Tip #1: Write as if you're talking to a good friend.
How better to own your voice in writing than to write as if you're speaking to a good friend. I found my voice for Poetic License reading an essay at a #MeToo event in 2017. Then I had to re-write the whole book in that voice. I used my friend Ellen (you'll meet her in the book!) as if she were in the room with me – pick a friend who brings out the best in you; the kind you totally trust.
2. Fall in love with revision: you’ll be living together for a long time!
There can only be one “shitty first draft” as Anne LaMott called it. Everything else is revision. Donald Hall told me it could take him twelve years to polish a single poem. We grow, we learn, we have new perspective. Writing is all about re-seeing. Reordering paragraphs and sentences. Starting (or ending) in a different place--I tried many starts and the first pages of my book only came at the very end, from my beta writer Penny O’Grady who saw it better than I did. Keep working for stronger words. And then there are the big questions, as Joni Cole used to say: “But what about what it’s about?” And as Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers teach: Especially in memoir, it’s about reflection and takeaway.
3. Read, Read, Read.
Every writer I know is an avid reader and most read broadly across genres and cultures. The more you read, the more you see how an author puts their story together, how they create dialog, what details they use in scenes, where they start the chapter or how they end the book. And read deeply--everything an author has written. I love to read -- especially literary fiction, memoir, nonfiction, graphic, poetry (not as much as I should by way of family background!) and Poetic License was forged from every one of those genres.
4. Go for the sensual
What words describe how she’s feeling? What adjectives would describe her looks? What might be the aroma of her perfume? Is she solo or being watched? Is there a sound you can identify? What’s on the tip of her lips--last meal? Anticipation of something to come? Sensory words light up a reader’s brain, making a scene more memorable and dynamic.This is a fun part of Tip 2, falling in love with revision. While writing Poetic License I had a list of sense questions posted near my computer, and The Emotion Thesaurus nearby. This is the fun part of writing!
5. Ask for give-it-to-me-straight feedback as soon as you’re ready, but not before.
I made the mistake of asking for direct feedback long before my manuscript was far enough along. Not ready to hear it straight, I resisted it (“They didn’t understand what I’m trying to do” “They don’t write memoir.”). The story was too personal so the feedback felt too much like a criticism of me, more than my writing. I kept those letters and returned to them a year ago once I had a book contract. They were spot on. I just hadn’t been ready to listen. I chose Brooke Warner as my developmental editor expressly because I knew she’d give it to me straight, all the while having my back. I don’t think many debut writers get to publication without that kind of feedback from someone who knows the genre, what the story needs for structure, and what sells.
6. Read aloud. Then read aloud again.
At any point along the way, read your work aloud. In the early stages, you’ll flag big sections that don’t make sense or are confusing or should be deleted. As I approached the finish line every time I read a chapter aloud, I saw another small change that would improve the pacing, the tone, the clarity, a phrase to move over there, along with extra words or “typos”. Having grown up around poets and poetry, I like the music of language and reading aloud allows us to see if we’re stringing perfect pearls together on the page. Also great practice for eventual readings to live people.
7. Create a totem that inspires you
Three “totems” kept me going while writing this book. In the early days it was a picture I held in my head of sitting on the reader’s stool at the Norwich Bookstore where Penny McConnel and Liza Bernard host dozens of writers a year. Taking my place alongside writers I admired, kept me going through many years. Second was a fantasy interview with Terry Gross, an unlikely outcome for nearly every writer, but it held me to a high standard while I wrote. Third was a totem that arrived from Marjorie Matthews and her husband Jim Matthews. With Adobe Spark, these two designed and covered a journal with my first ever book cover complete with back cover reviews from Michiko Kakutami New York Times, Robert McCrum, The Guardian, and Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post. Nothing like that to motivate you while feeling supported!
8. Write anyway, anywhere, anyhow you like, as long as your butt’s in chair.
I know. I know. You don’t have time. The kids are in the way. You don’t have a place. Other things are more pressing. We’re in the middle of a pandemic with thousands sick and dying. I’m no good anyway. It’ll never get published, so why try. It costs too much. Books have been written about creating good habits. I mostly didn’t follow them. I just wrote wherever I was (home, airplanes, Lyfts, on an island, train stations, metroliners; sometimes 10 mins, 20 mins; sometimes a blissful half day; a blissful full week. As Nike says, just do it. Butt in chair. NaNoRiMo provides word counts and other tips for making progress. If you write 285 words/day, it’ll add up to 100,000 words in a year. A great shitty first draft.
9. Do not attempt this alone. Find your team.
Writing is lonely work. Isolating. Hours on your own (bliss to me!). Staring at a pad or screen. Most benefit from a writing community, beta readers or writing partners, workshops or retreats to find that community. Joni Cole provided that for me in the early years at The Writers Center of White River Jct, Vermont. From that sprung our Monday Night Writers group that rarely met on Monday nights. Over the last year I’ve added She Writes Press friends, along with editors, copyeditors, proofers, therapists (;-)), and admin support, each person on my team an expert, together a formidable force in helping me get this done.
10. If not now, when?
This was the single question I posed to myself after retiring from consulting. I had a messy manuscript. When would I finish it. If not now, when? That led me to debut authors for advice and ultimately to the stellar team at She Writes Press. Women among us, if you have any doubt about the unlevel playing field for women writers, the improbability of one’s book ever seeing the light of day, and succeeding anyway, read Brooke Warner’s Write On Sisters! Voice, Courage, and Claiming Your Place at the Table. Your only answer will be NOW. Or as Robert Frost wrote: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference. So Write on Sisters and Brothers and keep in touch!