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1. Stage 3: Taking Action



Ready for Stage 3? It’s about taking action.

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

If you’ve done your homework in Stages 1 and 2, you’re probably more excited about this action phase than you would normally be.

Why? You’re prepared. You’re motivated. You’ve taken obstacles into account already.

You’re primed for success.

Action Steps

As mentioned before, this stage includes several big steps:

  • You must decide when, where and how to start.
  • You must show up to start despite fears and self-doubts.
  • You must focus on each (present) step, rather than focusing on the end (future) goal.

This is the exciting stage because you’re past making excuses and procrastinating and giving in to the fear of change. You’re done rehearsing and experimenting. It’s now time to take action. You take steps on the path that leads to your goal. Note that shift in focus. The daily path is now more important than the end goal. So find ways to make each successful step enjoyable.

Create Action Plans

An action plan is exactly what it sounds like–a written plan to take concrete action steps to perform a behavior that leads to accomplishing your end goal. An action plan involves when you will do something, where you will do it, and how you will do it.

Run this when-where-how scenario through your mind for each step of your action plan. Be detailed. It doesn’t have to take a long time, but this mental rehearsal is immensely helpful. The more detailed the mental rehearsal, the higher the probability that you will actually initiate the behavior.

To help you create action plans, ask yourself these questions:

  • When do you want to start working on your goal? (day and time)
  • Where will you start? (time and place)
  • What specific action step will you take at this time?
  • How will you keep this commitment?

Time to Show Up

Fear and self-doubt can raise their ugly heads when you least expect it. Even when you’re primed and eager to start, fear and anxiety can give you pause.

There are many ways to deal with fears and self-doubts. How you choose to deal with them is probably an individual thing. Here are some of the ways we’ve discussed dealing with fears.

  1. What’s Holding You Back?
  2. Pitch It To Yourself!
  3. Voices of Self-Sabotage

I also keep several books on my shelf such Ralph Keyes’ two books on fear (The Courage to Write and The Writer’s Book of Hope) and The Now Habit by Neil Fiore on conquering procrastination.

Focus on the Present Step

Focusing on your end goal as motivation to get started causes two problems. First, the end goal (e.g. finish a novel) can just look overwhelming. You want to quit before you start!

The solution? “Focus on what you can do rather than what is out of your control,” says Neil Fiore of Awaken Your Strongest Self. “Switch from thoughts about the goal, which is in the future and is usually overwhelming, to thoughts about what you can do in the present.”

Second, the reward is so far in the future that we feel tired just thinking about waiting that long. A reward many months in the future isn’t much motivation to stick with the writing today.

One solution is making sure you have rewards lined up for every 15- or 30-minute block of time you work on your goal. Publishing a book a year from now won’t get me writing today, but a reward of watching a favorite movie today if I write ten new pages is much more likely to get my fingers to the keyboard.

Small Steps

Take small steps. Reward yourself (with something healthy) for every step you take in direction of your goal. Be your own cheerleader. Each small step will get you warmed up and moving, then help you build momentum.

NOTE: Don’t stop here. On New Year’s Day we’ll discuss the final stage–learning to recover from setbacks and maintain momentum.

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2. Stage 1 of Change: Making Up Your Mind

mind(If you haven’t already, read the overview, The Dynamics of Change.)

You want to make changes in your writing life that will last?

Let’s start at the beginning, with Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind. As I said last time, this stage involves several things, including the following:

  • feeling the pain that prompts you to change
  • evaluating the risks and benefits of the goals you have in mind
  • evaluating your current ability

Not Yet!

In this stage, you do not make any changes. Not yet. As tempting as it is, do not jump in and “just do it!” Remember how far your willpower has taken you in the past–and wait.

Resist the temptation to cycle through another try–>fail–>try harder–>fail–>discouragement episode. Instead, lay the necessary groundwork to make permanent changes.

The Pain of Not Changing

Wanting to make a change–but never making it–is exhausting. It hangs over our heads, constantly reminding us of some incompleted task. When you really feel the pain of not changing, you’re on your way to making up your mind. (And if you’re willing to live with the pain of not realizing your writing dreams, that’s your choice as well.)

