5 Things No One Tells You About Writing a Book

Writing your first book is an exciting and scary thing. And if you’re embarking on this journey, you’ve probably been writing shorter pieces for a while. Maybe you’re a poet who’s had a few individual pieces published online, or a fiction writer who’s had a short story or two published in literary magazines. 

No matter your genre or publication history, nothing can really prepare you for the unique experience of writing a book for the first time; there are many things you’ll learn along the way. Here are my top five examples.

Note: I’ve tried to keep these topics broadly applicable to various genres of writing, although my personal specialty is in writing/editing poetry manuscripts.

1. You’ll hit a wall at some point.

Everyone deals with writer’s block — even if only for a few hours at a time. It’s completely normal to feel stuck, frustrated, and uninspired at certain points of the process. It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to have a constant creative output with no hurdles along the way.

There are many ways to remedy this, which I’ve covered on the blog before in Stuck With Writer’s Block? Here Are 5 Tips for Pushing Past It. In that post, I mention strategies like journaling, listening to music, reading, finding local calls for submissions, and interacting with other writers. 

Another good post from the archives is 4 Alternative Ways to Up Your Writing Game, which mentions listening to intellectually-stimulating podcasts, watching interesting films, socializing, and meditating.

Those are all great strategies to consider — but I also want to point out that sometimes, it’s completely necessary to take a break from writing in order to boost your creative output. Maybe you’ve been working intently on your manuscript for weeks or months at a time, and you’re getting a bit burnt out. 

Give yourself permission to take a week or two off. Spending your time doing other things — AKA living your life — will help you feel energized and refreshed before returning to your desk. Over-working yourself is never the answer; writing a book is a marathon and not a sprint. Don’t wear yourself out trying to hit an unrealistic daily word count if it’s not working.

2. You’ll re-read your manuscript so many times that it stops making sense.

Have you ever repeated a word out loud so many times that it stops making any sense? It doesn’t even feel like a real word! 

You should know that you’ll probably experience this same phenomenon while writing a manuscript. Polishing your manuscript will involve a lot of re-reading and re-writing, so you’ll likely feel a bit disconnected from the text. 

As I mentioned in tip #1, in order to get over writer’s block, you’ll often need to take time away from your writing desk. But that advice holds true for this issue as well. Take a week or two off from the writing/editing process, and try not to think about it too much. Give yourself a break from the entire book-writing process.

This may seem counter-productive. You might be thinking, I’m trying to write an amazing book. Shouldn’t I be working on it non-stop to make sure it’s absolutely perfect? Taking a break will just slow me down

And I understand that concern. I’m definitely guilty of overworking myself and obsessing over the details of my work. But I’ve learned from experience that taking time away from my writing can make a huge difference. Even just a day or two spent away from the keyboard often helps me return to the work with “fresh eyes.” Taking time off can help fight the fatigue of the entire process. 

And when I return to the work, I often pick up on simple typos/errors that I hadn’t noticed before. Spending too much time working on your book can get you too wrapped up in the manuscript itself. Step away for a little bit and watch how you become an even better writer in the process!

3. It will require a lot of collaboration.

Another great way to improve your creative output/editing process is to engage with others in the literary community. Finding friends, colleagues, and mentors you can talk to about your work is invaluable.

Writing a book seems, in theory, like an isolating experience. Unless you have a co-author, it seems like the whole process largely falls on your shoulders. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, if you go the traditional publishing route, you’ll likely collaborate with an editor at the final stages of the process. But as you write the manuscript from its conception, you probably won’t have a professional editor at your disposal to help you along the way.

This is where a writing community can seriously boost the quality of your work. For me, I first found this sense of community while in high school, when I was part of a creative writing group. That was when I started taking writing workshops and engaging with fellow young writers.

When I got to university, it was even better — I took creative writing seminars, was published in campus journals, and attended different poetry readings. All of this helped me make contacts in the Toronto literary scene. 

One of my professors ended up becoming a mentor and friend with whom I consulted on both of my books. I was also able to make friends in classes and at events. This helped me establish a wider network to collaborate on my work with. 

The great thing about making friends in your local literary community is that it’s usually a two-way street; everyone wants to get feedback on their work, so they’re happy to give it back. It’s common to swap work and chat about each other’s writing. Grabbing a cup of coffee with another writer friend isn’t just a fun social outing, but an easy way to get another set of eyes on your work. 

Nothing exists in a vacuum; your writing process shouldn’t feel isolating. Make it collaborative. Even though current social distancing restrictions make it difficult to take in-person workshops or attend live readings, try searching for digital literary events in your area, or just reach out to a writer friend of yours (if possible). You could always set up a Zoom call or just send emails back-and-forth critiquing each other’s work. Try to find a way to get (and give) feedback.

4. It will feel impossible at times.

I won’t lie to you; writing a book is extremely difficult. There’s a reason why most people who “have a great idea for a book” never end up writing it.  

But just because it feels overwhelming doesn’t mean you should give up. You’ll probably feel like giving up many times along the way. Don’t let that stop you.

My number one suggestion would be to keep going. Even if the quality of your writing doesn’t seem great, don’t stop writing. Maintain a regular writing practice, whether it’s daily, weekly, or on another schedule. Stay consistent. Don’t try to be perfect. You can always edit later.

And if you’re really concerned about your skill level, seek out information. Keep reading blogs just like this one, along with books on the topic. If possible, take some type of writing course (even if it’s just a virtual workshop). 

Or try to get shorter pieces of writing published, so that you can build up confidence in your skills. Once you’ve got a few publishing credits under your belt, you’ll feel a bit more comfortable with the process of writing, editing, and submitting work in general. That will make you better prepared for the book-writing process.

