Back to Basics, Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists

This is Part 5 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

“I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

We’re done peeking at other people’s papers. We won’t compare ourselves to them any longer–not our friends, not our enemies, not our heroes. Does that mean we shouldn’t appreciate them as we do? Of course not. Only that we shouldn’t want to be them. That author you love–if they wrote about things that didn’t matter to you, then reading their most beautiful prose would be nothing more than an aesthetic exercise. You love them because their work speaks to you about things that are important to you. What are they?

If you think about it, I suspect you’ll find that they’re writing about things from your life, your own hopes and fears, fascinations and obsessions, loves and hates. They’re there in your memory. Find them.

“…I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. … I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Think, he advises, of the things that scare you. The things that make you feel something, good or bad. The things you’re fascinated by, the darkest place you’ve ever been, the deepest, the brightest, the best. One will lead to another. Make a list.


What good is a list? The nouns on our lists are things that only make sense to us personally. They’re the things that have shaped us. Remember our “zest” and “gusto”? They’re going to find their way onto the page in our own authentic voice through these lists.


“You don’t set out to reform a certain kind of writing. It evolves out of your own life and night scares. Suddenly you look around and see that you’ve done something almost fresh.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Those who were at the Rainforest Writers Retreat with me–or with my friend Minerva in years since–may recognize what we’ve stumbled upon. There’s an exercise we did there that began with a visual prompt. We would view the prompt, and then write for five minutes about a memory sparked by the image. Somehow in that time, if we just kept writing, something would emerge–a line, a concept, sometimes a full scene–strong enough to hang a story on. The best stuff, the stuff that is uniquely our own, comes from our memories and experiences. Bradbury discovered this, and we’re about to discover it ourselves.

“And the stories began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

When I reread this chapter, I started a list of my own, some of which I’ve shared above. Over the course of a day I filled three columns with memories, encoded in nouns. I look at these lists and I know exactly what each item means. Each one represents something I will never forget. Somewhere in there is the key to writing stories that matter to me, and can carry enough weight that they’ll matter to a reader eventually, too.

Grab a pen and notebook, and try it with me.

How does your list begin? Feel free to share in the comments.

Next time: The Lopside of Your Brain



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Back to Basics, Part 4 – Space Travel, Sideshows, and Gorillas

This is Part 4 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle”

Bradbury was talking about actual literary snobbery, directed at him, in actual rooms. This certainly still happens–there are plenty of anecdotes about authors of one subgenre sneering at authors of a different subgenre on convention panels. But what this passage brings to mind for me is something else that we face daily now: a perceived criticism that comes from having 24/7 access to the opinions of nearly everyone we know.

I have a friend who writes pirate stories. She’s very good at it. She loves her characters, and she’s incredibly skilled at bringing them to life and sending them on adventures, getting them into and out of danger, facing foes and defeating evil. Every now and then she’ll mention how her pet project is coming along, and invariably she’ll slip into demeaning modifiers: the dumb book, or the silly book, or the stupid book. Because she’s absorbed the false notion that the kind of stories she enjoys writing don’t count, that the only stories that have value are literary masterworks of crossover fiction that explore Important Issues. Because what she hears when someone says “Notable Author’s story was so great it made me cry! I hope they win an award!” is “Your story did not make me cry; your story is not great. QED.”

What would you say to her? What would Ray say?

I think he would say: If someone is making you feel that way, you pack up your Jolly Roger and leave the room.

The problem is that today the room in question is the internet. The room is Twitter; the room is Facebook. Social media is simultaneously the best and worst cocktail party ever thrown. At its best, we get to have energetic conversations with people with similar interests and shared concerns. At its worst, a person can be utterly dehumanized in 140 characters. Somewhere in the middle is where most of us live–constantly exposed to the opinions of hundreds or thousands of people, many of whom we respect and admire, a few we care for deeply, but most we’re connected to only through a shared interest of one kind or another.