Actively and colorfully imagine staying the same the next five years. Imagine that it’s 2018. You’re still trying to implement the “write daily” habit, you’re still trying to finish that novel, you’re still too afraid to talk to agents or editors at writer’s conferences, and you’re still unpublished. When writers’ block hits–or simply a normal writer’s frustration–you still reach for doughnuts or a cigarette or settle in for an hour of mindless TV.

It’s 2018, and nothing has changed–except you have gained fifteen pounds, you’re still stuck in a day job you hate, your baby is in kindergarten, (and you never did get to work from home), or your military spouse has moved the family again (and you still don’t have a career that can move with you.)

Write out the “future” scenario in vivid color based on nothing changing. A clear image of future pain strengthens our determination to face our current fears about changing.

Risks and Benefits of the Change

Explore (either on your own or with a friend/counselor) the benefits of making the short- and long-term writing changes you are considering. Follow the changes five years into your future and see the benefits of having written steadily for five years, submitting steadily for five years, getting five years’ worth of critiques, etc.

The risks? Most of them have to do with facing your writing fears. For a week (two is better) observe yourself and your thoughts when you sit down to write (or when you avoid it.) You’re not trying to change here–just observe your reactions when trying to write.

Do you feel anxiety? What do you think? (“Who am I kidding? I can’t do this!”) What do you do? (Write half a paragraph, then reach for chocolate?) The risk is being honest with yourself, which is necessary if you’re going to honestly evaluate your current ability…

Current State of Affairs

After spending a couple of weeks observing your writing habits, you may have uncovered a few issues to address (procrastination, feeling isolated, self-doubt, self-sabotage, fears of failure or success, etc.) Maybe you just lack motivation; whatever the issue(s), this is the time to work on them.

How you deal with them (and a combination of solutions usually works best) will vary from writer to writer. Some ways to motivate yourself and work on various writing fears include:

Remember, all this thinking and journaling and dreaming is still Stage One. You haven’t committed to making any changes yet. You’re still making up your mind. You’re thinking things through thoroughly.

And you’re giving yourself the best possible chance to succeed–permanently.

I’m curious. Do you find this thinking stage comforting? Threatening? Discouraging? Encouraging? Share your thoughts!

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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. 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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5. Unleash the Writer Within

I wish I’d had this writing book thirty years ago when I started out. I would have avoided some pitfalls and loooong detours that have taken years to correct.

If you want a writing mentor, you need look no further than Cec Murphey’s Unleash the Writer Within. The subtitle calls it ”the essential writers’ companion.”

I would have to agree.

What’s Different About This Book?

It’s honest, it’s transparent, and it comes from the heart. It also made me laugh on more than one occasion because the author had the guts to say some things that need to be said about the writing life, how we market, and so many other topics dear to a writer’s heart.

Before you get stressed out and caught up in all the things “they say” you have to do and be and write about to be successful, I urge you to get a copy of this book. It will help you discover your own personal voice and style so you sound authentic. It will show you how to actually make friends with your inner critic and writer’s block–and eliminate them. And the author deals so honestly with a writer’s fears–and how to use them and learn from them to grow as a writer.

Who Is This Man?

So who is Cecil Murphey? Why should you listen to his advice? Well, he’s a New York Times’ best-selling author who’s written or co-written more than 120 fiction and nonfiction books, including the runaway bestseller 90 Minutes in Heaven (with Don Piper) and Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Just to give you a taste of the book, below are some quotes from Unleash the Writer Within by Cecil Murphey:

  • “Too many want-to-be-successful authors get the idea that you must write in a certain way to succeed.”
  • “Your most honest writing becomes your best writing.”
  • “I don’t advocate rigid self-discipline. I tried that. For years, I held to tight schedules, refused to allow deviations, and castigated myself when I failed. I’ve since learned that true self-discipline flows out of gentleness and self-respect.”
  • “How would it affect your writing if you weren’t constantly looking at your faults but focusing on what you can do?”
  • “You write best what you know best. The better you know yourself, the higher the quality of your work.”
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6. Writer’s Block Is My Friend?

The last few months I have been blaming writer’s block on a physical issue that was causing ongoing pain and exhaustion. Surgery fixed the issue recently—but unfortunately, the block remained.

