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1. Stage 2: Committing to Change

decision(First read The Dynamics of Change and Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind)

Okay, we’re ready for Stage 2: Committing to Change. This is not taking action yet. Instead, this stage involves:

1) Planning the necessary steps
2) Building up your motivation
3) Considering possible distractions and/or discouraging things that might cause a setback

The change you make at this point is to shift from “passively wishing to achieve your goal to actively committing to make it happen.” (Neil Fiore in Awaken Your Strongest Self.) If you did the work in Stage 1 (thinking through the risks and benefits, plus evaluating your personal abilities), you should have fairly realistic expectations of what does–and doesn’t–work for you at your particular stage of life.

Time to Experiment

Before you plan the necessary steps to succeed in making permanent changes as a writer, you’ll want to take time to experiment in small ways. See what you like and don’t like. See what works for you–and what doesn’t.

  • Try writing for 15 minutes upon awakening or right after your morning coffee.
  • Stay offline until 10:00 a.m. for three days.
  • Try writing at the library during two lunch hours this week.
  • Read a writing blog before you get on Facebook or Twitter.

Record your thoughts and feelings when you introduce these writing changes. How do you feel? What works and what doesn’t? You can’t fail at this stage. You are only gathering information.

Some of these changes you’ll love and find so easy! Others you won’t find helpful at all. But as you succeed with certain writing changes (writing 15 minutes each evening while supper cooks, reading 5 pages per day of a writing book), your motivation will rise. You’ll feel more like a writer automatically.

Mental Rehearsals

During this stage you also need to think through strategies for dealing with obstacles, distractions and setbacks. One of the most effective (and fun!) ways to do this is using what athletes call “mental rehearsals.” They imagine how they’ll handle challenges at each step along the way. [NOTE: This is not just wishful thinking. Current books on brain chemistry show incredible studies and brain x-rays, revealing changes made in the brain after "mental rehearsals."]

Envisioning how you will handle writing distractions (toddlers wanting to be entertained, friends calling to chat, school vacations) and setbacks (an editor rejects your novel after two revisions, computer crashes) helps you build stamina or mental toughness.

Use mental movies to confront each setback or distraction. Instead of your usual reaction (chocolate, TV, surfing the ‘Net), clearly envision yourself sitting tight, working methodically through your writing problem, piling up a stack of new pages, and keeping to your deadline with ease.

Not all interruptions and distractions happen to us. Be aware that you often seek out distractions as well. In order to escape writing blocks or manuscripts that just aren’t working well, we often attempt to escape the anxiety or boredom or agitation by looking for distractions.

Are You Ready?

The final part of Stage 2 is actually committing to the change. Take time to think and journal about the strength of your commitment. If you want to succeed–and make the success permanent–it needs to be more than a wish. It needs to be a strong intention.

So, what do you intend to do? What change(s) in your writing life do you intend to make? Now is the time to commit.

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2. Age: Are You Too Old to Write?

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” –Satchel Paige

I had two new students last week mention that they were probably too old to start writing. I’d like to debunk that myth. It’s never too late to get started! It’s always a good time to tackle a new dream.

What’s Age Got To Do With It?

Jessica Tandy won the Academy Award for Best Actress at age eighty. James Michener didn’t write his first novel until age forty-two, then produced a gazillion bestsellers before he died at age ninety. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first Little House book was published when she was 65. There’s a woman in my neighborhood who can out-run me, and she’s at least seventy. I started biking last year (that’s me in the picture), and while my no frills bike (foot brakes, one speed) marks me as old, I can pass younger people going up hills.

Youth isn’t everything–not in physical endeavors, nor mental ones. Certainly not in writing!

Experience Rules!

Become comfortable with your current age, even if it’s not what you wish it were. You have tremendous writing potential because you’ve lived long enough to have learned a lot. You have life experience! By now you’ve been in the work force in one career or more. You’ve raised children–enough material there alone to last a lifetime!

Some years ago I had an elderly student (70′s) who wrote beautiful historical fiction lifted straight out of her childhood–a la Laura Ingalls Wilder. She loved doing it! She didn’t have to do any research, yet her descriptions were superb and rich with detail because she drew on her personal experiences.

Time’s a Wastin’

If writing and publishing are aspirations for you–but you’ve come to it later in life than others–please don’t let that stop you. If you come to the end of your life, will you be disappointed that you didn’t try? I think you will.

You have the same qualities that drive younger writers: creativity, perseverance, and a passion to succeed. You may not have as much energy, but you probably have a much larger pool of ideas and experiences to draw from. You may also have more time to choose what to do now that children have grown and flown the coop.

Don’t be afraid to start something new at any stage of life. Chances are good that, if you apply yourself like any other writer, it’s not too late to succeed.

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3. Achieving the Writing Life of Your Dreams

Achieving the writing life of your dreams–is it possible? Are you closer to it than you were a year ago?

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.

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4. 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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5. What Am I Called to Write?

wfa-book2-900x1200-borderAnnouncement first, then today’s blog post… For those who wrote and asked when More Writer’s First Aid would be a print book, you can now buy a trade paperback at Amazon.com. Many of you are just like me–and still prefer a non-electronic book to hold. Comments from reviewers and bloggers can be found on my website.


