Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.
How Lit Journal Publications Paved the Way to a Published Memoir, Lisa Romeo (@lisaromeo), The Review Review
The pathway to publishing a memoir or novel may take multiple routes. Lisa Romeo outlines how publishing smaller pieces in lit journals helped to craft her memoir.
A healthy lit mag submission/publication practice also delivered valuable experience about the editorial process. Working closely with so many different editors prepared me well for the editorial collaboration with a publisher that’s necessary to bring a book-length manuscript to completion without losing your mind.
Targeting smaller publications derives other benefits too. Romeo learned how to process reader feedback, as well as rejection from editors.
The reader feedback I received to those pieces—in the form of online comments at the publication site, private emails, Facebook and other social media shares, likes, and comments—helped me understand what resonated most with readers.
When a piece was declined enough times, I withdrew it and thought about it all over again, deeply and for a long time—not only as an individual piece, but in terms of how (or whether) it fit into the larger picture, the larger story I would eventually tell. Yes, I’m a firm believer in never giving up; we’ve all read about (and I’ve personally experienced), that piece that was rejected dozens of times and then went on to garner high praise. But sometimes editors give valuable information by saying no.
The most rewarding lesson in publishing in lit journals, according to Romeo, is the satisfaction it offers. When working on a longer project it is helpful to have small wins along the way.
Finally, one key reason I loved making my way to a book via lit mag publications reaches back to that primal urge I think almost all writers share: getting our stories out into the world, and in this case without waiting the 10 years it took between that first published essay and the finished, published book. Bylines, publication credits, and those feelings of satisfaction fed me along the way, kept me believing in the overall idea, and gave me something to talk about instead of “the book,” especially when it wasn’t yet a book.
By focusing on smaller pieces in lit journals, the writer is able to make decisions on what works and what doesn't in the pathway to publishing a memoir or longer work.
Just Write 500 Words, Katie Heaney (@KTHeaney), Science of Us
The resistance to write arrives in multiple ways. For some writers this means paying bills, folding laundry, or running that quick errand, before they give themselves permission to write. Katie Heaney discusses this particular type of procrastination patten.
Many people are familiar with this kind of procrastination pattern — suddenly, the chores we’d typically die before doing become irresistible and urgent, because there’s one thing we’d rather do even less: work. I think people in most careers experience this, but writers tend to pathologize it, claiming “writer’s block” and, like, an absent “muse” or whatever.
In order to push through on the other side for productivity, Heaney advocates writing 500 words as the "magic formula." She suggests writer ditch the concept of writer's block.
If you’re a writer, you can just … revise and redo your work if it turns out bad the first time, and it probably won’t affect anyone but you. How many professionals can say that? So here’s what you do: write 500 words a day, no matter what.
Heaney points out why writing 500 words a day works.
But for most people, or at least people hoping to one day get paid for their work, 500 words a day seems to be a sweet spot. It’s a small enough goal to feel possible, which makes it easier to meet it consistently. (Productivity-wise, doing less really is more.) But it’s also enough words to fill a page or two (depending on your formatting), and those daily pages will add up faster than you think. (For me, for instance, this rate has led to finished first drafts within eight to ten months. Less than a year!) And, unless you’re really agonizing over every word, you can probably get that much written in an hour or two.
The ultimate message is to set daily actionable goals. And what better way to start than writing 500 words?
Should You Quit Writing?, Allison Williams (@guerillamemoir), Brevity
All writers becomes frustrated with the writing process and may sometimes ask, "Should I quit writing?" For those writers who are persistent with the work, but may not receive external validation, Allison Williams provides poignant advice.
The short answer is no.
Writing is a skill. Anyone who puts the time in can learn to write, the same way anyone can learn to draw from life or play the cello. We won’t all become Picasso or Yo-Yo Ma, but anyone can be taught to make a recognizable portrait that’s pleasant to look at, or competently execute a sonata and bring enjoyment to an audience.
Talent plays a part in a writer's success. But do we put too much emphasis on talent? Williams compares the craft of writing to the game of tennis to extrapolate the notion of talent in a writer's work.
What about talent? Aren’t some people naturally better at writing than others?
Yes. Some writers start out better at making sentences or telling stories. Some writers discover their unique voice earlier in their work. But “talent” isn’t what makes a writer good—talent just makes practicing and learning more pleasant. A tennis player who can already consistently hit the ball and instinctively see where it’s going will have more fun practicing, and learn more subtle techniques faster, than the player who is still learning about trajectories and having to process each bounce anew. But if the less-talented person puts the time in, they’ll learn to see the angles too. They may have to practice more, and that time may be more arduous, than the person with a head start.
The mistake that writers often ignore isn't lack of talent, but the inability to see that their work needs improvement.
It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble. Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people with less skill are unable to recognize their lack of ability, like reality talent-show contestants unaware they’ve been made finalists to be mocked. It’s frustrating to advise changes and have an author dig in their heels in the belief their work is perfect and all the readers “just don’t get what I’m saying.”
Writers shouldn't quit, but keep working on persistence, honing their craft, and recognizing that it may take multiple drafts before a piece is ripe for publication.
How to Outline a Book: An Author's Guide, (@reedsyHQ), Reedsy
Some writers firmly believe in outlining before writing. Reedsy suggests a few points on why outlining works:
Time invested in a story outline is foresight gained for your novel... Your novel outline isn't a chain or a set of shackles: it’s a map that will guide you and your novel to the end of your writing journey.
Outlining can take several forms and the writer can determine which approach works best. Here are some ways to outline longer work:
A visual approach to outlining that shows the spatial relationships between your plot points, characters, themes, conflicts, chapters — you name it.
A holistic story outline that gives a brief overview of the story’s plot, characters, conflicts, and themes in a two- to three-page paper.
Constructs the spine of the novel, or the key plot points. Imagine a roadmap with only big-name destinations marked in red — the road to get there is up to you.
A character-led novel outline. Prioritizes character development, character arcs, and character beats over planning of the plot.
Scenes and Sequences
Details all the scenes and sequences — in other words, the large set pieces of the novel.
When you have an idea of the novel outline that you want to produce, it's time to arm yourself with the right tools to execute it.
Once a writer decides what type of outlining is best suited toward his or her personal style, three important stages should be addressed in the sketch of a book.
1. Setting the stage: What are you going to say when editors ask, “What is your story about?” If you can’t answer this quite yet, try taking a step back and asking yourself another important question: Why do I want to tell this story?
2. Organizing scenes:
- How will your scenes advance and build upon your premise?
- How will a scene reveal your characters? How will it further the character development?
- How do your scenes fit into your narrative arc?
3. Troubleshooting your story outline - If you find yourself struggling while you plan your book, that might indicate an underlying weakness in your story that you’ll want to address
This article reaffirms how outlining can be a powerful tool to help organize thoughts and find a narrative arc that resonates with the reader.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!