Normally I write about how beginners shoot themselves in their feet, but you know what? Even the most advanced writers come across stumbling blocks. So today, I want to start a new series for writers who are quite advanced. Or at least beyond the advice “writers are readers first and foremost.”
I want to tackle my own big writing demon first. This demon affects not only my writing, but also how I run my business, my editing, and (funny enough) even my cooking and parenting.
The general term for this demon is “impostor syndrome,” but it often hides as humility or teachability. I often feel, though reality (and my clients, friends, and co-workers) would disagree, that I have no idea what I am doing and why anyone would pay me to help them write.
Why on earth do advanced writers feel like they are bad, especially when lesser writers often think they’re better?
I know I’ve touched on this before, but it basically comes down to that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know a damn thing. It’s the reason teenagers are so annoying. They think that if their parents would just get out of their way, then they could get their lives together. I know I thought that way.
But I’m 35 now. (Shhhhh….) And guess what, I don’t have my crap together still. And those parents of mine who I thought had their own crap together? Never did either. And they even told me that. But I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, and so I thought, this thing called life would be great and smooth if I just had the chance.
I feel like I don’t know anything because I see how much I’ve learned and how much I still need to learn. It seems insurmountable. And really, especially with how much knowledge is expanding these days, it is an insurmountable task.
And that’s really the first step in tackling impostor syndrome: realizing that you will never max out. Life isn’t a video game where you can max out a skill tree. Life is a process, a never-ending story. Don’t sell yourself short because you aren’t where Shakespeare is. Shakespeare didn’t start out where Shakespeare is. And if he had lived longer, he would have gotten even better.
Impostor syndrome might seem like a silly little problem dealing with self-esteem, but it comes out in very physical and detrimental ways. Some very accomplished authors whom I work with have put off querying agents simply because they are not “an awesome writer.” Never mind that he’s a Harvard psychiatrist with tons of academic publishing under his belt or that Barack Obama offered to write the foreword for his groundbreaking research on a cure for schizophrenia.
I simply said to him, “What agent do you want?” I sent a quick email to that agent, and bam: six-figure advance by the end of the week. He was floored that he got in because it’s so hard … and he’s “not a great writer.” You got a six-figure advance … you’re a great writer.
I had to take my own advice this last week. I was not charging enough for my services. You know you’re stuck in impostor syndrome when you have clients telling you that you need to charge more.
“I paid $100 to some intern at some small literary agency to give me a critique of my query letter. And you just charged me $200 to completely rewrite the query, edit the first chapter, and give me a name of an agent who is interested. Why am I not paying at least three times that?”
I had a writer friend say, “Man, I’d pay $1000 just for a couple of names of agents who would actually look at my query.”
Then my assistant started in on me. “After expenses, you are making, like, half as much as me an hour.”
So, ahem, I raised my prices. Because … I’m worth it? I am. I AM WORTH IT.
Repeat after me: even though I feel like a fraud, I am not. I AM WORTH (respect, money, time, whatever it is you need).
I think impostor syndrome plagues writers a lot because even when we are near the top of our game, we still have to deal with a lot of rejection. My friend Sheri, who is an Oprah Book Club author, had to shop around for a year for a new agent. Imagine being the head of a prestigious creative writing program and on Oprah and you still get turned down by a couple dozen agents.
The big question then is, how do I know I’m really good? I think that depends on the writer. Let me know in the comments how you realized that you were actually good at writing, or even something else. Maybe you thought you couldn’t cook well and then you had to teach your newly widowed grandfather how to boil water. And now your flat souffles don’t seem so bad.
Okay, vulnerable moment is over now. At least until I tackle the next stumbling block for advanced writers next week. Again, it’s a favorite demon of mine and the sister to impostor syndrome: perfectionism.
I’ve always enjoyed writing letters. However, with the advent of modern technology, letter writing has fallen out of fashion. At least, that’s what you’d think. While we may not use the post office to mail letters like we used to, there are modern heirs to the letter, but they’ve been co-opted … by impatience. The main heir would be email. I love email. Well, I love writing a good email letter. I do this with my editor Deborah and proofreader Sarah. They are both great writers, and we enjoy sending each other long, thought-out emails, with great writing and interesting ideas. Same with my writer friend Emma who lives in Germany.
But, like I said, these heirs have been ruined by instant gratification culture.
I was reading the new book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, and while I liked 95% of his thoughts, I was appalled by the way he downed email. In a nutshell (and sorry, Cal, I know this doesn’t really do justice to your thoughts), you can’t have real meaningful connection through email or digital interactions. I wanted to throw the book at the wall when he said that email was bad, and then in the next sentence, he said computer coding was an acceptable digital minimalist activity. He’s a computer science professor, so of course his favorite digital activity was okay. But the writer’s favorite computer activity – emailing – was forbidden as junk.