What Am I Called to Write?

callingDo you have a writing gift? Do you have a knack with words? Do you feel an  inner desire to write? Most of you who read this blog said a resounding “yes!” to those questions a long time ago.

And yet, one of the most common email or conference questions I hear is, “How do I know what I’m supposed to write?”

So Many Possibilities!

Sometimes the confusion is about subject matter. Should you write homeschool educational materials? Tips on raising children?Picture books that help preschoolers overcome fears? Humorous books to make teens laugh?

Sometimes the question involves age groups. Should you focus on preschoolers,early childhood, lower or upper elementary, YA, adults? Should you zero in on one age group or be flexible, writing for all ages?

Sometimes we wonder about form. Should we try a verse novel? Rhyming picture books? Series fiction? Nonfiction with photographs? Hardcover stand-alone novels?

Clues to the Answers

The following set of questions from The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright are some ways you can explore those questions and perhaps find some answers. Take time with each question–each one serves a particular purpose.

  • The activity that gives me greatest joy is…
  • The good qualities that best describe my life are…
  • The help that people often solicit from me is…
  • The part of my personality that I would most hate to lose is…
  • The work that is most satisfying to me is…
  • The activity that I feel drawn to, even when it’s scary, is…

Finding Your Writing Niche

When I began writing thirty years ago, I only knew two things: I loved to read, and I loved my small children. I read the ICL ad and something went off inside of me, like a little burst of fireworks.  Me? A writer? Neat!

But what kind of writing?

I assumed

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6. Knowing When to Quit

quitWe don’t like to talk about quitting or giving up on our dreams. But let’s be honest. Will every wannabe writer eventually land big contracts,  snag a well-known NY agent, and be sent on ten-city book tours? No.

Maybe your dreams are more modest, but you’ve worked at breaking into publishing for years. Should you continue the struggle? For how long? How do you know when to quit?

Asking the Wrong Question

I came across an excellent discussion from a blog post that is several years old, but the advice is timeless. Called “When to Quit,” it’s a lengthy article by Scott Young on this subject. I hope you’ll read it to the end.

One factor the article said to consider was how you feel on a day-to-day basis as you pursue your dream. How is the process affecting your life, your character, your growth? “So if you are pursuing your dream and you don’t think you are going to make it, the question of whether or not to quit doesn’t depend on your chance of success. The real question is whether pursuing this dream is causing you to grow. Does this path fill you with passion and enthusiasm? Do you feel alive?”

You may not agree with all his views, but I guarantee that the article will make you think–even if you have no intention of quitting. It might lead you to make a course correction however. And it will make you evaluate why you’re pursuing your particular dream–and that’s always a good thing!

If you have a minute, give me your reactions to the ideas in his article.

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7. Your Weekend Reading Pleasure

computerSome terrific reading is waiting for you this weekend! The articles below from around the Web will give you writing and marketing help, help you see through the current publishing confusion, and even show you ways to get your kids to read through the summer.


“Is Publishing Turning into the Wild West?” The publishing world has changed radically in the last couple of years, thanks to those pesky e-books. Do the old rules still apply? Does chaos rule? Or are there ways to survive and thrive in the new environment? [Terrific article here by Randy Ingermanson, plus interesting comments.]

“A Dozen Ways to Get Your Child to Read Over the Summer and Have Fun Doing It!” Every year student assessments show that when kids take a break from school over the summer and they don’t read or have any reading instruction during that time, their reading skills are adversely affected. But this doesn’t HAVE to happen. Encouraging children to read during the summer will not only sustain their current reading achievement, it will also contribute to their success in reading proficiency. [Here you'll find suggestions for early primary grades, middle grades, and teens.]

“6 Query Tips from a Publishing Insider” To help you write a query letter (or submission letter) so that an agent will give your manuscript the time of day here are the top 3 Do’s and Don’ts from our head Acquisitions Editor. [The first tip was even a surprise to me, although just last week I sent a proposal to a publisher and got an email suggesting that I add more marketing stuff-even though this publisher has published nine of my previous books! She said there was also talk of adding a marketing clause in new author contracts.]

“Twitter-patted” Twittering gave the world a fast way to communicate and also a new tool for marketing. Marketing with only a few words takes planning and focus. [Read this article for a brilliant way to plan and write your Tweets while you are working on your book/story/article/ebook to be released later.]

“Ways to Improve Your Writing Style” Newer authors struggle with writing technique, and long time writers still find elements in writing that are their nemesis. Being aware of problem areas in your writing can help you move ahead as a writer when you focus on them and find ways to improve those techniques. Here are a few tips on become a better writer. [Gail Gaymer Martin's blog posts are meaty and almost a mini-workshop. Don't stop with this post, but go through her whole Writing Fiction Right blog site.]

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8. Stage One: Exploration

success7If success is a journey, where are you along this continuum? As we go through the five stages of success–and learn to celebrate each stage–you’ll see each milestone for what it is: a huge victory.

Getting Started

As I mentioned in “The Five Stages of Success,” my first step along the way was taking the correspondence writing class from the Institute while my three kids were infants and toddlers. Choosing to throw myself into this endeavor was a successful leap of faith for me. (And my husband, as it took exactly half our food budget to pay for it!) But all success has a price, even if it entails making your own bread and homemade yogurt for a year.

If I knew I wanted to write, where did the exploration come in? In two phases actually.