I tried all my old tried-and-(mostly)-true methods of breaking a block. I assumed the cause stemmed from some lazy habits I picked up in 2012.

I just needed to crack down on myself, right? Whip myself into shape!

Things I Tried That Failed

I tried. Honestly, I did. I used the Promodoro Method of writing for 25 minutes and resting 5 minutes. I tried changing locations, cutting distractions by writing in the library study where I had no access to the Internet or TV.

I worked in the mornings, my optimal writing time. I got back on the treadmill, exercising to clear my foggy brain. I made elaborate spreadsheets of long- and short-term word quota goals to hold myself accountable.

None of these ideas worked. Panic threatened.

How had I ruined my writing discipline in less than a year?

Wrong Diagnosis Equals Wrong Solution

This past year as my health got worse, I tried to diagnose the cause. I ate much better, I exercised, I limited time online, I limited social outings… Nothing worked. Why? None of those things actually addressed my night-time severe headaches, which turned out to be caused by “acute angle glaucoma.” The solution was laser surgery on both eyes to eliminate the pressure. Voila! Problem solved!

What does that have to do with writer’s block? Just this.

Writer’s block creates a similar problem. It has many causes, so a one-size-fits-all solution…doesn’t fit all. (I should have known this! My article “A Block by Any Other Name” deals with this very subject.)

Writer’s Block Outside the Box

One author gives a very interesting twist to the problem. Cec Murphey in Unleash the Writer Within says writer’s block can be your friend. He poses a couple of questions:

• What if writer’s block is a symptom and not a cause of the problem?

• What if writer’s block comes from some wise, inner part of myself that wants to help me?

Writer’s block is a blockage you can’t seem to push past. Cec Murphey suggests that you ask yourself: What is going on inside me that stops me from writing? (Then wait for the answer.)

Think of writer’s block as a gift, Murphey says, a powerful force to help you regulate the creative process. It comes from within and has something to teach you.

Pay attention, wait, and listen.

The “Friendly” Writer’s Block

So how did that idea work for me? Beautifully, actually.

I tried it, and it took a couple days of waiting until I realized the problem. I had done tons of character and theme work on my novel outline, but my plot was thin. And since it is a mystery, the weak plot is a big deal.

There was no point in pushing through the block and forcing myself to write. I had a fully clothed mannequin of a novel outline, but much of the underlying skeleton (structure) was weak.

Right Diagnosis = Right Solution

Once I realized the reason for the block, I knew what to do. It took a week, but additional research provided a great plot twist and another subplot. Writer’s block was my friend, as it turned out.

It’s a new way to look at a writer’s age-old problem. And I think it’s going to be my first line of defense after this.


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7. Anchors for the Writer’s Life

anchor“Habits are the little anchors that keep us from straying very far from the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed, whether that lifestyle makes us happy or miserable,” says Karen Scalf Linamen in her book Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight.

Habits: Help or Hindrance?

We all have habits that either support or hinder our writing lives. Habits are simply the ways we repeatedly do some things. Positive habits include daily writing practice, telling ourselves positive things about our abilities, and keeping current with publishers’ requirements.

Negative writing habits run the gamut from playing computer games and surfing the Internet during our writing time, to not keeping track of submissions and not studying to improve our craft.

Do you see any consistent patterns in your writing life? Which positive habits help you? Which habits detract from your ability to pursue your writing dreams consistently?

Habits from Scratch

If you could redesign your writing life from scratch, which patterns would you reestablish? Which habits would you drop, if you could break them? Can you even identify the habits that are getting in your way? Do you wonder where your time is going, why you can’t seem to get around to working on the project that is so dear to your heart? Try journaling about it.

“Keeping a journal can help you identify hidden habits that are nunsinterfering with your life,” says Linamen. “You can embrace the changes you want to embrace–and getting a handle on what’s really going on is a great way to begin!”

The Art of Change

A good writing life–a productive writing life–is built on good writing habits.  They keep you anchored to the writing life you want to have, both now and in the future. Building good writing habits may not sound very exciting, but discipline now will give you a lot of freedom later on–and a writing life worth having!

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8. Calling All Introverts!

introvertI laughed out loud when I read the quote below–mostly because it describes me so well. How about you?

