How can you be sure your ideas are good enough to be published?

It’s the most common slash dreaded question for all writers: “where do you get your ideas?” And it might seem simple, but there are layers to it. It’s not just “where do you get your ideas?” but “where do you get ideas that are good enough to be published?” Really, how do you find an idea that someone else is going to look at … and then agree to put in the time needed to work with you on it?

I’m with Stephen King on this one, or at least on half of his advice for fiction writers: you have to read a lot. In grad school they tell you to look for the gap – the thing that nobody’s talking about – but it’s a bit trickier than that. You have to make sure it’s a real gap and not just that you haven’t personally read about it yet. So you can’t identify a gap, stop reading, and immediately start investigating it.

IMG-1924What I’ll do is write the idea down immediately. I’ve got plenty of notebooks – this one is actually a cover for four different notebooks (and my husband added the engraving on the front for me), which can help me keep my ideas separate – and when a lightbulb goes on, I’ll write it down. And then keep reading. Both of those are equally important, since I don’t want to forget my brilliant insight … but I also want to make sure it is indeed brilliant before telling the world. (Or at least before writing up a proposal.)

The next step is usually some serious time with Google. I remember going to propose an early Stephen King paper for the Pop Culture Conference and thinking “There’s no way nobody else noticed this!” This is the connection between Rose Madder and Mr. Mercedes that ended up as a chapter in The Modern Stephen King Canon, and even up until the Q&A session at the end of my presentation, I was sure someone was going to stand up and tell me of course they all knew it. They just weren’t talking about it because it was so darn obvious.

The thing is, even if I can’t find someone who’s made the same connection I have, I’m still never convinced that my idea is actually original. If little me could think of it, then someone else more brilliant has to have already come up with it … right? So I keep looking, and even when I send out a proposal, I’m waiting to hear back that actually, of the 20 people who responded, 15 of them had exactly the same point, sorry, thanks for your time.

IMG-1923This is my other notebook. It’s a Leuchtturm 1917, and a gift from my husband. He said he picked it because he’d seen Neil Gaiman call it his favorite. (The leather cover is completely custom – my husband printed it all over with a map of Whitechapel.) It’s my more recent notebook, and you can see from these pages that it’s set up to almost force you to do what I’m already doing: keeping a lot of notes on a lot of different things, but trying to stay organized.

All the pages are numbered so you can fill out your index as you go or as new ideas occur to you. This helps me take it a step further beyond “having an idea” and “being pretty sure the idea is original” to “brainstorming more about the idea.” By putting the main thought at the top of the page, this leaves a whole lot of open space to be filled. Then I can shift to having more thoughts about the idea, supporting it and making more connections as I continue to fill in the gap.

Again, we’re back to that difficult step: you won’t actually know for sure if your idea is interesting enough to other people until you actually show it to other people. But you can take your time in developing it to make sure that the gap you think you see actually exists, and isn’t simply a gap in your reading.

If you ever come across someone asking “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” the answer is usually “Because you’re not reading the right people.” Once the idea strikes – as you write it down before it can get away – your job is to make sure you’re not missing out on that conversation. You Google, and you comb through bibliographies, and you talk to people, and you satisfy yourself as well as you can that you’re not just missing it. Then you develop that idea – use your lightbulb to look into all the corners of the room, maybe – and take a deep breath and put it out there.

But mostly … you read a lot. And then a lot more.

5 tips for tackling multiple writing projects at the same time

I know I’m not the only writer who works on more than one project at the same time, but I think I might also be an outlier. At a writing retreat it seemed like everyone else was amazed when one of the presenters said he’d have more than one in progress at any given time. I wouldn’t recommend it, exactly, but we don’t always have control over when special issues are announced or ideas strike. I do have a pretty solid idea of my personal limit, though, considering how many things I was juggling over the summer of 2019.

finalSo last week’s writing post showed you the top of this index card, held on my bulletin board by my helpful star carrier pin (the lantern glows in the dark!). I wanted something more fun and cheerful than just a thumb tack because the list itself is anxiety-inducing. At the top, marked with the red checkmark, is the chapter from last week on the heroic criminal: final edits due on July 12, and hey look, it’s done! Except … there’s more underneath that bird.