Recent circumstances (okay, maybe in the last couple of years it’s been getting worse), though, have made me rethink Newport’s pronouncement. Maybe he has a point.
99.9% of people don’t write long, letter-like emails like Deborah and I do. While I have never met Deborah in person, and only actually talked to her once on Skype, I count her one of my very good friends. Our relationship is completely digitally written. If I am in trouble, I can count on her to help. Because she has, many times before.
Back when I was in college (you know, in the stone age … I guess … okay, the Ethernet/phone card age), the business standard for responding to business email was 24-48 business hours. It’s what I’ve been working with since I opened my business. If you send me an email at 4 p.m. Friday (which is when I clock out of work for the day), I assume that I have until Monday night/Tuesday morning to respond to you. Some emails can be responded to quickly, and I try to do that. Other ones that require me to look at something take longer.
I’ve been informed that the standard is 12 hours now. And many people expect a reply within 6 hours. Not 12 business hours. Just 12 hours. So, if someone sends me an email at 5 p.m. on Friday, I’m expected to respond by 5 a.m. Saturday. If this is the email that Newport was dismissing, I’m with him. Not only does this need for immediate gratification harm interpersonal relationships, but it also stresses me out. And the rest of America. Why is anxiety at an all-time high? I know politics can play some part. However, since removing the Facebook from my phone, politics doesn’t stress me out anymore. I also made a lot of other changes.
Y’all … I have a family. I have a life. I am not here to answer your emails in an hour whenever you send them. I am not obligated to tell you what I am doing every minute of the day so you know why I’m not responding. I work with anywhere from 5-20 people a week. I cannot send out emails to all of them to say, "I am having a date night with my husband so I will be out of contact for the next 3 hours." Or "It’s my kid’s birthday party today and I won’t be responding to anything for 5 hours." I’m told many freelancers do this. Why?!
If there was one isolated event, I’d call that person a jerk, but it’s gotten so bad that I had to make a lot of changes in the way I do things with regard to email (and a few other digital things, which is why I was reading Digital Minimalism in the first place). First, I hired a personal assistant. Pretty much her sole job is to answer my email. And because I realize she needs to sleep, she still won’t respond to my email within an hour. Secondly, I have set an auto-responder that says, “Thank you for contacting me. My office hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F and my assistant checks and responds to my email at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. Please allow 12-24 hours for general responses, and up to 48 hours for more in-depth needs.”
Now, I never really deal with emergencies. Once in a while someone will need a project completed within a week, but even that can wait for 24 hours. There is no need for your editor/writing teacher/literary guru to respond in 1 hour every time. Some people who deal with emergencies will put their emergency number in their email. I also took email off my phone. Finally, I started a personal email that only those people to whom I write letters have.
So, I’m sorry I almost threw your book against the wall, Cal Newport. You were right … mostly. I still maintain some people can use email in place of personal letters that have been used for millennia as a way to foster long-distance relationships. I mean, whose grandparents didn’t write long love letters to each other in the war? And then fall madly in love and live happily ever after?
How long do you take to respond to email? How do you deal with the stress of having to be reached 24/7 for work? I’d also be interested in hearing your horror stories in the comments.
The first thing I ask a writer I’m working with is, “Who are your writing inspirations?" and then the second is "Whom are you reading now?” For me, I get inspiration from many different authors and always have a stack of at least 3 books that I’m currently reading. I have inspirations for style, content, character development, action scenes, suspense building … and I try to read from pretty much every genre and topic out there. I’m a writer, so I need to immerse myself in writing. And I expect this from other writers.
For the record, I don’t count those abridged versions from apps like Blinkist. While these types of things are great for learning the content, it’s not the same for learning how to write. Audiobooks are okay, but not for learning the actual art of writing. You can learn about content and structure from audiobooks, but there’s something to be said about looking at the words. The sentence structures. The turns of phrase.
If you can’t tell me your writing inspiration, I’m going to ask you to think about it and get back to me before I will work with you. If you don’t read, I’ll tell you to read. Writers are readers first. And if you tell me you don’t want to read other people's works because you will get them mixed up with your writing, I will run screaming into the night.
Because God forbid you get a little bit of Neil Gaiman mixed up into your book with no discernible plot line. Or Ernest Hemingway comes in to help you with your comma splices and your train of thought going off to Mars.
I cannot work with you if you refuse to read because another author will impede upon your “originality.”
I’m going to let you in on a secret of the writing industry. There is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing left that is an original idea. In fact, there is no such thing as truly original in anything that is creative, whether invention, writing, interior design, or painting, and I’d even go as far as to say in other areas like science and business.
Why? Because everything has already been done.
