Overcoming Fear of Writing Success

FEAR

By Kevin B on Flickr

You are a writer and you want to be an author. But you may be sabotaging your success from fear. Remember the famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

I never really understood this quote until i started working in a previous career with people who wanted to start their own businesses I saw all kinds of self-sabotaging behaviors. Like the people who couldn’t close on a deal to buy a business or they couldn’t find the “perfect” location, or they looked for loans but gave up after a few “No’s” from banks.

Recently, I realized these same fears sabotage writers too.

Why does fear paralyze us?

1. Old voices. We all have voices in our heads, from times when someone (parent, friend, spouse) told us: “You can’t make a living as a writer.” “There are too many writers; you will never be able to break through.” “You can’t afford to quit your day job.” You may have heard one or more of these old voices. As long as we listen to these voices, and let their fears overwhelm us, we can’t move on.

2. Perfectionism. It’s great to want to do things well, but we often are way too picky about how things must be. We get stalled on that first draft, trying to make the first 50 pages perfect, when really just need to plow through and ‘git ‘er done.’

A friend gave me the best advice about writing:

“My rotten published book is better than your perfect unpublished one.”

3. Fear of Writing Rules. We figure we have to start at the beginning and work toward the end, in some kind of specific sequence. We are afraid that the Writing Gods will smite us if we deviate from the linear approach. When we (invariably) get stuck we figure there’s no way around. No necessarily. James Scott Bell, for example, suggests you start in the middle.

You can start anywhere, stop anywhere, work from anyplace, to any other place. The only rules are the ones you make yourself.

How to overcome fear of writing success

Note that the title of this post is “fear of success.” Some psychologists believe that we fear success because the emotions we feel when successful are too close to the emotions experienced when we are anxious.

Mindtools says we fear success:

  • Because we will have to change our lives
  • Our relationships might change for the worse
  • We fear the added work, responsibilities, and criticism (i might have to do a book tour!)
  • We might be asked to do things we don’t want to do.

Failure is simple, but success is more complex. The sooner you get over your fear of success, the sooner you get where you want to be – a published author.

Timothy Ferris, author of The 4-hour Workweek, has some suggestions for overcoming the paralysis of fears.

1. First, define your nightmare. What is the worst thing that could happen if you fail in your writing career? Spend some time creating a worst-case scenario. Then consider two factors: probability and severity. These are insurance terms, but they apply to many areas of life. First, what’s the probably of failure (on a scale of 0% (never happen) to 100% (guaranteed to happen). Be realistic. Then look at the severity – the cost – of failure. Consider costs as time and money. While I’m not a fan of dwelling on the negative, i do believe you need to look under the bed to convince yourself there really are no monsters under there (like Grover).

For many would-be authors, the only cost is time, because they have a full-time job or some means of support. Even if the probability is relatively small, the cost is also low, so why not give it a try? Convincing yourself you have the time to spend on this without a major negative cost is a good way to get past some of your fears.

2. Then, look at the steps you could take to repair the damage. How could you get your life back on track if you fail at your writing career? Could your ego recover? Some authors have put manuscripts away for years, only to get them out again when the time is right.

3. Consider the outcomes and benefits of positive scenarios. Think about what your life would look like in a “best case” scenario. Creating a positive, specific image of what you could be, and keeping focused on that image, is a wonderful way to overcome fears. Several years ago, I created a poster with photos of my goals (a house in Florida, a dog, a best-seller). Seeing the things I want happen gives me encouragement and helps beat back those fears.

4. Prepare to succeed. Start taking baby steps to your goals. Do one small task every day that will move you toward publication of your first novel or memoir or book of poetry. You don’t have to write 2,000 words a day, but you do have to something every day, even if it’s just writing a blog post or posting something writing-related to Facebook. I keep a writing progress spreadsheet, so I can see how much I’ve done.

 

Onward and upward!

 

 

 

 

My #1 New Year’s Writing Resolution – It’s Not What You Think

There is some magical thing that happens when you put something out into the world. We get what we focus on, what we work on. I have lots of specific goals for 2015, but only one firm resolution for 2015.

My #1 writing resolution for 2015 is not to write 2 hours every day on my fiction, and an hour daily on non-fiction, web course, and marketing.stones success

It’s not to get my first novel (A Hill of Beans) ready to show to an agent or editor, or get self-published.