In 2019 I took on more than I should have. It didn’t turn out to actually be too much, but … let’s not do that again. I had three book chapters due – heroic criminal, a chapter on IT, and one about post-WWI male violence (which can all be found here) and the book proposal for Media and the Murderer. Those were all planned. The last one on the bottom – “Stephen King likes to kill kids” – was a request from another publisher … which led to another book proposal. (That one got rejected with a suggestion for a shift in topic, but since I wasn’t the right person to write the new suggestion, I tore things down and rebuilt them into my upcoming book for McFarland.)

But that’s five projects going on in the same year. Not everyone can – or should want to – work on that many at once, but if you get yourself into a similar situation, there are a few things you can do to keep from running around in circles.


  • Have a clear idea of what each project is about. This can be the abstract, the proposal, or just a sentence. What makes this one different from the others – especially if two of them might be similar enough to use the same sources? Make sure your main argument is clear in your own mind. My index cards are turned backward for the photo because hey, I’m protective of my little idea nuggets, but they’re summed up in a short phrase on my corkboard.
  • Keep track of due dates. Each of the cards also has a date on it, and you can see on the printed sheet – a call for proposals – that I’ve got the due date for the proposal and the actual piece written large in red. When you have the big end dates in mind, you can work backward on where your project should be at any given time.
  • Focus on one at a time. On any given day, I’ll make it my intention to work on one of those projects. Sure, ideas might pop up for another, but that’s what notebooks are for. Write it down and let it go. Focus on the project you really need to work on for today. (Don’t forget to jot down your other ideas, though. “I’ll remember it later” is often a lie.)
  • Try to keep your projects in different phases. This, like having your main ideas very clearly spelled out, helps you switch back and forth between them without getting too confused. Of the four cards currently on my board, one is at the proofreading stage, one has been proposed and is in the “waiting to hear back” stage, one actually has an intended home and due date (the CFP), and the other is currently “just” an idea. This way you’re not trying to write two intros at the same time or trying to keep two methodologies straight. (Although once the editors have it, your timeline is in their hands and you might end up doing edits on two pieces at once.) As much as you can, control the stage of your project.
  • Don’t forget to take a step back for the long view. It can be easy to get involved in a project, especially when you hit the really interesting sections, but don’t get lost in something and lose sight of your other commitments. That’s the main reason for my corkboard, which is near my desk: to remind me of the due dates. That way I can take a deep breath and, at a glance, see if i need to shift my focus for today to work on another project.

There are pluses to working on multiple projects at the same time – bored with one? Switch to a different one! – but it also takes a lot of discipline to make sure you don’t stretch yourself too thin. It can be hard to say no when an apparently perfect opportunity knocks, but it’s also important to know the best way you work and how much you, personally, can handle.

What do you do when you have the chance to work on multiple projects at once? How many have you worked on at the same time?

How do you know if your writing is “good enough”?

So you’ve done it: you’ve written something with a beginning, middle, and end. All the proper headings are in place. You’ve even combed over the citations to make sure you’re caught up on the current punctuation preferences. (Okay, you’ve resigned yourself to probably missing a comma or something.) You’ve done all the revising and editing that you can do on your own, but how do you know if it’s good enough to submit somewhere?

You have to – gulp – show it to someone

It’s a necessary step in the process no matter what. It’s even very logical: if you want someone else to read your work, someone else has to … read your work. It just feels safer in some sort of distant dream where it’s strangers far off somewhere eagerly devouring every word. Not … someone carefully reading it and holding the power of rejection in their hands.

I suppose, if you go for self-publishing, you can skip this step. It’s just all you, all the time, and nobody else has to see it until they’re far enough away that they can’t touch you. But publishing – especially academic publishing – means a lot of eyes are going to be on your work before it gets printed.

51siVKLceWL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Take my most intense process so far. A call went out for people who wanted to write about heroic criminals in American popular culture. A friend of mine sent it to me and I debated, but … well, rejection on a proposal hurts far less than rejection on a full paper, so I submitted. Even before something was really written, the two editors had their eyes on it.

They got too many submissions for their special issue, so they asked a number of us if we’d be willing to do book chapters. I agreed. First hurdle passed: someone liked my idea! Two someones, even. But now, try to follow the bouncing ball …

I wrote and submitted the chapter. The editors read it, commented, and sent it back. I revised the chapter. The peer reviewers read it, commented, and sent it back. I revised the chapter. The editors read it, commented, and sent it back. I revised the chapter. The publisher got it, formatted it, and sent it back. I made final small edits and clicked the final big button.

