Just Do It–Get Your Stories Down on Paper, Now!

My friend Stephen had an incredibly interesting life. When he died at age 50, he left behind a small family and lots of burned bridges. One thing he didn’t leave behind—something so important that its absence is a tragedy—was any kind of cogent record of his life or work.

There are pictures and half remembered stories. There are paintings and sculptures, covered in Saharan dust, the details of their provenance lost forever. But there is nothing personal on paper or video, nothing that explains, synthesizes, illuminates. No record for his young daughter of the workings of his mind.

Stephen spent countless hours trapped inside his brain (he died of ALS), but he hadn’t been able to make himself write before it was too late. Why? Fear.

Everyone who wants to write has to face down fear. Fear of failure (we can’t fail if we never try). Fear of uncovering painful truths. Fear of mediocrity or banality. Fear of the time commitment, and what we will have to sacrifice. Fear of what people will think of us, of our stories, of our unique sensibility. Fear of not having enough to say. Fear of having so much to say that we won’t know how to say it.

Coincidentally, I helped two elderly Germans complete their memoirs this year, and in each case the stories they told were unexpected and moving, and would have died along with them if not for their courage in getting them down on paper. So when a child survivor of the Holocaust contacted me to see if there was a short cut to getting her own harrowing stories written, I had to say no, there really isn’t. I had to say: Do it! Carve out the time! Find a way! Don’t let your stories die away; they’re too important.

She sighed: she knew it would be hard, and she knew she had to summon up the courage to do it.

But it’s not just memoirists who need to be encouraged and emboldened. If you have something you want to say, say it. Now, more than ever, we need thoughtful, deeply considered writing that illuminates, elevates, exposes. We need writers to be brave, to throw caution to the wind and say to hell with all the very good reasons to put this off, I’m going to try. I’m just going to start.

Take the leap. Give yourself permission to try, to fail, to try again. Set small goals and be kind to yourself, then as you learn, become more and more rigorous. Develop the discipline. Trust that your story is meaningful.

One word and then another. Stop talking about writing and do it. I wish Stephen had.

What Really Happens When You Launch Your Book

How many writers love the sales process? Raise your hands!

We all know that the process of writing a book is complex and full of surprises and leads to uncertain outcomes. But when our books come out, few of us know what to do. We don’t know what to expect or what’s expected of us, and we don’t know how to affect sales.

Many of us dread the moment after the launch party (because let’s be honest, we all dream of that launch party—not realizing that WE are the ones who’ll foot the bill). Once the champagne bottles have been put into recycling, that’s the moment when we’re supposed to magically morph into marketing experts.

When my first book came out, I strolled along a beach with my husband while on vacation, trying to figure out how much money I might make for my years of work. I cringe to think of it now. When we were estimating how many copies I’d sell, we guessed around 100,000.

Ouch. Reality is usually, well… a bit different.

I was lucky that my co-author used to work in marketing. She created huge spreadsheets that noted who we were targeting, when, how, and all their responses. She aimed high: Oprah, TODAY, Op-eds in the New York Times, TV talk shows. She gave us deadlines to aim for.

To her, “no” simply meant “try again.” (Fourteen months after our book launched, we were on the TODAY show.)

The experience of marketing that book taught me so much. A few years later, when my next book came out, I had a far better sense of what to do and how to do it. My expectations were aligned with reality, and my sales approach was in tune with my personality. I stepped out of my comfort zone again and again, but at least I didn’t feel like a total idiot or fraud.

My first day teaching Launch Lab with Lynne Griffin, I stood in that room looking out over the 16 assembled writers—whose books would all be published within a year—and acutely felt their pain. They looked at me with a mixture of fear, resentment, bravado and hope. They had nurtured their books for years and years, and now they had to set them free into the big bad world.

Over five years of teaching Launch Lab, I learned that writers are a generous and imaginative bunch, and if you set them on the right track anything is possible. I learned that a little encouragement combined with a dose of reality makes hurdles seem more manageable, and that people are always surprising themselves by what they are capable of doing. They may be afraid or embarrassed, but they are also ballsy and determined.

