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April 29, 2011
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” ~~Henry David Thoreau
Have you given yourself permission to really work? To invest the necessary time and energy you know it will take to achieve your writing dream?
Until you can answer “yes” to the following three things, your commitment to writing will always be a struggle. [The list of three things is courtesy of Vinita Hampton Wright's book, The Soul Tells a Story, which I've expanded with my own thoughts.]
You must say “yes” to the work, the process, and the dream.
Are you able to say “yes” to whatever work you feel called to do? It might be writing humor for young moms, writing insurance information so that the common man can understand it, writing fantasy novels, or writing screenplays. (Or all of the above!)
You’re not called to be rich or famous, although that might be nice. You’re just saying “yes” (daily, if possible) to sitting down and doing the work. (As in the B.U.T. technique: Bottom in Chair.) You don’t worry about the eventual outcome or what others think of your idea. You’re not committing to a set number of hours every day–just that you will show up at the page regularly and do the work.
Saying “yes” to the writing process means you will accept the fact that writing gets messy. It’s not a process that goes from A to B to C like a dot-to-dot picture. The process is often murky as bits of ideas appear and then you shift them around. The shifting and changing is constant as you revise and (hopefully) as you continue to learn.
You can rarely see the end clearly from the beginning-even if you’re an outliner like I am. Plots can veer off into parts unknown. Characters want to behave in unexpected ways. The theme you start with doesn’t match the theme you end up writing about-what the story was really about, but you didn’t know it in the beginning.
Accept that the process will be gradual and full of failures or setbacks that will teach you about storytelling. You don’t have to do it all now–and you never have to do it perfectly.
Last, you must say “yes” to the dream. Are you willing to take some risks? Are you willing to shift things around in your life so that the creation of your novel or play is possible? Can you let go of some of your volunteer work or hobbies or even paid writing in order to pursue your dream? Yes, it’s a gamble. Most things in life worth having are.
Are you willing to aim really high–without guarantees that it will all pay off in the end? Are you willing to grow and learn and be stretched? To do so, you must say “yes” to the dream.
The work. The process. The dream.
Think about each separate part of the writing commitment. And when you’re ready, say a whole-hearted, no holds barred, no looking back, unequivocal YES!
April 27, 2011
Time for links to great articles on the web! You’ll enjoy them–and learn a lot besides!
6 Common Plot Fixes: Concerned you may have some plot problems? Don’t worry. Here are six easy ways to adjust your manuscript to keep your plot from feeling forced or unnatural.
Where to Find Free Images to Use on Your Blog: It’s extremely common for bloggers to reuse images from all over the Web, thinking the images are fair game. But are they? Find out how to get the images you want without (illegally) stepping on any toes.
7 Myths About Feedback: If you’re timid about feedback—toxic or otherwise—the time has come to see feedback for what it really is: an invaluable resource that can inform and energize your creative process from the first draft to the last line edit.
DropBox: Want a place to put all your information and photos from phones, laptops, Macs, PCs, and all your electronic devices? Put it in DropBox, and it will update to all your devices automatically. No more need to transfer files. It’s a free download.
April 25, 2011
After returning from a writers’ conference a couple years ago, I had so many notes and hand-outs and worksheets dealing with marketing that I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start. My brain froze.
Oh no! Marketing block!
Too Much of a Good Thing
Has this ever happened to you? I had collected terrific ideas on branding, making book trailers, blogging, writing a newsletter, collecting addresses, multiple ways to reach your publisher’s sales force with material that would actually help them sell your books, tips on upping sales on Amazon.com, making e-books, and much more.
As I sorted through the material when I got home, I could feel my blood pressure rising. Where to begin? How to prioritize? How to do it all on a shoestring budget (and a short shoestring at that)? And where would I find the time?
I developed marketing ADHD. When I was setting up my second website for an upcoming series, I remembered that I needed to register another domain name, so I did that. I decided then to submit an article to a writer’s website, which reminded me to convert a manuscript into an e-book to sell.
