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January 8, 2013
While discussing goals with several writer friends, I found myself becoming depressed. We were analyzing how 2012 had gone. Each person shared their goals for the past year and how they had succeeded or failed.
Until I heard the other reports, I had been happy with most of my year. While I hadn’t yet completed a couple of novels I’d started, I had written a couple of proposals, and one of them got the “nod” from an editor. (Proposals take me a while, with their sample chapters and market plans.) A revision for a book I sold in 2011, which I expected to take about two weeks, took the last three months of 2012 to complete instead.
Check the Numbers
Here’s where the depression part came in. Several friends said something like this: “In 2012 I wrote a six-book series for X Publisher, plus three books in another ongoing series for Publisher Y.”
After hearing that, I didn’t want to share that my completed projects were so meager. And yet, I had put in more writing hours this year than in many years (and I’m not counting the blogging or critique letters for private critiques.) Was I getting slower? Was I burning out? I didn’t feel like it, but I sure wasn’t producing books at the speed these other writers had.
For me—and for many of you—it’s all in the numbers.
Then I remembered something. Several years ago I had what looked like my most productive year. I wrote three books in a series for an educational publisher, then two mysteries for a different educational publisher. A five-book year!
But the whole truth was that the three books were all written in a week and totaled only about 750 words each. The mysteries were early chapter books that were less than 2,000 words each. That’s only about 6,000 words altogether! And it was less than two months’ writing time. Still, I could truthfully say I wrote and sold five books that year.
In 2012, though, I wrote two proposals. One got nixed fairly early, and one got the go-ahead. I’ve been working on that novel, and each revision has changed it substantially. It will still take months to finish it. And the revision I did this fall and just turned in (for the book sold in 2011) grew into a longer book when I added the additional material my editor wanted. (It’s a much better book now.) But the numbers? The “revision” included major changes to the 36,000 words I had written, plus an additional 21,000 words of original material. This 57,000-word revision took me much longer—and was more challenging—than the five books I wrote several years ago.
Am I knocking educational writing or short books? NO! Not in the slightest. The value of the writing is NOT in the length. I’m just suggesting that you ask about the numbers. Before your writer’s ego shrinks any further when someone talks about their multiple book successes, ask them how long the books were. (While there are a few full-time writers who produce long books several times per year, they are few and far between.)
Part of the Writing Life
And if you like to write long books, get used to this. It will happen throughout your career. I generally sell one or two books per year, depending on length. But except for that one year, I don’t write short material other than this blog.
Writers aren’t telling you they wrote and sold six books last year to put you down or make you feel small. They are telling the truth. (It wasn’t until someone commented to me that I must not have seen my family that whole year that I realized the misperception on their part.) But if it makes your writer’s self-esteem take a plunge, ask (nicely) how long the books were. Add up the numbers. (Some middle-grade novels are 50,000 words, but many middle-grade series books are 15,000 words or less.) You may realize that despite appearances, you’ve written much more than that last year. So don’t compare apples and oranges.
Better Yet, Don’t Compare At All
We were each given stories and material to write, either fiction or nonfiction. We each have a unique voice and a unique “take” on the world. No one else can write your stories—or my stories. And if the stories you are given to write are longer or take more thought, your “production” quotas will look lower to others. Find a way to be okay with this, or it will plague you throughout your career.
I hope your 2012 was a successful writing year, but be careful how you measure success.
Just curious: how will you measure success in 2013? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
August 14, 2012
What exactly do we mean by “work” when we ask that?
Now? Today? This Year?
It usually means one of three things:
- We may be talking about our work right now. Right this minute, the writing is going well–or it’s dragging or we’re blocked.
- We may be talking about our creative work on any given day. We decide the writing is going well if we meet our goals for the day. (e.g. to write 1,000 words, or to revise the story ending, or to research a character’s occuption) It doesn’t matter what the size of the goal is. But as long as we meet whatever goal we set for ourselves, it’s a successful writing day.
- We may be talking about how our writing is going in general. It covers a length of time, like, “How has your writing gone over the summer?” Or “How is your writing career going?”
Criteria for Successful Work
“To feel as if they are measuring up,” says Eric Maisel in Fearless Creating, “artists must meet their own standards in each regard.”
So, how do we decide how the writing is going? How do we measure success in these three areas?
It’s personal. And it’s totally up to you.
- Is your writing going well right now? That depends on what makes a successful writing experience for you. Is it flowing? Are you having fun? Are you producing at least 500 words every thirty minutes? Choose your own criteria for success.
