Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

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Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)

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Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.

Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”

 

blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.

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photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Sell That Book: Building A Promotional Campaign From The Ground Up (I)

Sell That Book: Building A Promotional Campaign From The Ground Up (I)

I Have Been Spurred To Action

A good friend (thanks, Larry Anderson!) recently introduced me to another good friend of his who is also a writer who is in a similar position to the one I am in re: book promotion. Both of us have recently published books, but due to the other demands on our time we have found no time to market them — much less figure out the most effective ways of doing so in this brave new world of publishing, where there are too many options for everything.

Her name is Kathryn Burke and she lives in Edmonton. Her first book, An Accidental Advocate – A Mother’s Journey with Her Exceptional Son, has already been on several non-fiction best seller lists. She is working on her second book now; entitled Preventing Conflict In Special Educationit is likely to enjoy similar attention as it addresses the concerns of innumerable parents, teachers and students. Kathryn, who works part-time as executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta, is also the brains behind ldexperience.ca, a site that was designed “to help people affected by learning disabilities share their experiences.”

For my part, I have three recent projects that are available for sale:

  1. my third novel, The Whole Clove Diet;
  2. the Really Effective Writing suite of MP3 audiocasts – based on the grant-writing book Write An Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars – with one series customized for each of three groups: a) researchers and scholars; b) community groups and non-profit organizations; and c) writers and other artists; and
  3. ta-dah!! A new novel, co-authored with my good buddy, the endlessly fascinating lawyer cum writer John A. Aragon of Santa Fe, New Mexico (who is also too busy at the moment to do book promotion). It is entitled The Adventures of Don Valiente And The Apache Canyon Kid and it has been described by the noted Canadian writer of westerns and other fine novels, Fred Stenson, as a “bold and sexy chase from end to end.”

Promotional Challenges (Ones I Suspect Other Authors May Be Facing, Too)

For the most part, aside from subscribers to my blogs (not an insignificant number, but not millions of people either) and my friends and family, and a few others, hardly anyone knows that these products of mine exist. For the past few months–in fact for the majority of the time since The Whole Clove Diet was published and I completed the audiocasts–I have not only become very busy with freelance work, I have also been utterly overwhelmed by the range of possibilities that exist at this time in history the for promotion of books–and other communications products.

What do I do”? Do I attempt a traditional book-promotion strategy involving media releases, bookstore communications, the distribution of review copies with an author promo package? Or do I embrace the new media and devote my attention to Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn and other social-media platforms? Do I create a video or two for YouTube?

Maybe I need to consider entirely different tacks – invent a video game based on my grantwriting book for example (just a little joke) or turn The Whole Clove Diet into a reality television series (also a joke). Perhaps I should take a leaf from the late, great book-promotion schemer Jack McClelland and do something outrageous that will bring the media to me: indulge in guerilla marketing, in other words (I am not excluding this idea at all. It appeals to me enormously). Maybe I should just hire a damned publicist (although I’ve heard of too many who have produced disappointing results and I can’t afford it anyway. Besides, I really do enjoy the promotional part of my work.)

In this digital era, the promotional opportunities are endless, but so are the number of new writers out there vying for readers’ attention (and recent stats say that book-readership is going down as fast as the average quality of the writing that is being published. Pretty soon there will be more “writers” than readers).

The only thing that is limited – and it is severely limited – is time. How do I maximize the hours that I do invest in book and audiocast promotion so that I still have time to serve my freelance editing clients and maybe even write another novel? Not to mention hanging out from time to time with my kids, my grandkids, and my fellow.

Despite the fact that the prospects have been so overwhelming that I have done nothing much at all in a focussed way to promote the books and the grant-writing audiocasts I have mentioned, I really do believe in them. And what reviews there have been so far have been excellent. It is time to get serious about this.

Campaign Kickoff

Life has a funny way of helping out when you need something (not, I believe, because of anything magical, but because needing something makes — or should make — you open to recognizing and welcoming opportunities that are really always there). Thanks to this introduction to Kathryn, and our first Skype meeting to compare notes, I am now really eager to get going on this project.