Flipping through notebooks and scribbled pages for the information, I wanted to burn it all instead. I didn’t sign up for this! All I ever wanted to do was sit in a quiet room and make up stories and write them down. That’s all.
Instead, to add to writer’s block, I had marketing block.
I think I found an answer. It’s a two-pronged approach using scheduling and organization.
I bought a three-ring binder and dividers with eight colored tabs, and labeled the tabs according to the types of marketing I needed to do. I have tabs for “website work” and “blog work” and “Amazon.com” and “sales and marketing” and “social networking” and “selling online.” In the front of each section is a “to do” list for that topic, followed by the “how-to” information I need to do it.
The other prong–scheduling–comes into play on my daily/weekly calendar. I have a couple hours at the end of the day when my brain is tired. I blocked off that time for marketing. At the beginning of the week, I read each “to do” list in the marketing binder and decide what is most pressing, then prioritize it and write it on my daily calendar.
As I organized and scheduled various short tasks, I could feel the marketing block melting away. I would work on each project a bit at a time, in a regular manner.
To be honest, I’d rather not have to market. I’d rather be writing all day long. But expectations of authors have changed, and in the end, it may be a good change. Writers have griped for decades about having no control over how much time and energy is being spent marketing their books. Through personal marketing in a variety of venues, we can now make a difference.
And–using my “inch-by-inch-it’s-a-cinch” method–we can do it without driving ourselves nuts.
April 22, 2011
For a long time (for many years, in fact), you can “write what you know” without running out of material or repeating yourself. Many of your deepest themes and best material will grow out of your own experiences.
However, don’t overlook the world around you for new ideas–or just new twists and subplots for your writing.
Reaching the World
The world outside your own experience can give your writing the freshness it needs to stand out. It can also provide you with new angles on old topics.
While it’s lovely to be able to travel widely, many of us have neither the time nor the resources to do so. Most of my traveling has been of the “armchair” variety–through books, PBS specials, video cams set up around the world, and websites. All these are helpful. Here are a few more ways to be inspired by the world happening around you.
In the News
I’m afraid I’m guilty of having never read a newspaper front to back (or back to front, for that matter.) World news and events rarely make sense to me unless they’re explained by someone in simple sentences. However, if I skip the front pages and go to the opinion pages and lesser known human interest stories, there’s a wealth of story ideas to be found.
Often you can put two stories or two headlines together and free associate a bit–creating a whole new and creative idea. (NOTE: I find that small town newspapers are sometimes the best. They cover stories that aren’t “big” enough for major papers, but they give terrific details that bring things to life.)
Another suggestion I read somewhere was to pay attention to what is going on in your neighborhood (or apartment complex). Pay attention to community events’ calendars. Watch and listen to others on your commute or in the booth behind you at McDonalds. Truth is still stranger than fiction–and often just what you needed to spice up your story.
If you’re like me, your “fun reading” time is spent mostly on fiction. I do read quite a bit of nonfiction dealing with writing or families, but very little on subjects like history, economics, art, or the sciences. Exploring various subjects–looking at something through the eyes of a historical event or unusual health issue–can prompt many story ideas, subplots, and unique characters. You can find this kind of nonfiction information by exploring out in “the real world” or online.
Exploring the lives of other artists can prompt your creative muse as well. As writers, we sometimes need to enjoy other types of art, even if we don’t understand much of it. (I usually don’t.) But there’s something about wandering through an art gallery, studying the paintings that touch you or sculptures that capture your imagination, that stirs a writer’s sleeping muse. A crafts fair, an antique mall, a botanical museum–each can be a source of new ideas.
When you feel dry, where do you go for inspiration?
April 20, 2011
Two weeks ago my daughter had emergency surgery (appendix), so for two weeks couldn’t lift anything as heavy as her five-month-old daughter. Therefore I’ve had a chance to be with them most of each day, helping with the daily routines that start so early with a baby.
