woman-holding book

There are many great books on writing in general, and fiction writing in particular (ahem, if I may draw your attention to the one below for instance…). Those books are meant to offer the best advice—and motivation—on how to do that miraculous, remarkable thing.

And there are many books and blogs and articles for anyone who is in search of  physical and emotional self-healing.

Now and then, writers can find wisdom and solace in self-caring books that cater to them especially as artists such as THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron and IF YOU WANT TO WRITE by Brenda Ueland.

THE ARTITSTS WAY COVERI love those two books because it acts as cheerleaders to keep me writing without despairing of my progress and purpose as a writer.

And yes, I highly recommend those books for your virtual or real library shelf as go-to companions for those lonely, frustrating days when writing seems fruitless and pointless.

But it’s also important to have a daily self-care routine.

Writers often work in solitary situations and often without encouragement or feedback from surrounding individuals we interact with in different ways—a spouse, co-workers, friends.

Our cohorts are not always understanding of our creativity and the creative process which usually demands a lot of solitude and down-time.

if-you-want-to-write-a-book-about-art-independence-and-As Brenda Ueland said, “Imagination needs noodling–long inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” Not everyone understands this need!

I am not psychologist, but having been a writer since childhood so long ago, and witnessing hundreds of writing students as both a classmate and teacher, I can identify some behavioral patterns that call for immediate self-caring.

Here are some warning signs that writers should be aware of:

–Lack of sleep caused by worrying over the manuscript. Well, that happens, but sleep should be replenishing because your active brain needs to rest as well and allow the other parts—the dream-factory areas—to emerge and give you more ideas.

sleeping by Stocksnap

–Short temperedness/moodiness. Be careful. Not everyone will comprehend these reactions. Your mind is elsewhere and on your story, and so when you need to be part of society again, you have to return and be in the moment of your life with others whether it’s at home or work (the other work).

–Hygiene breakdowns. Oh, a bad sign. Unless you are lucky enough to work non-stop because your editor is demanding your manuscript for a publication deadline, then dishevelment is acceptable. Otherwise it’s not at all healthy and often a sign of…

–Depression. Creative people do go through this a lot especially when a rejection of our work annihilates our enthusiasm and hope and happiness too. The best solution is to get back to work on something new.


–Bingeing on anything (food, alchohol, drugs, Netflixback issues of The New Yorker, even reading loads of other writers’ fiction). This is really procrastination, which is a sign of fear, which also leads to guilt and depression because you are not writing.

tv watching by Jan Vašek

Photo: Jan Vašek

One solution is to take short breathers away from the writing. Physical movement is good. Julia Cameron recommends walking at least 20 minutes every day.

She also suggests morning pages (a three page journal writing when you wake up), and my favorite–an “artist’s date” in which you take yourself out for an outing with just you and your inner artist to do anything YOU want to do.

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Writing demands mental and physical stamina. Writing takes energy and concentration. It also acts on rewards. Reward yourself every time you write—even if it’s a few kind supportive words.

You deserve it!

If you become physically ill from writing due to stress, or discouragement, then perhaps you are in need of a community that can help you get through those times when writing is harmful and not the liberating creative joy it should be.

If you can, join an online group or one in your area. Most writers are shy, so you shouldn’t feel deterred if you are also reticent.

Writing classes or a group to share work and advice even on a monthly basis are terrific motivators and will give us fresh perspectives and others to simply talk to about our stories.

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Photo by

We need community as much as solitude.  But it should be of like-minded, helpful people doing the same sort of thing—writing! In other words, we need a tribe to belong to.

Marketing guru Seth Godin stated that for “millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

Find your tribe and continue to write on your own. But whatever you do always check in with your needs before and after you write, and don’t forget to at least say something kind to yourself, even if it’s “I tried.”

Writing Wisdom:

“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”—Lorraine Hansberry, American Playwright, Writer.

Cheers, Irene


JPG of THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION (1)P.S.  Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction? 


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lion by Alexas_Fotos

Photo: Alexas_Fotos

Every creative person who begins a new work, or tries to continue it to its end, needs first of all an inner belief that what they are doing is possible.

That their work, although new and about to be born and perhaps one day shared with the world, deserves a chance to emerge and exist.

