Saving Some For Yourself

I was at my local bookstore the other day and I saw that Austin Kleon has a new book out. I love his work (and first blogged about it way back in 2016). Among many other wonderful works, he’s the genius behind this perfect little diagram:

If you’re unfamiliar, Austin Kleon’s books are these compilations of quotes and thoughts about about the act of creating art, interspersed with his own creative cartoons and found word poems. I love each book more than the last. In fact, he has become one of only a few authors who, when I see they have a new book, I buy it. I don’t even read the cover copy.

I’ve been slowly working my way through this newest book, Keep Going, and just about every line is quotable, but there was one idea that really struck me. He’s talking about the challenges we face when we choose to make our art the thing with which we make a living. He says:

When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure that there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece of you that you keep for yourself.

This is difficult advice, because as artists, we’re struggling to pull in money from any place we can. (Have I mentioned you can support me on Patreon? No? You can.) Because true creative work rarely brings in much cash.

So it struck me when I read that. For three years now I’ve been lucky enough to do the full-time-mom-write-while-the-kids-are-at-school thing. For the first time in my life I have plenty of time to write, and I do. I write a lot. And I no longer have to get up at 5am to do, and yet, I still get up at 5am. It’s exhausting, but I persist.

When I read that bit in Kleon’s book I realized why. It’s because the writing I do at 5 in the morning, before anyone else is awake, is strictly for me. Mostly I journal. I play around with words or gripe or dream and the words flow like water because I know nobody will ever see them. It is the BEST way to start my day.

So I’m keeping today’s post short, leaving you with just two key ideas: Austin Kleon rocks, you should totally buy his books AND find a way to keep a little bit of your art for yourself. Because not everything needs a price tag.

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Debut Authors and Blurbs

Debut authors asking for blurbs. It's not impossible.

A writer I follow on Twitter voiced frustration recently at the idea that debut authors should be expected to collect blurbs for their novels. The tweet had a very woe-is-me vibe, as if it were a straight-up impossible task. But it’s not.

Querying for Blurbs

Since I started the work of reaching out to authors to ask for blurbs I’ve contacted 20 people. Of those, 14 have agreed to read the manuscript, 2 passed (with good reasons and kind words), and 4 simply never responded. In my book, those are totally acceptable numbers.

Asking for blurbs isn’t difficult so much as it is just painful. It’s kind of like querying all over again, and if you’ve been following along, you know I got super nerdy about that. So I brought the same strategies to the blurb quest. Here’s how I went about it.

Making the Ask

Step 1: Make a list of all the published writers you know and/or admire, anyone who’s name you would be happy to see on the cover of your book. Go ahead and dream big. You may not contact all of them, but this isn’t the place to worry about it. Just get the names on a list.

Step 2: Start with the authors you know personally – and I’m using the word “know” pretty loosely here. I reached out to authors I shook hands with once at a conference, and authors I took a class with years ago. I emailed my husband’s ex-girlfriend from college (now a well-established author whose latest book is getting great reviews). I mean, that was a long shot (but she said yes!).

Step 3: Craft a very nice letter. I emailed every person on my list personally, reminding them of how we met (if it wasn’t obvious), telling them the news that my debut novel was coming out, and then making the ask. You cannot just assume that because they’re a published author and you tell them your book is coming out that they will offer a blurb. You actually have to ask. Here are a few things to remember as you craft the email:

  • Always give them an out. In every email I said something like “I know you’re busy, so if it’s not a good time, no worries, I totally understand.”
  • Don’t assume they will blurb it. If they don’t like your book, you don’t want them to. I used the phrasing “I was hoping you would read my manuscript and, assuming you like it, write a blurb.”
  • Blame your editor. This isn’t a requirement, of course, but I found it an easy way to lead up to the ask. I said something like: “My editor has asked me to reach out to authors I admire and ask if they would be willing to blurb the book.” Phrasing it like this also allowed me to:
  • Flatter them. Don’t be a kiss ass, but do express that you admire their work (if you don’t, you shouldn’t be asking for a blurb).
  • Let them know the blurb deadline. Your editor will have a date by which they need the blurbs. Make sure you include that in your email.

