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Writer’s Remorse

by Olive Balla


Olive Balla245It’s a cousin to Buyer’s Remorse, which my friend and constant companion Google defines as an emotional response to a purchase. Feelings like regret, fear, depression, or anxiety. You know—the letdown that grabs the buyer by the throat immediately after he’s spent a pile of money on something he just knew he wanted more than anything.

But the feelings accompanying what I’ve dubbed Writer’s Remorse go beyond those just mentioned. Although depression is definitely part of it, the feeling is more of—as Peggy Lee crooned in the golden oldie of the same name—Is that all there is?

Regardless of what it’s called, I’ve been suffering from it.

After working for six years on my novel—six years, during which I thought about it constantly, jotted down snippets of overheard conversations to pepper into the dialogue, basically lived, breathed, and showered with it—the thing is suddenly finished. I’ve polished, rewritten, edited, and re-edited, and then found a beta reader who was a professional editor in a past life. It’s the best I can do.

But just as with the sudden cessation of any other perpetual activity, the completion of my novel left a void. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

So I checked in with my online chat group of writers. I told them of the unexpected feelings of loss that have accompanied my novel’s completion. I poured out all my writer angst, certain that what I was going through was an anomaly. And a little fearful for my sanity. (Okay, maybe a bit melodramatic, but I was concerned.) I wondered if Stephen King had ever struggled with letting go of one of his twisted babies.

The responses that came pouring in from my colleagues boosted my morale. One savvy writer said that I have a case of what is basically empty-nest syndrome. She said I’m missing my characters. That they became an integral part of my life, and now I’m grieving their loss. And that feels about right.

Having raised three actual children, I must admit that the feelings I was experiencing were akin to those of giving birth, raising the child, and then watching her walk away to seek her fortune in the world without so much as a backward glance. The whole process was accompanied with the bittersweet knowledge that it’s all part of the beat of life—that once you’ve done your job, your services will no longer be required.

After all, I spent over half a decade scheduling my life around my writing time. I’d waken early, hurry to eat breakfast, and then happily lock myself away into my writing space—what author Elizabeth Sims calls getting into garret mode. I closed myself off to the here-and-now, completely immersed myself in a different dimension, and then for the next couple of hours I alternately dug through the darkness and marveled at the brilliant nobility of our human nature.

And then I was stricken with an energy-sucking ennui. I walked aimlessly around the house in search of something—I didn’t know quite what. Judging by the way my husband took to surreptitiously watching me out of the corner of his eye, I suspected my behavior verged on something clinical.

So I again approached my writer friends—much cheaper and less time consuming than therapy.

Within minutes, commiserations flew back across the ether and into my waiting arms. I wasn’t alone. Other writers had suffered the same feelings.

Several of them told me to get back on the horse and start another novel. Others said I should take a break and do something totally un-writer-like for several weeks before rolling up my sleeves and giving myself over to the birthing pangs of a new story.

I decided to do both. First, with unwavering determination, I powered down every piece of computer hardware in my house that could even remotely be used for word processing. And then, with an unexpected sense of freedom, I accompanied my husband on a road trip to Mount Rushmore.

The glorious scenery that flew past our car windows, the rest stops where I overheard people speaking about everything from ingrown toenails to saving wild horses, all sparked dozens of ideas, which I verbalized into the tiny digital recorder I’d snuck into my bag. I know, I know, I cheated. But the change of scenery was like a cool drink of water on my parched writer’s tongue, and I was overcome with a renewed joy in my chosen field of endeavor.

Once home, I replayed and then transcribed my recorded observations and comments. What if… and Yes, and then… cavorted and tumbled elbows over arse through my electrified imagination. I made more notes.

But I still didn’t have the heart to begin a new novel. At least, not until this morning.

Today I awakened to my Protagonist’s index finger tapping me on the forehead. She was yammering away about a woman who just moved from South Dakota and into the house across the street.

“She’s having trouble sleeping because of weird noises coming from her basement,” said my Protagonist around a mouthful of leftover welcome-to-the-neighborhood brownies.

“Aha,” I said. “Weird noises coming from her basement? That’s good. Then what if…”

And we’re off.


AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at omballa.com.