That what is being created should not hinder the person creating the work with nay-saying critiques by insensitive, unfeeling, toxic people who sabotage the creation’s merits and the creator’s sense of purpose, and worth.

In other words, artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and anyone who works as an artist should have the unlimited creative freedom to simply create.

It takes tremendous insight, imagination, and innovateness to do art.

It also takes a lot of courage.

Writers in particular are susceptible to giving up on their work if they face criticism or discouragement by others.

girl by bruce lam

Photo: bruce lam

It’s probably because writing is a very solitary endeavor and often we make the choices in our work without any input or feedback while doing it.

And then whenever we show our early drafts, or the polished finish to the story, we are met with disapproval.

man pointing by SplitShire

Photo: SplitShire

Or we are simply told to give up our silly stories—nobody cares really. Be practical! Be realistic!  Go out and do something worthwhile…

Naturally, we want to give up. But this is precisely the time when you, as a writer who truly wants to write, have to rely on an inner core of courage.

One of the most fortifying books I read when I was beginning to write my fledging fiction was Brenda Ueleand’s 1938 classic IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT.

I have to admit it’s not the most nuts-and-bolts approach to writing fiction, or anything really, but what was so remarkable for me was her constant encouragement in not giving up on writing, and its importance to feeding one’s creative spirit.if-you-want-to-write-a-book-about-art-independence-and-

In it, she insists that everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”

 This caught my attention and my skepticism, until I read on further to where she talks about criticism and how she hates it:

“Yes, I hate orthodox criticism. I don’t mean great criticism, like that of Matthew Arnold and others, but the usual small niggling, fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, and results only in putting them in straitjackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, and weazening all vision and bravery…

brenda-ueland (1891-1986)

Brenda Ueland (1891-1986)

“…I hate it because of all the potentially shining, gentle, gifted people of all ages, that it snuffs out every year. It is a murderer of talent. And because the most modest and sensitive people are the most talented, having the most imagination and sympathy, these are the very first ones to get killed off. It is the brutal egotists that survive.”

That’s absolutely right! Of course helpful critiques by others who can point out on how a story can be improved because of the great potential that is already in the work are enormously important for us to develop as writers.

But the rancorous, mean-spirited comments pointed like darts at our work, and at our souls are often the responses by others who are suppressed and unsure of their own talents.

By shooting down your efforts and spirit, they are trying to ease their own frustrations, guilt, and jealousy.

depression-John Hain

Graphic: John Hain

Don’t listen to them.

Still, it takes courage to continue to write whether others like what we do or not—and that includes our nearest and dearest friends, relations, and lovers.

Brenda insists that when we write, we “must feel free–free and not anxious… I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ”

Give yourself permission as I did after reading Brenda’s book to be happy, playful.

Let your imagination soar and spirit sing. Let your creativity unleash itself without fear of displeasing, inconveniencing, or disappointing others because you are spending your precious free time alone writing your stories.

happy by Gerd Altmann

Photo: Gerd Altmann

That is your time to create.

Be brave and create your worlds. Shut the door, and leave the critics outside of it, including your own inner critic. No guilt!

“Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write.”

believe in yourself w lion

If you are need of a cheerleader, buy and keep a copy of IF YOU WANT TO WRITE. Its words will sustain you especially when your creativity is attacked and held hostage.

Writing Wisdom:

“[W]riting is not a performance but a generosity.”—Brenda Ueland

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


NEW! Now in paperback:



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I love New Years. I welcome any and from all world calendars: our traditional January 1st ones, the Chinese and Tibetan New Years, the Jewish New Years (of which there are four!), and even my ancestors’ Ukrainian New Year on January 14th.

New Years are an official opportunity to start again. To plan goals with a renewed sense of hope and achievements.

And certainly, a few weeks after a New Year (usually around 4-6 weeks later), no matter how well we started out, how much we actually took steps for the goals, and how very enthusiastic we were in the beginning, by then our plans have stagnated, flattened, and disappeared.

We gave up.


Photo: RyanMcGuire 

And then we feel guilty. We promise ourselves we’ll try again. And again, and yet we keep failing at it.