Step 4: Once you’ve reached out to the people you know, take a little break. Hopefully this will allow a few authors to get back to you with a “yes.” Then, once you’ve built up your confidence a little, try for some of your bigger fish.

I only contacted a few authors I didn’t have some connection to and I compensated by getting as close to them as I could without being a stalker. I’d read their books (duh), and I follow them on Twitter (and have for a while, because they’re awesome). I subscribed to their newsletters where applicable. I wasn’t bullshitting anyone when I said I was a big fan. (Side note, that was the subject line of my emails to these authors: “A request from a fan”).

Start Early

I’m not done with collecting blurbs. There are still authors on my list that I’m feeling shy about reaching out to. Lucky for me, I’ve got plenty of time before the book comes out, so I’m taking it at an easy pace.

And that’s a good argument for starting early. Ask your publisher when you can start reaching out, or if you’re self publishing get started as soon as you have a the draft you intend to publish. The more time you have, the more relaxed you can be about it and the more time you can give your readers.

Keep Going

Lastly, a word on rejection. People will pass. If you’ve made it this far in the process of brining a book into the world, then you’re no stranger to rejection. Don’t let it get you down.

I also have to consider the very real possibility that some of the authors who agreed to read my manuscript may decline to blurb it. That will sting, I’m sure, because it basically means they think it’s so bad that they don’t want their name associated with it. Ug.

But being a writer is nothing if not humbling.

Are you a debut author in the process of asking for blurbs? Would love to hear how you went about it. Or maybe you’re working on book two or three. Does it get easier? Please do share your experiences in the comments below.

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Daily Word Count in Scrivener

Setting daily word count goals is a great way to get that first draft done. It’s basic math. Write 1,000 words a day and you’ll have a totally respectable first draft in just three months. Even if you only write 500 or 200 words a day, doing it consistently will get you to your goals. And so I love Scrivener’s Word Count tracker. With just a few clicks you set writing goals that work with your writing schedule to help you meet your own specific writing goals. Here’s how it works.

In Scrivener, go to the Projects drop down menu, then click on Project Targets (shortcut command shift T).


The resulting pop-up window will show you two bars.

The top is for the manuscript as a whole. In this example, you can see I have about 20,000 words so far. Below that is the Session Target. We’ll get to that in a second. First, click the 0 to the left of “words” in that top bar. Clicking on it allows you to edit and you can set a goal for how long you want your manuscript to be. For this example, I’ve set my goal at 100,000 words.

Once you enter a target number you will get a progress bar. Pretty cool. But wait. There’s more.

Click on Options to get this pop-up:

The only thing I mess with here is the deadline. For this example, I used the last day of 2019.


You COULD click “Show target notifications.” If you do, you will get a little pop-up alerting you when you’ve hit your goal for the day. I never click this, because I’m lazy. If my computer tells me I’ve hit my goal, I’m likely to stop writing. But when I’m rolling on an idea, it’s not unusual for me to go over my word count goal, which is always a nice surprise. So I leave that box unchecked.

Next click on Session Target.

A “session” is the period of time in which Scrivener will track your word count. I aim to write six mornings a week, so I click those mornings and set my sessions to reset at 1am. If you tend to write through the night, you might set it up to reset when you leave for work in the morning. You can also have it reset when you close the document. Experiment to find what works for you.

Now click “okay.”

What you’ll notice is that Scrivener has calculated how many words you’ll need to write on each of your writing days, based on which days you intend to write and the total words you’re shooting for. Pretty sweet, right? It gets better.

If you miss a day, Scrivener will automatically recalculate, and your daily word count goal will go up so that you know how much you have to write every day to make your deadline.

