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July 15, 2011
Wednesday’s blog entitled “Unhappiness: A Positive Sign” sparked more private email than usual! Glad it got you to thinking about this.
The tension you feel at the beginning of a project–that itch to “go for it!”–seems like a positive sign to me. So what is the “unhappy” part those authors were talking about in their book Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path? And, emailers asked me, why did I feel that tension after selling forty books?
Ignorance Was Bliss
During my student work for ICL, I told three of my class assignments. It was fun! I expected to sell them and kept submitting till I did. Thankfully, there was no Internet in those days, and I didn’t know any other writers who told me I couldn’t make a living at this.
I was naive, yes, but it helped! I just assumed that if I worked hard at the writing, I could have a paying career doing it. I saw setbacks and rejections as part of the process on the way to getting what I wanted. (And yes, it had to pay to make up for me not teaching anymore in the public schools.)
To answer one man’s email question, I think my excitement at the beginning is now tempered with reality. I’m not the naive writer I was at the beginning–and to be honest, I miss that phase at some points.
At this stage of my writing career, I realize that starting a new project IS exciting–but it brings other things along with the excitement:
- hard work, neck cramps, and back aches
- risks that may not pay off
- loneliness as I get closer to the deadline
- letting go of lunches, grandkid overnights, and other fun temporarily
- having the project misunderstood and/or criticized
But is this bad? NO!! It’s good to know this!
Now I have no surprises that derail me. I’m not shocked when I get bogged down in the middle. I’m not greatly disappointed by having to give up some social things so that I can get enough rest and write in the morning. I don’t expect everyone to be as excited by my idea as I am.
I know the harder aspects are just part and parcel of the writing life. You acknowledge them when they happen and move on. They’re no longer a big deal–and to me, that’s a very good thing.
June 22, 2011
If you’ve done the previous stages of exploration and preparation in “The Five Stages of Success,” then you’re probably eager to begin “Stage Three: Start-Up.”
Time to get the show on the road!
You have your writing dream, you’ve made the decision, and you’ve taken some steps to turn that dream into reality. I found “starting up” to be both the most exciting and the most frightening stage.
Deal With the Fears
Why should this stage–which is full of so much anticipation–be scary? Some of it has to do with money and security. By the time I hit this stage, we had another child and a need for more income. Writing for magazines wasn’t going to cut it–I wasn’t bringing in enough money.
I could go back to teaching elementary school–that had been the plan when the babies started arriving. There was pressure to do so–to “get a real job.” And some of that pressure was from me. It’s so much easier to rely on a steady paycheck than face freelance unknowns.
Leap of Faith
If money is an issue in your family, there is a mental mind shift you will need to make. As an employee, you receive a predictable paycheck from a company. If you want to be a freelance writer, you need to create your income. No money arrives on Friday just because you showed up at your desk and put in the time working. You have to create the opportunities to work, do the work, and sell the work to the publisher. This reality can be daunting.
On the other hand, as a freelance writer every day brings the possibility of new ideas, new choices, and earning potential beyond what you are probably imagining. I know that in later years I used to be in awe that I got paid well to do something I loved to do anyway (stay home and make up stories). It wouldn’t have happened if I’d gone back to teaching public school–not with raising kids and dealing with the health issues I had. Creativity takes some solitude and considerable energy–and there wouldn’t have been enough.
Biting the Bullet
Yes, when you start out, you feel like a newbie, the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears–all those cliches. And you may be living on a shoestring for a while. This is probably where your desire truly gets put to the test: how badly do you really want this writing life?
If you still want it, get on a writing schedule. Arrange what you can for an office. Get what equipment you can afford, and stock up on supplies. And take time to celebrate each successful step you take!
If you want the life of a writer, it’s time to get started. [And come back Friday for "Stage Four: Survival and Growth."']
December 27, 2010
Are you called? Do you feel that your writing–in whatever form–is a calling for you? Or does it feel more like a self-indulgence (especially if it’s not paying the bills or it takes time from your family)?