- Did your writing go well today? Did you meet your quota of words or pages by the end of the day? Did you have fun? Did you persevere despite interruptions? Choose your own criteria for a successful writing day.
- How is your work going in general? Are you getting better (deeper characters, snappier dialogue, whatever) with each book? Are you getting bigger advances? Are you winning awards? Choose your own criteria for a successful writing career.
Bear in mind that you can be UNsuccessful right now, or have an UNsuccessful day, but overall have a successful career. There can be any combination. Sometimes my writing is going well right now (I’m having fun, and the words are flowing), but later I get interrupted and don’t meet my daily goal, so I don’t feel I had a successful day.
I’d be interested to know how you judge your work in these three areas. How’s YOUR writing going?
March 14, 2012
Not my “want to.” Just my drive.
For thirty years I’ve set goals, worked hard toward meeting them (some called me ”driven”), achieved most of them, then set more.
I happily set one-year goals, five-year goals, and ten-year goals.
Goals that Once Spelled Success
- Graduate from the Institute’s course. Check.
- Sell first article. Check.
- Sell first short stories. Check.
- Repeat many times. Check.
- Sell first novel. Check.
- Sell more novels. Check.
- Get agent. Check. Fire agent. Check.
- Sell first series. Check.
- Sell many series. Check.
They were busy whirlwind years, with writing, raising children, and teaching. But somewhere around Book #35 or so, I found myself losing the drive. Or so I thought.
I still loved writing and didn’t want to quit. But enjoying the writing and having a balanced life (e.g. more time to sleep and be with grandkids) meant more to me than the next contract, the next conference, or jumping on the next social networking band wagon.
Changing Times, Changing Goals
But last week, in a romance writers magazine that was given to me, I read an article by Barbara Wallace called “Defining Success.” Many definitions were as expected: get published, be represented by an agent, win an award, get fan letters. I almost stopped reading, thinking, “Same old, same old.” But then!
I read some definitions of success written by women who had been writing quite a while, most of them published many times. Here’s what their current “definitions of success” were:
- Jackie Braun: Now, more than 25 books later, my definition has changed again. I see success as achieving and maintaining a happy balance between writing books and spending time with my family.
- Judith Arnold: Today, with my mortgage paid off and no more college tuitions to cover, I define success as writing the books of my heart. I define it as ignoring the commercial pressures and focusing on the stories I feel compelled to share.
- Donna Alward: If I never wrote again, I’d survive and I’d do something else. But if something happened to my family, I’d be destroyed. Figuring that out was really liberating and helped me rediscover the joy of writing.
- Pam Nowak: I feel good about what I have done. If I never sell again, I’ll know what I achieved, and I’ll feel good about having done so.
It helped me to see how their goals had also changed over the years. I could really identify.
Coming Full Circle
Actually my goals now aren’t so very different than when I started writing when my kids were babies. Back then, I worried about how to write without neglecting anyone. In my first interview, the reporter came to my farmhouse to photograph me with the four kids piled on my lap. I still recall her last question: “How do you choose between your children and your writing?”
It was a great question, and it solidified my priorities for the next thirty years. I told the writer, “I don’t choose. The kids come first. The writing comes after them. If I can’t do a good job at both, I’ll quit writing.”
Some Things Don’t Change
I feel the same way today, although it’s about grandchildren now instead of children. They also grow up very fast! And they won’t always love coming to Nana’s house more than anything else they do.
Does that change my goals? Without a doubt. Will it mean less money? Probably. But like the other ladies in that article, success today (for me) means having a happy balance between writing and family–and writing the stories closest to my heart, despite the current market trends.
What About You?
How do you measure writing success? Depending on where you are in the process, your answers will differ. There is no “right” answer either, so don’t let anyone else define success for you.
Do spend some time thinking about this. Your answer today may well change in a few years, and that’s to be expected. But you’ll be a happier writer once you figure out what success means to YOU.
October 28, 2011
Here are some great articles to read and consider if you hope to make the dream of a writing life into a reality.
“Are You Living Your Own Life or Someone Else’s?” If we are not careful, we can unconsciously be following someone else’s agenda for our lives. This may be your first step toward achieving the writing life of your dreams.
“Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourselves” is a refreshing and hopeful post for fiction writers. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief with this one.
“The Power of Incremental Change Over Time” Most people underestimate this. They think they have to take massive action to achieve anything significant.
“4 Reasons It’s Easier Than Ever to Be an Author” “When I started writing, it also seemed like everyone else was in control. I prepared a book proposal, then waited for a publisher to offer me a contract. I wrote the manuscript, then waited for booksellers to order the book. I published the book, the waited for the media to book me.” Not anymore, says this author, former publisher, and former editor.
