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1. I Don’t Want an Honest Critique

Now available! Start Your Novel


No, don’t tell me what’s wrong with this novel. I don’t want to hear it. Minor problems? OK, I’ll fix those. But major structural, plot or character problems? Don’t tell me.

Cynthia Ozynick says, “Writing is essentially an act of courage.” When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me.

    I fear the revision needed: I won’t ever be able to “get it right.” Obviously, I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would have changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?
  • I fear that you’re right and I’m wrong. But how can I be sure? This is my story and it comes from my psychological leanings, my background, my research. How can you tell me what is right for my story? If the story doesn’t communicate what I want, then, yes, I need to revise. I repeat: Obviously, I thought it did communicate what I wanted, or I would have revised it before you saw it. Do you just have a different vision of the story because of your psychological leanings, your background? Are you trying to envision what I intended, or are you envisioning what you would have written? Where does your ego slam up against my ego? And where does your objective appraisal need to push my ego back into line with what it really wants to do anyway? Perspective is hard to achieve.
  • I fear that all my hard work, all the months spent thinking and rewriting, will be wasted.
    As a novelist, time haunts me. To write a novel isn’t the work of a week or a month. It takes many months, a year, a year and a half. More. It’s a long, long process. Your revision notes mean that the time is extended, and that without any guarantee of being finished even then. Meanwhile, that means that I’m a year older, that it’s a year in which I couldn’t write anything new (even if I could find the courage to begin again).
  • I fear your honesty; I need your approval (or someone’s approval; if not yours, then whose?). Will it crush me emotionally if you don’t “like” my story? I gloss over the approval part of critiques and agonize over the “needs work” assessment. Is there a way for you to only show approval, yet open my eyes, so that I recognize what needs work? I’d rather recognize it for myself than have it pointed out.
  • I fear that my standards are too lax. I want to be finished, I want to have this story out there. I want to have written, but in the throes of writing, I want the end of the process long before the story is really finished. Submission comes too early and then I get rejections. Then, it’s harder than ever to revise. But waiting is excruciating. Typical advice: Put the manuscript in a drawer for three months and then pull it out and read it with a fresh eye. What? Waste three more months? Never. It’s done and ready to send out. (Ok, maybe it isn’t, but I can’t stand looking at it one more time and in three months, my editor could read it and buy it. OK, maybe they won’t buy it until I revise, but three months? Isn’t there any other way?)
  • Critiques, especially honest and on-target critiques, are fearful things. I know that I need them; but they are painful, emotionally draining, and confidence shaking.

    But I need them. OK, can you give me a minute? Let me find my mask of courage. There. I have it on. Now bring on your best critique!

    More reading:

    Other thoughts on critique of an artist and humility.
    Art and Fear: One of my favorite books on the psychology of making art. It deals with fears about our unworthiness, fears of critiques, fears of displaying our art and much more.

    Top 10 Ways to Stop the Sting of Critiques

    Here are my slightly tongue-in-cheek Top 10 Ways to take the Sting out of Critiques!

    Take the Sting Out of Critques!

    Take the Sting Out of Critques!

    1. Avoidance: Have someone else read the critique for you and only highlight the good comments. Read only the highlighted comments.
    2. Revenge: Give the creep back an ever harsher critique than you just got.
    3. Denial: Write out the reasons why the critiquer is totally off base. Ignore all suggestions.
    4. Excitement: Fake excitement about the critique and tell everyone you know exactly what’s wrong with the story and how you plan to fix it.
    5. Suspicion: Read each comment with the suspicion that the critiquer is trying to get your manuscript out of the running, so their own manuscript will do well. Therefore, you can safely ignore any comments you want to.
    6. Surprise: Allow each comment to be a revelation at how far off base this critiquer is.
    7. Pride: Take pride in your ability to “take it” from the tough ones.
    8. Loneliness: Understand that you and you alone are in the situation of receiving harsh critiques; such things have never been written about any manuscript and will never be written again.
    9. Forgiveness: Realize that the critiquer has sinned by so harshly criticizing your story and at some point they will have to come and ask for forgiveness; be ready to give it gracefully.
    10. Hope: Find hope in the good things the critiquer noticed, and Hope in the process of revision.

