Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick?

Two linked issues in this and the next post: First, do writers actually need prompts or are prompts just another cute trick for lazy wannabes? And second, if a writer does need a prompt, where should it come from and how is it found?

PART 1 today; PART 2 on Monday.

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PART 1: DO WRITERS REALLY NEED PROMPTS?

As far as I can figure out, “prompt” is a fairly new word in writing terms. It refers to short sentences or phrases that are used to prod writers into writing. Like these:

  • Write about your first day of school. 
  • Who do you like better—your mother or your father? 
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Write about an accident you saw or had.

The notion is that you sit down with one of these prompts, of which there are thousands and thousands already floating around online and in books, and you “get your creative juices flowing” by using the prompt as a starting point. That way you don’t actually have to face a blank page or screen, heaven forbid, and you don’t have to think too hard about what you should write because the prompt gives you a topic.

Professional writers write because they have something they need or want to write about; historically the reason for writing is having something to say. It is not the reverse: that is, wanting to be a Writer and therefore looking for the ignition that will lift you off the launch pad.

To put it slightly differently, somewhere along the way the order of importance got reversed for a lot of people: first they decided to be Writers, and then they wondered what they should write about.

When no subject matter presents itself quickly or easily, some would-be writers imitate the writers they admire. Some latch onto the familiar—family recipes, World War II, illness, divorce—regardless of whether they have anything interesting to say. Some try classes in journaling, short stories, novels.

The popularity of the idea of being a writer plus the extreme change in writing technology (the ease of writing on a computer; the proliferation of writing software) plus the availability of writing classes and writing workshops plus the accessibility of self-publishing has turned what once was a rigorous life-choice into something anyone can do. Or try to do.

All of this may have contributed to the birth of the prompt. The connection is clear, isn’t it? If you’re dabbling in writing, by definition you don’t have a piece of work you feel compelled to pursue. So you may need a jump-start: a list of prompts that someone else came up with.

And that’s why I ask the question: Do writers actually need prompts?

Last November I gave a talk at the New York Society Library, about being stuck or having “writer’s block.” It was based in part on a TBUHB post called “Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck.”  In that talk I succumbed to the temptation to offer stuck writers a list of possible writing topics. Prompts, in effect. I called them “jolts,” since the goal was to shake up a stuck writer and jolt her into writing again—the way a wallop of electricity can jolt a stopped heart into action. Here are a few of them:

  • Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  • Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  • Write a biting political satire.
  • Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.

In retrospect I’m sorry about this. Instead of giving a list of jolts, what I should have done was ask the members of the audience to look inward and come up with three or four very personal prompts. That leads us to Part 2, on Monday.

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SIDEBAR: True writer’s block, which is rare, cannot be cured with prompts; it’s a different, deeper, more intractable problem than the much more common predicament of being stuck. But any writer who’s not blocked but is stuck might have a chance to get going again with prompts; it’s worth a try. Please read Part 2 for a new and different approach to finding the right prompt.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Barner Books, New Paltz, NY

Village House of Books, Los Gatos, CA

Letters Bookshop, Durham, NC

Well, well, well…Now even the self-published Amazon writers are having  some difficulties with the gorilla. I wonder how they’re feeling about being on the receiving end of the gorilla’s wallops.

Read “Writers Are Mixed Over Amazon Unlimited” by David Streitfeld in today’s NYT.

so many lives to learn

This story from the New York Times is the stuff of novels, and I hope someone writes it. E.L. Doctorow, for preference.

“Book Behind Pulp Fiction Contest Hides a Respectable Past”

Here’s the operative paragraph in a piece in the NYT of December 8, called “Hachette to Experiment with Selling Books on Twitter“:

Do tweets sell books? It has long been a question for publishers and authors, who have started relying heavily on social media to promote books as they search for new ways to reach readers in an uncertain retail market. Authors with large Twitter followings, like John Green and Paulo Coelho, have become publishing powerhouses.

