"The Self-Motivated Writer" with Victoria Sherrow.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Victoria is Victoria Sherrow, author of more than 60 books, including l0 picture books. Two of the series Victoria has written for were named in the "Ten Best Series of 1998" by Booklist.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm your Moderator, Kristi Holl, and I'm here tonight with Victoria Sherrow, who will be talking about "The Self-Motivated Writer." Victoria is author of more than 60 books. She loves to write, but says that "finding the TIME and MOTIVATION to write" is something else. I think we can ALL agree with that statement on many days! So let's get right to our guest. Welcome, Victoria!

Victoria: Hi Kristi and everyone! I'm delighted to be here tonight.

Moderator: Victoria, how did you get started writing and publishing?

Victoria: Like so many writers, I loved to read and to write while I was growing up and even dreamed about it as a career. But I didn't know any writers personally and thought this wouldn't be a "practical" career choice. While in college, I did take a number of English, journalism and literature courses while earning my B.S. and a Master's in psych. Afterwards, I worked in community mental health until my husband and I moved to Los Angeles and I was temporarily not working, so decided to try writing, a dream that had never left me. I had read Lee Wyndham's book on writing for children and enrolled in a class on writing at UCLA while also studying books, magazines, and writer's magazines at the library. I just started writing and sending out my work. Of course, I had many rejections but did sell a story to Highlights for Children in 1979 and that sale convinced me I could do this. I continued working to improve my writing and marketing skills, sending out articles and stories for different ages and then sold my first picture book in 1981.

Moderator: What is a typical writing day like for you now? And is this different from when you started writing?

Victoria: These days, for the most part, I work at my desk while my children are in school, which means working pretty much every weekday from at least 8:30 or 9 till 3 p.m. and I also work some evenings and weekends if I have a big deadline coming up. Of course, that schedule has been different through the years, depending on my children's ages and activities since I couldn't follow this same plan when they were infants, toddlers, or in preschool a few hours a few days a week. My writing time was once much more fragmented than today when they were younger but then, as now, when school is out, I will be doing "family work," taking them to activities, going to their sports events, getting to doctors' appointments and other errands, then taking care of dinner, homework, etc.

Moderator: What kinds of things have you published?

Victoria: I've published both fiction and nonfiction for various age groups, including short stories, articles, and books. In addition to twelve fiction books, I've published different types of nonfiction--biographies, science, history, how-to, sports, and social issues. I have many interests and like reading and writing both fiction or nonfiction so that is what I've been doing.

Moderator: Early in your career, you were widowed at a time when your oldest children were two years old and nine months old. How did that affect your writing and ability to focus on work?

Victoria: My major goal during that difficult time was to keep my children's lives as "normal" as possible and continuing their routines. They attended a preschool located next to our church and the building had a wonderful library where I would go to work during the hours they were in the school. So I forced myself to go there as usual and it was quite difficult but also comforting to be in a place where people were so supportive and allowed me to just sit quietly and get back to my writing. In some ways, I think having that work to do and those goals helped me get on with my life and also build up my career, which enabled me to earn money while staying home with them as a single parent.

Moderator: With recent world events, have you had trouble focusing on your writing? If so, how have you dealt with that?

Victoria: Yes, and from what I'm hearing from writers and people in other fields, I'm not alone with that. It has been difficult and distracting and I think even more so than at times when I have worked during illness or other situations, maybe because of the uncertainty of our situation. I find myself wanting to check in with CNN too often to see what is happening in Afghanistan, to find out if anyone else has anthrax, what is happening and what we need to do. Turning off the TV has helped me focus on work and also realizing that these events are not all within my control so I must control those parts of my life that I can, such as taking care of my family, completing my work, trying to stay calm. I also find it comforting to get outside in the fresh air with my dog, take breaks to stretch, keep in touch with friends and family living in other places, the kinds of things that help us appreciate our lives and each other. It's natural to feel shock, sadness and anxiety under these circumstances; we just have to get through it and be there for each other.

JaciRae: After losing your husband, was there a period of time where you just couldn't write at all?

Victoria: There were times I did not produce a great deal during a morning of writing but I tried not to expect too much and just did what I could. My first husband was also so supportive of my writing that I knew he would want me to pursue it and keep going.

Moderator: In the beginning, how did you motivate yourself to complete projects that you submitted on speculation before you began to have contracts for projects with a specific deadline?