5. Your book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (and that’s fine).

It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, your book won’t be for everyone. Once you’ve finished the writing process and start sending it out to publishers, don’t expect to get glowing reviews from every single one. Editors are people, too — and we each have individual tastes. You can’t please everyone — and you shouldn’t try to!

As an author, it’s your job to put in the work to write a book you’re proud of. You should take the time to work hard, get outside perspectives, and polish your manuscript. But you can’t control how other people — including editors/publishers — will respond to your work. 

When I wrote my first chapbook, I sent it out to multiple small presses. And guess what? The first response I got was a rejection email. The editor was not impressed with my work. They even sent me a list of other authors I should change my work to emulate. 

Sure, it stung a little bit. I felt a bit defeated. I wondered: Should I really be changing my work to be more like these other authors? Was I doing it all wrong? 

But the second response I got was from my now-publisher, who immediately picked up my book and published it (without a single additional edit). They thought my manuscript was great just the way it was. And after collaborating with my publisher on many other projects, I’ve realized how lucky I was to find an editor who really vibed with my style. 

Try not to take it too personally if you get a few rejection letters. Just keep submitting your work to different publishers, and do your best to find one that fits with your individual style. Check out their website: What kind of work do they publish? What kind of topics do they focus on? Do you fit in with their overall vibe?

There’s no “right” and “wrong” when it comes to writing. What one person loves might be the same thing another person hates. Regardless of outside perspectives, stay true to your authentic, unique voice. 

Conclusion

As mentioned, one way to keep growing as an author is to read blogs just like this one. So, don’t forget to subscribe to the Writing Advice blog to stay notified of each new article.

Happy writing!


And let me know in the comments: What has been your biggest obstacle when writing a book (or a shorter piece of work)?

6 Purchases — Big and Small — That Have Boosted My Productivity as a Writer

A lot of the suggestions given here on the Writing Advice blog are rather conceptual in nature: I recommend strategies, ideas, and practices to up your writing game.

But there are plenty of items — many tactile and physical — which are just as crucial to maintaining a writing career. So, here are six purchases that have helped me stay productive as a writer.

Disclaimer: This is not — in any way — a sponsored post. The recommendations given below are based on my genuine thoughts about the products, and I make no commission or affiliate income if you click the links provided here. 

1. Cute Notebooks

Perhaps the most essential purchase for a writer is a plain old notebook. Having readily-available stationery is a must for any author. 

Of course, you can buy whatever type of notebook you like — whether it be from a pricey bookstore or your local dollar store. 

For me, I find that I work best with cute-looking, distinct notebooks. This is because — in the past — I’ve purchased random, plain-looking, cheap notebooks, and always lost track of them. Since they all looked the same and none of them really caught my eye, I had a hard time staying organized. 

The solution? To spend a little extra on nice notebooks with designs that I love. That way, I feel motivated to grab them and always keep some handy at my desk.

My personal favourite is the Ssuiem & Cclim Compact Notebook, which is from a Korean stationery brand that I found at a local paper shop, Hanji Gifts (more on them later).

The notebook comes in a variety of adorable designs — so I always make sure to have a few on hand: one to consolidate all of my current rough work, and a back-up or two for when the first copy runs out. I like to rotate different designs just to keep things interesting.

But again, you may have different taste; perhaps you prefer leather-bound notebooks. Find a company, store, or style that you enjoy, and stick to a standard one for the sake of simplicity.

2. Easy-to-Use Pens

What is your favourite brand of pens? It may seem like an inconsequential detail to most people, but I think most writers would agree that having an easy-to-use pen makes a huge difference in terms of productivity.

Again, this is all up to personal taste, but my personal choice is the PaperMate InkJoy brand. I find them to be a pleasure to write with, and I use them for most of my freelance writing, personal journaling, or just for making to-do lists.

I often find them at my local dollar store (Dollarama here in Canada), with a box of 12 pens running no more than $2-3. I find that they strike a nice balance between affordability and quality.

So, find a brand that you enjoy using, and make a point of keeping your desk stocked with them for whenever inspiration strikes.

3. Music Subscription Service

This is by no means a required purchase, but I’ve found that having a Spotify Premium subscription (which I split with family members to keep the cost low) is extremely useful. 

Paying the $4.99 a month for ad-free listening is worth it to me — both personally and professionally. For a long time, I opted for YouTube as my source of playlists to use while working on my laptop. If you’re on a budget, it’s a solid option — but the increasing number of ads on each video is kind of excessive at this point. 

Shelling out for an ad-free service makes it easier to stay in my workflow without going back and forth between tabs to skip through ads. I like to listen to instrumental playlists to keep me focused and in the zone. 

Other people might also prefer using a white noise machine, which can play ocean sounds or rain tracks to relax you in the background. That might be a worthwhile purchase if it suits your needs (I have one to keep running in my room at night, as well). Since it’s a one-time cost, it might make more financial sense, too.

Depending on your budget, find some type of music or background noises to help you stay focused on your writing work. 

4. Quality Laptop

Again, this isn’t a must-have, but I’m a big fan of my MacBook Air. I purchased mine seven (!) years ago after saving up money from my part-time job for years and years. It was an investment I made right before starting university (since my dying, old laptop just wasn’t cutting it anymore).

Of course, everyone is working with a different budget. Some people have the funds to invest in a high-quality laptop, while others might resort to using computers at their local library. 

Wherever you are financially, try to strike a balance between a computer that is within your budget but will still serve you well over time. Even though I paid over $1000 for that 2013 laptop, it has served me well throughout university and beyond without a single problem. 

The only thing I’ve ever had to replace is my charging cable, and in the next year or so, I’ll probably shell out for a replacement battery. But when you break that purchase down into its cost-per-use, it’s actually pretty low at this point. 

Having a reliable and fast computer has certainly helped me stay productive as a writer. Try to find an option that works for you.

