Evaluating a Writing Career When Life is Busy, Complex, or Just Plain Hard

If yowatchu’ve read many writing blogs you’ve seen the advice: writers write, period. They write because they can’t help it. They write through thick and thin. And if they’re not writing, they probably don’t have what it takes to be a Real Writer.

Maybe. On the other hand, nobody has to write. Writing is compelling. It may even be a calling. But no one is chaining you to your laptop. You can walk away from a writing career. And sometimes walking away is the right choice (at least temporarily).

There is a cost to pursuing a writing career when the timing isn’t right, and it can be steep. There are a few reasons to consider delaying a writing career, or walking away entirely.

When life sends an emotional tsunami your way, consider taking a break. Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing, wrote through her sister’s suicide and a variety of other hard knocks, but when she was diagnosed with cancer, to her surprise, she couldn’t put pen to paper. Divorce, death of a loved one, catastrophic illness and the like can leave even the most determined writer too numb to write, not just for a few weeks, but for a year or two. If writing is therapeutic, then by all means, write. But if your creative well is dry – and it might be – give yourself permission to take a sabbatical. Chances are, your publisher will understand once you explain the situation.

When your phase of life is not conducive to writing, consider delaying your writing career. If you have kids at home, are you able to give them enough undivided attention while you write, market and do whatever it takes to make a living from your writing? When they think of you, are you a back slaving away at the laptop or someone there for them to confide in, cuddle with and ask for help? You won’t get a second chance to be a mom or dad, but you might get a second chance at writing once your kids are independent.

If you have a day job, are you able to devote yourself to your work, or is half your mind mapping out stories instead of doing what you’re paid to do?

I understand what keeps drawing you back to writing. Seeing characters and storylines take shape, falling into the words, going into that writing zone – there’s an exhilaration to it that doesn’t exist in “real life.”

But you can always blog, write short stories and vignettes, or spend years writing a book at a more leisurely pace. Consider putting aside marketing and seeking publication until there’s time. You may even find those years of leisurely writing add up to something incredible. The Far Pavilions, The Help and The Thirteenth Tale all took five to ten years to write. Time gave the stories extra layers, which is likely what made them bestsellers. And some bloggers have unwittingly developed a large following. Once they were ready for primetime, they had that elusive platform publishers are always looking for.

Last, consider whether writing is helping you avoid something that needs your attention. I hate to say it, but many writers are so determined to write because they’re avoiding something – social anxiety, unhappy families, addictions, character vices and mundane lifestyles. For all of the challenges of writing, it seems easier than trying to fix a deeply flawed life. But please hear this: healing your life is far more important than anything you will ever write. It will be difficult and scary and will take at least as much time as it took to become a proficient writer. But in the end, changing your own story may be your true calling and offer the most joy.

What I Really Want To Say

I’m sure these things never happen to any of you other authors, so forgive me while I vent for a bit among you, my friends and colleagues.

(Not that you have any choice. I mean, we all voluntarily signed up for this crazy business of writing books, so it’s part of the unwritten code that we have to put up with each other’s rants now and then. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” as Bette Davis famously says in All About Eve.)

Scene #1

Filled with good intentions, I agree to mentor a local high schooler who wants to become a writer. I attend the mentor orientation program and lay out goals for the semester, based on the profile and paperwork the student has submitted. At our first meeting, the student informs me that she already has her novel’s first three chapters completed and that she wants to know what publisher she should contact. She explains why her book will eclipseTwilight and expects me to help her become the next Stephenie Meyer.

What I want to say: “Believe me, if I knew how to be the next Stephenie Meyer, I wouldn’t be here helping you. I’d already be the next Stephenie Meyer.”

What I really say: “It would be a good first step to check your spelling since I can see five mistakes right here in the first paragraph.”

Scene #2

I agree to speak at a local aspiring writers’ workshop about my decades-long writing career, the need to understand the business of publishing, and how I finally landed my first book deal with a traditional publisher. After my presentation, I invite questions. The first one I get is, “Have you considered self-publishing? It’s really fast, and I’ve already published several books.”

What I want to say: “Good for you. How many copies have you actually sold and why are you here, then? Did you not hear anything I just said? ”

What I really say: “Good for you. Traditional publishing isn’t for everyone, that’s true.”

