Words of encouragement are flooding social media this month. Words like hope, peace, love, respect, patience, and even no. As a writer, I’d like to offer another. Self-sabotage. That thing many writers do to avoid moving forward.
I’m not the queen of sabotage, but I know how to procrastinate. Take this book I’ve been working on for almost twenty years. Ten years ago I shopped this book around thinking it was finished. But clearly it wasn’t or I’d be collecting royalties instead of avoiding revisions.
Why isn’t it finished? It isn’t because I don’t know how to write or deliver a product. It isn’t that I don’t love the idea of this book, I do. The only reason I can offer is that I’ve gotten in the habit of avoiding this project. Every time I set out to finish this book something gets in the way. Here are some of the ways I’ve sabotaged the completion of this book.
1) I can’t work on this book until I finish xxx. Insert clean the house, take the dogs for a walk, or do the laundry.
Life is messy and has a way of getting in the way of writing. There will always be something else that needs attention. Pretending I can’t write until the dishwasher is loaded only prolongs the project. Instead of waiting until everything is done, I need to make working on this project a priority. First thing in the morning I need to sit down and revise a chapter. Before anything else. Waiting until I have a big chunk of time to work isn’t the answer and is just a lazy excuse.
2) I need to do more research.
After twenty years I should have more than enough information to finish this book. And if I don’t I can make it up. After all, it’s fiction, not non-fiction.
3) I don’t have the skills to write this story.
Recently I listened to Alice Hoffman discuss writing. She said a writer needs to write every day. Only by writing every day do you become a better writer. So stop waiting until you have the skill level you seek. Start writing and it will come.
4) It’s not perfect, so why bother.
Good writing is revisions, lots of them. Anne Lamott says write a messy first draft. Get the story down and then do the work of revisions. That’s where skill and magic happen, in the honing of words.
5) I need feedback on this chapter before I continue.
Maybe, but probably not. Even if you are lucky enough to have friends and family who offer to read your work and comment, this can be a big way to sabotage your writing. Reading is subjective and you will get good comments and bad comments. The time for constructive feedback is after the book is done. When you know the ending of your story, you’re better equipped to identify weak plot points and motivation. Too much advice while you’re being creative and writing can stop your story dead. Rely on your gut and trust the process.
6) I’m not smart enough to write this story.
If that is true, than put it away and work on something else. Just because you don’t feel adequate to complete this story doesn’t mean you can’t produce a sexier, better story. Learn to let go. Not everything you write is golden.
7) I need to turn off the internal editor.
Often the fear of failing, or even the fear of succeeding, can prevent me from finishing a project. Yes, criticism is scary. But it’s part of the process. Don’t let fear prevent you from achieving your goal. Writing can be scary, learn to work through the fear.
8) I can’t write until I get in the mood.
The longer you work as a writer the more it becomes a job and there are days you won’t want to go to work. Waiting for the mood to strike could mean days without writing, a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot. Many times I sit down to write, in a bad mood because I don’t want to write that day, and like magic my muse shows up and I produce some pretty amazing stuff. If you want to be a good writer, write even when you don’t want to. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
9) Illness gets in the way.
My goal for 2017 is to finish this book. I had a good start, with four chapters revised before I ended up in the hospital with a nasty gallbladder. See, I told my son, this book doesn’t want to be finished. And, yes, sometimes I feel like that. But the book isn’t the writer, I am the writer, and no one else is going to finish this book but me.
Self-sabotage diminishes passion and energy. It’s just an excuse to keep you from moving forward. If you’re in the habit of self-sabotaging yourself, try to identify why. Then work toward reaching your goal. You’re in control. Only you can do it.
This blog might fall under the topic of why you should attend writing conferences because that’s where I met Cheryl Strayed, at a writing workshop in Oregon. That was before Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail took off, before Cheryl appeared on Oprah, and before Cheryl revealed her identity as the author of the “Dear Sugar” columns in The Rumpus. Soft-spoken with a captivating smile, Cheryl looked anything but wild the day I met her.