It’s not to get my easy-start-business-for-writers course (The Thriving Writer) completed and ready for you to join, and have The Thriving Writer book self-published.

It’s not to have a website for my second book (Bridget Larkin’s Journey) completed, with her journal, images, and a first draft of her story done.

It’s not to get my Larkin Chronicles newsletter up and running, with monthly – or more often.

My #1 resolution for 2015 is to begin a writing production schedule and to FOCUS on that schedule. My schedule will include priorities and sub-priorities:

  • Fiction writing first, with Hill of Beans my top priority, then Bridget Larkin’s Journey
  • Then, because I need to make money in order to continue, The Thriving Writer – book and online course.
  • Then my blog and the Bridget Larkin’s Journey blog.
  • And, finally, planning for the future novels in the Larkin Chronicles series.

Notice these are not goals. This is a system. So, what’s the difference?

Goals vs Systems

James Clear, writing in Entrepreneur in December 2013, says we should forget goals and concentrate on what he calls our “system.” For example, my goal might be to write a book. My system is the daily/weekly/monthly writing schedule that will get me there. Clear says that by focusing on the goal we cause ourselves too much stress, not reaching a goal causes us unhappiness, and reaching a goal causes us to quit.

As Clear suggests, I’m thinking long-term. By setting up my writing system, I’ll be more productive in 2015, and future years. My specific goals may be in my head, and they will be replaced by other goals (new novels, different marketing efforts). But the system will continue.

My biggest problem for creating a writing system is the ups and downs of daily life. How, for example, do I account for personal and family commitments, getting together with friends, doctor visits, meetings for the volunteer group I’m a part of, and vacations/holidays?

Writing is the Big Rocks

Here’s what I’ve figured out: Using Steven Covey’s analogy of “big rocks, little rocks,” writing is my big rocks. I have to put my fiction writing into my system first, along with a (very) few personal commitments. Then smaller and smaller rocks, until I’ve accounted for my time.

Yes, I still need to make writing my top priority every day, and I need to do my writing first before I get stuck in the minutia (the emails, checking Facebook, cleaning up around the house). But having a system will allow me some flexibility.

Checking in/Metrics

For a long time, I’ve been a big believer in metrics (checking in to see how I’m doing, based on some specific numbers). Clear also suggests the concept of feedback loops (he uses a spreadsheet). He says:

Feedback loops are important for building good systems because they allow you to keep track of many different pieces without feeling the pressure to predict what is going to happen with everything.

I try to keep it simple:

(1) I have a to-do list for each area I’m working in, because I like to check things off when they are done. By the way, I keep my lists in Evernote, so I can see them anywhere and in any of my devices.

(2) I have started using a writing production worksheet (thanks, Jamie Raintree!) to mark my progress on writing (words, usually, or time editing), marketing, and other writing-related tasks.

That’s all I need to keep me focused and keep track of my progress.

Onward and upward. For 2015, my suggestion is to think in systems, rather than goals or resolutions. You know mine now, so what are yours?

 

 

 

 

There is Only One Story

Campfire Tales

On Flickr by Clevergrrl

Everywhere I turn, I run into the concepts of story and storytelling, and I’m fascinated by the truth that these concepts are central to the human experience. I find evidence of story and storytelling everywhere. Most recently, I encountered a quote I want to share with you.

It’s from True Detective, an HBO series about two cops, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. At the end, the two have a dialogue about the meaning of life, and McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle gives a speech that includes this:

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there [Alaska] but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that [hospital] room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”

Marty: “What’s that?”

Rust: “Light versus dark.”

Is it really true that there’s just one story? I decided to put this statement to the test. Stories about fighting the bad guys (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) are certainly light versus dark. But what about a romance novel? A YA vampire novel? A comedy?

The “dark” can be inner as well as outside. There is the “dark” of loneliness, of fear of death, or fear of what might be called a “death in life,” that might be manifest in many ways.

Take a movie like Tootsie,  in which Dustin Hoffman dresses like a woman to get a job on a sit-com, and he falls in live with his co-star (played by Jessica Lange). Where is the dark? I believe Tootsie has a lot to say about who we are as humans, not just men or women, and our inner longing and loneliness (the dark). In the most poignant scene, the two are in her bedroom, with little pink buds in the wallpaper, and the longing in Hoffman’s character is palpable.