Scene #3

I’m standing in line to order my favorite hot tea at the local coffee shop when I see an acquaintance who waves me over to her table. I get my tea and go to say hello. My friend introduces me as a writer to the woman seated next to her, at which point the woman launches into a lengthy description of the book she’s thinking about writing. My eyes glaze over, my smile freezes on my face, and I feel the heat from my tea seeping through the extra layer of the cardboard holder and into my fingers.

What I want to say: “I really don’t give a rip about the book you want to write. I don’t even know you. I just wanted a cup of my favorite tea.”

What I really say: “Nice to meet you. Gotta run.” And I promise myself to make my own tea at home for the rest of my life.

Okay, I’m done ranting. Thanks for listening. I feel so much better. I’m going to go make my tea now.

Your turn. Any rants you want to share?

U R a Writer (So Write What You Know)

“Everyone’s talking about the Victoria’s Secret fashion show  … how this one girl wore this multi-million dollar outfit …. and how amazing they all are ….”

Books

The lights in my daughter’s eyes dash in the night.  We are up too late, pillow talk, chewing on all things girl: how it’s hard to admit when we are wrong, how friend hurts run deep, how some girls seem to get everything they want … and does that mean happiness?

We are treading the waters of the life I’ve known. It is from this pain that I have written — the pain of feeling like I was never enough

We talk about the real stuff: how love is all the soul really needs; how persevering through the thick of life makes a woman beautiful; how honor and respect are the prettiest adornments we can wear.

We learn the hard way, because the longing to be beautiful is within us, and because Jesus is and always will be the utmost answer on anything Beauty.

When I wrote More Beautiful Than You Know, I wrote to the girl I used to be; the girl my daughter now is; and the girl who was at my house yesterday, the one who didn’t want to take off her shirt to go in the pool because she stated bluntly, “I don’t have a bathing-suit body.”

I wanted to jump out of my skin and hold her — cup her heart and heal it — flood truth into the blood in her veins so that she would know she is More Beautiful Than She KnowsI wanted her to define beauty in her generosity, in her laughter that fills the sky, in her eyes which pool with humility and honor. I wanted to redefine beauty for her, in her, through her.

And I will ask my daughter if I can give my book to her friend Bella, the one named Beauty who thinks she’s not. Because I wrote it for her, because of her, and because one time I stood being measured by a line of judges against another girl and her bathing-suit body beat mine. That was the last time I felt good enough in a bikini, I’ll tell you that.

We write what we know. Write from your pain. Your core pain. The more you do, the more the wound will heal — and it heals best when it becomes healing to another.

I guess there is still a scar there, because when Bella only eats fruits and vegetables while the girls with “bathing-suit bodies” guzzle sweet tea and potato chips, I want to make a big banner of my book’s cover and hang it over the pool. I want it to say, “Bella: YOU ARE MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN YOU KNOW.”

I know this blog should teach you something about marketing or managing your writing schedule or turning posts into promotion, but today, I just want to challenge you to write what you know, and write for one person who could be changed by your story. Write for Bella. Write for me. Write for the one you see in your mind’s eye who needs healing from the thing that hurt you.

Do that.

And then, do that again. And again. And again.

One day, that person you wrote for, might be sitting at your kitchen table eating vegetables — or about to jump in your pool and fill the sky with laughter.

Your friend,

Jen

Struggling with Your Book Manuscript? Just Write!

Photo/TaraRossHow’s that book you’re NOT writing coming along?

I must admit, writing a book is not at all what I expected, even though it’s been my dream for a long time.

I did refer to it as a goal at one point, but someone corrected me by informing me that “goals have deadlines.” So, I suppose it’s just been a distant dream for me—until now.

Now, I DO have a deadline. So, I guess my dream graduated to become a goal. Yay!

Hold on! Why am I so happy? Did I say deadline? Yikes!

In his blog post, “The Totally Boring Process of Writing a Book,” Jeff Goins wrote about his struggle with writing a book.

I think Goins wrote this article just for me.

Wait … did he say “boring”? Why, yes—I think he did! So, what do you think?

Observer. I know some students who NEVER finished writing their master’s theses or doctoral dissertations! They completed the course work for their degrees, compiled volumes of research, but they never turned in their final papers, failing to complete their degree requirements.

I’ve also known a few professors and ministers who used their entire sabbaticals to do research, but they never finished their books. Such wisdom—still packed away and waiting in an obscure files somewhere.

Recently, I listened to several historical fiction writers confess their ongoing struggle, of not beinging able to moving from the research phase of their writing to actually finishing their books.

One writer friend completed a book that she’s been working on for 25 years. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS! Oh, she’s written other books. But this prize was tucked away for safe-keeping until her other projects were finished.

