By Cynthia Romanowski //
January is always filled with high hopes. There’s always an unbridled sense of optimism in the air. You tell yourself this is the year you’re going to read X amount of books or write X amount of words every day. This is the year you will start that blog or finish that novel. You make a realistic plan but on some level you know you’ll eventually hit a wall of some sort.
For me, slumps feel like a natural part of the creative process, so learning how to power through the low energy and low motivation days has been crucial. I try to procrastinate in the best possible ways. Obviously nothing is better than forcing yourself to stay in the chair as long as is takes, but if you are going to get up, you might as well be productive in some way. Most writers have a few little tricks they use to keep going. Everybody’s different, but here are a few of mine:
1. READ ABOUT WRITING
I think we all intend to read more craft books someday, eventually, but honestly when was the last time you did? If you’re like me, you might have a list somewhere or a smattering of writing books waiting on a shelf. They don’t have to be prescriptive books, either. In fact, they don’t have to be books at all. There are plenty of great, short craft essays available online and author interviews on YouTube. Here are some options:
George Saunders – The Perfect Gerbil
Amy Bender – On The Making Of Orchards
The Tin House Writers Series (various)
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, edited by Janet Burroway
On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey
Naming the World, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston
This Won’t Take But a Minute Honey, by Steve Almond
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, by Rust Hills
How Fiction Works, by James Wood
Mystery and Manners, by Flannery O’Conner
Now Write, edited by Sheri Ellis
Association of Writers and Writing Program’s Writers Chronicle (various)
For me, there is something sort of sacred about libraries. I do most of my writing at the Central Library in Huntington Beach or the university library at Cal State Long Beach. It helps to change the setting in which I write when I get stuck, and coffee shops are a little too unpredictable — you never know if you will find a spot with an outlet or if there will be annoying people yakking loudly in the background — but a good library is like a sanctuary.
The larger libraries are also a great place to familiarize yourself with a wide range of literary journals and anthologies. Even the hippest independent book stores keep a low stock of these journals, and Barnes and Noble doesn’t carry many anthologies. Subscriptions to journals can be expensive, but familiarizing oneself with the literary marketplace is crucial because you need to know where to send your work and what type of novel excerpts or stories they publish. Any time you can spend sampling the same journals that editors and agents read will be worth your time.
Ongoing used book sales at larger library are also a great resource. A few weeks ago, I found semi-recent issues of Granta, the Santa Monica Review and the Southern California Review all for $2! It’s insane.
Here is the Facebook page for Used Book Stores in So Cal: https://www.facebook.com/UBS.SoCal
3. GET SOCIAL: ONLINE
Writing can be a lonely endeavor, but luckily we are living at a time when there are plenty of options for communicating with other writers. A Facebook search for location-based group pages for writers is a good place to start. I’m part of a private group called “500 Words A Day” with other writers where we post our word count for the day and a little sample of what we wrote.
Following or friending your favorite authors on Facebook is another easy thing to do. Authors tend to post great content, like links to craft essays, quotes and opportunities for workshops, retreats and conferences.
Starting a Goodreads.com account is another must for any inspiring author and LinkedIn is a good place to join discussions/forums on anything from self-publishing to creating memorable characters.
Friending journals and literary magazines on Facebook can be useful. It’s also good to add yourself to an organization’s mailing list. Here are some places to start:
There are several literary sites and blogs that are gaining serious influence in the marketplace, and these are all simple was to stay on top of what they’re covering.
4. GET SOCIAL: OFFLINE
Besides being a part of the literary community online, there are plenty of ways to infiltrate the writing world in real life. I can’t stress how important having a community has been for me as a writer. Without one, I think it’s easy to drop out on your writing goals.
Is there a local reading series in you’re area (examples: Tongue and Groove and Dirty Laundry Lit)? Is there a writing center (like 826LA or Beyond Baroque)? Are there any independent book stores? Libraryies that have a lecture series or author events? These are all things you should know.
There are also a ton of annual conferences, book fairs and writing retreats all over the country. The Poets and Writers periodical is a great place to start searching for these things. The Association for Writers and Writing Programs’ periodical is another resource.
5. SUBMISSION CALENDAR
So now that you’ve spent sometime in the library and being social on and offline, you’ve probably come across dozens of journals you’d like to submit to and a handful of conferences, retreats or grants you’d like to apply for. Compiling your own big, fat submission calendar is a great way to get organized so you can set goals and keep track of all the things you’ve been looking up and stumbling upon. Many conferences and contests take place roughly around the same time each year, so it’s helpful to start a master list of deadlines that include notes about word count, application materials and other requirements.
In the past, I’ve done this on paper with a big desk calendar or with an Excel spreadsheet. Even if you don’t have a completed manuscript, it’s good to compile a list of opportunities for later.
I’ve talked a little about the importance of community and this is by far the most rewarding and meaningful way to be a part of the writing scene in your local area. Whether it’s a library literacy program, volunteering at a reading or event, reading submissions for a journal, or mentoring at places like 826LA or Write Girl, this is a great way to help out and network. It’s also a lot easier to meet other writers while volunteering than by going up to strangers at a reading, at least for me.
7. MINI-WRITING GROUP OR BOOK CLUB
Everybody’s busy, which makes regular writing groups and book clubs hard to manage and sustain. One solution is to move your writing group or book club online. Facebook and Goodreads groups work well for this. If you prefer a bigger group, Meetup.com is a great place to start.
Another way to reap the rewards of this type of gathering with minimal effort is to downsize it. I’m part of a three-person writing group, and it gets the job done just fine. Sometimes we meet in person, but we do a lot of communicating online. As far reading, we’ve just added a book club segment to our in-person meetings. We all have different tastes and hectic schedules, so reading a full-length book wasn’t a very realistic option. Instead, we all read the same short story or essay and talk about it in terms of craft at the beginning of our meetings.
Every once in a while, like a couple times a year, I like to rummage around my hard drive and open old Word documents. If you’re like me, then you have hundreds of notes, abandoned ideas, false starts and old drafts that make you cringe. I do this to take a moment to witness and recognize any improvement.
When you’re just starting out, before getting published, before even sending things out, this evidence of improvement can be a big motivator. Writing is subjective and improvement can feel intangible at times. So, it’s important to find ways to acknowledge your own progress. Nobody knows where you’re at in your writing but you, so it’s good to take a little informal inventory and remind yourself that, yes, you are on the right track, even if it’s still the beginning of a very long haul.
Images courtesy of Cynthia Romanowski
Cynthia Romanowski holds an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert. She is a former prose editor of The Coachella Review and was recently selected to participate in the 2014 Emerging Voices Show for the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her stories are forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing and The Whistling Fire. She has written for Great Taste, The Daily 49er and the Union Weekly. She lives in Huntington Beach, and is at work on a collection of linked short stories.