This is common for the usual New Year’s resolutions we set for ourselves: I will lose weight, I will exercise more, I will be more productive, I will…


How many of us have tried to write because we have that intense yearning to do so, and try as we might, we start, but give up too soon.

Why is it so hard to stay motivated? Why is it so difficult to keep at it?


Photo: nhattienle94

Writing, like the other goals we have, needs constant and consistent motivation—that visceral, gut-churning desire to do it otherwise things are not right with us.

Without motivation, we will then toss it aside in hopes of starting another time. Later maybe. Next weekend. The first vacation time we have. When the muse visits someday…

But what actually happens is that we feel unhappy, depressed, along with a sense of failure. Our emotions may be masked, but they will come out in other ways.

We snap at loved ones or co-workers. We become cynical and pessimistic.

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And it becomes harder and harder to sit at our desks with our ideas and stories-in-progress because it is hard to overcome those negative emotions.

How do we stay motivated then? And if lost, how can we become motivated again?

I was listening to a TED talk by psychologist Emily Balcetis whose speech wasn’t about writing, but rather why some people find it harder to exercise over others.

And yet, it was highly relatable to writing.

In her talk, Balcetis said the main difference is that people who are able to start and continue a goal like exercising do so because they keep their eyes on the prize—meaning they envision how they will look if they keep up their routines.

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Photo: StockSnap 

They focused on the finish line!

This can work for writing as well.

First, define for yourself what is your goal. To begin a story? To continue with one you put away? To finish that story? Or is it to revise, edit, polish and/or send out the story to a publication?

The story itself could be a short story or novel, but whatever it is, take small steps and envision the endgame goal you have for those small first steps.


Photo: 27707

It can be starting a story for one weekend. Then, writing it for one hour every Saturday. And then finishing it by (name a date).

Keep your eyes on the prize which could be simply writing every weekend.

You’re taking small steps but once you make these steps habitual and they are now easy to do, then progress to bigger goals: writing another story. Writing a collection of stories. Writing a novel.

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Graphic: manfredsteger 

One way to visualize your prize is to take a clean sheet of paper, write the title and your name and post it where you can see it every day.


Or take the first page of your story. Title it and your byline, and then at the end of that first page type in: THE END.

Hang it up where you see it every day.

If you are in the midst of a novel, design a cover for it. Go to (it’s a free and very easy to use software designing tool ) and print out the wonderful cover you envision for your novel. Hang it somewhere—maybe over your computer screen.

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Photo: geralt 

Keep envisioning the end game. The prize. The goal to be achieved. And it will  get you there faster than simply hoping, wishing, and then alas, abandoning.


To stay motivated, you have to remind yourself what you are working on and working for.

For more motivation, here is Emily Balcetis’ TED talk for more motivation:

Writing Wisdom:

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”— H.G. Wells, English Fiction and Non-fiction Writer.

Cheers, Irene


P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?





Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox (check your spam files if you are not receiving them).

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Have you ever told anyone that you are a writer and the reactions you get are either one of bewilderment or pity?


Or do the people respond by being awe-struck, maybe reverent and then say to themselves: “Wow, I wish I could be a writer…”

Well, then as a public service to them (and maybe for yourself as well), hand them this list that may make them consider that they are attracted to writing.

This might also awaken and inspire them to finally acknowledge and liberate the writer within themselves.


You are a voracious reader and prefer reading to sports, or partying or doing just about anything else.


You take books with you everywhere you go—even to a party.


You read books and are either impressed and amazed by what you read, and so you think, “Gosh, I wish I could write like that…”

Or, you read a book that was so inferior, so annoying, and so often very popular and a best seller that you think, “I bet I could write something better than that!”

You read or hear something in the news or on social media or word of mouth that so enrages, perplexes, surprises, or is incredibly fascinating and maybe even absurd that you think to yourself, “I must write about this—someday.”
You have an inner nagging voice that is urging you to actually sit down and write about that thing you heard about.


You attend live readings by alive writers and no matter how badly they may read their stories in pubic, you are still smitten as though you were watching a movie star at the Academy Awards.

While watching them on stage, you are feeling oddly inspired to write so that you too may one day be published and see your name in print and maybe even read at that same café or book store your hero just read at.


