February 20, 2019

by Tasha Seegmiller

Last month, I attended my first residency for an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. While there was some trepidation about going back to school at 40, and a bit about how the workload is all going to fit into my life, the main nervousness was surrounding how the instructors and members of my critique group were going to respond to my writing.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve sat live while people talk about my work – I have the good fortune to be a member of a critique group that meets in person every two weeks, each of us critiquing 15 pages for the others and receiving feedback in return. I’ve come to understand that logic and reality don’t always mesh.

Very quickly, it was clear that the critique I thought I was going to receive was not what the instructor wanted to talk about. And I’m of the very strong opinion that when someone takes time to talk about and work through your writing, your job is to listen, take notes, ask for clarification, and then allow time to process.

Still, sitting there, I could feel all the defenses within me clamoring to jump out, to rescue, to protect.

This is a lesson that almost all writers are aware they need to learn. They are probably also aware they have learned it. But I also think learning to sit with the discomfort of a critique is not a lesson we grasp after the first instruction. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to be okay with this difficult part of being a writer:

1. Try really hard to remember the critique isn’t about you.

I get it. You have put effort into creating something you feel strongly about, characters you dreamed up, a setting that feels just right, a plot that is balancing all the things. But when someone is talking about your work, they are talking about just that – the work. Not the creator, not the idea, but what they can read on the page in front of them as it has been presented to them.

Critique partners and beta readers don’t have access to how the whole story unfolded in our head, they can just see what is on the paper, and they are taking time to provide insight into their reading experience to help the story be better.

2. Take lots of notes

When a critique starts taking a path we didn’t expect, when we thought the story was just right and then it wasn’t, our bodies often perceive this as a threat and then we enter fight/flight/freeze mode aka the moment when our body is responding and our mind is no longer totally in control.

When this happens, just keep writing down what people say. Seriously, you’ll get to the manuscript a day or two later and not remember anything that was said, let alone what you might be able to do to fix it. Just remember that the way you feel will generally relax a bit as you step away from the situation and you want to still tap into those benefits.

3. Get back into your window of tolerance

This is a term I learned lately, which is a place where you can sit with things that you don’t necessarily like without amping up or checking out. This is the part where the passionate physical response we may have had gets a chance to recognize that we aren’t in danger, that we don’t need to be ready for a rumble or a run.

For some people, returning to this window is really easy. For others, deep breathing, a walk, or just time is necessary to convince all the systems within us designed to keep us alive that it’s a critique, not a sabretooth tiger, and we are okay.

4. Be objective

This is why the window of tolerance is necessary. After receiving a rough edit or critique, and getting back to a safe space, pull out those notes, revisit your own, and see the piece as they did.

You might have to chant to yourself that the critique is about the writing, not you. You might need to break out what a colleague of mine calls emotional-support Oreos. But then read, listen, study, and learn from your own writing.

5. A caveat

There are times when, good intentioned as they may be, a critique partner, beta reader, agent or even editor will make a suggestion that after you’ve gone through all these steps, still feels wrong. Okay. You are the writer. It’s your story. And just because someone suggests something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Honoring every single suggestion will lead to a story you don’t recognize. But I would recommend if you don’t want to accept a suggested change, you take the time to write or talk out why. Even if it is just to yourself. If you are going to write something a certain way, you should be keenly aware of the reason.

So what about that hard critique I got?


Just kidding, it’s not. The readers were right. Their complaint was that the story started too slowly, that they couldn’t see the conflict, that they weren’t sure how to connect with the character.

I needed to write those pages to get her in my mind, but the reader doesn’t need them to join the story where the book starts. So I opened a new document, did a quick outline of how I’d like the scene to progress, what I want the reader to feel about the character, and then I started writing it, pulling in some of the lovely images I’d created before.

Because of intentional feedback from others, I had my attention drawn toward a blind spot that (surprise) I didn’t know I had. A blind spot I might have continued crossing into, unknowingly.

And you know what?

The story is better.

How do you go about processing, editing or revising your work after a critique?

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About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

February 18, 2019

by Angela Ackerman

Let me ask a question: how much time do you spend crafting a character for your novel, say a protagonist? Ten hours? Twenty? Fifty or more?


