Sometimes life has a way of raising you up to beautiful heights or knocking you down until you're flat on your face. When either one happens, it colors the following days. When it's a good experience, everything seems more vibrant and the world feels like a happier place.
When it's bad, it can color every experience after that with anger, frustration, sadness, or bitterness. I'm hoping not everyone has this problem, but, for me, I can't turn my brain off. I replay events over and over in my head. I can't focus. I can't sleep. I can't move on. I become stuck on the injustice and the bad actions of myself and others.
As a writer, here are two ways I've found to deal with these emotions that feel like they will chew you up and spit you back out.
Six years ago, I experienced a very traumatic medical event. It rocked my world. It crushed me. It felt as though it shattered my soul, and I still believe it was/is true. I didn't feel like I had anyone to really to talk to about it, not fully, at least. My negative feelings were eating me alive, and I was a wreck.
I turned toward journaling my raw feelings. First, it was in the form of blog posts, and then I turned it more private and just had a word doc on my laptop. I didn't censor myself. I didn't hold back. I just wrote what I felt. Simple as that.
And you know what? It helped. It let me put some of those feelings away because I had them on paper. Once they were on paper, they didn't have to be inside me, rotting away.
Another way to channel these emotions is to use the people/experiences as fodder or inspiration for a character or a story.
For example, I worked with this one guy years ago who was one of the most pompous and degrading people I had met - at least back then. This guy would haunt my thoughts and sometimes my work-related nightmares. He was so much like another person in my life at that time that I paired them together in my head and made them into a character in one of my novels.
Let me tell you... that was a lot of fun. I got to explore who they were as people (at least my interpretation of them) and put them where I felt they fit into the story. Those who have read that manuscript have told me that they could picture that character so clearly, that he was a great villain. I think it's because I wrote with real emotion when I created the character. I used real life as my inspiration, and because these actual people were so real to me, the character became so real to the reader. Plus, it helped me explore their motivations for behaving the way they did. It helped me understand them better. I didn't like them any better after, but I could understand why they acted out the way they did.
And now it looks like I'm back to this point with a recent life event. Several good friends suggested that I journal about my feelings, and I think that's a good start. But I decided I needed to take it a little further and develop a story around it. I thought about it for days and weeks, and three ideas finally hit me. Thank you, muses! I haven't started writing about it yet, but even just playing with these ideas in my head, I already feel a little better. I can't wait to use a person/several people to bring a new character to life. And I think it will help me understand more about them, too. If I need anything right now, it's understanding.
Plus, it's cheaper than therapy, right?
Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this quote: "Write what you know."
That quote has been tossed around in the writing world over and over again. I know I've heard it countless times, and I thought I knew what it meant. It's obvious, right? Write about things that have happened to you. Write about people you know, the things you've done. That's how you make writing authentic, right? Base everything you write on your own life experiences.
Well, partly wrong.
There is nothing wrong about writing based on your own life events. There's gold there. But I think the real meaning of that quote is all about emotions, not events.
Write what you know. Write what you feel. Write what you have felt.
Explore those base and complicated emotions in your writing. How did you feel when your first pet died? You experienced grief, sorrow, confusion, and pain. Use that to write. You don't have to make your characters lose a pet to use those personal emotions. You can use your own pain and grief as inspiration for your characters, but use it in a different way. The feeling will be authentic, even if the events themselves never happened to you.
That's the beauty of writing - that an author can make the reader feel, and feel deeply. How is it that you can read a fantasy novel based in a world that doesn't actually exist, and you can feel along with the character? It's because those root emotions the author uses are real.
Think about the last book that made you feel something. Was it because the character reached the finish line? Or slayed the dragon? Or stood up to their abusive family member? No. It was because of the emotions attached to those actions and experiences. It was because of that feeling of triumph, of accomplishment, of pride, and of relief. You felt along with the character because you've experienced those same emotions or feelings, or, at the very least, you're able to empathize.
Emotion is universal. We can all understand it, even if it's based around made-up people in made-up worlds. No matter what, we all feel the same things in the same ways. That's what builds connections between readers and characters. That's where the magic lives.
Writing what you know is about emotion, not events.
So, take a moment and write down or mentally explore things that happened to you in your life that made you feel deeply. Analyze those feelings. Understand why you felt that way.
And then start writing.
Having your writing critiqued isn't always easy. And for some of us, giving feedback on someone else's writing is just as difficult. But there is an art to it, no matter if you're giving or receiving. And as a writer, you'll find yourself on both sides at some point.
The good news? Gracefully giving and receiving writing critiques are skills that can be developed, and you can start today.
Tips for Giving Writing Critiques
Tips for Gracefully Receiving Writing Critiques
Personal Experience - Both Sides of the Line
With two creative writing degrees, my work was critiqued over and over and over. Even though I’ve had my work critiqued a lot, by both people I knew and total strangers, I haven’t always taken the critiques as gracefully as I should have. While working on my master’s capstone (thesis), I spent countless hours on my 20-30 page proposal. My advisor told me I had to redo it all. It wasn’t what she was looking for, and I had followed the wrong template. I didn’t say anything to her, but my husband got an earful. Even with just a few months left of graduate school, I thought about dropping out, which was a first for me. I was embarrassed and humiliated, and I was tired. But I did finish and I used the rest of her brutally honest critiques to better my own writing. Since then, I've worked hard to develop a thicker skin when it comes to my writing.