Taking Chances

In Phase One, I hadn’t known I wanted to write. I had tried four other home-based businesses before the writing course. Through those experiences, I found out I did NOT like selling vitamins or make-up, stuffing envelopes, or day care. I was successful in weeding out those careers. Until I took the writing course, I had no idea how much I would love it–a love that has lasted thirty years so far.

Phase Two of the exploration phase dealt with deciding what exactly I wanted to write. I had no idea, and the process of deciding can’t be forced or hurried. You have to take time to explore and mentally try on and investigate the many writing possibilities open to you. And when you hit your niche, you’ll know it.

Analyzing Your Explorations

I sold fiction and nonfiction to magazines, experimenting with shorter material. For two years I wrote for ages preschool through adults. The easiest to sell was middle-grade and adult nonfiction–and that was a consideration. But my highest satisfaction came from writing middle-grade fiction. [That's where I settled, and (for the most part), that's what I wrote in the coming years--but that's a different stage.]

The “Exploration Stage” of success can be such a fun time! I found it exciting. If you want more guidance or direction for this phase, you might try Finding Your Perfect Work by Paul and Sarah Edwards or Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy.

Stay tuned for “Stage Two: Preparation” on Monday!

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9. It’s All in the Numbers

numbersHere you go! Seven ways to help you get the writing done–and sold!

6 Things You Should Know About the Publishing World

7 Deadly Sins of Writing

5 Reasons Why You Need to Get Better at Saying ‘No’

10 Essential Rules of Poetry

7 Things Agents Want to See in a Query, and 9 Things They Don’t

7 Steps to Getting Unstuck and Becoming More Productive

3 Benefits of Building Your Own Platform

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10. Direction, not Intention

directionAll of our actions have results, or consequences. That’s not news to anyone. And yet, do we act like we believe that?

Not all that often.

Too many writers (myself included sometimes) believe that if we work our hardest and try our best and keep a good attitude, we’ll end up successfully published. Why? Because we have good intentions. But it’s “direction-not intention-that determines our destination,” says Andy Stanley in his new book The Principle of the Path.

Here’s a simple illustration. You may intend to be a great archer. However, if you work hard, shoot arrow after arrow, and lift weights to have stronger biceps-but don’t pay attention to direction-shooting arrows is a waste of your time. Oh, you might luck out and hit your target once in a blue moon, but that’s about it. Sadly, many writers approach their careers like this.

Good Intentions-No Direction

In every part of your life (health, relationships, writing career) you’re moving in some direction toward a specific destination. We don’t end up at that destination out of luck or sheer hard work or good intentions or because “it all worked out somehow.” Destination is the end result of the choices you made yesterday, added to the ones you make today, added to the ones you make tomorrow.

There are paths we choose that lead us to destinations we never intended, and there are paths we’re on right now that are leading us away from-not toward-our dreams and goals. If we’re headed in the wrong direction, no matter how good our intentions or how hard we work, we won’t reach our goal.

Personally Speaking

It’s the decisions you make on a daily basis that determine your path and your destination. For example, for many reasons I want to be super-healthy the older I get. I want it more than most other things because it affects all areas of my life. I know a lot about nutrition and exercise and weight loss and what my body needs to run its best. A healthy body is my intention and has been for years.

BUT the daily decisions I made last year to eat candy instead of the hated vegetables, to watch a movie instead of go running, and skip the weightswrong-direction work-outs have NOT led me to great health in 2010. My path led to higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, much less stamina, and more headaches. (I bet you can guess what my goals are this year!)

Writerly Direction Needed Too

I see writers doing the same thing. They’ve got their goals written down, they’ve set deadlines for themselves, they’re determined to finish that novel and submit it, and ultimately they want to be published. They knock themselves out to create websites, network on Facebook and LinkedIn and writer chat rooms, write newsletters and blogs-but they never have time to actually do much writing. They spend so little time actually writing that they don’t improve.

Despite their great intentions, their daily choices are not taking them in the direction they want to go. (That’s my main reason for staying off the Internet till the afternoon, as mentioned in my Not-to-Do

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11. Writers: Always Working

thinkingIf you’re a plumber hired to unclog my drain, but I catch you sitting and looking out the window, I can, in all fairness, say you’re not working. If you’re my cleaning lady, but I catch you rocking in a chair staring into space, I can say justly that you’re not working.

What about writers? Not so easy to tell!

Thinking vs. Writing

According to Wallace Stevens, “It is not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out the window.” It’s also not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and going for a walk, between thinking and washing dishes, between thinking and daydreaming, and between thinking and grazing in the fridge.

Why is this true? Lots of thinking precedes writing. For fiction writers, thinking about characters, getting to know them, listening to their voices-all this happens in the head while “thinking.” Plot twists and turns give birth while “thinking”-and woe unto the writer who skips thinking and writes the first thing that comes into her head.

Although all this pre-thinking is critical, that isn’t all the thinking you’ll have to do. Even while working on revisions, you’ll find yourself thinking and staring out the window, thinking and walking, thinking and grazing. You understand that “I’m thinking” means ”so please don’t interrupt.” Chances are, your family won’t. Instead they will walk into the room where you’re “thinking-writing” and say, “Oh good, you’re not doing anything. Can you hold the ladder for me?”

Thinking in Disguise

That’s why I prefer to do my thinking in private if I can. Otherwise it just seems to invite interruptions, often at a critical moment when I’ve just about figured out my theme or where the climax scene needs to go.