This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




The Writing Life: Juggling Priorities

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurr

Recently, I read T.D. Jakes’ book Instinct and was startled by the chapter on juggling priorities. The author discussed juggling as “giving each object just enough of a push so that all items remain suspended and none falls out of sequence.” I thought of my efforts to make time for my writing life while working full time, attending to family obligations, volunteering to help others, practicing a healthy lifestyle, and looking after my home. In short, like the readers of this column, I have a lot of balls in the air.

As writers, we type stories, edit material, shepherd work through the publishing process, market and promote the work. Depending on how many projects writers have on their desks, they could be juggling all of these. Each takes time, and yet are required to manage a successful writing career.

Writers need sustained work time. Scheduling thirty, sixty, or ninety-minute blocks to put words on paper can be helpful. If I get on a roll, I hit the timer to add another block. When I have a passion project, I can’t wait to read and write about my subject.

So how does one decide to accept other opportunities that take time away from writing and other necessary priorities related to family, work, and home? Do you say “Yes” and add another item to juggle? How do you know when your schedule has reached its saturation point?

I know I have reached schedule saturation when even the thought of taking on another commitment causes stress. Ultimately we have to say “No” to people when a “Yes” could bring all the balls crashing down.

Adding one more meeting means less time to write, and the occasion divides the day. This can lead to missed deadlines and the inability to do any work at all because of the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Within two months this year, I received four offers to join not-for-profit boards. One group met twice a month and that was a non-starter. As I contemplated another offer from a board that met once a month, I looked at my calendar and noticed that their board meeting date conflicted with a previous obligation. Even though the group offered to move the time of their meeting, I just couldn’t see how I could add another monthly commitment to my calendar. For a third board, the executive director said they met bi-monthly and communicated by email in between. That felt worse as I often struggle to read all the email that currently descends into my box. One recruiter mentioned the seriousness of the board work. As the guardian of a brother in a coma, I already make solemn decisions. Just the mere mention of the word ‘serious’ made me want to run.

I finally decided to decline all four board offers until I finished other volunteer projects or freed up time from my university job.

I believe there has to be a good reason to nod an acceptance.

I recommend writers consider saying “Yes” to those offers that bring joy, pleasure, and peace into your life. Writers must intersperse fun activities between obligations. Fun activities and passion projects feed your soul. They make life pleasurable so you can endure the serious and take delight from the prestigious.

For example, after taking several sets of golf lessons, I finally play with enough confidence to make it enjoyable. Fortunately in New Mexico many golf courses substantially discount their fees to encourage late afternoon play. With over 300 sunny days a year, I have become enthralled by the mountain views and gorgeous New Mexico skies. If given a choice between attending additional meetings and playing golf several times a week, guess which one I’ll choose.

At the end of each day, I review what I did that was gratifying. Did I type pages for my next book? Did I help someone? Did I golf in a nice surrounding? Did I see a comedy movie or watch a fascinating television show like How to Get Away with Murder?

There are things that we have to do, and then there are those we want to do. A balanced life requires juggling between both sets of undertakings. So off I go. Today’s writing is done and nine holes are calling my name.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




The Writing Life: Finding the Fight and the Fun in Your Work

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurr

Recently, fortune blessed me with the opportunity to watch live tennis at a high-level tournament in Ohio. As I observed tennis star Serena Williams fight back after losing the first set to win the next two sets and claim the match, I thought about how much we writers can learn from her determination to succeed.

Just as tennis players face the constant threat of losing points, games, sets and matches, we writers often confront rejection. Author Gregg Levoy (This Business of Writing) once told a SouthWest Writers audience that if you are not constantly receiving rejection letters, you are operating too far into your comfort zone. I initially thought this harsh as no one wants to receive rejection letters. But his larger point resonated. If you constantly put out work that gets accepted, perhaps you are not challenging yourself to go to the next level. Are there higher levels of publications that you have not submitted to for fear of rejection? This is like the tennis player who only plays players who are worse than they are. Where’s the test? Where’s the opportunity?