You can’t pitch a story to me that I haven’t already been pitched. You have an unknown farm boy who saves a princess with the help of a hairy giant and a smelly thief? Well, I just gave you the basic plot of both Star Wars and The Princess Bride.
Everything that we do is based on the work that has been done by people before us.
So, if everything has been done, then how can you be creative? Creativity isn’t about coming up with something entirely new; it’s about taking things that came before and combining them in new, creative ways.
The farm-boy motif has been around for thousands and thousands of years. His storyline started probably around the agricultural revolution. Oral storytelling + agricultural revolution + mom wanting to tell farm-boy son adventure stories at night.
George Lucas knew this storyline and took it. He said, what happens if we mix space travel and Buddhist philosophy into the farm-boy plot? Well, you get a big payday for Disney. I would argue, as would every creative mind I can think of, that the wider you read, or the more input you take in, the more creative you can be.
When you are looking for an agent, the way they ask for new books and authors shows that they understand this idea. They want The Princess Bride but for middle grade and with a farm girl who saves the prince (which, by the way, would be a lot of the books by Tamora Pierce). One of my favorite series that’s getting turned into a movie this fall is Artemis Fowl. It’s the same book that’s been written a billion times: kid finds fairies. But Eoin Colfer asked what no one else ever did. What happens if the kid is a billionaire evil genius? Now, wouldn’t you want to know what an evil genius 12-year-old with a billion dollars to spend and no parents would need fairies for?
So, there you go. Do you want to push your creativity with writing to the next level? Go to the library and ask the librarian what her favorite modern book, kids’ book, and old book are. Read all three and then combine them into a wacky plot line or a short story. Or even some mixed-media art piece.
I’m serious. Go to the library now. Then let me know what you’re reading and any fun ideas that come from it. Some will not work. Some may be fun. And some might spark the greatest novel of the century. But you won’t know until you read and try.
I hear a lot lately about how I’ve gone silent. I’d apologize, but I’m not going to because 2019 has kicked me so many times that I’ve been unable to get up. I could give you a laundry list of terrible things that have happened to me – like a tree root in my main sewer line – but events over the last 3 weeks make them all seem like silly little fruit flies circling a rotten banana.
What’s worse than me ending up in the hospital?
The worst thing that could possibly happen to any parent or any kind of parent. Period. You know what I mean.
Saturday March 30th, I was at the grocery store when my husband called me in a panic. My friend Melia, whom Ana had been teaching Portuguese to on Saturday mornings, stopped by to see if Ana was okay. “She’s late for our lesson.”
Ana had been working late into many nights doing homework for all her AP classes (which, by the way, she had all high A’s in…) while also playing the Scarecrow in her school’s production of The Wiz. We assumed she was sleeping late. However, when my husband knocked on her door, she didn’t respond.
“She’s breathing,” he said. We called an ambulance, thinking maybe she'd had a seizure or was suffering from exhaustion. But we weren’t so lucky.
A couple of hours later, while my parents and I waited outside the trauma room at the hospital, the doctors told me Ana had suffered a catastrophic brain aneurysm and it was not survivable. I spent all week fighting the denial … healthy 17-year-old dancers aren’t supposed to just die … no sickness, no signs, just gone. While her biological family gathered from Brazil, she was kept on life support, but a week later, after testing confirmed brain death, she was taken off life support.
I keep expecting to see her cooking eggs in the morning, or dancing into the kitchen telling me, often way too loudly, about some new TV show or book she was obsessed with. It’s hard to let my exchange students go home, but this is a new feeling for me. I know I’ll never be able to fly to Brazil and have her show me around. She’ll never come back and be a boomerang student or go to American college. She was supposed to take the SAT Saturday; she wanted to go to an Ivy league school.
Ana wanted to be a writer. In many ways she reminded me of myself when I was a senior in high school. Too much ambition. A people pleaser. Always wanting to be a writer and _______ (teacher/psychologist/model/party planner/mother), because we always had to have a backup. Ana was just way more outgoing than I am. I was more of a wallflower. And I was never one for poetry.
Ana, however, was an extraordinary poet. Going through her stuff, I found lots of notebooks with poems in them. We had to confirm that these were her poems and not some famous Brazilian poet. Some were in Portuguese and some in English. They are exquisite and deserve to be read by the public, allowing Ana to achieve her dream of becoming a published author. It will take some time, especially with some translating having to happen, but I will keep everyone updated. And, if you want to donate to her memorial fund, which also includes publication of her poetry, you can check that out here.
She also made the front page of the city newspaper.
I get a slew of new clients at the beginning of the year. In fact, this morning, I opened my email and had 31 requests between New Year's Eve and New Year’s night. I had 13 more this morning. I obviously can’t work with that many people one on one. I referred them all to my new Query Letter Bootcamp class starting February, but I don’t think any one of them has signed up.
