All writers have seen them. Especially lately. Ads for writing contests. All you have to do is shell out $10, $15, even $25 for the submission fee or reading fee and you could win BIG. $3,000 for a single poem? $20,000 for a short story? This sounds like a dream for so many unrecognized writers. Unfortunately, like all things that sound too good, I don’t believe these contests to be a good investment. Here’s why.
The Odds Are Against You
Because so many people enter these competitions, the chances of winning become smaller and smaller until they shrink to a fraction of a percent. When it comes to large contests, and the ones with high dollar amounts always are large, they attract huge volumes of people.
To lay it out even more clearly: Imagine you enter a competition with only 25,000 entrants, including yourself. If the quality of the manuscripts isn’t taken into consideration at all, and the winner is selected randomly, your chances of winning would be 0.004%. Which means your odds of walking away with a rejection email would be 99.996%. These odds aren’t quite as bad as the lottery, but keep in mind, a lot of competitions have plenty more than 25,000 entrants.
But wait! You say, I am highly talented, trained, and educated! I would fare better than the average person! Then okay, let’s take a look at our next point.
There’s Usually Little or No Transparency
I have yet to see a competition announce exactly how they will be examining manuscripts and determining winners. It would seem natural that every manuscript would be read in full, but is that actually happening? Moreover, who is tasked with culling the herd before the finalists are handed to whatever celebrity judge the organizers hired? Sometimes I wonder if it’s not like job applications for a popular position: half of the applications are thrown out and never even glanced at. People who go to the next round are in the lucky half that made the cut.
Some competitions offer feedback options, but those usually incur an extra cost on top of the submission fee. Of course, there also usually isn’t a guarantee regarding who the feedback would be coming from or what their qualifications are. In the end, paying exorbitant fees for only feedback, not editing or even proofreading, is ridiculous.
There are plenty of editors out there who are eager to work with up and coming writers, who will ultimately charge less and provide more helpful advice. There are also writing groups on social media and forums that can provide feedback for free. If someone is just starting out and looking to improve their craft, they’re better off starting out small with free feedback, instead of thinking feedback from someone in a competition has more importance.
Taking Advantage of Beginning Writers
The writing world is intimidating, that’s for sure. There’s some elitism and classism, mixed in with a lot of uncertainty, and a dedication to master a very difficult craft. Because writing is so widely ignored and dismissed when it comes anyone other than literary gods penning it, beginning writers often want validation for their progress. Winning a competition is, of course, a great way to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, what most beginning writers don’t realize is that when these calls for submission go out, it’s almost always to everyone, including professional writers. Because the beginners don’t know who they are competing against or what the level of competition is, the organizers can plan on gleefully taking beginners’ hard-earned cash along with everyone else’s while the beginners stand little chance of making it through the first round of competition.
Although being rejected is something a writer will have to become accustomed to, paying other people money for writing is something they should not have to deal with. Even if writing is a hobby and spending money here and there is not something a beginner minds, spending money on contests just means there will be more of them. Which brings me to my next point:
It All Adds Up
Say you decide to enter 12 competitions a year, or one every month. Not really a lot, when you think about. At $25 per entry, and keep in mind some are even more expensive, this adds up to $300 a year. Which is great for organizers of these competitions, because you are guaranteed to spend money, but your chance of earning it is very slim.
Imagine if you won one contest with a couple hundred dollars as a prize in your year of contest entries. You would still be $100 in the hole because of all the other entry fees. When you get started with a submission fee contest, you are already behind.
What Will You Have Gained?
If you look at the most likely scenario (you don’t place in the competition) and all you have to show for it is $25 less in your bank account, what exactly is entering the competition going to accomplish? It’s true that somebody wins these things and they probably have entries from past winners available to read. But when a competition boasts of 500,000 entries the previous year, it takes a lot of brashness on a writer’s part to assume they’ve got this.
In the end, if you’re left with a rejection email and little else, what did you actually gain? Even if someone wants to be super Pollyanna and say that now you have a piece of work you can submit to other places, this is true. But if it didn’t place in competition, and you received no feedback on it, how exactly will you be able to better it for another submission?