Kathryn and I have  committed to hold Skype meetings one a week and to do something (anything! :) ) in the meantime that we can report on that relates to promoting our books. I am  feeling optimistic. And so is she. Already I’ve attended one webinar entitled “Be Your Own Publicist,” which was hosted by The Writers’ Union of Canada. I’ll provide details on it in my next post. And I have signed up to attend another one next week from the Wildfire Academy entitled How To Become A Bestselling Author, which Kathryn recommended.

Our books have nothing in common, really, but therein lies some of our strength. Kathryn and I are going to be finding out how to approach publicity and promotion in ways that should benefit all writers —- whether thy write fiction, non-fiction or poetry, whether they write literary or commercial books, whether they write for adults or for children. We want to sort the wheat from the chaff — not among books, but among ways of promoting them.

The most important part of this journey is going to be to share it. Not only with one another, but with our fellow writers (including Larry!). Hence this journal of our investigations, our findings, our observations and our conclusions. We welcome readers’ input as well: if a man can crowdsource healing of a brain tumour that the doctors haven’t yet been able to contain, surely Kathryn and I can find some helpful advice from those who have tried promotional ideas I haven’t thought of – or have found widely touted methods to be useless — or have applied traditional promotional methods with new twists. We can all learn together.

Selling your novel: Genre vs. mainstream fiction

I have recently read that, unless their names are well known, writers in future are going to have a lot more trouble selling genre fiction than mainstream fiction, because readers will buy another, cheaper novel in the same genre (which today often means that they will go for a free novel in an ebook giveaway) before they will pay for a novel by an author they haven’t heard of before.

On the other hand, more readers are likely to be looking for genre fiction than mainstream fiction, so you’re at least going to have them checking out your book.

Your thoughts?

Looking for Beta readers for The Whole Clove Diet

Update Jan 4/11: Thanks for your responses! I have now got ten beta readers. Watch for the next posts on The Militant Writer: How to promote your independently published book — an interview with an author whose books are selling like hotcakes!

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My third novel (fifth book) is currently being typeset and will be published in about two months. I am looking for ten people who are interested in reading the final version of it in manuscript form and then writing a one-paragraph (or so) review for Amazon once the book is published. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not — you are welcome to be honest. I just want some reviews up there as soon as the book comes out.

In exchange, once the book is published I will sign a copy of the print version (it will also be available as an e-book. It’s is going to have a beautiful cover! I’m so excited!) and mail it to you, all at no cost to you.

If you are interested, please write me at mary @ marywwalters dot com or contact me via this blog.

Here’s info about the book:

As she breaks 200 pounds, and not in a good way, Rita (29) finds herself married to a self-focused widower with two difficult kids and a mother who almost makes Rita’s own mother look like a role model—which is really saying something. Graham’s first wife, being dead, just keeps getting better and better in everyone’s memories while Rita just gets fatter and more aggravated. She’s tried every diet in the book, but it’s not until a family crisis forces her out the door that she figures out that the easiest way to thin is to get rid of the baggage on the inside. Funny and insightful, The Whole Clove Diet is sure to make readers of all shapes and sizes feel better about themselves—and ultimately maybe even about Rita.

Thanks!

In Praise of Revision, or the Four Fails of Trying to Write the Last Draft First

by Mary W. Walters

When I was a new writer, I read a lot about how other writers wrote, and I became deluded into thinking that I could calculate how long it would take me to complete a writing project.

My reasoning went like this: if I wrote 500 words per day, I would be able to complete a short story in about ten days. If I upped the total to 1,000 words per day, I could finish a novel in 60 to 100 days, depending on the length of the novel. Those word goals seemed fairly modest to me, even a bit cushy: hadn’t I just been reading about writers who set themselves to write 5,000 words a day—and did it?

I got out my calculator and started pressing buttons. I reasoned that if I took a weekend off from time to time, and a week or two for vacation every year, I could still complete about a hundred novels and several collections of short stories by the time my 80th birthday rolled around. All I needed was the will power and fortitude to actually get the work done—and I was sure I had those in abundance. (I always feel that way before I start a project.)

It was then that I first faced what have come to think of as the “Four Fails” of trying to write the last draft first.

The first of these Fails occurred when I started my next novel. (It was my third, the first that would be published. My first and second novels had been abandoned part-way through, perhaps because they had failed to write themselves fast enough.)

I set out on the first day to write my 1,000 words, my schedule in hand and my determination firm. But I found I could not think of which 1,000 words to put down first—or, in fact, which one word to put down first. I told myself it was natural to feel this hesitation: with the schedule I’d set myself, a lot relied on the first word. The rest of the story had to ride effortlessly and smoothly on its back.

I dithered for days and weeks, growing increasingly discouraged as hour after hour passed away in fingernail-gnawing page-staring. My discouragement was laced with panic: if I kept dawdling this way, I might get no more than 90 or so books written before I hit my dotage.

By the time I did at last manage to get enough words down to constitute a first page, the second of the Fails kicked in: I found myself revising and revising and revising those first few sentences until the edges were worn off both them and me, and I could barely remember what vision had got me started in the first place. Still, I reassured myself again, if I got the beginning right, I could adhere to my schedule for the rest of the novel. It was only the first few paragraphs and pages that needed to be perfect. I’d loosen up when I got past this initial hurdle.

Fail the Third set in after I’d completed Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, something unexpected happened – Character X became more important than I’d originally envisioned and I had to go back to Chapter 1 and revise it to reflect the increased stature of X in the novel. More new plot developments in Chapter 3 required additional adjustments to Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 8, I realized that if there was going to be a smoking gun, I’d need to go way back near the beginning and hang that sucker on the wall. And if Character Y was going to fire said gun, I’d need to go back again and give her some precedent behaviour that would make her delivering the shot believable.

If I ever did write 1,000 new words in one day, the next day I’d end up revising them instead of writing another thousand, which would drop my average to 500 words per day. Two days later I’d be down around 250. Although the writing went more quickly as I neared the end of that novel, by the time the first draft was done, months and months had passed.

Done, but not Done

And still I wasn’t finished with the damned thing. In fact, it was at that point that Fail 4 announced itself as I realized that the final shape and potential of the novel had only really begun to suggest itself when the first full draft was down on paper. Themes had started to emerge that needed to be developed. Certain characters required additional depth and vibrancy. Some scenes went on too long and had to be trimmed; others needed to be expanded.

It was clear that I basically had to go back and rewrite the entire novel from the beginning—jettisoning some of the precious pages (and even whole chapters) over which I had earlier sweated bullets.

That novel took me a couple of years. By the time The Woman Upstairs had been accepted for publication (and, in the meantime, several short stories had been published, too), I figured I had learned enough about writing that the next time, I would be able to do a short story in six days, and a novel in six weeks.

But it didn’t happen that time either. In fact, the next novel that was published took me longer than the first. And the more I learned about what a short story could do if you really pushed yourself and made it the best that it could be, the longer it took me to write one of those as well.

I was growing so discouraged at my track record that I despaired of ever becoming a real writer. The real writers I had read about always seemed to write 1,000 words before breakfast and another 1,000 before lunch. I was proving to be a snail in the marathon of novel-writing. At the rate I was going, I’d probably never get more than a dozen novels written in my lifetime.

Why, I asked myself, did I seem to be incapable of simply letting go of what I wrote? Why did every sentence need to “sound right” to me before I could move on? Why did I need to hear music in each sentence, feel breath in every paragraph and chapter, find a coherent reality in the book as a whole before I could even show it to another person? Once the book was accepted, I’d just have to do more revisions anyway. Time was a-wasting here.

The Light Comes On

It was in finding the answers to my own questions that I began to learn about myself as a writer. In examining how I worked, I realized that I did all the revisions because I liked to do them. In fact, I loved to do them. Revision—getting everything just right, or at least as “right” as I could make it—was much more satisfying, deep and meaningful to me than writing a quick first draft could ever be. Most of the time, in fact, the first-draft part was total hell.

I realized that to me, writing was revision. I realized that for me, the first draft was just throwing down the clay that I’d then work with.

Everything I’ve done ever since has underscored the truth of this realization. I am Mary the Reviser: this is how I work.

Ironically, since I have learned this about myself, I can now get first drafts down as fast as my fingers can move across the keys. I write first drafts quickly now because I no longer worry about them: I know that before anyone else sees them, every sentence is going to be reworked and reworked, and that whole chunks are likely to disappear completely. For me, the important thing about the first-draft stage is just to get the ideas down on paper before I lose them: to make sure the clay I will be working with is at least somewhere close to the right colour and consistency. The form and detail will come later.

