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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
January 11, 2012
If you want a writing mentor, you need look no further than Cec Murphey’s Unleash the Writer Within. The subtitle calls it ”the essential writers’ companion.”
I would have to agree.
What’s Different About This Book?
It’s honest, it’s transparent, and it comes from the heart. It also made me laugh on more than one occasion because the author had the guts to say some things that need to be said about the writing life, how we market, and so many other topics dear to a writer’s heart.
Before you get stressed out and caught up in all the things “they say” you have to do and be and write about to be successful, I urge you to get a copy of this book. It will help you discover your own personal voice and style so you sound authentic. It will show you how to actually make friends with your inner critic and writer’s block–and eliminate them. And the author deals so honestly with a writer’s fears–and how to use them and learn from them to grow as a writer.
Who Is This Man?
So who is Cecil Murphey? Why should you listen to his advice? Well, he’s a New York Times’ best-selling author who’s written or co-written more than 120 fiction and nonfiction books, including the runaway bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Don Piper) and Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into more than 40 languages.
- “Too many want-to-be-successful authors get the idea that you must write in a certain way to succeed.”
- “Your most honest writing becomes your best writing.”
- “I don’t advocate rigid self-discipline. I tried that. For years, I held to tight schedules, refused to allow deviations, and castigated myself when I failed. I’ve since learned that true self-discipline flows out of gentleness and self-respect.”
- “How would it affect your writing if you weren’t constantly looking at your faults but focusing on what you can do?”
- “You write best what you know best. The better you know yourself, the higher the quality of your work.”
- What if you follow everyone else’s advice about your writing? “If you heed their words, you may end up trying to be somebody you’re not. To follow that advice not only weakens the power of your words, but the writing doesn’t ring true because it no longer comes from deep within.”
- “If it’s easy or simple to write, it probably isn’t what I’d call poignant or powerful.”
- “You don’t have to be productive every day….for compulsives (like me), it takes a major decision not to be productive and not to feel guilty. I remind myself that the best part of my writing takes place inside my head.”
- “Start within your comfort zone and write from who you are.”
- “I feel afraid when I bare my soul. I run the risk that others will despise me, ridicule me, or ignore me. That’s who I am. That’s all I have to offer.”
When Cec Murphey explained to his agent why he didn’t want to write a book for writers–that he actually dreaded it–this was her response: “Too many writers won’t acknowledge their fear, and when they eventually come to the place where they realize they’re afraid, they freeze. You need to write it for those still behind you on the pathway.” I’m glad he took her advice.
I hope Cec Murphey decides to teach a workshop or lead a writer’s retreat based on his book for writers. I would love to attend! Until then, I’m starting the book over–from the beginning.
November 14, 2011
I’ve noticed one amazing thing about myself and other writers who claim to want to write more than anything else. Something odd takes over, and we fill the free time of our lives with all kinds of non-writing activities. We reach for things that make us feel good, that quell any anxiety we might be feeling, or at least keep us occupied.
What fills our lives–what quells our anxiety–can be either positive or negative. The activity we choose can be either a pacifier or a catalyst.
What’s the Outcome?
Activities that fall under the heading of “pacifiers” are things like mindless TV viewing, complaining about the sad state of publishing to all your writing friends, eating mass amounts of comfort food, surfing the Net, playing video games, or shopping till you drop.
Nothing good (for your writing career) comes from any of those activities. They serve simply as pacifiers, something to make the whining, fretful baby in us be quiet. But are we then any closer to our writing goals? No, not at all. We’ve simply passed some time–writing time that we can’t get back.
Positive Time Fillers
What if you’re tired of your non-writing rut, but you can’t seem to crawl out of it either? What can you fill your free time with instead of a pacifier activity? Why not try a catalyst instead? A catalyst is a springboard for change, something that nudges you in a better direction. The next time you feel anxious about your writing and you want to fill your time with something to soothe the fear, why not try a positive change agent?
