Writer's Block

graffiti street art cube in Salamanca, Spain

Writer's block. The worst! I have a list of topics to write about, but none are calling to me today. Whadda YOU want to discuss?

How to Enter the Literary World (Without Publishing): Two Pieces of Advice

Girl holding typewriter photo by: Christian Gonzalez

I'm feeling verbose today, so for anyone who doesn't have time to read the full-on discourse, I'll make my main point right here:

Want to join in / participate in / feel legitimate by being a part of the literary scene? Not sure how to go about it because you're "just" a student / have never published / don't have enough publishing knowledge? No worries.

Volunteer at a literary magazine. Once there, learn to write better and start pitching quality creative ideas in a professional literary setting.

That's it. Send an email to a lit mag you love, and ask if they need help. The end!


Last week, I read a great article about how working for a lit mag can boost your writing career. Robin McCarthy knows what she's talking about, so go ahead and click that link. I can wait.


Back? Good stuff, right? From putting rejection into perspective to connecting with new and established writers, spending time working with a literary magazine is a great way to get started in the literary world. My own entry into the lit scene began with Hayden's Ferry Review—a publication I'd coveted over my senior year of college. I had the misfortune of accepting an internship at the publication (eee!) but finding out that I wasn't able to make rent when Starbucks was my only income. Hello, world. I took a job writing client "success stories" for a financial advising firm that specialized in helping dentists figure out what to do with their swimming pools full of money (no lie), and stalked HFR online and through their on-campus events.

Flash forward a few years, when I returned to Phoenix and made my move to get back in action with my lit-mag love. I emailed Beth Staples, the managing editor at the time, to ask about volunteer positions. She invited me in for a chat, and we got down to business. There were lots of things that needed to be done at the magazine (as is the case in nearly every literary publication, I'd wager). "What are you interested in?" she asked. I hadn't expected the options to be so wide open, so we talked about all the things Beth wanted done but didn't have time, the things staff never had enough time for, and the things they thought they could have time for if they had a few more hours in the week. Two of those things, it turned out, were reading and evaluating the submissions from writers all over the world and managing their social presence. The first was her suggestion; the second was mine. I said yes, and we began our happily ever after. It really was that easy, and that invaluable. In addition to the points McCarthy makes, volunteering at a lit mag is also priceless for many other reasons, and you can make the most of it in two pretty simple moves. Let's start with an obvious one:

Separate Personal Preference: Understand What Makes a Story Successful

As McCarthy notes, reading submissions for a lit mag hones your sense of what good writing is. The more you read, the sharper your sense of what makes a creative endeavor successful, and part of that is having to justify why you would or wouldn't publish a piece. It's not enough simply to say "I don't like this, so we shouldn't publish it." You've got to actually make the mental effort to work out why a story's working the way it does. As I've mentioned before, taste is very different from judgement, and as artistic contributors and participants, we have a responsibility to separate the two.

Your first reaction to a story is a gut feeling—make no mistake. But saying you wouldn't publish a story just because you don't like it isn't helpful, especially if your publication is the kind that wants to be useful to writers by sending constructive criticism with their rejection. Was the story too long? Did the writer use too many qualifiers? Was it told in shifting tenses, to the point where you felt like a pepper grinder in a wormhole? (No one knows what that means.) Even if your publication doesn't send out personalized rejections for every submission, make yourself fully articulate your thoughts on each story. This is the way you improve your own writing and—hey!—your editorial eye, should you ever want to be employed in the field.

Practice Pitching Ideas in a Professional Literary Setting

As a volunteer, you can bet that the person running the publication is just glad someone's pitching in that they don't have to pay. In many ways, the pressure is off for you, since you're not going to get fired. (By no means does that allow you to behave in any way other than this is your job. A job you volunteered to do.) The hard reality is that there are few paying spots in the literary world, yet many talented, ambitious writers. If you want to get started sooner rather than later, hop in! Using your volunteer status as a way to push your ideas and get some awesome, new things done is actually pretty easy, so long as you're pitching ideas that are actually good and good for the publication, and so long as you're pitching them in a nice, helpful manner—as opposed to an "I know best" approach.

After a week or two of getting a feel for what I'd be doing at HFR, I had another meeting with Beth, and this time, I came with a 6-page list of ideas that included things like article ideas for the blog, ways to position HFR as a leader, improving sales and attracting more high-quality submissions, and about 20 other ideas. I'm not sure she knew what hit her. The most successful of the ideas I pitched her that day was the international editors' roundtable, which took questions from our readers, writers, and fans over social media, presented them to 4–5 literary editors, who discussed and answered them, and later posted the full discussion to our blog. It was a great way for us to engage with our community, involve peer publications and position ourselves as a leader, and generate valuable content for our blog.