Some wanted complete one-on-one attention. A few even forbade me from working with others while they worked with me. Something about a conflict of interest? Yeah, sorry. I wouldn’t work with you anyway.
Others said that February was too late to query agents. They wanted to get to agents NOW. Guess what? Agents are just getting back to the office and their submissions are still closed. They’ve got a very long backup of emails from their vacation, and your query will either get sent to auto spam filter because they are closed, or get lost in the shuffle.
The last group will just never sign up for anything. I know this because it’s January first. It’s New Year’s resolutions. They hopped on the bandwagon and said, “This year is the year I write my book!” It’s like gym memberships. They make themselves feel good by taking the first steps, but when they find out how much work it really is, the willpower fails, and the resolution peters out.
Most of these writers probably won’t listen to me and be those much-maligned wannabes who still send an oddly worded two-sentence query letter that says, “I have a fantastic idea! When can I call to discuss it with you? Please sign this NDA before we proceed.” Or the exhausting five-page manifesto about their dystopian world and how they want a $100,000 advance to start writing.
You might think, given how annoying I find these New Year’s resolutions, that I’m not a fan of them. I like goals. I like big goals. Resolutions are important. And for many people, the start of a new year, a fresh year, is a time when it makes sense to start new goals. Personally, I make my goals and reevaluate quarterly.
But people often make grand, vague, or not-well-planned-out goals for New Year's. "Write a book" may be too vague and ambitious if you’ve never written one before. Maybe your goal should be to take a class on creative writing and outline your book. Or, if you really want to write that book this year, that should be your big goal for the entire year. I kid you not.
So, if you set a goal for writing your book this year, or if you’ve written it and want to get it published, here are some basic ideas to help you follow through, so you aren’t one of hundreds emailing me for help, but never get past emailing me.
If you’ve written your book and are trying to find an agent, but you’re floundering with your query letter, can’t decipher agent feedback, have no idea where to find decent agents, or are terrified of the nitpicky process, check out my Agent Query Bootcamp class starting in February. It’s more affordable than working with me one on one, and you’ll have lifetime access to all the information there, so you can use it again and again for new batches of queries or even your next book.
And, as always, I’m available for consultations on books. Writer’s block happens, or sometimes we can’t clearly see the next steps to writing a book. I’m always here to help!
I apologize for the silence on the blog over the last couple of weeks; y’all have just been running me ragged helping with your query letters. First off, thank you so much for trusting me with this critical phase of your book baby.
Secondly, I’ve realized that I can’t help everyone who wants to work with me. I’m just one person. However, I really want to help everyone. So, while I will still offer the one-on-one packages, I’m also going to be offering, with the help of my wonderful editorial staff, a course on query letter writing.
The Agent Query Boot Camp will be an intensive, week-long course with videos, worksheets, and standardized formats for query letters and synopses. We’ll also throw in a consultation with me, editing, proofreading, and critiquing of your sample chapters.
We’ve got some great content being developed with topics on finding agents, common query pitfalls, how to write a synopsis that wows agents and ticks their boxes, how to pull agents in with your sample chapters, and much more.
While the course itself with the edits and the consultations will only last a week, you’ll have lifelong access to all the videos, letter formats, and worksheets.
Separately, the services would be worth $700, but I want to make sure it’s affordable for everyone who wants it, so I’m going to offer it at only $250 for the first class, which will start on January 7th. So, if you’ve been on the fence, now is the time to sign up! Next time I offer the class in February, the price will increase.
It used to be that self-published authors and publishing houses had a bad name, and I’m so glad that it’s changing. Part of that reason is the influx of technology that allows people to easily and cheaply publish their work. I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon. I think most self-published authors do. But my love or hate of Amazon is not why I am writing this post. I am writing it because I am so tired of vanity publishers ripping off self-published writers. We’ll cover in other posts about self-publishing options.
Hiring a ghostwriter can save you money and can most certainly save you time.
I have a client who should have had me write his book from scratch instead of editing it. It certainly would have been cheaper. By about half. I love all the mentality that everyone can write a book. It’s true: everyone can write a book. Behind all this hullabaloo, though, is an understanding: you have to hire a good editor.
I like to think that I don’t have prejudices about people groups, but as much as I try not to, I do. I’m not talking about plain old American racism here; I just have ideas from my experiences and the culture I belong to about the way certain groups behave. Sometimes they're positive prejudices, sometimes negative, and sometimes neither, really.
You might have grown up thinking that there are about 50 genres of books, but really, there are 3. We’ll call the rest of the genres, like sci-fi and mystery, sub-genres. So what are the three types?
I live in Athens, Georgia, with my son, my husband, and an ever-revolving list of exchange students, who are a never-ending source of entertainment and writing material.