I have some very successful literary friends who I mostly keep in touch with via Social Media. I love them very much, and I want to know what’s happening in their lives. But sometimes I have to cop to the fact that seeing every single sale announcement, every word of (totally deserved) praise for their work, well, it gets to me. I’m not talking about professional jealousy–a phenomenon I also sometimes experience–or even about competition. I’m talking about comparison, and the sense that in that comparison I fall short. We’re pattern-seeking animals, and when our work doesn’t measure up (whether in quantity or perceived quality) to the patterns we think we detect in the constant stream of information–it can do very bad things to our confidence and our commitment to our craft, and to ourselves.

Suddenly our love of sideshows and gorillas looks stupid beside other people’s love of black holes and post-apocalypses. That’s our cue: It’s time to leave the room. (The Mute button on Twitter is wonderful for this.)

“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every other writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.

I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look not at myself but at what went on behind my face.”
-Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Today “every other writer” is right there in our Twitter timeline. We have to learn to look away (eyes on your own paper!), stop comparing ourselves to them, and look within. Our excellence will be found where our heart is, and it will look like no one else’s.

Next week we’ll start the work of discovering our excellence within our authentic selves, and using it to find our way into stories that are uniquely our own.

Next time: Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists

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Back to Basics, Part 3 – Looking to Your Zest, Seeing to Your Gusto

This is Part 3 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is—excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “The Joy of Writing”

Guilty as charged.

On that long drive up I-5 one of the things I realized was that I had become far too concerned with what everyone else was doing, what they were reading and reviewing, where they were publishing and how often. The internet is a mixed blessing: our friends and colleagues, while perhaps geographically distant, are present in our lives via social media. It’s wonderful to be able to stay in touch so readily, but it also creates such an abundance of status to measure ourselves against. It can be paralyzing.

When Twitter is abuzz with a new themed anthology, we might conclude that the market is saturated with stories like the one we’ve been secretly working on. Dispirited, we set it aside.

Or the short list for a prestigious award is announced, and none of the stories on it are anything like the adventure story we just outlined and yesterday couldn’t wait to get to work on. We may conclude that the type of stories we write are not what people want to read, and the outline is abandoned while we wrack our brains trying to come up with an idea we think people would notice.

Or maybe someone we think of as notable says something on Facebook about a subgenre they think is played out. We may love that subgenre, and have multiple works in progress, maybe even a serial. Granting Facebook Big Shot oracular powers, we dismally drag our files to the “Trunk” folder.

Driving through Stockton I realized I had done all of those things. Again the answer came, and I gave myself some sound advice:

“Eyes on your own paper, Yant.”

“Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “The Joy of Writing”

Look to your zest. See to your gusto. Not someone else’s. Not “the market’s.” It’s time to stop saying things like “I wish I were more like Big Name Author,” or “I wish I could write stories as important as Award Winner’s.” It’s time to stop wishing we were more like other writers, and start wishing we were more like ourselves.

We’re here to reconnect with the joy and anticipation we used to feel about writing. The first step toward that is reconnecting with our authentic selves, what we’re passionate about—our loves and hates, our hopes and fears, the things that have shaped who we truly are.

Next up: Part 4 – Space Travel, Sideshows, and Gorillas

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Write Like A Stark: guest post by Steve Bein

Our guest post this week is another reminder to keep focused on your writing and keep your chin up. It’s from our friend Steve Bein, whose newest novel, Disciple of the Wind, is due out April 7th.

Winter is coming. These are the words of House Stark, and in my opinion they’re pretty good advice for up-and-coming writers. (Maybe for well-established writers as well; I’ll let you know as soon as I consider myself well established).

The logic of it works like this: assume you’ll never publish anything. Ever. Then, every time you get a nibble of interest, it’s a lovely surprise. It brightens your whole day. But when your next rejection slip comes in, it’s no big deal. Sure, winter is coming, but psychologically speaking, you’re already dressed for the occasion.

Or maybe this seems too bleak to you. Maybe you think I’m being hyperbolic, and if I tell you I’m not—and I’m totally not—then maybe you want to say I’m being overly dramatic.

The truth is, for writers the future is bleak.  It’s hard to overstate how long the odds are against us. Even among the most gifted of us, almost everyone gets rejected almost all the time. In fact, the market is so merciless, so utterly wayward, that the New Yorker actually rejected a story it had already published. This isn’t some new semi-pro zine we’re talking about. This is supposed to be the best in the business.