Get a taste of the discussions with Full Disclosure: What to Include in Your Cover Letter and What Merits a Personalized Rejection?

The bonus, of course, was that I was able to make meaningful connections with each publication's editor while leading a pretty cool project and putting my name on it—thereby leaving my stamp on that corner of the literary world. If you're already volunteering for a lit mag, good for you! Now is the time to take a close look at what's being done and how everyone (staff and volunteers included) is doing it. How could you improve it? What's something awesome that people would love but no publication is doing yet? Can you make that happen? Make a massive list of things you'd like to change, introduce, or improve, and start chipping away (with your editor's permission, of course).


It's not a secret that literary and financially viable career don't often go hand in hand. But by becoming a vibrant part of the literary community, you can help bring the light back to shine on the literary world. Hey, if the National Parks Service could do it by campaigning the heck out of their goods, lit mags can do it, too!

Literary Mood Board: Better Than Before - Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

First, an exclamation: can you believe it's June already?! I've always loved this month, but while I'd like to say that it means soaking up the sun, I'm afraid I'll have to wait a few months for San Francisco to gather its fog skirts and realize it should be warm out! (Have you ever heard that quote erroneously attributed to Mark Twain? "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." 😬) While it's not freezing outside like the Montana springs I grew up with, I do feel like I've been spending more time indoors, and have a stack of completed books to prove it!

As I inch toward my birthday, I've noticed that I'm (again) on a self-improvement kick that might be my new normal—proof in this reading list I shared! Up today is Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Rubin is great for questioning, and she provides a set of questions to help you understand your tendencies so you can adjust your habit-building around those. From "Am I a simplicity lover or an abundance lover?" to "What’s most satisfying to me: saving time, or money, or effort?" she gets to the heart of what makes each of us tick.

Another idea she focuses on is doing things now—not later. I know this isn't a new idea by any means, but this is something that I struggle with. I am a stellar procrastinator, if there ever was one! Rubin explains how we try to out-logic ourselves all the time, by justifying our choices so we feel better about putting things off. She also calls us out on the folly of it.

“I have a fantasy of what I’ll be like tomorrow: Future-Gretchen will spontaneously start a good new habit, with no planning and no effort necessary; it’s quite pleasant to think about how virtuous I’ll be, tomorrow. But there is no Future-Gretchen, only Now-Gretchen.”

This quote really hit me. This is exactly how I think, which is embarrassing now that I see it! Calling attention to the fact that we're putting the burden of effort on a version of ourselves that we don't even allow to exist is enlightening and super helpful. Once we know how we operate, we can start making changes.

If you checked out the reading list I shared above, you can see that I'm a big Gretchen Rubin fan. My interest in her writings are mainly because she takes herself as a case study, applies different modes of thinking and daily strategies, and reports back. She also takes the time to understand that what works for her doesn't work for everyone else, and she talks with others to discover what might work for them. The best thing she does, though, is simply help shine a light on life by making us more mindful about what's actually going on in our lives. Instead of leaving a stack of mail on the counter and walking away, as we always do, we realize that future-us isn't going to enjoy it any more than now-us is, so we might as well take care of it. While I've learned a lot about myself from this book, I've also come to better understand my family and friends and why they do what they do. If you're interested in how habits form, improving your habits, and understanding more about different types of people and their habits, pick up Better Than Before.


More thoughts on Gretchen Rubin's work:

Making Meaning: How to Get There

Make it for Yourself

Become Your Life's Narrator

Happy Memorial Day!

American flag flying over San Francisco City Hall

Happy Memorial day! I'm out and about with my parents this weekend, and I hope you're spending this long weekend wisely! ❤

Walking Fever: One Easy Way to Boost Creativity

UC Davis arboretum bridge with cherry blossoms

I hope you had a wonderful weekend! When I should have been writing sheaf after sheaf for you, I confess: I was out walking in a gorgeous arboretum. UC Davis has had its 100-acre arboretum since 1936, and it’s a jewel, filled with squirrels, turtles, bluejays and waterfowl, eucalyptus and redwood, and all manner of foliage from East Asia to Mexico.

UC Davis arboretum redwood forest path

Walking along the packed dirt under the redwoods, I felt like Alice in her wonderland. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of fantastical flowers, magical species nameplates (Carolina moonseed!), and fuzzy sunlit ducklings. Let me tell you something: this walk wasn’t out of chance. This was a calculated move at getting my brain to release the white-knuckle grip its had on reality and practicality. In some ways, I’ve been feeling all to much down to earth—not in the wonderful, miraculous sense of noticing how much a flower bud has broken its seal, but in that grubby sense, where nickels and dimes seem to jingle in your head and paper becomes all edges and no magical white sheen.

UC Davis arboretum flower

It’s no secret that writers from time immemorial have turned to the methodical practice of placing one foot in front of the other, and it’s no wonder! Studies now show that walking can increase creativity. Why? As the New Yorker says:

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre.