According to research, Twitter works as a platform only if the tweeter already has a following. That’s why this Hachette experiment makes sense—for titans of the publishing world, but not so much for other writers. We’ll see what happens.

 

Getting stomped: the private editor’s (occasional) lot

POW!*#%SMACK*$!BAM!@*SOCKO!#%!

When a writer submits her pages to the Girl Group, the other members read them carefully and make notes in the margins; I read them and line-edit. That’s my job, as with any writer, in or out of the group.

Not long ago at a GG meeting, one of the writers said to me, “At first when I read your comments I thought, ‘She doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do here, she completely missed it, these comments are useless to me.'” And then she laughed. “The next day when I reread your comments I realized you’d gotten it completely and the comments were on the nose.”

That’s not a story about how good I am, but about how much the writer loved her text and needed twenty-four hours to get over it so she could take advantage of the editing. This particular writer is getting better and better, as a result of her openness to possible changes. That’s how the process should work.

If I’m tactful and kind and also incisive and smart, it’s how the process usually works. But it’s not how the process always works. For one thing, I’m human and I goof. Not that often, but yes, I goof. I make a dumb suggestion or I miss the point; I push too hard or I’m unclear; I urge one sort of direction when the writer wants to go in another direction, or the opposite happens—I’m too forgiving and don’t rein in a writer who’s going off on a useless tangent. It happens.

In a writers’ group, where you’re all face to face, this can be corrected quickly. Writer A just says to me, No, no, no, that’s not where I want to take this, and we discuss it and resolve it.

Problems are much more likely to arise when I’m working with a writer who’s in Chicago or wherever and our exchanges are by e-mail. Unless she picks up the phone and talks to me, there’s a chance that her unhappiness with my editing or my behavior can turn into acrimony. This hasn’t occurred very often, because I’m careful about how I edit, but the times it has occurred have been memorable—to me, anyway.

In one case, for instance, I referred to a tiny bit of awkward writing as a problem of the writer’s having English as a second language. She insisted that she’d grown up writing in English, all the way through her MFA, that she’d never written in any other language, and that I was condescending and she was shocked. Whew. Horrified that I’d made such an egregious error, I apologized for giving offense.

And then I carefully reread her argument: “I have never written anything in any other language (except of course when I was a child in school) and I’ve been a professional writer…for fifteen years.”

Whoops: English was in fact her second language, and any editor with a sharp ear (yes, ear) would have caught the same little awkwardness and known it came from that leftover early education in another language. Some writers could have laughed off the mistake and the crit; this writer flew into a rage. End of editing relationship.

And then there’s money. Money—payment—can turn the sweetest clients sour. I try to make it clear to the writers I work with that I do the work quickly and I expect to be paid quickly. I’m a freelancer: fast payment is part of the deal. I’m not a big company that can afford to wait around for remittance. But if a writer doesn’t like the critique I’ve given her, she can take out her anger by dawdling about payment. Hence this little exchange:

Dear X—Everyone pays her bills differently, but I haven’t yet received a second check from you. Perhaps it will show up in today’s mail, but if you haven’t sent it yet, I’d appreciate your getting it to me ASAP. I do the work promptly, so I’m accustomed to being paid promptly. Thanks for attending to this.

Best, Lorrie

And this is what I got back:

Dear Lorrie,

I can’t believe you sent me this e-mail. I pay my bills at the end of the month. I’m insulted by your implication, especially since we only spoke two weeks ago.

I always honor my commitments, even when I’m not satisfied with the results. I won’t work with you again. I’m shocked you would treat a friend of Z’s this way.

End of editing relationship, but she did pay the bill—even though she wasn’t satisfied with the results.

My third-favorite mess was with a woman who was new to writing but hardly new to business. And hardly new to asking for perks she wasn’t precisely entitled to, like requesting I send her not just my critique of her work (as contracted) but also the many pages of manuscript on which I had scribbled the notes I used for writing the lengthy crit that she was entitled to. So okay, I hesitantly agreed to send her the annotated pages, explaining that they were rough and might seem tactless. No problem, she wrote back—she was sure they’d be helpful.