Whatever you answered, I bet we all agree that characters require a lot of work. Who they are in the story, what they want and need, what they fear, and how they will go about dealing with the challenges on the road ahead…these are not “surface” questions. Only by digging into the layers of a character’s mindset, personality, and backstory can we truly understand what matters most to them, drives them, and what will steer their behavior in the story.

The payoff is huge, though…writing them becomes so much easier! Every action, choice, and decision will logically flow from the information we’ve uncovered. Better yet, because we’ve worked so hard to create a character who experiences emotions, struggles, and inner doubt just as we ourselves do, readers will connect deeply to them and what they’re going through.

So, Is There a “Best Method” For Crafting a Character?

With infinite options for building characters and no right or wrong way, writers should experiment to discover what works best for them. For example, some find that using dozens of worksheets help them compile the information they need. Others may want to try a lengthy questionnaire or interview to pull out their character’s most intimate secrets. And anyone in the “Pantsers” category may forgo exhaustive pre-planning in favor of writing a discovery draft. Then, in subsequent iterations, they can revise to make their character’s behavior consistent, and go back to seed backstory elements as needed.

Honestly, I’ve tried everything at one point or another. My go-to method eventually became a notebook I would load with information as it occurred to me over the course of several weeks where I planned my character’s personality, emotional wounds, triggers, history, special qualities, skills, and more. But it was an arduous process…which told me I still needed to experiment.

This was part of the reason why Becca and I began building databases of information called thesauruses. We knew it would shorten the brainstorming curve.

This thesaurus collection has helped us (and others) plan deeper characters faster, but still, something was missing. We decided to experiment more at One Stop for Writers, a site we created a few years ago with Lee Powell, the creator of Scrivener for Windows and Linux. It contains our entire thesaurus database (14 subjects and growing) and many other custom storytelling tools.

Now, 18 months later, we’ve released the Character Builder, a hyper-intelligent tool that draws data from our description thesauruses, Idea Generator, and a boatload of insightful, behavior-based lists.

How the Character Builder Works

The character builder tackles all aspects of a strong character: Backstory, Personality, Motivation, Daily Life, etc. and allows writers to start their character planning wherever they would like.

If you are the sort of writer who gets a clear image of their character’s appearance, you can start there. Or if you know your hero is skilled with a bow, likes to collect haunted objects, or has a secret that he doesn’t want anyone to know, you can start with those elements, too. I often will know a character’s backstory wound, or what their goal (outer motivation) will be in the story, so that’s where I start.

Wherever you begin, the Character Builder will assist you by offering you specific detail you may wish to add, helping you to uncover more about the character. It’s able to do this because the tool is integrated with all the character-building information Becca and I have amassed over the last 10 years or so.

A Built-In Psychologist for Your Character? Yes!

Because the tool is always offering you specific options and ideas, it’s a bit like having a psychologist on staff who encourages you to go deeper to explore who your character is and WHY they behave the way they do. Then, the Character Builder collects key information that you’ve added and sends it to other areas of the profile so you can see how everything about your character is interconnected. One way it does this is by creating a Character Arc Blueprint that maps the character’s inner journey.

I don’t know about you, but for me, figuring out my character’s inner motivation is always the hardest piece of the puzzle. So, we gave this smart tool the ability to connect all the dots for us: the difficulties in the character’s past that have held them back or led to unhappiness, the goal that can give the character the fulfillment they seek, what’s at stake, and why the character is determined to achieve this goal at all costs. The blueprint even explains how the character’s Fatal Flaw will be their own biggest internal obstacle, and if not defeated, will cause the character to fail in the story. 

Once you’ve completed a character profile, you can save it, print it, or even export it to Scrivener. Here’s a PDF for our test character, Paul Graham.

The Character Builder is really helping me to understand my characters more deeply, meaning I can start drafting (my favorite part!) more quickly. If you think this tool might also help you, I hope you’ll check it out. To see it in action, Becca has created a walkthrough video below.

What is your process for creating a character, or are you still experimenting? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like to give the Character Builder a spin, visit this link first so we can save you some money in the process.

Happy writing, everyone!

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About Angela

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (now a expanded 2nd edition) as well as six others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. 

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

February 15, 2019

by Margie Lawson

Don’t give readers a reason to take a mini-vacation from your page.

