Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Practical Magic of Writing

Deb McLeod's Practical Magic of Writing
by Deb McLeod

DeAnna Knippling posted a link on Facebook to an essay, Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing, and mused about what she might include on her practical list. She’s a career writer and we could all learn a thing or two from her suggestions.

I, too, have thought about what I present to my clients about the practicality of the career they have chosen and decided I’d create a list too. As a coach, I help them work through many of these issues and I have a responsibility to buffer the romance of writing with the practicality of being a writer.

DeAnna and I agreed to swap lists. Here’s my top ten to master when considering writing as a career:
  1. Fire or Blood?
  2. Juggle the Job Sap
  3. Frankly Published 
  4. Why Buy the Cow? 
  5. Made the Ivory Tower? Great! Now Jump
  6. Beware the Pigeonhole
  7. Edit Up
  8. The Long-haul
  9. Endurance is a Learned Habit
  10. Write
Fire or Blood?
You have to carve time out of your life for writing.

In my house when I’m working, there’s an understanding that no one disturbs me unless it’s fire or blood. I work early, early in the morning, so it’s seldom an issue. But when my daughter was young, I arranged daycare and closed my office door. And no, I don’t feel guilty about teaching her that at an early age. What I modeled to her was that my art was important too. She’s a musician and I guarantee that she gets it.

When I learned to put unbreakable boundaries around my writing time, I took a giant step closer to my career. Now you can’t get in touch with me until after 11:00 every day. When I’m done writing, I’ll answer email or phone calls or deal with client issues. I learned the hard way that if you don’t put boundaries around your time, you’ll never get anything done.

Juggle the Job Sap
Deb McLeod's Practical Magic of Writing
How to eat and write? That is the question.

If you have to work and write, my sympathies. For me, when I’ve had to work and write, working at a less mentally demanding job is the answer. Data entry and bookkeeping did me just fine and still left some energy to work before work, after work or in the middle of the night. But I’ve done both.

You’ll need to decide for yourself. Menial job, or career? If you can do a career and write too, that’s terrific. I never could. I was too fried by the time I’d put in fifty or sixty hours with the commute and then brought home the files or the problems I’d encountered during the day. One time I worked at a software translation company and when there were layoffs all those that got laid off first were those of us in Tech Docs who pursued a creative career on the side. Because we weren’t 100% about the company.

Frankly Published
Ask a published writer to be frank about what they make. Some of them will tell you. 

I guarantee my first foray into the reality of publishing was a major wake-up call. I was working as a writer/editor for a public television audience research company. Writing fiction was fading from my life and I felt a little frantic. So I decided I need to combine my two goals: making money and writing fiction.

As an aside, I went to Antioch University in LA for my MFA years later. I had met some people who went to the Antioch in Yellow Springs for their Bachelor’s degrees. Part of their education was that they had to make money in their chosen career before they graduated. How cool is that?

I know an Antioch grad who, as a graphic designer, moved to three different cities and set up her graphic design business in each one. All before she graduated with her BA. The mystery writer, Lawrence Block went to Antioch and because he had to make money at writing fiction, he did what any self-respecting author apprentice would do; he wrote porn. In between the sex he practiced dialogue and characterization.

At the time of my decision to earn money writing fiction, the only writers making money were romance writers, so I decided that’s what I would do. My critique group hosted a published historical romance writer and she gave us her stats. She had more than a dozen books in print. She spent a year researching and writing each 90,000 word novel. In her best year she made $13,000 because two books came out the same year. What???

You need to know the reality of the money you can make. It was that meeting that stopped me from writing romance. If I was going to write for pennies it had to be writing something nearer and dearer to my heart.

Why Buy the Cow?
Don’t write for free. Just don’t.

If you have to write for copies of a journal, at least don’t be happy about it. Why is it that we’re expected to labor for near free?

Made it to the Ivory Tower? Great! Now Jump
Don’t discount any type of writing until you've tried it. 

I will say my stint at historical romance gave me an appreciation for knowing the market and writing within a form. Note that I didn’t say formula, because that’s a romance myth that just isn’t true. But there is a form of sorts. Happy ending. Certain qualities in the hero and heroine. And adventure. It’s harder than it looks and if you haven’t tried another genre, I would recommend it. I’m writing fantasy now. And no longer focusing on my navel-gazing short stories. Who knew it could be so fun?!

Beware the Pigeonhole
Know where you want to come in as an author. You might be there awhile.

While I was attempting to write romance, I met a lot of published romance writers who were trying to break out. And they couldn't. There were yearly publishing expectations they had to fulfill to keep the momentum going. There were reader expectations.

But almost more importantly, there were style habits that were hard to break. Block said that he wrote porn maybe a little too long. That for the rest of his career he was challenged to break the habits and shortcuts he’d learned while writing a book every two weeks (!).

So treat your writing career as a career. Make a map. And write the books of your heart.

Edit Up
Build your confidence in your voice before you ask for advice from other writers.

I shared an office with a successful woman who was hired after me and managed to take my job. Her philosophy? Manage up. You don’t manage your employees or your coworkers. You manage your bosses. And they will love you for it. And they will keep you because you are indispensable. Bleah. Did I mention jobs are soul-sucking???

However, there is some truth to this that translates to the writing world. Not a popular practicality to contemplate, but here goes anyway.

Are you protecting your voice from the writers you seek advice and editing from? I know they’re your friends, but do they know more about what you’re trying to say than you do? Or are they only applying the writing rules?

If they know how to edit, great! That means that they can see through the words, understand and meet you in the story you want to tell. If they can give you advice from there and not just the rules, hang on to them. If they don’t know how to do this, you’re writing a groupthink piece. And you’re compromising your voice. You don’t want their advice in your head until your voice and your confidence in your work is unshakable. Make sure you know what you’re trying to write and if they don’t know, then seek only to be edited by those who are more experienced than you. Edit up.

Change your critique group into a support group and keep your work close until it’s finished. Or until you’re more experienced. For more on this see my blog: The Beta Reader Love-o-Meter.

The Long Haul
Who are you, anyway?

Build a platform where you can engage and show who you are. Do this a few years before you publish your book. Platform building is more than just a website. And it’s another hat you have to wear in your writer’s world. I still struggle with this one myself. And, yes, I know, it will come back to bite me.

While you're building your platform, you're putting in your apprenticeship. You have to be willing to learn the craft and always be pushing to write better.

Endurance is a Learned Habit
Work on your writing discipline – creative and otherwise.

We've all heard the story of the writer who finally carves out the ability to write full time and then can’t get anything done. It’s hard to sit in a chair and write for extended periods of time, day in and day out. I’m up to about six hours but my goal is to push that. I did seven and a half the other day and the next day I was depleted.

John Irving says after he wrote The World According to Garp at three hours a day while he was also teaching, he no longer needed the job and decided to write full time. He couldn’t just sit and write for eight hours a day. But he’s a world class wrestler and applied the same training philosophy to his
writing as he had to his wrestling and built his endurance. By slowly pushing his ability.

I learned creative discipline from being a graphic designer on a deadline. When a client is waiting and money is on the line, you will be creative and you will let it go when it’s good enough. Something some writers struggle with.

What else needs to be said?

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see

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