Write Life: Self publishing does not mean self-editing

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Photo copyright Craig Lloyd
Photo copyright Craig Lloyd


My write life went through a whole lot of ups and downs this past week.

First thing Monday morning, there was a rejection hiding in my email.

Jeff VanderMeer tells the audience a story about being charged by a Wild Boar, at his Seattle reading, Feb. 3, 2104. Photo by C. Brewster

On the up side, that evening, I got to meet Jeff VanderMeer, one of the writers and editors I greatly admire. I got to hear him read from his new release, Annihilation, which I was cruising through until I hit a dip and upside down part in the aforementioned rollercoaster ride that is my writing life. I should probably finish soon, will re-read, as is my habit, and provide a review. It’s the least I can do to make sure Mr. VanderMeer is supported, as any great author/editor should, especially given that he signed three of his books for me that evening. Plus he did his signing at one of my favorite book stores ever – Elliott Bay Books in Seattle.

Then I got a rejection the next morning.

I countered Wednesday by taking a class with Cat Rambo on submissions. I learned I’m doing things right – at least according to her. She has decades as a successful writer, so I trust she’s leading me down the right path. She also gave me many more ideas to up the ante in my submission algorithm.

Following the class, an email came in with not so good news. I had a contract declined. The declination reason was fully in my blame court due to my lack of clarity in the initial meeting with the client. This sometimes happens when you’re trying to do too much. Even though I proffered some other free work to the prospect, the sting was already felt. My bad, entirely. I’m confident as a writer and editor, but sometimes my business sense is not on point. Lesson learned. Here the roller coaster went way low and I was kicking myself endlessly for this dumb mistake.

The next morning, there was yet another rejection waiting for me. Thursday was very unproductive. I did lots of “business” stuff to support my writing life, but little writing or editing. I ended up watching a lot of television and the movie MELANCHOLIA, which fit my mood perfectly.

Photo copywrite Seth Sawyers
Photo copywrite Seth Sawyers

Then, I was offered another contract for editing – a novel manuscript – but when I read the first five pages of the work – I had to refuse. Even if I charged my top rate, which is still cheap by going-rate standards, the work would be so intense that it would take longer than it should, making it not worth my time.

This is the first time I’ve refused work. I hated to do it, especially given that I had that other contract declined. I need all the work I can handle and then some, at least until I start getting paid more often for the writing side of my freelance life. My editing rate is lower than the typical standard, because I’m still building my business. So, I work six days a week, sometimes seven. Refusing work seemed to go against my DNA coding. But, this manuscript was not ready for prime-time, folks.

It harkened me back to the fervor that has been happening over in Chuck Wendig’s world with his post regarding improving the reputation of self-publishing by not putting out, well – crap. Herr Wendig is a huge supporter of indie publishing, I believe. He’s a hybrid writer himself, successfully straddling both author-publishing and traditionally publishing chasm. And it is a chasm. Do both worlds put out trash? Yes – I’m always quick to tell you stories about the errors I’ve found in big-name author’s books; however, those instances are story-worthy simply because it happens less frequently. Is the scale heavier on the indie publishing side? It is. When Wendig says there is a self-publishing shit volcano out there and it’s a problem, I can’t disagree. The manuscript I refused to work with until, at least, the writer did another revision is only one such example.

Listen, all you self-publishing people: hire an editor. Every author I’ve worked with (and they are mostly in the author-publishing realm) are just floored when I return a manuscript to them with the errors I find – both mechanical and craft-wise. Some of these are manuscripts that the author has revised multiple times.

Yet, it’s amazing to me that so many writers do not know how to do proper punctuation. Many novelists are so caught up in their own world that they forget the reader doesn’t know what you know as the writer. Then there’s continuity errors, foreshadowing that is never fulfilled…and on and on. Recognize, at bare minimum, that we are human and make mistakes. Editors help ensure your mistake-ratio is harder to calculate.

