Ask The Lit Coach: "How Do You Find The Time To Write What You Love If You're So Busy?" and More

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Two of the questions I get most often have to do with time management and whether or not short story collections are a worthwhile pursuit. I address both issues in this week's Q&A. Thanks to Michael W. and Dakota T. for submitting their questions.

Question from Michael W. from San Diego, CA

How do you find the time to write what you love if you're so busy that you never have any free time?


Define “busy.” The challenge with this question is that I have to assume how you spend your day.

The short answer is there is always time to write, so my question for you is what activity are you willing to sacrifice to create time to write? You always have a choice.

You have to eat, sleep, bathe, commute to and from work, work, take care of your children, pets or others who depend on you (if applicable), care for your living area; those are non-negotiables. You must enjoy a very basic quality of life before you think about writing. Let’s assume you have that. Everything after that is negotiable - a choice.

I spoke with a LitReactor member the other day who chooses to not have a cell phone. He told me it wasn’t necessarily about the expense, he just preferred to be aware of the life happening around him. He actively chooses to focus. Another writer I coach is cutting back on her volunteer time to carve out an hour a day to write. An extremely busy professor at a prestigious university who I’ve coached chose to stay up until the wee hours of the morning to write. Another writer I know prefers to wake before the sun comes up to squeeze in some writing time before she has to shuffle her kids off to school and herself to work. Several other writers I either know well or coach choose to devote their weekends to write or head out of town altogether for a week of serious alone time with their writing. All of these people have full lives with major responsibilities but they choose to carve out time from their busy schedules to write.

Here's what I want you to do

If you can carve out even thirty minutes a day to write, that’s great. Start there. But I want you to realize two things. Writing doesn’t just happen when you’re sitting in front of your blank screen; and building a serious writing discipline takes time. So allow yourself time to find inspiration in other places than your computer and allow yourself the time to grow into a writing practice that works with your schedule. Make small sacrifices – I’m not saying you should hide out in your basement chained to your desk until you crank out 10,000 words. Rather, ease into it. Start with 30 minutes devoted to writing or even imagining. See where it takes you. When you can build up to an hour, do it and let that hour then become the minimum. If you feel you can’t write, then read, read, read! Do not check Twitter, do not update your status on Facebook, no texting allowed. No distractions. Got it? I know we keep being told by marketers that our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, but it’s your choice to believe that heap of garbage. And it’s your choice to focus.

Good luck!

Question from Dakota T., Louisville, KY

When shopping your work around to publishers, is there a stronger preference from readers, agents and publishing houses for novels or short story collections? I'm referring to when the writer has an established portfolio of published work in magazines and literary journals. Would a debut novel or short story collection have a bigger impact on the reputation of the writer?

There are many things that can affect the reputation of a writer for better or worse, but choosing to approach the publishing world with a short story collection over a novel (or vice versa) is not one of those things.

If you’re a literary writer you need to approach agents and/or editors with three things: a writing portfolio; a strong piece of work; and a strong desire to promote and sell your book. Whether that work is a short story collection or a novel is up to you. 

The honest truth, however, is most publishers would rather see a novel than a collection of short stories from a new author because short story collections are difficult to market and sell, but of course there are always exceptions. If your short story collection is very strong, if the thread that connects the stories is identifiable and tight and the voice consistent, an agent and/or editor will consider the collection.

If I may take a slight detour…when I was an agent, I welcomed short story collections because I really loved the medium. Still do. And I am very optimistic the medium will experience a rebirth due to this publishing revolution we find ourselves in today. More authors are taking their careers in their own hands now whether they choose to self-publish, publish through Amazon or Barnes and Noble’s e-publishing platforms, or even by just realizing the worth of their work in the marketplace – writers are taking back their craft and showing Big Six publishers that sometimes it’s good to get to know who your readers really are and what they really want to read. I’ll take a fabulous short story collection like Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Grove Press, 2005) or Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats (Free Press, 2005) over any reality TV star du jour’s ghost written slop any day.

No matter the direction you choose, Dakota, you’ve got to be totally in love with your novel or short story collection and it’s gotta be great.

Good luck!

Image of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Author: Sherman Alexie
Price:
Publisher: Grove Press (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 272 pages
Image of Big Cats: Stories
Author: Holiday Reinhorn
Price: $15.99
Publisher: Free Press (2005)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Erin Reel

Column by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break December 5, 2011 - 1:20pm

Dakota,

I want to follow up on what Erin said.  I was well aware that collections traditionally don't sell as well as novels when I queried my agent, however, the collection I wrote had been workshop tested with many Chuck anthology finalists/nominations as a result, and then there were other stories that had already been published in various lit mags/anthologies.  So, in essence, this thing had some credentials already locked in when I brought it to him.  I can't say for sure, but I think that made all the difference.

Also, when I signed with him, the contract stipulated that he'd represent the collection but the next project had to be a novel.  Kind of an "everyone wins" scenario there, I think.

.'s picture
. December 5, 2011 - 3:48pm

@Erin Thank you for the great insight as always. Your Q&A's keep me writing and keep me motivated. Very helpful, your advice is indispensable.

@Michael W. Great question, I've been having this dilemma myself as my schedule starts to sync more and more with the "real world." I'm comfortable with sacrificing most of my social life as long as I have a party every weekend.

@Brandon Thanks for chiming in on this. Let me pick your brain for a second. I have a short story being published in an "open submission" anthology. You know the type: recognition instead of royalties for your story. When inquiring for an agent or publisher, can I list these anthology publications as "official credentials?"  

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... December 5, 2011 - 11:30pm

Thanks for offering your perspective, Brandon. 

Regarding agency contracts, some agents will get very specific about what they want to see from their authors while others prefer to lump all their client's work into the agency contract. Please make sure you research what a standard agency contract looks like before you sign anything. A good agent will work in your best interest so make sure your contract reflects that. Also, beware of the agent who wants to "shape" or "package" you into the next high concept book to film mega-bestseller author. Yuk. It's either your bag or it isn't, you know? (Not that there is anything wrong with the whole book to film thing...I love it, it's just not right for every writer and I have a thing against agents who push this on their clients). 

And yes, you can absolutely list an anthology inclusion in your creds even if you didn't get paid for it. If it's published, it counts. If there are some major names included in the anthology or something else noteworthy about the anthology, make sure to include that info, too. 

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Taylor. I'm glad this helps you!