You are reading your favorite short stories and novels more than once—first for entertainment, the latter to focus and study how the writers accomplished writing those  amazing passages that you were enamored by.


You begin to copy and even rewrite those same passages over and over, and dissect them like a code to better understand the secrets of how they did it in their stories.


You are seriously considering taking a writing class.

You actually do.

You are seriously considering joining a writing group.

You actually do.

You are actually seriously writing.


You are!

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?


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CALLING ALL FICTION WRITERS: Go to , sign-up and immediately receive my free weekly “Hi from I: Writing Wisdom” emails with advice on writing and publishing great fiction.

You’ll also receive my humorous and helpful booklet: 100 LITERARY CLICHES TO AVOID, SCORN, AND DELETE, my report: THE 7 DEADLY SINS OF ROOKIE FICTION WRITERS, and IRENE’S WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers.

It’s all waiting for you at




THE MIDWIFE'S TALE jpg“…Except for icons or Renaissance paintings, and in unpopular non-canonical texts, the midwife at the Nativity is not depicted, never remembered or acknowledged, not even in a cheerful Christmas carol. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of cows and donkeys who are supposedly given the gift of speech on that night—maybe they alone talked about the midwife’s role among themselves, but no one else seems to…” From THE MIDWIFE’S  TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY.

Unlike the narrator in my story, I am not a midwife. But after years of traditional Nativity stories and crèches and cards and carols, the emphasis has always been that Mary, Jesus’ Mother, was visited and surrounded by men—shepherds and Kings—after that miraculous birth occurred so long ago.

Where were the women during the birth?

Surely at least one woman was on the scene. Birthing children was and still is a exclusively female-oriented event in many cultures, and the midwife would have been the very first witness to Jesus’ appearance on earth.

Unless she was completely alone except for Joseph, her elderly husband to help her deliver the child, it seemed improbable that Mary would not have at least one or two women helping her with the birth.

Growing up, I used to wonder why the midwife never figured at all in any of the Nativity stories, but quickly dismissed her absence because of the prevalence of the other important male characters who were always mentioned and given the spotlight.

Recently, I received a postcard with a replica of an icon from Eastern Europe. I grew up with icons because of my Ukrainian heritage—and so was familiar with the depictions.

But this time, I did a double-take and felt compelled to seriously examine the postcard’s imagery.

On it were the familiar representations of several scenes of the Nativity with a large figure of Mary in the center, and near her, the swaddled baby Jesus in a manger.

Around the central figure of Mary are other smaller scenes indicating several related events: an angel appearing to the shepherds, the Three Kings with their gifts, and of Joseph being tempted by a shepherd (who is really the devil). All very typical in Eastern iconography depicting the Nativity.

But there was another scene painted on the icon. It was a replica of a woman—not Mary—about to wash the infant Jesus in a basin of water.

The midwife!


I never paid attention to her presence on an icon before and I  had to search for her identity and for any biblical sources about her.

Well, typically there wasn’t much at all. However, I did find an unlikely mention of a midwife in a non-canonical text (sources not condoned by traditional Christian churches) called the Gospel of James (Jesus’ brother most likely).

In it, Joseph hides Mary’s “disgrace” as he called it, by having her stay in the cave while he finds a midwife named Salome who does not believe that Mary is a virgin given her condition. That is, until Salome physically examines her.

Afterwards, a miracle of sorts occurs after Salome loses her hand, but it is later restored when holding the infant Jesus.

I didn’t care for this story at all. It’s inelegant, humiliating, and has no real feminine reality as to how women would act and interact in this type of scenario.

And so I made up my own version.

In my book, Joseph has a dream and is told to search for a midwife in the marketplace in Bethlehem. Eventually, he finds her although she is not Semitic, nor local, but rather is a migrant from one of the Slavic tribes and yes, probably from ancient Ukraine.

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She enlists her helpers in the midwife mission for Mary’s delivery, dismisses Joseph who is sent away during the birth, and aides Mary to birth  in the ways that child-bearing was done in those times, and all accomplished in that cave which is more historically accurate than a stable, and far more preferable as a setting for my story version.


I did however want to keep some type of miracle occurring for the midwife, but like any good fiction writer, I included one with a twist of my own.