Therefore, every manuscript needs a seasoned editor’s eye, regardless of frequency of revision. Especially, if the only other people you’ve had read it are your family and friends. The final product after they’ve paid me (or another professional editor) to do editing? A stronger sell in the market that is just inundated – near a million books a year between traditional publishing and self-publishing. You want something strong to stick out from the shit volcano, my darling fellow writers. If you have a good story, it won’t matter how it’s published. People will be drawn to it.

There’s been many other blog posts, outside of Wendig’s, recently by both traditionally published, as well as, indie-published writers who say, self publishing is an option. As creative word smiths we are in an incredible time with heavy opportunity to get our work out there. We should take advantage of it, but do so only after you’ve invested the time into properly vetting your work. It’s simple, the reason why:  if you don’t put a good product out there, no one is going to take you seriously. Your best friend might be a good beta reader for you and tell you, “Hey, that’s a great story.” But can you trust them to be objective? Can you trust your entire creative reputation on a best friend or spouse wanting to encourage you? Some folks have the rare relationship, where, yes, you can. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Photo copyright A Geek Mom
Photo copyright A Geek Mom

Self publishing does not mean self-editing. That’s a horrendously bad idea. One of the reasons I haven’t self-published yet is because I don’t currently have the dough to shell out for a professional editor. I won’t self publish until I do. You want to add to the argument that self-publishing is less-than? Put out a manuscript that hasn’t been professionally edited. Be an example for the Big 5 (or six or three…whatever) and other indie-publishing naysayers as to why their format of traditional publishing is the only way to go. Personally, my goal is to be a hybrid author: one who is traditionally published and one who does author-publishing, as well. I won’t limit myself. But you bet your bootie I’m going to do it right. I won’t be an example for how to do it unprofessionally.

Poor Man’s MFA: Outlines will save you

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This is not the kind of outline you need to write a novel.
This is not the kind of outline you need to write a novel.

“Outlines harsh my creative groove.”


That was me pre-2011. I wrote anything and everything without thinking too in-depth about it first. The muse just hit me and I would create. Poems, short stories, novels, articles, hell, even research papers.  The latter you’re supposed to think about it and outline. I fudged it. Ever.Single.Time. (I hope my college professors do not see this.)


But in 2011, as I decided I really wanted a novel I drafted back in 2009 to see the light of day. I’ve been rewriting, revising, and editing it on and off for two years. It’s very close to being to the point where I’ll share with my pool of generous beta readers.* Then, hopefully an agent is going to love this and publish it or maybe I’ll author publish. I haven’t decided yet. We’re not here to debate that. We are, however, here to talk about how my revision process wouldn’t have meant throwing out nearly 30,000 words and having to replace it with 40,000 new ones if I had outlined first. With this painful lesson, I know to never undertake a novel-length project again without outlining.


Outlining would have given me a roadmap to where I was going, where I had been, and what was coming next. It would have helped me with any plot twists I suddenly thought up, and it would have prevented some of the plot holes that made me throw out 30k words.


As you can imagine, I have, therefore, become an outlining convert. You outline your success by taking the time from actual writing, to do some planning first.


But, before you shake your head at me and declare that outlining is stifling and blocks your creativity, I want to tell you to grow up. It doesn’t mean I think you’re immature, but I want you to throw away the academic outlining you learned in grade school and junior high and then tried to (like me) unsuccessfully use in high school and college. That is not the kind of outlining I mean. Nope. Outlining for a book is much easier. Oh, and there are many options on how to do it, too. I like to use a little bit of everything.


First, I normally have a vague idea about the story. Maybe a character is talking to me. Maybe I just have a premise. So, I mind map. You probably mind mapped in your primary education years, too; but, because there’s no right or wrong answer, many teachers may have not used it more than once, and you’ve likely forgotten. But, it’s a creative person’s best friend. I’ve had some creative teachers call it “making a spider,” too. When you look at the pictures, you’ll know why. When you do mind mapping, you just sit down with a blank sheet of paper and writing utensils. You can just use a pencil or an ink pen, but you can also make it colorful, and do sketches as you go. Maybe that character starts talking to you about how he looks and how he’s not sure if he should shave his beard or not. But, you must map out, loosely, anything and everything in your brain about your story. Maybe you need to ask yourself a few questions. “Why does this happen?” “Who does it happen to?” “What’s the reaction?” Remember, there’s no wrong answer, just get it out.


