I'm a published novelist and freelance writer, editor, and audio tech. Check out my journal for creative writing tips, short stories, and news. To learn more about my books or my services, navigate using the links above. 

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Entries in writing (11)

Wednesday
Apr062016

The Sound of Silent Rejection

 

image via freevintageillustrations.com

If you create for long enough, you’ll encounter something just as devastating as a scathing rejection: none at all. The silent rejection can do just as much to undermine our confidence as heavy-handed criticism, and sometimes more, because our imaginations fill in the worst possible explanations for non-response.

I’ve been challenging myself to reach out to potential collaborators more, and climb out of my Lonesome Writer box to create experiences that cross boundaries between the arts, combining writing, music, visual arts, and more. I’ve found the biggest challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, or identifying potential collaborators--it’s finding the courage to reach out to those people. Let me tell you what happens:

Every time I write a pitch for a collaboration, no matter how meticulously I craft it or how much I believe in the idea, for a brief moment after I hit “send”--especially on cold calls, but even when I send to friends--I am transported back to high school. I’m the really weird kid who seems to have friends but isn’t sure how she got them. I am never quite cool enough, and I’m always in danger of “trying too hard.” I immediately berate myself for even assuming the idea was worth sharing in the first place. I worry that I’ll come across as full of myself or delusional for thinking I had a chance at convincing that person to collaborate with me.

The truth is, those fears don’t go away. But after that flare-up, they die down to their background levels. That is, until the silent rejections pile up. In that silence, my imagination goes back to all those fears, assuming that they are the real reason I’m not getting traction.

The second-worst part about silent rejection is you’re never quite sure when the door is completely closed. It’s easy to say that, after a month (or insert arbitrary unit of time here), you can consider it a “no.” But it all depends on the industry and the ask. In publishing, many agents and editors will tell you to wait at least eight weeks before following up. I sold my first book about six months after submitting it to its eventual publisher--and I’d even formed a false memory of receiving a rejection from them! (A good reminder to keep meticulous records of my submission history.)

For out-of-the-box situations it’s even harder to say when the silence means a “no.” One time, I nearly wrote off hearing from someone, only to get a reply about six weeks later--they’d been traveling. Other times, I’ve been surprised that someone who hadn’t replied to my initial query at all wound up proactively seeking me out for a different opportunity much later. While these may seem like reassuring incidents, they can also feed the uncertainty and self-doubt about when to move on.

Realistically, I know that a lack of response often has more to do with a person’s busyness or other priorities than it does with the merits of my project itself. After all, I have no right to expect anything from a person I am approaching, unsolicited, with a request for their time, energy, and ideas. And, like them, I’ve had to turn down collaborations at times when I’m simply too busy to add another project to my schedule. It’s rarely personal. But the voices of self-doubt have no time for that reasoning. They tell me, “They probably saw it and thought, ‘What a crock of shit.’” Or, “They’re probably embarrassed for you that you even sent this.”

I tried for too long to fight the negativity I associate with silent rejections by denying my feelings and talking myself down. I tried to tell myself, “Don’t be silly,” or “They’re probably not thinking that.” It didn’t work.

What does work?

Accepting that it’s natural to feel hurt.

Accepting that taking a risk, and reaching out to someone (as long as it was in a respectful and non-harassing way) is worth the pain, because I can continue to grow and learn from the experience.

Accepting that it’s okay to surround myself with people who affirm my creative worth, as well as those who challenge it. Seeking affirmation and validation doesn’t make me weak, nor does it undermine my commitment to growth and improvement. In fact, in order to grow and improve, we all need encouragement. Parts of the writing world seem to have an ascetic attitude when it comes to encouragement and praise as learning tools; but in addition to teaching students how to accept and use criticism, I think we should teach people how to accept and use praise, because not only will it improve our writing, it will also give us the courage to seek more learning opportunities. My community of “creativity cheerleaders” has done more than anything else to give me the strength to face silent rejections.

My “creativity cheerleaders” give me the confidence to say: “So what if the rejectors really are thinking I should be embarrassed by my efforts to reach out to them?” I’m proud that I’m willing to embarrass myself a little bit, in order to learn and grow. It doesn’t make silent rejection painless, but it does make it conquerable.

