Checking for Ruts

Checking for Ruts

Is it time to change things up?

December 26, 2019

One of the things that keeps writing fresh for me is trying new things. I can always tell when I'm in a rut, because my excitement for the writing wanes. Whenever I find I'm not excited about writing, I begin looking at how I can change things up a little and try something new.

For instance, all of my adult writing takes the form of adult cozy mysteries (cozies are conservative mysteries with amateur sleuths that stress puzzle and characterization over danger and gore). Since I write these for a company that has set specs, my ability to change things up is limited. But limits don't have to be roadblocks for the creative writer, and I can always look for something new to do within the form.

If I really feel the need to be radical, I can choose to write something for a different publisher in a different genre. One way to fit this kind of experimentation into a busy schedule (and my schedule can get horrifically busy sometimes!) is to try short stories. So I might try a cozy mystery short story set on a space station to mash up two genres, and maybe I'll make my amateur detective an android. Since there are many speculative fiction markets, a mash-up of this sort should be fairly easy to sell if done well. Trying something so different can help me get excited about my writing again and chase off the same-old same-old blues.

Children's Writing Ruts
My children's writing already reflects more variety than my adult writing. In fiction, I have done mysteries for kids, action-adventure for kids, and humor for kids. I've also written narrative (tells a true story) and expository (focuses on facts within a narrow slice of a topic) nonfiction. I've also done crafts. But that doesn't mean I don't fall into ruts or find myself wishing to try something new.

Most of my writing falls into a very specific audience age range. It's the point that my natural writing voice falls most easily so I don’t need to think about readability as long as I write within that narrow age range. But that can be a rut as well, because it's not challenging to hit specific readability marks within that age range. So I could change things up by working on my writing for beginning readers. I could study a tall pile of beginning reader books and really look at how other writers have made very simple writing interesting and fun. I could try some stories. Practice stories can be surprising sometimes. It is true that many of them will not be publishable, not show off my skills in a way that are going to net me work. But sometimes I surprise myself and a practice story is good. I can then decide either to market it, or slip it into my samples file for approaching publishers who want to see samples of my work.

Publisher Ruts
As I look over this year, my publisher ruts are clear and deep. I do the vast majority of my writing for two publishers. Now, I always sprinkle in a few other books here and there (the nonfiction I do always breaks into new markets), but I really do stick with the same two publishers most of the time. That's a comfortable rut because I sell a lot of stuff, but it does mean that if something unfortunate happens to those publishers (or to their appreciation of my work) then I'm in trouble. So these comfortable ruts are problematic, and they're something I never allowed to happen when I wrote for magazines. I studied lots of magazines and sent stuff to many of them. I was even open to sending to low paying magazines if it would be a possible spot for a more off-beat piece. The combination of constantly looking for new magazines, studying magazines to learn well what they publish, and sending out work, soon meant a long list of publishing credits. These credits impressed the educational publishers for whom I eventually wrote books. It's nice to have a few magazine credits, too, because it shows you have crafted work that someone wanted. My dozens of magazine credits turned out to be a huge boon within the market I write most: educational.

Why go for magazine credits? For me, I like writing for magazines. I loved magazines as a child and when I imagine a child receiving that magazine and curling up with my story, I find it thrilling. Also, most magazines publish faster than more book publishers, so I can have the gratification of seeing my work in print more quickly. (This is not true, by the way, of all. For example, in my experience, Highlights or the Cricket group tend to sit on accepted works for a long time before publishing. With Highlights, I have waited years.) Finally, careful research and a willingness to write what the magazine wanted to publish meant that my acceptance to rejection ration was great. I rarely had to give up on a piece. And I rarely had to shop it around a lot. For magazines, I could see a very clear way to improve acceptances but that tends to be much murkier with trade publishing.

Even today, when I don't actually need more magazine credits, I will still sometimes sell something to a magazine when I've found a topic that fascinates me (for nonfiction), or I feel like sitting down and playing with craft stuff (to create how-to pieces), or I feel like coming up with an interesting new cookie idea (to create recipes for kids), or I want to write poetry. Poetry for magazines can be tricky and definitely requires studying the magazines, but sometimes I want to get my rhyming shoes on.

Busy Ruts
The deepest rut I tend to wear into my life is the busy one. I accept a lot of offers, I line up contracts, and I end up with a schedule where every single day is full of either writing or revision. I love writing. I do not love revision, but I can do it. However, when all I seem to be doing is writing or revising, I can start to feel like I'm slogging along simply because of my packed-out busy schedule. And then I need to do something completely different. In the last few years, the something completely different has taken two forms: getting out of the house and expanding creativity.

I decided writing could not be my only creative outlet, so I began working on my drawing and painting. I'm not particularly good at either (I have sold a few illustrations to magazines, so I'm not horrible, but I don't have a lot of illusions about my future as an illustrator). For me, art exactly hits the sweet spot where I don't totally stink, but I do see clear need for improvement. It's creative, so I find it enjoyable and relaxing. Recently I've been doing freehand wood-burning, and I'm enjoying that, too.

Drawing and painting didn't do a lot to get me out of the house (though buying art supplies did, and it was fun, but I only have so much room to store them in my office). I'm not the sort of person who goes to museums and paints there where everyone can see them, so I needed another impetus to leave the house for enjoyment. So I mix some writing events into my schedule as they don't generally take place in my house. I generally do at least one book signing a year. (I actually do not like these––it's a great way to make me appreciate the writing side of my life more!) I co-lead one multi-day workshop a year. I'll sometimes pick up a couple school visits (which I love, but it really makes me admire teachers for what they do every day). And I try to do at least one writing thing where I'm the learner and not the teacher. If I space these carefully over the year, they go a long way to helping me not be stuck in such a deep rut.

Getting Scared
The interesting thing about staying in my ruts and carving them deeper and deeper has to do with fear. Rut life isn't scary. Rut life allows me to find my sweet spot in terms of success and just glide along. If you stay in your rut, you don't feel any bumps. I am not a fan of fear. I find submitting to new markets to be scary, even now. I find rejection unpleasant enough that I resist putting myself in the position of being rejected. Ruts may be dull and predictable, but they're also kind of comforting. Sure, I worry about the publishers I work primarily with having financial issues or getting tired of me, but that's mostly because I'm a worrier by nature. It's not really likely to happen. So the rut feels pretty safe.

Unfortunately, safety is the enemy of growth. So if I want to improve as a writer (and I do) and continue to grow in my career (also something I want) then I need to take risks, try new things, and go out on some shaky limbs. I have to be willing to try and fail at things. I have to be willing to admit I don't know everything and even look foolish now and then. Growth can be painful and it rarely happens in the rut. So I have to force myself out of those ruts over and over.

How about you? What have you tried this year that scared you and dragged you into something totally new? And what will you try in the new year? Let's all be scared together!

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor.

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Jan Fields
January 2, 2020

Sheila -- thank you. I'm always happy when folks enjoy these.

Jan Fields
January 2, 2020

Pascale -- congratulations on the books. That's fantastic and I'm sure you did an amazing job. Here's to a 2020 filled with new courageous successes.

Pascale Duguay
December 27, 2019

Hi Jan! I can totally relate to the fear of trying something new. Last May, I answered a call to write short books for teens with intellectual disabilities and landed a two-book contract. I had never written anything like this before but managed to get this contract because I have worked with such teens through my high-school library job. I must have done well because I was offered another contract for three more books! I’m working on the last book right now and although the fear has lessened, it has not gone completely away. So if you come across an opportunity that interests you, don’t let fear stop you!

Sheila DeCosse
December 27, 2019

thank you. I found this piece very fresh and inspiring.

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