By daring ourselves to query top book and magazine publishers, we increase our risk of rejection but we potentially set ourselves up for great rewards. Tennis players know that if they want to win the big tournaments, the Grand Slam events, they have to constantly improve their games. This requires honest assessments of weaknesses and strengths. Do they have an accurate serve, which allows them to claim free points? Or a weak serve that leads to double faults? Do they have a lightning-accurate forehand, or one that constantly sails long? Is their backhand hit with power, or does it soft-land on the other side of the net and permit the opponent to hit a punishing return?

For writers, do we write articles with humor, or do our attempts fall flat? To predict an audience’s reaction requires test driving the material. This is where critique groups that require writers to read their submissions can be absolutely critical to writer success. As you deliver your words out loud, you can obtain an instant reaction as to whether the material is hitting the intended emotional cues. If your critique group members react by laughing out loud or crying, then you know you are hitting the right level. If there is no reaction, then you know you have to go back to the drawing board.

This is why I prefer critique groups whose members read the material compared to those who pre-send the material by email and then discuss it when the group meets. In the former, you can instantly see the reaction. In the latter, the person might tell you they found something funny but you won’t know how funny. Were they falling out of their seat with laughter or did a bemused look cross their brow?

Similarly in tennis, a speed gun measures the serve. Players don’t have to guess how fast a serve was, they know. After Croatian player Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open, he was interviewed about his suspension for four months during 2013 for having a banned substance in his urine tests. Cilic used the time to practice his serve and to work on finding the enjoyment in his game. Others might have spent the four months in “woe is me” mode. Instead, Cilic used it as an opportunity to improve.

When life gives an opportunity to remove ourselves from the normal and reassess, take it as a golden opportunity to improve. Examine weaknesses and strengths. Find the fun in your work. That’s where long-run success lies. That’s where the willingness to fight in difficult moments arises. At the Ohio tournament, Serena Williams battled from a set down to win the semi-final match against Caroline Wozniacki. She won her next match in straight sets and the U.S. Open for the sixth time by beating the same opponent in the finals. Williams took note of her earlier struggles and improved her game.

For writers, progress can come from reading and writing daily, as well as signing up for writing courses. When writing is fun, abandoning your life’s work never enters your mind. You commit to fight until the last letter is struck on your keyboard. Writers don’t retire; the ideas keep flowing until they take their last breath. Challenge yourself to submit to different publishers. The successes may surprise and amaze you.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




Riding a New Roller Coaster

rose headshot 5What can I say? This is my first attempt to do anything at all with a blog on a website. I’ve always wanted to, but haven’t had the time to learn. Suddenly I find I’ve accepted the challenge to learn how to make this work. My biggest fear is hitting the wrong button and screwing up entirely

Writing a blog is the easy part, just putting words down about whatever is on my mind. Whether someone wants to read it or not kind of depends on whether or not they find you amusing, droll, informative, deep, creative or just plain nuts.

This is made very difficult because I am wearing my old glasses—the ones that don’t work really well anymore. The “new” ones developed a scratch so they are back at the optical shop getting the lenses replaced. Whenever you change spectacles you go through an adjustment period where the floor looks slanted or things are not as in focus as you are accustomed to. With this old pair my left eye can see the computer screen just fine but the right eye reminds me of the aftereffects of a New Year’s eve party—fuzzy and colorful. So as I sit here I am typing with one eye closed.

But if I want to relax for a moment I close the left eye and open the right one and look at the Christmas lights…glowy balls dancing across the dark background. How fun!

I did not get glasses until I was about 12 years old—neither my parents or I realized that I was legally blind…I made do pretty well and was the bookish sort anyway. I could see really well 2 inches from my nose. Then the nun who taught 7th grade called Mom and raised hell because I told her I could not see the blackboard from the back of the room. The eye doctor confirmed I had 700/20 vision. About a week later Dad drove up in the old tan station wagon with the fake wood siding. I ran down the hill in front of our house and he handed me the glasses.

To this day thrills expand my soul outwards when I remember putting them on for the first time. I could see individual blades of grass…while standing up! I could see leaves on the trees way over in the neighbor’s yard! That night for the first time I saw that there were hundreds of stars in the sky, not just a few blurry white spots. Wow.

Of course, I had already fallen deeply in love with the written word by that time, something that has never changed even though I could now see what other people wrote about. So I write.