5. Simple Pen Holder

This item certainly costs less than a laptop! For me, another invaluable purchase has been a simple pen holder that I bought at my local dollar store (again, Dollarama for us Canadians). 

It’s pink, it’s cute, and it helps me stay organized. I keep it beside me at all times while working at my desk, and I can easily access pens, highlighters, pencils, and scissors as needed. This may seem silly and insignificant, but it has genuinely helped me stay on top of my work without having to interrupt my flow to search for a pen.

6. Zine Paper

Lastly, another worthwhile investment has been in high-quality paper to print my zines on. A couple of years ago, in between writing my two poetry collections, I wanted to take a less-structured approach to creating and publishing new work.


So, I opted to make single-page zines on which I’d copied and pasted miscellaneous new poems. I made them using my at-home printer/photocopier, and whenever I table at zine/book fairs, I still sell them in addition to my poetry books.

I found it useful to pay for high-quality, handmade paper which I also found at Hanji Gifts here in Toronto. You can always check out your local paper shop or office supply store for different options.

If you choose to go the self-publishing route, quality paper is a worthwhile investment to make your work look professional and catch the eye of a potential customer.

Conclusion


And there you have it: six essential purchases that help me stay productive as an author. 

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice blog, and be sure to subscribe to receive notifications for each new article. 

Let me know in the comments: What is one purchase — big or small — that you’ve found essential as a writer?

Happy writing!

When Hobbies Become Everything: Finding Comfort During a Pandemic

If there’s one illusion the current pandemic has shattered, it’s the idea that work is everything. In our fast-paced, capitalist society, one’s worth as a human being has often been equated with our profession. 

But now that the entire world has essentially shut down, we’ve been confronted with more complicated questions, like: Who am I when I’m not at work? 

Countless people have lost their jobs or been indefinitely laid off. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing. Suddenly, work is no longer a given part of everyone’s lives and identities.

So, where do we go from here? A good place to start is by cultivating hobbies. And creative writing is one of my favourites.

Finding a new sense of value

In the context of a career-driven, capitalist, and consumerist society, hobbies haven’t always been valued. 

Many have wondered: Why “waste” your time on activities that won’t explicitly further your professional ambitions? Why spend hours working on a skill that won’t necessarily make you much (if any) money?

And look — I get it. Money is important. It drives so much of our day-to-day lives. Without adequate funds, you can’t put a roof over your head, feed yourself (and your family), or even afford the time to pick up a leisure activity.

But if your basic needs are being met, there is so much value in picking up a hobby. Because we, as human beings, are not meant to be money-making machines. We’re complex, multi-faceted individuals, each with our own talents, interests, and passions.

Not every interaction needs to be an opportunity to “network.” We can (and should) spend some of our time doing things just because we enjoy them — not in an effort to beef up our LinkedIn profiles.

The psychological benefits of hobbies

And hobbies aren’t just for fun — they can have concrete and seriously meaningful benefits. For example, psychologist Joyce E.A. Russel writes for the Washington Post: “Research has shown that people who have hobbies are generally healthier, and have a lower risk of depression and dementia.”

As someone who’s dealt with mental health issues for basically my whole life, I can attest to the fact that hobbies can help provide meaning and structure.

Engaging in your favourite leisure activity is most certainly an act of self-care — which is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days. As many of us are now adapting to slower, less hurried lives, hobbies are easy shortcuts to accessing moments of joy, relief, and comfort.

Why pick up creative writing?

So, now that we’ve talked about the basics of why hobbies are important, let’s look at an example of what you can pick up. Obviously, as this is a blog about writing, I’m a bit biased. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, writing poetry has personally been a source of life-long comfort.

And the thing about poetry is that there really isn’t much money in it. Unless you happen to blow up and become an international best-seller (à la Rupi Kaur), you should never become a poet with the intention of making a living off it. 

Even the most talented and well-respected poets of our time typically still have “real jobs” as professors, teachers, or publishing professionals to pay their bills. And yet, they still write creatively, knowing that their reward for doing so will likely not be monetary.

The act of writing allows one to process their thoughts and emotions into tangible words. It gives the writer time to pause, reflect, and craft something meaningful out of the mess of existence.

In 2020, amidst a global pandemic (and collective suffering/outrage over racial injustice), we could all use a few moments of reflection. Taking just a few minutes per day to write can have lasting benefits.

The timing has never been better

So, if you’re a writer — even just as a hobbyist — give yourself permission to get creative. Many of us now have plenty of free time on our hands, and writing is one way to keep yourself engaged.

Is there a novel you’ve been meaning to write? A great idea you’ve had on the backburner? Curious about writing a poem or two? Or just interested in starting to journal?

Now is a great time to start. And not for the purpose of “getting things done” or staying “productive” — just because you want to!

Truly: if not now, when?

Wrapping up

If you need inspiration for getting started, check out these past posts from the Writing Advice blog:

No matter what your hobby — whether you’re a painter or a home cook — remember to carve out time for doing the things you enjoy. Just because we’re all collectively going through a difficult time doesn’t mean that you should let your fear or sadness consume you.

Taking time to do things you truly enjoy — regardless of their money-making potential — can help offset the widespread stress of living through a pandemic. Remember to be gentle with yourself and afford yourself the time to unwind.

As always, thanks for reading the blog. Be sure to subscribe so that you can receive new, weekly articles straight to your inbox. 

Happy writing!

Writing as a Form of Mental Health Advocacy

Content notice: This post discusses mental illness, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel safe enough to do so. 


As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I want to talk about the use of creative writing to eliminate stigma around mental illness. 

Throughout my entire body of work, perhaps the most common theme of all is mental illness — and in particular, my experience with it. 

Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of how this happened, and why. And, hopefully, it will encourage you to write about other vulnerable or “taboo” subjects in your own work.

