and jot down the big idea (or super important rhyming couplet, as was a recent case for me). When driving, this is very important: PULL OVER FIRST. Sometimes pulling over isn’t possible. In which case you’re stuck either a) trying to fumble for a pen and paper and write something legible while driving 70 miles per hour (NOT RECOMMENDED), or b) repeating the bit of dialogue (or rhyming couplet) to yourself over and over until a proper pull-over place is found (NOT FUN BUT BETTER THAN DYING).

4. Words.

Words can be a problem. Specifically, for me, certain traffic directives can either totally get on my nerves, and/or provide more than a years’ worth of imagined debates. Take, for instance, SPEED LIMIT 25 WHEN CHILDREN ARE PRESENT. It’s so ambiguous! Where do the children have to be, to be considered “present”? On the street? Behind the fences at the school? In their houses? In my car? Also, if you see a child, you slow to 25, I was told. What if the 25 mph zone continues for quite some time but there are NO other children? Can you speed up again? People frequently do. My latest beef with that particular directive is I’m trying to grammatically figure out if I have to slow down when there is only one kid. Child. Singular. Or if I have to see two kids (children, plural, as the sign says) before I must slow to 25. Either I’m distracted by the words themselves, or trying to convince an imaginary traffic cop, judge, or my sheriff brother of why I did the right thing. (Lest anyone think I’m an irresponsible driver, let me assure you: if I see a kid, I slow to 25 until I’m all the way through the school zone, end of story. I just like to argue with myself…and the people in my head.)

5. The Thoreauian Desire.

Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of a project, or trying to work out a  plot problem, and I just know that if I could get away for a couple days and have total solitude, I could get the thing figured out. It’s sometimes a real danger that on a solo trip to Target, I might take the freeway by mistake and wind up in a nice hotel two towns over with my cell phone turned off. This hasn’t happened…yet. Cancun is also a real possibility. I bet there are margaritas there.

(Total sidenote: Does anyone else ever feel like a total cheater when referencing classic novels they have not, and never intend to, read?)

NiFtY Author Erin Bow

Erin Bow first grabbed my attention when someone handed me a copy of Plain Kate (click here to read my review). I picked it up and could not stop. Her writing is so beautiful and…. oh, sorry. I just woke up from a fangirl swoon. Here’s our interview! Check out her pole-dancing writing studio! Exclamation points are a side-effect of fangirl-dom!

BH: You have been BUSY since I last visited your website. What are all these projects you have going? Wait, that would take forever. Could you choose one new project to describe in a paragraph for us here?

EB: Hmm, it’s hard to pick!  I guess most of my time is going into the first draft of my third novel, a dystopian for young adults called Children of Peace.  Here’s the pitch:

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages.   The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures.  Under the tutelage of gentle, monkish artificial intelligences, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of Prefecture Four.  Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water —  she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

BH: Okay, yeah, I want to read it. You probably don’t need a beta reader, but if you do… Moving on. Tell us a little about your path to publication.

EB: Oh, dear.  The story of my path to publication makes people hate me, because I got so lucky.

I put a lot of research into agents, and landed the first one I queried, the one at the very tippy top of my list.  She worked with me for a couple of years on Plain Kate (it took some time, but in my defense I had two babies in there) and then sent it out to this amazing list of editors, seven of them, I think.  I not only got an offer right away, I got a bunch of offers (told you my agent was amazing), which ended up in an auction.  I was and still am thrilled to be with Arthur Levine, of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic.  He’s a genius editor and a great cheerleader for the books he loves.

BH: I wouldn’t say your story makes me hate you. Much.

It has been months since I read Plain Kate, and I still keep going back to it when I want some inspiration for creating a great setting and mood combination. Did that mood come naturally to the writing of the book, or did you have to work at it? Please tell me you had to work at it.

EB: That mood comes courtesy of this 800-page volume of Russian fairytales I read just before starting Plain Kate.  I soaked them in and they took me over, and the mood just came tumbling out.

But of course there’s work.  A pet peeve of mine is historical fantasies where the world seems just a few inches deep, like a stage set.  Pretty: but not workable.  I think to really get a setting to work you have to know really nitty-gritty practical things.  What the people eat, and where they get it?  What do the tools of their trade look like?  What are they afraid of when the lights go out?  A good fantasy world needs an economy, an ecology, and a mythology.

Some of the things I needed to know for Plain Kate:  How do you polish a carving without sand paper?  How do you catch a chicken?   Keep your feet dry in rainy weather?  The research was truly endless, and I still feel as if it’s thin in places.

BH: You write both fiction and poetry, and some pretty great personal essays, too. How do you balance your different projects and the different parts of your brain that you get to tap into?

EB:  I try to set aside blocks of time.  Sometimes I, say, edit one book in the mornings and draft another in the afternoons.  Sometimes I give myself three weeks or a month to finish such and such a chunk, and do little else.  I try really hard not to switch back and forth between things.  Starting is always the hardest part, and starting over and over again is frustration and a waste of energy.  (And I do it all the time.  I have the attention span of a goldfish that’s off its meds.)

I also try to keep writing business out of my office: I do submissions and interviews and blogs and things  after the kids go to bed.  My office is dedicated to the writing part of writing.  I don’t have a phone or wifi.  (Recently some wifi has started leaking in.  I’m considering copper mesh.  See: goldfish, meds.)  When I’m in my office, I write.  When I’m not, I don’t.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

EB: I rented an office half a year ago – and with the exception of marrying my husband, it is the best choice I ever made.  The space is somewhat .. unusual. (Note: if the photos aren’t visible, you can click here to see Erin’s Office on Flickr.)