Over the years, I recalled again and again the day I was interviewed on camera and my heart was pounding so violently that I thought I might choke, and I assured the assembled writers that if I could do it, they could do it, too. I told them about the time when the first question lobbed at me on live radio was a question to which I didn’t know that answer. I survived, and they would, too.

If you have a book coming out, arm yourself with some good information and a great support network. Make sure you are very clear about your goals, your finances, and your availability. Understand what your publisher expects of you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and advocate for yourself. If you’re self publishing, set aside enough time and money so that you can do your book justice.

Ask yourself: Why is my book relevant, and then figure out ways to tell people why. Don’t ever assume that your friends and family will do you favors, ask them to. (People mean well, but they don’t understand anything about publishing!) Develop your interpersonal skills so that you can be comfortable talking with people about your book in a way that makes them want to buy it. Don’t be shy about asking for reviews.

Now’s not the time to hope for good outcomes, it’s the time to work toward making them happen.

Be realistic, yet dream big. Work smarter, not harder. Take responsibility but also but cut yourself some slack. Push yourself out of your comfort zone because you never know, you might actually like it.

What Does it Really Mean to Work “Collaboratively” on Writing Projects?

Back in London when I was a teenager, I knew a boy who was very tall, very handsome, and very shy. He always had a camera slung around his neck. I haven’t seen him in over 30 years.

Not surprisingly, Dean became a film director and fashion photographer, and travels the world shooting the likes of Bradley Cooper, David Beckham, Katie Perry… and so on. We reconnected through Facebook a few years ago. In looking through his portfolio, I caught sight of a series he shot called 1980’s youth, and yes, some of the pictures are of my little London crew. What a thrill.

Fast forward a few years and I get an urgent email from Dean asking me to help him write a pitch letter for an independent film he wants to shoot. He’s looking for funding on an art film about a young autistic man. Before contacting me, Dean had already spent good money on a TV writer in LA who’d delivered a flat, inaccurate, ineffective letter. (And that’s being polite.)

Could I help him?

My immediate instinct was to say no. I’m in the middle of time-sensitive edits on a book, and I know from experience that this kind of work takes time and a ton of mental energy. I always care a lot about my writing clients (to an obsessive extent), but I knew I’d care even more about working with an old friend.

But… I was intrigued. I wanted to help him out. I’m a collaborator at heart, a helper. I loved the sound of the project. I knew I would learn something. It was different from other work I’ve done, yet also similar in interesting ways. I understood what he was trying to achieve.

So I said yes.

It proved to be exactly what I thought it would be: time consuming, frustrating and fascinating. The ups and downs, and the extra pressure of trying to please a friend, reminded me of the core elements of working successfully with another person–whether a client (like Dean) or an editor (like an agent or publisher)—on a piece of writing. Here they are:

  • Be very clear about the goal/ purpose of the work. Whether you’re working with an editor on your manuscript (fiction or nonfiction), or you’re the hired writer working with a client, make sure you both understand exactly what the goal is. What are the problems you’re trying to get a handle on? What is the next step with this document—ie. who will be the next reader? What is it supposed to achieve?
  • Establish ground rules and set expectations. What is the approximate time parameter? (Always let your client/editor know if the time frame changes.) Is there money involved? Does the budget have a cap? Be sure to estimate costs before you start the work, and discuss what happens if the process is easier or harder than expected.
  • Figure out who’s the “boss.” This is tricky, but critical. Last year, I wrote a book for an organization and while the CEO’s vision was paramount, I was actually the boss. He needed me to make decisions, establish the calendar, determine and shape content. I led. But in another case, it worked the other way around: My client was in charge. She had a clear vision for the book both in terms of content and tone. I followed. These collaborations are successful when I figure out early on what the client really needs from me, and when I’m willing to be flexible. When your work is being edited by a professional, this power dynamic can be hard to figure out. Ultimately you’re the author, your name will be on the work, and so you’re the boss. But when working with an agent or publisher I don’t see it this way. I may technically be the boss, but I’ve partnered with these people because of their expertise. So I weigh their opinions and advice heavily. Bottom line: Be open, constantly re-evaluate the power dynamic, and make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting it wrong.
  • Don’t let emotions get in the way. Sometimes, collaborations can be really annoying. It’s not all that hard to get offended somewhere along the line. Someone insists on changing something, or repeating something, or having a structure that you think just doesn’t work. Instead of showing your emotions, take a moment to collect your thoughts. Then clearly explain your opinion. Then, depending on who’s “boss,” either make the changes or don’t.
  • Keep the market in mind, not your ego. This takes us back to my first point: the goal of the manuscript or document. The goal may be to get financing for a movie, to snag an agent, to get a book deal, to improve your draft. What is not important—and what usually only gets in the way—is your ego. Try not to be defensive, just productive. When you get too wrapped up in whether you’re right or wrong, the work ends up suffering.

