Writing During the Pandemic: A Series (III)

The Second Half—Frenzied Writing

I have always written like the “stars will shatter tomorrow.” But now—I write until my eyelids cannot stay up. I’ve slept on my laptop before. By telling you this, I want to let you know that I understand. I feel the crush in my chest and need to keep my fingers pressed and moving constantly. Everything is for publication and everything…

That mind numbing listing happens often to me. It becomes a swirl of what I have to do or what I could do or what I want to do. I am learning slowly to do one thing that I want to do—that is writing for myself. Maybe journaling or experimenting with form. Something that is not “required” or that has a strict deadline. I meet my deadlines and sometimes I’m early. I keep three calendars—today, this week, this month. So far, this is helping me focus and slow down. My product is better too. 

What do I suggest to slow down?

First, don’t blame yourself. Don’t praise yourself too much either. We all need to cope. But be gentle and let yourself know that you are trying something new. Not scary. Not invasive. Just a slight change.

Pick three things off your list. If you complete them or don’t—praise yourself. You did what you could do.

Take a class or workshop. This goes for everyone on the writing spectrum! It focuses you. You feel accomplished. It takes a small amount of time in comparison with the ‘to-do’ list of doom.

Get out in nature. That’s really an activity for every writer. Get sun, get something green around you. Write down five things you feel or see—maybe touch? A poem can be entirely about the touch of a fern and how it caressed your cheek.

Above all else—never blame yourself for not writing. You are writing every second you exist. You have dreams, see interactions and people, see animals, gossip…that counts! Give yourself credit whether you are speeding up or slowing down or maintaining. This road of life we are on is long—let’s write about it.

| This is part three of a series. If you missed the previous parts, you can find part one here and part two here |

Writing During the Pandemic: A Series (II)

If You Feel Sluggish or Don’t Write at All

First, stop berating yourself. Don’t keep saying “I want to.” “I should…” “I am bad…” “I am not a writer…” Hush that creature on your shoulder whispering nonsense. You are a writer because you know words. Are you watching Hulu and Netflix? Good for you! 

Try this exercise next time you are watching a film or movie. Make it fun though. Don’t obsess.

1. Ask a question. What is the plot? Is there something that I could use?

2. Characters. How do they feel real or do they?

3. Story arc. Is there one?

This is informal. As the plot moves along and the two new love interests enter just note that he is wearing jeans and she is wearing red pumps that most people would tip over in—and how does that change the interaction?

See! Netflix to the rescue! You are writing. Could you create a few sentences where your characters interact like that?

Do you like word games?

They count. Everything from apps to word finds. Anything that makes words move. I use word magnets and lead a group. Every day I post a new set for everyone to try their hand at a poem or short story. It seems childish—but once you add in fun—the sluggishness starts leaving and the creature stops whispering.

What if tragedy occurred?

If someone died, you might feel numb or in shock. This is natural. We can go between the two states and have everything in between. If you feel numb—write NUMB. On the page, it will blink back at you. Then maybe Hurt? Anger? Who is next? All valid and scary questions. Write them down. Every feeling is valid. Don’t judge. If you must have structure, time yourself and run with it page after page. Dump out your emotion. Don’t worry about if it’s publishable. Truthfully, some of my best work comes from pain and emotional dumping. It’s authentic. That’s what our audience wants. That’s what we crave.

| Stay tuned for part three of this series next week! |

Writing During the Pandemic: A Series

During the pandemic can you scale how active your writing has been? In my writing circles, they answer 1 if they are lucky and not -10 and 11 if they seem to have fallen into a frenzied pattern. I fall into the latter category—I write and submit like I’m on fire. Most of my friends struggle to put a pen to the page or to type a paragraph. No response to the stress we are living is wrong. I want to make that clear.

NOT WRITING IS OKAY. WRITING FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT IS OKAY.

If you want to jump-start your routine—I’m not going to say “sit and look at the page for twenty minutes…” That’s a waste of time. Color your feelings on the page instead. It would do much more for your writing than staring and hating yourself. If you color your name blue and the river blue—is there a connection? Is that a spark of at least a sentence? I am blue and the water is blue because I am of the river. Not too bad for scribbling.

What if you are like me and you can’t slow down? You have to get out every project, every poem, your novel and memoir because… it might be too late? You might die? Someone has died? I use writing as a coping mechanism right now. My cousin died of Covid before there were vaccines and my motto is to write like the stars will shatter tomorrow. I feel like I don’t have time—so I write. I do not want to say that writing is bad—but sometimes—I at least have to reflect and realize why I am writing. If I don’t have a deadline for 3 am in the morning, why am I writing at 2 am? I am learning the art of slowing down. I have my long ‘to-do’ list—but then I have my ‘today’ list. I try to keep only three writing-related things on it. If I have an event or am teaching that may count as two. I might add a submission. I do my best to journal and get my feelings out though.