If you write on a day that you weren’t planning to write, or if you have a great day and write way past your daily goal, Scrivener will recalculate and your daily word count goal will go down. That’s always fun.

This might be one of my favorite Scrivener tricks. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

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You Have to Ask

I had lunch with a writer friend recently who has finished her novel and is preparing to query agents. She is understandably nervous about putting her work out into the world and is working really hard to get everything (synopsis, query letter) as good as it can be.

She is also putting together a list of the agents she wants to query, and because she’s smart, she’s reaching out to published authors she knows to ask if she can use their name in her letter. The trouble is, she told me, that no one is offering to help.

The Ask That Isn’t

This surprised me. Usually writers are up for helping out a fellow writer, especially if it’s something as simple as “can I say that I know you?”

So I asked her: What exactly did you say?

Her (talking about one specific author-friend she reached out to): I texted her and told her that I finished my novel.

Me: And?

Her: She said “congratulations”

Me: And then you asked if you could drop her name when you query her agent?

Her: She didn’t offer.

I told her that, in my best estimation, this writer friend was NOT giving her the cold shoulder, but in fact probably didn’t even realize that she was being asked for something because the ask was never actually made.

You Have to Ask, For Reals

I want to take a minute and talk to the ladies here. This is a thing we do. We wait for things to be offered (check out this piece from NPR about it). Well, I’m here to tell you, people can’t give you what they don’t know you want. It’s time to speak up.

It can be scary, no doubt, but you have to get over it. Take a deep breath and make the ask. Straight forward and unmistakable. Just ask.

Here are just a few of the ways that finding a little bravery and asking for what I wanted changed my life:

  • A while back, this blog made the Writer’s Digest’s Best 101 Blogs for Writers. Know how that happened? I asked. I personally emailed every friend I had and asked them to nominate me. I even sent them a handy little script they could easily edit when they sent the email so it required very little thought on their part. And it worked.
  • When my now-agent visited a class of mine in grad school he put out the offer that any of us could make an appointment to come talk with him in his office any time (he also said he made that offer every year and no one had ever taken him up on it). I didn’t have a manuscript ready (wouldn’t for another 9 years!), but I called and asked for an appointment and we talked about my book for a little. And when I queried him 9 years later he remembered me.
  • Then there was that time I was changing jobs and really didn’t want to work 40 hours a week anymore. I asked for 80% time so I could work just four days a week. That was a super scary ask. I was sure they wouldn’t give me the job if I voiced what I really wanted. But you know what? They did.

Favors as Currency

To be clear, I’m not saying you should try to build a career on favors. You have to be strategic about your asks. Treat them as currency.

  • Only ask for the things that are truly important to you.
  • Understand that you might still get a no. Don’t be discouraged.
  • If you can do something on your own, do it and save your asks for something that you really can’t do alone.
  • Do favors for others whenever you can. This is just good karma. If you’re always asking and never helping, you will eventually run out of good will.

What have you been scared to ask for? Did you suck it up and make the ask? Or do you wish you had?

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Buzz Books & 142 Ostriches

Buzz Books & 142 Ostriches

Yesterday morning Publisher’s Marketplace launched it’s winter 2019-2020 edition of their Buzz Books publication and I am so excited to share that my book, 142 Ostriches, was selected to be included. I mean, just look at it there, above the fold and everything.

Buzz Books & 142 Ostriches

If you’re a book lover and you’ve never heard of Buzz Books, you’re in for such a treat. Twice a year, they compile the first twenty pages of the forty books they think are going to be the big best sellers in the coming season. It’s totally free and you can download it instantly on Amazon. It’s a chance for book nerds to get a sneak peek at books that aren’t even out yet.

Like mine, for instance. My book doesn’t come out until February 25, 2020, but you can read the first twenty pages today in the Buzz Books publication.

You can also, as of yesterday, officially place your pre-order for the Kindle version. I assume there will also be an option to preorder a hard copy some time soon, so if you’d rather wait for that, watch this space (or sign up for my newsletter) and I’ll let you know when it’s live.