A concept that has meaning for this discussion is what’s called the “dark night of the soul,” the title of a 16th century poem by a Christian mystic named St. John of the Cross. The term is used by Roman Catholics to denote a spiritual crisis, but in its broader sense it can describe what spiritual author Eckart Tolle says is “collapse of a perceived meaning in life.”

The darkness is all around us, and in us too. Storytelling around the campfire is a perfect example of how we try to keep the dark away.

Darkest Winter

As I write this, we are at the darkest point of the year – the winter solstice, when days are shortest and nights longest. I’ve always felt this is a special time, because it combines the reality of darkness with the hope of light, as the succeeding days grow longer.

Gary Zukav, spiritual teacher, says,

The winter solstice has always been special to me as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future beyond imagination, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyfully inconceivable, like a monarch butterfly masterfully extracting itself from the confines of its cocoon, bursting forth into unexpected glory.

Christmas as the Light

The light vs. dark story is played out in many religions, but I wanted to mention Christianity as a premier example. We celebrate Christmas at midwinter, that darkest time of the year. We sing carols like Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, which includes “light and life to all he brings.” I remember as a child going to a Christmas Eve service in which we sang “Joy to the World” while holding lighted candles. The church was filled with light.

The final lines of True Detective return again to the discussion of light vs. dark. Marty has said, looking at the sky, “it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
Then Rust says:

Rust: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”

Marty: “How’s that?”

Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

May your stories bring light to the darkness.

 

Using the Iceberg Principle to Improve Your Fiction Writing

I came across the Iceberg Principle a while back, and found many references to it in connection with Ernest Hemingway. But there isn’t much about how to specifically apply it to your writing. So here goes:

First: the Iceberg Principle, as explained by Hemingway

If you’re read Hemingway, you know he writes in a very concise, even terse, style. See this NYTimes article (or below in this article) for a sample, and note the dialogue – short, almost brusque sentences, and an occasional short paragraph of narrative, with very little description.

Old_Wikisource_logo_used_until_2006

Wikimedia commons: original image by Uwe Kils, Wiska Bodo-Losslessly

As I understand what Hemingway said about the Iceberg Principle, you have to know what you are writing about, but you don’t need to write every word of what you know. “If the writer does his job,” Hemingway says, “the reader almost innately gets a sense of the underlying story, even without all the details.”

Here’s a scene from The Sun Also Rises, from the NY Times article I mentioned above:

“It’s cold.”

“Want to walk back?”

“Through the park.”

We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.

“Do you still love me, Jake?”

“Yes,” I said

“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.

“How?”

“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”

“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”

“Don’t do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”

“You ought to stop it.”

“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”

Her hand was trembling.

“I’m like that all through.”

“You oughtn’t to do it.”

“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

“No.”

“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”

From this short scene, you can get a sense of:

  • the setting
  • how the characters feel about each other
  • their moods
  • the mood of the scene
  • the conflict between the two characters
  • a sense of foreboding
  • and an anticipation of what will happen next.

All in 156 words!

Hemingway had to know a lot about what was going on, he had to know the characters inside/out, and he had to have a strong sense of the setting and background. And, most important, he needed to know what was going to happen next in the story.

BUT, he didn’t need to tell you everything. He could show you in a subtle way, the tip of the fictional iceberg.

If you want another example of Hemingway’s style, to see the iceberg principle played out, read his short story Hills Like White Elephants.  

Then, the Iceberg Principle Applied

This principle works in all kinds of writing and business situations. For example, Chip Scanlon, writing for the Poynter Institute, discusses how reporters must interview many sources and do lots of research, before writing that article, which might contain only a small part of what the writer knows.

When I was writing business reports, I also gathered a great deal of information and had to distill it down to its essence, but I also had to be able to answer esoteric questions. Without a broad understanding of the issue, I wouldn’t have much credibility.

Finally, the Iceberg Principle Applied to Your Writing

How well you prepare to write your novel can make it sellable – or not. Using the Iceberg Principle when you are preparing to write and then writing, can make a difference. Some ways you can use the Iceberg Principle:

  • Build complex characters with lots of back story, not just the protagonist and antagonist.
  • Take time to create your setting completely, whether it’s a fictional world or a piece of the real world. Draw diagrams, maps, blueprints, whatever it takes to give you a sense of the setting. Write detailed descriptions of key places in the story.
  • If you want to create a fictional world, ask yourself all the questions that need to be answered about that world. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers have an article with a detailed list of questions you can work through to build your world.
  • Writing historical fiction? Be sure you know the details about the world in which your characters lived. Yes, this takes lots of time, but it will pay huge dividends in improving your writing.
  • Think about what is happening in the outside world while your story is going on. What events – local to global – might affect the characters and the story?
  • Create a specific timeline for your story – what happens when and what events happen in what order?

