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1. Practice Makes Perfect? Maybe Not!

A book published in 2008 made the claim that, in order to be great in any field, you needed to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. It applied to musicians and writers and doctors–anyone wanting to get better in their chosen field.

However, in a recent newsletter by Scott Young, he pointed out that the author’s research has been misinterpreted. (The book was Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Young makes a very good point, one I had suspected for a long time. It isn’t just about putting in the hours working. It is about practicing our craft.

Aren’t They the Same Thing?

Working and practicing are NOT the same thing. That’s why 10,000 hours of writing might turn one writer into a mega seller, and the other writer might still be unknown.

What you do with those 10,000 hours (or however many you spend writing) makes a lot of difference.

Work vs. Practice

What is the difference between work and practice? According to Young,

Many professionals confuse the two, and as a result their skills stagnate even though they’re investing considerable time. 

Elite athletes don’t get better at their sport just by playing a lot of games. They do drills. Drills are highly focused activities designed to rapidly build proficiency in one minor detail of their sport.

Violinists don’t play every song start to finish to practice. Instead they identify the hardest sections and practice them endlessly until they’ve mastered them.

Yet, when we want to be a better programmer, writer or designer, what do we do? We just work. We don’t practice the highly specific, immediate-feedback oriented tasks necessary to cultivate mastery.

The fix is simple: if you want to get better you need to adopt the mentality of an elite athlete or musician and actually practice (as opposed to just work).

Get the Most from Your Writing Time

None of us have much time to waste. We want to make the precious hours we save for writing really count. How do we do that?

First, much of your writing time will be working time (planning and writing rough drafts and revising).

However, you’d be wise, if you want to be published and build an audience and sell lots of books, to set aside a portion (the bigger, the better) of your time for honest-to-goodness practice. Like the pianist and violinist who practice the hard parts over and over, we writers need to do the same thing.

Tasks to Master

We probably all could name several writing areas where we are weak. If we don’t know, we can ask our critique people. These are the areas to practice.

For example, one of my weak areas is writing figurative language. If I think of one original figure of speech per book, I’m doing well. So what’s my plan?

I’m going to take regular time to practice, using Cindy Rogers’ excellent book, Word Magic for Writers, which is chock full of exercises in every chapter. For feedback, I’ll probably ask a writer friend to look at my exercises (a writer who is especially good at figurative language).

Target Your Practice Time

If we spend our writing time doing the same kind of writing in the same kind of way, we can’t expect to improve very quickly. But if our practice time is intentional–if we target specific weak skill areas–we’ll make observable progress.

How about you? Is there one specific area you could study that would make a big difference in your writing? Or two or three areas that could become goals for 2013? Please share!

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2. Gradual Exposure

exposure

For many reasons, we set writing goals–and then promptly get stuck. The reasons vary:

  • The goal is overwhelming, and we don’t know where to start.
  • We don’t have an hour or two each day to devote to reaching our goal.
  • We don’t really believe you can reach goals “a little bit at a time.”
  • We see others going gung-ho toward similar goals and feel intimidated by their (seemingly) effortless success.

Easy Answer

Regardless of what your writing goal is, one answer that nearly always works is the concept of “gradual exposure.” Certainly gradual exposure can be a negative thing, like the poor frog who is boiled alive when the water temperature gradually rises. But “gradual exposure” can also be a very positive–and easy–concept to work into your writing life.

Gradual exposure simply allows you to take actions toward your daily and long-term writing goals little by little. These small actions build on each other over time and form habits (such as daily writing, networking with other writers, writing a novel, etc.) According to Kelly Stone in Living Write“This technique [of gradual exposure] is particularly helpful in areas where you have resistance to writing or fear taking some action that is required to attain the success you desire.”

One Task Per Day for a Week

Stone’s recommendation for gradually inching your way into your desired writing habit is to break down the task into tiny baby steps. You take one baby step toward your goal every day for a week. And you try to enhance or increase the action daily until you reach your goal.

Example: Let’s say your goal is to eventually write an hour every day. Currently you only write sporadically. Your first week of gradual exposure might look like this:

  • Monday: write 5 minutes
  • Tuesday: write 10 minutes
  • Wednesday: write 15 minutes
  • Thursday: write 20 minutes

and so on until you hit 60 minutes per day.

Or maybe you want a production goal that gradually gets you to the point where you can write 2,000 words per day. Start small, and increase daily by small amounts.

  • Monday: write 200 words
  • Tuesday: write 250 words
  • Wednesday: write 300 words
  • Thursday: write 350 words

Each day is a tiny stretch, but with enough tiny stretches, you can soon be writing those 2,000 words per day this way.

Other types of writing tasks can also be accomplished using ”gradual exposure.” Let’s say you want to eventually have a successful social networking group of writer friends. When starting out, it can look overwhelming! But by using gradual exposure, you can get your feet wet and not feel like you’re drowning. This can apply to getting involved in Facebook, on Twitter, commenting on blogs, writing a blog, etc.

  • Monday:  subscribe to five writing blogs
  • Tuesday: read two blog posts and leave one comment
  • Wednesday: read four blog posts and leave two comments
  • Thursday: [continue building until you scan perhaps ten blogs daily]

When you’ve met your blogging goal, set up a gradual exposure schedule for creating a Facebook page, inviting friends, commenting on others’ posts, etc.

Gradual Vs. Gung-Ho

For me, I think the “magic&

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3. Writing–and Writers–That Last

100_2689

I’m going to reveal my age here–I was born the same year as John-Boy Walton. I loved the Walton family, I own all ten seasons of their show, all the specials, and a few books about them.

 

So when our plane was overbooked and we didn’t get on our overseas flight, we drove from Baltimore to Norfolk, VA, to catch a plane flying out of the Naval Base there. We had four days to relax and read. I was looking at a map of Virginia when suddenly the words “Walton’s Mountain Museum” leaped out at me.