Activities that fall into the catalyst category might include:
- watching an inspiring movie about an “overcomer”
- spending time with a writing mentor or coach
- reading an inspirational book or self-help writing book
- listening to motivational tapes
- reading a biography or watching a documentary about someone you admire (especially another writer)
- reading a current copy of The Writer or Writer’s Digest
- attending a writing conference, retreat or workshop
Think Ahead–Then Choose
We all feel anxious sometimes to the point of being stuck. That’s okay. Just be aware that there are activities that only pacify the fear (and waste your time)–but there are also enjoyable activities that can act as catalysts to get you writing. Choose the activity that is going to propel you forward, not help you stagnate even further.
We all have our favorite catalysts. Mine include reading inspirational writing books or writing articles I’ve saved over the years, Skyping with another author about writing issues, or watching a movie about authors (like Becoming Jane, Cross Creek, Finding Forrester, Finding Neverland, or Miss Potter).
What is your favorite pacifier–and what’s the effect on your writing? On the positive side, what is your most helpful catalyst and its effect on your writing? Please share some ideas that work best for you.
July 29, 2011
The last two posts, I talked about overload, how it happened, and the effect on writers’ lives. Although certain Type A personalities seem to thrive on overloaded lives, most writers don’t.
Our best ideas – and energy to write about them – require some peace and quiet, some “down” time. To get that, we must rebuild margin into our lives.
What exactly is margin? According to Richard Swenson M.D. author of Margin, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for unanticipated situations. It is the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
You might wonder at what point you became overloaded. It’s not always easy to see when it happens. We don’t have a shut off valve that clicks like when we put gasoline into our cars. Stop! Overload! Usually we don’t know that we are overextended until we feel the pain and frustration.
We would be smart to only commit 80% of our time and energy. Instead, we underestimate the demands on our life. We make promises and commit way more than 100% of our time and energy. Consequently, we have no margin left.
A Simple Formula
What exactly is margin? The formula for margin is straightforward: power – load = margin.
Your power is made up of things like your energy, your skills, how much time you have, your training, your finances, and social support.
Your load is what you carry and is made up of things like your job, problems you have, your commitments and obligations, expectations of others, expectations of yourself, your debt, your deadlines, and personal conflicts.
If your load is greater than your power, you have overload. This is not healthy, but it is where most people in our country live. If you stay in this overloaded state for a good length of time, you get burnout. (And burned out writers don’t write. I know–I’ve been there.)
So how do we increase margin? You can do it in one of two ways. You can increase your power – or you can decrease your load. If you’re smart, you’ll do both.
Many of us feel nostalgic for the charm of a slower life. Few of us miss things like outhouses or milking cows or having no running water. Usually what we long for is margin. When there was no electricity, people played table games and went to bed early, and few suffered sleep deprivation. Few people used daily planners or had watches with alarms, let alone computers that beeped with e-mail messages and tweets. People had time to read–and to think–and to write. It happened in the margins of their lives.
Progress devoured the margin. We want it back. And I firmly believe that writers must have it back. Next week we will talk about ways to do just that.
PLEASE SHARE: What do you think so far about this week’s discussion of margin and overload? Do you identify? What does that mean to you as a writer?
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.
July 13, 2011
Have you ever considered the fact that unhappiness is the first step along the writer’s path?
“Toddlers are bursting with the anxiety and helplessness of having feelings that they can’t get anybody around them to understand. They don’t even have the right words in their heads yet – it’s all emotion and frustration. That’s also an accurate description of writers in step one.” This is how Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott describe the first of their Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path: the journey from frustration to fulfillment. [I highly recommend this book, by the way.]
This unhappiness may feel like an itchy feeling under your skin. It may feel like an urge to change something. Call it restlessness or discontent or creative tension. “Unhappiness,” say the authors, “to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins.”