Victoria: I set goals as if I DID have a deadline and really tried to keep to a schedule and follow through on my ideas, one at a time. I would keep a calendar and plan to send out a certain story or article or book proposal or query letter by a "deadline" I set myself. One thing that has motivated me is knowing that if I don't follow through on an idea, I may walk into a library or bookstore sometime and see that someone else did write the biography or book I had thought about and that can be disappointing. Another thing I did during those early years was come up with goals like finishing a holiday story for children for every major holiday, so I'd have to send things out in a timely way. As it happened, that project led to my first picture book sale, because while I was reading some old library books about Halloween legends, I came across a footnote about a creature called a boggart and then created an original folk tale from that.

girlwiththecurl: How stringent on yourself were you if you were close to the deadline and not close to finishing your piece?

Victoria: Sometimes you try hard to meet the deadline, but can't for various reasons. I think you just need to be positive, move forward and complete the piece you want to send out, and do it.

janp: With such varied interests, do you elect to write first, then find a "home" or vice versa?

Victoria: For articles and stories, I'll go ahead and finish them, then send to an appropriate market, which I may have thought about ahead of time. For an adult article, I'd send a query letter to places I think might be interested and also for long projects, like nonfiction books. With many of my books, an editor and I have already agreed on the project and I have a contract before I write it.

Moderator: How have you found time to write and teach writing full-time while raising three children?

Victoria: The great editor and author Jim Giblin once said something like, "We don't find time to write, we MAKE time to write" and I agree. And sometimes it can be very difficult, especially when you are in charge of small children. One of my pet peeves is people who say "Oh, it must be nice to be a writer because you get to stay home and work at the same time." Because if you have tried it, you know you don't magically turn into two people because you are working at home, which is already quite a job. We all know you cannot be diapering a baby, cooking dinner, or driving someone to soccer practice while at the same time be sitting at a desk writing, thinking, reading, and revising.

So how can you make that writing time happen? It requires some flexibility in terms of how you plan your day, as well as using whatever resources you can find to carve out some time for writing, such as a spouse who will be taking over at times, perhaps a teenager who can play with a young child during the afternoon, maybe getting up early in the morning to write when the children are sleeping or writing at night when they go to bed.

I also found it vital to make the most of the time I did have to work, in terms of getting right to it and being as productive as possible. Writing parents learn to make the most of those small bits of time you have while waiting in lines, sitting at the dentist's office, waiting for softball practice or dance class to end. During those times, you can work on bits of writing you can do away from a desk--jot down an idea, flesh out a character, work on an outline or letter, think up a good title. In addition, as children grow, they can certainly help out. Mine learned to do their own laundry at 13 and have had other chores, such as dishes, setting the table, etc. which is good for them as well.

Moderator: Do you have a regular time for your writing? And how important is a daily writing schedule?

Victoria: Well, as I said earlier, my main writing on weekdays takes place between 9 and 3, but I'll also do a bit in the evening if I need to and on weekends when the family schedule permits. If one can't write every day, I think it's important to do it regularly, at least certain times each week. For some people, there may only be one day a week they can spend a few hours writing, and that might work fine. You can finish projects by working at a steady pace several hours a week; it just takes longer than if you could write daily. By breaking up the projects into pieces, you can make progress one step at a time.

Moderator: If you have a family or day job, can you make writing a "priority"? If so, how? (And what is meant by "priority"?)

Victoria: Most of us would probably agree family is the priority and then a day job that supports oneself and the family would certainly be a priority, but one can still make writing a priority in the sense that you value the craft, set aside time to work on it, make an effort to learn and improve. As we were discussing earlier, if it's important to you, then you will get creative about finding those times you can do it.

Moderator: Even when we try to make writing a priority in our busy lives, it seems like interruptions conspire against us to make sure we DON'T make it a priority. Do you have any special tricks you use to handle interruptions?

Victoria: I think an obvious one is to let the answering machine pick up phone messages so you can return calls after your work time ends unless they are true emergencies. I've also found that once people know you are serious about your writing and you show them you are really working and using that time, they can learn to respect it. Friends and family can learn that you are indeed working when you are writing, despite the fact that you are there at home and thus might seem "available" to do various other things. Interruptions from children who want your attention are probably most difficult and some writers negotiate with them, promising that at X o'clock, Mom or Dad will stop typing and play a game or talk etc.

BingoCliff: Don't you write something and put it away for a spell? And then take it up at a later date?