That’s what happens when readers come across clichéd phrases or sentences they’ve read before. They know what’s coming. Their brain takes a break from your story.

And for that fraction of a second they are sucked into the muck of their real world. Thinking things like:

I ought to quit reading and get some work done.

Has the washer quit running? I could transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer.

Because those blah-blah thoughts are more interesting than the overused phrase or sentence they just saw on the page.

We’ve all had those random reality-based thoughts when we’re reading. Because we aren’t locked in every sentence.

But we don’t have those reality intrusions when we’re fully immersed in a scene. When we’re locked in, reality doesn’t exist.

This blog focuses on faces. Writers fall into describing expressions in the same old, same old ways. The tried and trite phrases carry little interest, little power.

Facial expressions are more than just a visual. More than just a tag. More than just a beat.

They share subtext. And we all know how critical it is to share the underlying psychological messages that deepen characterization. Those truths that make our characters real.

I’m proud to share examples from writers who have studied with me. All examples in this blog are from writers who have completed at least one 5-day intensive. Some are published, the others aren’t yet published, but should be.

I’ll include a Deep Edit Analysis for several of the examples. Enjoy!

I recommend reading the examples OUT LOUD. With feeling. You’ll hear the compelling cadence.

Merlin’s Children, Becky Rawnsley, 2-time Immersion Grad, Denver

  1. His expression is calm, but there’s a hardness there, the same hardness I saw when he buried his family.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words: calm, hardness, hardness, buried, family
  • Juxtaposed opposites
  • Back Story Slip In – Smart!
  • Compelling Cadence

NOTE:  Power words carry psychological power.

2. His smile is slow. And knowing. And soul-chilling.

3. Beverell’s smile is thinner than a gnat’s dick.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Flat-out, crazy-fun analogy.
  • Humor Hit!
  • Backloaded.
  • And I know from Becky, that thought fits her character’s personality.
  • Compelling Cadence

Becky Rawnsley could have written:  "Beverell gave me a weak smile."

But we’ve read that line.

4. Cale looks up at her, his expression a contender for stoniest-of-the-year.

That one made me laugh out loud!

Becky could have written: Cale looks up at her, his expression stony.

Demon Curse, Raewyn Bright, 4-time Immersion Grad, 3 Immersions in Australia, one in Denver

1.  And there was something in his expression, something her body understood. It awakened things in her that were better left dormant. Like her hopes. Her dreams. Her libido. Her demon.

Deep Edit Analysis:

  • Power Words: something, something, body understood, awakened, dormant, hopes, dreams, libido, demon
  • Backloaded  -- Every sentence
  • Raewyn Bright played with structure. Double: something, something
  • Anaphora (Triple+ Beginnings)
  • Zeugma – The last thing in the four-item series is different.
  • Compelling Cadence

2.  He turned away but she’d seen his expression. Guilt and resolve and damn the consequences.

3.  He had the look of a mean street thug. No neck, just a buzz-cut wedged-head atop thick shoulders. And a killer’s steady stare.

Love how the focus is on the description of the character, which makes the killer's steady stare a surprise. A carry-lots-of-punch surprise.

4.  He blew smoke at her and smiled. Not a Kumbaya-let’s-pray-for-your-soul smile. More like I’m-going-to-chop-you-into-little-pieces-and-mail-them-to-your-Goddess smile.

Amplified Smile with Dueling Hyphenated-Run-Ons!

Magic Heist, Mary Karlik, 2-time Immersion Grad, Denver and Palm Springs

Mary Karlik

1. “What the…” Chief Constable MacIntyre stood in the blown-out doorway staring at the fairy fluttering in front of Ian’s face. Ian could almost see the Chief try to lock onto an explanation. A smarmy smile slow-crossed his face like he’d just sold his logical mind a bill of goods. He turned to Ian. “I get it. That’s a hologram.”   

Deep Edit Analysis 

  • Power Words: Chief, blown-out, fairy, lock, explanation, smarmy, slow-crossed, sold, logical mind, bill of goods, hologram  
  • Double Alliteration: fairy, fluttering, front, face, smarmy smile slow-crossed, sold

2. “I’m fine watching. Besides, half-caste don’t mix with the full fairies.” Her smile stayed strong—even danced a little on her lips, but he heard a lifetime of longing to belong in her tone.