Message in the Misery
If you’re starting to feel that itch to change something in your life, you’re moving into Step One. Maybe you don’t feel unhappy exactly. Maybe you’re just restless. But if this tension is trying to tell you that you’re a writer who should be writing, it can very quickly turn into discomfort and then misery if you don’t pay attention to it.
Even published writers in a long-time career can feel this unhappiness or tension when it’s time to make a change. “Every important turn on my writer’s path has been preceded by unhappiness,” Nancy Pickard admits. “The more major the turn, the worse the misery.” (I can certainly identify with that! I get bored first, then I itch to try something new or more difficult or different, and then I get fed up with whatever I’m currently doing.)
If you’ve been writing for a long time, this unhappy first step on the writer’s path may have more specific origins. It might be the misery of being in a day job you’d give anything to quit so you could write full-time. It might be the misery of a writer’s block that just won’t budge – perhaps for months. It might be the misery of when your proposal has been rejected by a dozen editors or agents-and your spouse has told you to get “a real job.”
What About You?
There are many signs, according to these authors, that you are in the first step along the writer’s path (the first of seven). Can you identify here? What does the beginning of a project – or the beginning of a writer’s life – feel like to you?
I had always assumed that the beginning (for other writers) was a time of great excitement, a happy eager time. I was glad to find that I wasn’t the only one who felt just the opposite!
How about YOU? How do YOU know when it’s time to get creative?
June 6, 2011
I have a confession to make. Being a children’s writer has taken away much of the joy in browsing the children’s sections of book stores.
Oh, I love book stores themselves–the brick ‘n’ mortar kind, plus anything online. But if I want to enjoy my book store visit, I avoid the children’s section. Until recently, I thought I was the only one who found the experience intimidating.
Book Store Phobia
I was reading in Eric Maisel’s book Deep Writing about a much-published, midlist women’s fiction author who wanted to “break out” and write a really solid book, but one that also had commercial success. “She finds her first step appalling but necessary: to spend an afternoon in a chain book store strategically browsing bestselling women’s fiction. She knows just which inner demons this visit will activate–feelings of envy, a vision of herself as a failure, a sense that others can effortlessly play a game whose rules she either doesn’t understand or refuses to understand.”
This phobia struck me early in my writing career, thirty years ago while I was still a student at the Institute of Children’s Literature. It happened when I did my assignments on studying the markets, reading children’s magazines and books. As instructed, I browsed book stores, seeing what kids liked and what publishers were doing.
At first, it was fun, but eventually I realized I was dreading the book store visits and magazine reading. It had stopped being fun. Instead, it left my already shaky self-esteem even lower. I couldn’t imagine ever studying my craft long enough to be able to write like the books I was reading.
After being published for several years and finding my books on the shelves in stores, I fully expected the “I’ll never be good enough” feeling to pass. But our minds, when left to themselves, are tricky things! If I found my books on the shelves, I’d wonder why they hadn’t sold. If I didn’t find my books on the shelves, I hoped they were sold out, but I never had the nerve to ask if they’d ever been on the shelf in the first place.
Back in the Saddle
The phobia seems to be a thing of the past–almost. While browsing now, I remember that the book I am holding is probably a collaborative effort between the author and his/her agent and editor. I remind myself that it undoubtedly went through a gazillion revisions even after it sold. Even if the process is intimidating, we need to know what is being published in our field. In other words, it’s like the book by Susan Jeffers that says Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.
Does anyone else deal with this book store phobia? I hope it’s not just me!
October 15, 2010
How to Regain Lost Passion
If you were passionate about your writing in the past, but haven’t felt that way for a long time, there is a definite sadness mixed in with the lethargy. It feels like falling out of love, and in a very real sense, it is.
Can you stir up the fires of passion for your writing? Can you fall in love with writing and your work again, when all seems dry as dust and just as tasteless?
Years ago, I struggled with this question, slowly becoming afraid that the boredom and apathy were permanent. I tried to muster some enthusiasm for my book-in-progress, whose deadline was fast approaching, but to no avail. It wasn’t the book manuscript itself. I knew it was finely plotted, with well placed clues and plenty of tension. The problem wasn’t in the manuscript—it was in me.