“The Writing Journey: Author Beware” is one agent’s warning about using self-publishers and what to look for in the way of scams and unethical practices. She makes a good case for having an agent, but as you may know, landing an agent isn’t necessarily easy. You could do what I do: make an agreement with an agent to look over your contracts for a flat fee with an eye to marking questionable phrasing and things you could negotiate for.
“Write with Flow Workshop” is added here because I happen to use the Fractal Method of organization and I love it. Whether you sign up for the workshop or not, the article is a good read. Enrollment ends on Oct. 30.
September 28, 2011
“Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality…Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
~~Ralph Waldo Emersonson
Where do you get this enthusiasm? It comes from having passion for your writing.
How does a writer act who is passionate about his writing? He can’t wait to get up in the morning and get started. He is eager and energetic. This comes from loving what you do, and doing what you were born to do or feel called to do. Feeling this passion for your writing keeps you going. Quitting is no longer an option. When you’re passionate about your writing, perseverance is a given.
This brings us to two main questions:
- How do you develop passion for the most important areas of your life?
- How do you maintain that passion during the inevitable tough times?
First: Find It
Are you doing what you really want to do in your writing career? Are you doing it at least part of the time? (I know that for most of my writing life, it was half and half. Half the time I was writing what I really wanted to write–fiction usually–whether it sold or not. The other half of my writing time went to work-for-hire projects, teaching, speaking or whatever brought guaranteed income.) Ask yourself: Am I truly doing what I want to do?
If you’re not skilled enough to do the work you’d love to do, make time to educate yourself so you are. While maintaining your current job (either outside the home and/or raising children), do whatever it takes to prepare for your dream writing jobs. It’s very difficult to create passion for doing something you don’t want to do or a job you are “settling for” because you don’t feel skilled enough to do what you’d really love to do.
Do whatever you need to do to overcome those lying voices in your head that say you’ll never be good enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not whatever enough. Read inspirational books, read author biographies about how they got started and grew as writers, and say “no” to whatever is eating the time you need to study and read and write.
Second: Maintain It
Passion for your writing makes your days fly by (in a good way!). It helps you get more done in less time. That being true, it deserves whatever time you need to keep your writing passion alive. If your passion for writing dies, then writing just becomes another drudge job.
So how can you maintain passion and enthusiasm every day? First–and maybe most obvious–is to spend more time actually doing what you love to do. What is your pet writing project, the one that may never sell but you love it? Spend more time each day working on it. Even if it’s only an extra fifteen minutes or half an hour, it will remind you why you love to write.
Another key to maintaining passion for all your work is to reconnect with the purpose underlying everything you do. For example, I don’t enjoy running until it’s over and I’m in the shower. But I run my miles in the morning because the weight-bearing exercise is critical to staying “recovered” from my osteoporosis, which means my bones stay strong, which means I can still upright at the computer (hopefully) for decades to come and still have energy at the end of the day for my grandkids.
The same goes for giving up sugar finally four months ago. For a gal whose blood type is Hershey’s, that was a big deal for me. But more and more, sugar was making me sick and sluggish and sleepy. It was affecting my work–both the output and how I felt during work time. I don’t miss the sweets now, but during the first thirty days I might have mugged you for your candy bar.
What does that have to do with writing? It’s about maintaining passion. I don’t feel passionate about anything–including writing–if I don’t feel well. And by getting in touch with the “why” underlying the things I don’t like to do, it is a lot easier to get enthusiastic about it.
Tricks of the Trade
I know I’m not alone in trying to find and maintain passion for my writing. Please share some tips for how YOU maintain your writing enthusiasm in these fluctuating times!
September 26, 2011
I was wrong–again.
For twenty years, I’ve told students and wannabe writers that you have to put the writing first! Do it before other things take over your day.
Fight the impulse to clean your kitchen first, or straighten your office, or clean up the mess the kids made before leaving for school.
“But I can’t work in chaos,” writers protest.
You know what? Neither can I anymore–at least not well! And when I force myself to, the work is doubly tiring. Doubly stressful. Much less satisfying.
Energy Drains in Disguise
Something I read today made me realize my advice might be a tad off. Not wrong altogether, since if we don’t make writing some sort of priority, we won’t do it. However, to eliminate energy drains in your life, you need to look at the whole picture. Certainly all the things you do in a given day take your energy. Every action you take on your lengthy “to do” list uses energy.