The most important thing I learned was that a writing critique isn’t a personal attack.
As a college professor myself now, I’ve had a lot of students in my classes who didn’t take critiques well at all. I’ve had them drop the class after one graded assignment because they were embarrassed themselves. Some students have a difficult time understanding that my critiques are meant to help, to better their writing. That’s why they’re taking writing classes, right? If I didn't give honest feedback, they would never reach their writing goals. Sometimes writers need a little tough love to help them see their work objectively, enabling them to make it even better.
What's been your experience with giving or receiving feedback on your writing?
When learning how to write, it basically comes down to an extensive series of writing rules. Don't do this. But don't forget to do that, and so on. As I continued my education in creative writing, I finally recognized the faulty "rules" my English teachers taught me. But now that I teach writing, it's time to get rid of some of these "rules" once and for all.
1. Flipping to the end of a chapter to see how long it is makes you a bad reader.
This rule was given to me by my seventh grade English teacher. I had always considered myself a reader, but I always flipped to the end of the chapter, just to see how long it was---to see if I had time to finish it. I was heartbroken to learn that I was a bad reader. Mr. Holliday was so adamant about that particular "rule." By the way, I still flip to the end of a chapter while I read. And you know what? I'm still a good reader.
2. Using contractions in writing means you're unintelligent.
This "rule" was from the same teacher as with #1, Mr. Holliday. His reference for this "rule" was a fiction book he had been reading. Apparently there was a ransom note without contractions. The investigator or detective knew the kidnapper was intelligent because of his lack of contractions. Can I just say that this is one of the most ridiculous things I've heard. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using contractions. It can give writing a more personal, sincere feeling. A lack of contractions can make a piece feel stuffy, stiff, cold, distant.
3. In a research paper, the end of every sentence needs to have a reference or citation.
This one was from my ninth and tenth grade English teachers. Whenever we were assigned a research paper, they required us to cite every sentence. That didn't leave any room for our own writing, only direct quotes or paraphrasing from the sources we referenced. I later learned that that is not a research paper; it is merely a listing of facts. There is no voice nor a writer. There is no original thought.
As you continue your writing projects, remember that not all the "rules" you've been taught are correct. It is important to differentiate them for yourself. However, sometimes you can't break the writing rules until you know them and you understand why they're rules in the first place.
Anyone can become a magazine article writer. It’s all about coming up with a unique perspective on an idea, presenting yourself well, and nourishing the writer-editor relationship so you can have even more writing opportunities and stronger industry contacts.
It can take a lot of legwork to get started in the magazine industry. It will require research of industry standards, contact methods, and submission guidelines.
Getting your foot in the door comes down to making contact--contacting the right person in the right way at the right time.
Before querying or sitting down to write an article, I recommend using the magazine’s website as a resource. Some magazines list specific topics they’re looking for, which is a fabulous way to get your foot in the door. They know exactly what they want, and now it’s up to you to give it to them.
If you’re an industry expert, another great way to get your foot in the door is to create a strong online presence. You can use your clout and expertise to get you in front of an editor, so to speak. If you have the experience to back up your article topic, you have a better chance of being published. And if you create a strong presence, magazine editors might even come to you.
Don’t neglect going to conferences and workshops related to magazine writing or your specific industry. You can make some stellar contacts that will not only be great industry resources, but they can provide you with writing opportunities you may not have come across otherwise.
A lot goes into this process, but here are the basic steps.
Many magazines have set fees already. You can try to negotiate, but many are set in stone. So, if it’s too small of an amount and the exposure isn’t worth it, move on to the next magazine. If a magazine’s fees are firm, there’s no point in wasting your time and the editor’s time.
However, if you find a magazine that has an open fee scale, you’ll need to determine your rate beforehand. This shows confidence and experience, even if you don’t have the either at the moment. Determining your fee scale can be tricky, but there are resources that can help you.
First, determine your writing and topic experience. The more you have, the higher fee you can charge. Next, determine the magazine’s budget. If it’s a smaller magazine, they may not have the budget to pay your preferred rate. If that’s the case, you need to determine if the low fee is worth the effort and the benefit you’ll get from writing for that particular magazine. Here’s a great resource on what to charge for your writing. Remember, those are basic guidelines, so you can modify the fee based on several factors.
Know your rights. You can sell certain rights and not others, giving you more opportunities to earn money for your article as it’s published in different formats.
If you don't land any opportunities at first, don't lose hope. Sometimes it's all about persistence.
What has helped you break into the magazine article writing industry?
I'm an adjunct creative writing professor and freelance writer, but I dream of being a published novelist. This is my journey.