This is likely why some of my creative teachers in the past called this a spider.
This is likely why some of my creative teachers in the past called this a spider.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while you’re mind mapping:


1. What distinguishes your protagonist from other people? (Do they have a trait that gets him/her into trouble?)

2. What they on the verge of doing? What decision? Why does it happen?

3. What are the internal and external conflicts going on for your protagonist and antagonist?

4. What is the protagonist’s goal and what is stopping him/her?

5. When the protagonist tries to overcome the above hurdle, what situation does that create? How do they handle it?

6. Be sure you have at least three obstacles in the way for your protagonist, be sure that one of those obstacles comes from an internal conflict. How will you push your main character out of their comfort zone?

7. How does the protagonist grow because of dealing with these conflicts? (This should reach you to your point of no return, easily.)

8. What do you want to happen at the end of the book?

9. What will have to happen to the protagonist/antagonist (as well as supporting characters) which bring us to the ending?


Here's a blank mind-map to get those a little nervous about doing this a head start.
Here’s a blank mind-map to get those a little nervous about doing this a head start.

By the time you’re done with that, you’ll have enough to fill out the basic stats about your story, which looks like this:


Title: Casz Can Outline

Characters:  Really Stubborn Middle Aged Writer

Basic Plot Summary:  How a painful writing experience taught her to outline.


Now, your basic document won’t be just one sheet, necessarily. Your summary won’t be your elevator pitch. It may take pages and pages (especially if you fill out a character worksheet for your protagonists and antagonists and every supporting character). But one mindmapping session may give you at least a loose outline on all those starting points for your novel. Also, if the more detailed your plot (think mystery, thriller) you’re going to need more details in your mindmapping and outline.


Once you have that, you can perhaps take a sheet and begin labeling it with Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and so on. Give yourself enough room between chapters, and at least put down three sentences in each chapter. What happens, why does it happen, who does it happen to, all need to be covered.


In each chapter, you need to list the things that have to happen to get you to the next point. Remember, we’re making that road map so we don’t get lost and we don’t have to undo and make 30,000-word mistakes.

One to three sentences per chapter about what has to happen will help keep you on the road to success while writing your novel.
One to three sentences per chapter about what has to happen will help keep you on the road to success while writing your novel.


Don’t throw any of these exercises or worksheets away. You will save these in your meta documents (meaning, you have a physical file or you create an electronic file where you transcribe all this stuff). Those who have Scrivener can easily create meta documents. Those of us who kick it old-school with simple word documents, will need to have separate documents. I, personally, have both physical notes as well as electronic copies. I believe in backing up, what can I say. The reason you don’t throw it away because it serves as a jumping off point when you do your final synopsis, as well as that roadmap to keep you on track. It doesn’t mean your story can’t weave in and out of off-road conditions, but you do need to come back to the main highway of your storyline at some point. These documents, this outlining process will help you with that.


After I post this, I have to begin to outline my next book-length project, which is actually going to be a creative non-fiction piece. I think. Who knows, I may end up with a fiction piece because outlining stories is so easy now.


What’s your next project? Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Have you outlined yet? This is my first attempt. I’m going to try again shortly…

A Nano Sketch Mind Mapped.
A Nano Sketch Mind Mapped.



*From the time I authored this post to when I actually posted it, I was able to finish my final revisions on this mss. It’s now off to Beta readers. 😉





Poor Man’s MFA: Making Time for Writing

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Editor’s Note:  Due to a hardware failure on our host server, this article is being republished. It may not look exactly as it originally appeared. Thank you for your understanding. 

clocksI have a few of friends who have recently completed or are currently in graduate programs (not necessarily a creative writing MFA). All of them have told me (in the brief conversations we have because, well, life is busy for those in a graduate program – especially given that all of them also hold down jobs while in their studies – that one of the first classes they had to take or first lessons in an individual class’ syllabus is Time Management.