Is this a common problem for writers? I think so.

But who am I to judge other writers? I’ve been collecting research on my book for a decade. That’s why I’ve been so stalled in this phase of the writing process, gathering 10 years worth of research from every nook and cranny of my home and computer files.

Question. So, how do you break away from your research and graduate to writing?

My writing friend, Kathy, shared some wise advice she gleaned from a writers conference: “Put your bottom in the chair, and stay there until you meet your goal for the day.”

So, I wish I had the answer. Perhaps it’s simply these two words—JUST WRITE!

How do you transition from research to writing?

Learning to Listen

Have you ever noticed that there is a deep inner peace that descends when you truly listen to someone? Think about it. You focus on what they are saying, sifting through the verbal noise to the subtext that is being laid bare. You take a back seat, allowing them to drive the conversation so that you can lovingly respond. There is a strength in this passivity, a calm in conceding control.

Isn’t that exactly what we are called to do with the Lord?

My world is loud. My email constantly demands my attention – four different accounts for four different reasons. My job revolves around communication and social media, the deadly noise of an electronic culture.

We’ve forgotten the value of letters and phone calls, the connection that comes with face to face. We’ve forgotten how to have a conversation longer than 140 characters, and we sure don’t remember the bond developed by vocally sharing the depth of our thoughts, our hearts. As writer’s we get to connect the gap, to share vulnerability on the page and communicate with the world around us. All too often, I fight that vulnerability. I fight to speak without letting people see the depths of my heart. But as much as I have been called to use my voice in some form or fashion, I must first be willing to listen to my audience of One.

Kariss Lynch oceanI remember a crowded beach in California. Surfers rode the waves, entertainers lined up around the boardwalk, and this misplaced Texas girl walked with my group enjoying the show. About sunset, I found myself alone near the water, the waves roaring in to kiss the shore over and over. All other noise dissipated, and I truly listened.

I see and hear my Creator in the waves and the ocean – His power, His gentle nature, His vastness, His beauty. And I can hear His still small voice in the waves that lap the sand, asking me to drown out the other noise and just listen. He speaks in the quiet moments. He answers when I truly surrender.

Shadowed Kariss LynchWe can’t discern His voice and direction until we give up our need to control and sit back as He shares His heart and mind. I love the childlike faith of Samuel in the Old Testament and the way he simply answers the Lord with “Here am I.” Then He listens and obeys. I want to be defined as a person who delights to do what God desires, who uses my gifts for His glory, who writes without fear. But my surrender comes first. As I finish up my third book, enter a season in between contracts, and pray through what’s next, I want to make sure I am listening more than I am telling the Lord what I want. I want this in between season to be marked by a quietness of spirit as I rest, dream, pray, and enjoy where the Lord currently has me.

With no beach nearby, I’m learning to find my ocean moments in the roar of the big city. He speaks most when I commit to listen. And I’m tired of the noise. I’m sitting on the shore, listening to His voice whisper in the waves.

The Beauty of Lying Fallow

harvested fieldLying fallow isn’t just for fields. If you want to find kernels of ideas to jumpstart your next writing project, you might be surprised to see how much you can glean from the already harvested fields of your finished projects.

Just as farmers routinely allow sections of their fields to remain unplanted for a season in order to replenish the land’s fertility, writers need to leave past projects alone for a time in order to get a fresh perspective on their work – a perspective that often reveals the kernels of ideas that somehow got hidden beneath the framework of that finished work. Every writer knows many ideas that pop into the head during the research and composing process end up getting tossed out in the pursuit of a tightly woven story or narrative. That’s part of the discipline of self-editing: you mercilessly cut out your own words that you might have lovingly slaved over because you realize that, in the end, they don’t make your work stronger.

Ouch. The truth hurts.

The good news, though, is that those same words, those kernels of ideas, might be able to take on their own life in another season of your career–as long as you can find them again. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your notes from a writing project after its completion. Yes, it means you’ve got bulky files sitting unused on a shelf, or on your computer, but it doesn’t mean you’re a hoarder who just can’t let go.

sproutIt means you know that as soon as you get rid of those notes, you’ll find yourself looking for that funky little idea that didn’t quite fit the last manuscript, but would be an amazing starting place for a new project…now that you’ve had some fallow time to let that kernel of an idea begin to sprout all on its own in your subconscious.

