January 17, 2019
Yesterday, I spent time doing some of the cleaning that I've been putting off so I could focus on other things. That happens a lot actually. With deadlines and demands that can't be shunted aside filling up my time, a number of chores fall by the wayside until things get a little, well, dusty around here. The thing about chores is that they need to be done. Nothing on the chores list is there for entertainment. When we don't do them, negative repercussions occur (like a band of saucy kids doodling pictures in the dust on the cable box). And another thing about chores, they don't become quick or easier when they've been ignored for a while.
So why am I talking about chores? Well, this is a good time to catch up on a few so you get going this year without them weighing quite so heavily on you. No, I'm not suggesting we all dust (for one, you're almost certainly doing a better job at that than I am), but there are writing chores that are just as important and just as easy to shunt aside. So let's get out our chore list and take a whack as some of them.
We all know it's valuable to research markets for our work and to have an idea of places we want to send things. But mostly we only do it when the need becomes critical (such as when we've finished something and we need somewhere to send it). The problem with waiting to get that chore done is that when you have a finished manuscript, not knowing markets is actually standing in the way of sending out your material. As a result, you'll tend to (1) do a cursory job and send your manuscript to a less than optimal possibility simply because you send it to the first place you come across that sort of seems like a match or (2) get overwhelmed by the job and either just "shotgun" the manuscript out to a bunch of places including some that aren't even slightly appropriate or (3) get so overwhelmed that you don't send the manuscript out at all.
Like dusting, researching markets needs to be an on-going, frequent part of our routine. For instance, do you check out the markets in the ICL Newsletter each week? Do you have a good market guide … and have you read it? A market guide is merely a jumping off point for research. It needs to be read, and then further research done on each of the interesting markets it contains (that's why the market listings have URLs in them, so you can go do more research to know how that market works for you). And your market guide needs to be thoroughly annotated. If your market guide isn't full of neatly printed notes and highlighting then you have an undone chore right there. (One of my first acts with a new market guide is to highlight––in different colors––every market that takes queries and every market that takes manuscripts.) I keep annotating my market guide as I learn new information (such as markets closing or markets changing their submissions guidelines). And I get the information to keep updating from writing groups on Facebook, the SCBWI discussion board, and time spent online seeking out helpful websites and resources. Early and often research on markets saves you time, and saves you the tears of finding out you’ve submitted to an inappropriate or closed market.
Cleaning Your Files
All of us get rejections. New writers get rejections. Experienced writers get rejections. Writers who are household names get rejections. It's the nature of publishing that sometimes what we send out isn't going to work for whomever is seeing it. But what do you do after that? What happens to the rejected manuscript? Well, if you've kept up with your market research, and you're on top of your chores, you give the manuscript a quick revision (since virtually all manuscripts can be improved, especially since you've now had some time away from it to give you fresh eyes) and you send it somewhere else. But, if you're like many of us, you tuck it into a file until you have time to deal with it. And there it stays.
But a story that has gotten a rejection (or even more than one) isn't necessarily useless. It may simply not have been seen by the right place yet. It may need a little polishing. Or it may really need to be retired, but not until you scavenge it for parts that work really well, parts that might be used to (1) inspire a new story or (2) become part of a writing sample. You never know when you might be asked for a writing sample, so even if you've not had a big need for one yet, that doesn't mean it's not a good idea to get a sample file of good writing tucked away for when you are asked.
No matter what practical steps you need to take for the pieces in your rejected manuscript file, it's a chore that you need to tackle. For one, it almost always gives you some pieces to send out. And for another, just the process of revision makes you a better writer. You may even want to make cleaning up these pieces part of your daily writing warm-ups.
Put Your Office in Order
Nothing makes me feel a bigger charge of potential energy than having a clean office. Unfortunately, my office is usually a teetering mess. As I sit here, my bookcase of writing books has far too many things shoved sideways on top of rows of books and far too many expired publisher catalogs. It needs a good solid cleaning out to bring the whole mess in order. I also have a deep drawer in my desk where I dump the things I need to get around to. And, well, it's getting hard to pull that drawer open. It's well past time I got around to all that stuff. By putting my workspace in order, I put my head in a professional space where I'm looking forward to productivity. And honestly, sometimes I discover things in this mess that I've been putting off, but that really need to be done for my own success.
Now, I know that not all of us have an office and the idea of a dedicated office sounds positively luxurious. But whatever you're using to keep up with your writing materials, take a look at it. Is it orderly and efficient? Or do you still have some things that need organization? If your office is more fluid, it becomes even more important that the chore of keeping it organized be done because it's even easier to lose things when you don't have a dedicated place for your writing materials. So if you are just winging it, consider now finding a way to make your office more organized. For example, there are wheeled carts with shelves that can make a good portable office and then be rolled out of the way. And I once had my husband put castors on the bottom of a milk crate to make a rolling filing box that can be pushed along when not in use. Give some thought to a system that would work for you and allow you to keep things in order. The time you lose to searching for what you need is time you could have been writing.
So ponder your writing life. What chores do you put off? How about getting the year started with all your writing dust bunnies cleared away? You never know what you might find!
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.