Because my midwife was a pagan, with her own cultural rituals that she brought with her to Bethlehem from her homeland in the steppes, she had the opportunity to practice her particular skill of soothsaying and prophecy and of course she correctly predicted Jesus’ path.

But she was also given a miracle in return for helping Mary and Joseph and in that plot twist, I hoped to convey the message of universal compassion: the midwife’s sympathy towards the stranded Holy Family and eventually, Jesus’ towards the midwife.

For any writer, it’s always risky to take on a beloved story that is so ingrained in people’s lives and religions, but rather than changing the overall Nativity story, my aim was to enlarge it by one more person who was absolutely present that particular night.

THE MIDWIFE’S TALE: A CHRISTMAS STORY by Irene Zabytko is now available on and

Watch the book trailer at

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME and the writing guidebook THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION.

For more information and contact:,


When you are ready to submit your manuscript to a traditional publisher, or if you are publishing on your own, that is the time when you have to switch your mindset from writer to editor.

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The story and characters are on the page and screen about to be placed in print and out into the world. What a wonderful accomplishment!

But is it really, really ready?

Artistically, yes. Technically, maybe not yet…

By that I mean the physical look of the manuscript itself that will relay and transmit the content (your story) in the best possible and polished ways.


Your manuscript must be dressed-up and presented in the most professional manner which means that the margins are all uniform (usually, an inch or a bit more on all four sides), the titles, subtitles, and chapters centered, and all words are spelled correctly (unless intentionally misspelled). Ditto with grammar and punctuation.

Sometimes, there are issues that pop up and become glaringly obvious to confront more so in the editing process than in the writing.

For instance, your characters are naming other sources like a play or movie they have seen. Do you place the titles they mention in quotes? Italics? Underlines?

When do you use dashes, and when do you use hyphens?

In fiction, do you write out the numbers or use actual numerals?

How do you write a quote within a quote? Sometimes, characters in dialogue will quote another character.


These type of small, but essential editing choices are vitally important for the end result—no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of the story and mutter, “Huh—so confusing!”

Traditional publishing houses and other print media (like the almost archaic newspaper) rely on resources called stylebooks. If you are a journalist, or had to write an in-depth research paper for a class, then you may be familiar with these invaluable and very thick and detailed books.

There are three major stylebooks and each publisher uses and will always stick to one (and they expect their writers and editors to adhere to them as well):



The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook—Mostly used by journalists.

The Chicago Manual of Style—Used by all writers; their rules will differ from the AP Stylebook.


Photo: By University of Chicago Press -

The Modern Language Association (MLA) Style—Used by academics, college students, and useful for fiction writers too.

All are helpful, but can be overwhelming because of all the many, many ways to standardize texts. They are also updated at least annually because English usage evolves and changes.

I have an older version of The Chicago Manual of Style that I use and find very helpful for tangled things such as, how do I name a character from a play that my own character in my story will be acting as (see what I mean by tangled?).

Certainly, traditional and reliable writing resources like The Elements of Style by Strunk & White should still be consulted as needed, but these voluminous stylebooks are the sources for when you need specific, detailed, and professional answers to complicated or bewildering editing choices.

man in white shirt using macbook pro

Photo by Tim Gouw on

If stylebooks are far too overwhelming with all the various editing conditions they include, then go online and ask specifically for what you need to know. Usually, a good and useful link will appear.

For instance, here are the links to the editing questions above:

When to italicize and underline or quotes:

When to use hyphens and dashes:

When to use numbers in fiction:

When to use a single or double quote:


And when the editing is all done, and the manuscript sent, then return to your writer mindset and write another story.

Writing Wisdom:

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”—T.S. Eliot, American/British Poet, Essayist, Playwright.

Cheers, Irene


Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox (check your spam files if you are not receiving them).

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and


Crickets and Tumbleweeds: The Rejected and Dejected Writer

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Photo by Pixabay on

There are certain times in any creative person’s life when nothing validating is going on outside of their interior world.