“You have your day scheduled out, given over to the expectations of others. You brace yourself for what’s ahead. Then you get a call. The day is cancelled; everyone who needed you is down with a three-day virus. Is there anything more delicious? You know what I’m talking about. We don’t like others to be sick, but we love others to cancel. We become giddy at the prospect of ‘found’ time–time without plans or expectations. Time to think.”

Introverts Unite!

This is from a book called Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D. She is great at defining introverts.

Contrary to what you might have heard, introverts are not geeky, shy wallflowers, or antisocial. We’re introverts (by definition)  because we “recharge our batteries” in solitude or in quiet one-on-one conversations, while extroverts can get recharged in noisy party-type settings with lots of people.

Introverts are not a minority–we’re just quieter than noisy extroverts. A recent large study showed that introverts comprise 57% of the population. That was a surprise to me. I always felt like I didn’t fit in with the masses. As it turns out, introverts are the masses!

Introvert Writers

I suspect that many writers are introverts. Otherwise, we might not enjoy spending so much time alone writing. And it would explain why our favorite thing to do is read and our favorite places are libraries and bookstores.

Much of the book is about celebrating being an introvert, and then using your introvert traits to thrive in an extrovert country. (Americans prize being extroverts, whereas the Japanese prize being introverts.)

How About You?

Are you an introvert? Will you admit it? (This sounds like Introverts Anonymous: “Hello. My name is Kristi, and I’m an introvert.”) If you think you are, what’s hard for you being an introvert in an extrovert world?

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9. Authors with Learning Disabilities

disabilityDid you know that many famous authors–including such popular children’s writers as Avi–have learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD?

Many of these authors had trouble in school–including failing or dropping out. Many of them were distracted and often in trouble for it. Lots of them couldn’t spell.

Inspirational Overcomers

If you’ve ever struggled with a learning disability of some kind–yet your deepest desire is to write and be published–you’ll take heart at this list of 25 famous authors with learning disabilities. Their brief stories will inspire you (for yourself or someone you love.)

I can’t personally write about the struggles of having a learning disability while trying to write, but if any of you can, please leave a comment for other “overcomers.”

What have been your challenges? Any solutions yet?

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10. Can You Compartmentalize?

blindersfWhen re-reading Getting It Done by Andrew J. DuBrin, PH.D., I came to a section on dealing with procrastination. One suggestion is something I’d like your feedback on.

He said you can make progress with procrastination if you “compartmentalize spheres of life.” He says that if you have multiple demands on your time that seem overwhelming, “mentally wear the same blinders placed on horses so they can concentrate better on the race and not be distracted.”

Box It Up!

I would love to be able to do that on a regular basis! Are you able to compartmentalize? I agree with the author that procrastination is more tempting when multiple demands are swirling and competing in your mind.

I think that male writers have an advantage here. They seem able to put things in boxes, tape the lids shut, and then deal with one box at a time. (I know this for a fact because I can tell when I am being put in the “wife” box!)

Women, however, mix things up. Our concern for our child’s health or marriage problems or a sibling’s financial crisis “bleeds over” into our writing time. And we tend to feel guilty if we’re happily typing away while a member of our family is in trouble or needs us.

‘Fess Up

So…please share your wisdom with me. Men, if you can explain how to put things in boxes or make blinders work, please advise. Ladies, if you’ve figured out how to push aside your other concerns while you write, please share.

I bet we could all use some tips!

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11. 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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12. Gradual 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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13. Drains in Disguise

messI was wrong–again.

For twenty years, I’ve told students and wannabe writers that you have to put the writing first! Do it before other things take over your day.

Fight the impulse to clean your kitchen first, or straighten your office, or clean up the mess the kids made before leaving for school.

“But I can’t work in chaos,” writers protest.

You know what? Neither can I anymore–at least not well! And when I force myself to, the work is doubly tiring. Doubly stressful. Much less satisfying.

Energy Drains in Disguise

Something I read today made me realize my advice might be a tad off. Not wrong altogether, since if we don’t make writing some sort of priority, we won’t do it. However, to eliminate energy drains in your life, you need to look at the whole picture. Certainly all the things you do in a given day take your energy. Every action you take on your lengthy “to do” list uses energy.

