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January 31, 2011
Yesterday on a long Skype call, I talked with a writer friend about what fuels our writing.
For me, my favorite books (both in terms of the writing and how well they did after publication) were often fueled by some kind of pain or wound. Something difficult that I was going through (or one of my children) would spark an idea for a book, and the drive to solve the problem provided the passion and energy to see the story through to completion.
Negatives to Positives
Energy from hurts and wounds and pain can be very useful to you as a writer. But, if you’re just wounded, does that automatically translate into books others will want to read? No.
As Bill O’Hanlon says in Write is a Verb, “in order to have your wound fuel your writing process, the hurt or negative energy needs to be turned into creative energy, informing or driving your writing. It’s not enough to be wounded; you must find a way to turn that wound into energy for your writing.”
Pain = Energy for Writing
He quoted many authors (some quite famous) who had tragedies befall them, but they took the pain and turned around to write some of the most gripping books of our time on the very subject that nearly destroyed them.
It doesn’t have to be a wound the size of the Grand Canyon either (a child being kidnapped, losing your home in a hurricane, both parents dying from cancer the same month). It isn’t the size of the wound–it’s what you do with it that counts.
Just Let It All Hang Out?
In order for your pain to be useful to you as a writer, you’ll need to step back a bit and distance yourself from it. Otherwise you won’t be able to see the story possibilities in it. You’ll be too hung up on the facts. (“But it really HAPPENED this way!” you protest.) Yes, but facts need to be shaped a lot if you’re going to create a story or article or book from those facts. (The truth of your experience can shine through, despite changing some facts.)
Facts will need to change in order to create well-rounded characters, and the plot still needs a beginning, middle, climax and ending. Things will be added–and subtracted–from your experience to make a better story. If you can’t do that, you’re probably still too wounded to turn the experience into a viable story.
“Make no mistake. I have seen writing full of anger, self-pity, or hate that I think will never (and should never) be published,” says O’Hanlon. “They are simply expressions of the author’s pain, more like a journal entry than a book. They are self-indulgent and should be kept private… In order to turn that pain and anger into a book, the writing needs to somehow turn the personal into the universal.” In other words, the book needs to speak to other readers in a way that helps or nourishes them.
Identify Your Writing Energy
How can you tell if your pain and wounds might be energy for your writing? Here are four questions to ask yourself, suggested by the author. They can pinpoint sources of writing energy in your life just waiting to be tapped into.
- What do you care about so deeply or get so excited about that you talk about it to anyone who will listen?
- What upsets you so much that you are compelled to write about it or include the theme in your book?
- What are you afraid to write but know is a deep truth?
- Who are you afraid will disapprove of your writing or be upset by it?
- What fears could you write and perhaps work through by writing?
Take some time this weekend with those questions and a journal. Or write them on a card and take a long walk while you think about the answers. You may not be as blocked or depressed as you fear. You may simply be sitting over a deep pool of writing energy that’s just waiting for you.
January 28, 2011
As long-time readers of my blog know, I’ve given warnings over the years about self-publishing. I’ve seen so many new writers get “taken” by going this route.
They’ve been charged unbelievable amounts of money to have their books printed by a “publisher.” Then they’re left with a garage full of books they can’t get into book stores. They list them on Amazon.com, hoping this will do the trick, but no one knows them or knows to look for the book. Without a proven track record of some kind, it is nearly impossible to sell self-published books.
Where’s Your Audience?
Your track record might be in a professional area associated with your day job. For example, let’s say you give more than a dozen speeches every year on a particular topic (health, financing, etc.) and you have the credentials to back it up (you’re a doctor or MBA, for example.)
If you have a built-in audience (those who come to your talks), then a self-published print book (on your topic) might sell very well. In cases like this, a self-published book where you get to keep all the profits is a smart idea. However, unless you have a built-in repeat audience, you’ll also be stuck with boxes of unsold books you’ve already paid for.