The Bottom Line
In the end, there are lots of places to submit to that don’t charge. Most of them don’t pay, but at least you wouldn’t find yourself out money and unpublished. There’s also a lot of resources available such as writing classes, groups, forums, etc. if someone wants to find community, improve their craft, or seek validation.
I am constantly besieged by ads for products and gift ideas intended for writers. Some of them are cute, some of them are interesting, but most of them are rather useless when it comes to what I actually need as a writer. As much as a sweatshirt with a quill on it will keep me warm, it won’t help me reach my writing goals.
Let’s take a look at some gifts you could give an self-published, or aspiring self-published writer, that can actually be used in their writing journey. Also, you might get a shout out in the acknowledgements of their book and that’s always awesome.
Before You Select a Gift
You need to start by learning more about the writer you’re buying for. You might know little to nothing about the self-publishing industry or even what kind of writing your friend or family member does. Go deeper than a product with a funny label about how hard writing is and talk to them about their craft.
Believe me, they will probably be more than happy to share their work with you.
I cannot stress just how important this step is. If you don’t talk to your author, you will never know what they actually need, and probably will not be able to get them a gift they can use. This is essential and it’s also easy. Asking someone to talk about their passion is takes one well-placed sentence and then you sit back while they do the work for you.
Gift Ideas for Writers
1. Read and Review
If your loved one has already been published and has a book out, buy that book and leave them a review. It’s really that simple. All of the sweatshirts in the world can’t make up for the helpfulness of a review on Amazon, GoodReads, or Barnes & Noble. Also, while the book will cost money, and it probably will be less than you were going to spend originally. Not to mention, writing a review is completely free.
2. Hire a Professional
Self-publishing does not just require being able to write. It can involve graphic design, formatting, blurbs, editing, proofreading, marketing, website design, email lists, and so much more it’s slightly ridiculous. If your writer is a fantastic author, but uses MS Paint to make their cover designs, think about gifting them a certificate for a graphic artist (and you probably already know one), or just giving them the gift of cash to use towards finding one themselves.
Note: Websites like Fivver can be useful for finding professionals who work at low price points, but be sure to independently verify their credentials. A quick post on your local Facebook Marketplace or Craig’s List often turns up dozens of people who could help a writer work on their book.
3. Classes and Further Education
I know what you’re thinking:
Hold on, Star, wouldn’t that kind of gift be insulting?
The answer is that everyone can work to improve their writing, whether they’re just starting out or they’ve even published a book before. If your writer friend regularly teaches classes like these, then yes, consider another gift. But there is nothing wrong with helping someone find insight and community through a class or seminar.
Also, the class doesn’t have to be for writing only. It could be for social media management for authors, submitting books to agents or publishers, networking in the writing world, or even how to put together a writing resume.
Remember were I talked about writers having to do much more than write? This could be a chance to help them improve something other than writing, that will help them with their writing goals.
Caveat: Although you’ve probably seen a billion flashy ads for writing seminars and this kind of class or that kind of class online, be very careful when selecting which one is right for your writer friend. While anyone with an internet connection seems to be offering a class on this, that, or whatever, you want to make sure to check out reviews for this class.
Pay careful attention to what the reviews say the writers are taught, how they are evaluated, if they are evaluated at all, or what they can reasonably expect to leave this class or seminar with. This could be a great time to find local workshops or writing centers where you could find quality instruction and real life connection for your favorite writer.
Check out The Muse Writers Center, based out of Norfolk, VA, for quality online classes on everything writing. They offer tuition assistance and classes at a variety of price points. From one-day seminars to 8-week workshops. I’ve taken classes with them for over 5 years and have never been disappointed.
4. Be a Reader for Them
One thing you could do for your writer friend or family member is read the project they’re working on yourself and provide feedback. You don’t have to be a professional in order to tell the writer what you enjoyed, what questions you had, and what you think they might want to work on.
Your feedback, whether it’s praise or criticism, is valuable to a writer. After all, most people who read the book will be everyday readers, just like yourself. If you didn’t understand why Princess Tylia used the Sword of Acorn and not the more powerful Dagger of Vengar to save the day, neither with the other people who read it. It could be very helpful for the finished project to be vetted by readers.