And that’s the main thing, right? It’s not just that other people are reading it – they’re going to tell you what to change. Between the editors and peer reviewers, I was getting feedback from five people. (Who didn’t always agree, but that’s a story for another time.) The point is that first, writing is never “good enough” – it’s just due. Second, people will always want you to change things, so you can’t go into it thinking you’re perfect anyway. And third … you have to show it to people.

It doesn’t have to be a submission straight off – you can show it to your peers or colleagues or anyone who might be interested in reading it – but there will always, always be more feedback once you submit it officially. It’s basically never going to be “good enough” to be accepted exactly as-is, but you won’t know if it’s “good enough” to be accepted at all until you show it to someone else.

What do you do to help yourself get to the point where you’re willing to show your writing to someone else?

5 tools for dealing with the slow writing days

Some days – the good days – writing seems to fly. The next word is waiting right there for you and you have a laser sight guiding you down the path of your argument. You don’t have to wait around for a thought because they’re lined up in a row for you to knock down like dominoes. Those are what I call “the fast days” because I can churn out my word count with no sweat.

But the other days … the slow days …

Those are the days when Anne Lamott’s famous KFKD radio station plays in your head. You suck. This was never a good idea. There’s not enough here to make any sort of point. And come on – you think some editor somewhere will want to read this? Nope. You’re delusional. And definitely not a writer.

So, to borrow from another of my favorite writers – Stephen King this time – we need hedges. Hedges against the dark.

Today I’m going to share five tools I have in my writing toolbox especially for those slow writing days.

Here are two of mine in one convenient photograph. The rest is just desk clutter that’s migrated to the same spot (and makes it look like I might have set up some sort of shrine to the writing gods).

  1. My stuck duck. I got a whole bag of novelty rubber ducks last fall before National Novel Writing Month and my writing group each picked one out. Mine is named Abra Cadaver, and when I get stuck in my writing, I explain to Abra why I’m stuck, and why I’m stupid, and why it’s never going to work. She doesn’t judge. Her expression never changes. And, when I tell her why it’s not working, usually I figure out what I then have to do to fix it.
  2. My writing candle. I have a few different kinds, all from Frostbeard Studio because they’re book-themed and just fun. (One of the scents in “Gatsby’s Mansion” is “Daisy.”) By lighting a candle within my line of sight even on the good days, it helps set up the mental association: when the candle is lit, I’m supposed to be writing. It helps with the focus.

IMG-1490 3. A progress keeper. This one is for Book Four, which is due to my editor in October, and it’s super pretty because it’s so consistent. Most of mine aren’t, but it’s important to keep track of your progress no matter what. When you’re just putting words into a computer, the only evidence that you’re actually doing anything is that you have to scroll a bit further in the file next time. I make up these little charts where each square is 500 words and I color it in at the end of the day to give myself that visual proof that I’ve at least done something.

4. A break. Sometimes, as a wise woman once said, you need to simply sit there with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. But, other days, I find that I actually need a break. I don’t have a strict writing schedule so I can always get up and go for a walk or do something else for a while, and then come back later, once my thoughts have had a chance to sort themselves out. The important part, of course, is that you do have to actually come back later. You can’t just get up and walk away forever. It takes some time to recognize when you need to force yourself to sit and when you can let yourself take a break, but writer, know thyself.

5. A new document. This one is probably the strangest because the blank page can be so intimidating when I start out, but I find that, on my slow days, I’m worried about “ruining” what I’ve written so far. I know it’s all in a computer and I can cut and paste to my heart’s content, but sometimes I still get a block. So I’ll open up a new file, name it something inconsequential, and start writing a section there instead. Once Abra and I have talked it through, it usually gets inserted into the working document, and then I can color in a square or two of my chart.

Whatever tools you use to keep yourself writing, don’t forget to back up your work. I email myself the file at the end of the day, no matter how much or how little I’ve written. This is especially important on the slow days when you’ve worked so hard to make any progress.

What do you do to help yourself through the slow writing days?

How can I proofread my own work?