I found the answer to the problem one cold, snowy morning, and it came from the most unlikely source: my dog. We’d had freezing conditions for several days, cutting short my walks with Rhett (my black Lab.) I chained him outside for the day, then hurried back indoors. Playtime was cut short—it was just too cold and windy for me.
I paid little attention to Rhett during that week, although I’d loved him passionately since bringing him home from the pound ten months earlier. As the frigid week wore on, and the weather stayed miserable, I began to resent having a dog. I hated going out in the weather to his snug dog house, carrying water often because his dish froze over. I became apathetic about Rhett—he was getting to be more trouble than he was worth.
Then one day the sun came out, melted the snow, and temperatures soared. I put Rhett on his leash and took an hour-long walk, complete with Puppy Biscuit rewards for correct sitting, heeling and staying.
When we got home, I chained him outside near his food and water, then stayed to play. I petted, I stroked, I laughed, I cooed. (If you’ve never been a dog owner, you may need to gag here.) Anyone watching me that morning could see I had regained my passion for owning a dog.
I’m sure you see the parallels. Regaining passion for your work-in-progress can be accomplished the same way:
A. Pay attention to your work. Think about it when you’re not at your desk. Mull over your theme. Ponder plot points. Have mental conversations with your characters.
B. Take care of your work. Feed it with quotes and good resource books. Do in-depth research and interviews. Immerse yourself in your subject matter.
C. Spend time with your work. Daily, if possible. If you want passion to ignite in anything (a relationship, your work, a hobby) you must spend consistent—and sufficient—time with it. We understand this principle in romantic relationships, but it’s just as true with your writing.
Part of the enjoyment of being a writer is the pure passion and pleasure of setting words on paper. Don’t settle for ho-hum, apathetic work. Instead take the necessary steps to revive your passion for writing. Do it as often as necessary to keep that spark of joy alive!
Right now–this weekend–put a plan in writing for how to regain the passion for your writing gift. If you have any ideas to share–your own or a book you’ve read–please share!
October 13, 2010
(Read Regain the Passion–Part 1 first.)
So…when does passion flourish? Under what conditions?
First, a writer’s passion is generally at its highest point when life is going well. (Big surprise!) When relationships are smooth, health is good, there’s enough money to pay the bills, the writer is following a healthy diet and getting sufficient sleep: these are the optimal conditions.
Whatever is draining your passion needs to be attended to, thoroughly and persistently. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always bring back the passion. It simply sets the stage, giving yourself the optimal environment for your resurrected passion to grow.
Habits of a Passionate Writer
How do you recognize passion for writing? Yes, it’s a feeling, but it’s so much more. Each writer will exhibit certain habits when she is being passionate about her writing. These habits are individual and personal–and present in your life whether you feel passion or not. Take a moment to make a list of habits that (to you) marks a writer as passionate.
To me personally, a passionate writer:
A. writes, almost daily.
B. listens, observes and thinks—alert to her surroundings.
C. carries a notebook everywhere to jot down impressions, descriptions and ideas.
D. journals—daily, if possible.
E. is focused—begins and continues her writing with energy.
F. reads other good children’s books, both current and classics.
G. keeps up with professional reading.
H. shares her enthusiasm at conferences and workshops (but doesn’t over-schedule such events so they don’t interfere with writing).
I. leads a more secluded life than the average person, in order to nurture and explore her talent.
J. is physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually healthy.
K. is a 24-hour-a-day writer. Even when washing dishes or cutting grass, the passionate writer’s work is close at hand, on the edges of her mind. Everything she does is writing-related and life-related, so that her work and her life are inseparable.
Those are just my own personal ideas. Everyone is different. On Friday we’ll talk about practical ways to get the passion back. Before that, leave me a comment and tell me what a writer’s passion means to you.Newer Posts »