That was a couple of years ago and today Cheryl’s coming to Idaho. For some of you lucky ticket holders, you’ll get to spend part of today and tonight with Cheryl, and I’m betting you’ll go home supercharged and eager to write. I know I was after hearing her speak about writing from a fearless place. She was inspiring, saying the best writers dare to tell the whole, complicated, beautiful and ugly truth. Write, even if you never get published. Write what’s in your heart. Stay true and stay genuine. Do what you can to support other writers.
Today Cheryl will be in Boise, Idaho. Tomorrow she’ll be in Helena, Montana. And then it’s on to Washington before she returns to her home in Portland. Since her memoir Wild took off, Cheryl’s been on the go talking with writers about writing and taking risks. If, like me, you can’t attend Cheryl’s reading today in Boise, go out and buy her books. Or make a trip to the library. She’s an author you don’t want to miss.
A couple of years ago I was attending a writer’s retreat and our assignment was to write a Christmas vignette. When it came time to share, I was frustrated–to cop a cliche–to tears. I had no Christmas memories, no stories to share, and that left me feeling empty inside.
Since then, I’ve tried to be more present in my life, to pay more attention, and here’s what I’ve discovered. I am an observer, rarely a participant. People fascinate me and I love to watch them. I am transparent. Joyce Carol Oates explains it beautifully in this interview. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/06/video-joyce-carol-oates.html?mbid=social_retweet
Phew, for a writer, I’m normal.
Everything I write sucks. My characters talk like robots. No one’s going to read this crap. I need more coffee, something to eat. I could be hanging out with friends, but, no, here I sit in this chair and stare at this stupid blank screen. I’m never going to be a writer.
Sound familiar? If you’ve been writing as long as I have, I’m sure you’ve struggled with the same feelings. Self-doubt is a killer. It will eat you up and squash your creativity. Instead of feeling like a failure, I should be walking in the clouds. I should be dancing, laughing and singing. The book I’ve been working on forever is finished. I did it. An editor is looking at it now. But instead of celebrating, I’m second-guessing. What if my plot stinks? What if my characters lack depth? What if she hates it?
I’ve been writing for years. I’ve even had some of my work published, and yet, I still haven’t found a way to combat self-doubt. This week I discovered two things that help.
First, I finally made time to read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. Carolyn’s book has been on my to read list for more than ten years. Over the weekend I picked up a copy and as I turn the pages, I find myself cursing. Why did I wait so long?
“Pretend to be a writer,” Carolyn urges. “Do Some Magic.” A writer and a teacher, Carolyn believes in practicing affirmations: I can. I am a good writer. This is going to be a great day. She got me thinking. What kind of magic could I create if just for once I believed I could instead of insisting that I can’t?
I have a picture on my desk a writing buddy gave me years ago. It says IMAGINE, and I have pasted a page from the New York Times Book Review of Best Sellers there, penciling my name in as number one. What a joke. I’m never going to hit the New York best sellers list.
No, I’m not. Not if I don’t try. Not if I believe I can’t. But what if I believed I could? Just today one of my friends hit #1 in free Kindle books. It can happen.
My other tool to combat self-doubt is Owen Egerton’s uplifting article in The Huffington Post, “Type So Hard You Bruise The Screen”, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/owen-egerton/type-so-hard-you-bruise-t_b_3052750.html. He begins his article, Write. Now. Go. In Jack Kerouac style, he offers a list of points for prose. Several of them speak to me including No. 16, which says: Do not write from answers. Write from questions. Discover more questions. Our work is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it. His No. 28 made me laugh because several years ago I quit my “day job” believing I could make a living as a writer. Owen says: If you write because you believe the world needs you, you’ll soon discover we don’t. If you write because you are so naturally talented you must, you’ll soon discover you are not. If you write for money… I’m chuckling at you. None of these reasons will sustain you. Listen. Are you called to write? Then write.