What you may not realize is that actions you don’t take use energy as well. Your disorganized office, the piles of laundry on the bedroom floor, the stack of bills to pay, the two birthday gifts to buy, the clothing needing repair–all this drains your energy reserves as well. It happens whether you are looking at the unfinished business or just thinking about it.

It siphons off energy that could be used in a much more positive way. “These items on your mental ‘to do’ list, the ones you’ve been procrastinating about, distract you or make you feel guilty and drain the very energy you need to accomplish your goals.” (So says Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life.)

NOT an Excuse to Procrastinate

Taking care of the unfinished business that nags at your mind–and keeps you from feeling like you can settle down to write–may be necessary before you can tackle your writing assignment. Don’t go overboard though, or you’re just procrastinating. Washing the dirty dishes is one thing–taking time to replace the shelf paper in your pantry is something else.

Figure out the things that you MUST have done to feel at peace in your environment, and do those things ONLY. (It helps to do as many of them as you can the night before too.)

Eliminate the chaos in your environment, and you’ll eliminate a LOT of the chaos that blocks your writer’s mind. Now…off to clean my office.

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14. Marketing Help is Here!

bookThe Frugal Book Promoter: Second Edition: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher.

I very rarely read an e-book and then buy the hard copy–but I did in this case. I have to mark it up, add my colored flags and post-its, and turn down page corners.

Why? Because it is so very full of practical, usable, frugal marketing advice. (And I mean frugal in terms of both money and your time.) I already owned the 2004 first edition, but publishing times have changed so much–and this 2011 updated version reflects that.

Why a New Edition?

We all know that book promotion (and life!) has changed since The Frugal Book Promoter was first published in 2004–particularly in ways that have to do with the Web, but in other ways, too. As an example, the publishing world in general is more open to independent publishing now than it was then. So, this update includes lots of information on ways to promote that were not around or were in their infancy a few short years ago.

So here is what is new:

  • A simplified method for making social networks actually work–without spending too much time away from my writing
  • How to avoid falling into some of the scam-traps for authors
  • The best “old-fashioned” ways to promote–the ones I shouldn’t give up on entirely
  • How to write (and publish) an award-worthy book
  • How to promote your book to mobile users and others
  • The pitfalls of using the Web and how to avoid them
  • Unusual methods of getting reviews–even long after your book has been published


Today’s technology, social networking and marketing techniques are covered. Updated web resources abound. Advice in sync with today’s Internet are incorporated:

* Blogging tips and pitfalls
* Obtaining reviews and avoiding scams
* Finding places to pitch your book
* Using the eBook explosion to promote sales
* Using Google alerts to full advantage
* Staying on top of current trends in the publishing industry
* Writing quality query, media release letters and scripts for telephone pitches
* Putting together power point and author talk presentations 

This is just a tip of the iceberg too. I highly recommend Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s updated Frugal Book Promoter. (NOTE: Be sure you get the new 2011 edition with the cover above.)

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15. Surrendering to the Call

surrenderDo you believe you are called to write? Or do you suspect you are?

If that’s true, why aren’t you pursuing your calling?

Food for Thought

This weekend I started reading Callings by Gregg Levoy, the author of a very practical book for writers called This Business of Writing. In Callings, he said some thought-provoking things that gave me pause.

I started writing thirty years ago, and until six months ago, there were many reasons why I couldn’t give my all-out devotion to writing: a full-time day job of teaching, raising four childrlen, multiple jobs in the church and community, serious health problems and surgeries, etc. But last fall I retired from teaching, my children are grown, and I can decide how much I babysit grandchildren and how much volunteer work I do. It’s a time I’ve been anticipating for three decades.

So…am I pursuing my writer’s calling with full devotion? I want to. I dream about it. I can almost taste it sometimes. But do I do it? No.


I’m not sure, but these quotes from Callings are helping me ask the right questions. Maybe these ideas will help you too.