Following the iceberg principle in your fiction writing helps enrich your writing. It makes you an “expert” in the story you are writing, and helps your readers feel more involved with your story.

While your readers may not acknowledge your efforts in spending the time to gather the whole iceberg, they will be able to more quickly become immersed in your story and your characters.

As Hemingway said,

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

 

 

 

 

 

Nora Webster – A Novel that Doesn’t Follow the Rules – Or Does It?

Nora Webster, a new novel by Colm Toibin, doesn’t seem to follow the rules for novels. But, as the NY Times Book Review notes, this is a “deceptively quiet drama” that drew me in and forced me to keep reading to the end. In my recent reincarnation as a budding novelist, I have found myself analyzing other novels to see if they follow the path set by strict constructionists like K.M. Weiland and Larry Brooks.

If, at the surface, this novel is just “about” the life of a 40-something woman living in Ireland in the 1960’s going through the first years after the death of her husband, and not about some heroic journey or struggle, why did I like it so much and why did it keep me reading?

1. Nora Webster (the character) is appealing. I sympathized with her plight and wondered how I would respond to the death of a spouse. After the funeral, she must deal with nosy neighbors who come unannounced to offer sympathy but really to have someone to gossip about.

Nora also must deal with friends and relatives (including her own chidlren), who want to give her advice or criticize her decisions. Nora seems to be suggestible, making decisions without much thought. She is convinced by relatives to sell the family’s summer home. Although initially she doesn’t sound convinced, she makes an instant decision when she visits the place and realizes it will provide her with much-needed income.

Nora is also dealing with the memory of husband, who, she admits, was liked by everyone. Her family liked him more than her, and she must figure out new relationships with these people.

The NY Times book reviewer called her “icy” and says she is “distant and sealed off,” even with her children. This writer obviously has never had a spouse or loved one die. I that she was in shock and dealing with her grief, which left little room for her children.

Nora is forced to take a job, after she had loved being at home and married. Her situation sounded pretty awful to me, and she again gets swept along in events without much thought. I thought a number of times as i was reading this about the dictum, “Don’t make any big decisions for a year after a loss.”

Nora’s story ends three years later, when she seems finally to be coming out into the light after the darkness of her grief.

2. Nora’s story is interesting

Ever since I read Larry Brooks’ books (Story Engineering and Story Physics), I’ve tried to analyze novels for their structure. Every novel focused on a main character should have some kind of “hero’s journey,” either external or internal. In an internal struggle situation uch as this book, the character should show progress toward some kind of realization.

Nora’s struggle is quieter, as she tries to move forward day by day, dealing with family situations and work situations and financial situations. Her struggle did keep me reading, to find out what was going to happen to her and whether she was going to get her life together and become independent, if not entirely happy.

A novel should also have high points, “pivot points” as Larry Brooks calls them, at defined points throughout the novel. In the case of Nora Roberts (the character) the high points are not readily apparent. So I looked at the book and tried to find the 1st pivot point (at 25%) and the midpoint (at 50%) to see if the story structure was apparent.

The 1st pivot point comes as Nora and her sons visit her sister and her family. Nora asserts her independence by not going on the family outing and increasing the heat in the fireplace. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s a victory of sorts for Nora, who never has been assertive.

At the midpoint, Nora goes to a meeting of workers and votes for a union, without consulting anyone or thinking it over. It seems she is again asserting herself, making her own decisions, when in the past she would have asked the opinion of her husband and others. This decision ends up with some serious repercussions for Nora, as her employers find out about the union and are very upset.

As I said, there’s nothing terribly mysterious or suspenseful in this story. No dramatic ending, either. It’s just the quiet story of a woman. I think that’s why the author chose the name of the book, and why he refrained from another title.

So, can a quiet book that doesn’t have any particular drama make readers want to keep reading? Yes. Even though I recognized that Nora Webster wasn’t going to be plot driven, I was drawn into Nora’s life and wanted to know that she would survive, become stronger, and make a better life for herself.

Sometimes the exception is just an exception.

 

Read my Goodreads review of Nora Webster.