In that spirit, I encourage everyone reading this to make at least one big "ask" that makes you nervous this week. Whether it's querying an agent or editor, asking a friend to read your work, reaching out to a potential collaborator, or something else entirely, do it with respect and optimism. You may be turned down. Or, you may get a slightly different answer than you were hoping for (perhaps someone can help, but not right now, or they want to collaborate, but in a different way). You may not hear anything back at all. But you will continue to hone your asking skills. And as Amanda Palmer taught us in her book, asking is an art.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.

 

Monday
Apr042016

Letter to Students: Showing, Telling, and Self-Limitation

Writing Games is returning to Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on April 18! Time is running out, so sign up to secure your spot now. Click here to register!

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails.

image via freevintageimages.com

This week we explored various ways to "bust the exposition trap," which is a writing habit many aspiring authors fall into. The exposition trap is when we rely too heavily on descriptive or analytic prose instead of placing readers directly in the scene or world we're depicting. Some people call the remedy to the exposition trap "showing instead of telling," but I think that distinction has limited usefulness because really compelling writing combines a bit of both showing and telling. However, as we explored in our exercises, sometimes to break the habit we have to overcorrect, and challenge ourselves to write something that exclusively "shows" (like our action verb game) in order to stretch those underused creative muscles.

I've taught a few classes on the exposition trap so far, and each time, it makes me pause and reconsider a lot of the writing axioms that we learn, such as "show, don't tell." Like any proverb, it's about 70% true, but it's so neat and tidy that it's easy to reach for it all the time. After all, it makes our writing decisions for us! When any piece of writing "wisdom" is treated dogmatically like that, it winds up having the opposite of its intended effect--it can just serve to create another issue. So rather than focusing on telling you what not to do, I tried to design this class to help you see all that you can do--rather than setting up a false dichotomy of "show, don't tell," why not learn to do both really well, and have twice as many tools in your writing box?

There's a big difference between self-awareness and self-limitation. We all have these fears about our writing: am I telling too much, and not showing enough? Am I not original enough? Is my material not serious enough? Not funny enough? Am I copying too much from my own life, and not inventing enough?

Self-awareness means being able to recognize what needs improvement and what works about your writing, and learning that even the areas that require improvement are open doors to development, experimentation, and new efforts--not shut doors of "forbidden technique." I think writers suffer especially from this attitude, inculcated by workshops and even our pop-culture images of writers as tortured and self-loathing: that self-improvement means self-limitation, self-flagellation.

But what I've learned through personal experience and observation is that growth and improvement come much more rapidly when we focus on what we can do, not what we can't. Even if it results in error, I think it's much easier and more productive to reel in an overly ambitious or adventurous style than it is to try to pry ourselves out of the clutches of self-consciousness and self-limitation. I hope this week's exercises helped.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 

Wednesday
Mar232016

The Ballad of the Pleather Jacket

Last week, Seth and I made a killing at Goodwill, dragging home a big bag of cheap fashion finds. On the way home, we talked about how we used to feel like we weren’t “cool enough” to wear the clothes we really liked. We talked about the different ways we came to embrace the idea that we were “cool enough” to finally wear the fashion we loved, because “cool” wasn’t a matter of what others thought of us at all--it was a choice we each made, to wear fashion confidently until that confidence seeped out of the clothes and into us.

 

In that spirit, as I was getting ready to go see Seth perform with Maryjo Mattea that night, I took out a white pleather jacket I’d bought five years ago, but only worn out once before. I’d liked the jacket too much to give it away, but I’d been too afraid of how bold it was to wear it often. Many, many times I’d tried it on over an outfit only to reject it for something more conservative. But that night, I loved how it contrasted with the flowy blouse I wore, and it didn’t seem too over-the-top after all.

Then I started noticing the flakes. At first, I thought just a small patch on the shoulder was peeling, and I’d be able to fix it up. Then I went to the bathroom and noticed that the entire back of the jacket was peeling, too. My plans to salvage it went down the tubes, and I realized that the second time I’d worn this jacket in five years was going to be the last.

  

 

That made me really sad. I realized that even though I’d come a long way in terms of confidence and self-expression, I’d still been so afraid to wear a really cool jacket that I actually liked a lot, that it had literally rotted away in my closet without ever seeing the light of day.

We let that happen to creative ideas, too. I’ve had many students who’ve told me about the ideas they’ve been sitting on for years, afraid they aren’t good enough writers to tackle them yet. I’ve also been approached by many friends with story suggestions, when I can tell that the reason they’re suggesting these stories to me is because they’re afraid to write them themselves. I also help a lot of students deal with a crippling self-consciousness that holds them back from writing with the kind of abandon they dream about, resulting in stories that feel stunted and unsatisfactory to them. And then there are the people who quite simply don’t think they’re “cool enough” to pursue art at all. We all have a lot of cool pleather jackets moldering away in our creative closets.

