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.
I Didn't Manage to Publish a Book by 30, And That's Ok, Jeanna Kadlec (@jeannakadlec), Electric Literature
Writers set goals and sometimes this means publishing a particular work by a certain age. Jeanna Kadlec talks about how she focused on age 30 as a goal age to publish her first novel, without considering the "why" behind this belief.
When I was younger, I was convinced that I would write my first book by 30. I thought this as a teenager, as a college student, and even in my mid-twenties. This wasn’t a prediction, but a prescription: I would write my first book by 30, but also, I must.
Where I got this idea, precisely, is uncertain; what I know is that it is shared by many of my peers who have also considered themselves “writers” since they were children. We seem to think of 30, specifically, as our last chance for a first book—regardless of how much work we’ve put in by that age.
Kadlec isn't quite certain where the pressure to publish before 30 took root and talks about expectations and being able to show your worth.
My parents never expected me to publish a book by 30; this was an arbitrary goalpost I set for myself. However, I can’t help but wonder if my family’s deeply rooted working class work ethic—show your worth—informed my own drive to publish a book as soon as possible. I have put immense pressure on myself since a young age to have a tangible payoff for this intangible desire, to prove to my parents that all of my wild life decisions, and thousands of miles of physical estrangement, have been worth it.
I want to show my worth. I want to be able to have a physical something that I have demonstrably produced, on my own.
The burden of productivity and how it relates to writers and writing plays a part in setting an expectation in publishing work by a certain age.
This impossible obligation of “productivity” is in many ways especially burdensome for writers. Millennials were raised in a culture that values production, but writing is not traditional production. It’s not work that comes off the factory line. It’s not a 9-5. You can’t rush the production of life experience, or the time it takes to process and sift. And yet we still feel like we need to have something to show for ourselves (what, precisely, is it that you do? a relative might ask at a holiday gathering). Hence the pressure to have something concrete you can point to: this is what I’ve made.
Kadlec analyzes the why of her belief and arrives at an important epiphany.
What is important, to me, is that these last few years have seen that “book by 30” goal fall away in favor of a far richer goal: one of improving my craft, one that wants to have my first book be a good book, one I can really be proud of. Goals to achieve have become less a matter of if or by and more a matter of when and how. Maybe this is understanding the industry more. Maybe it’s just growing up. Things take time, and patience is a quality I have worked to cultivate.
Ultimately a writer must focus on the goals that are reachable. A writer cannot predict at what age she might have a published work, but she can control the practice of improving her craft.
Saying No to Twitter: What Authors Need to Know, Daniel Berkowitz, Janefriedman.com
How many followers do you have on Twitter? On Facebook? On Instagram? How big is your platform and whether your presence "resonates" are common questions every writer faces when trying to land an agent. Daniel Berkowitz advocates a minority viewpoint:
Here’s the truth: It’s okay to not be on Twitter.
Whether you have an agent or you self-published your book, you don’t have to be on Twitter. Whether you’re a YA novelist or an adult historian, you don’t have to be on Twitter. And whether you like social media or outright detest it, you don’t have to be on Twitter.
That said, Twitter—if used properly—can be an amazing platform for an author. On average, a tweet requires less effort than, say, an Instagram post, where a polished photo, a solid caption and a number of hashtags can be required for “success.” Twitter is much more of the moment, as conversations occur in real time and users tend to be more plugged in than they are on other social platforms. This can allow for interesting engagements and discussions that can’t happen as easily on Facebook or Instagram.
Twitter can be utilized successfully, but writers need to understand why they are using this particular social platform and simply joining for the sake of selling a book will not create a connection or long-term engagement.
The biggest complaint I hear from authors about Twitter is that they feel they need to be plugged in, keeping an open tab on their browser, or repeatedly reloading the app on their phone. These anxieties are overstated, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real.
To these authors, I always say the same thing: Just get off Twitter. If it’s not for you, then it’s not for you.
To achieve any measure of success on Twitter, an author must, as with any social platform, to be in it for the long haul. Simply tossing up a headshot, putting your book title in your bio, and tweeting different variations of “Buy my book” every day won’t build you an audience. And lack of genuine enthusiasm for the platform will actually act as a deterrent. People will see no reason to follow you.
Not only connecting with people online, but also interacting with them matters.