Most graduate programs (especially my friend going for her doctorate) expect students to treat their studies as if it’s a full-time job. And honestly, it can be. With class time and homework eating up on average of 25 to 30 hours a week – that’s if you don’t have to struggle with any of the material, or in the case of a creative writing MFA, you’re a fast writer and never hesitate about what to write, because you know, we all can type 750 words in 10 minutes and….you get the picture. In addition to the school work, many raise families and hold down at least part-time jobs. (I’m aware there are graduate programs out there that do not allow students to work…those are rare cases and no one I know has attended any of those programs).


Therefore, time management becomes critical. You still have to sleep, eat, wash dishes, do laundry on top of all the classes, let alone any job you may have to do (we won’t even throw in child care in there, but that’s a reality for most of us). So, if you’re doing the Poor Man’s MFA, you’re going to need to also practice time-management and employ some creative strategies to get your writing time in.


Strategy No. 1:  You will make time. The biggest excuse I hear from people about why they are not writing is time. It’s like Salvador Dali is painting their personal clocks. It just melts away. “I don’t have time,” or, “I’m so busy with the kids,” or my favorite:  “My muse doesn’t come along at the right time.” (This is me rolling my eyes.) I remember sitting on the heels of an Abrams tank trying to stay warm scribbling scenes down in a small moleskin I carried in my cargo pocket. It was about 40 degrees out, spitting rain, and there was a gunnery range going on. Was it the best place to write? It certainly wasn’t the warmest or easiest. The point is, I wrote. If you want to write, you will. You’ll find a way, a path, or like Stephen King, a make-shift desk in the laundry room. As they say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This is true for writing. You want to write? You’ll find the time. You’ll push those clock hands backwards if you have to. Regardless, you’ll make it happen. You’ll find the way.


Strategy No. 2:  Make space to make time. Virginia Woolf said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Money is always helpful to meet goals, but we’re talking about space right now. I do agree that having a dedicated space in which to write is helpful. Shut the world away and just write. If you have that luxury, do it. It’s one less hurdle to keep you from writing. It helps keep you organized and its trains your mind and body that its time to write when you’re in that space. However, I refer back to Stephen King’s first writing space, and my ‘heels of the Abrams tank” memory. A Room of One’s Own ala Woolf is not a necessity, but it helps.


Strategy No. 3:  Schedule your writing time. Writing, just like any other activity outside of day jobs, sleeping, eating, etc. needs to be schedule. You make time to go to church, go to school, work out…heck, some of us have to schedule time to make love. Refer again to Strategy No. 1. Where there’s a will. For many years I got up early and wrote before work. For other times, I wrote at lunch every day during my *soul-sucking day job*. Today, I write a little bit in the morning, a little bit at lunch, and a little bit in the evening. In between, I work for clients, work my micro-farm, and create art. But it took me until I was nearly 50 years old to get to that point. Your mileage may vary.


Strategy No. 4:  Make Writing a Habit. On the heels of Strategy No. 3, writing every day (or like what Carolyn See in “Making a Literary Life” suggests, five days a week) should become a habit. When I miss a day, I know it. It’s like not drinking water for me. I have to write, even just journal every day or it doesn’t feel right. My habit includes a bit of ceremony to it, too. I stretch (lately I can’t get in the writing zone unless I’ve done my warrior pose several times), a mug of caffeine (either java or tea), my favorite writing music, and away I go. Every writer has a different custom to their writing time. Whatever you need to do to, as Haruki Murakami says, “mesmerize” yourself into your writing zone, do it. Vonnegut did push ups and sit ups every day. Hemingway wrote in the morning, and drank in the afternoon (although, you can write inebriated, I heartily encourage you to edit sober). Nathan Englander turns off his cell phone (I, too, have been unplugging as of late, as well). Heck, unplugging and keeping distractions out of your space is a great part of any writing schedule.