Part One: Denial

I’m going to be completely honest with you: for the majority of my life, I never spoke about my mental illness. In fact, I was in complete denial that I was even experiencing it. I was ashamed of that part of myself and wanted to hide it from everyone possible.

I resisted treatment, even though everyone in my life was urging me to get help. By the time I finally accepted treatment, I was 17 and actively suicidal on a daily basis. That night, I called a crisis line, was brought to the hospital by ambulance, and was admitted on a mental health unit for what would be the first of many times.

My life didn’t magically get better when I started treatment, but it was a pivotal moment in terms of accepting the reality: that I was dealing with severe mental health issues, and I couldn’t handle them on my own.

Part Two: Seeing Others Speak Out

Around that same time, I came upon a TED Talk by Kevin Breel called Confessions of a depressed comic. I’d recommend watching it, but in summary, it’s a brief account of the speaker’s own experience with depression.

Seeing that young man speak so openly about his experience with mental illness was baffling to me. It was a lightbulb moment; I realized, Hey — this thing I’m dealing with, that feels so heavy and so burdensome — can actually be a force for good

I realized that, even though my mental illness was debilitating and suffocating, I could help break down the stigma in society just by being open about my experience. 

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually — as I cycled through countless medications, psychiatrist evaluations, hospitalizations, and therapy sessions — I accepted the fact that I was mentally ill. 

And I eventually realized that blending my lived experience with my professional writing career could be my way to build awareness. 

Part Three: Merging the Two Worlds

As I’ve mentioned on the blog, for me, writing has literally always been an act of survival. For as long as I can remember, creative writing has been my main source of comfort — long before I came to terms with my mental illness.

So, it was a natural progression that the poetry I shared started focusing on my mental health issues — it was a topic I had a lot of emotions about, and that I felt the need to process through the act of writing.

I should also mention that two of my favourite poets of all time — Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski — also centred their bodies of work almost entirely around their experiences of depression. 

As I read more and more of their work, I saw a model for what my career could look like: that I could be open and honest about my mental illness, but also actively re-shape and re-claim my own narrative into a cohesive, creative vision.

By the time I was 21, my first chapbook of poetry came out. The collection — called tulips — was entirely based around my experience with depression (and in particular, what it’s like to be hospitalized on a mental health unit). 

While hospitalization was, at times, very necessary in the course of my recovery, it was also a traumatic experience. Being locked in a unit — often very unclean, crowded, and full of individuals screaming and pounding on walls — is not the most comforting thing in the world. Being essentially stripped of your legal rights (at least for 72 hours) after being deemed unsafe to yourself is demoralizing. So, that was what I wrote about most in tulips.

Part Four: Connecting With Others

Since I’ve made this theme the focus of my work, I’ve been able to connect with so many people. Perhaps the most rewarding thing in the entire world is to perform somewhere and, after the reading, have people come up to me and talk about their own experience with mental illness.

It’s been a tremendously healing thing — to have honest conversations with other people about their struggles. Because, so much of the time, I feel awkward or uncomfortable even bringing up the subject of mental health (i.e. when starting a new job). 

Our society is inundated with pervasive beliefs about mental illness — that it’s an embarrassing, shameful thing, that it’s “not real,” or that people experiencing it should “just get over it.”

Yet, through poetry, I’ve been able to start conversations with others, and to hopefully normalize the concept of talking about mental health. It’s not a perfect solution; I still feel shame about my mental illness on a daily basis, and I still encounter stigma constantly. But it’s a start.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article inspires others to talk about mental health, to write about mental health, and to actively work to combat stigma. 

So, this May, remember that art can act as a bridge between painful experiences and creative expression. Whatever you feel shameful about —  whatever makes you want to hide — try writing about it. See what happens when you open up (even if you’re the only one reading your work.)


Thank you, as always, for reading the Writing Advice series. Be sure to follow the blog to be notified of each new article. And happy Mental Health Awareness month.


Please note: If you’re dealing with mental health issues (and especially if you’re feeling suicidal), there are resources available. Across Canada, there are many free crisis lines you can call. Or, if you’re in another country, try consulting this list.

4 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month From the Comfort of Your Own Home

We’re reaching the end of National Poetry Month, and although it’s not safe to attend live readings at the moment, there are plenty of ways to celebrate while social distancing.

Here are four easy ways to get in the poetic spirit this April:

1. Watch poetry readings online.

Any poetry fan can attest to the magic of attending a live performance. There’s something so intimate about hearing an author read their work aloud; often tucked into small bars and coffee shops, such gatherings are romantic and contemplative.

Yet, even though current social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders have all but cancelled live poetry readings, there are many alternatives. For example, you can find recordings of past poetry readings on sites like YouTube.

Simply try searching for the names of your favourite poets, and see what you find. Here are some recommendations to start with:

Another option is to purchase/listen to spoken word albums. Many poets opt to release such albums to accompany their poetry collections, and there are plenty of titles out there from classic authors.

Check out this Qwiklit article for a list of poetry recordings offered on Spotify, which includes work from acclaimed poets such as Billy Collins, T.S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Bishop. 

And simply search around on your preferred music platform — whether that’s Spotify, Apple Music, etc. — to find albums that speak to your taste.

2. Find some new (or old) poems to read.

Of course, the most common method of consuming poetry is to read it. The interaction between an author and their reader is a unique experience facilitated by the text.

So, if you want to celebrate National Poetry Month, try reading some new (or old) pieces. Crack open some print copies of your favourite collections, or try finding work online. Even just 20 minutes spent reading poetry can provide a welcome reprieve from the current stress and anxiety consuming the globe. 

And, as previously mentioned on the blog, the Poetry Foundation website is an excellent resource. On there, you can find individual poems, bios of famous authors, audio recordings, and more.