  • “Although we have the choice not to follow  a call, if we do not do so,..we’ll feel alienated from ourselves, listless and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common  cold of the soul. Life will feel so penetratingly dull and pointless that we may become angry, and turn the anger inward against ourselves (one definition of depression).”
  • “Generally, people won’t pursue their callings until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so.”
  • “Perhaps the main reason that we ignore calls is that we instinctively know the price they’ll exact.”
  • “All calls lead to some sacrifice because even just one choice closes the door on another, and some calls lead to much sacrifice, which may feel anything but blissful.”
  • “At some level we need to devote everything, our whole selves. A part-time effort, a sorta-kinda commitment, an untested promise, won’t  suffice. You must know that you mean business, that you’re going to jump into it up to your eye sockets and not turn back at the last minute.”

Will the Rubber Meet the Road Now?

I’ve had thirty years of (by necessity) a “part-time effort” and “an untested promise.” Now that I have the time and could choose to do so, will I “jump into it up to [my] eye sockets”?

Is the pain of not doing so finally more than the fear of trying? Yes, I think so.

How about you?

[If you've decided to surrender to the c

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16. 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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17. 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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18. Clearing the Confusion

confusionIf you’ve studied a market guide lately, you might have come away in total confusion.

These days you’re met with warnings like, “If you don’t like indies, don’t bother querying.” Or a company says it’s a “legacy” publisher.

What’s with all the new terminology?

Olden Days

When I started publishing thirty years ago, it was simple. You either went with a traditional publisher (they paid you, and they did 98% of the marketing) OR you got fooled into signing with a vanity press (you paid them to print your book, plus you had to do 98% of the marketing yourself.)

The choice was an easy one if you wanted to have a career where you made money.

It’s a New Ball Game

Today our choices are basically the same, in my opinion (except you have a few FREE self-publishing choices like Kindle). But the terminology has mushroomed as new companies tried to distinguish themselves with new titles. So you had independent publishers (”indies”) springing up, resentful of the old “vanity press” title. But for the most part, independent publishers require that YOU pay them and YOU do most of the marketing.

Are you confused by the terms e-pub, POD, Kindle, self-pub, Smashwords, and more? If so, Tracy Marchini has done a book called Pub Speak: a Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms to clear up the confusion. While I haven’t read the book personally, I have seen several very good reviews of it. If I were starting out in publishing, I think I’d need a copy.

Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms is a dictionary for both new and established authors that contains over 400 definitions, including:

  • - contract and royalty terms
    - ebooks and audiobooks
    - fiction and non-fiction
    - publishing terms
    - retailers, book clubs, wholesalers and distributors
    - social networking and collaborative publishing
    - trade associations, events and publications
    - writer’s organizations, awards and publications

This book just might bring an end to the confusion…for now, anyway!

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19. Unhappiness: a Positive Sign

unhappyHave you ever considered the fact that unhappiness is the first step along the writer’s path?

“Toddlers are bursting with the anxiety and helplessness of having feelings that they can’t get anybody around them to understand. They don’t even have the right words in their heads yet - it’s all emotion and frustration. That’s also an accurate description of writers in step one.” This is how Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott describe the first of their Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path: the journey from frustration to fulfillment. [I highly recommend this book, by the way.]

This unhappiness may feel like an itchy feeling under your skin. It may feel like an urge to change something. Call it restlessness or discontent or creative tension. “Unhappiness,” say the authors, “to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins.”

Message in the Misery

If you’re starting to feel that itch to change something in your life, you’re moving into Step One. Maybe you don’t feel unhappy exactly. Maybe you’re just restless. But if this tension is trying to tell you that you’re a writer who should be writing, it can very quickly turn into discomfort and then misery if you don’t pay attention to it.

Even published writers in a long-time career can feel this unhappiness or tension when it’s time to make a change. “Every important turn on my writer’s path has been preceded by unhappiness,” Nancy Pickard admits. “The more major the turn, the worse the misery.” (I can certainly identify with that! I get bored first, then I itch to try something new or more difficult or different, and then I get fed up with whatever I’m currently doing.)

If you’ve been writing for a long time, this unhappy first step on the writer’s path may have more specific origins. It might be the misery of being in a day job you’d give anything to quit so you could write full-time. It might be the misery of a writer’s block that just won’t budge - perhaps for months. It might be the misery of when your proposal has been rejected by a dozen editors or agents-and your spouse has told you to get “a real job.”