Write like the stars will shatter tomorrow…

So—now what? In this series, we are going to look at the spectrum of writer responses. I will focus on the two extremes, but for those that find themselves in the middle, you get the benefit of all of the suggestions.

| Stay tuned for parts two and three of this series in the coming weeks! |

Writing About Love

Do you write about love? With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, love is on a lot of people’s minds. Love also shows up in much of what we writers tend to write about! Of course, that’s more obvious if you write romance, or if you write about a romantic relationship at some point in your writing, but even if you don’t write with romance in mind, most stories feature love in some way. Whether it’s brotherly love, unrequited love, friendship love, lost love, or twisted love, love tends to come through in our writing.

With this in mind, and Valentine’s Day right around the corner, take some inspiration from this post to write about love. Take inspiration from the imagery of a beautiful rose contrasted by a wilting rose to write about love. Or take inspiration from your life to write about love. Take a topic about love that’s been blasted from the headlines and turn it on its head.

Oh–and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Into the Querying Trenches

Something we don’t always talk about here at borrowed solace is querying. While we are all (including you, reading this) writers and often quite familiar with the painstaking process of submitting to journals (we try to make it as painless and simple as possible here, I promise) not everyone has jumped into what many writers refer to as the querying trenches.

If the phrase, “querying trenches” automatically brings images of fighting in the trenches of a big battle to mind, that’s because it’s an apt comparison. While obviously nowhere near what it is like to truly fight in a battle (and much less gruesome), querying is to writers what the trenches are to soldiers. It’s a long, frustrating, and difficult slog to the finish line, with a lot of waiting, anxiety, and unfruitful returns.

What is querying?

For those who are unfamiliar, querying is when writers who have written a complete book (at least for fiction) or a book proposal (for nonfiction) start the long process of reaching out to literary agents in hopes of getting representation. With a literary agent, a writer’s work can be submitted to traditional publishing houses and (hopefully) accepted and published.

Why go through querying?

If it’s so bad, why do authors even go through querying? The answer is simple: to be traditionally published. While not every writer wants to be traditionally published (some choose the self-publishing route or simply stick to short stories and poems in literary journals), you really can’t be traditionally published without querying literary agents.

Most, if not all, of the traditional big five publishers (which could soon become big four and includes Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Macmillan) require a literary agent in order to submit. So in order to even have a chance at traditional publishing through one of the big five or their imprints, you need a literary agent.

What, exactly, does it mean to go into the query trenches?

So now that you know what querying is and why writers do it, let’s go into a bit more about the actual process of querying.

To query, you need a query letter. This letter is a one-page summary of your book that you are querying written in the form of a letter to an agent and includes biographical information about the author and stats about the book. Writing a query letter itself can be challenging, and it can truly make or break your querying experience (which is terrifying and what makes querying so hard.)

Armed with your query letter, and the first few chapters of your book, writers who are ready to query head into the trenches. This means finding literary agents who are interested in the type of book you’ve written online, following their submissions guidelines (much like the submissions guidelines we have here at borrowed solace), and sending along both your query letter and any other requested materials.

And then waiting.

Waiting is the hard part, and it’s made more difficult by the fact that the publishing industry as a whole right now is experiencing an immense amount of backlog and overwhelm due to staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and burnout. Just like with the rest of the world, COVID has taken its toll on the publishing industry, including all those involved in the querying process.

What’s so bad about querying?

Nothing. And everything. Querying is necessary to get your book published. It is the primary way to start the process of one day seeing your book on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble. But it’s also a very tedious process, full of rejection.

May writers query close to a hundred agents with no success. Or find success early on that ultimately results in even more waiting (or even ghosting from agents, which is truly painful to experience as a writer–trust me, I’ve been there.)

Querying is a painstaking process that takes a lot of patience, resilience, and re-writing to survive. For many, though, all of this works out in the long run and results in a published book at the end of the years-long querying and publishing journey.

Are you querying?

I’m curious, are you in the query trenches? I dove into the querying process in mid-2021, and I’m still living in the trenches. While not exactly the same as submitting to literary journals, which I’ve also done my fair share of over the years, querying is similarly difficult.

If you’re querying, how’s it going? If you’re preparing to query, how’s it going? I want to know! Share your thoughts in the comments below. Or if you are unfamiliar with querying, or simply a ways away from venturing into the trenches yourself, comment what questions or concerns you have about the process.