No more Deep Edit Analyses. The blog would be too long.

White Raven, Vanitha Sankaran, Immersion Grad, Yosemite National Park

1. Milo’s raised eyebrows were like question marks looking for a place to land. 

2. The skin around his eyes tightened, making the jagged scar on his face pop like a deadly snake on the move.

3. The Boy stood before Rasmi in a display of superior indifference, strong and solid and sure of his advantage. His stern scowl didn’t scream surprise-you-caught-a-trespasser. The alertness in his eyes didn’t look scared of being attacked either.

The Billionaire’s Paris Proposal, Allison Burke Collins, 2- time Immersion Grad, Dallas

1. The smile left her face, inch by inch, the color leeching out, skin becoming pale white marble. He’d put the woman on a pedestal, but now an icy cool goddess stared at him.

2. He turned his head, just an inch or two, and shadows reshaped his face from best friend to scary stalker.

Platinum Love, Ja'Nese Dixon, Immersion Grad, Dallas

The frown on my Daddy’s face tells me he’s gearing up for a lecture.

Rockstar Sinners, Ja'Nese Dixon, Immersion Grad, Dallas

He watched the emotions dance across her face, excitement, fear, dread, determination, all in seconds.

Never a Viscount, Sheri Humphreys, 2-time Immersion Grad, Denver and Yosemite National Park

1.  His expression—he might have been a prisoner awaiting execution, begging the Lord Justice for leniency.  

2.  She grinned and the look on his carefree face made her chest fill like a sail taking the wind.

A School for Unusual Girls, A Stranje House Mystery, Kathleen Baldwin, Immersion Grad, Dallas

1. They sat across from me, stone- faced and icy as the millpond in winter. Father did not so much as blink in my direction. But then, he seldom does.

2. That sharp hawk-like expression of hers returned, unreadable and shrewd.

3.  An emotion splashed across Jane’s face, but vanished so swiftly I couldn’t identify it. Was it anger? Sadness perhaps? Or pain? 

Drawn and Buried, Dana Summers, Immersion Grad, Denver

1. He had the kind of blunt-featured face I'd seen in graphic novels. Like someone had slammed on the brakes in his brain, and all the weird crap from the backseat had piled up behind his smoldering eyes.

2. Beneath the slash of his brow, his restless eyes pulsed like black beetles working the earth. 

3. The hurricane vanished from his face, replaced by partly cloudy with only a chance of shit storms.

This Heart of Mine, C.C. Hunter (Christie Craig), NYT Bestseller, Immersion Grad, Denver         

1. Dad walks over. He’s wearing his I’ll-take-on-the-world face. The expression he wore most of the time when I was sick.

2. What really catches my attention is what I don’t see. No pity. No pain. No grief.

3. I feel my smile slip from my eyes, my lips, and fall completely off my face. I know the look he sees in my eyes is probably the same pity-filled expression I saw in his seconds ago.

4. And there’s nothing in his voice, his eyes, or his expression that says he’s lying.

Accidentally Hexed, Angela Hicks, 3-time Immersion Grad, 1 in Denver, 2 in Dallas

1. Blake’s eyes cut to me. His razor sharp gaze sliced off a layer of my confidence.

2.  Liam looked like a man who just found out all the strippers were over thirty. And had kids.

3.  Tiffany had a smile that could bring grown men to their knees and lure them within reach of her fangs.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

Readers won’t think about their laundry when reading these lines.

I’m impressed with all of these Immersion grads. They learned so many deep edit techniques and tips and systems that helped them make their writing fresh and strong.

But not too fresh. No speed bumps. Just the right amount of freshness and power.

Want to learn more?

Check out Empowering Characters Emotions, an online course that’s taught in March by Becky Rawnsley. Her examples were the first in this blog. Stellar writing.

BLOG GUESTS:  Thank you so much for dropping by the blog today.