If I’m home alone, that’s no problem. If it’s in the evening, though, or on a weekend, I weed flowers or fold a load of laundry or wash dishes when I need to think something through. (Nobody bothers you when doing chores-they might get roped into helping.)

Reap the Rewards

Contrary to the life of a plumber or housekeeper, a lot of the writer’s real work happens when she’s looking out the window. Sometimes my clearest thoughts, my best insights for how to fix things, come when I’m not thinking about the piece of writing at all.

Give yourself enough of this “mindless” time, and you’ll be amazed what bubbles up to your conscious mind. Despite the heckling you may receive, during this thinking time you’re a writer at work. And the pay-off will be huge.

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12. Don’t Re-Invent the Wheel

wheelTo thrive in the present publishing climate, our manuscripts need to be submitted in the best condition possible. I’ve written previously about the need to continue studying the writing craft. [Strong Writers Do ThisSelf-Study Advanced Writing Program]

“But how do you find the TIME to study on top of writing and marketing?” I’ve been asked time and again. Actually, it’s simple.

Shorten the Learning Curve

Whenever possible, I piggyback on someone else’s research. For example, I prefer a book like Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone, who interviewed more than 100 professional writers about how they fit writing into their busy lives. All that experience condensed into one book is a gold mine.

tension-techniquesLikewise, last week I put together two e-booklets that could also shorten your learning curve. First is 50 Tension Techniques: Hold a Reader’s Attention from Beginning to End. I teach a writing workshop called “Tension Techniques,” based on my thirty years of writing and selling 35 books. A few months ago in Austin, I met a woman who had attended that workshop years ago; she told me she’d worn out her hand-out and wished she had another one. I use the hand-out myself in my fiction writing when I come to spots that drag or when things are too calm for too long!

Editors tell us that we need tension on every page in order to keep readers hooked. But what exactly is tension? And how can you possibly increase tension on every page? The fifty simple techniques in this e-booklet show you how to infuse page-turning tension into your dialogue (15 techniques), your plot (14), your characterization (12), and setting descriptions (9). I’ve gathered these techniques from years of reading how-to and writing craft books. (I have six bookcases full of writing books in my office.)

Special Tension Needed

I love mysteries and have had eleven mysteries published (one won a children’s choice award), and mystery stories and books never seem to go out of fashion with kids. A few years ago I wrote a monthly magazine column on mysterytension8 writing. I’ve gathered those columns into a 50-page e-booklet called Writing Mysteries for Young People.

I’ve studied close to two dozen books on mystery writing, and these sixteen short chapters are the best techniques I’ve found. Writing Mysteries for Young People will show you how to construct a mystery. This includes the development of heroes, victims and villains, plotting and planting clues, creating the sett

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13. The Serenity Prayer for Writers

tension7When I’m frustrated, it’s usually a sign that I’m trying to control something I can’t control. This can be a person or a situation or an event. The process can churn your mind into mush until you can’t think.

On the other hand, making a 180-degree switch and focusing on the things I can control (self-control) is the fastest way out of frustration. This concept certainly applies to your writing life.

Words of Wisdom

Remember the Serenity Prayer? It goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

How about reducing frustration with your writing life by applying that wisdom to your career? Here are some things to accept that you cannot change:

  • How long it takes to get a response from editors and agents
  • Rejections
  • Editors moving before buying the manuscript they asked to see
  • Size of print runs
  • Reviews
  • Publisher’s budget for your book’s publicity and promotion

Trying to change anything on the above list is a sure-fire route to frustration and wanting to quit.

However, do you have courage to change the things you can? Here are some:

  • Giving yourself positive feedback and affirmations
  • Reading positive books on the writing life
  • Studying writing craft books
  • Writing more hours
  • Reading more books in the genre where you want to publish
  • Attending local, state, regional and national conferences you can afford
  • Joining or forming a critique group

Wisdom to Know the Difference

If you’re battling frustration and discouragement with the writing life, chances are good that you’re trying to control something beyond your control. It will make you crazy! The fastest way back to sanity is to concentrate on what you can control about the writing life.

Choose anything from that second list–or share an additional idea in the comments below–and get on with becoming a better writer. In the end, that’s all you can do–and it will be enough.

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14. Off Track? Backtrack!

trackLast week I took a clear look at my 2010 goals and my office–and was appalled. I started off so great in January! What had sidetracked me to the point that my office was buried under paper–truly couldn’t even see my desk top–and only one of four self-assigned deadlines had been met?

Actually, I’d suspected I was off track about six weeks ago. Knowing I was behind schedule, I worked longer hours, telling myself “it would all work out somehow.” Nose to the grindstone, I just kept pushing.

Did that get me back on track? No! I’m even further away from my goals than before.

I had to stop and admit that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I was no longer on the “road to success” that I started down in January. And all the prayer and positive thinking wasn’t going to change that.

What Happened?

I backtracked several months, trying to find out where my train had derailed. Luckily, I journal, so it wasn’t too difficult to find those triggering events. Some of the events were negative, and some positive (which surprised me).