Is Writing Talent a Myth?

talent

H. Michael Karshis/flickr creative commons

Diana Gabaldon, author of the very famous – and lucrative – Outlander series of historical romance novels, said in a recent interview with Kirkus Reviews that she sold her first book before she was even finished writing it. Gabaldon said she sent her unfinished manuscript, through her agent, to five publishers, and her agent ended up negotiating with three of them. So was it her talent that got her this first publication? Or was it luck?

I don’t believe in luck. There’s no such thing.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: In my opinion, there’s no such thing as luck.

So if it wasn’t luck, was it talent? Or just good old fashioned hard work? Or maybe it was her ability to engage in “smart practice” – specific self-evaluation while doing her writing.

Over and over, I hear people say that you have to work hard, do the time, write-write-write. It’s the 10,000 hours thing, right? Well, not entirely. Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the 10,000 hours concept, says in a recent Reddit AMA:

practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.

Note the conjunction of “natural ability” and a “huge investment of time.”

What about this “Natural Ability” Thing?

A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “Can Creativity Be Learned?” looks at some recent studies of creativity. On the one hand, it concludes, some individuals have “inherent neurological and personality traits” that make them creative. One study

found that highly creative individuals have more activity in the part of the brain containing the ability to make original associations, to blend information from various scenarios and experiences (known as “conceptual integration”), and to understand complex metaphors and comparisons.

This study concluded that the personality trait of “openness to experience” might make some individuals more creative. Another similar study concluded that

people who have brains that process information faster can also make more diverse connections and original associations, a hallmark of creativity

But, says the article, creativity can be learned or encouraged. You can actively build your tolerance to new experiences, as I’m doing with my trips abroad in the past few years.

What need to be “talented”? The Atlantic article suggests some factors contributing to creativity:

 

1.Time – maybe not 10,000 hours, but some time

2. Experience – of life? of hardship? of love?

3. Raw talent (the quick brain processing ability mentioned above), and

4. Openness to new experience.

5. To that I would add self-control, the ability to focus on a task.

Deep Work/Deliberate Practice

And this is where the concept of “deep work” or “deliberate practice” comes in.

Cal Newport  says that deep work is

cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

How to work deliberately

The best place to start on your way to deliberate practice/deep work is to consider this article by Geoff Colvin, called “Talent is Overrated” (PDF version). I’ve done a detailed analysis of this article, and I’d like to suggest you do your own analysis, to think about how you can work more deliberately, to drive the process of “smart practice” in setting up your plan for writing success. His article is for all creative professionals, and it’s very important for writers.

Colvin provides details about how to make your practice smarter and more deliberate, before you do the work, while you are doing the work, and after you’ve done the work. At each level, it’s about understanding what you are doing and why, and being very specific about your goals and whether you’ve met them. Sure, it sounds like the familiar feedback loop, but it’s more detailed, more, well, deliberate.

The “price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high,” Colvin concludes, which is why few make it. The most important take-away from this article, for me was the two questions Colvin asks at the end:

  • What do you really want?
  • What do you really believe? (About yourself and your potential)

Good questions to ponder for all writers. Even Diana Gabaldon. No matter how creative, how talented a writer you are, you’re going to have to work smart to achieve your goals. Every day.

Back to writing…

 

 

 

 

Keeping Track of Your Writing Progress – Why It’s Important

How do you keep track of your writing production? You don’t? Should you?

I’ve been asking myself this question for a while now. It seemed to me that the effort of keeping track was just another time-waster, something else to distract me from my main job of in which the author showed how he keeps track of his writing output, on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. I’m all about Excel worksheets and keeping track, so I thought I’d put together a writing “dashboard,” sort of showing myself the same thing.

Why Get and Use a Writing Tracker?

  • It engages your “habit circuitry” (Cal Newport). That is, it helps solidify and affirm the habit of writing.
  • It keeps you accountable to yourself. You know if you won’t work on your writing for a day, you’re going to see a big “O” for that day. And if you don’t make your word count, you won’t get to your goal for the month.
  • It helps you stay motivated. It’s fun to see your progress each day toward your goals.
  • And it might give you some ammunition some day if the IRS wants to know if you are a “real” writer. You can show them the spreadsheet so they can see you are taking this writing business seriously.