Then she wrote me yet another e-mail asking me to give her advice about the next book she was planning to write, and we had this exchange:

Dear Q—I don’t mean to be rude, but advice (usually called consultation) is what I do for a living, at $100+ per hour. I’ve already given you quite a lot of critique, advice, suggestions, and I’ve even mailed the marked-up pages to you the moment you asked for them. I believe I’ve fulfilled my commitment to you and earned my fee; I simply don’t have time to give you more. Nothing personal at all; just the exigencies of the freelance life. Good luck on the new book.

She wrote back:

Once again I am surprised and saddened by the lack of professionalism in the writing world. Unfortunately I was not aware of exactly what my money bought me and now question your advice. My e-mail could have been responded to with a ten word sentence, not much of your time. I apologize for not understanding the boundaries and promise not to make contact again.

The reason these three creepy incidents stand out is, of course, because they’re so rare. Most writers are wonderful to work with, understand what they need and how I can help them, and then get on with their work. I do not disclaim my own fumbles and stumbles, but it’s clients like these who make me ever more careful about whom I choose to work with.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Kramerbooks & afterwords, Washington, DC

Barbara’s Bookstore, Chicago, IL

Cannon Beach Book Company, Cannon Beach, OR

 

Am I a writer?

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This is a story for and a message to my Girl Group, which is winding down after four years. All six of us need a break from our weekly and, for most of the past year, every-other-weekly meetings. I need more time for finishing my novel, writing this blog, giving proper attention to my private clients, and dealing with my elderly parents.

The GGs need something quite different: independence from the group, to find out if they will keep writing on their own. Each of them has to answer the question, Am I a writer? 

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I’m sitting in the aisle seat of a 737 flying east from Salt Lake City to New York. Two very nice Oregon ladies occupy the middle and window seats. The three of us start to chat: they’d love to stay in New York for a few days, but they’re on their way to Egypt and the Holy Land.

Uh-oh, religion. Don’t go there. What to talk about? Books. Mrs. Window Seat turns out to be a retired librarian, Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband is writing his memoirs. What, they ask me, do you do?

I’m a writer.

Their eyes widen, they smile, they’re…avid. What do you write? they ask.

Now I’m in the same soup I always land in when that question comes up. I write fiction, but aside from a few short stories, it’s unpublished. I write a blog, but not everyone takes blogs all that seriously even when the content is serious. So what do I tell these very conventional, very sweet airplane ladies who are excited about meeting a Real Writer?

I tell them the truth: I’ve written more than thirty books—cookbooks, craft books, list books, books about food—and dozens of short articles for my brother’s imprint (though I don’t name Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader; I don’t know how shockable these women are). But now, I continue to explain, I write only fiction and my blog.

The airplane ladies are on the receiving end of a technique I use: establishing my nonfiction credentials so that my choice to abandon the world of pop books makes a credible story that leads into the present. That is, I left the world of nonfiction books in order to write novels and more short stories, to teach writers, to invent a thoughtful and wide-ranging blog for writers and readers. Voila! I’ve presented the facts with the spin I insist on.

I am a writer, whether my current work is being published or not. I am a writer, because I write. A lot. Most days. Sometimes it’s my novel or a short story; often it’s a blog post. Or a talk I’m giving, notes for new work, the occasional poem—it’s all writing.

So the question is, are you a writer? It’s an important question to answer for yourself because if you define yourself as a writer, you must write. You can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write, unless you’re Alice Munro or Philip Roth and you’ve already written a huge body of brilliant work and you’re taking a well-deserved breather.

Excluding periods of so-called “writer’s block,” periods of incapacitation, and periods of rest (to let the well fill up again), writers write. If you write steadily—even if you’re Mrs. Middle Seat’s husband attempting his memoir—you are a writer.