For example, one of my New Year’s Resolutions (goals) was to stay off the Internet until after lunch and write in the mornings. I’d done it for a couple of months, and had a lot of writing to show for it. But one early morning when I had to post something before leaving on a trip, I was on Facebook and up popped an instant message from my deployed daughter in Iraq! Due to the time difference, she was online during my early morning hours. My journal that day reflected the joy I’d felt after instant messaging with her for nearly 45 minutes. After that, I started getting online early in the morning “just in case.” My plan was to see if she was online, and if not, get right off. That lasted less than a week. Soon I was back to checking and answering unimportant email, reading newsletters, and paying bills online–instead of writing.

Messy, Messy

I don’t know about you, but I can’t work in a mess. My office had had piles of paper stacked on the floor and both desks for weeks. It drove me nuts, but since I felt pushed for time, I worked on the kitchen table instead. Why so much mess? All because I dropped a five-minute habit two months ago.

One thing I learned in Margie Lawson’s “Defeating Self-Defeating Behaviors” class was to take 5-10 minutes at the end of the work day and clean your desk. File things away. Get out the first thing you’re going to work on in the morning–but just that one thing sitting on your clean desk. I used to do that–and feel energized just walking into my office.

I spent two days last weekend cleaning it. You can now actually walk INTO my walk-in closet. (Previously it was a lean-in closet, and you had to stand outside and reach for things.) Two big bags full of papers went to be recycled. Everything is now filed in clearly labeled WalMart storage boxes. And I’ve doubled my work output this week just by having the office clean!

Lay New Track

When we make our goals, we plan to follow a straight line to success.  However, if you’re moving away from your goals instead of closer, don’t just reassure yourself with (false) positive statements and keep going down the same path.

Stop! Backtrack. Pinpoint where you made a wrong turn so that you can now make a course correction. Lay some new track–track that’s headed again in the direction you intend.

I’m back to cleaning my office every evening before I quit work. And until my daughter comes home from Iraq, I&rsquo

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15. I Heard You!

giveA few weeks ago in “Find a Need and Fill It” I asked for your input concerning the topics you find most helpful in this blog.

Thank you all for the responses! It’s been very helpful. The requests fell into three main categories. Since I blog on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, that made it easy for me. From now on, this will be my general blogging schedule so that I can cover each topic area regularly.

What You Can Expect

Monday = Inner Motivation (includes:)

  • fears–all kinds!
  • discipline
  • focus
  • goals
  • rejection
  • lack of motivation
  • encouragement
  • a writer’s dream life
  • procrastination
  • working with our “inner editor”
  • enjoying writing more
  • perseverance
  • creative inspiration
  • writer’s block

Wednesday = Outer Challenges (includes:)

  • setting boundaries
  • time management
  • distractions
  • discipline
  • writing schedules
  • goal setting
  • balancing writing with chaos in life
  • balancing day jobs with writing
  • our writing needs (vs. “their” needs)
  • self-defeating behaviors

Friday = Tips ‘n’ Tricks of the Trade (includes:)

  • specific genre help
  • writing books I’ve found helpful
  • blogs I find useful
  • classes I’ve taken
  • voice (writer’s and character’s)
  • critique groups
  • conferences
  • working with publishers
  • marketing–all kinds
  • considering the audience when writing
  • dealing with publishers who don’t respond
  • finding good markets
  • developing depth in writing
  • selling “unique” pieces instead of jumping on the bandwagon

Thanks for Your Input

All your feedback has been immensely helpful in organizing future blog posts and making sure I cover topics you want to hear about and find useful. If I missed anything on these lists, feel free to let me know!

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16. A Calling or a Career?

careerMost of us start out writing because we feel a yearning, a call, a really strong desire to be a writer.

We have stories inside us burning to be told. We see the world in a slightly different way, and we want to share how we see people and events, all wrapped up in a spell-binding story.

Then What Happens?

Somewhere along the way, I’ve noticed, the calling often becomes a career mindset. It might happen with the first sale, or it might not happen until years into publication. With me, it happened after I’d had two or three novels published by Atheneum.  Status became more important than telling a good story.

Warning: this can happen to you too! Be aware of the signs and what can trigger it.

A Common Story

With me, it was financial need. It was the 80s during the farm crisis, and we were in danger of losing our Iowa farm. Suddenly sales were crucial. Advances had to be bigger and bigger. I began to worry more about whether I needed an agent than if my current book was better than the last one. Achieving excellence took a back seat to making money.

I wish I had seen it coming. Getting back to your calling-your love of storytelling-is a lot harder than maintaining it in the first place.

An Agent’s Perspective

Literary agent and author Donald Maass (in The Fire in Fiction) suggests that writers are either those who desire to be published, or those who desire to tell stories. They may start out the same, committed to making it as writer, to being the best storyteller he/she can be. He says that over time a writer’s real motivation will emerge.

Admittedly, I took the ICL course with a hopeful eye of staying home with my children and having a career too. But did that necessarily mean that I had to change from being a storyteller to a status seeker? No, I don’t think so. I think your calling and career can co-exist within you-but only if you guard your writer’s heart carefully.

What needs to stay in the forefront? A pursuit of excellence, for one thing. Keeping the writing fun for another.