Enter e-books on the publishing scene…
Years ago, when they were first being talked about, I gave e-books a try. The print book many of you have of Writer’s First Aid started as an e-book and was later picked up by the ICL Bookstore and issued in a paper edition. That was a good deal for me–e-books didn’t sell all that well ten years ago.
But last year I decided to stick my toes in the water again with the two e-booklets I created (50 Tension Techniques and Writing Mysteries for Young People.) I did no advertising except telling you about them on this blog. They have made a good little chunk of money without me doing anything. I have been pleasantly surprised.
So last year when Amazon.com said that more than half their income came from selling Kindle e-books, I took notice. I already had the built-in audience (thousands of blog subscribers), and I knew how to do the e-books (how to work with Amazon and Clickbank, how to get ISBN numbers, etc.)
I especially loved the fact that publishing e-books costs almost nothing, you can promote and publicize online for free most places, and your percentage of profit is good, even after Amazon takes their 30% cut for Kindles and Clickbank takes their cut. In these economic times, I’m looking for ways to make more money with the writing, just like most authors.
That’s why More Writer’s First Aid is coming out as an e-book in .pdf and Kindle and for the iPad and a few other formats.
Factors in Success
Should you try this? Maybe, if…
- you feel you have a built-in audience already, or you’re willing to take the time to build such an audience first
- you have excellent writing, editing, and copyediting skills (I’ve worked as writer, editor and copyeditor over the years) or you’re willing to pay for such services
- you can do Internet marketing, or you are willing to learn how
If all these things apply, then you may want to try e-books. My 34 children’s books are all print editions (although I see that many of them have Kindle editions now too.) I have been slower to try these new formats, so I’ll have to let you know how it goes.
For those interested in learning more about this, here are some links:
January 26, 2011
Typically, my writing students are excited two times: at the very beginning of the writing course and again at the end (because they are graduating and/or being published.)
Book writers are also excited at the beginning of a project (when their idea and characters are new) and at the end (when the final draft is complete or it’s sold.)
But the middle? Middles can be miserable.
Part of the Package
Last year I had two writers in the same week, both talented and one already published, write to me to say that they were no longer excited about writing because it had become difficult. “This is harder than I thought it would be” is something I frequently hear. The new writer usually wants me to explain how to make it easy again, how to take the work out of the writing.
I think this comes from a real misconception about writing. Writing is like having a good relationship with someone. It’s exciting when you first meet, it’s satisfying after years of sharing experiences and working through the conflicts, but the middle is a mixture of joy and tests (or obstacles.) Frequently it’s not fun! It’s just part of the package–and it’s the same with writing.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
A quote from Never Give Up! says it well:
“Between the beginning and the end, every situation or pursuit has a ‘middle’–and the middle is where we often face our greatest challenges, hurdles, roadblocks, obstacles, detours, and tests. People who are easily led by their emotions rarely finish what they start. They give up when the project is no longer exciting and all they see in front of them is hard work.”
Just a While Longer
If you’re on the verge of quitting writing, I would encourage you to give it a bit longer. Face the challenges and be determined to overcome them. Find ways to make the middles fun! They can be every bit as rewarding as beginnings and endings–it just takes more work. Don’t be satisfied with “just trying” something, but see it through to the end. At least 90% of the time, you’ll be so glad you did.
I know there are rare instances where the only wise thing to do is to give up (on a career choice, a relationship, or a story). That choice is the exception to the rule though. Don’t be quick to quit writing just because it stops being fun for a while.
Best Predictor of Success
Many new writers will ask me, “Do you think I have what it takes to succeed as a writer?” I used to believe that I could tell within a couple of lessons with students. I have found over the years that I was wrong. Too often the students I had earmarked for long and happy writing careers quit because it grew difficult, and they were used to instant and easy success.
On the other hand, students who were mediocre at the beginning have gone on to publish well! I have a shelf of student books to prove it. They studied, they learned, they took courses and got critiqued if necessary. They submitted and endured rejection slips–but they persevered. And I’m proud to say that their books are impacting the world of children in very positive ways.
