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October 12, 2011
“Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in his famous book The Road Less Traveled. “This … is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it… Once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
I’d like to amend Peck’s quote to say that “the writing life is difficult.” And once that truth is accepted, “the fact that it is difficult no longer matters.”
I imagine we all start out on the writing journey with a fantasy of what the writing life will be like. I know I did thirty years ago–and it’s been a fantasy that I clung to tenaciously for far too many years.
My own fantasy involved uninterrupted hours every day to write (after first journaling and then doing some creative writing exercises to ensure the writing would simply “flow”.) My fantasy included the books selling themselves without my help. I expected to reach a time when I’d never have to write anything without having a (lucrative) contract in hand. I also dreamed of writing by longhand in the fragrant garden of a thatched-roof English cottage. Sad to say, the cottage part was the only thing I recognized as pure fantasy. I figured everything else was just a matter of time.
Fast forward thirty years and forty published books later…
I love my office in Texas, but it’s a far cry from a thatched-roof cottage. And unless you write from Walden’s Pond, I don’t see how anyone manages to have uninterrupted hours every day to write. Juggling my roles as wife, mother, Nana, daughter, sister, friend, writer and ministry leader means fighting for writing time daily. Each role, at one time or another, has meant dealing with loss, conflict, disappointment, and/or illness-big time and energy eaters. And because of the changes within the publishing industry–in large part due to the economy and online social marketing demands–there’s no such thing anymore as an author who doesn’t help market their work.
It No Longer Matters
So where’s the silver lining around this black cloud? Simply this. Clinging to my fantasy life of a writer meant that every time reality intruded, I was disappointed or shocked or disillusioned–and tempted to quit. Lots of angst and wasted energy. As long as I was convinced that the writing life could be simple and require little work, I was irritated with reality. I made silent demands that this imperfect writing life go away!
- Truth #1: The writing life will always be difficult.
- Truth #2: It doesn’t really matter.
- Truth #3: All things worth having (family, good health, writing life) are difficult sometimes.
- Truth #4: We can do difficult things!
Don’t miss the key point of the blog today. This is not a “downer” message. It’s a truth message–which will set you free. For me, it’s like having kids. Raising a family was the most difficult, time-consuming, challenging thing I’ve done in the last thirty-five years. It has also been the most rewarding, most fun, most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. It’s the same with the writing life. It’s been difficult, but I can’t imagine a career more rewarding than this. After many years, it does get easier--but I would never say it’s easy.
It’s okay to give up the fantasy that someday your writing life will be easy and smooth and not require you to grow or struggle anymore. You really don’t need the fantasy to keep you moving forward. “The fact that it is difficult no longer matters.”
That being the case, what fantasy about the writing life do you suspect you need to let go of?
May 18, 2011
I heard a sermon recently about life being filled with “fillers” and “drainers.” The pastor was talking about people, of course.
Fillers are people who know how to encourage you and build you up. Drainers are in your life because they need encouragement and help; however, they don’t have time for you if you need something in return. (You know the type. They think a “give and take” relationship means, “You give, and I take.”)
A rare person is both a filler and a drainer in your life, and you’re blessed if you have a person or two like that in your family or circle of friends.
If we narrow the “fillers and drainers” idea down to writers, I think you will find the idea holds true there as well. You will meet filler writers who are great encouragers for you, who help keep your self-esteem intact through the tough times of rejection, writer’s block, poor sales and negative reviews.
And you’ll meet drainer writers, those who nail you in the restroom at the writer’s conference and want you to give a free critique, then introduce them to your agent or editor.
Occasionally you will meet a treasure: a writer who is both filler and drainer. When you do, treat this priceless person well, and do all you can to sustain the relationship(s).
It’s Your Choice
What kind of writer are you? You may not know other writers yet, so you might not be sure. But you’ll eventually meet writers at conferences, retreats, local writer gatherings or book store signings and readings. In the writing relationships you enter, strive to be a filler as well as a drainer.
If you’re unpublished or newly published, you might think you have nothing to offer. Not true! You don’t have to be published to be an encourager, an uplifter, or a good listening ear. Publishing advice isn’t the only thing other writers need. In fact, I would guess (from my experience) that it’s not even near the top of the list. (That’s why my blog is focused on the emotional issues of writing rather than how to plot or build characters or write a winning query.)