Let’s support each other through this convoluted, messy process known as querying!

How to Handle Bad Critiques

What happens if a teacher or a professor, or worse, yet, an editor, crosses out your lines or sentences, rewords them, reorders them, tells you “You shouldn’t have written this poem”? Metrophobia means the fear of poetry. It is horrifying to hear that it even exists. What has caused poetry to have a distinctive word for the terror that syllabic lines cause?

Teaching methods have started changing as a new movement that bans the red pen is taking hold, but there are a lot of teachers and editors that still require and force extensive revisions. I have had both an editor and a teacher in the last few months humiliate me and tear apart my work. 

The journal that I submitted a poem to, asked me to change it based on a terrible response of one of their journal’s readers. I completely rewrote the piece until it no longer felt like mine and they took out even more lines after I sent it back in. After a second terrible review, they rejected the piece. I wanted to pull the piece as soon as I read the feedback. Instead, I went against my gut and agonized for several months. It was a prestigious journal that I had been published in previously. I wanted back in, badly, but I should have taken my piece back or stood my ground. I did neither. My lesson for next time, and perhaps for you, is to ask if their selected readers are biased. Be respectful but ask questions before extensive revisions. Decide upfront what you are willing to do to get the poem published. I felt desperate at the time and acted according to that desperation. Take time to think about if you will consider it “your” poem or prose piece when it is published. I never would have shown anyone the published poem. I would have listed it on my CV and hoped the world forgot about it. No one, poet, prose writer, no one, deserves to feel like they have to shelve their accomplishment because they feel their piece is no longer theirs.

Classes are a bit different. There may or may not be grades involved and they may or may not be in person, but the same advice applies. Be respectful and ask questions. My teacher told me in front of my entire class in a virtual session, “you shouldn’t have written this. I believe you should write only what you have experienced.” After a hot verbal exchange the week before, I was ready and had used a well-liked poem I revised with another institution. I knew that the poem was valid, even if it could be revised further. I still found myself questioning—what should I have done? The poem was based on World War II. All I could do to stand up for myself was to say, “who will tell the story?” And maybe that was enough. My fear remains that most students, and even the me of last year, would not have written again. I would have not only self-deprecated myself, but I would have truly believed I should not be writing the narratives that I felt called to. I want to note that this was not cultural appropriation. I do, however, believe we can all write the stories we need to. They just may not and perhaps, should not be published.

If you find lines on your work, either by editors or professors, teachers or tutors, do not immediately think that you are a “bad” writer. Ask questions. Why do you think this line should be crossed out? Why should I end here? The burden should not reside on the writer, but sometimes it does. We all make different decisions in our lives. I may not revise a piece so extensively for THAT journal, but what about the next? I think asking questions and believing in the validity of our writing is the only safe way to navigate. 

There is no need for metrophobia, or any word for the fear of writing or speaking out. If your teacher/professor is cruel, go to them first or to their superior. Do not be abused. If an editor is cruel, pull your work or refuse to deal with them again without going over terms. And above all else, know yourself. You are a writer if you place a word down. Revision will make you a great writer, but that revision should be your choice to make and no one else’s.

Literature and the Holidays

When the holidays roll around, I’m always struck by how much literature plays a part in this festive season. Not only are books a common gift to exchange (my family members all usually have at least one book on their Christmas wishlist), but so many of the beloved stories and entertainment we consume each year are based on written stories–short or long.

I’m sure for many reading this Charles’ Dicken’s A Christmas Carol pops into the front of the mind. For those with children, or those who are partial to poetry, perhaps lines from A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore start dancing around in your head like visions of sugar plums in the famed poem.

But there’s even more when it comes to literature and the holidays. My favorite genre–romance–is famous for the copious amounts of Christmas books released every year around this time. In fact, many of the Hallmark Christmas movies that many of us binge religiously (me–I’m guilty of doing just that!) are based on books.

Then there are Netflix shows like Dash and Lily based on a book series featuring the same main characters by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Or the movie Let it Snow based on a short story anthology by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle.

And, of course, who can forget the oldest holiday story in the Bible–that of the first Christmas.

Literature is a big part of the holiday season, and not just for us writers! Even those who don’t write and may not even enjoy reading often find themselves curling up with a classic Christmas story this time of year, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights, warm blankets, and a mug of hot chocolate. Literature is an intrinsic part of the holiday season, and I’m glad for it. The written word is a miraculous tool through which we can learn lessons, feel comforted, and explore new ideas. And what better time of year to do just those things than during the holiday season?