Now I know that when I start a novel, it is probably going to be three years before it’s finished, and that a short story will take at least a month—or several, if you count the parts where you need to put it away to let it rise like bread dough before you punch it down again.

By learning that for me, in writing, the pleasure is in the process, I have been freed from the tyranny of numbers and quotas. The end product is just a side benefit. I know that I would rather write one novel that sings (at least to me) from end to end than write 95 that consist of words strung over plots like carelessly tossed sheets on clothes racks. (Which is not to say that I do not strive at times to make my carefully edited text look like I’ve just tossed it.)

There are no fails in my approach to writing now. While there is no denying that to complete a project–whether it’s this blog post, or a novel—is satisfying, and a relief—the joy is in the work itself. The realization that what I love the most is digging has given the words “treasure” and “reward” new meaning.

Subsequent kudos from others and offers of publications become mere affirmations of what I already know: that I have done the best that I can do. I have given my work the respect it deserves. I have worked it until it is done, and I have seen that it is good.

Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

by Mary W. Walters

(This essay was first published in a slightly different form in The Rumpus in Oct. ’09.)

Wise employers have learned that in order to maximize results in today’s fast-paced work environments they must tailor their managerial skills to the dispositions of their various employees. A proliferation of books, articles, workshops and on-line seminars exist to help human-resources personnel understand the nature of those who work for them, and develop appropriate individual strategies to stimulate productivity.

Until now, one entire class of worker has been overlooked in these analyses: the undercover writers—to be specific, those poets, dramatists and creators of literary fiction and non-fiction who have for one reason or another eschewed careers in academe, and whose parents and/or spouses and/or children are no longer willing to support them. Unable to make a living from creative enterprise, they have been forced to conceal their true vocations in order to seek employment among the rank and file.

The men and women who make up this segment of the workplace population are intelligent and crafty, and they have very little to lose. Indeed they could be dangerous if they worked together—but fortunately it is not their disposition to operate in groups. It is not due to any danger to the employing organization that managers will find it of value to identify such people on their staffs; in fact, most writers will contribute knowledge, creativity, experience and a range of other skills and talents to their jobs, almost in spite of themselves. However, these people can best be encouraged to maximize their workplace contributions when managers know who they are, and are able to tailor administrative strategies to suit their particular strengths and weaknesses. This guide is intended to assist them.

Identification pre-employment

Creative writers can be difficult to detect during job interviews. Over time, many of them have built entire careers as fallback positions for their art, some even having acquired degrees in interesting areas of specialization like astrophysics or early-Victorian stage design. As result, they can be found not only in writing-related occupations, but in fields that range from railway maintenance to health care. However, they have learned that it does not suit their short-term goals to explain to job-selection committees that they intend to support a highly time-consuming writing vocation, quite aside from themselves and any dependents they may have, on the proceeds of the position for which they are applying.

If you suspect, perhaps through a particularly insightful or well phrased passage in the cover letter, or a rhymed couplet tucked into the resume itself, that you have a writer on your short-list, there is, admittedly, a fairly easy way to find out: you can Google the candidate. Many writers in the workplace have published at least one book, or maybe two or even three—or four, or ten or twelve—while continuing to be unable to earn a living from their writing. They probably have a web-page, and if any of their books are still in print, they are likely available through on-line bookstores.

Here is the dilemma: if you do discover that you have a writer on your short-list, what do you do with that information? Do you share it with your fellow selection-committee members and run the risk of predisposing the outcome of the job-search process in favor of the writer? For despite the overwhelming evidence that no one is reading literature any more, there is still a cachet to having a literary writer on one’s staff; consequently the imaginations of many of your employees, including perhaps those on your selection committee (perhaps—admit it—even yours?) will be caught by the thought of hiring a “real writer.” The potential to rub shoulders or discuss one’s own secret literary aspirations with a published author has swayed more than one hiring committee away from other more qualified, and possibly more stable, candidates.

At the pre-employment stage, most employers agree, it is just better not to know.