I particularly like No. 30: Writing is both holy and meaningless. That’s all the pressure and freedom you need.
Writing is so much harder than it looks. It’s exhilarating to create new worlds and characters, but it’s also exhausting. Are the commas in the right place? Who or whom? Am I showing and not telling? So many rules to follow, so many mistakes to make. But at the end of the day, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve faced the blank screen and did my best, because, in my heart, I’m a writer.
I’ve pasted Owen’s article to my monitor, and my copy of Carolyn’s book rests between my dictionary and thesaurus. I have a fresh cup of coffee, my butt’s in the chair and I’m looking at the screen. I’m ready to Write. Now. Go. This is a bright new morning. I’ve looked in the mirror and recited: I am a writer. I will have a productive day. I say it again. I am a writer. I will have a productive day.
Shortly after seeing the musical, Les Misérables, I ran across this post by Joe Bunting: How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables
It started me thinking. Why do some stories like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick have such staying power? They were written over a hundred years ago. What makes them so compelling artists find new ways to retell them, over and over again?
Bunting believes five elements make a story compelling.
- Your character has to change. He calls this test transformation. We want to see how characters change, how they struggle to become better.
- Write about something with historic significance like the revolutionary war, or some other life-changing event for a country, not just one person.
- Have a big cast, many characters people can relate to. Instead of a story about one man’s journey, create a story about many character’s journeys.
- Show what your characters want. Give every character an arc. This gives us more characters to root for. To use Bunting’s example: Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous. (man against self) Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean. (man against man) Cosette wants a loving family. Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution. (man against society) Éponine wants Marius, and The Thénardiers want money.
- Sacrifice Everything. In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this rebirth. A character who risks everything for a virtuous goal, including his life, returns a hero and someone worthy of respect.
In school we’re taught there are three story types: man against man, man against society, and man against self. If a writer can incorporate all three, his story has a better chance of being compelling, one others will want to relate over and over again.
The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself, why is this story important? What can I add to make it more compelling? Then pick up your pen and begin to write.
Every time I sit down to write, I feel like a failure. Check out this great video. It looks like I’m in good company!
I’d be more productive if I always felt like writing. This is ironic because before I wrote fulltime, I was always in the mood to write. Storylines popped into my head while I waited on customers. Characters evolved as I placed potatoes and marshmallows in my shopping cart. But now that writing is my day job, I find that I’m rarely in the mood to sit down and write.
What happened? Just because I changed careers it’s suddenly okay to stop working because I’m not in the mood? What lame excuse is that? I was a bank officer for many years and not once did I call my boss and say, “I’m not in the mood to come to work today.”
Writing is my job, not my hobby, and books don’t write themselves, even though many days I wish they would. So I’ve found a way to write when I don’t feel like working. Maybe some of these tricks will help you write when you’re not in the mood.
1. Listen to music. Days when writing words is like pulling weeds, I turn on Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s Creative Mind System and place my fingers on the keyboard. Within ten minutes I’ve forgotten that I’m not in the mood to write, and soon my fingers are flying across the keyboard.
2. If I’m having a really uncreative day, I light a candle—something light and airy to help me relax and put me in a more creative mood.
3. I allow my self ONE game of spider solitaire, and then I start writing. I cannot play another game of solitaire UNTIL I have met my word count for the day.
4. When I go to bed at night, I decide what I will work on the next day. I’ll know what distractions I have to attend to (doctor appointments, etc.) and plan accordingly. Then, when I get up the next morning I know what I have to accomplish that day.
5. I try to exercise regularly. I feel better when I’m exercising, and handle stress better when I feel good, which makes writing easier on days I don’t want to write.
6. I schedule my writing time. Generally, I can squeeze out one thousand words in an hour if I allow myself no distractions. If I set myself a goal of three thousand words, I know I must schedule three hours of writing time to meet that goal. Writing time, not computer time, and then I write until I’ve met my word count.