So yeah, not only is it true that you’ll get rejected almost all of the time, but the rejections you get might not even be based on what you wrote. Only the pessimists and the Starks can take solace in that.

So now maybe we’ve gone beyond bleak for you. Maybe you want to say, “If this is your outlook, why bother writing anything at all?”

Well, duh: write because you love writing. Write because you can’t not. Write because it sure beats sitting on your ass watching TV. Just don’t write because you think you’re going to publish anything. Be an optimist and you set yourself up for heartbreak every time a new rejection slip comes blowing in.

Instead, know that winter is coming. Expect rejection every time you submit. That way, when you finally do get published, it comes as a big, warm sunbeam breaking through the wintry clouds of despair. Not that you despair, of course. All writers live in sight of these clouds, and most live directly under them. But while all those shivering, teeth-chattering optimists are dressed in Speedos, you’re comfortably clad in your parka of pessimism.

When your book comes out and everyone loves it, and Hollywood offers you a million dollars for the film rights, and you have to reinforce your floorboards to hold up the sheer weight of all the awards you’ve won… well, I still say winter is coming. Assume success isn’t going to last. Recognize that victory is winged, she flies away fast, and you need to savor every last moment in the sun.

Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Ned Stark’s, either. Field-test it. Write just for the love of writing, and see what happens if you submit on the assumption that you’re not going to get published. Try that for the next six months and see if it makes you feel better about the rejection slips. And then let me know how it goes for you. I’m the guy in the igloo next door, wrapped up in a big, comfy parka of pessimism.

Steve Bein is the author of DISCIPLE OF THE WIND, due out April 7th, and STREAMING DAWN, available now for your e-reader. His first two novels, DAUGHTER OF THE WIND and YEAR OF THE DEMON, were met with critical acclaim. Please visit him on the Web (, follow him on Facebook (facebook/philosofiction) and Twitter (@AllBeinMyself). You can email him—and he’s totally sincere about that invitation in the last paragraph, by the way—at [email protected].

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Back to Basics, Part 2 – Your Pinch of Arsenic

This is Part 2 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. You can read Part 1 here.

 “I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, yelling for a clean pair of spats.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

This is not true for every writer. It may not be true for you. But it is definitely true for me. My husband notices it. I get irritable, impatient, morose.

“You should get some writing done,” he observes. “It’s like your medicine.”

He’s invariably right. It doesn’t really make sense—I don’t write about things currently happening in my life. I don’t view writing as therapy in the sense of revisiting events and resolving them. But I can’t deny that writing, for me, is therapeutic.

The problem arises when I focus on the outcome of writing, rather than the writing itself. When I obsess on things like placing an unfinished story with the right market, or how it might be received by its eventual readers, or (perhaps most toxic) how it might compare to the work of my friends and peers, the bitter alchemy of ego and its dark counterpart, shame, turn the medicine into poison, and the patient steadily declines.

 “Not to write, for many of us, is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

It was true when I was a brand-new writer, tapping out thinly veiled Mary Sue daydreams with Writer’s Market at my side. Today my goal is to go back to the beginning, to connect with that young woman whose aspirations were aligned with progress, not perfection; who believed that she could learn, if she only practiced and applied sound advice from those who had reached mastery.

Bradbury notes that “the smallest effort” is all that’s required. Graduates of the prestigious Clarion speculative fiction workshop are often advised to take it slow, committing to only 250 words per day—roughly one double-spaced page. 250 words can take as little as ten minutes, but that “gentle bout” is truly a victory for the writer struggling to stay out of her own way.

Committing to a single page means that I don’t get to chastise myself for not finishing the story today. It means that I might spend a little more time and attention on finding the right words, making for less work later. It means that I can fit it into my day, no matter how I’m feeling, no matter where I am, no matter what else life demands of me today.