ALL writers have trouble sticking it out during those “miserable middles.” Do you have any mental tricks or words of wisdom that work for you at such times? If so, please share!
January 24, 2011
Would you like to have a free copy of my new e-book when it’s released? Read to the end to find out how.
First there was Writer’s First Aid: Getting Organized, Getting Inspired, and Sticking to It, the book.
…then there was the Writer’s First Aid blog.
Coming in February
Now, thanks to faithful book and blog readers, coming soon is More Writer’s First Aid: Getting the Writing Done (Book Two).
About that free e-book … If you have a blog for writers or a blog about writing–and if you’d be willing to review More Writer’s First Aid on your blog–I’m going to send 10 bloggers a free copy.
Contact me here and give me (1) your email address and (2) the www. address of your writing blog. I’d like permission to quote your blog review on my website, if you don’t mind. Thanks to all who contact me–and I’ll be in touch very soon!
January 21, 2011
Two years ago I had to see a surgeon about my elbow. Why? Because I tried a weights routine that was too heavy…way too heavy.
Even though I’d neglected my arm muscles for years, I thought I’d make up for lost time and regain my strength real quick! Dumb idea, as it turned out. For a while I was unable to lift anything as heavy as a coffee cup without pain, and there was no weight lifting for many more months.
Our Own Worst Enemies
Why do we do this to ourselves???
I do this in my writing too–and I’ll bet you do as well. You probably set huge writing goals this month (or New Year’s Resolutions) and have burned out trying to write five hours a day or send out a query a day. Maybe you’ve damaged your neck, back or wrists. The joy is gone. You don’t feel like writing anymore. (Anyone identify with that?)
Building writing muscle isn’t much different than trying to build body muscle. Rather than going gung-ho at a massive goal, start small. Really small. Give yourself doable short goals where you can succeed. Success breeds success. Trying to do too much too soon breeds failure.
In Karen Scalf Linamen’s book Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight, she suggested “making up small, attainable goals just so we could practice the art of turning a goal into reality. What if we made the decision to give up coffee for three days? Or stick with a vegetarian diet for twenty-four hours? Or walk around the block every morning for a week?…Pretty soon, all these smaller victories will give us greater confidence, stamina, and experience. Then when we attempt the bigger decisions–we’ve got muscle. We know exactly what it feels like to make decisions and follow them through to completion. We’ve been practicing. We can do it.”
Apply It to Writing
Instead of promising yourself you’ll write two hours every day, blog five times a week, and send out ten queries each month, start small. Set a goal that virtually insures success. That’s how we build momentum–with a series of successful goals.
- write for ten minutes every morning for a week
- read one chapter per day of a current children’s book
- read email one hour later, three days in a row
- check out three writing conferences online
How to Build Momentum
Whatever goals you have–or habits you would like to build–give yourself permission to start smaller. Stretch yourself a tiny bit today. Then set a goal to stretch yourself that little bit three days in a row–then reward yourself for that success.
Like the title of the book says, only nuns change their habits overnight. So take things in smaller bites. Build momentum with smaller successes. Develop the writing habits, slowly but surely. You’ll be flexing those muscles in no time!
January 19, 2011
I read a very surprising study on the differences between marathon runners who finished the race and those who didn’t make it to the end. All the runners were equally fit and trained and healthy.
So what was the deciding factor in whether they were hardy enough to finish the 26-mile run?
It depended on where they placed their focus.
And it wasn’t at all where I expected!
Letting Go of the Goal
The runners who finished the race all said, in one way or another, that they had to stop focusing on the finish line and focus on the process instead. Rather than telling themselves, “I can’t run ten more miles to the finish line!” they focused on what they could do. They told themselves, “I can take the next step. If I have to slow down and shuffle, I can still take the next step.”
One reason they stopped focusing on the finish line was because it seemed overwhelming, too difficult. But a second reason they stopped focusing on the finish fascinated me: they actually lost speed. Whether they were ahead of the pack or behind everyone, focusing on the finish line made them slow down.
