Moira Allen is the Editor and creator of Writing-World.com for close to 15 years. She is an expert in teaching about the business of writing and honing the craft of writing.
I have followed her website for a few years now and she has graciously let me pick her brain with my own questions and her website is an education in itself. She has now generously granted me this wonderful interview.
Moira is honest, pragmatic and grounded in her approach to writing and the business of writing. She has much to teach us. Let’s welcome Moira Allen.
PSW: Your love of words show in your newsletter. How did you decide to be a writer?
MA: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories in my head. But even that, is think, stems from the fact that I came from a family of readers. So “stories” were something that were just a natural part of my life. They were all around me: my mother read to me from as early as I can remember, so I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t being exposed to “storytelling”.
I grew up surrounded by books, and by the notion that books and reading were important. I could nearly always manage to be left alone to “do my own thing” if I were reading – or at least pretending to read – because the family considered reading to be one of the most worthwhile things that one could do. Often, however, I’d be hiding behind a book and actually making up my own stories and acting them out in my head
It simply seemed natural, then, to want to start writing those stories down when I became more able to do so. And that’s when I ran into the magic of non-completion – I worked on the same “novel” for years! When you’re young and constantly growing and changing, your ideas of “the perfect story” keep changing too, and I’d get to about chapter 4 or 5 and decide to start over at the beginning. (Unfortunately that tendency hasn’t really gone away…)
I’m sure I flirted briefly with other ideas about “what I would be” when I grew up – I recall discarding “ballerina” fairly early. I know for quite awhile I was sure I wanted to be a naturalist, but mainly because I enjoyed reading what naturalists wrote about nature and animals, and I wanted to write the same types of things. I got cured of that when, in college, I worked at a zoology museum and found out that today’s naturalist did quite a lot of cutting things up.
But I think all along, I was pretty convinced that “when I grew up” I wanted to be a writer. I still do. But then, I’m still waiting to grow up.
PSW: How has your writing talent help you grow creatively?
MA: I think writing changes how one sees the world. I know that many people don’t imagine writing as being an “active” type of career. But it’s certainly a mentally active one! It changes one’s approach to looking at just about anything, because it becomes difficult to look at something without automatically starting to think about how one would describe it or explain it to another person.
From there, that means that one is on longer simply a passive observer of life. One is always looking deeper, looking around corners, looking for meanings, looking for patterns. Sherlock Holmes accused Watson of seeing but not “observing”. I think that as one becomes a writer, one moves from simply seeing (“oh, look, pretty lake”) to observing – and interpreting. (“How would you describe the color of the water? How does the sun strike it? What is the impression or feeling that it gives you – warm sparkles or a sense of cold dread at the bottomless depths? Who’s in that boat out there? Is that an innocent family outing or a murder about to happen?”)
One of the things one seeks to do as a writer is to take what one sees (or imagines) and enable another person to see it. That extends to seeking to enable another person to see things that no longer exist – e.g., the world of the past – or things that have not existed yet – the future, another planet, etc. Writing enables us to see “creatively” because we want to be able to express, creatively, what we see.
PSW: What is the best way to practice the writing craft?
The one that works for you. Seriously. I am SO not a fan of articles that say to be a good writer, or a successful writer, you “must” do this, that or the other. You’ll have one person saying that it’s best to get up at 5 a.m. And write while you are “fresh.” Another advocates writing in the afternoon. One person is convinced that you must writer detailed outlines; another believes in flash cards; another in “clustering,” another in flying by the seat of the pants.
There have been many mantras about writing that be passed around the community. Basically, the writing community tends to latch on to a piece of advice and , because it was uttered by an “expert,” it’s taken as gospel and passed on as such, over and over and over again. For awhile, for instance, it was considered absolutely vital that a writer maintain a journal. You just HAD to have someplace to jot down your thoughts, ideas, inspirations, etc., every day. I can remember reading article after article extolling the importance of journaling. I don’t see that advice very often anymore – it seems to have become less “in fashion” – but for a time everyone just simply “agree” that this MUST be THE thing to do.
Similarly, the piece of advice that gets passed around constantly is that you MUST write EVERY day. Then there are lots of pieces of tangential advice that try to handle the fact that, let’s face it, most of us CAN”T manage to write every day. So we’re told that we should, but… as long as we just write 100 words or 500 words or a journal entry, we have “fulfilled” the requirement. No one tends to question who came up with the “requirement” in the first place.
The problem with these “best way” recommendations is that when you aren’t doing it or cannot do it or think it’s a total waste of time to do it (can you tell I never got “into” journaling?), it’s easy to feel that you’re not doing “everything in your power” to be a writer. And if you’re not doing “everything” that you should be doing, you must not want it enough, and if you don’t want it enough, maybe you’re not REALLY cut out to be a writer in the first place!
So… the best way is YOUR way. If you find that your way isn’t actually working for you, then it’s up to you to examine what you’re doing and develop a system that works better. One of the first steps in that exam is to make sure that you’re not trying to follow someone else’s way, and failing to understand why THEIR way isn’t working for YOU.
PSW: What is your typical writing day like?
It usually involves quite a lot of NOT writing. I do not write every day. When I do, and I’m really settling into it, there ‘s a lot of “to-ing and fro-ing.” I sit down. I try to concentrate. I get up. I walk around. I get coffee. I put on the laundry. I sit down. I drink the coffee. I write a couple of paragraphs. I get up. The coffee is gone; need more. I pace the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil. I make more coffee. (Oops, laundry needs changing now!) I sit down. This all takes usually an hour or two, and then finally like a switch gets flipped, and I hit the “zone” and just keep typing. THEN, I could probably type for hours. I will usually write 1/2 to 2/3 of my piece and then go back to the beginning and start rewriting it – perhaps because I can’t really write the end until I’ve made some necessary modifications that occurred to me as I moved forward. The end of whatever I’m writing needs to flow logically from the beginning – so if, halfway through, I’ve seen a somewhat different direction, or I didn’t like the way I was expressing something, then I need to go back and do my next pass from hat point and try to push the flow all the way through to the finish.