And now I blog.

And now I get to figure out how to make these words appear on a screen for you to see. As my old friend Bob used to say, “It’s a piss poor day when you don’t learn something new.”




The Writing Life: Basic Principles from Dear Abby

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurr

In a “Dear Abby” column appearing in local newspapers on September 10, 2013, the famed advice columnist received this query:

…I’m wondering if there is a basic principle you abide by in order to help guide you when giving advice. ~ Curious Reader

She responded:

I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose it’s something like this: Show up for work ready to put forth my best effort. Be honest enough to admit that not everyone agrees with me or that I’m sometimes wrong. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Don’t pull any punches, don’t preach and always try to be succinct.

Reading her response, it occurred to me this advice applies to the writing life.

First, writers need to work in a disciplined manner at a home office or designated area. Phil Jackson, a retired jockey who penned the memoir On a Fast Track, writes from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the week in his home office. Western author Melody Groves, a retired school teacher, writes Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. When Groves taught, she wrote between 4:45 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. She views writing as a job to be taken seriously, as if paid hourly.

Others who have full-time jobs may write in the mornings before the rest of their home crew awakes, or in the evening after their family sleeps. As a university professor, Kathy Kitts wrote nonfiction from 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and fiction from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. Personally, I write in 90-minute blocks throughout the day. I read a New York Times article that praised the virtues of taking breaks after each 90-minute session.

Whenever you choose to write, show up, ready to put fingers to keyboard, pen to paper, or voice into a device of your choice.

Doing your best may vary from day to day. Sometimes, you arrive at your designated writing space with ideas flowing and ready to produce. Other times, your mental processes struggle. For those moments, consider playing Mozart, Vivaldi, or other music in the background or through your ear buds to stimulate your brain. In his book The Mozart Effect, Don Campbell extolled the ability of music to stimulate creativity. He subtitled his work “Tapping the power of music to heal the body, strengthen the mind, and unlock the creative spirit.”

Dear Abby’s next piece of advice admonishes to be honest enough to admit not everyone agrees with you or you’re sometimes wrong. This is important when seeking feedback from critique groups. Not everyone is going to consider that the words you put on paper proclaim you to be the next Shakespeare. It’s important for writers to be open to receiving criticism and admit editing is necessary.

When Dear Abby wrote, “Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” she was quoting the oath administered to witnesses in legal proceedings.

This oath applies whether writers pen nonfiction or fiction. With nonfiction, because the reader expects the words to be true, the author should so deliver. Memoirists who shade the truth to make their stories more dramatic have been immensely criticized, and publishers have sometimes pulled their work from the market. With fiction there must be truth in the emotions of the characters, even if the words are products of an author’s imagination.

Years ago, I took a Dramatic Writing course at the University of New Mexico with famed professor Digby Wolfe who had written for Laugh In. An important exercise called “Truth or Fiction” required each student to write and stage a short play for class. Then the audience had to guess whether it was truth or fiction. Wolfe urged his students to produce both their nonfiction and fiction with emotional richness.

Dear Abby’s final point is: don’t pull punches, don’t preach, and always try to be succinct. For writers, the first maxim relates to not softening the emotional blows of your words. Let the characters go for broke, no matter how hard the story may be for the reader to consume. If told effectively, the reader will obtain the moral without needing to be preached its ethical underpinnings. Being succinct requires not wasting words. For example, Melody Groves is fond of eliminating the word “that” from work she critiques. She finds “that” often unnecessary and once the writer thinks about it, he or she agrees.

To summarize, writers must show up to produce their best work. Be honest, be succinct, and don’t pull punches or preach.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




Lessons from the Life of Tony Hillerman

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurr

Tony Hillerman, the author who exposed the Navajo way to millions of people, passed away on October 26, 2008. After moving to New Mexico in 1988, I mentioned to a University of New Mexico colleague that I was looking for a writer to speak to my class the following spring. She recommended I read The Ghostway and The Dark Wind. I became a fan and wrote Tony.

For a humble person who reveled in his Oklahoma farm boy roots, spending time with lawyers and lawyer-wannabes was not Tony’s idea of fun. But he was also a teacher at heart and always willing to share, even with not-so-modest attorney types.