Parallels with Writing
You often see writing a novel compared to running a marathon. It does have many similarities: training, planning, learning specific skills, endurance, perseverance, and daily plodding! So I suspect that where you focus if you want to finish also applies to writers.
I know for a fact that when I focus on the finish line–the day I can say the book is done–that it feels overwhelming. All the work that needs to be done to get there just looks too difficult. And like the runners, that feeling of being overwhelmed may be what causes us to slow down and procrastinate before even starting the daily “workout.”
I expect that the writer’s solution to this is much like the marathon runner’s answer. We need to focus on what I can do right now. Something small that corresponds to the runner’s “next step.”
Small steps don’t look overwhelming. They look simple and do-able, if you’ve made them small enough. And we don’t have to be speed demons either. Like the marathon runner, we can “slow down and shuffle,” if we have to.
They say hardiness consists of three personality characteristics: commitment, control, and challenge. Writers with hardiness outlast other writers. They commit themselves to what they are doing, they control themselves and their small part in the publishing process, and they believe challenges are a normal part of the process.
Become a Marathon Finisher!
Are you a “hardy” writer? You may not think so because you’ve seen many of your writing goals go by the wayside. But maybe–just maybe–you have all the hardiness you need to be successful. Perhaps you’ve been focusing on the end goal too much instead of just taking that next small (slow) step.
If so, learn and apply this easy mental trick of successful marathon runners!
January 17, 2011
Do you ever enter writing contests? I never have, but back when I began writing thirty years ago, the cash prizes were $25 or less. I didn’t think it was worth the time. I was rather shocked when I saw the prize money for contests now!
[NOTE: Before submitting stories to contests, I highly recommend Jan Field's article "Ten Tips for Contest Entries." Following her advice will greatly increase your chances of winning.]
Great Places to Start
Check out the Children’s Writer contest (a kindergarten story this time). Entries must be received by February 28, 2011. PLEASE NOTE: Current subscribers to Children’s Writer enter free. All others pay an entry fee of $15, which includes an 8-month subscription. Winners will be announced in the July 2011 issue. Prizes: $500 for first place plus publication in Children’s Writer, $250 for second place, and $100 for third, fourth, and fifth places. Read the rules carefully before submitting–and submit on time! You can submit online or through postal mail.
I decided to check further and saw that the Institute’s 2011 market guides each contain a large contest section. The Magazine Markets for Children’s Writers 2011 has 46 contests listed, and The Book Markets for Children’s Writers 2011 has 48 book writing contests, awards and grants.
Additional lists of contests can be found by Googling “writing contests.”
In these tough economic times for writers, we all need to think outside the box on a more regular basis. (Myself included!) If you like the idea of contests, this might be a great thing for you to explore!
January 15, 2011
Thank you to all who left comments this week. Among other things (replaced furnace, etc.) my computer modem gave out. I’m thankful that the blog can be set up to publish posts when I’m offline, but I have to post the comments themselves. I finally got access to them last night (buried in 1,200 spam comments), so this week’s comments are finally up.
Thank you to each person who left a comment this week. I don’t have time to reply to each one individually as I hear the grandkids getting up already.
Have a great weekend, everybody!
January 14, 2011
You want to rise an hour early to write while the family snoozes, but sleeping later feels good to you. You want to break your procrastination habit of emailing friends or surfing the ‘Net when you should be writing, but those activities are fun for you.
What’s the answer? Whether you want to break a habit that interferes with your writing or begin a habit to support your writing dream, the key to success is always the same.
What’s Your Goal?
Delayed gratification (by definition) is taking an action now that will give you the desired results later.
Getting up early to write instead of snuggling back under the covers–done enough times–can result in the completion of your first novel. Postponing email to friends in order to write–done often enough–can also result in getting that manuscript written.