7. I work on more projects than one at a time, and often I feel overwhelmed, which puts me in a lousy mood. To combat this, I’ve started making daily and weekly to-do lists. The story due by the end of the week is listed as number one. The article or essay I want to write before the end of the month is listed as number two. The novel that I’m working on is number three. I give myself assignments. The urgent work gets priority, which makes it easier to meet deadlines.
8. I try to write every day. If I miss a day, I find it’s harder to get back into my story. Writing is like playing the piano. My work is better when I practice, and often I find that the mere act of writing puts me in a more creative mood.
9. If I get stalled at the beginning of a story, I work on a different scene, anything to get my fingers moving. Author and screenwriter Robert McKee advises to write from the inside out. I don’t always have to start at the beginning. I can start in the middle, or even at the end.
10. I try to eliminate distractions like the Internet, radio and TV. My mind works better when it isn’t cluttered with a bunch of mindless noise.
11. I remind myself that I’m a professional. Professionals work no matter what their mood. And then I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do what I love.
What do you do to get into the mood to write?
I’ve just finished writing the ending paragraph to my latest novel. My head is numb; my butt is numb and for a moment I’m elated. It feels SO GOOD to reach the end of this journey. I call a friend to celebrate because she knows how exhilarating it is to write The End. But the minute I hang up the phone my emotions plunge back to reality. This is just the first draft. The nuts and blots of the story are in place. Maybe. Now comes the arduous task of editing and revising.
Some of my writer friends can whip out a book in six months, some even three. But this book has been percolating for several years. I have a file folder three inches thick of scenes I’ve deleted, or research I want to include, or should I say wanted to include as the story morphed to an end. My characters names have changed; I’ve honed their actions and reactions. I know them better than I know my siblings. But still, this book really isn’t finished.
Thus is the task of a writer. Formulating an idea strong enough to carry a book, writing more than 100,000 words. Writing, rewriting and rewriting. I’m not complaining. I love my job. I am so grateful to have friends and family who support my writing and me. I can’t think of a better way to end this year by typing THE END, knowing 2012 is just around the corner, and that this is really just the beginning. Thank you all so much for your support. You have no idea how much you mean to me as I hole away to write my stories.
May Santa bring you everything you want, especially a prosperous New Year.
Tell people you’re a writer, and the first thing they ask is, “What have you published?” There are lots of ways to answer this question, but I really like award-winning author and blogger John Shore’s observations on the book publishing industry. Check out his recent Huffington Post blog, “Why You Want a Big Book Publisher to Reject Your Book.” Being a writer is not the same as being published and here are some of the reasons why.
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Talk to any writer and they will tell you that their writing efforts often go unnoticed. For every book/article that is sold, there are a dozen more waiting to be discovered. Writers understand this. They know the road to publication, recognition, and fame is long and painful. That’s why you’ll often hear writers joke about sticking their head in an oven or opening a vein.
I read somewhere that a writer must write over a million words before they have mastered the craft well enough to be considered a serious writer. Contrary to what some believe, writers don’t just sit down at a keyboard and the words pour out in logical sentences. A writer-friend’s impatient husband often asks her when she is in her office hunched over her keyboard pondering just the right word, “What are you doing in there?”
Most of the time what “we are doing in there” is trying to make sense of the words, voices, and stories that pop randomly into our head. I once labored thirty-six hours over a scene, only to delete it with one keystroke the next week. Because, when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and no amount of superfluous words will make it better.
But sometimes it does work. And when it does, it makes up for all those long, lonely, and frustrating hours at the keyboard.
That’s why, when I received the 2010 Writer of the Year award from the Idaho Writer’s League, I felt a tinge of satisfaction. Of all the Idaho Writer’s League members in Idaho, my work stood out.
Some people shake their heads when I tell them where I live. They know where Twin Falls is, but they have no clue where to find Jerome, Idaho.
Jerome is eleven miles northwest of Twin Falls, or as locals say, “North of the river.” Jerome is smaller, and not as busy as Twin, but Jerome has its distinct advantages.