As a quick side note, the cover image here is a placeholder. The actual cover art for 142 Ostriches isn’t completed yet. In my publisher’s defense, my pub date is over nine months out still. Plenty of time for cover art, but Buzz Books needed something to picture here, so… random-craft-fair-feathers it is. I’ll be doing an official cover reveal here on the website once I have the actual art in hand.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe I’m finally going through the motions of traditional publishing. To see my book stacked up there on the Buzz Books website, next to so many amazing authors, is such a privilege. Thank you to all my readers out there, who have been with me on this journey. Blogging along with you all over the past many years has kept me going, and I can’t wait to share these final steps with you.

Cheers!

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The First Page of Your Novel

The First Page of Your Novel

The best advice I’ve ever heard in regards to writing the first page of a novel is that you should, counter to all instincts, never try to write it first.

The reasons behind this advice make sense. The first page has to do a lot of work. It’s entirely possible that, when you begin writing a story, you simply don’t know it well enough to write your first pages.

Because there are a lot of things your first page needs to do, and lot of ways it can go wrong.

What Your First Page Needs To Do

The first page of your novel is very likely the thing that people read after the jacket copy and before they decide to buy (or not). I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly how I vet books.

I’ll pick up a book because the cover copy grabs my attention, but then I flip to the first page. If I’m still standing there reading it three minutes later, if I can’t bear to put it down and leave it behind, well – I’m going to have to buy it.

There are five things that, if they’re done well on the first page, will keep me reading (and eventually buying) your book. The first page of your book must:

  • Introduce your narrator. This seems like a no brainer, but a lot of manuscripts I’ve read in workshops spend A LOT of time setting the scene of their story. Important, yes, but not as important as introducing me to the character I’m going to give a shit about for the next 300+ pages.
  • Establish us in time and place. Some books cheat this one and simply use the date and place in a chapter title, like: San Francisco 2001. I’m okay with that, but even with the cheat, I want to read about the time and place in the prose, right off. Show me the foggy streets, let me smell the coffee, have someone ride past on a segway.
  • Set the tone. If it’s funny, make me laugh. If it’s a sweeping epic novel, use language that feels as much. If it’s a modern, skeptical story, throw in some curse words.
  • Demonstrate your writing chops. Take time with your first sentences. Consider how they represent you as a writer. Let them be beautiful (or hard, or scathing or languid – whatever you’re going for). At the very least, make sure everything is grammatically accurate (sometimes – I’m looking at the self-publishing folks here – hiring a copy editor can make all the difference).
  • Hint at the story to come. To keep me reading you have to show me a character who wants something (your character needs to want something), then pose the question: will your main character get whatever it is they want?

Ways Those First Pages Can Go Wrong

Some ways you can fuck it up right quick:

  • Open with a dream sequence. Apparently this is a big pet peeve of agents and editors. I have to agree. If you suck us into a world, get us invested what is happening, why (oh why!?!) would you yank us from that by making it all a dream. Don’t do it. It’s annoying.
  • Be unclear in any way about what’s happening. If I can’t follow what’s happening in the first page of your story, odds are the situation is not going to improve. Keep it simple. Stay in scene. Don’t jump to flashbacks too quickly or try to pack in a ton of backstory. Get us on board before you do anything crazy.
  • Use too many names right up front. If I feel the need to diagram the characters in your novel to keep track of who’s who, I’m putting the book down. I don’t want to work that hard. Give names where they’re important, when the character is important. Let the community of characters unfold gently.
  • Try to tell a lot of backstory too early. I heard some writer somewhere (Isabel Allende, maybe?) say that she has to write a hundred pages before she finds page 1. Those 100 pages get cut and become the back story – the stuff she needed to know about the story before starting, but it doesn’t belong at the front. She weaves it into the story as she writes it, dropping bits of backstory where it’s needed.