But you’re not a writer if you…

  • can’t find or make time to write
  • let too many other people’s needs override your own needs, too often
  • find ten thousand reasons not to write
  • can’t be alone, or alone in your own head even with people around you (as in a writers’ room or a café)
  • let your partner/mother/father/friend bully you into believing you aren’t allowed to be the writer you want to be, which is another way of saying “if you let someone else define you”
  • aren’t having any fun with (or at least satisfaction from) your writing
  • have nothing to say
  • would mostly prefer to be doing something else

You could spend a lot of time explaining to yourself why you’re not writing…when you could be writing. Or you could stop hitting your head against the wall, stop writing, and go do something you like better.

But here’s what I’ve been soft-shoeing around: you know whether or not you want to be a writer. If you do, then write. If you don’t, then don’t write.

I once had a private client who finally completed the mystery novel she’d been trying to conquer for years. It wasn’t very good, and I had to tell her so; that was my job. I do these critiques as kindly as I can, because every writer is vulnerable. But the facts were the facts: this novel wasn’t going to fly. The writer responded:

You are absolutely right. I wish I’d met you years ago. It’s not pleasant to realize that I wasted so much energy on a poorly conceived project. But I’m giving up the literary life and buying a racing boat.

I sincerely hope she did, and had a wonderful time with it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, NY

Destinations Booksellers, New Albany, IN

Copperfield’s Books, Sebastopol, CA

The jolt, part 2

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Last Thursday, September 18, I posted “Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1,” about jolting two members of the Girl Group out of their book outlines and into their actual manuscripts. It was inadvertently easy: To get them moving, I gave them an assignment to write something playful, and as soon as they realized they didn’t want to do the assignment they got down to writing their books.

The point of a jolt is to move you from running in place to running. To kidnap you from writing that’s repetitive and going nowhere, and transport you to writing that has energy and substance.  The deliberate writing kind of jolt (as opposed to the accidental jolt described above) turns you temporarily away from the work you’re not doing and gets you writing something completely different. It’s a little like taking a busman’s holiday, but more fun.

Jolts come in all sorts of forms, lengths, topics, and moods. What they have in common is that they’re not like the writing you’ve been doing. If you’re writing a memoir about your family, a jolt could be a short story or a poem. If you’re mired in a novel, a jolt could be a memory piece about your grandmother. If you’re working too hard on a collection of nonfiction essays, a jolt might be writing a fairy tale. Of course you can’t write something you’re completely unsuited to—poetry isn’t for everyone—but there’s always some new direction you can go, just for a short time.

20 J O L T S TO GET YOU GOING
  1. Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  2. Write a huge, screaming fight between two close friends. Do they get past it?
  3. Describe, in detail, a place you love. Invoke all your senses—but don’t explain why you love the place; that should be revealed in what you write about it.
  4. Write a one-act play.
  5. Write a short story in the genre of fantasy or science fiction.
  6. Describe the worst, most humiliating experience you had in high school.
  7. Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  8. Write a memory piece about a relative you love dearly. It should be so touching that you make yourself cry.
  9. Write a memory piece about a relative you loathe—no holds barred. Get enraged.
  10. Find a photograph you’ve never seen before, one you really like, and write a narrative about it.
  11. Take one paragraph from a story you wrote a while ago and expand it to ten pages.
  12. Write a short epistolary story. That means letters sent between characters, or letters sent by one person, which add up to a story.
  13. Tell about a sexual encounter—good, bad, or indifferent. Details, please.
  14. Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.
  15. Write a children’s story you would have loved when you were five.
  16. Write a biting political satire.
  17. Describe the best meal you’ve ever had, where you had it, and with whom (if anyone).
  18. Tell a story about a journey—any kind of journey.
  19. Your beloved pet—need I say more?
  20. Write a song. Make it long.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA

Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, OK

Diesel, a Book Store, Oakland, CA

plant dreaming deep 

I’ve borrowed, respectfully, the title of one of May Sarton’s memoirs to lure you into reading this article from The Millions: “The Profits of Dreaming: On Fiction and Sleep,” by Chloe Benjamin.