In the past, when babysitting a few hours or a day, I just let the writing go because it was such a short time. This time I had some deadlines to meet, so it wasn’t long before the old “write in short bits while the baby sleeps” habit kicked in. That worked the first week.
Brain Dead–or Just Asleep
But fatigue set in the second week–not so much physical fatigue, but mental fatigue. I noticed that when I sat down to work during naptimes that my mind wasn’t “kicking in” like it should. Some of the naps were short, so my mind was just starting to work when the nap was over.
I needed some jumpstarting activities, something to make my brain realize immediately that “now it’s time to write!” If Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, surely I could learn to write on command.
Rituals and Routines
I’ve always loved reading about other writers’ rituals, the things they do to “prime the pump” for writing. I never felt much need–nor wanted to use the writing time–to do much of that myself. I tried a few times, but the writing exercises would take me 30-60 minutes and the morning pages took me an hour. (I consider myself a pretty fast writer, but most of the things that “only take 10-15 minutes” take me considerably longer–including these blog posts.)
What I needed, I realized, was something short and along the lines of the ringing bell for Pavlov’s dogs. I needed something to trigger an automatic writing response–and it needed to be something I could do at my daughter’s house.
If your writing time is short–and you need to get started quickly–here are some rituals and routines that other writers have used:
- Light a special lamp or candle
- Put on a particular kind of music that works for you (Lyrics? Instrumental?)
- Prayer, meditation and/or affirmations for writers
- Hot tea or hot chocolate
- Eat a banana or apple or something healthy
- A short walk–ten minutes or so
- Stack dishwasher, pick up house (some writers do this for their jumpstart, but it doesn’t appeal to me!)
Again, I needed short things to do. The danger is always that the ritual takes over your whole writing time. If you have all day to write, that’s a different ball game. You can take a whole hour to get started, if you want to.
Make a List
It’s a good idea to have a number of rituals to choose from too. “Create as many practices as you can, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” says Vinita Hampton Wright in The Soul Tells a Story. “Their effectiveness will vary. When one thing doesn’t help so much, go to something else…adapting practices according to the season of the year.”
This makes sense to me. While in the winter, a good cup of hot chocolate is perfect, during hot Texas summers, it’s about the last thing you want. I think a written list posted near my writing space would be a good idea too. I might have a whole list of rituals to choose from, but so often when I try to think, they all escape me.
If you want to read more about the power of these little habits, see “How Mundane Routines Produce Creative Magic.”
What About You?
I would love to know about other ways to jumpstart your writing times. What quick, easy, and cheap ideas do you use? I’d be eager to hear!
April 18, 2011
Creativity is a mysterious concept to most of us. We don’t really understand what it is, where it comes from, why it leaves us, and how to make it “work” consistently. We give it a lot of power because of this.
However, says the author of The Soul Tells a Story, “if I know from experience that inspiration arrives under certain conditions, I will make sure to re-create the conditions that invited it initially. Thus my early experience comes to determine how it is I will work.”
After our vacation took an unexpected turn, I’ve had more time to reflect this week than the past five years combined. For four blissful days, I had no Internet connection, nowhere we had to be, plenty of books to read, places to walk, and time to think. I hadn’t really realized what an incredible luxury this is in the fast-paced world in which we live.
How Things Have Changed…
Because of marketing demands the last five years–both online and elsewhere–the writing life has been a bit frantic. I don’t know about you, but frenetic activity is not conducive to coaxing out my creativity. That much I already knew. But I hadn’t given much concentrated thought to what things did work for me.
Each writer is different. I know writers who must be surrounded by noise and people or loud music in order to write. I am just the opposite, preferring quiet and solitude when I can get it.
If you’re not sure what conditions are best for you, think back to when you started writing. How did you work best then? What conditions did you just naturally create for yourself? What are the non-negotiables you must have for your creativity to flourish?
Take a Self-Inventory
Here are some things to consider:
- Before writing, do you need some quiet time to think, meditate, or pray?