I used to think that if I wasn’t working on a new project, I was losing time. Now I realize that my imagination needs as much of a rest as any physical landscape that is cultivated for production. What’s even more delightful is to browse through my bulky files of old projects and find new inspiration just waiting to be gleaned from the rubble of a field I thought I had fully harvested. I shouldn’t be surprised – the Biblical injunction to leave the field fallow in the seventh year was not only to improve its productivity for later, but to provide sustenance for the poor who were free to eat of what was left. In other words, the field might have been harvested, but even in its fallow season, it could give nourishment.

For writers who feel depleted after the long haul to publication and market, it’s reassuring to know that imagination is already replenishing itself.

What kernels have you gleaned from harvested fields?

Cutting Out the Frivolous Stuff

song sparrow singingLast week, during a series of presentations on writing-related discoveries, which I always make first-year composition students do at the end of the year, one student said, “I learned that writing shorter is harder than writing longer.”

“Why’s that, do you think?” I asked.

He thought before answering.White-crowned-Sparrow

“Because to make something shorter, you have to make all these decisions. Like, what’s important and what to get rid of. And then, after you take stuff out, you have to change other stuff to make it sound right.”

“You mean, you have to revise—like, you know, re-see it,” another student chimed in.

“Yeah. It is like that,” he said. “Like seeing that it could be a different way and still be what I wanted to say. Maybe even better. I never thought of that. I always used to think revision was just fixing stuff.” The two students grinned with that mixture of embarrassment and pride students always have when using the language of the course.White-Throated_Sparrow

That night I led a professional development session for graduate faculty on the subject of assessing final projects.

“Everything students hand in is a draft,” I remarked in passing, “and drafts are hard to grade. If you want your students to revise, you have to trick them into it.”

Field_Sparrow“How?” one professor asked.

“Lots of ways,” I said, “but the most successful way for me is to give maximum word limits on assignments rather than minimum word limits.”

“How does that make them revise?” she persisted.

I knew that being made to write short did force students to revise, but it took me a second to come up with a reason why on the spot. “I guess it’s like when you fill out an online application and have to answer a question in a little box that limits you to only so many characters, including spaces,” I told them. “What you write is always way too long. So you have to keep paring it down, getting rid of unnecessary stuff, often the parts you’re Harris's Sparrowproudest of, so you can get down to what’s essential. And, in the end, it’s not only shorter but better. Or, anyway, I always think it is. In my experience, the same thing happens with students when I give them word limits. I get all these emails, begging me to let them go longer. But I never do. Not one word. So they have to revise. And what they turn in is lots better than what they turn in when they’re just trying to fill pages.”

Everyone wrote that down—the most useful grading takeaway, even though it wouldn’t be relevant until they started building assignments the next semester.

The next day, at an end-of-year luncheon of honors English students, my department chair asked those about to graduate to share the moment they realized they wanted to study English, and two women talked about learning to write short.

lark sparrow“Being forced to cut made my writing so much better,” one said. “I knew how to improve my writing after learning that.”

“I had this revelation that every sentence matters,” said another. “That was the moment for me.”

Finally, yesterday, my novel workshop students were talking about their revision strategies for the three chapters I’d be grading at the end of the semester.

“I’m cutting out a lot of frivolous stuff,” one said. “That’s the main thing I learned in this class: You don’t need half the stuff you write.”Chipping_Sparrow

As always, whenever I have one of these clumps of similar messages, I figured it wasn’t just coincidence—or the more obvious reality that people were saying back to me what I’d been preaching all semester—but the Holy Spirit weighing in on the ssavannah sparrowubject. It seemed strange, though, that the Holy Spirit was interested in revision.

Then it occurred to me that I’m the one who needed the cutting message I’d been preaching. My own novel is a frivolous (and practically unpublishable for a first novel) 130,000 words.

There’s no getting around it, I told myself. You need to cut another 30,000 words.

That doesn’t begin to answer the question—if you’re still wondering—of why cutting words from my pages might interest the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that, as I like to tell my students, revision is a key part of the creative process, and God has always been into that. Separating light from dark, water from land. Fiddling with it, examining it, considering, until it’s good, or very good.

Or maybe God’s interested in revision for the same reason he pays attention to sparrows: namely, all of his creation—birds, us, our minds, words, our little improvement plans—fascinates and delights him.

(PS: To whatever fellow birdlovers are out there, I saw all the sparrows pictured this morning: song, white-crowned, white-throated, field, Harris’s, lark, chipping, and savannah. I feel so blessed!)