Sometimes I’m afraid I sound manic when I share all the ideas I have swirling around in my head--events I want to organize, stories I’m writing, collaborations I’m pursuing. But I’m learning not to be afraid of sharing my ideas anymore, because I don’t want to let any more pleather jackets turn to dust before I get a chance to wear them out. It sounds like a superficial problem, but losing that jacket hit me hard, because of all that it represented to me.

This applies to participating in a creative community, too. It can be hard to approach other people with our work, because it opens us up to criticism and humiliation. The criticism is hard enough to deal with, but at the heart of the humiliation is the fear that people will look at our work, or listen to our ideas, and think, “Oh, you really thought this was good enough to put out there? That’s pretty foolish.” So we let our ideas rot in the closet, because of this contradictory fear that we are not cool enough for the jacket, and the jacket itself isn’t cool enough to wear out of the house. It’s a really efficient way to never make anything.

But if you’re a maker, you have to find the courage to fully commit to it. I’m not talking about quitting your job or getting into debt to pursue your dreams. I mean it in the emotional sense--you have to be willing to take those ideas out of your closet and wear them around, because they won’t get better by sitting in there forever.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.


Monday
Mar212016

Letter to Students: Giving In and Giving Up

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

image via freevintageimages.com

So, this week we just had an intro to Writing Games and the ideas and techniques we'll explore together. We focused a lot on the idea of quieting the voice in your head that says, "Don't write that, that's stupid." We also talked about lowering the stakes, so that when you write you aren't freighted down with self-imposed expectations. Trying too hard to prove that internal voice wrong is really just another way of giving in to it--that's how we sometimes get that feeling of "charlatanism." If anyone in class has practiced meditation, they may be familiar with the idea of not being for or against a feeling, but simply dwelling with it. That's sort of what happens when we stop trying to prove the "stupid voice" wrong, and simply ignore it instead (like an annoying yappy dog), focusing all our attention on writing what makes our hearts sing, and not what sounds good or smart or unique or edgy. If you do that long enough, that voice of inhibition will shrink to a tiny whisper.

Whether you're an aspiring career writer or just having fun, I highly recommend this article by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, on his writing life:  

Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.

...The most defeatist thing I hear is, "I’m going to give it a couple of years." You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice.

Even if you're not looking to start a career in writing, I like what he points out about "hiding the brushstrokes." I think there's a general impression of writers, that true geniuses nail it on the first draft. Nobody nails it on the first draft. Let's just remove that expectation right up front.

For those who are interested in a career in writing, I think the second paragraph I quoted is very powerful. While I don't agree with him later on in the article when he says you shouldn't get too good at your day job, I do agree that if you set a deadline for writing success (however you define it), you are already resigning yourself to failure. You're basically paying out the time until your deadline, which, face it, is much less frightening than going for what you really want and dream about.

To view all the Letters to Students,click here. 

Wednesday
Mar162016

The EASIEST Ways to Leave Amazon Reviews

If you're friends with any writers, or follow any of your favorite authors on social media, you've probably heard about how important Amazon reviews are to us. And it's not just writers--musicians, filmmakers, and anyone who distributes their work on Amazon depends on reviews for visibility.

Not only do reviews make our works look more appealing to potential audience members, they also enhance our search ranking and visibility on Amazon, making it easier for new people to discover us! Reviews don't have to be long or detailed in order to help--just a star rating and a quick sentence about how much you liked the work is a huge help. For a lot of us, your support directly enables us to continue creating the content you love.

But let's be real: sometimes, leaving a review can be a pain in the butt. It doesn't sound like much, but how many of us ever think to do that when we're just hopping on Amazon quickly to buy something else?

I totally get it. So I thought I'd make things easier for creators and potential reviewers alike by sharing a few shortcuts that allow you to leave reviews quickly and efficiently--and have fun in the process!

1) Jump to your recent purchses by using your Shopping History right on the navigation bar.

If you hover your mouse over "Shopping History," which appears in your navigation bar, you'll see a list of all the products you've viewed recently. Use this if you just purchased a book within the last day or two; with one click, you can be right back on that book's page, leaving a review! No need to hunt down the book page via a search.

 

2) Batch review your recent purchases.

Click "My Account" and scroll to the"Personalization" section at the bottom; then click "Your Reviews."

You'll be presented with a list of all your recent purchases. You can click the stars to leave a rating, and you'll be presented with a text box if you want to leave a review as well...all on one page! In five minutes, without ever having to search for a product or navigate away from that single page, you can batch review all your recent purchases.

 

Sometimes, it'll even prompt you with helpful questions about the book--all you have to do is click your answer!

3) Creators, give as well as you get!

This one is specifically for creators. Sometimes, we can get so obsessed with asking readers to review our work, that we forget to review our friends' work. We've all been there; self-promo is an exhausting grind and it's easy to lose track of whether you gave a few stars to your pal's recent release when you're busy promoting your own. But, by growing a community, we can lift each other up, and help everyone reach more readers. Here's a simple trick that I'm trying out, to help me remember to pay it forward: every time I post a request for reviews, I'll head to Amazon and batch-review any books that I've read recently as well.

I hope these tips help you and your readers--please share, so we can all enjoy easier and more convenient feedback! (And don't forget to review Queens of All the Earth and Bulfinch while you're at it!) Happy reviewing!

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here.

 

Monday
Mar142016

Letter to Students: Suspense (Part 2)

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.
 

image via freevintageillustrations.com

Suspense doesn't have to be cartoonish, nor is it solely the realm of thrillers, horror, and mystery. Virtually every well-told story involves some degree or type of suspense--it is the essence of what makes any book "unputdownable." And, as I said in class, I also think that making an effort to build suspense is one way that writers can show respect for their readers. It is something we are creating forthem--because we pull the strings, we will never feel suspense in building our own stories the way readers do when they consume them. It also shows that the writer cares about whether the reader is interested or not, an acknowledgement that the vast majority of us read to be entertained, even when we're also reading to be enriched and enlightened.

Even though I said that suspense is present in all literature, I keep coming back to horror because I've always loved a good ghost story, and thinking about why is what led me to create some of the games for this class.

But I didn't just want to understand why on a technical level, by thinking about the kinds of tools writers can use to build suspense. I wanted to understand why suspense is so appealing to us on a human level. I'm still chewing on that one, but I've come to think that it's partly because suspense, in addition to putting us directly into the world of a story in an interactive way, also gives us something to believe in. Because suspense isn't only the product of surprise--because it also depends heavily on inevitability and convention--it allows us to believe that events make sense, that the wonderful or strange is possible (but in a way that's structured and not too frightening), and that the events of a life can fit a neat story arc--that it's all going somewhere. Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

I often urge students to learn the rules before they break the rules. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, learning how to work within the rules--such as the rules of suspense and world-building that we practice in class--can demonstrate that writing "conventionally" doesn't have to be conventional at all--there's lots and lots of room for invention.

Secondly, when I teach "the rules" I try not only to talk about the conventions of writing, but the human reasons behind them. If you can understand why readers crave suspense, it can help you decide whether you really want to deny it to them, or if that would go against the emotional affect you're trying to achieve. It also encourages a respect for your readers: instead of viewing writing conventions as a shortcut for lazy writers and readers, it opens you up to greater empathy with your readers and why they crave the things they do.

Those things lead to the third reason to learn the rules before you break the rules: if you know the rules, you can break them in a more deliberate and masterful way, in ways focused on your emotional or artistic objective. Some of the most conventional and hackneyed writing is a result of trying to "break" the rules (or exploit them) without fully understanding how to use them in the first place, or why we use them.

For my part, I think I'll continue to explore suspense--even in its conventional forms--in my own writing. There have been few things more enticing to me than a good ghost story, and I won't stop tinkering until I figure out why.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 

Wednesday
Mar092016

Building an Arts Community Using 3-for-1

 

image via www.freevintageillustrations.com

 

It's all over our social media feeds: please like, please share, please rate and review, please sign up, please come, please make my artistic dreams come true.

I love it, but I can also get discouraged when I see so much asking. I want my friends and acquaintances and the wide circle of artists I know to succeed, but sometimes I wonder, "Who's listening? Are we reaching the elusive New Audience Member, or are we all just talking at each other?" Especially when I see an artist I love with a Facebook post that only has one or two likes, or a great book on Amazon with a single-digit number of reviews.

Like my friends, and thousands of aspiring artists online, I've spent plenty of time wondering how to make my own "ask" more appealing. But lately, I've been trying something different; instead of focusing on what I'm asking for, I'm challenging myself to answer others' calls more often.