So Where to Start?

Knowing that our first pages are so important can make them feel pretty weighty when you sit down to write. It’s easy enough to say “write the first page last,” but in actuality, you do have to write something first, and isn’t that, by definition, the first page?

I have two suggestions:

  1. Go ahead and write the opening scene as you see it in your head, but understand and accept that it will probably change. OR
  2. Don’t start at the beginning. Start writing somewhere in the middle. Jump around. Just because we read from front to back, doesn’t mean you have to write that way.

How do you deal with the first page? Do you write it first or last? How do you know where to start your story?

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Thoughts on Creativity

This talk on creativity by Adam Grant is totally worth the fifteen minutes of your life that it takes to watch, but in case you’re too busy, here are the main take aways:

  • Being quick to start, but slow to finish, can boost your creativity.
  • You can motivate yourself by doubting your ideas.
  • You need a lot of bad ideas to get to a few good ones.

These concepts resonate with what I believe about creativity. The first one in particular.

One of the reasons I like to have multiple projects going at the same time is that it allows the ones that are dormant to percolate and grow in my mind while I’m not actively working on them.

I love putting an outline in a drawer while I work on the draft of another project because ideas will bubble up unbidden. Sometimes the new ideas are so right for the story that when I do finally go back to that outline, I’m surprised at how dated it is, because the story has evolved and gotten better in my head. All I have to do is implement the changes that my brain has come up with while I’ve been away from the project. This is that “quick to start, slow to finish” thing Grant talks about. I’ve just never heard it articulated so well.

I’m also a big fan of having lots of bad ideas. Oh, man, the pages I have filled with bad ideas…

Like this little gem I found in an old notebook:

Honestly, I don’t even know what a “story challenge idea” even is. But this story about a monk who DOESN’T get bitten by fleas is definitely one for the ages. I mean, look out Moby Dick.

What do you make of Grant’s ideas? Do they ring true for you too? Or do you have your own philosophy on creativity? Does it involve fleas?

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6 Obstacles to Writing (and how to move past them)

getting started writing

I was talking with a friend recently who is feeling daunted by some writing she wants to do. She’s a consultant in the non-profit sector and would like to write a series of articles for her own website about some of the things she has learned, things that would be useful to her clients. But she’s having trouble getting started.

She asked my advice, and as we talked it through I realized that the thoughts I was sharing with her would be good for any writer who’s having trouble getting started, whether they’re writing non-fiction or fiction, for themselves or for an audience. It doesn’t matter. Because basically what we’re talking about is getting past the obstacles to writing.

Obstacle 1: “Everything I write is crap.”

One of the reasons my friend is having trouble, paradoxically, is that she’s actually a good writer. She always wrote excellent reports in college and knows good writing when she sees it. So when she writes a sentence, she sees that it’s crap, erases it, and stares at the blank screen for a while before doing it again.

My advice: Don’t worry about quality. Not yet. I’m sure you’ve heard some writer, somewhere, talk about their shitty first draft. That’s how it works.

What to do: Start typing. Seriously. If you’re staring at a blank screen and it has you frozen, start by typing “I’m staring at a blank screen and it has me frozen. What I want to write about is ________. I want to impart this one big idea. I had this idea when I…”

Get words on the page. You will make it all pretty later. I promise.

Obstacle 2: “But I Just Can’t Figure Out How To Start My Piece.”

Beginnings are the hardest thing to write. Harder even than endings. If you sit down and try to start your article/story/essay with a brilliant first line that encompasses all the ideas you will explore in the coming paragraphs you will undoubtedly become paralyzed.

My advice: Don’t.

What to do: Write your beginning paragraph last. Once you’ve composed the rest of the article/story/essay you’ll have much better sense of how to set the scene with your opening words. I suppose it’s not impossible to write the first paragraph first, but in my experience, it’s exceedingly difficult.

Obstacle 3: “I can’t find the time.”