If you’re following along with me on this journey, then today that’s your challenge: Write a single page, on any project you want–the more fun that project is, the better. Or 125 words on two different projects. Or 50 words each on five. Today is not about beating ourselves up for not having everything finished and polished and out the door. Today is about a pinch of progress, enough to keep soul-sickness at bay. Or in the words of Bradbury, “Taking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive to sunset. Another pinch at sunset so that you can more-than-survive until dawn.”

Next time: Part 3 – Looking to Your Zest, Seeing to Your Gusto

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Back to Basics, Part 1 – What Would Ray Do?

There comes a time in the life of a writer when the keyboard is made of lava and every keystroke burns.

There may be a thousand reasons for this—it might be the rejection that broke the camel’s back, or an all-consuming project that sapped the author’s mojo longer than could be sustained. It might be a personal tragedy, or a personal victory. It can happen after the fiftieth failed query or the first award nomination. Whatever the catalyst, we find ourselves suddenly in crisis, unwilling or unable to write, mind and fingers shackled by fear and self-loathing, wincing at the light of the computer monitor as the cursor blinks its contempt.

It was several weeks into such an episode that I found myself traveling for work, alone with my thoughts for eight long interstate hours. I spent the first two hundred miles scowling deeply at the scenery, despising every wildflower that wouldn’t find its way into a story, every driver whose motives for cutting me off were more profound than that of any of my protagonists. I thought about the stories I’d written in years past, the ones that I’d finished and sold, and scolded myself for not doing it again, right now, every day, tonight! I thought about the project that had consumed so much of my time and energy the previous year, and imagined my creative self as a train that has struck an anthology and gone fatally off the rails. I thought about my friends, of their seemingly unshakable work ethic and their magnificent accomplishments, and wished I could be more like them.

I dragged myself through every kind of emotional mud, sometimes in tears, sometimes in nihilistic resignation, until along about the fifth hour when the core of the problem finally hit me: I was taking myself way too seriously.

I asked Siri how to get to the nearest Target. In a Sacramento suburb I bought a cheap spiral notebook, brightly colored ballpoint pens, soup, and dinosaur stickers.

It was time to lighten the hell up, and learn to write all over again.


The most important book on writing in my collection is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. You’ll find no discussion of active verbs or character archetypes in its pages. What you will find are essays filled with the exuberance and passion that he brought to everything he did, from science fiction to city planning. That was his secret (which was no secret at all)—love. In his final years when he spoke publicly at writers conferences, he talked of writing love letters to his passions. When I’m feeling lousy about my work, my skill or lack thereof, my career (or lack thereof), eventually I return to Zen. I always finish it feeling like I just got a big hug from dear Uncle Ray, and everything’s going to be all right.

This time I finished my reading of it in a weekend, marking passages that struck close to home. I also read it with an eye for instruction. What would Ray do?

That’s what I aim to find out. I’m going back to basics, using what guidance I can find in this book that has so often given me comfort in the past. If you’re up for it, you’re welcome to come along for the ride.

Zen in the Art of Writing is available at Powell’s City of Books and basically every other bookstore everywhere, as it should be.

Next time: Part 2 – Your Pinch of Arsenic

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Inspirational Quotes for the Dry Spells

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Writing is a long, hard road. Sometimes it feels like you’re making huge strides forward. Sometimes you’re standing so still while everyone else around you rushes past, that it feels like you’re walking backwards. And sometimes it’s incredibly tempting to get out of the race entirely.

This is something I’ve been struggling with, and I’m sure most of you have as well, at one point or another. It’s one of those experiences in writing that is simultaneously so universal and so isolating. So I’ve gathered a few quotes from various writers that have helped me from getting (too) despondent about editing.



A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

Junot Diaz



Everyone succeeds and everyone fails. Succeeding is easy. Failing is hard. Get good at the hard thing.

Chris Gethard



No matter where you are in your journey as a writer, the editing and notes process remains arduous and stressful. It will always test you… Be kind to yourself. As hard as it is, try to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Even award-winning authors have to rewrite. A first draft is never the final product.

Don’t give up.

