Over the years, I’ve developed and sought out suggestions on how to establish a writing practice, sustain creativity, and find community. May the following help you, too.
Hours of Power.
Figure out when you are at your most inspired and productive — early or late morning? After 10 p.m.? — and spend that time working on the projects that matter to you most. When I’m feeling less than inspired — say, late on a Friday afternoon — I deal with administrative tasks, such as sending and following up on pitches and submissions, or taking care of paperwork.
Read stories and study their dialogue, their structure, and everything you can mine that resonates with your work. How did the author manage two timelines, or portray a character only dimly aware of the consequences? Type out the sentences you love, and Mad Libs-style, play around with the details until it becomes your own.
Write Toward Mystery, Revise Toward Clarity.
Be relentless in considering story possibilities. Challenge yourself to come up with lists of 10 possibilities for narrative dilemmas. Your subconscious is doing a lot of work in the background to put the raw materials of your story in place. You just need to notice them. Don’t be afraid to shake up your neatly structured narrative and see what happens; complications are never dull. And if you know your characters well, their responses are likely to be interesting.
Keep your writing time sacred. Unplug from the Internet, turn your phone on airplane mode, or use a timer and write without stopping.
You’ve just received comments from your writing group or workshop or critique partner. Put your work aside for a day or more, however long it takes for your emotions to settle so you can see what advice you want to keep, and what you’ll disregard. Let yourself be inside silence, give yourself time and space to sink into yourself and listen to the voices of your characters.
In deciding where to send your work, consider places that publish writers and writing that you admire, who pay, have interesting business models, or strongly promote the work of their authors. Enter contests, too — your chances may be slim, but if you don’t enter, you’ll have none at all.
The 80-20 Rule.
Is there work that would provide 80% of your income while taking 20% of your time? Can you spend 80% of your time on what provides 20% of your income? What is the highest-paying work you can find, that will still give you time and energy for your creative work? Figure out how to keep your overhead low, because money is time. If you don’t need to earn as much to keep up with basic expenses, you’ll be freer to use your time on creative work.
Deal With Rejection.
A politely worded form letter will always hurt a little, but if you get rejected often enough, it will sting less each time. If accepted, rejoice. If not, revise or else figure out if the piece — which might not have worked for one editor or agent or gatekeeper of some kind — might get accepted by another. Those who get published keep persisting despite lots of obstacles.
It’s been said that “sitting is the new smoking” — our sedentary lifestyle is killing us (in addition to all the usual agonies of attempting to write!). I try to go for a swim, walk, or a run each day. Feeling off-kilter physically can diminish your motivation. That time away from your computer, with your body in motion, can be important to the creative process. Often, a narrative dilemma resolves itself when you’re not actively thinking about it.
Do whatever you can to make the most of the time you have. If I’m commuting or going for a run, I use a PDF-to-voice app to immerse myself in my work-in-progress and to listen for clunky or confusing sentences.
But Also Practice Wordless Recreation.
Take yourself on a walk when you have nowhere you have to be, and don’t listen to music or make phone calls. Go to a museum alone. Go listen to music. Draw or do watercolors. Do something that engages your curiosity, your mind, your feelings, but doesn’t involve reading or writing. Cross-pollinate your creativity by engaging with other modes of expression — or with the external world, unfiltered. Counting laps in the pool, looking at the weeds in the garden, moving to music is what can lead to breakthroughs.
Foster literary community.
Attend and organize readings at your favorite local independent bookstore, subscribe to literary magazines, form writing groups, and volunteer at literary festivals. You will find friends with whom you can commiserate and celebrate, and they’ll show up in force for your events, just as you have shown up for theirs.
Hook Each Other Up.
Share opportunities with colleagues and friends, and celebrate and spread news of their victories — even if they won what you wanted. It will help you cast your net farther in search of opportunities, and they will share with you in return.
Keep in Touch.
After you’ve completed a workshop, a writing residency, or published piece, remember to update the organizers with your recent successes. Send them an email or card over the holidays, and include them in your acknowledgments. They’ll be glad to have helped you along the way, and will remain invested in you and your work.
Seek out those you respect and admire, whom you’ve started to get to know, but be mindful of their time — you probably aren’t the only one asking for help. Eventually, as you progress in your career, you may be able to return the favor, perhaps by conducting a Q&A or hosting a reading for them, and eventually, you’ll become a mentor, too.
Join forces with other writers, musicians, and other emerging artists to draw a crowd to readings, particularly if you’re giving a reading outside of your home city. Every book is a miracle — make your launch a celebration with food, drinks, raffle prizes, and more.
Always Ask, Expect Nothing.
When you’re pursuing a goal, ask politely for what you want, but don’t pester and don’t get offended if they’re not able to help. Follow up, and then move on graciously.
No One Will Care as Much as You Do.
Not your partner, not your mother, not your professor, not your editor, not your agent, not your dog. Sounds depressing, but for me, it’s empowering. Your work ultimately rests upon you, and you must do whatever it takes to put forth your best.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle
and the author of a short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities
. For two decades, she has been writing, in journalism and fiction, about Asia and the Asian diaspora. She has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, as well as honors from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic
, and The Washington Post
. A River of Stars
is Vanessa Hua’s first novel.