There are 24 hours in a day. You can find the time. I’ve written several posts about how to make time for your writing. Try this one, or this one, or this one, or this one.

My advice: Set aside one hour a week. Just one hour.

Then Do These Things In This Order: Go the bathroom. Get a drink of water/coffee/tea. Set your phone in the other room and turn off the ringer. Then sit down, close your web browser and your email. Start a timer. For one hour you will not get up, you will not accept phone calls, you will not search the internet.

If you come across something you think you need to research, type RESEARCH THIS LATER. (I like to add a little xx next to it so I can easily search for those spots later.) Do not look anything up.

For one hour, you are only allowed to write and stare out the window. Eventually boredom will win out and you will put some words down.

Obstacle 4: “I don’t know how to organize my thoughts.”

After you’ve been writing for a while (give yourself four, 1-hour writing sessions before you even try to organize), you will want to put some structure to what you’ve put on the page, to create a coherent beginning, middle and end.

My advice: Think in terms of headings.

What to do: Read over what you’ve written. If it’s non-fiction, certain ideas will jump out as being the big ones. Then there will be smaller ideas that support the bigger ones. If you’re writing fiction, you will start to get a gut feeling for the narrative order of your story.

For fiction, check out this post on how to organize your writing into a story.

For non-fiction, create headings for your big ideas. Put them in bold if it helps. Then go through your writing and move things around so that all the ideas (both big and small) that belong under that heading, can actually be found there.

This is, in effect, outlining, but I find it’s easier to do once you’ve written a bunch and know what you want to say. So if it’s helpful to use bullets and other such traditional outline formats at this point you totally should, but at some point you have to get all the pieces into a narrative format. That is to say, a collection of sentences that run together in an interesting/informative way.

Obstacle 5: “I keep going off on tangents that have nothing to do with my topic.”

If you find yourself writing about something that has nothing to do with what you sat down to write, you’ve gone off on a tangent. Lucky you. Because those tangents can be whole other articles/stories/essays.

My advice: Run with it.

What to do: Go back to the spot where your writing diverged from the topic you intended to write about. Copy and past everything from that point on into a new Word doc and save it. Then close it and come back to it later.

If you happen to be writing for an online platform, these tangent pieces will become the related topics that allow you to interlink your work. (See above where I linked to four different articles that are on similar topics. Included in this piece, they would have been sprawling tangents and made this post unreadable, but on their own, they stand just fine.)

You may even find that you abandon the original idea and end up writing the tangent piece instead. Don’t fight it.

Obstacle 6: “I’ve got all my ideas organized, but the writing is choppy.”

You’re getting close. You’ve got all your ideas in the right place and it’s a respectable length (for whatever platform your working on). But it’s awkward. It doesn’t read smoothly.

My advice: It’s time for a granular edit.

What to do: Start by reading it out loud to yourself. The out loud part is critical. When we hear our own words, we notice things that don’t sound right. Making it sound “right” is about getting your own voice down on the paper. So read it out loud and edit as you go.

When you’re all done, put it away for at least a day and read it over (preferably out loud) one last time before letting anyone else read it. You will catch things you didn’t before. It’s weird.

Also, depending on how important the work is, consider hiring an editor. A quick google search will present you with many options. At the very least, review my free grammar guide and make sure you’re not making any obvious mistakes that will distract readers from what you’re trying to say.

And Then Some…

What other obstacles have you faced as a writer? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments. I’m sure there are other speed bumps that people experience when they try to write. And I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on how they address the six challenges outlined here.

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Color Coding Scrivener

Color coding Scrivener is one of my favorite little writerly tricks. It’s just so freaking handy. Here’s how it works.

In the binder of your project simply right-click on any item (or selection of items) and move your mouse down the resulting menu to to “Label.” You can chose one of the existing labels, or click the bottom option there to edit and create your very own labels (for this example, I have created name labels).