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    2. 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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    3. 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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    4. 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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    5. 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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    6. 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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    7. The Right Conditions for Creativity

    creativityCreativity is a mysterious concept to most of us. We don’t really understand what it is, where it comes from, why it leaves us, and how to make it “work” consistently. We give it a lot of power because of this.

    Coaxing Creativity

    However, says the author of The Soul Tells a Story, “if I know from experience that inspiration arrives under certain conditions, I will make sure to re-create the conditions that invited it initially. Thus my early experience comes to determine how it is I will work.”

    After our vacation took an unexpected turn, I’ve had more time to reflect this week than the past five years combined. For four blissful days, I had no Internet connection, nowhere we had to be, plenty of books to read, places to walk, and time to think. I hadn’t really realized what an incredible luxury this is in the fast-paced world in which we live.

    How Things Have Changed…

    Because of marketing demands the last five years–both online and elsewhere–the writing life has been a bit frantic. I don’t know about you, but frenetic activity is not conducive to coaxing out my creativity. That much I already knew. But I hadn’t given much concentrated thought to what things did work for me.

    Each writer is different. I know writers who must be surrounded by noise and people or loud music in order to write. I am just the opposite, preferring quiet and solitude when I can get it.

    If you’re not sure what conditions are best for you, think back to when you started writing. How did you work best then? What conditions did you just naturally create for yourself? What are the non-negotiables you must have for your creativity to flourish?

    Take a Self-Inventory

    Here are some things to consider:

    • Before writing, do you need some quiet time to think, meditate, or pray?
    • Can you write at any time of day–or only at certain times?
    • Can you write any place–or do you need your “office” to be the same each day?
    • Can you write in tiny bits of time–or does your creativity absolutely require large chunks of time? Does it vary depending on the stage of your book?
    • How much socializing do you need in order to be your most creative? (This includes time with writers and non-writers alike, time to “talk shop” and time to just have fun.)
    • When you are stuck, does it help to read a book on craft (viewpoint, research, inspiration, etc.) to get your creativity flowing again?
    • Does reading other writers’ books help you be more creative–or does it make you feel anxious as you compare yourself to them?
    • Do you need a healthier diet or more sleep for your creativity to be at its peak? Or do you work best on short naps and skipping meals?
    • What kind of critique at what point in your project is helpful? What kind is the kiss of death to your creativity? (When is your ego more fragile?)
    • Do you work best with a deadline, or do deadlines make you freeze up? Do you do well with six-month deadlines but choke on series deadlines set every two months?
    • Can you be creative when dealing with emotional upset? Do you need to solve family problems before you can settle down to write?

    Take Time to Know Yourself

    As we’ve said before, just because conditions aren’t perfect doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. We’ve all had to produce work under some appalling conditions. But if you have a choice, it’s lovely to set up your life and home and schedule a

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    8. 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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    9. 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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    10. 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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    11. Friday Follow-Up

    stressWednesday’s blog entitled “Unhappiness: A Positive Sign” sparked more private email than usual! Glad it got you to thinking about this.

    The tension you feel at the beginning of a project–that itch to “go for it!”–seems like a positive sign to me. So what is the “unhappy” part those authors were talking about in their book Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path? And, emailers asked me, why did I feel that tension after selling forty books?

    Ignorance Was Bliss

    During my student work for ICL, I told three of my class assignments. It was fun! I expected to sell them and kept submitting till I did. Thankfully, there was no Internet in those days, and I didn’t know any other writers who told me I couldn’t make a living at this.

    I was naive, yes, but it helped! I just assumed that if I worked hard at the writing, I could have a paying career doing it. I saw setbacks and rejections as part of the process on the way to getting what I wanted. (And yes, it had to pay to make up for me not teaching anymore in the public schools.)

    What’s Changed?

    To answer one man’s email question, I think my excitement at the beginning is now tempered with reality. I’m not the naive writer I was at the beginning–and to be honest, I miss that phase at some points.

    At this stage of my writing career, I realize that starting a new project IS exciting–but it brings other things along with the excitement:

    • hard work, neck cramps, and back aches
    • risks that may not pay off
    • loneliness as I get closer to the deadline
    • letting go of lunches, grandkid overnights, and other fun temporarily
    • having the project misunderstood and/or criticized

    But is this bad? NO!! It’s good to know this!