Let National Poetry Month serve as a reminder that poetry is an incredibly healing force; it allows us to think, feel, and reflect on life in a profound way. 

3. Support your favourite poets, small presses, and publishers.

Another great way to engage with the poetry community is to financially support writers and their publishers. Ask yourself: Who are some of my favourite living poets? Which local, small presses are regularly putting out important work? What about larger publishers?

If you have the funds, purchase poetry books (either in print or ebook form) from writers, presses, and publishers you enjoy. In the midst of this global pandemic, artists of all kinds are struggling with a lack of funds from gigs and sales. Providing financial support is invaluable in allowing them to continue their work.

Other options are to donate directly via their websites/Venmo accounts or to become members of their Patreon fundraising efforts. If you’re short on cash but have the time to spare, you could share their work via social media, write a blog post reviewing their book(s), or leave them positive reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon.

(Note: Small presses and independent authors are often the most cash-strapped members of the poetry community; supporting them in particular can be wildly helpful.)

4. Try your hand at writing a poem or two.

Lastly, another way to engage with poetry is to get writing yourself! 

It’s a myth that poetry writing is a pretentious, elitist practice; at its best, poetry appeals to the everyday reader. There are many different styles, of course, but you shouldn’t feel scared to start writing poetry just because you haven’t studied it in university or aren’t well-versed in traditional works.

Anyone can be a poet: a child just learning how to read/write, a teenager looking for a creative outlet, or an adult simply looking for a new hobby. Poetry is for everyone — unlike prosaic forms such as fiction, poetry is extremely lax in terms of rules.

Because, well, there are no rules. You can spell words wrong (intentionally or unintentionally), use odd punctuation marks/combinations, and choose to write one or one thousand words in a single piece. There are no limits, and no strict guidelines. As a poet, you have complete creative freedom.

So, grab your favourite notebook or laptop and start drafting up new work. If you need motivation, try using writing prompts, like the 22 listed in this article for Read Poetry.

Once you’ve written a few poems, try editing them yourself (or with the help of a friend/teacher), and consider publishing them. You can post them on your social media accounts, a free blog, or even submit them to various publications/contests. 

Wrapping up

Poetry is a beautiful thing. Especially in the midst of this current global crisis, we need it more than ever. Try one of these tips today, and see how much they change your life.

As always, thanks for reading the Writing Advice column. Make sure you follow the blog here on WordPress to have weekly articles delivered straight to your inbox.

And if you’re interested in reading my poetry, you can find two full collections at my publisher’s site.

Grey Borders is offering their entire digital archive for free at the moment, with the option to donate if you feel so inclined. (They publish a lot of excellent Canadian poetry, so definitely check out the rest of the site if you’re looking for new poetry.)

Happy writing (and reading)!

8 Ideas for Kick-Starting Your Writing Career During Quarantine

Starting a writing career is often a lengthy process. It doesn’t happen overnight; getting your name out there takes plenty of time, effort, and hard work.

But if you’re one of the many people in quarantine mode right now, there seems to be more time on our hands than ever before. 

So if you’ve got room in your schedule to focus on your writing career, here are eight ideas for getting started

(I’ve mentioned several of these strategies on the blog before, so I’ll also link to relevant further reading where applicable.)

1. Update your writer’s CV, LinkedIn profile, and/or Contently portfolio.

A few weeks ago, I covered the importance of keeping an up-to-date writer’s CV. (So check out that full article if you need a step-by-step guide.)

In brief, creating (and updating) your writer’s CV acts as a handy overview of your writing career — including your past publication credits, performances, and awards. It acts as a resume for creative writing work, so treat it as a priority. 

It’s also a good idea to keep an active LinkedIn profile. Be sure to include your creative writing career and accomplishments under your work experience. Keep your profile current with all of your most recent publication credits and awards (if applicable).

And if you’ve got a poetry reading or book launch coming up, try posting about it on your feed. Staying active on LinkedIn will help build your professional network and let you present yourself as a qualified writer.

Lastly, if you’re a blogger/freelance writer, Contently is a great site to help with building a professional-looking portfolio

It’s free to use and gives you a polished home for your writing credits — which is especially useful if you haven’t built a writer website yet. As with your CV and LinkedIn profile, make sure to update your Contently profile regularly so that you can showcase your most recent accomplishments.

2. Edit your past work.

Editing your work is a detailed and often time-consuming process. 

Much like spring cleaning, editing involves painstakingly looking at every nook and cranny of your work. It takes a lot of effort and mental energy, but it’s one of the best things you can do as a writer.

So while you’re at home, try taking a red pen to some of your past writing. Using either a digital word processor or a printed copy, give yourself some time to really dig into your own work. 

If you’re a poet, check out my past article on how to edit your own chapbook for a full break-down of the process.

3. Try compiling a longer collection/book.

This step goes hand-in-hand with editing: If you’ve got enough drafts of past work, why not try assembling them into a full-fledged book? 

For in-depth tips, check out another past article I wrote about assembling a poetry chapbook. In essence, try sorting through some past drafts to see if there are any core themes. If so, play around with grouping certain poems/pieces together into a larger body of work. 

If you’re a fiction or non-fiction author, try reading through your past notes to see if there are any interesting topics you could flesh out into longer pieces. 

Use this time to sort through your rough work and parse out what’s worth expanding upon.

4. Submit to new publications or publishers.

Again, I’ve covered this on the blog, but now is a great time to send your work out for consideration. Take the time to research calls for submissions in your area and assemble some high-quality samples of your work.

Or, if you’ve got a full-length book, try researching local small presses who are accepting manuscripts. Although tedious, this research could lead you to your first big break!

6. Try journaling.

Another topic I’ve mentioned before is the value of journaling. Whether free-form or structured, journaling is a great way to get your creative juices going.