After one day and night of intense work, I delivered the pitch to Dean. At first, he was ecstatic (“So much better than the first writer! You’re a superhero!”)… and then things got complicated. Tweaks became re-writes. It was hard understanding his vision and getting it down in a way that he felt did it justice. But I learned a lot. And after a lot of back and forth (during my vacation), I got it right. And now we’re both happy.

That’s working collaboratively.

If You’re Seeking Success as a Writer, Hurry Up & Slow Down

Can you hurry the creative process? When you launch a book, is it possible to blow through everything on your marketing to-do list? If you’re suffering from creative block, should you fill a journal with daily ramblings, just to have gotten some words on the page? Do word count goals help or hinder you, psychologically? Is setting yourself deadlines the best way to finally get that challenging piece of work completed? Do the same rules apply to fiction and nonfiction?

Do writers drive themselves crazy asking these questions?!

Oftentimes, I sit down at my desk at 7:25 a.m. after I’ve dropped my youngest child at the bus stop, and I don’t get up again until five, six hours later. I could step out of my office and get myself a coffee, or take a short walk, or go for a run, or get lunch, or even just stretch my legs but it’s in my nature to keep working. Once I start, it’s hard for me to stop. After dropping my daughter back at home at 3pm, I hurry back to my office. By the time I get home in the evening I am as exhausted as if I’d done a triathalon.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It allows me to be highly productive and gives me a sense of achievement. But in many ways this is bad. Very, very bad.

Like all writers, periodically I just dry up. I’ve used up all my energy and enthusiasm and I just can’t scrape anything off the bottom of my bone-dry well anymore. I’ve gone from ecstatic flow to a complete stop. It’s not a good feeling. It not only cuts into my momentum, but I also feel psychologically spent.

We see this a lot at Launch Lab, where we help debut authors figure out how to market their books over the long term in a way that feels authentic to them. They’ve learned all about the many steps they should be taking to promote their work, and their intentions are noble (I’m going to do everything in my power to sell this book!!!) and yet before they can even blink they find themselves wrung dry. Nothing seems to be working and they feel like they’ve already failed when they’ve hardly even started.

It’s at those moments when the best action to take is no action at all. Hurry up and slow down, if you want to succeed. In fact, better yet—slow down before you burn out.

We’re constantly being given contradictory advice. Modern day lifestyle gurus say our brains are overloaded with stimuli and human beings can’t function optimally under that kind of constant pressure. They tell us to slow down.

But writing coaches often advocate the exact opposite: Set yourself a daily word count goal and stick to it, no matter what. Busywork is still work, and eventually you’ll tap into something good. Get your butt in the chair. Write a book in a month (NaNoMo). Stay relevant. Don’t just write one book, write a series. Don’t just write a series, write multiple books a year!

And once you’ve got a book out there, it’s your responsibility to sell it. Write to-do lists, set priorities, aim high, don’t give up. If you’ve got an opportunity, grab it. Don’t just blog, get a column. Don’t just give talks, run a conference. Don’t just be in the paper, get yourself some national media! Go, go, go. Do, do, do!

Of course, a lot of this advice works, and that’s why we hear it all the time. But what we tend to forget is that each of us is different—not only are we are motivated by different things, but we also have different goals. We beat ourselves up unnecessarily by applying someone else’s rules to our processes. That can lead to stress, bad work, unhappiness, and creative drought.