What you may not realize is that actions you don’t take use energy as well. Your disorganized office, the piles of laundry on the bedroom floor, the stack of bills to pay, the two birthday gifts to buy, the clothing needing repair–all this drains your energy reserves as well. It happens whether you are looking at the unfinished business or just thinking about it.
It siphons off energy that could be used in a much more positive way. “These items on your mental ‘to do’ list, the ones you’ve been procrastinating about, distract you or make you feel guilty and drain the very energy you need to accomplish your goals.” (So says Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life.)
NOT an Excuse to Procrastinate
Taking care of the unfinished business that nags at your mind–and keeps you from feeling like you can settle down to write–may be necessary before you can tackle your writing assignment. Don’t go overboard though, or you’re just procrastinating. Washing the dirty dishes is one thing–taking time to replace the shelf paper in your pantry is something else.
Figure out the things that you MUST have done to feel at peace in your environment, and do those things ONLY. (It helps to do as many of them as you can the night before too.)
Eliminate the chaos in your environment, and you’ll eliminate a LOT of the chaos that blocks your writer’s mind. Now…off to clean my office.
September 12, 2011
Writers are opinionated people.
Our brains never seem to stop. We criticize because we “know” how things and people should be. This “critical editor component” of our personality is absolutely invaluable to the editing and revision process. If you can’t spot what’s wrong with a manuscript, you can’t fix it.
However, this same critical ability can cause writers to actually lose focus, allowing their writing hours to slip away with little or no work done.
Think About It
Many of us go through our daily lives with our internal critic or editor in charge. We don’t see the person right in front of us as he or she is (which may be perfectly fine.) Instead, that person reminds us of an ex-spouse, and we “see” characteristics that aren’t there. Stress!
Conversely, we think the person in front of us is “supposed” to be kind and supportive (our inner definition of parent/spouse/child/sibling). And yet many such relationships are anything but, leaving us hurt and upset because they should be supportive. More stress! Life rarely satisfies a person who lets the “shoulds” run his life.
Do we spend our time “shoulding”? We don’t see a child who is happily singing at the top of her voice. (That child should be more quiet in the store!) We don’t see an interesting shade of purple hair. (That teenager should resemble a miniature adult instead.) We don’t see the predator or user sometimes either–because trusted family members shouldn’t be such things. Our “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” color everything we observe.
Change Your Perspective
Our inner editor sometimes keeps us from seeing what’s in front of us. We are constantly “revising” the facts. So what’s the problem with that? You can’t accept–and get peace about–what you can’t honestly see or face. You stay stirred up–a condition rarely suited to being creative. Sometimes the simplest solutions evade us because we’re all riled up inside.
It reminds me of a story (you may also be familiar with) about “The River and the Lion: After the great rains, the lion was faced with crossing the river that had encircled him. Swimming was not in his nature, but it was either cross or die. The lion roared and charged at the river, almost drowning before he retreated. Many more times he attacked the water, and each time he failed to cross. Exhausted, the lion lay down, and in his quietness he heard the river say, “Never fight what isn’t here.”
Cautiously, the lion looked up and asked, “What isn’t here?”
“Your enemy isn’t here,” answered the river. “Just as you are a lion, I am merely a river.”
Now the lion sat very still and studied the ways of the river. After a while, he walked to where a certain current brushed against the shore, and stepping in, floated to the other side.
Control What You Can: Yourself
We also can’t gain peace of mind and the ability to focus unless we’re willing to give up trying to control everyone and everything in our environment. We spend entire days fuming and fretting over situations or people we can’t change or control, wasting precious writing and study time.
We need to save our judging skills for revision time and critiquing. We need to save our control freak behaviors for finagling with our characters’ actions. And you may as well give up having to convince people you’re right, while you’re at it. Letting go of those three things (judging, controlling, being right) will give you more inner peace faster than hours of yoga and meditation and mind-altering substances.
Start Right Here, Right Now
Think about something that is currently keeping your mind in knots to the point that you can barely write. I will bet that you are judging someone’s behavior, or trying to figure out how to control a situation, or having mental conversations in which you prove to that stubborn person how right you are. (I know this from personal experience in case you think I’ve been reading your mail.)
Letting go of criticism and control is freedom. For the writer, it means hours and hours are freed up for reading and writing. Just for today, let grown people and situations be what they are. Let them work on solutions for their own problems–or not. Turn all that “should” energy on your own work.
At the end of day, you’ll have something great to show for it!
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?
June 27, 2011
You made it! This is the stage where you look around and can hardly believe it. You’re finally living your writing dream!