It’s a little bit all over the place, but the interesting parts are very interesting. Here’s a taste:

But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.

The all-over-the-place-ness is the result of trying to cram too many fascinating topics into one article: sleep, night dreaming, daydreaming, the quality and use of dreams, the relationship of dreams to fiction, reading and writing fiction, and…arts funding. Scattered, but definitely worth reading.

Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1

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About three years ago, two members of the Girl Group were struggling with the problem of how to write what they wanted to write. Each knew her topic and her general subject matter but could not decide how to shape the material into a coherent structure for a book-length work. Both writers were making outlines, outlines, and more outlines.

They were getting nowhere, but they were convinced that if only they could get the outlines “right” they’d be able to start their manuscripts. The deeper problem, though, was that each was coming down from a grueling year of issues that had nothing to do with the writing they wanted to be doing. Neither could find focus because their heads were still full of leftover overload.

Every writer has been there. For some writers, writing is the way to work themselves out of a headful of junk; for other writers, trying to write before they clear out the mess is an exercise in futility. Another way of saying this: some writers respond to more pressure; other writers have to get free of pressure before ideas begin to flow again. And for yet other writers, a little of each can get them moving forward—a three-hour push of writing followed by a bike ride or choir practice or a movie.

You probably know (or think you know) which kind of writer you are. I wasn’t sure, at that time, which category either of these two GG members belonged to, but they definitely needed an assignment that would give them a jolt.

What  you need is a change of plan, not a change of outline. I would like each of you to put aside for the moment all notions of work and think only of play. I would like each of you to write only something that is fun and pleasurable. No heavy dissections of life, no complex behavioral analyses. Let all that go for the moment.

Sit down and write something that delights you. Something frivolous or funny or sexy or silly. It might be about food or clothes or your childhood best friend. The first time you French-kissed. The best manicure you ever had. How much you hated your English teacher or your sibling. Anything that you will enjoy writing about. That’s your assignment.

Many painters—when they’ve had too much of the heavy-duty painting—go back to simple, entertaining, undemanding media. Like paper and crayons. I’m suggesting that you do the same, for now. The point is to write, not to write War and Peace.

Free your mind; stop being so demanding. Being demanding will only freeze you up even more. Give your unconscious some recuperative time. While you’re writing things that give you pleasure (instead of torture), your psyche will be relaxing and hatching new ideas.

Did these two woman take my excellent advice? They did not. What we found out simply by my suggesting that they lighten up for a while was that they weren’t experiencing resistance or avoidance; they were just confused, running in place. They needed to be shoved into making a choice, and giving them an assignment forced them into choosing: do I want to play for a while or do I want to take on the bigger work?

Neither of them wanted to lighten up: the very idea of lightening up and having fun shocked them. Gave them a jolt. They swung into gear, ditched the obsessive outlining, and started writing.

Does that mean my advice was bad? It does not. My advice was good—for someone who needs a time-out to try something different before returning to her primary work. If you’re that person and you’re obsessing over some part of your work, consider giving yourself a temporary writing assignment that will help you break out of repetitive writing behavior.

MONDAY’S POST will be “The jolt, part 2: 15 temporary writing assignments to jolt you out of whatever you need jolting out of.” Don’t miss it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT

Hicklebee’s, San Jose, CA

No is YES

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Today’s post is about saying no, but not in a mood of negativity: quite the opposite. Saying no to people, pets, events, dates, activities, and other distractions when you need time for yourself is positive

I asked the Girl Group to think about this business of saying no, and got interesting responses. Geralyn Lucas, author of the forthcoming (in October) Then Came Life, said this: “My therapist helped a lot. She said, ‘Saying yes to something means saying no to others.’ I always feel guilty saying no, but she made me realize I was really saying YES.”