As writers, we must invest the time to get to know ourselves better—it’s the only way we can nurture our creativity. So I say, figure out who you are as a writer and what makes you tick. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that productivity is the answer to all your problems. Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Be kind to yourself. Think deeply. Corny as it sounds, nurture your spirit by respecting who you are as an individual.

Pick up a book that’s nothing like the one you’re working on. Have lunch with a friend. Sleep in for once. Instead of writing, go to an art gallery. Instead of another hour in the chair, take a walk around the block. Get out and about. Remind yourself of those things that make your heart speed up. Pursue your interest in indie movies, or Jui Jitsu. It’s not a waste of precious time.

Slow down, and let yourself dream. You’ll be amazed at what it can do for you as a writer.


Introverts: Can You Sell Books Without Selling Your Soul?

Every time you talk about your book—whether it’s still a work-in-progress or is launching “everywhere books are sold”—you have an opportunity to attract a reader.

If that sounds crass, let me explain by asking a question: What’s the point of bringing a book into the world and not having anyone read it?

It’s not enough just to publish: Authors dream of moving people, changing lives, making some kind of difference in the world. We want and need readers. So it’s pretty counterproductive if we don’t commit to selling our own product, even if it may initially feel inauthentic or vulgar.

It’s okay if we’re a bit awkward or tend toward humility when we speak about our books, but our goal should always be to intrigue the person or audience we’re talking to. It’s that simple, really.

I can’t remember how many times I dismissed my own books in that self-mocking way the English have (I grew up in the U.K). God forbid someone asked me what I was working on, I’d find something humorously disparaging to say about the book or my efforts. It just felt so damn cheesy to promote myself. Even simply explaining what my book was about felt like self-aggrandizement.

By definition, introverts are uncomfortable in sales mode. But when it comes to doing publicity—radio, TV, book talks—we have to find a way to make peace with our discomfort and share our work in a way that is confident without being crass, persuasive without being pushy.

The vast majority of writers enter the world of publishing with trepidation about striking the right balance when promoting their work. But stay open minded: you may surprise yourself.  If you’re anything like me, you may discover that selling your work is not such dirty business after all, provided you approach it in a sensible and methodical manner.

  • Start early. That means even when you’re just writing the book, begin to lay the foundation for later marketing efforts. This may be as basic as avoiding being too self-deprecating, or it might mean gathering emails of anyone who seems interested in what you’re doing.
  • Before starting any marketing at all, step back and ask yourself, “Why do I write?” The goal of ‘selling lots of books’ is usually only one small piece of a large puzzle. Articulating the purpose of your writing career will help you create a campaign that suits your personality.
  • Consider which public activities give you energy and which sap your energy. Focus on where your strengths lie (but always try everything at least once—you might like it more or be better at it than you expect).
  • Ask yourself: What will it take to make me feel successful? Set yourself small, achievable goals while allowing yourself to dream big.
  • If you feel like you don’t naturally have good sales instincts, get help. Even if you don’t have the money to invest in paying a professional, ask a friend to give you a mock interview. Embarrassing, maybe; helpful, definitely. That uncle who used to write for the paper? See if he’ll read your pitches, give you feedback, brainstorm ideas with you. There’s no reason you should do have to figure it all out on your own.
  • Think more in terms of cultivating readers and engaging in conversations  (ie. give and take) than selling. This is especially true for social media.
  • Don’t try to do everything. Be game, have fun, but say no when you need to. Work smarter not harder.

How Do You Know When Bad Writing is Really, Truly Hopeless?

Editors like me often see projects at radially different stages of development. Truthfully, we sometimes see writing that is really, well, bad.

But does this mean it’s hopeless?

Less experienced writers often seek validation from editors. Their secret hope is that we will recognize the genius in their work and maybe even help them find an agent or publisher. Many ask for feedback and yet fight tooth and nail about every suggestion. Others understand the process better and trust that their work is more likely to appeal to readers (and therefore to the various gatekeepers standing between them and publication) after multiple drafts.

A couple of years ago, a manuscript in very rough shape crossed my desk.Should I keep going? the writer asked me. Is it worth the effort? He was looking to me to give him the thumbs up or the thumbs down, like Commodus at the Colosseum.