Over the years, my Institute students have asked how they could tell if they were really meant to write. I’ve struggled with this myself, vacillating between knowing it was what I was meant to do with my life and wondering if it was simply my escape. (Someone once told me that I wrote fiction because I couldn’t deal with real life. That didn’t help my dilemma!)
How Can You Know?
The other day I read something that was very helpful in sorting through this question. I wish I’d read it years ago. It was in a book of stories about writers called Behind the Stories by Diane Eble. See if this helps you decide:
Perhaps this is the hallmark of a calling: this sense that you are meant to do something, the restlessness that comes when you don’t do it, the deep satisfaction you feel when you do it–whatever “it” is. How do you find “it”? Ask yourself, “What is it I have loved doing, what has given me that sense of satisfaction? What would I do if I had two days to do whatever I wanted? What do I tend to gravitate toward and make time for? What do I feel passionate about? What have I always dreamed of doing? These questions may begin to uncover that thing you do, or would like to do, that is your gift and perhaps your calling.
If you answered “writing” to the questions above, you may still wonder what kind of writing is your calling. Try asking yourself the same questions again to find the kind of writing you’d enjoy the most.
What kind of writing gives you the most satisfaction? (Instructing mothers on how to enjoy motherhood? Telling bedtime stories to toddlers? Writing adult thrillers with a bit of romance?) What do you make time for? What do you gravitate toward in the library and bookstore? What do you love to read? (That’s always a good clue.)
How about you? Do you feel called to write–or is it a hobby that you can lay down for months at a time and not miss it? If it’s a calling, how does that decision impact how you live the rest of your life?
December 1, 2010
Even if you didn’t participate in this year’s November National Novel Writing Month, you can still have access to their NaNoWriMo pep talks that were sent throughout November to participants. Many of them are excellent!
Here’s what it says on their website: “We recruited an all-star team of authors to share their advice and thoughts on writing. Their pep talks will be emailed to participants throughout November. We hope their insight and encouragement help you on your way!”
Here you’ll find pep talks from some of the finest and best-selling writers of our time. Some are serious nuts-and-bolts advice talks while others are tongue-in-cheek funny. Either way, they’re an encouragement to those of us who are challenged on a regular basis with our writing.
Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite:
From Chris Baty: “Incite change. If your story is losing momentum, juice it up by inflicting some major changes on your characters. Crash the spaceship. End the marriage. Buy the monkey. Change is scary because we have to figure out what comes next. But feeling afraid is ten times better than feeling bored, and your book will benefit from your risk-taking. Go big this week! You won’t regret it.”
From Aimee Bender: “What we hold in our heads before we write is RARELY in sync with what shows up on the page, and if I were standing and saying this in front of you with a megaphone, I would say this next part especially loud and clear: The Page is All We Get. What shows up on the page? Well, that is your writing. The full-blown perfectly-whole concept you may have in your head? Is just thought.”
From Holly Black: “Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was writing my first book. I want to say them to you in the hopes they will help and encourage you. Even if you’ve heard them before, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.” And then she follows this with seven tips that are right on the money.
From Lindsey Grant: “You’ve been carrying around a story for a while now and you finally started writing it. Getting started is hard enough, but then you went on to write for a full week, bringing your story to life and making your noveling dream a reality. You’re well on your way, writer, and you have come so far already! Don’t let your inner editor convince you that this isn’t worth your time, or that you should start over, or-even worse-that you should start over some other time. For this novel there is no “later.” There is only now.”
From John Green: “All of us harbor secret hopes that a magnificent novel will tumble out of the sky and appear on our screens, but almost universally, writing is hard, slow, and totally unglamorous.”
From Mercedes Lackey: “I can’t think of anything more intimidating than a blank page. Especially the first blank page of a new project. Now, after twenty-mumble years of writing, I have a lot of things to get me past that…”
From Lemony Snicket: “Struggling with your novel? Paralyzed by the fear that it’s nowhere near good enough? Feeling caught in a trap of your own devising? You should probably give up.” Very funny letter follows!
So if you’re feeling sluggish and need some writing pep, check out these terrific pep talks. It just may be the jumpstart you need!
November 15, 2010
Symptoms of the “shoulds” include:
- You should write first thing in the morning.
- You should write daily.
- You should keep a journal.
- You should write down your dreams every morning.
- You should have a room of your own and be organized!
- You should write for publication.
What if some of the “shoulds” just go against your grain? Are you not a real writer then? What if you write best after 10 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning? What if you start journals repeatedly and never last more than three days? What if you can’t remember your dreams? What if an organized office makes you freeze and you secretly prefer writing in chaos?
Are you a REAL writer then? YES!
What Am I Exactly?
If you struggle with your identity as a writer–if you don’t seem to fit the mold no matter how you’ve tried–you would love the book I found over the weekend. It’s called The Write Type: Discover Your True Writer’s Identity and Create a Customized Writing Plan by Karen E. Peterson, who wrote the best book on writer’s block I ever read.
This book takes you through exercises to find the real writer who lives inside you. You’ll explore the ten components that make up a writer’s “type.” They include such things as tolerance for solitude, best time of day to write, amount of time, need for variety, level of energy, and level of commitment. Finding your own personal combination of traits helps you build a writer’s life where you can be your most productive and creative.
Free to Be Me
To be honest, the exercises with switching hands (right brain/left brain) didn’t help me as much as the discussions about each trait. I could usually identify my inner preferences quite easily through the discussion. It gave me freedom to be myself as a writer. It also helped me pinpoint a few areas where I believed some “shoulds” that didn’t work for me, where I was trying to force this square peg writer into a round hole and could stop!
We’re all different–no surprise!–but we published writers are sometimes too quick to pass along our own personal experience in the form of “shoulds.” You should write first thing in the morning should actually be stated, It works well for ME to write first thing in the morning, so you might try that.
What About You?
Have you come up against traits of “real writers” that just don’t seem to fit you? Do you like to flit from one unfinished project to another instead of sticking to one story until it’s finished and submitted? Do you need noise around you and get the heebie jeebies when it’s too quiet?
If you have time, leave a comment concerning one or two areas where you have struggled in the past with a “real writer” trait. Let’s set ourselves free from the tyranny of the shoulds!
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 20, 2010
If a friend from your critique group told you ”I just can’t get started on my story today,” what would you say? “Get moving, you lazy do-nothing wannabe!” I hope not!
If your writing friend bemoans receiving another rejection, do you say, “Well, what did you expect? Your novel stinks!”?
I would hope not. Most of us are better friends than that…except to ourselves.
Your Own Best Friend
Listen to how you talk to yourself. When you procrastinate, do you beat yourself up? Do you call yourself names? And to paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” Does it spur you on to do your best writing–or to give up and eat a pint of ice cream?
When you receive a rejection, do you downgrade your writing? Do you tell yourself that publishing is just a pipe dream, that it’s for others but not for you?
Do you say things to yourself that you would NEVER say to a writer friend?
Time to STOP!
Learn to tell yourself the truth–but with kindness. Be a mirror that reflects back understanding. If you got off course, gently encourage yourself back on the writing path you want to travel.
- You’re so lazy that you’ll never get anything written and published.
- No editor or agent will ever read your novel, much less publish it!
- You only have friends on Facebook because they don’t really know you.
Say this instead:
- You may have trouble getting started because you’re afraid of something. Try journaling to get to the bottom of it.
- You may (or may not) find an editor who loves your novel–but you’ll never know if you don’t keep sending it out. Let’s try one more time.
- Many people in your real life know you and love you. Make a list. Be thankful for each person on the list.
Be That Good Friend
The next time you stall or hit a rough spot in your work, talk to yourself like a true friend would. Be kind, be understanding, give some praise, and encourage yourself to try again.
You can be your own best friend.
August 18, 2010
“Some days, even the best dentist doesn’t feel like being a dentist,” says Seth Godin on his blog. “And a lifeguard might not feel like being a lifeguard. Fortunately, they have appointments, commitments and jobs. They have to show up. They have to start doing the work.”
“Most of the time, this jump start is sufficient to get them over the hump, and then they go back to being in the zone and doing their best work.”
But…What About Writers?
If we work at home, we don’t have to keep strict office hours. No one will know–or the little ones underfoot won’t care–if we keep that “appointment” with our novel or article or lesson. No one will fire us if we don’t show up and do our writing.
It’s not that writers can’t have the momentum of the dentist or lifeguard. It’s just that no outside boss is going to help you get going, get over the hump, and build that momentum. You will have to do it yourself.
You must be a self-starter. (Gulp.) That’s the truth.
Help Is on the Way
There are terrific motivational books for writers. I’ve blogged about many of them. You can also re-read some blog entries on getting started or entries on the psychology of writing. These will often be enough to prime the pump and get you to the computer or legal pad.
Getting started and building your own writing momentum is a struggle for ALL writers. That’s why ten chapters in my Writer’s First Aid book are devoted to getting started and ten more on work habits that work for you. (Here you’ll find four sample chapters.)
What about you? What is one technique or ritual you use that gets you started writing?
[NOTE: see Nancy's comment below--great idea!]
August 16, 2010
Are you a pessimist? You might be surprised. Choosing to be an optimist, according to author Randy Ingermanson, can change your writing life. Read his article below, reprinted with permission. It’s long–but worth it!
What’s Holding You Back?
I recently discovered something about myself that surprised me. Something that makes me take a lot longer to get things done than I should. Something that sometimes keeps me from finishing tasks. Something that occasionally even keeps me from trying in the first place.
I’m a pessimist.
This came as quite a surprise. After all, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as “Joe,” a guy I used to work with. Every time I suggested a new idea to “Joe,” the first thing he’d say was, “Now be careful! There’s a lot of things you haven’t thought about yet.” Then he’d shoot the idea down with rocket-powered grenades.
After a while, I learned not to run ideas past “Joe” because apparently, all my ideas were bad.
I haven’t seen “Joe” in years, and I’m pretty sure I’m not as pessimistic as he is. But somewhere along the way, I definitely went over to the Dark Side. I became more like him than I ever imagined possible.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that pessimism is not forever. You can quit being a pessimist and start being an optimist.
But should you? Aren’t those pesky pessimists more in touch with reality than those annoying optimists?
Yes and no.
Yes, pessimists generally do have a better grasp of the hard realities of the situation. “Life sucks” and all that. You can prove in the lab that pessimists are better at recognizing reality.
But no, no, no, because in very real ways, you make your own reality. We all know about self-fulfilling prophecies. Those work both ways. Optimists are
happier, healthier, and get more done. Because they expect to. Pessimists are less happy, less healthy, and get less done. Because they expect to. Again, you can measure that difference in the lab.
If you’re a pessimist and you want to know what’s holding you back in life, just go look in a mirror.
It’s you. But you already knew that, and you were already down on yourself, and now you’re mad at me for blaming you, but realistically, you secretly believe it’s your own darned fault, so you’re really just mad at me for telling you what you already knew.
Sorry about that. I feel your pain. Remember, I’m a pessimist too, and I’m probably a bigger one than you are.
I’m a pessimist, but I’m going to change. Which is actually an optimistic thing to say, and it means the cure is already working.
What is pessimism? And what is optimism? And how do you know which you are?
I’m not the expert on this. Martin Seligman is the expert, and he has been for a long time. Recently, somebody recommended Seligman’s book to me. The title is LEARNED OPTIMISM.
I grabbed a copy off Amazon and began reading. Seligman hooked me right away with his account of how he and a number of other researchers broke the stranglehold on psychology that had been held for decades by the
Behaviorists taught that people were created by their environment. To change a person, you had to condition him to a new behavior. A person couldn’t change himself merely by thinking differently, because thinking didn’t matter. Only conditioning mattered.
What Seligman and others showed was that the behaviorists were wrong. The way you think matters. Thinking optimistically, you could change things for the better. Thinking pessimistically, you could change things for the worse–or at best just wallow in the “life sucks” mud.