The context of my question to the GGs was writing, naturally. How do you learn to say no in order to make (or take) the time you need for your own work? What are the things you must do versus the things you think you must do? What comes first, when you have to choose among demands—the demands of your writing or the demands of your family, friends, job, and all the other tugs-on-your-sleeve?

These decisions aren’t easy, and nobody can make them for you; only you can judge the importance of your need to write, relative to those tugs. What you want to watch out for, though, is saying an unconsidered yes to a demand that may not—when you think about it carefully—be as important as it seems at first.

Time out for a laugh: Here’s another answer to my question about saying no, from GG member Lynda Myles.

The ONLY reasons why I would say no to a friend’s invite:

  1. I’m hiking in the Andes and I can’t get home in time.
  2. I’m unconscious in the I.C.U.
  3. I have to produce the script/story/article by tomorrow morning at 9 am and I’ve only got half of it done!!! Well, maybe for just a quick drink.​

And these are the excuses I give myself for accepting invitations ​when I should be writing:

  1. I may not have another chance to spend time with this person again.
  2. It’d be a crime to turn down a free ticket to a Broadway show.
  3. There’s NEVER a time when I shouldn’t be writing, damn it! I have a life to live!
  4. I’ll do it another day, when I feel like writing.

So how important is it to you to write? How important is it to you to write today? How important is it to you to write tomorrow?

I’m not always too terrific with this issue myself. I have been known to insist on cleaning up my apartment before sitting down to write—even though I face a wall when I’m writing. It can be hard to differentiate between a) avoidance of (or resistance to) my work, and b) everything else. I can say yes to a movie and regret it later (why did I waste my precious time on that dumb film?)—but I can also struggle at my computer when I know I should be giving myself a rest.

Anxiety plays a big part in this discussion. If you’re anxious about your writing, almost any distraction can be turned into an escape, a “must-do.” But if you’re anxious about whether the kids are strangling each other in the back yard, even the writing you love most can be impossible to focus on.

Often the biggest obstacle to commandeering time for your writing is the fear of making changes.  Let’s say your mom is accustomed to getting a phone call from you every day at four p.m. One day you start writing at 2:30 p.m., and when 4:00 p.m. arrives you don’t want to stop because you’re on a roll. Conflict! You can stop writing and be pissed off at yourself and your mom, or you can keep writing and risk having your mother angry at you.

Or imagine that you’re writing well at eight a.m. on a Saturday and suddenly the entire family piles into your little writing room yelling for pancakes. Or your spouse or partner is making sounds of discontent just loud enough for you to hear when you’re in the middle of a hot chapter. Or a client calls you at home during the two evening hours you’ve managed to eke out for writing, and wants to discuss that morning’s meeting.

There’s also: let’s have sex; the dog is throwing up; we’re out of milk; my boss is coming for dinner tomorrow; Aunt Fussy’s garden party is next week; they need an usher for Tiffany’s ballet recital; my teacher wants you to bake cookies for the class party; someone has to balance the checkbook pronto; and did you remember to buy a birthday present for Cousin Crabby?

Need I go on? I could, and you could too, with your own unique list of interruptions, some of which may be important—and some, not so much.

The time to make changes is before you find yourself flipping pancakes.  And the trick to making the kind of changes that will result in more time for your writing is actually five tricks. Tough ones, and they apply to everyone—married or single, kids or no kids, home job or office job, younger or older.

  1. Explain carefully and resolutely to the people who are going to get less of your time why they’re going to get less of it and how much less.
  2. Accept that those people are probably not going to be happy about it. They might even get mean.
  3. Be prepared to hang in while they get used to the changes. They will, eventually.
  4. Stick to your guns. No backsliding—well, only rarely and only on special occasions.
  5. Remind yourself firmly and frequently that you may be saying no to other people’s needs, but you’re saying yes to your own needs. Yes, yes, yes.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bluestockings, New York, NY

Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, Fort Wayne, IN

King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT