Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Everybody Has a Story

By Sherry Howard, @SherLHoward

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: No matter the writer, I think we all do it for roughly the same reason--we can't not write. Please welcome Sherry Howard to the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on what makes a writer a writer.

Sherry Howard lives with her children and crazy dogs in Middletown, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from the beautiful horse farms Kentucky is always bragging about. In her previous life Sherry was a teacher, consultant, author, and principal in one of the largest urban/suburban school districts in America. She wrote in the educational field for years, and she’s seen her poems and stories appear in multiple journals and anthologies. After writing endlessly, she finally decided to see about getting things published.

Sherry’s first books for children are coming in 2018. The first, Rock and Roll Woods is a lyrical fiction picture book for children ages 3-8, a rollicking read that embraces the ability to accept change and the value of friendship.

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Take it away Sherry...

Everybody has a story in them, or a dozen.

How many people have told you they have a wonderful book idea? Yet, how many of those people can show you the book they produced from that idea? Walk into a large bookstore, with shelves bursting with written deliciousness, and you’ll see many people have followed their dreams, produced a book, and have their names on a cover. Publishing is a journey that requires discipline that most of us don’t understand when we start. There’s a lot about publishing that authors have no control of. But, despite good intentions and interest in writing, why is it that some people write one story, and some write a dozen? What are some things that might make a difference?

I’m fascinated with the why and the how of writers and writing. There are so many ways of looking at what makes us tick as people, ways we can examine our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe knowing our strengths and weaknesses can help us build writing speed.

What Makes Us Tick

Many of you will be familiar with Howard Gardner’s work in the study of multiple intelligences. In the early 1980’s Dr Gardner developed his theory that there are multiple intelligences, not a single intelligence measured by a single test. You can learn more about them here, but for now, we’ll talk about just a few. Many writers have strength in verbal-linguistic intelligence. They might also shine at interpersonal intelligence, because even though they may be shy, they generally understand people and interact well when they need to.

There are other ways to learn about ourselves. Studies have been done on the concept of emotional intelligence, which you can read about here. Writers need to understand emotions in order to describe them in their writing, and in order to trigger emotion from their readers. Knowing your own emotional intelligence can only help you.

There’s another measure that many of you’ve probably used. Often, job applicants who make it past screening may be asked to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Most college students take it somewhere along the way, and many companies use it to help employees understand more about themselves and others. This assessment looks at factors of introversion and extraversion, along with the way you take in information, make decisions, and deal with the world. Learn more here. If you dig around a little, you’ll see that theories have been proposed about certain profiles matching a certain type of writer. You may match up to a famous writer’s profile.

Another personality measure is based on the ancient theory of four basic personality types: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic. You can take that test and see if the results measure up to your idea of yourself. And, gain more insight about the characters you write. If you take the test, you’ll realize that, like most things in life, you may be especially strong in one personality type, but you’ll likely have a mix.

I think all of these studies can help us understand what makes one writer more prolific than another, in the same way that certain people ace the MCAT and others tremble at the thought of balancing a checkbook. Or, what makes one writer love to write science fiction with wild abandon, or another writer sweat blood over every word of a picture book with 500 words.

We’re made up of so many factors that combine to make us who we are. The more insight we have into ourselves and other people, the more fully developed our characters will be, the more comfortable we’ll become with our characters journey, and the more prolific we’ll become with our writing. The more we understand, the better prepared we are to maximize our strengths and shore up our weaknesses, the faster forward we can move with our writing.

The Ticking Time Bomb

As a certified teacher and administrator who spent a career working with many different types of children and adults, I think another factor has a huge impact on writing speed and productivity—attention span. When I interviewed prolific writers, they expressed the ability to discipline themselves to write—stay butt in chair, and write. Writing well (and in my humble opinion the editing stage especially) takes great concentration.

I happen to believe that many people with a diagnosis of ADD are among the most creative around. However, for them to write volumes, an ability to reign in the “oh, look, a butterfly” syndrome would have to be in place. And, for those of us without a medical diagnosis, we need to find ways to bring our attention to the job at hand.

How Do You Produce So Much So Fast?

Since my belly flop into the huge writing community, I’ve met friends who write almost every genre and every age category, but I’m most fascinated by writers who produce a lot of writing. My most pressing question has always been: HOW? HOW do you produce so many pages so fast? HOW do you discipline yourself to produce like that? HOW did you already publish your NaNo manuscript?

I did an informal survey on social media, asking writers about how many words they produced annually. This was a small sample, but the majority reported writing between 60 and 150 thousand words a year. Almost a third reported writing over 150 thousand words a year.

When I asked what kept them most productive, a clear majority reported writing any time they could, and a third had regular dedicated time for writing. No prolific writers reported using weekends and wine to meet writing goals! I sort of hoped a few might!

True Stories

I spoke with several authors whose writing speed I envy. Kit Grant will release her first novel in 2018. I know Kit through Pitch Wars, and when she told me she’d written her manuscript, sold in a major three-book deal, in a few weeks, I was blown away. She’s a fast, disciplined writer, and acknowledges some special circumstances that had her writing more abundantly than usual. She was stuck at home convalescing, unable to move around much. The writing was something she could do, and the confinement forced her attention toward the writing. She submitted to Pitch Wars and things moved very quickly for her from there. She referred me to this post as her standard for serious writing. I agree! Her book might have been physically written within a tight space, but her skills and story idea took longer to develop. She admits, though, that given the right circumstances, she’s fast!

Another author I love, Jeanne Hardt, is an indie author, and publishes beautiful books that you can see here. She sticks with a strict, full-time writing schedule. She “goes to work” every day just like any other job, sets and keeps deadlines, and now has a multitude of books out there for your reading pleasure.

Like Kit and Jeanne, I know many other successful authors who write almost every day. My friend Jessica Reino commented that in addition to a great project, time, and deadlines, it’s important to acknowledge the “brain work” of writing. Writers muse endlessly about plot, character development, emotional arcs. We hear so often that writing is re-writing, but writing is also thinking.

My own true story is that I recognize that I’m a perfectionist, not as wildly creative as I long to be, and that I work best under pressure. These are only a few of my limitations. I’ve trained myself to minimize editing along the way, and get words written, to engage with wildly creative others, and to set deadlines and timers. I love the idea of Nano, but it doesn’t suit my style or speed.


Don’t measure yourself against these prolific writers, other than to consider the one thing they all share—discipline to get the words down. Discipline to stick with it. And the courage to share their work.

Instead, learn about yourself, your personal strengths and weaknesses. Learn how to capitalize on your strengths. Find writing partners or coaches who’ll help you with your weaknesses—accountability groups, critique partners who excel in your weak area, classes. As Laini Taylor commented in a Twitter discussion, “You have to work with the brain you have. Don’t waste time wishing your hang-ups away. You’re stuck with them.”

Bring your passion for the story to the table and you’ll find yourself writing more than you ever dreamed you could. And, yeah, keep yourself planted in a chair.

About Rock and Roll Woods

Kuda Bear loves the quiet sounds of his woods, and he hates change. When a strange noise invades the comforting sounds of his woods, he tries to tune it out. After he’s left all alone by his friends, he’s worried they’ve abandoned him. But when he finds all his friends enjoying this new rock’n’roll music he's curious to know more. Kuda can either join the party or miss out on all the fun with his friends. While this book was written for all children to enjoy, it has a special meaning for children with sensory motor integration issues. It’s available for pre-order on her author page.


  1. Rock and Roll woods sounds wonderful. I will preorder it. I am trying hard to set a schedule for my writing. I want to put in several hours a day. Let's hope I can stick to it. I enjoyed this and will remember that I'm stuck with my idée fixe.

  2. I have always had the ability to write and in my youth I probably had a sharper mind. My problem was sitting still. Plus, my work ethic was terrible. I loved the idea of writing but wasn’t crazy about the work it involved.

    When I got married I slowed down a bit. I was able to create short stories but things changed when we had our first child. I became a say at home dad. Looking back that was a time where my mind changed. I learned discipline and patience. I became curious with the building blocks of novel writing. Fast forward a decade later I was able to complete my first novel.

    Whatever it was that turned the switch I am grateful. I can write a first draft, 100,000 words, in about 90 days. I now have the discipline to listen to editors and writing groups. I no longer take offense if I am told I wrote a poor scene. It is common for me to rewrite a scene a dozen times until it’s right.

    I am now in the process of writing book number two. The blueprint I am creating will allow me to write another 100,000 word first draft. Once the blueprint (or outline) is complete I will turn on the switch, open the flood gates and out it comes.

    Why couldn’t I do this thirty years ago? I have no idea. I am now curious to learn and perfect where before I took offense if anyone tried to correct me.

    A writers mind is a strange one. Maybe it’s best to leave the machine alone and not question too much.

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for sharing such insightful Information, Sherry!