The truth is the manuscript was a mess. It was unfocused and confusing. The tone was off. While the core idea was interesting, the execution was flawed. It needed a lot of work. And yet I could not answer his question. Why? Because an editor working with a new writer cannot really predict what can be created by the alchemy of an open mind + a willingness to learn and to work. It can create a kind of magic: A final product that works.

Just because a piece of writing is “bad,” doesn’t mean it can’t become good or even great. It can be flawed without being hopeless. In fact, it’s my belief that it’s a good editor’s responsibility to tease out the areas where work needs to be done and guide the writer toward finding solutions, rather than be an arbiter of viability, taste or validity.

So how do you know when bad writing is really, truly hopeless? Here are some questions to ask yourself before quitting:

  • Have I been willing to learn from feedback? Have I really been hearingwhat my readers are saying?
  • Do I trust myself? Is my vision for the work intact? Have I been overly influenced by someone whose opinion matters to me?
  • Conversely: Have I hacked away at it with an open mind or am I sticking stubbornly to an early idea that just isn’t working?
  • What can positive feedback teach me about where my strengths lie? How can I build on those strengths?
  • What can negative feedback teach me about what I need to learn in terms of executing on my idea?
  • Will I benefit from a break? Working on something different for a while?
  • Am I paying enough attention to other creative needs/ interests that are only tangentially involved with this project but may be necessary for me to bring the right kind of energy to the table?

Sometimes you do have to admit defeat and move on, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell you that. Since we can’t really know whether you’re the kind of writer who will learn and grow, who are we to pass final judgment on early drafts? So instead of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I prefer to wave. Hey you, come sit next to me and roll up your sleeves! Let’s get to work!

The Perfect Writing Space… Does it Exist?

Po Bronson wrote his first book, Bombadiers, in a closet—and not one of those walk-in, McMansion closets. His closet had no window. There was room for one folding chair and one stool to put his Mac on. Nothing else. No joke.

Everyone has their own ideas on what works for them and what doesn’t. What about you?

It’s all about focus

Some people require zero distractions. Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) likes her space small and unadorned. She works in a closet with windows but nothing else to take her mind off writing. Marjan Kamali (Together Tea) refers to her home office as ‘the cave,’ “because I like to work with all the blinds down and curtains drawn to shut the world out.”

In contrast, the astonishingly prolific British author Margaret Forster writes with a window in front of her desk and another one to her right so she can sit there and gaze out at the orchard trees in the gardens below.  She says, “I feel cut off, as though I’m in the sky, suspended and enclosed.”

Nothing but a word processor... and a shovel?

The infamous luddite Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a sparse rented office with no Internet connection. Forget temporary tricks like Freedom or RescueTime, according to Franzen: “What you have to do is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.” (Wonder what he uses that shovel behind his desk for…)

Would a tiny corner nook, a cushion on the floor and a laptop work for you? That’s how Collum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin writes. “It concentrates my vision. No windows, two very tight walls,” he says.

But can anyone rival Sylvia Bodmer (The Wednesday Group–out 2015), who finds that she writes best in airports? “I have missed flights, yes plural, while at the gate writing, even as my name was called on the loudspeaker,” she says. “That is honestly how focused I am at airports.”


Finding inspiration

Others have the exact opposite needs. “Empty walls really distract me. I like my working space to be really rich, visually,” says Tasneem Husain (The Longest Thread). “I tend to put up a lot of posters and photographs, and also surround myself with lots of little knick-knacks.”

For former magazine writer Susan Carlton (Love and Haight), noise and chaos equal productivity, “I have a cozy home office in our attic, but I hate it—too isolating.”

Sometimes necessity dictates our habits. Peggy Shinner (You Feel So Mortal) used to prefer absolute quiet and solitude, but in her new home there isn’t space. She now actually shares a single desk with her partner, who likes to listen to music and dance in her chair while working. Somehow, it’s okay: “She works, I work,” says Peggy. “Often for hours without any direct communication, but there is a certain hum of joint productivity.”

Mother of eight, Dixie Coskie (Unthinkable) wrote her memoir in the middle of her insanely busy kitchen with her toddler at her side. Peace and quiet would have been preferable, but when you’re driven to tell a story you find a way. Laura Hillenbrand wrote the bestseller Seabiscuit confined to her bed for years on end.

It’s personal

Recently, I moved out of my home office and for the first time in my career, I rented office space. Yes, I now pay a good chunk of my hard-earned money to rent a room about five minutes from my house.

I’d just had it. I was going to lose my mind if I had to spend one more day working in that cramped space with bills pouring out of every drawer, teenagers using up all my toner, and a work-at-home husband stopping by every five minutes to share his latest thoughts.

Not to mention, people kept moving my stuff. And I have a lot of stuff. I have corkboards with lists and timelines and images. My walls are taped up with sticky notes and quotes (which makes working in cafes not very practical). I am one of those writers who likes piles, and since I work on five things at once my piles get big. Files from my projects were stacked in a teetering pile next to my old desk. That is, until the cat knocked them over.

But the real problem was that the last book I wrote in that office had been no fun at all—and it nothing to do with the subject matter or the people I was working with. The problem was that I wasusing up all my energy simply trying to focus. For the first time ever, the writing process felt like an exhausting chore.

Taking the plunge

It’s ridiculous to pay for space when you have room in your own house. Right? Yes, but… I wanted to keep working, and I wanted to stay sane.

I started with this:

I spent a weekend painting hospital green walls bright turquoise. I begged, borrowed and stole furniture. One snowy day, I made a cool pendant lamp. One trip to Ikea and I had a massive, inexpensive bookshelf. I ended up with this, from where I am now writing:

What about you?

Does it matter where you write? Are you one of these people who can write anywhere, anytime or do you need silence, beauty, and a view to find inspiration?


Do You Strive to be a Brilliant Writer, or Good Enough?

All writers are bipolar—at least all the ones I know. We are a crazy mixture of egotistical, manic, single-minded, optimistic on the one hand and sensitive, catastrophizing, scattered and pessimistic on the other. How do we live and produce work in a world filled with such extremes?

Every step of the process toward publication for writers is fraught with potholes that can potentially blow our tires. Equally, every step promises to build to a run and then we’re off, we’re speeding along, we’ve done it—we are indeed the writer god we always knew we were destined to be.

What about the beginning of the writing journey? In our up moments, we know our novel will be worthy, it will stun readers and reviewers, it will make our parents proud. We may only have the concept, and in our minds it’s brilliant.

But in our down moments, we know with equal certitude that we will fail. Miserably. We will be pedantic. No one will understand what we’re getting at. Our characters will be considered dull and stupid. Our finely wrought scenes will be thought clunky or even worse, laughable.

In those moments, aren’t you just a little tempted by the idea of being “good enough” rather than brilliant? There are millions of good enough books out there that people love. Do we always have to strive for brilliance?

When you read a great book, do you feel buoyed and hopeful? Or do you feel dispirited and intimidated? This is where the magic of denial and delusion and diligence all work together to keep us tethered to our computers. We find the tiny spark of hope deep inside us and we keep going.

I’ve moved offices six times since I started writing seriously, and each time I lug my favorite books with me. I keep them close for moments when I need inspiration, and to remind myself that brilliance comes in many different forms.

I still flip fondly through my yellowed high school copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This one sentence is scribbled on the back cover: “…l’ennui, araignee silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre a tous les coins de son coeur.” I can’t do the language justice by translating, but the choice of words suggests the image of a spider—the insidious, invasive spider of boredom (those words are not actually used, merely suggested)—stuck with me. How much you can convey with the right word choice!

When I read Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, I’m reminded to keep it real and close. To give the mundane and miniscule the opportunity to become monumental. Rose Tremain’s stunning, muscular novel about gold mining in New Zealand, The Colour, had me stalking her online like a besotted fan (I found virtually nothing, by the way). For weeks afterwards I was dreaming about the characters and the story. Need guidance on writing historical fiction? Read The Colour.

