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February 29, 2012
I found some blog posts by agents and former agents that will lower your blood pressure, reduce your writing anxiety, make you more optimistic–and maybe even make you laugh.
We are bombarded with the bad news about publishing to the point that some days we want to throw up our hands in despair, acknowledge that the future of books is dead, and apply for a job at the nearest fast food chain. Well, don’t do that just yet.
By the time you read these articles, I guarantee a lift in your writing spirits.
To start you off right, read agent Wendy Lawton’s trio of anxiety-reducing articles. You’ll love them!
Now that you’re more relaxed about all aspects of your writing, read Rachelle Gardner’s “6 Reasons for Writers to be Optimistic.”
And to end your reading with a chuckle, read Nathan Bradford’s “Why Are So Many Literary Writers Technophobic?”
February 22, 2012
I’ve said it to myself often enough. Students over the years have said that to me countless times. That fear of failure often happens when it is time to set goals or start a new project.
“It is wise to make a plan,” says creativity coach, Eric Maisel, author of Coaching the Artist Within. “However, since we make so many resolutions and break them, set so many goals and fall short of realizing them, and create so many plans without following through on them, we become reluctant to plan. We prefer not to plan so as not to disappoint ourselves one more time.”
I’m at that point this week, looking at two novels I worked on last year that I simply couldn’t make “work.” I started them over several times, trying different angles, but no luck. I still like the ideas a lot, but I find myself leery of making one more stab at them. I’m afraid of wasting my writing time and having nothing to show for it. I’m more than leery. I’m stuck.
One of Maisel’s solutions is to make a simple plan. He says to leave out the complexities that just make things harder. His idea of a simple plan is: I will try to write every day. (No rules or details, no set number of pages, no word count, etc.) Or even better, I plan to write today. But is that enough? Not for me.
A Simple Plan
A simple plan is well and good, but getting started is still the hardest part (for me anyway) when facing a project where fear of failure is high. (It doesn’t have to be writing the Great American Novel either. It can simply be a project I’ve “failed” on before.)
We want to change an action here—get started and keep going. It’s often not as simple as “just do it!” though. We have to back up and change the fearful emotion that drives the writer’s block and procrastination. And to do that we have to back up and change the thought that creates the emotion.
Sometimes changing your thoughts is enough to get you going. But repeating “thoughts” or “affirmations” that some articles suggest (like “I am the country’s best writer, and agents are fighting to represent me”) are just absurd to me. My brain, anyway, kicks something like that right back out. I simply don’t believe it. If I did, I wouldn’t be stuck.
What’s the Answer?
We need to back up one additional step. Your automatic thoughts come from your beliefs about yourself as a writer. The beliefs need to change before you will think healthy thoughts, that flow into healthy writing emotions, and then produce good actions (writing). I think beliefs need to be true, though, for them to be of immediate use to you.
If you are believing a pack of lies (like “I’ll never write any better” and “You have to know someone in publishing to sell a novel”) then start with the lies you are believing and replace them with truth. One good source for this is another of Maisel’s books, Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead).
Facing a blank page or facing a revision can cause fear. We may not know what to do, or we may know what needs to be done, yet fear that we don’t have the skill to pull it off. When facing something fearful, the thoughts that automatically spring forth have to do with what we believe about staying safe and getting our needs met.
As I look at the novels I want to tackle again this year, the automatic thoughts that spring to mind include: “I’ve already wasted months of writing time on these novels, so why waste more?” and “I need to be doing work-for-hire projects instead and make money during my writing time” and “I don’t want to spend months on something just to fail again” and “I’ll never get this novel done” and “This project is above my skill level, and I’ll never be that good.”
All those thoughts have to do with staying safe (I don’t want to fail again) and getting needs met (income from writing and feeling like the writing will matter.)
Writer’s Block Smashed: Replace Lies with Truth
Last week I made a long list of truths to replace my automatic thoughts (those “lies in disguise.”) Some of them are faith-based which wouldn’t maybe apply to everyone. But some of them apply to all writers. (I’ll list a few below.) Just the act of writing down these truths and re-reading them before my writing time in the morning is already changing my ability to tackle the first novel.
My fifty or so new truths include:
- I can have my novel written in a year. (vs. “I’ll never get this novel done.”)
- Writing is at the top of my To-Do list. (vs. “I’m too busy to write.”)
- I learn to write better by writing, and daily if possible. (vs. “I’ll never be good enough to write this book.”)
- Since I want to increase my output, I’m going to institute a new writing routine. (vs. “People make too many demands so I never have time to write.”)
- I can write anywhere and under any conditions. (vs. “I can’t write unless I have hours of quiet time alone.”)
- I don’t need to read another book on writing first—I need to write! (vs. “There must be a magic key out there, and I’ll keep buying writing books until I find it.”)
As I’ve said countless times here, and in both Writer’s First Aid and the new More Writer’s First Aid, we’re all in this together. Writers have always dealt with these issues. But instead of feeling the fear and inadequacy (and then buying a box of Krispie Kremes and turning on the TV), take the time to figure out what lies you are believing about your writing.
Replace them with truth—and see how that changes your emotions and subsequent action. You’ll write more. You’ll write better. You’ll enjoy your daily writing time. Publication will most likely eventually follow, but it will become less important than your daily experience of enjoying the writing.
Just for reference, here are the Eric Maisel books on my own writing shelf that I have found very helpful over the years:
- Fearless Creating
- Deep Writing
- Write Mind
- Coaching the Artist Within
- Living the Writer’s Life
- Affirmations for Artists
- Creativity for Life
- A Life in the Arts
February 15, 2012
“A writer must feel comfortable expressing herself in words, letting them flow before critiquing them or subjecting them to examination,” say Linda Metcalf and Tobin Simon in Writing the Mind Alive. “Many people who have an ambition to write are held back at the starting gate by some form of this [cognophobia] condition.”
Judgments From Within
Is silencing those premature judgments a problem for you? Do you sit frozen at the keyboard, considering and then tossing out ideas and sentences that sound “dumb” or “trite” or ”silly” or void of any literary content at all?
I do it–every time I try something new or try to write on a more difficult level or subject. Like this month.
I took a work-for-hire assignment a couple of weeks ago that is giving me fits. It’s for an age group new to me, and it’s a form of writing I’ve never tried before. After my first effort, the editor very kindly asked me to go back to the drawing board and try again. (He was right to ask.) If I don’t snatch myself bald before I’m done, it will be a miracle.
Advice from the Greats
Help came from an unexpected source today. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading and loving The Literary Ladies: Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas. This morning I remembered some advice from the literary greats that helped me–and might help you too.
We are blessed to have so much written correspondence from writers of the past. I hate to think of all the wonderful material that would have been lost if famous authors e-mailed and texted back then. These quotes particularly struck a chord with me.
Edna Ferber blamed writer’s block on “trying to write better than you can.” Anna Quindlen agreed: “People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.”
In It Together
Even Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind had this trouble. She said, ”I had believed that established writers, writers who really knew how to write, had no dificulty at all in writing. I had thought that only luckless beginners like myself had to rewrite endlessly, tear up and throw away whole chapters, start afresh, rewrite and throw away again. I knew nothing about other writers and their working habits, and I thought I was the only writer in the world who went through such goings-on.”
But that was Margaret Mitchell on writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. What about the rest of us? While none of us may be hoping for a Pulitzer, we are hoping for a book contract, an agent, good reviews, and good sales of our children’s writing.
What’s the Answer?
Nava Atlas in The Literary Ladies says the blocked state is a “self-consciousness that causes you to seize up and shut down… the answer to this is to be where you are with your writing, and not try to write as the Pulitzer Prize-winning fantasy version of yourself. There’s no way to reach soaring heights without taking all the tiny steps to get there.”
And we all have some kind of fantasy writer version that we aspire to. You may not be conscious of it, but you do. Usually it’s helpful, but when that fantasy version of ourselves becomes an inner critic, you have trouble. This judge can kill your words before they ever reach the light of day.
How can we keep this from happening? Anais Nin said this about her own writing: ”The only reason I finally was able to say exactly what I felt was because, like a pianist practicing, I wrote every day. There was no more than that.” She didn’t study writing or go to conferences or take classes. She simply sat down and wrote about her experiences at the end of every day, without fail. She is most famous for her published diaries too.
Our Own Worst Enemies
Perhaps we make things too difficult for ourselves. Maybe our self-induced cognophobia that could be eliminated if we lowered our expectations.
I know that Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life advocates writing sh*^#@ rough drafts instead of holding yourself up to such high inner standards. As one literary lady suggested, we need to stop despairing of writing eloquently–and just write instead. Get the words down, no matter how bad they may sound. The Pulitzer-type writing (no matter who you are) comes in the rewriting.
With that in mind, I return to the work-for-hire project. Like the Literary Ladies of old, I will be content today with just getting some words down.
How about you? Is there a piece of writing that is stopping you cold because you don’t yet write as well as you want to? Would you benefit from the advice of these Literary Ladies?
February 8, 2012
I recently bought The Literary Ladies: Guide to the Writing Life by Nava Atlas. Its subtitle says it is “inspiration and advice from celebrated women authors who paved the way.”
One of my favorite quotes is from the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. She said:
“My methods of work are very simple and soon told. My head is my study, & there I keep the various plans of stories for years sometimes, letting them grow as they will till I am ready to put them on paper. … While a story is under way I lie in it, see the people, more plainly than the real ones, round me, hear them talk, & am much interested, surprised, or provoked at their actions.” –from a letter to a journalist in 1887
Your Portable Study
During the writing of my first ten or eleven novels, I always had from one to four babies, toddlers, and preschoolers underfoot. I desperately loved writing fiction, and I longed for the day when I could sit down at the typewriter, take a deep breath, close my eyes in solitude, and think about what I wanted to say.
However, with small children, you have to think on the run. My way of creating—like most young moms—was to do a lot of pre-thinking. I worked out plot twists and problems while washing dishes. I thought of titles and character names while folding diapers. I rolled bits of dialogue around in my mind while pushing someone on the swing set or nursing or walking a teething baby. When no immediate demand required my attention, I lived in my head with my characters. As Louisa May Alcott so aptly put it, my head was my study.
I promised myself that this was a temporary way of writing, one I was eager to abandon as soon as I had more time. In actuality, it turned out to be an excellent way to write.
Lost “Head Space”
Babies and toddlers grow up and go to school. Mine did too, and I finally had that time to sit and think at the keyboard (a computer by that time). I quickly decided that I must have undiagnosed ADHD or something. I couldn’t sit still and think.
For the first time in my eight years of writing, I experienced the dreaded writer’s block I had read about in my writing magazines. So this is what they were talking about! It was truly awful, and no matter what suggestions I tried, nothing seemed to work. Often I would give up and go do some chores that waited or start editing assignments (I was teaching by then).
I was aggravated with myself that I wasn’t writing more and enjoying it more. For years, I had dreamed of the day I’d have peace and quiet to write. Now that it was here, I was stuck more often than not. But with student assignments to mark, there was no time to waste just sitting and staring at a blank screen. I needed to be productive with all the time I had while the kids were at school.
I didn’t realize at the time that I had lost the ability to have “head space,” as my writing friend calls it. “Head space” is that inner solitude where you go and ruminate on a story. It’s where you live in your head with your created story creatures, be they human or fantasy characters. It’s not a rushed place—you don’t hurry in, think a minute, then rush out. You live there for a while.
Lost in the Desert
I didn’t just lose “my head is my study” ability for a short time. I lost it for years—close to twenty years, by my estimation. Oh, I still wrote and published a lot during that time…but the novels were no longer the kind that reached down deep inside me and pulled out the “good stuff.” (We all know what that feels like when we strike writing gold.)
I also wrote a lot of nonfiction during that time—all books I’m proud of—but nonfiction (for me, at least) doesn’t require head space. It’s more like writing term papers: just sit down and do it.
However, last week I made the happy discovery that sometime in the last couple months, I have regained that ability to dwell in my own head space. This will sound silly, probably, but I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning the first time it happened. I remembered that lovely feeling! And it came out of the blue.
When it happened a second time, and then a third time, I started paying attention to what was causing (or allowing) it. Each time I was pushing my one-year-old granddaughter in a stroller or in her swing in the back yard. The walks in the afternoon are up to an hour, and the swing time can last twenty minutes or more.
I realized that ideas were popping in my head. The voice of a character I had been struggling to “hear” suddenly started talking to me. She was real, and I knew her. The first time it happened, I held my breath, afraid she would disappear as suddenly as she’d surfaced. After it kept happening, I relaxed and blessed the unexpected side benefits of unrushed routine tasks.
L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books and Emily of New Moon, called this “dwelling in head space” process “brooding up.” It’s a way to juggle duty with a writing schedule, a way to think out plots and characters while attending to your job and motherhood. And Agatha Christie is famous for saying that her best time to plan a book was while doing the dishes.
“For anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of long hours to spend at the writing desk,” says Atlas in The Literary Ladies, “it’s comforting to know that your head can serve as your study…and that you can carry this portable work space wherever you go.”
Yes, it’s a great comfort to me. Is it to you?
February 1, 2012
Below you’ll find eight articles plus an announcement about an upcoming class on plotting. (The class has an early bird discount in effect until Feb. 15.) The eight articles include *time-saving tips, *information on finding an agent or editor without irritating her first, *tips on using journals to jumpstart and further your writing career, plus *warnings about hoaxes and scams.
For Your Reading Pleasure
The Single Most Important Action to Take to Grow Your Career on a Regular Basis by Suzanne Lieurance, the Working Writer’s Coach, is a short article with a very smart idea for staying focused in 2012 and achieving the goals you wrote down for the new year. Another practical article by Suzanne is 10 Ways to Find More Time to Write!
How to Get All the Way to Done is a short article with great tips on how to finish the projects you start.
Ten Ways to Irritate an Editor or Agent is both funny and true. The article includes ten things not to SAY and ten things not to DO. Some of the ideas sound far out, but I’ve actually heard of most of them happening.
Even if you’re not looking for an agent–and maybe don’t expect to for a long time–read and copy this list of Questions to Ask an Agent by Chip MacGregor. Some day you’ll wish you had!
Journaling Helps You to Become a Successful Writer and Ten ways journaling can help you to achieve your freelance writing goals by Angela Booth may turn you into a writer who journals, if you don’t already. I don’t journal every day, but I do many times a week. I find it invaluable.
2011: A Writer Beware Retrospective is a look back at some of Writer Beware’s most notable posts and warnings from 2011. The highlighted posts run the gamut from contest and self-publishing scams to agent and publisher hoaxes. Even if you don’t read all the articles listed in this post, skim the titles to make sure you aren’t in the middle of falling for one of the hoaxes right now.
If you have time and want to bring your fiction writing up to a whole new level, here’s a new class to check out. I’ve taken excellent classes from Jordan Rosenfeld and blogged about them before. Her NEW Online Plot Intensive begins March 5 and runs for 8 weeks. Plotting can be an overwhelming process without a good road map. A plot is at its most basic, a character’s journey toward a compelling goal and all that happens along the way. This workshop breaks it down to its crucial elements and provides practical tools for plot construction, one scene at a time. (Jordon is the author of the excellent text Make a Scene.) Jordan will also look at how different kinds of writers need to approach plot differently.