5. Writing Ritual Items They Will Actually Use
A lot of writers have rituals that come with sitting down to write. They might like to listen to a particular kind of music, prefer to drink their favorite coffee or tea, or even use a certain kind of pen to write with, if they write longhand. These are often the items subscription box companies try to tell you are contained in their products.
However, if your writer friend uses a pen, they have an exact pen or style of pen they probably like. You simply can’t hand them a pen you got for free from your dentist’s office and expect it to strike the same chord.
Do your research. As I said before, most writers will be delighted to share this information with you. If you want to keep them from catching on to the fact that you’re getting them a gift, just say you’re curious about their craft or wonder why they always seem to be drinking the same kind of tea or carrying the same fountain pen.
6. Low on Cash? No Problem!
There are other ways to help out an indie author that doesn’t even have to involve opening your wallet. If they have kids, offer to look after them one afternoon so they can get some quality writing time in. Bring them a meal so they can write away instead of losing their evening to meal preparation and clean up.
Once you know their genre, you can also scour thrift shops, library sales, or your own book shelves for books that they might find inspiring or helpful. Buying a poet a well-loved volume you thought they’d connect with is the stuff poems are made of.
Ask your writer what keeps them from writing and see if there’s a way for you to fill that gap. Sometimes presents can be acts of service and for writers, that’s sometimes exactly what we need.
Are You Sure I Can’t Just Order a Writer Subscription Box?
You can. If you think that’s exactly what your writer wants and needs. I’m not the boss of you.
However, from an insider’s perspective, the self-publishing industry is vast and complex. Anyone involved in it knows how difficult and sometimes heartbreaking it can be to be an indie writer. While a candle called “Writer Tears” might elicit a chuckle when unwrapped, there’s so many more concrete ways you could be helpful and supportive of your loved one.
Full Disclosure: This is not a paid promotion. Nina is my neighbor, but she’s also just that damn good I had to write about her and all of her amazing photos.
So you’re ready to publish your book and you need an author photo for the back cover. Okay, so let’s be honest, no one needs an author photo for the back cover. Many books have been published and found success without a photo of the author. But you’d like one. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The best part of being a self-published author is that you don’t have to sit for a boring black and white photo of you in a turtleneck looking over a shoulder. You can do so much more with your photos because you have complete freedom to pick how you want to be represented and how you want to set the tone for your work.
Here are my top tips for creating an author photo that doesn’t just look good, it looks cool. Not to mention the shoot can also produce promotional material for your books, website, newsletter, and much more.
Finding the Right Professional
This was easy for me! My friend Nina lives next door and she happens to be the most amazing photographer who runs NB Photography in Suffolk, VA. I went with her not only because she is conveniently located, but because she is amazing at what she does. Her portfolio is diverse and I love her style.
I liked the NB Photography Facebook page and Instagram to see more of her work and I knew, this would be perfect. Also, it’s awesome when I go to someone with one of my harebrained ideas and they don’t look at me like I’ve lost the plot. When shooting your author photo and promo material, don’t be afraid to go beyond the seated author photo and really capture the mood and feel of your book.
“But I’m Not a Model!”
I know what you’re thinking and it’s totally okay. I thought it, too. Once you find the right professional to work with, all you have to do is bring some ideas for poses, and your photog will do the rest. Working with Nina is always so great because it’s a mix of me finding the pose that feels right and her giving me the direction I need to hit it just perfectly.
This isn’t sitting for school pictures where they tell you not to move under any circumstances. Bring some movement to your pictures and listen to your photographer for suggestions on how to translate this to the photos.
Also, in my humble opinion, if you’re worried about not looking like a model in the photos, don’t. Put on an outfit that makes you feel great and get your butt in front of the camera. There are plenty of models out there and what the world needs is not more slender bodies gracing every surface.
Being fat, I often think about my size and how I look on camera. How could I not in the society I grew up in? But pushing myself to translate my vision into reality is more important to me than attempting to look like a size 2, when I’m really size 22.
If your fear of what the photos will look like is what’s holding you back, and this can be a formidable force, push back as hard as you can. Because there are readers out there, including children, who need to see people of all kinds represented in media. You never know how much someone might need to see your photograph on the back of a book.
Come with a Vision, Stay for the Execution
Before contacting a professional, be sure to devise what you want the tone or message of the shoot to be and choose some locations (your photographer might also have some location ideas, so be sure to get their input).