Take for example the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition “Journey Stories.” This traveling exhibition is slated to visit up to 30 states and 180 communities through 2015. In Idaho, Jerome is one of two towns hosting the exhibition. The other town is Hailey.
Mobility is part of our American heritage. “Journey Stories” will try to answer some of the questions surrounding our mobility. Where are you from? What is your story? Why do we move? How do we move? Do you think changes in transportation have changed us as a nation? Why would people need to think about moving or exploring?
My own family moved from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1959 because my father hoped for a better job working as a serviceman for Sears. Coming from a farming community, Idaho seems to suit my family well. My parents are deceased, but my brothers and I still reside in Idaho. We have moved away from Twin Falls, but not very far. We seem tied to the land and the many adventures living in Idaho brings.
How did your grandparents come to America? Why did they come? If you have a travel story you would like to share, go to Journey Stories and share your story. And if you are near Jerome, Idaho, in December, drop by the Jerome Public Library anytime after December 11, 2010, to see this memorable exhibition.
Those who know me know that I don’t write in July and August. Because, for me, writing requires that I set myself apart, enter a dreamlike world that creates a positive place where words and ideas flow. This is a selfish place and doesn’t accommodate “What’s for dinner?” or “Where are my shoes?” Some writers can write even when distracted, and I envy them, but when I sit down to write, I lose track of time. I forget to eat. I don’t like interruptions. And in July and August when my grandsons visit, I want to bake cookies, go swimming, and play.
This leads me to the topic of this post, balancing life and setting priorities. Today I’m sitting in my son’s living room in Hillsboro, Oregon, hanging with my grandsons while my son and daughter-in-law spend some much needed time alone. In a couple of days I will be back home, and back at my keyboard. As I check email and plan my September schedule, I am overwhelmed. One friend has uploaded a book to Smashwords, and is already selling copies. Another has sent a manuscript to her list of dream agents. Another is blogging about her latest release. Another is designing a trailer for her new book. When I look at everything my peers are doing, I feel inadequate, like a slack, because the only writing I have done in two months is write a blog.
If it sounds like I’m whining, I want you to know that I’m not. I’m just stating the facts. July and August belong to my family, and I have learned to schedule my writing time accordingly. Along with this, I’ve learned to use my time wisely, to be present in the moment so I don’t look back and say, “I wish I had . . ..”
Laurie Halse Anderson, the successful author of Speak, Prom, and Wintergirls touches on this topic in her own blog today. Laurie’s blog is thought-provoking not only for writers, but for everyone. Basically, it boils down to deciding what’s important, and then making time for it.
If you struggle with finding time to do something you love, hop over to Laurie’s blog (http://tinyurl.com/36eqzvk) for some wonderful suggestions to make that happen.
I was probably ten years old when I first read Jane Eyre. I followed that quickly with Wuthering Heights, and even wrote a paper on the light and dark elements in Wuthering Heights when I was in college. These books remain my all time favorites, my go to books when I want to be transported. I still read them today, even though they were written over 150 years ago. I could go on and on about these wonderful classics, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to share a video link my friend, Robin Lee Hatcher, posted on Facebook today. She did not make the video, she was just passing it on because it’s too good not to share. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NKXNThJ610
The Other Bunch is putting the finishing touches to our Finding Your Voice workshop that will be held April 17 in Twin Falls, Idaho. We are excited to have bestselling author Joanne Pence as our guest speaker. Her books have been USA Today and Independent Mystery Bookstore Association bestsellers. Author of more than thirteen books, Joanne will lead a workshop on how to find your own unique voice.
Other workshops will include Tools to Fire up your Creativity, Memoirs: Who has to Right to Write One which includes family histories, Creating Sparks and Banning Doubts, and The Writer’s Life.
If you’ve ever had the desire to write, this workshop is for you. You can find out more about the workshop here.