There’s a test you can take in LEARNED OPTIMISM that helps you figure out your particular style of thinking. There are three particular aspects to measure:
* Permanence — if things are good (or bad), do you expect them to stay like that for a long time?
* Pervasiveness — if one thing is good (or bad), do you expect everything else to be like that?
* Personalization — if things are good (or bad), who gets the credit (or blame) — you or somebody else?
Optimists think that good things will continue on but that bad things will go away soon. Likewise, they think that good things are pervasive whereas bad things are merely aberrations from the norm. When good things happen, optimists are willing to take a fair share of the credit; when bad things happen, they’re willing to let others take a fair share of the blame.
Pessimists are the opposite on all of these.
I took the test and discovered that I’m somewhat pessimistic in two of these aspects and strongly pessimistic in the other.
That’s not good. But (having now read the book) it’s not permanent. I can change if I want to. Furthermore, that pessimism is in my head, it’s not a pervasive feature of the universe. Most importantly, my pessimism isn’t entirely my fault, because I can see now who taught it to me.
The above paragraph is a model of how to change from pessimism to optimism. Both optimism and pessimism are driven by your beliefs, which are driven by what you tell yourself.
When you change your self-talk, you change your beliefs. When you change your beliefs, you change your behavior. When you change your behavior, you change your life. Chapters 12, 13, and 14 of LEARNED OPTIIMISM
teach you the techniques you need to change your self-talk.
Let’s be clear on one thing. Optimism is not about the alleged “power of positive thinking,” not about making those wretchedly gooey self-affirmations, and not about telling lies to yourself.
Optimism is about looking for alternative plausible explanations that might lead to improving your life.
Pessimism is about looking for alternative plausible explanations that might lead to disimproving your life.
Which of those is likely to make you happier, healthier, and more productive? Bringing this home to the topic of fiction writing, which of those is likely to help you get your novel written, get it read by an agent, and get it published?
Research shows that optimism is an invaluable tool in dealing with criticism and rejection. If you’ve ever shut down for three days after a tough critique, or stopped sending out query letters for three months after getting a rejection from that perfect agent, then you can see the value of learning optimism.
Optimism will keep you going through the hard times as a writer. And you are going to have hard times. That will never change. What can change is how you respond to those hard times.
There is no way I can explain in 500 words exactly how it all works. The best I can do is to point you to Martin Seligman’s book and tell you that I think it’s gold. I expect this book is going to revolutionize my life in the next year. I hope it changes yours too.
Here’s Randy’s Amazon affiliate link to LEARNED OPTIMISM:
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 21,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/>http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.
May 10, 2010
When I’m frustrated, it’s usually a sign that I’m trying to control something I can’t control. This can be a person or a situation or an event. The process can churn your mind into mush until you can’t think.
On the other hand, making a 180-degree switch and focusing on the things I can control (self-control) is the fastest way out of frustration. This concept certainly applies to your writing life.
Words of Wisdom
Remember the Serenity Prayer? It goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
How about reducing frustration with your writing life by applying that wisdom to your career? Here are some things to accept that you cannot change:
- How long it takes to get a response from editors and agents
- Editors moving before buying the manuscript they asked to see
- Size of print runs
- Publisher’s budget for your book’s publicity and promotion
Trying to change anything on the above list is a sure-fire route to frustration and wanting to quit.
However, do you have courage to change the things you can? Here are some:
- Giving yourself positive feedback and affirmations
- Reading positive books on the writing life
- Studying writing craft books
- Writing more hours
- Reading more books in the genre where you want to publish
- Attending local, state, regional and national conferences you can afford
- Joining or forming a critique group
Wisdom to Know the Difference
If you’re battling frustration and discouragement with the writing life, chances are good that you’re trying to control something beyond your control. It will make you crazy! The fastest way back to sanity is to concentrate on what you can control about the writing life.
Choose anything from that second list–or share an additional idea in the comments below–and get on with becoming a better writer. In the end, that’s all you can do–and it will be enough.