After publishing three books in 2004, I was invited to join First Fridays, a group that Tony and several of his writing pals started in the 1960s to share knowledge about the publishing industry. One morning a couple of years ago, I received an email seeking someone to drive Tony, now in his 80s, to the next meeting. I immediately volunteered.

Driving Tony Hillerman was a gift. Even as he struggled with health infirmities, he quipped, “Don’t get old.” Here are a few other tips from a great writing mind:

Tip 1: Take Time to Observe the Clouds
“Look at those clouds,” Tony said as we walked to my car. “Don’t they remind you of a flock of geese?” Other times, he would notice horses in stalls or dogs wandering the roads. His books are filled with elegantly described settings. I realized that he could write so vividly about New Mexico and Arizona because he was constantly observing the environment.

Tip 2: Be Generous with Your Writing Earnings
On one occasion, we pulled up at a stop sign as a panhandler approached with a sign. Tony took out his wallet and handed the man $10. Wow, I thought, how generous. At that First Friday meeting, Tony said he had recently opened a letter and a $100 bill fell out. The woman wrote of having borrowed his books from the library all these years and realized that he was probably missing some royalties. Lesson learned: generosity is returned many fold.

Tip 3: Keep at It
Tony’s debut novel The Blessing Way received 101 rejection slips before being picked up by Harper & Row in 1980. Along the way, agents wanted him to change the location of his books from the Navajo reservation to Santa Fe and to alter Joe Leaphorn’s identity. He stuck to the truth of his stories, and you should, too. After bemoaning the dozen rejections one of my manuscripts received, I realize I have to send it out 89 more times.

Keep the faith and keep writing. Tony did and we are grateful that he lived.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the January 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




10 Stages of Writing Achievement

by Sherri Burr


SherriBurrHow do you determine when you are making progress as a writer? I submit that there are at least 10 stages to measuring writing achievement.

Stage 1: Conceptualize an Idea
Ideas emerge from an infinite number of sources, from reading books and going to movies to walking with friends or dreaming. When you get a promising idea, write it down and rejoice because your imagination is working.

Stage 2: Express the Idea
Copyright law protects the expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. Your reward for fixing your ideas in a permanent form, such as an article for a magazine or a chapter in a book, is that your work is automatically copyrightable. You also have the option to place copyright notice (© 2015 by writer) on your work or register it with the U.S. Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov.

Stage 3: Expose Your Writing
Sending your work to magazine editors, agents, book publishers, or print on demand websites indicates you are ready to share your words with the world. You must risk rejection to reap rewards.

Stage 4: Receiving Personalized Rejection Letters
There are three types of rejection: (1) silence; (2) form letters; and (3) personalized rejection letters. You learn to be grateful for the third because they signify that your work resonated enough with outside sources willing to spend time telling you how to fix it or recommend another publication. If the rejection letter is nasty, use it as inspiration and ultimately get the last laugh.

Stage 5: Acceptance with No Pay
Some writers start out by publishing works in newsletters connected to social networks. This accomplishes the goal of seeing your words in print.

Stage 6: Paid Enough for Coffee at Starbucks
When you receive that first check, no matter how small, celebrate and dance to the music. I once received a check for $4. Do you cash or frame a $4 check? I recommend cashing it because it proves that you are indeed in the business of writing. Count the $4 as income on your Schedule C and deduct all your writing related expenses.

Stage 7: Paid Enough to Afford a Meal
When the checks come in for $50 or hundreds of dollars, you’ve attained another milestone. Treat a friend to lunch or a loved one to a gourmet dinner. Toast your success!

Stage 8: Paid Enough to Fund a Vacation
If you grossed enough revenue to fund a vacation, you’ve climbed to another echelon of freelance writers. Enjoy your trip.

Stage 9: Paid Enough to Live On
You’ve truly arrived as a creative person when you can live on the proceeds. Writers at this level often have steady gigs as columnists, contribute to a number of publications, write books, or all of these. Since you now benefit from a steady income flow, be careful to mind your expenses and do not spend more than you earn.