Strategy No. 5: Get a support network. Being alone all the time, mesmerized or in a loner zone of writing gets old and it can break even the strongest of wills. That’s why I encourage everyone to join a writing group. I had to make my own to make that happen (it was a good thing). Not sure where to start with all that? A great opportunity is coming up which pulls all the closeted writers out of the shadows:  National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it’s affectionately called, is 30 days of a great way to meet fellow writers in your area, be productive, and do this crazy thing called word-wars at write ins. Check it out. Just like a work-out buddy or an AA sponsor, having someone to lean on can be key to your success.


Strategy No. 6:  Set a goal. For the Poor Man’s MFA, we want to feel as if we’ve finished a formal MFA. But, we might need some metrics. Write a short story and send it out. Write an article or an essay and pitch it to an appropriate magazine. Enter a contest. Get your writing out there so you begin to have some measurements on how you’re progressing. (There will be more on this later as we’ve no actual professors in the Poor Man’s MFA University.)


Strategy No. 7:  It ain’t rocket science. Refer back to Strategy No. 1. Always. Just do it.


So which strategy do you need to work on? Where does your writing time management need help? What do you do to make it work? Tell us in the comments below. Let’s learn from one another.


P.S. If any of my visual artist friends out there would like to create some sort of logo for the Poor Man’s MFA Program (? University), I’d gladly love to include it and your credit here. Let me know. 

Poor Writer’s MFA: I am the permission giver

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caszpermissionBack in 2008 I founded a writing group called “SnoValley Writes!”  After five years we’re going strong. We have about 20 very active members and about 80 total members. That may not seem like a lot, but I was hoping to just reach a half-dozen people I could bond with over artistic angst and share a cup of coffee now and then. Sometimes the universe chooses to place abundance at our feet instead. I’m okay with that.


Before I go further into the subject the headline purports, let me give you some background. There were many reasons originally why I went through the effort to establish a writing group, which as I look back wasn’t that much effort. I saw all manner of writer, artist, and creative soul out and about in my community and I was tired of feeling alone. I put an ad out on craigslist, put flyers up, and set up a first meet-up. Before I could say “I’m a writer,” SnoValley Writes! was born. Our mission is to support and help writers reach new “literary peaks.” Hey, we live in the Cascade Foothills, cut us some metaphoric slack.


Today our group is an established Washington State non-profit, and among our ranks are several published authors – both traditionally published and author-published. We meet twice a month and “work shop,” as well as host three separate “cafes” each week where members (and non-members) are welcome to come at predestinated places and times and devote time to writing, editing, networking, seek help getting ‘unstuck,’ what have you.


In addition, a small fraction of the group developed Free Valley Publishing, which seeks to give another option and path for writers to get their work to an audience. I’m pretty proud of this group, as you might imagine.


The very first meeting of SnoValley Writes!, I introduced myself and then had everyone do the same, asking them to say, “I’m a writer,” either before or after their name. I gave them that latitude because they had enough “writer” in them to give up a Sunday afternoon and devote a few hours to their craft, profession, art, and dreams.


That little exercise has stuck and a few times a year at our workshops I pull it out again. Throughout the years this group has basically allowed me to mentor writers. I frequently say that had I personally received such mentoring, my stories might be more prolific, popular, and I’d spend less time editing white papers and writing press releases, and more time at book signings. In essence, I’m paying back and forward as much as I can. A few years into the group I watched as I had new members to the group do the “I’m a writer” exercise just blossom into full-blown authors. I watched as other members supported each other, encouraged, and most importantly challenged one another to push their craft, their art, and their dreams further. Heck, many of these folks now have strong relationships that I suspect will be life-long. Most importantly, I realized the simple sentence of allowing someone to say “I’m a writer,” to provide them work sessions, dedicated times for writing – however small – was paramount to giving permission. All my volunteer efforts and the efforts of the group circle around some adult-version of being allowed to do what they want.