- Can you write at any time of day–or only at certain times?
- Can you write any place–or do you need your “office” to be the same each day?
- Can you write in tiny bits of time–or does your creativity absolutely require large chunks of time? Does it vary depending on the stage of your book?
- How much socializing do you need in order to be your most creative? (This includes time with writers and non-writers alike, time to “talk shop” and time to just have fun.)
- When you are stuck, does it help to read a book on craft (viewpoint, research, inspiration, etc.) to get your creativity flowing again?
- Does reading other writers’ books help you be more creative–or does it make you feel anxious as you compare yourself to them?
- Do you need a healthier diet or more sleep for your creativity to be at its peak? Or do you work best on short naps and skipping meals?
- What kind of critique at what point in your project is helpful? What kind is the kiss of death to your creativity? (When is your ego more fragile?)
- Do you work best with a deadline, or do deadlines make you freeze up? Do you do well with six-month deadlines but choke on series deadlines set every two months?
- Can you be creative when dealing with emotional upset? Do you need to solve family problems before you can settle down to write?
Take Time to Know Yourself
As we’ve said before, just because conditions aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. We’ve all had to produce work under some appalling conditions. But if you have a choice, it’s lovely to set up your life and home and schedule and diet and social life so that it most benefits YOU and your creativity. (And you probably have more choices than you think.)
Take time to answer the above questions. If you’ve been writing a long time, you may have forgotten what conditions kick started your writing in the first place.
I started writing when my oldest three kids were babies and toddlers. We had a farm in Iowa, lots of pets, big vegetable gardens, no Internet, few neighbors, lots of room inside the farmhouse and outside, lots of quiet and fresh air. It can’t have been as ideal as my memory makes it out to be, but it was very conducive to thinking and pondering and reading and writing.
It also bears almost no resemblance to my life today–although I’m planning and plotting ways to bring back some of those elements into my daily life. I loved having my children around me. I’m happiest now when I’ve had plenty of contact with my three grandchildren. I loved living in the country then; now we live in town, but next door to a park and greenbelt, so it is much the same if I just got outside more and enjoyed the fresh air. I’d like to have a vegetable garden again, but I’ll skip the pets.
The biggest change I see is having the Internet. I’m an introvert–preferring solitude and quiet when it’s time to write. Being online for any length of time is agitating to me, for some odd reason (even though I view very benign websites!) Afterwards, I find it hard to settle down and write.
I’ve been staying offline until noon recently, and it’s been helpful. After having five days of “no Internet access” on this trip and seeing how much more creative and productive I’ve been, I’m thinking of pushing back the Internet time to 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. only. [This isn't some rule I'm advocating for all of you. This is just a case of getting to know myself--what helps me and what hinders my own creativity.]
I’ve also noticed how much better I’m sleeping. Being offline in the evenings is a big help there too. It’s so tempting to deal with email while watching TV in the evening, or check the blog comments, or see what the kids have posted to Facebook (usually grandkid pictures).
But when I get home, I think I’ll make the Internet off limits after 5 p.m. and see if I sleep better there too. I may have to close the door to my office and pretend that I punched out on a time clock. Most people who work at home have trouble quitting at supper time and not going back to the office at night. It’s a habit I’m going to try hard to break.
Now It’s Your Turn
What about you? What things do you suspect would help you coax your creativity out of hiding on a more regular basis? What changes are the hardest to make? What one change could you make today?
April 15, 2011
Excitement gets us started on a novel. Enthusiasm rekindles (usually) near the finish as momentum picks up and we see the end in sight.
But what about the miserable middle? What about that time where you feel like you’re on a treadmill that’s not moving any closer to the finish line?
[Point of clarity: I don't mean when you write the middle chapters of a novel. I'm talking about getting through the middle months (or years) of writing a novel. The beginning part is where you write your rough draft. The ending is where you polish and proofread and submit it.]
The middle is everything else–and it’s a lot of work!