Warning Signs

What are some signs that you’re moving from a storyteller to a status seeker? Maass gives some insightful signs:

  • The majority of status seeker writers seek agents and publication years too soon.
  • When rejected by an agent, the status seeker writer immediately offers the agent something else from his desk drawer. (Not something better-just something else.)
  • Status seekers grow frustrated with rejections, thinking landing an agent is a matter of luck. Storytellers know that something is missing from their writing and they work on it.
  • Status seekers ask how they can just make their stories good enough to sell. A storyteller is more concerned with making his story the very best it can be.
  • With a first contract status seekers are very concerned with what they are getting for blurbs, advertising and promotion. Storytellers have a more realistic grasp of retail realities; they promote some, but then get to work on the next book.
  • Status seekers go full time too soon, relying on advances for their living. Storytellers keep their day jobs for as long as it takes.

More details are given in his book to distingui

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17. Obsessed? Absolutely!

hamsterDoes your mind ever go ’round and ’round like it’s on some infernal hamster wheel? Mine does–and I waste so much time I could be writing. 

I try to stop because I assumed obsessing was a negative thing. It doesn’t have to be, though, not according to Eric Maisel in Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions. Maisel is a psychotherapist who works with writers and artists, and author of another most helpful book, Fearless Creating.

The Life of Obsessing

First, does the writer below sound like you? (Frankly, Maisel could have been eavesdropping on my brain waves and transcribed my thoughts!) This is what one of his writer clients shared.

“I have always wanted to make a living as a writer. But I always let things hold me back. I let having a day job sidetrack me; I let fear sidetrack me. I procrastinate wildly; and yet the less I write, the unhappier I become withbrainstorm everything. I can’t let go of the desire to write, but I need to let go of the unproductive obsessing I do  about writing–the worry about not being good enough, the worry that I won’t be able to make a living, the worry that I won’t be able to think of anything wonderful to write about.”

And the result of all her obsessing?

“I get more and more stressed out, and I write less and less, and it becomes a particularly nasty downward spiral.”

Surprising Goal!

The author’s book isn’t about stopping the obsessions. In fact, Maisel encourages them! His idea is about harnessing all that brain power you’re using in a negative way and turning it into a positive brainstorm of ideas.

A productive obsession is an idea that you choose for good reasons and pursue with all your brain’s power. It might be an idea for a novel or the solution to a personal problem.

According to Maisel, the super focused productive obsession is the mind-set of the creative person. It sounds wonderful to me! I’ll be writing some more about this throughout the week, I think.

Tell Me I’m Not Alone

Do you have trouble focusing that prevents you from getting in the flow of your writing?hamster2 Do you ever have the above-mentioned “hamster wheel-itis”? I sure hope I’m not the only one! Maybe we can find an answer to it together!

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18. Weekend Gems

gemOver the weekend, I hope you’ll have time to check out some very helpful and thought-provoking blogs I read this week.

Kick back, relax, and enjoy these gems!

Gems of Wisdom

**Agent Wendy Lawton wrote a series called “Career Killers.” Full of wise advice! One post is on speed writing. Other “career killers” included impatienceplaying “around the edges,” sloppiness, and skipping the apprenticeship. If you avoid these mistakes in your career, you’ll be miles ahead of the average writer.

**Are you trying to combine babies with bylines? Try “Writing Between Diapers: Tips for Writer Moms” for some practical tips.

**Is your writing journey out of whack because you have unrealistic expections? See literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s post “Managing Expections.

**Critique groups are great, but you–the writer–must be your own best–and toughest–editor. See Victoria Strauss on “The Importance of Self-Editing.

**We’re told to set goals and be specific about what success means to us. Do you have trouble with that? You might find clarity with motivational speaker Craig Harper’s “Goals and Anti-Goals.

**And finish with Joe Konrath’s pithy statements in “A Writer’s Serenity Prayer.” You may want to print them out and tape them to your computer!

Share a Gem!

What have you read lately–online or off–that you felt was particularly insightful or helpful or thought-provoking? I’d love to have you share a link of your own!

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19. 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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20. Stage 2: Committing to Change

decision(First read The Dynamics of Change and Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind)

Okay, we’re ready for Stage 2: Committing to Change. This is not taking action yet. Instead, this stage involves:

  1. 1) Planning the necessary steps
  2. 2) Building up your motivation
  3. 3) Considering possible distractions and/or discouraging things that might cause a setback

The change you make at this point is to shift from “passively wishing to achieve your goal to actively committing to make it happen.” (Neil Fiore in Awaken Your Strongest Self.) If you did the work in Stage 1 (thinking through the risks and benefits, plus evaluating your personal abilities), you should have fairly realistic expectations of what does–and doesn’t–work for you at your particular stage of life.

Time to Experiment

Before you plan the necessary steps to succeed in making permanent changes as a writer, you’ll want to take time to experiment in small ways. See what you like and don’t like. See what works for you–and what doesn’t.

  • Try writing for 15 minutes upon awakening or right after your morning coffee.
  • Stay offline until 10:00 a.m. for three days.
  • Try writing at the library during two lunch hours this week.
  • Read a writing blog before you get on Facebook or Twitter.

Record your thoughts and feelings when you introduce these writing changes. How do you feel? What works and what doesn’t? You can’t fail at this stage. You are only gathering information.

Some of these changes you’ll love and find so easy! Others you won’t find helpful at all. But as you succeed with certain writing changes (writing 15 minutes each evening while supper cooks, reading 5 pages per day of a writing book), your motivation will rise. You’ll feel more like a writer automatically.