Do you want to be photographed in the corner of a coffee shop, writing on your laptop like your character does in the romance novel you wrote? Do you just need a dark backdrop and the perfect mood lighting to convey your true crime book’s dark nature?
For me, I knew that the shoot for moon lost her memory, my disjointed memoir (released date: late 2021), needed to be eerie, unsettling, and a surreal. I talked to Nina ahead of time about how I wanted to set the mood for the book in an industrial backdrop with just enough weird to make it interesting. She had some great ideas for where to shoot and how to capture this eerie tone.
Props, Props, Props
Another fun part of doing a shoot like this instead of a boring author photo, is that you can incorporate some props that have special meaning to the book project or even to you.
That book I’m carrying above? It’s a book called Beautiful Cats. I wrote a poem of the same name that appeared in the chapbook Wake Me When It’s Over about this very book.
The story behind it is that my mother gave me this book one night when I was manic and couldn’t sleep. She told me that looking at the pictures of cats would help calm me down so I could get to bed. It didn’t work, of course. But I kept the book.
Now that book is in some of the photos for moon lost her memory. As a bonus, the cat face on the dark cover looks so intriguing in the photo.
Of course, don’t go all Carrot Top with your props. Pick meaningful ones, use them appropriately, and don’t be afraid to pose without anything at all.
Picking Your Perfect Photo
When you get your photos back, going through them is tremendously exciting. Now you get to see what happened on the opposite end of the camera. If everything went well, you might be overwhelmed by how many great pictures you have and unsure of how to pick only one as your author photo.
I recommend you go with your gut. One photo might stand out as the clear winner, sometimes you have to narrow it down. Getting a second opinion can also be important. Ask a few loved ones what they think. You can even ask your editor, if you have that kind of relationship with them.
Also, think of how you can use all of the photos for promotional items, such as social media posts, website content, and much more. After all, you didn’t take 200 photos so you can only use one. Since you have all of these photos and they are thematically representative of your work, they’re the perfect images to use to promote your book.
Get your pics, have fun, and thanks again to NB Photography for the amazing pictures!
Anyone who has a difficult time getting their butt in a chair so they can write has probably seen endless articles, all saying the same thing, about how they, too, can be a prolific writer. Unfortunately, the advice, while it may work for some people, doesn’t take a lot of other aspects into account when they talk about being prolific and how to cultivate this ability.
To be honest, a lot of it makes it seem like you have to be so ridged and disciplined the only people who could manage the advice are those without jobs, families, lives, even pets.
I’m a prolific writer (how prolific? I once wrote 50,000 words in four and a half days) and I follow few, if any, of these “requirements”. Let’s break down some of the rules that you apparently have to follow in order to be prolific and how I manage to be prolific without following any of them.
The reason why I can manage to follow almost none of those requirements and still be incredibly prolific is partly because I am mentally ill and my bipolar disorder makes me obsessive about projects I enjoy and also sometimes gives me excess energy to use when I’m working. I get very dog with a bone.
While I realize my mental illness contributes to my output in some fashion, I also realize there are plenty of ways one can be productive without following common advice and also the limitations someone like me has with said advice. Let’s take a deeper look at how to be prolific and why sometimes the expected answer is not the only one.
1. Have a strict writing routine
I get that making time in your day, organizing your life so you can carve out some time to write is important. Even the ritual of sitting down to write can be important. However, many people take this too far.
Instead of trying to cultivate a place or time you feel comfortable writing, some advice gives you instructions on how to set up a distraction-free writing haven, away from any possible interruption. As if we all have, or even need, dedicated workspaces, no distractions, or a specific ritual involving the right cup of tea, the fuzziest cozy socks, and the perfect set of pens to take notes with at your side.
I write whenever I can. My writing is all digital so I use whatever is at my disposal to get going. I carry a notebook in my purse if I want to jot something down, and have so many notebooks in my house, I will never probably need to buy a new one (although I definitely will). I have a notes section in my phone dedicated to my random thoughts and ideas.
I write on my computer, I write on my phone, I write on my tablet, I print things out and edit them on paper sometimes. I write in the morning, afternoon, evening, whatever fits in my schedule. Sometimes I wake up and go immediately to my computer after my morning routine to start writing. Sometimes I end the night at my computer, writing. Sometimes I do both.