UC Davis arboretum red flowers

While I’m unable to speak to the scientific explanations of how walking boosts creativity, I can tell you that after this weekend’s two-hour jaunt I’ll be working on ways to incorporate more nature walking into my creative routine.


Extras for experts:

Want to Be More Creative? Take a Walk

Why Walking Helps Us Think

Walking to Boost Creativity

Literary Mood Board: The Other Typist

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, 1920s flapper novel

Bootleggers. Speakeasies. Flappers. Possible split personality. Murder. The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell, has been on my ever-lengthening To-Read list for months, but by the time I checked it out and started reading it, I'd long forgotten what had made me add it to the list. Set in the 1920s, the narrator—Rose Baker—is a typist in a New York police precinct, priding herself on her speed and accuracy. She's a play-by-the-rules sort of girl until the other typist enters the scene. Then begins her slow transformation into a speakeasy moll and her attempts to reconcile her actions with her conscience. I'm a huge sucker for stories set in the 20s, by virtue of the everyday person's proclivity to rebel when the government goes a bit too far, and this novel doesn't disappoint. What's even more engaging than the 1920s flash, though, is Rose's straight laces slowly coming undone and the shadow of doubt you're left with at the novel's closing. In a way, this novel is a whodunnit that leaves you with an uneasy certainty about Rose.

Verdict? Devoured in two days. Read it!


See last month's literary mood board: The Happiness of Pursuit

Are you getting visual with literary mood boards, too? Share your latest read with us! Post a link to them in the comments, share them on Instagram with a #literarymood tag, or tweet 'em with the hashtag.

Happy Blogoversary: Keep It Lit Turns Three!

Pink cupcake with sprinkles

photo by: simple up

Here we are: three marvelous, magic-marked, meaning-making years! Keep It Lit started as a tiny idea that kept me tossing and turning. I spent weeks writing sheaves of notes on what I wanted this space to be, how I wanted to build a community, and with what kinds of people (you all!). Creating a vision for what the focus would be was the easy part—content is flexible and organic and can respond to your readers' (your!) likes and dislikes. The harder thing? A name. Among the early stabs at dubbing this beauty were:

Lit for Brains (Still my fav—maybe one day I'll use this baby for an all-author band like Libba Bray has.)

Like, Literally (Ugh.)

Paper Jam (6th-grade punk band?)

So Telling (Emo.)

After many more false attempts, I landed on Keep It Lit—a three-ways-to-play name that references a love of literature, an encouragement, and my own surname. I was so pleased with the name that came to me like a gift, and ever since, I've been writing in ways that try to explore every nook and hollow of what it means to keep it lit. From visual book reviews and monthly roundups to hindsight comparisons and multiple takes on meaning-making, this past year has been a good one for stretching boundaries and testing new waters. Here's a look at some of those recent written excursions.


Literary Mood Board: The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau

Last year, we dove into a new feature series to test out visuals + literature. My favorite literary mood boards and book reviews were The Happiness of Pursuit and The Book Thief.


The Great Hall rococo style in Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, Germany
Nymphenburg Palace's Great Hall in Munich

I had the good fortune to travel a lot last year, and I came across a reminder to dedicate myself to something that's an experience in itself and makes other comes alive.


Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore in Paris, France

Shakespeare & Co. delivered entirely as expected, and a visit to Poland left me questioning: what good comes from Auschwitz?


Stephanie Keep It Lit in Krakow, Poland with circle bread

I took another leap back across the Atlantic and reminiced on why my 12-year-old self thought writers wore this.


The Long Room in Trinity College's Old Library in Dublin, Ireland

Obligatory stop at the Book of Kells and Trinity College's Long Hall. Wowza!


Cat balancing on yoga feet

My writing course helped me understand how we can commit to what we want, and we unfurled from all that writing with some yoga for writers (and NaNoWriMo warriors!).


Adveture jeep black and white rocky mountain pass

I dealt with a bit of a writer's existential crisis, created a new self-commandment to make it for yourself, and took a few plot pointers from Alfred Hitchcock.


Beautiful blue water and boat outside colorful Parga, Greece photo by: [adam rifkin][rifkin]

Planning mode has kicked in, and I'm scoping out Greek summer travel reads and making more meaning.


Thank you for celebrating three years with me, for hearing my words and for letting me hear yours.

Poem by Pablo Neruda

Feeling nostalgic? ★ Keep It Lit’s first blogoversaryKeep It Lit's second blogoversary

Love, love love.

Spring-a-ling! April Favorites

White neon rawr sign

Hell-oooo spring! How has your April been? Mine's whizzed by, and things are changing by the second, it seems. All in all, I'm ready for summer and more time outdoors (and a bit of vacation!). Whatever you've been up to, I hope it's been making you happy. xo!