Try not to put pressure on yourself to create a masterpiece while doing this exercise — instead, treat the process like a warm-up

Allow yourself to flex your writing muscle and see where it takes you. Even if you don’t end up with high-quality writing, you’ll be better off having practised.

7. Use writing prompts.

As with journaling, using writing prompts can really help you move past writer’s block. And during quarantine, you’ve likely been afforded the chance to play around with your writing practice.

ThinkWritten has a handy list, but you can find other prompts online (or in a book on writing). Try using one prompt per day to get yourself writing, and see where it takes you.

8. Start a blog or website.

Lastly, you could use this time to start an entire blog

This is an exciting prospect made even easier by the fact that platforms like WordPress make the process quite simple. You can try free versions to start out, and simply use a basic theme to design the site.

Try to pick a subject that you find genuinely interesting — whether that’s sports, makeup, gardening, or video games. Focus on something you’ll be excited to write about on a regular basis.

Alternatively, if you’re a freelance writer, this is an excellent time to start a writer website. As a digital creative, your website acts as a business card. The sleeker your writer website is, the more professional you’ll look to potential clients.

While you could technically use a free website, try shelling out for a custom domain name if at all possible. Even a super-basic WordPress plan will do you well. Be sure to include an ‘about me’ page, a contact form, and even a relevant blog if you have the time.

Conclusion

There you have it: eight tips for kick-starting your writing career while social distancing at home. These are trying times, but keeping busy with a creative practice can serve as a welcome distraction or soothing activity (especially journaling!). 

I hope you’re all doing well (or as well as you can right now). Thanks for reading this week’s post, and be sure to follow the blog if you’d like to be notified of future articles.

Happy writing!

Stuck With Writer’s Block? Here Are 5 Tips for Pushing Past It

Every writer’s been there.

You sit at your desk, wanting to draft up some new work…but nothing comes to mind.

Especially with creative writing, waiting for that lightning bolt of inspiration to strike can feel frustrating.

Taking a break from writing is sometimes the answer, but there are practical tips you can take to push past your writer’s block.

Let’s look at my top five:

1. Start journaling.

Sometimes, we as writers get too precious about our creative work.

We feel as if we need to be “on” 24/7 — that every new bit of writing needs to be amazing.

In reality, writing is a muscle.

Just like you can’t expect to start deadlifting 200 lbs. before ever stepping foot in a gym, you can’t expect your creative output to magically appear if you never put in the effort.

Honestly, the bulk of what you write isn’t going to be your best work…and that’s fine.

It’s more important (especially as a new writer), that you just start doing the thing: writing.

So break out a nice journal and start writing.

If you don’t already own one, head over to your local dollar store — they’ve usually got plenty of options that won’t break the bank.

The structure here isn’t important; write whatever you want.

You can jot down an informal diary entry, or you can loosely write a new poem.

You can describe the bowl of fruit sitting in your kitchen, or write about the view from your window.

It truly doesn’t matter what you write — as long as you’re flexing your creative muscle.

Chances are, there will some nugget of interesting content hidden in there.

Whether it’s a single word, phrase, or concept, you’re bound to stumble on something of note.

Then, you can more seriously play with whatever idea you had, and get a bit more intentional with your writing work for the day.

2. Listen to some great music.

No matter what your taste, there’s bound to be certain music that inspires you.

Put on one of your favourite albums — and if you can blast the volume, all the better. (If you’ve got roommates or it’s late at night, use some headphones.)

Sit down and really engage with the music: What are the lyrics? What are the harmonies? What is the artist saying?

Pay attention to what you hear. When you catch something interesting, make note of it.

Maybe a certain word catches your eye, or a guitar solo really speaks to you. Write about it!

The same principle goes for other types of art — if you’re a big movie fan, or a visual artist, engage with other types of work that inspire you.

Watch one of your favourite movies, or sit down with a favourite painting that you have hanging in your house.

Oftentimes, all we need to get a bit of inspiration is to appreciate the work of other artists.

3. Read the work of others.

Last week on the blog, we covered why reading poetry is just as important as writing it.

This ties back in with #2, since reading the work of other writers is just another form of appreciating art.

In terms of developing a personal style and getting inspired, there’s no replacement for reading.

Take out one of your favourite books, or pick up a new one from the library!

Read it closely, just as with the music-listening exercise:

What is the author saying? What rhetorical devices are they using? What are my favourite lines? What are my least-favourite lines?

It can also be very useful to expose yourself to classic works of literature, since they’ll often challenge you and teach you words you may have never heard before.

Shakespeare is good for this sort of thing, since his language is so rich. Hamlet or Macbeth are especially engaging in terms of the writing.

4. Check out local calls for submissions.

Another way to get inspired is to find calls for submissions in your area.

Oftentimes, publications will have specific themes or prompts for each issue.

For example, they might list a word, phrase, or question for potential writers to engage with.

This is an easy way to get inspired and focus on a theme for your work (not to mention that your new work will be pertinent to submit!).

Google “call for submissions” + [the name of your city] to get some ideas, and start drafting up some new work.

5. Interact with other writers.

I’ve touched on this point in previous blog posts, but it warrants repeating.

Interacting with other writers can give you a huge boost of inspiration (and also act as a generally fun social activity).

You could take a writing workshop or class (either a one-time or ongoing thing) to get the ball rolling.

Workshops are especially useful, because they’ll usually involve some type of writing exercise/prompt to get you started.

If you’re in college, trying researching your school’s creative writing courses, and enrol in one (if your schedule permits).

If not, local libraries are often good places to start.

You could also attend general literary events in your city, such as poetry readings.

Google “poetry readings” + [your city] to get started.

If you’re in a metropolitan centre, you’ll have an easier time, but don’t get discouraged.

Even if you’re in a rural town, there are usually literary events (even just once a month or so) if you look hard enough.