Nora Zelevansky



Doors won’t always open for you, not all the time. In spite of your talents and all you have to offer, you will go through long stretches where they stay closed for you and you alone. When it happens, you won’t know what to do with yourself. You will begin to doubt, get caught up in the idea that it means you’re not enough and who needs it when giving up is an (always) open window you can climb through. Don’t. Have a clear understanding of what you have to offer and once you have accepted the reality it might not make a difference, keep knocking on every door until your hands are bloody anyway because maybe it will.

Courtney Summers



Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.

Andre Dubus



It helps me to know that authors with a lot more under their belt have had the same experiences of struggling with editing and wanting to quit. It helps because it gives me an outside opinion saying that perhaps that voice is wrong, that I really should keep going, that perhaps I am doing a worthwhile thing. I hope these words have helped you as they’ve helped me.

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What, Me Worry? Absolutely.

Last time I blogged about dealing with guilt in our creative endeavours, inspired by the words of best selling self help guru Wayne Dyer. His philosophy is that guilt is a useless emotion. He makes the same claim about worry.

“It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over because there’s nothing you can do about them, and why worry about things you do control? The activity of worrying keeps you immobilized.” -Wayne Dyer

What he says is true, isn’t it? Well, easier said than done, I say, especially when it comes to writing, the publishing industry and my own journey.

I worry that despite my best efforts I’ll never publish a novel.

I’ve published a bunch of short stories, but what I truly love is novel writing. I’ve written five. Five! None have made it to bookshelves. It’s not stopping me from moving on to the next one, but there’s a constant, rather loud voice in the back of my head, telling me I’m probably wasting my time and I’ll never get published. Is that worry, lack of confidence or both? Either way, it can’t be a good state of mind for producing my best work. Is it possible to let go of that worry and just write?

I worry I’ll be left behind.

Many of my friends are now publishing novels and series and I worry that I’ll be left out of the cool kids club. It’s not so much that I want to be part of the cool crowd, but that I really like these people and I don’t want to lose their friendship. They’re busy with release dates, blog tours, book signings and interviews while I’m busy whining that I can’t get my plot quite right in my latest unpublished novel. Would you want to still hang with me? I worry the answer is no.

I worry I’ll never reach my full potential.

Now that’s kind of contradictory, isn’t it? If all I do is sit around and worry, of course I’ll never reach my full potential. Apparently I have enough faith in myself to believe I have potential, yet sabotage that with worrying about failing that potential. This one might just be too cyclical to deal with, but once again, Wayne Dyer is right. Worrying is keeping me immobilized.

I worry I’m really just kidding myself. 

Wait, didn’t I just say I faith in my potential? See how worry works? One minute I believe I have enough talent and determination to “make it” (let’s just leave what that really means for another post) in the publishing industry, the next I think I’m really just fooling myself. Call it imposter syndrome, lack of confidence or give it any name you like, the result is worrying that I am plain old not good enough.

Most of all, I worry I will disappoint my instructors, mentors, critique partners and writing friends.

I’ve had some great instructors at workshops, conferences and conventions over the years. I’ve been lucky to also have mentors come into my life who have been extremely generous with their time and knowledge. Add to that a real pot of gold in the form of fabulous writing peers, including some willing to critique my work. They’re always there for me, whenever I need a pep talk, advice or a plan old kick in the pants. This is the biggest worry for me. I worry every single day that I’m letting these fabulous people down, that by not reaching higher achievements in my writing career I am failing them. I worry that if I don’t succeed, I’ve wasted the time and effort they’ve put into me. I realize this kind of pressure is completely self-imposed, yet I’m pretty sure it too immobilizes me.

Clearly I have issues.

Perhaps I’m not the best person to be giving out advice on the topic of worry, but hear me out. Maybe worry isn’t a useless emotion. Maybe, just maybe, what we worry about points out what we need to work on, where we need to examine ourselves and why we need to change.

If I never publish a novel, will I have had any less fun writing the ones I did, meeting the people I did and learning what I did along the way? Absolutely not. If other authors further along the journey than me decide I’m not worth their time, is that really such a great loss? Perhaps not. If I’m kidding myself about having any potential for writing, but writing makes me happy, does it matter what the end result is? Maybe not. As for disappointing others, I hope I haven’t done that yet. This worries me the most, but perhaps it can also push me the most. If I keep writing, keep improving and using all the great advice and support I’ve been given to the best of my ability, maybe I’ll make them proud of me for never giving up.