The Writing Tracker I Chose

Then I ran across Jamie Raintree’s website. She is the source of the writing progress spreadsheet I am using. I liked Jamie’s because it was easy, it gave me the flexibility to work on several projects at the same time, and I can see visually how my writing is progressing, both in the monthly calendar and the line graph. I can see the days I don’t work (note the “Out of Office” column, for a time when I was on a trip). I added the “notes “section at the bottom to remind myself what was going on. I don’t use it every day, just when I want to keep track of special projects.

The worksheet is set up for a year, with a tab for each month. This month, I worked for several days on an application for a writer’s workshop (Writers in Paradise, at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, in January 2015).

If you are even mildly familiar with Excel, you can modify the tracker to fit your specific needs. If you aren’t Excel-worthy, you can just use the thing. It’s that easy. I added a writing goal for the month and used the running total so I could see how close I am to my goal for the month.

In case you are wondering, at this point I’m editing, not writing from scratch, so I use a rough estimate of word count, based on the time I’m working each day (an hour is roughly 1000 words).

If you want more information about Jamie’s writing progress spread, see this page from her website. She asks that you email her to request the file.

Which Writing Tracker Should I Use?

There are lots out there and most of them are free. Writers are great at sharing with one another. Find one that fits your needs and try it. If you don’t like it, try another one.

Here are some I found in a quick search:

  • Tia Ross has a bunch of writing progress trackers
  • iTunes has a WordTrack app you can download. This one tracks writing speed, which I’m not interested in.
  • NaNoWriMo has some word tracking spreadsheets. These are specifically to help you write 50,000 over the 30 days of November.
  • And, if you are using Scrivener, you can set daily writing goals, and track your overall progress toward your total writing goal for each project.

How NOT to Attend a Writer’s Workshop

I have done it twice now – and no more! What I did was to attend a writer’s workshop the wrong way. You know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We say, “But this time it will be different.” No, it won’t.iStock_000039425412Small workshop

I have attended two writer’s workshops – once in Florida in January, and a second this past week in Iowa. In both cases, my mistake was not fully investing in the process and not taking advantage in all the workshop had to offer.

At the Florida workshop, I stayed with family, and tried to get to see family members while at the same time going to the writing sessions. I missed some good stuff that the workshop had to offer in addition to the workshopping sessions.

At the Iowa workshop this week, I decided since I was so close I would stay at home. Bad idea. I got entangled in stuff going on at home. I had to rush around to attend workshop sessions and then rush back home. I had to take a day off to do errands. Too much.

What I WILL do different next time: I will make sure I am fully present – both physically and mentally – for the workshop. I will stay at the workshop location and participate in as many activities as I can. After all, I paid for the whole package, so I should get my money’s worth.

Now, a little more about the workshops.

The Florida workshop was Writers in Paradise, the 10th annual version of an excellent writer’s workshop at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I took a novel writing workshop with Ann Hood, who was fantastic. She gave us lots of general advice and, more important, she was able to home in on the key issue with each of our writing samples. And she nailed it every single time. I saw exactly what I needed to come home and give a fresh start to my novel. I took a giant leap ahead in my fiction writing skills, but I didn’t attend any of the readings or extra sessions. I left a lot of possibilities on the table.

The Iowa workshop was the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, which runs over several weeks, with different week-long or weekend-long workshops each session. I took a workshop on historical narrative with Margaret Patton Chapman. She included some “field trips” to see how to access research materials and incorporate them into a historical work, and she discussed “narrative distance” and voice in the historical novel.

Kristen Lamb says all writers should attend writer’s workshops, and I agree. She says:

A conference is our way of accepting the challenge and rising to the call. It means we are willing to invest in our dreams. We transition from a hobbyist to a professional. Professionals seek information, guidance and are unafraid to put their money where their mouth is.

In the end, after reviewing what I learned, I did come away from each workshop with new motivation, new insights, and new skills. But I could have formed more bonds with fellow writers, rubbed shoulders with agents (in the case of the Florida conference), and gained valuable insights.

Oh, well, better next time.

More on Attending a Writer’s Workshop

Here’s a list of writers conferences and workshops from NewPages

How Much Daily Writing Time is Enough?

How many hours a day should a writer work? What’s too much (or is there such a thing?) What’s too little?

On the one hand…Deep Work and Flow

I’m a big fan of the concept of Flow, a concept that features in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I know that’s quite a name).  Flow is “optimal experience,” the time when you are most creative. It’s that time when you are so immersed in your work that time passes and you don’t realize it; it’s a time of deep involvement and enjoyment. For a quick overview of the concept of Flow, see the author’s TED talk.