The 2000 film Quills struck a particular chord with me. This fictionalized account of the life of the Marquis de Sade after he’s put in a mental institution was probably not something I should have been watching as a teenager, but what really resonated with me was de Sade’s dedication to his craft.
He wrote and and when they took away his paper, he wrote on his clothes. When they took away his ink, he wrote with his own blood. When they took away everything, he smeared his own excrement on the walls.
This is not to say he’s a role model. But the point is, nothing could stop him from writing. As long as he had walls and poop, he was going to create words. I don’t go to that extreme, but I try to keep the same spirit. As long as I have something to write on, I can work on something. If not the actual body of work, then taking notes, plotting what comes next, doing edits, etc.
I don’t have a favorite pair of writing socks. I don’t need a particular piece of music playing while I write. I don’t have any of that and it doesn’t slow me down.
If you’re someone who needs some of the ritual, but all means indulge, but realize that not all of us are in a point in our life where we can carve our the same time, space, and practice to write. If you can’t do that, it doesn’t mean that you don’t write. It means you get creative and write anyway.
2. Write Daily
If you’re trying to build a writing habit and have never written regularly before, this could be helpful for you. But if you have a life, like many people do, and it involves many things, writing every day might not be possible. It’s also important to note that if you miss a day of writing or can’t manage the daily schedule, this doesn’t mean you’re not a writer, you’re bound to fail, or you’ve already lost before you finished your work.
I don’t write daily. In fact, I sometimes go through phases, where I will write obsessively for months and then stop completely for the months following. At first, I thought it was bad, even dangerous, that I didn’t write daily. But even if I stopped writing, even for months, I would always go back to it. It would get done, one way or another.
But this is the difference between forgetting to write and purposely putting it off until I’m ready to write again. I didn’t stop thinking about writing and I may have even jotted down notes in the meantime, but when I was ready to start again, I went back to it like I had never stopped.
Writing daily is great, if it works for you. If you can’t find the time every single day to carve out some writing time, don’t worry. That doesn’t make you a bad or lazy writer. It just means you have a life and that’s fine.
3. Outline Extensively
When it comes to rules of writing, there are general practices, good ideas, and personal preferences. Outlining is a wonderful tool for setting up a story before you even start actually working on the story. But the world will not end if you start putting words on a page without having the work essentially written in outline form.
I write mainly poetry and sometimes short story, with a little bit of everything else sprinkled in. For a novel, I think outlining is great idea. Although, I have written novels with just some ideas in my head. But when it comes to poetry and sometimes even blogs or articles, extensive outline can be an effort in futility.
Sometimes when you’re writing a chapbook, the work changes as you write. I also find poets are more adept to dealing with this change and won’t get bent out of shape if they need to reconsider part of their project because it took on a life of its own. I think a work changing as it starts to breathe is a beautiful thing, no matter the genre.
When I’m writing a chapbook, I usually pick a title and start designing a cover early in the process. That is to say, before the work is finished. I often end up changing one or both, but this I look at as part of the process. Not something that detracts from it, or work I’ve had to do over. The tile and the cover help shape the piece and when the piece shapes itself, I adjust the title and cover. (Also, I find covers are really fun to do and enjoy playing round with pictures and elements, so even if I end up doing it over, I really don’t mind.)
4. Have formal education in writing
I’m going to discuss this topic in greater detail in another blog and video, but right now, I am specifically writing about having a formal education in order to be prolific. While taking classes, whether formal or informal, is a great way to expand your writing, you might not write more just because you took a class. There could be a variety of reasons for this.
I love to take classes at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. I’ve taken art classes, poetry classes, fiction classes, writing software classes, so many, I can’t even remember them all in the 6 years I’ve been attending their workshops. I always come away with lots of ideas and sometimes starts to a poem or short story or even a different perspective on my writing. These classes help me to be more productive, because they are high-quality, well structured, and the instructors are vetted professionals.
Meanwhile, if I had a nickel for every ad I get on social media for writing classes, conferences, and publishing schools, I would have paid off my student loans by now. Unfortunately, not all writing classes are the same and some charge thousands of dollars to go through a course that may not end up helping you at all.