Please post a comment or share a ‘Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner. You could win a Lecture Packet from me, or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy (valued up to $100)

Lawson Writer’s Academy – March Classes

1. Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class

March 4 thru May 31, Instructor: Margie Lawson (limit 30 students)

2. Two-Week Intensive: Potent Pitches and Brilliant Blurbs

Instructor: Suzanne Purvis

3.  Empowering Characters' Emotions

Instructor: Becky Rawnsley Teaching Margie Lawson’s Course

4.  First Five Pages, Instructor: Laura Drake

5. Writing Compelling Scenes, Instructor: Shirley Jump

6.  Giving Your Chapters a PulseInstructor: Rhay Christou

7. Navigating the Tightrope between Historical Fact and Historical Fiction,

Instructor: Anne Mateer

8.  Mastering Evernote, Instructor: Lisa Norman

Please drop by my website to read course descriptions: www.MargieLawson.com

I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS on Sunday night, at 7PM, Mountain Time and post them in the comments section.

Like this bog? Share with your friends. Give it a social media boost. Thank you.

I love, love, love blogging for WITS. A trillion hugs and THANK YOUs to the brilliant WITS gals.

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About Margie

Margie Lawson—editor and international presenter—loves to have fun. And teaching writers how to use her deep editing techniques to create page-turners is her kind of fun.

She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.

To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2019, in Palm Springs, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, Kansas City, Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Bellebrae, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com

See you on the blog!

Photo credit (top): AbsolutVision, Pixabay

February 13, 2019

by Jenny Hansen

This week is Valentine's Day and, all over America, hearts and flowers are on many people's minds. Perhaps you are worrying about your secret (or not so secret) love: your writing love. Have you lost that loving feeling? Do you find excuses to avoid your manuscript?

You are not alone.

Cosmopolitan magazine is known for their articles on keeping love alive, right? So I looked up what they have to say.

Crazy Cosmo offers advice like "Flash Him," "Do the dishes together," and "Outlaw Grunge Wear."

This is not helpful, even if we're talking about a human. However, this gem made me smile:

Share a Secret Code
Pick a word that's likely to come up occasionally in conversation (heat, midnight, bedroom, whipped cream...) and agree that every time someone uses it, you have to touch—anything from a kiss to a lingering thigh stroke under the table.

The Real Advice

Cosmo love expert, Esther Perel, had some real advice that can work for writers:

Forever used to mean “till death do us part.” These days, though, it seems many people interpret it as “until love dies.” It just takes work, self-awareness, and communication.

Here’s what long-haul couples [like you and your glorious manuscript] know:

1. They’re practical about what matters.

In other words, see your schedule as it is. Don't try to shoehorn writing in without a plan. If there is literally not a single hour in your schedule, then don't write that day...and plan for that. Or wake up an hour early. Give up your lunch break at work. But making a plan is better than feeling guilty over missing a vague goal.

2. They check in with each other...often.

Even if you don't have an hour to sit down at your computer, do SOMETHING related to your manuscript every day.

  • Look up photos of your main characters and bookmark them.
  • Write down a description for something in your scene.
  • Do some research.
  • Write a snippet of conversation.

3. They take responsibility.

This is your dream. It is your responsibility to achieve it. To take the time and do the work. It's hard. Some days it is wonderful and some days it sucks. But a dream is still important, and it is up to you to achieve it.

You can do this.

Ms. Perel made a point in her article that hit home with me. She recomends you work toward self-awareness to ensure that your relationship (in this case with your book) is successful.

In her book Loving Bravely, Alexandra H. Solomon writes about “relational self-awareness,” or recognizing how you act within your relationship. You know your vulnerabilities, strengths, and fears. If you want a long-term bond with the person you’re with, you’ll want to see evidence that they have self-awareness too.

4. They’re direct communicators.

I took a class once by Susan Squires where she talked about how to successfully talk back to your own brain. That you must ask yourself and your characters short, direct questions.

Not "so why does the hero fall in love with the heroine over coffee at her mother's soda fountain?" Rather, you'd ask, "What most attracted the hero to the heroine in the first place?"

You can ask yourself a simple question, and your brain will actually work on it. Let your brain do the work it can do, instead of demanding a bunch of details. That's how you get your characters to talk to you. Complaints and complexity never made anyone want to communicate better.

Perel says, "To get their needs met, lasting duos ask for what they want. They make requests instead of complaints. "

5. They try not to feel entitled.

Relationships are not always easy, and if you think yours will be, then you are setting yourself up to be disappointed and resentful of your partner. You don't want to resent your writing. You love your writing.