Forty Years Ago!

There it was! Right in the Blue Ridge Mountains, very near Rockfish. The Museum was in Schuyler, the small town where Earl Hamner, Jr. (creator of the Waltons) grew up. The drive took longer than expected, and we very nearly didn’t get there on time to see the 30-minute video before going through the museum. I was entranced, enthralled…

This was my favorite family during their ten-year run on TV. They were considered a goody-goody kind of show. When they were put on the air in September (’73, I think), they were in the same time slot as Flip Wilson’s comedy show and “The Mod Squad.” Earl Hamner said they didn’t think the series had a prayer against those two popular shows–but by Christmas just three months later, “The Waltons” was #1. They remained popular for ten years.

Write What You Know

I always love to see the homes of writers. The Hamner home on a steep hillside (above) was modest for a family that included eight children. The country store sits on the spot where Earl Hamner, Jr. had a writing shed. The church they attended was just around the corner on the country road. We passed several logging trucks and loggers at work as we neared Schuyler–everything very “Walton.”

Whether you loved the Waltons or not, as writers it’s worth thinking about its popularity at a time that everything was “mod” and becoming irreverent. Earl Hamner, Jr. tapped into something that spoke to people. First his books, and then the shows made from his books. How did he do it? He followed the advice of “write what you know.”

Writing That Connects

100_2679He studied people–and what made them tick. He knew specific details: the birds, the trees, the wildflowers on the mountain.

He observed dynamics between people and got to the heart of what made a common man heroic. He wrote and rewrote and rewrote some more.

Hamner is 88 now and lives in California, but you can still buy his autographed books at his boyhood home.

I left the mountain inspired.

[Leave a comment if you were/are a Walton's fan!]

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4. Writer’s Block Revisited

After a couple months this spring of unexpected work and lack of sleep, I’ve found myself battling severe procrastination the past few weeks. I’m getting rested up, but I’m so out of the writing habit that getting started has become a big issue.

Luckily I can usually find a resource on my own shelves!

(FYI: After you finish this post, you may want to read my article on writer’s block called “A Block by Any Other Name…”  at the Absolute Write website .)

A Different Take on Procrastination

One such resource is a book Kurt Vonnegut called “as well researched and helpful a book on writing as I’ve ever read.” It’s Write: 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. by Karen E. Peterson, Ph.D. [See Amazon's great used prices for this book!]

From the author’s website: “Writers want to write, but often find themselves whirling through cyberspace, glued to HBO with a box of doughnuts, careening off to the nearest Starbuck’s, and/or carving out last week’s fossilized spaghetti from the kitchen table.”

Sound familiar? This is what Dr. Karen E. Peterson— who has overcome writer’s block herself—calls ‘the write-or-flight response.’

Write? Or Flight?

In this revolutionary book, a psychologist and novelist presents an effective way to outwit writer’s block. Based on “new brain research and sound psychological principles,” this innovative program shows writers how to conquer writer’s block using:

  • Exercises to conquer the “write-or-flight” response
  • Techniques to create that elusive “writing mood”
  • Parallel monologue and interior dialogue to jumpstart the writing process
  • Checklists to see which side of the brain is blocking you

I fully recommend that little book because it worked for me. (I realize that it doesn’t mean it will work for you, but I think it’s worth a try if procrastination is an issue for you.) It explained the actual physical reasons why certain types of blocks occur–and what to do about them.

(Now, off to read “A Block by Any Other Name…” )

Before you go though, do YOU have a favorite block buster you could share?

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5. Taking Effective Action

actionIn the August edition of Randy Ingermanson’s free (wonderfully  helpful) newsletter, there was a link to a free e-book describing a new time management system Randy is using. (For back issues of Randy’s newsletter, go here.)

 Since “free” is one of my favorite words, and I’m always looking for ways to manage my time better, I downloaded it to skim.

Hooked!

Skimming quickly turned to reading carefully, and soon I’d read the whole 57-page e-book by Jim Stone called Clear Mind, Effective Action. It deals with the subject of “fractal planning.” Fractal has to do with breaking something large into smaller parts. (You can get the free e-book here.)

In some ways fractal planning is unique, and some parts are a combination of the best time management ideas from the past twenty years.

In the free e-book, the author explains how to implement his system on your own (on paper or spreadsheet or Word document), if you don’t want to subscribe to his service. (I’m using a Word doc–for now–to see how it goes. I have to admit that–so far–it has boosted my productivity and ability to focus significantly.) If you’d like to go directly to the Fractal Planner page and check out the features, you can do that here.

If you try the fractal planner or read the e-book, let me know. I’d like to hear about your experiences–plus or minus–if you try it out.

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6. Inner Critics and Time Wasters

criticWriters 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 liondrowning 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 spen

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7. Are You on the Verge? Then Don’t Quit!

[Writing goes in cycles. I am tempted to quit every few years! This weekend when I was particularly frustrated with a revision that isn't going well, I went back through my blog and found this. It helped me--and maybe it's worth repeating for you too. This is from several years ago...]

What’s the Use?

Yesterday I dragged myself to the computer, bone weary, body aching, and tired of my writing project. The last few weeks I’d increased my writing hours a lot to meet my (self-imposed) deadline.

I imagine part of it was not feeling well, but yesterday I looked at the almost complete project and thought, What’s the use? This actually stinks. I bet I’ve wasted the last six months on this.

I couldn’t make myself get to work. So I did what most good writers do when they want to look like they’re working, but they’re not: I checked email.

Rescuing My Writing Day

And thanks to Suzanne Lieurance from “The Working Writer’s Coach” and her “Morning Nudge,” my writing day was rescued. This is what she sent yesterday that got me back to work.