Don’t get frustrated when you see no change in your binder after adding a label. To get the colors to show up simply go to VIEW > USE LABEL COLOR IN > BINDER.

Once you’ve told Scrivener to use the color codes in the binder, you’ll get something that looks like this:

POV

For this example, I’ve set up the binder to highlight different points of view. There are two main benefits to this. The first is that you will be required to break your scene when you shift point of view. As a result, you will be less likely to drift between POVs. The other benefit comes when it’s time to edit. If you look at your binder and see 90% of your scenes are from one POV, you might question whether you even need that other POV.

Timeline

My first novel was told linearly. It took place over about eight days and I found it helpful to have this visual clue as to what scenes took place on what day. Here’s what it looked like (granted, this is many drafts ago, in an older version of Scrivener, but you’ll get the idea):

But there are plenty of other uses for labeling. Here are just a few I have heard writers discuss:

Time Period or Location

If you have a story that shifts around in time or jumps locations, color coding in Scrivener can help you keep track of where you are in time and place. Again, this can be useful for big picture edits. If you had a structure in mind that rotates through time periods or locations in a regular order, then you will be able to see at a glance if the scenes you’ve written match the order you wanted.

Status

Some people use color labels to denote the status of a section of writing. While there is an option for setting a section’s status (right there below the Labels option on the menu), the status option doesn’t allow for color coding. Labels like “first draft,” “final draft,” “needs research,” can be given a color. Then, as you work each scene toward completion, you can watch the colors change. Writer Bronwen Fleetwood has a funny post about his own use of status labels here.

Color Coding Scrivener

I’m sure there are other ways people use color coding. Maybe you are sharing sections of your work as your write it and you want to know at a glance which are out in the world and which aren’t. Maybe there is a Major Event in your story and you want everything before it to be one color, while everything after is another.

If you have a creative way you use color coding in Scrivener, share it here. We are all, forever, learning.

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Do You Write For Yourself Or For Your Readers?

Image from the PFWA program.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Pasadena Festival of Women Authors. It’s the forth time I’ve gone and once again I walked away feeling inspired. (You can read about previous years here and here).

Aja Gabel’s “The Ensemble”

This year, in the breakout sessions where authors speak to smaller groups, I followed Aja Gable to hear her talk about her debut “The Ensemble.” It’s an expertly crafted book, about “four young friends navigating the cutthroat world of classical music and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives.”

In her talk, she mentioned that she didn’t truly excel at writing until she stopped thinking about the fact that it would go out into the world. She had to forget her audience and just write for herself.

What About The Audience?

This caught my attention, because aspiring writers are often told the exact opposite – that we should think about who we are writing for. I’ve even heard people say that you should picture a specific reader as you write.

So when the floor opened up to questions my hand flew up like Hermione Granger’s. I asked her about how her experience contrasted with what I had heard so many times and I really liked her answer.

She said that when she is getting a story down, drafting the first pages, she has to just write for herself. That’s where the magic happens, but then, when she’s editing, she said that’s when she stops to consider “does this make sense to someone who’s not in my head.”

Writing For Ourselves

I love that. Because she isn’t thinking “will my audience like this.” Even when she does consider her audience, it’s only in terms of “will they understand what I’m trying to impart.” She’s not writing to please anyone, and so her story comes across with authority and style. It’s lovely.

It was reassuring to hear this from a writer whose book I so admired. Because when we get caught up in the business side of writing, it can be easy to hold up ideas and say “will people like this?” Ug.

I’m a firm believer of the idea that none of us are all that unique. If I write a story that I love, simply because I’m enamored with it (considering my audience only insofar as to make sure they’ll understand what I’m trying to say), there is a statistical portion of the population that shares my interests and will love my story as much as I do.

By staying true to my love for a story I am, by default, considering my audience. Ultimately they are the ones who will benefit from me writing what I am compelled to write.

What are your thoughts around this idea? Do you consider your audience when you write? To what extent? Would love to hear other perspectives on this.

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