Wrapping up:

Hitting a writer’s block is truly inevitable — even for the most experienced of authors.

But don’t let the experience dampen your spirits.

Try one of these tips to help you get inspired and back to writing.

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As always, be sure to hit Follow if you enjoyed this post.

New blog posts are up every Friday and centre around the theme of Writing Advice.

You can also reach me at services@mercedeskilleen.com with any questions, or to inquire about quotes for my writing & editing services.

Happy writing!

Why Reading Poetry Is Just as Important as Writing It: The Key to Creating Great Work

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” — Stephen King

In King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he explains how important it is to be continually reading if you want to get serious about writing.

I couldn’t agree more.

The bulk of my education about the English language came from the act of reading.

And I’m not talking about assigned school-work. I’m talking about round-the-clock reading for fun.

When I was a young child, my mom would endlessly read books to me from the local library. She was a teacher in her home country, and is a trained early childhood educator here in Canada, so she’s always appreciated the value of learning.

As soon as I could read independently, I inhaled books to no end.

In elementary school, I’d bring home a backpack full of books I’d borrowed from the classroom — every single night.

At six years old, my teacher remarked that I was already reading at a fifth-grade level. And I didn’t stop there.

I entered and won my local library’s creative writing contests as soon as I was old enough to enter.

By the age of thirteen, I had already won a national youth literary contest, given a paid poetry reading at the reception, and gotten a publishing credit out of the whole thing.

None of this happened by accident.

Why reading is your secret weapon as a creative writer

Fast-forward to today, and I’ve won more literary contests, been published widely in magazines/journals, and written two books for my publisher.

All of these accomplishments started from one habit: regularly reading for fun.

So if you want to embark on a creative writing career, it’s crucial that you start reading.

Read whatever you can get your hands on: poetry, novels, non-fiction.

Every genre has something different to teach you; poetry teaches brevity and emotion; fiction teaches world-building; non-fiction teaches research skills.

And you don’t need to spend a ton of money. Check out your local library (or college’s library) to start.

Used book stores are also gold-mines for finding affordable new reads.

If you have the cash to buy lots of new books, go for it — but don’t feel obligated.

Writing poetry in particular

The bulk of my career has been as a professional poet. Although I dabble in creative non-fiction and do plenty of client work, poetry is my niche.

For poetry especially, you really need to expose yourself to different styles. Read the classics. Read new poetry. Read formal poetry. Read experimental poetry.

Poetry is so incredibly open-ended — unlike fiction, there really aren’t any rigid guidelines for writing it.

You can write a poem that’s one word long, or you can write a poem that’s 1,000 words long. You can have a title or not. Poets have the freedom to basically do whatever we want.

But how can you find your unique style if you’re not a seasoned pro? Just keep reading.

Eventually, you’ll stumble upon poets that change your life. (For me, those include authors like Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski.)

You’ll find poets that write about things you care about. You’ll find poets that have incredible styles the kind you’d like to emulate.

But you’ll also find authors whose work you really hate (for me, that includes ‘Instagram poets’ like Rupi Kaur). And that’s good, too! It’s all part of the process.

You need to dip your toes into many different types of writing — otherwise, you won’t know what you like and dislike.

Reading is a constant process of learning new things about the world (and about your personal taste).

Get inspired, but don’t copy

It’s great to read other poets to get inspired. But don’t try to outright copy another writer’s style. That’s pointless and uninteresting.

There’s no use trying to be the next Shakespeare — because you aren’t Shakespeare.

Embrace who you are: your identity, your life experiences, your preferences, and your thoughts. Look to other writers for influence, but don’t try to imitate them.

Keep reading and keep writing new work. The two practices will feed into each other.

Conclusion

So, always keep a new book on your bedside table.

Constantly seek new literature to read.

And think of reading as a prerequisite for creating great work.

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As always, thanks for reading my Writing Advice column here on my blog.

Be sure to hit the Follow button to get notified every week when I post new articles.

Happy writing!

How to Edit Your Own Chapbook 

Introduction

In my last blog post, How to Write a Chapbook of Poetry, I went over the process of completing a short manuscript. I briefly touched on the revision process, but today I’m going to get into the exact steps of self-editing your own book.

1. Decide where to submit.

I’d recommend self-editing your work before sending it out to publishers—this way, you’ll put your best foot forward during the submission process. 

Then, after you (hopefully!) get to work with a publisher, you’ll be assigned an editor to polish your manuscript with.

If, however, you’re planning on self-publishing your chapbook, I’d strongly encourage you to hire a copyeditor.

If it’s within your budget to hire a professional to help you out, I’d recommend it. Nothing beats the process of working with a trained editor to perfect your chapbook for publication.

2. Read over your own work.

Once you’ve assembled your first draft, carefully read through the poems. Pay close attention to spelling and punctuation

Ask yourself: Is everything spelled correctly? If not, are the misspellings made thoughtfully and intentionally? How much punctuation have I used? Am I aiming for a minimalist approach or a formal tone?

Read your poems out loud, repeatedly. Listen to the flow of each piece. Dive deep into the minutiae of the work. Take your time honing the voice of the speaker. 

3. Seek advice from respected colleagues.

As I touched on in my previous blog post, it’s a great idea to ask others for their thoughts. If you have writer friends, ask if you can take them out for a coffee and get their feedback on your work. 

Writer friend relationships are often reciprocal—if you met in a workshop or class, you’ve likely both helped edit each other’s work. This is an awesome part of finding a writing community—people are often very willing to help each other out.

If you’re lucky enough to have a poetry mentor, such as a professor/instructor you’ve become close with, see if they’re willing to read over your work. Many professionals are very busy, so this may not necessarily be possible—but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Try to offer something in return, such as a coffee or meal, to show your appreciation for their time. Remember that they may be willing to do this out of the goodness of their heart, but they deserve something for their efforts.