Rejections on everything we send out to publishers, agents, editors, bloggers, magazines etc. return to us like poisonous boomerangs with messages meant to be encouraging but never really are:

“Thank you for thinking of us and even though we read your work with much interest, we feel it’s not a good fit for our publication/publisher/agency and wish you the best of luck of finding a home for it elsewhere. But do try us again…”

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Photo by Pixabay on

Chances are that this is sent to everyone they reject whether they read your work with much or no interest.

The hardest rejections are the ones where they actually send a personal email or letter stating how much they enjoyed and loved your work. But…nah, they’re not taking it. Ouch!

And then there are the others who don’t send a rejection at all. In fact, they are silent and the writer is left with false hopes thinking that their work is still being considered with at least a little interest.

Time to hit the “pause” button in your soul and to remember the adage that all good creative writing books tell you about rejected work: “it’s not you that’s being rejected, it’s the story.”

That’s a quick balm to ease the soreness at least initially, and we can also read about the many famous writers whose works were rejected multiple times before hitting it big (Stephen King = 30 times, Dr. Seuss = 27 times, etc.).

But that doesn’t really, really help because it’s our work that is being relegated to obscurity, and not those authors who are well beyond this phase of crickets and tumbleweeds.

And so like any heartbreak, here are some other and more prevailing strategies for getting through those tough times when our stories are unloved, unappreciated and unpublishable over and over again.

–Put away the story for a time and work on other stories or simply free write or write in your journal (but write something!).

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Photo by Alfredson Jr on

–When you’re ready and a bit removed emotionally from the rejected work, analyze why the story is constantly being rejected. Perhaps you are sending it out to the wrong people and publications.

–If you are in a writers’ group or have trusted allies who are good readers and will give you honest feedback, have them read the story for their opinions on its strengths and weaknesses.

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Photo by on

–If the story needs more work, then go to it! Send it out again, even to the places that rejected it before if you strongly feel that it should be published there.

–Rejected again? Well, if you, the writer, feel that it is still a good enough story, but it’s the marketplace that is simply not appreciating what you are offering, then consider self-publishing (I’ll be writing more blogs about that explosive subject in the very near future).

–But whatever you do about trying to publish, don’t give up the writing itself. Even in the times of drought and hopelessness, there is still a deep well in your creative soul that needs nurturance and attention. Keep writing!


Here’s a link to those famous writers whose works were rejected numerous times. It’s worth a glance at least and then move on to your own work:

Writing Wisdom:

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”–Harriet Beecher Stowe, American Novelist, Activist.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Sign up for my weekly Writing Wisdom emails. Free! In addition, you will receive my humorous and helpful booklet: 100 LITERARY CLICHES TO AVOID, SCORN, AND DELETE, plus my report: “THE 7 DEADLY SINS OF ROOKIE FICTION WRITERS” all waiting for you at: 

You’ll also receive the optional WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers coming to you every day in your email inbox.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chernobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED (Algonquin), and the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME (Algonquin).


One of the precepts of fiction writing is “write what you know.” Well, that could be a good thing. Or not.

Most new writers will write about what they know best—themselves.


I do wonder whenever I read a fiction writing student’s bio and then read their stories which are ostensibly about them, why in the world don’t they just write memoirs? Why fiction?

Sure, they change the names, but oftentimes the name of the main protagonist is so similar to the writer’s real name that it’s laughable.

There are of course real events and situations and outcomes that have occurred in our lives based on ourselves and the people we know that can be utilized and fused into fiction. But if these same things are simply borrowed without any real changes, then there’s really no need to write a fictional story at all.


Fiction should be expansive, surprising and unlimited. And whenever a story is taken almost verbatim (except for the names of the characters and maybe where they live), then the writer is hampered by the limitations of the real life story. This can cause problems in many ways.

For instance, the writer will most likely take on a style that is more telling than showing—in other words more narrative than showing action through inner and outer dialogue.  The writer will feel a need to over-explain things in more narrative detail especially if it puts them in a bad light.

There is usually a gushing out of many snippets of the writer’s life that are muddled and although possibly interesting, has no story structure that is decipherable. There is no story—simply a lot of diary type excerpts or observations.