It's a very simple system: every time I ask something of my audience, I take that moment, while it's fresh on my mind, to check in on some of my favorite emerging artists, and answer their latest call. Whenever I urge my readers to leave an Amazon review for one of my books, I'll take a moment to rate & review the latest things I've read. Whenever I post something to my Facebook page, I'll hop on my friends' pages and like or share their latest posts about their creations. Every time I seek new followers/subscribers, I'll make sure I'm following the latest artists I've discovered, so their numbers swell too. I try to do three-for-one: at least three "answers" for every "ask" I make. I'm not trying to create a sense of pressure or obligation; I'm just trying to practice what I preach about supporting each other.

I know I'm not alone; here in DC, I've enjoyed the vibrant community of writers, small businesses, musicians, and visual artists who all support each other. But it can be overwhelming to try and support our friends. In the midst of all the content they share, it's hard to know where to start--and, lacking a starting point, all too often we can find ourselves getting distracted before we actually follow through on our resolutions to help out other artists. It's hard to keep up with a busy feed and manage our own pages, too. The three-for-one system makes it part of my existing routine; whenever I make time to post something online, I add in five minutes to do a quick sweep through the artists I follow, and find something to like or read or rate or share.

Three-for-one is just one way that artists can support each other and expand everybody's audience. In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing more tips and ideas on community-building in the arts every Wednesday. Next up: the thorny issue of how to encourage Amazon reviews. Stay tuned, and read all the blog posts on building artistic communities here.

Thursday
Jul312014

New Short Story: don't get me wrong oblivion

This week's short story is actually part one of a three-parter. The next two installments will come in the next two weeks, wrapping up right before the launch of my new novel Bulfinch on August 15! This week's story is presented right here on the blog -- click to continue reading below!

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jul142014

Read an Excerpt from Bulfinch!

Hi gang! It's been a pretty tumultuous week, which threw me off my short story posting schedule. When I asked you guys on Facebook if you'd like to see an excerpt from Bulfinch instead, while I got my act together, the love and support was very encouraging. So here it is. Enjoy the first chapter of Bulfinch.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Jun102014

Announcing Bulfinch, My New Book!

 

I'm utterly tickled to share the news that I'll be releasing my second novel, Bulfinch, this August! Bulfinch is a whimsical fantasy tale for young adult readers and grownups who enjoy a good tale. If you can't wait to order your copy, sign up for my special pre-order offer and I'll send you a signed, personalized copy with some fun goodies in the package as soon as the book is available!

When a knight and a monk spring from the pages of Rosie’s book, the only people more astonished than the reclusive PhD student are her time-traveling visitors.

Cooped up in a house-turned-museum since the long-ago disappearance of her parents, Rosie is now forced out into the world as her guests wreak havoc on her Baltimore neighborhood.

As Rosie tries to figure out how to return the errant duo to their home in history, she begins to uncover why her parents vanished without a trace seven years ago. But her eccentric Uncle Alvin threatens to stand in her way, before she can discover the truth about Bulfinch and her own childhood.

By turns funny and tender, adventurous and thoughtful, Bulfinch is a whimsical tale about getting lost in a book -- and finding your way out again.

Advance praise for Bulfinch:

“I was astonished at the depth of emotion conveyed in the book. I felt the same way after reading Queens of All the Earth. Sternberg has such a talent for examining and sharing these deep, deep emotions in such a way that readers get swept up in them as well. The word that came to mind when I read this book was delicious. I felt like I was devouring it and that it was just delicious.” - Allie Duzett, author of The Body Electric

“I’m a sucker for books about knights and monks, and in this delightful tale, a suitably belligerent knight and dreamy monk help a very modern girl solve her very mysterious problems in a very medieval way. Highly recommended.” - H.W. Crocker III, author of The Old Limey

“Meticulously researched, through nifty writing and the art of fantasy, Sternberg brings a couple of characters from the Middle Ages to the present and to life. A terrific read.” - Gary Alexander, author of the Buster Hightower mystery series

 

How to Get It

Want to order your copy early so you don't forget? Use the button below to place your pre-order, and you'll receive a signed, personalized copy with some very special goodies!

Inscribe book to:

Bulfinch will be available on August 15 on Amazon (including Canada, UK, and Europe) in paperback and Kindle formats. Don't have a Kindle? Never fear, Bulfinch will be available on a variety of other major ebook formats a month after release.

Want to pick up your copy of Bulfinch in a store? Request an order through your favorite local bookstore! Bulfinch is published by Istoria Books and distributed by Ingram.