A recent FastCompany article includes the concept of flow to show that an optimum number of hours of creative work should be about 5 hours a day. It’s about what Cal Newport calls deep work. Newport defines deep work as  “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”  Newport says we waste our creative time doing shallow work (like emails, blogging, etc.) when we should be doing deep work, to improve the value of our work, increase the volume, and create more satisfaction. He says skill trumps passion and the only way to get skilled is through deep work.

So, 5 hours a day?  Does that mean I’m not doing good work if I stop at 1000 words a day?

On the other hand…Write a Little a Day

Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” (Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen)

Stephen King (On Writing) tells fiction writers to aim for a target of 1,000 words a day, six days a week. Sounds good to me.

Leo Babauta at Zenhabits says that writing daily is life-changing. It clarifies your thinking, makes you a better writer, helps you break through writer’s block and come up with new ideas regularly.  encourages you to start small. Maybe that’s less than 1000 words. It doesn’t have to be 5 hours!

And Colin Nissan at McSweeney’s has an even better reason to write a little every day: It strengthens your writing muscles.

In conclusion – a balance

A little a day is what I can handle. 1000 words on one novel, some work on another. I have a life, even if I’m retired. But on some days, when I have time, I can set aside 5 hours or so and see what happens. Maybe a little a day PLUS some “deep work” days is the secret.

More on daily writing:  Daily Writing Tips

 

 

Help Me Choose a Cover for My Novel

Help me select a cover for my first novel, A Hill of Beans. iStock_000010235656Small book cover

I wanted a cover for my new novel for several reasons, but mostly because I want to use it as motivation to help me finish the book. I admit it – I need all the inspiration and push I can get. My plan is to print out the cover and use it as my desktop, and put it where I can see it every day.

Here’s how you can help:

Read about the book then click on the contest link and select the cover you like best.

About A Hill of Beans

The premise - An older woman survives the disaster that thrust the world back to the 18th century, only to confront an evil threatening her Midwest town.

Audrey Larkin, age 60 and retired, lives in a town in Iowa. In 2018 an EMP hits the town and who knows how much more of the U.S. (An EMP is an electro-magnetic pulse that wipes out all electricity and electronics and communications. It also stops water pumps, appliances … you get the idea.) No one knows how it happened or how long it will be until “the Grid” is restored. The town’s physical structures are left untouched, but many die in accidents during the initial blast and all must learn to survive without modern conveniences.

The story initially focuses on how Audrey, her husband Robert, and their neighbors and friends who must learn how to survive. As they work, they see strange things happening at the shelter across the street and the more Audrey and her friend Carla learn about the shelter’s director, the more concerned they become.

The title comes from a line in Casablanca:

Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

The phrase “a hill of beans,” has the meaning of “something of little importance.” I like the irony in this phrase, because it’s only by a few people taking on the issues in their own neighborhoods that this “crazy world” can be changed. Who knows what could be the large effect of small actions, like Rick’s sending Ilsa on the plane with her husband, or Audrey’s fight to free the people in the shelter from the evil that controls them?

Here is the link to the contest: 99designs contest: Cover for A Hill of Beans

In case you are curious about 99designs, they are an online site to allow individuals and companies to find designers by posting contests for artwork – for logos, t-shirts, web pages, mobile apps, advertisements, illustrations and more. I have worked with them on web design and other projects. Under their new format, you select the level of payment you want. I chose the lowest level, knowing I would still get good designers. The higher level of payment the more designers, and the more designs, you can attract.

After I got designs, I began rating them, communicating with designers collectively and individually, to clarify what I wanted. (“I don’t like the woman’s hair,” “Can you make the color brown for fall?” “This is a small town, not a big city.”)

You can guarantee the payment – or not. I waited until I saw that I had some acceptable designs, then guaranteed the contest. Designers like the guarantee, since they don’t want to put a lot of effort into a contest that may not pay anyone.

I had over 100 designs to choose from – some designers submitted multiple designs. I selected finalists and now I’m deciding on a winner. I like the timeline – it’s pretty tight, which is fine. Only a few days to collect initial designs, then more time to select a final winner. If you’re considering this, plan on spending an hour a day at least on communicating with designers during the initial phase. Then some time getting comments (as I’m doing) and deciding on the final design.

Thanks for participating. I would appreciate your comments on the novel, the title, and the quality of the designs.