Characteristics of the Middle
The middle is where the rubber meets the road, in my opinion. Pretty much everyone can write a rough draft of a novel. If you join NaNoWriMo, you can accomplish that rough draft in a month or less. Likewise, pretty much everyone can proofread and tweak a nearly finished novel. It’s nitpicky (and a bit boring sometimes), but not that hard.
But the middle months? This is where your craft (or lack thereof) shows. The middle months of revising can be depressing as you read your rough draft. Mine always stink–and every time they stink far worse than I am expecting. I’m not sure why I’m still surprised, except maybe I dreamed that one day my rough drafts wouldn’t be so…well…rough.
What Have I Done?
The middle can also be depressing–or maybe overwhelming is a better word–because you can’t see the end. You may have started the novel with a clear idea of where it was going to go, but either (1) it took off in another direction that you now question, or (2) it followed your outline and now you don’t like how it turned out. You’ve lost the thrill of writing a rough draft or just the thrill of the original idea. Now it looks like one big mess.
Many writers quit during the middle months. It’s a time when you learn what you don’t know. (“I can’t write dialogue that sounds like real people!” “I can’t figure out what’s wrong with this opening or where to put the backstory!” “I don’t know how much research to do for my historical novel.”) When the amount of work that is needed looks overwhelming, many writers scrap that project and begin (with excitement) something new.
Is there anything wrong with that? Not really–as long as you realize that this new project will also have a middle to get through. And if you don’t get through middles, you’ll never get to the end–and be published.
On vacation I was able to finish reading The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright. Here was one of her suggestions for the difficult middle:
“Creative work is multifaceted enough that it’s possible to find rest within it by shifting tasks. Maybe I can’t face the really right-brained creative work today, so this is a perfect time to go back to another section and do some rigorous editing. Switching back and forth between various tasks is perfectly fine for that long middle phase.”
I found this to be great advice on our trip.
Put It Into Practice
I took along my novel to work on if there was time, and thanks to the flight delays, there was. We had to sit in airports for hours–which I don’t mind at all now that I don’t travel with small children. When it was noisy or I was distracted, I worked on a bit of the setting, adding details from my research and from some new brochures I picked up.
When I had a couple of uninterrupted hours (e.g. husband returning the rental car), I had the quiet room to myself and buckled down to do some more intensive “internal work” on the heroine. Since I have a single-spaced six-page list of revision changes to make, I have plenty of big and little jobs to choose from. There’s always something that looks doable and appealing.
The long middles used to feel overwhelming to me. Occasionally they still do when a novel is giving me fits. For the most part, though, I enjoy the variety of the middle. You get to deepen characters, paint detailed settings, etc. which is much more fun to me than checking for misplaced commas.
How do you feel about the middle of projects? And has it changed over the years?
April 13, 2011
I’m going to reveal my age here–I was born the same year as John-Boy Walton. I loved the Walton family, I own all ten seasons of their show, all the specials, and a few books about them.
So when our plane was overbooked and we didn’t get on our overseas flight, we drove from Baltimore to Norfolk, VA, to catch a plane flying out of the Naval Base there. We had four days to relax and read. I was looking at a map of Virginia when suddenly the words “Walton’s Mountain Museum” leaped out at me.
Forty Years Ago!
There it was! Right in the Blue Ridge Mountains, very near Rockfish. The Museum was in Schuyler, the small town where Earl Hamner, Jr. (creator of the Waltons) grew up. The drive took longer than expected, and we very nearly didn’t get there on time to see the 30-minute video before going through the museum. I was entranced, enthralled…
This was my favorite family during their ten-year run on TV. They were considered a goody-goody kind of show. When they were put on the air in September (’73, I think), they were in the same time slot as Flip Wilson’s comedy show and “The Mod Squad.” Earl Hamner said they didn’t think the series had a prayer against those two popular shows–but by Christmas just three months later, “The Waltons” was #1. They remained popular for ten years.