The article says, "You need to deal with your insecurities and find ways to feel good." (Duh.)

6. They reinvent their relationships.

Instead of thinking of forever as being rooted in the same partnership until death, think of it as having two or three relationships with the same person throughout your lives.

This one is awesome. What I hear them saying here is:

It's okay to change a process that isn't working for you. Don't cling to your old ways that aren't working and do the whole "break up and get back together" dance.

Take the time to find out what work for you, so you can enjoy your writing time.

No article on writing love is complete without quotes, right?

Keep your writing passion (quotes)

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” — Stephen King

"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any." - Orson Scott Card

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ― Maya Angelou

“If the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it.” — Wally Lamb

"I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” — William Carlos Williams

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” — Anne Frank

and last but not least…

“I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it.” — Chinua Achebe

So, I'll leave you with that Achebe quote. The best way to keep your writing love alive is to NOT QUIT. Keep going, learning, doing, striving. At the end of that, you will have a book that you love.

I promise.

How do you keep your writing love alive? Do you have rituals or practices? Times of day when you write the best? Share them with us down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or here at Writers In The Storm.

February 11, 2019

by Jenny Hansen

Taxes are a bummer for most people, but...we have to do them every year. If you haven’t already filed your 2018 taxes , it’s time to think about them. Before you make squinchy faces at me and say “Boo-hiss…TAXES." *shudder*, consider that some of the changes from the Tax Cuts Jobs Act (TCJA) might offer you more deductions than in previous years.

And I know I lured you in with that "easy" word in the title but, at least for this year, I think everyone should engage the services of solid accountant. Even if you normally do your own tax returns. Things are a little wild this year.

That TCJA has a Section 199A that is being called “the tax cut of the century.” Here’s what it is:

The Section 199A deduction gives sole proprietors, partners in partnerships, some real estate investors, and S corporation shareholders an extra deduction equal to 20% of their business income.

[This is a big deal.]

I had some examples, but Julie Glover told me they made her head hurt so I've moved them to the end of this article.

I work with accountants at my day job and their education time this year was two or three times higher than their norm. Many, many of the deductions have changed. In fact there were updates to this 199A just last week.

My advice: Do yourself a favor and leverage the 2018 tax prep of a good CPA. Be sure you ask them how much education they've had on Section 199A. You don’t want to pay extra or leave a great deduction on the table.

Tax Checklist for Writers

1. Make an appointment with your accountant

When you make that appointment, be sure to also get that tax organizer that makes your eyes cross. It will guide you as you gather documents. Set aside as much time as you need to fill it out.

Or do what I do and get an hour into the process, and start whining until your organized friend or spouse takes pity on you.

2. Gather your receipts and download the bank statements from your personal and business accounts. Put these into a spreadsheet if you can – it’s easier.

3. Make some important decisions

Decide whether you will claim the standard deduction or itemize in 2018. The standard deduction has gone up to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for married filing joint. This means many taxpayers will no longer itemize.

Review the changes to itemized deductions in 2018 below:

  • Taxes are limited to a $10,000 deduction each year (this doesn’t include taxes related to your business or rental property).
  • There’s no deduction for employee business or investment expenses.
  • Interest on a home equity loan is only deductible if the loan proceeds were used to buy or improve your home.
  • The interest deduction is limited to mortgages of $750,000 (post Tax Cuts and Jobs Act)

4. See if you are eligible for any bigger deductions

  • Did you buy a car in 2018? If you use your car for business, this may be a huge deduction the year of the purchase.
  • Do you have an education savings account for your child? 529 plans can now pay for elementary and secondary school tuition (limit $10,000 per year).
  • Have your estate planning documents been reviewed in the last few years? The annual gift exemption is $15,000 per person in 2018 and 2019 and the estate tax exemption is $11.4 million per person or $22.8 million per couple. This is higher than is used to be.

Put on your Business Hat

Most writers are considered “self-employed” in regards to filing their taxes. In a taxpaying sense, this means that your “business” as a writer, and you as an individual taxpayer, are one and the same. There is no legal separation like there is in a corporation, partnership, LLC, or other legal entity. The writer usually files a “Schedule C” as part of his or her regular 1040 income tax form, which is where you report your writing income and expenses.