If you’re consulting an outside editor (who you’re not friends with), don’t ask them to read your work for free or in exchange for a meal. Pay them. Always.

4. Review the feedback you’ve received, and decide which suggestions to implement (or not).

Once you’ve gotten some solid feedback, ask yourself which of these edits actually make sense. At the end of the day, it’s your book

No matter how much you respect a colleague, they don’t necessarily understand your complete creative vision. Consider each suggestion carefully, but don’t feel obligated to accept every single one.

Thoughtfully implement the edits you find useful, and set aside the rest.

5. With your new edits made, return to step 2.

After consulting your peers and making some changes, read over the new versions of your poems thoroughly. Read them aloud again, and pay close attention to spelling/punctuation.

Once you’re pleased with the draft, submit it to publishers. If you’re self-publishing, move onto the phase of finding and working with your copyeditor before moving to print. 

(Check out my previous blog post for more specifics on the process of finding small presses to submit to.)

Conclusion

I hope you found this blog post helpful. If you want to read more of my Writing Advice posts, don’t forget to click the Follow button!

And, if you’re looking to hire a ghostwriter or editor for your next creative writing project, I offer freelance services. You can reach me at services@mercedeskilleen.com to get a quote.

Thanks for reading!

How to Write a Chapbook of Poetry: Tips From a Professional Author

Introduction

Congratulations! You’ve set the goal of writing a poetry chapbook. This is a super exciting endeavour which could totally change the course of your career.

If you’re anything like me, the process can seem intimidating. I know that when I set out to write my first chapbook, I felt pretty lost. I wasn’t really sure where to start, so I did some research online.

Personally, I found this PDF of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Why Publishing a Chapbook Makes Sense” extremely useful. It breaks down the basics of what a chapbook is, and why/how you can write one.

And, by consulting this online info, I was able to put together my first manuscript. After assembling the poems, I spent months editing them. Once I was finished, I submitted it to several small presses, and it was picked up by my now-publisher—Grey Borders Books.

So let’s look at my personal tips for writing a chapbook:

1. First things first: get into the habit of regularly writing new poetry

Obviously, you can’t assemble a manuscript without individual poems. So you’ll need to get into the rhythm of creating new work.

The creative process is different for everyone, but here are some potential motivators:

  • Set aside a designated amount of time each day to write new poetry (even if the poems aren’t very good!). 
  • Take a poetry writing course at your local college or library. (This is my personal favourite! While I was in university, I took two different creative writing workshop courses, and in both classes, I ended up writing entire manuscripts.)
  • Go to an open mic night for poets, and share new work. The act of attending these events will give you the incentive to write.


Once you feel like you have a solid chunk of poems to work with, then you can start trying to assemble them into a cohesive publication. This could take months or even years, depending on how much time you want to take.

2. Sort through your poems and ask yourself these important questions.

Upon reading over your work, ask:

  • Are there any central themes that come up over and over again in my poetry? What are they? (For example, when I looked over my own work, I found that many of my poems centred around experiences of mental illness and hospitalization.)
  • Are there any recurring images that come up in my work? What are they?

The basic idea is that, for a chapbook, you want to find a pretty specific theme. 

Since chapbooks are generally quite short (approx. 15-35 poems long), you don’t really have the liberty of jumping around from random topic to random topic. (I mean, you technically could do that, but it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying to read.)

In full-length manuscripts, you generally have more freedom to play around with different themes and images. But chapbooks tend to be a bit less forgiving, in that sense.

Once you’ve recognized a few central themes and images, pick out some poems that are all connected to those same basic concepts. This won’t be your final list—just collect them.

You could put them all in a single Word doc, or make a folder with various documents—whatever organization system is easiest for you. I’d say a group of at least 20-40 poems would be a good place to start.

3. Go through your group of poems, and get a bit more selective.

Now that you have some poems to choose from, go through them and see which ones are the strongest. Have any of these poems been previously published or won awards? If so, start there.

Narrow the group of poems down to your best work. This might end up being 15 poems, or it could be much longer. Just see what feels best.

Once you have narrowed down which poems you’ll include, start playing around with the order. This will be very time-consuming. Experiment with different poems coming first or last. 

If you want to get creative, print out all of the poems, and manually move the pieces of paper around on a floor or large table. Try out different placements.

Once you’ve got a decent draft, move on to copyediting.

4. Edit, edit, and then edit some more.

I’m a bit partial to thorough copyediting, because I also work as a professional editor. And when I was a new writer, I spent 7 months personally revising my poetry manuscript. By the time I submitted it to my now-editor, he didn’t need to change a thing; the book went straight to printing.

The point is that you should edit your work so thoroughly that it will impress any editor who reads it over. When you’re sending out your manuscript, you want the collection to be as polished as possible, so that it gets picked up by a publisher.

Spend at least a few weeks (possibly even months) reading over your poems. Edit them for clarity and correctness. Have some friends read them over. Ask a creative writing teacher/mentor for their thoughts. Get as much feedback as possible—and then decide which advice to implement.

By the end of it, you should have a collection of cohesive, effective poems. 

5. Submit it to publishers. (Or self-publish.)

The next step is to research some small presses in your area (big publishers don’t usually put out chapbooks). If you’re Canadian, Kitty Lewis has compiled a great list here

Then, submit your manuscript—either by mail or online (depending on the guidelines). Send it to several presses in order to keep your options open. And hopefully, all that hard work will pay off!

If you’re planning on self-publishing, this is the point where you’d start printing your chapbook (or hiring an outside editor to copy-edit it for you). 

Conclusion

Writing a chapbook is a great option for new writers. It can help you establish yourself as a published author and seriously advance your career. I hope you found these tips helpful!