Do a Self-Check
After you attend your next writing event (large or small) ask yourself: “Was I filler or a drainer today?” Did you make encouraging comments as well as ask for help? Did you give as well as take? If you can find that kind of balance, you’ll be able to build writing relationships that will last a lifetime.
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.
November 1, 2010
I know that for a writing blog I should write about “show, don’t tell,” but today I’m going to digress and do “show and tell” instead.
When I started writing thirty years ago by taking the ICL writing course, I had a newborn, a two-year-old and a five-year-old. I found that babies and bylines could mix.
Last week I discovered that principle all over again with the arrival of my youngest granddaughter.
I want you to meet Elayna Joy, who was born last Tuesday night. I got to hold her when she was about an hour old. I’m blessed to have this baby living just a ten-minute walk away!
In the Blink of an Eye
I almost never post personal notes, but I have permission from Elayna’s parents (Jacqui and Michael) to post some photos. And I want to take this time to say that, although babies and bylines can mix, babies grow up fast. You barely blink and they’re crawling, walking, running, and off to school. Hold them while you can. I plan to!
I’ve had hundreds of students over the years who were young moms and dads trying to balance their writing and children. I never made children and writing an either/or situation. I wanted to have both in my life, and both have brought me such great joy.
But as much as I love writing, it was never more important to me than my kids. And it’s not more important than my grandchildren either.
So today’s post is short–I’m off to rock my granddaughter!
August 25, 2010
Because pessimism measures (in part) your ability to keep going and not quit in the face of unpleasant or disappointing circumstances, I didn’t expect the book Learned Optimism to have much to say to me.
My whole life has been about not quitting in the face of severe physical problems, depressing family life issues, and major publishing downturns. It’s been about taking responsibility, learning from things, and moving on.
“I’m no quitter” is as much a part of me as my hair color (under the Preference by L’Oreal) and my brown eyes. Yes, I sometimes took on too much. Yes, my health wasn’t always the best. But I always pressed on even if things looked hopeless.
That should earn me a high score on the book’s lengthy optimism test, right?
This Can’t Be Right!
I was shocked. I called my best friend who had read the book and asked what her score was. She got a 9–meaning very high optimism. I’m not surprised. She’s a great encourager.
I got a 0. (Oh, I got +14 on some good stuff, but a -14 on the bad stuff, effectively cancelling out the positives.) The test and research are based on what author Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. calls your “explanatory style.” It’s how you perceive the reasons behind the good things and bad things that happen to you-and your assumptions about the future.
According to Seligman, “It matters a great deal if your explanatory style is pessimistic. If you scored poorly, there are four areas where you will encounter (and probably already have encountered) trouble.”
He mentioned that you’ll (1) get depressed more easily, (2) achieve less at your career than your talent warrants [listen, writers!], (3) have poorer physical health and an immune system not as good as it should be, and (4) life won’t be as pleasurable as it should be.
The author assures me that there are many ways to change your thinking in all these areas of your life. Evidently my “explanatory style” needs a major revamping. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. It’s very research-heavy in the first half, so I may skip to the chapters on “how to fix it.”
Expect to hear more about this in future weeks! In this time of publishing upheaval and downturns, might you benefit from some “learned optimism” yourself?
August 2, 2010
You meet an editor or agent in an elevator or the banquet line. They turn to you and ask, “What’s your book about? Why are you the person to write it?”
Which One Is You?
Do you give a confident 30-second talk summarizing your book’s main points and why you’re the only one who could do the project justice?
Do you say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m a lousy writer! Who do I think I am anyway, masquerading as a writer? It’s a dumb book idea.”
Of course you don’t spout that second example!
And yet, many writers do that very thing to themselves every day. That evil little voice in your head or over your shoulder whispers, “That’s a stupid idea” or “That’s been done before–and a lot better” or “You’re never going to finish that story.” And like agreeable little twits, we nod and tell ourselves, “This is a dumb idea. I’m never going to finish this. This concept was done last year–and a whole lot better!”