(Click on the images to make them bigger; enlarging them here was making them too blurry.)

People think I’m kidding when I say I work in a pole dancing studio, but I’m not.  My office is their spare room.  It can only be reached by crossing the dance floor — check those poles!  It’s cheap because I can’t use it at night, when the dance floor is, um, busy.  And it’s fun because when I need to clear my head I can swing around a little.


I furnished my office with a  hodgepodge of things that were either free or cheap – but it doesn’t feel makeshift.  It feels cozy and practical, like a yurt.  In this picture you can see the little loveseat (curbsourced) for curling up, a chair (Salvation army, recovered) handy for pulling up to the loveseat for coffee with friends, and of course a big desk (Goodwill) with lots of room for bulletin boards. You can see the picture boards here for Sorrow’s Knot (upper left) and Children of Peace (lower right).

My office is a highly ritualized space – and I refuse to feel silly about that.  I often find one needs to coax oneself closer to inspiration, the way a church coaxes one closer to God.  So my office is furnished with ritual objects and relics.


Here, you can see the objarka my editor sent me when bidding on Plain Kate, beside Plain Kate’s NYT review; a doorway shrine; a hand-cast pewter cat given by a good friend and some fiddly stones; the timer of short naps and the glass bird of holding when you want to start over; the tin angel celebrating the finish of my second novel, Sorrow’s Knot; the wall of things that mean stuff to me, including the porcelain birds that were my great grandmother’s, a map of Tenochtitlan, a bundle of grass from the monastery where I wrote my first book of poetry, a 1942 advertisement for a Waterman “Commando” fountain pen, and a reproduction of the original cover of A Room of One’s Own.

BH: Your office has inspired me. I am now working on converting our converted garage guest room into my writing studio. Must find a great big pole.

What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

EB: Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance, on meter in poetry.  It is basic – you don’t have to go into being able to scan, which is good, because I have dreadful trouble with scanning.  But it is also bottomlessly good, and I could read it over and over, just to soak it up.  I read that book, and Heaney’s Beowulf, and somehow decided that what the world really needed was a children’s version of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight in 200 rhymed quatrains, beginning with a beheading and turning on an illicit kiss.  I can’t imagine why I can’t get that published.

BH: (I have difficulty with scanning, too. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this.) What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

EB: Ribe Tuchus – keep your butt in the chair.  Sit still.

My biggest enemy, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is inertia: the reistance to starting.  But if I promise myself I’ll just Ribe Tuchus for ten minutes, keep my hand moving across the page – often that’s all it takes to stop hating myself and wanting to get a job in a bank.

Every day I have to figure that out again.  (Goldfish.)  Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus.

BH: Thank you, Erin, for taking the time! For more on Erin and her writing, you can visit her (very awesome website) at erinbow.com She’s also on twitter as @erinbowbooks

The 30 Day Shred’s Three Circles of Hell

As the mother of a two-and-a-half year old, I’ve got skills the So-Secret-Nobody’s-Heard-of-It Agency wishes they knew about. In fact, the So-Secret-Nobody’s-Heard-of-It Agency tried to recruit me. However, my skills are better put to use managing the small hostile force in my own home.

My skill set, however, does not include running faster than a toddler, or lifting more than 35 pounds over short distances when cajoling and bribes fail to get my daughter to move from Point A to Point B. My skill set is more along the lines of squatting down to play tea party, slowly jogging the two blocks to school (when Z feels like it), and half-heartedly chasing her around the playground a couple of times a week.

So I want to get buff. While there is no hope of fitting into my jeans from high school, I’d like to feel comfortable in my body.

And in Jillian Michaels’s 30-Day Shred, I am anything but comfortable in my body. My body, I discover, continues to jump even after my legs have stopped. “Yo, gut,” I say. “The jumping jacks are over.”

Despite this discomfort, every morning I join Jillian and her two minions (her “best girls,” she calls them. Like, are they really her best friends?). I watch Natalie doing the advanced version of the workout, smiling through her gritted teeth, and Anita on the beginner’s track, coolly appraising me with her don’t-you-wish-you-had-em abs. And then there’s Jillian. She acts all goofy in the beginning, like, “Hey, modest me, I’m just a dorky girl next door.” And then she starts bossing you around: “Don’t you dare turn off this DVD. If 400 pound people can do jumping jacks, then so can you!” and all sorts of verbal abuse she probably thinks is encouragement.

Amazingly, though, after a week I could get through Workout 1 without falling down on the floor. Thus encouraged, I decided to enter the second circle of hell, also known as Workout 2.

When I started workout 2, Z finally noticed what I was doing. “You’re doing the same things they’re doing,” she said. I don’t think she gets it, why I’m growling at the television while heaving my body around the living room and gasping like a scandalized southern belle. To her, this exercise thing is a strange phenomenon. She joins in occasionally, holding two stuffed animals for her “weights” and doing a few jumping jacks. Then she gets bored and sets up a tea party or picks up a book.

Natalie and Anita might be stuck in the second circle with me for awhile, repeating the same exercises over and over again, smiling their smiles, holding back their eye rolls every time Jillian says something about how she isn’t very flexible. 30 days? Yeah, right. 60 days probably won’t be enough for me to get past that cursed chair squat and V raise. I’m going to stick with it, though, for all those times my daughter does want to run to school, for the sheer joy of moving her body.

Really, though, plank pose is overrated.