If you think you have hired a writer

Human-relations managers are generally relieved to hear that although poets are very different from fiction writers, and playwrights from nonfiction writers, literary artists of all genres do share certain basic characteristics that can be used to identify them in employment settings. Here are the most essential:

  1. Writers are grateful: Particularly in the first few weeks and months after you have hired them, you will find them almost inordinately appreciative that you have given them a job, This is partly because after what has typically been an extended but futile period of full-time writing, they really do believe that they want to hang out with other people rather than doing battle every day with their solitary nightmares. Primarily, however, they are grateful for your company’s dental plan and optical coverage, and for the opportunity to buy orthotics;
  2. Writers appear to have no fashion sense: After the first enthusiasm of being in the world wears off, most writers forget about their appearance. This is not intentional; it is endemic. For the most part writers are not dirty. Generally they do not smell. They simply tend to be inattentive to externals, and therefore to appear perennially disheveled;
  3. Writers suffer from attacks of inspiration. The first suspicion that a writer may be present in a workplace frequently occurs when such individuals leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and rush off to a washroom with expressions that suggest they have been possessed. Supervisors unused to working with writers frequently assume that such employees are displaying symptoms of alcohol abuse or drug dependency (which may also be the case, but that is not the subject of this article). However, follow-up often reveals these individuals to be crouched in toilet stalls not for the purpose of tipping back or shooting up, but in order to scribble messages to themselves. These are not mere “notes” – not grocery lists: they may in fact be outlines of award-winning short stories or scenes from future Broadway hits—or, indeed, entire sonnets;
  4. Writers are subject to mood swings: Varying from mild to intense, these episodes are similar to the clinical descriptions of bipolar disorder or other pathological conditions (which may also be a problem, but are not covered in this article). Normally writer-related mood swings can be distinguished from treatable syndromes by the brevity of the highs (usually occasioned by having mailed off a story to a magazine, producer or publisher) followed by the protraction of the lows;
  5. Writers will always prefer the less responsible position to the corporate climb, and the part-time position to the full-time job: Writers’ inability to be persuaded or influenced by—or punished through the withholding of—the kinds of economic rewards that are highly effective with most people, not only helps to identify them, but also presents employers with additional administrative challenges.

Managing the species

Once a writer in the workplace has been identified, the attributes that differentiate their writing genres form the most effective basis for their management.

The Poet

Poets can generally be identified in the workplace, as they can at social gatherings and in the coffee shops where they are most at home, by their supercilious and standoffish appearances. Their hauteur is not, however, what it seems: it is actually mainly shyness, combined with a dollop of fear that they have forgotten your name and/or are about to do something stupid which everyone will notice. Perhaps for this reason, poets in the workplace are known for their tendencies to sympathize with underdogs. They are strong in union-related activities, and will suddenly rise to the defense of the most incompetent employees.

Poets have no hope of ever making a living from their art. Alternately plunged into states of despair and resignation, these individuals can normally be cajoled into getting on with a responsible workaday career because, unlike writers in other genres, they know for absolute certain that they have no alternatives. The greatest challenge to office administrators when it comes to managing poets is how to keep the other staff from the contagion of their depressive and hopeless mindsets. Banning all alcohol from the workplace may help.

The Fiction Writer

Writers of fiction who are in the grip of a creative project can seem absent-minded and even at times downright demented. They will come into the office after a weekend of writing or at the end of a creatively productive lunch-hour with no idea of the names of the people with whom they work (nor, indeed, at times, those to whom they are married or have given birth), and also uncertain of the month, the year, and especially the time of day. They may be unclear as to what city they are in, or even which country—and, in the case of speculative-fiction writers, what planet they are on. It is important for their co-workers and managers to realize that this phenomenon results from the fact that the world inside the writer’s head has temporarily become more real to him or her than you are. Please be assured that fiction writers do know the difference between the fictional world and the real one. Given a little nudge or a long, mystified look, they will return in an instant from an icy December day in 18th-century Croatia, take off their several sweaters, and be ready to add their two cents’ worth to the afternoon’s budget meeting.