It makes me uneasy to think people are promoting any conference or class or school to help someone become more productive, when so many of them are poor or dubious quality. If getting your butt in a chair and writing is your problem, you might need more butt in chair time, and not another conference or class.
5. Don’t wait for inspiration
I have to roll my eyes when someone encourages writers to just write write write even when it’s just not happening. If you’ve glued yourself to your desk and you are insisting on writing something because you feel like you have to, you’re probably going to hate the process of writing rather than become a prolific writer.
There are deadlines sometimes or other time constraints that put you at your desk while you’d rather be somewhere else. However, getting yourself into the habit of sitting at your desk to either stare at a blank screen or write nonsense, is just going to make you resent writing and want to do it less, not more.
I will freely say that if I have an idea for a poem or story and for whatever reason, it’s just not working, I will put it down. I will sleep on it. I will come back in a day, a month, a year, and I will write it when it’s time. I hate to feel like I’m forcing every word on the page, because, quite frankly, the reader can probably tell it’s forced.
Giving my brain a break every so often makes me more prolific, not less. The important part is that I write the idea down somewhere and I do return to it. It will get written, just not on that exact day.
Bonus: Never Get Writer’s Block
I’ve seen the idea that true creatives never get writer’s block bandied around like if you’ve ever gotten it, you are clearly not a creative or a writer and should feel deep shame. There are a lot of ideas on how people never get writer’s block, but it always comes down to that writer’s block is for beginners and those who aren’t very good writers at all.
I get writer’s block. I happen to be a human being with a brain that sometimes limps around, and I will occasionally get writer’s block. Whether I get a block on a certain piece that I’m working on, or just sit down at the computer, wanting to write and nothing happens, I get writer’s block.
The trick to overcoming writer’s block is not to stop it from happening all together or just keep writing until your fingers bleed. It’s giving yourself the time you need to rest, relax, and come back to your writing with a set of fresh eyes. No one benefits from you torturing yourself when you need sleep, a good meal, some down time, or some time to take care of something else in your life.
Another tip to overcoming writer’s block is to give yourself that break, figure out what you need to do, do it, and then come back to writing when you’re ready. Again, the coming back part is where people seem to get lost. If you have to set a reminder on your calendar or phone, then do it. But come back to writing and reevaluate where you’re at.
You might find the idea you’re stuck on needed a new angle and you could happily type away for hours on your new prospective. You could find the idea just doesn’t work and discard it for other ideas that will fit in better with what you’ve already written. You could even take a bad idea you had, turn it into a better one, and rework what you wrote previously to give it a completely new life.
My Tips for Being a Prolific Writer
I want to put a disclaimer on this before I start, I was seemingly born a prolific writer. I have never had a problem with output that I had to overcome. How I managed to produce what I’ve done is sometimes a mystery to me. Other times it’s very clearly because I’m bipolar.
However, here are some practices I have that have served me well throughout the years.
Be persistent: I am a prolific writer, at least partly, because I am mentally ill and become obsessive over projects and tasks. Persistence pays off. Little by little you can find yourself working towards a novel or a book of poetry. Remember that this is a big project and take it in small chunks. It’s the best way to look at it.
Find a writing/life balance: It’s important to keep track of how your writing time is affecting your life and how your life is affecting your writing time. While lots of advice will say to abandon all for your writing, if you need to work to live, that’s just not possible.
Be flexible: Sometimes your writing situations are less than ideal. It happens to everyone. Keep working on finding the time and space you need to write. Make adjustments where needed and even when it’s hard, keep working towards your goals.
Put your butt in your chair and write: So much of this advice prolific advice seems to have little to do with actual writing. If you want to be a prolific writer, you have to write. It’s not anymore complicated than that. Is it easy? Not all the time. But no matter how many rituals you come up with or how well you outline your novel, nothing is going to happen if you don’t get that butt in chair time and get some words down.
BE PERSISTENT: Nothing has helped me write more than always going back to it. No matter how life gets in the way, no matter the stops and starts, no matter what’s going on with my own mental health, I always go back to writing. That’s why breaks don’t bother me anymore. If I need one, I take one. Because I know I will find my way back in time.