Stage 10: New York Times Best Selling Author
Congratulations, you’ve hit the jackpot by joining the likes of John Grisham, David Baldacci, and Janet Evanovich. When your writing income substantially exceeds your living expenses, it’s time to think seriously about giving back. David Baldacci (Absolute Power, The Camel Club) and his wife started the Wish You Well Foundation to increase literacy rates in this country and abroad. Whatever your cause, you can really make a difference. Ultimately, that’s what the writing life is all about.


A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the December 2007 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




The Late-Blooming Writer

by Olive Balla


Olive Balla245You’re over fifty, your kids are raised, your relationships are simple, you’ve learned most of life’s lessons firsthand, and now you want to write. Welcome. Welcome to the ranks of Late-Blooming Writers. As one of the aforementioned, I’ll share some of the bits and pieces of information gleaned along my path toward publication.

First, set a goal. Want to write meaningful poetry? Want to knock out a bestselling novel? Write down what you want to make happen. And then put it someplace where you’ll see it. Often. Next, stretch your brain-muscle. A good way to do that is to meditate. Thousands of pages of research indicate that meditating a few minutes a day will change the actual physical make-up of your brain. So will Sudoku, or jigsaw and crossword puzzles. And you’ll need to grow a tough skin. Not the kind that insulates you from the world, or squeezes the juice from your sensitivities. But the kind that allows the slings and arrows of rejection to roll harmlessly off as you do the trial and error thing to find your Writer’s Voice.

Then you’ll need to bone up on the basic rules of grammar and the elements of style. Strunk and White offers a small but priceless treasure trove of style tidbits. Besides learning the difference between showing and telling, you’ll need to use strong verbs, stay away from passive voice, and use few, if any, adjectives or adverbs. Oh, and you would be wise to eschew any iteration of the verb “to be.” You get the idea. Just as with any craft, you must first learn the rules, beginning with the basics.

Pitfall number one: Writer Entitlement. It’s an interesting but recurring phenomenon in wannabe writers, that their opinions about their own writing skills outshine the reality. I’ve read this in countless articles and blogs, so there must be something to it. We’ve always been told how well we write, so we figure our success is assured. However, none of us have been born with the Consummate Writer Gene already firmly installed. The kind of writing that gets published requires hard work and focused attention, followed by vigorous, time-consuming (often painful) revision.

Pitfall number two: Memoirs. Once you’ve generated dozens of chapters of the novel you can’t quite finish, after writing several essays and short stories, and once you’re absolutely certain you’ve reached the apex of writing competency, you’ll find yourself considering the possibility of writing your memoirs. Some would say it’s never too early to chronicle your life experiences. But unless your aim is to produce something solely for the historical value it might have to your family, it seems to me a better idea to put a memoir on hold—at least until after your first book is published. Although your life has doubtless resembled a roller coaster in its hairpin curves and surprising twists and turns, it’s tough to sell a memoir until someone, somewhere, knows your name. That is, unless you dated someone famous and decide to write a kiss-and-tell. Note: Just a suggestion, but if you want to write your memoirs as revenge for a lifetime of wrongs, you might consider finding a good attorney to cover your back. Libel suits can be expensive indulgences.

Pitfall number three: You believe the only-partially-true statement that all one has to do to achieve publication is to write. A lot. But the sad truth is it takes much more than cranking out ream upon ream of verbiage to make one’s way into the semi-rarified strata of published writer. Unless writers have occasion to be catapulted into the focus of the national news media, they must learn the ropes of the publishing industry, subscribe to various writers’ magazines and e-zines (or better yet, start one), join critique groups, build an extensive platform, and basically eat, drink and sleep writing. The key is to never stop learning and revising yourself.

Pitfall number four: You fear time is against you. Late bloomers often fall victim to this downward spiral of thought. You grow more and more impatient as the days, weeks, and months go by and your folder of rejections thickens. But hang in there. The process will not be hurried. Google writers who were published after the age of fifty and revel in the knowledge that you’re not alone.

The good news is that hundreds of books have been written on the subject of writing. Everything from workbooks to software is available. Pick one and get started. You’re on the ground floor, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Good luck. And as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us every one.”


AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at: omballa.com.


This article was originally published in the January 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.




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