Victoria: Yes, with many things I find I need to get away from it and then return with a fresh eye. And sometimes I'm amazed at the things I find that could be much better after that period of time away from it.

Moderator: Any other times in your life you have struggled to find time/energy to write as a result of family responsibilities, health problems, and other obstacles?

Victoria: Yes, I've had the usual events as well as some health problems, including chronic pain and some strain injuries in the shoulders and arms. I was surprised to get the strain injuries because I'd been typing long hours for years with no problem and then it happened, so I've had to learn to cope with that.

girlwiththecurl: How do you "convince" someone you are serious about your writing, reading, studying, etc. when the respect may only come after something is published, for example?

Victoria: You bring up a really important point, because often people will indeed look at this as a "hobby" instead of a serious endeavor if a person is not earning money from it. I think that the person just needs to realize that this is an important part of who you are and that our dreams have value, even if we aren't yet selling our work. If they expect you to value their dreams and goals, they need to give yours the same consideration.

sue: How can you concentrate on writing if you are in chronic pain or under the influence of painkillers?

Victoria: I have experienced varying levels of pain during the past nine years and have found that sometimes I could work while at other times, the pain was too intense and distracting. Some of the chronic dull achy pains I've had have not kept me from writing and writing actually is a blessing because it takes my mind off the pain. But during two periods of really intense pain I had in 1993 and 1997, I took muscle relaxants that made me drowsy and it's hard to concentrate well in that condition, although I found I was able to do some reading. I'm lucky that I haven't had to take pain meds the rest of the time and have learned to do various other things to help myself and decrease the pain, such as stretching exercises, yoga, and occasional chiropractic visits. I also learned methods of relaxation, including using some guided imagery tapes, that are very helpful.

Moderator: Are there times when a person is just too tired, too sick, too overwhelmed with family obligations to do any really "hard" writing? What can a writer do during those periods to "regroup" and even progress?

Victoria: Yes, I think you need to be flexible and nurture yourself when you are in those situations. When I find I'm too tired, etc. to work on the really hard parts of a book or other project, I find other things I can do. For instance, there may be parts of a book that don't require as much analytical thinking or organization or you may find that you need a break in order to get back to your work later and do it well. Perhaps you can read or just do some thinking about the project while resting or taking a walk. Or use those times to study markets or read a good book about writing techniques. I think we tend to feel less guilty about taking these breaks if we have been writing steadily and doing our best.

Moderator: What happens if you have a deadline during one of these difficult periods?

Victoria: It's probably best to just tell the editor what is happening so they can make adjustments in their schedule. They are usually understanding but of course it's a problem, especially because it's upsetting to know we have inconvenienced people and also because it is not like some other jobs where someone else could just take over. So working with the editor, you come up with a plan about how and when to complete the material and do the best you can to finish it quickly.

Moderator: How do you come up with ideas in order to keep writing month after month, year after year?

Victoria: I actually usually have more ideas than I can write about and have many fiction and nonfiction idea lists in my computer and file drawers. Of course, some ideas are stronger than others and may end up as stories, articles or books while less worthy ones don't. Some of my book ideas have come from me while others have come from the editors as they develop series of books or think of topics they want someone to write about.

I really do think ideas are "out there" and if I was looking for new ones, I'd consider reading a newspaper, watching the Discovery Channel for an evening, walking through the local historical district, visiting a playground, things like that where you might find something interesting to write about or see a child who sparks a story idea. The library is also a great place to find ideas. For example by reading nonfiction you might find a great story setting, bit of history that would make a good background for a novel, etc.

wendymh: In keeping a schedule of writing 9 to 3 daily, how many projects are you usually able to complete in a week? How much time do you read daily?

Victoria: I do read a lot because most of my books require research. My total work hours usually add up to at least 40 per week and I am able to write about 80 nonfiction pages a month, as well as some shorter writing work.

Moderator: How do you cope with rejection and keep writing?

Victoria: Well, rejection is painful, especially in the beginning when we feel doubts about our abilities and acceptance can mean so much. I recall crying a few times during the first year I began sending out my work but it has become easier through the years. I try not to take it personally--a cliché but it does help--and I remind myself that another editor might feel differently about the piece. One way I cope is by having more than one piece of writing, query, proposal, etc. circulating. I also work on new things while waiting to hear about things I've sent out. That way, you can feel hopeful that something might be accepted even if you receive rejections on others.

Moderator: Have you sold to editors who rejected other work you sent them?