Interaction over social media is the digital equivalent of word of mouth, which is still the biggest driver of sales. In order to drive those sales, though, you have to appear trustworthy. You have to appear genuine—like someone who’s worth listening to and engaging with. Phoning it in on Twitter, or any other social platform for that matter, will not get the job done. And the hard truth about authorship today is that a digital presence truly is necessary (unless you received an advance so significant that your publisher will pour money into making the book sell). But again, that doesn’t mean you need to rely on Twitter.
It’s much better to build a functional author website that is optimized for mobile and shows up in relevant Google searches, to get on Facebook or Instagram, where you can take a less of-the-moment approach, and to create an email newsletter, where you can take an even less of-the-moment approach.
Understanding the purpose of your social media platforms in the long-term and what they mean to you is a good way to maintain sanity in the digital age.
After you've spent months or years writing your novel, you need a way to summarize it in a way that is short, but interesting. It is time to write your synopsis. Bill Ferris defines what that means (with a humorous take):
The typical synopsis is 2,000 words, though some people want a synopsis that’s only 1,000 words. I’ve seen a few agents and editors request a 500-word synopsis, but you should avoid working with these people because they are clearly sociopaths who enjoy destroying writers’ minds.
What is the first step? Preparation.
For practice, start by writing a synopsis of works you already know. You can get your juices flowing by synopsizing other great works of art. For example:
The Mona Lisa: A woman politely listens to someone explaining something she already knows.
Abbey Road: A bassist is murdered by his bandmates, and as the lights go out, he glimpses the face of the talentless lookalike the band hires to cover up the crime.
After writing a synopsis for works that you know, you're ready to dive into your first paragraph and also try to focus on your characters.
Start with your protagonist, their central conflict, and the setting. You only have a page or two, so you’ve got to keep it short.
Proceed to summarize your plot and then conclude with your final paragraph.
In the final paragraph, you’ll resolve the conflicts and wrap up the story. Because you have assuredly overwritten the prior sections of the synopsis, you’ve got a sentence or two at most to play with. Let your frustration with the format be your fuel, and don’t get discouraged. This part is important! As everyone knows, the best way to impress the person who will decide the fate of your novel is to eliminate all your sparkling prose and spoil the ending for them.
It will likely take multiple drafts to have a working synopsis that captures the essence of your novel, but take the time to draft a summary that reflects the central theme of your work.
Parallel Work: What to do When the Words Won't Come, Peter Croatto, The Writer Magazine
Sometimes it is difficult to find the words. You're stuck and lack inspiration for the next chapter in your novel or the conclusion of a short story. Peter Croatto recommends a few activities to recharge your momentum.
Change location, find inspiration. Ah, the essence of parallel work. Every tip originates from this concept. Tethering yourself to a computer screen in the same secluded space day after day, willing the brain to work and the fingers to move, is madness. Interact with the world, and you’ll be amazed at what comes forth. I have come up with story ideas while shooting hoops on an empty basketball court, feeding my daughter before dawn broke, and meandering through a used bookstore.
There are times you need to focus on the not-writing part of your craft, which means practicing self-care.
Going to the gym, or embarking on a physical activity beyond typing, is vital. Go for a walk outside. Take a yoga class, with a side of meditation. To paraphrase noted legal mind Elle Woods: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy writers just don’t create bad story ideas. They just don’t!”
Seriously, getting outside can get forgotten while staring at a blinking cursor. Suspending the hermit’s lifestyle to become a human being will lead to a sharper focus and better writing. Another plus: People won’t find you insufferable at dinner parties anymore.
A cluttered work space might be standing in the way of productivity. It might be time to clean your desk. Croatta raises a good point:
It’s hard to do interviews if you can’t find the phone – I think it’s under that wobbly, dusty two-year-old archive of New Yorkers – or if you knock over 10 coffee mugs while trying to find a pen that’s older than Betty White.
Part of the writing life is to keep learning from others. Take yourself out of isolation.
Talk to another writer. Forget DM or email or texting. Pick up the phone and talk to a real, live human being who’s also in this crazy business. Even better, meet for coffee and fortify your soul over muffins and gentle complaining.
Croatta's entire list is worth reading. His tips may seem like common sense, but a refresher on how to get unstuck is always helpful.
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!