Foolproof Strategies for Staying Creative During a Writing Slump

CreativeSlumpWUFor the last two weeks, my four children and I have been stuck at home trying to extricate ourselves from the evil clutches of the dreaded “stomach flu.” One by one we came down with it, and its effects have been long-lasting and producing vast quantities of laundry. We are bored with television and lazing on couches. We are weary of toast.

Thankfully, at this point in my life, I don’t hold down a typical nine-to-five career, which means I don’t have to take sick leave when we’re unwell. But as a writer and editor I still have commitments to keep up with, even if there’s flexibility in terms of timing.

When life gets (literally) messy, I’m exhausted from sleepless nights and struggling to even manage the basics, I still try my best not to give in to the temptation to let everything go. It’s not about pushing through the pain and forcing myself to continue being productive; it’s about acknowledging that I feel worse if I don’t maintain at least some level of interest in my writing.

For accomplishing that, I have a few strategies I’ve used over the years. I call them foolproof because you simply can’t mess them up. There’s no right or wrong. Even if they take you absolutely nowhere, they still help you maintain your creativity—with very little effort.

Jot down keywords.

My husband always says I have more notes—both handwritten and computerized—than anyone he’s ever met. True, but I also never run out of ideas. No matter how bad things are, if you can commit to writing just a few keywords for every creative idea that pops into your head, you’ll know those brilliant ideas will be waiting for you when you feel better. Use a notepad, a note app on your handheld device, or a virtual sticky note on your computer to record keywords for short stories, poems, articles, novels, revision ideas, and so on. For example, if your idea is to write a post like this one, you might write the keywords STRATEGIES CREATIVE SLUMP. Without going into any detail about how you’ll flesh it out, you’ve at least held on to it so you can develop it later. [Read more…]

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

How to Get Your Short Stories Published in Lit Mags

Litmags.FlickrFive years ago I would’ve said I was on my way to becoming a novelist. Today, my novels-in-progress have been shelved, but my short stories have been published in several lit mags and anthologies, and I even manage an online literary journal—Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing. There’s just something about the short story form I’ve grown to love, and I do feel that this tangent from novels has made me a better writer.

If short stories fell off your radar on your last day of high school English, the world of lit mags may be one you know little about. You might consider yourself a novelist, but there’s plenty that short stories can do for your writing and your career.

What are lit mags?

The terms literary magazine and literary journal generally refer to publications that feature short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction (although sometimes literary journal is also used to describe publications that feature academic essays about literature). Some lit mags are created and run by the faculty and students of university MFA creative writing programs, while some are privately run. Each lit mag has its own style and focus, and some publish certain genres such as science fiction and horror. For example, Ploughshares publishes literary fiction, while Clarkesworld publishes sci-fi and fantasy, and Ellery Queen publishes mystery. Whatever you write, there’s probably a home for your work.

I write novels, so why should I care?

Last year I wrote an article for Writer Unboxed called “What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction.” My three main points were that

  1. Reading short fiction can make you a more knowledgeable writer.
  2. Writing short fiction can make you a more accomplished writer.
  3. Publishing short fiction can make you a more marketable writer.

Number 3 is important if you’re writing a novel or submitting a manuscript to literary agents or publishers. It’s entirely possible to get a novel published with no previous writing credits, but can it hurt to show agents and editors that you’re serious about perfecting your craft and seeing your work in print?

Writer’s Digest must agree, because they once ran an article called 12 Literary Journals Your Future Agent Is Reading.

10 Steps to Getting Your Short Stories Published

Read on for a rundown of what you need to know to get started submitting to lit mags:

1. Read as many short stories as you can. In my experience, the very, very best way to learn to write better is to learn to read better. I’m talking about critical reading. I mean tearing those stories apart and putting them back together. Check out some popular short story collections from the library, and take advantage of those you can read for free online.

2. Draft your story. When it comes to short fiction, I believe you can afford to be a pantser instead of a plotter (pantsing meaning you write without a clear plan of where you’ll end up). You’re dealing with a few thousand words—not a hundred thousand words—and letting your mind explore as you write can lead to a deeper, more meaningful story. [Read more…]

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

“Do I Have Writing Talent?” You’re Asking the Wrong Question

9187824_sHemingway. Austen. Dickens. Woolf. Carver. We know these names well, these masters of their craft. Were they born with an elusive writing gene the rest of us just don’t have?

We not-yet-famous writers sometimes ask ourselves, “Do I have talent?”—the implication being that talent is what makes one a real writer. We want some sort of assurance that—like “the greats”—we were born to write, or else we might just be fooling ourselves.

But, coming to the conclusion that we either do or do not “have it” can lead to some unhelpful assumptions. For example, I’ve always been good at writing, so writing a book will be easy (very probably not true). Or, My novel was rejected, so I guess I’m just not meant to be a writer (not necessarily true).

I’m not arguing that talent and aptitude don’t exist, but we sometimes take the concept of talent to the point of fatalism, and that limits us in a number of ways.

Are Our Abilities Innate and Unchangeable?