Mental Rehearsals

During this stage you also need to think through strategies for dealing with obstacles, distractions and setbacks. One of the most effective (and fun!) ways to do this is using what athletes call “mental rehearsals.” They imagine how they’ll handle challenges at each step along the way.

Envisioning how you will handle writing distractions (toddlers wanting to be entertained, friends calling to chat, school vacations) and setbacks (an editor rejects your novel after two revisions, computer crashes) helps you build stamina or mental toughness.

Use mental movies to confront each setback or distraction. Instead of your usual reaction (chocolate, TV, surfing the ‘Net), clearly envision yourself sitting tight, working methodically through your writing problem, piling up a stack of new pages, and keeping to your deadline with ease.

Not all interruptions and distractions happen to us. Be aware that you often seek out distractions as well. In order to escape writing blocks or manuscripts that just aren’t working well, we often attempt to escape the anxiety or

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21. Stage 4: Maintaining Long-Term Success

success(First read The Dynamics of Change, Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind, Stage 2: Committing to Change, and Stage 3: Taking Action)

You’re well on your way to achieving your major goal at this point, and you’ve probably begun several new good writing habits to support your future writing career. This is great!

You don’t want to be a quick flash that’s here today and gone tomorrow though. You want the changes to last. You want to continue to grow as a writer and build your career. But…you know yourself. The good writing habits never seem to last.

Until now.

Change and Maintain

In order to keep going and growing as a writer, you need to do two things:

  • Learn to recover from setbacks
  • Get mentally tough for the long haul

First let’s talk about setbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes for writers. They can be mechanical (computer gets fried), emotional (a scathing review of your new book), or mental (burn-out from an accident, divorce, or unexpected big expense). Setbacks do just what they sound like: set you back.

However, too often (without a plan), we allow a simple setback to become a permanent writer’s block or stall. Setbacks are simply lapses in our upward spiral, or small break in our new successful routine, a momentary interruption on the way to our writing goal.

Pre-emptive Strike

Warning: without tools in place to move beyond the setbacks, they can settle in permanently instead. Use setbacks as a signal that you need to get back to basics. Setbacks–or lapses–sometimes occur for no other reason than we’ve dropped our new routines. (We stopped writing before getting online, we stopped taking reward breaks and pushed on to exhaustion, we stopped sending new queries each week…)

Count each day of progress, and don’t be so hard on yourself. I used to make myself “start over” when trying to form a new habit, and it was more discouraging than helpful. For example, if my goal was to journal every morning, I’d count the days. Maybe I managed it five days in a row. Five! I felt successful! But if I missed Day 6 for any reason, I had to start over the next day at Day #1.

A Better Way

I don’t do that anymore. It doesn’t help. Now, if my goal is to develop a new habit, I still keep track, but I keep going after a lapse or setback instead of starting over. So if I were trying to develop a journaling habit, and journaled five days and then missed a day, I would begin again on Day #6.

I would count all successful days in a month, which motivates me to try to reach an even higher total number the next month. This works with words and pages written and other new writing habits you want to start.

Coping Plans

In order to recover from setbacks, think ahead. Ask yourself what types of things might cause you to go off course or lapse in your goal efforts. Prepare ways to cope ahead of time and have your plans in place. (Sometimes that’s as simple as always traveling with a “writing bag” of paper, pens, a chapter to work on, a craft book to read, etc. so that you can always work, no matter what the

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22. Dreaded Writer’s Slump

slumpI attended a terrific writers’ conference last weekend in Austin, TX, and during the social time, we discussed various career challenges, the economic downturn, puny sales of well reviewed books, and other writer maladies common to us all.

Are there ways to get out of this slump? Yes! I found such a list of great ideas today on Janet Kobobel Grant’s post. (Janet is an agent with Books & Such, and we met at Mt. Hermon eighteen months ago.)

“Many of us have the misconception,” Janet writes, “that the toughest part of developing a writing career is finding a publisher. Nope. In actuality, most careers have a slump or two built into them. These often occur just when you think you’ve built up some momentum, such as when you’ve written and had published about six books. What kind of advice can an agent offer at this crucial moment in a career? Everyone’s situation is unique, of course, but here is a peek at some of the advice I’ve given.”

I thought Janet’s career advice was very helpful–and it’s given me some new ideas about a couple projects. Thanks, Janet!

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23. Fabulous Free Conference!

conferenceA year ago, I urged you to sign up for the free Muse Online Writer’s Conference. It’s been running this week, October 12-18, and my brain is over-stuffed at the moment. (Next time I won’t sign up for 28 different workshops!)

I’ve attended lectures on voice, overcoming creative blocks, writing tight, plot points and tension, enjoyed Q & A with agents and editors, pitched my middle-grade novel to an agent and got a “go ahead,” and so much more. Forums contain lecture notes and assignments, plus postings of lessons with feedback. The handouts were especially good, and I have a small binder full.

It was also especially helpful to me this year for health reasons to be able to sit in my good office chair, sleep in my own bed, eat my own food, and get up and walk around when necessary. I Skyped with a writer friend a couple of times this week (who was also “attending” the conference via her computer.) Discussing some of the workshops was helpful.

Don’t Miss Out!

It’s been a full week, and admittedly I got behind on the assignments. Next year, if I’m lucky enough to get one of the 1,000+ spots available, I will have to be more selective. I was, admittedly, like a kid in a candy store–where the chocolate was all free!