A few April favs!

Opening day

✦ Prepping for a visit from my parents—it's been three years since they've been here!

✦ Solo pizza dinners

Vantigo!

✦ Soaking up motivating reads like the Happiness of Pursuit

✦ Everything bagels, errday

✦ Pure butterflies on contemplating getting certified to teach yoga (Are you? Would you?)

✦ Game of Throooooooones!

✦ Spruce-scented candles

✦ Cheering Ryan on midway through his collossal 400K bike ride WOOT

✦ Long drives out of the city

✦ Making vitamin D and veggies a priority


See you in May!

Would you ever... do a reading fast?

San Francisco flowers

Have you ever done a reading fast? A friend and I were talking about reading the other day, and I mentioned that I was thinking of doing a week-long reading fast to break myself out of a rut. She thought I was nuts—most people are resolving to read more, and I'm talking about reading none? It may sound a little wonky, but hear me out! During college, I worked as a writing assistant to a woman who was wrapping up one novel, developing another, and crafting her children's novel alongside that. (She was a go-getter!) One of the creative experiments she'd run in her life was to take the occasional break from reading, and that included more than books. She strove to avoid more obvious things like magazines and newspapers, as well as outliers like billboards, labels, and the like. (This was before texting was a big deal, so I'm not sure how she handles that now...)

The idea behind cutting yourself off from reading is basically about honing your other senses. Just as your senses of hearing and smell will sharpen if you lost your sight, so will they when you stop filling your visual field with text. Basically, it's a practice of pulling yourself down from the clouds and grounding you more firmly in reality (think of it as a very, very light version of the journalism path that encourages young writers to get their hands dirty by witnessing the world, first-hand). I've been feeling tethered—no, anchored!—to books lately, to the point that I honestly feel like I'm missing out on life. (Really. Half my weekends go to hours upon hours of couch-laying reading marathons... nice if they're occasional, not so nice when it's gorgeous out and there's a whole city to explore!) Once I run through the remaining books I've checked out from the library (5 left), I'm going to take the plunge and take a week off reading. That'll have to exclude things like texts and emails, but will definitely include social media, books, and magazines. Honestly, I can't wait for a little more mental freedom and a little more present-tense experiences.


What do you think? Would you ever fast from reading? Have you ever done a reading fast?

Lessons in Plot: The Alfred Hitchcock Way

Alfred Hitchcock with sound marker

photo by: d!zzy

Let's step away from the bookshelves today to talk about plot. This might seem counterintuitive, but trust me: we can all learn a lot from other sources! Some would say that you can distill literary fiction and "popular" fiction into entirely separate camps: character driven and plot driven, respectively. (It's not as clean as all that, but that discussion is for another post.) Most of what I tend to talk about here is character-driven fiction, so much of the story is propelled by a strong protagonist, includes a very rich people side of things, and is light on the plot, thank you very much. On the other hand, much popular fiction revels in plot—plot is the very engine that gets the story to go! There are also distinct ideas about what's "worthy" of reading, but let's chuck that all out the window because who really cares, anyhow, as long as the story is cracking.

Literary fiction is all well and good, but a lot of people can't get into it because there's just not a lot of action, in general (again, I'm making very sweeping generalizations here—no protestations necessary ;). That's why popular fiction is more popular: because there's a lot going on to keep our attention. If the author is good about keeping us engaged, we can guess alongside the characters as the story unfolds, tryin to divine how the thing will end. Really, it's a lot of fun.

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest running from plane

photo by: _Wiedz

Right alongside popular fiction is television. Again, a popular medium, and very accessible. TV writers know they have to hook us or lose us, so there's usually a lot of action to keep us engaged and paying attention. One of the best TV shows to do this is Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (I'm also a sucker for crime shows like Law & Order, Elementary, and CSI in all its iterations.) Alfred Hitchcock Presents is basically a series of murder-mystery short stories brought to life on camera, all written by different authors—including Roald Dahl! I started watching an episode or two on Hulu a couple of years ago out of curiousity and quickly got sucked in to marathon nights of murder, intrigue, and, at times, morbid hilarity. Each episode is only about 25 minutes long, yet they've packed so much story and action into each minute. Watch carefully, and you'll get the backstory (if necessary), the layout of characters and their desires, the complication, climax, and wrap-up, all laid out neatly in that 25-minute package. It's incredible, really, and you can easily see how all the pieces fit together and why each is necessary to telling the story. If you've been feeling like you could use a plot refresher but don't have the time/money/attention span necessary for taking another writing course, try watching a few Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes and take a few notes. Trust me, it isn't just for the birds. ;)


How appropriate that we're talking about Hitchcock on the 13th! If Hitchcock isn't your thing, what plot-driven TV series could we learn from?