What expenses and income?

Thankfully, writers have a large group of basic expenses that easily fit the above criteria: education (classes and conferences), travel (hotel, meals, etc.), vehicle and transportation costs, equipment, supplies, home office expenses, legal and professional fees (includes membership fees to professional writing organizations).

A guide to keep track of income and expenses:

Expense items Income items
Travel expenses Sales of your work
Office rental (even home) Income from rented or leased work
Commissions/payment to managers or employees Wages/salary for writing
(includes stipends, honorarium, speaking fees)
(computers, books)
Grants, awards, fellowship funds
Auto insurance and repairs Copyright royalties
(published or distributed works)
Supplies and materials Advance payment for work
Legal and accounting fees or servicesSales taxes
Business and Bank fees  
Utilities (ex: phone and Internet)
Equipment rental  
Publications, periodicals,
research materials
Fees for workshops and seminars  
Membership / association dues  
Shipping or mailing  
Sales taxes  

You should have the following information for each item:

  • Date
  • Amount
  • Buyer
  • Reason for the income or expense/description
  • Check number, invoice, tracking number, or indication of other form of payment

The biggest question…

IS your writing a business?

To comply with the IRS, a writer must consider if their writing is a business or a hobby. Writers often have financial losses—expenses that exceed their writing profit, at least for the first several years.

When does the tax code determine your writing is a business as opposed to a hobby? Basically, when you are earning a profit from it.

In my humble opinion, this just means that you should make sure you do a few articles, teach a few classes or some other sort of paid writing activity each year, even if you aren’t selling books.

The IRS looks at whether you make a profit at this business three out of five consecutive years. They’d also like you to be able to answer yes to most of the following criteria (this is from the IRS site):

  1. Do you carry on the activity in a business-like manner? (Refrain from sharing that you write in your pajamas. With bedhead.)
  2. Does the time and effort you put into the activity indicate you intend to make it profitable?
  3. Are you depending on income from the activity for your livelihood? (Try not to laugh if someone asks you this.)
  4. Are your losses from the activity due to circumstances beyond your control (i.e normal start-up losses)?
  5. Do you change your methods of operation in an attempt to improve profitability? (Just say "yes." After all, sometimes you write at Starbucks in clothes, instead of at home in your pajamas.)
  6. Do you have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
  7. Were you successful in making a profit in similar activities in the past? (Yes, I made this kind of money babysitting. In the Eighties.)
  8. Does the activity make a profit in some years, and how much?
  9. Can you expect to make a future profit from the appreciation of the assets used in the activity?

You may have to prove to the government that you have made a genuine effort to earn a profit, so keep meticulous business-related records. 

Note: I'm terrible at being organized so I simply keep a legal-sized envelope and a receipts folder on my computer. If it is paper, it goes in the envelope. If it's electronic, it goes in the folder. I sort it out at tax time.

If your activity can be classified as a bona fide business, you may be able to deduct the full amount of all your expenses by filing a Schedule C. As rude as it is, tax law stipulates that you can’t use a “hobby” loss to offset your day job income. But as a business, you can deduct a net loss from other income you earn, such as wages and salaries.

Note: This article is not meant to constitute legal or tax advice. All situations are different, and all tax questions should be taken to a professional.

Which tax camp are you in? Done in January or waiting in the April 15th line at the post office? Do you use an accountant or do your own? Share your tax-time woes with us down in the comments!

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or here at Writers In The Storm.

Source articles:

Examples of deduction scenarios related to Section 199A are below.

Example 1: 

You earn $100,000 as a sole proprietor. In this case, you potentially get a deduction equal to 20% of the $100,000—or $20,000.

The only rub for the typical taxpayer? The Section 199A deduction can’t exceed 20% of your taxable income.

Example 2:

You earn $100,000 in a sole proprietorship but you use the $24,000 married-filing-jointly standard deduction and shelter $26,000 in a 401(k). In this case, your taxable income equals $50,000. You don’t get a Section 199A deduction equal to 20% of the $100,000 of sole proprietorship profits ($20,000) but instead get a Section 199A deduction equal to 20% of $50,000 ($10,000).