Victoria: Yes, absolutely! I continued to send stories to certain magazines that rejected earlier things and also sent more than one book ms. to certain publishers before making a sale. Sometimes editors will write an encouraging note on a rejection slip or will even write a nice letter. When that happens, I follow up with another submission, thanking them for their kind words about the piece they didn't buy. If they take the time to write anything encouraging, chances are they like the way you write and you may sell to them in the future.

Moderator: What is your office like (now and in the past)?

Victoria: I've gone from writing on a typewriter perched on a table in the corner of a living room to a whole room that is my office now. I have a wonderful large desk that I found in a used furniture store and refinished, with lots of room for the computer, etc. and big drawers with files and materials. But I know people who have written books in a closet they outfitted as a writing space or in a basement or attic space, so it can be done. I do think it's important to set aside some space you can use for writing so you are ready to start right in during those work times.

Moderator: How can you set up a work environment that promotes better work habits and is ready for action during those times one has to write?

Victoria: A good chair with back support and equipment that is set up to minimize strain and fatigue are vital, since writing really does require physical effort. Although people may have different preferences about their workspace, probably most of us work better in a fairly neat environment because it's less distracting and it's also easier to find the things you need quickly. It's also helpful to keep your main tools and reference books at hand, such as dictionary, thesaurus, etc.

james55clinton: Wouldn't deadlines make stress pain much worst? I would avoid deadlines.

Victoria: If you write a book that is under contract, the deadline is necessary and is part of the contract, so there is no avoiding it. But you can set a deadline that gives you enough time so you can write at the pace that works for you. You can do the same with other projects that you are writing on your own--set deadlines that are reasonable and that give you a feeling of satisfaction when you steadily work to meet them, rather than causing terrible stress.

BingoCliff: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?

Victoria: No, I don't. I don't think I am even a Type A personality, although there are areas in my life that I try to be more "perfect" than others. I don't think anyone can do everything really well all the time. For instance, when I'm writing a lot, we won't have any gourmet meals cooked by me, maybe something easy like roast chicken, baked potatoes, sliced raw vegetables. Yet on another occasion, I might like to cook something I consider "perfect." I do try to make my writing the best I can do at that time, but recognize it will not be perfect. I'd probably be afraid to write if I was aiming for "perfection," but when I sit down to work, I do remind myself that I am not carving a piece of marble but rather writing words that I can change, polish, reorganize, etc.

girlwiththecurl: Do you like working on a project until completion, or do you have several projects going at the same time, depending on your mood, and circumstances?

Victoria: I have worked both ways, depending on the kinds of projects and my schedule. Some projects are so demanding and absorbing that it works best for me to focus on them exclusively, while others are not. I have sometimes worked on a long book and varied that process by writing some short stories or articles along the way.

Dianawrites: Do you deal with an evil internal editor that pops up when you least need (or want) him?

Victoria: I used to know that editor but told him/her to get lost. I think that probably happens more with fiction. Is that what you mean? That this internal voice censors what you are writing or curbs your creativity?

Dianawrites: Yes. How did you send him packing?

Victoria: I think my main tactic is to remind myself to just write and I can always revise later if I'm not happy with it. I think there may also be some articles or books that discuss this. Does our moderator know about any?

Moderator: One of the best pieces of advice I had on that came from Anne Lamott's book BIRD BY BIRD. You must read it if you haven't yet. She has a marvelous chapter in it called (pardon my French here) "Shitty Rough Drafts" which deals with this subject in a humorous, but very helpful way. Since we're out of time, I can't go into it here, but definitely buy the book--it's in paperback now.

I'm sorry to have to interrupt now. I know we could discuss this topic for many more hours! Thank you for your time, Victoria, and for sharing your personal challenges and solutions. This is one area where we all share struggles and can learn from each other!

Victoria: Thank you for inviting me. I also learn from these experiences and hope I'll be able to chat again with you sometime.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on November 1 when Linda George has agreed to come back and discuss another topic dear to our hearts: "Coping With Rejection: Use It AND Lose It." From the time Linda George wrote her first novel until she sold a novel was just over 16 years. In the meantime, she accumulated 50+ sales in magazines and newspapers and hundreds of rejection letters! She has now published more than 30 books. Linda says, "There are dozens of reasons why a manuscript might be rejected, but you must be concerned with only ONE of those reasons. It's the only one that will do you any good in your quest to be published." Come back in two weeks for a good "dose of hope" with Linda George. And now, good night, everyone!

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