The life of a freelance writer can be very frustrating at times. There are so many things to do and not enough time to do them all. Or - the writing seems to be going nowhere and you just can’t make yourself sit down and write. You work and work, seemingly to no avail.

So you begin to wonder - What’s the point? Am I really getting anywhere? But know this. If you’re starting to feel frustrated because you think you’ve been working WAY too hard for the few results all this work has produced, you’re on the verge (even though it may feel more like you’re “on the edge”). You’re on the verge of creating some powerful momentum.

Stick with it…  So many people give up, just when they are on the verge of great success. Just when they start to feel really frustrated. Just when they feel nothing is going the way they want it to. If that’s how you’re feeling right now - celebrate! You’re on the verge of wonderful, great things! You’re on the verge of creating that powerful momentum that will move your writing career ahead to an entirely NEW and exciting level!

Today, relax and let go of that frustration, knowing you’re on the verge of great things. Try it!

I urge you to sign up today for Suzanne’s daily kick in the writing pants, “The Morning Nudge.” You’ll be glad you did!

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8. Keeping the Dream Alive

fluI’m down with the flu (fever, coughing) and feel rotten, so I’m going to repeat something from a year ago that seems appropriate to me today! I should be back in the swing of things by Friday. *************************************************

dream“Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans.” We’ve all heard that saying. I want to remind you that it’s during these unexpected “life happens” events that you most often lose sight of your writing dreams.

How do we keep that from happening?

According to Kelly Stone in Time to Write, “The only requirement to be a writer is a Burning Desire to Write, coupled with the dedication that that desire naturally creates. Follow that desire up with action and nothing will keep you from success.”

Life Interrupted

I agree with Ms. Stone. Adhere to that formula for success, and you can’t miss. time-to-writeBUT life gets in the way sometimes: personal illness, job loss in the family, sick parents or children, a teen in trouble, a marriage in trouble. It’s at these times when you need to take precautions to keep your dream alive inside you.

Other writers struggle with this too, whether it’s during calm times in life or when there’s more upheaval. “It’s easy to believe that what you do doesn’t matter, but you have to think that it does matter,” says novelist Mary Jo Putney, “that you have stories to tell, and a right to tell them.  You should take the time to yourself to explore this ability. You’ll always be sorry if you don’t do it.”

Practical Tips

There are many tried-and-true actions to take to keep your dream alive. Write out your goals and action plan, breaking it down into small, do-able steps. Set small daily goals, and write–even if it’s only for ten minutes–to stay in the habit. Visualize in great detail having pieces published, autographing your first novel, or quitting your day job to write full-time.

You don’t have time for all that?

Okay, then just do ONE thing. Steve Berry, NY Times bestselling author, said it well: “The number one thing you must do is write. You have to write, write, write, and when you can’t write anymore, write some more.”

Don’t go to bed tonight until you’ve spent at least ten or fifteen minutes writing. Nothing keeps a writer’s dream alive and flourishing like sitting down and writing. Absolutely nothing.

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9. Writerly Lessons Learned

sickBeing sick for ten days recently taught me some lessons.

1) I’m too busy. It’s no wonder I have trouble getting any writing done, much less enjoying it. I’ve noticed for months that I was having a lot of trouble settling down and actually doing my daily writing. I was great at telling other people how to do it, but not good at it myself. So when I was extremely ill–but still getting more writing done than usual–it got my attention. Why was that?

It was because I was running a fever and couldn’t see people or I would spread the plague. Each morning I’d stand in the bathroom, shivering, and take my temperature. If it was over 101, the solution was simple: cancel all meetings I had that day. Most days I cancelled more than one meeting or appointment. In ten days, I cancelled ten things. Two things I really minded (babysitting my grandkids). Eight things I didn’t mind much at all. (And truthfully, five of the things I was thrilled to get out of.)

After being home a week, I realized how lovely it was to be home. I didn’t enjoy being sick, but I loved being able to stay put. And just from being home more, I wrote more. Usually just fifteen or twenty minutes at a time out of sheer boredom, but it all added up. And a lot faster than my “well” days when I pushed myself to write.

The result? I resigned from an office that requires about six or seven hours per month and two meetings per month. I plan to back out of a few more things when my terms are up.

2) The second lesson I learned when sick was that I’m online too much. I had sort of realized this for a long time, and had a goal of not getting online until noon because email and Facebook and surfing ate up too much time. But when sick, I just wanted to be curled up on the couch with the heating pad, blankets, cough drops, and a book. (I don’t have a wireless laptop, thank goodness, so that wasn’t an option.)

After ten days of only being online maybe an hour every other day to attend to editor email and post a blog, I realized how much more I was enjoying my days–even sick! I’m not even sure why, but I find being online too much quite agitating. I don’t read or watch things that are disturbing, so it’s rather a mystery to me, but I definitely notice it.

I’m feeling much better now, but yesterday I deliberately stayed offline because I didn’t need to blog, and I wrote and read and took my book outside and sat in the swing (which I hadn’t done in months) and noticed things (cardinals, daffodils coming up, lawn furniture needing scrubbing). I got the reading done that I needed to do for a class, but it was calming.

3) The third lesson I learned while sick is that I don’t read enough good books. I read a lot of articles online, or books that don’t challenge me but are entertaining before I drop off to sleep. But good books? Challenging books? They’re hard to find.

When my fever dropped after a week or so, I headed to the library for some new books. I had been re-reading classics on my shelf which I loved, but I was ready to concentrate on something new. I brought home six brand new books–I was the first to check them out.

I only ended up reading one of them all the way through, and it was only so-so. The others-many by bestselling authors–I only made it through about fifteen pages. Apparently the trend now in adult books is to switch viewpoints every two or three pages (one book had seven viewpoints in fifteen pages), and it was like being jerked around on a badly edited

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10. Why Write Daily?

writeThere is a famous quote: “If you take one day off writing, your muse will take off the next three.”