Nick Hornby’s Speaking With the Angel is all about voice. Oh the delectable beauty of an author’s inflections, his or her characters, the unique and differentiated cadences that all work to different effect to create such a symphony. (I could get all flowery about it…) Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is a masterful primer on point-of-view. The Pleasing Hour, by Lily King, reminds me of the goal of effortless yet impactful characterization.

I could go on and on about the books I turn to—especially some of the newer ones from the past five years—but my point is this: We must not allow ourselves to be cowed by the idea of brilliance. Though we may seek to write brilliant books, like those precious favorites that changed our lives, sometimes it’s better to strive to be good enough instead.

Sometimes we need to trick our frantic, hypersensitive brains into just getting on with it. Just trying. Doing it and seeing what happens. We might discover our own brilliance along the way.

Projectile Vomit, The X-Factor and Writing

Last week a 9th grader climbed up on the elevated stage at my daughter’s school to sing an Adele song in front of hundreds of fellow students.  His shoulders and hands trembled with nerves. As he began to sing, his voice cracked. Kids in the audience felt his anxiety and cast glances at each other.

And then he projectile vomited.

The boy wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and kept going. While he sang his heart out, the kids in the front seats wiped off their shirts.

At the end, he got a standing ovation.


As human beings we can relate to the fear of putting ourselves out there to be judged, and we are awed and humbled when we see someone who carries on in spite of failures. No one can remain neutral when faced with a person who is so committed to doing the best they possibly can that they keep going even under the most humiliating circumstances.

As writers, I think we can identify with this. When we create, the magic of writing and the challenge of living up to our own crazy-high standards fuels the fire of our self-expression.

But then comes the big reveal. We take our work out into the world, exposing ourselves to others’ opinions—and we have to learn to thrive or survive.

Why is it that when I watch the X-factor, I get a lump in my throat every time? It’s not the manufactured drama, it’s the raw desire. I watch these people sing their hearts out and I am awed by the effort. They want it so badly.


Being a writer is a fascinating and complicated mix of private and public. We do it because there’s something about the act of creation that is immensely satisfying. Yet that’s not quite enough for most of us: We want to share this with an audience. We yearn for appreciation and acknowledgment, not only for our efforts but for our skill.

Sometimes we get that appreciation, and it feels great. We sign a book deal, or we make our own path to finding an audience. When it works, it’s the best: Connecting with readers is our gift. Maybe we win a prize, or are awarded a residency, or perhaps we kill it during a workshop and we go home floating on clouds.

Other times, we are faced with indifference or nervous side glances. That hurts even more than outright rejection. And sometimes we have to deal with cruelty—nasty reviews or vengeful editors.

Often we have to accept that our very best effort was simply not good enough. It hurts. Badly.

Can we find it in ourselves to wipe ourselves clean and carry on?

I know that for me, when I see a writer or a singer or anybody who takes the risk of putting themselves out there, I want to give them a standing ovation for the intensity of their effort. They try, they fail, they forge ahead and they try again.

They might vomit, or crash and burn on live TV, or write a story that fails to soar… and still they have my respect for the heart they have put into it.

May the Force be with you,


Lessons from a Ten-Day Writers Retreat

1. Just tell the story: Let the characters and their actions be your guide. Avoid explaining.

2. Keep going: When the going gets tough, just tough it out. Don’t stop.

3. Keep it simple: Worry about creating “art” later.

4. Don’t second guess yourself: Keep your inner editor at bay until you have a decent first draft. Don’t expose your work too early.

5. Write for your perfect reader: Imagine the appreciative reader who will relish your work (rather than the critic who will eviscerate it).

6. It’s not a competition: Stop comparing yourself to anyone else. Just be you.

"It's wonderful!"“It’s wonderful!”

7. Learn from others: Listen to other people’s stories. Observe. Be quiet. Learn.

8. Loosen up: Let yourself dream. Try new things. Take an idea and run with it. Trust your instinct. Focus on voice. You can edit later.

9. Be patient—let the ideas come: Don’t be so intent on producing material that you don’t give ideas a chance to grow and ferment. You can’t manufacture literature on an assembly line.

10. Have fun: Relax. Regardless of how much you get done, at least you’re not cooking dinner, driving carpool, or going to work. Enjoy your freedom.