I recently wrote here on the blog about creating my own MFA program, a shoot-from-the-hip creative writing course of study, now appropriately named “Poor Writer’s MFA” (because if I ask myself honestly, finances is the biggest barrier, at least, for myself from doing the real thing). Therefore, it seemed like the first lesson in such a program needed to surround permission. My writing group is my collective guinea pig for lessons. They fortunately are eager and willing to do exercises, explore creative topics and the like. Our last workshop we pulled out colored pencils, crayons, markers and all manner of imagination to make our “permission” to be a writer official. I made the writers draw up a permission slip or certificates of author authenticity, or a coupon book of excuses, so my fellow writers felt free to write. As always, the group surprised me with their imagination. Take a peek (note I voided out some of their names to maintain their privacy):

permission1 permission2 permission3 permission4 permission5 permission6 permission7


Do these adults really need my permission? Nah. Not even close. For some reason the inner child needs to be told, to hear, and to feel supported in the adult artist’s endeavor to create. If I fulfill that role, so be it. For sure, many others have done it for me as well:  my spouse, my kids, my fellow writers, my literature and writing professors, hell, the baristas at my favorite coffee cafe’…the list is endless. I’m happy to pass along the kindred spirit of permission. If you need to make yourself a permission slip and put it by your writing desk or attach it to your laptop, do it. Whatever puts you in the headspace to know that creating is a GOOD thing. It’s the thing you were made to do.


You’re a writer.


You’re an artist.


Go out and create.


The Write Life: Make My Own MFA Program

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With my recent posts, it looks like I do nothing but seek happiness and come up with Harvest Creations. I assure you, I’m writing, too.

Most recently, the latest issue of Poets & Writers showed up in my mailbox. It’s their annual MFA issue. This issue for years (its their 7th year doing this special-themed issue) has inspired me to push my writing farther. It inspired me to finish my bachelor’s degree (9/2010) and finally take the leap to live a full-time writing life (those that know me part of the last was prompted by my need to care for my special-needs child, too). This month when the issue arrived, I revisited my desire to get my MFA. Many folks in the writing business will tell you that you do not need a MFA to be an author. I have had traditional publishers, agents, celebrated and not-so-celebrated authors tell me an MFA is not necessary. That is true. For me, however, the pull to spend some dedicated time to even pushing my craft further is very strong. It’s like it’s a Jedi Warrior and I’m the light saber. Come to me, it beckons. Let’s slice through that creative fog and get down to business. Also, the idea of someday teaching creative writing in a college-level setting is high for me. My husband and I plan to take many motorcycling trips. Working through fall and winter to have the summer off for riding & writing is a great motivator for me.

But, even with the low residency options, I have to put my pursuit of an MFA on hold. My special-needs child is far from being independent and I have two more teens to get through high school and off to college successfully. Yeah, yeah, there’s no time like the present argument and all that. But, with the kids at home, financially the MFA isn’t in the cards right now. My kids and spouse suffered enough when I was finishing my bachelor’s. Right now the main focus for me is raising and caring for them.

Despite the knowledge that pursuing an MFA is years down the road for me (my youngest is five years from attending college), I’ve been outlining and researching a lesson plan for a Make-My-Own MFA program. Maybe once I finish this, I’ll be less likely to want to get an official one. Regardless, in the next five years plus, I can push my craft and broaden my writing knowledge. One of my college professors told me when I was waffling about turning in credits I had earned from other institutions, stating that I wanted to learn new things told me, “You have your whole life to learn new things and it doesn’t have to cost you a dime. There’s the libraries and internet. You love to learn, Casz, that won’t stop just because you’ve left college.”  He was right. In addition, I’ve been watching fellow writers, artists and musicians who are friends, acquaintances, and those I admire do basically the same thing.

When the kids go back to school next week, I’m going to be going to school, too.It will be at the MMO MFA University. I’ll be spending no less than 15 hours a week on writing activities much like an MFA program would allow you. I’ll be spring boarding off my writing groupHOuseNDST 001 copy in lieu of fellow classmates, and even attending any literary lectures I can that are zero to low-cost. Each week I’m going to try to blog about what I’m doing, what I’m learning, and how my Make-My-Own MFA is progressing.

It could be the folly of a fool. Yet, nothing ventured, nothing gained. See ya at school next week.