In other words, it will take you three days (after skipping writing) for you to get back into the flow of your writing project. Even taking one full day off will cost you in focus.

I don’t know why this is, but when you finally get back to writing, you can expect some uncomfortable, not-fun writing days, producing stuff that stinks. Several writers I’ve read lately say that if you’ve been away from your writing for a week or more, you can expect about ten days of writing that is no more fun than getting teeth pulled when you start again.

When I say “away from your writing,” that’s what I mean too. Sometimes–and I am sooo guilty of this–we fool ourselves that we’re writing when we’re:

  • Reading a writing magazine or blog
  • Marketing a story (looking for publishers, printing copies, going to the post office)
  • Blogging
  • Journaling
  • Answering email to writers, editors and family members
  • Speaking at writer’s conferences
  • Going to book signings or book store readings
  • Posting to Facebook or Twitter

That’s not the kind of writing I mean. Those are writing-related tasks, and writers today have more and more of them, it seems. They have to be done. But they don’t take the place of writing.

In the Flow

To stay in the groove, so to speak, you don’t have to write for hours and hours every day (although hours are lovely and the more, the better.) I have found that if I work on my novel for even twenty minutes a day, I can avoid that horrible getting started angst the next day. And I don’t have to waste time trying to remember where I was, what the characters were feeling, what the plot problem was, or that new insight I realized about the theme. Our brains seem to be able to hold onto those things for about 24 hours.

As Heather Sellers said in Page by Page, “I try to avoid missing days. The not-writing days aren’t worth it! It’s too hard to get back into it. This is why athletes cross-train off season. This is why people who are successful with weight management stay below a certain weight. It just isn’t worth it. Getting back into shape is just too hard. It is easier to keep doing it, tiny little writing periods, day after day. Without missing a day.”

Too Late?

What if you’ve already missed a few days, or weeks, or months of writing? Then start again. But you can also take this to the bank: your writing will stink, you will hate it or question your story or your talent or your motives, you will feel self-indulgent, and writing for twenty minutes will feel like hours. But this really uncomfortable period is usually necessary. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that-if you stick it out for about ten days straight-it will pass. The muse will return, the writing will be fun again, you’ll realize how much you missed it, you’ll love your writing rituals and routine, and you’ll wake up eager to write as you did in the past.

Once you regain that wonderful writing state, do everything you can to maintain it. If you know you have a super busy day tomorrow, set your alarm twenty minutes earlier and write before the day takes over. It doesn’t take much writing to stay in the flow-not nearly as much as it takes

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11. Fiction’s Magic Ingredient

magic[Back in December I told you about an online writing class I planned to take. I promised to follow up on it when it was over. This is my review.]

I just finished Jordan Rosenfeld’s eight-week online writing class called “Fiction’s Magic Ingredient.” She’s the author of that very helpful book Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time.

Here’s the class arrangement: there was material to read each week, then send-in assignments (usually two assignments ranging from 500 to 1000 words long) which Jordan critiqued and returned within a few days. We could write new material or apply the lessons to a work in progress (which I did). [More about the class below.]

When I first read through the exercises Jordan wanted us to do, I tried them out in my head, and they sounded easy. On paper, though, it was a different story!

The Rubber Meets the Road

Heather Sellers (in Chapter After Chapter) remarked on this phenomenon. “A failing we writers have is that we confuse the voices in our heads with writing; we tend to do exercises in our heads because thinking and writing feel so closely related…What’s in your head does not count, not for sculpture, not for book writing. Pencil on paper is what matters.”

The work we all did for Jordan’s class reminded me of such writing exercises. I often read the exercises and think I understand and will be able to whip it off in no time flat. Not so! 

Even after revising each assignment several times, Jordan’s insightful critiques came back with more suggestions on how to take the concept further, go deeper, weed out the clichés, and much more.  I felt challenged–and grateful that I got my money’s worth. I have gone on to apply the lessons to my novel this week.

Comparing Prices

I don’t mean to over-emphasize the money issue, but most of us need to get the most bang for our buck that we can. I was comparing the cost of Jordan’s class (I signed up early to get her discount) and was very pleased with what I received.

The material sent each week (5-6 single spaced pages) was new material, not excerpts from Jordan’s excellent Make a Scene book. The new material built on that. The amount of critiquing we received really surprised me. It was much more than you get at a writer’s conference where you pay extra for a faculty critique.

Last year I signed up and paid for (in advance) two writing conferences. The cost of each conference (not including hotel room or food) plus the personal critique (which was extra) was as much or more than Jordan’s online class–and you got much less for it, in my opinion.

So Flexible!

The other thing I noticed was related to health and family issues. About the two conferences I signed up for last year: I had a family emergency during the first one and was running a fever the other time–and missed b

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12. The “Not To Do” List

listI once had an apartment with one large hall closet. At first it was roomy and organized. Over the two years I lived there, it grew more and more crowded and chaotic as I stuffed more and more junk into it. One day, I realized I couldn’t jam one more thing in there and still close the door.

Something was going to have to come OUT before more would go IN.

Time is Like a Closet

One year I took some online classes plus set up a self-study program to grow in my writing craft. It would require around four hours per day to do everything I wanted to do. Given the fact that I NEVER had four free hours in a day, where was that time going to come from?

One thing I love to do on January 1 is change calendars: wall calendars in kitchen and office, desk calendars (daily and monthly) in my office, and pocket calendars for my purse. The squares of the New Year calendar pages are virtually pristine and pure. An occasional appointment already made dots a square or two, but that’s all.

The calendars I pitch have perhaps one or two clean white squares per month with nothing scheduled. Just looking at them makes me feel tired. I know from experience, though, that the clean calendars will soon look just as jam-packed as the old calendars if I didn’t take steps NOW to prevent it.