It’s easy to proofread someone else’s work.  Each sentence is new and fresh, and it didn’t start inside your own head. You can read it far more objectively. But when it’s your own writing …

You already know what you’re talking about. You understand the concepts, for one, and all of the background information that you might not have actually included here. You can throw in phrases like “the Swanson Marginalia” or “the Macnaghten Memoranda” because hey, you know what they mean. And when your eyes rove over your own sentences, your brain is more than willing to argue that it’s actually read all of the missing words.

The best option is clearly to have someone who’ll carefully read over your writing and find all of those pesky mistakes. Editors and peer reviewers can help you catch the major things. But for a piece that isn’t either edited or peer reviewed, when you have to make sure it’s presentable all on your own … what can you do?

  • Let it sit. If you have time between when you finish writing it and when it’s due, let it sit. Print it off and make sure it’s saved in a couple different places so you can’t lose it, but put it aside for as long as you can. You can never come back to your writing with entirely fresh eyes, but at least you won’t be as caught up in the actual writing of the piece when you come back to it.
  • Make Word read it to you. You can force yourself to go slow, sentence by sentence, and even read it out loud to yourself, but you can still skim over missing or similar words. Word has “Read Aloud” (under “Review”) and while it’s not the most expressive reader, it will only read what you actually have on the page. This is a good way to catch similar words, missing words, or that pesky sentence that just doesn’t make sense.
  • Read it one sentence at a time … backward. This is time-consuming and I’ve only done it after editors have signed off on the overall flow of a piece so I know it makes sense, because this isn’t reading for sense. It’s dissecting your work so that you can’t fall into a flow and anticipate what comes next. Working backward means you have to concentrate on this sentence and just this sentence.

And of course, if all else fails … go back and read what you wrote after you hit “submit.” After all, we’re all bound by Gaiman’s Law:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

“How do you outline a book?”

Sticky notes. Seriously. I’ve even framed the outline for Ripper’s Victims because honestly, how pretty is that? They’re not just sticky notes – they’re COLOR CODED sticky notes. I had some issues because you can see how one of the chapters exploded and took over a few more columns at the bottom, but that, my friends, was a labor of love. There was a yardstick involved.

I use sticky notes because the blank page paralyzes me the most when I have absolutely nothing to work from. Whether it’s the pen getting all hot and sticky in my hand or the cursor endlessly blinking, it’s just too intimidating. If I’m doing sticky notes, then I can only mess up in small ways and have to toss a single note instead of a whole sheet of paper. (Erasable pens help there anyway, but I love the feel of a good Sharpie.) Plus the whole point of a stick note is to be movable. You can put it one place, change your mind, and move it to another. For some reason the cut and paste function in Word just doesn’t work the same way for me. Typed things look far too official and assured for the outlining stage.

Color-coding also really helps me. In the Ripper’s Victims outline it means you can still tell what fits into the 1990s chapter, and it also gives a good visual of how the text was going to unfold: the first couple chapters cover two decades each, with only three sticky notes, and the last three are all since the year 2000. It gave me an idea of how much had to fit into each chapter, as well as how much work I still had to do. There’s a little X in the bottom corner of each sticky note. One slash meant I’d read the book, and the second meant I’d typed up the important notes from it.

Now, Ripper’s victims was actually pretty easy to outline once I’d gotten the concept: a survey of full-length single subject books about Jack the Ripper, focusing on what they had to say about the murdered women. That outline is literally just a list of book titles sorted by decade. It still looked like a monumental task, but I could cross off a number of books right away and then read them in publication order, since I didn’t necessarily want to put them all in conversation with each other until the conclusion. For Words of a Monster, the focus was different (and there aren’t nearly as many books about H.H. Holmes as there are about the Ripper). That one is more thematic, trying to catch all the broad strokes that made up the person I was seeing him present himself to be.

Sticky notes are also great for jotting down ideas as they come to me when I’m reading or even when I’m thinking about something else entirely. If it’s a good idea, I want to get it on paper before it can fly away. Right now I’m trying to keep all my notes together, but even a scrap of paper will work for a few words. They usually take the form of either a more general idea or a specific example that would fall under one of those ideas, and – again – the sticky note/scrap of paper method means I can move them around before figuratively cementing them in place.

Stephen King says that “You must not come lightly to the blank page,” but it’s a lot less stressful to come to a blank sticky note.

[originally shared on my Facebook author page]