Then, discouraged for another day, we head for the ice cream.
Pitch It to Yourself!
The name “elevator pitch” means a short speech you have ready for that opportune moment when you can market yourself or your book idea to someone that might buy it. Every day–even many times a day–you need to pitch your writing project and yourself TO YOURSELF.
How are you going to sell your story idea to yourself? What elevator pitch can you give to yourself when you’re surprised, not by an agent or editor in the elevator, but by your own nagging questions?
- When “voice in the head” says, “This is just too hard!”
- You say, “I have done many hard things in my life. I can do one more difficult thing.”
- When “voice in the head” says, “There’s too much going on in your life for you to write now”
- You say, “Writing is at the top of my To-Do list because it’s important!”
- When “voice in the head” says, “Editors and agents scare me!”
- You say, “Even when I feel anxious, I can act like a professional.”
- When “voice in the head” says, “I can’t write because I can’t tolerate rejections”
- You say, “NOT writing is the only rejection that matters. It’s a rejection of my dreams. I can write a little each day.”
Write Your Own Now
Take a few moments today and write at least three elevator pitches of your own, counter-acting the voice in your head. Write the pitches on cards and tape them to your computer. When the “voice” badgers you the next time, read one of your cards OUT LOUD. Several times.
And if you’re feeling very brave, add an elevator pitch in the comments section (up to three pitches) that you can begin pitching to yourself today!
July 12, 2010
Most of us start out writing because we feel a yearning, a call, a really strong desire to be a writer.
We have stories inside us burning to be told. We see the world in a slightly different way, and we want to share how we see people and events, all wrapped up in a spell-binding story.
Then What Happens?
Somewhere along the way, I’ve noticed, the calling often becomes a career mindset. It might happen with the first sale, or it might not happen until years into publication. With me, it happened after I’d had two or three novels published by Atheneum. Status became more important than telling a good story.
Warning: this can happen to you too! Be aware of the signs and what can trigger it.
A Common Story
With me, it was financial need. It was the 80s during the farm crisis, and we were in danger of losing our Iowa farm. Suddenly sales were crucial. Advances had to be bigger and bigger. I began to worry more about whether I needed an agent than if my current book was better than the last one. Achieving excellence took a back seat to making money.
I wish I had seen it coming. Getting back to your calling-your love of storytelling-is a lot harder than maintaining it in the first place.
An Agent’s Perspective
Literary agent and author Donald Maass (in The Fire in Fiction) suggests that writers are either those who desire to be published, or those who desire to tell stories. They may start out the same, committed to making it as writer, to being the best storyteller he/she can be. He says that over time a writer’s real motivation will emerge.
Admittedly, I took the ICL course with a hopeful eye of staying home with my children and having a career too. But did that necessarily mean that I had to change from being a storyteller to a status seeker? No, I don’t think so. I think your calling and career can co-exist within you-but only if you guard your writer’s heart carefully.
What needs to stay in the forefront? A pursuit of excellence, for one thing. Keeping the writing fun for another.
What are some signs that you’re moving from a storyteller to a status seeker? Maass gives some insightful signs:
- The majority of status seeker writers seek agents and publication years too soon.
- When rejected by an agent, the status seeker writer immediately offers the agent something else from his desk drawer. (Not something better-just something else.)
- Status seekers grow frustrated with rejections, thinking landing an agent is a matter of luck. Storytellers know that something is missing from their writing and they work on it.
- Status seekers ask how they can just make their stories good enough to sell. A storyteller is more concerned with making his story the very best it can be.
- With a first contract status seekers are very concerned with what they are getting for blurbs, advertising and promotion. Storytellers have a more realistic grasp of retail realities; they promote some, but then get to work on the next book.
- Status seekers go full time too soon, relying on advances for their living. Storytellers keep their day jobs for as long as it takes.
More details are given in his book to distinguish status seekers intent on building a career and storytellers who are called. You can also download (free) the author’s earlier book The Career Novelist by going to Maass’ website.
Do you think you can have a career–yet keep your “calling” as a storyteller the most important? How can a writer keep his priorities straight? What do you think it would take?