What About You?

There are many signs, according to these authors, that you are in the first step along the writer’s path (the first of seven). Can you identify here? What does the beginning of a project - or the beginning of a writer’s life - feel like to you?

I had always assumed that the beginning (for other writers) was a time of great excitement, a happy eager time. I was glad to find that I wasn’t the only one who felt just the opposite!

How about YOU? How do YOU know when it’s time to get creative?

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20. 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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21. Overloaded Lives

overload1Do you have any margins left in your life?

Or is your life marginless?

For a long time, I’ve known that something was wrong. People everywhere, of all ages and walks of life, are frazzled. People are anxious and depressed.

And why is that especially important to writers? Because tired, frazzled, anxious, depressed writers don’t write. Or when they do write, they can’t write well.

This weekend I read a book that spoke to me on every page. It came out several years ago, so many of you have probably already read it. It’s Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. In this book he talks about the fact that most of us live marginless lives now.

What’s “margin”? Margin is the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits. Margin is having something held in reserve for unexpected situations.

Bring It On!

Instead, most of us live overloaded lives. The cost of overload is seen in health problems, financial debt, family and friendships going by the wayside, and having very little or no time for solitude and renewal.

Because of exponential progress in technology and other areas, things in our culture are changing faster and faster. We have more and more choices. Along with all the progress comes increasing stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload.

However, despite all this speed and change, human beings have relatively fixed limits. We have physical limits, mental limits, emotional limits, and financial limits. Once the threshold of these limits is exceeded, overload displaces margin.

Why Now?

The book details how many conditions we have at play today that are different than at any other time in history. We have run out of room to breathe. We have run out of time to sit and think. And I think this overload - this living beyond our limits - makes writing extremely difficult.

Can anything be done about this? You can’t stop progress, can you? Maybe not, and maybe we don’t want to, but can we regain our emotional health and physical health and relational health? Is it possible to redirect our over-extended lives? Yes, it is, according to this author.

How About You?

I read this book with great excitement, and in the next several blogs, I will share some ideas with you. Does the description above ring any bells with you?

In the coming days, we will talk about some ways to regain margin so that you have more emotional energy, more physical energy, and more time-when you can write, if you choose to. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s just what the doctor ordered.

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22. The Pain of Overload

overloadAs I mentioned last time in “Overloaded Lives,” writers need margin in their lives in order to write. However, margin has disappeared for many people.

Frazzled mothers, office workers, retired grandparents, and other writers struggle to find both time and energy to write. Make no mistake: it is harder today than at any other time in history. It’s not your imagination.

It’s also not hopeless. It comes down to adding margin back into your lifestyle.

Before we talk about how to do that, let’s talk about how the overload happens and what it looks like.

Tipping the Scale

Overload in any area of your life happens slowly. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is having one more expectation of you at work or home, one more change, making one more commitment, making one more purchase that you must pay for, facing one more decision.

You can comfortably handle many details in your life. But when you exceed that level, it’s called overload.

Reaching My Limits

All people have limits, and overloading your system leads to breakdown. Some overloading is easy to spot. A physical limit can easily be recognized. For example, I know I can’t lift my car, so I never try.

Performance limits can be more difficult to recognize. If my will is strong enough, I will try to do things I can’t do for very long. I might try to work 80 hours per week every week or lift my refrigerator. The overload can result in sickness or stress fractures.

Reaching your emotional and mental limits can be the hardest to spot. Each person is unique. My overload might result in symptoms like migraines and ulcers; your overload might result in a heart attack or road rage.

Has overload always been with us? No.

Multiple Sources

Changes are happening faster and faster, and overload can appear almost overnight. Here are some ways you can become overloaded:

  • Activity overload: We are busy people, we try to do three things at one time, and we are booked up in advance.
  • Change overload: Change used to be slow, and now it comes at warp speed.
  • Choice overload: In 1980 there were 12,000 items in the average supermarket; 10 years ago there were 30,000 items. Now there are many more.
  • Commitment overload: We have trouble saying no. We take on too many responsibilities and too many relationships. We hold down too many jobs, volunteer for too many tasks, and serve on too many committees.
  • Debt overload: Nearly every sector of society is in debt. Most are weighed down by consumer debt.
  • Decision overload: Every year we have more decisions to make and less time to make them. They range from the minor decisions at the grocery store to major decisions about aging parents.
  • Expectation overload: We believe that if we can think it, we can have it. We think we should have no boundaries placed on us.
  • Fatigue overload: We are tired. Our batteries are drained. Most people are even more tired at the end of their vacation than they were at the beginning.
  • Hurry overload: We walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and feel rushed all the time. Being in a constant hurry is a modern ailment.
  • Information overload: We are buried by information on a daily basis-newspapers, magazines, online blogs and ar

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23. Finding Margin

solitudeThe last two posts, I talked about overload, how it happened, and the effect on writers’ lives. Although certain Type A personalities seem to thrive on overloaded lives, most writers don’t.

Our best ideas - and energy to write about them - require some peace and quiet, some “down” time. To get that, we must rebuild margin into our lives.

Defining Margin

What exactly is margin? According to Richard Swenson M.D. author of Margin, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for unanticipated situations. It is the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

You might wonder at what point you became overloaded. It’s not always easy to see when it happens. We don’t have a shut off valve that clicks like when we put gasoline into our cars. Stop! Overload! Usually we don’t know that we are overextended until we feel the pain and frustration.

We would be smart to only commit 80% of our time and energy. Instead, we underestimate the demands on our life. We make promises and commit way more than 100% of our time and energy. Consequently, we have no margin left.

A Simple Formula

What exactly is margin? The formula for margin is straightforward: power - load = margin.

Your power is made up of things like your energy, your skills, how much time you have, your training, your finances, and social support.

Your load is what you carry and is made up of things like your job, problems you have, your commitments and obligations, expectations of others, expectations of yourself, your debt, your deadlines, and personal conflicts.

If your load is greater than your power, you have overload. This is not healthy, but it is where most people in our country live. If you stay in this overloaded state for a good length of time, you get burnout. (And burned out writers don’t write. I know–I’ve been there.)

The Answer

So how do we increase margin? You can do it in one of two ways. You can increase your power - or you can decrease your load. If you’re smart, you’ll do both.

Many of us feel nostalgic for the charm of a slower life. Few of us miss things like outhouses or milking cows or having no running water. Usually what we long for is margin. When there was no electricity, people played table games and went to bed early, and few suffered sleep deprivation. Few people used daily planners or had watches with alarms, let alone computers that beeped with e-mail messages and tweets. People had time to read–and to think–and to write. It happened in the margins of their lives.

Progress devoured the margin. We want it back. And I firmly believe that writers must have it back. Next week we will talk about ways to do just that.

PLEASE SHARE: What do you think so far about this week’s discussion of margin and overload? Do you identify? What does that mean to you as a writer?

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24. 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.


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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25. How to Create the “Not To-Do” List

pruningBack in March, I wrote about pruning some things from life in order to have more time to write. (See my former post “The ‘Not To-Do’ List”.)

In order to make time for anything new in your life, it requires some necessary endings.

Help Is on the Way

So I was thrilled yesterday when my son-in-law loaned me a book by a favorite author of mine (Henry Cloud of Boundaries fame). It’s called Necessary Endings. It’s the best “how-to” on this “pruning” subject I’ve ever seen. It covers both personal/relationships and business. [Remember: if you're a writer, you're in business.]

I don’t know about you, but I have difficulty cutting things out of my life–even when doctors say, “Cut back or die!” (or the equivalent). This book has already helped me identify more clearly what needs to go. And, as Cloud shows, it all starts with having a clear idea of what you’re pruning toward (your goal or vision.) Only when you know that can you know what/who has to go.

Free Resources

You can download a free chapter from Necessary Endings called “Pruning: Growth Depends on Getting Rid of the Unwanted or the Superfluous.” Go to Facebook, do a search for “Henry Cloud (author)”, and you’ll find it. Just click the “Like” link, and you’ll have access to the free chapter and dozens of excellent short videos he’s posted.

Also, in the “Notes” section of his Facebook page, you’ll find a group study starting today on how to do this whole process of “necessary endings” in work, relationships, outside interests, and everything else (even good things) that keep us from being able to pursue the best things.

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