    Now I have no surprises that derail me. I’m not shocked when I get bogged down in the middle. I’m not greatly disappointed by having to give up some social things so that I can get enough rest and write in the morning. I don’t expect everyone to be as excited by my idea as I am.

    I know the harder aspects are just part and parcel of the writing life. You acknowledge them when they happen and move on. They’re no longer a big deal–and to me, that’s a very good thing.

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    12. 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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    13. 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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    14. 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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    15. Coming Soon…



    Would you like to have a free copy of my new book when it’s released? Read to the end to find out how.


    First there was Writer’s First Aid:  Getting Organized, Getting Inspired, and Sticking to It, the book.

     …then there was the Writer’s First Aid blog.

    Coming in February

    Now, thanks to faithful book and blog readers, coming soon is More Writer’s First Aid: Getting the Writing Done (Book Two).

    About that free book … If you have a blog for writers or a blog about writing–and if you’d be willing to review More Writer’s First Aid on your blog–I’m going to send 10 bloggers a free copy.

    Contact me here and give me (1) your email address and (2) the www. address of your writing blog. I’d like permission to quote your blog review on my website, if you don’t mind. Thanks to all who contact me–and I’ll be in touch very soon!

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    16. What Fuels Your Writing?

    painYesterday on a long Skype call, I talked with a writer friend about what fuels our writing.

    For me, my favorite books (both in terms of the writing and how well they did after publication) were often fueled by some kind of pain or wound. Something difficult that I was going through (or one of my children) would spark an idea for a book, and the drive to solve the problem provided the passion and energy to see the story through to completion.

    Negatives to Positives

    Energy from hurts and wounds and pain can be very useful to you as a writer. But, if you’re just wounded, does that automatically translate into books others will want to read? No.

    As Bill O’Hanlon says in Write is a Verb, “in order to have your wound fuel your writing process, the hurt or negative energy needs to be turned into creative energy, informing or driving your writing. It’s not enough to be wounded; you must find a way to turn that wound into energy for your writing.”

    Pain = Energy for Writing

    He quoted many authors (some quite famous) who had tragedies befall them, but they took the pain and turned around to write some of the most gripping books of our time on the very subject that nearly destroyed them.

    It doesn’t have to be a wound the size of the Grand Canyon either (a child being kidnapped, losing your home in a hurricane, both parents dying from cancer the same month). It isn’t the size of the wound–it’s what you do with it that counts.

    Just Let It All Hang Out?

    In order for your pain to be useful to you as a writer, you’ll need to step back a bit and distance yourself from it. Otherwise you won’t be able to see the story possibilities in it. You’ll be too hung up on the facts. (”But it really HAPPENED this way!” you protest.) Yes, but facts need to be shaped a lot if you’re going to create a story or article or book from those facts. (The truth of your experience can shine through, despite changing some facts.)

    Facts will need to change in order to create well-rounded characters, and the plot still needs a beginning, middle, climax and ending. Things will be added–and subtracted–from your experience to make a better story. If you can’t do that, you’re probably still too wounded to turn the experience into a viable story.

    “Make no mistake. I have seen writing full of anger, self-pity, or hate that I think will never (and should never) be published,” says O’Hanlon. “They are simply expressions of the author’s pain, more like a journal entry than a book. They are self-indulgent and should be kept private… In order to turn that pain and anger into a book, the writing needs to somehow turn the personal into the universal.” In other words, the book needs to speak to other readers in a way that helps or nourishes them.

    Identify Your Writing Energy

    How can you tell if your pain and wounds might be energy for your writing? Here are four questions to ask yourself, suggested by the author. They can pinpoint sources of writing energy in your life just waiting to be tapped into.

    • What do you care about so deeply or get so excited about that you talk about it to anyone who will listen?
    • What upsets you so much that you are compelled to write about it or include the theme in your book?
    • Wha

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    17. The Dynamics of Change

    changeHow are your writing goals? Did you know that 75% of New Year’s Resolutions (or goals) are abandoned by the end of the first week?

    While I spend much time on the blog encouraging you to make changes and deal with feelings that are holding you back, I thought it might help to pause here and do a short series on the dynamics of change–or how to make permanent changes.

    How do we make changes that stick? How can you be one of those 25% who keep on keepin’ on and accomplish their writing goals?