It’s cold in Idaho. I’m in my office wrapped in a blanket, trying to type with gloves on. Yes, my furnace works. Yes, I have heat. But the cold has crawled through the windows into my bones, and short of soaking in the hot tub all day, I can’t get warm. Instead of sitting at my desk, I want to snuggle on the sofa with a cup of hot tea and a good book. But I’m a writer, so rather than give in to my whims, I’m here struggling to make sense out of words.
It may look easy, but writing is hard work. On gray days like this it’s tough to stay motivated, and it isn’t surprising that right now circulating on many writer’s loops is this article “Ten Rules for Writing”. It’s probably circulating now because February is so dismal. Just yesterday a friend said the only good thing about February is that it connects January and March. But I digress. Combine dismal and hard work and it’s easy to see why so many people go south for the winter. Or so many writers stop working.
For me, this article hit the loops at just the right time. Writing is solitary work. Often there is no feedback, nothing to judge if all the time spent at the computer is fruitful. Many times I find myself wondering if I have picked the right profession; if maybe I shouldn’t be doing something else.
Therefore, it’s encouraging to know that even successful writers struggle with self-doubt, and the advice given in “Ten Rules for Writing” is uplifting on this dreary day. I particularly like Margaret Atwood’s comment, “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
I love Idaho. I choose to live here. I love writing, even on dark gloomy days. So maybe it’s time to quit whining, and get back to work.
(you can read the second part of the article here)
Dixie, Pat and I had a great time reading and answering questions at “Random Readings” last week in Boise at The Cabin. The room was full and there were so many questions and great discussions we ran over our allotted time by half an hour. As things get increasingly tough for writers (downsizing, magazines and papers folding) it’s nice to gather with other writers to discuss alternative opportunities. If you live in Idaho and haven’t already joined the Idaho Writers Guild, give it some thought. This is a professional group of writers helping other writers so we can all do what we love. For those of you who stopped by to say hello, or bought our book, thanks so much for your support.
I’m starting the new year out right. On January 30, I’ll be reading from “Voices from the Snake River Plain” in Boise at The Cabin. I’m excited to be part of the Idaho Writer’s Guild and participate in their first event for 2010. If you are in the Boise area on January 30, stop by The Cabin between 1 – 3 and join us while we talk about books, writing, and publishing. Hope to see you there!
Here is the Idaho Writer’s Guild news release.
The publishing world is changing daily, it seems, and there’s a lot of interest in the area of non-traditional forms of publishing. As “Writers Working for Writers,” the Idaho Writer’s Guild is proudly launching a new series called “Random Readings” on Saturday, January 30th from 1-3 pm at The Cabin, in Boise. Featured writers will share their experiences, from writing to publishing.
Here’s what you can look forward to: authors will read from their books, with commentary. Afterwards, there will be time for asking questions and sharing thoughts about the nuts and bolts of a variety of publishing processes. Not-to-be-missed refreshments will be served.
Southern Idaho residents Bonnie Dodge, Dixie Thomas Reale and Patricia Santos Marcantonio wrote and published “Voices from the Snake River Plain.” A collection of short stories, poems and essays, the book has been described as “a small treasure….we learn there is beauty in the landscape around us and people with stories to tell.” Some of the tales by these award-winning writers include a jackalope, an old Mexican ghost story, haunting landscapes and a road trip with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey.
Val Robertson was the former president of The Couer du Bois Chapter of Romance Writers of America, and the founding and current president of the Popular Fiction Association of Idaho, which produces the Murder in the Grove mystery conference. She is also the organizer of the Boise Speculative Fiction writer’s support group. Her debut novel is entitled “Blade’s Edge.”
Also from Boise, Ken McConnell is both traditionally published and self-published. A Software Test Technician, Ken wrote and published “Starstrikers” in 2008. His first novel is “a military space novel that takes place between two galactic civilizations.” He also wrote “Null Pointer,” a mystery novel about a programmer sleuth.
“Random Readings” will take place in the Jean Wilson Reading Room, on the basement level at The Cabin, 801 S. Capitol Blvd, Boise. Admission is free. For further information contact Diane Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org.