Truly, this post is my way of screaming at myself that it’s time to do something about all the stuff I worry about. If I can get over worrying about what people will think when they read this post, maybe I will.

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The Great Con Question — guest post from M. K. Hutchins

Here’s a guest post from novelist M. K. Hutchins. I met M. K. through the Codex Writers online group, which has been a wonderful resource for me over the years. It’s an organization for writers to share resources and experiences as they develop their craft and business sense. It’s a great organization with no dues–the only caveat is that you have to made one professional (6¢/word) sale to sign up. Check them out so you can meet M. K., too!

The Great Con Question

Should writers go to writing-related cons? Is it worth the time, effort, and travel? It all depends what you’re hoping to get from the convention.

Networking, with a capital N. There’s always those stories about authors who bump into just the right person at just the right moment and it launches their career forward. Can you count on going to a con and having this happen to you? Nope. You’re sure to meet interesting people. But there’s no guarantee that it will do anything, right now, for your writing career.

Though sometimes there are surprising results down the road. I listened to Stacy Whitman, my editor, talk at a conference. Because of that, I saw when she started Tu Books. Given how smart she’d been on panels, I decided to send her my manuscript – which worked out great.

Networking that looks a lot like hanging out with friends. One of the things I love best about conventions is talking to my peers. Listening to others’ hopes and fears assures me I’m not alone.

I suppose this is technically still “networking”, but the goals are different – it’s about having fun, not career-building. Cons never disappoint me in this regard. Even if I know no one, there are always interesting people to talk with about writing.

Promote your writing. I’ll be honest. I have no idea if sitting on a panel and putting my book in front of me helps sell copies. I’m not even sure how to empirically test that. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

Learn new stuff about writing. Are there blog posts, books, and podcasts that will teach you the same material you’d get at a con? Most of it, probably. But there is something magical about sitting in a room with a bunch of other writers that makes me focus better and think more critically.

A lot of panels do cover tried-and-true advice I’ve heard before. I no longer spend eight hours straight sitting through panels and taking furious note until my brain melts. But without fail, I learn something from presenters that I can turn around and use to strengthen my writing.

Oddly, I’ve also found being on panels to be a great learning experience. Questions under pressure have helped me crystallize my thinking on a variety of topics.

 Energize yourself. I’m fairly introverted, but I do find a hotel full of other writerly folk to be exciting. Between listening to panels and chatting, I usually come home from a con super-excited, brain fully charged.

I attended a local con last year with a baby-in-tow (and am forever indebted to my brother for holding him during my panels). Head full of ideas and arms full of a baby who wouldn’t sleep, I found myself pacing the hotel lobby sometime after midnight. Energized from the day, I finally managed to outline the second half of a novel that had been giving me grief – despite being sleep-deprived.

Pass it on. I remember being the notebook-wielding college student, frantically trying to soak up every tidbit of wisdom. It’s awesome to sit on a panel, see the notebook-wielding new writers, and tell them that starting a writing career is not impossible.

So, should you go to cons? Often people talk about capitol-N Networking as the goal of a conference, but going to a conference hoping for a career-changing meeting is asking for disappointment. If you’re looking for something else – camaraderie, learning, an energizing environment – it might just be the thing for you. There are always more cons going on than are practical for me to attend, but I look forward to the ones I can participate in all year long.

M.K. Hutchins’ YA fantasy novel Drift is both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in IGMS and Daily Science Fiction.  She studied archaeology at BYU, giving her the opportunity to compile ancient Maya genealogies, excavate in Belize, and work as a faunal analyst. She blogs at

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New Year, New Goals, New Ways of Thinking

When I was sixteen, I set a New Year’s Resolution to stop swearing so much. (Those who know me know how well that worked out.) I said “When the clock hits midnight, that’s it, no more swearing. I’m giving it up.” I got in trouble for my swearing pretty regularly, a steady four-year habit at the time, and I wanted to stop the habit to make life a little easier.

I lasted twenty minutes and then I gave up forever.