And then I need more coffee…
PSW: What is it like being in the writing business?
MA: It’s a bit of a combination of wonderful and terrible. It can be wonderful, because there is no good reason to be in this business if it isn’t something you love. And so, wonderfully, you’re doing something you love. But it can be terrible because you’re in an incredibly competitive business – there are more active writers out there today than ever before in history. So it can be extremely frustrating, and I think more writers are feeling the pinch of frustration today than ever before. Ironically, our worst competition isn’t “good” writers, it’s “bad” writers. If you pick up a poorly written book, and you’re new to reading, it’s going to turn you off to the process – so every writer is harmed by the plethora of truly bad, unskilled writing that is flooding the market place through “do it yourself” and free venues.
Another hazard in the “writing business” is that many people assume it’s about “writing” and forget that it is, also, a “business.” that means all the issues of “doing business” apply. If you want to get published, you have to learn how the publishing business works. You have to learn how to find markets, develop appropriate submissions, track income and expenses, track submissions and maintain your writing AS a business. Creativity is only one ingredient in a successful writing “business”.
PSW: Your newsletter is an education in itself. How many years have you been sharing this information?
MA: Writing-World.com was founded in 2000, so it is about to head into its 15th year. The website itself offers more than 600 articles on just about every aspect of writing of every level of expertise. The newsletter is just a small part of that. Writing-World.com is one of the largest, if not THE largest, sites for writers on the web today, with the largest archive of material and one of the largest visitor rates.
Before that, I worked with Inkspot, which was in every sense the “predecessor” of Writing-World.com. Inkspot was one of the first and foremost “communities” for writers on the web, with a host of resources for writers – it was one of the first out there when the Web was still shiny and new. Prior to that, I had set up my own little “advice” site called “Tips for Writers” – I eventually transferred all that material over to Inkspot, and then to Writing-World.com. Writing-World.com was born from the ashes of Inkspot, which was “killed” by a new owner, and we were able to inherit a lot of the material that had formerly been posted on Inkspot. We just went on from there!
PSW: Do you recommend a writer to specialize in one type of writing?
MA: No, not really. I think it’s too easy to assume that you do only one thing, or like only one thing. Getting out into the “writing business” often means getting out of your comfort zone, and writing for types of publication you might not have imagined working with. It means learning to write different lengths and even different styles. There are different requirements for magazines, newspapers, online publications, blogs, etc, – and one thing tends to lead to another.
By exploring and pushing your boundaries, you may discover that there is some other aspect of writing that you never imagined you’d be good at – and you find that you like it even more than what you THOUGHT you would be writing. In a world that tries to pigeon-hole people, it’s silly to pigeon-hole yourself! Don’t ever assume, “Oh, I’d never be any good at that,” or “I’ve never done that, so I couldn’t do it.”
You may also find that the type of writing you’re comfortable with, or assume you WANT to do, is not one that will lead to a “successful” writing career. This is a career where flexibility and versatility are real advantages.
PSW: What advice do you have for new writers?
MA: Let’s go back to the issue of being aware that “a writing business” is a BUSINESS. You wouldn’t imagine going into any other business without learning the ropes. So don’t imagine that you can be truly successful as a writer without leaning how the writing and publishing business works. A lot of writers feel that their job is just to be “creative” – and then they hope someone will tell them how to take the next step (e.g., find an agent, find a publisher). But the thing is, you’re competing with the ones who DO go out there and do the research, read the articles and the books and the blogs. If you aren’t one of them, you don’t have a chance. The person who is prepared and educated is ALWAYS going to come out ahead of the person who says, “I just wrote this great book, but I have no idea what to do next, can you help me?”
The wonder of today’s online world is that writers have access to unimaginable volumes of information for free that, in my early days, you had to pay for! If you wanted to be a successful writer 30 years ago, you had to subscribe to a writing magazine or two, you had to buy books (lots of books), and you might want to take classes at a real-world night school. Today, most of what is in those books and classes can be found online for free. And yet too many new writers aren’t taking advantage of that.
So educate yourself. Find out what the writing business is about, how it works, and how to make it work for you . Don’t be scared off by the horror stories that you hear about how “no new writer can ever get published.” EVERY writer who is published today was a new writer at some pint. Of COURSE new writers get published! They get published all the time! That’s how they stop being “new writers.”
When you DO hear horror stories, identify the source. Are you being told “you don”t have a chance with traditional publishing” by someone who has a vested interest in convincing you to buy THEIR product or service? Are you being told this by someone who wants validation of the path THEY have chosen?
Finally, I supposed perhaps that most important attribute a new writer can have is PATIENCE. We live in a world where instant gratification is considered not only the norm but some sort of divine right. I want to be published – next week! Why SHOULDN’T that happen? Traditional publishing – the kind that gets your book in front of hundred of thousand of readers rather than literally, a few dozen – DOES take time, patience, frustration (lots of frustration), research, and more patience. Too many writers today are settling for what they can get NOW, rather than hanging in there for the far greater reward that comes from enduring the frustration, the disappointment, and the passage of time. Great writers don’t settle – they endure. We aren’t taught “endurance” much anymore, so those who will are those who win.
Moira Allen, Editor
Author of “Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer,” “The Writers Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals”
Moira teaches us that with a little courage and persistence you will win in the writing world. Her practical advice you too can live your dreams. Thank you so much Moira for sharing what you know so well and your words or encouragement.
For more information visit: Writing-World.com