There are so many wonderful things about the Muse conference, and directors Lea Schizas and Carolyn Howard-Johnson are to be commended for the tremendous amount of work they’ve done to give writers this chance.  I’ll let you know when it’s time to sign up for next year’s conference. You don’t want to miss this opportunity.

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24. Stress: You Need It!

stressShocking but true–you need stress in your life in order to grow and in order to attain your goals. Sound weird? It did to me too until I understood the two types of stress.

Distress? Or Eustress?

We all know what bad stress is (or distress). It’s the rejection letter (like the one I got on Monday), the flu bug you can’t shake, the fight with your teenager over curfew, bad news about the publishing economy, and being stuck in traffic when you’re due in the dental office.

The effects of bad stress are well known now: high blood pressure, inability to sleep, weight gain, sore bodies, heart attacks, snarly relationships, overdrawn bank accounts, and having your rotten teeth fall out (after being stuck one too many times in traffic.)

Healthy Challenges

Eustress, on the the other hand, is good for you. Yes, it is a challenge to your body or mind (or both), but the end result is growth and moving toward your goals (instead of away from them.) Eustress might come in the form of a trainer or coach pushing you to stretch your limits, or choosing to study something at night instead of watch TV, or going to counseling with your spouse. Remember, eustress is stress that is healthful and helps you grow in some area.

In many of the choices you make every day, it’s a choice between distresseustress and eustress. The one BIG difference I’ve noticed is that distress tends to overtake you and fall on you without you needing to make any effort at all, while you have to actually choose eustress.

How Much is Too Much?

Can you have too much eustress? We all want to attain our goals and make progress as quickly as possible. Is eustress always a case of “more is better”? No, it’s not. If you’re out of shape, taking a walk each day, and building up the miles over time, is good for you: eustress. Running a 5K race after you’ve done nothing but watch TV for ten years is bad for you: distress.

The same goes for your writing. If the most you’ve ever written is thirty minutes per day, then aiming for 1-2 hours per day would be eustress (good). Deciding to write 8-10 hours per day, on the other hand, would usually cause distress (to both mind and body).

Writer Eustress

For years, I did my best to avoid criticism in all forms, including critiques. I had a very thin skin and couldn’t handle it. It caused me distress. But it wasn’t until an editor at a workshop practically forced me to read my story in a group–and learn to handle constructive criticism–that I discovered there were two kinds. Destructive criticism was the kind to avoid where someone rips your writing apart and haughtily calls you names. However, the good criticism could be immensely helpful, even if it was uncomfortable to hear.

Today, I don’t know what I’d do without my critique group, both for writing help and for their friendship. Yes, even a good critique can cause eustress for a while, but it’s a catalyst for growth.  

You Need To Do Both

If you want to achieve your writing goals this year, you will probably need to do two things. First, be aggressive in getting rid of the bad stress in your life. Second, be just as determined to find sources of good stress to challenge yourself to move forward.

Do both things often enough, and it will literally change your life.

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25. The Four D’s

distortionOver the years, I’ve discovered that TRUTH is like brussels sprouts–an acquired taste. It isn’t accepted right away.

Instead of the truth, most of us prefer something more comfortable. Writers do it too. We often prefer one of the four D’s: denial, delusion, distortion or disguise.

However, refusing to accept some simple truths can hurt you and your career.


Denial means to “refuse to accept or believe the truth.” I see this too often with students when they are ready to submit their stories and articles. Some refuse to accept the truth that you must study the markets and you must submit what they are asking for. If a magazine you love requests health articles only, but you send them your teen romance because you just love that magazine, the editor isn’t going to buy it, no matter how good it is.

Delusion means “the belief in something that contradicts an established fact.” One established fact is that learning to write well takes time and it takes commitment–daily, if possible. You’re deluded if you believe you can dash off several pages every few months and become a successful writer. That’s no more likely than if I practice Chopsticks every few months, I will end up playing Carnegie Hall.

Distortion means “taking the truth and slightly changing it into a partial truth.”  This is like when a writer tells an editor in a query or at a conference, “I’ve had five books published.” If you have five books in your hand that you paid someone to print for you, they are not five published books. They were printed, and there’s a world of difference (to both editors and potential buyers.) If there was any cost involved, you paid all or part of it (if your books were printed). You might not have paid anything, but only if there was no cost involved to your “printer” either (e-books or print-on-demand books).

Disguise means “camouflaging a lie so that it resembles truth.” I’m sorry to say that, due to technology and the current economy, wolves in sheep’s clothing abound in the publishing arena. People wanting your money may call themselves “independent publishers” or “co-publishers,” but they’re still just the old vanity presses. You do not have to fall for this. Thanks to the Internet, you can Google anyone and find out about them. Also become a regular reader of sites like Preditors and Editors and Publishing Scams and Writer Beware.

Choose Truth

Facing the truth is difficult at first. Like brussels sprouts, it sometimes has to be absorbed in small doses. It’s your choice. You can believe the distortions, live in denial, embrace delusions and be fooled by disguises.

Or you can choose to believe the truth about writing. You do need to study the markets. You do need to write regularly. You do need to check out publishers in these days of so many scams. And if you choose to self-publish, you do need to face the fact that you will probably have to lay out money to someone, then do much of the marketing, publicity, promotion

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