Psychology Today article I once read, called “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” rocked my world. The piece makes this claim:

“[B]right girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

In my case, that was true—although I’d never realized it. I tended to view my abilities, and even interests, in a somewhat static state. I was good at some things, okay at some things, and terrible at others, and there was little I could do about it.

Years ago I told a friend, “I can write, but I could never be an editor. I just don’t have that level of attention to detail.” What did that even mean? Sure, I didn’t have the technical skills to be an editor—I hadn’t studied editing. But I suppose I thought editors were born with an inherent ability that I just didn’t have. Whenever the thought of editing as a career popped into my head, I quickly quashed it with the belief that I wasn’t naturally detail-oriented enough.

But not everyone thinks like that. My father—despite never having any apparent aptitude for photography—recently bought himself an expensive camera and enrolled in a professional photography course. He’s undaunted by his lack of knowledge and experience, because he really enjoys photography and recognizes it’s an art he can learn.

If you believe your writing is an “innate and unchangeable” talent, you may be less driven to practice your craft and less likely to seek (and graciously receive) constructive criticism. When you experience failure (all writers do), you might think you’ve only been kidding yourself that you have talent. Or, because you think you’re a natural, you might feel the need to overwork to live up to that standard.

On the other hand, if you enjoy writing but don’t see yourself as having natural talent, you may never even give yourself a chance.

[Read more…]

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

Second Chances: Rewriting Our Stories

cc_secondchanceWe all have stories. True stories, made-up stories, or ones that are a bit of both. Stories we’ve written down and stories we’ve lived. Stories that make us laugh, cry, or shudder.

For writers, all of these stories are important in their own ways. The written-down ones are often just as much a part of who we are as the real-life ones.

Today’s real-life story goes something like this:

I’m writing this post in my home office, surrounded by boxes upon boxes of stuff. Boxes of junk to be recycled, boxes of toys to give away, and boxes full of things I haven’t decided what to do with.

Nearly seven years ago, I moved from Canada to Australia with my husband, one child, and few belongings. In two weeks, we will return to Canada, this time with four children and few belongings. Almost everything in these boxes will be left behind. We are starting from scratch for the second time.

Even though we’re returning home, we’ve been out of the country long enough to make this something of an adventure. We’ll land just before midnight. Maybe we’ll hold our breath just a little as we step into the brightly lit airport where my family will be waiting to greet us.

Will my parents look older? Will look older? As we drive away from the airport, will the city be the same as I remember it? Will my children shiver in the back seat, unaccustomed to the winter weather? Will we all be wondering the same thing . . .

What does this new chapter hold for us?

Even as life’s dramas unfold, our written-down stories refuse to take a back seat.

The other day, in the midst of my packing, I found a short story I’d submitted to a writing competition about a year ago. The story reflects some difficult experiences in my life at the time I wrote it, and I believe that’s where I went wrong with it. There’s danger in writing about things that are too fresh, too raw. We become so attached to the real-life feelings—and try so hard to make sense of them through our writing—that we simply can’t trust ourselves to be good judges of our own work.

I remember that just before I sent the story in, I thought this story is not as good as it should be. I knew it wasn’t truly finished, but I so desperately wanted it to be ready, I went ahead and submitted it anyway. [Read more…]

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.

Change Your Mind. Try Something New. Write Something Better.

Man with lightbulb for headLately, something’s been bothering me about the blog I’ve managed for more than four years: the person I was when I started the blog is not the person I am today.

Or more precisely, the writer I was then is not the writer I am now. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of key issues. I’ve gained a lot more experience. I just feel…different.

The blog is still useful for a particular audience, but it no longer feels authentic to where I am in my writing journey.

Do I continue to invest time and energy in the blog when it’s not as personally fulfilling as it once was? Do I shut it down and give up a readership of thousands? Something in between?

Whatever I choose, change is the key word.

Change can be scary because it involves risk, but it can also be positive when it forces us to grow and write something better. Here are some ways in which changing my mind over the years has helped me grow as a writer:

Writing in different genres has helped me discover my strengths.

When I first started writing seriously, short stories were the last thing on my mind.

I spent at least the first year focusing on picture books. I became insanely interested in reading them, and I wrote and submitted tons of work to small publishing houses. But I saw little fruit for my labours, and eventually my zeal died down. I began looking for something more fulfilling.

For a year or so after that, I dabbled in longer forms—some middle-grade chapter books and a bunch of novel concepts that went nowhere. I had a great time, but they weren’t very good.

Then came a couple of solid years of working on mainstream novels. I wrote two of them, but something still didn’t quite feel right. I was on the right track, but not where I felt wholly comfortable.

Three years ago, I decided to try short fiction after all. The more literary short stories I read and wrote, the more I began to feel I’d found my strength. My stories started being published in journals and anthologies, which convinced me I was on the right track. Now, I see myself as working toward publishing either a collection of short stories or a novel written in short stories (like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.)

It’s okay to change your mind about what you want to write, or what style you want to write in. Experimentation is key to finding out what you’re best at. And just because you enjoy writing in a certain style or genre doesn’t mean that’s the style or genre in which you’re going to be most successful. [Read more…]

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About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.