    Change in Stages

    One mistake we make is thinking that change happens as an act of will only. (e.g. “Starting today, I will write from 9 to 10 a.m.”) If our willpower and determination are strong, we’ll write at 9 a.m. today. If it’s very strong, we’ll make it a week. If you are extraordinarily iron-willed, you might make it the necessary 21-30 days proven to make it a habit.

    Most writers won’t e able to do it.

    Why? Because accomplishing permanent change–the critical step to meeting any of your writing goals–is more than choosing and acting on willpower. If you want to achieve your goals, you need to understand the dynamics of change. You must understand what changes habits–the rules of the game, so to speak.

    Making Change Doable

    All of the habits we’ve talked about in the past–dividing goals into very small do-able slices, rewarding yourself frequently, etc.–are important. They are tools in the process of change.

    However, we need to understand the process of change, the steps every successful person goes through who makes desired changes. (It applies to relationship changes and health changes as well, but we’ll be concentrating on career/writing changes.) Understanding the stages doesn’t make change easy, but “it makes it predictable, understandable, and doable,” says Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of the The NOW Habit.

    Change takes place in four main stages, according to numerous government and university studies. Skipping any of the four stages lowers your odds drastically of making permanent changes that lead to sucessful meeting of goals.

    Here are the four stages of change that I will talk about in the following four blog posts. Understanding–and implementing–these consecutive steps is critical for most people’s success in achieving goals and permanent change.

    Stages of Change

    • Stage 1: Making Up Your Mind (the precommitment stage). This stage will involve feeling the pain that prompts you to want to change, ealuating risks and benefits of the goal you have in mind, and evaluating your current ability.
    • Stage 2: Committing to Change. This stage involves planning the necessary steps, building up your motivation, and considering possible distractions and things that might happen to discourage you or cause a setback.
    • Stage 3: Taking Action. 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; then you must focus on each step.
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    18. 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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    19. Treasures from the Web

    treasureFor the last two weeks, I’ve bombarded you with long posts on how to make changes in your writing life–and make them last.

    A Breather

    Today I’ll give you a breather and show you some of the treasures I found.

    Sit back and enjoy!

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    20. Keeping the Dream Alive

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

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

    How do we keep that from happening?

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

    Life Interrupted

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

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

    Practical Tips

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

    You don’t have time for all that?

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

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

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    21. Why Write Daily?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In the Flow

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

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

    Too Late?

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

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

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

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    22. Acting AS IF

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

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

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

    Ah, Yes, I Remember

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

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

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

    Attack that Cycle!

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

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

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

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

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    23. Principles of a Creative Life

    candle“The healthy creative life is an intentional life, in which the person examines options and opportunities, necessities and desires, and makes his or her choices accordingly.”

     ~~(Vinita Hampton Wright) in The Soul Tells a Story


    If you took time to ponder and write down answers to the questions posed in Monday’s blog, you gained a lot of information about your dreams and gifts. That knowledge is important. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. You must be intentional in using this knowledge to develop your creative life.

    A Writing Life on Purpose

    The healthy creative life involves practices that help further develop your gifts. If you want to write, you have the responsibility to develop practices that help you grow. (You also need to get rid of habits that hurt your writing–but that’s another post!) You can (and should) set goals, design rituals to help you get started (light candles, make tea, put on music) and form habits that help you both start and continue writing.

    Here are some questions for you to answer to examine this part of your life. Even if you’ve been writing for a long time, I’d suggest answering the questions based on where you are now. I found them very helpful myself. Without meaning to, we can get off-track, our life circumstances can get us off course, or we might never have given this sufficient thought to begin with.

    Now’s the Time!

    Here are some more questions from The Soul Tells a Story. Brainstorm answers in your journal.

    • How intentional (using planning or goals) have I been about developing my creativity?
    • What opportunities am I looking for–and are these options open to me?
    • What qualities do I want to nurture in my personality and lifestyle that will allow me to use my gifts in my writing?
    • What rituals or practices always seem to work to help me do my writing?
    • What other rituals and practices that I’ve heard about would I like to try?

    It’s time to make some intentional choices! We won’t grow as writers unless we intend to grow and choose to grow. What’s a “growth choice” that you might like to make–and implement–very soon?

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    24. What Are the Odds?

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

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

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

    Are You Nuts?

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

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

    Stand Your Ground

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

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

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    25. 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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