This may seem like a silly example of unrealistic expectations for goal-setting, but the truth is, people do this same thing in their own way. Whether you resolve at New Year’s Eve to change some habit or start a new project, or whether you’re embarking on a new endeavor some other time of year, at the end of the day we are creatures of habit and we’re going to fall back on old patterns. And a lot of goal-setting isn’t just about picking your goal, but about how you go about sticking to it.

I ran a half marathon last year, in November. I had started out with the goal of running a 10K and it kind of ballooned from there. And the whole process really reaffirmed some ideas I had with regards to setting and achieving goals.

Set a Concrete Goal that You Control 100%

A million things could have happened to keep me from the actual half-marathon event. Fire, flood, cancelled flights, law suits over intellectual property and trademarks, so many things in this world are completely outside of my control. But getting my body to a state where I could go for 13.1 miles and not die or injure myself was something I was able to control. So that was my goal: be able to run for 13.1 miles and not die or injure myself.

This is pretty similar to the actual butt-in-chair hands-on-keyboard part of writing. Nobody else is going to put in those miles. Nobody else is going to get those words on the page. It’s not in your control whether or not a publisher will pick up your book, but it’s in your control to write the best damn book you possibly can.

Big Goals Should be Broken Up into Smaller Goals

Prior to my half, the only kind of marathon I’d ever done had the word “Netflix” in it. So obviously I wasn’t about to leap off the couch and pound pavement for three hours, not unless I wanted to wind up on crutches afterwards. I built up the distance over the course of a eight months, running two to three times a week. I followed a training regimen and I did exercises outside of just straight-up running in order to help the process.

When you’re writing, you’re not going to go from zero to novel over a weekend. Even a long weekend. Not only will it take time to write the book, it’ll also take time until you’re writing a thousand words a day, two thousand, five thousand, whatever your target words-per-day goal is. Be responsible with your brain. Like the muscles in your body, your brain also needs training to go longer distances. Build up. Start with small, reasonable goals, and whenever you feel comfortable, push yourself a bit, until you’re just tearing through wordcount.

Going the Distance is Less About Strength and More About Psychology

So that part where I said “running two to three times a week”? Well, yeah, okay, most weeks. Like, 85% of weeks. Okay, 80%. Maybe. Some weeks, though, I didn’t go for my runs. I cooly ignored my running shoes as they waited patiently in the entryway like an expectant labrador retriever. It would have been really easy at this point to just throw my hands in the air and say, fuck it, I’ve screwed up, I missed a day of running, a week of running, I’ll never recover, time to lay on the couch with a pack of Oreos and contemplate my failure as a human.

But this past year, I tried two new psychological tricks with regards to my goals. One, I tried to forgive myself for these sorts of things. Instead of berating myself, “gosh, I can’t believe I skipped a run, what a loser” I tried saying “okay, you skipped a run, that’s fine, there’s always the next run.” And two, I tried to re-frame skipping my runs from the whining “I don’t wanna!” to “I’m making the conscious decision not to run today.” Suddenly, I didn’t want to make the decision to not run. It seemed so much easier to get my butt in gear when I felt like the decision was 100% within my control — which, in reality, it always had been, only I forced myself to think of it that way, to say it aloud.

Writing is not dissimilar. It’s easy to let other things in life “take over” your writing time. Sometimes it’s necessary to take care of other things in life, but sometimes we use it as an excuse to avoid doing the hard thing. So this is where you need to make the decisions about how to balance writing with everything else in your life. It’s easy to think of writing as something separate from the other things in your life, but really, it’s part of it, and deserves to be prioritized as much as anything else. So, recognize the moments when you are choosing not to write as just that: a choice. Say aloud “I am choosing not to write today.” See how you feel about it when you realize that it’s in your control. You may surprise yourself by flopping down in the chair and making the wordcount.

So, it’s been six days since the new year. How are you doing on whatever goals you have set for yourself, whether they were set on January 1 or before? If you’ve stumbled already, don’t even worry about it, there’s still a lot of 2015 to go, and by the time December 2015 rolls around, you probably won’t even remember where you slipped. You’ll only see how far you’ve come.

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