But how?

Create a “NOT To-Do” List

To make time for some new things I wanted to do, I had to look at the calendar and find the time wasters. Some events are important to me and will stay on my new schedule: our weekly potluck supper with my grown kids and grandkids, teaching Sunday school at the Air Force base to basic trainees, my every-other-week critique group, leading DivorceCare at church, and blogging 3X/week. These activities feed my goals of a strong extended family, volunteer service, and growth as a writer.

However, I noticed a LOT of stuff on my calendar that could easily go. (Well, easily in the sense that I wouldn’t miss it. Difficult in the sense that it would mean saying “no” more often-and people pleasers like me hate that.)

My Personal “Not To-Do” List

I know the Internet eats up a lot of time for me. This year I’ve decided to stay offline until noon by adding the blog the night before so it posts automatically in the morning without me being online. Before I go to bed at night, I remove the laptop (which has the Internet connection) from my office altogether. It’s easier to deal with the temptation this way. Out of sight, out of mind! Reading other people’s blogs, posting on Twitter and Facebook, and answering e-mail can wait till later in the day.

No more “come and buy something” parties. I don’t like parties selling jewelry, home interior decorations, clothing, pots and pans, etc. I am also going to limit how many invitations I accept to showers. At my age, every woman is having grandkids and giving baby showers for friends having new grandkids. I rarely know their children or grandchildren. The shower only appears to take two hours, but by the time you’ve bought and wrapped a gift, gotten yourself ready, and driven to and from in heavy city traffic, it kills about eight hours. A gift card in the mail would be fine most of the time. (Not sure I’ll ever get up the guts to RSVP with, “Hey, I’ve never even met your kid, and I barely even know you, so I won’t be coming or sending a gift.”) Sounds very Scroogey, I know. But ooooh, so tempting.

I will no longer clean the house before the every-other-month visit by the Ork

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13. Acting AS IF

acting(First re-read the post The Thought-Feeling-Behavior Cycle.)

After a couple of busy weekends (writing conferences to speak at) and other events, I was finally able to sit down for a lengthy time yesterday and write. Or so I thought.

I sat down all right, but once I finally had an uninterrupted moment to think, a certain situation that has been bothering me for months came flooding back. I couldn’t concentrate on my novel, and I was up and down. I walked. I ate. I sorted laundry. I worried. I ate some more. Later in the day, I Skyped a friend. But I didn’t write until…

Ah, Yes, I Remember

I picked up a book by Kelly L. Stone, author of Living Write: the secret to inviting your craft into your daily life. I flipped through it and landed on the chapter called “Acting As If.” I knew this was a phrase from my old recovery group days basically meaning “fake it till you make it.”

I reviewed the thoughts-feelings-action cycle. Since my thoughts were unruly, and my feelings were haywire, I figured that “acting like a writer anyway” was my best option. I read her chapter on “Acting As If.” Here are a couple snippets to think about:

  • People draw conclusions about themselves through observation of their own behavior just as they draw conclusions about other people based on observation of their behavior.
  • Simply act a certain way based on your ideal Writer Self-Image, and over time, you become what you are acting.

Attack that Cycle!

A licensed professional counselor, Stone had many practical suggestions about how to act “as if” you’re a confident writer, act “as if” you’re a self-motivated writer, act “as if” you’re a self-disciplined writer, act “as if” you’re a future-focused writer, and act “as if” you’re a task-oriented writer. [I definitely recommend her book.]

I used one suggestion in the “task-oriented” section, acted “as if,” and got to work. Even though it was later in the day, I had the evening free and ended up with one of the most productive writing days I’d had in a long time. (I’m re-reading that chapter first thing today though!)

Don’t give up. We’re all in this together, and I’m grateful for writers like Kelly Stone who share what works!

[NOTE: Thanks for the inquiries about the release date for the paperback of More Writer's First Aid. I thought it would be yesterday, but it looks like this weekend. I will certainly let you know!]

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14. What Are the Odds?

acornRecently at a conference we were comparing stories about how long it is taking lately for our publishers to respond to our submissions or queries.

Right now, each of us is experiencing a huge “non-response” in some way.  (In my own case, three people that didn’t get back to me had been “let go” in down-sizing moves.) No writer I know is exempt from the economic upheaval of our times.

The news is grim for writers, wherever you turn. Predictions make your heart sink, and you may wonder if you’re just beating your head against a brick wall if you keep writing. I read something this morning–from a weight loss newsletter, of all things–that put this question in perspective for me.

Are You Nuts?

The opening quote said: “The mighty oak was once a nut that stood its ground.” (unknown source) It was followed by:

On July 24, 2004, there was a 0% chance of rain in Cincinnati. No way was it going to rain, according to the people who should know best. You know what? Despite millions of dollars worth of sensors, computers, and forecasting systems, the weather experts were wrong. It rained, against all odds. This is not a criticism of weather people. It’s just a reminder of all the people who were given 0% chance of making it by the “experts,” but who succeeded anyway. Whenever accomplishments are on the line, there are always voices whispering, preaching–even shouting–that it can’t be done. Sometimes, that voice is coming from inside our own heads. If you’re having doubts about your abilities, just remember: How many times have the naysayers been proven wrong? No matteracorn2 what anyone says–no matter what you might believe–it can be done. The nut can become a tree. There’s always a chance of rain.

Stand Your Ground

Until the dust settles economically, I urge you to continue writing, to continue studying and improving your craft, and to maintain your good writing habits. The tide will turn again. When it does, and publishers begin to buy once more, you’ll be ready with your best submissions.

Whether you’re still an acorn writer with lots of potential, or a half-grown oak, continue to follow your dream. Don’t let others’ negative opinions and predictions determine the state of your goals and writing life.

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15. Regain the Passion (Part 2)

(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.