Most likely there will be a lot of unnecessary secondary and tertiary characters floating in and out of the story which bogs down the pacing and the plot.boy-2026064_1280

Or there will be nostalgic anecdotes about the writer. Or it will be a vendetta against mean relatives, or bad lovers, or missed opportunities.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t use our personal lives or experiences or people we know in our stories, but the danger happens if we use them without the creative, imaginative basis for writing a story of fiction.

We then deny the fictional possibilities that can grow and evolve out of the true-life elements of our memoirs.

We inhibit and lose out on the new insights and adventures and even learn something new, profound and unexpected that will illuminate things about ourselves and the lives we lead.

If you find that your stories are only a rerun of your memoir, then consider taking a small fraction of the real life elements, but allow for the story to grow and be shaken up in different ways: new characters, new situations, new narratives, new worlds to invite the reader into.

But if that’s not possible, then stick to memoir. You can still change names and places for privacy reasons. At least the reader will know that the story is really about you.woman-1442373_1920.jpg

Writing Wisdom:

“Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”—Gerard Manley Hopkins, British Poet.

Cheers, Irene

Irene Zabytko is the author of the novel about Chornobyl, THE SKY UNWASHED, and the short story collection, WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME.

P.S. Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox (check your spam files if you are not receiving them).

Catch my new and public blog posts and AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES at  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at and


© 2018 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved.



A few years ago, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW featured a dual article in which two writers gave their views to the question: “Do Money Woes Spur Creativity of Stifle It?”

That is a question I often battle over as a writer. I’ve had some successes with my writing, and sometimes had a steady income consisting of royalties and grants that sustained me financially so that I can continue to write. But these are not always solid, dependable sources at all.


Photo by Pixabay on


In the article, one of the two writers Rivka Glachen doesn’t exactly answer the question out rightly but lists several famous writers who mostly struggled with money issues—even those like Vladimir Nabokov who were born into wealth but later lost it all due to the political upheavals in his native Russia.

The other writers she mentioned had their own particular life crises to deal with which spurred them to continue writing whether they were earning money from doing so or not. Many had other careers even when they sold their books.

The other writer, Moshin Hamid takes a more philosophical tone in which being poor may be a sort of blessing in disguise for a poor writer. If I understand his logic correctly, Hamid makes a correlation between the outer realities of poverty, and the writer’s inner illusions and that “money woes can make a writer look for a tether” to the outside world as a source of the writing itself.

Both are compelling views.


In my opinion having experienced moderate wealth and dire poverty, I can say with great confidence: poverty is never good for a writer.

Poverty is never good for anyone. But for a creative person whose work is not supported by the government, or a family trust fund, or foundation grants, or stock options and who writes because they love it and are called to doing it in their souls, and have a certain talent for it but may not be appreciated or compensated—no, poverty is the very worst thing for them.


Poverty is soul-depleting.

Rather than making one noble, or kinder and compassionate towards others, or allowing us to open our hearts and minds and learn life lessons that will strengthen our moral compass and courage, Poverty destroys our creativity.

Poverty forces the writer to take jobs they hate mostly because these jobs are usually themselves soul-depleting and always, always takes away time from writing.

Poverty is the enabler to all our worse vices: greed, jealousy, bigotry, small mindedness that seep into our psyches when we are not even aware.

Poverty makes us curse and complain about our lot in life thereby magnifying our feelings of bad luck, ill temper, neglect, and despair.

adult alone anxious black and white

Photo by Kat Jayne on

Poverty enhances our cynicism and limits our ability to take in the goodness of the world which will in turn feed into whatever fictional worlds we create in our writing—that is, if we are still writing.

Usually, we become too exhausted, too depressed, too despairing, too short on time to even think it’s worth doing anymore.

Writing loses its priority because after all we can’t pay the Internet bill, or buy ourselves a decent meal, or afford to fix anything that unexpectedly breaks or stops running (which always happens!).



In my opinion (yet another), poverty is simply horrific for the writer or any creative person. But we have choices and that is to somehow, even a little bit, write under the most oppressive circumstances. If only to remind ourselves that we are not totally defeated.

Great literature can come from poverty-enmeshed writers. Sometimes they are rewarded for their talents, many times they are not.

Only we, the writers, will decide if writing is of any value to our lives.

Here is the NYTBR article I mentioned: “DO MONEY WOES SPUR CREATIVITY OR STIFLE IT?”