Of course, if we knew how to delay gratification on a regular basis, we’d all be incredibly fit, have soaring careers, never lose our tempers, and have no debt. Being told to delay gratification is no help without the critical “how to.”
So…here are three steps to achieving the ability to delay gratification. The plan works if you work it.
Step One: Make an Advance Decision
Get your decision in writing–maybe even in big letters on your wall. In your journal describe in detail both the decision you are making and the desired outcome of that daily decision. Then clear the decks to make your decision possible.
Go to bed earlier if you plan to get up early and write. If you can’t leave the email and Internet alone, then write longhand at your desk until you’ve broken the surfing habit and established your “write first” habit.
Step Two: Ponder the Consequences of Failure
If you have trouble taking your planned step, contemplate the eventual outcome of your failure. Sleeping that extra hour every day means no finished book by the end of the year, which means no chance to publish, which means no chance to change careers, which means enduring your boring day job forever, which means…
You get the idea. The loss of your writing dream–whatever it happens to be–is a big price to pay for sleeping late.
Step Three: Reward Successes
Admittedly, this one seems frivolous to me–until I skip it a few times. In the interest of getting on to the next project, I’ve often skipped this step. And what happens? Soon you become worn out, the work is no longer fun, your head and back ache, and you quit. Getting started again is harder because you have no planned breaks or rewards to lure you on.
Don’t neglect this step, no matter how tempting it is. Whether you paint a picture or just take ten minutes to read a favorite novel after completing the task, it will refresh you and keep you from feeling deprived.
It Works if You Work It!
These three steps work equally well if you are trying to form a new healthy habit or trying to break an unhealthy one. The principles are the same.
Every published author (just like every marathon runner or person who’s lost fifty pounds) has to learn how to delay gratification of some desire now for a hoped-for result later. You can do it too!
If you could BREAK one habit, what would it be? If you could START just one habit, what would it be?
January 12, 2011
Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, workaholics (and the sub-group writer-holics) don’t work all the time?
In fact the term can describe “any person who is driven to do too much, whether that person works sixty hours a week or runs around like a chicken with its head cut off…Some work addicts appear motionless, but their minds are racing.” (Diane Fassel in Working Ourselves to Death.)
Three Faces of Writer-holics
While my goal and life-long desire as a writer has been to be consistent with my writing output, it is seldom that way. Sometimes I work long hours with a huge output (like NaNoWriMo month), sometimes it’s in spurts, and sometimes approaching deadlines make me freeze (afraid that I can’t do what I promised in the contract.)
I knew my writing output was sporadic, but I thought each style was a problem by itself. I am beginning to see that they’re all just different faces of perfectionism.
This writer works long hours, taking on project after project. She feels compelled to do what she needs to do to keep going. I used to blame it on the financial needs of raising children alone–and that certainly contributed to the pressure–but after the need passed, the behavior remained. According to Webb, “it is a matter of identity for her. If she stopped to rest, it would prove she is inferior, lazy or both–and that would be unthinkable.” BINGO.
This writer works in spurts, but with great intensity and energy and focus. These intense bursts of work are sometimes (for the writer-holic) ways to avoid dealing with other issues (children’s problems, marital woes, a looming health concern). “Work, projects, tasks and accomplishments become the medication of choice so that she doesn’t have to feel her emotions, deal with her disappointments or ask deep questions,” says Webb. I’m guilty of this one too–maybe not as much as in the past, but it’s definitely a factor.
Deadlines can often turn me into this type of writer. The perfectionist in me isn’t satisfied with writing “sh****” rough drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in Bird by Bird. After having had 35 books published, you’d think this would no longer be an issue! But it is. Webb contends that the work anorexic is “afraid she’ll do it wrong, so she procrastinates, and the resulting guilt immobilizes her.”
What Type Are You?
Do you identify with any of the above perfectionistic descriptions of writers? (If so, these tendencies probably show up in how you approach other things in your life, like your fitness efforts and your relationships.) I hope you’ll leave a comment and share your own experiences in this area.Newer Posts »