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16. Time Management Tools and Strategies

time

There is one aspect of a writer’s life that will always be with us: change.

Just about the time you get a workable writing schedule (write during baby’s naptime, write on lunch hour at work), something changes. The toddler refuses to nap; the quiet lunchroom gets taken over by the wellness aerobics class. Your writing schedule has to go back to the drawing board.

Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel

I’m heading into a season of some big changes myself now, and it will definitely impact my writing schedule. But I know that thousands of writers have gone before me, and hundreds have shared their time management ideas in books and magazines and on websites.

Here are some good links for you to check out! Even if you’re managing your time just fine now, I’d suggest bookmarking these sites for later. At some point, life will change. You’ll move into a new season–and need additional strategies then.

Maybe you prefer reading books, like I do. A list of my favorite books on time management is posted here.

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17. Best of the Web

www

For your reading pleasure today…

**Trendspotting: Readers Spending on Books: Some of the findings surprised me here–in a good way.

**Bad Agents: If you want an agent, read these warnings before “falling” for someone unethical or someone who “over promises” but “under delivers.”

**You Aren’t J.A. Konrath: Here’s some startling (to me, at least!) news about how well independently self-published e-book fiction is selling.

**If Not Now, Then When?: Even if you can’t live your whole dream today, what piece of it CAN you implement?

**Does Age Matter in Fiction Writing? Is there an age bias against older writers today? If so, what can you do about it? (You’d also enjoy the blog Fiction After Fifty for older writers.)

How About YOU?

What have YOU read lately online that you think would benefit other writers? Post a link and title of the blog with your comment!

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18. Ideas for Today’s Readers

ideaWant to know an easy way to think of both ideas for story conflicts and ideas for nonfiction? I read this idea in a newsletter by Angela Booth, and I wanted to pass it along.

People want to learn how to do things, how to solve things, and how to overcome problems.

Challenges in All Sizes

People have small problems and huge problems to overcome. They want to accomplish small things (organize an office), overcome medium challenges (potty train a toddler), and survive huge things (like being laid off from a job).

Do you write for kids? Just scale down the ideas. Children and teens want to organize their bedrooms, paper train a puppy, and survive their dad being laid off. Each “want to do” activity could be an article, a whole series of online articles, or the central plot of a book (either serious or humorous).

Technique to Generate Ideas

“Go to Google.com and enter ‘How do I’ with a VERB into the search query field. With the magic of Google Instant, you’ll get lots of ideas,” says Angela Booth.

For example, I entered “How do I make” (without quotes) and got:

  • How do I make clear ice cubes like in a restaurant?
  • How do I make my hair grow faster?
  • How do I make an electromagnet?
  • How do I make a pinewood derby car do faster? 

This doesn’t just generate ideas. It generates ideas that thousands of people are interested in! It generates topics for your writing that people want to read about. And many of the topics can be adjusted if you write for children and teens. (Example from above: a child may not care about making clear ice cubes for his dinner party, but it would make a great science fair project. And that science fair project can be a nonfiction article or a plot/subplot in your novel.)

See the possibilities? Try lots of verbs in your search, Googling “how do I build” and “how do I create” and “how do I quit” and so many others!

If you try this technique, give an example in a comment. I bet we could come up with some really unusual ideas this way!

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19. First Fifty Days

writerLife takes over sometimes, unless you live on a remote island somewhere. Even happy events–new babies, company, holidays–can sidetrack you temporarily.

Today I realized that I couldn’t even remember some of the “must do” daily tasks of the 100-Day Challenge. Reviewing the weekly challenge letters turned out to be a great way to pump me up again!

Fall Back and Re-Group!

Here, in a nutshell, are some of the tips, tricks, methods and pointers of the 100-Day Challenge that I’ve found to be most helpful. So instead of giving up the Challenge because I totally missed many of the days, I’m recommitting for the final 50 Days to do the following:

  • Set your goal and break that major goal down into small tasks. Do one small task daily. The only trap you can fall into is to make your daily tasks too complex. Please write this down: “A task is something which takes no longer than 10, 20 or 30 minutes.” When you chunk every task down into slivers of time, it stops you procrastinating. If you only have 20 minutes to do a task, you’ll do it. (Use a timer, either a kitchen one or a freeware timer for your computer-Google “Timer Utility” for some free choices.)
  • Talk to yourself on paper (or on screen) about your writing. Instead of thinking about writing or thinking about your goals, get that thinking down on paper or screen. Take baby steps, putting one word down after the other. Keep a notebook or file open where you frequently talk to yourself and make notes about anything concerning your writing life. You will stop being intimidated by the art of writing–it will just be something you do. (For more about this see “Write It All Down.”)
  • Document everything. Write down your goals and plans. Write down each day what you did toward meeting those goals. Every little bit.  Brainstorm about your strengths and weaknesses–and things you can do to overcome obstacles. Angela said, “If you get into the habit of journaling, and talking to yourself about your writing, you’ll be amazed at the breakthroughs in your writing that you’ll achieve.” Based on the days I used her idea, I have to agree!
  • Make a comprehensive Master Task List. (This took several days, but I now have a three-page single spaced list of small 20-30 minute tasks. The tasks are organized into six areas that encompass the writing and marketing things I hope to accomplish.) Now when I have a 20-30 minute “window of opportunity,” I don’t have to try to think of something I can finish in that amount of time. I just grab my list, choose one, set the timer and go.
  • Keep your goal, or goals, in focus. You may find it helpful to rewrite your primary goal each day. Rewrite it on a sticky note (real paper or on your computer screen) several times a day. This helps you to refocus and remember what’s important to you–and why it’s important.
  • Do confidence building activities. Re-read frequently the confidence-building thoughts you’ve worked on. See Add a Comment
20. Writing in 20-Minute Slices

salamiThirty years ago I read an article that said writing was like eating a salami. You’d choke if you tried to swallow the whole thing at once. Slice by slice, though, it was easy.