Writing Wisdom:

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”—J.K. Rowling, British Children’s Author, Novelist, Screenwriter, Television Producer.

Cheers, Irene

P.S. Irene’s WRITING WISDOM DAILY DIGITAL CALENDAR with great quotes by great writers is now coming to you every day in your email inbox. Sign up at for the calendar and other freebies including weekly WRITING WISDOM emails on the art and craft of fiction writing.

My blogs are available at:  and  irenezabytko.wordpress

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available  and

Irene Zabytko is the author of THE SKY UNWASHED and WHEN LUBA LEAVES HOME: STORIES. Both published by Algonquin Books.

© 2018 by Irene Zabytko, all rights reserved.




First responders carrying a “closed zone” sign  following the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, April 26, 1986.  (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My first published novel, THE SKY UNWASHED is based on a true story. The heroines are a group of elderly women who returned to their deserted and highly contaminated village in the “dead zone,” the areas surrounding the Chornobyl (Ukrainian transliteration of “Chernobyl”) nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Those surrounding, mostly rural areas were highly irradiated after the core of reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m. causing fires, a nuclear meltdown, and sending out a radioactive cloud that blanketed Ukraine, Belarus, Scandinavia, Western Europe and beyond.


Helicopter view of the Chornobyl nuclear explosion, April, 1986. (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My fictional family, the Petrinkos headed by the matriarch Marusia, lived in one of those villages along with her son, Yurko, and daughter-in-law Zosia and their two young children. Yurko and Zosia worked at the Chornobyl power plant and despite their bickering, life was relatively peaceful in their lives until that horrible night in April.

The villagers were not evacuated until a week later and told that they would only be gone for a few days. Most of them never returned to their highly irradiated homes. But Marusia did, and she returned only to find herself alone in a toxic ghost-village and in the deadliest place on the planet.


Irene Zabytko in front of the destroyed nuclear reactor now rebuilt and encased, Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Chornobyl, Ukraine. (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Later, other displaced village women also returned and together they defy the Soviet authorities facing arrest and the end of their lives.

I first got the idea for my book after reading an article in The Ukrainian Weekly about the displaced Chornobyl evacuees who illegally returned to the most toxic place on the planet because they had nowhere to go. I thought—I must write about this…

But I didn’t begin writing until after I happened to be re-reading John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH and was blown away by how elegant and profound the opening chapter was. I wanted to write something as fabulous as that book, so I basically followed and mirrored Steinbeck’s writing about the men and women who were tilling the Oklahoma red earth before the dust storms came and they were forced to leave, and then turned it into my men and women tilling their own earth in Ukraine before Chornobyl exploded and they were also forced to leave.

In Steinbeck’s novel, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family, are forced off their land because of a serious draught (the dustbowl conditions of the 1930s), and unscrupulous bankers. They leave their home to journey to California and become itinerant farmers where they are exploited by the landowners.


Evacuees leaving the “dead zone” after the Chornobyl nuclear reactor explosion. ( (Photo courtesy of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl  Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine).

My characters suffer a similar fate. Chornobyl’s own destructive chain reaction caused them to leave their ancestral land, and displacing the villagers who are lied to in the process. No one ever knew how toxic the nuclear radiation was and so when Marusia and later a few more women return, they had to make life and death choices.


Irene Zabytko in front of the abandoned ferris wheel in Pripiat, Chornobyl Exclusion Zone (Photo: Irene Zabytko collection).

Now looking back and re-reading my own novel on this 32nd anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident, I am reminded of my gratitude to Steinbeck for forging the literary territory that encouraged and enabled me to write a story that I  hope is still relevant, and most importantly, universal–especially for those in the entire world who are still being displaced, powerless, and forgotten because they happened to have their homes situated in the middle of a cataclysmic event they had nothing to do with.



THE SKY UNWASHED is available on,, and wherever books are sold.


More information about Chornobyl and THE SKY UNWASHED can be found at and

Many thanks to the Ukrainian National Museum “Chornobyl,” Kyiv Ukraine, for the use of their archival photos.

The Ukrainian Weekly is an English language publication with great, factual reportage of Ukraine-related news.