You have dreamed of this day for months–or decades. If you started down the road to success right after college when you didn’t have a family to support or attend to, you could well have cut the learning curve short. If you started when you had a young family (like I did), the stages probably took longer (since there are only so many hours in the day). If you began the journey while raising a family and handling a full-time day job, it might have taken ten years to reach this spot.
It doesn’t matter how long it took. You’re here–so celebrate and enjoy it! Before you set new and bigger goals, pause long enough to savor where you are.
Warning! The Dark Side of Success
Let yourself enjoy what you’ve worked so hard to attain. It’s been a long and sometimes difficult road. Don’t allow anyone or anything to interfere with the pleasure of what you’ve achieved.
Sometimes success takes you by surprise, and your successful career becomes overwhelming and distressing. My children were babies, toddlers and preschoolers when my books were first published. I was unprepared for the school invitations, I was scared to death when newspapers wanted interviews and photos, and I didn’t like traveling (driving in snow) and being away from my family for days at a time. At the time, it never occurred to me that I could say “no.” The whole thing spun out of control until I got too sick to continue. Keep success manageable! You’re the only one who can do that.
Success attracts more of everything, so be prepared and think some of the issues through ahead of time. Yes, you’ll have more money, which is immensely helpful. But you’ll also have more business expenses, more calls, more e-mail, and more requests for your time (guest blog posts, interviews, Skype chats with book clubs or school groups, reviews). If you’re not careful about limiting what you say “yes” to, you’ll find yourself longing for the days when you just wrote and no one knew about you!
Never think that you must accept everything success brings simply because it has been offered. Decide ahead of time how much of your day or week you’re willing to give to these things, and then stick to it (for the sake of your family, your health and your sanity.)
When success hits and you wonder how to fit everything in, you may want to read a few good time management books, especially those written for writers. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel!
Your friends may change a bit after you are successful too. True friends (writers and non-writers both) will be happy for you, but there are some who will be jealous. If they don’t adjust their attitude, they may drop out of your life.
On the other hand, success as a writer will give you opportunities to meet other successful writers. Some of them will become lifelong friends, those truly kindred souls who speak your language and are as happy about your sales as they are about their own. Treasure these friendships.
Be grateful for your success. Not everyone in this country who would like to be a writer will survive all five stages of success. So be grateful that you have the ability and the freedom to do this. I sure am! I can’t imagine doing anything else.
June 24, 2011
Okay, you prepared (Stage One). You explored your options (Stage Two). You got started (Stage Three). Now you’re ready for Stage Four of “The Five Stages of Success”, where you survive and thrive.
You might have had a very fast start. That would be the writer who published the first thing he submitted, or his first novel was a Newbery Honor Book. These overnight successes are at the extreme end of the bell curve.
The other extreme end of the “survival and growth” stage is where you find the most dedicated, determined writers. They sell articles about “how I made my first sale on my 239th submission” or they sell a book they’ve been working on diligently for twenty years.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. This stage is the most challenging, partly because it’s usually the longest. There is a lot to learn about the writing business, and improving one’s writing craft simply takes time. If you know that and truly understand it, you will enjoy this stage of your success so much more.
It shouldn’t be rushed through. Try to resist society’s “instant gratification” message when it comes to your writing. More and more, I’m receiving emails from new writers saying, “I haven’t had a response in two months from a publisher. I shouldn’t have to wait to be published!” And I think, Why not?
Writers for centuries have had to wait and practice and revise before being published. And thank goodness they did! Even writers like Jane Austen didn’t write early drafts that were very good. So don’t get in a rush. All you will accomplish by that attitude is getting material self-published that is way less than your best is going to be. Nearly everyone I hear from who did this regrets it later.
Growth is Fun
So where’s the success in this stage if it takes such a long time?
I believe there are dozens and dozens of mini-successes spread throughout this stage. They include things like:
- finishing your first book
- attending a conference
- making a new writing friend
- small sales and large sales–celebrate each one!
- being asked to speak to kids or librarians
- the years your income taxes reflect “black” instead of “red”
- good reviews
- book signings (whether you sell many books or not)
- autographing books for your friends and family
- and so many more!
During this “surviving and growing” stage it’s easy to get fixated on all the things you can’t do yet. Don’t forget to notice–and celebrate–that you ARE making it! You are growing. You are getting there, step by step.
If I could do one thing over in my writing life and make one change, this would be it: Celebrate everything!
Pat yourself on the back if no one else does. Reward yourself for each little success. We certainly go on and on about our rejections. Let’s go on and on about the successful steps we make!Newer Posts »