These 20-minute Challenge tasks are “slices of salami.”

100-Day Challenge

I had several questions from writers doing the 100-Day Challenge about how to break writing tasks into those 20-30 minute slices. At the beginning of the challenge, I made a three-page single-spaced list of such tasks, covering several project areas (a novel revision, a possible nonfiction e-book, and marketing).

The beauty of the list to me is that I don’t have trouble getting started. I pick a task-not necessarily in the order listed-set my time, and get going! Since getting started has always been my biggest hurdle, the list goes a long way toward getting me over that hump.

Examples of Short Tasks

If your main project is fiction, and you only have 20-30 minutes to write, pre-thinking is critical before you sit down at the keyboard. Otherwise you’ll waste your time getting started and focusing. I became skilled at pre-thinking when I was first taking this ICL course because I had a preschooler, a toddler and a newborn. I wrote in 10-minute slices back then.

I made long lists of tasks for stories I wanted to write. The tasks covered such things as outlining steps, “creative steps” like thinking of character and setting names, mechanical steps (e.g. write opening scene), revision steps, and marketing steps.

The list of short fiction ”slices” would include things like:

  • Think of three titles
  • Revise titles to be more suspenseful
  • Decide on main character’s name
  • Decide on ending
  • Write physical character description of mother
  • Look up street names and weather in XXX town

Nonfiction “slices” might include:

  • Fact check xxxxx
  • Organize sources into alphabetical bibliography list
  • Revise (or tighten) opening

Examples for marketing might be:

  • Find three agent blogs to read
  • Find three publishers’ blogs to read
  • Read one blog post and leave a comment
  • Set up a Twitter account
  • Get domain name at GoDaddy.com

I was going to list some of my own 20-minute tasks for you, but I realized they wouldn’t mean anything to anyone but me. (e.g. check out Blogger Link Up, check epiphanies re: p. 194 MAC, make “sense” lists for each scene in last chapter) But I think the examples above give you a better idea of breaking things down into small slices.

Estimating Time Needed

Realize that it’s difficult to estimate times correctly. Sometimes I gave myself twenty minutes to do a certain task, and it only actually took me five minutes. Other times, the task took me three 20-minute periods to finish.

For example, one of my 20-minute tasks was to set up my author page on Amazon.com. (I have needed to do this for more than fifteen years!) My friend did hers in 20 minutes, but even though we were adding the same amount of info, I took three 20-minute times to finish mine. It took me the first twenty minutes just to read and understand the directions, another twenty to write the bio, and another twenty to add the book jackets and video trailer. (Actually there was another twenty minutes spent later because some of the dust jackets wouldn’t load, which I gave up on.)

I hope these examples have helped you and given you ideas for breaking down your own

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21. Who’s in Charge? (Part 3)

actionDid you read “Who’s in Charge?” (Part 1) and “Who’s in Charge?” (Part 2) first?

Life is one choice after another. We have to choose our writing thoughts, which help shape our writing attitudes, and that leads us to the next level: actions. This is where the writing rubber meets the road. 

Actions

A committed attitude will make choosing your actions easier. When you’re willing to do whatever it takes to revamp your personal life so you can write, the choices become clearer.

  • You will do things like choosing to write before doing the dishes, even though it bugs you to leave dirty dishes in the sink.
  • You will choose to write for an hour instead of watch TV or talk on the phone.
  • You will choose to have that lower carb/higher protein lunch so your writing energy is high all afternoon.
  • You will choose to retire at a decent hour so you’re alert to create the next morning.
  • You’ll consciously choose to make quality time with your family so you can write without feeling guilty–and without being neglectful.
  • Instead of a mental wish list, you’ll choose to set goals, write them down, and even make a poster for your wall so you’re staring at them daily.
  • You will choose to settle family quarrels and resolve conflicts partly because NOT doing so saps all your writing energy.

Just One Fork After Another!

You will make choices in all areas of your life that will support your writing instead of making it more difficult. Each time you come to a fork in the road, try to make a choice that will put you in charge of your writing. Each choice might look small, but these decisions add up to your writing life.

It might sound restrictive, but it’s really not. In 2011, I hope we all find that freedom that comes from being in charge of ourselves–and thus, our writing.

What is one action you would change today if you could?

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22. Mood-Dependent Writing Stages

productToday I was tired and headache-y, yet I needed to get some writing done. I don’t know about you, but I find writing a grueling challenge on the rare days I feel rotten.

That’s why I found a chapter in The Write Type by Karen E. Peterson very encouraging. The author said that not all the stages of producing a story or book involve heavy-duty creative thinking. If you’re not feeling the best somedays, use that time for a writing job that requires less energy–but still has to be done sometime.

Three of the following stages you’ll be familiar with (prewriting, writing and rewriting.) The other three stages are writing jobs you have to do but rarely give yourself credit for.

Stages of Writing

  • Read-writing: Reading what you’ve already written before revising
  • Co-writing: Discussing with another writer what you want to write or have written, getting feedback and encouragement
  • Rote-writing: typing up lists, references, and hand-written revisions
  • Prewriting: Gathering notes, ideas, and resources, plus jotting down ideas or outlines
  • Writing: creating the story, article, poem, or book
  • Rewriting: editing, revising and proofing

What To Do?

Each stage of writing requires a different kind of energy and concentration. What is most helpful is to match your energy level to the task. It all has to be done at some point, but much of it doesn’t have to be done in order.

And if you’re exhausted, start with the easiest task. That’s what I did today. I had go through some photos I’d taken, find and watch a couple of YouTube videos on a process I couldn’t quite picture, type up a list from scraps of notes, and re-read a revised chapter to see if it held together.