Also due to the nature of their work, fiction writers tend to suffer from lack of sleep and occasionally come to work with hangovers. The best approach is to forgive them when they arrive in such conditions—the lack of sleep means they are getting some creative writing done, which will help to keep them sane, while the hangovers mean they have been fantasizing about their futures on best-seller lists, which tends to improve their spirits (at least once they recover from the hangovers).

The Playwright

Playwrights, or dramatists, are generally far more flamboyant and sociable than are fiction writers, and certainly far more so than are poets and non-fiction writers; as a result, they are generally the best types of writers you can have around for the company.

However, torn between their need for writerly solitude and the excitement of the world of theater, playwrights tend to leap to their feet in the middle of meetings and suggest resolving corporate issues with a rousing chorus, a stake through the heart of the evil villain, or the introduction to the scene (upstage) of a pair of bactrian camels. While playwrights are far easier to manage in the workplace than are most other writers, they do need to be settled down from time to time and reminded that not everyone believes that all the world’s a stage.

The Non-Fiction Writer

The non-fiction writer is the closest to “normal human being” that it is possible to get while still being a writer. This makes these individuals very hard to detect, which can lead to distinctive problems for employers. Many non-fiction writers were activists when younger, and have inadvertently become writers only as a result of honing their skills while attempting to build support for social causes and political issues. Although they may now have turned their attentions to a newly evolved and far less lucrative area of the genre known as “creative” or “literary” non-fiction, where style is as important as content, they likely still have their noses tuned finely toward the detection of the kind of corporate rot that can bring down dynasties and presidents. To make things worse, such individuals have also typically refined their writing abilities to the point where they are not only skilled at identifying and describing unfortunate corporate practices (and supporting their findings with statistics, dates and locations), they now also have the connections to place these pieces with major publications. It is therefore wise, if you suspect a non-fiction writer in your midst, to avoid indulging in insider trading, the mismanagement of biohazardous materials, or the harassment of employees—at least while such writers are in the room.

Aside from their tendencies toward socio-political eruption, creative non-fiction writers are fairly easy to deal with as employees. They often have books that they are working on at home and possibly also during their lunch hours, but unlike their fiction-, drama- and poetry-writing counterparts, their work normally has a structure and even an outline. This means that they are likely to have schedules to follow—and may even be able to adhere to them—thus eliminating some of the systemic angst that tends to plague their colleagues in other writing genres.

Writers Can Spell “Corporate Success” For You

In general, writers are keenly intelligent people who come from highly dysfunctional backgrounds. Employers are making a contribution to society by keeping them employed (safe in the office from the kinds of family breakdowns and personal damage that can occur when such individuals are given too much idle time in which to write, which only leads to writers’ blocks and thence to crises both personal and interpersonal) but also by keeping them writing, if only minimally (and therefore sublimating all kinds of passions and impulses and emotions which most of us are all too happy to read about but do not ever want to actually see).

In the meantime, writers tend to make good workers. They are so busy imagining the great success of their current writing projects that they take conflicts and even uproars in the workplace in their stride. The odds of their actually quitting because they have had a literary breakthrough are roughly equivalent to those of any of your other employees leaving because they have won the lottery.

The managers who are most successful with writers on their staffs are those who recognize that 1) the writers do not want to be there and think they will be leaving at any moment, and 2) the writers are not going anywhere. The careful containment of managerial aspirations in regard to writer-employee advancement, combined with tactful accommodation of employee-writers’ dreams regarding their imminent fame and fortune, can lead to symbiotic relationships that will benefit everyone.

Rewards for the sensitive management of writers by employers can be substantial. Despite their long periods of moroseness and bursts of disproportionate good cheer, writers can prove in the long-term among the most dedicated, hard-working and grateful employees a company will ever be fortunate enough to hire. Continually drawn forward by their conviction that they are about to make the breakthrough that will allow them to quit their jobs, they are likely to just keep right on working until it’s time to collect their watches and retire.

In the meantime, such employees will invite you to their book launches, perhaps even dedicate a story or poem to you, maybe even thank you publicly (if they remember) when they win awards, since by then you are likely to be the only members of their inner circle who has not abandoned them. They might even put you into a story, a poem, a play or a book, and unexpectedly (to them as well as you) confer on you the side-benefit of eternal life.

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Link to The Rumpus version of “Managing Writers in The Workplace”