Write What You Know
I always love to see the homes of writers. The Hamner home on a steep hillside (above) was modest for a family that included eight children. The country store sits on the spot where Earl Hamner, Jr. had a writing shed. The church they attended was just around the corner on the country road. We passed several logging trucks and loggers at work as we neared Schuyler–everything very “Walton.”
Whether you loved the Waltons or not, as writers it’s worth thinking about its popularity at a time that everything was “mod” and becoming irreverent. Earl Hamner, Jr. tapped into something that spoke to people. First his books, and then the shows made from his books. How did he do it? He followed the advice of “write what you know.”
Writing That Connects
He studied people–and what made them tick. He knew specific details: the birds, the trees, the wildflowers on the mountain.
He observed dynamics between people and got to the heart of what made a common man heroic. He wrote and rewrote and rewrote some more.
Hamner is 88 now and lives in California, but you can still buy his autographed books at his boyhood home.
I left the mountain inspired.
[Leave a comment if you were/are a Walton's fan!]
April 11, 2011
“Crazymakers like drama,” says Julia Cameron in her classic book for writers, The Artist’s Way. “If they can swing it, they [the crazymakers] are the star. Everyone around them functions as supporting cast, picking up their cues, their entrances and exits, from the crazymaker’s (crazy) whims.”
You may have a quiet weekend of reading and writing planned, but then voila! A crazymaker shows up. It might be someone you thought was banned from your life for good. It might be someone no one else suspects is your crazymaker. They might rage and scream–or knife you in the back while smiling in the traditional passive-aggressive style.
“Whether they appear as your overbearing mother, your manic boss, your needy friend, or your stubborn spouse,” says Cameron, “the crazymakers in your life share certain destructive patterns that make them poisonous for any sustained creative work.”
Enough is Enough
Sometimes you get blind-sided by crazymaking behavior. It can be shocking and look ludicrous. It turns your schedule upside down, destroys any plans you might have, nearly always costs you time and/or money, is draining with its drama, and–if they’re really good–the crazymaker can blame you for the whole problem they created.
I’ve had more than my share of crazymakers to deal with in life. (I suppose everyone feels like that!) Anyway, it happened to me again recently, and I was tickled by my reaction. I recognized the game, called a spade a spade, and was astounded to see the problem go away. It didn’t cost me any sleep, and the crazymaker found someone else to harrass.
A Dance by Any Other Name…
Julia Cameron always said, “If you are involved in a tortured tango with a crazymaker, stop dancing to his/her tune.” Yes, that’s easier said than done–but it CAN be done! I was thrilled to see that if I stepped back and didn’t play the game, it stopped. And beyond that, I got some writing done!
Maybe there are some nut cases in your own life that need to be banished for the sake of your creativity. If so, deal with it as soon as possible. You’ll be soooo glad you did!
April 8, 2011
We don’t like to talk about quitting or giving up on our dreams. But let’s be honest. Will every wannabe writer eventually land big contracts, snag a well-known NY agent, and be sent on ten-city book tours? No.
Maybe your dreams are more modest, but you’ve worked at breaking into publishing for years. Should you continue the struggle? For how long? How do you know when to quit?
Asking the Wrong Question
I came across an excellent discussion from a blog post that is several years old, but the advice is timeless. Called “When to Quit,” it’s a lengthy article by Scott Young on this subject. I hope you’ll read it to the end.
One factor the article said to consider was how you feel on a day-to-day basis as you pursue your dream. How is the process affecting your life, your character, your growth? “So if you are pursuing your dream and you don’t think you are going to make it, the question of whether or not to quit doesn’t depend on your chance of success. The real question is whether pursuing this dream is causing you to grow. Does this path fill you with passion and enthusiasm? Do you feel alive?”
You may not agree with all his views, but I guarantee that the article will make you think–even if you have no intention of quitting. It might lead you to make a course correction however. And it will make you evaluate why you’re pursuing your particular dream–and that’s always a good thing!
If you have a minute, give me your reactions to the ideas in his article.Newer Posts »