It took a couple of hours, I made progress, I got some needed writing jobs done on the project, and I didn’t make my headache worse. A good day!

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23. Words, Words, and More Words

I need to get a lot of writing done this month, despite the holidays. We’re advised to keep a record of words written each day, so as I was dividing up what needed to be done, I was thinking of ways to keep track of the revision words.

It’s much easier to track rough draft words. You can count 2,000 new words done today because you wrote eight new pages. With revision, it’s harder to measure.

Not an Exact Science

I might revise two chapters, but do I say I revised 5,000 words? Only 1,000 of those words might have needed fixing, since the pages had been revised many times already. Tomorrow I might hit a very rough chapter or one that needs extensive changes, and so I’d only be able to say I revised 1,000 words, even though I actually worked twice as long.

How do you track your writing? Daily words written? Daily words revised? Hours written, regardless of the word count? Do you use scraps of paper or a spreadsheet to tally your word count?

Keeping track is encouraging, showing that you’ve made progress, but I haven’t found a system yet that truly works for me. For one writer’s view on this subject, see Rob Parnell’s “How Many Words Do You Write?” posted on his Easy Way to Write blog.

 Non-Writing Writing Time

Another angle on this subject asks: Is learning about writing a good substitute for writing? On Mary DeMuth’s blog, someone said, “I’d be published but … I’m too busy learning how to write instead of just writing.” That takes time too, right?

On her “So You Want to be Published” blog, Mary’s answer was in part: “There is a balance between the two. You do need to study the craft by reading excellent writing books and magazines. Perusing classics or exceptionally-written modern book helps too. Listening to teachers, attending conferences, doing online courses, and putting your stuff out there for critique will help tremendously. But truly? The secret to my publishing success lies most in volume. I’ve simply written and written and written and written. Lots of writing. Gobs of it. For years and years. To become proficient and compelling, there’s no simple formula other than to exercise your fingers across the keyboard over and over and over again.”

I am a better writer when I write nearly every day. But I can also fool myself about how much I’m writing unless I keep track with some system. I need both accountability and encouragement.

Anybody got a great system for tracking word counts for rough drafts and also revisions? Let me hear from you!

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24. Set Goals NOW for 2011

new-yearIn less than a month, it will be 2011. Now is the time to set some goals for the new year.

The main question you need to answer is this: how will you get from where you are to where you want to be?

Get It In Writing

In “writing life” workshops, I’ve used an exercise to help you get to where you want to be. I recommend buying a spiral notebook for these exercises. You want a place to keep your notes and ideas about your goals.

Allow yourself two or three hours to work on these three exercises. Do them alone, or with your writing group. I work on something similar every December as I think ahead to the coming year.

1) Honestly assess where you are in your writing and illustrating career. Consider and answer these questions in writing.

  • How many hours per week do you actually practice your craft? (Use a timer.)
  • How many books/stories/articles do you read in an average month (of the type you want to write)?
  • How many queries per month do you send out, if you’re a nonfiction writer?
  • Do you have a daily writing practice of some kind, such as journaling or writing exercises from a list of prompts?

2) Visualize (and write down in great detail) your ideal writing life. Describe a perfect writing routine, the physical writing environment of your dreams, your image of wonderful family support, etc. We all have an ideal image in our minds of the perfect writing life. Write it down. (Mine involves such things as porch swings, hot chocolate, journaling, and reading Jane Austen on breaks.)

3) List three things you would attempt to write if you knew you could not fail. Image yourself in your ideal writing life. There are no risks here, no rejections, no bad reviews or bad writing days. If you knew everything you’d write would sell, what kind of writing would bring you satisfaction and fulfillment? Dream bigger than you’ve ever allowed yourself to dream before.

An old adage says “plan your work, and work your plan.” That’s especially appropriate for goal-setting.

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25. S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g in 2011

stretchOn Wednesday I suggested thinking ahead to 2011 and setting goals for your writing now . Then you can hit the floor running on January 1.

I’m doing the same thing myself. I do try to practice what I preach!

Always More to Learn

Several of you emailed me to ask what I intended to do in the new year, in case I was doing another online challenge or study program. They are fun to do together! And yes, I’ve signed up for a class myself. (More about that in a minute.)

I never want to stop learning. In addition to reading, one year I did an online course on “Defeating Self-Defeating Behaviors.” Another year I designed my own “Self Study Advanced Writing Program.” Right now I am finishing up the “100-Day Challenge” that many of you joined me on. It ends on January 1, 2011.

My First 2011 Goal

Earlier this week I gave you a Christmas list of my favorite writing books for this past year. One was Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld. I wish I’d read this years ago! She’s teaching an 8-week online class based on the book which snagged my attention.

You know me, though–I don’t part with money lightly! I wanted to know how the class was set up and what you’d get for the price, so I asked. In part, Jordan’s answer was: “My classes are as interactive as the students are–if they participate in the group discussion (which I facilitate), then it’s lively. Work is critiqued by me, weekly. Lessons are uploaded via yahoo groups, so they can download at their leisure, and I email assignments back. Students can choose to critique each other’s work, but it is not mandatory.”

In my opinion, that’s a lot for the money. The weekly critiques are what caught my eye the most. The $40 off special price is good till December 20, if anyone wants to join me!

Stretch Yourself!

One good thing about taking a class is that you have to write to a deadline. It’s hard to set your own deadlines and make them stick in the early days when you’re not writing for a contract’s deadline. And online classes work for me–I don’t have to go anywhere!

If you’re just starting out, and you need something basic to launch your career, I highly recommend The Institute of Children’s Literature course. That’s where I got my own start many years ago. (And no, I don’t get any money or perks for students who sign up. Not sure how that rumor  started!) 

Whatever you decide to do in 2011, make a pledge to yourself to keep growing as a writer. I’d love to have you leave a comment and tell me what writerly thing you’re planning to

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